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Behind and Underneath

By Uppma Virdi

Uppma Virdi was the Winner of the 2023 Women of Colour Mentorship program in partnership with Western Sydney-based literacy movement Sweatshop. She has worked on a short fiction piece, under the guidance of Sweatshop judges and mentors Winnie Dunn and Sarah Ayoub. The work was written in response to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement as part of the All About Women festival. 

Uppma is a first generation Indian Australian migrant. She believes in preserving culture and runs a business called Chai Walli which aims to continue the sacred ancient tradition of Ayurvedic teas and spices. She is former lawyer, who now takes on other projects such as public speaking, bhangra dance and community development within the Indian diaspora. 

Uppma Virdi Recipient

Choli ke peeche kya hai?
What is behind your blouse?
Chunneri ke neeche kya hai?
What is underneath your veil?

Kya hai?
What is there?

When you close your eyes and dream
Tell me, what is there?
When you awake in the morning, open your eyes and breathe in your first thought.
Tell me, what is there?
When you stand naked, truly naked, before your own self.
Tell me, what is there?

And when you place the veil of rose tinted glasses on your eyes. And you take a step into the world. The people, the noise, the crowd, the mass.
Can you tell me, what is there?

As you walk your path, is your pavement lined with rows of perfectly manicured bushes that look much the same?
Have your bushes grown so lush and tall that they cast a shadow over mine?
Hidden from the sun, it’s just out of my reach.
In the shadows, I begin to rely on what’s underneath.
But tell me, have your roots sprawled over mine
Taking away the vital nutrients out of mine?
I tend to my roots, I water my soil.
But deep, deep below the surface, an unspoken game of snakes and ladders is played.
And each time I roll the dice, I seem to just miss the ladder.
Landing on the snake’s mouth, I slide down to its tail.
My roots try to grow in the depths of your shadows.
They struggle, entangled, growing in all different angles.
Weakened, depleted and stunted.
With seasonal leaves of different shades.
Only to be sprayed away, like unwanted weeds.
To stay down, to keep low, to not rise above the shadows.

For too long our roots, leaves and branches have stood timidly in the shadows.
Politely, yearning to be tasteful, to be palatable.
For too long have these nutrients been sustaining minerals for another.
Voiceless, against the wisdom taken from us.

For too long, have we tried to prune back our leaves into perfectly manicured bushes.
Holding back, from our truth.
For too long have our bushes tried to look like yours.
Lighter, brighter, whiter.
For too long have our wounded petals and scarred leaves remained hidden.

We share soil with the most ancient wisdom.
There are roots tying me down to the earth’s core and the moon’s oceans.
Traveling deep through ancestors, warriors, gods and goddesses.
There is my heart which pulses blood through my body.
A cell created in my grandmother’s womb.
A pulse beating with the rhythm of mother earth.
There is wisdom beyond our universe.
The stars, the moons, the plants.
Conformed to make me, to make you, to make us.

But we were kissed by the sun God, Surya, in our mother’s womb.
Our seeds were sown by kisaanis, the farmers of Punjab.
Watered by Majha, the heartland of where the five rivers of Punjab meet.
Our destiny, our kismet, written deep, deep in the rich soil weaved by ancient cotton thread, nature’s wisdom, the tide, cow dung and all things in between.

Lost in the dreamfulness, the qhawabs, of myths and legends of Bulleh Shah.

So when you close your eyes and dream
Tell me, what is there?


Choli ke peeche kya hai?
What is behind your blouse?
Chunneri ke neeche kya hai?
What is underneath your veil?

Peeche te neeche.
Behind and underneath.

An item song seductively portraying a woman
What is it that she wears which leaves them listening on, with greed in their eyes and excitement in their thoughts.
In a lehenga choli, the item girl dances on.
Her clothes, layered with patterns, each weave tells a story of family.
In the sounds of her anklets are songs that preserve her tales.
In the cracks of her heels is the strength of the desert’s heat.

There is so much that she wears beyond her blouse and her veil.

But what is it that you wear?
Is it a smile that overlays what is beneath?
Or a melancholic aura to mask your pain?
Or a “when is your next holiday?” discussion to hide from the deeper questions which leave a gaping feeling in your gut.
What is it that you wear so defiantly that leaves us wondering, enquiring?

What lies beneath it all?

We all have wounds of all different shapes and sizes.
But some remain hidden, refusing to surface.
Some waiting for space in our journey to uncover themselves.
Some living in the horizontal lines of our forehead.
Some, like dettol on an exposed cut, too painful to extract.
Some are in the spaces where our conscious and subconscious meet, a convergence of raw thought and the present.

We all have wounds to share.
But what if you have been kissed and do not know how to tell?
Community has told us to share only the best of ourselves.
To reveal only the brightest leaves in our bush.
But how will we know what it's like to climb up a ladder if we’ve never been eaten by a snake?
In the game of snakes and ladders, we must know how to fall in order to rise.
Community told us to trim away the faded and weakened leaves.
To let them settle on the soil, brushed away, underneath the surface.
But in those discarded leaves, exist gentle grooves and curves that tell stories.
Stories that need to be heard in order to feel, in order to heal.
In those leaves are lines and patterns, tracing through our experiences.
Stories that need to be grieved, to be shared, to be changed.
In those discarded leaves, are wounds that have survived through the shadows.
With an ending that has been left untold, waiting for us to unfold.

But in this story, I, create a new beginning.

Lehenga uthake chaloon
I will raise my skirt and walk

Ghoonghat girake chaloon
I will drop my veil and walk