No, I’m not. Not a bad girl. But Mama said so because she calls me brain-scattered. But you never say it, you call me pretty and say I am smart and good girl, like my no-name doll.
I read in my homework book: She Sells Seashells by the Seashore.
I imagine the sea. Waves kiss-kiss-kiss the shore. Blue waves like ghee in the pan. Sun making diamond marks on the water, like the sparkles in my hair after a bubble bath. I am swimming now on the pictures the words gave me. It is so funny how you can be two places at same time. Funny. I am here in the kitchen in your apartment 3F and I am also at the sea. Aunty said I was bad because I was always not listening and always being in many places at the same time in my head. Brain-scattered, Mama also said. Chulhi, Aunty said.
You are the no-Uncleji who likes his movies and gives me A-plus when Mama says I am only F. Today is last day here with you and Aunty in 3F. Mama and I go to our own apartment house because she has new job to sell seashell makeup at Sears counter. No more working for Aunty selling saris. We already packed suitcases. Just three. Two big ones and my small one with roses on it. It is already in room with the lumpy-bumpy bed Aunty gave us to use. I still have homework but I want to go outside because the sun is lemon yellow and shiny.
Outside two kalis play jumping games. Kith-kith I called it in Lucknow. Hopscotch here. Hop is what the bunnies do. Scotch is your drink, silly Uncleji. Maybe they are just six like me, the playing girls. The playing girls are not in my class but still they always never smile at me when I pass them on the stairs. One’s hair click-clicks when she jumps because of red and yellow stones in it and the other’s like black cotton candy that needs Mama’s coconut oil to make it smooth and shiny like mine. Kalis, not gauris, like pepper not salt.
I said to them my name once climbing the stairs to 3F but they made tongues to me and called me not nice names. But still they look so happy, jumping, clappng, skipping, hopping like bunnies over chalk drawn numbered squares on the stone walk. I am not smiling like them now. Because of my homework. Watching. Chewing my hair tail that tastes like coconuts. I am fuzzy face in the glass. A Kuchaji’s eyes sad. Just looking. Just looking.
I blow on the window glass and my face goes away and then I wipe it and my face comes back and girls outside still play. A stupid gaura boy rode over their nice squares on his bicycle before just now and didn’t say nothing with his gold hair blowing. The kalis name-called him also (not nice words) but I laughed that time. Now their sneakers go squeaky-chompy. The boy rides his fast bicycle fastly away. I laugh when from your room cave you say, Meri chaa ready, betah?
I was not betah. Betah was a son. I was bethi, a daughter, but not yours, because you had a face like spoiled fruit, ashy breath, and old man’s knees.
You say, My sandwich, nah?
The kettle is already on. I already made the stupid banana and peanut butter sandwich you like with the smelly bread. I just didn’t cut it. Very hot in the kitchen and so I open the window because the kitchen smells verily from Mama’s nice dinner yesternight when she told Aunty we were going forever. You kept not smiling. You kept scooping up big bites of sabzhi in your fork and spilling rice on your beard. The fork went chink-chink on the plate. Aunty said it was achaa we were going now. Good. Make your own way. Live your own destiny. I didn’t know what Aunty and Mama were talking about. Even though Aunty said her clants would miss Mama because she was so careful and smiled nicely. No one said nothing after that, just the chink-chink of the forks on the plates. The big round clock with the white face went tick-tick-tick, like the stones going click-click-click on the sidewalk.
Now you say, Ethay auo!
You shout it from your room and I don’t like it when you shout. Not nice. Shouting. Papa’s smart singing voice is nice. So I will not come there like you asked just now, because you shouted and because the water kettle is not boiling yet.
Not ready, Uncleji, I shout back. You were not my Uncleji, but I said it because Mama said to say so.
Ji, you say.
Uncleji-ji. Ji, the sound of respect. Like Pita-ji, Mama-ji, Guru Gobind-ji. Like Kucha-ji, that bad girl who…I forgot.
My book is still open on the kitchen table and I read it with my legs kicking at nothing. The words are like a game, Mrs. Smith said. She smells like armpits.
I read: Many an Anemone Sees an Enemy Anemone.
I don’t want to study, but white Mrs. Smith said I was learning too slow. I got D’s and sometimes a C-plus which was still better than F’s because that meant you were like Nando who always picked his nose and sat in the corner with the white pointy cap on. Nando was like Lupe. She had to write her name on the chalkboard a gazillion times and still forgot how to spell sorry. With a “y” and now “ie.” Click-click goes the sound of the blinds. Click-click go the stones on the sidewalk with the chalk-numbered squares. But still so hot in the kitchen. Click-click like when you clicked your pen and wrote checks to the gurudwara, giving money to them for prayer tapes and flowers. Mama said you were so nice for giving. A good man. Pundit-ji.
How Can a Clam Cram in a Clean Cream Can?
Papa used to make me say funny things like that. Mera nam tera nam aur tera nam mera nam. But now he was still over the big ocean in India. I looked at a map and tried to see if I could find Papa there but Mama said I was stupid for trying to see him on a map. Aunty called me dhili and Mama also laughed and I was very very angry at her for laughing.
I read the stupid book because if I read it and Mama comes home early like she said and sees me doing homework she will think me good. She will say, Shabash! and then after chocolates we would go away forever.
You were mostly always in your room with your dhoti on watching American Idol with the singers singing or listening to prayer music while Aunty and Mama were out selling saris. You always gave me burfee and chocolate kisses wrapped in tin foil when Mama wasn’t looking, winking and putting your long thin twisted finger to your wide, thin, crooked mouth, because she didn’t like me eating so many sweets because she said no one will like a girl that’s stupid and black and fat. But you said, She is love-elly, love-elly. And I asked Mama what love-elly meant and Aunty said it meant kothi. I am not a donkey, Aunty, I could say, but good girl, but didn’t say nothing.
You said love-elly with such a big wide no tooth smile and your eyes went so big, just like the wolf in that story. The red girl goes through woods to bring her sick naniji cookies. You said it, Our little secret. Gave me sweets. You said not to tell. I didn’t tell. I would never tell. Mama gave me a key I wore around my neck in a string and said to use it.
Tom Threw Tim Three Thumbtacks.
The kettle screams. I turn off the gas. The blue flame puffs. Rhymes make my head hurt and I told you that, but you forgot, but still you said I was good girl even though I was in summer school and Mrs. Smith smelled like armpits and said I was not that behind. Just a little.
Always respect your teachers, Mama said. Don’t be bad girl and ask too many questions. She said that the first day I had summer school, too.
I made the hot water go easily in your cup. No spills. The nice noisy kali girls shouted again. Dummy dummy, you cheated! I used to play just like them with my cousins Bubbly and Sweetie, but that was only last year when Mama and Papa and me were all together in Lucknow and I was in the 1st grade. The kith-kith rules were simple: Throw stone onto square one. Hop square one to square two and three all the way to square nine. Turn one foot on square nine and hop the way back, stopping at squares two and three to pick up the stone from square one and now safely out. Simple. If you didn’t step on a line, didn’t wobble, didn’t hop on a wrong square, didn’t put your hand down, didn’t put both feet down on a single square, then you won. Simple.
In Lucknow we didn’t have a stone walk like here and Bubbly and Sweetie and me made the squares to jump on the dirt with sticks. Mama didn’t let me play with the kalis here because she said they were bad. Mama said it wasn’t nice for gauri girls like me to play with kali girls because their pepper color could come off on me and then I woud be pepper like them and Mama and Aunty said that was bad. A shudra? Do you want to be shudra? Aunty asked. No, I said. Because then I would have to clean toilets and pick up people’s tati on the road and live without a husband forever making beaded necklaces to sell at other people’s weddings. But still the kalis looked so happy outside in the lemon yellow sun so bright, stones in the hair and the stone on the ground clicking.
You said, Mehri Chaa thandi hauri, nah?
No, I whispered, your tea won’t get cold, silly old toothless Uncleji with the funny kiss-kiss movies. I heard you cough and spit. Were you sick? Papa said to always wait the turn before speaking and never shout from far away and never spit.
Okay, I shout. I shout this time because you shouted and my voice bounces off the the Taj Mahal photo next to the clock next to Auntie’s Norge fridge with all the picture cards from american places: Red Gold Bridge, Skyscraper City, Park of Big White Fountains. You promised to take us to different places but Mama said we couldn’t go because of Aunty’s work so instead you secretly surprised me with chocolate kisses.
Surprise Sunrise Sunrise Surprise.
For one birthday Papa gave me a surprise too. He took Mama and me to Taj Mahal. It was the beautifulest thing. Palace made of sugar stone. Papa said love made it sweet. The white walls made my voice echo. How funny the way a voice can echo. And Once upon a time all the walls were jewels large as mangoes (I love mangoes) and when the sun rose and fell the palace and even the water fountain pool in the front yard shined up in a gazillion twinkles, like the diamond sparkles in the kali’s hair after a swim. We went down into the floor and saw the two big long stones lying side by side.
Here is where the king and his queen sleep forever and ever, Papa said. Then Papa sang to us, because sang for money, and people watched him but still didn’t give him money, much, and this made Mama and Papa fight after dinner.
Mama first loved that he sang ghazals and then didn’t like it because we never had food, much. Mama said Papa was starry-eyed but she loved his voice and at night we all slept in the same bed and he would sing to us sleepy. Papa said he was born on a star’s tail and I laughed. Mama said I was much like him, always thinking. I asked Papa afterwards in the Tempo car if he and Mama had the kind of love that Shah Jahan and Rani Mumtaz had and that if that was what real love was like and he looked at Mama and Mama didn’t look back. So while the kali my-age girls on the sidewalk hopped and played kith-kith on the numbered squares chalk-drawn against the sidewalk, I skipped in the beautifulest halls of another place, my voice jumping and bouncing and me sleeping next to a king.
No Need to Light a Nightlight on a Light Night like Tonight.
Oops, I forgot. You like your tea with butter even though Aunty said it was bad for your mouse heart. I take a spoonful of butter from the fridge and it goes in the mug like you like and put the tea bag and one blue Equal packet. Papa loved his tea too. Black tea with goat’s milk and three spoons of sugar. Papa stayed in India because Mama said…I forgot. When Mama wanted to leave Lucknow, Papa told her that his friends in America could help us. Indians, like us, not the chittas, gauras, angrazi (here they said white). But when we came over the ocean Papa’s Indian friends said they couldn’t take us so we met you in the gurdwara and after Mama told the ghiani our story the ghiani told us to stay with you. The ghiani told Mama you had helped others before us and because you had salt and pepper beard and dark circles under your ping-pong eyes and a blue turban on your head and Aunty had bad knees and the sweet blood disease, you could help us too. But your ping-pong ball eyes looked scary and you smiled like a wolf and before I could say No, Mama said, Yes and we came and lived with you and Aunty in your Camelot apartment 3F.
Papa said to me on the phone once, long long ago, that the ghiani was a good man because he had a white beard and that you could trust a person with a white beard, like Guru Nanak, our holiest father. I told Papa that the Christians here had a Guru Nanak too, a fat man who wore a red suit and brought good girls and boys presents on their December holy day and the red suit fat man came down chimneys and ate cookies and went Ho Ho Ho! And Papa laughed and said the name was Santa Claus while Mama listened from the other handset and told Papa I was naughty but still Papa said I was his twinkle star.
When we came here, there were spoiled wheat smells and medicine smells and dirty sock smells and armpit smells and oil smells, just like India. But Mama thanked you anyway and she spent whole day cleaning away all the smells. You gave us a room with no window and a lumpy-bumpy bed for both Mama and me and Mama touched your feet with her head and you laughed and said, Betah betah, even though she was a bethi, but not yours even. At night, the bed went squeaky-squeaky when Mama snored.
First, Papa used to call every other week and sing to me and call me his twinkle star. Second, he stopped calling. Before he stopped calling I told him I wish he was here because I loved him so much, making my arm wide, but he just cried and told me always to listen to Mama and do what Mama said.
Achaa, twinkle-twinkle, little star? he said. Then Mama and Papa talked quietly and then she put the phone down before going to the room and crying and I sat on the lumpy-bumpy bed beside Mama and I said to Mama, Dil dikhda dukhre na sunda na sunanda sunde sunde dukhre dil dukhda no dukhanda.
Chup, Mama said and twisted my ear. But I didn’t cry like Mama then. I stayed quiet like she asked because Papa asked me to listen.
Which Witch Snitched the Stitched Switch for Which the Swiss Witch Wished?
I carry your tea and the sandwich I cut down the middle in half into your room walking so slow I don’t want to spill any. What a thing? Hot tea on a hot day. Silly Uncleji. Silly ping-pong Uncleji. The butter makes the tea look oily, rainbows in it. You told me how milk tea with butter kept old persons young and strong and smart. Like me, see? you had said, showing me your wrinkly arm muscle. You said you could break a cricket bat in two over your knee. You said you could kill a Bengal tiger with bare hands. You tickled me with your bone fingers and you said you liked it when I giggled. You had so many stories you said the key I wore could open them.
After we came to you, Mama never told me singing stories before I slept like Papa did. But you told me stories, Uncleji. You told me that the english-whites stole all our jewels and how they were bad because they didn’t love each other like we did. You said the american-whites owned the blacks and ate each other because of money. I tried to think of Mrs. Smith eating someone for money, but I couldn’t. She was nice. You said whites stole the land from the Indians.
Not us. Like us. And you said the blacks were bad people because they were burnt by the sun like the shudras; and you said that the browns from american south were dumb because they slept all day with their hats on and wore shoes indoors. But the yellows were okay because they loved their families, like us, but were still not so good because they drank pee-pee. You said the Indians got A’s, the american Indians not like us B’s, the yellows C’s, and the blacks were shudras and got F’s. I asked who got the A-plus? But you just laughed and said, Clever girl.
I want to get A-plus, I said. You grinned at me with the yellow teeth you kept in a glass at night and said, Good girl.
One Black Beetle Bled Only Black Blood, the Other Black Beetle Bled Blue.
You are not in your room when I come in. Even your movie TV set is off. The floor fan is on. The stereo is not even playing your prayer music very very low. The shower is going nicely against the tiles in your bathroom and I smell Aunty’s lavender soap. Your dhoti and Granth Sahib and american swimsuit magazines are on the floor next to a tissue box. Your video camera is standing on its stand with the red light lighted on. Aunty’s dressing table is not neat with her creams and perfumes and bhindis like little colored fish eyes and plastic gold bangles and her colored lipsticks and creams on the dresser. The alarm clock time with the red numbers says 4:21 by the bed and I stand there and count to hundred before hearing your shower and your coughing and spitting and before I get to the number twelve, the clock changes to 4:22 and I know that Mama’s early time to come home has gone.
I put the tea where you always said to, next to the glass of bubbly water where your yellow teeth swim in bubbles and I want to finish my homework, but the floor fan is going nicely round and round and pushing nice air and the room feels nicer than the kitchen. I will not hurt the fan by going to it. I put my lips close to the fan blades spin spinning and I hum. SheeZellzzZeeShellzzByyZeShoore. So funny, the sound. Shivering.
Your shower stops and the walls shake. Where is Mama? Maybe you will forget to play kissing movies. Maybe Mama is still out with Aunty’s saris packed in cellophane to the not-like-us Punjabis living at the changa beach houses where there is no smoking allowed and no playing allowed and no photos on the walls and how even if Mama rushed home it would take her too long. Where is Mama? Sometimes Aunty called them kuthees and bhen chots (not nice words), coming home without money from sale she said. But when she made sales how wonderful they were–devi mas and suryanis. Where is Mama? Me and Mama both kept quiet because Aunty sometimes was very loud with her angry words–hirami, kothee–she called Mama that and I wanted to kick Aunty in the feet but Mama cried in her room and still she wouldn’t let me hug her.
Sheena Leads, Sheila Needs, Sheena Needs, Shelia Needs, Sheena Sheila.
Before Mama said I was bad girl and had to stay home with you, Mama and Aunty and me went to the american Taj Mahal. Mama put red ribbons in my hair tail like the red in my clean dress with prints of roses. Mama’s voice was so quiet, always listening, nodding nicely to Aunty and always saying what Aunty said. That time Mama looked nice in the red sari with her brown cheeks powdered white and blushed from the heat looking so pretty. Her red bhindi. Her red lipstick sticky bright and black hair pulled tight in a bun and shiny with coconut oil. Don’t be scared of wolf, I said to Mama and Mama kissed my cheek. Then Aunty put in Mama’s thin arms the sari materials in cellophane. Fatty Aunty took us through a big iron gate and she had to press a red light on the wall. Then a voice said, Who is it? Then Aunty told the voice (so small the voice from the small box in the wall) that it was Aunty with the saris. The gate opened after a buzz like the many bees that chased the kali girls one day and them screaming Eeee! Up ten steps exactly, because I counted, steps made of white stones to a white wood door that went to the sky and with little colored red and blue glass windows in it.
Stop eating your hair. Keep quiet. Don’t touch anything, Mama said.
It’s like Taj Mahal that one time, I said. The white pillars were big.
Listen to mama, betah, Aunty said smiling with red lipstick on her teeth.
Can we live here instead of with you? I said making a pretty face and then twirled and twirled around.
Chup, Mama said to me, pulling my ear.
Did Doug Dig Dick’s Garden or Did Dick Dig Doug’s Garden?
The bathroom door comes open. There you are with green towel around your waist and steam. You look like melted chocolate in some parts, like your chest and belly sides.
What are you doing?
Playing a game with the fan. I press my lips to the fan and say Theila ith a good good girl.
Your wet white hair falls like spider webs and sticks flatly across your neck-shoulders. This is not the first time you are like that without the blue turban. Your bald crown has little black spots on it like ink.
You say, Shabash, betah.
When you smile at me with red gums I get really cold. I don’t like to see you out of the shower without your teeth like that, but you say this time it is okay. No, it’s not.
You say, Today you will leave Uncleji.
I nod yes.
Let’s play a good bye game.
Games are nice. Games are fun. Games make me not sad. When I play games I don’t think of phonetics and word riddles and math homework and the stupid chores Mama and Aunty make me do. But still I ask, Where is Mama?
She is with Auntyji.
Bee-cause, clever girl.
That was no answer. Even I know it is no answer but I say, What goodbye game?
Your thin beard is loose and falls webby and loose down your face and you are twirling it now round and round your long spider fingers when you look at me, still grinning. Still grinning like a wolf. I shiver. The fan hums loud.
You say, My Kajol. My actress.
My name isn’t Kajol. I told you so many times my name wasn’t even Kajol. Maybe you thought I looked like Kajol, the pretty actress in the films you and Aunty and Mama liked watching, because she was pretty like Mama. Mama has big brown eyes like Kajol and she has nice-shaped lips like Kajol and a square face. But my face shape is like Papa’s. Shaped like a pearl, Papa once told me, and brown twinkle star eyes, but I always ate my hair and Mama always slapped my cheek and said to stop because she said I looked like a kuthee when I did that.
Now next door someone plays very loud American music.
Elvis, you say. The singer who was king of the Americans, but he died because he was fat. Don’t get fat. Stay skinny and small, you say.
The singer tells someone that they cried all the time and that they were nothing but a hown-dog. Nice voice, deep, so wealthy like Papa’s voice. It comes through the walls and I miss Papa, Mama’s ghazal king.
You say, I have surprise for you.
I cross my hands on my lap and say, Okay.
Surprise was Papa taking us to the Taj Mahal. Surprise was Papa coming to take me away from 3F. Surprise was Mama and Papa loving again. Elvis the King sang so nicely, his voice so nice and deep like Papa’s, but you coughed into your hand and cleared your throat and said, This game makes you free like a bird.
Flies Fly but a Fly Flies.
One birthday before we left Lucknow, Mama told Papa she wanted to become free, because Papa’s singing ghazals couldn’t free us. While Papa wrote songs on the veranda, or made long walks by the canal full of turtles, Mama worked in sewing to buy rice and flour for roti’s and ghee and daal. She looked always tired. Papa listened to the cloud music, the leaf music, played harmonium until Mama was sick with headaches. Mama worked for me, she said, all for me. Lazy Papa was bad. Mama worked for me to give nice things and all I had to do was listen.
Last week when Mama and me made dinner and you and Aunty were at the movies, Mama cooked aloo gobhi because she said it was my favorite. But it wasn’t. Bhengan aloo was my favorite. Mama forgot so many things.
Who’s Kuchaji? I asked. I was helping her. Banging and unbanging the drawers.
Stop that, Mama said.
Two complete onions were on the plastic chopping board. A red potato, too.
Uncleji said if I didn’t watch movies with him I was a Kuchaji.
Kuchaji was a bad bad girl, Mama said.
Why was she bad? She didn’t kith Uncleji?
And the skillet sizzled with peanut oil. I took out a big knife.
No, the other, the other one, smaller.
Did she curse? And I closed the drawer and heard the spoons and knives and forks shook like Mama’s bracelets.
I don’t know. Just bad.
Did she not believe in love?
She never listened to people.
Like who? I asked. And I cut off the ends of the onion.
Not too big now, small slices.
Smells were thick in the air. I was crying now from the onions.
Did she not do her homework?
And the knife blade still went chok-chok against the chopping block.
Even smaller than that.
Stop crying and stop asking stupid questions.
I sniffled and wiped my runny eyes with the back of my hand.
When is Papa coming?
I don’t know.
I didn’t see the skillet come but the oil burned my arm. Tears. New ones. Different ones.
I Wish to Wish the Wish You Wish to Wish, but If You Wish the Wish the Witch Wishes, I Won’t Wish the Wish You Wish to Wish.
Be quiet, betah, it’s not so bad, you said.
That first time Uncleji, my eyes were wet. I was quiet for you, Uncleji, because you said I was good and gave me chocolate kisses in shiny foil after the kissing movie. I was quiet and asked no questions because if I try hard to not ask questions Mama would love me again and bring Papa back. Mama told me to never ask questions because my tongue will go kali. Mama told me Papa was gone and not coming back because he didn’t love anymore. She told me this as she wiped tears from her eyes and wrapped my burned arm in the white bandage from the oil accident. Mama cried and told me that sometimes people do things they didn’t mean and that it didn’t make them bad because they didn’t mean to hurt you and I cried and held Mama and we cried together and I said to Mama that I was sorry that Papa didn’t love us anymore and she said she was sorry and then we loved each other again, but still Papa wasn’t back.
Songs Sung in Sadness Sweetly Save the Savior of the Songs Sung in Sadness.
That first time, you played in my hair with your fingers and looked at the TV with the kissing movie and said,Very pretty hair, and smells so nice. Like roses.
No, coconuts, I said. The bed still, like that first time, has a blanket with pictures of roses on it. Aunty likes roses. She told me so. She said you made plants nice for the big houses once and used to bring fresh roses to her because you loved her, but that you didn’t bring fresh roses anymore.
Where is Mama?
Mama is still not back early and the king of the Americans singer from the wall sings saying how someone fooled him with kisses. In a game? A test? Why? Even though the fan is on, I am hot.
Unclejiji? I ask, Ji, the term of respect. Unclejiji, why did Shally shyly shend the shweet cakesh shouth to Sheila she shaid shilly Sheila, Shilly Shally. Why?
Too clever you. You wag your finger and laugh. Good girl is too clever.
I rub my eyes and yawn. No tears today. Not like that first time. That time tears in my eyes but not onion tears. I thought of Sally and Peter and the sea. I thought of anemone.
You clear your throat and look at me with your ping-pong eyes with those chocolate circles that Mama said were tired from reading the Guru Granth Sahib all day. Mama didn’t know. Your purple lips look swollen and wrinkled as eggplant, my favorite benghan. And it is fanny and cool water still comes down your neck and over the silver necklace with Nanak’s picture in the oval sticking above your white chest hair. My stomach starts to be achy.
Have to go pee-pee.
Watch the TV.
I don’t like it.
This is best part.
My heart hurts in my head. You lift my hands and kiss my hands. Why do I let you? I hear Mama’s voice, Good girls listen. But even though the fan is still going high blast round and round I am sweating-breathing-heavy, my armpits are sweaty like a boy’s. You are still a wolf without your teeth. Do you notice? Do you notice my short and heavy breaths that came one after the other, one after the other, again and again and again, like I am in a race? Then I went back to the white beach palace.
The Crow Flew Over the River with a Lump of Raw Liver.
Stop eating your hair and don’t touch nothing, Aunty scolded. Mama was quiet. So quiet. Aunty said it was a kitty with other clants who paid money for Aunty’s sari materials. We were standing at the big wooden doors with the glass windows again. The bell was singing and falling away. My no-name doll with the curly black hair, fat cheek face and skin like the powder Aunty put to make her face like the gauri girls in the american swimsuit magazines was in my arms and I looked at her big blue eye winking at me and the house had white columns and I thought maybe every big house had long stone beds in the basement where kings and queens slept together forever and ever.
Why are we here?
Chup, Aunty said.
To play a game, Mama said. So pretty Mama’s voice then.
When the big door opened a fat Indian clant lady in Amreekan clothes that Aunty wanted to smile a lot for stood before with her silver sparkly blouse that showed her big bosoms with sparkly glitter on her chest. She smelled very nice. Like a million roses. She wore lots of jangly bracelets with sparkly diamonds and had sparkly diamond earrings and a sparkly big diamond on her sausage finger. The clant had lips like sausages, bigger than mine and Mama’s and Aunty’s put together, and they were purple like eggplant. And she came down to my face and said how pretty I was and I hid behind Mama’s legs. So scary. Her eyes were full of night and her eyelashes were spider’s legs and had purple shadows above her eyes but she smelled like millions of roses.
Inside the big purple lady took me to the kitchen and gave me milk and cookies so Mama and Aunty and she could play. A lazy brown woman cleaned the big steel stove and she looked up at me and smiled but I didn’t smile back because you told me if I smiled at them I would be lazy too. The purple lady said something to the brown woman and they both looked at me. I sat at the small round glass table and the brown lazy woman brought me cookies but I didn’t eat them because you said never to eat cookies in a strange house but they looked yummy but then I would be sleepy and that was bad.
I sat straight. Smiled. Not sad like Kuchaji. I didn’t eat my hair. Not like Kuchaji. I didn’t touch nothing. See, Mama, I was good. Not at all like Kuchaji. The brown woman looked at me and yawned then smiled and I remember how you said the browns liked to sleep with their hats on and stole things. She cleaned the already shiny clean counters I wondered why was she cleaning when she should be stealing.
Where is you big hat?
I shook my head, no. I held my no name doll tight.
Que llamo es nina?
What you name?
I liked how she talked, though. Her voice was so simple.
What you baby name?
She look very nice. Like you.
I made my head down because I already broke Aunty’s rule not to say nothing.
She pretty like you.
Maybe give her pretty name, no?
When I didn’t say nothing again, the brown lazy woman who smelled like plastic went away.
Holding no-name doll close to my chest I got up after a minute because the cookies smelled so nice and I wanted to eat them. The walls were white. Windows that made the light come in white and bright. Rugs of all color on the yellow wood floors like in the Taj Mahal and all around there were pictures of the ocean and of boats with sails and ones of big blue fish. There were no pictures of girls or boys my age. I had to pe-pee. So I went into a big room and sat up straight on the couch and I didn’t touch nothing. Not like Kuchaji. There were no pictures of Punjabi Gurus and no little temple closet with flower covered photos of gurujis with blue turbans like the ghianis in the gurdwara and no incense sticks smoking across their sleepy faces. And I heard Aunty’s voice laughing from down the hall.
Six Sleek Swans Swam Swiftly Southwards.
My Kajol. My actress, you say in the bedroom where I sit on the bed. The TV is on and two girls play in a bed and without clothes on. It is wrong for you to show me this, just like that last time, but Mama said always listen to your elders. I do. The pictures of the big white house are gone and the lazy brown woman in the kitchen of that big white house who smelled like plastic and gave me cookies is gone and my name is still not Kajol. My no-name doll is Kajol.
Look at me now. Good girl.
I don’t want to look at your greedy brown face with the brown eyes like mine and so I look at the picture of Nanakji on the wall, hand raised, ek onkar on his palm, the knowing face and long beard that looks like cotton candy. But you were too close to me, smelling so loud like the music from the wall next door. I have to pee-pee really really bad.
It hurts, I say when your lime fingers touch my hair.
Nonsense, Unclejiji would never hurt you. Unclejiji loves you.
Not like Mumtaz and Shah Jahan.
So clever. Clever good pretty sweet quiet girl.
Why are there no photos of your daughter in that room? Was it because their photos up reminds you so much of them and how you miss them? But Nanakji is there. Gobindji the protector is there. When the actress in the TV kisses the other one, you peck your own fingertips with your thin purple cold lemony soured lips, looking cold and purple and dry.
She Sells Sea Shells by the Sea Shore.
See? Kiss kiss.
Marvelous, say it again. Kiss kiss.
You slap your hands together and show me your red gums. Sells seashells she seashore. I think of Shah Jahan. Of love. Of Mumtaz lying next to a king who built her a palace of diamonds as big as the stars, a palace of love to stand forever that twinkles in the sun.
I Wish I Were What I Was When I Wished I Were What I Am.
In that big sofa chair in that big white room with the tall ceilings up to the sky I was kicking my legs but didn’t touch the floor. I broke Kajol’s arms and legs, peeking again and again under her green plaid skirt. The fat-hipped Indian lady with her hair dyed dark red looked like candy and I laughed to myself at her clowny face painted up like a clown, stuffing big pan leaves into her mouth and moving her plastic face with that stupid glass look of goats.
Amay-zing, Aunty said, putting on her actress voice. Tum rani kah hoh he! Mama like she was told showed a sari material to the ladies who were colored like silly clowns. Aunty was so clever, making that woman to believe she was just like Kajol or Aishwarya in such and such and so and so film.
I forgot I had to pee-pee. That big room didn’t smell like spices and curries and garam masala and pee-pee and dirty socks and armpits and there were no dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. Everything smelled nice like love because of the brown lazy woman who double-cleaned. It smelled just like our house when Papa would come back and live with us again. My no-name doll winked her sleepy eyes and I pushed her eyes open and made her see.
Someday this is mine and yours and Mama’s and Papa’s, I said to her, and kissed her head. See?
Then I swung her head around and kuchaji made her head came off and her head bounced twice and rolled under the big brown chair with a clickety-clack sound. I didn’t bump the table but kuchacji made the nice lamp fall to the stone floor anyway with an ugly crash. I pee-peed on the nice white stone floor. Mama made me stay home with you after that.
Seven Slick Slimey Snakes Slowly Sliding Southward.
When is Mama coming home?
I shut my eyes tight and pray just like I do in gurdwara. I ask myself where is Nanak to protect me? Where is Gobind to defend me? Why do I have to listen to Uncleji when he does not nice things? The king singer who sang from the wall next door isn’t singing anymore. You said last time that if I tell anyone about the kissing movies you will make Mama go away forever. You said the reason Papa is not with us is because you made him go away forever because he couldn’t keep secrets. Not true.
No more movies, I say. I get up from your bed because it is wronger to stay than to not listen. But you have my wrists. Why?
Near an ear Do you love me? A nearer ear I say a nearly eerie ear. But Papa can’t hear me. Papa and Shah Jahan and Mumtaz in her sari of diamonds fly with me through clouds and I am not a tati I am not tati not tati tati like the girls touching on the TV and I want to go, go go, so go, go if you want to go, go on a lazy leopard who wears lemon light lanterns because Mrs. Johnson the nice black woman teacher said I was smart. I was smart. Smart doesn’t stay with Uncleji playing kith-kith. I was good. Good. Mrs. Smith said I could be anything, because I asked lots of questions. Do you love me, Papa, then why stay behind? So stupid I am to ask this because Mama said I was kuthee and Aunty said bhen chot folding money into her purse, the click-click of rocks against the stone walk where the kali girls play with beads and flowers in the big room with the cushy rugs with rose pictures because the ghiani sings to Mrs. Smith so white and bright and and thistles sizzle and you cough and let my hand go and I say I am sorry, I say to no-name Kajol doll that day when her head popped off. I am sorry for you and me that we had to stay with Uncleji.
You say, Shut-up. Don’t be brain-scattered. Now come come and sit with Uncleji.
No, I say. Because of what Papa said. No one can hurt your soul, twinkle star, no one can take your strong heart. They maybe beat your body and burn you, but they cannot take your soul. And I didn’t understand that then. Now I do wolfy Uncleji.
Because my pee-pee is coming I drop my drawers and pee pee on the carpet in front your door, because I can. Because I don’t care if you call me kuthee or ma de chot, or anything. Or nothing. I run from the bad lemon armpit room when you shout names, besharam, you say, and I think I hear you call me Kuchaji. I smile. The name is nice.
You cough. I hope you die. No, I hope not for this thing, because Papa said it is wrong to wish bad on even the bad people. Maybe running away from wolfy ping-pong you makes me a kuchaji, a bad girl, no I’m not, but I don’t care. I don’t care that you don’t care that I don’t care that you don’t care.
The Kettle was Cold, Saw Cold Kettle and Killed My Crazy Kitty Cat.
I go to the kitchen where there are my books. I turn the gas of the stove on but not light the burner. There is a key in the doorlock and Mama comes in the door with Aunty and Mama says, Good girls study hard and get A-plus. I say nothing about your movie, but only want to go outside, but I don’t say anything and Aunty laughs at something. Aunty asks if I want one chocolate kiss in tin foil as goodbye present.
I don’t say what I want to say what it is to say.
Give Aunty a goodbye kiss? Aunty says.
No. Thank you, I say.
My voice is perfect. I like this voice. I will keep this voice. I will never think of you and I will not get sick because I am strong and good and a good girl does not have to be scared. My king husband will never ask me what the matter is in his nice smart singing voice when I cry for no reason and I will not need to tell him because he won’t ask. I will promise my one day baby another life than what Mama gave. I will give my one day baby a good strong smart name: Jahan or Mumtaz. I will not cry thiking of Aunty and you because I will be strong because of what Papa said. And so when Mama puts me to sleep every night looking tired, I will smile to her my happy strong smart face, because Mama always looks worried and tired and sleepy, because she works so hard for me and still believes the temple people were good people and helped us.
I Thought a Thought, but the Thought I Thought Wasn’t the Thought I Thought I Thought.
Bheti? Mama says. Gone to Fehzabad?
Where is Unclejiji?
I leave the kitchen without speaking and I open the closed door and I run down the outside stairs and I skip down to where the kali girls are no longer there on the walk playing kith-kith. The stones are there. I pick up a stone. The gold boy with his nice bike sits by the road watching me and I want to throw at him the stone. But I wave. He waves.
Then the kali girls come back and I say, Want to play a game?
Then they nod yes with smiles. Love in their teeth.
Then I toss the stone onto a numbered square and I jump so high it feels I am flying.
S.K. Kalsi’s work fuses style and substance to create stories of uncommon emotional resonance and power.