Tuesday, December 18, 2012


When I think of Shruti I see her on the terrace. There’s a waist-high wall there, built of cinder blocks with rough edges. You can see the entire colony --from the chipped buildings of Phase I to the small huts of Phase III, where families crowd around the shared taps to fill their buckets with water. In the summer we watched kids fly kites on their roofs, running so fast to catch wind that my heart would race, trying to get to the edge before they did.

That’s where Shruti was standing that day, in a white t-shirt that skimmed her tall, slender frame, and a pair of 200-rupee skinny jeans. You could see what she was dreaming about: getting out, escaping the heat of the family’s stuffy kitchen where she prepared roti and sabji for ten people with her older sister. Where it seemed like as soon as her family had run their fingers along the rim of the steel plates to get the last bits of lunch, it was time to start chopping again.

All of her sentences started with kash – if only. 

Kash, my mother would let me work. I was offered a job, you know, where they paid 4000 rupees a month to make calls in an office. I could save the money and pay for flight hostess school. They said they would teach us English, the British kind, and I could fly around the country, sending money home and seeing something different.

Kash, they wouldn’t talk about my wedding so quickly. They took Kanta didi back to our village in Bihar, but somehow she convinced them to wait. I told them that I wouldn’t get married before going to college, I told them it was my only request. You can tell them didi, but they won’t listen.

I looked at Shruti's face then– a startling collection of delicate features – found anger instead of tears and didn’t know what to say. Her dreams were clear and big and I wanted to be part of them. I wanted to follow her to flight school, and deflect the leering eyes, and quiz her on English words that she practiced in a crisp accent, filtered from TV shows instead of the neighborhood chatter. 

Her mother, a sharp, sweet woman perpetually wrapped in synthetic saris, called from downstairs and Shruti took a breath before running down to answer. I followed a few steps behind.

Between the thawing of a north Indian winter and the robust bloom of spring, Shruti and I had many talks on that terrace. I would clumsily cut potatoes, applying pressure to a rusty knife until there was a groove in my palm, as she told me stories about school and what she thought about the band of young, reckless boys that I worked with every day. She was so much more confident than I was at her age – in touch with her strength, yet unsure of where to direct her power. 

As we grew closer, she would join me at the library, helping to wrangle the students or greet visitors. I would take deep breaths to stay calm, reviewing a to-do list and checking my agenda, whereas she gracefully managed a crowded room with a few words, without raising her voice. Later, we would laugh at the visitors -- local politicians or donors -- who tried to hide their shock when they found out a girl so well spoken was raised in a place the city would have liked to forget.

When I moved back to the U.S., setting down my bags on the Upper West Side,I called Shruti  on Saturday mornings, inexplicably nervous every time the phone rang, to receive a detailed account on the neighborhood frisbee team, Sunny's love life and meeting a local minister to demand public sanitation. I would run through my older-sister checklist -- asking about her younger sister’s frail health, making sure college came first, and willing her to keep updating her dreams.

Now I’m headed back to Shruti's house, having already promised her a sleep over, wedged between her four sisters, just like before. And my mind is doing what it does before any significant moment -- giving in to trivialities, scouring over what gifts to bring, wondering if my body is still immune to freezing bucket shower during the secretly chilling Chandigarh winters. 

But the closer I come to stepping back onto her terrace, I know that Shruti has become more to me than a younger sister. She is an unexpected mentor -- embodying a reference point for the life I want to lead, one that is waiting for me to step up to the plate, to act on the thoughts and ideas that I’ve kept limited to pen and paper. Because whatever happens to Shruti's future as she tries to navigate her suffocating family love has become an integral part of how I view my own.


My Voices said...


jyotika said...

i think i know the girl you are talking about.trust me ankita it'z not just about her but it's the story of every second home in india..atleast she shared her dreams, anxiety, anger and fears with you but many of us fear it even while just thinking about it!!phew..
keep writing sweets..

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring and enlivening. Goodluck!