Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night and a mother at all times. Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print. Her short story Belles and Whistles was a finalist in the Open Road Review Short Story Prize, and her story Reading the Leaves won 3rd place in a contest held by the Creative Writing Institute. Check out her website or catch her on Twitter at @gargimehra.
by Gargi Mehra
On the morning of Naina’s visit from America, an argument exploded over our breakfast table.
Ma slapped butter on her toast in a huff. “These Mukherjees I tell you!”
Baba turned his rounded eyes upon her. “Why, what happened?”
“It’s bad enough they’re using us as a stopover. But I’m sure they’ll expect premium services for their daughter too. Maybe they’ll want us to take her shopping, or worse, for a buffet lunch at a five-star hotel.”
Baba, ever the accommodating soul, as long as the burden of responsibility never fell upon him, attempted to placate her. “You must help people, Promila. Someday our Reena might have to visit US for her higher studies. That time I am sure they will step up and do the same for us.”
He looked at me for affirmation, but I kept my head down and ploughed my way through my boiled eggs and toast.
Ma shook her head. “You know I am ever ready to help people. It’s just that… she is too…”
“Too… what’s the word… fashionable!”
“Oh, these young girls are like that. Not all of them have the good sense to dress as modestly as our girl.”
He gazed upon me rather proudly.
Ma said, “If you remember Naina, she’s the one who used to wear her skirt short and roll her socks all the way down.”
Baba clucked his tongue. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
Ma harrumphed, but it escaped his notice. He polished off the contents of his plate and left to pick up Naina from the airport. Her parents had emailed us a scan of her itinerary, and I, following Baba’s growled instructions, handed him a printout of it just seconds before he stepped out the door.
Naina landed at the Indira Gandhi International Airport on the first cool morning that signalled the onset of a Delhi winter. A misty fog swirled in the air and froze my palms. I slipped into my woollen pants, thermals and a cardigan, and shuffled to the balcony.
Five years Naina and I had spent together in school, hogging the last bench, doodling in our notebooks as the teacher’s voice droned on in the background. I sketched leaves, sunflowers and butterflies, but she indulged her creative expression in the form of rude drawings. Once the teacher caught her sketching what looked like three letter Us in succession, the middle one noticeably longer and thicker than the others. Mrs. Oak had snatched the paper and admonished her. Naina protested, innocence oozing through every syllable: “I only meant to draw a puppy, Ma’m.”
She proceeded to draw the rest of it, rendering the initial part of the sketch as the puppy’s face. Mrs. Oak stood there, her cheeks burning crimson and her nostrils flaring, unable to tell off Naina even though she probably knew this old trick herself.
I stood watch on the balcony that overlooked our lane, rubbing my hands together to offset the chill setting into my bones. The prospect of slipping on woolen gloves tempted me, but at ten in the morning with the sun streaming through, the thought embarrassed me. What would people think—that I had the tolerance of a llama to temperatures below ten degrees Celsius?
Presently, our car pulled up outside our gate.
Naina stepped out, looking like a plus-size fashion model, clad in skinny jeans, a leather jacket with fur at the lapel, and matching fur-lined boots. She looked up at me and squealed an effervescent ‘hi’. I expressed similar enthusiasm in my greeting, without really feeling it.
Ma joined me at the balcony and peeked downward, wrinkling her nose when she spotted Naina. “Still as fashionable as ever, isn’t she?”
I stayed silent. We watched them drag one suitcase each through the front gate, while the driver followed behind hauling three heavy bags.
Ma made no move to receive them at the door. I did the honors. Naina enveloped me in a warm hug, and conferred the same on Ma, who had deigned to present herself by then.
Naina shrugged off her stylish jacket and heaved out of her boots. I showed her to the spare room that would be hers for the day. We stashed her luggage in one corner and returned to the living room.
“How are your parents?” Ma asked, as we took our seats around the centre table. I poured tea for everyone, while Baba offered biscuits and sandwiches to Naina. She appeared famished, but politely answered Ma’s queries before wolfing down everything on her plate.
Baba drank his tea, and then stood up. “I’ll take your leave, ladies.”
We bid him a good day as he left for office. Ma spotted Naina’s drooping eyes and advised her to rest. She had only a few hours left before her flight to Kolkata in the evening. She would have to leave before sundown to get to the domestic airport in time.
Her tiredness compelled her to grab on to Ma’s advice like a lifeboat. She retired to her room exhausted but grateful. I looked in on her a little later, and found her sprawled on the bed in the same clothes she’d worn on the plane. She hadn’t even changed out of her skinny jeans.
We didn’t disturb her the rest of the day. When I stopped by her room at lunchtime, she appeared in the same comatose state as the morning.
Shortly after five, Ma hauled me up from my studies. “Go wake up your friend. She’ll need time to get ready, and I’m sure she’ll want some tea and snacks before she leaves.”
I nudged open the door, and found her awake and scrolling through her iPhone.
“Hey Naina! Had a good sleep?”
Her eyes remained fixed on her screen. “I’ve missed so many messages!”
She sounded a little like a diva who couldn’t afford to go ‘off-the-grid’, ever. I didn’t feel like hanging around if I wasn’t wanted, but I didn’t want to snap at houseguests either. “Don’t worry, you can always catch up later.”
She turned to me with a friendly smile. “You’re right! Just give me a few minutes—I’ll get dressed.”
In the living room, Ma had laid out the evening tea fabulously as she always did. Thin rectangular slices of sponge cake lay in a circular pattern on her fine china plate, and a stack of pakodas perched upon another one.
Ma slumped back onto the sofa, tired from deep-frying the fritters. I joined her and positioned myself in the middle, ready to start serving when the time came.
The minutes passed. I overcame more than ten levels of Temple Run 2. The pakodas lost their warm crispiness and grew cold.
Ma prodded me. “Why don’t you check on her? Take her tea to her room. She might be too tired to come out.”
I carried a tray containing a plate of pakodas and her tea to her room. Just as I knocked on the door, it opened.
Naina stood at the threshold, clad in the most stunning dress I had ever seen. It was navy-colored, and ended mid-thigh. What really set it off was white piping—on the décolletage, the hem and the edges of her sleeves. I knew little about makeup, but guessed she had applied a whole bag of cosmetics to her face. Her eyes sparkled, her cheeks blushed rosily, and a twinkling diamond pendant rested on the enormous long line between her breasts.
She had always been attractively curvy, but the dress accentuated her curves even more. I glanced at the white piping on her neckline. Even two pairs of socks stuffed into my T-shirt would not achieve the same effect.
I jerked my head up. She looked rather amused at my inspection of her cleavage.
“Your tea?” I muttered.
“Why don’t you keep it in the living room? I’ll join you there.”
I nodded and took the tray back.
Ma asked, “What happened?”
“She will join us here.”
I wondered if I should warn Ma, but as I struggled with the right words, Naina waltzed into the room. “Oh, what a lovely arrangement you have done, Aunty! May I pour you some tea?”
Ma scanned her, from the foundation brightening her face to the deep line between her breasts. Ma didn’t answer, apparently struggling with her emotions.
I said, “Of course. Please pour some for yourself—”
“—and for me,” Ma said, recovering just in time. “I just remembered I need Reena to take care of some work. Reena, come with me.”
She pulled me by the elbow into the kitchen, well out of Naina’s earshot.
“What is she wearing?”
“Just a dress, Ma! Why?”
But I knew why.
“There’s a reason this place is called the rape capital of India. It’s because girls go around showing their bodies like that. Its fine for actresses but—”
“Ma, please. Rapes don’t happen because of the dress. I hope you know that.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter! You modern girls will drive me crazy. Please go tell her to change her outfit at once!”
“Why should I do it? You tell her if it bothers you so much!”
“Listen, child, this is not a place to dress like that. If I say it, she will simply ignore it, because it’s an instruction coming from a mother. You can pass it off as friendly advice!”
“I will leave you two alone to gossip. Then you can try and slip her the message.”
She hurried back while I racked my brain for how I would pull off the task entrusted to me. By the time Ma excused herself from the room, I had hit upon only one way.
Naina had already plunged into juicy gossip. “Hey, do you remember Frank and Fatima?”
I nodded absentmindedly. Who could forget the hottest couple in our school?
Naina’s eyes shone excitedly. “Their parents came to know of their affair! There was such a hullaballoo about it!”
It might have felt strange to hear gossip about my local circle from a girl who had crossed the Atlantic, but that’s how Naina was—always equipped with the latest news about people no matter where she lived.
When she stopped talking to sip her tea, I pounced.
“Naina, don’t you think you will feel cold in that dress?”
She lifted a palm to stop me. “Reena, do you know what the temperature was in New York? Minus twenty degrees, and six inches of snow had piled up yesterday morning when I left! I had to take help from our neighbours to shovel it out of our driveway!”
I grasped for straws. “But here it feels colder than it looks.”
“Oh, don’t worry about me Reena. I’ll be fine. If you think this is cold you should visit Toronto!”
She burst into girlish laughter. I joined in rather nervously. When Ma would return and find me failed in my mission, I don’t know what would become of me.
Ma entered the room just then. “Naina, do you think—”
The bell rang, shattering her sentence.
I jumped to my feet. “I’ll get it.”
Baba stood at the doorstep, looking smart in his blazer. I couldn’t remember if he had it on in the morning or not.
He joined us on the sofa. Ma poured him a cup of tea.
We all looked around at each other. I looked at Ma. Ma glared at me. Baba and Ma shared a brief ocular exchange of their own. I lowered my eyes and bit into a pakoda.
“All set, Naina?”
“Yes. I’ll just pack some of my last-minute things.”
“Good, we’ll leave in ten minutes.”
A strange silence hung in the air for a moment before he said, “Naina, are you planning to wear that to the airport?”“
He took a long sip then set down his cup. “Listen, my child. I hope you have been reading the news. This is not a safe place. The crowd is not good. America is different. The people there are used to a more permissive open environment. But this is slightly different. Girls cannot wear exactly what they want to without inviting unwanted stares.”
Naina’s friendliness and mirth had disappeared from her face. “But isn’t that wrong? Isn’t it bad to impose restrictions on us rather than on the perpetrators?”
“It is absolutely wrong. I agree with you completely. But until such time every individual conforms to the right way of thinking, isn’t it better to exercise precaution?”
Naina looked down. So did I.
“You don’t have to listen to me. In fact I have no right to tell you what to do—you are nineteen now, both of you! But you are like my daughter. If you were Reena I would have said put on some pants and a jacket and we’re good to go.”
“But you are not my daughter. So I can only tell you what I feel is best. The rest is up to you—totally your decision.”
He picked up his tea. “Pass me a sandwich.”
Ma complied. For a few minutes no one spoke. I was still reeling from Baba’s speech. I had never heard anything like it from him. Ma looked rather pleased. The only sound came from the traffic outside.
Naina broke the silence. “I’ll just be back.”
Ma offered him the plate. “Have a pakoda.”
Her delight in his speech showed in her face. She could almost have added, “You’ve earned it.”
The three of us feasted silently. Naina returned wearing black tights and a sky-blue jumper over her dress. The outfit looked odd and mismatched. We exchanged glances. I didn’t know what she was thinking, but I liked to believe we had both arrived at the same conclusion—we had to sacrifice fashion for one measly additional layer of precaution that guaranteed no more safety. But maybe, the smallest things mattered more than we knew.
Baba placed a friendly hand on her shoulder. “You look beautiful as always, my child.”
She smiled, a delicate blush colouring her cheeks. “Thank you Uncle.”
As they were stepping out, I said, “Shall I join them Ma?”
Ma folded her arms across her chest. “You have not finished your assignments yet. It’s better if you don’t waste your time.”
Naina turned to me. “We’ll catch up more next time. I’ll FaceTime you from Kolkata!”
We exchanged another round of warm hugs.
I watched them drive away from my vantage point in the balcony.
Ma joined me. “Thank God she changed her dress.”
“Oh God, Ma, seriously. There wasn’t anything wrong with it, not nowadays.”
Ma flashed her eyes at me, but I saw fear in them, not anger. “Maybe, when you come to my age and have a daughter, then you might understand how I feel.”
I found nothing to say to this, and held my peace.
That night I dozed off immediately after dinner. I dreamt of navy blue dresses floating in a meadow where I chased them, while streams on white confetti fell and attached themselves to the edges of the dresses.
A ping from the phone jolted me awake. What had the dream meant? I never knew. I never understood dreams. Why did white confetti fall all over the place?
Naina’s message read:
Reached home safely.
I thought of padding over to Baba’s room to tell him the news, but then thought better of it. He might have seen the message already if he was awake—Naina would have sent it to him as well, but he had likely dissolved into snores already.
Naina didn’t FaceTime me from Kolkata. At least she had let us know she was safe.
Sometimes the small things mattered the most.
Copyright 2018 by Gargi Mehra