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Oct 02, 2020

Desi Drama People of Color

It’s funny how people hold on to things. Somehow a frayed notebook carries memories of carefree days past, while a piece of glass reflects a shattered home. A dusty scarf smells like your favorite roast dinners, while a rusted gold ring reminds you of a cheap love. I guess it’s quite simple, really. Objects that others dismiss mean the world to you; they hold the sentimental values of your whole universe. 


Sometimes I look at the locket, turn it around until it starts to look like another scar on the palm of my hand. It isn’t rusted. It’s auerate glow is ever present, taunting me, urging me to flip it open and revel in its beauty just one more time. Just one more time. 


This locket means the world to me, and that’s why I have to destroy it. 


***

They never could understand my exclusive affection towards the golden circle.


“But it’s just not a toy,” the stout woman whose tag read “Melissa” said for what must have been the tenth time.


“It’s not, I agree. But this is what her grandmother passed on. Said it would make sense to her or something. Honestly, I don’t know how the child is going to entertain herself with a flimsy piece of chain, but I don’t care. If she’s lucky maybe the other children will take pity and share theirs, though I doubt it,” this time it was a gangly woman who spoke, her dyed red hair tied severely into a bun while she strut away, the click of her heels reflecting the pace of my rapid heart. Melissa shot me one last look of confusion, or was it concern?, then shadowed her boss until I was once again alone with my mother. 


***

The nostalgia reaches me before the heat of the growing fire. For a moment, I’m engrossed in a world that no longer concerns me, yet tries to pull me back at every chance. The river ripples with the vibrance and lights of Kolkata. The river ripples with the water drops making their daily appearance, signifying the dreary weather of London. I see her face, silky and ethereal, almost as if she was shaped by the water itself. I see her face, rough and tangible, for she was made of choppy waters and a burning sense of guilt. She touches me, a demure caress of the face that plunges me into warm oceans filled with my aged tears. She touches me, a concerned squeeze of the hand that plunges me into cold oeans filled with present anxieties. 


My mother and my daughter clash at the same time, splitting my head in two. 


One wants to pull me back to the past, while the other is vying for my attention in real life. 


***

The first few weeks at St Margaret Mary’s Foster Home were the hardest. It was a matter of elevated heartbeat and breath every time the social workers came to assess my adaptation. It wasn’t even the fact that I could be whisked away to an unknown family at any moment. I simply did not care for having been delegated the role of “orphan” by default. What worried me most was the thought of having the locket taken away from me. The workers would exchange hushed whispers right outside my door, as if the sound of their exasperation about the strange gold thing wouldn’t carry. In fact, it was all anyone could talk about. Even the other children, with their limbless rag dolls and stringless yo-yo’s gazed at me with a mixture of fear and maybe disgust. 


I wanted to blame them, I really did. I wanted to scream at their faces, all their faces. Spit blazing questions of why they really looked at me the way they did. Was it because I barely knew any English? Or was it the fact that my skin was a cocoa brown compared to their milky white? No matter the more viable options for their wary disposition towards me, I’d somehow always conclude that it had to be because of the locket. 


***

“Mama are you okay?” Sanjati’s fingers find mine, and I look down to see my daughter with an expression much like those kids from the foster home. 


“Of course I am, Sanj,” I squeeze her small hand, wanting nothing more than to take away that look and replace it with understanding. 


“Why are you looking at your necklace like so long Mama?” her eyes flit from the locket now dangling dangerously over the flames back to my face. She’s only six, she can’t understand. 


“Don’t worry beti, it’s nothing.” It’s a meagre response for a question she didn’t even know was so profound, but the Urdu word of endearment, ones we had become so used to translating to English, seemed to soften her edges.


“Okay Mama. Oh ya, Baba said the funerohl guests are arriving for Daadi and also he said you should come down,” she sang as she skipped out of the room. The memories stopped for a second to let the moment sink in. A small smile played upon my cracked lips. She hadn’t called her Grandma ‘Daadi’ in ages. It sounded nice. Maybe going back to speaking Urdu in the house would be nice too. 

***

The form was long, littered with unnecessary formalities that seemed more for show rather than for the genuine wellbeing of the orphans. One of the requirements stipulated was for the temporary guardian to pass down their favorite childhood toy to the kid. For some reason, the home didn’t even have enough decency to provide their own entertainment.


When my Grandma wrote that she would be passing down my dead Mum’s locket, they didn’t think much of it. Though the instructions clearly stated that the form was to be taken strictly, the carers thought that this just had to be a joke. So it was only natural that when it was delivery day, my Grandma cupped the locket into my hand, and the joke was on them. 


“They may not understand this Saffa, but that’s the point. No one but you should be able to know why this locket is so special. It’s hard for me to explain in words, but I can tell you this. When your Mama was your age, I used to sing her a special song. It would be the same song, everyday before she went to bed, and I knew she’d dream of me, just as my mum knew that of me. You see, this locket has been in our family for generations. As long as you sing the same song to your children, all it’s beauty shall be revealed. When you open it up, it shows a picture of your parents and a song so quiet only one who puts it right to their ear can hear it. It’s the same song, and somehow it has the effect of putting you to sleep and letting you dream of whatever or whoever is associated with it. I know your Mama used to sing you the same song, because I told her to. It’s sort of like a preserve in case anything horrible happens to those closest to you. It’s sort of like magic.”


Of course she had said all this in Urdu, but my preteen British upbringing served me well as now I can recall this in lucid English. Of course, I also didn’t understand a word of what she had said, but I guess words really didn’t do it justice. No amount of drawn out or succinctly said paragraphs could prepare me for what that locket truly opened up to.


That night, as I hesitantly opened the shiny gold circle around my neck, I found myself looking at the youthful faces of my Mama and Baba. My Mama and Baba before they became ghosts floating around the burning car near the River Ganges. My Mama and Baba before I was told I couldn’t live with my Grandma because she was a poor widow who wouldn’t be able to care for me properly. My Mama and Baba before.


And then I heard the song. The same one I never knew my Grandma sang to my Mama. The same one my Mama sang as a lullaby, the one I loved and knew off head. It was barely audible, even in the silence of the dorms where I usually spent my time alone. But as I brought it closer to my ear, I could hear the dulcet tones, coupled with the mellifuolous voice of a woman that felt familiar yet unknown. 


Meri beti rona band kardo, 

meri bachi me apke saat hamesha hoo… 


The soft melody drifted between my ears, and though I remember everything else in English, the song was the one thing that remained in my language. 


My dear stop your crying, 

My child I'm with you forever…


And suddenly my eyes started to flutter. On off. On off. On off. Off. 


On? 


It shouldn't have felt real at all. It shouldn't have felt real because I knew it wasn't. It wasn't because my mum wasn't real any more. But somehow she was right there, standing, floating, by the river. She reached out to touch my face, and it was all so real. 


"Hello, my dear girl. I knew we'd meet again." 


***

And we did, every night, and sometimes even during the day, in my dreams. 


***

The fire is dying down now, just like my memories of the past. In fact, it seems as though everything is dying these days. 


Today is my Grandma's funeral. Sanjati's daadi's funeral. She died two weeks ago, and that day was the first time I didn't transport myself to another world in twenty seven years. 


I knew that if I did, my Grandma would join my mother. And I wouldn't be able to handle it. I'd become even more distant from husband and daughter. I wouldn't just lose myself in the past; I'd become it. 


***

"You're pregnant," Mama mused as she glanced at my belly by the river bank. 


"Yes," I responded with pride, knowing that the woman I was today, and the child I bore would be nothing but a futile hope without her and the locket.


"Have you thought of a name for her?"


"How do you know it's a girl?"


"Really?" she teased with a smirk. It often seemed to elude me that Dream Mama transcended the tangible mind. 


"Of course… " my voice rang with mirth, realising that she must already know the dynamics of my unborn daughter. 


"Should I tell you what you named her?" Mama asked hesitantly, her red sari with gold lining fanning out over the water. 


"Isn't that kind of like cheating?" My own maternity dress, although Western, created ripples just below the knee. I thought about it for a minute, then conceded. 


"Sanjati." Mamas reply was tainted with a smile. 


"What does that mean?"


"It's a Bosnian word, but it was the closest to sounding Indian too. It means dream."


I was impressed with my own creativity, although I know Adam, my husband, probably had a hand in it too. 


Sanjati. Dream. It was perfect. 


***

My daily escapades with my mum taught me English, and everything else better than any school or teacher could. Not that I had an education anyway. Ironically, it was my newfound intellect shrouded in mystery that got me adopted by a rich white family who lived on the coast of Devon. 


They weren't too fussed about it though; they attributed it to my Indian heritage, rather stereotypical, but they genuinely had my best interests at heart. 


I was enrolled into a fancy international school, and though I was a recluse (I preferred the midnight company of my Mama), the school did the trick. 


I got into a prestigious university, passed with honours, met a guy my Mama was surprisingly fond of (of course, he never knew so) and within two years of marriage and a high tier house in London, got pregnant with Sanjati. 


Was the reason for marrying early getting a child? Was the reason for wanting a child in the first place sinister? Was this all because I was obsessed with a gold circle, obsessed with the prospect of my premature death, and obsessed with passing on the only possession left to love? 


Maybe. 


***

"But why is she transferring from an Indian orphanage to a British one? I thought her family… you know..." the case worker in charge of my transfer on the British side talked fast and low to her coworker while I sat on a lonely chair, not understanding through the words but by the jittery looks and hand gestures. 


"Apparently her parents had been setting aside money for her education in the future, which has amounted to quite a sum. Plus her grandma offered most of the rest of her money for this," the coworker said matter of factly, as if he had to explain this a lot to people who couldn't possibly fathom a poor Indian kid coming to England in non-shady ways. Or at least I think that's what he said. That's what he should have said, since it was the truth, but maybe he spun something else that made people look at me the way they looked at something they didn't understand. 


***

For the longest time, I thought passing down the locket would be one of the greatest gifts I could give my only child. Until my Grandmother died, and the legend of her imparting the locket upon me hit like a ton of bricks. 


My whole life, I had been living in a world that wasn't mine. Holding on to a reality that didn't exist. Sacrificing my actual reality for a pipe dream. A golden pipe dream.


The last time I visited my Mama, I told her that Grandma was dying. She told me it was about time, though her eyes reflected the water in a different way then. She told me she was sorry for keeping me so long, and that I should stop visiting her. She told me to say hi to Grandma from her before they both dissapeared. I told her how unfair it was that she never got the chance to use the locket. She told me fate isn't always so kind, and that grandma understood. She told me that I should stop visiting her. 


I want to destroy this locket, burn it to ashes, so that it can never give hope again. I don't want to stop singing the song to Sanjati, for the song has been my only constant. Destroying the locket is the only way. 


And yet I walk down to the living room, find my way towards Adam and Sanjati before the guests do, and squeeze it into her hand. 


"What's this, Mama?" She looks up at me with her naive brown eyes, no idea of the power she holds. 


"It's just a necklace. To hold Baba and I close to your heart." I smile as I take my husbands hand, knowing that I have a lot of making up to do. 


Maybe one day Sanjati will figure out that the locket is more than just our faces when we were a happy couple. Maybe she'll see me in her dreams, and hopefully I'll still be alive when she does. Maybe all of that will happen, and maybe it won't. Either way, that locket meant the world to me.


And now I've given it to my actual world. 


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10 comments

Zainab Jagani
16:15 Dec 06, 2020

The way you go from one tense to another is remarkable and it all ends up making sense, answering each question the reader may come up with. The culture; urdu sari hits home !good job!

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Aqsa Malik
13:21 Dec 07, 2020

Thanks so much Zainab <3

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04:40 Oct 03, 2020

Plus, I love the cat in your profile pic

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Aqsa Malik
10:35 Oct 05, 2020

I love cats so much!

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04:40 Oct 03, 2020

Wonderful story filled with emotion! I enjoyed reading :D

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Aqsa Malik
10:35 Oct 05, 2020

Thank youuu

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19:09 Oct 06, 2020

Another wonderful story. I love the emotions and characters - well done! That last sentence got me teary-eyed. It's so wonderful to read about a parent-child's relationship. ~Ria

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Aqsa Malik
11:58 Oct 07, 2020

Thank you so much! <3

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Maya W.
01:32 Oct 02, 2020

Wow, Aqsa. Wow. You've really outdone yourself here. I could truly feel the emotion coming from the words on the page - the fragmented thoughts, the symbolism, the writing style...just breathtaking. Amazing. Side note: I adore the name Sanjati and might steal it for me own story, if that's okay,

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Aqsa Malik
10:34 Oct 05, 2020

Thank you so much, Maya! And I don't mind at all :D

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