Culture is one of the most precious items in the universe; without it, the world becomes a two-dimensional object with little to no meaning. However, in the present world, many ruthless people take it upon themselves to exhibit xenophobic and prejudiced beliefs. For a brown girl like me, this meant that it was very hard to feel secure in my own culture. This is a common problem that many minorities face, especially in the United States.
Thus, it is unfortunately not uncommon for many children of immigrants to grow apart from their culture. In fear of peers’ judgment, they will avoid eating cultural foods, participating in cultural events, wearing traditional clothing, etc. This unfair punishment of minorities for being themselves leads to an increased divide and, often, a sense of distrust.
I had written a short story to highlight the truly harmful effect that xenophobic values can have on minorities. “Butterfly Garden” follows a Malayali girl named Neelamani as she struggles to cope with the insecurity of her culture. While the story itself is fiction, it serves to show the real insecurities that minorities face due to xenophobic events.
The apartment on the corner of Holcomb Avenue and Mills Street holds many secrets. Upon first glance, it’s just the standard American apartment: dark brick walls, low roof, a faulty smoke alarm that sounds for no reason every other Thursday, small yet cozy spaces, and the occasional visit from a cockroach that won’t quit. Yet, deeper introspection unmasks the true behind-the-scenes beauty of the vicinity. In the living room, there is a couch as red as the kumkum powder at the Attukal Temple. The kitchen is a pristine shade of white. Yet, the colorful, fragrant scent of Desi spices can’t be prevented from greeting each air molecule. There’s a tulsi plant sitting royally in a terracotta pot, right next to the dining room table. And seated there, with sun rays being reflected off of her golden-brown melanin, is the owner of the place: Neelamani.
Although her apartment is the crown jewel of the entire complex, she is oblivious to this. However, what she is not oblivious to is her predicament. Her favorite insect used to be the butterfly when she was in elementary school, for its graceful, dainty beauty. Nowadays, she’s just slightly more specific. She particularly appreciates the caterpillar’s pupa stage, in which beauty is kept hidden from the rest of the world. Truly, she sees herself as a caterpillar, hidden from the persistent eyes of others in her own pupa of an apartment. Perhaps this is what prompted her to pursue her Ph.D. in biology. But even Neelamani knows the hypocrisy of deciding to study life for a living while being too scared to live as her true self.
See, inside her apartment, she is Neelamani. She wears vibrant kurti tops with her favorite salwar pants and occasionally will adorn her forehead with a maroon bindi. She wears her hair in a single, long braid, only because it makes her feel like a Malayali version of Rapunzel. If she’s not studying for her exams, then she’s holding a hot cup of sweet chai and relaxing on her couch, switching the TV from old Malayalam movies to older Bollywood ones. Her mother always emphasized that the classics could never be beaten.
Chili powder, turmeric powder, amchur powder, salt, black pepper, garam masala… there are many other types of masalas in her pantry, but those are the spices she uses more often. She doesn’t mind the way it can sometimes stain her fingers or her favorite white kurti top sometimes; in fact, she looks at the stains as though they are works of art.
But outside her apartment, the stain would be just a stain, and the spices would be just a nuisance. Her mother’s wise words about classic movies fade into static. She’ll braid her hair outside too, but not because it makes her feel like a princess. She’s just afraid that people will smell the coconut oil in her hair and brand her as being unclean if she lets it down. Kurti tops change to crop tops, and salwar pants become skinny jeans. Bindis? They don’t exist outside of her apartment. Out in the unforgiving world, her name isn’t even Neelamani; it’s “Nina” because it’s easier to pronounce.
It’s not that Neelamani doesn’t want to escape her cocoon. She fervently wishes to break through, to spread her wings and show the world their intricate design. But the world is just one gargantuan spider web. If she dared to spread her wings, she would get trapped. Not only would she be trapped, but all the spiders of the world would also come to prey upon her. These spiders come in many foreboding kinds. Neelamani, however, is the most afraid of the common Xenophobia raria, infamous for their extreme distaste for anybody with a culture other than their own. She’s met a few before, back when she was a child. Then she was not afraid of spreading her wings and fluttering about. As she looks back at those moments, Neelamani recognizes her naivety and laughs at how unsuspecting she once was.
The first spider she ever encountered took her by surprise. It happened to be her first crush back in the fourth grade. Although she can’t remember his name now, Neelamani does remember him calling her a “curry muncher.” From that point on, Neelamani never packed lunch and stayed away from the kitchen whenever her mother was cooking. Over the years, many such encounters with other spiders would occur, and if Neelamani wasn’t the target, then it was someone like her. These encounters would build the pupa that protects her heart. Neelamani doesn’t believe that her heart is strong enough to be a full butterfly just yet. The world is full of caterpillars who aren’t ready to be butterflies yet.
She’s sitting at her dining room table, staring blankly at the wall and holding her phone in her right hand. Although the last time she called her mother was five days ago, it feels like ages. To Neelamani, it always felt like ages waiting for dire news. The family has not exactly been in the happiest of headspaces as of late. It was seven years ago when Neelamani’s mother told her that her grandmother (her Muthassi) had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Neelamani loved her Muthassi with every fiber of her body, and in that moment, all of the memories of them together flooded her mind. It pained her to know that her Muthassi would most likely forget them, as though the ocean of these memories were being drained out.
The first time Neelamani wore a sari, her Muthassi was the one who wrapped and pleated it around her. It was a lovely hue of canary yellow and had emerald green borders; the matching blouse had hugged her perfectly and complimented the sari’s borders. To this day, Neelamani keeps this sari folded tenderly and neatly tucked away in the top drawer of her dresser. Neelamani’s Muthassi was also the one to first teach her how to make chai that the ancestors themselves would bless. However, Muthassi truly impacted her life when she first took her to a tulip field and showed Neelamani her very first butterfly. Neelamani still remembers that it was a Malabar banded peacock, a Papilio buddha.
Neelamani’s mother had been calling more frequently with updates about Muthassi. Five days ago, she called to let her know that the doctors didn’t seem too optimistic about the time she had left. Five days ago, Neelamani’s heart broke into a thousand fragments. Now, she never knows when the next phone call will come, so she keeps her phone by her side all the time. When the first few notes of her ringtone sound, Neelamani’s avid, anguished waiting comes to an end as she accepts the call, picks up the phone, and brings it to her ear. Ten minutes pass by, in which Neelamani rides a rollercoaster of emotions.
Hope struck when her mother has told her that her Muthassi remembered her granddaughter draped in a yellow and green sari and wished to see her. When her mother told her that her Muthassi wanted to see her in this sari before she left, Neelamani felt a simultaneous excitement to see her Muthassi and the sudden sadness of realizing that she had such few moments left with the woman she cherished most in the universe.
Even more sudden was the feeling of fear that she felt when she realized that she would have to exit her pupa of an apartment in her true butterfly form. What would the spiders say? What would they think? Would she get trapped in their web of judgment and hatred? She didn’t exactly have a choice. Though she harbored this fear in her heart, Neelamani knew she would have to spread her wings and fly for her Muthassi, as she is the one who gave her those wings to fly with.
So Neelamani wrapped herself in the sari the next morning. She walked herself through the steps that her Muthassi taught her back then. After completing the pleats and folds and after draping the silky fabric around her as needed, she pinned it all in place. Neelamani remembered how her Muthassi taught her the trick to pinning it so that the pins were out of sight. When Neelamani looked into the mirror, she was satisfied with her work. She wore her hair in a bun and covered the circumference of it with jasmine flowers. Then she wore the gold jewelry her grandmother had given her when she gifted the sari, put on a bindi, and did some light makeup. Her Muthassi always loved to wear eyeliner, so Neelamani made sure to put extra care into doing hers just as her Muthassi liked.
Her mother picked her up and drove her to the family’s house. After complimenting Neelamani’s beauty and her kindness for honoring her Muthassi’s wishes, her mother let her walk down the hall and into her Muthassi’s bedroom. She was there, reading a book of classic Malayalam poems, but as soon as she heard the tinkling sounds of Neelamani’s jewelry as she walked in, Muthassi looked up to see her. In that moment, Neelamani was overwhelmed with joy as her Muthassi’s eyes lit up in a manner that she had never seen before. It was almost as if she had repressed constellations in her pupils, only to let them out now.
Though Neelamani wanted to cry, she took extra caution in making sure she did not shed a single tear. She kneeled down next to her Muthassi, kissed her forehead with a tenderness she didn’t know she had. Muthassi took her hands in her own and told her that Neelamani reminded her of the butterfly they saw in the tulip field all that time ago. Neelamani laid her head on her Muthassi’s chest and stayed there as her Muthassi read those classic Malayalam poems to her. For the first time, Neelamani felt peace different than any other kind.
Muthassi would pass later in the week, and though she was sad, Neelamani knew that her Muthassi would always be watching over her. Going back to her apartment on the corner of Holcomb Avenue and Mills Street, she noticed that she no longer was looking over her shoulders for any spiders that would tell her off and pick her apart. In honor of her Muthassi, she placed a golden lamp outside and surrounded it with colorful flowers. After lighting the lamp, she took a few steps back to appreciate the gorgeous rangoli she had just made. The next afternoon, she stepped outside in a kurti top and some salwar pants to see if the rangoli had been disturbed through the night. It was then that she saw the Malabar banded butterfly sitting there, atop a yellow flower.