If you’re a girl in Heaven, you don’t get out much. Too many pots to clean and meals to cook. Too many eyes watching you. When we leave, it’s to go to the post office to fill out the deposit forms for our mothers’ government-scheme bank accounts, or to the market where we’ve been sent for onions or tomatoes.
Makes it hard to remember that there is a world out there that is not the same as ours.
Joy goes out even less than the rest of us. When she leaves the muddy paths of Heaven, she leaves more than just tin roofs and hospital sludge. She leaves a fortress, a kingdom she built herself. Subject by subject, brick by brick.
At the post office, the tellers ignore Joy, or ask her to do disgusting things when they think no one’s listening. Only one vendor at the market sells her vegetables, and that too, at twice the cost. On the bus, women push her to the back, near the men’s section. The section that’s all perilous murmurs, malicious grasps and gropes.
Last year, when the health worker put Joy on the scale and told her she was underweight (just like the rest of us), Selvi Aunty took her to the hospital to get the iron pills the government is distributing to adolescent girls.
(Neelamma Aunty said they were only doing it for the elections. Fatima Aunty said who cares why they were doing it as long as they were giving something out for free.)
When the nurse asked for Joy’s paperwork, Selvi Aunty handed over her birth certificate.
“Beti, I think you brought the wrong one,” the nurse said. Purple lab coat over a red-checkered sari. North Indian convent-school voice coated with the congratulations she must get for helping backward women, starving girls. “This looks like it’s for your son. Do you have a child named Anand?”
“That’s right,” Selvi Aunty said. Joy sat straight backed and stone faced, a granite statuette. “This is Anand. He’s Joy now.”
“This is Anand?” the nurse asked. Adjusted her pink-rimmed spectacles.
“Yes,” Selvi Aunty said. “We were reborn. As Christians. Anand has become Joy.”
“Really, you people will stop at nothing for government hand-outs,” the nurse said. Her fair, fair face turned red up to the roots of her salon-cut hair.
“What do you mean?” Selvi Aunty asked. Joy, though, pressed the balls of her feet into the ground, readying herself to leave.
“Like you don’t know,” the nurse said. “This scheme is for girls! The lengths you’ll go to for some extra rations. Really. Get a job.”
“I have a job,” Selvi Aunty said. “Four jobs at four different houses. And Joy is a girl. But anyway, what does it matter? She’s underweight. The health worker said so. What’s that word? Malnourished.”
“I can’t help you,” the nurse said, waving her off. “Take your son elsewhere. And put some proper clothes on him.”
Joy stood up then. Regally declared, “Come on, Amma. Don’t bother with this woman.”
But Selvi Aunty wasn’t done yet. (Joy learned it from somewhere, didn’t she?) She leaned across the table and stared into the nurse’s eyes like a cobra hypnotizing its prey.
“Not my son,” she said quietly. “My daughter. Who is ten times the woman you will ever be.”
We love Joy. So do our mothers. But outside the borders of Heaven, love just isn’t enough.
Excerpted with permission from A People’s History of Heaven by Mathangi Subramanian, Penguin Random House (Imprint: Hamish Hamilton)