Short Stories of the Indian Subcontinent
A Short Story
by Abha Iyengar
A Family of Beauties
By Abha Iyengar
A thick rope made of coir, rough and scratchy to touch. It was lying among the other knick-knacks in the musty and damp room. These were remnants of a bygone age, forgotten and unused. Sundari looked closely at it and found that it was not so thick in some places where its strands had come loose. These poked out like matchstick fingers, grasping at nothingness.
She had stepped on it, as she made my way through the dark recesses of the room in this house where no one lived now. Its thick roundness under her feet had unsteadied her for a moment. She put her hand out against a wall to right herself and met the gaze of the wooden rocking horse in the middle of the room. This was her grandparents’ gift to her when they had come to stay and become a part of her life.
She had loved it as a child. It was chipped and discolored now, with a part of the eye scratched out and the seat unsprung. She remembered how she had always insisted on wearing a hat as she rode this horse. She would have coloured her lips and cheeks and eyes using her mother’s make-up, if only her mother had allowed. Instead, she had to be content with the wide brimmed hat which hid most of her face.
She knew where the hat had gone. From the time she lost the hat, she had had no choice but to let the world see her for what she was, the plain Jane of the family.
Her parents, by naming her Sundari or the Beauteous One, and Fate, by ensuring that she was not so, had combined to make her life a joke.
The first time she became aware of her looks or the lack of them was when she met her grandmother. Sundari had run towards her instinctively, her long brown hair flying behind her. Racing on her skinny brown legs, with her long thin arms outstretched to greet her, Sundari had expected to be picked up and hugged. Instead, her grandmother had stepped back a bit and exclaimed, “Why, you are a plain Jane, dear,” and turned away. Sundari had looked at her mother in wonder. Who was a plain Jane? Was this some kind of being that was inside her that she was supposed to acknowledge?
Her mother, Sheila, had encircled Sundari within her arms and put her sweet smelling face next to hers. “Don’t we look a pair, Mother?” she asked Granny, but Granny snorted.
“Show me your newborn, Sheila,” she said. “I hope she is an improvement.” Sundari watched her mother leave her and follow her grandmother into the house. She imagined them standing over the cot and admiring the newborn, Sundari’s lovely little sister. She felt an urge to run in and pull her mother out of the room, but kicked a stone instead.
Sundari learnt what beauty was. Sheila, her mother, had always been beautiful for her, but now she saw her from the world’s eyes. She recognized that her sister had similar looks. These women were the beauties with their shining black hair, pink cheeks and glowing black eyes, like heady red wine. She was different, tall, lank, brown haired and insipid, champagne without the fizz.
Granny was supposed to be a beauty as well. Sundari looked at her grandmother’s fair, plump face, her fleshy arms and crumply powdered neck from which hung huge stones that shone and glittered in the light. Sundari decided that she did not like her grandmother’s looks or even her nature very much, and the feeling was mutual.
Grandfather, however, was different. He held Sundari’s hand and strode through fields of yellow flowers that surrounded the house, showed her the birds, and told her stories that made her laugh and forget that she somehow did not belong to this family of beauties. He would put her on this very rocking horse and sing to her as she rode the horse. Suddenly, he would pull her off the horse and they would both watch it, without a rider, rocking, rocking….
It was raining that day when Sundari and her grandfather had gone across to the river and taken a boat to paddle in. As the rain fell, they got drenched, and she found Grandfather looking at her in a strange way. She had just turned twelve and her small breasts strained against her wet frock. The thin cloth wrapped itself around her long slender limbs. Her face was covered with tiny raindrops. He bent forward and kissed her full on the lips. Pulling her on to him, he carefully put her hat on her head. He then put her on his lap and said, “Feel the horse rocking, Sundari,” and sighed a deep sigh.
Sundari pushed him away with such force that the boat toppled and they fell in the water. He lay there, his eyes closed, and she waded out of the dirty waters. She did not know how she would deal with this later, but just now she wanted to get away. This was the man she had loved and trusted. She flung her hat down and stamped on it hard, her rage driving it down into the mud. Holding herself hard, she looked back once through the pelting rain that fell like a gray cloud between her and the river. She could see the small brown boat, rocking, rocking….
She ran all the way back and reached home drenched. It was surprising that not a single sob escaped her. Her face was dry; the only wetness had been caused by the raindrops that cooled her burning skin. No one was at home, they had gone to a neighbour’s house for lunch and returned only when the rain subsided.
Grandfather did not appear till night time. On being questioned, Sundari said she did not know where he was. A search party was sent to look for him. They found him purple and swollen with the river waters. Sundari did not shed any tears at his funeral, and people put it down to the shock of his loss. They sung his praises and said what a wonderful man he had been.
From then on, Sundari wore no hats and found she had no desire left to play with her mother’s make-up either. She was already plain, and the years just added some more lines and grayness to the picture. People were shocked if they saw her with her beautiful mother Sheila or her lovely sister, Naina. She looked like their poor country cousin.
When she was eighteen, she left for the U.S. to find a new life and separate herself from the fetters of a family.
Sundari had Tom staying over at her place in New York. Tom was Naina’s boyfriend. He was about ten years older than Sundari, fortyish, graying, with laughter lines around his eyes and mouth. He had met Naina in Uganda while she was holidaying there. Naina, still in Uganda, had said that Tom was coming to New York for a while, and had requested that Sundari show him the city. Tom was special, and she wanted Sundari to meet him.
So he arrived and Sundari put him up and decided that she would have to put up with him for a while. He was easy-going but she wasn’t. Sundari was possessive about her space and hated having it invaded. She did it for her sister, whom she loved very much. All her love now concentrated on women, leading people to believe that she was into lesbian relationships, but that was not true. Sundari was not into any relationships.
Tom overstayed his visit. He was to leave in a couple of days for North Carolina for some work but they got snowed in. She had to put up with him for longer than she had expected.
Sundari was getting uncomfortable with having Tom around all the time in the space with her. The warmth in his eyes as he looked at her made her shiver and quake like a wobbly egg -yellow. Sundari tried to avoid him as much as possible but it was difficult since the space was small and cluttered and he and his things just added to the mess. She found herself bumping into him without meaning to, and then occasionally because she wanted to.
She had no idea when it happened that he took her in his arms and rained kisses on her as if the deluge would never end. They slithered and fell on the floor and things poked her back and she thought it could be the sharpener she had lost, or a fallen pencil. She pulled the string that tied her hair while he pulled the one on her pajamas. It was sudden at first, and then a slow and gentle warmth began to spread within her. Sundari forgave herself all those years of deprivation in those moments.
Lying in his arms after it all, she, who had never cried before, began to cry. He got up, eyes twinkling with laughter and said, “What’s the matter… post-coital blues?”
She did not know what to say. He did not think he was cheating on anyone.
“You are hers, and I have sinned,” she said. “I have taken what belongs to Naina.”
“Which world are you living in? Sinned? Belongs? There is no sin in this. It is something that was natural. And I don’t belong to Naina. I am a free bird. Watch.” He put his arms out, spread them like wings.
“You are Naina’s, you are special to her.”
“And now special to you. She must have forgotten me, that young and flighty one.”
“She is not flighty.”
“Ummm, okay, too young for me actually, I like your type more, mature and undiscovered.”
He grinned, his smile wicked. “One more time? Another roll?”
“Oh, no,” she said, “I couldn’t.”
“Yes, you can,” he said, “It is you I want, we’ll let her know, okay?”
“I will let her know how things stand, of course. Now come here.”
The snow melted one day just like she had done. Tom left for North Carolina, saying he would be back soon. She did not hear from him at all.
A few days later, Sundari was sipping a cup of hot, strong coffee and looking out of the window when she spotted a couple crossing the road. The girl was young and beautiful, and the man older, but handsome in a rugged way. They looked oddly familiar. She turned away from the window, not wanting to know them.
A knock on the door and they were inside. Naina was flushed and happy, and Tom tender as he looked at her.There was no trace of anything other than love for Naina in his voice when he said that they had decided to get married. Sundari was invited, of course.
“Isn’t it wonderful, sis? He called me to North Carolina all the way from Uganda and said that he was madly in love with me and wanted me in his arms immediately. Of course I came. And isn’t it lucky that this has happened right after Granny has left me all her property and jewellery in her will? I will be married and rich.” Naina had a face that glowed as she talked. She was as transparent as Dresden china, as fragile as an open flower.
“Wonderful,” Sundari said, he back upright and stiff. She watched as Tom held Naina in his arms and rocked her back and forth, back and forth. All the rocking, rocking…
Her head swam and she wanted to throw up. Instead, she threw them out. Her hands clenched at her side, she spoke.
“Wonderful, isn’t it, that he was just taking me right here, Naina, where you are standing, on the floor, making passionate love to me and saying that I was the one. He said that you were flighty and would have most probably forgotten him. He is an opportunist, Naina, he will leave you like father left mother. Look at him, Naina, and see him. ” She began to point her finger at Tom, he body swaying heavily like a half uprooted tree, waiting to be felled.
“How can you lie like this? Don’t be jealous, Sundari. Not to this extent.” Naina teetered on her high heels as she spoke, then she began to retch. It was a dry, hopeless retching.
Tom, the colour of his skin pale in disbelief, ran up to her. “My love, she is a witch, your sister. Don’t listen to her lies.”
Naina swayed into his arms. “Oh Tom, say that you love me.”
“Yes, I do. I do. How can I not, my beautiful one. I will never let you go. You belong to me.”
Belong? Tom was talking about belong and belonging? Sundari watched and heard and knew that she would soon fall, down onto the ground.
She began to scream instead,” Get out, both of you!”
Naina, at the door, looked back at Sundari with eyes full of hurt and reproach. “How could you?” she said.
Sundari was at work the next morning when the news flashed on television that a car had collided with a truck, instantly killing the two drivers. The lady sitting next to the man in the car was in hospital, seriously injured. They showed her face on television and Sundari could just make out that it was Naina, totally disfigured for life, if she did survive. They said that the lady’s mother was the only other relative, and she was by her side. Sundari saw her mother’s face and then she looked away from the cameras. She continued with her work. She knew that she no longer belonged to her family; they did not want her around.
Naina survived, but the psychological trauma of disfigurement was too much for her to bear, and she swallowed some pills to end her life. That is what Sundari read in the newspaper.
Sundari called her mother. “Mother?”
“Who is this?
“Who? Who?” The line disconnected.
A few months later, Sundari’s mother passed away. The lawyers arrived and informed her and that is how Sundari came to know of her mother’s death.
The house had no owner. Since she was the only member of the family left, it now belonged to her. Sundari had come to clear up everything and pack her past away. She hoped it would be for the last time.
The rope was rough against her hands and her palms were red with holding it. She looked up and found there was no fan, but a rusted iron hook hung in its place. She climbed on to the rocking horse and as it teetered, she tied the rope to the iron hook. The other end went around her neck quite easily. She stood and rocked back and forth on the horse, holding the rope around her neck. It loosened and then held. Realizing that she was choking, and suddenly afraid, she tried to prise it loose and failed. She was now trying to keep her balance on the horse and hold onto the rope as well to prevent it from tightening. The horse rocked unsteadily and then her foot caught in one of the seat springs. She tried to pull her foot up and failing that, she began to scream.
Sundari was found after a couple of weeks by a vagrant tramp who had wandered in through the open door of the house to find someplace to sleep.
People in the town who heard about her were surprised that she had committed suicide just when she had come into all the property and wealth of her parents and grandparents. “Poor dear,” they said, “she was so ordinary, our Sundari. Why go now, though, with all the wealth…”
Perhaps the rocking horse knew the secret but he was not telling.
© ABHA IYENGAR. First published in the Ripples Anthology, 2010.
End of Guest post
My greatest thanks to Dr. Iyengar for allowing me to share this wonderful story with my readers.
Abha Iyengar is an internationally published author and poet and a creative writing facilitator at Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication. She does individual mentoring for short story and novel writing. She also writes poetry in Hindi. She has worked as fiction editor with Leadstart Publishing. Her work has appeared in Bewildering Stories,The Asian Writer, New Asian Writing, Arabesques Review, Muse India and others. She is a Kota Press Poetry Anthology Contest winner (2002). Her story, 'The High Stool ' was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award (2007). She writes articles on health, spirituality and travel. She is also writing for the CAB (Conversations Across Borders) project. Her poem-film, "Parwaaz", has won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece (2008).Her book of poems, "Yearnings" has been published (Serene Woods, 2010). She received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship(2009-2010). She was Featured Poet at the Prakriti Festival (2010) and invited Speaker at CEC (2011). Her collection of micro fiction, “Flash Bites” (2011) and her fantasy novel, “Shrayan” (2012) are available as ebooks on Amazon and Smashwords. She is from New Delhi.
I am so glad to have discovered her work and honored am honored that she is a follower of The Reading Life.
Her webpage and blog are both very interesting and I expect to learn a lot from them
I commend her work to anyone who enjoys a wonderfully written deeply felt story that can take you in a few pages to a world that might be very different on the surface from your own. Go a bit deeper and you may see your own life in Ivengar's marvelous work.