In their September series of journal-style entries, Divya Seth discusses feeding their cat, the wine night remnants, and the often odd quirks of each attendee of a dinner party. Read more of their previous short essays here.
September 2nd, 2020
Hello! It is me. I am a surprisingly young human and my gender is (redacted). I work very hard to try and make some money because I have a baby made mostly out of grey fur and canned chicken and she is so small and soft that it would be outrageous to ask her to hold a job and pay for groceries. Hi, it’s me, and I was walking around a museum in a grumpy mood because things didn’t go exactly how I wanted them to and my defining feature is that I insist on willing the universe into submission. Yes, it’s me, and when I laid eyes on a piece of art that was once a large colorful tapestry, but is now just four borders held together by strings of beads woven together, desperately attempting to recreate the canvas that was once there, I thought of my family. You guessed it, me again, and I’m wondering if I am on a wall in this museum somewhere, its recessed lighting putting my cheekbones on haunting display.
I woke up feeling like garbage today. Like the City said, “it’s trash day!” and proceeded to remove my brain from my head because today is the day to take the trash out. My empty little head said, “This is a weird feeling!” and proceeded to explode into little sparks and stars against the dark inside of my newly emptied skull. I explain away my current lightheadedness and the spots in my vision and the general utter lack of energy from my normally-zoomy neurons as I roll away from the window in my bed.
“What’s wrong with me?” I have to ask my sister to tell me the obvious.
“Did you eat, drink water, and get enough rest last night?”
No, the answers are all no, of course. I wanted her response to be much more serious: oh my, this is problematic, you haven’t been feverish recently, have you? That little cough, that sniffle, what was that? You look tired—fatigue can be a sign of a real underlying issue…
My condition is not serious, and I’m not even ill, but it feels like I am. I can fix my headache with some stale tortilla chips, a glass of water, and ibuprofen, but it doesn’t feel like enough. There’s a Dorito chip for president. A stale tortilla chip isn’t that much better, but I eat it. I feel ill like a slow pan-over in a good horror movie, momentarily revealing a window ajar, or a stranger’s footprints in your home. You know the implication. The calm warmth of what was once your wine night is now an illusion. In fact, it always was, and, chillingly, you just didn’t notice. I feel ill, like watching the neighbors in a good Western shutter their doors and windows when trouble rolls into town. I feel ill like I’m watching them not watch—a refusal to witness. I’ve simply spent too long inside the eye of this hurricane shaped like a nation. As the eye shifts, I will the wall of the hurricane to whisk my body up into its chaos, so I can know the reason I feel shaken, my head emptied.
September 16th, 2020
Well, we both know there’s just so much we don’t like about this place. We’ve been hoodwinked into attending a dinner party neither of us intended to come to—at least, not any further than putting the invitation on our refrigerators—and, now that I’ve lain my things down on a pile of coats sitting on what is now The Coat Ottoman, I see that it is one of those parties where everyone has fallen into a role. We’ve made eye contact from across the room as everybody else attempts to make eye contact with us, if only to plead, “Stay!” So I blink twice and look away, “Okay, fine.”
And, now I am resignedly cutting up some cheese for the cheeseboard, and you are walking around offering to fill people’s wine glasses, and I’ll be honest, I don’t exactly know who this party is for, but I would like to sit down. I’m only here for the participation points, it has become exceedingly clear. And, I admit that knowing my way around a party has never been my strong suit—still, I can’t help but find the cacophony of preparation grating and confusing. Transfixed, smiling guests move swiftly to prepare and prepare and prepare, but I’ve caught no glimpse of the esteemed hosts.
What time will the party really start? What time does this end? The longer I linger, the more unsettling the questions. When you look to me for answers, I can only return your stare. It takes me a while to notice, but in those moments, at least, when you hold my gaze, I feel strikingly as though I exist. In fact, I more than exist. And then something strange happens, and time begins to move through me, and I see the night flying by.
I see the guests, busy with being busy, change and slow. Their shoes scuff, their clothes fray, and their faces age. They never leave the party, and the hosts never show, in fact, the party never seems to happen, even though I’m afraid it was happening the whole time. It is with fear and bafflement that I let my cheese knife fall to the floor, and with its clatter on the tile, it is the first time that you’ve all turned to look at me, to see me, with no demands or queries.
And, well, now that you’re all staring, I’ll say out loud what I’m truly terrified every single person here is thinking: “What are we here for?”
There are days when my silver rings feel heavy around my thumbs. When my cool, smooth rhodonite stone weighs down my palm, and I’m paralyzed. The way smoke, inhaled, warms and overfills my lungs, assuring me that I no longer need air. The sun, filling my room, marking the walls, arrives with the gentle presence of nothing at all. And I lie, on my bed of constellations. If I had two hands for gluing pressed flowers to glass, and two more for typing and turning pages, and two more for fidgeting with my skin and my hair, then maybe I’d be satisfied.
If I could shuffle between headspaces like I swipe through desktops one to five, and if I could keep different books and articles open and waiting for me, beckoning, then maybe I’d be happy. If I didn’t stop before I even started, if I didn’t have to lie here and pretend to do what I want to do in my head in order to go do it, if I didn’t get too tired from the mental trip I took to the grocery store to take the physical trip there, then, maybe there would be food in my pantry. But I have leftover Chipotle, and I’ll eat it. I do not want to be, yet here I am, being. I fantasize—if I simply allowed myself to waste away and decompose in the face of my opposition, my insurmountable hurdle, that is, simply, living, then maybe I wouldn’t be such a hypocrite. This Chipotle tastes too good for that though.
For the literary vertical, BGM editor NImarta Narang was honored to delve into sci-fi with author extraordinaire Premee Mohamed. In ‘Sleeping Beti’, Premee details a wedding that is due to take place in two weeks after Anju wakes up 75 years later from cryopreservation…in space. The detail that Premee gives us is so engaging; her flair for creating new worlds is on full display. ‘Sleeping Beti’ also shows us that aunties are everywhere… even in outer space.
Anju was dying.
She knew she was dying because there was no possible way someone could feel this sick and live through it; she was sure she could feel death creeping through her bones as she heaved over the considerately-placed glass receptacle. Dimly she wondered who had put it under her head, and why it was glass — but her thoughts kept submerging in the pain and vertigo. At first, nothing came up; then, after an eternity, an endless rope of pink-tinged clear gel, as if she had eaten a whole bucket of the transparent fidget putty she kept in her office.
“Good, very good,” a voice said near her head. Anju seized on it like a rope thrown at a drowning woman. It was a warm voice, rounded, oddly familiar. “Good girl, Anju. Get it all out.”
She was good. She was being a good girl. She seized on that too.
The voice said, “It’s easier than having it extracted, believe me.”
Another more distant voice, said, “This is great. Better than we could have hoped, better than the model predicted. Her signs are all green across the board, look.”
The first voice said proudly, “She’s always been a strong girl.”
Anju sensed unconsciousness grappling for her, brushing its dark fingers warmly across her face. She fought it off and took a deep breath, rolling back onto the bed she had been dangling from. White ceiling above her. Square glass panels, bright white lights glittering against the glass-like stars. “What happened?” she croaked. “Am I in the hospital? Mom?”
A beat. Then a face leaning over her: not her mother but eerily similar, a resemblance more sister-like than twin-like, although Anju’s aunts on her mother’s side actually didn’t resemble one another in the least. This woman was a smudged copy. Same black hair, temples left artfully silver, worn in the same crown; same eyes, mouth. A bit bigger, more muscular. “No, beti,” she said gently, smiling. Same teeth, same shape. “You can call me Mrs. Sharma.”
But my mother is Mrs. Sharma, Anju almost said. “What’s going on?”
“… Let’s get you something to eat, hmm? It’s a long story.”
Her first questions were answered by the place Mrs. Sharma took her to eat: a glass table extruding smoothly from the wall as they approached, followed by two glass chairs and glass plates of food rising through the table’s hollow pedestal to sit neatly in divots on the surface. Anju stared at the food first. It looked like palak paneer and brown rice. She then stared out the window next to them, which looked convincingly like space seen from a movie spaceship. In real life, she knew, you rarely got views this pristine. The New International Space Hub, the CanaDorm, and the Pan-Asian Science Station, all had machinery, cables, screws, wires, bits of foam and plastic in the way. And none of them had windows like this.
Anju ate slowly and cautiously, because Mrs. Sharma told her to, and because she could barely speak anyway. The Earth floated below them, ochre swirls, yellow and amber, long streaks of sepia clouds, and below them somewhere the ocean, a dead-looking blue. They were in space. Genuinely in space. The fork, too, was made out of glass. She stared at it.
“Uh, isn’t this kind of … unsafe?”
Mrs. Sharma chuckled. She was eating the same thing as Anju as if to encourage her by example. She was wearing a baggy, oddly aerodynamic white jumpsuit like the one Anju had discovered she was wearing, and both now boasted tiny spots of deep green spinach. “It’s not glass. It’s transparent nanoceramic. Stronger than titanium. You’ll find we use a lot of it here. Hardly anyone uses real glass anymore. Artists, I suppose.”
“And here is … where exactly? Mrs. Sharma, I … what’s going on? Is this a … prank, a joke? Some kind of sim? Please tell me I haven’t been kidnapped for one of those billionaire reality shows.” She heard the whine in her voice and hated it but couldn’t help it. She’d never been so confused in her life and she didn’t want to be a bad sport, either. “The last thing I remember is going into Dr. Li’s office to get that mole removed on my chin…”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sharma said. “We did remove the mole. It wasn’t cancerous if you’re worried about that.”
“I was, but now I’m—”
“Let me explain. There’s a presentation later, also. A ‘sim,’ if you want to call it that.”
Anju gradually stopped chewing and simply stared as the explanation spooled out. Yes, she was correct to remember Dr. Li’s office, her mother fretting in the corner, Will there be blood? I will look away if there is blood! I don’t like to look! Mom prettied up in skinny jeans and sandals and a silk blouse because they were supposed to go to lunch later. The tiny, cold sting of the needle in her face. And then waking up here … 75 years later.
“Cryopreservation,” Anju said slowly. “But that’s not real. That’s … that’s sci-fi. I mean, movies…”
“Well, so was cloning, 75 years ago.”
“I … what? Are you a clone of my mother?”
“A modified clone descendant, not from original cells for several generations,” Mrs. Sharma said serenely, waving a hand to dismiss Anju’s horror. “Legally, modifications must be made. No unaltered clones. There are laws! And Precision Sharmaceuticals were the experts then, and the experts now. Which is why it was decided to take this very exciting step—”
“Are you referring to freezing me as—”
“We thought you would be delighted!” Mrs. Sharma seemed genuinely hurt, but Anju was quite used to this kind of unsubtle emotional manipulation from her mother, or even a lineage of her mother, and stared at her stonily as the older woman made a show of rallying to continue her explanation. Cryofreezing was already illegal on Earth, so both the cryo-tubes (“Wait, go back, why is there a plural there”) and the companies (“Again—”) (“Don’t interrupt, Anju, or we’ll be here all week”) had been moved into orbit, which was technically legal, and they did want to do everything by the books, after all.
And doing things by the books was precisely what Anju was doing here, to answer her question. An enormous tax loophole had been created when corporation mergers had been prohibited over a certain size, which the former CEO had realized they could dart through — “For everyone’s benefit, Anju!” — with a marriage and a specific clause in the prenuptial agreement, uniting not only two perfectly darling and very compatible young people, but two families, and two mega-corporations.
“But I didn’t agree to any of this! You’ve … My God, Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on here?! You … You abducted me, you froze me against my will, you—”
“I didn’t do any of that,” Mrs. Sharma said. “I didn’t even exist! Your parents made the decision. All the astrological figures have been calculated. A date’s been chosen. None of that was my doing. And,” she repeated meaningfully, “they thought you’d be happy.”
“My parents knew shit about me and my happiness! Or else they’d never have done this!”
“That isn’t true,” Mrs. Sharma said. “Come on, you need to watch the sim your parents left for you. And you’ll feel better.”
“One second,” Anju said. “I think I’m going to throw up again.”
It was a big room — like a miniature auditorium, a bowl shape sloping down to a platform in the center. Or, Anju thought morbidly, like one of those surgical theatres. They wanted to make sure that everyone could see the horror being enacted in the middle of the floor. Several more people, Mrs. Sharma had informed her, were expected; there would be a wait. Anju sat and shivered in her nanoceramic seat — relieved when Mrs. Sharma reached over and adjusted something on her white suit, sending a slow warmth creeping from her core down to her wrists and ankles, like the whole suit was one of those heated seats in a fancy car.
Cars. Did they still have cars on Earth? Or up here? Her car, a bargain-basement Honda Civic, hadn’t even had heated seats. That had been an add-on she couldn’t afford. Where was it now? Forget the car. Where was her life now? She had been partway through her master’s degree in sociology, (much to her parents’ highly vocal horror). Now she would never graduate. Her apartment! Had someone been watering her plants? No, they must all have died a few weeks later. Her mother had hated her place anyway. “Why can’t you live at home? We’re only a 40-minute drive away. Or at least in a nicer building!” Anju, upon reflection, didn’t think she had loved it; but she hadn’t hated it, either. It was somewhere to live and it was relatively quiet and it was hers. Away from her parents.
But her friends, the other grad students under her professor, the kids whose papers she graded at night … everyone would be dead now. Or almost a 100 years old. Her parents were dead. Everyone in her family was dead.
She waited for tears to come, but nothing happened, only a cold lurch of nausea deep in her core that the heated suit could not touch. People were filing in now, no one with recognizable faces like Mrs. Sharma, which she supposed was one small blessing. As he took his seat across the bowl, a dazed-looking young man nodded vaguely at her, and she nodded back: Hello, the gesture said. I see you’ve been cursed in the same way as me.
She wondered what had been taken from her husband-to-be, what kind of life they had destroyed. Better? Worse? How did you measure that kind of thing? She realized she was waiting for the shock to wear off before she could feel the full measure of grief and outrage and mourning and anger that she knew must be building up inside her. It couldn’t have all gone numb. She was not that kind of person. Her parents had never really seen that side of her, had they? She had been concentrating so hard on being a good girl.
The sim was short and very realistic; Anju even recognized, more or less, the speaker, who had been a chief something of her father’s company. He was a big shot now, sitting on the board of Precision Sharmaceuticals. He was joined by a brittle-looking, gorgeously haughty woman who turned out to be the former CEO of CellRegenixx, which Anju presumed to be the company they were marrying.
Together, spiritedly, they delivered their congratulations on the engagement, explained the legalities (no divorce, no annulment, for a period of 10 Earth years), displayed the spectacular bridal sari that had been preserved for 78 years in its very own anaerobic preservation tube, discussed the wedding ceremony, and the guest list (almost all of whom would be virtual, naturally). They were now thawing the pandit out as the stars, moon, and Mars were right.
“We’ll go over afterward and introduce you to Prab,” Mrs. Sharma murmured as the holographic man went on. “Later tonight. We’ll have to do your hair and makeup, of course.”
“I don’t want anyone to do my hair and makeup.”
“It’ll be easier, trust me. You won’t be familiar with any of the devices and they’re not very intuitive.”
“That’s not what I meant, I meant—”
“Don’t raise your voice, dear.”
Anju sat back and glared at the young man they’d chosen for her — Prab, was it? Must be short for something, as Anju was short for Gitanjali. Heir, like her, to a mega-corporation of impossible wealth and power and, like her, technically unable to inherit it. It wasn’t like a monarchy. This was the only way, the sim was telling her. She ignored him and studied the room. She’d already barked her shin about a dozen times on various half-invisible pieces of transparent furnishings or ship fixtures.
She thought about her apartment again and its opaque furniture and the exposed brick of the walls and the subtle, indefinable scent of the brick, the sound of her spider plants scraping gently against it in the breeze. And again she waited for grief and again it didn’t come.
The next morning, she tried to steal one of the ship’s escape pods.
It wasn’t something where she could have argued later that she thought was a good idea at the time; she had eaten breakfast with Mrs. Sharma’s supervision, and then asked about the “Uh, hygienic facilities?” Thankfully, the older woman hadn’t insisted on accompanying her to help her ‘figure it out,’ which Anju had been worried about, and on the way back Anju had darted into a side corridor.
At first, she really had just wanted to explore the ship by herself. She marveled at the combination of carpet and tile, all intricate and colorful, in sharp contrast to the pale metal walls and transparent nanoceramic everything else. And then she had looked up to see the surprisingly extensive signage indicating yes, the facilities, but also a gym, a spa, and directions to the engine room, control room … and “Emergency Exits.”
Of course, on a spaceship, she had reasoned, you couldn’t have an emergency exit; exiting was in and of itself an emergency. So, it must have been something else. She had followed the directions, therefore, initially out of curiosity, and then upon seeing the unguarded room full of beautifully-appointed, arrow-shaped pods, had instantly decided to take one.
For about 30 seconds, as the pod powered up and began its initiation sequence (“Please wait … determining power levels”) it looked as if this would be the easiest exit of her life. Much easier, frankly, than her attempts to sneak out of her parents’ fortress-like mansion as a teenager, what with all the hired help in the house and the security system, and the placement of her bedroom, and the wall around the—
Sirens, alarms, strobe lights, lasers, and attack drones. Mrs. Sharma hauled her away for a respectful but thorough talking-to. After that, there was no more unsupervised wandering; the only exception, she discovered, was spending time with her husband-to-be, Prab, because he had supervision of his own.
“Its name is Satya,” Prab said gloomily.
“I hate it,” Anju said.
“Me too.” He reached to brush some of the dangling leaves away from his face, but the drone was already doing it for him; a featureless grey sphere with a couple of pin-sized red lights on it and grey limbs that folded out from its equator as if it were taking things out of its Bat-utility-belt.
They were in the atrium, where they had been told the wedding would take place when the stars were right, in about two weeks. If Prab and Anju had thought the dense and tangled greenery would allow them a minute’s privacy, they were wrong; Satya the drone had no visible propellers (Anju had no idea how it was staying in the air) and simply nudged through the foliage like a determined bird. The air smelled of hidden flowers, damp earth, sap, dirt, mold, wet concrete. Ordinary smells of a greenhouse back home, or the botanical gardens on campus.
“Anju Sharma,” she said after a minute, leaning on a decorative stone bridge over a little trickling stream.
She didn’t shake his hand. Eventually, he came over and leaned on the bridge next to her, not too close.
For a long time, neither spoke. Then he said, “Those … aren’t fish, are they?”
“Oh. Huh.” She squinted. He was right; they were projections of koi and koi-shaped shadows; very good, but not real. Occasionally the water shimmered in just the right way and the fish seemed to glitch. “The future is bullshit,” she said bleakly.
“How did they get you?” she said, turning to look at him properly. He was about her height, with a lot of curly black hair held back in a ponytail and the beginnings of a beard. He also looked like he hadn’t slept for about a week, rather than, like her, having been asleep for a large part of a century.
He sighed. “My parents took me to a cookout at my cousin’s.”
“They put a pill in my frozen yogurt. I felt it in the back of my throat just a second too late to do anything about it. It was too easy. If I was a writer, I wouldn’t even have put that in a book. Who just swallows a small hard object they find in their dessert?”
“Well, same,” she said. “I went in to get a mole lasered off. And you know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, it was my mom’s idea. I’d had that mole my whole life. You can see it in the photos where I’m graduating from kindergarten, for Christ’s sake. And all of a sudden, she’s like ‘Darling it could be cancer, you’d better get it removed’,” Anju said, gritting her teeth with sudden anger as she realized it, “they knocked me out with the so-called ‘local anesthetic’ shot. I also genuinely think Mom wanted me to not have the mole in my wedding photos.”
“Oh man,” said Prab. He had a broad California accent, so that when they had first spoken on the way into the atrium Anju had thought he was putting it on. Now she found she rather liked it.
“I can’t believe they did this to us,” Anju said, pushing away from the bridge. She couldn’t stand the fake fish anymore. The stone path to her right led into a kind of fern tunnel, a dozen types of soft green fronds growing out of artfully placed stones or cement, so she walked through that. Prab followed. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get out of this, how to, I don’t know, contact the authorities, something. It’s practically sex trafficking!”
“We don’t have to have sex,” he said meekly.
“Oh, shut up. That’s not the point. I mean, in an arranged marriage, at least in my family, you get veto power. You’re absolutely allowed to say ‘I don’t like that boy’ at any stage in the process. Then they find you a new one. Or they don’t. Listen, I’m not saying the system is perfect, but I have — had — friends who were perfectly happy with whoever their family picked, and some who insisted on normal dating, and everything in between. I’ve never seen it so you can’t say no.”
“Me neither. I mean … actually, I guess for the girl’s family,” he said as if he was thinking about it for the first time. “I think it’s just expected that the boy will say yes to whoever.”
They paused, in the fern tunnel, and thought about that for a while. Prab reached up and ran one of the fronds through his fingers, gently collecting a bead of water that he flicked to the floor.
“I did actually ask Mrs. Sharma if I could say no,” Anju said, nudging past him to reach the other end of the stone tunnel. This area was devoted to orchids, dozens of varieties and colors, impossibly perfect.
“Did you? Good for you. I can barely look her in the eye,” Prab said.
“She’s kind of overbearing,” Anju admitted. “Anyway. She said of course I didn’t have to agree to the marriage. But she also spent about 40 minutes explaining to me what it would mean for, you know, the company, the literally millions of employees back on Earth, how much better it would make their lives. And how long this has been in the works, and how hard they’ve worked to keep that family business loophole open. How much my parents wanted it, how hard they looked for a merger partner and a man my age who would be compatible, and how many times the birth charts were run. They were obsessed with that part. It couldn’t just be anyone. It had to be someone compatible at however many points of compatibility.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Prab. “I was born in America. My parents were the ones who knew all that stuff.”
“Yeah, same. And no brothers or sisters so I mostly had to go off what I heard at family weddings for cousins and whatnot.” And now all my cousins are dead, she almost said, but she was also thinking of the rest of that conversation with Mrs. Sharma: the letter from her mother, specified to be delivered ‘just in case’ Anju was being ‘difficult,’ still unread in her jumpsuit pocket. “Your life will be limitless now, Anju,” Mrs. Sharma had said sweetly, putting her big, warm hands on Anju’s shoulders. “It will be as big as the galaxy! You’ll have money, ships, travel, clothes, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Didn’t you always dream of a life like that?”
She hadn’t. She had barely been able to dream of a week where she got enough sleep and maybe got to see her friends for lunch once or twice. But it had been hers, her life, constructed by her out of materials she had chosen. Mrs. Sharma stared at her blankly as if she’d started speaking another language. “What does that have to do with anything?” she’d said.
“At least you got out,” Prab said, laughing weakly in the face of Anju’s silence. “You know, I had cousins that teased me about it. Look at Prab, he’s 26 and getting his Ph.D. and still living at home…”
“You were getting your Ph.D.?”
“Yeah, high-energy physics. Which is funny. If my parents had just waited a little longer to do this, they could have put me in one of those — you know. Like Best Groom Match Magazine. Saying ‘He’s a doctor!'”
“Wrong kind of doctor.”
“I guess so,” he smiled a little and then returned to his somber state. “I always did what they told me. I never thought they were telling me to do anything … really unreasonable. I never questioned them. What was there to question? I had the basement to myself in the big house, I had a nice car, they gave me money. I never had loans. We fought about my major but as long as I was going to be some kind of prestigious scientist, it was okay that I wasn’t going to be a real doctor. And then this. I wonder how long they were planning it.”
“Probably longer than you think,” Anju said. “Did you hear that they picked up that bridal sari three years before they ambushed us?”
“What are we going to do?” she said, louder than she had intended. Her voice cracked in the middle and she thought tears would finally come, but still there was nothing. Only the despair and frustration, as heavy as lead around her; inert, cold.
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
She stared at him. Then she turned and left.
Back in her room — beautiful, transparent, and incredibly dull, because no one had thought to take even a single personal item from her old life to carry into her new one — Anju opened her mother’s letter. Incredibly, after so many years, it still smelled of perfume. Mom liked perfume and had perhaps a hundred bottles in her vanity room, a place Anju had liked to go as a child and had been permitted as long as she didn’t touch anything. It was enough to just look at the ranked bottles topped with spheres or octahedrons, angels and demons, wings, feathers, faces.
She sniffed the paper and felt the tears build up. Even before opening the letter, she knew what it would say. It would not be a heartfelt missive about how much her parents had loved her and how they knew they were doing the right thing to give their daughter the best possible life. Nothing her mother did was heartfelt. It would be brisk and affectionate and above all, extremely confident that her daughter would do her duty as demanded. What else had Anju done all her life?
They had never fought. Fighting would have implied that Anju was maintaining a position. Instead, she had simply shrunk down, diminished, become quiet and obedient, gotten the grades she had to get, and escaped only after making it out of her undergraduate degree, expanding her boundaries the tiniest bit so that she could experience the wildness of real air and not something her parents had already pre-vetted and pre-filtered.
Now she wished that they had fought. At least it would have felt like a connection. She unfolded the letter and read it, trying to stretch it out, because it was so short. Everything her mother had felt necessary to say fit in ten lines. The clear expectation; the assurance that Anju would indeed do what she was told; the ‘caretaker’ that would make sure Anju would do it properly.
What were you going to do with your life anyway? MS.
No ‘Love, Mom.’ Just her initials.
Anju folded it up and sniffed it again and put it on the transparent shelf next to her bed. It was the only thing in the room with a scent.
“I don’t know,” Prab said. “I think you need to ask yourself what you want out of life, you know?”
“Are you trying to give me an existential crisis?”
“I hope I’m not,” he said. “Are you going to finish that?”
“No, go ahead.” Anju handed him the paper bag of doughnut holes; she had lost her appetite.
He said, “I mean, my parents had this talk with me all the time. You know. The reason they came to America. They asked themselves what they wanted, and they answered it, and then they went to get it. So I did the same thing. Money, security, safety, those were important to me.”
“Were they? Or were they just the things your parents told you were important?” She was looking down at the artificial fish again, even though they gave her a headache. Or maybe it was Satya’s electrical field, which made her hair stand up when it got too close. She waved the drone away. “Mine never told me but I knew. Yeah, money, security, safety. Prestige. Image. Status. They didn’t just want to make money quietly, they wanted everyone to know it. And they wanted their baby, their only child, to be this kind of … crown jewel. That’s why they did this, you know.”
“I know. But what can we do? This is what we were frozen for. Looked at a certain way, it’s possible this is what we were born for. And would it be so bad?” His voice took on a slightly pleading note — not for himself, Anju thought. Not for his ego, or their future marriage. But this life, in space, spectral and shimmering, constructed out of nanoceramic and gems and gold, was being dangled in front of them but neither of them could touch until the marriage took place.
“It’s not whether it would be bad or good,” Anju said. “It’s that they took my life away. And they gave me something I didn’t ask for and don’t want. Don’t you miss your life, Prab? Your work, your friends?”
“Of course I do! But we can’t get them back. We may as well make the best of now.”
“But we’ll be right back under their thumbs. More, if anything. We won’t have a life. We’ll be controlled and monitored the entire time. We can’t make the best of that!”
“Yes we can,” he said brightly. “I believe in us!”
“You’re an idiot,” she said. “I give up. I’ll see you at the wedding.”
As the day approached and the celestial bodies moved in their paths, Anju unexpectedly acquired several security-slash-drone ‘cousins,’ who began to follow her around in unnerving silence. This left Mrs. Sharma to complete the arrangements for what appeared to be a surprisingly traditional wedding, minus the celebrations that came before, since no one would be arriving till the final day. Anju was surprised to find herself upset by this. She was 24; marriage seemed like an infinite distance away. She never dated anybody seriously. She hadn’t ruled marriage out completely; no, but she had not been thinking about it at a conscious level.
Even so, there must have been a part of her mind that, like her mother’s, was grinding away somewhere, some hidden sub-routine thinking about what her wedding would be like. And if she had to say it out loud, she would have admitted that there should have been parties, dancing, music, all her far-flung cousins and uncles and aunties, a house full of flowers and real presents and joke presents and houseguests sleepily scratching their hair and yawning as they figured out the coffee machine.
Not this cold and sterile ship full of administrators and bureaucrats and cryo-tube scientists and security people. Definitely not putting her hands into what looked for all the world like a toaster oven and waiting while it carefully printed the henna lines onto her skin. That was when she finally burst into tears, but since she couldn’t move her hands while the chemical curing process was taking place inside the machine, she just had to cry and snot onto her jumpsuit. It wasn’t supposed to be a machine! It was supposed to be her cousin Vera, who had steady hands and did mehndi on the weekends for extra cash!
“Are you distressed?” said one of the security drones.
“Go eat a magnet,” Anju said.
When her hands were done and dry, she followed her entourage back down the hallway to a warm little room where Mrs. Sharma proudly dressed Anju in the red bridal sari, “All the best, darling. The sari is entirely hand-embroidered, which is literally, not metaphorically, unheard of these days.” Mrs. Sharma grabbed one of the specialized drones to do her makeup and hang the jewelry. Her mother’s, Anju noted. Gold and sapphires and diamonds like stars in the sky.
The atrium was filled with ranks and ranks of transparent chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the big central gazebo, hung with vines and garlanded with very convincing but again, Anju suspected, not real flowers. Prab and Anju walked down the stone path together, not touching or looking at one another, unaccompanied, painfully aware of it. Anju felt the makeup on her face only psychologically; in fact, it had gone on in a mist, and she knew there was only the thinnest possible layer of pigment.
To squeeze through the family loophole, legally, it must be the case that the predecessors are deceased and the successors are assigned positions out of necessity … Anju still had to admit she wanted her parents there, her quiet father, her glamorous mother, watching her walk up the steps to the tiny fire and the thrones and the cushions. She knew no one in the crowd of real and virtual people except the board. And Mrs. Sharma, sitting in the front, nodding encouragingly, dressed in a blue lehenga so encrusted with crystals that it must have weighed twice that of Anju’s sari. Many guests seemed recently thawed out, a little shaky, like the pandit.
She sat down and did as she was told. A comforting smell of incense filled the gazebo — synthesized, she could not help but notice and is emitted from a couple of small nozzles buried in the vines. A world of glass, a world of fakery. A world in which she would be pressed like candy into a mold, and come out like this, shaped and transparent.
How can I escape?
She was still wondering as she and Prab signed their names on the register, pressed their thumbs to the screen, allowed their retinas to be scanned. Prab was smiling uncertainly, but it had a glassy look to it, as if, Anju thought, he had asked for a sedative before the ceremony.
And somehow his odd, glazed pliability made it easier to do the next thing — another thing, she would tell people later, that didn’t at all seem like a good idea at the time, but seemed bright and obvious as a flame.
“So I’m officially CEO now?” Anju said, drawing her face back from the retinal scanner.
“Well, you and Prab are co-CEOs.” Mrs. Sharma was beaming. “You look so good, darling. So fresh and young! Now, we have a list of policy proposals that need your signatures, those were developed some months ago, so we need to—”
“And I can do… Whatever I want, right?”
“With the approval of the board, and with the approval of your co-CEO,” Mrs. Sharma said, her voice dropping into tones of suspicion. She was too late.
Anju’s heart pounded. Sweat soaked into the layers of fabric at her back. Could they put her in jail for this? Not very likely … “I’m abdicating as CEO. With my co-CEO’s permission, of course, and the board’s. I’m appointing Mrs. Sharma as the new CEO. Try to keep me and I’m not signing anything ever. That’s the deal. Any objections?”
All the air seemed to leak out of the room. At her side, Prab let out a frankly hysterical laugh. She knew how he felt. She couldn’t stop smiling. Everyone was staring at her, mouths open, whether they were hundreds or thousands of miles away or present. One woman, Anju couldn’t help but notice, had actually clutched her pearls.
She didn’t think Prab would follow her, but he did, and they left the room full of shouting people without much notice; the board hadn’t been difficult to convince, and the swapping of Mrs. Sharma’s name for Anju’s had been signed off by the company lawyers in two minutes. They had the forms all ready to go, after all. Anju felt slightly delirious and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream. “What are you going to do now?” she said over her shoulder.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! I have no idea. What did we just do? What did you just do? Why did I go along with it?”
“Because you always do what you’re told.” She stopped, pulled him into a doorway, and put her hands on his shoulders. She squeezed hard, digging her newly-painted nails into the thick fabric. “Prab! For Christ’s sake. Look at me!”
“But, but we … we can’t just… ”
“You can go back if you want! What are you following me for? They’ll take you back. You won’t be CEO, but you’ll have a job, you’ll have a cushion for the rest of your life. Money. Whatever you want. You know that! And if they don’t, I don’t know. Tell them you were coerced.”
“Anju, you turned down this … gift, I mean, not even turned it down, threw it back in their faces…”
“No I didn’t,” she corrected him. “I passed it on. I re-gifted it. And a gift you don’t want is a waste anyway.”
“I guess so.” He took a deep breath and started to laugh, the first real laughter she thought she’d heard from him. “That was amazing. Her face. What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go find those escape pods again.”
“And then what?”
“And then I don’t know.”
“I’m your husband,” he said uncertainly. “I should go with you.”
“You can if you want,” she said. “Are you listening to me though? I said if you want. I’m okay being separated. What do you want out of life? I just answered it. You have to do the same.”
“What was your answer?” he said, stooping to pick up one of her earrings. “Here.”
“Thanks. Uncertainty. Poverty. Adventure,” she said. “I never had an adventure in my whole entire life. I never even met my friends at the mall after dark when I was a teenager. But now…”
“Anything goes. You can follow me if you want. Or you can go have your own adventures. No one’s going to tell you what to do anymore,” she said, looking up at the signage again. “Not even me. Here we go.”
The sirens blared; the strobes flashed. This time, no one responded, and the pods finished their initiation sequence, checked their power levels, ran through diagnostics … and shot free from the ship like dandelion seeds, bright specks against the darkness of the sky; unnoticed and unpursued.
Valentine’s Day is here, and my calendar is fully booked on February 14th. It’s not what you think. My calendar is fully booked with therapy clients who will most definitely be reflecting on their singlehood this year. And so will I. Most of them are just like me — single South Asian Americans, between the ages of 22-40 who come from moderately conservative cultures. The adult children of immigrants, who had arranged marriages, wondering when we will ever find “the one,” and why we won’t settle.
I’m a therapist in therapy, and I’ve had a lot of family trauma and baggage to unpack with my therapist. Through my training and personal therapy journey, I learned to question a lot of the things that I’ve been told about marriage and relationships.
At the same time, it’s not easy. No one wants to be lonely. Brené Brown talks about how detrimental loneliness can be for humans in “Braving the Wilderness.” We all want to belong to someone or something bigger. And there is a difference between being lonely, without intimate companionship, and being alone in our experiences. As we get older, everyone we know in our age group is on a different life trajectory, and we start to feel both alone and lonely.
We straddle the line between two cultures — the one that we were born and raised in, and the one our parents and family tried to teach us. Many of us might live double lives. But being single is not an anomaly. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, about 31% of adults in America are single. About 32% of American women, between ages 18-29, and 29% of women, 50-64, are single. This means that roughly about a third of American women are single, regardless of age or developmental stage.
Results vary by sexual identity and race. 56% of adults who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, between the ages of 18-29, are single, compared to 29% of their straight counterparts. Black adults are more likely to be single than White or Hispanic adults. However, no statistics included Asian Americans. Some studies show we are more likely to get married due to strong values placed on marriage in Asian cultures, and less likely to get divorced. There is also a huge stigma against divorce. For Asian American women, there is a cultural pressure to not only get married, but stay married.
For many South Asian Americans who are first or second-generation, we have no blueprint for the modern world of dating. A lot of us don’t know what a healthy dating experience, let alone a marriage, is supposed to look like if it is even at all possible. In the South Asian diaspora, marriage is taken very seriously, but counter-intuitively; we are not given the opportunity to spend time on making the decision — we are expected to decide very quickly. For most of us, who are children of immigrants, our parents more than likely had an arranged marriage — that was a decision made by our grandparents, aunts and uncles. And the wedding and engagement happened fairly quickly. That is our blueprint
There are many mixed messages about how to approach marriage and dating. Many of us were told to not start dating until after we graduate from college and get a full-time job, which left a lot of us with very little dating experience, and then, Poof! We’re magically just supposed to settle down. There are many desi people who stay single because they know they have issues to work on. A lot of us are aware of how messages about marriage and dating in our communities are sometimes not realistic, if at times rooted in colorism, internalized colonialism, patriarchal and misogynistic values,and racism.
Dating is uncertain because you can’t control whether or not someone wants to date you, let alone if someone wants a relationship with you. And sometimes that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with that person’s preferences or baggage. But is it possible you have some baggage too?
Staying single because of personal baggage is not uncommon for South Asian American millennials. Because of this, many of us believe that something must be “wrong” with us, especially when people ask why we’re still single and unmarried. While we should address underlying issues for why we’re still single, that doesn’t mean anything is necessarily “wrong” with us.
As a licensed therapist, I see many single South Asians Americans who believe that something must be wrong with them because they’ve never been in a relationship before, or because they’re not in a serious relationship yet. If you’re one of these people, I want you to consider:
Who taught you how to date?
Who taught you how to socialize with other genders?
When were you allowed to date?
How often were you allowed to socialize with other genders?
What is your model of a healthy marriage or relationship?
Who taught you free will and how to exercise choice?
How were affection and romance modeled for you?
When we unpack the answers to these questions, we start to realize that there are actually very good reasons for why we’re still single.
If there are that many South Asian Americans who are afraid of dating because they don’t want to repeat toxic relationship patterns, that means that many of us are…meant for each other. So why can’t we find each other?
Our parents had an easier time finding each other because they lived in a homogenous society. My parents came from a community where everyone was of the same or similar Malayalee-Indian background and the same religion. My parents hope that I can find someone from our culture, but they forget that we live in a heterogeneous society, where finding someone who is South Asian, let alone of our specific culture, background, community, and religion, is few and far between. There is pressure on many South Asian Americans to find someone within their specific communities. Not to mention that meeting someone through a mutual connection doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good fit for you. It makes it feel like our options are limited.
This creates a ‘scarcity mindset.’ Scarcity mindset is the belief that there aren’t enough resources or opportunities out there. When you feel there aren’t enough singles within your community that you can meet, it can cause you to become hyper-fixated on these limited ‘resources’ and even heighten anxiety. And to some extent, there is some truth to that fear — some of my clients are joining dating apps to meet South Asians out-of-state. As the people around you start to settle down, you might start to feel the pressure of settling down quickly to “catch up.” You may have tried to go on a bunch of dates or entertain the idea of certain people in your community, but they eventually fizzle out, fall flat, or end in rejection. You might start to feel discouraged. This kind of pressure can result in:
Avoiding dating in the culture or dating altogether to prevent being hurt or feeling rejected, or having to confront the social anxieties of meeting new people and being open and vulnerable.
Latching on to the idea of someone we meet, working too hard to impress them early on, and attempting to force chemistry to guarantee an outcome (marriage).
When you feel this kind of pressure, you might underestimate or overestimate how to interact with potential partners. This pressure might come from messages you’ve heard in your community that you’ve internalized. For instance, if you’ve heard someone say, “we don’t get divorced in our culture,” you might start to believe that divorce is the worst possible outcome. That might put pressure on you to find the “perfect” partner in order to prevent divorce, but the future of your marriage is not something that you can guarantee. Another example — if you hear your parents tell you to “just compromise,” you might start to believe that your expectations are not realistic; therefore, that’s why you’re not married or in a relationship yet. You might start to lower your expectations and get attached to any potential partner in the hopes that you can guarantee a relationship, but changing who you are does not necessarily mean you’ll attract what you want.
How we approach dating, especially when under this cultural pressure, can have an impact on how we bond emotionally with people. One theory based on psychological research, called Attachment Theory and Styles, describes patterns of how we create and maintain emotional bonds with others and where we fall on the attachment style spectrum or circle. Cultural pressure to settle down and marry someone from your specific culture or community can influence how we date and why, but it prevents us from being mindful and enjoying the process of dating. Your attachment style might be the result of your family dynamics, your parents’ style of emotional connection, and cultural messages you’ve been taught about what a relationship or marriage “should” be like. For example, if you’re under cultural pressure to get married quickly to appease your family, you might develop an anxious attachment style because it triggers thoughts and behaviors that fall under that category. If you question the cultural pressure, you might associate marriage with negative connotations. You might push away dating and marriage and act in the way of an avoidant attachment. Your attachment style is not genetic or something you are born with. It is a pattern of behavior that is about how you relate with others, especially in relationships. It can change over time and vary based on your anxiety or the person you’re seeing. If you want to learn more about attachment style, seeking a therapist is a good resource.
Regardless of what your attachment style is, it can prevent you from being patient, truly vulnerable, and having quality dates or quality relationships. It might keep you in unhealthy dating situations or relationships too long out of fear that you won’t find anyone else “in time.” You might be jumping to conclusions about what should happen next when you date someone. When you really like someone, you might be asking, “What if things go wrong?” But what if things go right?
Valentine’s Day has never been something special for me, and while it would be nice to be in a relationship, I’m not going to let the cultural pressure of what I’m “supposed” to do, as a South Asian American single woman, dictate my life. I have my reasons for being single, and it’s no one’s business but mine (and my therapist’s). If someone in my family or my culture doesn’t approve of my singlehood, then I sincerely hope they’re awake at night thinking about why I’m single. What they think of my life is none of my business. At the same time, I’m not going to shut myself off completely from dating and relationships. Dating will be on my terms. While rejection hurts, I have accepted that people will come and go and I wouldn’t want someone to feel forced or obligated to stay with me if they have emotionally left the relationship. Ultimately, I’m looking for someone who will fit the lifestyle I already have, but if I don’t find my life partner, I’m okay being with myself too.
You don’t have to follow your parents’ blueprint to marriage and relationships. You’re allowed to follow your own. If we adopt an abundance mindset, a mindset of knowing that there are enough resources for everyone and accepting what resources are available to us — along with practicing healthy relationship habits — we might develop better, more satisfying relationships. There are enough single South Asian Americans out there who would love to be with you. Stand firm in who you are and what you want, and be open to what comes your way.
Culture, in the broadest sense, is a shared set of norms, values and beliefs. We pass down our culture to our children based on our own lived experiences, and what we believe in. The decisions we make for our families reflect the values that we want to prioritize. We also hope that our children will want to pass them down to their own children.
As parents, it’s important to reflect on our cultural values: Where did they come from? Why do we believe in them today? Also, what values seem outdated or irrelevant in modern times and for our own children? By reflecting on these, parents will consciously be aware of the values that they believe are relevant, meaningful, and important to articulate to their children before they leave the nest and fly off into the world.
Our South Asian-American culture is constantly shifting and adapting to reflect changes of the modern times. Today, we are continuing to hold on to the celebrations that bring us the most joy and meaning in our lives. For example, I am attending a family wedding, this October, where the bride is Gujarati and the groom is Tamilian. They have decided to have a Sangeet which is traditionally a Punjabi custom, but they wanted to celebrate both cultures in this new way with their families because they both love music and dancing to Bollywood songs. They are also honoring their individual cultures during the ceremony by having a mangalsutra (the most important piece of the Tamilian ceremony) and the sindoor (the most important part of the Gujarati ceremony).
As we approach Rakhi this year, I think back to how I used to celebrate Bhai Phota, which is a Bengali version of Rakhi celebrated during Diwali. Today, I have chosen to celebrate Rakhi with my brother and with my Bengali-Gujrati family as a separate celebration, that takes place in August, because this way we can spend more quality time celebrating this sibling bond.
Post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha puts forth how when cultures mix together, we often open up a hybrid, third space, which forms new ways of being and living in the world. This idea of hybridity acknowledges the space in-between cultures which is filled with contradictions and indeterminate spaces. By negotiating between these differences, we are able to create new forms of culture and identity.
“hybridity… is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge.” – Homi Bhabha
Today, South Asian American children are forming new ways of connecting to their cultural identities. This summer, I launched my new children’s book, Shanti and The Knot of Protection: A Rakhi Story, to provide more context to children about the historical origins of Rakhi, while also capturing the new and unique ways Rakhi is being celebrated in contemporary times. In contemporary times, we don’t just celebrate with our immediate siblings, but also with our network of family and friends that we have created in our communities.
We celebrate individuals in our lives (boys or girls) who provide us with a sense of protection and security. This could mean siblings that are both girls, siblings that are both boys, only children, or children who identify as LGBTQIA+ and don’t identify with traditional gender norms. I wanted this story to highlight images of inclusivity and to represent and validate the experiences of all children who are celebrating this festival in the modern day and age. Through this story, children learn the importance of creating a community and feeling secure with not just their siblings but with their friends and other caring adults.
Shanti and the Knot of Protection also helps parents open up the conversation about what values they want their children to prioritize in our post-pandemic world and how to live a balanced life. In this story, Shanti’s parents die and she decides to rule her queendom based on the four values that her parents taught her: strength, curiosity, community, and security. In addition to highlighting the importance of relationships, this book also highlights the importance of balancing one’s life with the four domains of well-being: physical domain (strength), cognitive domain (curiosity), social domain (community), and emotional domain (security). These domains are all connected to one another and influence our overall well-being and happiness in life.
As parents, we want to be the North Star for our children and provide them with an inner compass to know what values are important and why. We also want them to know how to be resilient during difficult times. As Ann Landers states, “It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” Through this story, I hope parents can have important conversations with their children about prioritizing values that will contribute to their overall well-being, happiness, and resilience in their lives.