Introduction by Alexandra Chang
There are books that take you alongside their stories and characters, and then there are books that grant you the privilege of deeply inhabiting their worlds, not so much a fly on the wall, but a body in the room—moving, pulsing, living. Shruti Swamy’s The Archer is wholly the latter kind of book. We are in Bombay in the 1960s and 70s, with Vidya, as she grows from a child who falls in love with dance, to a young woman devoted to her craft, to an artist whose fierce desires for her life push against the expectations placed upon her.
Swamy’s writing is a reminder that, like dance, language is not static. It enacts and shifts and creates. While the kathak dancers who Vidya observes for the first time are “making a phrase” with their bodies, Swamy performs an intoxicating dance made of prose. In this opening, we read of Vidya’s first encounters with “Room-Not-Mother” who becomes “(Room-Not-) Mother” who then wavers between “the Mother” and “her Mother.” Minutes “ripen,” the smell of food “thrashes,” and musical notes are “curiously sour.”
Reading The Archer, I often felt the shocking pleasure of watching an artist pull off the unexpected, and like Vidya with the dancers, I did not want to look away. “How long she stood there, fixed—moth: flame.”
This opening excerpt is just a taste of this novel’s richness. One of my favorite scenes—and there are many!—comes later in the book, when Vidya develops an attachment to a mango hanging from a tree outside her window, and after much reluctance, decides to pick the fruit. Swamy has the uncanny ability to render a reader more alive to the depth of meaning within the smallest of details. There is much to love and admire in this book, and I’m incredibly excited to recommend this novel to Electric Literature readers, to everyone.
– Alexandra Chang
Author of Days of Distraction
A Young Dancer’s First Glimpse of Her Future
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An excerpt from The Archer by Shruti Swamy
For a time Vidya had not had a mother or a brother, she had only the idea of a mother and a brother: they were imaginary but real in the same way god was. For a time she had not had a mother but an aunt and not a brother but two cousins who had lived with her in the one room flat she shared with her father. The Cousins were girls, older than her, they were not cruel but it was clear they found her irrelevant. They did their schoolwork quietly in the kitchen, whispering to each other, glamorous secrets of movie stars and breasts. The Aunt had rough, worried hands, and yanked the comb through the girl’s hair, which got snarled even in braids. When Father Sir came home from giving tuitions she had gone to sleep but heard the door open and shut.
There was a woman in a room they went to visit every month, a woman with no voice and a face that turned toward the window, but that was not a mother, mothers lived at home with their children. And sang to them.
Now the Aunt-Not-Mother had been put away with the Cousins-Not-Brother, and the Room-Not-Mother had come to live in the house and answered Vidya’s question when is my mother coming home, which she asked out of habit more than hope, with the firm and sometimes angry response of I am your mother. The child put her hands curiously in the Room-Not-Mother’s hair but the Room-Not-Mother brushed her away as though she were a fly. She asked Room-Not-Mother to sing a song to her at bedtime (Aunt-Not-Mother did not sing to her at bedtime, as was expected: she was a not-mother) and Room-NotMother did not sing a song and instructed her to close her eyes. She closed her eyes. In the dark she could hear Father Sir talking to Room-Not-Mother, who answered his questions very simply with yeses and nos. Was the heat making her feel ill. No. Had she heard from her sister. No. Would she write to her again? Yes. Then her mind flattened like a coin and she was asleep.
Now Vidya studied (Room-Not-)Mother as she wiped her face again and again with her sari. Earlier she had been in a frenzy of chopping and frying, but she seemed not to know anymore what motion to provide her restless body. Her eyes were keen and dark and hard, like the eyes of a man. She wore a pale green sari with a pretty gold border, cotton, but her best. Skin pulled taut against the drum of her body, in the strip between blouse and skirt: ribs, like that of an unhappy dog. Outside she wore strange shoes of brown leather and real laces—shoes that made the neighbors whisper—inside her bare feet were big like Vidya’s were big, Vidya’s already three sizes larger than the other girls at school. Father Sir, emerging from his bath, gave a sharp glance to Vidya sitting idle on the divan, swinging her legs. “Are you helping your mother?”
She shook her head.
“I’m finished,” said the Mother.
“Before you sit down you must always say, mother dear, how may I be of service?”
“I said I’m finished,” said the Mother. “I don’t need help now.”
“The girl should learn.”
The Mother turned away. She was preparing the puja plate, and placed a whole laddu beside the tiny holy things necessary for the rite: a pile of uncooked rice, an oil lamp still unlit, kumkum and sandalwood paste to be smeared wetly, and a small brass bell. Vidya was glad that she had not been pressed into service in the kitchen, not because she disliked chores (though she did) but because the sight of so much food, so much food all at once, brought on a kind of fright in her. It was not time to eat yet and she had been scolded out of the kitchen several times—not even a taste—and sat on the divan swinging her legs with anxiety. Would there be enough? What would she eat first? What would this brother be like—would she know him? What if the Brother ate everything, and there was nothing left for her? Recently, the sight of food, food cooking in the stalls along the side of the road—jalebis, bhel, aloo tikki, sev puri—made her feel a wretchedness that was like falling ill. It was dulled only after the morning glass of milk, if she got the morning glass of milk, which, now that Aunt-Not-Mother and Cousins-Not-Brother’s hungry mouths had vanished, she was given every morning, and sometimes in the evening also. Father Sir left before she woke and returned after she was asleep, and on the weekends he would see her and say: well? This made her uncontrollably shy and she would mouse down into her dress and say yes sir.
“What time does the train get in?”
“So go, na? You don’t want to make them wait.”
“I won’t make the train come any faster.”
But she was nearly pushing him out the door. He put his shoes on in the hallway. He was laughing and said again, “I won’t make the train come any faster.” Then there he was downstairs, walking through the dusty courtyard, straight through a cricket game of the chaali’s boys; they paused and watched him while he passed, in white, a dhoti and a clean kutra. When Father Sir was gone from the window, Vidya turned to watch the Mother again. She had forced herself down into stillness, sat with her hands folded and gripped hard on her lap. She was muttering something under her breath, barely audible, forbidding vowels. Then she fixed her eyes on her daughter and said, “Come here.” Vidya crossed the width of the apartment to the chair where the woman sat: a distance of no more than a few feet. The woman touched her daughter, fixing, smoothing what couldn’t be fixed or smoothed, the wild puff of hair that fuzzed up the girl’s neat braid, the wrinkles sweated into her good dress. “Do you love your brother?”
“Yes,” said Vidya dutifully.
“Then you must tell him. You must say, welcome home, my dear brother.”
“And you must care for him like a mother.”
No. No. She was to be a not-mother. She looked at the woman with panic.
“I thought you were the mother.”
“Yes,” she said, her tone quickening. “I am the mother. But what I mean is you’ll have to help me take care of him.”
“Because he is your brother.”
“Will I be the mother?”
“No, no. I am the mother.” Then, exasperated, she stopped speaking. The apartment was filled with the smell of food. It was like a dream—or a nightmare—so many smells. Vidya had dreams where she was eating everything, kulfi and handvo and rotis and dhal and kheer. She fell upon her knees and ate like a dog, crying out with pleasure and joy. But in these dreams the food never filled her, it was like eating fistfuls of air. Woke with that hard pain in her stomach, and couldn’t sleep sometimes, until dawn.
Each minute ripened. It was incredible how much time could be contained in the increments measured by the clock. She thought she would ask again about the food but each time she looked at the Mother she was hushed by the look on her face—it was a terrible look. The Mother was folding herself inward and trying not to cry, and the effort to suppress this monumental emotion was making her eyes red. Vidya looked out the window. The cricket boys had resumed their game, they were calling to one another. Even the littlest ones would not play with her because she was a girl, and spoke to her, when they had to, with disdain. But brothers were different, she was confident of this. In fact, a brother could crack the world of the boys open, and invite her inside. They might never make her the batsman, but surely she could be a minor fielder until she proved her skill. They would rush her, chanting her, she would crow with them: king of the boys! But the Brother? The Brother was a blank, she had no notion of his face (there was a picture kept framed in the house of the Mother holding a baby, but the features were so indistinct it could have been any baby, including Vidya herself), yet she felt him in this moment looking up at her admiringly. King of the boys, she and her brother, but mostly she.
Then, there, on the far corner of her vision, a tonga dropped three passengers off in the street. They were as tiny as toys: the tonga pulled by a toy-donkey, and the three passengers—a man dressed in white, a dark woman in a parti-colored sari, and a child, an almost baby, carried in the arms of the woman. The girl watched them quietly as they crossed the courtyard. The game had to be paused, but it was paused good-naturedly. Father Sir called something out to the boys as he passed, a greeting of some sort, and there was joy in the sound of his voice if not the words it carried. The Mother heard Father Sir’s voice but remained where she was, as though calmed by it.
“Listen, now, when your mother’s sister comes you must tell her how much you love the beautiful dress she sent you.”
“But when should I kiss my brother?”
“After. Say my dress is very lovely auntie.”
“My dress is very lovely auntie.”
“Good, just like that.”
The Mother was smiling and wiping her eyes. The three toys were moving up the stairs but neither woman nor girl rushed out to greet them. The woman took the girl’s small hand and held it tightly, squeezing it. The feeling of being touched by the woman was so lovely, that the time that had moved for ages so slowly began, now, to quicken. Only moments, only seconds before she had a Brother, and her Mother touched her hair. The door opened. Slipping off their shoes in the hall—
The light coming from the doorway darkened them. They were just shapes. Then Father Sir stepped through the door and became himself, and the woman in the brightly colored sari holding the boy became herself, and the boy became himself. Who were they? Father Sir was self-evident, he was tall and thin with a high forehead and beady glasses like Gandhiji. The woman who must be her aunt had a dark face and was weeping. There was a stud of gold in her nose. The sari was checked with green and yellow, bordered in red, the colors that licked the eye. Before she got to the boy who was her Brother she performed her task to the weeping woman’s knees. “MydressisverylovelyAuntie.”
The Mother pulled Vidya away roughly. “Where is my sister?”
“Her son fell ill, madam.”
“So she sends a servant?” said the Mother.
“She didn’t want to leave her son, madam.” She had managed to stop weeping, but was holding tightly to the boy. The boy, the baby, the Brother. Vidya could see his little feet dangling down, bare feet, but he had folded his face into the chest of the woman and showed his sister only the back of his dark head. Sister. She said, “Welcome home, my dear brother,” and then looked at the Mother, now doubtful, to see if she had spoiled this task as she had spoiled the other one, perhaps she had muddled up the words, the order—an adult mystery. But the Mother did not seem to have heard her and was looking now at the boy, hard at the boy. On her face was a tightly concentrated fury. Fury at Vidya, at the Brother, at the other woman? Or, most unfathomably of all, at Father Sir? The Mother held out her arms. The expression on the other woman’s face trembled for a moment and the boy, who had been sleeping, began to wake, transferred from mother to mother: Vidya caught his face, gathering red and splitting open into a cry. He was saying ammu, ammu, as the dark woman relinquished him, twisting away from the woman his mother, back to the arms of the woman who had brought him, who cast her gaze down and squeezed her hands together. The Mother’s face became tender as she held the boy. She rocked him back and forth and whispered to him silly little rhymes, ones Vidya had never heard the Mother utter. He would not calm. He began to kick. Instead of setting him back in the other woman’s arms, which were stretched out to receive him, he was set screaming on the divan. Immediately the boy was up, tottering on his skinny legs, toward the parti-colored woman, who touched him, his head, and began to speak to him gently in a language that no one but he could understand.
The Mother was standing clenched, so upright. Her keen dark man’s eyes were full of red.
“Come, come, let’s eat,” said Father Sir. “We’re all of us hungry.”
Food! And Brother so small and fussy—he surely would not eat very much. But the Mother would not move from where she was standing to ready the meal and offer plates.
Father Sir said, “Wife!”
Fear—the room held it, that the Mother would crack. As she stood, holding her sari balled in each hand, so still, with only the vein at her temple flickering with pulse. Not a sound was made, even Vidya held her breath. And in an instant the room righted itself, an inexplicable shift in weather, the Mother said I forgot to do the puja, and the boy was held again by the woman, calm now, sucking his thumb, while his mother circled his face with the small flicker of light, ringing the small brass bell, then printing his brow center with a smear of red, and fragrant beige, and a single bead of rice, which fell off right away. She broke the laddu in two and pushed the sweet between the boy’s lips—he chewed at it distractedly with nubbly teeth. The other half was given entire to the woman who held him. Laddus: the ferocity of yellow sugar. If Vidya was given a laddu she broke it in her palm and ate each grain. The boy ate his oppositely, fast and unthinking. He looked calm now and didn’t seem to mind being at the center of so many’s attention, tugging the ear of the woman who held him, tiny, a baby, with none of the plumpness of baby, with none of baby’s glowing health. He looked yellow and somehow tough, his skin scaly with dryness.
“Are you hungry?” The Mother pointed her question at the other woman without seeming, exactly, to address her. Her voice was filled with a determined coolness, and she used the familiar, though not the most cuttingly familiar you.
The woman seemed to have trouble with the question and stood for some moments looking uncomfortably at the floor. Then she said,“No, no, please don’t trouble yourself.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Father Sir. “You’ve had a long journey. How many hours?”
“Thirteen hours. Come, wash up, we’ll run some water for you. Then you can eat.”
The woman was brought a towel, she parted from the Brother with reluctance, pulling shut the curtain that demarcated the washroom from the kitchen. He screamed, the Brother, his eyes outlined in kohl: kohl gave his eyes the burning quality of a saint. The woman began to talk to him from behind the curtain as she washed—at the sound of her voice he quieted. The Mother was loath to leave him, but she did, immersing herself in the kitchen to prepare the food while Father Sir seated himself on the floor and waited for the plates to be brought to him. Vidya, reminded, rose to follow the Mother into the terrifying kitchen, which was filled with the noise of food. “Go give this plate,” and she carried it with care, heavy with food, sick with food, kadhi and raita and black chana, and shaak and rotis made fresh, one after the other, by the Mother who squatted by the stove with the shine of sweat across her brow and made them thin with the intelligence of her own fingers, thin as paper, puffed over the flame, fragrant of ripe wheat shined with ghee. Father Sir first, then Vidya was given her own plate, her own roti, while the Mother sat down by the boy and began to feed him with her own hand, food he accepted with a benign indifference. She was smiling now, the Mother, as the boy let her touch his face, though every once in a while he would turn away with an anxious look to the dark woman, who had emerged from behind the curtain and would smile at him, and then he would turn his face back toward the offered food.
Vidya was in an agony of indecision. Faced with so many dishes at once, she touched nothing on her plate, just stared at it—four little cups containing bright circles of food, the perfectly circular roti at the center, cooling. The smell of the food came up to her, it came into her, thrashed against her. Rice was brought out. But the food—her food. Her stomach hurt.
“Eat,” said Father Sir, who had already finished his rice. She knew better than to cry or say I can’t. She could see herself, her little brown hand, come quick down and tear the roti between her fingers, then dip into a dish—which dish, which food?—and bring the morsel into her mouth. But she could not will the hand to do it. She looked away from her plate, and then eagerly back at it, afraid that it had vanished. It was still there. She could not move.
“What’s the matter?” said the Mother. She shook her head.
“What’s the matter, don’t like?”
“Don’t like? Don’t eat,” said the Mother, and lifted away the untouched plate.
The Mother did sing. Badly. But not to her. The notes felt curiously sour and wrong, even when there was no other music, and the voice that sang them was uncomfortably naked, like the voice one prayed with, or the body that one bared with honesty to the doctor. She practiced in the full light of day, loudly, after morning’s breakfast, and took lessons on Sundays at the Kalaˉ Sangam Bhavan Classical Music and Dance Complex, bringing the Brother and then Vidya to care for him.
Vidya discovered that the Brother was a good audience for jumping off the Bhavan’s steps; to him, even a jump from the first step was impressive. Gaining confidence she would climb, watching him watch her with admiration as she leapt down the second and then the third step, he laughing in delight at her neat landings. But the fifth was tall, as tall as her, she looked down over the edge. She had jumped from there last week but had forgotten how it felt to be so brave. The sixth! There was a thing called death: you went to another place. You jumped off the highest step in the world and were thrilled into flying. No, death was a bad thing, a lonely thing. A stern grandma had died, you didn’t see her anymore. The loved grandma remained. But death came for all, not only the very old. Death lived maybe on the tenth step.
Against the wall, half-dozing, a watchman in khakis and long wool jerked up and smiled at the Brother, and then at her. She didn’t return the smile. They looked at you like you were the same as other children, they always smiled at you as if you were the same: silly, clowning, social, unserious, playing make-believe or, worse, becoming precious for them. Some of her cousins behaved like this when trying to win the love of Grandma during summer visits and it disgusted her. Her Mother would whisper to her, with delicious scorn, look at that little liar; Grandma was never swayed, but aunties were, which made them not worth loving.
She skipped the sixth step and went directly to the seventh, where she always stalled; she could climb no closer to death. She sat for a while with her feet over the edge. The Bhavan’s courtyard seemed to exist outside the city, borrowing only its birds, which crossed in lazy flocks the rectangle of sky that capped the compound. Parrots showed green against the blue, but their scribbling noise was muted by the assonant chorus of music lessons, each individual lesson weaving into a new whole that contained an element of the Mother she could not quite hear, but still somehow sense. Through the door, she had seen the Mother’s teacher wince at the sound of her voice, but the Mother had not noticed or cared, and plowed on, heedless. Yes, though, there was another noise, a sense of rhythm, the shivering sound of rain. It was nearer, and then voices too, on the ground floor, and Vidya, now curious, followed the steps toward the sound: the level half underground and half above it, with windows that looked onto the courtyard and the street, letting in a dim yellow light: there were girls moving with purpose in this new secret room; their movements were described twice, by the rhythm of finger and palm against drum (a man played the drums, pulling from it a range of tones both heavy and light, his fingers springing away from the dark cores) and by spoken voice (a woman recited the rhythm in a language of single syllables, mysterious, expressive words both odder and more familiar than English)—and a third time by the bells wound thickly around the ankles of the best girls, and thinly around the ankles of the younger girls, some almost as young as her, some teenagers or even young women, moving with varying grace and control, but all moving with purpose, their bodies taut with the effort of correctness, their feet speaking and their eyes driven inward. Vidya, in the doorway, was not seen, was only seeing, her body lifting unconsciously, straightening itself, wanting to stand and move correctly as she watched a girl at the front of the room moving in a whirling yellow kameez, with short, swift limbs, who made a phrase with her body and was scolded by the woman who had spoken it, who made the phrase again with her body, moving this time her arms in concert with her legs, her bells glistening with hard noise, and was scolded again by the woman, who, in the dim light, had the fierce, kohl-made eyes of a leader and a ferocious bearing, not unlike the Mother’s, even while seated. This woman was beautiful, magnetically so. Her hair, striped with white, was parted down the middle and pinned into a low bun in a plain style so that her opulent face stood out in relief to it, pale and richly colored, her eyes a glinting black as though jeweled. Her hand slapped against her thigh, marking the same rhythm she spoke through that strange language of single syllables, and the moving girl again tried the phrase slightly refined and this time was not scolded by the woman—not praised, but her bearing became prouder, as if she had been praised. The room was incredibly hot: there was no fan, in the corner was a small shrine to Shiva with his foot lifted in destruction, a stick of incense burned to the nub for him and the room smelled of it, and loudly of sweat, the girls’ and the percussionist’s, whose hands seemed to take a precise effort regardless of how quickly or slowly the rhythm was that issued from them, and he held his arms very heavily in order to let his fingers be light. She could be tiny in the doorway: just eyes. Watching the girl move now made her want to be nothing. A thought came to her and it was like the first thought she had ever had: I am nothing. How long she stood there, fixed—moth: flame. Then suddenly coming out of a dream she remembered her Brother and ran up the steps.
Evening had deepened outside but the Mother was not finished. The Brother was sitting by himself on the step she had abandoned, a cry starting to bubble into his face, and she snatched him up and stood in the courtyard listening now to the sounds coming from the building, trying to parse and understand them. What was the language the woman spoke? And to whom were they speaking, exactly? Not with that odd spoken language, not just. With their bodies that they made follow a set of grace rules.
“Ah, you must be a dancer,” said the watchman.
“That was dancing?”
“Of course. What else would it be?”
She thought it was the clapping and swirling of Navaratri, exuberant and ordinary. She sat on the step. To be small was to be comfortable with the world being constantly upended: oh, but she wasn’t. The sun was going and the sky began to bruise from its absence.
There she was, the Mother, so tall, in her funny outside shoes, men’s shoes made of brown leather, with laces and too large, in her gray and red sari, descending the steps. The hour’s music had left sweetness on her tongue. In the fading light the Mother looked familiar and fragile, and Vidya ran up the steps toward her, heedless of the trailing Brother: wanting the Mother, wanting no harm to come to her, wanting her hand. She took it, cool, in her hot palms.
“Here I am.”