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Aditi Kay

Candies for a Birthday

Ahzan by Gaganendranath Tagore

The morning of my 13th birthday, I went to school as usual. At home, my mother got up early, prepared tea for my father, and got my younger siblings ready. It was just another rushed, ordinary day. I was sure my parents would remember my birthday only after they had looked at the morning paper. They would note the date and look at each other guiltily. I felt glad at this thought.

My friend Nina got me a whole bag of candies from the tiny school store. Candies, sweet, syrupy, and of different lip-changing colors. I shouldn’t have too many of these, I told Nina, remembering my mother’s warnings, the way her eyes always ran down my unshapely, unsightly figure. I looked frumpy in whatever I wore. Nina said I was healthy, not fat at all.

Nina often gave me a ride home from school. We rode in one of the cycle rickshaws her father owned, and I heard her chatter as we traveled almost a half-circle covering the entire town before we reached her home. Sometimes she dropped me off first.

These days on google maps I can trace the route the rickshaw took, those warm summer afternoons. Down the small rocky lane out of school, past the one-story cottages, the suddenly busy crossing with the ever-perspiring traffic policeman on his stand, then the road lined with shops selling fabrics, utensils, and toys. Nina stopped her chatter then, for she loved to look at the saris draped outside the shops, and those displayed on stands and wires, fluttering brightly like millions of rainbows. While I thought of home, and if my mother would be pacing the portico looking out for me, wondering why I had not come home in the car sent with a driver to bring us back.

I preferred the rides with Nina because I wanted to make my mother worry. But she was always preoccupied with my younger siblings. They were better behaved, my mother always said. What she never told me was that they were better than me in every way: my sister was prettier, my brother got better grades than I did.

I thought my mother might notice me if I disappeared entirely or changed into something not so unshapely. If I shrank, became smaller, quieter, less troublesome, she would look out for me. I think now that was when little by little, unobtrusively, quietly, and obsessively, I stopped eating.

Over weeks, months, all I did was think about food. I counted calories, assessed foods almost scientifically, pushed food around on my plate, and secretly read up all I could about diets; the newspapers then carried advice columns by prominent film stars and models on their regimen. I measured my waist every day with a tape, secretly again, in the bathroom. In weeks, months, as I lost weight, I lost interest in a lot of things. I dwindled and shrank. I wanted to look like all the lovely women I saw in magazines and on television who could wear anything they wanted. I waited, wanting my mother to tell me this.

These were years in which I lost touch with Nina. Years, when we moved places; she, to a different college and I moved cities too. Years when my mother changed as well, slowly, and suddenly. She wept when she lost her mother. Then the years when she began talking more to me, as my siblings moved away. She told me of her conservative, hidebound in-laws, the vicious envy of other women, the loneliness of new motherhood. It took years but now my mother appeared someone different: a vulnerable, troubled being, lost in the role thrust on her.

She had once faded away too. Maybe I was just a better listener.

One year, during a conversation, I thought my mother said: You were with Nina. I never had to worry about you.

Recently I was on Facebook and Nina came up, like an algorithmic vagary. Outside, the leaves were falling fast in the breeze. Red, yellow, and purple in color, almost like saris, smaller in shape, moving in the wind. It was September and I remembered something.

I messaged her, unsure and impulsive: Your birthday must be near.

It’s today, she answered, instantly. And yours is two months away.

She sent me an emoji: a candy-shaped one. The moment I clicked on it, it burst, throwing up stars, scattering the years away.

 

 

About the writer:
Aditi Kay studied at Vermont College of Fine Arts for an MFA in Writing. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Missouri Review, The Common, On The Seawall, Catamaran Literary Reader, The Maine Review, Litro Magazine, South Dakota Review, Blood Orange Review, and elsewhere. She writes regularly for a Bombay-based digital magazine called Scroll.in. A collection of short stories A Sense of Time and Other Stories was published by Weavers’ Press in San Francisco. Her new novel, The Kidnapping of Mark Twain : A Bombay Mystery (Speaking Tiger Books, India) is available now. Aditi Kay lives in New Jersey with her family.

Image: Ahzan by Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938). Tempera on paper. No size specified. By 1938. Public domain.

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