I’m home from school, face red from the sun, neck itchy from sweat. I consider telling Amma about the woman who followed me today. I have seen her many times by the school gate, observing me, with her rage-reddened face. But I get distracted by Amma’s wedding album, its black and white photos, butter like sheets separating one from the other.
Amma’s patient with me, a kindness in her voice that comes from loving someone too much.
“How many times will you look at these?” Amma says, chuckling. “Why don’t you change your skirt and eat first?”
“Five minutes, Amma.” The photos are bright, clear. If I focus hard enough, I feel I can touch the people in them. The doorbell rings. Loud, like a hammer on a gong, over and over. Amma long-jumps to the door, or else the sound might wake Paati up, my grandma, Appa’s mother, who’s napping inside. Between two to five every afternoon, expecting tea and three coconut biscuits by her bedside when she’s up. I don’t like the way she treats Amma.
Bitch, I’ve written in my secret diary that I hide at the bottom of my school bag.
Amma opens the door. It’s the woman from earlier today.
“You think changing homes is enough to get rid of me?” Her broad, bindi-less forehead makes her face look endless. “Are you hiding him in your sari, you whore?”
“Please. Can we talk inside?”
“I’d never step into the house of someone who ruined my life.”
“Put that finger down before I break it in half. Tell that bastard to come home. His son wants to see him. I won’t let him abandon us.”
Amma starts crying.
“I’ve known him long before you did. Know everything about him. Could tell his dick from a hundred other men.”
“Can you please...”
“If he isn’t home today, I’ll take a shit outside your house tomorrow. Right here.” She points at the doormat that says Welcome in cursive writing. The door she slams rattles.
“Are you dead?” Paati yells. “It’s been ten minutes since I’ve been lying here like a corpse with my eyes open, wondering when my tea will come. What’s taking you so long? Thinking of more ways to seduce my son?”
Amma runs her wrist under her wet nose and goes to the kitchen to make tea.
It's the woman Amma has told me about. The one who attacked Appa on their wedding day. The same woman my aunt often murmurs about when we visit her family on weekends. Wife of Appa’s younger brother. Educated, young, independent, working woman. Unlike Amma, who married Appa at eighteen, right out of school, and plunged into housework. Made to climb three flights of stairs daily, several times a day, to bring drinking water from the common tap downstairs. Do grocery shopping, laundry, and dishes. Allowed to eat only after everyone else finished eating. Even when she was carrying me, eight months pregnant, Amma says Paati made her work. “I can only tell you these things,” she says when we’re alone. “Your aunt makes fun of me because I can’t speak English.”
I write, bitch, again in front of my aunt’s name.
Often, I try to locate the woman in the album, hoping to catch a glimpse. Once my aunt cornered me and said, “Your Appa is not who you think he is. He’s in love with a Muslim woman. No wonder he listens to Nusrat’s wailing qawwali instead of Bhimsen Joshi.”
Amma said it happened right after they had exchanged garlands. Getting their photographs taken, Appa’s long dark hair swooping right, sidelocks rounded like the butt of a gun. Amma’s thin mouth, corner of her lip stuck to a tooth, the wine-coloured lipstick too dark for her skin. The woman lunged at Appa, the petals from the rose garland around his neck scattering by his feet. Amma was shaking. It took five men to separate them and throw her out of the wedding hall.
“No woman, no matter how low-society, will humiliate herself without reason,” my aunt told me.
There was a discussion, Amma said. She and her parents went into a room to talk. They were worried. A girl returning unmarried from her own wedding was not a good look. There would be no other prospects. Amma agreed to go back to the ceremony.
Growing up, Appa was never there. Gone before I was up for school and never home by bedtime. Sometimes I write things about Appa in my diary also. That he invites too many people without informing Amma. She’ll keep on standing in the kitchen making onion and bread pakodas for them in the heat and smoke while the men drink their whiskeys and keep eating. “Did you eat any, Ma?” I’d ask, and she’d pull me for an embrace.
Amma says if you believe in something long enough, you can trick your mind. She has lied to herself over the years: that when Appa says he’s working late, he is; not spending nights with the other woman.
A few days ago, Amma had high blood pressure. The doctor said it was stress-related, and Appa promised her he wasn’t going anywhere. We moved apartments. He said he’d ask at work to be transferred to another city, far from here. It would just be the three of us. Not even the bitch. I knew he was lying even while he said those things to us. They sounded made-up. I think Amma knew it too, but she’s too polite to argue.
I was there the evening he told Paati about us moving to Lucknow. “I don’t know whether you’ll be able to adjust to the heat there,” he told her. “Also, it’s a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood. I’ll take care of you financially, of course.”
Paati had an expression like, okay, I see your cards. My move. “Don’t worry about this old lady. My husband left me after decades of marriage, and you’re his son only, no? And what have I done for you? Except go through a twenty-one-hour labour and put my life on hold. Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”
“No, I’m not angry. I know I’m the worst mother. After that man abandoned us, I could never keep you and your brother happy. I’m sorry.”
He refused the transfer and promotion.
Appa’s back from work, an accountant for a steel company. He and Amma talk with their eyes. He removes his shoes, not his socks. Loosens his tie, not the buttons of his shirt. I know he’s leaving.
“Say goodnight to Appa.” Amma’s face looks like mine when my best friend wants me to share my lunch. I don’t want to, but I must. She’s holding Appa’s food: rice, sambar, potatoes, papadums, and milk pudding in a cup, on the round silver plate with his initials engraved on the side—G.I. Gopal Iyer—the only plate he prefers. Paati is watching a Tamil serial, chanting om loudly during scenes that don’t interest her. She wants everyone to know she’s pious, tracing the beads of the mala with her fingers. Her one ear points our way. Appa wants a hug from me before he disappears again. Who knows for how long? Like a hug will absolve him of his guilt. His arms are open.
“Go to your father, Kanna,” encourages Paati. Even her endearments sound poisonous to me.
“No,” I say.
Amma laughs nervously, as though I have spoken out of turn. She serves Appa too much rice, and he pushes his plate away.
I don’t see him for a week.
The following weekend, it’s my cousin’s birthday.
“Appa wants us there,” Amma insists.
“But you don’t even like them.”
We’re playing cricket on the ground in front of their building. I’m batting. My cousin teases me to make me lose my focus. “I heard your Appa has two wives. Will you call her Amma number two?”
The security guard grips my shoulder hard as we stand at my aunt’s door. The swelling on my cousin’s head is purple. My aunt peels off his palm to look at the wound and winces, as though it’s her head that’s bleeding.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asks. She’s at my eye level, and I see the blackheads clustered at the tip of her nose. “And on his birthday?” She turns her head to the men sitting inside.
The guard looks pleased with the rebuke.
I don’t want to repeat what was said, so I stay mum until Appa and his brother desert their whiskey glasses and fried peanuts on the glass table and look at me with irritation.
Appa takes my wrists in his hand. “She’s asking you something. Are you deaf?”
Amma’s on the terrace. She goes there to see the birds returning home in the evening. She also goes there when my aunt makes her feel less. I hear her nervousness in how her anklets sound, feet stamping down the stairs.
“What’s going on?” she asks, noticing my cousin’s head.
My aunt glowers. “Ask your darling daughter.”
“What happened?” Amma asks. Her eyes know, her voice pretends not to. Appa is still clutching my wrists that feel like they will fall off. I can break free if I try, but I don’t want to.
“Such a stubborn girl,” he says, exhaling stale alcohol breath.
She makes him release me, which he does hesitantly, as if I’ll attack him if he lets go too soon. Amma’s grasp is gentler. “Why did you do it?” It’s more a plea than a question. Even her slap, more to placate my aunt and Appa, than to punish me, is apologetic.
“You forgive me?” she asks later that night, crying like a guilty child.
I nod yes.
A lone bird sings on the tree outside the window.
“Why did you do it?” she says.
“He said Appa has two wives.”
She stares at the point where the wall becomes a ceiling. “It’s true.”
A week after, Appa is in Ms. Sen’s office, head hanging low with shame. “She did what?” He twitches like he can’t wait to use his leather belt on me. I’d brought the box of condoms from his cupboard, a blond girl with big naked breasts on the front. Blew them up like balloons and stuck them on the class’s wall. My Hindi teacher gasped in horror when she walked in, as though she was seeing something she’d never seen in her adult life. She wasn’t surprised to know it was me because to all my teachers, I’m the girl who spends more time in the principal’s office than in class.
“I don’t know what to say,” says Ms. Sen, tall, hair dyed black. “Last week, she kneed a boy in the groin. I didn’t make a big deal of it, but I should have,” she sighs. “It’s been steady complaints from her teachers. This is the limit though, Mr. Iyer.”
We drive back in silence. The only sounds are of him honking or leaning out of the window to yell at other drivers. He’s over the speed limit, runs a traffic light and doesn’t even remind me to put on my seat belt, despite the car beeping nonstop.
In the hall, the tv is blaring—some mythological show—and Amma’s chopping vegetables. She looks up at us and knows. Runs the peeler against her finger instead of the potato. Starts bleeding.
“This girl. Wish we…” He doesn’t finish his thought.
“What happened?” Amma says.
"My head happened,” Appa shouts. “Do you know how embarrassing it is to stand in that woman’s office and have her look at me like I failed as a father?”
“Told you, send her to the ashram, but do you ever listen?” says Paati. “Swamiji keeps those children in line. Once his divine eyes fall on this girl, everything will be alright.”
Appa is too angry to respond.
Amma wipes her hand on her sari, stands up. “No need for all that. She’ll behave.” She touches my shoulder.
“I was terrified of my mother-in-law. Not a word I’d speak before her. What she said was the Laxman Rekha, a line never to be crossed. But today is a different time.” Paati makes a face. “When you don’t have manners yourself, how will your daughter?”
“Don’t talk to her like that, bitch.”
Amma seals my mouth with her starchy hand.
“What did you say?” Appa loosens his belt.
After, in my room, Amma’s begging me to stay quiet.
“How can he hit me like that?”
“I’ll call the police.”
“Stop. Appa loves you very much.”
“He only loves that whore.”
“Shh, don’t talk like that.”
“Whore, whore, whore.”
“What was that?” I hear Appa’s rising voice.
This time the belt catches Amma also. A bluish bruise swells on her arm.
“I’m taking you to the ashram first thing tomorrow,” he declares. “And you’ll live there until you learn your manners.”
Paati stands at the door, watching, fingers still rolling the beads.
It’s 1 am and we have snake-like welts that sting. I blow on Amma’s arm. She shivers.
“I’ll take care of us,” I say, and she smiles a helpless smile, the kind she reserves for Appa when he drunkenly sings in his tuneless voice and tries to unhook her blouse.