I watched Zoya Akhtar’s “Dil Dhadakne Do” this past weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it as a classic family drama with a twist. However, the movie made me think.
Over the past few years, there has been increasing debate about the role of women in India. The debate has included gender inequality, rape culture, abuse, employment inequality, and molestation. But what this film brought home to me is an overarching theme that permeates all women’s issues in the Indian cultural context: the culture of silence.
“Dil Dhadakne Do” is a family-centric film, a dysfunctional one at that (but which family isn’t?); being the story of the Punjabi Mehra family, consisting of Mr. Kamal Mehra (Anil Kapoor), Mrs. Neelam Mehra (Shefali Shah), and their children: Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra), who is married to Manav (Rahul Bose); and their son Kabir (Ranveer Singh). The entire family goes on a cruise with some of their “closest” friends to celebrate the Mehras’ wedding anniversary, and it is aboard this cruise ship, that the soft underbelly of marriage and relationships in the Indian cultural context is exposed.
But this review is about the women in the family, and what their stories reveal about the Indian mindset. If you don’t want any spoilers, you might want to stop reading here.
In a scene in the film, there is a gathering of the family with the two children, their parents, and Ayesha’s husband (Manav) and his mother. This gathering is prompted by Ayesha asking Manav for a divorce.
In Indian society, divorce is rarely about just the married couple. It often involves the two families, and sometimes extended families, or family friends. There are negotiations, and talks held between the families to discuss possible reconciliation, legal issues, and ramifications. These “family” discussions often don’t even include the married couple. In my extended friends’ network, I heard a similar story being discussed recently, where the couple in question was not present to decide about their own future. Reconciliation was finally ruled out after over a year of negotiations between the two families, and divorce was finally on the table. However the negotiation over “streedhan” and financial support continued.
Reconciling a broken relationship is hard. It’s impossible if both parties don’t want to be together anymore, and it’s ugly if only one does while the other is forced to put up with the relationship. In the film, Ayesha is told by her parents to go back to Manav despite her saying she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. She is told to have a child to save the marriage (because children bring a woman maturity and make her more amenable). There is a shock when she talks about birth control (such things aren’t spoken of in polite company) and there is collective outrage at the thought of an impending divorce (log kya kahenge?).
Placing all of this in the larger picture, it is possible to see that there is a culture of silence imposed upon women in relationships. This culture of silence is imposed by societal mores and a patriarchal tradition. Ayesha’s father declares in no uncertain terms that he will not accept Ayesha back into the family fold; she is disowned. A sad state of affairs in the film, but sadder still in reality where there are hundreds, if not thousands, of educated young women who are ostracized or disowned by their families for standing up against, talking about, or leaving bad or unsuitable relationships.
Indian society celebrates successful women, but would like to silence and ignore women who “fail” in relationships. Speaking out as someone who emerged with the scars of a bad and painful breakup, I know what I am talking about. In the wake of my breakup, my partner’s family told me (not very politely) to stay quiet about my story. No one in Indian society wants to hear or speak about these things. They mar the image of a family-oriented society. They destroy the image of India as a country with a low divorce rate.
This low divorce rate for all intents and purposes is a false indication of happily married couples. Sexual abuse, marital rape, and the fear of ostracism keeps many couples together. But for many, like Mrs. Mehra states in the movie, it is simply that they have no other place to go. They stay silent, accepting of their partners’ transgressions because they don’t know how else to support themselves, or have no familial support to cushion their fall from grace. They stay in loveless marriages for the sake of duty and tradition.
“Beti ghar ki izzat hai.”
And so, the beti stays, locked in a prison of familial making. But make no mistake, this is in no way an indication of weakness, but an indication of the Indian women’s resilience when they tolerate everything from mental abuse and infidelity, to physical abuse and torture, sometimes only for the sake of their children, and to stay close to them.
Indian law is not kind to Indian women. It is not sympathetic to their plight. And Indian courts are filled with the tales of Indian women who have maybe had the courage to speak up, and/or walk out of bad situations only to find themselves alone, destitute, depressed, or desperate. And while some women have had kudos for speaking up, and changing their situations, there are more who have been chastised and told to have children to save bad marriages.
“Dil Dhadakne Do” takes a light-hearted look at Indian families and their foibles. Enjoyable as it all is, somewhere I recognized the cold hard look at what is acceptable and not from an Indian woman’s point of view, and this made me squirm as it hit a bit too close to home, and to homes of friends and family alike.
Earlier this year, I talked about “India’s Daughter,” and the imposition of censorship on the film, and subsequently of the plight of Indian women. This is an extension of that same discussion. In a country where marriage is sacred, but marital rape is legal; where women are worshipped, but are told to shut up and bear it (whatever “it” is); and where educated qualified women commit suicide after being abused by their homosexual husbands; it may be time to speak up. It may be time to break the silence.
Sonali Kudva is a PhD candidate at the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University, Ohio, with research interests in Bollywood, Human-Information Interaction and Popular Culture. She inherited the travel bug from her parents and has traveled widely, and hopes to get the opportunity to travel to more interesting places someday. In another life she was a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Fellow, has worked as a full-time journalist-editor and freelancer at magazines, newspapers and online. Sonali calls India her home, even though she spends more time away from home than in it. She likes to collect academic degrees, and in her spare time, she likes to vegetate with an interesting novel, talk to her family or argue with her friends on politics, international affairs and any other topic that may come up.
For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.
In celebration of Kirthana Ramisetthi’s second novel “Advika and the Hollywood Wives,” BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is publishing this short story by the acclaimed author. This piece chronicles the evolution of a writer’s life through their ever-changing author’s bio. In the details, from the change in last name to the new address, we observe how Gigi grows into Genevieve and the life events that make her into the writer she becomes.
“My Picnic,” published in the Oakwood Elementary Storytime Scrapbook
Gigi Maguire loves strawberries, “Smurfs,” and being a first grader. Her favorite word is ‘hooray.’ This is her first short story.
“Sunshine Day,”published in Oakwood Elementary KidTale
Gigi Maguire is a fifth grader in Ms. Troll’s class. She loves writing stories more than anything in the whole world, except for peanut butter.
“What Rhymes with Witch?,” published in BeezKneez.com
Gigi Maguire is a high school junior living in the Bay Area. Her favorite writers are Sylvia Plath and J.K. Rowling. If she can’t attend Hogwarts, she’ll settle for Sarah Lawrence or NYU.
“On Her 21st Birthday,” published in LitEnds
Gigi Laurene Maguire is a writer and recent graduate from Sarah Lawrence College. Her favorite writers are Sylvia Plath, Alice Munro, and Mahatma Gandhi. She is making her big move to New York City in the fall.
“Valentine’s Day in a Can,” published in Writerly
Gigi Laurene Maguire is a freelance writer who loves the written word, Ireland in springtime, and “La Vie En Rose.” She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“Unspoken Ballads of Literal Heartbreak,” published in Weau Dunque Review
Gigi Laurene Maguire is an assistant editor at ScienceLife.com. Her work has appeared in Writerly and is forthcoming in Pancake House and Schooner’s Weekly. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“The Mistress of Self-Loathing,” published in Story Day
Gigi L. Maguire is the editor-in-chief of Small Business Weekly. Her work has appeared Writerly, Story Day, Pancake House, and Schooner’s Weekly. She’s currently working on a novel about witches. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her tabby cat Sabrina.
“The Distance in Your Eyes,” published in The Canton Review
Gigi L. Maguire is a freelance writer and digital marketing specialist. Her work has appeared in Writerly, Story Day, and is forthcoming in Idaho Centennial. She’s working on a novel and a short story collection. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
“Auspicious,” published in BookWorks
Genevieve L. Maguire’s work appears or will appear in The Canton Review, Mark’s End, Bishop Quarterly, and Idaho Centennial. A second runner-up for the Imelda Granteaux Award for Fiction, she is writing a novel and a memoir. Genevieve lives in Brooklyn.
“Meditate, Mediate,” published in Ripcord
Genevieve L. Maguire’s fiction appears or will appear in BookWorks, The Canton Review, Berkeley Standard, and elsewhere. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she is an MFA candidate at New York University. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and their two cats.
“Chaat & Chew,” published in The Carnegie Review
Genevieve L. Maguire’s fiction appears in Ploughshares, Ripcord, The Cambridge Review, and elsewhere. She received her master’s in creative writing from New York University. Her short story “Meditate, Mediate” has been optioned by Academy Award nominee Janet De La Mer’s production company, Femme! Productions. She lives in Brooklyn with her fiancé, their three cats, and a non-singing canary.
“Urdhva Hastasana Under a Banyan Tree” published in The Paris Review
Genevieve Maguire-Mehta’s fiction has been hailed as “breathtakingly lyrical” by Margaret Atwood. She is the recipient of the Whiting Prize for Short Fiction and an Ivy Fellow. Her fiction has appeared in The Carnegie Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband Manoj in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“Reaching New (Jackson) Heights,” performed by Lana Del Rey on NPR’s “Shorts” series
Genevieve Maguire-Mehta’s fiction has been hailed as “effervescent” by Alice Munro and “breathtakingly lyrical” by Margaret Atwood. She is the recipient of the Whiting Prize for Short Fiction and an Ivy Fellow. Her work appears or has appeared in The Paris Review,Elle, The Carnegie Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband in Park Slope, Brooklyn with their feisty menagerie of animals.
“The Bhagavad Gina,” published in The New Yorker
Genevieve Maguire-Mehta is the recipient of the Whiting Prize of Short Fiction and is a McClennen Arts Colony scholar. Her work appears or has appeared in The Paris Review,Elle, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a novel. She lives with her husband and daughter in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“When Two Becomes None,” published in American Quarterly
Genevieve Maguire’s writing has received dozens of accolades, most recently the Luciana Vowel Prize for Female Fiction. Praised by Alice Munro as “effervescent,” her work has appeared in more than twenty publications, including The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. She lives with her daughter Priyanka in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path,” published by Capricorn Rising Press
Genevieve Maguire is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in more than thirty publications, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She lives with her daughter in a 100-year-old farmhouse in Woodstock, New York. “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” is her first novel. Visit her website at genevievemagauthor.com.
“Hairy Arms and Coconut Oil,” published in MotherReader
Genevieve MaguireDunblatt is a novelist, homeopath, and part-time yoga instructor. She has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband Benji and daughter Priyanka in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life,” published by Capricorn Rising Press
Genevieve M.Dunblatt is the author of two novels, including “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path.” An aura reader, faith healer, and yoga instructor, she has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband in Jacksonville, Florida. Visit genevieveauthormag.com to learn more about her writing, and genevieveauthormag.com/hearthappy for her wellness services.
“Comma, Coma,” published in Read-A-Day Journal
Genevieve Maguire is the author of “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” and “Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life.” She has seen her critically-acclaimed short stories published in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. Alice Munro has called her writing “effervescent.” She lives in Jacksonville, Florida.
“Next Stop New York,” published in The Lunar Reader
Genevieve Maguire is the author of “The Day We Learned Desire is a Winding Path” and “Priya Pinker’s Mother Gets a Life.” She lives in New Jersey.
For BGM Literary’s third short story of the year, editor Nimarta Narang is excited to share Ankita Saxena’s short story titled “Date Night.” Chronicling Anapurna’s dates with Oscar, the story delves deeper into Anapurna’s relationship, well, relationships, as we learn more about her family and her parents. Saxena, a British Indian poet and performer, has also recently launched her debut called Mother / Line.
It is Saturday night. The drizzle has left Anapurna’s hair a little wet. She walks in and scans the room. The waiter at the entrance pauses before speaking, as if also unsure what she is doing here. At that moment, she remembers she has left her umbrella on the tube. Fuck.
The booking is under Annie, she says — and the waiter pauses again, as if unsure how such a light name could belong to such a dark girl. She remembers then, that whatever happens, the clocks will change overnight. Tomorrow, daylight will squeeze into a smaller dress size, diet all the way through winter.
Follow me, he says, suddenly in a rush, grabbing two laminated menus from his podium. He reminds Annie of the black cat that crossed her path earlier — its back slightly arched. She did not know then, or now, whether to feel scared or lucky.
He places the menus on a round table for two in the back of the restaurant.
Oscar arrives like a train, leaving only a breath of silence before opening with the customary: Hi, sorry I’m late. It is nice to finally meet you. By the time he arrives, Annie has already read through the menu in Italian and English. She is deciding between the prawn and the spaghetti, but of course — it is never down to the best option.
In the next moment, she is standing, smiling, extending her right hand, and then her left arm, for a sideways embrace. He smells like cologne, of course, and as their cheeks bristle, he feels like rain.
So, how has your week been? She starts, adding Did the curry turn out well last night? A mark of familiarity, a gesture that this is something more than small talk. Yeah, it was suitably spicy. My flatmates were very impressed. He pauses, and takes a sip of the tap water that has by now appeared on his left-hand side. I like your look, a polite way of expressing surprise at her low-cut body, blazer and culottes.
Annie orders the prawn in the end. Better conversation starter.
They talk of holidays to Spanish seaside resorts, getting piss drunk and spilling onto the streets from one bar to the next, with the same light thrum of English pop songs playing in each. They talk of his work trips to Belgium and Buenos Aires, the time he was nearly mugged in Lagos after taking one too many unknown pills from strangers. These are extravagances Annie has never known.
Would you take a random pill from a stranger? he asks, and she thinks of her mother, which she hoped would not happen this early in the conversation. Her mother, who gets ‘drunk’ from half a glass of wine, her austere façade crumbling to a giggling mess. Her mother, asks time and time again what people mean by kissing strangers on the lips in nightclubs: how do they trust them like that?
No, she says, I like being in control.
Oscar shifts his weight forward on his chair and lays down his cutlery like a declaration. They have had a glass of wine each by this point, and something about her caution makes him bold.
So, what’s your story?
My story? – the last prawn hung on a fork like a question mark.
Annie does not know which version to tell. Oscar is both familiar and from a different world. In one breath, he talks about his immigrant grandmother; in another, of Yacht Week with his university friends and the time he trashed his parents’ house when they were ‘away’ for the weekend.
Annie cannot imagine trashing her parents’ house. At the age of 11, when she got into her first-choice secondary school, she realised how easy it was to please them. She got good grades, did not cause any chaos, and in return, they left her alone. All her friends would envy her for her harmonious relationship with her family. But it was not difficult with a little pragmatism. She was never too deliberate about being ‘good’ — she just had no desire to be ‘bad’. In return, she had her own set of keys from the age of 14 and returned home often well after they went to bed.
More than this, Annie cannot imagine her parents being ‘away,’ that too, with just each other for company. Their marriage, and everything that came with it — discussion over discounted items in the supermarket, loud Saturday morning calls to old relatives, their hands joined in monthly prayer — always seemed more ritualistic than love. On family drives, Annie would sit in the back seat with headphones plugged in, watching for signs of love. Maybe a casual hand on a thigh? A sideways look in the mirror. A laugh over an in-joke. But every time the music quietened, all she could hear was her mother cursing at her father’s driving, her father demanding directions, or, more often than not, the silence of people who have nothing more to say to each other.
One Valentine’s Day, she sent them on a dinner date to the new Chinese restaurant on their local high street. She and her brother put on a movie at home, and they returned well after the credits, faces giddy like new lovers. But the next morning, they were back to their usual selves — her father complaining about the bill, her mother complaining about the way he treated her family.
Annie and Oscar talk of hobbies then. She mentions dancing at university. He mentions winter sports and cooking. She cannot imagine anything worse than falling on ice.
She notices the restaurant has thinned behind them, all the old-fashioned wall hangings suddenly visible, like shells in low tide. Everything alright Sir? Ma’am? the waiter asks, and they request the bill, going Dutch as she has been trained to do by now.
Outside, the rain has stilled, leaving large puddles reflecting the streetlights. Annie slips inside her coat, imagining slipping into his — the baggy weight of it, the cliché. He places his hand instinctively on her lower back, laughing as the splash of a puddle makes a small smudge on his suede shoes.
As they near the station, he extends the hand to an arm again, and this time she lets her body bend in the fold of his, noticing suddenly how thin her jacket is, how little fabric and skin separate their bones.
She does not say, I do not know how to be more intimate than this. Instead, she rubs her palms against his spine, and then draws back quickly taking her and her shadow into the darkness.
What’s your story? The question plays back in her head. They have come to see an exhibition. It is precisely six days and 15 hours after their first meeting. They walk side by side, Oscar slightly behind, Annie’s shoulder occasionally and intentionally pressing into his chest.
They glide through the gallery like a pair of ducks. She has never observed still objects so close to someone else. She is fascinated by how long he looks at the sculpture, and how he takes her around them like a waltz. She notices how well-dressed he is for the gallery in his light blue chinos and black coat. She notices, once again, his cologne.
She had come to this gallery last with Zeina and Chrissie — Zeina in a rush to get out the door and get some food, Chrissie taking pictures of every painting to send to her boyfriend. Annie always felt peaceful around her friends — each of their habits etched into her like a chant from childhood. Zeina started adding flat peaches to their shopping list in the second year. By the time they graduated, the kitchen cupboard was stocked with Molasses, Sumac, heaps of chickpeas. Annie imagined growing up with Zeina and her sisters, and when Zeina facetimed her mother in the middle of their flat dinners, Annie almost felt she had.
And Chrissie — who stuck to Annie from the first day of uni, later introducing her to all her theatre friends, saying: this girl is an angel. Once, before a black-tie ball, she had shown Annie how to read her eyes: your eyes are long, not wide, so you should draw your liner thick on the lid ratherthan with wings. That night, she felt like Beyoncé. When Annie was shaking uncontrollably the morning she was expecting her university results, they both gathered around her. She nearly asked them to open the email — don’t be dramatic, Zeina said, Chrissie on the other side smoothing out Annie’s hair out like a bed.
What do you think of this one? Oscar asks, looking at an abstract piece. She cocks her head, It looks like a city.
Really? To me, it looks like the peaks of mountains.
Annie remembers stories of the college ski trip — the hot tub with the whole milky way in view, the excessive drinking, reckless life-changing accidents. What would she do with a world like Oscar’s? What new perspective could he offer?
Oscar takes that moment to put his hand around her shoulder — her skin tingles unexpectedly under the layers.
Or a face, maybe. See, that jagged streak of red could be a smile.
She relaxes. He starts pointing out the chin and the eyebrows. They laugh. It is a chaotic old woman, they decide. It is always easy to find faces in abstracts.
Later, they go for a walk by the river. He asks her about her job. She says all the buzzwords. Product manager. Start-up. Incubator. He asks her what she loves about her job.
She remembers getting the offer in April of her third year. She was at home, in her bedroom. She had been juggling applications and interviews with finals preparations for three months. The phone call comes as a shock. She is expecting an email. She starts screaming at the top of her voice. Guys! Guys, I got the offer!
What? What? Her mother, always the first to listen, appearing from nowhere in a sudden gust of elation, jumping with her until their feet are sore. Her brother bolting up the stairs: What? How much are they paying you? Her father pausing the football downstairs, What? What?
Later that evening, the family meal — spicy chicken,a rare bottle of wine. Her heart is full. Her parents laughing across the table. This is better than any grade she has received.
I like the stimulation. She says. How each day is a new challenge.
Annie has learnt the art of sculling through bar queues — how you must pick a corner edge and gradually navigate inwards diagonally, shoulders guiding you through like oars.
I’ll get this round.
You paid for the gallery tickets. Only fair.
Once a group of bulky, beer-breathed men appeared behind her, laughing loudly over her head. Excuse me, two G+Ts please, she yelled over their grunts. You alright, love? one of them slurred into her hair, his T-shirt exposing muscles like hedges lining his arms. We’ll get her those, he said, one bulbous hand on her waist, another extending his card to the slobbery bar top. She let him pay. Grabbed both G+Ts shiny on the counters, drained half of one by the time reached Chrissie, pristine at the back of the queue. Some old creeps in this bar. Let’s go find your boyfriend.
When he drove her to university the first time, her father switched off the radio halfway through the journey. You know, Beta — you must be careful in the nightclubs. Men can be mad. Don’t drink, shink there. They can put things in them.
I know Papa. Relax.
Just be careful.
Months after, she found Zeina at the corner of a club, pulled her up by the elbows, hair matted with sweat, eyes dilated. Annie — what is happening to me? Nee, am I drunk? Anapurna — don’t tell my mother about this. Zeina, who had never had a sip of alcohol. Never intentionally.
She orders two Espresso Martinis — Oscar had posed with some in his dating profile, and it’s time she made an effort.
When she returns, he is on his phone, smiling.
Sorry, those were my friends. They’re getting wasted tonight. A party? Yeah. Rob’s flatmate’s 25th. You should go! No, no. I’m here now. We could go together. Really? You’d be up for that? Yeah.
The Uber drops them off by a semi-detached house on a dark street lined with lamplights. Just before they enter, Oscar touches Annie on the waist turning her around. She is conscious of the thick layer of faux fur between them.
You sure about this? His breath leaving a cigarette trail in the November air. My friends can be intimidating. She lets her chin fall on his chest, Come on, I’m cold.
Inside, there are fewer people than she anticipated. It is less a party, more a circle of friends passing around pringles and tin cans — lights on, the vague attempt at bunting, the bass of speakers filtering from another room.
In the presence of friends, Oscar is louder; more sarcastic. He introduces Annie by her job description — Annie works in tech, by Southwark — the first time she realises he cares. They meet Johnny, who is doing a Ph.D. in Literature, and Elisa, who has just come back from six months abroad. Annie scans the circle, realises she is at least three foundation shades darker than the rest of them. In her fur jacket, heeled boots and red lip, she is also the best dressed.
She posts a dancing girl emoji in her WhatsApp chat with Zeina and Chrissie. Guess where I am?
Oscar takes off his coat. I’ll be back soon, he says, slipping through an arch underneath the stairs. Annie makes small talk with Elisa — So where did you travel? They talk of backpacking in Cambodia and Vietnam, You know how it is on a budget? I need to go back there sometime, spend a few months in each place. Annie pretends to understand. Other friends float over — Michael who has beautiful long hair, and Lucy, who is a newly-qualified lawyer.
She walks over to the window — if she squints, she can make out train tracks buried beneath the room’s bright reflections. She watches the quick passage of tubes rubbing bodies for a few loud seconds, before going their separate ways.
Behind her, Oscar comes over with two plastic cups. Punch he says, gesturing to a large bowl on the TV stand. Annie remembers the housewarming party she and Zeina threw after university, both their mothers calling them to ask about the food arrangements. Ma, it’s fine – you don’t need to feed people here, she said, still impulse-buying a few boxes of Tesco-branded samosas and tortilla chips for nachos. What kind of people will they think you are if you don’t even give them food?
Annie’s mother would begin a cooking operation each time her friends came over for the weekend: chili chicken and noodles, pasta with an onion-fried tomato sauce, vegetables baked in cheese sauce. Get the nice stuff, not discounted, she would say, pushing her daughter to make a last-minute trip to the supermarket, returning to a dry-cleaned house, each unnecessary item hidden like lightbulbs inside drawers.
Zeina was the only friend who was not considered a guest. In the absence of any relatives outside the Middle East other than an uncle in Canada, she adopted Annie’s as her own. She would arrive on Friday evenings and eat what the family ate, not leaving until Sunday morning, when she needed to get back to study for her Monday morning seminar.
They would stay up until two or three in the morning, lying on Annie’s beige carpet, drawing pictures and coded messages with colouring pencils in the cork underside of her desk. These are for our eyes only — Annie would say — write whatever you want, no one will see them.
Once, Annie’s parents were fighting downstairs, the odd word occasionally slipping into focus like letters in the last row of an opticians’ screen.
You have no bloody right to – Why do you always have to bring my mother into – I don’t care if the kids are – Oh, so I’m – am I?
Zeina got up early the next morning as if nothing has happened. You know me, Annie, I can sleep through anything, between toothpaste gargles.
What you looking at? Oscar asks, following Annie’s eye-line. She is reminded of the art gallery — how they learnt to observe minutiae side by side, read the other person’s gaze. She wonders at what point her parents forgot to do this.
Annie tells him about Zeina and Chrissie, about her family — how her mother was the one who pushed her to start dating at the age of 24. You have to live your life Anapurna. You cannot use me as an excuse for everything.
She talks and talks until the drinks evaporate, and she reaches for him with the abandon of prayer, nerves racing to her toes, chest aching, neck pulsing.
What’s your story? Oscar had asked barely half an hour into their first conversation. And what could she say?
Liberal Londoner in trendy tech job OR Second-generation immigrant with traditional family values
As they walk in the bright sunlight, three weeks after their first date, Oscar squeezes Annie’s right earlobe in his index and thumb.
Are you always this cautious?
The park’s molten brown foliage shimmers in a large, grey lake, where a dog has plunged into the cold water, creating ripples that land within metres of their feet.
Only when I am worried I might slip.
The hours after she hears of her parents’ separation, Annie does not tell anyone. Annie, come look at this. The girls are watching Zeina’s cousin’s wedding videos. How unfair is this? She curls up with them, comforted by the lack of questioning. They remind her of her father — always there to pick her up, never bothered about the details.
Chrissie is trying to explain the situation to the co-director of her play. He gaslighted me. Are you even listening?
That evening, her mother calls her, cool and blabbering. It’s only been a couple of months. We didn’t want to tell anyone until it was official. We didn’t want to distract you. The words months and official repeating in her head for weeks to come. She remembers the night she got her job offer — how could her mother have laughed like that on the verge of separation? How could she have lied for so long?
When Zeina finally finds out, she moves into Annie’s bed. Don’t worry. I won’t let you down. Later, Annie slips away to the sofa and lies there all night, ghost-like in the green of her WhatsApp screen, trying to memorise the timelines, her thighs rubbing against each other, sweaty in the August heat.
She does not answer her mother’s calls for another two months, until the day before she starts her job, and her mother, as usual, makes up for it: I have so much faith in you, Anapurna. You have nothing to worry about. Call me in your lunch break. Or whenever. I love you.
What’s your story? Oscar will ask again. And what will she say now, three weeks into knowing him? And what will she say to all those who ask after him?
Afraid of ending up like her parents OR Afraid of not ending up like them.
Experienced in heartbreak, in friendshipOR Hugely inexperienced in intimacy, in love.
In the winter sun, the birds are creating raucous in the trees. The dog is shaking off lake water, more alive for having taken the dive.