Ammi and Baba’s wedding pictures are tinted violet and magenta, underexposed mishaps of cheap 1980s photography, and they seem deliberately vintage, fashionable even now, thirty years after they were first developed. The wedding album itself isn’t. It is a bulky plastic brown with a naked Cupid on the cover, frozen in flight over the embossed letters, Happily Ever After. When she was younger, Kiran spent more time inspecting this cover than she did flipping through the pictures. Cupid didn’t belong here, naked and brown and pointing arrows, looking more like a fat brown baby – any brown baby – than a Roman God of love.
In the pictures, Ammi is eighteen. Her arms are covered in swirling henna patterns: lotuses for purity, swans for beauty, blooming buds for fertility, and disguised among all these, slit cat-like eyes to ward off back luck. Hidden beneath her red sari, her legs are painted too. In the pictures, the henna is a deep black and looks almost tattooed. Ammi’s eyes brim with kohl and she does not have her glasses on. She will later say that she had basically been blind. Kiran can barely see her mother in some pictures: Ammi is buried under a red veil, green garlands, golden bracelets, brown encircling arms. In one picture, she is looking directly at the camera, lips parted in a perfect ‘o’, her nearsighted eyes completely dry. All her relatives, even the ones who don’t come around anymore, say that Ammi is beautiful.
Kiran Sharma has been exiled to a girls’ boarding school on the outskirts of South Kolkata. St Mary International School for Girls nests in 18th century British colonial heartland, its neighborhood built with imported marble and granite, fitted with towering plaster pillars and sweeping archways built to fit war elephants. The school itself is an imposing white building. It was constructed soon after the East India Company ships sailed away, but in the same architectural style, complete with faux fountain and garden hedges, and four gardeners to keep the flowers blooming despite the midsummer Kolkata heat.
Kiran has been here for a month, and though she had initially protested – cried for a week, and then all the way to the airport – she likes it after all: the identical pastel dorm rooms, the doves that nest above the windows, the high white ceilings. Best of all, she is in love. Daniel Heukels goes to St Anthony Boys’ School, across the wall from them. He plays tennis, and most importantly, he is white. There are no white girls at St Mary International School; they all go to Sherwood International Girls’ School in Patna. But there are a handful of white boys here, and this uniqueness makes them mysterious, which is the same as desirable for giggling seventh grade girls. Brown boys their age are shorter than they are, with ashy elbows, and faces that are either narrow and swarthy, or chubby and splotchy. But Daniel is neither swarthy nor splotchy, but seventeen and pale, and to them, wildly exotic. All of Kiran’s friends are in love with him too, and together they watch Hollywood movies and sigh over the dreaminess of Americans. They later learn that Daniel is Dutch, but this means nothing to them.
Kiran tells her new friends about her Mummy and Daddy and how they had a love marriage against their parents’ wishes. This much is true. Baba and Ammi had grown up as neighbours – much like her and Daniel! – their parents had been friends. But Baba was a Sharma and Ammi was an Agrawal, and besides, Ammi was fifteen and Baba was twenty-three. They had lived side by side separated by a brick wall, breathing, sleeping, dreaming, in parallel. Kiran is not clear about the details, and so in Kolkata she creates them anew: her Mummy and Daddy at the cinema hand-in-hand, sipping frothy milkshakes in cafés, riding to Taudaha and Chobar on a rickety motorbike. These stories are told in confidence to anyone who will listen, and teenage girls are always the first in line to hear love stories. Midsummer Kolkata, among withering flowerbeds, a new, often repeated story breathed out of desperate twelve-year-old lungs takes life, until Kiran’s old world seems a shadowy ghost tale, unreal, and belonging to someone else.
Kiran used to go to a day school in Kathmandu until Baba discovered that she had bunked classes for almost a month. He would have continued to be oblivious – not noticing that her uniforms never needed washing, or that she never seemed to have any homework – but a well-meaning neighbour, seeing her home day after day, had ambushed Baba on his way home from work. Baba had been humming to himself, completely unsuspecting.
It had begun by accident. Kiran stayed home sick one day, and then the next and the next. After several days it was decided – non-verbally between her and Ammi – that she needn’t go again. In the mornings she would change into her uniform and eat with Baba, but once he left for work, she would change back into her sleeping clothes and watch TV until Ammi went out onto the veranda for her daily yoga. If the world were to end tomorrow, underneath the rubble Ammi would be balancing in Astavakrasana. Once she so incensed her father-in-law, who was visiting unexpectedly and found her perched upside down in the living room, that he stormed out leaving behind both his hat and cane. Ammi says she let him go, and didn’t stop until she had finished her set. She had even practiced when she was nine months pregnant with Kiran, and ready to burst; still she saluted the sun, the earth, her belly extending in front of her, her own swirling universe.
On the slow sunny afternoons that Kiran stayed home from school, she would imitate her mother until she could no longer keep up. Falling back, she would watch Ammi progress through advanced steps, balancing on her arms, bracing against her elbows, lifting her feet and curving her spine backwards slowly, until her toes touched her forehead. Afterwards, Ammi would light a cigarette, lean backwards, weight on her palms, and puff up towards the sky. If it were a particularly lucid day she would tell Kiran stories – a real education, she would call it – of woman warriors in the Aryan civilization, of Vedic gurus who discovered the solar system simply by meditating, of Sanskrit calligraphy invented thousands of years ago to curve and skate on bark. Other days they would sit in silence, Ammi reading from one of her books, Kiran shelling peanuts bought from a passing hawker in a newspaper cone. Kiran doesn’t like peanuts, but Ammi seemed to think this step essential, perhaps a remnant of her own childhood, a long-forgotten routine with her own mother.
On some days Ammi was worse than usual. She would spend hours holding court, talking to invisible subjects, sometimes forgetting Kiran completely. On these days Ammi looked even more beautiful than usual: eyes flaring, face flushing, sunlight lighting her skin, giving her hair a glowing halo. She was Noor Jahan, she was Lakshmi Bai, she was Cleopatra, she was a Queen, a Warrior, a God. Kiran would grow hungry, but would ignore it, not wanting to rouse her mother from her trance, not even knowing if she could. Baba would frown when he came home and found the two of them perched on the veranda like two birds about to take flight. Sometimes he would find all the windows flung open for the monsoon and the mosquitos. Still he didn’t suspect anything, until a neighbour stopped him and asked him point blank: did he know that his wife and his daughter spent all day on the terrace smoking and talking to themselves?
Afterwards, Baba said that he did not know what to do about her skipping school like this, and that maybe boarding school would be better after all. Kiran knew that this was only a half-truth. He had wondered, and not for the first time, whether mother and daughter were too alike. She has heard the whispers at family gatherings, noticed how everyone looks at her and Baba, and pointedly asks after Ammi. Baba always tersely replies that Ammi hasn’t been feeling well. Relatives don’t let their children play with her; they pull them away like she were contagious, like the madness was within her too, dormant, evil, waiting to strike. She has her mother’s blood, they say. This Baba doesn’t notice.
Kiran was eight or nine when she first realized that her mother was odd. Other mothers did not smoke cigarettes and fall asleep on the veranda. They did not read heavy books about conspiracy theories and colonialism, did not forget to cook, to eat, to feed their children. Ammi used to go to work in an office, but she stopped suddenly and without notice, like a motor run out of oil. Baba had been upset, and the two of them would have whispered, and then heated, conversations, but nothing changed. At first Baba’s relatives approved – Ammi’s desire to work had been taken as yet another sign of her erraticism – but approval turned to dismay when they realized Ammi had no intentions of changing.
Other mothers did not scandalize their neighbours, their in-laws, did not scare their husbands. Kiran has seen Baba and Ammi arguing nose to nose in the kitchen, both shouting, until Ammi started slamming her wrists together, breaking her bangles across her skin. She did not cry. No, it was Baba who started crying, Baba who caught Ammi’s arms and held her close, her head to his heart. What can a man do when confronted with a Queen? Baba held her until she stopped struggling, and then started singing in her ear, Maya meri maya, until Ammi was no longer a Goddess but a dry-eyed beauty at twenty, at fifteen. They had forgotten that Kiran was there in the room too, that she ever existed at all, born out of the swirling universe they had created.
In August, Baba phones St Mary International School to wish Kiran a happy birthday. The girls sing, and there is cake, and Kiran is allowed to wear her Saturday clothes instead of her uniform, so that everyone – students and passerby alike – can see that it is her birthday. She wears jeans instead of a dress – her friends say that a dress would seem too attention seeking – and a new aqua blue shirt with sequinned swans on the sleeves. She has decided Daniel Heukels will finally notice her today. He will know that it is her birthday, and he will wish her, and she will say, oh what will she say? Kiran can’t decide.
She spends an hour in the garden that Daniel frequents, with two friends: Mahiya Afsari who is tall, and from Bangladesh, and Priya Harjai who is from New Delhi and plays squash. Mahiya and Priya are bored, they want to go back inside, but it is Kiran’s birthday and they must do as she says.
When Daniel appears, Kiran wants to change her mind. She wants to run, to hide, to fly away or be swallowed by the earth; she does not care which. She is rooted where she stands, heart in stasis. Too late, she realizes that she has sweated through her shirt leaving sad patches underneath her armpits. Daniel Heukels walks by. He does not notice her, even when she is stone in his presence and unable to move, a petrified aqua swan in a sea of grey and white.
That evening Kiran inspects her face in the bathroom. She is freshly thirteen and growing, but already she can see that her face is too plain: the eyes too far set apart, the nose too wide, the teeth large uneven squares. She is tall for her age, and heavyset; a man’s shoulders, her relatives say. Her eyebrows are bushy. Recently she’s noticed hair under her arms, below her belly, on her upper lip. Last month she even found two coarse black hairs sprouting from her jaw, and she panicked and plucked them out using only her fingernails. She stands on powder-blue tiles and stares into the bathroom mirror willing away her plainness. The foggy apparition is unclear, and when she squints, she can almost see Ammi, her brown nose and browner lips, skin smooth like butter and coffee, eyes rimmed with kohl. She stays there until the warden raps on the door, and then the illusion is ruined. Kiran is thirteen and alone and under florescent tungsten light, wrapped in an indigo towel hoisted to her armpits.
The next time Kiran goes home is a year later for summer break. She has grown two inches, and all her jeans fall above her ankle. She still loves Daniel, but everyone knows that he loves another girl, Supriya Shah, and they walk in the gardens together. The roses are finally in bloom.
Ammi and Baba both come to the airport to pick her up, and for a while they aren’t Ammi and Baba, but Mummy and Daddy. They go shopping for clothes and Mummy fusses over her hair. Daddy takes them to see a movie. It is a Hindi flick with one of the Khans, but Kiran will tell her friends it was Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Later Baba whispers to Kiran that her mother has gotten worse, but Kiran can see this herself, in Ammi’s unbrushed hair, her wild, still beautiful eyes. Ammi soon retreats to her books and to her veranda. Baba works late. In public, Kiran walks between them, a marionette between parallel plays that never should have met.
Kiran spends most of her time in her room, avoiding even Ammi’s summer yoga sessions. She has a dial-up connection now, her friends on the other line. Alone she stands up tall and presses one foot up against her thigh, both hands up and folded across her heart. But she has grown stiff, and her legs ache and tremble. Her feet are flat and heavy, not curved, not birdlike.
Baba brings home an office friend for dinner – Mira Auntie – who wears a suit and a golden wristwatch. Kiran has never seen a woman in a suit before. She wonders if Daniel would notice her if she wore a suit at graduation, instead of a dress or a sari. Mira Auntie is dark, darker than Ammi, and nowhere near as glamorous. She wears maroon lipstick, and has a deep throaty laugh, and when she laughs her entire body jiggles. After dinner she helps Baba clear the kitchen, and they linger. Ammi doesn’t notice. She is on the veranda talking to nobles, pundits, tradesmen. She is Sita, she is Kali, she is the setting Sun. These days she stays outside later and later, until the wind rises and stray dogs howl, long after Mira Auntie leaves.
The second time Mira Auntie visits, Kiran stays in her room, pretending not to hear Baba call from the living room to come out to say Namaste.
Mid-July, on the hottest day of the year, Kiran hears her neighbours yell, and she instinctively rushes to the veranda. Ammi has taken her clothes off, and is meditating naked and cross-legged on the warm brick. Kiran cannot take her eyes away from her mother’s smooth legs, her twine arms, the stretch marks around her stomach, the dark fur underneath it. Ammi’s hair is loose, uncombed, a golden halo. Her eyes are closed.
In a minute Kiran will run to fetch Baba, but for now she stands there looking at her mother, seeing her but also seeing past her, past the outraged neighbours, past the telephone lines and half-constructed buildings, past the inky indigo hills cupping Kathmandu. She sees further, to a time when strange women will parade in and out of this house, changing and replacing each other, while Ammi stands outside, unnoticing, uncaring, her skin getting browner, her arms, her wings, getting stronger.
A month later, when Kiran has to go back to school, she will take her parents’ wedding album with her. Three years later, when Ammi is taken away from the house and put into psychiatric care, Kiran will tell her friends her Mummy is dead from a sudden illness, and her Daddy is stricken with grief. She will like this phrase, stricken with grief, and will repeat it again and again. Her friends will find the tragic story extremely romantic. In that time, the album will have been shown to every girl at St Mary International School. The stories will grow wilder and wilder, and years later, even Daniel Heukels, by then back in the Netherlands, will occasionally remember the heavyset girl with shiny eyes who carried around a wedding album.