Sinjini would do anything to make her mother happy. She’d go for hours without food; smiling, she’d accompany Ma in crowded trains and rickety buses reeking of pee and littered with paan spit; she’d even wait in the huge living room of a white bungalow, which was surrounded by pink bougainvillea and guarded by a snarly Rottweiler, while her mother went into the bedroom with a man whom Sinjini had to call “uncle”. The man’s nose resembled a parrot’s beak and he used baby talk with Sinjini even though she was soon to turn 11.
“If Baba asks, what do we say?” Ma would question her after the visit, while thrusting an ice–cream cone in her hand. Sinjini had sensitive teeth and found it painful to eat ice–cream. Santanu used to love ice–cream. Maybe, like everything else, Ma remembered her brother’s preferences, and assumed that Sinjini liked the same things.
“You went to meet with your sari suppliers,” Sinjini had memorized the line. Ma needn’t have worried; Baba hardly spoke to her, or to Ma for that matter.
Ma ran a sari boutique on the ground floor of their apartment building. Sinjini had learned words like “authentic”, “traditional”, and “vintage” from the ladies who gushed over the saris. Even though Sinjini claimed to love saris, in reality, she was a bit jealous of how they took Ma’s attention away from her. It reminded her of her elder brother, Santanu.
Ma didn’t run the sari business when Santanu was alive. Neither did she drag Sinjini to the house with the Rottweiler and the parrot-nosed man.
Ma worshipped Santanu.
Sinjini’s skin still prickled at the memories of the scratches and bruises that Santanu used to leave on her body. Once, when he pushed her down the stairs for not letting him cut her hair, her head spilt open and she needed six stitches. He had to change three schools in five years for jabbing a pencil in a classmate’s eye, for pulling down a girl’s skirt in the morning assembly, and for slapping a younger kid so hard that he lost part of his hearing in one ear. Still, Ma insisted that he was just a hyperactive boy who was misunderstood by an insensitive world. Baba didn’t care for any of that—whenever a complaint reached him, he’d whip out his leather belt and drag Santanu to his study. Sinjini and Ma would keep banging on the closed door as Santanu’s muffled cries gradually subsided to resigned whimpers.
Those days, Ma’s life revolved around taking Santanu to counsellors, therapists and football classes to better channel his energy.
Sinjini was five when Santanu died. He was nine.
Ma got a phone call from the hospital that day. Sinjini’s grandmother, who was 70 and lived alone, had fallen in the bathroom and displaced her hip. The schools were closed due to the summer vacations.
“Sunny, look after Jini till I’m back,” Ma had ruffled Santanu’s spiky hair and kissed his forehead. He promptly wiped off the imprint of the kiss with the back of his hand.
Sinjini was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bedroom that she shared with her brother, preparing lunch for her mutilated dolls—some had clumps of hair torn off, some missed a couple of limbs, while grotesque smiles were drawn across some of their faces with red markers. These deformities were Santanu’s handiwork but Sinjini knew better than to complain because that meant an argument between her parents, which would lead to Santanu being punished and thereby seeking even more violent revenge on her. Instead, she treated her injured dolls with “medicines” till they stopped complaining about their pain.
“Jini, listen to your brother and be a good girl, okay?” Ma kneeled and kissed her chubby cheeks. Unlike Santanu, she didn’t rub it off. She rather wished that she could nestle a bit longer inside her mother’s sandalwood–and–clove–scented chest.
Before she left, Ma requested the aunty in the upstairs flat to keep an eye on them.
Santanu kicked her make-believe kitchen into disarray the moment Ma left the house.
“Dumb game,” he scoffed.
Sinjini looked up at her brother’s lanky form towering above her. The twisted smirk on his face challenged her to argue—or, worse still—collapse into a crying heap. Tears welled in her soft, brown eyes and her chin quivered, but she bit the inside of her cheeks till the urge to cry went away.
Sitting across her on the carpet, Santanu started banging her Barbie’s head against the side of the bed. She took a deep breath to control the urge to snatch the doll away. Provoking him might result in suffering Barbie’s fate.
He stood up after a while, and said, “I am going to New Market.”
Sinjini didn’t understand how that was possible. It took 20 minutes to reach by car. Ma was supposed to take them to New Market that evening to buy school supplies.
“How?” She rose to her feet, clutching the damaged Barbie behind her back.
“I know the way… you keep an eye on Ghosh kakima. I’ll be back soon and get you chocolates.”
“But…” Sinjini gulped, afraid to voice her concerns. She’d never been left alone. What if those kidnappers who lured children with toffees came and rang their bell?
“Don’t be a baby,” Santanu flicked at her forehead.
Sinjini nodded. She wasn’t brave enough to snitch on him. The plum–colored bruise on her thigh was still fresh.
He changed into his He-Man t-shirt and put on the cap that he insisted on wearing everywhere those days. Before disappearing at the turn of the lane, he waved goodbye without turning back.
Sinjini realized that she’d fallen asleep when Ma shook her awake. “Jini, Jini! Where is Sunny? Wake up.”
“He…” Sinjini wiped off the saliva dribbling from the corner of her mouth. “He said he was going to New Market.” She blinked, adjusting to the light.
“What!” Ma shrieked and leaped up, “Why didn’t you inform Ghosh aunty?”
Sinjini staggered to her feet, still unsteady from the nap. She was alarmed at how pink Ma’s face had become.
“You should’ve stopped him, you stupid girl!” Ma yanked her by her wrist to the car. She didn’t care that Sinjini was still wearing her faded green frock with an ink stain near the chest. At the parking lot, Ma sprang out of the car even before Sinjini could unbuckle herself.
They jostled through the crowds that were haggling over bags, shoes, junk jewellery, and umbrellas. They visited the toy stores, bakeries, even the pet shops. People glared at Ma elbowing past them, but she seemed blind to everything, even the dog poop and the banana peel, which Sinjini had to hop over.
“Sunny! Sunny!” Ma’s screams floated over the noises of hawkers fighting against one another to offer the lowest prices for their fancy hairclips and lacy underwear. Ma didn’t notice the swear words being directed at them. She rifled through clothes, shoes, and bags hanging from the circular display racks, leaving them in heaps of disarray. The salesmen hollered their protests, but she seemed to have lost her capability for hearing.
Sinjini’s little feet struggled to keep up with Ma and her arm throbbed in pain. The smell of egg–rolls made her mouth water, but looking at Ma—her hair plastered all over her sweaty face, her sari coming undone, her forehead crumpled like the discarded paper cones strewn around the bhelpuri stall, her lips muttering prayers—all she wished for was to see Santanu materialize from a store with his toothy grin and the cap pulled low over his face.
The police were informed after Baba returned. While they searched the city’s hospitals, morgues and other places where missing children might end up, Sinjini’s family spent the night driving in circles from their house to New Market.
When the police arrived the next morning, Ma was splayed on the couch, her face buried in the grey t-shirt that Santanu was wearing before he left. Baba went to answer the door and Sinjini trailed behind him. The moustachioed man took off his cap and muttered something too fast for Sinjini to catch. She could only hear snatches of words. “Identification”, “hit and run”, “morgue”.
Ma almost threw Sinjini to the ground to reach the officer. “Did you find him? Did you?” Her breath was ragged, as if someone had scraped the inside of her throat with sandpaper. Baba pulled her close and whispered something. “No!” She collapsed on the floor, raising her face to the ceiling and screaming like someone was stabbing her. Sinjini remembered hearing a similar bloodcurdling yowl only once before, when they passed a dingy slum near Sealdah where pigs were slaughtered behind small stalls and chunks of their meat hung from hooks.
When they finally received his body from the morgue, they allowed Sinjini to take a last look at her brother’s face—only because she threw an ugly tantrum and no one had the energy to deal with her at that point. She couldn’t recognize him at first. The top of his skull had been fastened to the rest of his head with rough crisscross sutures made by thick, black thread. The placement wasn’t precise and his face looked like a reflection on a distorted mirror. A fly hovered near the starfish shaped bruise on his cheek; his lips were chapped and swollen with a coin–sized rusty wound in one corner; his slightly agape mouth revealed two missing teeth. Sinjini couldn’t remember if he was already missing those teeth when he left the house that day. This was the face of her brother that would stay with her for the rest of her life. She’d flip through his photos and memorize what he really looked like, but the moment she’d close her eyes and try forming the image of his face, his lips, cheeks, and eyes would start shifting shapes until this lifeless, brutalized face would loom before her.
She wanted to see his body underneath to check if he was more broken than her dolls. They wouldn’t let her. She screamed in protest till someone pulled her up and took her away, her arms and legs punching and kicking the air. They gave her some medicine and put her to sleep in the bedroom that she shared with her brother. When she woke up late in evening, she walked up to his bed and put her head on his pillow. It still smelled of him—sweat, wet grass, chewing gums and the vanilla–scented baby cream that Ma rubbed on his chapped elbows and knees. From the wardrobe she shared with Santanu, she pulled out her maimed dolls and spread them out on the bedroom floor. None of them was as broken as her brother. She kicked her dolls and stomped on them and pulled out their hair. Yet, nothing could assuage her anger. During moments of helplessness, when Santanu would be defacing her dolls or physically abusing her, Sinjini would wish for the same to happen to Santanu. Did she somehow cause this to happen to her brother?
When a neighbour found her yanking the blonde hair off a doll’s scalp, she put Sinjini on her lap. “Throw them away. I don’t want them,” she wailed. The neighbour promised to get rid of the dolls.
For days after Santanu’s death, Ma and Baba stayed slouched on the living room sofa, staring straight ahead without really looking at anything. Relatives and neighbours thronged their house. She’d hear them talk about a boy named Santanu, but she doubted if it was the same boy who used to be her brother. They reminisced about his excellent goalkeeping skills, his kindness towards the neighbourhood strays, his hilarious mimicry of friends and neighbours. They seemed to have forgotten about their constant complaints against him when he was alive. Sinjini figured that, perhaps, when a person is no longer present to bother you, you only spoke nicely about him.
She felt Santanu’s absence when no one pinched her awake, locked her inside the dark bathroom, or threw her favorite teddy bear into the garbage dump. The feeling was one of momentary relief before it curdled into dread and distress as Santanu’s badly stitched face with its ghoulish grin flashed before her. Her parents’ faces creased with grief, their frigid silence, and the way they stopped noticing Sinjini even more than before, made her wish that Santanu was back in their lives.
When Ma sobbed holding onto one of Santanu’s action figures or his “Here Comes Trouble” mug, Sinjini would also cry. Initially, her tears would be borne out of a helplessness of not knowing how to comfort her mother. Slowly, like a sea leaving behind lost things on the shore, Santanu’s absence brought back some not-so-unpleasant memories. She missed his sweaty after–school face, eager to tell her about his day, his mischievous smile as he shared a stolen dessert with her, his stories about the planet of aliens, and his late–night tears muffled into the pillow while Sinjini pretended to sleep.
When they’d ordered restaurant food for almost a month and the layers of dust on the furniture and windowsills were too thick to ignore, Baba hired a maid.
After school, Sinjini would rush to her mother’s bedside. She’d run her fingers through Ma’s long hair to untangle the knots that appeared from going days without washing or running a comb through it. She massaged Ma’s forehead with her little fingers. Ma didn’t smell nice anymore—her room held the ripe smell of sweat and unwashed clothes. The chilling blast from the a/c made Sinjini shiver. The strong menthol scent of the balm that Ma applied on her forehead stung her eyes, but she still cherished the moments when her mother held her little body close to her chest and dipped her nose into her hair and neck. Every time Ma did that, Sinjini would pray to God to not let those warm raindrops fall on her head. But sooner or later, her curly hair would be damp. Her mother would end up hiccupping and covering her face with her hands; the groans coming out of her made Sinjini wish that she could make her pain vanish by treating her the way she used to treat her broken dolls. After some time, Ma would take a few pills from the nightstand and doze off. Sinjini would sit with a picture book and crayons next to her. She didn’t want to leave Ma’s bedside because she feared that, one day, her mother would dissolve into that dirty, ochre bedsheet. Then, she too would disappear.
The only change that Sinjini didn’t mind was that her life wasn’t governed by the fear of violence anymore. She expected her mother to stop crying after a while and maybe, love her the way she loved Santanu—dedicating all her time to her, taking her to music classes and art lessons, making her favorite snack (which Sinjini would tell her was prawn chowmein), chatting about her day at school.
Instead, Ma’s condition kept getting worse till it became necessary to admit her to a hospital.
Two years after Santanu’s death, when Ma seemed a little better, Ma opened her sari boutique to get a fresh start.
The first couple of years of Ma’s sari business held some of the best memories for Sinjini. After school, she’d wait for Ma to zoom over in her bright red Maruti 800, her sunglasses perched on top of her head, beads of sweat dotting her nose. Sinjini would rush to help her unload the polythene–wrapped saris. She soon learned all their names—baluchari, katha, jamdani, tant, pure silk—each word felt like a powdery winged, colourful butterfly taking flight from her tongue. The ladies—mothers and teachers from her school—would flock around, feeling the fabric between their fingers, negotiating prices, grinning like children when they bagged a sari that Ma said looked perfect on them.
During the school holidays, Sinjini would eagerly accompany her mother to the villages in West Bengal. She’d run around with the local children, delighted at the sight of a cow being milked or cow dung cakes being dried on the walls, while her mother sat with the weavers, giving them directions for the next set of saris. She would be Ma’s proud little assistant at the exhibitions and fairs, neatly jotting down the price tags, keeping an eye out for shoplifters. She’d study in a corner of the garage of their apartment building, while carpenters and interior decorators worked to convert it into a sari boutique.
Slowly, as the business grew and her mother got busier, her mother hired assistants. The trips where she accompanied her mother kept declining, till, one day, Ma told her to stop being a baby and focus on her studies.
Sinjini wasn’t a baby. She was nine years old and she knew about periods. She’d seen people kiss on TV and knew that a man and woman had to be naked together to produce a baby. No, she simply loved Ma’s familiar presence around—the way her voice turned excited and squeaky with a customer, the way she jotted down the day’s sales in her notebook, chewing the end of the pencil while making calculations inside her head, the way she smelled of sandalwood and the white tuberoses that she decorated in vases around the boutique.
Baba became busier with his work trips, and even when he was around, Sinjini wished their paths didn’t cross.
One morning, when she woke up at dawn to revise for a class test, she noticed Baba curled up on the living room divan. Over the next few mornings, she realized that Baba now slept there. She hardly found Ma and Baba in the same room and for most of the month, one of them traveled. Their maid, Kobita Didi, was the only permanent fixture in their house, beside her.
Her interactions with Baba happened at breakfast, sometimes. “So, how’s school?” He never grew tired of asking the same question. Then, after speaking for a bit about her studies and his office trips, Baba would hide his face behind the business section of the newspaper and Sinjini would gobble up her toast and eggs, speeding up the process by gulping down milk, so that she could excuse herself from the table at the earliest.
With Ma, it was different. In the afternoons, when there was no customer at the boutique, they’d join Kobita Didi in watching one of the Bengali soap operas and together they’d make up the backstory for the overly dramatic acting onscreen.
“Oh, now she’s crying because her husband hated the payesh she made!” Ma would exclaim. Sinjini would roll with laughter, falling all over her mother, “And he is angry because she forgot that he didn’t like cashews in his payesh!”
On some weekends, Ma would take her for plays at Rabindra Sadan or to art exhibitions at the Academy of Fine Arts. Sinjini didn’t understand it all; being around Ma was enough for her.
Yet, she was afraid of demanding anything of her mother. Once, when she wouldn’t stop crying because Ma was leaving for a three-day exhibition to Shantiniketan, Ma had shouted, “I’m tired of you all. First, Sunny’s constant demands and now you. I just wish I could leave all this and go away, forever.” From then on, Sinjini never gave Ma a chance to complain. She was a good student and fitted well in class. Her experience with Santanu had taught her to gauge other people’s emotions and act in a way that pleased them. She never caused any trouble that would make her mother regret having her.
When Ma introduced her to Ratul uncle, 10-year–old Sinjini didn’t quite like the parrot-nosed man. After Ratul came into Ma’s life, their mother-daughter fun times became few and far between. Ma still wanted to take her out for movies or dinners sometimes, but Sinjini knew that Ratul (she never called him “uncle” in her head) would be there—hence, she’d make study related excuses and decline those invitations.
Ma was away, attending a sari expo during Sinjini’s twelfth birthday and Baba most probably forgot.
Right after she returned from her trip, Ma came to pick her up from school. “Surprise! Belated happy birthday!” Ma hugged her. The smell of her rose perfume and the light chiffon sari engulfed Sinjini in a cloud of warm delight.
Ma took her to a grand five-star hotel where a live band played classic rock. “Let’s order something while we wait,” Ma touched up her make–up even though she looked perfect. Her coral lips and the perfect arch of her eyebrows made her look even more stunning than she already was. Sinjini wished she would look like her mother when she grew up, but she’d heard her grandmother regret that she didn’t inherit her mother’s milky complexion.
“Are we waiting for Baba to join us?” Sinjini pretended to check out the menu to hide her curiosity. Ma lifted a heavy paper bag from underneath the table. “Your birthday gifts!”
She tore open the first package to find the complete Sherlock Holmes collection. The second package contained a pair of high-waisted jeans that her current favorite, Kajol, wore in the latest Bollywood blockbuster. The smallest package contained a set of sparkly nail polishes and lip glosses.
“Yes, you can finally put on some make–up now,” her mother smiled indulgently.
She bounced out of her seat and hugged her mother. As she kissed Ma’s cheeks, a shadow fell upon their faces. Her spirits dropped like someone had pushed her down a tall building. She gritted her teeth even while her lips stretched into a smile while Ratul took her limp hand in his own.
As they settled down, the waiter presented them with the menu. Sinjini looked at the cluster of happy faces around her—eating dinner, celebrating milestones, creating memories to cherish later. The tinkle of wine glasses, the soft bursts of laughter, the subdued conversations. The fountains, the chandeliers, the expensive gifts lying in a messy heap on a chair beside her. She inhaled the gentle lavender room freshener and absorbed the mellow guitar notes played by the band. Nothing seemed to conjure up the happiness that she’d felt a moment ago.
“Where’s Baba?” Before she could stop herself, the words slid down her head and landed on her tongue.
Ratul cleared his throat, “Um, shall we order?”
“Yes, I’ll have the Peking duck and a glass of white wine, please?” Ma said from behind the menu. Ratul summoned the waiter by clicking his fingers like he was a king and the waiter was his lowly subject. Sinjini’s jaws hurt from clenching.
“What will you have, Jini?”
How dare he called her by the name that was reserved for her parents?
Sinjini pointed a finger at random on the menu.
“Just a tomato soup?”
Sinjini shrugged and looked down at the spotless tablecloth. She remembered the times she used to hide her tears from Santanu to avoid further torture and humiliation. She glanced at the two adults in front of her exchanging furtive but happy glances, holding their hands below the table (as if she was a child and didn’t understand what was going on), talking about how their day had been. Crying would only mean messing up this picture and drawing attention to herself. It was apparently a celebration in honour of her birthday, but the clinking of their glasses and their inside jokes made her feel like she was the least important person at the table.
When the food arrived, Ma served her some pasta and tomato soup. Sinjini tried a spoonful of soup because she wanted to remain as invisible as possible, but it scalded the inside of her mouth.
“So, Jini, how has school been?” Ratul put his fork and spoon down and set his face to a serious expression as if he really cared about her academic performance.
Sinjini shrugged, not looking at him.
“Answer him,” Ma’s voice had an edge of annoyance as she dropped her cutlery on the plate with a clatter. “Tell him about the prize you received for the essay competition.” Ma touched her arm across the table. The not-so-gentle pinch seemed like a subtle warning.
“I received a prize for an inter–school essay competition.” Sinjini sounded like a bored newsreader but, thankfully, her words helped in smoothening out the creases from Ma’s face.
“That’s impressive!” Ratul sounded excited though his gaze was stuck on Ma, as if she was the one who wrote the essay.
“Yes! The topic was, what they wanted to be when they grew up. Jini wrote how she wanted to open her own bookstore, someday. The judges thought it was far more original than the essays about doctors and engineers. I never tell her what she should do with her life. I want my daughter to be independent!” Ma bestowed a generous smile in her direction.
Sinjini stabbed her pasta with renewed vengeance. It was oddly satisfying how the splattering of red sauce looked like blood.
“My daughter is very mature for her age,” she announced, before clearing her throat and holding Sinjini’s gaze. “That’s why I feel you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you. You know how Baba and I haven’t been close over the last few years. That house… Sunny’s memories…” Her voice choked. “I’m moving in with Ratul uncle for a fresh start.”
Under the table, Sinjini pricked her thumb with the fork but that still didn’t hurt as much as her mother’s words. She imagined ripping apart the gifts and stomping on them like she did to her dolls after her brother died. Instead, she pressed her bloodied thumb to the napkin on her lap so that it went unnoticed.
Wasn’t the sari business her mother’s fresh start, and didn’t Sinjini help with it?
“Baba and I have decided to separate,” her mother was still talking, “But I will always be there for you even if we’re not living together. I’ll visit you. You will also stay with us during the holidays.”
Sinjini chewed on her pencil and stared at the numbers and letters that floated around her. She had a maths test tomorrow but nothing made sense. There was a knock on the door. Before she could respond, Baba entered.
She dug her toenails into the flesh of her ankle to remain calm.
Her father sat on the bed next to her study table. “How was school today?”
She gave a vague nod while Baba looked down at the algebra problem. He pointed to the “x”, “You need to multiply this with the two on the other side of the equation…”
“I know!” she lied, before shutting the book. It was difficult to carry on a casual conversation when her insides were bursting with the words that she’d practised for days in front of the mirror.
She pretended to remember something and pulled open the desk drawer. “Found this in Ma’s dressing table,” she held the black tube of lipstick on her palm like an offering to her father.
Baba took the lipstick and slowly rolled the tube. The silver ring encircling the black tube looked like the ring that sat on his finger, until a few weeks ago. The base of his finger bore the angry, pink welt from where the ring had previously gripped it.
Please, please can you call her? She wanted to plead with him, Why didn’t you stop her? It’s not too late! You aren’t divorced yet! The lines she’d rehearsed crowded inside her head, each wanting to be the first to come out.
“Maybe, call her…” she swallowed, and stared at the coral lipstick as if half expecting it to nod in agreement.
“Tell her how you return early from work nowadays… tell her I miss her…” Her voice cracked. She didn’t know the phone number of the place where her mother now lived. Her parents had decided that that would help her get better adjusted to the “current changes”. “Can we talk to her now?” The words came out like a desperate plea and the tears didn’t help. She was ashamed of this blubbering display before the man who hardly knew her, but one small part of her also hoped that this rare outburst might convince him to try reconciling with her mother. It was unfathomable in her 12-year-old mind why her parents simply couldn’t make up, considering that they didn’t even quarrel ever since her brother passed away.
He placed the lipstick in her palm and held her hand between his. His skin felt hard and cold, like a metal bench on a winter morning. “Things don’t work like that…” he whispered, and left the lipstick in her grasp.
Sinjini wanted to shake him out of his placidity. but there was something in her father’s eyes, a bottomless hopelessness, or a plea to not make it even more difficult for him, or maybe, it was what she feared the most—he too was tired of the burden that Sinjini was, just like her mother had been till she gave up.
She scraped her chair noisily against the marble floor and stood up. The realization that you couldn’t make people love you punched her hard on the face. It was far more vicious than any blow she’d ever received from her brother.
“Can I study for tomorrow’s test?” Her voice was hoarse but the tears had dried up.
Baba lowered his head and turned to leave. His hunched form looked like a droopy plant that hadn’t been watered for days.
This time she made sure to bolt the door from inside.
Kasturi Patra worked as a market research analyst, strategy consultant, and equity analyst till she found her true calling and opted to write full time over the last two years. She is currently pursuing an online MFA degree in Fiction from Writers’ Village University. Her interest lies in writing literary short stories exploring the complexities of being a woman in India. Her work has appeared in Bengal Write Ahead (Rupa Publications), Escape Velocity—an anthology of thirteen contemporary Indian short stories, and anthologies published by Women’s Web. Her short story, “The Atlas” is forthcoming in Litbreak Magazine in April 2020. She lives in New Delhi with her husband, two dogs, and two cats.