I hop over the 20 dot kolam and open the gate. I know I will be sent to Mayura Bakery and Sweets within minutes.
I look back at the four swans with cherries in their beaks, encircling a sharp leafed twig. They float on the street outside the gate only when special guests visit us. The guests who could potentially become family.
I remove my school shoes and carry them inside. The shoe rack has been shifted from the front door to the back door in honour of visitors.
I walk into the living room. A new diwan cover set with red elephants parading on them greets me. The diwan is strategically placed to catch the best natural light on its occupant. Notes of elaichi tea float from the kitchen as I make my way to the back corridor.
As soon as I place the shoes on the rack, Amma peeps out of the kitchen, and launches a barrage of words, “Usha…so late! Change clothes. Drink milk. Go get the sweets.” Then rotates the strainer in her hand and adds, “quick…quick.”
Yes. Guests are coming.
I change. Dip two Parle-G biscuits in the milk and shove them in my mouth. Gulp down the milk and pick up the green and cream wire basket.
“Same?” I enquire.
“Yes.” Amma sighs. And scoots to Akka’s room to check on her. Her silk blouse has already formed two sweaty circles at her armpits.
I catch a glimpse of Akka on my way out. An aunt is helping her drape the saree. I overhear her admonishing Amma,
“Meera, what is this? you have given her a green saree! Do you want her to look like a snake? A mustard saree would have brightened up her complexion.”
I see Akka’s face, aglow. Her eyes, ablaze.
My stomach knots. Would Appa have let this happen?
I grip the handle of the bag and step out onto the narrow alley. A neighbour from the opposite house gives a knowing smile and asks, “Guests?” I nod and quicken my pace. I dodge a cricket ball sent for a sixer by Sachin of the mahalla, and pat a country dog with a collar before reaching the main road. I weave my way through a ravenous crowd gobbling chat, samosas, jalebi and pastries on the pavement outside the bakery. I sense a few eyes that scrutinize my body and elbows that are ready to brush against it. I clutch the bag to my chest and reach the counter.
“Uncle, 12 samosas and half kg jalebi, parcel,” I shout. Over the din of the clattering cutlery and honking traffic.
I look at the items of sweet and savoury on display in a glass cabinet. An odd fly in the middle of it looks drunk with the sugary syrup and drags itself slowly through the traces of sold pastries.
“Here,” a shop assistant with callused hands plonks my parcel on the counter.
I pay and pick up the plastic cover that has two packets. Two packets, one sweet and another savoury. For the everchanging guests. Who have been visiting us for the past four years.
In these four years, my school uniform has turned from skirt to salwar kameez, Amma’s hair has turned from black to salt and pepper and Akka’s heart has turned from a swan to a stone.
I pray she transforms it.
Back then, when I could see through the window by climbing up on a cane chair, Appa used to fill the window box with seasonal flower plants. I remember him listening to M.S. Subbulakshmi on his Philips two-in-one every morning. The dew drops on shankhapushi wobbled with violet glee as the silken melody filled our home.
Akka had already started school. Once she came back, we would play in the backyard. We would check if the bananas were yellow or the papaya was orange enough to be eaten. We would pull down the lanky stalks of papaya, snap them, and turn their hollow bodies into floodgates of the dam we had made by digging the soil. The muddy water would whoosh out to the other side through the bits of the stalk when Akka poured mugfuls of water on one side. “Brown! Brown!” I remember gushing and clapping. I had just started naming the colours.
Years later, I understood it was not a colour. It was an axe that threatened to sever the bond that held us together.
An odd relative would smirk,
“Such nice features, if only she was a bit fair, like Usha.”
An ever-observant neighbour would advise Amma,
“Two daughters, so different” tch…tch… “Why don’t you try Fair and Oily?”
A random motley group on the road would whistle and snigger,
“Vanilla and dark chocolate!”
Every Sunday morning Amma sat us down with a bowl of warm coconut oil. She would dip her fingers in it and run them through Akka’s headful of luxurious hair. And then through mine. Afterwards, she would meticulously apply a face pack made with gram flour, rose water and turmeric powder on Akka’s face and just massage mine with rose water. I would scoop the leftover face pack and dab it on my face in patches. I was scared to leave Akka alone with that mask.
I didn’t want us to fall apart like the dried face pack. Bit by bit.
I wanted to round up all the advising aunts, pesky strangers, and Fair and Oilys of the world. Tie them to a boulder and toss them into the Arabian Sea.
But the only thing I got to scatter in the sea was Appa’s ashes.
“Hey, boy cut! please throw the ball”. The boy with shining eyes and a thin frame, who is new to the neighbourhood calls out. He too has joined the street cricket gang. I fume, wedge my basket in the crook of my left arm and throw the ball. The ball hits him hard and he makes a mock display of being hurt in his chest and then smiles. Something turns in my chest. I move past without giving a second look.
There’s a red and black Hero Splendour parked outside the gate. My father’s brother is here. To fulfil his role as the male head of the family.
I find him sitting on the sofa, in his cream-coloured silk shirt and dhoti with a maroon border. He is scrolling through the newsfeed on his mobile.
I smile and say dutifully, “Namaste, chikkappa.”
He waves his bejewelled right hand at me and grunts,
“Why so late, Ma? Hurry up. Guests would be arriving soon.”
I nod and mumble, “Okay chikkappa”. Amma dashes out of Akka’s room, snatches the bag from my hand and heads to the kitchen. She is a woman on a mission.
The Aunt comes out of Akka’s room and asks,
“Usha, are you going to stay at the neighbour’s place when the guests are here?”
She is not happy.
“Then stay in the room and don’t come out till they leave,” she warns and heads to the kitchen.
I go to Akka. She has changed into a yellow saree. Her face is impassive.
I sit beside her on the bed. The jasmine in her hair perfumes the air. We don’t say anything to each other.
A car engine sputters to a stop outside. Akka’s face looks pale.
I want to hug her tight and tell her, “Don’t let this get to you! Don’t let someone decide your worth.”
A beige-coloured house on black velvet. With a coconut tree flanked path leading to it. A school project done by Akka. Framed and hung on the wall by Appa. Time stands still as I sit in the room staring at it.
Akka has walked into the living room with a tray filled with chai. Amma has served the samosas and jalebis. The initial round of pleasantries has been exchanged.
I sit behind the closed door. Dreading the talk outside.
“What are your hobbies, Ma?” a gentle male voice inquires.
“Music, reading, movies...” Akka’s voice trails off.
“Ah! our Suresh also loves classical music… can you sing?”
“She used to sing as a child… now she is busy going to the office and coming… where is the time?” interjects Amma in a singsong voice.
“Oh! I see…can she cook? Nowadays, working girls think they don’t have to learn any housework.” Says a voice full of mother-of-a-son privilege.
“Ma, please,” cuts in a polite male voice, probably the son.
“Of course, she can cook. These samosas… she only has prepared,” Chikkamma chirps.
I hear a murmur and shuffling of feet. Footsteps approach and move away from the door. The toilet gurgles. The footsteps approach the door again and there is a sudden thud against the door. The door handle turns and the door bursts open. A heavy-set woman with her legs splayed on the floor regains her standing position with surprising agility. Her face is a mixture of pain and surprise. Amma and Chikkamma rush to her aid. I stand up awkwardly. The woman moves towards me. Uninvited.
“So…you are the sister?” she smiles brightly.
Amma and Chikkamma are flabbergasted and I have been turned into a hostage.
“How old is she?” she enquires Amma, her eyes scanning my form.
Amma gathers her kanjeevaram pallu, tucks it at her waist and mutters through her thin lips, “Old enough to be in school,” and turns to leave. Hoping the guest would take the cue.
But the guest lingers.
Till my sister comes and our eyes meet. Mine flushed with shame and hers with anger.
At that moment, I see her heart turn. From a stone to a diamond.
She says with a grace that makes my heart swell,
“I think this meet and greet is over. I have made my decision.”