I bring the child closer to me and inhale, prepared for the musty smell of old men. It never comes.
What I’ve been told: Humans turn into birds, beasts turn into women, sinners turn into worms. Something else I’ve been told: In my past life, I was a fish. “What kind of fish?” I had asked.
Thaatha didn’t hesitate before saying, “A pulasa.”
“Cheee! I wasn’t in an aquarium? I was eaten?”
“You were a rare fish. You served someone’s hunger. Who would eat a goldfish?” He stuck his tongue out and pretended to gag.
In my dreams after, I was always a pulasa. Salted and stirred in with ripe tomatoes and tamarind juice—except I was still human, my body boiling before my blood could. I fell through tunnels, gasping for air, praying for release, landing in the pit of my stomach. The dreams leaked into my waking hours like soft rain clouds, and most mornings, I woke up in my stomach, overcome with the need to throw myself up. I threw up every time I ate pulasa curry, every time I saw my sister eat crumb-coated fish, every time I smelt salt water. A doctor diagnosed me with a fish allergy, and while Thaatha had disappointment written all over his face, I was relieved at the sudden distance that had crept in between me and my supposed ancestors.
Looking at Thaatha now, the same disappointment etched on his face, it’s hard to believe he’s only twenty-five inches long, seven months old, and in a blue cloth diaper. Why isn’t he a fish? A beast? A tree, a sapling, a fly on the wall? I lift him in my arms and a word threatens to spill out, but I swallow it back in.
When Thaatha died eighteen months ago, he was healthy, stealthy, and (if I may say so), quite wealthy. We simply woke up one Tuesday morning to find him unmoving. He was cremated later that day, and a chicken from the coop in the backyard was thrown into his pyre. As Nanamma leafed through his leather-bound notebooks that night, I asked her about the chicken. She pointed instead at a page he had bookmarked, scribbled with details of acres of land and their inheritors. “He knew he was dying,” she said.
I scanned the page, empty of my name. My sister’s name glared back at me. My grandmother followed my gaze, sighing, “You know he liked her more.” She put her hand on mine, “I like you more.” When I didn’t respond, she switched gears and said instead, “It’s bad luck to die on a Tuesday. The chicken will give your grandfather company.”
I tore my eyes from Thaatha’s inked remains to lift an eyebrow at her.
“The afterlife won’t be easy,” she said.
“But what if there’s no afterlife?”
“Nonsense. How can that be? The chicken may be reborn as a man, Thaatha may be reborn . . . I don’t know, a sparrow?”
Turns out she was wrong, because Thaatha was reborn as my nephew.
I trace a finger along the sleeping child’s forehead, which is creased with lines beyond his years, beyond mine. His hairline falls far back on his skull, a striking resemblance to Thaatha’s receding hairline, and his palms are rolled into tight fists. I pry them open, slipping the tips of my index fingers into them, expecting to feel warm, womb-churned softness. I feel sandpaper. Extracting my fingers, I open my own palms, putting a finger down for everything Thaatha hated. Text messages, undercooked mutton, young politicians, Nanamma’s mustard yellow Gadwal saree, me. I stare at my palm, now a fist.
Text messages and young politicians are logically hard; the undercooked meat and yellow saree are logistically hard. I have one viable option and it’s easy: I spit out the word. “Thaatha?” I whisper, and when he continues to slumber, I prod him gently and say it again, closer to his tiny ear, “Thaatha?” He jerks awake, as if recognizing his role as a previously reigning patriarch.
“It’s me,” I say, pointing at myself. “Meena.”
He gurgles in response, and I hold him away from myself. The face is grotesque; I oscillate between staring at it and averting my eyes, the way one smells their sweat and secretions, with both revulsion and admiration for the rancidness. I bring the child closer to me and inhale, prepared for the musty smell of old men. It never comes. What the fuck is this? My olfactory senses move into overdrive. Sniffing, gagging, sniffing again. The baby’s scent makes me uncomfortable and nauseous, and yet it is familiar, so familiar, even comfortable. I bury my face into his gently bulging belly and stay there, inhaling, exhaling, indulging in some convoluted form of pranayama.
Between breaths, I say, “Do I deserve no inheritance, Thaatha?” I look up to see his light eyebrows furrow before he dramatically spits up milk. Some of it lands on my palm and I—as a reflex—bring it to my nose.
I lock eyes with my sister.
“What are you doing? Are you okay?”
“Meena! Why are you crying?”
I hold the baby away from me, and she takes him. In the bathroom, I vomit violently into the commode.
My sister is at the door, knocking. “Can I come in?”
I unlock the door. She’s facing me, the baby balanced on her hip.
“Why does he smell like that?” I ask, wiping my mouth.
“Like what?” she asks, bringing his diaper to her nose.
I shake my head. “Not that smell . . . his skin. His face, his body. What is that?”
She continues to sniff, and he laughs, possibly amused at all the noses up in his business today.
“Babies smell like milk . . .” Her eyes go wide. “Meena . . . Meena! I’m so sorry!”
I wait for an explanation.
“We’ve been giving him fish oil with his milk. His doctor recommended it . . .” she trails off, mumbling something about omega-3 and breast milk and natal nutrients—but I can’t hear her anymore. All I hear is the deep laughter erupting from the canals of Thaatha’s mouth.