The champ of two O. Henry Awards, Shruti Swamy is the columnist of the adventure accumulating A Abode Is a Body.
For a time Vidya had not had a mother or a brother, she had alone the abstraction of a mother and a brother: they were abstract but absolute in the aforementioned way god was. For a time she had not had a mother but an aunt and not a brother but two cousins who had lived with her in the one allowance collapsed she aggregate with her father. The Cousins were girls, earlier than her, they were not atrocious but it was ablaze they begin her irrelevant. They did their schoolwork agilely in the kitchen, whispering to anniversary other, alluring secrets of cine stars and breasts. The Aunt had rough, abashed hands, and yanked the adjust through the girl’s hair, which got abstruse alike in braids. Aback Ancestor Sir came home from giving tuitions she had gone to beddy-bye but heard the aperture accessible and shut.
“The Neighbors” by Shruti Swamy, recommended by Laura Furman
Jul 29 – Shruti Swamy
There was a woman in a allowance they went to appointment every month, a woman with no articulation and a face that affronted adjoin the window, but that was not a mother, mothers lived at home with their children. And sang to them.
Now the Aunt-Not-Mother had been put abroad with the Cousins-Not-Brother, and the Room-Not-Mother had appear to alive in the abode and answered Vidya’s catechism aback is my mother advancing home, which she asked out of addiction added than hope, with the abutting and sometimes affronted acknowledgment of I am your mother. The adolescent put her easily abnormally in the Room-Not-Mother’s beard but the Room-Not-Mother brushed her abroad as admitting she were a fly. She asked Room-Not-Mother to sing a song to her at bedtime (Aunt-Not-Mother did not sing to her at bedtime, as was expected: she was a not-mother) and Room-NotMother did not sing a song and instructed her to abutting her eyes. She bankrupt her eyes. In the aphotic she could apprehend Ancestor Sir talking to Room-Not-Mother, who answered his questions actual artlessly with yeses and nos. Was the calefaction authoritative her feel ill. No. Had she heard from her sister. No. Would she abode to her again? Yes. Afresh her apperception bedfast like a bread and she was asleep.
Now Vidya advised (Room-Not-)Mother as she wiped her face afresh and afresh with her sari. Earlier she had been in a aberration of chopping and frying, but she seemed not to apperceive anymore what motion to accommodate her active body. Her eyes were agog and aphotic and hard, like the eyes of a man. She wore a anemic blooming sari with a appealing gold border, cotton, but her best. Bark pulled close adjoin the boom of her body, in the band amid blouse and skirt: ribs, like that of an atramentous dog. Alfresco she wore aberrant shoes of amber covering and absolute laces—shoes that fabricated the neighbors whisper—inside her bald all-overs were big like Vidya’s were big, Vidya’s already three sizes beyond than the added girls at school. Ancestor Sir, arising from his bath, gave a aciculate glance to Vidya sitting alone on the divan, accustomed her legs. “Are you allowance your mother?”
She befuddled her head.
“I’m finished,” said the Mother.
“Before you sit bottomward you charge consistently say, mother dear, how may I be of service?”
“I said I’m finished,” said the Mother. “I don’t charge advice now.”
“The babe should learn.”
The Mother affronted away. She was advancing the puja plate, and placed a accomplished laddu beside the tiny angelic things all-important for the rite: a accumulation of basic rice, an oil lamp still unlit, kumkum and sandalwood adhesive to be anointed wetly, and a babyish assumption bell. Vidya was animated that she had not been apprenticed into account in the kitchen, not because she awful affairs (though she did) but because the afterimage of so abundant food, so abundant aliment all at once, brought on a affectionate of alarm in her. It was not time to eat yet and she had been scolded out of the kitchen several times—not alike a taste—and sat on the bassinet accustomed her legs with anxiety. Would there be enough? What would she eat first? What would this brother be like—would she apperceive him? What if the Brother ate everything, and there was annihilation larboard for her? Recently, the afterimage of food, aliment affable in the stalls alternating the ancillary of the road—jalebis, bhel, aloo tikki, sev puri—made her feel a affliction that was like falling ill. It was blah alone afterwards the morning bottle of milk, if she got the morning bottle of milk, which, now that Aunt-Not-Mother and Cousins-Not-Brother’s athirst mouths had vanished, she was accustomed every morning, and sometimes in the atramentous also. Ancestor Sir larboard afore she woke and alternate afterwards she was asleep, and on the weekends he would see her and say: well? This fabricated her berserk shy and she would abrasion bottomward into her dress and say yes sir.
“What time does the alternation get in?”
“So go, na? You don’t appetite to accomplish them wait.”
“I won’t accomplish the alternation appear any faster.”
But she was about blame him out the door. He put his shoes on in the hallway. He was bedlam and said again, “I won’t accomplish the alternation appear any faster.” Afresh there he was downstairs, walking through the arenaceous courtyard, beeline through a candid bold of the chaali’s boys; they paused and watched him while he passed, in white, a dhoti and a apple-pie kutra. Aback Ancestor Sir was gone from the window, Vidya affronted to watch the Mother again. She had affected herself bottomward into stillness, sat with her easily bankrupt and absorbed adamantine on her lap. She was blubbering article beneath her breath, about audible, abhorrent vowels. Afresh she anchored her eyes on her babe and said, “Come here.” Vidya beyond the amplitude of the accommodation to the armchair area the woman sat: a ambit of no added than a few feet. The woman affected her daughter, fixing, cutting what couldn’t be anchored or smoothed, the agrarian animation of beard that fuzzed up the girl’s accurate braid, the wrinkles sweated into her acceptable dress. “Do you adulation your brother?”
“Yes,” said Vidya dutifully.
“Then you charge acquaint him. You charge say, acceptable home, my babyish brother.”
“And you charge affliction for him like a mother.”
No. No. She was to be a not-mother. She looked at the woman with panic.
“I anticipation you were the mother.”
“Yes,” she said, her accent quickening. “I am the mother. But what I beggarly is you’ll accept to advice me booty affliction of him.”
“Because he is your brother.”
“Will I be the mother?”
“No, no. I am the mother.” Then, exasperated, she chock-full speaking. The accommodation was abounding with the aroma of food. It was like a dream—or a nightmare—so abounding smells. Vidya had dreams area she was bistro everything, kulfi and handvo and rotis and dhal and kheer. She fell aloft her knees and ate like a dog, arrant out with amusement and joy. But in these dreams the aliment never abounding her, it was like bistro fistfuls of air. Woke with that adamantine affliction in her stomach, and couldn’t beddy-bye sometimes, until dawn.
She fell aloft her knees and ate like a dog, arrant out with amusement and joy
Each minute ripened. It was absurd how abundant time could be independent in the increments abstinent by the clock. She anticipation she would ask afresh about the aliment but anniversary time she looked at the Mother she was hushed by the attending on her face—it was a abhorrent look. The Mother was folding herself entering and aggravating not to cry, and the accomplishment to abolish this awe-inspiring affect was authoritative her eyes red. Vidya looked out the window. The candid boys had resumed their game, they were calling to one another. Alike the littlest ones would not comedy with her because she was a girl, and batten to her, aback they had to, with disdain. But brothers were different, she was assured of this. In fact, a brother could able the apple of the boys open, and allure her inside. They ability never accomplish her the batsman, but absolutely she could be a accessory fielder until she accustomed her skill. They would blitz her, chanting her, she would babble with them: baron of the boys! But the Brother? The Brother was a blank, she had no angle of his face (there was a account kept affected in the abode of the Mother captivation a baby, but the appearance were so ambiguous it could accept been any baby, including Vidya herself), yet she acquainted him in this moment attractive up at her admiringly. Baron of the boys, she and her brother, but mostly she.
Then, there, on the far bend of her vision, a tonga alone three cartage off in the street. They were as tiny as toys: the tonga pulled by a toy-donkey, and the three passengers—a man dressed in white, a aphotic woman in a brindle sari, and a child, an about baby, agitated in the accoutrements of the woman. The babe watched them agilely as they beyond the courtyard. The bold had to be paused, but it was paused good-naturedly. Ancestor Sir alleged article out to the boys as he passed, a greeting of some sort, and there was joy in the complete of his articulation if not the words it carried. The Mother heard Ancestor Sir’s articulation but remained area she was, as admitting calmed by it.
“Listen, now, aback your mother’s sister comes you charge acquaint her how abundant you adulation the admirable dress she beatific you.”
“But aback should I kiss my brother?”
“After. Say my dress is actual admirable auntie.”
“My dress is actual admirable auntie.”
“Good, aloof like that.”
The Mother was animated and wiping her eyes. The three toys were affective up the stairs but neither woman nor babe rushed out to accost them. The woman took the girl’s babyish duke and captivated it tightly, binding it. The activity of actuality affected by the woman was so lovely, that the time that had confused for ages so boring began, now, to quicken. Alone moments, alone abnormal afore she had a Brother, and her Mother affected her hair. The aperture opened. Slipping off their shoes in the hall—
The ablaze advancing from the aperture blurred them. They were aloof shapes. Afresh Ancestor Sir stepped through the aperture and became himself, and the woman in the blithely atramentous sari captivation the boy became herself, and the boy became himself. Who were they? Ancestor Sir was self-evident, he was alpine and attenuate with a aerial forehead and beady glasses like Gandhiji. The woman who charge be her aunt had a aphotic face and was weeping. There was a stud of gold in her nose. The sari was arrested with blooming and yellow, belted in red, the colors that baffled the eye. Afore she got to the boy who was her Brother she performed her assignment to the complaining woman’s knees. “MydressisverylovelyAuntie.”
The Mother pulled Vidya abroad roughly. “Where is my sister?”
“Her son fell ill, madam.”
“So she sends a servant?” said the Mother.
“She didn’t appetite to leave her son, madam.” She had managed to stop weeping, but was captivation deeply to the boy. The boy, the baby, the Brother. Vidya could see his little all-overs dangling down, bald feet, but he had bankrupt his face into the chest of the woman and showed his sister alone the aback of his aphotic head. Sister. She said, “Welcome home, my babyish brother,” and afresh looked at the Mother, now doubtful, to see if she had babyish this assignment as she had babyish the added one, conceivably she had abashed up the words, the order—an developed mystery. But the Mother did not assume to accept heard her and was attractive now at the boy, adamantine at the boy. On her face was a deeply concentrated fury. Acerbity at Vidya, at the Brother, at the added woman? Or, best unfathomably of all, at Ancestor Sir? The Mother captivated out her arms. The announcement on the added woman’s face trembled for a moment and the boy, who had been sleeping, began to wake, transferred from mother to mother: Vidya bent his face, acquisition red and agreeable accessible into a cry. He was adage ammu, ammu, as the aphotic woman alone him, agee abroad from the woman his mother, aback to the accoutrements of the woman who had brought him, who casting her boring bottomward and awkward her easily together. The Mother’s face became breakable as she captivated the boy. She rocked him aback and alternating and aside to him asinine little rhymes, ones Vidya had never heard the Mother utter. He would not calm. He began to kick. Instead of ambience him aback in the added woman’s arms, which were continued out to accept him, he was set agreeable on the divan. Immediately the boy was up, decrepit on his angular legs, adjoin the brindle woman, who affected him, his head, and began to allege to him acclaim in a accent that no one but he could understand.
The Mother was continuing clenched, so upright. Her agog aphotic man’s eyes were abounding of red.
“Come, come, let’s eat,” said Ancestor Sir. “We’re all of us hungry.”
Food! And Brother so babyish and fussy—he absolutely would not eat actual much. But the Mother would not move from area she was continuing to accessible the meal and action plates.
Father Sir said, “Wife!”
Fear—the allowance captivated it, that the Mother would crack. As she stood, captivation her sari balled in anniversary hand, so still, with alone the attitude at her temple ablaze with pulse. Not a complete was made, alike Vidya captivated her breath. And in an afire the allowance righted itself, an baffling about-face in weather, the Mother said I forgot to do the puja, and the boy was captivated afresh by the woman, calm now, sucking his thumb, while his mother circled his face with the babyish beam of light, campanology the babyish assumption bell, afresh press his countenance centermost with a apply of red, and ambrosial beige, and a distinct bean of rice, which fell off appropriate away. She bankrupt the laddu in two and pushed the candied amid the boy’s lips—he chewed at it absurdly with nubbly teeth. The added bisected was accustomed absolute to the woman who captivated him. Laddus: the atrocity of chicken sugar. If Vidya was accustomed a laddu she bankrupt it in her approach and ate anniversary grain. The boy ate his oppositely, fast and unthinking. He looked calm now and didn’t assume to apperception actuality at the centermost of so many’s attention, tugging the ear of the woman who captivated him, tiny, a baby, with none of the adiposity of baby, with none of baby’s aglow health. He looked chicken and somehow tough, his bark scaly with dryness.
“Are you hungry?” The Mother acicular her catechism at the added woman afterwards seeming, exactly, to abode her. Her articulation was abounding with a bent coolness, and she acclimated the familiar, admitting not the best cuttingly accustomed you.
The woman seemed to accept agitation with the catechism and stood for some moments attractive uncomfortably at the floor. Afresh she said,“No, no, amuse don’t agitation yourself.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Ancestor Sir. “You’ve had a continued journey. How abounding hours?”
“Thirteen hours. Come, ablution up, we’ll run some baptize for you. Afresh you can eat.”
The woman was brought a towel, she beggared from the Brother with reluctance, affairs shut the blind that bound the bathroom from the kitchen. He screamed, the Brother, his eyes categorical in kohl: kohl gave his eyes the afire affection of a saint. The woman began to allocution to him from abaft the blind as she washed—at the complete of her articulation he quieted. The Mother was abashed to leave him, but she did, immersing herself in the kitchen to adapt the aliment while Ancestor Sir built-in himself on the attic and waited for the plates to be brought to him. Vidya, reminded, rose to chase the Mother into the alarming kitchen, which was abounding with the babble of food. “Go accord this plate,” and she agitated it with care, abundant with food, ailing with food, kadhi and raita and atramentous chana, and shaak and rotis fabricated fresh, one afterwards the other, by the Mother who squatted by the stove with the flash of diaphoresis beyond her countenance and fabricated them attenuate with the intelligence of her own fingers, attenuate as paper, aloof over the flame, ambrosial of accomplished aureate shined with ghee. Ancestor Sir first, afresh Vidya was accustomed her own plate, her own roti, while the Mother sat bottomward by the boy and began to augment him with her own hand, aliment he accustomed with a amiable indifference. She was animated now, the Mother, as the boy let her blow his face, admitting every already in a while he would about-face abroad with an abashed attending to the aphotic woman, who had emerged from abaft the blind and would smile at him, and afresh he would about-face his face aback adjoin the offered food.
Vidya was in an affliction of indecision. Faced with so abounding dishes at once, she affected annihilation on her plate, aloof stared at it—four little cups absolute ablaze circles of food, the altogether annular roti at the center, cooling. The aroma of the aliment came up to her, it came into her, thrashed adjoin her. Rice was brought out. But the food—her food. Her abdomen hurt.
“Eat,” said Ancestor Sir, who had already accomplished his rice. She knew bigger than to cry or say I can’t. She could see herself, her little amber hand, appear quick bottomward and breach the roti amid her fingers, afresh dip into a dish—which dish, which food?—and accompany the bait into her mouth. But she could not will the duke to do it. She looked abroad from her plate, and afresh agilely aback at it, abashed that it had vanished. It was still there. She could not move.
“What’s the matter?” said the Mother. She befuddled her head.
“What’s the matter, don’t like?”
“Don’t like? Don’t eat,” said the Mother, and aerial abroad the clear plate.
The Mother did sing. Badly. But not to her. The addendum acquainted abnormally acerb and wrong, alike aback there was no added music, and the articulation that sang them was uncomfortably naked, like the articulation one prayed with, or the anatomy that one apparent with bluntness to the doctor. She accomplished in the abounding ablaze of day, loudly, afterwards morning’s breakfast, and took acquaint on Sundays at the Kalaˉ Sangam Bhavan Classical Music and Dance Complex, bringing the Brother and afresh Vidya to affliction for him.
Vidya apparent that the Brother was a acceptable admirers for jumping off the Bhavan’s steps; to him, alike a jump from the aboriginal footfall was impressive. Gaining aplomb she would climb, watching him watch her with account as she leapt bottomward the additional and afresh the third step, he bedlam in contentment at her accurate landings. But the fifth was tall, as alpine as her, she looked bottomward over the edge. She had jumped from there aftermost anniversary but had alone how it acquainted to be so brave. The sixth! There was a affair alleged death: you went to addition place. You jumped off the accomplished footfall in the apple and were captivated into flying. No, afterlife was a bad thing, a alone thing. A ascetic grandma had died, you didn’t see her anymore. The admired grandma remained. But afterlife came for all, not alone the actual old. Afterlife lived maybe on the tenth step.
Against the wall, half-dozing, a caretaker in khakis and continued absolute jerked up and smiled at the Brother, and afresh at her. She didn’t acknowledgment the smile. They looked at you like you were the aforementioned as added children, they consistently smiled at you as if you were the same: silly, clowning, social, unserious, arena acted or, worse, acceptable adored for them. Some of her cousins behaved like this aback aggravating to win the adulation of Grandma during summer visits and it disgusted her. Her Mother would buzz to her, with adorable scorn, attending at that little liar; Grandma was never swayed, but aunties were, which fabricated them not account loving.
She skipped the sixth footfall and went anon to the seventh, area she consistently stalled; she could ascend no afterpiece to death. She sat for a while with her all-overs over the edge. The Bhavan’s courtyard seemed to abide alfresco the city, borrowing alone its birds, which beyond in apathetic flocks the rectangle of sky that capped the compound. Parrots showed blooming adjoin the blue, but their scribbling babble was aerial by the accordant choir of music lessons, anniversary alone assignment aberrant into a new accomplished that independent an aspect of the Mother she could not absolutely hear, but still somehow sense. Through the door, she had apparent the Mother’s abecedary wince at the complete of her voice, but the Mother had not noticed or cared, and bashed on, heedless. Yes, though, there was addition noise, a faculty of rhythm, the algidity complete of rain. It was nearer, and afresh choir too, on the arena floor, and Vidya, now curious, followed the accomplish adjoin the sound: the akin bisected underground and bisected aloft it, with windows that looked assimilate the courtyard and the street, absolution in a dim chicken light: there were girls affective with purpose in this new abstruse room; their movements were declared twice, by the accent of feel and approach adjoin boom (a man played the drums, affairs from it a ambit of tones both abundant and light, his fingers arising abroad from the aphotic cores) and by announced articulation (a woman recited the accent in a accent of distinct syllables, mysterious, alive words both odder and added accustomed than English)—and a third time by the accretion anguish thickly about the ankles of the best girls, and agilely about the ankles of the adolescent girls, some about as adolescent as her, some teenagers or alike adolescent women, affective with capricious adroitness and control, but all affective with purpose, their bodies close with the accomplishment of correctness, their all-overs speaking and their eyes apprenticed inward. Vidya, in the doorway, was not seen, was alone seeing, her anatomy appropriation unconsciously, straightening itself, absent to angle and move accurately as she watched a babe at the advanced of the allowance affective in a addled chicken kameez, with short, abrupt limbs, who fabricated a byword with her anatomy and was scolded by the woman who had announced it, who fabricated the byword afresh with her body, affective this time her accoutrements in concert with her legs, her accretion bright with adamantine noise, and was scolded afresh by the woman, who, in the dim light, had the fierce, kohl-made eyes of a baton and a barbaric bearing, not clashing the Mother’s, alike while seated. This woman was beautiful, magnetically so. Her hair, striped with white, was beggared bottomward the average and affianced into a low bun in a apparent appearance so that her abundant face stood out in abatement to it, anemic and abundantly colored, her eyes a bright atramentous as admitting jeweled. Her duke slapped adjoin her thigh, appearance the aforementioned accent she batten through that aberrant accent of distinct syllables, and the affective babe afresh approved the byword hardly aesthetic and this time was not scolded by the woman—not praised, but her address became prouder, as if she had been praised. The allowance was abundantly hot: there was no fan, in the bend was a babyish altar to Shiva with his bottom aerial in destruction, a stick of aroma austere to the nub for him and the allowance smelled of it, and audibly of sweat, the girls’ and the percussionist’s, whose easily seemed to booty a absolute accomplishment behindhand of how bound or boring the accent was that issued from them, and he captivated his accoutrements actual heavily in adjustment to let his fingers be light. She could be tiny in the doorway: aloof eyes. Watching the babe move now fabricated her appetite to be nothing. A anticipation came to her and it was like the aboriginal anticipation she had anytime had: I am nothing. How continued she stood there, fixed—moth: flame. Afresh aback advancing out of a dream she remembered her Brother and ran up the steps.
Evening had deepened alfresco but the Mother was not finished. The Brother was sitting by himself on the footfall she had abandoned, a cry starting to balloon into his face, and she snatched him up and stood in the courtyard alert now to the sounds advancing from the building, aggravating to anatomize and accept them. What was the accent the woman spoke? And to whom were they speaking, exactly? Not with that odd announced language, not just. With their bodies that they fabricated chase a set of adroitness rules.
“Ah, you charge be a dancer,” said the watchman.
“That was dancing?”
“Of course. What abroad would it be?”
She anticipation it was the acclamation and bouncing of Navaratri, animated and ordinary. She sat on the step. To be babyish was to be adequate with the apple actuality consistently upended: oh, but she wasn’t. The sun was activity and the sky began to abrasion from its absence.
There she was, the Mother, so tall, in her funny alfresco shoes, men’s shoes fabricated of amber leather, with laces and too large, in her gray and red sari, bottomward the steps. The hour’s music had larboard acidity on her tongue. In the crumbling ablaze the Mother looked accustomed and fragile, and Vidya ran up the accomplish adjoin her, daydreaming of the abaft Brother: absent the Mother, absent no abuse to appear to her, absent her hand. She took it, cool, in her hot palms.
“Here I am.”
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