“Not a red rose or a satin heart, I give you an onion. It is a moon wrapped in brown paper. It promises light like the careful undressing of love.”
When I was in my high school literature class, I read the poem ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy. It was about the heart-breaking power of love, and explained the various negative emotions you feel while being in love. Throughout the poem, Duffy skillfully manages to use an onion as an extended metaphor to put together all the feelings we experience in relationships. It is a short and simple poem, but it completely changed how I perceived myself.
So, when I was asked in a room full of people, if I could be any flower in the world, what would I be?
I decided to be an onion.
As I look back in the past to all the places I have lived in, I realise that I developed layers to hold onto all my experiences and encounters. When I have conversations with people, my attitude depends on which layer I am wearing at the time. While my exterior is still useful to understand me, everything changes when you reach my core.
The soft crisp sound you hear as you peel away the outer shell of an onion reminds me of the deafening curfew sirens I would hear in Kabul. Hence, when I read stories of little girls having tea parties and sleepovers, I thought that was a luxury rather than normal life. The fragility of the first layer resonates with my past friendships, which ended before they even started. Just like how you discard the first layer of an onion immediately, my protests against moving were discarded instantly with one repetitive statement – you will make new friends again.
As you take a knife and cut through an onion, you disrupt the circular harmony and watch as the onion rings fall apart. They each become an individual ring of their own, almost how I can become a different individual when I want to be. Initially, I would narrate the same story of who I was, what I liked, and what I wanted to be. But as time passed and I gradually realized that I would have to constantly adapt to new environments and meet new people, I decided that I had control of which persona I portrayed to others. Sometimes, I was a raging activist advocating for menstrual hygiene in rural Bangladesh. In other moments, I was an animal that partied with old European men in the clubs of Thailand. And if it was ever needed, I was the person that had spent days meditating with the monks of Laos.
In the poem, Duffy had described the white interior of the onion as a moon. She used this symbol because moons are often used for romantic gestures. You often hear the phrases “I love you to the moon and back” or “I can bring the moon to your footsteps.” The moon is associated with beauty and love in the poem, but I have a different relationship with it. Whether I was sitting on the mountains of Hunza valley of Pakistan or in the Karen refugee camp in Mae Sot, no matter where I was, it was always the same moon at night. From all the drastic changes that happened around me, the moon was my only constant. Now that I am living in Sydney, I have the moon providing me with company during the day as well!
The most important aspect of onions are their ability to make you cry. While love is glitzy and glamorous, heartbreak only means a torrential floods of tears. Whether you soak the onions in water or hold your breath as you chop them, you are bound to cry. As I look back, I appreciate that my parents always made sure they raised a strong daughter. They prepared me for all kinds of situations ranging from how to file taxes to how to tell if a boy likes me. But it is always the unforeseeable situations which break you down, like when I lost my only best friend because depression does not have a voice of its own.
When I was younger and watched my mother cut onions, I would always be surprised by how she never shed a single tear. It was unbelievable for me, but her only explanation was that she had been doing it for so long, she had become resistant. So the first time when I did not cry as I left behind my ‘new’ friends and my temporary house, I realized the fact that I had become resistant myself. It did not mean that I had stopped caring or forming emotional attachments, it just meant that I had accepted the fact that change was a part of life and I was responsible for embracing it.
If you ever leave an onion behind for a long time, you will notice that a shoot has sprouted from the top and a plant is developing. This is because onions are flowering plants and contain all the components to create a new plant within themselves. Since I did not have the chance to stay in one place for too long, I did not have a specific place to call home. When you close your eyes and think of home, people express seeing images of their childhood memories. Since I struggled to see this vision, I decided that I would make my own body my home. Like an onion, I started collecting all the emotions and components I needed to ensure a plant could sprout within me.
If I wanted I could have allowed myself to be a different person that was reserved and quiet, and it would have helped me avoid the emotional hardships of moving away from people and places. But from a young age, I knew that I wanted to be an integral part of people’s lives even if I was present only for a short time. Just like how the smell of onions remain on the knife after use, I wanted to make sure I always left an impression. I could have been beautiful like a rose, calming like a lotus, or bright like a marigold, but that would not be me.
In a room full of flowers, I chose to be an onion.
This article was originally published in the 2019 issue, RETROGRADE.