She pressed packets of black seeds of the magic peepal tree into Amma’s hand. ‘One a day,’ she said, raising her finger. ‘Eat the seed before or after the midday meal. But remember, it is before the meal for a boy and after for a girl.’
Amma took a seed out of the packet and held it between her fingers, then tossed the seed into her mouth. She ate the rice and potato curry; she finished the pachadi and the sweet. Then, after she’d eaten, when Patti was not looking, she swallowed two more seeds.
That was the precise moment when Siva’s fate looked at him cockeyed.
Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. It’s not until Patti, Siva’s paternal grandmother, sees a swatch of silk – cinnamon-brown, painted with a peacock, parrot, leaves and a lotus – fly from the pages of a ledger and decides to wrap Siva in it that Mallika accepts him.
But Amma called me Tara. And Appa called me Siva. Patti called me both Tara and Siva. I was both a boy and a girl to her. Only I didn’t know whether I was a boy pretending to be a girl or the other way around. I was four years old.
The family live in a Victorian villa in Machilipatnam, South India. The villa was previously owned by an Englishman, George Gibbs and is now the property of the institute which bears his name, the institute of which Appa is now director. There he researches mosquitoes and malaria.
During Mallika’s pregnancy, she finds George Gibbs’ ledger in the attic of the house. Part-inventory for textile dyeing, part-diary, his words are incorporated throughout the story, eventually becoming interwoven in unexpected ways.
At the back of the site they found a grave, with human bones embedded in the dust. A skull smiled up at them from the dirt…The contractor asked me to find another location for the house…[he] gravely told me that ghosts had memories and they looked for someone to latch on to. If I lived here on this land, then the dead person’s memories would seep into me and haunt me all my days.
It’s George Gibbs’ ledger which the swatch of silk flies from that Patti wraps Siva in. It’s this act which seems to ensure that Gibbs’ memories will affect Siva’s life.
Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. He looks at the people around him; he learns about exceptions; he meets Sweetie-Cutie and a group of hijras; he reads George Gibbs’ ledger, and throughout it all he wonders whether Tara still exists inside of him.
Through Siva’s story, Srivatsa questions whether a person’s gender is created or is innate. While Gibbs’ story allows her to examine whether history does repeat itself in the same place and suggests there might be a more positive future for those whose gender is more complex than the male/female binary allows for.
The whole novel’s told in striking, playful prose. Whether she’s describing the howling of the wind which echoes Amma’s cries: ooooowr-oooowar-oowat-oowata-oowata-r-wate-r or Tara’s appearances in Siva’s head, like when Patti decides to take a stray dog in and names it Churchill: I shaped my mouth and said something like ‘Cha-chi’. Cha-chi-cha-chi, Tara went on and on in my head or describing Siva’s feelings on the return of Mallika’s depression:
My bare necessities became bare. I despaired, and so would Baloo the Bear despair. I should have known then, it was the beginning of ‘over’ time.
If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here is a stunning book. It deals with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures. The tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise. I’ll be surprised if I read many better books this year.
Thanks to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.