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Published on 6th May 2019

5 ½ Tits (A Short Story)

The storm was raging outside. The rain lashing wickedly against the window pane, while the wind shrieked and rattled the old glass. Yet, the silence inside the small room was palpable, oppressive in its tension, almost like a rubber band about to snap. The three women sat there by the flickering light of the naked bulb, each acutely conscious of the other’s presence, longing to be free of the heavy, claustrophobic sense of sisterhood that supposedly held them bound. Each, very unlike the other.

The baby slept on.

Ammuma used to cackle and proclaim that four tits would never get along in a room. Rita was reminded of that old, wicked woman, as she sat there in the tiny jungle watch-room with the others. This was worse. 5 ½. The number of tits in the room, for she had only one left. The baby’s male breasts or nipples did not count.

They were stuck with each other until the road to the valley cleared and the rain stopped. Rita had slowed down a little earlier, gasping for breath and had turned around to find the young woman with the baby, Mitra - right behind her. The young kid called Dia who kept wandering away from the group had joined them from some secret detour. The three had looked for the others in vain, walking slowly until they had come to the bridge, only to find it broken. It had started drizzling, and so they had walked back through the semi-darkness to the tiny watch-tower room they had espied enroute. High up in the mountain, a small room with limited heating and power, and some emergency rations. There was nothing they could do now except wait to be rescued. No phone signals. 3 women and a baby, in the middle of obscure nowhere.

Rita looked at her body as she sat slouched against the wall, her legs stretched against the dusty floor, her hands going impatiently to push back her short hair. Her short, boyishly cut hair, Parisian style and lined with grey. Her clothes hung on her - pale, pastel shades, elegant and European in sensibility. 55 years 3 months and 2 days, said her French passport. Everything about her screamed sophistication in a snobbish, subdued manner which only the very rich could wear carelessly.

The itching started. The place where the right breast used to be. She longed to scratch it, but held herself back. Six months ago, they had decided it was best to remove it, to nip the cancer in the bud. And, here she was, stuck with a left breast. The smaller one of the two, with the inverted nipple. Sometimes, in a moment of dark humour, she would wonder how it would have been if this one had gone, and the other one had stayed. The fuller, rounder one on the right with the perky nipples. It had been the only one to afford her any pleasure, while the one that remained had always required a lot of effort to cajole it out of its shyness. Yet, every lover in the initial days of wooing would swear that they loved the smaller, often ignored one of the two. She always knew when that affirmation of love came, that the days for the relationship were numbered. It spelt the start of politically correct lies leading to a nasty, premature end to the relationship. Except Jeanne, who had pulled a face on seeing her mismatched breasts the first time they had made love. Jeanne who had fallen in love with her, Jeanne whose face, she had anxiously looked at, after the operation. Jeanne, who had sat by the hospital window, her legs crossed and made faces that it was the wrong one that had remained. Rita had looked at her, trying to read a meaning into Jeanne’s flippant manner, and finally blurted out, ‘Does that mean we are not a ‘it’ anymore? Is it over?’. And, Jeanne had laughed in that easy, loud manner of hers and declared, ‘Tit or it, we are in this together Ma chère chérie. We just have to suck it up till the end’, and the two women had laughed. And, she had relaxed in the knowledge of Jeanne’s love. 

15 years was a long enough time to test love of any kind. But the question of what to do with her missing right breast had remained. They had discussed at length if she should have a false one put up, or stuff kerchiefs so they looked balanced. Jeanne had come up with the most outrageous suggestions and ideas, almost making losing a breast sound fun. Finally, Rita had defiantly left it unresolved, preferring to wear her scar until she knew how to heal. Every time, someone glanced at her chest, they averted their eyes. She knew the day that it did not matter, or failed to catch it in their eyes, she would have healed. But right now, it itched, reminding her of what was gone. Her anger and the scars remained. 

Lesbian. Ammuma had cackled and laughed so much when she had finally found the courage to confess to her, one hot summer afternoon, as they sat on the verandah outside their taravaadu. Like a bird that flew seeking sunnier shores, she would come home every summer from Leon, France to Ammuma, to brave the sweaty Kerala heat, relish the juicy mangoes and jackfruit, perform the annual family Perunaal (The big day) and fund the home feast in God’s own land. And, they would sit in companionable silence as the fireflies lit up the dusk, while she wrote her critiques by the dull yellow light, and Amumma ground her betel leaves and areca nuts to pieces, chewing slowly as the juice stained her black teeth. Ammumma would regale her with tales from not so long ago, where women from the lower castes bared their breasts and walked around and there was a tax to be paid if they covered their breasts. Amumma hailed from Mulachiparambu, the land of the breasted woman, where a brave, lower-caste woman Nangeli, had chopped off her breasts in protest against the unfair breast tax, only to present it to the tax collector in a plantain leaf. In Amumma’s presence, Rita felt a kinship that she could not explain, that transcended their ages. Ammumma herself had never worn a brassiere nor bound her breasts, instead wearing a shapeless white blouse that covered her flat chest, rendering her safe and sexless. After her initial cackle of laughter, Ammumma had curiously asked her about Jeanne and how it was to make love to a woman. Rita had shut her out in her head and studiously continued working, while Ammumma had cackled on, with wild ideas on how two women could make love.

Her eyes took on the others in the room. Mitra, the young mother with the baby. Madness to come on a trek of this kind with a baby, she mused. She had been mad too, coming barely a few months after her operation all the way from France. Mitra looked like a normal, average home-maker. Not the mad kind, who went for treks along, carrying a six-month baby but the kind who married early bowing to family compulsions, had a baby within a year and waited in the evenings for their husbands to come home from work to enjoy a hot, home-cooked dinner. The kind who gave in too easy, was always on good terms with the world, and lacked ambition. What strange impulse had made this young woman take that leap from conformity? She looked out of place here. The baby was waking up crying, and she was nursing it now. A supposedly beautiful scene. Rita averted her eyes. It still hurt, losing a breast. The other girl was whistling a tune. Dia. Tattooed, toe-ringed, with piercings all over. Bone thin, with very little fat on her. Her torso was flat, almost resembling a boy’s chest. They looked like her right chest. She closed her eyes, the prick of tears, warming her face. Luckily, the shadows hid her. Cancer. She hated what she had been reduced to, what she was forced to be grateful for. The vulnerability of gratitude was an ugly garment to wear.

Mitra sat there, not bothering to cover her breasts as the baby suckled, indifferent to the picture she presented. There was no one to cover up for. The other two in the room were women, and somehow, she did not care if the sight might offend their sensibilities. She looked down at her large breasts, the heaving movement of her full bosom, as the baby sleepily drank its fill from her nipples. It still shocked her at times, this tug at her teats. It felt wicked, to feel a stirring in her loins, sometimes making her feel aroused. She was supposed to feel motherly. There were other times, when this whole feeding process felt disgusting. The oozing of fluids, the straining of the breasts against the fabric as the milk flowed on its own staining her clothes, the ache in her breasts on days where she was too full, the hardening of her breasts when the milk refused to flow. She felt like a cow. Her clothes smelt, and she often felt nauseated by the stink, the bile rising in her stomach. To the world, she was the placid mother feeding her baby. She hated the fact that her love for her baby was determined by the milk she produced.

Oxytoxin. That cursed love hormone, that raged within her. She softly stroked the baby’s hair as it slept on, slowly removing her breast out of its mouth. Oxytoxin, the internet proclaimed was the reason she felt aroused, while her baby fed. Oxytoxin, was the reason she was here, trekking a mountain with the baby much against her husband’s wishes, hoping to get her answers at the end of it. A baby that was not his, a fact he did not know. A secret that was eating her up.

Sitting in the small room, holed up with two of the unlikeliest companions she would chose, she felt lighter than she had in a long time. Seven years of an emotionless, almost sexless marriage that she had been unable to handle any more. Seven years, where she had burnt her warmth to become stone-cold, frigid almost, forced into a severe depression, that she could scarce reveal to the outer world. He had continuously blamed her for her lack of spirit, accusing her of not being sexual enough. His small penis doing nothing to her body, his hands touching her in a cold, emotionless manner, often making her feel like an unpaid prostitute. And, he came too soon. Something in her told her that making love was not this. It was supposed to be a singing celebration of her senses, but she has feared his anger and its consequences and held her peace. She would have had no answers to the question that would arise, how could she know, if he had been the only man she had ever known? But, deep down she had longed for more, and ached. Her spirit knew more. Her depression had grown so much that he had been forced to act. They had reluctantly gone to the counsellor, and his arrogant superiority had got busted when they had found that he needed help and treatment and not her, if things had to improve. As he had sat there grappling with his ego, she had met her destiny in the man across the table, the man who was counselling them about relationships and how to have better sex. And, it had been wonderful. The sex. Just, not with her husband. She had come shockingly alive, feeling like a virgin, every nerve of her singing as she did exactly whatever the doctor ordered. It had made the pathetic attempts at lovemaking by her husband bearable. Sometimes, wearing the cloak of tradition made for a safe cover. No one would have suspected her of a roaring affair. No one would have suspected she had been nearly dying within for seven years. No one would have suspected that she had hated being married. No one would suspect that she hated being a mother, and was just training herself to be one. She had longed for more sex, and had paid the price for her desire too soon.

She looked down at the layers of fat. Pregnancy was an ugly blot, a weapon to put a woman in her place. Pregnancy had de-sexed her again, stripping her of the aliveness that she had briefly enjoyed. Her husband had however, come alive in their marriage for the first time, fawning over her every move, taking care of her every need, a slave to the child that was not his.

She closed her eyes. She was in the doctor’s room now, and he was listening to her soft voice, gently stroking her hands.

'I wake up in the morning. A small heaviness in my heart soon snowballs into a deep welling pain, that almost threatens to choke me. I mentally shift my thinking to a happier frame of mind. I need to. As the coffee pot bubbles, my spirits lift and sink like the boiling milk on the stove. My most precious part of the day and I feel incredibly lonely. I am happy to be by myself, to be myself. Joyous about the million things being me implies. It is when my pot of happiness and sorrow bubble over that I long for a shoulder, an answering look in a partner’s eyes, the squeeze of a hand, the occasional brush of teasing lips on mine, the promise of laughter, life and hope. None of these I have ever known. In my moment of triumph or in my moments of pain, I long for my feelings to matter to someone. I want to matter to someone. I want hugs. I want kisses. I want to belong in someone's arms. To ramble every day nonsense. To talk profound sense. To be held tight like I matter. I want to feel like a woman. I want someone to embrace the warmth and sunshine that is in me. Instead, I have this cold mechanical living that is a dead marriage. I know what awaits me. Some days, the grandfatherly brush of his lips against mine, sometimes the giggly schoolboy and other times the abusive, indifferent sadist. My heart aches so much that I fear it would burst. Sometimes, for a woman, marriage is merely a journey from one house that does not want her, to another house that does not want her.

I see couples going for their morning walk, a simple act of togetherness and I long to be one of them. I can only watch on with that ache, an outsider to that blessing called companionship. I feel like a widow with a mentally dead partner who is physically alive, like a woman divorced while still married. I feel old and beaten while I am still young and beautiful. The sun is not yet risen, and tears sting my eyes.

He has gone on a work tour. My phone rings and I pick it up. There is very little to interest or excite me about the conversation. I know what we will speak. How it will be. The same conversation. Played out every morning until he is back. I dare not say anything or ask anything or even be impatient in my answers. I must be careful with the other who is like a child, an abusive child who can hurt me due his insecurities. If I am bubbly, excited, alive or eager, I share that mood, so he could have the pleasure of killing it. For my safety and sanity, I need to act okay. For the drama that we need to play for the world's sake. For the failure, that we cannot show even to ourselves. For the kindness, I need to summon from deep within against an abuser because I am mentally stronger than him and kinder. And, because I can. And he cannot. I need to strengthen myself from the pain of abuse and I need to continue to make him feel good about himself, boost his self-image because it is so fragile. So, I shrink myself a little more, and clip my wings a little. I need to. If this must work, I cannot fly the skies even in my mind. I need to clip my wings so that we are both broken without wings and I never desire to fly higher than what he wants to. That is the only companionship that is possible, that is the promise of the years to come.

All around us laughter spills, as we celebrate the coming year at his office party. There are couples dancing, their eyes flirt, and their hands own their partner's bodies in familiar, unfamiliar ways. I sit amidst the whirling couples, a lonely, married spinster. I would have given anything to have a man, hold me with pride and joy as we twirl away. I think of all the ones who would have loved to have me in their arms, and I pretend I have many. But I ache alone. I turn to look at what should be the joy of my life/ He is fast asleep. I can only politely refuse the offers of other gentlemen and ache alone and wait.

These are dark secrets I can speak to no one about. No one cares. And, they will not understand. They have not lived the million lives I have. They do not know the hundreds of times I have fallen and risen. I wake. I exist now. I come alive in occasional moments sparkling with my old vivaciousness, my mind and spirit free and soaring. Then, my daily life reminds me of what I should be. And, the old familiar icy coldness descends into me. I remember that I am a married woman, a woman in a dead marriage that I cannot talk about.

Tears are still a sign of hope. My tears had dried up. I wondered how long this can go on? And, then you came in to my life. Reminding me of all what I was. Bringing a promise. And, I ache for you now. I ache for the life I know we cannot have. The child here is ours.'

Mitra did not realise that she had been speaking aloud until she heard the gasp in the room. She opened her eyes. She had forgotten the presence of others in the room, forgotten where she was. She was not in the clinic with the man she loved. She was in a small room on some unknown mountain with strangers, spilling out her secrets in the darkness. The mask had slipped, and it was too late to put it back on. The baby was still sleeping blissfully.

Dia and Rita had not spoken a word, merely looking at her without any expression. Dia got up slowly, and went to the corner of the room and came back with a glass of water which she silently handed over to Mitra. It was then, that Mitra cried. Like she could never stop.

Rita’s hands were trembling. She was shaken to the core. What lies between the masks people wear, the stereotypes that we reduce people to? Who would have thought Mitra would hide such a deep secret? And, the words. The way, the child had articulated her pain. So poetic and beautiful. The whole scene looked like a set from a movie she would have shot. The flickering candle light. A young mother nursing a child, hiding her secrets. And, a thin flat-chested girl hovering over, another misfit to the scene. She herself was out of place in the scene, she noted wryly. Three unlikely characters thrown into a silent drama, in which one had spoken out her lines aloud. The wrong lines in the wrong scene to the wrong characters. Was life too precise or was it too random? They suddenly ceased to be strangers. They were a part of Mitra’s story now, keepers of her secret.

Dia lit a smoke, her hands trembling. Then, looking at the sleeping baby, she snuffed it out. The atmosphere in the room was too tense, and her nerves were at a screaming pitch. The room had become too small to handle all their pain. She had to ask something that had been eating into her the last two days. She walked up to Rita and sat beside her. She put her hand on Rita’s chest on the right. Rita flinched.

‘How did that happen?’, she asked.

For a moment, it looked like Rita would ignore her question. She was glaring at Dia, daring her to continue. The warmth of Dia’s hands seemed to seep through her clothes, to scorch her scars.

When Rita had first got her periods, she had told no one. Hiding her stomach cramps, she had waited out, hugging her dark moment of crossover to womanhood to herself. But they had found out, when her clothes had stained red, changing the confidence with which she wore her clothes forever. She had been deeply embarrassed and profoundly relieved to know she was normal and now a part of the older girl’s gang. For some reason, that memory played itself out in her mind now. She felt found out, exposed in her vulnerability and abnormality and somehow relieved.

‘She could have been my daughter’, she thought, looking at Dia for the first time. She noticed her beautiful eyes with their dark lashes. Earlier, all that she had seen were the tattoos and the piercings.

She was in the room now with the doctor who was telling her the results from the reports. They were wheeling her in. She was waking up now, her right breast gone. Jeanne was there, holding her hand, not Jeanne, it was Dia now holding her hands, stroking it, Dia who could have been her daughter, except she had no daughter. She closed her eyes. She was sobbing now. Mitra put the baby down gently, and came over. They were holding her now, and she was slipping into blackness. Anaesthesia. She is gasping to come out of it. She was floating. She was being tossed around. Up. Down. Up. Down. Crying. Someone was stroking her back gently. Ammumma. Jeanne. Mitra.

Looking at her Mitra remembered the exact moment, the baby had come out of her. Push, push harder. How…. She cries. Like you would shit. Shit! The baby comes out sailing. Come here, not there. Come look at me. I am delivering a baby, damn it. Don’t crowd around the other woman, just because she is screaming louder. Her husband’s ugly face surfaces beaming. Where is the father? Which one? He is the father, the beaming, ugly man, He is the father, though he is not the one.

Here, feed this baby. Says the nurse thrusting a squealing, red-faced monkey into her hands. No… she cries and smilingly takes the monkey. It latches on hungrily to her teats. Her husband looks on proudly. She feels sick. She is in pain. She smiles her most motherly smile. She is part of the tribe now. She has delivered. The nurses hover around. Sit in this hot tub now. It is boiling. Are you mad? It will relax your muscles. Heal your insides. Nooooo…. She screams, as they push her down in the boiling water. Up. Down. Up. Down. Crying. Her breasts are heaving. They hurt. Squeeze them, so the milk comes out for the baby.

The evening lights are dim. The long road is empty. Dia is on the bike, screaming at the top of her lungs. Singing. They come from nowhere, laughing madly. They block the road. And, she is flying. Flying far away, to land with a thud. Her head hurts.

Baby, where is your chest? Let’s rub our tits against each other. The ugly man is pushing himself down atop her. She is protesting, pushing him away. Look at this one, she has even less tits than I have. Someone was pinching her nipples hard, she is crying with pain. Her bike lies on one side, the wheels are still turning. She is pinned down beside the road. And, the three men loom over her. One is yanking at her piercings, while another is unzipping her pants. Nooooooo, she screams. No one listens. Up. Down. Up. Down. Crying. An hour later, she rides home, unable to bear the pain. Three of them have had a go at her for an hour, taking turns. She is a bleeding mess. But, who would believe that a bike riding, tattoo-sporting, piercing galore girl alone at night was not asking for it? A girl with no tits or hips.

She was crying now. Hard. The soft flow of feminism washes over her as she rocks herself to and for in Rita’s arms. She needs to own her body again. To love the flatness of her chest, that even a rapist ridiculed.

Flat chests were ok. #Metoo she types. She is standing on a podium. Spoken poetry. She is crying. Shouting out her journey, the tears flowing down, her voice broken, her spirit fighting for fresh air. They are clapping hard now, drowning the slapping noise of the three men over her body. As she steps down from the stage, she cringes in fear as arms reach out to congratulate her. At night she wets the bed again.

She is at a survivor meet. The first thing a girl must be taught and taught hard is to live for herself. To become a custodian of her own journey through its joys and pain and not have her story taken over since the day she is born, by others. To discover who she is, to own her thoughts, to be proud of her mind, to accept her body. That is the one thing she is never taught. It is hardwired in her to always consider others first, to put others before her needs, it is drilled into her that she matters the least in her own story, like she is some invisible character. Her feelings are trivialized, her emotions made to look silly, her self-expression branded. The sham is worse in our generation. Except we won’t take it lying down.

Her speech ends. They are clapping now, their faces close to hers.

I am just 21. Such an old 21. All covered in tattoos, piercings, every act a scar to be recorded. My young skin bears many scars. Yes baby, my skin bears more scars than your body can dream of. And, I am still fighting. Yes, I am still fighting. She croons twanging the guitar. 

Dia looks at Rita. ‘At least you have half a breast, I have none. Flat chested. Add that to your story of pain. Beneath the don't care masks I wear, every taunt is like a whiplash, biting into my skin to leave a scar. Do you know who was the first person to pinch my breasts and tease me about its flatness? My father. Do you see this skin scar? Burnt skin? That was my mother for daring to protest about my father. I ran away from home that night and have never gone back.’ They stroke her scars and somehow, the scars seem less in the number than she remembers. Do scars fade with touch?

The rain continues to beat against the window. The candle is almost done. The room feels stifling from the heat of the naked bulb. The night seems to go on, weaving a thick tapestry of tears, and smiles, secrets and fears, a blanket of cover for three women.

The little stove is bubbling. Dia tosses in some instant noodles. They sit huddled together, dipping into the hot, soupy concoction, talking, crying, laughing through the night.

Three can be a tribe.
5 ½ tits. It is not a bad number.
Some secrets are best shared.
Are you going to tell him?
I don’t know. I may.
Two flat tits are better than just one.
It takes the same effort to get those nipples out.
This is the breast party I have ever been to.
I am giggling. I am crying. I feel I am finally home.
Can I put my head on your lap, for just a little bit?
Let me put that cream on you. Does it itch less now?

Someone is knocking at the door. It is early dawn.
The rescue party is here! Dia cries.

The three women look around, at the small room that had been their prison for the night, loathe to leave its warmth now.
Mitra is taking pictures.
They are taking a selfie now.
Let us take a breastie! Dia cries.
They laugh.
5 ½ breasts and how they get along just fine.
Someone should write about this! Will be funny.
The women will understand.
The men?
They may.

They come to the broken bridge, the jeep is crossing it now. They pass a group of tribal women, who are walking through the mountain path, their children slung over their shoulder, their uncovered breasts jiggling as they walk. They catch each other’s eyes. Dia rolls her eyes, and putting on her drollest expression, juts her tiny, flat chest out. They giggle. The sun is out bright, after the rains.

Some aches disappear, some itches stop and a few things, you outgrow just like that over a single night. Especially, if you find your tribe.

Jeanne reads the message and chuckles and types, ‘The left works just fine even if it is not the right one! Can’t wait to see ya!’

                                                                               - The end-

Image Courtesy: Pexel, Canva



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