A continued panorama of odors. Mango, goatskin, flower garlands. Smoke, vanilla, dog feces. Guava, gasoline. Human sweat, chili chicken. One-hundred percent pure coconut oil, which to me smells like a blend of sex and soulmates.
Every so often, we lose power in the hostel. I lie supine, in the dark, my arms folded over my head. In only my sweaty bra and churidars, my roommates would be embarrassed by this state of undress. They themselves change only in total darkness, and hide everything but face, hands, and feet. Somehow I don’t think the boys in the hostel next door do the same. Here, I’ve encountered an aversion for the female form that manifests itself in conservatism of speech, behavior, and clothing; while this attitude is not unfamiliar to me, the woman I have grown into cannot help but find it unacceptable.
My childish heart has seized upon perceived censure by developing a type of perversion that enjoys provoking reactions to immodesty. I casually bare the sections of my body that straddle the line of acceptability — the twin shallow dips at either hip, the plumpness of the breast visible underneath a tank top. Maybe I should know better than to play around like this, goading the girls into confronting what they think is depraved. But, truthfully, I no longer associate shame, as I once did, to these parts, which I now recognize form a whole that is as natural as the moon rising. Does that sound conceited, and hollow, in its extravagance? To be a woman — and not even cute enough for mauve-toned, soft-focus Instagram — comparing herself to the moon. Fortunately, I never claimed not to be self-obsessed.
I’m getting to know my body better, now that it has assumed its adult form. In the summer, my nakedness was called “doll-like,” in reference, maybe, to my tiny hands and feet, strawberry mouth, baby fat. When I myself look in the mirror, I usually fixate on the leftovers from my fulgent, brutal adolescence: the acne scars, puckered like kisses, the misaligned shoulders, the eternally dry and messy hair. My left breast, which is visibly smaller than the right. The face that has no shadow of Helen about it. In the still, lightless room, I touch, mostly exploratively, a bit licentiously (can you blame a twenty-two year old in the throes of spring awakening?), but always with the flavor of an innocence that is still learning. This body, its textures, its scent and salinity. Its avoidance of death, its instinct for love. In growing to care for it, I have brushed up against the body’s easy naturalness, that quality that is unassuming, simple, and — no matter what you have been told about shame — fundamentally incorruptible.
From the back of a two-wheeler, I spot a wall mural of a many-faced Hindu goddess done in matte, unshaded colors: Pepto pink, mustard yellow, a blue that recalls the intimacy of the ocean. She sits atop a fleshy lotus that looks like a triple labia, which is either a purposeful artistic choice or further proof that the only parts of my mind that are constantly online are the erogenous zones.