Published in Papercuts magazine & semi-finalist of the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest 2016
Shobha’s stomach, flat and tight, was on display for the men in Girighun who had never known a woman’s touch. Or so they said, the boys’ mothers, because innocence was a quality people kept guarded like treasure, whether or not the men owned any portion of it. Shobha knew their virginity was about as real as her freedom, existing only in the tiny passageways of a narrow mind. Big, deep-socketed eyes betrayed their hunger; it was an animal already giddy from the feast of forbidden meat that could produce such dirty salivation.
“Next!” shouted the village elder, the man responsible for arranging marriages in Girighun. Shobha’s eyes darted to her father’s. She had been sold.
My ankles are an offense in Shobha’s living room. The skin is bare, sitting proud and out. But socks are out of the question. It’s forty-two degrees Celsius in Girighun, and Shobha hates me.
“Pani?” she asks.
“No, thank you.” The water is not mineral, and two ants are floating in a droplet that has spilt onto the plastic tray Shobha holds out under my nose. Her chunari, a dark maroon, veils the top half of her face but not her animosity. She does not want me here.
“Bring chai,” her father, Raja, tells her. His voice is a command, unfamiliar. It’s improper to call Raja our servant, so in well-bred discomfort we tell people he’s our helper. In Dubai, he speaks politely. There, in the flurry of Pa’s high-browed guests walking in and out, Raja is a gentleman, collared shirt tucked in, keeper of our house. But here, his mustache is sweaty. In this Gujarat village where he was born, Raja wears polyester; sweat draws duck eggs under his armpits.
“No, thank you, but I—”
“Lina, something hot is better,” Raja says. “Not to get sick.”
Raja knows my immune system is pathetic. He’s the one who stayed up all night when I was seven, dabbing my forehead with a cold towel dunked in ice water and squeezed dry into the shape of a cinnamon twist pastry, trying to keep my fever down and spirits up. Mom and Pa were in the Maldives, and my stomach flu was as much a reaction to unfiltered water as to my parents’ abandonment.
Raja says the village arranged her marriage, but his eyes ping-pong when he tells me this so I deduce it’s a way of selling brides like cattle under the guise of a sophisticated dowry system.
Raja is the person who remains. That’s why I’m here instead of shopping for my wedding outfit in Ahmedabad. The five-hour detour to visit Raja’s village made more sense than bargaining for a sari I’m only going to wear once, if that.
“Unnecessary drama,” Mom said when I told her I wanted to meet Raja’s family and go to the field where he’d cried as a five-year-old when his father died of typhoid. Mom is fond of Raja; twenty years of domestic service is too much loyalty to ignore, even for her. But she cares from a distance.
Not me. I like to get close. Nishit finds this irritating. It’s born of jealousy, his need to keep me contained. Outsiders find this quality of my fiancé’s endearing. I don’t. Insecurity smells foul. Nishit and I are getting married this year, a result of tactful parental pressure, and simple geography. He lives in London, I’m in Dubai, and long distance does not make a lasting couple.
Shobha is engaged, too. Raja says the village arranged her marriage, but his eyes ping-pong when he tells me this so I deduce it’s a way of selling brides like cattle under the guise of a sophisticated dowry system. She’s nineteen; at her age, my main event was puking remnants of watermelon vodka all over my dorm room.
I brought a present for Shobha, but I don’t want to give it to her. It’s becoming clear to me that Raja’s daughter does not share her father’s capacity for gratitude.
“Behena, chai.” Shobha hands me a stainless steel cup filled to the brim with milky cardamom tea. I smile at her endearment. She called me sister. I take it from her and wrap four fingers around it in trusting hold. It burns my skin and I drop it, splattering hot liquid everywhere.
“Gharam che,” Shobha says. It’s hot.
“Shit, I’m so sorry.” I stand up to clear the mess and smear tea stains further into my white capris.
“No, Lina, sit. Shobha will do.” Raja gives his daughter a hard look, and she cleans it up.
“Thank you,” I say, but she’s already left the room.
It’s not uncommon for people to dislike me. I assume it’s due to the generous gifts nature bestowed upon me. I don’t mean my physical appearance, though that’s usually the first station where the train to female validity stops. I have family money, and people think there’s shame in saying that. I don’t. Opportunities abound, and I take them. For whatever reason, others do not, and I find it quite undignified to have to apologize for mine.
Especially to Nishit, who cares less about his clients than I do about my sketches, but thinks I should drop fashion and move to London because his is the more respectable career. I say what I think because I can. My grandmother could not. Shobha does not. Well, not in the same way. Maybe that’s why her dislike is different.
My phone pings.
no txt after u landed? worried. where r u?
I write back: Next time, if you’re that worried, try actually calling. I am fine.
Nishit types like a teenager, too lazy to spell out a three-letter-word. In physique and in writing, his form is short. sorry lina. at the conference. luv u.
I don’t say it back. The phone goes into my purse where I won’t see it. Raja looks at me close the zip. He knows how I shut out.
“Sir and madam?” he asks.
“Yeah right, you’re optimistic. My parents only call when they need something. So when is Shobha’s wedding?”
“August three. Two months more. I am happy.”
“That’s soon. Is everything ready?”
“Na,” Shobha says, walking in with another cup of tea. This time she sits down next to me on the straw mat and puts the tray on the ground. “Welcome,” she says, before I can say thank you for the fourth time.
I want her to like me. I know Shobha, unveiled, the baby smiling wide in Raja’s arms the first summer he came back to Girighun after she was born. It’s the only photograph Raja keeps framed in his room in Dubai, which is next to mine. He sleeps there in the guest bedroom because the maid’s room is a prison cell in our villa. When Mom said it was not proper decorum to have a servant in the main bedrooms, Pa argued that it was big enough to store her ego, but not a human.
I know Shobha can stitch her own clothes; I used to help Raja pick fabric for her at the souk. Her favorite colour, blue; her birthday, March ninth; her weakness, hot gulab jamuns with mango ice cream. Raja loves Shobha. She’s his only daughter and now that she’s older and doesn’t hug him tight anymore, it makes him sad. In Girighun, puberty draws a divisive line.
I make a big show of blowing air over my tea to cool it down. Shobha looks at her feet. A toenail sneaks out from under her skirt, painted lime green, a brilliant affront to her demure outfit.
“I love that,” I say, and point to her toes with my eyes.
She tucks them back in and stretches her skirt out to cover both her feet and the ground in front of it. Shobha keeps her gaze down, and I look around. Raja’s home is the biggest in Girighun, made of cement and brick instead of mud and tiles. Pa loaned Raja the money to build it, never asked for it back.
What my family discards without second thought is cared for in this home for over a decade. It is better off here.
I recognize a porcelain vase placed by the front door. Its mustard and blue pattern, the one Mom called “too tacky for public display,” is a warm welcome. And the floral print curtains left behind by the previous owner of our holiday home in Thailand, which Mom had removed with haste; they are hung in front of the side window and tied back with a mismatched ribbon. The lampshade in the corner table next to the rotary dial telephone; it’s the one I chose for Pa’s study. My eyes adjust in recognition and the living room appears to me in a new filter, coloured with remnants of my past.
“You see all this. Thanks to sir and madam. Too kind.” Raja reads my shock a sentence ahead of me.
“It looks great,” I say, because what my family discards without second thought is cared for in this home for over a decade. It is better off here.
Shobha senses my discomfort, adds her part. She points to her left arm, to a black and white Kate Spade bangle that stands like a misfit amidst an array of violet and yellow locally made glass bangles dangling on her wrist. The brand I once adored is a Grinch on her limb. “You,” she says.
I want to cry. More than I wanted to cry after Pa found out about Dwight, the neighbor Mom was having an affair with.
“I think I’ll take a walk,” I say, and stand up.
“No, not alone. I come with you.” In Dubai, Raja accompanies me to the street to hail a taxi, to make sure what he calls “goons in big cars” don’t make kissing noises at me from rolled-down windows. At the trade department he stands in the men’s waiting area, just in case my business license is questioned and I’m held for hours. Raja’s concern for me is where I wanted Pa’s to be.
“I take Lina behena,” Shobha says, and she is halfway out the door so no one objects.
We walk down the road, unmade and uneven. The wind blows mud and dirt and little bits of life across it, left to right, right to left, like strokes of an artist’s brush. An empty box of Smarties, a cotton bud heavy with earwax, oil-smeared newspaper scraps that once wrapped fried bhajias. I am happy for air, but it smells like buffalo dung and freshly made ghee.
“Where is your school?” I ask. Pa paid for Shobha to go to high school. Mom called it useless charity because girls in Raja’s village get married off before they graduate. Shobha points to a rectangular structure in the distance, painted lemon yellow. It’s a smile on the dusty horizon.
I don’t smile much. Nishit says I should be more bubbly, which reminds me of lava in a volcano about to erupt, and is probably not what he means. He thinks it’s important to look happy, to shake hands and kiss air around cheeks and giggle at the right times.
“Khethar,” Shobha says, pointing to a field. I follow her to the cotton plantation that sustains Girighun. It is an ocean, wide and endless in front of us. I want to swallow the expanse, inhale the infinity of its rows, filling myself up with new air like a balloon enlarging its existence.
Shobha grabs my hand and I jump. It’s the first time someone has touched me since—
“Behena, you wedding. Husband good?” she asks in broken English. She lifts her veil and pushes it to the top of her forehead. Her striking appearance and the direct aim of her question startle me.
“Um, yes. What do you mean? Is your husband—?”
“No see,” she says. “Wedding finish, then only husband see.”
“Oh shit, of course. But that’s nice, you’ll be surprised.” And then I feel like the meanest cow on the cotton field.
“Shobha not want marry.”
“I—” I stop. Her eyes plead with me, as if I have the power to help her out of Girighun’s century-old marital tradition. The silence is begging, asking for words to fix it.
“Mune lagna nuthi kurwa,” she says. “Kevo manas usey? Mune beek lage che. Papa sathe vath kurso?”
I didn’t learn Gujarati because Mom thought English was good enough. I make out exactly four words: wedding, scared, talk, Papa. Panic is running around aimless on her face and I want to grab it in my hands, throw it somewhere she’ll never see it again.
“Sorry, behena,” she says, letting go of my wrist. She realizes we don’t speak the same language.
“I’m sure it will be okay,” I lie. “Raja seems happy. Everything will be fine.” And then I stop talking because my words are as starved as her hope.
She starts to walk back home. I drag my wedges in her shadow and stay a purposeful step behind. Her dislike still stands, tangible in the space between us, but now I know what she wants. She wants my help, and she wants out of her intended marriage. Like Mom and Princess Diana and Aunty Mirra and Joanne and maybe me.
I fail Shobha. I must always have. The things I send her as an adult, a bottle of J’Adore, a scarf woven in Istanbul, a jewelry box; none of them contain what she wants. Even when I was too young to know the word “poor,” I put a set of coloured pencils and two boxes of Nerds for her in Raja’s suitcase and, watching him pack, wondered what Shobha’s face would look like when she saw them. Delight, I imagined, never disappointment.
I follow her slowly back towards Raja, this time my eyes cast down while her face is up and forward. I cannot give her what she wants. The things I have which she doesn’t. Like choice, and self-reliance, and the freedom to not marry whomever I want; or to keep my skin uncovered in the heat. I can’t give her the bite in my words, the way I speak with abandon.
I stop talking because my words are as starved as her hope.
I can’t give her the long Saturdays I spent talking to Raja while he hurried about the house doing chores, about the boy at school or the stain on my dress or the threat I heard Mom give Pa through the wall. Shobha can’t even say to him that she’s scared of marrying a complete stranger. When her father was supposed to be listening to her, he was filling in for mine.
Of course Shobha doesn’t like me. I took Raja.
Her father is waiting outside the door when we get home
“Come, come,” Raja says. “Too hot outside.”
Shobha disappears. I check my phone. There is a missed call from Nishit. Nothing from my parents. A message from Karl: Thinking of you, and that exquisite night. Fly back soon. I’ll be waiting.
I want to tell Raja I have been unfaithful to Nishit. I have to ensure it’s real and out loud and has the presence to end my engagement. I don’t care about Karl, even though he pens full sentences. I use him the way I swear, without thinking. I can’t tell Mom because she’ll blame herself. If I tell Pa, he’ll blame Mom.
Raja is the only one who honors honesty in our family. He won’t let me live out a lie the way my parents did, bone china on the surface but cracked with resentment within. He won’t, because he’s witnessed how pretense lingers, creeps into the cells of a person’s sanity, destroys their good sense with a vindictive poison. The kind that makes them forget to care about their children.
“I should leave soon,” I say. “I want to get back before dark.”
“Yes, good. Better safe.” Raja goes to get Shobha, but her delayed return is deliberate, and eventually we have to leave.
I leave Shobha’s present by the ugly vase. She’ll know it’s from me. Raja comes with me on the drive, sits like a bodyguard in the front seat. I look at the mud huts lined along the highway, children clothed in underwear squatting too close to passing cars. Stray dogs cross without fear, their hunger blinding judgment. Bollywood music blares from tea stalls, rest stops for truck drivers whose vehicles have rear license plates that read Horn, OK, Please. The ‘please’ upsets me. My eyes water and I put on my sunglasses even though it’s past sunset.
I hate my life in Dubai, the stupid amount of money we pay to get furniture custom-made. I hate the whipped cream we squirt over fresh strawberries, imported from England, more expensive than Shobha’s tuition for a week. The swimming pool on our roof, the smell of Pa’s Ferrari, the wine bottles we never open, reserve, waiting for a long time from now when we’ll be even more obnoxious enough to drink them. I hate the ring on my finger, the shape of the stone, and the man who gave it to me.
Guilt forms into phlegm and bobs near the surface of my throat, begging to be released. I want to blurt it out and tell Raja the truth. I worry he’ll think less of me; terrified he’ll say I’m just like my mother. An hour outside of Ahmedabad, when the sky turns Ribena, the kind Raja used to pack in my lunchbox, I speak up, because someone has to.
“Raja, can I say something?”
“I’m sorry, it’s not my place, but—”
“No more sorry, Lina. Say.”
“It’s about Shobha.”
In those last minutes I have with Raja, I give her, perhaps for the first time in twenty-nine years, something that has value.
Shobha’s husband doesn’t argue when she hammers in the nail, even though some days he takes pride in showing his superiority by dampening her small joys. He disapproves of her fingernails, believes the emerald paint will bring misfortune upon their future children. But he is not a bad man, which she learns to appreciate after Rekha, the girl next door, rolls up her sari blouse to expose bruised skin, a mark of her spouse’s violent control.
Shobha looks at the photograph, sees the dimple in her cheek, the creases on her father’s forehead, their banana grins, faces beaming, eyes only towards each other. The photo has been enlarged from an original and printed on canvas, then stretched out like perfect time and stapled onto a wooden frame. It is a gift, left to her in absence, and upon its discovery she had been given an unprecedented chance to meet her husband-to-be. Her father had not provided an explanation, and she had not asked. Shobha raises the frame above her head and places it on the wall of her new marital home, the one she had been granted the choice to deny. It hangs there, this old and new memory, like a painting.