What happens inside a chrysalis?
Did you know there’s just liquid inside? I didn’t.
I attended one lecture of Topology during my masters before dropping out of the course. I learnt later, through friends who managed to carry on, that a donut and a coffee mug were one and the same. Topologically speaking. That was seven years ago. Since then I grew to theorise that I and Pinky were not the same. An easy way to resolve the confusions that come from shapeshifting is to be two. That is why caterpillars are not called young butterflies.
My parents moved into our house in October 2008. I was in 12th class and for the first time in my life—I got ‘my own room.’ It was a tiny room, almost an afterthought. A bed was specially made for me, with the right height and the right width. It would be quite hard to fit another human in this room. It is similarly quite hard to fit anything besides my books on the tiny shelves of my almirah—which too was specially made for me. My clothes are often found in every other room in every other almirah, as they keep on travelling throughout the house. But my tiny collection of books and notebooks and stationary had found a permanent room. Girls in families like mine do not get rooms of their own. During the final phases of the construction of our house, an older male cousin had sniggered when the room was introduced to him as ‘Pinky’s room.’ He remarked that it was in fact my brother’s future children’s room. It is easier in families like mine to imagine people and gods who do not exist, than to imagine rooms that might belong to girls and to imagine girls that might own those rooms and those houses. In 2009, I left the city and my room to study in Delhi. It was and it still remains the perfect room.
In March this year, I received a call from my PhD advisor cautioning me that this pandemic might last much longer and it might become much worse. She advised that I should plan to get, as soon as possible, to wherever I feel I would be most comfortable riding out a hard and long pandemic. A couple of years ago, I had to tell my mother that I liked women. I had learnt from the internet that homelessness is the consequence of such a conversation. I do not think that my mother has yet grasped what it means. I do think that since that day she has almost stubbornly guarded my room and my unquestionable ownership of it. In situations like these, her brain never quite really works the way that the internet tells me it would work. I did not have to think twice to know that I must return to her and to my room if the question is of surviving something very difficult.
If I could ever write a story, I would want to write the story of this little girl who could only fall asleep inside the blue tent that she had made out of purple clay. But I do not know how to write a story. So this will have to wait. People who study topology have put videos on the internet of coffee mugs turning into donuts. I wonder what the coffee-mug-donut feels when the coffee mug becomes a donut. I wonder what the clay feels when it shapeshifts.
People like me didn’t really know back then what a pandemic meant. In March, for us, it meant reading news about thousands of migrant workers walking on foot for days to reach their homes. In April, to those of us with homes and money and laptops and work-from-homes, it meant searching for food recipes online. In May, it meant a trip to the nursery to get some plants. In June, it meant a six year-old niece placing her blocks apart due to social distancing guidelines. I did not know back then what it meant to someone whose loved ones had had that virus that had caused this pandemic.
Sometime during those same months, I discovered that I love plants. I found out that I was fascinated by the growth of new leaves, by the spreading of roots, by the sprouting of seeds, by the multiplication of branches. I found out that I simply cannot grow vegetables. And that the herbs are magical because one could eat all the leaves and did not have to wait for the fruits and flowers to form, and because one could multiply them as much as one wanted if there was enough soil. I got obsessed with the propagation of herbs—mastering the trick of multiplying mint, that resulted in five big pots of mint in my house. Internet tells me to beware of mint since it will take over the garden and spread mercilessly. I cannot wait for it to do so. I also discovered seeds. I do not think I have encountered anything as fascinating as tiny seeds turning into two tiny leaves and then into many leaves. The first two leaves never look anything like what the rest of them will look like. They call the later ones the “true” leaves. I have a soft spot in my heart for the first two that have by logical corollary become the ‘untrue’ ones. Same happened to the coffee mug and to Pinky and to the caterpillar.
During all these past months, I woke up every single day to first go and meet the plants outside my room, and then started my day. My activities had expanded beyond my room. During all these past months, I didn’t leave my house. I took online classes in the evening and in the middle of the night sitting in this very house that my parents moved into during Oct 2008. During all these past months, I learnt what pandemic meant to those whose loved ones had had that virus that had caused this. It left pain and confusions, also regrets—of doing something, of not doing something. I then slept in this house scared and worried about my parents, fearing what each day might bring. It is hard to be in one room for this long. It was hard even for the little girl to always be inside the tent that she had made. I spread everywhere like mint and took over my siblings’ room. I have two of them—one was here when I was born. The second one was brought home by the first one a few years ago. He said that now she would be my sister. I said alright. The first one was next to me during all my shapeshiftings. The second one was kind to the stories of all my shapeshiftings. They do not seem to mind my spreading everywhere. I should ask them what they think about mint.
If I could write a story, I would want to write the story of this little boy I had once met on a bus ride. He had found out that if he put things inside the earth, they turned into something else. He was always seeing tiny dots in his food. Some he could take out. Some he could never take out. One Thursday, he took out all the dots from the white chutney that his mother makes with dosa, and buried them inside a pot in her garden. He forgot to tell her.
On Sunday, he saw hundreds of brightly coloured butterflies trying to escape the pot. He played with them till evening. When he went to sleep, they kept fluttering outside his window in their bright yellow and green colours. They made him happy. On Monday, he saw that the butterflies stole his mother and flew far away. He didn’t get to say goodbye to his mother because he woke up late that day. But I do not know how to write a story. So this will have to wait.
In August, I had to tell my mother that I might be shapeshifting again. I don’t think she has yet grasped what it means. I do think that she senses the contours of my new shape now, many times. She often calls me Anshu—a name she had given me, a name that pleases her because it contains all the alphabets of her own name, and a name that shapeshifts in North India so one never knows what form it belongs to. With the help of one mother, some seeds, some siblings, some roots, and some rooms, I discovered during the pandemic that I can come out of my room and shapeshift and grow in my entire home. I realised that I could become liquid and flow and spread as I pleased.
Anshu is an aspiring writer, teacher, and a scholar. Despite much contrary evidence, he still believes a better world can be made with all three of these activities.