This was too much for me, this balle balle recklessness. Even the sober people seemed drunk, sticking their fingers up in the air and rolling their shoulders like they had been possessed. It was too loud, and the synthesized electronic shit they called music was killing my ears.
Neelu says I’m just a cynical, good-for-nothing killjoy who doesn’t know how to have fun. I beg to differ but it’s never worth arguing with my sister. She is like the HP printer we had at home, where information came in from one direction and out the other side, forgotten as the paper fell to the floor.
“Arre, Naina, come join us, na!” Amrita maasi called to me from the middle of a crowd of aunties moving side to side while shaking their shoulders. They formed a rainbow with their silken Patiala salwaars. I was briefly reminded of multicolored boobhahs, creatures shaped into the likeness of walking gumdrops that spend their half hour on children’s television running across rainbows and dancing in the air.
“No thanks, maasi. I’m good.” My words were lost through the din. I almost expected them to come collect me and whisk me away into their whirlwind, but the music escalated, the chorus pumped up, and they were taken over with a new wave of ecstasy. The young people shouted out—put their hands up in the air. All the aunties and uncles tried to match the energy but fell just a tad short.
Sometimes I lost track of the music. Was it Bollywood bhangra and synth, Middle-Eastern belly dance music, or EDM? The DJ was a mix of everything, but I swear all the lyrics were in Hindi—based on the four words I understood, pyaar, ishq, mohabat, and zindagi, most of which originated from Persian or Arabic.
Neelu calls me a nerd for my history obsession, but I can’t get enough of it. I hate Bollywood movies, hate all this balle balle business, yet I’m a sucker for history, especially of the South Asian subcontinent and the Middle East. I’m an Islamic history graduate student, a hard truth to tell my stoic Hindu family. My parents deal with it through tightly pursed lips because I’m on scholarship; without their financial support, I don’t bother to explain my choice of study to them.
This was the fifth wedding I’d attended in six years. With so many cousins of marriageable age spanning both mummy and dad’s side, there was a wedding almost every summer. Neelu lived for weddings. She starts thinking of her dresses months in advance, setting up her attire on the bed and trying on different jewelry combinations, mixing and matching dupattas to her lehengas in the hopes of standing out from the rest. She would stand in front of the mirror, holding one outfit in her left hand, another in her right, like a preening cat.
I knew it was all for the looks, the attention. Family engagements were speed dating opportunities to flirt with every young guy she could find. I asked her why she didn’t just go clubbing—she could have found someone by now. Her reasoning was that mummy and dad would probably throw a fit. This way she could find a nice Indian guy on her own and have their approval at the same time. She was a bundle of contradictions, claiming she wanted to be modern even as she stuck to tradition. If she weren’t my sister, I’d stay far away from her.
At twenty-three, I still harbored an inkling that I was adopted. But looking across the sea of dark haired and graying heads even in this chaotic lighting, I could tell that Neelu and I had the same nose, the same widow’s peak, and the same arched brows. Our only difference was my set, stubborn chin and her softly rounded one.
In high school, my friends bluntly commented on how “needy” they thought Neelu was. Her friends left me alone because I wasn’t worth their time. Neelu was the pretty one anyway.
Neelu struts the halls in her tight jeans and fitted shirt from American Eagle, revealing all her curves; fraternizing with the cool kids, she combs her hair over her shoulder with manicured acrylic nails, laughing coyly at one of too many cologne-smogged guys with gelled hair and ripped jeans. I am quick to maneuver the halls, books hugged tight to my chest, nodding at the other staff members of Off the Wall literary magazine when and if I happen to pass by them at all.
When we come home Neelu casts away her façade. Grabbing her after school snack, she sits on the stained carpet floor hunched over Harry Potter books, the covers tattered and worn. She hides her face behind her long, straight hair but I see those large eyes gazing through the thick tresses, looking for mummy’s approval as she scrubs the dishes, cleans the granite countertops, and leaves graded tests half-covered by bills beside the phone.
The winter holidays arrive. While I read in my room she lurks in the doorway, pushing the door just a crack to ask me if I want to bake cookies with her.
“No,” I say and a tinge of regret washes over me. Relenting, I peek into her room; “still on for those cookies?” She sits at her computer, hair tied up and away from her face, frizzy and electrified. Her eyeballs glow from the intensity of her squint. She bites her lip with such concentration that her teeth leave imprints on the chapped skin.
I watched Neelu swirling around in her pink and silver lehenga, the kind with one of those ugly cupcake skirts. That’s all they could come up with these days, a sort of thin mesh material layered over a poofy underskirt. Gone were the intricate borders with zardosi work and golden threads I secretly admired when I rifled through mummy’s closet. Now there were just long shiny strips at the hem, gaudy colors and fabrics layered one on top of the other.
Mummy hadn’t been happy with Neelu’s spaghetti-strapped, midriff-baring blouse. “Too much skin, Neelu. Just drape it over like this, theek hai?” Mummy tried to spread the pleated dupatta over Neelu’s exposed skin, but Neelu pulled away. At least Neelu was slim. No one would look at her flab and wonder how she had the guts to dress like that.
She swayed away, dancing next to our cousin Rajveer. He wouldn’t answer to that anymore, it was strictly “RJ.” Next to him were some other guys I didn’t recognize. They probably weren’t relatives if I couldn’t place them.
Neelu threw her head back and laughed as two guys paired off and hopped around energetically in a circle, their raised legs touching. One of them stopped, came close, and looked Neelu up and down. Something was up his sleeve. That’s okay, being the cousin-brother, RJ would probably take care of it.
Amrita maasi was suddenly next to me, patting her face with the end of her silk dupatta, damp and defeated from sweat.
“Naina beta, what a party! Haven’t had this much fun since Simmi got married back in 2006. It’s exciting to be on the bride’s side, no?” She turned the perfect oval of her face to look at me. I stifled a laugh at the bindi that had scooted to the far right of her forehead.
“But what is this with you, ah beta? Kinna sona hai tu, and you sit here on the sidelines? Come on, shake that booty!” Maasi was too excited, and her switch from Punjabi to English fell awkwardly on my ears as she rounded the English words more than necessary.
“No way! I’m not a dancer, not like Neelu.”
I shook my head and took a drink from the almost empty glass that I realized had been in my hand all along.
“But you have to get out there. You know, beta, in my day, yeh shaadi vaadiyan—this was the way for us to be seen. You never know, catch the eye of some young man and you are set!”
Maasi’s hands swept across the room at the number of eligible bachelors. She must’ve been drunk—she had never spoken this much to me.
“Maybe I should introduce you to Kusum didi’s son—the groom’s cousin. He’s a bit older than you and finishing his MBA. Looks like he’ll be hired by some hotshot finance company.”
“Not interested, maasi.”
I scoured around for bored-looking servers with platters of drinks in their hands. I caught the eye of a man who looked mortified at the commotion on the dance floor. He rushed forward and wordlessly traded my empty glass for a full one. I didn’t bother to ask the name of the bronze liquid inside.
The same line my mother gets when she’s deeply disturbed appeared between maasi’s brows. Bourbon burned down my throat as I gulped the drink in one go. I watched maasi from the foggy rim of the glass. Her eyes grew wide.
“I need to finish my doctorate. I don’t have time for this stuff!”
“That’s all easy to say when you’re young, beta. I just hope you don’t regret it. Look at Vandana maasi, you don’t want to end up like her, no?”
Amrita maasi fidgeted with her bangles, looking around nervously. She was searching for her younger sister, but I knew Vandana maasi had made herself scarce during the reception, the better to stay away from prying eyes.
Sensory overload enveloped me. Gemstones blinked like stars speckled on the blue curtains draped along the ballroom walls. String lights zigzagged across the ceiling, bangles and anklets and jewelry tinkled, glasses clinked, and the bass shook the ground beneath us. My brain felt like an overheating laptop; thank goodness for alcohol!
“God, why is everyone after her?” I mumbled.
I could still see Vandana maasi’s quiet, warm smile, uneven teeth peeking through her pursed lips.
We are standing in the hotel room before the reception, sarees and lehengas strewn across the double beds. The door between our room and Vandana maasi’s is wide open and she stands in the doorway. My hands are on my hips. Mummy and dad are glaring at me.
“Hum to Mussalman thodi na hai! How can you study Islam? Haay Raam! What will we tell everyone? How will you find a job?” mummy and dad bark at me. It feels like the whole world choruses along.
Vandana maasi watches me quietly, that ever so subtle smile on her lips.
“You people are close-minded bigots! If you have such a problem with this, how are you any different from the people you complain about? Those ‘other people’ who are racist and discriminate against you?” I feel fire burning in my stomach at their hypocrisy and stomp out of the room.
Later at the reception, Vandana maasi finds me huddled in a corner. She sits down and puts her arm around my shoulder.
“If you feel like you need to do it, then do it!”
In the void between hesitation and decision her words are the momentum I need to dive off a plane speeding through the sky, and her presence is the parachute buffering me against a crash landing, setting my steps firmly on new ground.
“Vandana maasi is happy. She’s educated and independent. Who doesn’t want to be like her?” I shouted above the synth blaring from the speakers.
Amrita maasi shrunk back, her face falling. No wonder she liked Neelu more. I couldn’t censor the bitter words that slipped off my tongue. Maybe that was why no one ever looked at me with an ounce of interest. “Naina’s too bold, too brash.” I was the antithesis to Neelu’s femininity.
No one explained Vandana maasi’s circumstances to me. I had to piece together the whispers from clandestine conversations between my mother and Amrita maasi. She refused the matchmaking sessions her parents arranged for her and never returned the flirtatious advances of other men. Of course, Vandana maasi would go for women since she didn’t put the work into finding a man when she was young—there was no other option for companionship. That’s what they said.
Did they ever consider that Vandana maasi had always been this way? That it was as natural as their preference for men? My only wish was to have even half the courage she had to live life on her terms.
Neelu thinks I don’t understand the nuances of culture, that I should be more sympathetic to our parents who are products of a different time. I think it’s a lame excuse to evade serious introspection. My parents think transformation and self-reflection are a privilege meant for people with excess opportunity and even more time to waste. I believe it to be a necessary requirement for a good life.
Amrita maasi shook her head: “Tch tch tch.”
I felt my muscles go lax as she rose from the chair, rolled her shoulders, spread a smile across her face, and tried hard to forget about her lost cause of a niece. She camouflaged back into the circle of her cousins and sisters-in-law, dancing as though they had no real cares in the world except the fear that their children would live as spinsters, or worse, homosexuals.
This milieu of color, the euphoria of flashing lights and thumping bass, was home—sustenance. If I could do only one thing for the rest of my life, it would be to dance, lost in the momentary reality of my central position in the world, the tension and release of my muscles in movement my only concern.
Naina constantly asks me why I stick to this old-school Bollywood world, why I don’t try clubbing and get out of my pseudo-Indian social bubble. But this is rare—belonging where Hindi lyrics are sprinkled on a mishmash selection of Middle Eastern beats, EDM, and hip hop. No words, no long academic explanations trying to parcel out how to reconcile two cultures. The music said it all—straight from India but infused with influences from every corner of the globe.
Wouldn’t Naina understand? True, she was uptight, but the process of inquiry was her holy grail. An amoeba undergoing osmosis, she’d imbibe my metaphors if only she knew my mind. Instead, she thinks that my interests, whether they be computer science or dance, are choices that everyone like us make. The common, expected, desi thing to do.
Maybe. Mummy’s face flashed across my mind.
Mummy and dad sit at the kitchen table with me in the afternoon, dipping Parle G biscuits into masala chai, their shoulders straight and light.
“So far, I’m acing all the comp sci classes, mummy.”
Her face blooms like a flower, a new sparkle erasing the wrinkles slowly setting their marks beneath her eyes. When I ask dad if he might know anyone I can reach out to for jobs after college, he perks up as he scrolls through his phone and sends me contact after contact: “There’s Rajesh uncle, and Cheenu uncle. Sarika and Mihir’s daughter just started at Amazon last year, I think. I’ll send you their numbers.”
I could be their rallying cry, a momentary ceasefire in their problems, make up for their stranded relationship with Naina. That possibility makes me ridiculously happy. As does the thrill of programming, the electrifying feeling of coming up with code to turn otherwise abstract ideas into something tangible, visible, useful. Something my sister doesn’t get.
RJ and his buddies were doing some sort of garba move that I’m not sure belonged at a Punjabi wedding, but what did it matter? I felt shallow compartmentalizing dance moves by region when we were all standing on the undivided soil of New Jersey. I threw my head back, laughter lost to the chaos of the dance floor. One of the guys—tall, dimpled, with one ear pierced—leaned in close and asked me, “What’s so funny?” I shook my head and continued to sway to the music.
Crack! Thin metal grazed my ankle. Someone’s bangles had broken and a bell rolled away from my heel as I tottered backwards, losing my balance. The guy with one pierced ear steadied me, his hand on my bare shoulder. He kept it there a little too long, and my skin tingled. I moved away just enough to create a distance but not far enough to close possibilities. Naina doesn’t say it, but she thinks I’m a slut.
The music swelled, and I closed my eyes, deciding not to bother about what these boys were thinking or where they were looking. I should have listened to mummy and draped my dupatta in a more conservative fashion, and maybe these guys would have left me alone. But, I was a creature of habit. Guys flocked around me wherever I went though I wasn’t so sure why. It’d always been that way, and without that attention I felt lost, like no one saw me.
Naina doesn’t have my looks, yet people pay attention to what she says, usually because they don’t like her bold attitude. They don’t like that she is fearless. My aunts showered me with gifts and took me out to get my nails done. I’d probably spoken to Amrita maasi more than Naina ever had in all their exchanges. But when Naina spoke, they listened. My speech was never solicited; I’d smile and nod in response to their remarks. Everyone was happier that way. I loved the softness I saw in their eyes when they affectionately pinched my cheek, insurance that I was loved.
I stopped dancing to catch my breath. The world had spun into a kind of psychedelic place. My throat was so parched that when I inhaled I had the urge to cough. I tapped RJ on the shoulder and made a gesture with my hand indicating a drink. He nodded and made room for me as I struggled out of the tightly packed mass of celebrating people. The scent of sweat and alcohol mingled with cologne, floral perfumes, and sandalwood, a combination that made me feel sick to my stomach but also comforted. I noticed a certain musky cologne and realized the guy with one pierced ear was trailing behind. I hoped he wouldn’t corner me.
Naina sat to my right, alone and nursing what might’ve been her third glass of alcohol. Her face was sullen, lips downturned. She fingered something sharp and curved in her hand—a broken bangle that had snapped in half. Maybe I could get Mr. Dimples to go sweeten her up, if that was at all possible.
As far as I could tell, Naina has never liked a guy, nor has a guy make a pass at her. I’m not even sure she would look his way. I have a suspicion that she is into girls. If I ever had the guts to ask her, would she be defensive in her attempt to hide the truth from our confused but not totally conservative parents? Maybe she’d be too scared of tradition winding itself through our veins even when we resisted it. What a shame that would be, if the famously outspoken Naina Mehra were too scared to come out of the closet.
I found a table towards the back of the room with dwindling beverages in crystal dispensers and a once-full platter of tiered mitthai in greens, pinks, yellows, and oranges. It looked as though someone had taken the remains of the sweets in their palm and squished the confections into powder. I went straight for water, downing two glasses one after another. The guy took his time, decided on half a glass of lemonade, and then sidled up next to me.
“You dance really well.” His lanky frame made him crouch down to speak into my ear. His breath brushed my neck. I laughed and gathered my hair, pulling the loose strands over my shoulder.
“Thanks. I used to dance in our bhangra team at college. What about you, did you do anything else in school?” I vaguely remembered that he was at UCLA. It was one of the first things RJ had said when he introduced his crew. The guy winked at me and grinned. I cringed on the inside.
“Plenty. Want me to show you?” He reached behind me and touched my bare back. My stomach lurched and I pulled away.
“How about on the dance floor? You were on the garba team right?”
I wasn’t sure if he ever was on the garba team, but I needed to fabricate something to cut off the conversation. His defeated expression was illuminated by the light reflecting off the rotating disco ball at the center of the dance floor. I didn’t wait for an answer and hurried back to the crowd of pulsing silhouettes. Searching through the throng, I spotted my cousins Sheetal and Lavanya huddled in a group of innocent-looking teens, girls who weren’t yet wearing contacts and still wore modest blouses.
I glanced past my shoulder to see whether the UCLA grad was following me. His eyes were, but then RJ’s bouncing form covered him from view. I was thankful for the intervention and reached out for Sheetal’s hands. Giggling, she held my sweaty palms, and we spun around, skirts and dupattas billowing around us. I imagined myself in the middle of a grassy green field, solitary, with only the air encircling me as I spun and spun.
What would mummy and dad say if I became a professional dancer, like my ballet teacher had suggested? If I dumped all my education and went off to dance school, to perform on the big stage? I’d never dare, but what if I went to India to audition for Dance India Dance! Or Zara Nachke Dikha?
I couldn’t entertain the thought; the day Naina told mummy and dad what she wanted to do was etched into my memory.
Her chin set in rebellion, defiance in her tone, Naina informs us: “They’ve got me covered. Don’t worry about money.”
She shows no regard for mummy’s tongue-tied, frozen form at the restaurant buffet line. Mummy’s eyes grow wide and the line between her brows appears. Her teeth clench, but I feel the strain in my gums. Naina gleans a great joy from watching the people that raised her sit in stupor.
The next week, she packs her bags at midnight and leaves in her sputtering Volvo at six in the morning. She doesn’t see dad’s sadness, mummy’s worried prayers every morning for her safety. I never want to see mummy and dad with that strange pain on their faces again.
“Your grandparents suffered during Partition. It’s not easy for us to understand this . . . Islamic studies thing, beta. We’re scarred. It was a kind of holocaust for us,” mummy confides in me a few months after Naina left as she rounds uncooked multigrain chapattis with her bare hands, her usually bright face sallow and dim with something deep that I will never understand.
What would Naina say if she knew that dancing made me feel alive? What would she say if I followed her footsteps and stood up for the little dreams that I tucked into the corners of my consciousness? I knew she would support me despite the disdainful looks she thrusted my way when I got ready for the day. More than anyone else, Naina would be my rock.
She thinks I am a sell-out, that I follow the course others set for me. Our units of measurement are the same; she weighs her choices by what will rest more lightly on her own shoulders, and I weigh mine based on who will bear the heavy burden of my decisions. Naina prizes her dreams, and I treasure my family’s love.