– By Jharna Chamlagai| October 29, 2016
Image by Thomas Hawke
She learns shame when she’s 11 years old. When their cackles echo through her nightmares and snarl to the rhythm of the 8 o’clock bell.
-ding- dong-ding-dong –
Her eyes follow the herds as they reluctantly pull apart – pushing and shoving, teasing and hugging – and scatter into the bricked buildings. Cautiously, she steps out from hiding and exposes herself to the now barren schoolyard. Silence. For a moment everything is still. Her eyelids shut, her arms and legs stretch a little and she lifts her head, basking in the warm radiance that seeps into her golden brown skin…
‘Pooja! Get to class young lady!’
She jumps. Widening her eyes in terror she spots a hellhound across the yard, its shadow looming on the concrete in front of her. A breath of relief escapes her mouth as she realises it’s too tall to hurt her. She nods apologetically at the headmistress, quickly moving through the gates of hell. The small victory in treading through the classroom door unnoticed is immediately snatched away as her name is called.
One by one, they crack their necks to face the door, meeting her with a sea of broad, capacious smiles.
Their menacing orbs glower, anxious to pounce on their fodder with the full vigour of pent up appetites. But they know they must wait. This isn’t the right time or place, so they simply follow her with carnivorous giggles. Pooja makes out her name amongst the low hisses that stab viciously into her skin. She winces inwardly, hating how they twist their tongues around it, abnormally elongating the first syllable ’Pooo-ja…’ to satisfy their stupid silly whims. She is no longer the blessed offering to the Gods that her parents named her for but an upsetting itch for these beasts to scratch at.
The whispers become restless as Miss turns to the board; the haunting rhythmic murmur seeps in through Pooja’s now clasped ears, threatening to engulf her. She fixates on the teacher’s high ponytail, willing it to swing back, freshly replaced by an honest welcoming face to rescue her from the hunt. But it continues to swing from side to side, brushing against the flowery collared shirt to the same recurring rhythm…
It is reading time now. They’re gathered on the floor, following along in their copies of Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. Pooja sits slightly outside the pack, reading ahead attentively.
“Pooja, are you listening?”
Her head shoots up. She wears a confused expression, like a newly awoken coma patient. The class flurry into a frenzy of nudges, their faces laden with supressed silent laughter.
“I asked you to read the next page. Keep up please.”
Pooja nods. Her face flushes with embarrassment as her shaky hands fumble to find the right page. She silently scolds herself for letting her guard down. She knows they will remember this later.
“What page …”
“It’s eighty four, I mean eh-it-ty fo-or”
The interrupting voice sends a shiver down her spine. The leader’s comment is beyond inspiring and unable to keep the camouflage any longer, the pack double over. They drool in excitement like hounds leaking slobber. The distraction delays Pooja further as the numbers on the pages caper in front of her. Eventually she finds her place and begins to read, once again living the astonishing discovery. She is Charlie, flabbergasted by the shimmering paper, dashing to her family to share the glory, allowing a small glimmer of faith into her life as she waits restlessly outside the magnificent factory…
The monsters are let loose into the urban jungle. They race outside wildly as if there was a K1-V-BBZ Varminter pointed at their rears. Pooja halts behind. She would almost rather the gun than recess. She trudges along the outskirts, keeping her eye out for any onslaught, until she reaches the wall and settles in the space behind it, against the barbed fence. Sighing, she closes her eyes, repeating the morning’s homely ritual. She takes comfort in the gilded sun; grateful that it has followed her from home, to this unforgiving country. She concentrates on the uproar of the playground but it is strangely obstructed. Her heartbeat quickens, her stomach knots and her eyes prise open. Footsteps. They’ve crept up like snakes towards her, fast and sly, there is no chance of escape now. Assured of a successful kill, they take their time.
“Can you un-der-stand me?”
His every growl is followed by a chorus of cackles. Pooja sits cowering; she knows looking up will only make it worse. The verbal abuse continues, the others join in now, encouraging each other to draw out their easily-won victory. But there is a sense of restlessness, a hunger for more.
“This is boring, it’s not even doing anything.”
The leader looks around at his pack, his appetite reflected on their expectant faces. Swinging his hands like a bear he lashes out, clawing her across the cheek. Pooja instinctively turns away and the crowd roars. He lashes out again, rousing his followers to join him. The savages take turns, ripping and tugging her like flesh on a bone, madly rejoicing in the feat of the day’s catch until the bell wakes them from their trance.
The playground is empty now. Tears from Pooja’s squinting eyes stream unchecked down her dark cheeks. They taste brackish, mixed with the blood on her swollen lips. She keeps silent. She has learnt to do so by now. Later, when the guards of hell ask her what happened, she will tell them she was clumsy, it was her own fault, she’d be fine. Because despite everything, she still had some lingering hope. It had been beat and battered by the nightmarish bombs pouring on her village, the muffled voices in the dead of night and the treacherous journey to the airport. The one-way ticket had done little to calm her in the jostled force of the flight she’d been sure she wouldn’t survive. But she had survived. She knew she would survive these bombs too.
Carefully pulling herself together, Pooja stands up. She straightens her plain grey skirt, wet with blood, and lifts her hand slowly to her face, anxious of what she might discover. She yearns for a day when she can live without a constant shadow over her shoulder and a target on her back. But the ticket that got her here was not golden and for now, this is all she knows.
Jharna Chamlagai is in her first year at ANU studying Law/Science. She loves reading, exploring the depths of her own imagination and hearing other people’s stories. Her desire to simultaneously bring down the patriarchy and stop racism has found her heavily involved with ANU’s Women of colour collective for the past year .She is looking forward to spending the next four years in Canberra, continuing her involvement with social justice groups and finding new and exciting ways to share stories.
Sumithri discusses dominant narratives, through two examples: how the mispronunciation/whitewashing of non-Anglo names and the use of certain language’s terms over others are telling of power dynamics between and within groups.