The way to her mother’s apartment is long. She passes a gothic building choked by creepers and the roots of proud mangroves, the glorious archways chipped, peeling into a heavy sky. Monsoon season. In an hour or two, the rain will pummel down, as if the sky could hold it no longer.
Neha feels a drop of sweat travel from her hairline to her neck; she pats it with a napkin. She passes the cricket grounds, empty and soundless, and counts her steps. 1-2-3, 4-5-6, past the High Court, and its spiral staircases. 7-8-9, 10-11-12, past the historical Society of Atheists, a man pissing on the marigolds. He wears the white uniform of a servant.
Neha keeps her kohl-flecked eyes ahead. As she marches, her duppatta drops to one side, revealing her collarbones and sweeping the ground. Neha swears, wincing at the dirtied yellow print, and pulls its paisleys to center. Immediately, five men pierce her with their gazes, red-irised and hungry; she looks down. The humidity clings to her skin, tugs her hair, overwhelms her.
She imagines an Austenian heroine. I walk, not because it is fun, she thinks, looking at the balloon vendor and his absurd products, but because this world belongs to me too. Because “my courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Neha tilts her head upward once again, smiling at an approaching family. The father does not look. The mother shakes her head and averts her gaze; the son stares at Neha with heavily lashed, elephantine eyes. The hint of a smile plays on his lips. Neha exhales and moves on.
She imagines her destination, static compared to the ecosystem of the streets. It is a place of shade and quiet, if memory serves. Neha is not the Dalai Lama, not Desmond Tutu— she can never exist in the present, and always has the nervous, itching feeling that there is somewhere else she is supposed to be, something else she needs to be doing. But upon reflecting, she never knows what.
All this staying in place. The world conspiring. She feels if she stays somewhere long enough, she will lose everything she has learned. As soon as she enters her mother’s house, she will rewind 20 years, become 14 again.
You ran away, remember? she chides herself. You chose this.
Yet she didn’t, not exactly. She chose the only way she saw to continue living. To leave was to neglect her family; to stay was to abandon herself. Neha pulls her duppatta from where it clings to her neck, choking her, and tightens her fists as she walks.
She first met the hijras when her brother, Shyam, was born. He was so small, his toes darkened chickpeas, his ears open mussels. Neha stood tall next to her father, normally stoic and beyond her reach. That day, he put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her cropped hair, asking her to take care of the baby. She would.
Somehow, the hijras knew of Shyam’s birth, could sense it in the current, the wind, maybe the phase of the moon. Neha loved the leader of the group: her deep green sari, her unapologetic lipstick, the bracelets that clinked as she put her hands together and bobbed her head, soliciting rupees. She had to solicit; hijras couldn’t make money except by dancing, sex work, or begging.
“Parasites,” Accha called the hijra, his shaved jaw clenched, but Neha was fascinated. The woman spoke raspily, like a moth scraping its wings against a lamp, the result, Neha now knew, of a pill that pitched voices higher in exchange for their timbre. Without funds, they made do: castrations without anesthetic, off-brand bleaching creams, an exaggerated sway that the average woman would never get away with.
A good woman doesn’t know the power of her hips.
Neha hears a train pass. Churchgate Station stands before her, its harsh spires softened by pink and purple lights. There, people in suits and salwar and burqas, some with earphones, others Whatsapping their family inspirational quotes, skirt the side of a Mumbai Local. The wind flirts with their clothing. There’s an upside to all this, Neha thinks. She doesn’t need to play at respectability; she’ll never be a good woman, so why try?
When her brother, Shyam, turned one, their father disappeared, leaving everything behind, even his chanclas. Neha, five at the time, sat cross-legged by the door, waiting for her silly father to reclaim his sandals. As April gave way to May, and heat turned joints and thoughts lethargic, Neha’s mother pulled her up by the elbows.
“Enough,” she said, tucking a lock of hair behind Neha’s ear. “He will not come. You, sweetheart, will be the man of the house.”
Neha was more interested in inspecting moths and collecting lollypops from their Jain neighbor (peering through the thin fabric over his mouth to see if he, too, had a face,) than this “man of the house” thing, but she shrugged. Maybe her food would be served first, as Papa’s had been. Maybe she could now put her feet up on the couch.
As they grew, Shyam followed Neha’s every move, playing kancha and pitthu for hours, scurrying to the outside to set off fireworks when their mother shooed them to make her famous laddu, and practicing cricket with a broken oar they found by Juhu Beach, which splintered their hands but earned them real respect from their classmates.
Yet, with the years, they diverged. Neha began growing her hair, wearing girl’s clothes. She became bolder, went to school in t-shirts with sassy English phrases like “Girls just want to have fun!” She wondered if her native language allowed for such boldness; sadly, she had forgotten Tamil, and Shyam had never learned.
“Beti,” their mother sighed, as she came home from the office and turned on the stove, taking out a bowl of dosa dough. Bubbles had formed from last night’s fermentation, turning the dough to a craterous planet. “Does this look like Kerala, that you can dress in such a way? Do we look low class?” She sat behind Neha and began to braid her thick hair, the way other mothers did for other girls. “You know how hard it is, already, to feed two boys? How can I support a girl?” She looked at Neha. “And how will you support yourself?” Neha closed her eyes and tilted her head, her mother’s light fingers brushing her scalp. Amma stopped. “No child of mine will beg,”
Neha spent the rest of the day dragging her feet, body heavy with guilt. She wanted to be twisted out like a sponge, made light again. What options would she have, after school? She was a good student, but who would employ a hijra? And if not her, who would take care of Amma? Not Shyam; he deserved a happy life, a good job and a supportive marriage.
One day, Neha’s brother came home in tears, left eye black, his public school uniform in disarray. Their mother was out grocery shopping, and the apartment was silent and cool.
He ran to Neha, a pair of scissors in hand. She held her little brother out with both arms, keeping him just out of reach of her hair; his scissors snipped into air, again and again, like carp jumping. They continued for a minute, each not daring to blink, until Shyam fell into sobs and hiccups. He tore Neha’s costume necklace and threw it to the ground. Beads landed on the floor, popping percussively, rolling to all corners of the room.
“You freak!” Shyam exclaimed, drumming his fists against her chest. “Where did you put my brother? Where?” Neha had no answer.
When Shyam fell asleep, exhausted from his tears, Neha grabbed a blanket from the couch, tucking it around him. She took care to cover his toes. Larger than chickpeas now.
Neha looked one last time before turning.
“I’m sorry, Shyam,” she whispered, and left her sneakers by the door.
At 34, Neha climbs the stairs to her mother’s apartment, 55 Sangar Sangeet, #23. She knocks on the door and holds her breath.
Amma opens the door. Her unfocused gaze meets Neha’s. Neha smiles and searches her mother’s face, softened and paled with age. There is something fragile about her now, something that inspires protecting.
Shyam calls out behind her, “Who is it, Amma?” His voice, Neha notices, has deepened to a warm baritone. Like amber. Neha’s stomach hurts.
Amma’s mouth opens and closes; she seems unaware of the movement. Behind her the pink wallpaper peels, feverish. Neha counts her breaths. 1-2-3, 4-5-
“Nobody,” Amma says, closing the door. “Someone come for alms.”
Katherine Kesner is an emerging writer. She works in eCommerce and lives in San Francisco.