Story

Dowry

It is the nineties. The moonlight filters through lattice windows and coconut tree leaves, casting patterns across the white walls of our bedroom. Thathaa approaches me. Owls hoot and crickets chirp like anklets as he hooks a golden chain around my neck. You, my mother, dishevelled from soothing my crying, clutch the chain and look at my father.

I leave you one chain, four grams of gold. I was just born when you acquired it.

Outside the door, you and Paati laugh about something. I turn away from the noise and face the newly installed air conditioner. The renovated bedroom is littered with statues. Women made of gold wearing gold ornaments wrapped in gold sarees. Outside the window, serial lights dangle across the wall. Speakers are tied to poles. Preparations for the wedding.

You shout at the men from the rental company. “Not like that, pa. A little to the left.” Paati agrees with you and mutters, “These men, they’re so careless. All they want is money.”

I grab the pillow and squeeze it around my head. But I still hear your voice from all those years ago, grumbling in my ear. Suddenly, I’m a child, and you’re lying next to me, whispering the story of how she slighted me. I listen to you and see it unfolding.

It is the nineties. The moonlight filters through lattice windows and coconut tree leaves, casting patterns across the white walls of our bedroom. Thathaa approaches me. Owls hoot and crickets chirp like anklets as he hooks a golden chain around my neck. You, my mother, dishevelled from soothing my crying, clutch the chain and look at my father.

“It doesn’t feel like eight grams of gold,” you whisper.

“Four grams is enough for a second girl child,” Paati snaps coldly.

I leave you one ring, eight grams of gold. I watch its stones glint in the morning light. “Yeah, yeah, it’s a nice ring. Now get out of the way,” Athira shouts. I jump off the new veranda. Men from Lakshmi catering follow her, carrying a giant tawa onto which they will be making parottas tomorrow. I’m surprised the arrangements have started four days before the wedding. You’ve invited a lot of guests, haven’t you, Amma? So many that you need to pitch a pandal with colourful fabrics atop what once was our garden to accommodate them for the feast.

I wander underneath the canopy. The gate is cracked open. No one’s around. No one would notice if I were to slip out. I’ll leave my slippers so they’ll think I’m bathing. By the time they figure it out, I’ll be long gone. Kani can buy me new slippers. There are ones that only cost a hundred rupees.

But Athira comes out, a scowl on her face.

“You remember how we used to run around here when we were younger?” I ask.

She sighs. “Enough, di. Come inside. You’ll become dark in the sun.”

I remember the garden’s once-lush grass brushing my feet. I am nine years old—lean limbs, quick fingers, folding my maths question paper into an airplane and running with light steps. Athira runs behind me, and we jump in puddles. In those early years, we were inseparable. Thatha, tending to his enormous ixoras and overflowing jasmines, raises his stick and shoos us away. As he grumbles, you walk through the gates.

“Bonus from my company,” you announce. 

That one sentence brings the family buzzing around you. Thathaa and Paati converse loudly about what a shame it is they don’t have a TV to watch devotional songs. My sister and I jump around, shouting about how we want to see the new Rajnikanth movie, the one where he swishes his hand and produces a rose. We wave our hands that way and expect to see roses, too. But you glare at us and announce you’ll be investing the money in our future instead.

Next day, we take an autorickshaw to a jewellery shop on Hundred Feet Road, the kind with glass windows and crystal chandeliers. From their many velvet trays, you pick a filigreed, white-stoned ring and slide it up my finger. Perhaps if you had taken Athira’s hand, none of this would’ve happened. But you have a mental calculator that displays the grams of gold meant for each of us, and you’re trying to even it out. My sister glares as she sips Mirinda from a glass bottle. You watch the weighing machine confirm the ring is 8.37 grams and wait as the shopkeeper packs it in an absurdly large jute bag.

Next morning, when you’re doing the dishes, Paati glares at me, muttering to herself about a television. You say, “If we keep buying television sets and going to the movies, how do we save enough gold for our daughters’ weddings?”

Paati huffs and plucks the bunch of spinach leaves with renewed fervour. “No good family will want wives from a house that ill-treats its elders.”

I scurry away from their bickering, past Athira who sits on the steps, reading that week’s Kumudam for celebrity updates. I nearly trip and look down to see Athira’s leg. She smirks. “Here comes the queen of England with all her gold.”

That evening I swipe the ring and tiptoe into the garden. In the purple-gold glow of the setting sun, I dig a hole, bury the ring, and pour a cup of water onto the dirt, certain that a ring tree will fix our problems. When you search for the ring a month later, I explain what I did, assuming you’ll appreciate my effort. You slam the back of a spoon thrice against my elbows. I shriek and snatch my arm away. This time, you hit my knuckles but I barely see you through my tear-blurred eyes. We dig up the whole garden, but the ring is never found, and I beg Athira to change places with me so I don’t have to sleep next to you anymore. 

I leave you one necklace, one haaram, and one pair of earrings, seventy grams of gold. Athira hooks them around my neck one after another. “You should’ve melted these, made something new,” she tells you.

Athira’s husband talks to my father in the background. I imagine my fiancé standing with them, running his fingers through his hair, discussing the price of petrol, the recent cricket match, or whatever the Pakistanis or Chinese are doing at the border. He turns to me, catches my eyes. I shudder and look away.

“Now look, all these designs are old-fashioned,” Athira continues, as if anyone cares.

“The boy’s parents care only about the weight,” you reply. “And besides, they’re what started our shop.”

You turn and look at me, and I am thirteen again.

It is early morning. The stabbing in my stomach has awoken me. I assume it is the plate of masala puri I swallowed the previous night and head to the bathroom. When I turn on the lights, I’m greeted by red splotches on my favourite lavender skirt. I’m certain it is a weird sort of cancer. I rush to the bedroom but you’re not there, and Athira is snoring with her head rested on her engineering entrance exam prep book. The front door is open. I step into the garden.

At first, I hear only your bangles. Then I see you. You’re bent over a thorn plant with a cloth bag in hand. You’re collecting something from its branches, something that glints in the moonlight. Hearing my footsteps, you spin around, spilling the contents of your bag. On the ground is a scattering of golden rings, filigreed and filled with white stones like the one I’d buried. You sigh. There’s nothing you can say to explain this—not even the truth. If you’d asked me to keep quiet, I’d have made you bribe me with a Hero pen. If you’d screamed at me, Paati and everyone else would’ve woken up. But you don’t do either. You look at me and say, “Pick it up.”

I don’t have a grip on reality—blood drips from between my legs, and the golden rings I once planted have sprouted, grown, and borne more rings. I sigh and bend over as if you’ve accidentally spilled pigeon peas all over the kitchen floor. Once we’re done, we head back inside, fanning our sweaty necks and trying to dislodge the dry soil stuck underneath our fingernails.

You finally ask why I’m awake. When I show you my skirt, you hurriedly demonstrate how to use a pad. In the morning, you tell everyone I’ve ‘come of age’, and I deduce that this must be normal. My grandmother insists I take seven days off school. On her instruction, you relegate me to a make-shift bed in the corner of the house along with a steel plate and tumbler.

For seven days, I am confined there. Athira, sympathetic, moves the television inch by inch when you aren’t looking. We watch music videos of men in sunglasses with women in colour-changing sarees dancing around them. Athira picks out my clothes—drab churidhars with opaque shawls. I put on the top and the bottom, but not the shawl in the heat of Coimbatore’s summer. Paati screams at me to wear it. You roll your eyes and tell Paati to shut up. But you teach me how to pleat the shawl so that it conceals the shape of my breasts. I experience a newfound dread of my body, this thing that houses me in a way I may never escape.

I don’t understand this until I meet Kani years later. After correcting someone for misgendering her, she turns to me and says, “Do I really look like a boy?” I don’t know what she wants to hear, so I don’t respond. She narrows her eyes. “I want to be a girl and look like a girl, but I don’t want to be a girl and look like a girl. Does that make sense?” I laugh and nod and tuck my hair behind my ear. But that is much later, and I shouldn’t muddy my memory of her.

On the seventh day of my exile, you pull me to my feet. You bind me in a silk saree, comb my hair into a thick braid, and deck my neck with jewellery. “Your aunts and uncles paid for these to be made for you,” you explain. When I see myself in the mirror, glittering with silk and gold, I am nauseous. I feel my ghost move inside me. “You look so pretty, no?” you say, your lips curled into a full smile. “We are starting a jewellery shop. These are some of the designs.” You point at my neck. I look into your eyes. But all I see reflected—the same image I see today in the mirror as Athira smiles from behind me—is the gold.

I leave you one pendant, four grams of gold. When you ask Athira to exchange some of our useless gold for a new watch, she brings the pendant to you. You frown, say that it’s mine and cannot belong to the boy.

“We shouldn’t have to get him a watch.” I say. “It’s illegal to ask for dowry anyway. What are they going to do? Fight us?”

“Take some of the rings instead,” you tell Athira, ignoring me as usual.

Ages ago, you store rings in the kitchen, heaped in a red bucket placed between ponni and basmati rice. I am fifteen and I don’t think to ask why you can’t just sell some of the gold and build a big house and buy an air conditioner. Instead I stand guard as you scoop handfuls of rings into cloth sacks. You pass them to the goldsmith, tell the family that you have convinced your boss to invest in a jewellery shop. In return, we receive velvet boxes—golden chains, necklaces, and chokers sometimes; armlets, rings, and bracelets other times. You discuss making gold anklets and my Paati is vehemently against it. “You don’t put something valuable on your feet,” she says. We only receive anklets for the next two weeks, and you walk around, tapping your feet every time Paati passes by.

Outside, the plant has unfolded and burst into a dense shrub. Thathaa can no longer garden—he is confined to his bed, muttering to himself about how my father and his ten siblings should go out and count the cows. His ixoras and jasmines have succumbed to dementia as well, browning and wilting. After Thathaa dies, my father tries adding eggshells, digging a compost pit, spraying a chemical fertiliser, but nothing helps. He wants to tear up the thorn plant, but you scold him. “The tree brings Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, to our home.” Everyone thinks you are insane. I know you aren’t.

You wait to show off your wealth to my father’s siblings—the ones who blamed you for not having a son, the ones you most want to impress. When we receive an invite to a cousin’s housewarming, you are ecstatic. We buy our first car—a Mercedes Benz. You hire a driver, make him wear a tacky white uniform and open the door for you. You step out, push your glasses further up your nose and grin at our relatives. You’re dressed like an evil mother-in-law from a soap opera on Sun TV. Even your blouse is embroidered with gold beads. My sister follows you, her head held high. I cannot move.

When you yank me out of the car, I slap your hand away. I tug at the armlets and the nethi chutti. I run my fingers along the rough ridges underneath my necklaces. The cold metal itches my neck. The heavy silk strangles me. I imagine myself a balloon floating above my body. From there, I puppeteer my limbs and walk my body inside.

At the housewarming, you make a show of handing the host a velvet box. My aunt and uncle hurry up to you, shocked. They thank you profusely and refuse the gift, but you wave it all away. It’s from our shop, you tell them. “What’s the point of prosperity if you can’t share?” It is this that makes my aunt show up at our house every Deepavali after. And it is this that makes my ten aunts and uncles get together, buy a four-gram pendant, and hand it to me, apologising for what my grandmother did when I was a baby. You snatch it up and keep it in your cupboard as if it’s a medal of honour.

When we leave the housewarming, you grab a ring from your bag and slide it down your finger. Just as we turn out of the parking lot, you lower your car’s window, remove the ring, and hand it to the security guard as if you are Pari Vallal giving away his chariot to a climber. As he thanks you, you smile and wave it away. I sigh with relief and remove my necklace, finally descending back into my body, but you scream when I mimic you and hand it to the guard.

I leave you one house, two stories, looking over the Mumbai skyline. My fiancé calls via Skype to show me the house you bought us. The phone shakily zooms in on the balcony outside the bedroom. It pans across the colourful walls. Athira sits next to me, grinning, telling him to show this closet, that bathroom. She asks me which of the three bedrooms she and her husband will be occupying when they visit, but I don’t respond.

Seeing it there, furnished enough to move into, but unfurnished enough to be mine, it’s too real. I try to imagine dragging Kani into it with me. In the mornings, I peel my eyes open, and she’s sitting by the window. While I mix the dosa batter for breakfast, she chops onions and tomatoes for chutney. In the evening, we sit on the couch in the living room, watching a Hindi movie, complaining about how they stereotype South Indians. At night, she reads the International Journal of Environmental Science while I embroider flowers I find on Pinterest.

My fiancé lifts the camera to his face. My sister hands me the phone and disappears. We sit in silence.

“You asked my parents for a watch?” I say.

“I’m not involved in that. It’s all my parents. They want to brag. It’s always about relatives, isn’t it?”

He waits for me to smile, but I don’t.

He looks around as if to check if someone’s watching. “Look, Rahul and I want the master bedroom. I can alter the guest bedroom so it’s just as big. What do you think? Maybe you should talk to, erm, Kanaka? Karthika? Kaikeyi? You know, your partner.”

“It doesn’t matter. Kanimozhi and I broke up.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m getting married to you?”

“That’s too bad,” he says. “But if she can’t stick through this, she doesn’t deserve you. The dating scene is good in Mumbai. I’m sure you’ll find someone.” He pauses for a moment. “So I’m guessing we don’t need to alter the guest bedroom?”

I cut the call and throw the phone at the pillow.

In the hallway, Athira is holding up a hanger with her husband’s ironed blazer. He mutters something about a wrinkle she’s left unfixed. She says it’s unnoticeable, but he’s already walked away. Athira pauses by my doorway, her lips quivering like he’d slapped her. Our eyes meet. She knows I’ll tell her she shouldn’t iron his clothes. She’ll tell me it’s her job as the woman. I’ll tell her gender is a construct. She’ll tell me just because it’s a construct doesn’t mean it’s not real. I’ll tell her just because it’s real doesn’t mean she should do it. The cycle will go on.

I pick up my phone and scroll through my contacts, looking for Kani’s phone number. It’s not too late. Kani, with her edgy undercut, sharp cheekbones, and low grunt of a voice. I can see her so clearly.

I’m seventeen and I’m at Banupriya Institute of Technology studying sociology. I’m that girl everyone knows is there only because of her parents’ wallet—very different from Athira, who went to Madras Institute of Technology. But I didn’t care. I saw my sister work her ass off only to get married and let her diploma gather dust. I might as well enjoy my brief freedom.

You send me fifty thousand rupees. I send you pictures of the things I’ve bought—a quilt, a carpet, a short dress with lace trims, brunch with friends. You send me yellow thumbs ups. I ask for more money. The bank alerts me that my new balance is fifty thousand rupees.

I first meet Kani sitting in the hostel cafeteria with a mutual friend who’s going through a breakup with a long-term boyfriend. I’m buying our friend ice cream and everyone’s consoling her. When she sobs and says she wishes she were a lesbian, Kani is the only one to roll her eyes. We talk, she lures me to her room with the promise of murukku. We stand on her metal cot together and adhere a pride flag to the bare brick wall. When we’re done, we drop onto the bed where we find ourselves surprisingly close to each other. I am the first to slip my hand under her shirt, and she is the first to slip her fingers into my pants.

When I wake up at six next morning, she sits on the dusty floor, eyes closed, bare back stiff. The sunlight draws golden lines across her neck as she rests in meditation. My cheeks fluster with warmth. I get off my bed carefully, but the box of a room doesn’t allow much distance between us. I fling myself at her, bored of silence. Her eyelids flit open. She’s slightly annoyed. But she kisses my lips.

After nine, we hurry to our classes. She’s an environmental science student holding a battered flask of tea, dressed in thrifted shirts too big for her (“It’s sustainable, babe.”). I’m a sociology student leaning next to her, guilty I photocopied my book on Marx, Durkheim, and Weber instead of using the e-book (“It’s ok, babe. I still love you.”). We eat warm Maggi from the tea shop in the evenings. When she says my name, I feel more like myself than I have ever felt. Unlike the straight couples, we are not bothered by anyone from the university when we hold hands or sleep in each other’s rooms. Everything is perfect.

Then you ruin it like you ruin everything.

I leave you half of the jewellery shops you’ve opened. I find the document—a will with your sign—as I’m leafing through the family’s certificates in search of mine. It’s not technically mine to give you, but I don’t want to inherit it anymore. I shred it to pieces and slide the crumpled remnants into its slot. I text Kani that I’m sorry, that I miss her, that I don’t know what I was thinking when I said I didn’t want to leave with her. I wait for her response, find my certificates, but none of my messages are ‘received’. Her black and white profile picture is not visible. Her last ‘seen’ is the date I left her. She blocked me. I look her up on other social media, but every profile is locked. I spread my certificates on the floor—birth certificate, voter ID, community certificate, Aadhar card, passbook, diploma for my BA in Sociology.

Athira peers in. “Wow. You’ll have time to pack after the wedding—a week at least.”

 “I know,” I say. “I’m just preparing early and grabbing copies just in case.”

I wonder if she suspects something, but she nods and loads the scanner. While Athira makes copies, I grab my phone, open LinkedIn, and scroll to find Kani’s name. In the picture, she stands with her graduation cap on. I open its chat function and type in a message. I pray and pray she still checks it though she doesn’t seem to have updated her profile in years.

I remember the day that picture was taken. I’m twenty-two, tossing my mortarboard in the air, flinching at a camera’s flash. I’m saying goodbye to BIT. I hate to see Kani remove the pride flag, but she promises someone else will put it on their wall next year. Kani gets a job with an NGO in Coimbatore. I work as a content writer from home, making peanuts. She visits every weekend, this time on her bike. She squints at the gold plant, confused why she can’t place the invasive species. I tell her it’s for luck and that it just sprang up.

I climb on her bike and cling to her as she drives through fiery gulmohar orchards. I lift my hand and brush yellow flames along highways. I shower in the purple petals of rare jacaranda trees. Their leaves and petals are caught in my curls until the next day’s shower when they whirl down the drain. I collect their pods. They dry in my purse.

Kani usually zooms away before you or anyone can see her. But that day, you and Athira are outside because we are renovating the house. When I head inside, Athira stops me. “Do you think we don’t see what’s going on here?” she asks, staring after Kani. “The way you look at her and the way she grins… It’s wrong.”

“Shut it,” I snap.

You pretend not to notice as you speak to the contractor. For a moment, I think it’s my turn to do things and leave them unexplained; your turn to fall behind unquestioningly. But the next day, photos of boys start to arrive to my WhatsApp. Then their families appear in our living rooms. My body is bound again in a silk saree, and I float overhead. You give my body a tray of snacks, ask it to serve them. The families ask my body if it can cook and clean. It is hard to make my body serve coffee, impossible to make it speak naturally. There are too many strings controlling its vocal cord, tongue, facial muscles, and I twist into loops trying to make it talk. When I fail, they tell you they’ll think about it, which is a longer way of saying no.

Then, one day, someone claiming to be a potential match texts me that he wants to talk before his parents visit. I meet him at a coffee shop, hoping to dissuade him, save myself the ordeal of meeting his parents. He buys us each a pricy frappuccino, talks about how he likes my watch. Finally, I say, “Look, it’s nothing personal, but I like someone else.”

His smile melts, revealing nervousness. “I know,” he says. “I know you’re queer—we have a mutual friend. My boyfriend is sitting over there in that booth.” I turn and look at a boy in a collared shirt, stirring an empty cup two tables away. His eyes widen on seeing me. He lowers his head. “We have a proposal for you.”

That weekend, I sit across from Kani in a bakery. Horns blare as busses and lorries drive past. Kani buys us a plate of chaat. I poke at the puris drowning in curd. She wears a churidhar this time, a cheap brown one with embroidery threads peeking out of the top. Her cheeks are plump, and she looks nonchalantly pretty as she does in everything.

“Imagine it, Kani!” I say. “You and I in Mumbai with none of this crap. My parents will think I’m married. My sister won’t be there to bother us. In a big city like that, maybe no one will care that we’re together.”

Kani spoons a puri into her mouth, strangely expressionless. “They don’t speak Tamil,” Kani says. “What do they even eat?”

“Come on, Kani. You were okay with Kannada in Bangalore. Be serious.”

She drops her spoon on the plate. “Fine,” she says. “What happens when your family visits? Do I hide under your bed?” I hadn’t thought that through. “What about my family? Does your fiancé have a boy I can marry?” I almost suggest my fiancé’s partner when I realise she’s making a point. “They’ll want you to have children. What happens when they pressure you?”

“Really?” I ask. “You’re afraid I’m going to sleep with him?”

Kani tuts. “My point is, no matter what you do, there is no getting around how your family feels about us. I know it’s hard. But the good thing is, we don’t live in a fucking period film where we have to look longingly at each other’s ankles. The court and the law are with us.”

“My parents won’t stop looking for boys.”

“Then let’s leave,” Kani says. “Let’s get away from them.”

“And go where?” I ask. “We don’t have anywhere.”

“Come to my home,” she says. “My parents say they’re okay with us. They want to meet you. They’ll help us find a home. Things will be fine.”

I look at the cup of water next to me and imagine the tall frappuccino from the café. I want to smack myself for thinking like you, but maybe sometimes you are right. “We don’t have money.”

“We’ll save up. You’re making some too.”

I look down at her dress again, find a hole on the bodice. I imagine staying up late, writing over my required word count at work just so I can come home and announce I’ve gotten a bonus.  Kani sighs—we can finally fix the fridge. Her father wants me to invest in a fixed deposit. Her mother thinks we should treat ourselves for once—movie and a fancy dinner. In my imagination, no one asks what I think, and for the second time in this conversation I feel a flash of empathy for you that scares me. “I don’t want to be a broke college student forever.”

Kani shakes her head, eyes on the dahi puri. We are quiet as we finish our plates. Once there are no more plates to hold us there, she stands. “I’m not going to stop you, Abi. It’s tough. And the choice is yours. But I just came out of my closet. I don’t want to live in yours.”

“I want to go to Mumbai,” I say. “I want to have a good life.”

“Fine,” she says. “Then go.”

I leave you all the rings in the back of the house and the secrets we share. I take only some of the clothes you bought me before I left for college. I stuff them in a duffel bag and throw in my documents and a handful of gold rings. Then I dig the rings back out. I don’t want to bring you with me. But as I rush from the room, Athira steps forward to block the door, and I realise she’s been keeping an eye on me.

“How much does she make?” Athira asks. “How would you survive?”

“Why do you care?” I ask her.

She looks at the bag. “You can’t steal from your own mother.”

I almost tell her that I’m not, that I couldn’t even if I want to. Then I realise that by carrying your secret, I’m carrying you. “You know the rings come from the thorn plant, right?”

She doesn’t reply, so I move towards the door again. She bars my path. She’s frowning—at the piles of rings, the thorn tree, the picture of my grandfather. “She told you?”

“Yes,” I say. “You don’t have to do this.”

She shakes her head. I’m not sure what she’s denying— the fact that gold rings grow on trees, that my mother told me but not her, my statement that she doesn’t have to do this. But it doesn’t matter. She grabs the bag and wrestles it out of my hands.

“It’s not my fault she didn’t tell you—”

“No,” she says. “You’re not… you’re not thinking straight.”

“Come on, Athira.”

She shakes her head and leaves the room with the bag. I drop to the floor and wrap my hands around my knees. I sob into my pants. Something shakes within me, and I’m lifting, floating out of my body. I’ve never come untethered before when I’m not wearing gold. But I suppose it’s time for me to learn.

It is four a.m. when I arrive at the wedding hall. My sister, her husband and my cousins stand outside, arrange arathi plates to welcome the groom. Athira won’t talk to me or look at me, and you don’t even notice. You walk me into the hall, past the stage decorated with fresh flowers and the photographers setting up cranes and drones. We enter the bride’s room, its one bed, one dresser, one chair drowning in velvet boxes. The beautician carefully unzips each of them.

You smile at me. “Remember what they said when I had you? Only four grams for a second girl child.” You touch my cheek and I flinch at the bite of your rings. “They told me I was a failure for not giving them a son, that your marriage would do nothing but drain all our money. They don’t know how much I’m capable of. But that will change today.”

I stare. You still believe that the very marriage and gold that ruined you are worth passing down to me. But I don’t argue. You’re not someone who learns from words, and I don’t want to teach you lessons. You leave, and the beautician unfurls the saree and waits for me to undress. I wish my body luck and lift myself out of it again. I don’t tug at the body’s strings, but the beautician manages to keep it from slouching. That’s when I see the saree for what it is—a six-yard puppet string.

Athira hurries into the room at around four thirty p.m., sweating profusely. It’s nice to see her from above where nothing is real. She asks the beautician if they’re hungry, sends them off to get vada and coffee. “You still did it, didn’t you?” she tells my body. Her voice breaks. She paces back and forth, an eye on the door.

Kani pushes through the door, folds her hands to her chest and glares.

“No,” Athira says. “It’s too late. You can’t do this to her. Not in front of everyone.” She turns to my body. “Don’t even think about leaving, Abi.”

“She’s not there,” Kani says. Athira frowns. Kani lifts her chin and looks right at me. “Come back down,” she says. I’m surprised she sees me, surprised enough to float closer to my body. Athira follows her gaze. She gasps and backs away, letting Kani through. Kani rips off the necklaces, the neat pleats, and I am back again, breathing hard, eyes darting around the room. She pulls me into a hug, and I am confused by the warmth. “Get up,” she whispers.

Athira steps out of our way. Our eyes meet for a moment, and she almost nods. Outside, the tiny crowd that had trickled into the hall watches us in stunned silence. My brother-in-law stands in his crisp blazer, my cousins clutch the shawls of their shining half sarees. As Kani and I slip out, Athira scrambles to the dining hall. You’re likely tasting payasam when she rushes in and tells you. You’ll drop the cup and stare. Maybe you’ll even dare to be confused.

But outside the wedding hall, as vaagai flowers peek at us from the trees, Kani lifts her bike, kicks its stand aside and takes a seat. “They’re going to charge me with kidnapping you,” she says.

“Then get me out of here,” I say, climbing onto the bike, giving her more than I’d ever leave you.

This story was about: Community Feminism Gender Identities Sexuality

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Swetha S. was born and raised in Coimbatore, a small city in India. Though she is too comfortable to leave her bed in the pleasant climate of Coimbatore, her stories are about fierce girls who brave complex worlds and question authority. Her short stories have been published in Out of Print Magazine and It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility Anthology, and her YA Fantasy novel is upcoming from Meraki press. She earned her B.A. in English with Creative Writing from the University of Nottingham Malaysia. She is currently a freelance editor at Tessera Editorial. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found playing Stardew Valley, hoarding more packets of tea, and perfecting her cold brew coffee.
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