I have a pain—I’ve had pains before, but this pain is different. Why did it have to show up when Tushar has called me though? I want him bad, I want him only for me, I want him to want me as much and as bad. Hi jaaneman, his voice beams through our green cordless phone. I utter a soft hmm. We have a secret system where we ring the other’s landline to feel closer. One ring is code for I am thinking of you. Two is Call me back. Anything longer means I am home alone, pick up the phone, in which case the one who’s home alone talks and talks and the other just listens. We need this arrangement because our parents would kill us if they found out we’d given our number to someone of the opposite gender. In a group you can talk to boys, mummy says, but not alone. We don’t speak directly to each other among friends either, because if our stupid friends find out we have something crazy going on, they’ll never stop teasing us. And if my parents hear any of that, it’s straight death. School-college-marriage: that’s their plan for me, boyfriends are an absolute no-no.
I should end the call given the whole house is awake, but he’s rarely alone. There are a lot of dashingly cute boys in my friend circle, but Tushar is the only one who thinks I am not ‘just a nerd.’ Schoolmates call me only when they need to Xerox my notes, or when they need tips to impress some teacher. Tushar doesn’t care about notes, or school. Says he likes my hair untied. That my brain is faster than a calculator. I stay on the call in my room watching Akshay Kumar and Shilpa Shetty’s latest song on TV, uncomfortable on the straw chatai Mummy’s laid out for me to sleep. Masi’s been given my actual bed, Mummy’s youngest sister. Why did she have to cut short her Goa honeymoon and come live with us? I like her—she’s pretty, proper heroine-pretty, but I like my bed too. I mean I am an adult now— almost thirteen, how dare they just push me onto the floor?
A slow breeze starts up outside. It rained earlier today, but inside my body it’s like an oven. I turn up the volume on the song so Tushar can hear it. I want him the way Akshay Kumar wants Shilpa Shetty in this song, the two dancing alone on a beach in Mauritius. He, in his white denim shirt tucked into stonewash jeans. Wide chest, sharp jaw, dimples on both sides. Dear god, take me there, in the cold sensation where the Om pendant hanging down his hairy chest touches the back of her neck. The inch between his lips and the base of her ear. Blue-green water ripples as he rolls her in and out. As if she were a part of him. I know she is. So what if they deny their affair to all the magazines? So what if it’s just a song and she’s been made to wear a white kurta matching his shirt? When they dance, they look like a pair of doves. Summer clouds, soft serve swirls. Why does this song make me hungry? Why does it make me cry? Everything makes me cry these days. Even the wind, how it blows so perfectly against their hair. Their dips and shimmies, hops and hips. Of course this is love. We don’t say that word out aloud in the house unless it’s part of a song. But saying it makes me feel light and bouncy. Love. Like I can be in two places at once and one of them is actually mine. Open and free and endless.
What these film stars have off-screen must be realer than real. Realer things I guess are the ones we have to hide. My wrist is getting tired from holding the phone, but when will Tushar ever be alone again? He knows my parents are awake so I can’t really speak. He teases, don’t just mhmm, speak properly, otherwise this phone bill will be for nothing. Scared that Masi will find out, I take the phone onto our tiny balcony. The nosy uncle from the ground floor is out on his nightly walk, sneaking quick peeks into people’s balconies. The night watchman by the entrance gate reclines into his cot. Most flats have their lights off. A rat chases another. My stomach feels swollen. What should I say, I murmur into the receiver, because it isn’t words or answers we want from each other. Do you want me, he asks? I check to see if Masi is getting suspicious but she seems distracted, submerged in one of Mummy’s old Danielle Steel novels, her lilac nightie’s lace puffing around her breasts.
Masi was supposed to wear that nightie on her first married night. At Masi’s mehendi function, the night before the actual wedding, I stood in her room marvelling at the humongous trousseau all the ladies in my family had gift wrapped into giant tokris covered with transparent glitter cellophane. Transparent because the boy’s family should be able to see, after all, how much we are giving with our girl, Mummy had said. The trousseau had imported chocolates and almonds and pistachios, perfumes, satiny bras with delicate nets, saris and sandals, a microwave, a food processor, and a flat-screen HD TV propped up against the bed. Marriage seems like having all your birthdays at once, I thought, eyeing the gifts. The ladies, about twenty or thirty of them, were all in the hall, singing folk songs. My grandma led the rhythm, playing a tumtaktumtak beat with a spoon on a small dholki. With everyone busy, I shut the door leaving just a crack open. I snuck the nightie out from inside the tokri, unboxed it and quickly slipped it on directly over my frock hoping to look like the woman on the box it came in. She was bending down halfway as if picking something up. Except there was nothing to pick. Half Coverage, Full Pleasure, the box said. Instead of forming stiff peaks on my front, the lacy part collapsed like a flat puri on my unformed chest. I looked for ways to make it fit better and found old handkerchiefs in Masi’s underwear drawer. Rolling them up into tight balls, I stuffed the hankies on either side of my trainer bra. Then facing the mirror, I bent down jutting my butt out, looking at myself picking something up. Sexy sexy sexy mujhe log bolein, I whispered the chorus from the latest Karishma Kapoor song, sexy—a word not allowed at home or school, even if it was in a song. I didn’t know what it meant but knew it was bad because the censor board had beeped it throughout the song. Good riddance, Papa had said then. I ramp walked in the nightie like Ms. Universe, kissing the roll of wrapping paper like it was my victory bouquet. I would like to thank my Tushar and my mother, I announced, eyes shut, when my mother’s voice hit my ears, Bubbly, she yelled, in her this-is-the-limit-of-silliness voice. Sorry sorry, I mumbled, hurriedly taking the hankies and the nightie off. I hated my pet name, Bubbly—it sounded so fat and boring and plumpy. When it’s your turn, I promise you, Bubbly, I’ll make you a much bigger trousseau. Why else do you think I save every month from whatever Papa gives me, she said, dragging me out of the room.
Mum loved mehendi and I one hundred percent hated it. Yet, she sat me next to Masi forcing me to get a small design made on one hand. It’s good luck, she insisted. I hated the smell of henna, herby and pungent—it made me pukish. Holding my breath, I admired the intricate designs on Masi’s hands and feet. The air thickened with the smell of sugar and lemon syrup being passed around in tiny bowls with cotton balls. Dabbing semi-dry mehendi with the syrup helps to darken the henna’s final color. And darker the mehendi, darker the love. Aunties started giving Masi more tricks on how to darken her henna: massage with clove oil, put your hands on direct heat, rub Vaporub all night into your palms. Nani hushed everyone, cleared her throat, and started singing a newer song, one of Mummy’s absolute favorites:
Teri mehendi woh dekhenge, toh apna dil rakh denge
Pairon mein tere chhupke se hariyali bani
When your groom sees your mehndi, secretly
he’ll set his heart on your feet, dear bride
Mummy started twirling round and round dancing with nobody in particular, her anarkali-style kurta twirling like an umbrella, tiny golden bells on its hem chiming as they brushed each other. I wondered if she thought of Papa when she danced. She passed me by and said, on your mehendi, I’ll wear the richest silk there is and dance all night long. Yuck, a stinky mehendi ceremony for me! Never. The mehendi wali asked Masi for her groom’s name. Dhruv, Masi said. D-H-R-U-V. As was custom, the mehendi wali scattered the letters of my new jijaji’s name in very fine print into the nooks and crannies of the design. Jijaji was supposed to find the letters on their first night. If the groom found all the letters, it meant their love would last forever. Their love better last, my grandfather’s voice boomed over the dholki. I was scared of him, his big bushy mustache, the scratchiness of his voice, irritating like radio static. He came closer and circled a bundle of cash over Masi’s head to ward off the buri nazar. Not once in four generations have we allowed love marriage in our family, isn’t it beta. He pinched Masi’s cheek then mine, you better make the love work. My Masi was my hero. Getting my stubborn nana to be okay with love marriage. Like I would have to convince my Papa one day. I whispered into the ear of the lady drawing on my hand, can you hide a T in my mehendi, just a T?
Jaaneman, you still there, Tushar asks on the phone. Water from the leaky balcony roof drips on my head. Annoyed, I go back inside. In front of others he calls me Bubbly, so when he says jaaneman my cheeks turn hot and I can feel the blood rushing to my face. I say, yes I am here, how can I help you, realizing I now sound like someone in a call center. Okay, should I play the keyboard for you, he asks. Yes please. I can now hear the notes to Happy Birthday To You. Patchy and broken. It is not my birthday. It’s the only song I learnt so far, he says. Too good, play it again, I say listening to him play it on loop, looking at Masi read.
A week after her wedding, Masi’s mehendi still looks glossy and dark brown. As brown as the bruise under her eye. She presses down her wound with a hot water bag, rotating the bag between her head and her lower back. Mummy had mentioned that Masi had had a fall on the escalator at the airport. I’ve never seen an airport, but I will soon, when I go on my honeymoon. Paris/London/Switzerland. How cute would Tushar look in snow mittens? I rub the little T in my mehendi like it’s a djinn’s lamp. I can’t label what Tushar is to me right now because we aren’t allowed to speak of such things. But if I close my eyes, I know he’s my husband. What else could he be? The game of F.L.A.M.E.S has proven it too. F.L.A.M.E.S stands for Friendship. Love. Affection. Marriage. Enemies. Sex. Look —
To play the game, first you cancel out the common letters between our two names, and then sum up the total number of leftover letters, 5+ 5 = 10
Now assign a number from 1 to 10 to each letter of F.L.A.M.E.S and 10 lands on M! And M = Marriage.
Although in our tradition after marriage the girl’s first name is changed by the husband’s family, depending on the letter the priest gives. What if that screws up my F.L.A.M.E.S prediction? Maybe the game doesn’t count after marriage, if marriage is the end point, which it is. I once showed Tushar this calculation scribbled in my notebook in our Maths coaching class, his middle-parted long hair falling over his rectangular zero-power glasses. He wears them to look intelligent. So what if he is mostly a C student? I am studious enough for both of us. He wrinkled his nose looking at my notebook not sure what it meant and I wished I could just touch the points on his nose where the nose pads left little commas on either side. He lives in the building opposite ours and whistles when he goes up and down his house on the fourth floor. The whistling is a code too, a cue for me to look out my ground floor window to catch glimpses of him. Wish I could catch his whistles in a jar. Funny, I want to keep his whistling locked away while Akshay and Shilpa get to frolic on a vast, empty beach. Songs are always in the open — Swiss mountains, giant American malls, fountains in Europe. No codes or secrets or long blank calls.
Tushar finally stops playing Happy Birthday. I want to tell him my stomach is hurting, but what if he thinks that’s boring? This pain is strange, it comes in waves, deep and unpredictable. Doesn’t feel like loose motions or constipation. Not even gas. Nothing’s been helping. Not Digene, not fennel, not Mummy’s praying to ward off the evils.
I should ask Mummy to look at it but I don’t want to hang up. Phone hidden behind my back, I walk to my parents’ room and wait by their slightly open door facing the kitchen, dinner dishes heaped by the kitchen sink, flies hovering over the plates. I am used to my parents fighting, it’s normal. Tonight they are yelling about whose fault it was that the maid hasn’t shown up. It goes on and on.
Papa thinks Mummy’s too free with the maid then mom says she’s absconding because you don’t pay her enough then Papa says money doesn’t grow on trees, why don’t we stop Bubbly’s dance classes? Of course, if I don’t become Madonna one day, you know why.
And Mummy asks then why don’t you allow me to work? and starts throwing in the air all the newspaper cutouts of job openings she’d been storing in a drawer like confetti and Papa says,
Enough drama, your sister is here, who’s going to pay to feed her?
Then why did you have to show up like a God to save her?
Leave her in the streets, then? Your father wouldn’t let her step foot in his house, why did she have to fall for this scam called love marriage?
She really loves him! How would we know this boy would beat her, and that, too, so soon?
Well, Papa says, Don’t I always say, never trust any man who works a 9-5 okay, businessmen are the only ones worth trusting.
Yes, like I trust you when you promise me that I can do a job when Bubbly grows up, how much more should I wait, and yuck, Bubbly again. I start pressing the points on my belly where the pain is eating at me. How embarrassing; I realize Tushar can hear everything. I cover the receiver on the phone, tiptoe out of the danger zone into the kitchen browsing the cabinets to find some cure. Why had jijaji beaten Masi? Mummy’s name before marriage used to be Kalpana meaning imagination and her name now is Niyati which means destiny.
Please hold, Tushar, don’t hang up ok? I cover the phone with a kitchen rag to mute their fighting. The pain I have been feeling all day now radiates through my legs as Papa says in a lower volume, make your sister understand, everyone gets angry once in a while, doesn’t mean you run away from your husband, it’s not like he’s having an affair or anything. Often I felt it was Papa who was cheating on Mummy by having an affair with money. By not telling her where he kept it, how much of it was there, how long it would last. And Mummy said you have to give it time, we can’t feed her back to the wolf right away.
I go back to my room, lay on the chatai and roll myself into a ball to suppress the pain. My body feels like parts of it are separating from me. My head is hot and spinning. Will you do it again? Tushar asks, referring to last evening and I whisper shhh. The jasmine tree outside rustles as the wind picks up again, it’s sweet night scent that I otherwise love, sickens my throat. Am I saddening Masi by talking to him, I wonder, given I have a boy now and she doesn’t?
Yesterday was Sankranti and last evening before sundown all of us kids were up on Tushar’s building’s huge tiled terrace watching the boys fly kites for hours. As the sky darkened, one by one the kids left and I hung around the gate hoping Tushar would sense my craving to be with him alone, praying Mummy wouldn’t scream my shitty name from across the building to come back home.
Alone at last, we sat cross legged at the edge of the terrace. It wasn’t Mauritius but it was something. We were surrounded on all sides by shabby old buildings, all in different stages of peeling paint. Breaks in the tiles pressed against the skin on my legs. That pattern would stay on my body even after he was gone. The Jain temple’s bell went off for the last prayer. Trickles of pressure cooker whistles from someone’s kitchen. Crow shit splattered all around us. Tushar asked if I was ready for a game. We were to find the type of fallen kite the other one had spotted and if we couldn’t we had to show the other a hidden part of our body. Pink with blue stripes, he said. I found the kite dangling over a ledge. Purple with green dots, I said. A quick look around and he said, nope, can’t see it and unhesitantly took his shirt off as if he’d planned it all along. I could see his nipples through his white banyan, small curly hairs under his pits. He smiled, his smile 80% gums. Heart shivering the way bridges do when a train runs by them, I forced myself to look straight ahead. Blue floral kite, he said. I was sure there was no such kite. Besides, all I wanted was to take my t-shirt off, my trainer too, pull my skirt and underwear down together in one go. I didn’t care how shabby my panties were, elastic loose, yellowish dab in the center. Didn’t care about the bra lines on my back, the bulge around my belly, or my belly button, weird and inward looking like a peephole. I wanted to show him everything. My skin, my shape, my moles and tickle spots. I wanted him to touch the part on my lip I bit all the time, the undersides of nails I’d ripped, my hips, my baby hairs, my one wiggly wild hair and all the songs I kept stored in my brain, all the lyrics, the dance moves I mimicked, the T growing warm in my fist. The hidden meanings of the color of mehendi, the hour I’d spent secretly darkening mine on a warm skillet in the dark, despite the shitty smell, after the house was fast asleep. I wanted the color dark. Badly dark. And deep. I wanted him to see all the places I went to each time he went up and down the stairs. How could I speak them into words, these places? Were there words for such things? Besides, we were supposed to hide, were we not? And what if I told him or showed him honestly what I wanted? Did he want that honesty? That much honesty? What if he hated it? I could trust him, I guess, his father was a businessman, not a 9-5 type. But would not hiding what I had make my love less real? This is all so confusing, I guess I am not studious enough to solve everything. What if I did become naked? In school I’d heard that a girl from tenth standard was pregnant because her uncle had touched her. But someone said it wasn’t touch, rather saliva that made you pregnant. Someone else said it wasn’t saliva but a sticky liquid a boy gave you. Touch or saliva or liquid, pregnancy is okay, but just not before marriage, right? Please, he said, your turn. Without taking it off, I pulled forward my shirt’s sagging collar so he could take a peep. He shifted closer. He smelled different than me, like worn, damp socks. He looked into the opening I’d created, looked up, then put his hand on my mouth and kissed his own hand. Fake kiss. Fake kites.
The phone is hotter than my head now. How long have we been on the call? Tell me, Tushar says, what are you wearing now? I feel something squishy in my pants. Is it pee? But that would be more drippy. I could ask mum but she’s in the kitchen, vociferously rubbing the aluminium coil on the greasy frying pan over the sink. That pan could be me next. Papa maybe? Smoking at the window, watching late night news. He always holds the cigarette out of the window to show he isn’t technically dirtying the house with this sin. Pointless, the smoke always rolls in. If I complained to him, he’d complain to Mum, What rubbish has she been eating? The sides of my waist hurt making me feel even more balloony than I am. I don’t want Tushar to see or hear me like this. I prick the new pimple hardening under my chin with my nail. Tushar’s voice gets louder, tell me, na jaaneman, if you don’t tell me, I won’t call you again. Ever.
What are you wearing? Does it matter what I am wearing? What is the right answer? I slink into the bathroom and sit on the pot noticing my black shorts becoming darker, patchier, moist. Just do this much for me, tell me what are you wearing? I pull down my night shorts and underwear to find that the square of water below me is suddenly turning red. Clotty and in threads. I touch my hand to my vagina and my fingers turn red over my mehendi. I sniff them. Stale and sour but sharp. This stuff doesn’t smell like blood from a cut. I let out a small scream and hold my breath. What happened, darling, Tushar asks. Had I hurt myself sleeping on the chatai? Was it what I did on the terrace with him? Was god punishing me for lying? Does the evil eye strike in the vagina? How would I explain this to Mummy? How would she explain it to the doctor? Would I never see an airport? Is it a skirt, are you wearing your yellow skirt? he asks. Is something wrong, Bubbly? Mummy screams from the kitchen. Nothing, I shout out, absolutely nothing, into the phone and to Mummy at once. You’re wearing nothing, Tushar’s voice, suddenly softer, tell me more. What comes after nothing? There are red fingerprints on the phone now, I panic and hang up. Run our leaky hand-shower over and over, all over the bleeding area. Wrap my waist with a drying towel and tiptoe back to my room avoiding Mummy’s gaze, panties and shorts bunched at my ankles. Masi looks at my sticky, bloody hands, the liquid smearing the empty spots in my mehndi design. I swear I didn’t do anything, I didn’t do anything wrong, Masi.
Mummy comes into the room, looks at my bloody underwear and gives me a hug, then a kiss, her fingers wrinkled, moist and lemony from dishwashing. Masi takes my soiled clothes and starts scrubbing the stains off at the common sink outside my room. Mummy brings out a big fluffy but firm pack of what I’ve often seen in her cupboard and lets me hold it. She sticks one of the pads into a fresh pair of panties and shows me how to line up the wings. Why are they called wings when they are tucked inside and must remain still? I snuggle the big pack of 72 pads as she slides the contraption up my legs. The brand name is WHISPER. I understand it to mean you have to be hush-hush about using it.
Yesterday on the terrace, seconds after Tushar kissed his own hand, I had taken his hand and placed it under my skirt but above my underwear. I didn’t want to show him that part of me, but was scared that if I didn’t he wouldn’t want me, besides I wanted to see how it feels, so I let him touch it without lifting my skirt. There was no liquid at all, of that I was certain. Even though I felt euphoric by his touch, I felt nothing on the inside, not gooey or mushy or liquidy. Maybe this is what real love feels like, I thought — at first you hunger for it as if your whole entire body, every part of it, is one large empty stomach, but when love touches you properly, you still feel empty, not a bad empty, but a satisfied empty.
Mummy lets me sleep on the bed with Masi and the two of us take turns sharing the hot water bag. I half close my eyes and sleep on my side. My body feels like it’s fattening and shrinking at the same time. I can see part of a purple bruise poking out from Masi’s bra. Like teeth marks. Will you be getting a divorce? I ask her as she cuddles me. Sshh, she says, the beads of her mangalsutra tickle the back of my neck, we don’t ever think that word in our family.
Preeti Vangani is the author of Mother Tongue Apologize, winner of the RL India Poetry Prize. Her work has been published in The Threepenny Review, Gulf Coast, Cortland Review among other places. A graduate of University of San Francisco’s MFA Program, Preeti has received fellowships and support from Ucross, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Pen America and the Center for Cultural Innovations, California.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021