Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar
Through the pores of the mosquito net, I see Abba holding my aunt Salma Khala’s hand. She’s Ammi’s younger sister, as tall as my mother, but much slimmer. Tonight, she’s wearing a white muslin kameez. Moonlight shines on the heel-sized bald spot at the back of Abba’s head as he leads Khala into the darkness of the room at the farther end of our rooftop terrace. They must be treading on their toes because I don’t hear the tinkle of Khala’s bell anklets or the characteristic fall of Abba’s feet that makes the floor shudder.
Moments ago, Khala is soft-snoring next to me on the woven charpoy, our pillows touching. A lone mosquito that’s sneaked inside the net keeps me awake. It stings my left ankle, and as I scratch that itch, it buzzes the most annoying ghoo-ghoo in my ear. I turn away from Khala, unfold the cotton sheet at my feet and wrap it around my body and face like a cocoon but that’s suffocating. I let the tip of my nose out, press my cheek into the stems and flowers of the pillow cover embroidered by Ammi, and try to sleep.
Earlier in the evening, Khala and I splash buckets of water on the terrace floor. The cement releases the day’s absorbed heat in visible vapors. I inhale the scent of water on dust, soothing like the smell of first rain. My aunt pulls a charpoy from the terrace room into the open space, and I help her loop the mosquito net on the four bamboos she’s arranged to form a frame around the cot. Then she makes the bed—a thin mattress covered with a soft sheet, two pillows, and another folded cotton sheet to be used as a cover if needed.
Before that, in the afternoon, Khala asks me if I’d like to sleep on the roof-top terrace, under the canopy of stars. Yes, Khala, I hug her and clap my hands in anticipation of the adventure. She promises it’ll be much cooler on the terrace. This June, my windowless room that I now share with my aunt feels warmer than the kitchen. The feeble ceiling fan does nothing to diffuse the heat that wakes me in the middle of the night, my neck and pillow soaked in sweat. Khala says open air is good for her, she finds the confines of doors and the boundaries of walls suffocating.
Earlier this morning, Khala makes tea for Abba and serves it in a floral ceramic cup from the set Ammi reserves for relatives from my father’s side. Abba takes noisy sips punctuated with Aahs of appreciation and asks for a refill. On other days, when Ammi makes chai, he leaves the cup half-full in a rush to catch the bus to the hosiery factory. Your hands have such taste, Salma, he says to Khala. No, no, nothing like that, Bhaisahib, she says, her cheeks flushing a tomato red. As she turns away to refill the cup, Abba grabs her wrist, and she pretends to break free. At that moment, everything around me stops as if I’m in a still frame. I can’t hear the groan of the ceiling fan anymore or the call of the vegetable vendors outside, shouting, Tomatoes, five rupees a kilo, bananas, ten rupees a dozen.
Three days ago, my monkey-faced brother Rahim is born. Ammi’s stomach is not swollen like a balloon anymore but she has no energy to rise from the bed. Her skin has taken the sickly yellow of over-boiled milk. The mid-wife says she’s lost blood, needs rest and nutrition. Khala takes meals to Ammi in aluminum dishes, burps the baby, washes the soiled nappies, but the sisters don’t talk. I am their conduit. Ammi says Munni, tell your Khala this. Khala says, Munni, ask your Ammi that.
Five days ago, Salma Khala alights from the rickshaw at our doorstep, holding a plump patchwork bag. As she unpacks in my room, she gifts me a frock, deep pink, hemmed with a golden lace. I hug her and try it on, looking at myself in the mirror, twirling around the house. Ammi presses her pumpkin-belly as if it hurts, and asks me to take the dress off, says it’s too gaudy, too inappropriate for a nine-year-old.
A week ago, my parents have an argument. Abba wants Salma Khala to come and help with the soon-to-be-born baby. Ammi says that’s not needed, and tilts her chin towards me, My Munni will help. Abba scoffs, Munni’s still a child. He suggests Khala could cook while Ammi tends to the baby. My mother says she’ll have time for chores when the baby’s sleeping, but her voice is slack, already. I don’t want Ammi to give in like she does every time, but I want Khala to visit us. She smells of Pond’s talcum powder, unlike my mother who reeks of sweat and garlic. I’ll call Salma tomorrow, my father says in a tone that curtails further discussion, then adds, Can’t wait to taste her goat biryani. Ammi gulps in air as if she’s been suffocating, and says, Light the mosquito coil, Munni. She claps her hands to kill a blood-sucking pest flying in front of her face, but misses, like every time.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. Born and raised in India, she later migrated to the USA. A technologist by profession and a writer by passion, she is the author of Morsels of Purple, a flash fiction collection, and Skin Over Milk, a prose chapbook. She is a Prose Editor at Janus Literary and a Submissions Editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. More at https://saraspunyfingers.com. Reach her @PunyFingers