"Once, Twice, Sold" by Nina Sudhakar

Nina Sudhakar

Nina Sudhakar

Nina Sudhakar is an Indian-American writer, poet and lawyer based in Chicago. She is the author of the poetry chapbooks Matriarchetypes (winner of the 2017 Bird's Thumb Poetry Chapbook Contest) and Embodiments (forthcoming from Sutra Press). Her work has appeared in Midnight Breakfast, Ecotone, and Arcturus.

Once, Twice, Sold

Lot 1. Yellow silk turban cloth with gold, jewel-encrusted peacock feather pin (c. 1265)

The auctioneer is nervous; she had not expected such a large crowd for this sale. Particularly since the company had insisted on titling it “Lass Warfare: Female Warriors of the Subcontinent,” which an entire meeting room had deemed delightfully clever while she covered her face and slouched deep into the webbing of her chair. Usually, invisibility is readily available to her; however, for this particular event the company had approached her directly, clamoring to put her brown face front and center. She knew management recognized, at least, the strange irony of holding a sale of Indian rebellion-associated objects in London for a largely English crowd. The view from the thick mahogany podium is not dissimilar from the view from her cubicle: of a homogenous, well-dressed crowd with strictly enforced regimes of refinement prefaced by darling, you’re born into it. Still, her voice had cracked when she introduced the first lot, a slight verbal hiccup in an ongoing effort to disguise her decidedly East End accent.

Beneath its glass case, the turban glimmers like a puddle of sunlight. She finds the yellow brash, anachronistic amidst the black-clad spectators. She is thinking also of the perpetual overcast sky, how someone — like her — born and raised in London would never know such a color to be naturally occurring until they’d left and seen the radiance first-hand. Had the color been as blinding when the warrior queen had worn it, hundreds of years ago? The auctioneer understands the transformative power of fabric: as in nine yards of chiffon sari and one suit of business casual and two pieces of string bikini, none of which she ever wears among the same group of people. The turban’s yellow silk has been creased over time into a fragile topography, puckered valleys and raised ridges indicative of repeated wearing. She thinks of how the warrior queen must have pinned up the turban every day, so many times she no longer required the assistance of attendants. The public wished to greet a ruler with a certain type of face, and the warrior queen obliged. Though sometimes the queen might have caught her ears beneath the fabric, the echoing shouts of my king, my beloved king always reached her. At times such as those, the tightly-wound cloth must have seemed an expedient but also necessary form of daily attire.


Lot 2. Painted flowers, natural pigments on linen (c. 1595)

To a trained eye, the painting reeks of amateurism. The curator notices, almost subconsciously, an unsteady hand, the casual brushstrokes of a hobby rather than a livelihood. But there is something arresting about the arrangement of the flowers on the page; instead of mimicking a carefully planned garden, they are scattered randomly, from top to bottom, like the reckless growth of blood-red poppies on a former European battlefield. The curator’s great-grandfather had fought in the first war, returning home with velvet-lined cases of medals and a grim silence that bled through the next three generations. Her mother had cried when her brother enlisted, though given her family’s army lineage this had seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment of his birth. Now the curator wears a plastic poppy in her jacket lapel all year long and this is enough to prevent her colleagues from ever mentioning global politics in her presence.

Before she left the office this morning, the curator was given strict instructions to buy this piece. It’s not the quality of the work, the institute director said, but its artist. The curator wonders if the queen regent ever imagined that her name would eventually become a valuable currency. She can already envision the text that will accompany the painting when it is exhibited, telling of the queen regent’s storied defense of her family’s fort against invasion. The text will not say that she was later murdered by a mob of her own troops, who had been whipped into a frenzy by a false rumor that the queen had negotiated a treaty with opposing forces. The text will not detail when and where she had learned to illustrate such dreamscapes, whether the brush on the page been a form of meditation, a moment of calm amidst the siege. The curator sees that all of the petals are painted a vivid shade of blue, one that must have come from a recurring vision as no such hue and shape of flower had been known to grow anywhere on the subcontinent. The forget-me-not’s name came from a German legend in which a tiny flower had called out to God to not be forgotten. The more the curator examines the piece, the more the cheerful flowers seem a thin veil for a bloodiness lying just below the surface: like a pulse beating against the underside of a wrist, the color of blood coursing through veins beneath the skin.


Lot 3. Battlefield map of Malwa Plateau and Narmada River (c. 1705)

The private collector wonders if he looks as out of place as he feels. He knows nothing about any of these items, having mixed up the date for a forthcoming sale of antique maps. He’d compounded his mistake by arriving early to secure a seat in the front row. Now he feels too conspicuous to leave mid-auction, so he uses the duration of the first two lots to catch up on his emails. When he looks up from his screen, his eyes take a moment to adjust to the sudden three-dimensional depth of his surroundings. There is a brand of obsessive for every category of object, he thinks, taking in the crowd that has filled the rows behind him. He is startled to notice that the auctioneer is introducing, at that moment, an item for which he does have quite a bit of self-proclaimed expertise.

The map is curled and faded at the edges, like a freshly-unboxed memory. It is nearly as wide as his armspan. A queen regent had once planned out her military strategy on this expanse, he gathers from the auctioneer, and in doing so the queen regent had mounted a spirited resistance against an army that sought to chip away at the borders of her already extensive empire. He wonders how she had become so skilled in statecraft; had she been lurking in the shadows of a war-room, watching the carefully orchestrated movements of her husband? A knowledge gained by osmosis, he thinks, or by way of proxy as the queen regent deduced the wishes of her infant son. The map qua map is not particularly compelling to him — the cartographer must have been rushed, preparing a rough, blown-up view of a stretch of land on which an important battle was set to take place. But the South Asian portion of his collection is quite thin, he knows, and none of his maps can claim any sort of royal nexus. He looks under his seat for his paddle, hoping he can find and raise it in time to lodge a winning bid.


Lot 4. Handwritten unsealed letter to neighboring estates (c. 1857)

When the letter is read aloud, the librarian gasps. The message is a fervent call to arms by a queen against the British; raise your swords, she writes, or else wear your bangles and hide yourselves in your homes. It is a centuries-old rendering of be a man, and the librarian sees quite a few eyes in the audience light up at this exhortation, at its brash call-out. On the day the librarian had gone to her supervisor and asked for a raise, she hadn’t worn a single piece of jewelry — she’d slicked back her hair in a tight bun and chosen a nondescript skirt suit for the occasion. Yes, her boss had said, of course. A week later he’d tasked her with organizing an upcoming exhibition on the theme of revolution. She’d spent months sorting through the library’s collection of papers, Che Guevara’s diary entries and handwritten Lenin speeches and Mandela’s scribblings on a napkin. Her boss had looked over the meticulously organized stacks she’d assembled — an all-male grouping the only possible outcome based on the holdings — and said, perfect, great job, you’ve got everyone here I thought we should include.

That night she’d walked across the Chelsea Bridge, its peaks strung up with globe lights like a holiday tree, and continued on for an hour until she reached her fourth-floor studio walk-up. Her feet ached even in the black ballet flats she’d changed into before leaving the office. The city was as clean as ever, but she spotted ticket stubs strewn like confetti outside tube stations, receipts unfurled next to garbage bins, lists congregated in the sludge next to street drains, unpaid bills piled in an overflowing receptacle by her own door. A vast body of paper detritus marooned between irrelevance and significance, depending on the trajectory of a life and the convictions of a subsequent generation. What of her own life would be saved? Without having a major impact on history, could she be deemed important, worthwhile? At times she feels she lacks courage, possesses a cowardice that has led her to take refuge, all her life, in a series of basement carrels and cubicles. The librarian thinks about the queen’s letter as the beginning of a new path. She resolves to haunt the auction houses until the grant money is depleted; she resolves to amass an exhibition’s worth of new lives that are, for all their brash fortitude, still familiar to her.


Lot 5. Single lock of black hair (c. 1858)

Feeding off the inherent drama of the occasion, the auctioneer allows a lengthy silence to hang in the air after each major bid. She takes the time to make eye contact with members of the audience, speculating as to the overt excuses or secret impulses that have led them to this sale. For this lot, the pause is longer than usual. She finds the current bid shocking, and she needs a few extra moments to compose herself and steal some additional glances at its maker. The man is nondescript, slightly professorial in appearance due to his tweed, elbow-patched jacket and unruly beard. She imagines that he is a descendant of some lord with a Raj connection, someone whose infancy was spent crawling beneath beaded parasols on well-kept lawns while his parents sipped gin and tonics and complained about monsoons and mosquitos. This category of nostalgia could, possibly, explain a man’s willingness to pay an astronomical sum for a single curl of hair. In prior meetings the auction team had guessed the worth of each of the sale’s items. The auctioneer had memorized these proposed values without understanding the basis on which any of the estimates had been made. She understood only that the team was firmly convinced there was no inherent value to anything beyond what a person was willing to pay to own it.

A few people in the crowd are shifting in their seats, trying to get a better view of the item. The auctioneer sees from their faces that they are checking the object to see if they’ve missed something, perhaps a series of gold threads woven through the hair. She takes this as her cue to remind the crowd of the piece’s significance: it belonged to a soldier in a queen’s army during a major rebellion against the British who had disguised herself as the queen’s double in order to enable the queen’s safe escape. None of this explained where the lock had come from, though the team surmised it had been earlier sent to an anonymous sweetheart or else taken as a token upon the woman’s battlefield death. The acquisition histories for the objects are available only upon request, which the auctioneer knows is another way of saying don’t ask. She thinks about mentioning the significance of a low-caste soldier passing easily for a well-known highborn royal, about the sacrifice and loyalty this would have required. But there is already a field of paddles sprouting up and in the ensuing commotion the auctioneer knows no one will be listening.


Lot 6. Jute cotton baby sling (c. 1858)

The grad student is attending the sale purely as an observer; the only thing she will leave with is the auction catalogue. Though if she somehow came into a pile of money, she would buy every one of these items and display them in her own museum. The idea came to her while she was sweating through a power outage night in her grandmother’s two-room flat in Chennai. She’d woken and noticed: first, the absence of the whirring blades of the ceiling fan slicing through the thick air, and second, the heat slithering back into the room like a python that was winding itself gradually around her chest. In that strange fever dream, half suffocating, she’d had a vision of walking from her grandmother’s place to a one-story yellow house surrounded by a sliver of a garden planted with squat palms and banana trees. A hand-painted sign above the door read, “Museum of the Indian Woman.” The door was unlocked, but when she opened it, she found the rooms went on forever, multiplying like a funhouse hall of mirrors, reflecting an infinite expanse of empty space.

Before going back home, she’d walked around her grandmother’s neighborhood until she found the house. It was an exact replica of the one from her dream, except abandoned to a rotating cast of feral animals. But the space could easily be cleaned, spruced up and filled; she imagined groups of schoolgirls filing through the rooms in their starched uniforms and ribboned pigtails, pressing their noses and fingertips to every display case. At the auction, she mentally inserts every item into the exhibition of her vision. The cotton sling in particular, which once held a queen’s baby to her back as she fought in her kingdom’s rebellion, brings tears to her eyes. She thinks how much she would have loved to have visited such a museum when she was young, when the main basis for her history had been a few scattered stamps in her parents’ passports. Such institutions, she knows, are always based on an imagined past their organizers want to remember, lest the rest of us forget.


Lot 7. Silver talwar with engraved sheath (c. 1824)

The sparse recessed lighting gives the room a cave-like ambience, which has the benefit, for the activist, of cloaking the last row of chairs in shadow. He is not worried about being recognized — no one assembled here could possibly have seen a recent item in the back pages of The Hindu — but he hopes the darkness will make less obvious the posterboard sign he has tucked beneath his shirt. Though he fretted for days about what slogan to use, he settled on the simple and to the point: RETURN THE SWORD, inked with a vibrant red marker. For years he’d believed the sword was held by a museum in London, but he had only publicly stated this suspicion after amassing a campaign of supporters to agitate for reclamation. Several media outlets openly questioned his assertion, and moreover whether such a sword even existed. Sitting at the auction, within feet of the warrior queen’s glimmering blade, he cannot help but feel doubly vindicated.

As a member of the queen’s minority sect — and a native of the region she valiantly defended — the activist has always been drawn to the queen’s story. He is particularly sympathetic to how the queen had been backed into a corner. Having lost her husband and her son, the queen adopted a boy and named him heir to the throne, but British administrators appealed to the doctrine of lapse, by which any childless ruler’s state reverted to the Raj. After losing his well-paid job to a wave of reverse outsourcing, the activist felt compelled to devote what little money he’d saved to the protection of the queen’s legacy, one that had already been tarnished and stolen from her. Not that his limited resources afforded him the opportunity to actually buy the sword — he’d had barely enough money to purchase a plane ticket to London in time. He is here only to see who does buy the piece and to look that person and everyone else in the eyes while they read his sign. They will see that his country is not childless; they will understand that there are millions more like him, each of them with a similar, closely-held claim.


Lot 8. Three handcrafted packets of harvested sea salt (c. 1930)

The barrister’s parents told her the story when she turned fourteen, after she’d come home from school babbling about satyagraha following a certain module of World History. Her grandmother had died before she was born, and all she knew of her was a sepia-toned photograph in which the woman had serious eyes and an unsmiling face. The image she’d formed in her head to accompany the word grandmother — helped along by her classmates’ stories of oatmeal cookies and ten pound notes tucked into birthday cards — seemed incompatible with the words freedom fighter, which her parents had introduced. These were, after all, the same parents who’d been sent to convent schools, who could quote Shakespeare at will and stopped whatever they were doing at a certain hour of the afternoon to brew a pot of tea. She’d struggled for years to imagine her grandmother standing ankle deep in the Arabian Sea, packaging salt grains to protest a law that had deemed such traditional practices illegal. On the day this image of grandmother materialized in her head, fully realized, she decided that she would study law.

The barrister is glad the auction is taking place midday. Though her caseload is overwhelming at the moment, she’d managed to slip away from chambers on the ruse of a lunch meeting with a hard-to-pin-down client. She has not forgotten that she is the one who first suggested selling the packets. Her parents had found them decades ago among her grandmother’s possessions and saved them in a shoebox in the attic without quite knowing why. It was easy enough to convince her parents that this auction had been the reason; her father was already well past retirement age and the packets could fetch a modest sum of money, enough to serve as a cushion for her parents’ later years. She knows her presence at the sale is wholly unnecessary, but when she calls her parents later, at least she can tell them she had been there.


Lot 9. “Delhi Chalo,” 78 RPM gramophone recording (c. 1946)

Someone has requested the recording to be played. As if it matters what it sounds like, thinks the auctioneer; the record is not exactly meant to be heard. The artist is more famously the commander of an all-female regiment, and the tune is an old nationalist anthem. The auctioneer tracks down an assistant hovering by the edge of the stage and quietly asks for whatever audio setup is necessary to play a gramophone record. This prompts an immediate flurry of activity and a wringing of hands. The auctioneer returns to her podium, sitting on a chair behind it so that only the top of her head is visible, hoping this will discourage audience questions during the waiting period.

After ten minutes the assistant returns, improbably carrying a gramophone. The enormous golden horn attracts the attention of the crowd, producing a wave of awed hushing in the room. The assistant places the record on the gramophone and gingerly sets the needle over it, disappearing as the first notes begin. It is apparent after a few seconds that the singer’s voice is unbearably beautiful. The auctioneer had been expecting the record to sound like a rowdy pub singalong in Hindi, with various soldiers chiming into a discordant chorus of shout-singing. But for the duration of the record, several minutes long, the room is filled only with the commander’s ethereal vocals, suffused with longing for a country that did not yet exist.

The auctioneer sees several people in the back row wiping tears from their eyes, and she bites down hard on the inside of her own cheek to refrain from crying. When the song finishes, she notices her boss approaching from the back of the room, waving her frantically over to the edge of the stage. There was just an important telephone bidder, he whispers, it’s over. Several people have already begun trickling out and the auctioneer hurries back to the microphone before anyone else leaves. She informs the crowd that a local encyclopedic museum has just made an historic — and winning — combined bid for all of the lots in the sale. Some members of the crowd look shocked, while others shake their heads. Everyone leaves quietly, even the fierce-looking man with his handmade protest sign. When the room is empty save for the auctioneer, the assistant reappears to whisk the gramophone away. She places the record back under its glass on the table, where it continues to give no hint at all of the voice it contains.