The maps identified it as Gulbai Tekra. The rickshaw drivers called it ‘Hollywood,’ while their passengers recognized it as yet another slum. The summer Naina turned five, the summer her father painted his last Ganesh statue, she had no name for her street other than home. She sat in the dust, newspapers spread out as she painted next to her father, crossing her legs to emulate his. She laughed as he colored the seated idol’s flowing pants, the seemingly malleable pleats hardened by a plaster mold.
He poked her with the clean end of his paintbrush. “What’s so funny?”
“Ganesh isn’t purple!” she said, pointing to the curling elephant trunk.
“What are you talking about? He’s the same color as yours.” He gestured to the small idol Naina’s mother had given her to practice painting.
She evaluated hers. “No, mine’s light blue. Maybe a little grey. Like Krishna’s skin.” Her small finger poked the wet paint. The island of her fingerprint whorled onto the protruding stomach: a wet belly button. “That’s purple,” she accused. As her father appraised both of their idols in silence, she continued her critique: “And his ears are orange.”
Her father’s brows joined together, the valleys on his forehead deepening. “They’re pink.”
“No, Papa, they’re orange. Sameer’s are pink.”
Naina let out a sigh of exaggerated patience. “My Ganesh, Papa.”
“Ganesh is named Sameer?” Not expecting an answer, he squinted and brought his nose closer to his own figurine. “What color are his pants?”
“Green, but that’s fine. Mummy paints lots with green pants. The pants can be any color.”
“They’re not blue?”
“Blue?” Delighted by his silliness, she laughed. “How can they be blue? They’re green.”
While her father went inside to find her mother, she continued painting her Ganesh’s four arms. With an unsteady hand, she colored twenty fingernails and ten toes and pretended they were a friend’s. As she worked, the sun dried her father’s statue, cementing her fingerprint into the purple skin. Her parents came outside to look at the statue. They spoke in low voices above her. When she turned to look up at them, her father’s head eclipsed the sun, throwing his face into darkness. For a moment, she couldn’t make out any of his familiar features and she saw only a blank, black disc. Then her father shifted and light exploded behind him. Dazzled, Naina blinked until the burning spray of light behind her eyes dissipated. That was the summer they realized her father had become colorblind.
As August melted into September, their stock of idols sold. Their untitled streets grew crowded under the stubborn sun, the statues they painted one day sold quickly the next. They depended on the foot traffic to sell god in as many forms as they could create.
Each of her parents’ creations disappeared into shopping bags or behind car doors. People strapped the larger statues to rickshaws and pedaled them away. One evening Naina watched them take away the idol she’d named Anil, after her favorite film hero. Anil wasn’t cross-legged on a cushion, like nearly all of the other statues, but seated on a golden throne that gleamed around him like a halo. It had taken her father weeks to make him; he was expensive and loomed large. Each night, when they dragged the unsold idols inside, Naina sat on Anil’s lap until her parents announced bedtime. She’d recline across his painted thighs, hard but still warm from hours in the sun, and pretend to swoon like a heroine in a song number.
Now Anil’s unblinking eyes grew smaller as he slid into the evening light away from her; one of his four palms offered out in a frozen goodbye. When he was gone, Naina examined the diminishing supply of idols left. The annual celebration of Ganesh’s birthday would begin in a few days and Shreya, Ravi, Aryan, Sanjana and the rest would all be gone.
Naina found her father with the ill-colored Ganesh and the bucket they used for bathing. When she saw him about to immerse the idol in the water, she stopped him.
“No one’s going to buy this one,” he said. “We can repaint it tomorrow.” He cleared his throat and looked away. “You can repaint it tomorrow.”
“Can’t we just keep him?” she asked, reaching up for the statue.
The idol had no eyes or brows; they had left him unfinished. She asked her mother to paint his features. Her mother obliged, creating sloping eyes on either side of his trunk with the same fluid grace she used to kohl her eyelids each morning. Naina watched her mother’s head angle first to the left, then to right as she painted. The sunlight caught her nose ring, and the heavy crescent glinted gold as she moved. After the idol gained patient eyes and thin, knowing brows, Naina named him Arjun, the first ever Purple-Skinned Elephant God. Unsold and unsightly, it sat near their clay stove and eating utensils year after year.
Arjun was one of the last named statues. Her father’s flawed eyes created the need for another set of hands, and her small, clumsy ones had to suffice. The following summer, Naina painted the idols her parents molded as fast as she could, which left less time to christen them. She learned which colors sold faster: the metallics, the neons and the classics. The bright colors, she realized, distracted the eyes of visitors from the rubbish and dregs of human waste that coated their streets. They were a matte corner in a city that glittered and to be noticed, they shone brighter.
Her mother reviewed Naina’s work, fixing her mistakes before finalizing the idols by adding facial features and intricate gold jewelry. The summer Naina turned seven, she learned to paint the detail work of the necklaces and crown on her own. With the additional responsibility, she only had time to name her favorite statues: various Ganeshes sitting in lotus blossom thrones, the plaster petals vivid and pink.
At ten, Naina’s mother approved of her Ganesh eyes. Heavy-lidded and almond, some looked nearly feminine with lines curling from the outer corners like kohl. In her eleventh year, the idols went unnamed; their volume exceeded her energy. She was thirteen when her father taught her how to mix the plaster of Paris for the rubber molds.
As she grew, her parents slept in a room they created, partitioned by mismatched curtains. She slept in the common space on a lightweight cot that she edged as far away from the curtain as she could. The thin sheet between their mats and hers provided no barrier; privacy was an undreamt luxury. Some nights, when sleep did not come easily, she’d hear the rustle of clothes and turn away from the curtain, humming both parts of popular duets until she fell asleep.
At fifteen, when Naina overheard her parents discussing the new baby, she immediately reviewed her shortlist of favorite names. That night she held Arjun in front of her, his purple skin fading against time and touch. She hoped for a boy and decided to suggest the name Arjun to her parents. When her brother was older, she would tell him about their father’s eyes, how his world was limited to hues of red and black and grey, how he could only see one shade of blue: turquoise, how the only time he saw this blue was when he looked at what they called green. She would tell her brother that she had been waiting for him ever since she’d named their purple Arjun. And though he was not the first Arjun, he was her favorite.
The next night, Naina heard her parents again as they prepared for bed. They must have thought her asleep as they spoke.
Her mother cried, the wet sniffles louder than her words.
“You can go tomorrow morning,” her father whispered.
“But what about the shop? We’ll be busy.”
“Naina and I can manage. We have to go before it’s too late.”
Her mother was quiet except for a few uneven breaths, the sound jagged. Then: “Is it…wrong?”
“No,” her father soothed. “Don’t think like that. It can’t be. Not when we’re this old. Not when we can’t afford it. We don’t have the money or the space.”
“It’s not fair,” her mother said. “Ten years ago we would have been happy. We would have made it work.” She cried softly. “Right?”
“Right,” her father said. “We would have made it work.”
Naina trapped her breath in her chest, afraid its sound would impede her hearing. As her parents slept, she tried to keep her breathing even, to concentrate on unknotting the clump of grief that had gathered behind her sternum.
The next morning, Naina lined the tarp with their idols. As always, she set the tallest statues in the back to loom over their increasingly smaller counterparts. Her mother announced loudly that she’d return after a few errands, but Naina did not look up from creating neat rows of figurines until her mother left. Small puffs of dust burst beneath her mother’s sandals as she walked away.
Naina sat cross-legged before her father’s last Ganesh of the season and painted its single tusk white. The bells of her thin anklets bit into her skin and she adjusted herself. The festival would begin the day after tomorrow; this day, she knew, was the last profitable one of the summer.
The neighbors across the street were scrambling to finish one of their tallest statues. They worked beyond the protection of the overhead tarp so that the idol would dry faster. Dhruvin, a boy her age, stood on the Ganesh’s knees in order to paint the crown. Dhruvin’s back was to her, covering the idol’s face and trunk, but she could see the four arms reaching out and away as though protruding from Dhruvin’s slender body. From across the street, she saw his bare feet, dark underneath a film of plaster powder, resting on top of Ganesh’s blue thighs. His feet reminded her of her father’s: solid, narrow and chapped.
She watched Dhruvin for a moment, following the angle of his upper body and head as he reviewed his work. When he hopped down, brush in hand, he saw her and waved. She smiled back. Her parents teased her about Dhruvin now and then. The jokes were a way of laying groundwork, of testing the waters. Next summer she’d be sixteen, and Dhruvin’s family was likely to propose marriage to hers.
Two women then approached, identical cloth bags strapped over their shoulders. They discussed the various sizes and prices with her father.
“Do you have any with a yellow scarf and a green dhoti?” She turned to her friend. “My son will scream if I come home with a pink one.”
Naina’s father offered another idol. The woman squinted while her friend laughed. “No,” she said loudly, slowing down her words. “I said yellow scarf.”
“Naina,” her father called. She stood up and walked to the tarp. She scanned the remaining idols.
“No,” she said. “The ones with green pants only have purple scarves.”
The friend touched the woman’s shoulder. “Let’s keep looking.”
Naina said, “If you buy both, the third is half price.”
The women bought the statues and chose a third. When they left, their cloth bags jutted out at odd angles, the Ganeshes tumbled inside.
“Well, that was smart,” her father said, reaching out to clip her chin. She dodged the touch and looked away. Her only clue that he’d sensed her withdrawal was his long pause before asking, “Watch the front, will you?”
He gave her a stack of bills. Plaster residue coated his hands, deep rivers of white embedded in his lifelines and caking under his nails. Despite countless rinses, his skin wouldn’t be free of the plaster of Paris until sometime in October. Her own hands were stained with cracking paint and she could see the similarities: sturdy and short, with square nail beds and wide joints. All her life she’d wanted her mother’s hands, slim and tapered with perfect oval nails. Now, more than ever, this tie to her father annoyed her.
She wondered where her mother was right then. Naina tried to imagine her on a doctor’s table, her insides scooped out. Was ridding the body of a child painful? The question lingered on her mind, and she realized she didn’t know if she meant it on behalf of her mother or her brother.
She tried to focus on the pedestrians walking by. None seemed interested, even after she called out the new discounted deal. She looked at the statues littering the entire street. One Ganesh stood covered entirely in silver sequins. They winked at her and she stared until the whole idol seemed to blaze. Naina looked away, the tiny suns burning white on the back of her eyelids.
The children who lived three shacks to the left were playing outside. Every year they seemed to gain an additional sibling. She counted five children: three boys and two girls. The two youngest were completely naked, their bellies round and swollen, their navels tight seeds. Their skin was one uniform color, as though they’d been dipped in paint and left to dry. Naina thought of the tan lines crossing along her mother’s back, the pale islands of skin under her sari blouse and below the line of her petticoat.
The older girl wore only a long shirt. Hours under the sun had bronzed the ends of her wild hair. She seemed in charge of the scene, her fist shaking high above their heads in mock rage. She fell to her knees at the supine form of her brother, whose attempt to play possum was hampered by his giggles.
His sister stopped mourning long enough to slap his shoulder. “You’re supposed to be dead!” she complained.
“Okay, okay,” he said and closed his eyes. Dust colored his calves lighter than the rest of his skin.
“Here,” his sister said. She yanked up her brother’s collar to cover his face. He disappeared like a turtle. “You’re not supposed to have a head anymore.”
When they called their sister Parvati, Naina recognized the tableau as the legend of Ganesh’s creation. They were at the end of the story, with Ganesh the child beheaded.
Parvati thundered her loud grief to those who stood before the decapitation. She blamed her husband, Shiva, and threatened to destroy the rest of the world over the death of her loyal son. The rest of the siblings tried to appease her and she shrugged them off, her nose and chin angled up in a misery that was somehow noble.
“I will bring him back to life,” the boy playing Shiva promised. He turned to the siblings playing no named parts. “Go,” he ordered with an imperious finger. “Bring me back the first head you find facing North.”
His siblings stood still. The small girl gnawed on her fingernail and swayed side to side, her naked body a russet streamer. Parvati stopped looking at the sky in abject anguish long enough to hiss at them: “Go get the elephant!”
They leapt into action and ran behind the hut. They returned with a discarded elephant head. It was unpainted, the trunk broken off and jagged. Someone had drawn eyes on it, the right significantly higher than its twin.
Shiva took the elephant head and put it over the squirming, allegedly dead Ganesh. Waving his arms about, Shiva brought Ganesh back to life as the elephant god. The child on the ground stood, his hands holding the cast up to his face. Thin wisps dangled from the hollow head, like the dry hairs of a coconut. As they all danced, a triumphant Parvati declared, “He will be the leader of all gods!”
When her father returned from the public restrooms, Naina continued to watch the children. “It must be nice.”
“What?” he scoffed. “To be naked?”
Irritation filled her. She exhaled loudly. “To have siblings always around. To play with.”
She felt her father’s eyes on her. Still unwilling to look at him, she recounted the bills in her hand.
“Do you wish you could have had siblings?”
“Of course. It’d be fun.” Then, afraid she’d gone too far too quickly, she hurried on: “But it’d also be good because, you know, extra hands. We’d get so much more work done.” She stopped, compressing her lips; her tenses were all wrong. She was making an argument instead of speaking hypothetically.
If her father noticed, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he put his hand high on her shoulder, near the bare curve of her neck. This time she did not move out from under his touch; his calluses felt dry, but not harsh. “And you wouldn’t have had to do it all yourself.”
She blinked. “What? No. That’s not what I meant.”
His mouth pulled down at the corners, and his sadness pained her. This close, she could see the skin around his eyes pleated like the folds of a sari. She realized her father was not as young as he’d been the summer he’d made her purple Arjun. On instinct, her fingers twitched to smooth his skin down, like he’d taught her to do with the clay idols.
“Papa,” she said. Pinpricks stabbed her nose, the way they had last night when she’d heard her parents talk behind their side of the curtain.
His hand dropped away. “I know it’s been unfair. Having you paint because I couldn’t.” He stared straight ahead while she looked at him. While most of his stubble was still black, a lone patch of white grew on his soft jawline, to the left of his chin. “My Naina,” he said, his voice so quiet that Naina did not think he was talking to her, despite the use of her name.
“It’s not unfair,” she said. She wanted to tell him that the solitude was unfair, not their statues.
He continued speaking. “And then you always got so damn attached to the things. Naming all of them. You worked hard to make them good and then cried when they were good enough to be bought.” He sighed. “That’s why we let you pick the one we used for the festival each year: so you’d have at least one that was yours.”
Uncomfortable, she said, “It’s okay.”
“Your mother and I tried, you know,” her father said, his words awkward. “To give you a brother or sister. It didn’t happen. And then…”
Naina held her breath, afraid movement would tip the scales of his honesty. “And then?”
Her father’s eyes grew moist. “Nothing,” he finally said. He cleared his throat. “I think we have customers.”
Neither of them resurrected the issue. An hour before sunset, her mother came home. They ate dinner in silence. Rather than invent conversation, Naina watched her parents, looking for signs of anything. But her mother barely ate and her father pretended not to notice. As soon as Naina finished rinsing the dishes, she pulled out her cot, feigning exhaustion. Her parents left the communal space, disappearing behind the curtain. Naina kept still and, a few minutes later, she heard the whisper of the curtain shifting.
Her father said, “She’s asleep. How are you?”
“The line was too long, they couldn’t see me today.”
Naina heard a sigh, but she couldn’t be sure from whom.
“Tomorrow then,” her father said. “And you should take food with you.”
“Maybe it’s a sign,” her mother said. From her bed, Naina agreed.
This time Naina was sure the sigh belonged to her father. She could imagine him like he’d been earlier that day, regret folding his brow and wearying his eyes. Then he said, “It’s not a sign.”
The next morning, her mother left earlier, carrying a metal tiffin in a worn bag.
“Where’d Mummy go?” Naina asked as they set up.
“Krupaben is sick.” Her father coughed. “She went to visit her.”
Naina worked outside while her father tried to attract passersby. Behind her she could hear his voice warn people that this was the last day, their last day to buy before the festivities began.
It had rained last night, temporarily cleansing the muggy air. Dhruvin’s family had failed to cover the tall statue. Beaten naked of almost all color, it sat on its throne, the script \ dripping red from one palm. Garish blue tears, originally from its turban, streaked down its pallid cheeks in frozen mourning.
Naina finished her father’s last idol, her favorite of the summer. This Ganesh sat among the branches of a small brown tree, daisies surrounding his body. The bare-chested Ganesh was a creamy flesh tone she’d mixed herself. It reminded her of newborn skin, unscathed by sun or dirt or paint stains. Though the idol had the typical gold ornaments adorning his neck, arms and trunk, the turban was the true jewel. She’d painted each fold wrapping around his head a different color, all the way to the jaunty fan perched atop.
Proud, she asked her father, “What do you think?”
He squinted at it and gave her as enthusiastic of a compliment as he could muster given that, for him, half the colors were mutations of themselves, some watered down, others poisoned. Naina felt foolish for even asking. She promised herself, as she sometimes did, that she would get married in red, a color they could both see the same way.
“Is that the one you’re picking for this year?” he asked.
Naina looked at the statue. It was too lavish to waste on them and they both knew it. Her father had spent days on it, and it had come from his mind rather than a mold. It was a clay model, one that was eco-friendly and therefore more expensive than it plaster counterparts. In the coming summers, the government would likely ban plaster models due to pollution issues. Naina was not sure how they would survive then. Not only was the clay itself expensive, but clay idols took longer to make, were harder on the body. Her father’s hands still throbbed from making the idol she’d just finished painting.
“No,” she said. “We should sell it.” She set her brush down. “The P-Oh-P ones look better anyway.” Naina faced the dirt road, willing her mother to reappear. If she returned before the idol sold, she’d marvel at the work and tell Naina it was stunning, her best yet. Then again, if her mother returned this early, it would mean the clinic had taken her in, and it was done.
The children were out again today, reprising their roles. The boy playing Ganesh had not yet died, he was still upright and alive with a stick in his hand as he argued with Parvati’s husband.
“No one is allowed in,” Ganesh said to the rest of his siblings.
“Who are you? Let me through, boy,” the tallest boy said, leading the pack. “This is my house.” A long strip of dark rubber was coiled around his neck three times over, and Naina recognized it as Shiva’s would-be snake.
“My mother said no one is allowed in while she’s bathing.” Ganesh thumped his stick into the dust for emphasis.
Shiva ordered his guards to attack. The guards consisted of the two smaller children who’d fetched the elephant head yesterday and the former Parvati, who, as her character was not in this particular scene, apparently doubled as an extra. Ganesh wielded his scepter stick and destroyed all three of them. They each died in dramatic fashion, limbs akimbo as they tumbled and moaned. Tongues lolled and bodies twitched as they entered the final stages of death.
It was Shiva’s turn to attack the boy. His trident branch decapitated his wife’s son in one blow. The child playing Ganesh fell to the ground, pulling his shirt over his head for consistency.
The dead guard reentered the scene, this time as the mournful and enraged mother Parvati.
“Naina,” her father called. She turned away from the production. “Someone just bought your Ganesh over there.” He sounded proud of her.
Disappointment nestled low in her stomach. She looked past the statue, past the children and further down the road. There was still no sign of her mother. Naina reminded herself that this was good news.
“It’s not dry yet,” she said, walking toward the mustached man and his two daughters. The girls wore identical school uniforms; their hair was braided and tied with giant red ribbons. They faced each other, palms stacked together until one girl flipped her hands to slap her sister’s. Naina spoke over their laughter. “Do you think you can come back in a few hours?”
The man hesitated, but his daughters were committed to the pink daisies. As they yanked on his slacks, they pulled the reluctant words out of him: “We’ll come back. Don’t sell it to anyone else.”
“Thank you,” her father said to the man.
The man returned, alone, before her mother did. A dendrite of cars clogged their road every evening at seven. His pulled to the side, his wheels crunching near the edge of their tarp. As her father and the mustached man carefully tucked the Ganesh and his tree into the backseat, Naina felt a stab of anger at her father for letting him go, as always, so easily.
She watched as children from all the nearby huts ran toward the gridlocked traffic. They tapped on car windows until traffic lurched forward. Then they retreated and resurged when a new batch of vehicles arrived. Every so often, one car’s window would lower, coins would disappear into a lucky child’s palm. Good news traveled fast, and all the children would gravitate toward the car carrying a soft heart, their small, strong knuckles beating rhythmlessly against every available glass surface.
She recognized Parvati in the crowd, her nude brother high on her hip as she waited atop the relative safety of the street divider for the cars to tarry once again. When they inevitably did, she pressed her free hand to the closest car window. Every few seconds, she’d hike her crying brother higher against her side as though to remind the passengers of his existence.
Without Ganesh’s stick scepter and Shiva’s branch trident and rubber snake, Naina saw the girl, no longer as Parvati, but as her father did. All need, naked and imploring. Traffic moved once again, dispersing the children until the next lull.
Her father gave the man his change. They couldn’t read the bills, but Naina and her mother knew the worth by the colors. Her father knew by the varying sizes.
The man weaved his car back into traffic, honking his horn in rapid bleats the entire way. Naina and her father watched their Ganesh, stuffed sideways into the car, move away from them.
“I think that was your best yet,” he said.
Naina shook her head. “Not mine. Yours.”
That night, she purposely set her cot closer to the curtain. With her eyes closed and her breathing even and heavy with intent, she waited.
“How are you?” her father asked again.
“I waited all day. They were too busy. They said because the clinic is free during the festival, everyone comes.”
Neither of them said anything for a moment. Naina wondered if they hadn’t, oddly, just fallen asleep.
Then her father spoke: “Tomorrow I’ll go with you.”
“What will we tell Naina?”
Her mother asked, her voice small and hesitant. “Do you not trust me?”
He waited too long to answer. “I just don’t want you to be alone.”
Naina woke before her parents. It was early and the line for the public toilets was not yet winding down the road. She angled her cot against the wall and heated water on their burner for her bath. By the time her parents bathed and dressed, she had set up a small shrine for the Ganesh she had selected. She arranged the flowers, candles and unlit incense around the idol the way she thought her mother had last summer.
If she made any errors in the display, her parents did not notice. She lit the lamp and they prayed. Because they were praying for entirely opposite things; she concentrated on making her prayers louder, more urgent. There were two of them and one of her. When her parents left, Naina asked no questions.
She walked to the temple alone. She stayed for the entire ceremony, leaving only when the priest finished the hundred and eight names for Lord Ganesh. Their street was empty of customers, and unsold idols littered the dusty paths like discarded toys.
Up ahead she could see the children, freshly released from prayers and running around in frenzied circles as though they’d been bound and immobile for days. As they shrieked their excitement, Naina set up the tarp and the leftover idols for any potential latecomers. With nothing to do, she began flaking off the dried paint around her cuticles.
Dhruvin’s blue-teared Ganesh had not moved. She wondered what his family would do with it. It was too large to store for next year, but it would be bad form to destroy it, at least during the festival. Perhaps after ten days they would break off the pieces and add it to the various garbage piles around the street.
Naina heard the children arguing. She turned to look.
“We’re playing,” the eldest girl said. “Because I said so.”
“Not again,” her brother, the one consistently burdened to play Ganesh, complained. Some of the other children chimed in.
“Yes again,” she said. “Come on, get the sticks.”
Some of them groaned. The put-upon Ganesh refused to play the part again, insisting that he get a chance to be Shiva. Parvati agreed and designated another sibling in the role of Ganesh. When everyone was clear on their parts and props, Parvati hummed to herself casually as she mock-bathed, running her hands up and down her arms.
Shiva entered and Parvati let out an exaggerated cry of outrage and shock. “What are you doing here? I told the guards that no one can enter while I’m bathing.”
“How could they have stopped me? This is my house.” Shiva walked away with his trident and rubber snake necklace. Naina thought with his diminished height and voice, he really was better cast as Ganesh.
Parvati began musing aloud, purportedly to herself while the rest of her siblings amused each other with different distractions. As Parvati’s monologue rambled on, Naina realized why the girl insisted on playacting this story so often: though she disappeared when Shiva and Ganesh fought, she hoarded all the attention in the beginning. Finally, she came to a conclusion: “As long as Shiva’s guards only do what he says, I’ll never have anyone loyal to just me. I should create a child.”
Instead of the legendary sandalwood paste the real Parvati created her son from, this Parvati of Hollywood gathered pieces of discarded plaster from the months of work prior. After a small pile of rejected hands and torn ears that looked like fans had been created, her brother crouched behind it.
Parvati faced the pile with her palms out and widened her stance to heighten the drama. She brought the plaster to life, and her brother jumped up from debris, calling out: “Mother!”
Watching them embrace, Naina wondered if Parvati had created a child merely because she wanted a guard whose sole allegiance was to her, or if perhaps she’d been lonely for unconditional love. When Parvati ordered her son to stand guard while she bathed, Naina’s parents walked by the scene toward their home.
She had not expected them until after sunset. She had hoped not to see them until after sunset. She had hoped to hear them make plans that night to go again tomorrow. And the next day. Until maybe time, in small, kind degrees, shifted imperceptibly to take Naina’s side so that, for once, she would not be alone on her side of the curtain.
Naina stood, uncertain of what to do with her hands, her body, her eyes. She watched them walk and knew her mother had come back to her empty. Her father tried to slow down to match her mother’s shuffling pace. He stayed close, their clothes brushing, but he did not touch her. Though she kept her head down, her chin lowered to her chest, Naina could see her mother was crying. She swiped at her cheeks and moved her finger gently around her upper lip, careful of the large nose ring she always wore.
When they approached, her mother tried even harder to hide her face. As if to give his wife privacy, her father asked Naina, “How was temple?”
Naina did not answer, her eyes on her mother. “Is your friend still sick?” she asked.
Her father appeared relieved. He rubbed her mother’s shoulder, allowed to provide comfort now that the source of the grief had been redirected. “Yes,” was all he said.
“I’m sorry,” Naina said, still speaking to her mother.
The admission seemed to give her mother free license to cry and she did so loudly, her shoulders shaking, her lips pressed together in an unstable line. She went inside and drew the curtain. That night, only Naina and her father prayed before their small statue. When her father also disappeared behind the other side of the curtain, Naina pulled the cushion out from under her head and pressed it against her open ear to barricade it from their murmurs. Now there were only the things she did not want to hear.
Nine days remained of the festival and her mother spent them mostly in bed. In previous years, none of them had worked during the ten days of the festival, but this year her father spent his days at bus stations, where he worked as a porter. When passengers called out for a coolie, her father would rush up to take their luggage and tips.
Each morning, Naina pretended to sleep in, her back to her father as he quietly prayed to the shrine and left for the day. Only when she was sure he was gone did she move to check on her mother. Through small acts of petulant revenge, she withheld herself from her father, as though banishing one relationship would bring back another.
At night, firecrackers whistled and snapped all throughout the neighborhood. Through the unpredictable violence of the claps and reverberating rumble, she could not know if her parents spoke and for that she was grateful.
The unprecedented solitude of the days made her look forward to the end of summer break. In a few days time, she would wake up early and walk with her mother to the Doshi household. After making their tea, her mother would start lunch while Naina swept and mopped the floors. They would do the laundry and dishes together and then eat what remained.
The Doshis had two children Naina spent much of her time observing while she did her tasks. They giggled over dirty jokes that came on the television. Sometimes if Naina was cleaning while they were watching, she would catch snippets of the programs. They also played games with colored pieces of glass, and often called each other terrible names, but rarely stayed angry for long. They never appeared lonely. After the children began their homework, Naina would help her mother prepare and serve dinner before they walked home to meet her father.
On the eighth day of the festival, after her father left to work and her mother showed no interest in company or life, Naina walked to the local bazaar. She sat, her heart loud and thick, while a man pierced her nose with a pair of pliers and a small needle. She fought the urge to inch away from him as he scraped the tender inside of her nostril to secure the stud. She tried chanting a mantra to calm herself down and, when that failed, she thought of her mother at the clinic on that final day. Her eyes pricked and the shop owner offered her water. She refused, dumbly shaking her head, her eyes huge with alarm in the mirror as he laughed, telling her to breathe.
When she was steady enough to speak, she asked when she would be able to use the larger hoops. To illustrate, Naina pointed to a nose ring in the display case that reminded her of her mother’s. He said not for some time, even assuming she did not develop an infection. The way he looked at her clothes let her know how doubtful he thought that possibility was.
That evening, her father came back from the bus station with a square of bright red, packaged in cellophane. When he saw her, he let the package drop and clapped his hands. He made her turn her head at all angles while he fawned like he’d never seen a nose piercing before.
“Arre vah! What is this?”
“Nothing,” she said, defensive and embarrassed by the attention. They had not spoken much in the past few days. She could see her father had missed her, was leaping on the change as a chance. It made her feel guilty and she did not want to feel guilty. She did not want to think of her father’s solitude when she had her own to accept.
“Well, there’s no doubt about it now. You’re a woman!”
“Stop it!” she said, rolling her eyes up to the tarp covering their home. “It’s not that big of a deal. Forget it already.” She saw the package. “What’s that?”
“Nothing much.” Somber now, he handed her the package in a gesture of forced nonchalance. “I bought it for you. I thought you could wear it to the river tomorrow.”
Her mother usually made them all new clothes for the final day of celebration. The cellophane crinkled between Naina’s hands, the sound of expense. She knew then why her father had gone to the bus stations each day. When she thought of the wife who couldn’t get up and the daughter who wouldn’t, guilt fed her love for him.
She bent to graze her fingertips to his cracked feet and then her heart. “Thank you,” she said.
He patted her head, embarrassed enough to avoid her eyes. “I think it’s red,” he said, coughing twice. He turned away from her and toward the shrine.
“It is. It’s beautiful.” Naina wanted to ask what her mother would wear, wanted to ask if tomorrow was the day she’d step out from behind the curtain and speak. Instead she sat by her father and prayed.
The following evening, their street was alive with their own rather than customers. Music blared from too many sources to pinpoint. Neighbors chatted and shared food as the sun set. When the sky deepened its purples and oranges, they began walking together toward the river, Ganesh idols in hand. Dhruvin’s large idol, with its tears dried blue, had disappeared. Naina touched her nostril, the skin hot around the new stud. Like a sore, her finger kept gravitating toward the new piercing, as though there was no other way to reassure her it was there.
As she put on her red dress, she listened for sounds of two people moving behind the curtain, but heard only her father’s efforts. When he came out, she was standing with the purple-skinned Ganesh in her arms.
Her eyes must have been expectant because her father cleared his throat. “Let’s let your mother rest.”
Naina clutched the idol tighter. “Sure?” She angled her head to look behind him, as though she could see through the curtain shielding her mother. She’d waited ten days for her mother to see Arjun on his altar, surrounded by lamps and flowers, chosen by Naina for a reason. If her mother recognized him up there, she would know what Naina could not say, what her father could not see. She would know that it was all right, that it was all right to let go. Because they could both let go.
Instead her father took her elbow and led her outside. “Just this year. Next year it will all be back to normal.”
They stepped out and waited for a family to pass their home before joining the crowd. With all the sandals flipping up dust, the air grew hazy and veiled. Naina rubbed some dirt from her eyes. As if on cue, her fingertips nudged the embedded stud on her nostril.
When they reached the river, throngs of people pushed through to get to the edge. Some men waded in, holding a corner of a statue on their shoulders like pallbearers. Half submerged Ganeshes of various sizes floated all around, their trunks often the last thing to sink as though they were still desperate to breathe.
Naina and her father kept walking along the riverside, past the large rush of people. The population grew thinner the longer they walked. Finally, they curved in toward the waterfront. Bloated plastic bags, coconuts and broken flower garlands drifted along most of the stagnant surface. The small patches of visible water were opaque, sometimes green, sometimes black. She wondered what color her father saw.
They left their shoes behind and walked toward the water. Naina shared the negligible burden of Arjun with her father, using her free hand to gather and lift up the skirts of her dress. The water, warm and dark, licked their feet. It covered her dusty toes with a thin film, a translucent primer.
“Do you want me to take him in further?” her father asked.
Naina shook her head. “Here is good.”
They lowered the statue into the water together. The water fingered the hem of her dress before she realized and pulled it up higher. Her father swam his hand around, trying to create a current to carry the idol away. They stood still, watching the water take him, his body already tiny among the consuming trash and debris until he disappeared altogether.
When Naina could no longer track Arjun, she blinked, hoping her mother’s mourning would end tomorrow. Then she wondered if it was selfish to hope for that. She looked over at her father, thinking surely he, too, must be hoping for the same thing. Maybe they were both selfish, then.
Taking a few steps back from the water and her father, she let her dress fall from her fist. The material immediately glued to her wet ankles. Naina scanned the congealing horizon, the polluted seam of the evening sky meeting bulbous trash. She squinted when she thought she saw a coconut with eyes. Then a head popped up out of the water, and a boy half ran, half waded toward the shore, his skinny arms waving as he yelped in excitement. He’d found some treasure and was now ferociously trying to combat the awkward burden of the water.
“Let’s go home,” her father said. He stooped over to unfold one of his pant legs. Naina bent to unroll the other before he could. Her father touched her cheek in unspoken gratitude.
As they walked by, the boy in the water had finally reached land. He held out his palm to show his waiting siblings, his narrow torso panting. Naina watched him rejoin his family, half-expecting to see Parvati among them. But it was a different family, one she recognized without knowing.
“How’s the nose?” her father asked.
She’d been tracing the stud again without realizing it. She dropped her hand. “Feels weird.” She kicked up some dust. “And it doesn’t look like Mummy’s at all.”
He looked at her profile for a long moment and she must have not coming up wanting because he smiled and said, “It will.”
Parini Shroff graduated from the University of Southern California with a BA in Literature and Creative Writing. She is a recipient of the Arvon Fellowship. She is presently Fiction Editor for Bat City Review, based out of the University of Texas in Austin. This winter her work will appear in Salamander, The MacGuffin and Southern Humanities Review. She received her Juris Doctorate from Loyola Law School. She is presently an MFA candidate at the University of Texas in Austin.