Nonfiction from Akshita Krishnan

Blue heart made of smoke

Photo: Abhishek Chadha

chellame, chellame

Author’s note: Inspired by the tradition of the akam, or Tamil love poetry since the 1st century BCE, this lyric essay pays homage to the South Asian custom of having one’s hair oiled by a maternal figure.

chellame: noun; a term of endearment (familial and romantic) in the tamil language

the first time she opens her mouth, she says chellame, nee enoda vazhka. when she says something like that, i learn it, and when the syllables are coherent in my mind, i find the overwhelming need to submit to her every whim, give all of myself to her, because she’s never said that to me before, and all i can seem to do is want, want, want.

slowly, she takes thengai ennai, warms it in the crevices of her hands, and wrinkled palms, wrought and veined, find their way into the coarse hairs on my head, gingerly carding through it, back and forth, back and forth, slicking me with the liquid.

stretched, i move into taffy, a moldable form of clay, the ganesh to her parvati. she pulls and pulls at me, until i become a bommai, dainty featured. i try to not let the sting get to me—everything is different from me in this body, and i couldn’t imagine how much happier this makes her, a pile of fascia cut away from me, placed on the floor. i pretend that there isn’t a laugh on her face.

the second time, she asks chellame, evola azhaga iruken nu parthaiya? but, i look at her like she speaks to me in a bashai that didn’t raise me because i don’t know what she is saying.

skin to skin, my body lies sprawled across her thodai, limped, a drum head, and she holds a kathi across my neck as she massages ennai into my scalp, pressing, but not enough to draw blood. the weight of the kathi feels like a baby hanging off of me, burrowing further into the knots woven on my shoulders, the ones her knuckles just pulled out.

this pyaar to me feels different—webbed with strings, swami kayaru i get caught every time i run a finger through it, knotted and tangled up. it comes with arpanipu. everytime i take a finger out of the thread, i feel a fire, i feel it burn me. but, underneath everything, there isn’t a moment in this where i don’t smile. she looks like i’ve never remembered, like there’s purpose in her eyes. there’s a selfish sort of content in that realization—i gave that to her.

the third time, she says chellame, onna yen kittai vittuko.

i want to ask her to pull off; i feel my breath thin, i feel my head spin itself into circles, but it’s all so juxtaposed—i don’t want to feel her kai, her touch, wave away from me because i think it’s the first time she’s moved across my skin like she hasn’t owned it. the first time she’s given myself first to me before edu, edu, edu. before all consuming. the first time she hasn’t made marks across me.

she taught me that there’s a kathai on every body, and as i stand in front of her kannadi, naked, i see it. i see it in the dents she tore, in the seams she hid from where i had to sew myself up.

porumaya, she bunches my hair together, creating a pinnal. then, she threads mallipoo through it. puts mai under my eyes, a pottu on my forehead. drapes me in Kancheepuram. wraps it around my neck.

the last thing she says to me is chellame, chellame—yen pattu nee. yen koodai iru.

Akshita Krishnan is a high school student who likes to use writing as a form of escapism. She grew up across multiple continents, but now, she calls a little suburb out of Dallas, Texas home. Her work has most recently been featured in Miniskirt Magazine and Fifth Wheel Press.

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