The Song by Jyotsna Kapur

 For a thousand nights, the moon came and left. It looked into open courtyards, through windows into children's rooms, over weary cities that did not sleep. Yet, a song stuck in the woman's throat. Some days it was a stone with sharp edges that cut into the tender skin. Try as she would, she could not vomit it out. On other days, it sat inside her coiled up like a snake ready to come out hissing, breathing poison. Those were the hardest days. She knew that if she opened her mouth fire would come out of it or the sounds of wolves – howling over a dead and wasted city. On most days, though, it was just a lump of dough – soft, undefined, mildly heavy. Unlike the two children she had carried, who in time had begun to hiccup, kick, and turn, this lump just sat there stubbornly like a dead thing. It's only saving feature was that in the busyness of the day she could almost forget it. Once, at the end of one such day she had stood out in the cool night air, closed her eyes and opened her mouth to sing. The cold moonlight tasted like chalk and all that came out of her was a whisper.


I don't know how this story ends. I can't even claim that this is an original story because I have heard these words and sentences before. My grandmother, a teller of tragic tales, could be relied upon, time after time, to unfailingly find the dark cloud covering every silver lining. While other adults would lower their voices or change the subject when children came into the room or my socialist father built in us the love for utopian possibilities, my grandmother relished telling war stories: of wars between nations but mostly, between men and women.


Mataji, as we called her, told her saddest stories when we were alone. She would tell me about her aunt, Suvarna, who every evening went into the fields, away from the village and wept, wept so loudly that she could be heard in the village.


Although Mataji could not remember how old she must have been herself at that time she did remember the older women commenting, ‘Poor woman, her life is a tragedy.’ My grandma had no idea of the time or date of her birth. She just knew she was born in Burma and was a little girl, ‘like you,’ she said, when her family moved to what was later to become Pakistan. ‘Why was your aunt Suvarna so unhappy,’ I would ask her. Unlike the elderly women of her generation, my grandma had an answer to that question. It was, ‘Suvarna was alone.’ ‘Alone.’ That was all. As if it explained everything. The woman with whom I started this story, the one who could not sing could have been Suvarna; with the exception that the desolate fields would be replaced by a city.


A storyteller starts a story arbitrarily, choosing any moment, a gesture or a time of day to start her story. Beginnings simply recount a common human condition, a shared history. It is the ending that carries the storyteller's signature because that is where the teller having led us, decides to leave. Endings too, however, are arbitrary, just an artifice to frame life. Ultimately, all we can call our own is the journey in-between, how we lived in the times given to us. Or as, Karl Marx said, to put it loosely: we make history but not in the conditions of our making.


So, I could give this story a feminist ending. After all, at nineteen I was spending all my time outside college with what is now called the autonomous women's movement of the eighties. My training in sociology and data collection came from pouring over hospital records to discover that an inordinate number of young married women, between the ages of twenty and thirty, were being brought in for burns, that were in most cases fatal. Along with a generation of women, barely ten years older than us, it seemed we were transforming the world and how we spoke about it. Newspapers began to characterise the deaths of young women as wife or bride burning rather than carry the usual little note on the third page about the ‘accidental’ deaths of two to three women due to burning. I had been proud to be labelled a feminist, even gleeful at the discomfort it caused. We stood for student union elections, organised campaigns against sexual harassment, and performed street plays. Our plays and songs spoke of ‘new songs’, ‘new voices and melodies’ and ‘new mornings.’ I must admit, though, that underneath it all I had a timid little heart. What I really wanted was security, stability, a family, a home and most of all children. Perhaps, I also imagined that a different kind of family was possible. Actually, I had grown up in such a family. In the socialist household set up by my parents the home was where you tried out, as if in advance, relationships that were yet to be.
Anyway, back then if I had to invent an ending for this story it would have been easy. It would have read something like this: 
One evening as the woman looked out of her window she was consumed by an intense urge to sing. So deep was her longing that she was transformed into a bird, a bird so small that she flew right through the iron bars of the window.


Alternatively, it would have read:
One day the woman stood with her hands on the window bars. (The setting would still be the evening, a time when the heart pondering over the day's end turns to reckon with the self). Soon the man would be home and she would shortly start cooking dinner. However, as she looked out of that window, that particular evening, the woman would see a flock of birds. And it seemed as if they were singing to her. In the end, the woman would fly out of the window and there would even be two little birds flying by her side.


Or there could be a third ending:
Each day as darkness fell the woman lay beside her sleeping husband and tried to remember the words of a song. Any song. She searched for the tunes in her children's laughter, in their giggles as she massaged their little bodies still moist after a bath with oil. The layers of silence she peeled to get to the song would be the heart of this story. In the end, however, I would write: the woman sang.


Now, at thirty-six after a divorce and two children, I think there could be another ending. Perhaps, the woman never flew out at all. She just stood there with her hands on the iron bars of that window every sunset and watched the birds fly by. Her spirit flew out with those birds and went peering into office buildings, homes, and the streets. She saw a child's face turn into that of an old woman. Some days she saw more clearly than others. She saw a man and woman embrace in a room full of mirrors. The woman opened her eyes and caught a reflection of the man's face. There was a look of complete indifference on it. On the floor lay a red sari. Another time, she saw a woman dress a mannequin in a store window. Abruptly, the mannequin put its head back and laughed a manic laugh. In a deserted park a swing moved slowly. A mother picked up her child and carried her to safety. When the child opened her eyes she was standing miles above the ground, unmoving for fear of falling.


Always, always, the woman would return. Remember, in this story she never left the window. Instead, she would then chide herself when she saw the alarm on her children's faces and realised that they must have been calling out to her for a while. She would then tear herself away from the window and start the dinner, give the children a bath, read them a story, pick up the toys and clothes, do the dishes and get the children to work. Around ten at night she would start her own writing.


Her husband, meanwhile, had come home and gone to bed. He'd not been the first choice for the tenure-track position in a top private school and was fighting to show what he was worth. He was fed up with her silences and withdrawals. In his view, she showed no appreciation that he was working hard for all of them, saving for their future, the children's education, retirement, or where they would live ten years from now. He could not stand the way in which she wasted food – cooking huge amounts that would then lie in the fridge only to be thrown away. When she loaded dishes some detergent always spilled over. She always poured more salt into her palm than was necessary and then threw the rest away into the sink. She lived on his hard-earned money and then talked some shit about capitalism. It was his salary that made it possible for her to go school in the first place, so was it too much to ask that she spend the time she had finishing her dissertation rather than going out for lunch. He began to say, ‘The only way you listen to me is when I shout at you.’ As his voice got louder hers got quieter, until the day she found that left alone with him her mouth turned dry. She had forgotten to talk to him. This is what ‘alone’ was.


Of all the possible endings I chose this one. I chose to leave him with little money and without my children. I was later to pay for this choice by going through a protracted battle over custody in court, which taught me a lot about capitalism and patriarchy. Perhaps, more than what I'd have wished to learn. Of all the possible endings this is the one with the least closure. It opens up other questions: What happened to my six-year-old daughter? Did she remember those cold nights when her mother wrapped her brother and her in those brightly coloured shawls and showed them the moon? Her little brother, barely two and a half said, ‘damn’ if the clouds came over the moon. He called the stars, ‘kun kun ta.’


My grandmother, with her taste for the tragic, would have laughed at all those endings (in which the bird flew out) imagined by a middle class, educated twenty-year old, coming of age in the midst of a social movement which opened up possibilities not known to her generation. She would have said that the flying out of the bird meant only one thing, ‘she died.’


That ending, of course, when not considered a matter of interpretation, is the only certain one. For yes, the woman died. Whether she was struck by lightening, a stray bullet, or died of old age. Whether she died on the inside of that window or outside it. Whether she sang or not. She died. But her daughter lived and so did her son. Perhaps, they both imbibed a deep sense of calm that comes from not being afraid of being alone. Stories do not end with the death of characters – they live as long as there is someone who remembers and chooses to tell a story. Stories end only when there is no one left to tell them.



Jyotsna Kapur teaches cinema studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and has a love-hate relationship with images and screens.