As a child, my mother and I visited my Dida in Calcutta at least once a year. We’d take long, tiring, flights from Los Angeles, and at each layover, my mouth full of sleep, my eyes tired and blurry, I’d run to the airport bookstores that were lined with all my favorites.
At nine years old, I’d fallen in love with the shiny paperbacks, their large letters molded in light colors against dark backdrops that fiercely displayed authors and titles. They called out to me with neon lights’ allure. V.C. Andrews, Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Dean Koontz. If Tomorrow Comes, Till We Meet Again, Wifey.
“Mama, can you buy me a new book?”
My mother would concede, relieved that her child was preoccupied during the journey that took more than two days and ten time zones. Gazing up at the lines of paperbacks, I’d reach for the one that drew me in, grab it, my grip savoring the bumpy, glossy surface. When I arrived at my Dida’s flat, I’d run to the bedroom where we slept, lay on the sturdy, resilient mattress and sniff the words, inhale the stories as the flavors of my Dida’s cooking—ginger, green chilies, garlic and mustard oil—wafted through her flat and mixed in with the sentences I absorbed.
I learned the definition of desirability and sexiness, how it came from red negligees, thick cascading hair, eyes that sparkled and clothing that accentuated curves and thin waistlines. I marveled at passages where sex was defined by being “taken,” where women’s bodies were desirable when they “resisted” touch and did not fully submit, where they painted themselves into bewitching beauty. In my books, sexy women were always wrapped in the arms of men who searched their bodies for pleasure, who yearned to be near them. Sexy women were never alone.
Flowers in the Attic was my favorite. I loved how the narrator, Cathy, watched her mother, her process.
“She'd sit at her dressing-table to meticulously apply make-up. And I, so eager to learn, drank in everything she did to turn herself from just a pretty woman into a creature so ravishingly beautiful she didn't look real.”
I was eager to learn, too; I wanted to paint myself into something fictional, something so beautiful as to be unreal.
My body reacted to the black letters littered across beige pages. I identified with Cathy’s burgeoning sexuality.
“I was coming alive, feeling things I hadn't felt before. Strange achings, longings. Wanting something, and not knowing what is was that woke me up at night, pulsating, throbbing, excited, and knowing a man was there with me, doing something I wanted him to complete....”
With each paragraph, the surface of my skin, burning—that same ache Cathy described pulsing through me. Something huge was happening. I was becoming something other than what I was.
One day, I woke up to a different ache that traveled through the space between my legs. A pain that burned and itched. My mother was off elsewhere in the country, following astrologers and holy men she believed could provide a map to our fate. I crawled out from under the baby blue mosquito net that hung from the four corners of my room, the edges smudged with dust and dirt, and hobbled to my Dida’s bedroom.
“Dida! I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” I cried, as I climbed into her bed and laid down beside her. I wanted to have control over the climate and propel a cool breeze that would alleviate the intensity of the agony.
“Ki holo?” she asked.
I pointed between my legs. She rose, lifting her hunched back frame to confront my pain. She recognized the symptoms and explained to me in Bengali—I had gotten my first yeast infection. She continued her inspection of my vagina to make sure nothing else was wrong.
“Ey ma!” she suddenly exclaimed.
“What?” I yelled, worried that there was something deeply wrong with me.
Thoughts of my mother and holy men and predictions of my death at only nine years old. Cancer, gangrene of the genitals, something terrible. I imagined it all. My mother arriving in mourning to tell me that the astrologers had sealed my fate, they had seen it twinkle in the stars. That I would die from a rotting vagina.
“You are cursed,” my Dida said, solidifying the bells of mortality that were ringing.
“Ki?” I responded, my eyes wide with fear and panic.
“There is a beauty mark here inside you. It means you are cursed with sexiness.”
She paused as I waited to hear how my private parts were going to be the end of me.
“Sexiness. You are cursed with sexiness. You must be careful.”
I stared at her. I didn’t understand. Sexy was the pleasurable feeling provoked by my mystery and gothic romance novels. Sexy was my growing sexual understanding. Sexy was finding someone to love me.
The ache between my legs that day was not sexy, it was misery. And even though my Dida announced that I was cursed, I smiled, thinking sexy was everything I wanted in the world—the promise of an unadulterated mix of pleasure, affection, adoration, and love to come. The pain briefly left me. My misfortune momentarily embraced.
* * *
As an adult, I inscribed beauty onto my skin: bright strokes of bronze and pink to accentuate cheekbones, thick mascara to illustrate the length of my lashes, gold, green, and purple etched around my eyes to make them sparkle and pop. My desire to be sexy led my body to pass through an array of hands who touched me in all the ways my young self desired. I reached the elusive high that the books I read made me covet as a child, always coming down, always wanting more, always thinking that somehow being sexy would make someone love me.
At parties, I dressed in four inch heels, my bright, bold dresses lined with thick, plush petticoats, my tiny waist cinched with elaborate gold belts, my lips painted rosebud red. I stood out and relished telling the story of my curse:
“Can you believe it? There I am, legs splayed out, in agony, and she sees this beauty mark in my pussy and tells me I am cursed!”
We’d all marvel and laugh, mocking my Dida and her beliefs, denigrating her into something outlandish and primitive. I’d glow from the feeling of being exceptional, not archaic or cursed—memorable because I was a good storyteller, because I had good stories to tell.
But some days, I’d lay down and gently place my head on the height of two pillows which allowed me to gaze at the reflection of my vagina in a small handheld mirror. I searched its layers to find the beauty mark. When I found it, I surveyed its shape, color, and size, that fear of cancer came back to haunt me. But more than a fear of death and illness, I speculated the meaning of my curse, the investment in this tiny mark inside me, how much weight and significance was given to its existence by my Dida, by me.
When lovers left me, no longer allured by that sculpted femininity that I had so artfully mastered, I wondered if it was my curse manifesting itself, alerting me to the dangers of being beguiling, the thing I desperately tried to be.
In graduate school, I turned to postcolonial theory to understand many things, including my Dida’s declaration of my “curse.” I sat in my first critical theory course and consumed books by Simone de Beauvoir, Gayatri Spivak, and Judith Butler. I learned that gender is performative, that biological sex and gender are distinct and separate, that certain bodies are privileged over others. As I flipped through the pages of dense theory, my mind wandered off to the romance novels I’d consumed as a young girl and how the women in them executed a normative rendition of femininity, of sexiness, all in an effort to allure partners they wished would love them. I thought of my Dida and the story of my curse. I thought of the history of her life. My Dida was married at twelve in an arranged marriage and birthed her first child at fourteen. I understood that for her, sexy was a curse because it only fell on those who were born female. Her proclamation of my curse, perhaps condemnation, was a product of her history. I suddenly understood that my desire for sexiness was a particular performance of femininity, it was a product of a history of the construction of gender. I no longer wanted to mock the story of the day my Dida found the beauty mark inside me.
Years later as a new professor, well read but with so much yet to learn, I taught Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. When students reached the short story “Sexy,” I’d have them read a specific sentence out loud, a sentence I found particularly hard to understand. In the story, when the main character, Miranda, babysits a colleague’s son, Rohin, he calls her sexy. She asks him what he means. Rohin replies, sexy is loving someone you do not know. As I taught the story, I relayed the racial dynamics, the pull of the “exotic” and unknown and delineated the problematic dimensions of that lure. But whenever I tried to discern the meaning of Rohin’s statement, my mind stopped short. I couldn’t intelligently explain what he meant. I’d scan my students’ faces in hopes that they might translate it for me, that suddenly, brilliant words of comprehension would fall from one of their mouths. I just couldn’t fully grasp how much of Rohin’s comment was about the veil of the performance of gender, of sexiness, how when it came undone, it exposed you and made you someone who is known, someone who because of being known, might no longer be sexy.
It took years to comprehend the meaning of Rohin’s observation. Perhaps age and the fading veneer of youth and beauty led me to understand how the “curse” of sexy lay in the drives of those who do the looking, of those who don’t wish to know you. The books of my childhood were an education in the game of desire, and at nine, I didn’t foresee the people who would use my sex and leave me, only interested in the curves that defined my body and the most vulnerable parts of me. I’d simply believed that being sexy would bring me what I wanted from others.
As a more experienced professor, still teaching Lahiri’s volume, still reading that sentence out loud in front of a classroom of students who sat diligently and listened, I understood that I illustrated sexiness in much the same manner as Cathleen’s mother in Flowers in the Attic, who sculpted herself into irresistible beauty. This drew lovers towards me, but when I was tired of the four inch heels that made my feet ache, the makeup that had to be taken off at night, when I fell hard for men and women and exposed the raw neediness that etchings of makeup and clothes cover up, they abandoned me. My rendition of femininity had been a one woman act, but all performances have an ending. At the end of my play, my audience, like all audiences, walked out.
I inferred that sexy meant to be desired but not necessarily loved, it meant to be wanted but it didn’t mean that all the people who want you, stay. Sexy was not necessarily a condemnation of me, my curves, my meticulously illustrated face, but rather, of those who do the looking, of those who might want you precisely because they do not know you. In turn, I took advantage of them. I indulged in my sexiness, participated in the highs they gave me, over and over again. I took in their sex and used it. At times, those who did love me, I didn’t love back. I enticed them and left them, in much the same manner that others abandoned me. Perhaps my Dida’s assessment of sexiness as curse was a sophisticated commentary on the nature of desire. That this curse is not just mine. It might belong to me, but it also belongs to the one who looks on at my act.
Or maybe my childhood books were the curse. The words I inhaled, the stories I consumed, curled like dark smoke, swirling around with the smell of my Dida’s cooking, traveling up my throat and nostrils, seducing me. Flowers in the Attic, Heaven, Till We Meet Again. I know their flaws, I see that they enable questionable standards of femininity and dangerous notions of sex and sexuality. And yet, I’ve enjoyed the ways in which I fashioned myself into something illusory. I’ve loved the bright clothes that made me pop, the jewelry that made me sparkle, relished the gloss of patent leather four inch heels, the feel of thick, soft, silky petticoats that brushed across my legs as I glided through a party or walked into a bar. As much as these books relay unsettling notions of femininity, they’ve remained singular to me and the ways in which I grew to design myself. These books also forged my long affair with literature, with writing, and nothing feels precarious about that.