I am Four

I am four.

A man who is supposed to take care of me touches me in a way that I know is wrong, even when I don't have the vocabulary to explain it.

When my mother, white with rage, complains to my family, she is told off.

In Kerala there is a saying: whether the leaf encroaches on the thorn or the thorn encroaches on the leaf, it's the leaf that tears. In other words, it is not their job to protect the girl; it is the mothers' responsibility to protect her daughter.

I am eleven.

I hear what's said about me: Too bossy. Talks too much. Doesn't have enough girlfriends. Doesn't help out in the kitchen.

At a family vacation, a man six times my age puts his disgusting mouth on mine without my consent. My aunts and uncles are in the room just next door.

Many years later, recounting this story to my mother, I realize the violence I experienced was a mere slight compared to what she and her mother and her grandmother were subjected to.

Injustice is passed on generation to generation. If you're lucky, the violence gets diluted a little.

I am eighteen.

Now I understand the game and how it is to be won.

Step 1: Run.

To safer, freer spaces. Away from the town where everyone knows me. Away from filthy men who don't know how to love a free woman.

I meet women like me, we move in groups. The sisterhood lights up the second I light my first cigarette – with five girls, in the back of a student bar. I talk about what happened to me out loud. The girls nod. It happened to them, too.

I break the generational cycle of silence.

I am one.

It's 1991. India is liberalized. For the first time since Independence, we open up to free international trade. Business is booming. The windfall profits trickle down to the educated middle class. Multi-billionaires mushroom. And my little family blooms because my father decided to take a risk and start a construction business in a country that needed only to build, build, build, build.

Money, in less than a generation, transforms how healthy, safe and educated we are. It protects us from violence, from injustice. It insulates us from unpredictable shocks like natural disasters, sweeping government policy changes and big medical emergencies. So, I imprinted another saying under my skin: Money is freedom. I will stand on my own two feet and never fall into the chasm of poverty my parents worked so hard to protect me from. Writer or Journalist? Journalist or Economist? Economist or Salesperson? Salesperson or Marketer? Every decision ends with the thing that makes the most. Accumulate, multiply, climb up up, up and away.

I am twenty-nine.

Every one of those decisions was worth it. The air tastes like freedom. I choose what I wear, who I'm with, what I drink and when I get home. I see the world. I get to leave my country and exchange it for streets that are pristine and safe. No one touches me without my permission. Whatever life throws at me, my credit card can absorb. It feels like cutting through fabric into another dimension.

I have forgotten to look at price tags. When I go back home, my suitcase is packed only with gifts. In this very tiny, very wealthy country, if I keep my mouth shut, I pay barely any taxes, have spotless streets, trains always on time, all the food I've never tasted. On paper, it is everything a little girl from a little south Indian town should have wanted. But I have just replaced the strings of my community with those of a new master — the capitalist.

These buildings get erected, these streets get washed clean, this machine is kept running in the dark by hands that look exactly like mine. I am running as far as I can from the oppressed, to fight for a seat at the table of the oppressor. At work, I am doing anything, really anything at all, to keep the engine of endless growth running. My job title represents everything I know to be wrong with the world. I spend 80-hour weeks selling a pipe dream. No time for anything else, or anyone. Every promotion is just the price tag for going along with a nonsensical startup Ponzi scheme. I curl like a millipede into the crippling depression I'm too proud to treat.

I chose this. I was not the victim.

I look all the way up the ladder, right to the top. And I ask myself if I want to be like them — the white men who write the rules. The tech bros and their venture capitalists, do I really want to feast at their table?

It's so incredibly hard to stop, when everyone tells you not to, when you are still young enough to burn the hours working, when you've not saved for a rainy day and most of all, when the spectre of injustice looms over you like anxious nausea.

I look over the chasm of uncertainty ahead. It is black all the way to the endless bottom.

I decide enough is enough. I close my eyes, and run towards the unknown. Maybe all revolutions begin as little ones. Running has always been easy.

I am thirty-one.

Here's a new country to try. New people. New language. New rules.

My skin and the way I speak English feels uncomfortable, like a pebble in my shoe. My body, and my apartment, smell like curry. When I'm spoken to, at a party where everyone knows English but speaks French, the question they have is, "what brings you all the way from India to France?" I don't have a good answer.

I wrangle my tongue to say their Rs. They cock their ears because they don't understand my accent. I know they could never pronounce the bumps and twists and knots of my mother tongue. Mazhathulli. Pachavellam. Avalosunda. I learn to say sœur, Bourgogne, particulièrement. They talk about yoga and drink turmeric chai lattes and eat butter chicken curry bowls and I gag. I watch them live off what their grandparents stole from mine. Scratch that. What they are still stealing, from people like me.

They do it under the banner of "economic development." They raze entire peoples. And then they have the gall to segregate and dismiss people of colour, quietly, insidiously, in their own country into what they call "the popular quarters."

I experience their lukewarm, shallow curiosity for my culture — such a polar opposite to my hungry need to assimilate into theirs. And yet, I find myself engulfed by the magnificence of everything here. I ignore the violence and extraction that made it possible. I look up at the opulence, the delicacy, the artistry, and I am at once enthralled and deeply saddened that all of this in my home has been allowed to fall to ruin, so that this new home can flourish. I allow myself to fall in love with their country and their language. Their wine and cheese and tomatoes and romantic boulevards and waveless blue sea. I say, I can have a beautiful life here. I say, I can belong here. It's a game, and the trick is just to play it well. I tell myself, this little corner pleases me. Even if I feel inferior and alien around these people, at least I have my Parisian apartment, and my summer vacations and free health insurance, right?

In less than two years, I am politely told I no longer have a job. First the shock, then the anger.

Then the relief.

I take two weeks on a permaculture farm, with my nails grimy and my back broken, doing the thing that gives me most joy — growing things. Alexis, the only name I'll mention in this piece, was the farmer who allowed me to live and learn off his land. I went there to learn to grow food in a new terroir and reconnect with my childhood. Back home it is altogether normal and expected to eat things we grow ourselves. Permaculture quite simply soothes the aching to dig closer to my roots.

In the course of two weeks, the farming was merely a backdrop to learning about the climate crisis. Alexis was a war correspondent, a politician and is a fierce educator. He pushed a book into my hands and said, read this. It was Less is More, by Jason Hickel.

Something clicked. It connected everything I was questioning about the current economic order with a crisis that could eliminate our very existence as a species. The same tropes of imperialism, corruption, misinformation, human rights abuse, endless growth — here it was playing out on a planetary scale. It was all crises intersecting into one.

I had always dreamt of some day going back home to Kerala to farm and cook and write. So I ask Alexis, "should I just go back home?" He says: "Stay here, so that when your family is on the brink of death because it's too hot to survive, at least they'll have a safe place to go."

I pore into the data about how hot and unlivable most of the Global South will be in the next 50 years, how there will be mass migrations and displacement because of extreme weather events. I learn that the excesses I enjoy in this part of the planet are so inextricably linked to the floods that ravaged my hometown thousands of kilometres away.

This is a problem I cannot run from.

This little life has gone through all the stages of capitalism.

The promises of early-stage capitalism were palpable in my childhood. All good things came to us because of my father's business— it was not excess, but opportunity. Then, working in tech in Asia exposed me to the capitalist boom — material abundance, that comes only with moral turpitude. I owe all the freedom I have today to it. All the promises made by capitalism, met. Your life can transform in less than a generation if you turn a blind eye, and work hard enough.

And then in Europe, where late-stage capitalism sits in idle obesity. Centuries of loot keeping entire nations afloat. Imperialism that continues to this very day, breaking the backs of black and brown people, branding them as terrorists and savages when they resist, while Europeans protest for their four-day workweek and call themselves "advanced."

But now, finally, the house of cards is wobbling in the wind. This extraction, they (and I) have started to realize, never stops. What started at first, far away, in countries like mine — is catching up to them. Now they pay attention. These ancient cobblestones have begun to thrum with the ochre of civil unrest.

At the same time, my little heart, begins to call for an end to the apathy with which I've been making my own nest. Something tells me I've read enough, seen enough, felt enough to say "enough — I am done being part of the problem." I am done being quiet. And I will find my way.

— Marita Abraham

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