Winner of Bound’s Short Story Contest 2019

You weren’t even supposed to be here. You weren’t ever going to get married, settle abroad, have a child, make paneer for your husband, have it curdled and turn too sour, leaving the two of you to spend Monday in bed, your stomachs clutched in agony.

The dead are so much stronger than the living. This one fills up each breathing space and spills out from the underside of the can of chickpeas you were meant to throw out ‘two days within opening’. Then she drips chokily from the cold water tap and on to the sink piled up with dishes. Drip, drip, miss. She sits playfully atop the pile of laundry that you just can’t bear to look at. She rises up with the steam of boiling water when you cook rice and then, just like that, when the bell rings and a neighbour comes to offer you yet another casserole, she gets sucked back into the ventilator. And finally, she peeks out and stares at Sandeep and you from the handmade stuck-with-pasta photo frame—at first, with love, and then, blame.

You weren’t even supposed to be here. You weren’t ever going to get married, settle abroad, have a child, make paneer for your husband, have it curdled and turn too sour, leaving the two of you to spend Monday in bed, your stomachs clutched in agony.

You were never going to be your mother—who cooked with one hand, cleaned with another, balanced her life on the chaotic schedules of three lives (hers not included) with the ease of a trapeze artist. You weren’t going to be married at all.

Your wedding, though beautiful, was a sad affair. Your parents, who were so keen to see you happily ‘settled’, didn’t realise that it translated to you actually moving away from the country.

At six, you didn’t cry easy. Not when the maid told you about the one-eyed ghost, or the limping old man or the giant dog that would come eat you up if you didn’t sleep. Not even when the PT teacher glared at you for giggling during school assembly, “WHAT’S THE JOKE?”, and definitely not when your brother would shoot at you with his plastic toy gun, hard plastic pellets bouncing off your skin—pew pew pew.

But when you saw your cousin-sister, the one with the long plaits, bawl her eyes out on her wedding, you got goosebumps. Her henna, which was tattooed all over her arms, had a pungent smell that made you dizzy. And she looked miserable—her parents didn’t want her anymore, you thought.

“Promise me, ma, you won’t ever make me get married. Promise?” you asked.

A few years later, your aunts, the ones with the perpetually aching backs, heads, and heels, began to call you a forerunner of the ‘modern women’ generation. Modern women, who go study, get pregnant. Have a career, get pregnant. Whose parents are too liberal and let their girls out late at night. Let them talk to boys! Get pregnant.

You created an uproar that gave you a strange sense of satisfaction when you went to a “co-ed” college. You were lucky, too, as you were often reminded, that you weren’t married off at 22.

Your parents began every sentence with “In our time…”

“In our time, we had to walk to school every day. Through forests and brambly trees, under the screaming sun.”

“In our time, girls weren’t allowed to raise their voice like that.”

“In our time, I was married by the age of 21, had you and your brother by the age of 25 and learnt to make perfectly round chappatis too!”

When your time did come, you shed the arrogance of youth and forgot the things you once asked as a toddler with a trembling upper lip. A few years after graduation, your friends’ wedding invites began gushing in with the vehemence of unpaid bills.

Your mother said, “Oh, wonderful. When is her wedding happening, beta?”

Your father said, “Hmm.”

Your mother added, “We must go, mustn’t we? We’re invited. After

all it’s her best friend’s sagai.”

Your father said, “Hmm.”

Your mother said, “While we are on the subject, is she seeing anybody at the moment? I think it’s time we find her a good boy, don’t you?”

Hmm. It always seemed as though their marriage had a specific word limit, and your mother had taken claim of their whole share.

And later, in elementary school, when the shooter came, did he know that she was hiding inside the toy cupboard with three of her friends, their little tiny bodies huddled together. That she cried ‘mamma’ in her jumbled American-Indian accent until the shooter found them. Pew, pew, pew.

Slowly, you got sucked into the same old dating-mating ritual. At the end of the exhausting season of meeting ‘good boys’, you met Sandeep from America. He was refreshing, in that he too rolled his eyes at the excessive nature of Indian weddings. You laughed at him when he almost choked at the pani-puri the two of you had at the roadside stall. Turned out, he had a mild palate, in his words. It was akin to saying that he didn’t read, but you forgave him.

Your wedding, though beautiful, was a sad affair. Your parents, who were so keen to see you happily ‘settled’, didn’t realise that it translated to you actually moving away from the country. So elaborate, and so laborious were the celebrations that the planning took the better half of a year. And when you finally did look back past the point of the security check, a small Ganesha tucked into your handbag, you found your mother glued to the spot. She had nothing left to say.

In America, Sandeep, brown-eyed and kind, sat next to you, twirling a baby rattle over and over again during Ria’s first pangs of colic. While you nursed her turn by turn, you exchanged stories about your childhood, about when Sandeep lived in Calcutta in the 80’s and travelled by tram—

“I thought you grew up in Dhanbad!”

“You’re not wrong. But I lived in Calcutta until I was eight—pass me the milk bottle.”

You talked about you, your aunts, their taunts. About how he felt about his parents’ divorce, about his move to this country. About the time your mother would come and pick you up from evening classes at college, even though you’d asked her not to so many times because it was embarrassing and you were an adult now, but she still did. She always did.

When it came to it, you realised that you, too, were no different with Ria. When you left her outside daycare for the first time, you stood there, as though struck by lightning, wondering if you could ever protect her from the bullies and stray staples she would nevertheless encounter. Would anyone hug her when she woke up after naptime, confused, missing you? Would they know that when she said ‘peach’ she meant an apple, and when she said ‘apple’, she meant a peach?

And later, in elementary school, when the shooter came, did he know that she was hiding inside the toy cupboard with three of her friends, their little tiny bodies huddled together. That she cried ‘mamma’ in her jumbled American-Indian accent until the shooter found them. Pew, pew, pew.

In your time, school was reached on wheels, not foot; voices were raised, a battle that got louder and louder. In your time, the chappatis, if they were homemade at all, were a feeble oval-shaped, a meek little heart. In your time, the only guns allowed around you were made out of plastic.

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All this should never have happened. It’s your own fault. Because you weren’t really supposed to be here. Get married, fall in love, put henna on your hands (just one line), move away from India, have a child, build a picket fence, curdle the milk, lose your baby girl, tear apart the picket fence, pray, pray, pray. But you went ahead and did it all the same.

Bhavika Govil

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