In my dance studio, there are mirrors everywhere, panes upon panes of mirrors. My face is hidden, broken—a flash of eyes here, a twist of wrists there—until I can no longer pinpoint exactly where I am. If I look at myself while pivoting, my smile is scattered into a thousand glittering shards.
When I was younger, I would view each mirror as a different me. Here was lighthearted me, casually clad in shorts and a T-shirt, off to play basketball. Here, artistic me, with charcoal-smudged fingertips and acrylic-caked locks. Here, traditional me, with center-parted braids and bangles winding up my forearm. I could never wrap my mind around how they all managed to fit inside one small girl.
I was at the DPS a few months ago, getting my license. When the officer opened my passport, her mouth fell into a perfect O as a spiral of attachments fell down the length of the counter. “Wow!” she exclaimed, thumbing the various stamps and pictures disbelievingly. “You’ve really been around!” Through her eyes, here was a 17-year-old, who was born in India, lived in England, moved to America. But that’s only half my story.
What she doesn’t know is that there used to be an unmarked grave at every airport I’d ever left, an invisible inscription scrawled to the mud and nothing else. A burial of the person I was, a memento to the person I would become. In India, whispers of jasmine blossoms and humid nights lay under the earth; England’s tomb hid pleated pinafores and the distinct aroma of fish’n’schips.
I naïvely believed these buried ghosts would rest forever, growing paler and weaker each year. That unearthing them would be futile, like checking the time on a watch that’s stopped. When I first moved to Texas, I struggled to change my accent, to force straight my wild Indian curls. I was hollow, carved out from the inside, perpetually suspended in the wafting air between reality and pretense. Finally, I saw the letter “Z” projected on my optometrist’ss screen and pronounced it as “zee” in my head before my mouth could form the sound.
Two years ago, though, I went over to my friend Rukmini’s house to prepare for a church function. Like always, we decorated our palms with henna, its pungent scent unleashing long-ago memories of chirping crickets and Crayola sunsets. We donned starched churidars, secured bindis between our eyebrows, fastened on jhumka earrings that feathered kisses down our shawl-covered shoulders. As we dressed, I asked her, “Do you ever get embarrassed? Acting like a perfect Indian at church, and then pretending to be completely American at school?”
She glanced at me, her brows furrowed in genuine puzzlement. “But I’m not pretending,” she said simply. “This is me. I’m an Indian American. I speak Malayalam and English equally well. I touch my guru’s feet and shake my teacher’s hand. What should I be ashamed of?”
Something about her words struck a part of me so deeply buried I’d almost forgotten it was there. I felt like I’d stayed in the shower so long that the cold water had begun to burn. Dazedly collecting the dispersed fragments of who I was, all the lost chapters forming my story, I followed her out to the driveway, soaking in the typical American cul-de-sac surrounding us. The fragrance of our newly applied henna mingled with the sizzle of a next-door barbecue, and I was shocked by how right it seemed.
Today, I have dug up my faraway graves; I have pieced together my fragmented mirror selves. I am not a collection of wispy ghosts. I am a person, who has seen the world and drunk it in, who has stared at the sun scorch in India, simmer in England, sear in America. My tears have collected in a puddle at my feet, and in it, I can clearly see my reflection smiling back at me.