A Hundred and Four

Clad in gossamer salwaars,
Ponytailed hair tumbling in ghosts of school-plait cascades,
Dupattas folded with indecision –
A stiff V, like in the heart of conservative?
An elaborate arrangement to shade modesty?
Wound around the neck, an emulation of favourite liberal aunts?
Or an incidental billowing sail, that, who knows, will steer to first and true love?

They gingerly ring the doorbell,
Always underestimating the pressure required for the button,
Always sheepish of the loudness their efforts produce.
They come armed,
With first names and surnames,
Door numbers and invitations,
The Barbie peace-makers,
Negotiating neighbourhoods in currencies of cuteness, comeliness and camaraderie.
Freshly powdered faces,
Light hairs on still-baby cheeks aglow,
Shaky-handed-kohl-lined eyes shining,
Security, manners, and social lessons all clutched
With handkerchiefs folded to sixteenths.

They always come in pairs,
Bearing with them, if not words for exchange,
Well-shorn coconuts,
A few rupees and betelnuts,
Snug in an offering of heart-shaped betel leaves.
They come armed,
With neatly arranged wire-baskets,
Covered with erstwhile sofa doilies,
Both, topics for your mother,
Who they will call, “Aunty”.

Aunty will offer them coffee or tea,
But they will both exchange looks and say, “We drink only Horlicks.”

Aunty’s husband will then ask what their parents do,
Where they’re from, who their siblings are,
What they want to be when they grow up.
Aunty’s husband will then nod gravely, and say, “Good, good.”

And Aunty’s husband will promptly forget.

They will hurriedly cool their evening’s fifth Horlicks with their breaths,
And gulp, careful to not seem indiscriminate,
Or unladylike,
Consciously licking the corners of their lips.
The first to finish will fidget
With the yellow string around her wrist.

Then Aunty, or maybe you,
Will then bring them their own coconuts/bananas/bangles,
Vermillion and turmeric.
The lesser experienced of the two,
Or the one with her guard down,
Will briefly fuss over which finger – ring or index –
She must ply.

They slowly get up,
Tugging at and ironing the bottoms of their kurtas,
And studiously slip on their sandals,
Teetering on one foot while adjusting the straps.

Their goodbyes sounding
Comically adultlike in their plurality:
“We will be back soon”.

They leave,
In their wake, the alien smells of the spoils
Of a visit to the fancy store,
Where they flirted with the henna-fingered “Bhaiyya”
To buy four hairclips at the price of two,
Where they found the bindi stickers they wore today,
The mehendi that they’ve stashed for later this week,
And even the bangles whose glitter
Twinkles like indoor starlight, on our sofa.

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