A Space for Women of the World
When I was a child, I liked when we had guests because my parents became the kind of parents I saw on TV: the kind I always prayed for. My father didn’t curse; my mother didn’t cry. No one shouted or threw things. My sisters, brother, and I were allowed to make as much noise as we wanted. We were loved without reason and treated with kindness.
I knew when important people came because my mother remained in the kitchen for hours frying nonstop. My father wore cologne and pants, instead of the usual vaishti, or man-skirt, which allowed room for his belly. My brother tucked in his shirt; the porch light was turned on. My sisters and I were told to put on our best dresses. I had a favorite at ten: a red skirt and tailored top with bows all over the sides.
My oldest sister who was twenty-four at the time explained that a man was coming to “view” her as a potential mate. If he liked her and our parents liked him, they would marry. The concept was foreign to me, but not to my sister, who was more Indian than I was.
When I was little, she and my other sister came from India to live with us in America. They had been born in India and left in a boarding school until they were teenagers. I don’t remember much before they came. My oldest sister looked after me as though I were her own, and when my mother scolded me for making a mess or spanked me for wetting the bed, my sister always stepped in, thwarting blows, nurturing hurt. She was so thin that as a child I was often afraid that I would break her hips when she carried me.
Is he going to take you away from us? Though it had only been a short time since she had been with us, I loved her as though she were my own mother.
She reassured me that I would get to visit her as often as I wanted after she married. Because she looked so happy, I didn’t want to speak the truth of what I knew: that once she had someone else to love, our relationship could never be the same.
When the Indian family arrived, I sat upstairs on the landing, peering through the stairwell grates. What does he look like? my sister wanted to know. He’s okay, I told her, but I secretly thought he was handsome.
My mother served platters upon platters of yellow snacks drenched in oil and butter. My father made jokes, barking out an infectious laugh that we seldom heard. The family seemed polite, dabbing the corners of their mouths with napkins that I had never seen before. The man kept looking up, presumably hoping for a glimpse of my sister.
When my mother came upstairs to fetch her, I was overcome with my sister’s transformation. Her skin was coated with a light powder that highlighted her crescent cheekbones; her lips were filled with a faded mauve; and her eyes were underlined with a black crayon. I had never seen her so beautiful, and I felt proud that this was my sister and sad too knowing that no man could find fault with her now.
As is the custom during a bride-viewing, she moved around the room carrying a plate of tea. The guests took their time in studying her features. When she reached her potential future husband, she blushed but did not raise her eyelids. He looked her over with concern, then care. He mumbled his gratitude before she slipped upstairs once more.
After everyone left and my sister was in our room crying, I tried to console her, telling her that he had no right to reject her, that he was not that handsome, that he was wrong when he said that she didn’t have the right look—the look that he wanted. At night in the bed that we also shared, I let her hold me. I could feel her breath moist with salt.
I knew it was wrong to ask for what I did, knowing that it would cause my sister so much heartache, but for once, God had listened to my prayers. Which meant someday, God would listen to my other prayers too, and maybe my parents would learn—in the manner in which actors portray on TV—how to love us and each other after all.
Annam Manthiram is the author of the novel, After the Tsunami (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2011), and Dysfunction: Stories(Aqueous Books, 2012), which was a finalist in the 2010 Elixir Press Fiction Contest and in Leapfrog Press’ 2010 Fiction Contest. Her prize-winning short work has been published in Poets & Writers Magazine, Cream City Review, Gargoyle, New Plains Review, Puerto del Sol,Monkeybicycle, and many others. A graduate of the MA Writing program at the University of Southern California and a recent Finalist in the 2012 Pen Parentis Fellowship Awards, Ms. Manthiram resides in New Mexico with her husband, Alex, and sons, Sathya and Anand.