The day after my father’s funeral, my mother locked herself up in a room and didn’t even come down to eat in between. My sister, Indu, is very young—she doesn’t understand much at all, and that morning she wailed and banged on the door screaming and screaming for Ma to open it. I tried stopping her once or twice, but I really didn’t want to, so I just stood by her really still, almost afraid to breathe. I wanted to see what would happen—I wanted to see how Ma would respond.
After a while, Indu got tired and sank to the floor in a crumpled heap. Her cheeks were tear-streaked and her hair was tangled and sweaty. I remember thinking about how a 9-year-old should never have to look like that, but I don’t think I really did anything at all; I just stood there for a really long time.
I don’t remember much of what happened after that, but I do remember Dadi, my grandmother, and how her cold stare dug into me as she picked up a still sobbing Indu from the floor about an hour later.
“You’re older, Akshita. You should know better.”
I averted my gaze, looking down and focusing intently on the little specks on the linoleum and the way the light from the windows reflected off of them. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Dadi looking at me once more, before shuffling downstairs with Indu’s little head buried in the nook of her shoulder. Tut-tut-tut-tut. Even her walk seemed to sound disapproving.
The walls were thin at my house, and if my mother was awake, she would have undoubtedly heard the scolding. She always hated when I disappointed my grandmother.
Respect your elders. They are wiser than you, more experienced than you.
I wondered if she was behind the door, brooding about just what she would do with me. I wanted her to storm out, furious with me, so mad that she wouldn’t even be able to look me in the eye. I waited a couple of seconds like that, eagerly, almost having completely convinced myself that she would certainly come out just then.
A minute passed, and then a few more. Finally, I felt my ears getting hot, and frustrated tears ran down my cheeks. I was angry, all of a sudden, so angry at my mother. I wanted to bang on the door and scream like my sister had done, break the door down and then confront her. You’re being extremely selfish, I would say. Don’t you know that all of us are hurting?
I turned 10 yesterday, but I don’t feel any different. I feel and look just as I always have, and I don’t know if every 10-year-old feels like this or of it’s something wrong with me. Dadi says that because I’ve turned 10, I have to start taking responsibility for my actions. She says that in our religion once you turn 10 your sins become your own and are no longer your parents’.
A couple of days ago, when I was 9, Ma locked herself up in a room and she didn’t come out even when I cried and cried. I yelled and stomped and banged the door forever, but I can’t do that now. I’m too old for that kind of behavior.
I don’t think this is fair at all, how one day I’m free to do whatever it is that I want and the next day I’m not. I’m just older than I was yesterday like I was older yesterday than the day before. My belly feels kind of weird now whenever I do something I don’t know if I should be doing, and I want to be little again.
If Papa was here, he would say that I was still his little baby, and that I don’t have to worry about growing up. But Papa’s not here anymore, Papa’s dead, and my older sister Akshita says it’s no use thinking about him. Akshita is 14, almost 15, so she’s even more grown up than I am. She isn’t allowed to do or say much at all, but it’s okay for her because she’s already so quiet all the time. I don’t know what I would do when I turn 14. I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it.
I told this to Ma one evening as she helped me with some homework.
“When I get as old as Akshita, will Dadi never let me do anything?”
Ma looked confused for a second, and the week-old wrinkle in her forehead got deeper.
“What? What are you talking about?
“Dadi is always yelling at Akshita. Even if- Even if she laughs too loudly or something like that.”
“That’s not true, Indu.”
“It is true! I swear, I heard her yelling at Akshita because of that when her friends were over.”
Ma was silent, and then she leaned over and hugged me really tight. When she pulled back, it looked like she was about to cry.
“I’ll never, ever let Dadi say anything like that to Akshita or you, ever again, okay?”
I mumbled something, and looked into Ma’s red eyes. Ma was pretty, but nowadays she always looked too tired and old. She smiled weakly at me before looking down.
“Just don’t tell Dadi I hugged you, alright?”
I looked at her angrily. I couldn’t believe it.
“Why can’t I? Are you afraid of what she would say?”
Before waiting for a response, I stormed out of the room, slamming the door shut on my way out like I was a 9-year-old all over again.
My name means everlasting, like the sun or true love or a person you can count on. I don’t live up to my name—I am not a person you can count on. I know that my mother needs me to help her, but I don’t do anything about it. Sometimes I feel awful about the way Dadi treats her, like vermin, just because she’s widowed. The other day, Dadi wouldn’t let me touch food that my mother had made for me. She ordered one of our maids to throw it out.
Ma pretends as if this sort of thing doesn’t bother her, but I can easily see that it does. Dadi doesn’t allow her to go outside either, because she’s newly widowed. With nothing to do, my mother glides around the house in white like an idle ghost.
Sometimes I get so angry at her for not standing up for herself, but my anger morphs into something else when I realize that I am exactly like my mother. Maybe that’s why I try staying away from her, because it’s like looking into a mirror; she’s everything I pray I don’t become.
It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t until my grandfather died last year that Dadi was forced to move in: from a tiny nameless village south of Punjab to Delhi, a sprawling metropolitan with millions and millions of people. The change should have been difficult for her, but as soon as she moved in, it was like she had snatched the reigns of the household from Ma, who was doing a perfectly fine job at it.
She complained about every single thing, no matter how inconsequential. But it was mostly Ma and I that she complained about. Dadi has a soft spot for Indu, and she often says that Indu looks just like Papa did, so she doesn’t scold her as much. I don’t ever tell anyone, because Ma would get so angry, but I know that Dadi dislikes me just because I am like my mother. I think Ma knows it; I think even Indu knows it.
Another problem is that Dadi thinks that Papa left us enough money for Ma to spend the rest of her life pent up at home, and barely recognizable beneath her white veil. We live in a big house; we have a big mortgage. With Papa gone, even I know it’s only a matter of time before money becomes an issue. Dadi is old—she doesn’t understand things like this. She doesn’t understand that a house in this part of Delhi is so hard to buy; she doesn’t understand that once you buy it, it’s even harder to keep.
I wish Ma would tell her these things. Sometimes, when she sneers at Ma, I wish that Ma would just get up and press her hands deep into Dadi’s shoulders and shake her roughly. Maybe then she would finally listen.
Sometimes I think to myself that it is almost as if Dadi cut off Ma’s tongue when she moved in. She still looks the same from the outside—she just doesn’t get to say anything for herself anymore. But I think that Ma is much stronger than she looks. I know that she’s much stronger than Akshita thinks she is.
A couple of days ago, I felt dizzy and feverish in the morning and my stomach was in knots. Ma let me stay home from school. Dadi wasn’t feeling too well either, and she lied on the mat in her room, fanning away flies and complaining loudly about the winter weather in Delhi. Must be some kind of bug that’s going around, Ma said, ignoring Dadi, and tucking me into bed.
I noticed suddenly that she wasn’t wearing white anymore but I didn’t think as much of it as I should have on account of my fever. She was dressed in a blue and green sari. I squinted my eyes to look at it; I didn’t think I had ever seen it before, so it must have been new. There was kohl smeared under her eyes, and it looked like she had pink lipstick on too.
“Where are you going?” I asked sleepily.
“I have a job interview.”
Ma smiled nervously, and even with my fever, I knew that this was a big deal. I didn’t know what to think—I felt confused and happy and tired all at once.
“Dadi doesn’t know. I’ll let her know when she has to. She’s been in her room all day, and she won’t even notice I’m gone, and neither will you, if you take a long nap. Your didi doesn’t know either, okay?”
“Akshita doesn’t know?”
“No. Now go to sleep. I’ll be back before you know it.”
And she was. I didn’t even notice her gone, like she had told me.
Thinking about it later was like counting the slippery tadpoles in the dirty stream that ran by our house. It was fuzzy and shadowy and it felt like a dream—I wasn’t even sure if it had happened.
But, the next day, Ma exchanged a look with me at the breakfast table. It was a sly look, like the two of us knew something the others didn’t. I was excited again. I looked at Akshita, who was swirling around her breakfast cereal with a spoon and a solemn look on her face. I knew enough not to tell her. I could see that Ma did not want her to know until the time was right. And so, I kept quiet.
It has been about a year since Papa died. It has been about 9 months since Dadi moved away, because the weather in Delhi is too cold for the aches in her joints. Deep down, I know that this isn’t the reason she moved. I know this because I know her, and I know Ma.
I know this because the evening Ma told us that she had gotten a job, we were clearing the dining table, and the plate Dadi was carrying crashed into the ground and shattered into a million shards. Ma was quiet as she knelt down to gather the broken pieces, her fingers shaking but careful.
Dadi looked at Ma, eyes ablaze, and for a moment there I honestly believed that she would strike Ma across the face. Bu then her shoulders slumped down and she looked tired and old and weathered. I remember that I almost felt bad for her.
Ma led her gently by the elbow to her bedroom. Indu and I never found out what they spoke about that night. They emerged from the room about an hour later. It was very clear to me that they had both been crying. Ma’s eyes were red, and Dadi kept wiping her cheeks with the pallu of her sari, even though they were dry.
A week later, she left to live with my uncle and aunt in Calcutta. I see her now only at celebrations and funerals. When I went to an aunt’s wedding last month, my cousin had pulled aside my mother and had spoken to her in hushed tones. I only caught fragments of the conversation, but I knew that it was about Dadi’s health. Could be Parkinson’s, or maybe even Alzheimer’s, Akash had whispered and had then smiled thinly at me when he noticed I was listening.
I know that Ma worries for Dadi, but with her gone, we can cry and laugh and hold each other, so I’m glad. Every night the three of us lie in bed and we take turns speaking about one thing that each of us misses about Papa. Sometimes we start to cry, it’s always Ma first and then me and then finally Indu.
But the three of us are stronger than we ever have been, so I know that we’ll manage. Ma has a full-time job now, and though she’s not earning a huge amount of money, it does suffice. Sometimes, when I look at her and see how strong she is now, my heart swells with immeasurable happiness. I know Papa would be immensely proud of her, but more importantly, I know that I am.