The rain beats purposefully down upon the tin roof. The sound is orchestral and makes it all the more difficult for me to hold in last night’s drink now terrorizing my four year old bladder. Grandpa snores gently at the far end of the gigantic bed. He is a Health Inspector and rides a motorcycle. Sometime he lets me wear his helmet and pretend to ride but no matter how hard I try to stretch my fingers across I cannot grasp both the handles and the brakes simultaneously. Granny’s chest heaves beside me under the stifling guthrie (A heavy covering made of many old blankets stitched together and covered). If I wake her now, she will be cross and grumpy. She will swear and curse under her breath so as not to wake grandpa, and pinch my arm and push me hastily down the slippery, ragged brick path to the outside shed. There I will climb up the gigantic wooden box and straddle myself across the pit-drop toilet while the paraffin lamp in her hand casts a ghostly glow over the proceedings. Tomorrow, I have been warned, THE PRISONERS are coming to fetch THE WASTE. I am to remain indoors and out of sight for the duration of this event under threat of a severe beating if I don’t. I wonder what THE PRISONERS will look like. I think of THE HOBBIAHS in the story that Ayah reads to me, with their red eyes and sharp teeth, tap tap tapping on the tin roof. I am thrilled and terrified that they are coming. I know I will creep creep creep to the curtain and squint through the tiniest gap in its togetherness tomorrow.
I squirm and try to HOLDIT. That’s what my mother always says when I need to go at a bad time. HOLDIT! I shift under the burden of blankets, careful not to tumble over the edge of the bed, and ponder the afternoon’s events.
My mother has been attacked by ASMA. Ayah packs my bag and dad drives me in his Valiant along the narrow, winding, dusty sugar-cane road from Shakaskraal to Verulam where I am left with my maternal grandparents because mum has had an ASMA attack. I love driving with my dad. I like to listen to the humming of the mammoth motor car, peering at the clouds through the little square window of my made-in-china plastic camera, a little replica of my dad’s real one. It has a button that clicks and a little lever that whirrs when I turn it; just like the sound of dad’s each time he whirrs the film to take a new picture. I don’t mind being away from Mum. Even when she is not being attacked by ASMA she is in a bad mood. One time she broke plates. I think it was my fault. Grandpa says I’m a good girl but mum says I’m not. She smacks me when I pick the flowers from her garden but I can’t help it. They are so pretty and inviting, especially the little purple ones with the yellow and black tumbling all out of the middle that she keeps on special shelves in a special place on the veranda. They are AFRIKIN VYLITS. Come and look at my AFRIKIN VYLITS says mum when there are visitors and they have finished their tea. Besides there is plenty to be done at granny’s house – chickens to feed, eggs to gather, dogs to pet, cats to chase, fruit to eat. Maybe a visit to the shops would yield granny sweets; hot, sharp peppermint disks wrapped tightly together under a wrapping that said XXX. My taste buds had tingled in anticipation as I lay back and closed my eyes into the sun, colours popping and bursting in my brain. And dad driving.
The tin shack has a kitchen with an enormous primus stove, a small bedroom hardly larger than the enormous bed and a modest lounge. It nestles below road level at the bottom of a curving, sandy driveway, neighbourless and surrounded by bush and a small forest of litchi and mango trees. Behind the house a dull concrete building is divided in to a single parking garage and a large coop; beside this are scattered kennels and cages of the rescued creatures that the WHITE LADIES of the Animal Anti-cruelty League bring to Granny en route to their new and hopefully happier lives. One time there was even a goose that chased me. I’d run for my life from the creature, as it snapped and hawed at me, running and jumping and leaping, clumsy and deranged. I’d burst into the kitchen, slamming the flimsy door shut in the nick of time, it’s breath still hot on my behind. I try not to remember my fear and make another concerted effort to HOLDIT.
When the WHITE LADIES come I have to stay out of the way and be quiet. Granny takes out the special WHITE LADIES cups and saucers. Grandpa and Mum look like white people but they are not. Granny is short and round and dark. She is definitely not a white people. Ayah is a HINDOO. She has mandarin skin. She was dark like granny but wanted to be light like mum so she tried a medicine that didn’t work and now she has mandarin skin and no one will ever marry her so she has to look after me forever. She likes to sing. Sometimes when there are weddings she dresses up in a fancy sari and sings a special song. Then she doesn’t look like my ayah any more. Then she looks like a HINDOO princess, like the pictures above the brass lamp in her father’s barbershop. Mum never wears saris. Mum wears WHITE LADIES clothes. Sometimes she even wears trousers. Ayah says mum is a very special lady because she looks like a WHITE LADY. Ayah says I am very lucky that a WHITELOOKING lady like my Mum is looking after a DARKLOOKING girl like me. She says Mum and Dad broughtmefromthehospital when I was two weeks old. Ayah also says sosadshecanthaveherownchild.
Granny has saris. She has cut one of them in half for me, lengthwise, to drape around myself; the pleats stitched together, easy to wind round and round and fling over my shoulder as I sing the made up words to my HINDOO songs. Only today, though, I have been slapped for singing in my sari. For a second I forget to HOLDIT as I remember the stinging humiliation of the afternoon.
Ayah had taken me to a prayer. There had been bells and shells and lots of singing and sweet things to eat. I thought of the singing when dad had left me and driven off in a cloud of sand. I could remember some of the words. REAL WORDS! That was much better than the silly MADEUP words I would sing, to the tunes of HINDOO songs granny and grandpa listened to in the evenings on their record player that looked like a little square suitcase, while whirling and twirling in my little sari. PAR PAR ZINDAGEEEEE KAHBI KAHBI MERE SONA HE LALALA AH AH OH OH ….
HARE RAMA, HARE KRISHNA, HARE, HARE, HARE, HARE! I sang in my sari. HARE RAMA, RAMA RAMA, KRISHNA KRISHNA!!! I sang in my sari and whirled and twirled in the fading light watching and listening for the purr of grandpa’s motorcycle coming down the drive in the looming dusk. HARE RAMA HARE KRISHNA … The sudden grab of my arm, the twisting pinching flesh, the quick-fast five-fingered explosion of pain in my gums and teeth and eyes, so unexpected, sucking the sails out of my sari as granny shrieks and shrieks. DON SING THAT, DON SING THAT, WE ARE KRISTIANS WE ARE KRISTIANS. SING ANY OTHER WORDS ANY OTHER WORDS NOT THAT NOT THAT!!!!
HOLDIT HOLDIT HOLDIT HOLDIT.
The big black umbrella has kept our heads dry, but our feet and legs are wet from the rushing river of rain that races over the path to the pit. I may as well have peed in my pants I was so wet. Granny huffs and puffs under her breath, heaving and cleaving and towelling us dry before putting out the lamp and curling back under the covers. STUPIDGIRL STUPIDGIRL STUPIDGIRL.
HARE RAMA, HARE KRISHNA … I dream that I am singing in a sari. DON SING THAT, DON SING THAT, WE ARE KRISTIANS WE ARE KRISTIANS shout the WHITE LADIES. Dad is driving, mum is wearing trousers, I am a brown cloud of dust and THE PRISONERS are coming to fetch the AFRIKIN VYLITS.
Juanita Chitepo is a Theatre practitioner, musician, educationalist and writer. National Arts Festival Fringe Productions comprise a solo performance in Masquerade of Mannequins, a play exploring Indian Female Identity in SA; Speaking Spaces/ Archaeology of an African Identity, a play about the still birth of the Rainbow Nation work-shopped with and performed by Grade 10 to 12 students from 5 PMB High Schools and SOUNDGAZE: Moving Images of Marie in Woyzeck, an Inter-medial interpretation of the original comprising a live band, an original score and photographic images. She has been published by Chimurenga Magazine and National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe.