I remember the year I lived in India with my mother and Soni I am
still twelve years old with fat dimples standing on tip toes to
look down at the street from the balcony. My mother is Mummy and
my father is Papa again and they are still married. When I remember
I still think the bad things all started because the yellow sari
Seema Mami gave me to play with was too long. I wrapped it
around my waist once, the way Mummy did, but the sash over my left
shoulder still sank to the ground.
"Youre too young to be
wearing saris, Mira!" Mummy said. "Only grown-up women
who want to get married wear saris and youre just a little
girl." But that wasnt true because I was tall for my
I wanted to wear it for Papa at the
airport, I told her, and Mummy began to cry then and Seema Mami
came to take me away. Mummy thought Papa would never find a job
in America. She went to temple every day to pray for us and sang
bhajans at night before bed. Mummy cried because Papa never
called. Mummy was always crying.
I wanted to see Papa too but I liked
living with Devan Mama and Seema Mami. Seema Mami
bought me sweets from the peddlers and took me with her to the jewelry
bazaars. While she bought diamonds and gold I picked through the
rubies and emeralds in the showcase for the ones I liked best. I
thought diamonds were ugly and plain and gold was too gaudy. Mummy
always said that red and silver didnt match and that silver
looked cheap, but I wore them anyway.
Still, I liked Devan Mama best.
He talked to me all the time and took Soni and me to Hindi movies
and boardwalk carnivals. That evening he took us to Juhu Beach for
camel rides. Soni was just a baby so the camel couldnt go
very fast, but Devan Mama liked me best so he got me a camel
of my own to ride. My camel went so fast that the wind felt cool
against my face and arms and I didnt want to get off.
We rode a rickshaw home, and Soni
cried the whole way. She didnt like the sound of the motor
clicking. The rickshaw was only meant for two and Devan Mama
put his arm around me, his hand on my thigh.
When we got home Soni went right to
sleep. She was tired from crying. The apartment was dark and quiet,
and Mummy and Seema Mami were still out. I sat on the living
room couch with Devan Mama, playing with the sari. He pulled
me towards him and said, "Here, let me help."
"But youre a boy, Devan
Mama! What do you know about saris?" I teased.
"Ere yaar, boys can wear
saris too," he said, looking astonished.
"Dont be silly! Of course
not!" I giggled and let him wind the cloth around me.
The first time I dont remember
what I was thinking, but I remember how large his eyes looked, magnified
behind his glasses. He wasnt tall but that afternoon he seemed
gigantic. The scruff under his chin left small white scratches on
my skin. That first time, I sat very still while he tangled my hair
and Soni slept. Other times the scratches bled and I clawed at the
table and couch leaving mark no one found. The balcony shutters
were always closed, though I could hear the hawkers on Marine Drive
"Hot channa- cold coconut milk." I never screamed.
Even the last time, the day before Papa called to say its
time to come home, I was silent. Anyway, the only one who would
have heard was Soni.
Now, eight years later, Im here
again and Soni is older and tall for her age and our mother doesnt
wait for phone calls anymore but the memory refuses to change.
* * *
We arrive in India early Tuesday morning,
and my ears finally pop clear. Mom and Soni are the last ones off
the plane, my mothers lipstick shining under the white lights.
Though Soni is only ten shes almost as tall as our mother,
just like I was when I was her age. We couldve been twins
with the same pale olive skin and dark curly hair, same almond eyes,
brown and speckled gray that seem watery all the time. We both suffer
from gangliness and have dark birthmarks on our right middle fingers
too. Mom says we have "un-Indian features". We arent
petite or straight-haired, and our eyes are too light.
Mom walks quickly ahead. She moves
swiftly, more swiftly than Ive seen her in years. Here her
movements are natural, her face is young. The lines that framed
her mouth a day ago are now softer, smoother. Her eyes are clearer
and I can see that shes happy, the happiest Ive seen
her since my father left.
* * *
Our last argument was a week ago,
my first day home for Christmas. After my freshman year at school,
I came home less and less often and soon it was only for major holidays.
But we still argued, and still about the same things.
"Youre having sex, arent
you?" my mother asked. "Youre dating some American
boy arent you?" Her eyes grew large and her voice trembled.
We were standing in the kitchen, our voices cutting the soft sounds
of the dripping faucet and humming refrigerator.
"Mom, please," I answered
"U shu karu? What can
I do? Theyll take advantage of you one day, I tell you, though
you dont believe me. They have no respect for Indian girls
and then youll know," she said. I took a deep breath
and thought of my father.
"And Indians dont get divorced
either," I said. Mom slapped me. She turned away and leaned
over the sink, crying into the dirty pan, her tears mixing with
the faucet water. I regretted saying it, knowing that really it
wasnt her fault. Suddenly she straightened up and faced me,
still leaning on the sink.
"This trip will be good for you, Mira. Good for all of us,"
she said. "I havent seen my brother since he fell ill."
I looked away and nodded.
* * *
The drive from the airport is long
and as we near Marine Drive the scent of channa and coconut
milk becomes stronger until finally the long, stale flight is forgotten.
Mom is laughing and talking with Seema in the front seat.
"Why did you come alone?"
"Siva has someone coming today,"
Seema says, her accent thick. Her English has improved since last
time. She even drives, if only out of necessity.
"The boy is from a good family?"
"Oh yes, they are very rich.
They have two flats in Bombay! I told Siva this would be a good
match but these days theyre very picky. Shes said no
to one doctor and two engineers already. Mummy/Papa are worried."
"You should come to America,"
Mom mutters. "And Devan Bhai? Why didnt he come
Seema looks at me, smiling hesitantly,
"He wasnt feeling up to it. He worked late last night.
And how are you Soni?" Perhaps she knows. But she would never
show it, always smiling with large kind eyes, like there are no
secrets at all.
"You have grown so tall, Mira!
Such good height for a girl. Well have to find you a six-footer!
How are your studies?"
"Ere, I never see her
anymore she studies so much. But in America you never know what
theyre doing if theyre not at home. She studies philosophy.
Tell me what shell do with that!" Mom says.
"Theyre going well, Seema.
Ill be graduating next year," I lie. Im taking
a semester off and Mom is about to protest but Seema jumps in.
"And so smart too! Really, Mira,
you will be able to afford saying no a few times!"
Seema says in mock oblivion. She was once pretty. Traces are still
left in her manner, her hair, her hands, her voice. But her face
looks like an empty fountain, the prettiness drained out of it.
Though even this she chooses to ignore.
Mom and Seema have too much to talk
about to care about me anymore. Soni listens attentively trying
to catch gossip about people shes never known. As we drive
along the coast Bombay begins to take shape for me again, the baby-blue
and white buildings, the sun dancing white light on the Arabian
sea, the betel leaf vendors. The heat rises and spreads through
the air like oil. My mouth tastes dry and bitter, my skin feels
slick, a soft buzzing sound lines my ears, and the odor is thick
with sweet sweat. There is no avoiding the heat.
* * *
The apartment smells of incense, the
walls so long exposed to the scent that theyve absorbed the
odor. Soni holds her nose and runs to the balcony.
Devan is in the bedroom. I hear the
rhythm of his wheels coming down the hallway. Before I can decide
whether or not to call him mama he is in the
doorway. Mom begins to cry. I tie my hair into webs and knots that
will hurt later when I try to comb through them. Seema has gone
to the kitchen to make chai.
Unlike Seema, he looks the same except for his legs. They have shrunk
and his bare feet show the eczema that probably runs up his knees.
They look lifeless even though Seema swears he feels sensation in
his left ankle. I shudder involuntarily as he hugs Soni.
I stand strategically out of the light
and his eyes dont fall on me until now and only for a moment.
I look away.
"The chai is ready. Come, lets
go sit in the living room," he says and forces me out of the
shadows. The light outside is harsh. Seema silently fills the tea
cups, pouring for herself last in case theres not enough.
The room hasnt changed. The place is still sparsely furnished,
the couch is still uncomfortable, and the black and white photos
of my grandparents still hang on the walls.
"You must be tired, Mira, since
youre so quiet. Or have you suddenly become shy?" he
says to me. His gaze is steady now and my breath catches in my lungs.
"Miras just a shy girl,
Miras just a shy girl," Soni chants. He smiles and Mom
nudges me to touch his feet.
"Oh Laxmi, dont be silly.
Miras much too old for that sort of thing with her mamas
anymore," he says, still smiling. I say nothing and sit with
my hands trapped under my thighs, feeling his smile swell to fill
the whole room.
This is not how it was supposed to
be. In reality the roles should be reversed. I am the calm, resolute
one and hes fidgeting in the corner, awkward and wary. Staring
at the ground I try to pretend its that way, my way. I stare
out through the open balcony facing the sea but I dont see
the water. Instead I see the minuscule space between the water and
the sky and I concentrate on it, a hole in the world to climb out
of, believing it exists.
* * *
The days pass, Soni playing cards
and dice with Devan, and Mom meeting old friends and cousins to
find out who married whom and whos still available. Seema
flits about from one chore to another, preparing Devans bath,
massaging his legs with oil, taking his calls, regulating his medication
with the faithfulness of a servant or a domestic animal, sometimes
I cant tell which. During the day, Soni and I are always out.
We walk the boardwalk from one end
of the pearl necklace to the other, passing from the high r
isers and hotels to the fishing slums and beaches. Girls are walking
to school, their uniforms gray and white, hair plaited, arms locked
together, giggling at the boys sitting on the benches. The paint
is peeling off the buildings betraying the muddy brown underneath.
Rickshaws squawk like roosters in the early morning.
The stares bother me. The bhel-poori
vendor, the policeman, the street cleaner, the fathers with children.
I walk straight ahead, playing with my hair, tying the ends into
knots. But I feel their eyes undoing them slowly, and my fingers
become clumsy. Soni never n140
otices though, and she scolds me for being "no fun".
One day Soni goes to temple with Seema
and I am walking by myself. Two men sitting on a bench are watching
me. They are both young, maybe thirty, with thick mustaches and
wearing brown sandals, one fat the other thin. I stop to buy chai
from a hawker, and the fat man starts calling me. "Come here
beautiful," he says in Hindi. I ignore him but the thin one
"Kya hai, You too shy,
"Oh Shekar, looks like shes
too good for us, man."
"Come on, come sit here for a
I pay the vendor and walk past the
men, but the fat man named Shekar grabs my arm. "Wont
you sit down?" Maybe its an accident but I drop my chai
in his lap and he screams. His face turns red like henna, and, cursing,
he lets go of my arm. People stop and watch and the thin man runs
to the hawker for water. I walk away, laughing a little. The stares
dont bother me so much anymore.
* * *
Soni is playing cards with Devan in
the living room. Mom and Seema are out and Im packing in the
guest room. Through the doorway I watch them.
"You beat me so quickly, yaar!
Are you sure you didnt cheat?" he asks.
"Devan Mama! Dont
be such a sore loser!" Soni exclaims.
"Well just have to play
"Fine." She begins dealing
the cards and they play again. Again she wins.
"I give up! Youre just
too good." Soni beams with the compliment.
"Lets play once more."
Devan strokes her head.
"No lets rest," he
says and continues to stroke her head. I stop packing.
"Soni!" I shout.
"What?" She shouts back.
"Come help me pack," I say,
my voice sounding hollow in my throat.
"But Im playing!"
"You have to."
"I wont," She says.
Im standing in the doorway now and I stare at them. There
is a long pause as Soni begins shuffling the cards again.
"Im going to go rest, Soni.
Later well play. Go help your sister," Devan says and
wheels himself past me to the kitchen. We dont look at each
other. Soni throws the cards on the floor.
"See, you ruin everything!"
Soni shouts and I go back to the bedroom, my heart a wild animal
in my chest.
* * *
It is late on our last night and everyone
is asleep. I go out into the hall to get a glass of water. The apartment
is dark and the scent of incense is especially strong. The only
light comes from the glass door that opens out onto the balcony.
As I turn the knob of the door, my back to the living room, I am
startled by a voice.
"Hello, Mira," he says.
I turn and make out the outline of the shape.
"Hello," I say. My hand
is on the doorknob behind me but I wait for him to speak. He says
nothing, wheeling himself slightly closer. The room stands still.
"Youve grown anxious over
"Ive always been a nervous
"Youve grown tall too.
I always thought you would." He comes closer, the wheels squeak.
"Soni looks just like you at that age. The similarities are
"We are very different."
"I suppose shes not so
quiet." The floor creaks as he comes closer.
"No, shes not. Shell
be a lot more outspoken." The words are rusty, like the first
words after a long silence. Devan looks at his legs.
"Do you know
he stammers for the first time and though I cant see his expression
I know hes not smiling. "I dont understand what
"What?" My voice feels thick.
"These legs. I hate these legs."
he says and ventures closer, more hesitantly than before. "I
did nothing for these legs."
"I wish, Mira..." he ventures
even closer and is within arms length. My back is flat against the
door, "I wish," he says, his voice heavy and his hand
reaching for my head. He moves slowly and the light from the balcony
reveals his face, his eyes large and frantic. I take a deep breath
before he touches me.
"Ill scream." For
a moment his hand is still in the air and then suddenly he retreats,
like a finger being pricked. No one breathes.
He moves away and waits but I say
nothing. He sighs, just barely audible but enough to make me see
for the first time how small he has become, split almost in two.
He begins to wheel away, squeaking unnaturally across the floor.
My body relaxes as he becomes smaller and smaller until he is finally
I turn the knob and go out onto the
balcony. I stand motionless and let the heat pass through me, as
the pale white morning touch the first waves and I comb through
the knots in my hair.