Passing through the hallway on their way out, her sisters tipped their heads in the direction of the statue of the goddess Durga. They did it automatically, almost imperceptibly, and with wide, innocent eyes, like spies letting their handler know they had seen him and he should hold his position. Oma did the same, but with less conviction. It was one of many casual gestures of defiance on the part of the sisters. Their parents, aunts, and grandparents had offered unsatisfactory and conflicting answers to the question of why, since they did not believe in gods, their houses were filled with Hindu icons. Oma disliked it when her sisters interrogated their parents and shot glances at one another waiting for the elders to flounder, but she reluctantly played her part in the rituals her sisters established to confound them. She tipped her head to the goddess and moved along. The goddess both frightened and fascinated her, with her eight weaponized arms and peaceful expression.

“Did you pack parathas for your dinners?” Geeta asked over her shoulder.

Geeta was twenty-two, the eldest of the sisters. Ever since she had become engaged to be married she had grown increasingly involved in the details of her siblings’ lives.

Oma looked at her.

“You didn’t, did you? You know the food is going to be awful?”

“I don’t mind,” Oma said.

The sisters stepped out onto the street. It was still dark. There were lights on in some of the houses and the girls looked in the windows as they passed.

Geeta walked ahead, then turned back, opened her purse, and gave Oma twenty pounds.

“You’d better take this in case,” she said.

“Thanks,” Oma said, knowing she would not spend Geeta’s money. The school would provide food on the trip and she would eat it or not.

“It’s six nights,” Geeta said, watching her.

“I know.”

Oma put the money inside the zip pocket of her rucksack.

The girls approached the railway bridge leading to the Tube station. Oma lifted the rucksack onto her shoulders, thinking her sisters would turn back, but they crossed over the bridge with her.

“Try and talk to the other girls,” Mia said softly at her side, “but if someone is very nice to you, you don’t have to tell them all your thoughts.”

Duniya and Rakhi exclaimed, “Mia!”

Duniya said, “Don’t listen to her. Say what you want to.”

“It’s just school,” Oma said. And then, to Geeta, “Sorry I’ll miss putting up the wedding tent.”

Oma wanted to say something more to Geeta about the wedding, because she knew there would be no opportunity when she returned home. The house would be filled with aunties and cousins from Delhi and Mombasa and then there would be the wedding itself, and then Geeta would be gone.

When the wedding had first been announced, Duniya had cried and, later, demanded, “Why marry when you don’t want to?” Geeta had looked unhappy at the question. She’d been sitting on Oma’s bed with Oma’s new walking boots in her lap, threading the laces in, though Oma could have done it herself. “I do want to,” Geeta had replied, and Duniya went and sat next to her and said, “Okay.” Geeta kept lacing. Then she put one boot down on the carpet and said, “You’ll understand when it’s your turn.” Rakhi shot Duniya the same glance she used when they were cross-examining their parents, but Duniya refused to meet it, and since it was impossible for the sisters to imagine themselves at twenty-two without a vague, unsettling sense of their own absence, they each turned away and occupied themselves with other thoughts.

After that, the sisters had thrown themselves into preparing for the wedding. Geeta and Mia had decided on their mehndi designs. They all went to the garden center for the bamboo sticks the boys from the family would plant in the earth to represent pillars marking the sacred space of the ceremony. In the loft, instead of the copper pot and the photograph of their great-grandfather, Mia found two bottles of eau de parfum, which, she shouted down to Oma and Duniya, would do for something.

“Don’t worry about it,” Geeta said now to Oma. “Nothing much will happen until you’re back.” Mia patted her rucksack and added, “We’ll save you a goddess to stick somewhere.”


Homepage art from "Reflected," a portfolio by Vijay Balakrishnan, from issue no. 185, Summer 2008.