Bindu Bansinath was the winner of the 2017 Lauren Groff Fiction Prize for her piece, "Mere Rani"
Riya. I am so last-minute that it is not until three hours before your homecoming puja that I buy everything the priest is asking for: three mature coconuts, fleshy with white meat; two sixteen-count packages of sandalwood incense; one kilogram of clarified butter in a glass tub. We have a just-opened tub already at home, but I pay four dollars extra at the Patel Cash & Carry because the Brahmin priest refuses to handle used things, but also because this is how a mother loves you, enough to buy anything twice.
Your father is mumbling into his smartphone when I come home from the little Cash & Carry on Route 27. He cranes his neck over the half-wall to me in the kitchen and switches on the television to the local ABC news channel. Springtime, the anchor in a too-tight dress announces, allergy season.
“Need help?” Your father asks me as I unwrap grocery bags. Under the duress of mild sciatica, he winces up to standing, wearing the crimson Rutgers sweatpants you bought him when you were a freshman, and he was still disappointed over one-two-three Ivy rejections. How would you get into top medical schools? That was his leaden insistence. I wanted to be disappointed, too, but I have never studied beyond precollege in Chikmagalur, and so it was pride that unfolded inside me. A pride I framed as disapproval, though to you my disapproval is no heavier than a feather. Whenever you returned to school for the semester, I would scold you for not making your home-bed, and you and your father would laugh at my triviality. The laughter was pillow fluff exploding in midair. Mere rani, he praised you, failures like the Ivy schools momentarily forgotten, my princess.
“Did you hear me, Kareena? Do you need help?”
He watches me trash the plastic bags. The anchor in the too-tight dress fills the background with reports of cow tipping in North Jersey.
“Turn the news off.”
Your father clicks his tongue two times and squats back down into the sofa. He turns the volume up higher, slumps his back into an arch. Your father is tall like you, built from unnecessary inches, from limbs skinnied to cylinders of hairy dough. Sometimes over tea and digestives, Usha from next door interrogates me of his thinness: am I feeding him regularly? I tell her that he is an old-old man, that old-old men are their own to feed, and she goes quiet in those moments, preoccupying herself by brushing stray hairs from her forehead, smudging her vermillion from a circle to a streak.
Usha from next door is one of the modest number of guests we are expecting for tonight’s service. The Gohels from up in Sayreville have all RSVPed, as have Sarah’s parents, Mr. & Mrs. Hartel. The Shettys are away on vacation in Bangalore. In truth, I am fine with everyone but Usha, who used to slip you Mango Mood candies and those times you were a child left in her care. The tiffin boxes of vegetables I steamed she meticulously tossed aside, returning you to me with macaroni cheese amassed in the collar of your frock. Thoughtless woman. All your life I have trained you how not to become fat.
These red granite floors are ice against the parts of my feet not yet covered by callous. I warm one foot with the certain warmth of the other as I walk to the prayer cabinet, open its circular knobs and arrange my new purchases in a crooked row. All the tiny silver deities are temporarily shoved aside. For tonight, the pride-of-place is no longer a feminine Shiva in nataraja, but a portrait of you from the chest-up. It is a selfie that we have blown up at CVS, of you and I before you boarded that spring break flight to Florida. An unflattering photo, your father complains, and yet it is the most recent one I have. The photo technician cropped my face out. Still a chunk of my shoulder remains, nearly hidden by your red-highlighted hair. Like all your other ugly choices, I had told you: those highlights are an ugly choice.
The collar of your sheer teal oxford top is just showing. It is one of many the authorities found in the dumpster along a Panama City beach, along with your wallet and cellphone. The phone is returned to me waterlogged. Otherwise I had your passcode. I might have unlocked it and seen inside: who were the boys you were talking to? Those who look for you hypothesize all the things you might have been doing, and they are all dirty things. Driven off with local men to do that loose-woman thing you do with a loose-woman’s ease. Walked into the ocean naked, flush under the influence of LSD.
After everything I have taught you, this is the disgrace of how you go. At night the thought of your scandal asphyxiates me. It weighs nothing on you, I am certain. Shameless girl. Do you not remember the time in the seventh standard that you made me watch The Notebook with you, and I screamed fast-forward! all through the sex scenes? You whined. I struck the back of your neck with a rolling pin.
Did you ever understand the things I couldn’t tell you?
One hour before the guests arrive, after everything is arranged for the priest’s rituals, your father and I head to the master bedroom to get ready. We undress together in front of the headboard mirror. After you disappeared, your father would often wear the Rutgers sweatpants with a shirt and tie and head off to work at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Colleagues pitied him for the mismatch. Sometimes I would not put on pants at all. For me, it was of no consequence. I am not ashamed to say I had nowhere to go. Never mind me. The mirror ensures we do not make mistakes like these tonight.
It takes me seven wraps to secure my saree around my waist. How proud you would be—so many times you forced me into your stinking Zumba class, where they promised that inch by inch, the fat on my abdomen would melt away.
I stuff the front of the saree into place. All of my abdomen is this flatness. Every other day since your disappearance, I have fasted in sacrifice for your return. It is a good thing about a grieving body, how accurately it measures loss. We are, so far, seventeen kilograms divided.
I watch your father tuck a thick paunch of belly into a muslin shirt and khakis. The Rutgers sweatpants crumble onto the floor as I struggle to clamp the hooks on my blouse.
“Could you fasten this, please?”
Your father adjusts his cuffs before turning me around and fumbling with the hooks.
“You don’t fit this, Kareena,” he says, in the observing tone of the physician. He tosses the sweatpants onto the bed and walks to the door, tapping its panels before closing it behind him “Wear something else. That’s gotten loose.”
With the mirror as a reference, I clothespin the panels of the blouse shut on my own. I lean in closer to rim my eyes with kajol, so that when our guests arrive I will not look like a woman in need of assistance, or like a woman wearing a clothespin.
The doorbell chimes. I take one last look at myself before going downstairs. Although you would never admit it, you and I wear our kajol the same way. In your makeup hand was the well-observed memorization of my makeup hand, though you began makeup too early, and I had to advise you whenever it became too much. Too slutty. On your first day of high school you drew the lines thicker than your thumbs, flared them out like a cat. I held your face against the kitchen wall and rubbed your eyelids bare with a wet handkerchief. Bad boys will give you evil eyes, I shouted, turning to your father for an affirmation. He rubbed the oil from his face with one hand.
“You never let me do anything!” You screamed at me, clenching the panels of your tartan skirt, stomping a black-buckled foot. “Because-- because you’re jealous. You don’t want me to have a life. You don’t have one of your own.”
I pinched both your ears and bent you down in front of the prayer cabinet. Demanded you ask Ganesh for forgiveness; caring more about your karma than my own ego.
You rolled your eyes at his silver elephant belly, spat sorry in English.
That tantrum made you late to school, so I drove you in the Civic, listened to your buckled foot kicking dust into the dashboard.
When you grew bored of your anger, as you always did, you turned to ask me, swelling around your eyes where the slutty had been: “Why don’t you and dad kiss like Sarah’s parents do? Why don’t you sleep in the same room? Or say I love you?”
“You wouldn’t be like this if you could do any of those things,” you went on, smoothing your starched white Oxford. You were the beginning of someone brassy, and in truth I did not dislike it. “Those normal things.”
Downstairs, your father hastens for me to meet the priest he has let inside, our first arrival of the evening.
“Namaaste,” I touch his feet and rise up again, past the white toga around his legs and the spherical stomach, to the face with a line of mustache, streaks of white talcum lining the forehead like children’s hopscotch.
“Namaaste,” he declares. “You’re the mother. Tike, tike. Okay.”
I bring him into the kitchen, where he pulls a marigold garland out of his fanny pack and drapes it around your portrait. He butters the wicks of twelve swooping diyas with clarified butter and lights a match. After all candles catch fire, he arranges them one-by-one into a glowing oval. Only along its outline does the chill of the granite floor subside.
I hear the doorbell ring over and over, first with Usha in her lime-green saree and your father escorting her in, next the Gohels in modest salwar kameezes, and finally the Hartels in pastel-church wear.
Upon seeing me, Mrs. Hartel squeezes my hand in both of hers, her silver wedding band digging into me, my bangles into her.
“We’re so sorry, Kareena.”
Behind her, Mr. Hartel squeezes his wife’s shoulder, so that we are in a chain of touching.
The service begins in Sanskrit, a language you were never interested in learning. Everyone- even the Hartels, who follow along respectfully- sits cross-legged, their heads dipped into swoops of reverence. Once I am sure all eyes are closed, I open mine. I watch the room of people praying for you. Have you heard that the Gohels’ oldest son is engaged? Or that the younger, little Arvind Gohel- have you heard that he’s gotten into Harvard law, meek mother’s boy that he is? Sarah Hartel is not in attendance, I learn, because she’s doing a Fulbright in the Dominican Republic, working in prenatal health. She is to be something big.
Who are you these days? This is what it says in every newspaper squarespace we buy: Riya Chopra, aged 22, weight 124 lbs, 5’8, HAIR black EYES brwn. Last seen at Panama City Everstay Resort. Was wearing sheer teal oxford, neon bikini, conservative slacks. The words are accompanied by a black-and-white image of you, which is for the better. While pregnant with you I drank saffron-infused milk to ensure your fairness, but you are nothing like the blonde American girls on the big magazines. We cannot expect to make noise like that.
Mid-service, the priest takes me by the wrist, slips my hand under your father’s hand. As parents, he instructs, it is time we must say a prayer together.
“It’s essential,” the priest nods. “Now. First say her name.”
“Mere rani,” your father declares. But I say Riya, because that is who you really are, not a rani at all, and that is the first thing he misunderstands about raising daughters. You do not let your daughter backtalk her mother, especially when her mother is wrong. You do not let your daughter leave her bed unmade; she will learn to sleep inside creased sheets. You do not let her take meals off the couch, or sit quiet when she paints a loose woman’s face over her the one you gave her. You do not send your daughter to Panama City for college break when she is supposed to be getting her degree. You call your daughter by her name, not princess, because that will lead her to believe herself bigger than she is, and tell me, how will she reconcile this belief when other people look at her and see not a princess, but a blurring inkblot on a newspaper page? You must set her up for disappointments heavy as those.
In truth, I do not want to touch your father’s hand, have not touched him in the two years you are gone, but I listen to the priest anyways. When you become a mother you too will understand. After the feeling of failure is a feeling of do-anything.
Together we pour the water of a cracked coconut over the heads of little silver deities. Up close, you can see their faces are vanished from years of Sunday scrubbing.
Beside us, Usha shifts the chiffon of her lime saree and clicks her tongue. She leans over and whispers to Mrs. Hartel, “This is karmic, it must be.”
I look to Mrs. Hartel, who is mouthing a confused oh, whose husband puts one arm around her lavender shoulders and steers them away from Usha. I would never tell you this in person, Riya, but those normal things- the love you wanted love to look like- there are moments I believe you weren’t wrong.
I think of what I did in some past life, as in when I washed your whole small body in the sink, scrubbing circles along your soft-skinned arms, teaching you how to clean, how to hide your privates. We sang a song that was foreign to you, age-old to me. Shame, shame, puppyshame, all the boys know your name. I threw your dirty clothes into the bin and clothed you again, and your father slung you upon his shoulders, more square then than they are today.
And in another past life, those Sundays when you used to help me scrub soot from the silver Shiva, and how with your toes tip-toeing on my toes, you would take his body into your own hands, soaping him until he was submerged in bubbles. A laughter sounding like a better version of my own. There has been love that looked like that.
And yet, mere rani. Shameless girl. LSD. Boys pulling you apart like bread: Wherever you are, do you believe in tiny faceless gods?
Because these days, I do not. That is how a mother loves you, enough to disbelieve it all.