Rashida Murphy

Image of

Rashida Murphy

The books on my shelves are my familiars. In my nightmares, I have the same feeling of helplessness at their loss as I do when dreaming of losing people I love. Lolita lives on my bookshelf, despite my horror, to remind me that lyrical writing about paedophilia can still teach me a thing or two about sentence structure. Plath and Hughes inhabit the same literary universe, and as poets sit side by side, but I mutter ‘wife-killer' every time I pass Hughes on the bookshelf. I stroke Sylvia's spine and move her away from the blue-jacketed copy of Birthday Letters.
My Indian grandfather, a venerable old gent with a goatee and round rimmed spectacles, recalled being called ‘boy' by British soldiers younger than his son. Sometimes he was called ‘Gunga Din' and one of my earliest acts of transgression was to tear out the first five pages of Kipling's Collected Poems. For this I was spanked and banned from proximity to books, an ordeal so dire I retrieved the pages, sticky taped them back, begged forgiveness and was allowed back into my father's library. Aunties with dusters watched suspiciously and hovered close in case I attacked books again.
When an elderly relative asked if I'd read The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye, I responded by asking if she'd read Salman Rushdie. Midnight's Children rollicked into my life when I was twenty years old. For the first time, I saw myself in a modern novel, an urban, mixed-up young woman with multiple narratives colliding against her skin. Those familiar multilingual worlds spoke to me with an urgency none of the English writers in my father's library had been able to provide. For days afterwards I smiled and thought of the novel—the perforated sheets through which a girl's stomach may be glimpsed, Saleem Sinai's troublesome nose, and the way languages live in the worlds we imagine.
Later, as a young mum in Australia, I would attempt to recreate the chaos and multiplicity of my birth country by telling my daughter the stories I remembered. I tried to raise her with the secular expansion I was used to, but this was difficult in a monocultural, monolingual society, and I simply confused her. My fascination with Hindu, Catholic and Islamic scripture meant that I told stories of golden chariots where the charioteer was also a blue-skinned god; I elaborated on sombre descriptions of martyrs and sacrifices; I waxed lyrical over the feast days of saints. It may not have been the ideal introduction to the country of Midnight's Children for a child growing up in Perth. Sane friends introduced me to beloved Australian classics. Despite my efforts, my daughter showed zero interest in the adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, or in magic puddings and possums. Guiltily, I started reading The Children's Mahabharata with her and she was hooked. As an independent reader she skated happily between goth, horror, classics, poetry and punk. I considered my job as a mother done.
Our grandchildren are growing up in another state. I wait for visits and the chance to read stories. Perhaps we can start with This Is a Poem That Heals Fish. Then I can tell them about countries where aunties with cloth dusters chase recalcitrant children around dusty libraries and where gods steal buttermilk from their mothers. I may even tell them how we knew what to expect when we heard church bells, temple bells, school bells, cow bells, rickshaw bells, anklets, toe rings, glass bangles and calls to prayer. I could tell them about the bearded Sufi who came every Friday and called out to my grandparents, who in turn called us, and we all gathered around to listen to the story of the prophet who pawned his children and magicked pearls from his wife's tears when she wept for them. The same story, every time. If I shut my eyes I can still hear him.
Or I could lead my grandchildren to my shelves and let them choose.

© Rashida Murphy. From Ourselves: 100 Micro Memoirs published by Night Parrot Press.
Rashida Murphy is the author of a novel and a collection of short stories, as well as several shorter pieces in anthologies and journals worldwide.

Explore the power of words

Select a story