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Close as Breath

By Mandira Pattnaik -


When they went into the air, with their wings flapping, the occasional glide, my mother always asked me to look away, screamed, “Girl!”, like a warning, a siren gone off.

I knew what she meant. I knew we’d return to carve out a home in the crook of the country-house that belonged to my grandfather. Yet, I marveled at the flights above, my friends and girls from the neighborhood, their delicate exotic formations against azure skies. Then, plonking myself in the lawn chair, poured over my Organic Chemistry book. Later, gazing at the void, I hoped it wouldn’t happen, prayed in silence, and eventually slipped away to sleep and dream.

Months later, when I stood and stared at the gates of my new home, how they are not really gates, just an expanse of green paddy fields, at the end of which the two-storeyed manor-style house stood, my mother was screaming again: “Girl!”

Threshold-crossings have great significance in our culture. Owners step inside a new home with feasting and fanfare, the moment captured on camera to be enshrined inside a golden photo frame. The new bride walks across it, when her mother-in-law allows her, preceded by solemn mantras and rituals. I knew my crossing over wouldn’t be the same, so I waited on the other side.

“Come!” my mother lurched to take me by my arm, get me across the gates. She sprang back in shock because I had no pectorals. They had long been chiseled away. I think the final plumes fell off on the flight we came by, that’s where my wings would be, lying discarded in a desolate corner.

Standing there frozen, I thought of my friends from my school, back in the place we’d just left, hundreds of miles between us. The scrapbooks. The multi-colored pages. The music CDs. The Britney Spears posters. The Spice Girls Slam Book. The banter. The road I cycled by. The bend with the yew tree, the garage I took my scooter to, and then, these gates.

I thought of my bestie, the manner of her mother saying, Talent skips a generation, while scornfully looking at her. Her mother knitted a cream-and-blue striped sweater for her brother, as though that’s everything talent is called for. Minutes later, my bestie was pulled away from her homework, and summoned to make tea and samosas for a visiting neighbor. We had been looking for synonyms of ‘close’, while on the mat our textbooks lay scattered. I watched her open notebook, the blank pages fluttering, like frosty-white wings, wishing to be set free to soar the sky.

‘Close’ is snug, tight, not being distanced in time, space or significance. Back at the place we lived in then, my chosen synonym fell into place in the High School essay I had been writing, for ‘close’ was too common a word in my opinion back then.

It wasn’t.

Soon enough, my bestie’s chapati-rolling talent was displayed to a prospective groom’s mother. She makes the best ones — thin, perfect discs; you’ll see when she makes them in your kitchen. Seven people had laughed in approval of the comment.

A daughter is not quite ‘close’ to her own family here.

The rest of our High School brood continued to soar, and I think that’s because there were new skies to measure, many high-rises to inhabit. They were lucky to have been raised in cages, but with the traps left open, whether by design or by accident. I reckon they’d never return. Not even when they’d be dying, a last homecoming. Not like me, who was taken to roost with ancestors, to where they lived and finally rested.

Later, I followed my mother across the gates, further, between rows of paddy, the occasional palm and date clusters. I became closer to strangers and strangeness.

I think I changed.

I breathed. The breath was so long that I felt the whiff of air on my chest. The intimacy of the place I had grown up in, my former life, escaped in a breath’s closeness, became the luxurious, synonymous word for ‘longing’ that wasn’t even close.


Mandira Pattnaik's work has appeared in DASH Journal, EllipsisZine, Atlas & Alice, Citron Review, Watershed Review, Passages North, Amsterdam Quarterly, Bangor Literary, and Timber Journal among other places. Find more at You can find her on Twitter @MandiraPattnaik

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