FEATURED STORY: “THREE SISTERS” BY GEMINI WAHHAJ
When I was a child, Kanta Apa was always turning down marriage proposals. She was my mother’s eldest sister Boro Khala’s daughter, the eldest among my cousins. Boro Khala had three daughters– Kanta, Shanta, and Renu. They lived in a large house in Dhanmondi. Scarlet bougainvillea draped the metal gate and plastered white walls at the front, a screened verandah. An orchard at the back–guava, jamun, mango, and lychee trees laden with fruit. The house was ancient and mysterious, with long, dark rooms where the sunlight never entered, wood frame windows, black-wood furniture, and cobwebs swinging from the ceiling. These houses have been torn down now to build apartment complexes and mixed-use buildings.
Walking around a neighborhood in Houston, if I come across a screened porch, I am reminded of that house in Dhanmondi. It is impossible to find those old neighborhoods in Dhaka nowadays, that old way of life with the sprawling houses and orchards full of fruits. One can only find that Dhaka outside of Dhaka, a sudden glimpse in another city.
I went to my aunt’s house on many occasions with my parents with a marriage proposal for Kanta Apa. When I was very young, ten or eleven, I had no opinion of Kanta Apa. She was pretty, dusky, plump in an acceptable way in a young woman, freshly graduated from university with some obscure degree that she had no interest in pursuing, geography, history, or Bengali. Even in my earliest memories, she wore saris, the end of the sari wrapped modestly around her shoulders, although her sisters Shanta Apa and Renu Apa were allowed to wear shalwar kamiz and trousers and shirts at this time. You might argue that this difference in dress code was because Kanta Apa was older than her sisters, but the sisters were less than two years apart each.
I remember a lot more about Shanta Apa and Renu Apa. They were very pretty and wore a lot of makeup. In their shared room stood a dressing table full of jewelry and creams that I liked to run through my hands, till one or the other scolded me. Renu Apa rode around the neighborhood on a man’s bike belonging to one of the men servants. My aunt, Boro Khala, shouted at Shanta Apa and Renu Apa to put on a dupatta–a scarf to cover their bosoms–but these remonstrations slid off their shoulders like air. Shanta Apa and Kanta Apa’s shared room was a bright spot in the dark house, with a long line of windows facing the backyard letting in a healthy dose of sunshine. Shanta Apa and Renu Apa introduced me to Hindi movies and to Stardust, the magazine about Bollywood movie stars. They taught me how to style my hair, do my makeup, and take off my glasses to look pretty for a party.
Later in life, when she couldn’t get married, Kanta Apa hated everyone, fighting, griping, and making life hell for her mother. But when she had been young, Kanta Apa had imbibed her mother’s every opinion. Once, I accompanied my parents to Boro Khala’s house with a biodata and photograph of a young man who had graduated from Rajshahi College. Kanta Apa, perhaps twenty-five then, was apoplectic. She stood in the middle of the drawing room, her hands on her waist, gesticulating and shouting at my parents for bringing such an audacious proposal. She felt insulted by the proposal because the man was not living in America or Canada, and, moreover, had not even graduated from the engineering university in Dhaka, but from another engineering college in another district.
Boro Khala’s drawing room was long and rectangular, with windows along the boundaries that let in draft air in the winter. My father wore a V-necked sweater and woolen pants, and my mother, plump, in a Georgette sari reserved for winter days, wrapped in a thick shawl, sat with her mouth downturned in distress, her response to situations in which she dared not speak. My aunt and uncle, Boro Khala and Boro Khalu, declared that they too were “disgusted by the proposal”. My uncle and aunt were a decade apart in age, and they did not have a good marriage. My uncle was lean and short, with a white stubble on his chin and no hair on his head, and my aunt was always clad in a wrinkled cotton sari, with premature lines on her face and forehead and a grey mousetail for hair, each bearing a look of self-loathing induced by the hatred of their life partner. If they ever came face to face in the course of the day in that big house, they shouted insults and shook their fists at each other.
“How could you even think to bring a suitor who isn’t from America? Do you think so little of my daughter?” my aunt shouted at my parents, her gravelly voice emerging out of the box in her narrow throat.
As a sign of their disapproval, we were offered no refreshments that day, wheeled in on a trolley, milky sweets and tiny glasses of orange juice, with folded napkins on quarter plates. It was all rejection, rejection, rejection! My parents were driven out of the house in shame.
Over the years, many of our other relatives tried to get Kanta Apa married. In those days, it was the duty of the family to get all the younger people married. Marriage was a serious business. I believe Kanta Apa also wanted to get married, but the conflict lay in who she deemed good enough for her. My uncle and aunt demanded tall, handsome men, of good families, with good salaries, working for a good company (in those days, what profession would an eligible bachelor have? Engineers working in roads and highways or at one of the tea companies, medical doctors, professors, bankers perhaps, lawyers). Kanta Apa’s sisters Shanta Apa and Renu Apa shot down Kanta Apa’s suitors with aplomb, effortlessly listing the qualities of an eligible bachelor for Kanta Apa.
“He has to be an expat, a US or UK or Canadian citizen, a PhD, a wealthy man, a young, handsome man.”
Whenever a photograph accompanied a biodata, Shanta Apa and Renu Apa seized the photo and laughed at the prospective groom’s snub nose or receding hairline. Once, they picked out a stray curtain in the background whose color was in bad taste. Their merry, tinkling laughs broke and broke and broke like waves, making the business of rejection a rollicking ride filled with hilarity.
This was in the eighties. Within a few years, a marriage proposal came for Shanta Apa. She was studying in the final year of her master’s degree in psychology at Dhaka University, months away from taking the final exam. One day, one of my other aunts, Shejo Khala, carted Shanta Apa off to a Chinese restaurant to see a man on leave from his job in America for seven days, during which time he hoped to find a bride and get married.
Every member of our family arrived at Boro Khala’s house for this event. All our aunts were involved in the important decisions of our lives. We young children sat and looked on, keen, hawk-eyed witnesses. Shanta Apa had been dressed against her wishes in a satin pink sari that hugged her too-thin hips. Her hair had been piled in a bun for the first time in her life. Her pale face and liquid lips, usually so full of mirth, were trembling. We children milled around Shanta Apa, staring at her reflection in the dusty dressing-table mirror as Shejo Khala dressed her, panting and huffing from her exertions, her own round, plump body wrapped in a Georgette sari. Shanta Apa looked beautiful. She had fair, soft skin, made brighter by her pimples, which acted like blush-on. Her eyes were large and dark, and her eyebrows were arched like those of an Indian actress from Stardust. When Shanta Apa returned to the house from the restaurant, we were still sitting around Boro Khala’s long, rectangular table in the dark room lit up with four tube lights, chatting, eating crisp, red guavas still warm from the tree, waiting to hear what had happened.
Shanta locked herself in her room. We could hear her throwing herself on top of her bed, crying and crying. Later, she agreed with this account, that she “cried and cried, cried her heart out”. We managed to unlock the door and gape at her heartbroken body. She complained that the suitor was very short and plain and too dark. He wore glasses. He wasn’t at all like the heroes she watched in Hindi movies, the ones she read about in her magazines. But within days, she was married to this man, by the magical working of Shejo Khala, who had used all the powers known to her to threaten and coax Shanta Apa.
Soon, Shanta Apa took her final exam at the university, and left on a green card visa to join her husband in North Dakota. On the day of her flight, my mother and I accompanied her to Mayfair Beauty Parlor to get her hair done with masses of glue and bobby pins. She dressed in a heavy, embroidered wedding sari, with her hair done up with glue and her face made up with heavy makeup at the parlor, on the flight to meet her husband.
After Shanta Apa left, Renu Apa and Kanta Apa were the only ones at home, locked up in two different rooms, with minimal communication between the two. Shanta Apa wrote us romantic letters about her “hubby”, who told her a hundred times a day that he loved her, with whom she toured Rome and Vienna for a honeymoon, who made her breakfast in bed. “Do you know?” she wrote, “I never imagined that I would be so happy. Always listen to your elders. They know what’s best.”
Within a year, Renu Apa was married as well. She studied English at Dhaka University. At home, she wore trousers and stole any bike lying around to ride on the streets of Dhanmondi. She returned from the university full of energy, her thin ribs cracking with laughter, large eyes flashing in a skinny face. Whereas Shanta Apa was striking, Renu Apa had a cute button-nose, stylishly bobbed hair, and tiny freckles on her nose.
I would often go stay with my aunt, being an only girl at home and craving the company of my female cousins, and on these occasions I followed Renu Apa around the house as she watered the potted flowers she was growing in the front (chrysanthemum, marigold, and gardenia), plucked guavas from the tree, cut them, salted them, and ate them, or entered the kitchen to cook with the staff, asking one to cut up onions, and another to supply her turmeric paste, as she put on a pot of spicy beef.
In one corner of her room were stacked her schoolbooks, running the gamut of British literature from Anglo-Saxon literature to modernism. At random moments, she would recite to me from Shakespeare and Beowulf, and the poetry of J.B. Prufrock, but her main reading, for pleasure, were her film magazines and the paperback Mills & Boone romances you could buy at New Market. She was not classically beautiful. Yet, men fell heavily for her. At night, when we got in bed, we used to have delicious conversations, in which she would regale me with stories of her suitors.
“You understand, Dolly,” she said to me one night, “I can pull men by their nose rings, like pulling a bull by its ring.”
We hung up the mosquito net like a canopy around us and turned the fan on at full speed to get some air. Beads of sweat formed on our lips as we lay in our cotton shalwar kameez, with a light cotton sheet covering us both.
I laughed with tears in my eyes. “Pull their noses by a ring!”
“Listen,” she said, propping her head on an elbow. “There is this guy, senior to me. He graduated with a first class first M.A. last year in English. He came to see me and asked me to have tea with him at the canteen. He said he had been in love with me for years, and he asked me if I would marry him.”
I squealed. “What does he look like?”
“He is lean and tall, with a chiseled face and thin lips,” she said. “He has large eyes that crinkle when he smiles.”
“Will you marry him?” I cried, sitting up in excitement and accosting her.
“Nah,” she said.
“Why not? What don’t you like about him?”
By and by I knew what it was that made her reject one suitor after another. She looked down on anyone graduating from a local university, trying to make it in Bangladesh. The world in her imagination was larger than the world that she was forced to live in. In life, she was constrained by rules and barriers, the mandate to wear a scarf to cover her bosom, the warnings about going out alone at night on a rickshaw, and the scolding when she stole a bike and wandered out onto the dark, open, tree-lined streets of Dhanmondi. I don’t think anyone of us understood how desperate Renu Apa was to escape Bangladesh until she married. Like Kanta Apa and Shanta Apa, Renu Apa had received a steady string of proposals, biodata and photos. Like her sisters before her, Renu Apa turned down all these men, shuddering at the prospects lined up in front of her, staring through dirty glass at ghostly images projected onto a screen–the possibilities of her life, parallel universes stretching out to their ends.
My mother said Renu Apa was arrogant to turn down so many good men. I remember many tea sessions when we talked about how vain she was, how foolish to turn down these perfectly decent, ordinary men.
By the time Shanta Apa had been married, people had lost interest in Kanta Apa. The great conspiracy to get Shanta Apa married was predicated on the threat that her sisters couldn’t be married before their elder sister was married. As soon as Shanta Apa and Renu Apa were married, Kanta Apa’s marriage became a moot concern to the family. Kanta Apa faded into the background, the lonely spinster.
So began Kanta Apa’s recluse life. My next memories of her are all negative. I began to dislike her very much. For the most part, she hid out in her dark corner room, among her books and diaries. She squirreled food into this room and often left plates of half-finished rice lying around on tables and chairs or on the floor under her bed. On rare occasions, she would hurtle out of this dark hole to hurl insults at people who had angered her, shaking them with accusations. Her once pretty, sharp features and large eyes in a thin, dusky face had faded into a bloated mass. Her once young self was lost in a plump body shrouded in the layers of garments with which she covered herself, the end of her sari pulled tightly over her head.
One time, when I was in the house for Renu Apa’s wedding, I got into a big fight with Kanta Apa. I had lent her some books from the British Council Library at her request, one of the books that was going around at the time, perhaps Jean Plaidy’s Murder Most Royal. Now, the book was overdue. As an anxious fifteen-year-old, I wanted it back. I asked her timidly, going up to her heavy, black painted door and knocking softly. I may have badgered her too many times about it. She accosted me in front of all the guests gathered for the wedding, shouting at me about how rude I was. I hung my head under my long hair, feeling powerless and enraged that my library record would be ruined because of Kanta Apa. I believe I hated her because of these kinds of behavior. I began to avoid her after that incident.
When we cousins gathered at their house to go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant with Shanta Apa and her husband, decked up in our silk shalwar kameez with rouge painted on our faces, Shanta Apa dressed up elaborately in a pinned sari (pins all over the place!), her hair done up at May Fair beauty parlor, Boro Khala suddenly told Kanta Apa that she could not go with us because she was an unmarried elder sister.
“It looks indecent if you go with the couple, being unmarried,” my aunt said.
At this, Kanta Apa retreated inside her room, but before she disappeared she hissed at my mother from the door, curling her finger to indicate that my mother should enter her room. Inside, the air was dark and musty.
“Why didn’t you get me married?” she growled at my mother. Her eyes were red with fury and shame.
“But I did–,” my mother protested.
Kanta Apa let out a blood-curdling scream. Boro Khalamma rushed into the room, dragging my mother and me out, and shut the door on the lunatic.
Later, our mothers gossiped about what a shame it was the way Kanta Apa’s mother and sisters had conspired to ruin her life, by filling her head with ideas of false grandeur and bringing ridiculous objections to the perfectly decent, ordinary men who had wanted to marry her. And now they were trying to lock her up in her dark dungeon precisely because she was an old maid.
Whom did Renu Apa marry in the end? Who was deserving of her hand after all the discards? My mother woke me one Friday morning (we had school off on Fridays), saying, “Come on, we have to go to your aunt’s house. Renu is getting married. Boro Khala has asked us to go right now.”
I jumped up and got ready in ten minutes. We lived in Kalabagan, near Dhanmondi but on the less posh, side of Mirpur Road. We all piled up on a rickshaw, my mother, father, and I, and arrived at Boro Khala’s house for the aqd, the legal marriage ceremony in which Renu Apa would sign the papers. We had not been part of any of the deliberations leading to the marriage. We had no idea how the marriage had been arranged or who the groom was. Everything had been kept a secret from us. All the relatives gathered in Boro Khala’s drawing room grumbled about this secrecy.
“Why have they not consulted us before this? We’re just invited like guests?” one of my uncles hissed, his arms crossed over his chest.
“Just sit quietly,” my mother advised her brother in a whisper. “All we want is for her to get married.” She sat decked in a heavy silk sari for the wedding, powder on her face and gold at her throat, hunched forward on a sofa, her mouth tense with anticipation.
Distant relatives, Renu Apa’s relatives on her father’s side or the relatives of my aunts’ and uncles’ in-laws, were whispering, sitting in Boro Khala’s drawing room. It was a large room, and there were windows on all sides, big square windows with shutters that opened out, wooden frames and glass panes, and thick cream curtains that could be drawn to make the room dark or pulled apart to let the air in, a cool mosaic floor under our feet, and two sets of ceiling fans rotating gently overhead, pampering us with a light breeze.
“You don’t know whom she’s marrying?” Boro Khala’s sister-in-law jabbed my mother in the shoulder. “I’ll tell you! The guy is related to me. A distant cousin! He used to live downstairs from us when we were growing up. Do you know what?” She was a lean and lithe woman, tall like a giraffe, her silk sari wrapped callously around her long body. She lowered her head toward my mother, and I leaned in to hear. “He’s a bit slow in the head.”
My mother turned her head away resolutely, lips clamped, refusing to hear or respond.
“He didn’t even graduate from high school!” the woman announced loudly, triumphantly shaking her head. Her gold earrings jingled.
“He has an MBA!” my mother retorted, her jaws tight, her throat bobbing up and down.
“Is that what they told you?” the woman laughed. “That’s a lie! I’ve brought so many proposals for Renu myself. When I heard that this marriage might take place–and I heard from the boy’s family, not our family, mind you–I ran here yesterday, and I begged them. Please, let me bring you another suitor, right now, I said. But they wouldn’t listen. Do you want to know why I think Renu is marrying this guy? The guy’s father is filthy rich, a doctor in Texas. Just filthy, filthy rich.”
My mother kept shaking her head. She didn’t want to hear.
My father was an engineer, a graduate of the engineering university in Dhaka. Like the men my three cousins had rejected, he worked his entire life at the water development board. We rented a tiny house deep inside Kalabagan and my father never owned a car or made a house for himself. To go anywhere, we had to pile on top of a rickshaw and ply through ribbons and ribbons of smelly alleys, past open dustbins and pecking crows, scraping by little shops selling eggs and bananas. When my time came to get married, after I graduated from Dhaka University, I didn’t make any objections. I went to all the restaurants to meet all the young men who wanted to see me, and I let my guardians choose. If I didn’t like one man’s receding hairline or another man’s jutting front tooth, my mother told me that those things didn’t matter in life because everyone’s hair and teeth fall out, eventually. I had to have priorities, she said. In the end, I was married to a man my cousins would have approved of, an engineer working in America.
After many moves, my husband and I relocated to Houston. We bought a large house in Fulshear and I lived there mostly alone. My husband was often away on assignment to different countries for his oil company. He would turn up in Houston for a month, we would throw parties for all his engineer friends, people would admire our house, and then in the blink of an eye he would be packing his suitcase again, for another assignment, in Nigeria or Scotland or somewhere else. The wonderful thing about moving to Houston was that I met up with my three cousins Kanta Apa, Shanta Apa, and Renu Apa after nearly four decades. I was fifty then, but I felt as giddy about it as when I used to go to their house in Dhanmondi as a child. I called them up immediately. They already knew from our other relatives that I had moved to Houston. We made plans to meet, but for one reason or another, we kept putting it off.
I hadn’t really kept in touch with my cousins in the intervening years. It’s difficult to say why. Laziness, perhaps, or drifting apart from not seeing one another for so many years, our lives separating and going different ways. But it may also have been my feelings of bitterness about the past, surfacing at last. I resented, for example, how my parents were always responsible for Boro Khala’s family’s problems, how they had to turn up to help and were shouted at when things didn’t pan out as Boro Khala wished.
Finally, after six months of calling one another back and forth, I invited my three cousins to my house. Kanta Apa snatched the phone to scream in my ear, asking if I had thought about how they would arrive at my house without a transport.
“If you invite someone, you have to also think about how they will reach your house,” she lectured me, the familiar booming voice ringing in my ears.
“I am very sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know that transport was a problem.”
Putting down the phone, I resolved to have nothing more to do with them, no matter how exciting it was to have cousins living in the same city.
I might never have seen my cousins again, except that about six months later still, in the middle of my first summer in the hottest city I had ever lived in, Renu Apa gave me a call.
“Doll, why don’t you come over one day?” she asked sweetly over the phone.
I kept trying to make excuses, still smarting from my vague recollections of the unpleasant exchanges in the past. But Renu Apa kept insisting. Her familiar voice, with the soft, lilting tones, touched me. I was genuinely moved. We had all had difficult lives. Renu Apa’s husband, the high school dropout, had worked at an oil rig offshore. He used to live out on the rig six months at a time, while Renu Apa went back to school to study nursing, raised three kids on her own, and later worked as a nurse at the Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“Please come, Doll. I haven’t seen you in such a long time. My heart is crying to see you.”
My heart melted at her familiar voice and the tenderness she still showed me. It was agreed that I would visit the following Saturday. Since I owned a car and I could drive, there was no question about how I would transport myself. When Renu Apa gave me their address, I was shocked. They lived in an apartment building in Sharpstown, near Bellaire, Chinatown, an area known for crime and poverty, filled with new immigrants lumped in crowded buildings, waiting for a turn in their fortune.
Turning the Mercedes from Bellaire Boulevard into a dreary apartment complex, waiting at the creaking gate, I found myself staring at a row of yellow-stained buildings, with broken windows and overfilled dumpsters. I found my cousins’ building with difficulty, as the numbering system didn’t make sense. A set of metal stairs led upstairs, reeking of rodents and cooking spices, and a landing with a row of flats. I knocked on a cracked red door. The doorbell was broken. In these grim surroundings, my cousins had planted Gardenia and Chrysanthemum flowers in pots in the hallway.
“Hello, hello!” Renu Apa greeted me at the door, throwing her arms about me. She smelled of talcum powder and a glycerin soap. Her face was lean and drawn, and she was still skinny, dressed in long-sleeved T-shirt and sweatpants.
“Hi,” I said tenderly. “You look just the same, Renu Apa!”
“So good to see you, Dolly. Look at the beautiful flowers we planted. Isn’t this just a cute apartment? Look at the red door. Cute as a button.”
Shanta Apa, a little gray and shriveled, appeared behind Renu Apa.
“Hello, hello, Dolly.” She kissed me, pulling me inside.
“I’m so sorry, Shanta Apa,” I said self-consciously, standing in a cheerful hallway packed with tall plastic flowers in vases and a rubber mat to deposit shoes, with several women’s shoes arranged in a line.
Shanta Apa shook her head cheerfully as I shook off my heels. “Don’t be. That was a long time ago.”
Shanta Apa’s husband had died from cancer a few years back, and Renu Apa had asked her to move from South Dakota, to come live with her in Texas. From what I had heard, Shanta Apa had married off her two children from this home.
The two sisters led me further down the hallway, until we reached a dining table covered with a plastic cloth. My eyes darted, looking for sudden danger.
“Sit. Sit. So Doll, we cooked khichuri for you. I hope you like khichuri,” Renu Apa said, cupping her chin in her hands.
I nodded eagerly. “I love the highlights in your hair,” I complimented her, darting my head to admire her. “And your short hairstyle,” I said to Shanta Apa. In my cousins’ presence, all my years melted away and I turned into a young girl again.
“Thank you. The kids like it,” Shanta Apa said, snorting. She had a habit of laughing like that, through her nose, I remembered now. “I teach at a daycare, you know. The kids love colorful things. I wear everything bright. Hair, jewelry, and the reddest lipstick I can find.” She laughed maniacally.
I glanced at her again. Thick foundation and powder on her face, false eyelashes, moussed hair, big, vermillion nails, and a fat, beaded blue imitation necklace at her throat.
“I love your caftan,” I went on.
“Thank you, Dolly. You didn’t bring your husband?” she asked, even though my cousins had not in fact invited him.
“He’s out of town,” I explained.
“What does he do, again, your husband, Dolly?” Renu Apa asked. She was sitting across from me. Shanta Apa sat down next to me, the three of us very close in a tight cocoon, looking back across years and years.
“He works in oil and gas,” I said. Then, inspired, I added, “like your husband, Renu Apa.”
Renu Apa’s eyes narrowed. Shanta Apa shifted her gaze and adjusted her caftan sleeves.
“Actually, Dolly,” Renu Apa said, “I divorced him two years ago.”
“Oh,” I said.
“He must be very handsome, your husband,” Renu Apa said, cheerfully again. “Do you have a picture, Dolly? On your cellphone?”
“Yes,” I simpered. I showed them some pictures. In reality, I looked on my marriage with general confusion. When I awoke in the morning, I was faced with the sight of a stain on a kitchen counter or a dripping faucet, a car that had to be cleaned, or a yard that needed attention. If anybody had told me that marriage was simply the management of a household, I would not have believed them. Still, my mother had prepared me well for this life, and I fulfilled my duties.
We went on talking, as Renu Apa and Shanta Apa walked back and forth between the kitchen and the dining table, taking down plates from a cupboard in the dining room, transferring the rice to a serving dish, carrying in the egg curry in a bowl, scrambling for embroidered napkins, and clattering with the cutlery. They were as swift and hard-working as I remembered them. I asked about Shanta Apa’s children and their spouses, where they were living now. And about Renu’s Apa’s three children, now studying at different colleges in Texas. All the while we chatted, I trembled a little in anticipation of my third cousin.
“Dolly, I am so sorry about your parents passing. Your mother was my favorite aunt,” Renu Apa said.
“Likewise,” Shelly Apa said.
“Thank you. And I miss your parents,” I said. “I am very sorry about their passing.”
I asked if their house in Dhaka had already been developed into flats after my aunt and uncle had died, as they had been planning.
“Yes, there are six flats. We each inherited two flats,” Shanta Apa said.
“Actually, Dolly…That’s why I called you.” Renu Apa sat down abruptly at the table. The plates were still stacked at a corner and the pot of khichuri still stood lidded, but Renu Apa did not proceed with the dinner arrangements.
“It’s about Kanta Apa,” Shanta Apa said, sitting down heavily on another chair.
“Where is she?” I squeaked, looking behind them fearfully.
“She’s coming, my darling,” Renu Apa assured me. “It takes her a long time to get dressed.”
“The thing is, Dolly, you know that each of us inherited two flats from our parents,” Shanta Apa said.
“Earlier, when she asked you for your number. We don’t let her talk on the phone with anyone,” Renu Apa said.
“Oh?” I said, turning to Renu Apa now, trying to follow two conversations.
“She had a cellphone, but we took it away, because she calls up people and yells at them,” Renu Apa went on.
“I see,” I said politely, hands pressed on my lap, still not understand the connection between the flats and the phone.
“Now she can only make local calls with the house phone,” Shanta Apa added.
“We brought Kanta Apa here on a Green Card when our parents died,” Renu Apa said. “We had been processing it for years.”
“Now imagine, anyone would want to marry a Green Card holder,” Shanta Apa said.
“Is Kanta Apa getting married?” I asked.
“We took her phone away, but our cousin Farooq Bhai calls her on Skype on her computer and talks to her for hours about religion. He convinced her that she cannot go to heaven without marrying. So now she wants to get married so she can go to heaven! Any gold-digging man would want to marry her just for the Green Card and the flats. We might lose the flats because of her crazy behavior!”
“Is Dolly here? Why didn’t anyone tell me?” There was a loud cry from inside the flat. Kanta Apa entered the dining hall at great speed, following her booming, full voice. She seemed genuinely delighted to see me.
I stood up nervously. “Hello, Kanta Apa. It’s nice to see you,” I said, holding my hands in each other.
“Call me Halima,” she said, coming closer. “Sit, sit.”
A thick, musky scent of spices oozed from her. She had dropped saris altogether, thinking them immodest perhaps, and was wrapped now in layers and layers of cloth over what looked like a maxi. I sat back down nervously.
“Doll, you know, it’s very lonely not being married,” were the first words out of her mouth.
I nodded nervously. Kanta Apa (who now called herself by the more modest name Halima) took over the conversation, asking me how I was doing, where my house was, what my husband did, and complimenting me on how good I looked, how I resembled my mother. Why didn’t I have any children? Shanta Apa and Renu Apa moved around dumbly, serving the food. They laughed at her jokes and nodded at her remarks, humoring her. A few times, Kanta Apa (Halima) asked for my phone number, but each time Shanta Apa and Renu Apa interrupted her and changed the conversation, looking at each other furtively.
After leaving my three cousins’ home, I immediately called my other cousins and gossiped about this big news. Imagine that Kanta Apa, who was more than sixty years old, wanted to get married now only because she wanted to go to heaven! What a bizarre turn of events, I said, half filled with gossip and malice. My other cousins and I discussed this at length. One of my cousins defended her, saying that Kanta Apa had always wanted to get married, and it was Shanta Apa and Renu Apa’s fault that she wasn’t married. Another confirmed that the edict about marriage was true–a woman could not go to heaven if she was not married–but if she couldn’t get married after trying so hard it was not in her destiny.
I began to remember Kanta Apa more sympathetically. There was a time when she had been sweet and childlike, full of curiosity, when she would sit at the dining table on Road number 28 and tell me about stories she had read in the Reader’s Digest. There was one true story about an American woman whose husband had left her for an Asian woman and gone away to live in Asia. Years later, when the husband died, the American woman brought his wife and children to America to live with her. Kanta Apa really appreciated stories like that. You see, that is what love is, she would say to me.
My phone calls with Shanta Apa and Renu Apa intensified. They wanted me to intervene and persuade Kanta Apa not to marry.
“What will I say? I haven’t talked to her for years,” I protested.
“Just use your own arguments, darling,” Renu Apa said, with that buttery, toasty affection in her voice. “We’re trying to reason with her about the foolishness of marrying at this age, but she gets angry. Maybe you can give her a different perspective. Come to our home. Come often. She’s lonely. She’ll listen to you.”
In the absence of my husband, this was a welcome distraction, a purpose to my monotonous life, so I jumped into their mission. I started dropping in at my cousins’ flat at all times, nervously driving my new Mercedes through the rusty gates of their apartment complex before they closed in again, making my way up the smelly stairs and knocking on their red door, which soon became a familiar part of my life in Houston. I would sit in their living room stuffed with old furniture and have tea and samosas and chat late into the night, spying on Kanta Apa (Halima) and making guarded arguments designed to persuade her not to marry. Shanta Apa, Renu Apa, and I laughed and hooted like old times. Kanta Apa only joined us to shout at us or accuse us of something or send one of us running on an errand for her–to replace a broken toothbrush or a lost nail clipper. From her hushed Skype conversations, we could gather that Kanta Apa (Halima) was getting introduced to one man after another, some decades younger than her, chatting with them, flirting with them, and sizing them up for marriage. All we could do was hush in the middle of our urgent plotting against her and eavesdrop on her as she talked with a guy on the computer in her room, her voice booming.
At this time, Renu Apa was getting her eldest daughter ready for marriage with help from her husband’s family.
“It’s so stressful getting a girl married,” she confided in me one time. “Not at all like a boy. The boy’s family always acts superior to the girl’s family.”
In six months, Renu Apa fixed her daughter’s marriage. The wedding would take place at an Indian restaurant in Hillcroft. Renu Apa sent me to the restaurant ahead of time to check that everything was in order. When I arrived at about eight in the evening and parked in the strip mall, out of place in my new Mercedes among all the dented, secondhand cars, I found that the owner, a lean man with a moustache that crossed the boundaries of his narrow, long face, had not opened the restaurant yet, had not put the chairs in order or turned on the air conditioning. Without air conditioning, the inside smelled of old food and burnt oils. At my words, the owner turned up the air conditioning and hit the lights, which fell on a small hall, packed with unruly tables, dim-lit, rundown, and mouse ridden. I supervised the preparations for two hours, until the restaurant came alive–the laying of tablecloths and a simple decoration of a white plastic rose in a vase on top of each table.
Guests began to arrive, decked in dark suits and glittering saris, and I was still the only one from our family to greet them. Renu Apa’s ex-husband and in-laws entered the hall and I introduced myself awkwardly. They didn’t really pick up any responsibilities, just moved around like guests themselves. Then the groom’s family arrived. A stage of two upholstered chairs had been set on a dais in one corner of the restaurant, lit up by garish yellow lights and a white cloth background. The groom ascended the steps and took his place on the stage alone, and yet, there was no sign of the bride or my cousins. The guests chatted, wandered around, served themselves appetizers, then fanned themselves with the table napkins, muttering under their breaths.
I called my cousins on their cell phones, again and again, but there was no answer. The owner of the restaurant gestured to me a few times, took me aside to the kitchen area and said, “Madam, our restaurant will close soon. Shall we serve the food now?”
“Not yet,” I said, “my cousins will arrive any minute now.”
Three times he asked me, and three times I said, not yet. Finally, he found me. I was trying to hide from him by running to the bathroom. He stopped me outside the bathroom and said he was serving the food now. I nodded.
When I emerged from the bathroom, the bride had arrived. I had not seen her more than twice before. Renu Apa’s daughter looked like her, although she was a quieter, less energetic version of her mother. The bride was seated demurely beside her husband now, dressed in a bright red sari. Looking at the bride and groom, I remembered my own cousin’s weddings and mine, all the work of so many relatives that went into each arrangement, and the promise each marriage had held. As I stared at the young couple through emotional tears, I noticed Renu Apa and Shanta Apa, pulling Kanta Apa (Halima) behind them. They were dressed rather untidily in Katan saris (woven silk saris of high quality) in different shades of blue, looking hot and bothered. Kanta Apa (Halima) had covered her entire sari with a big, bulky white shawl. They sat down together at a dark table, huddled together, looking out of place and lost at their own party.
I hurried to them. “Renu Apa! What happened?”
“Dolly! Thank you for handling things. Isn’t this a beautiful restaurant? The food is excellent,” she said, with her penchant for painting everything with a rosy hue.
“Yes, what took you so long?” I pressed, still standing, hunched over in my own sari, which stuck to my body after so many hours of trying to push this wedding along, trying to make things work out. I had not realized before how exhausted I was from the effort.
“Are you angry? You look very angry,” Kanta Apa said. “You should sit down!”
I looked at her. She was scowling and scolding and negative as usual. I wanted to say to her that she looked angry, but then I realized how afraid I was of her.
“Doll, there is no need to spoil a beautiful event by fighting,” Shanta Apa said, supporting her sister’s accusation.
I was stunned. “What?” I said. “I’ve been here trying to keep the wedding party going.”
“Everybody is putting in an effort to get the wedding going, not just you,” Kanta Apa said. “No need to get in such a huff.”
I left them then. I was almost ready to leave the wedding, but I used the last of my affections to stay. Shanta Apa and Renu Apa’s children were present. Shanta Apa’s two married sons and Renu Apa’s two sons, decked out in dark suits, milled around chatting with guests. The restaurant had to stay open an hour past their closing time. I planned to escape early, with the other guests, and never return.
But when I had walked past the glass doors in my high heels, standing in the parking lot shivering in the cold wind, looking for my car keys in my purse, Renu Apa caught up with me, a dark silhouette in the night.
Seeing her, I felt my body tense. I felt cold and afraid.
“Dolly, I’m sorry,” Renu Apa called out, hobbling toward me in her high heels. “Kanta Apa was shouting at us, saying that we had ruined her life. She would not get dressed or let us leave the house. We had to sit with her for hours till we had coaxed her out. Please. Forgive me.”
I looked at my cousin in the dark. We were close once, stuck under the canopy of a mosquito net, trying to breathe on a hot summer night. The years and events in between had taken that closeness away from us. Still, when I looked into Renu Apa’s lined face, I realized how much of her effort went into taking care of Kanta Apa. People gossiped all the time about how Renu Apa and Shanta Apa had conspired to keep their elder sister from getting married, and yet, they were the ones stuck with her.
“Please, come back with us tonight. I feel so lonely and afraid, having married off my eldest child. It will be nice if you stay the night.”
“Alright,” I muttered.
Back at their apartment, Renu Apa, Shanta Apa, and I made tea standing up in the tiny kitchen on an old stove, using a tiny saucepan. It was near midnight when we finished our teas, dumped the cups in the white enamel sink, and said goodnight. Shanta Apa, whose wedding we had attended so many years ago, when she had been a bride once just like Renu Apa’s daughter, retired to bed alone. Renu Apa, who had divorced her husband, lathered moisturizer on her face and rubbed oil on her arms. Then she too, went inside her bedroom. They had made a bed for me on the sofa, in the living room, with two pillows, a cotton sheet, and a light flannel blanket. I lay down on the sofa and turned out the lamp beside me. My husband was out of town, but what of it? Even when he was in town, we simply played parts, talking only about the parties we would plan, having nothing to say to each other beyond these niceties.
We had all shut our doors and turned off our lights, preparing to slip into the unconscious. What was the unconscious, but a surrender to our separateness, the fact that we were each alone? My mother used to say, everyone dies alone. And what if our dreams were shattered, the promise of marriage a lie for each of us? We could still dream at night. As I began to feel muddled with sleep, I heard the ringing of bells, and then a woman’s passionate voice, followed by a man’s response. A conversation had struck up, deep and intimate, full of interest and curiosity, with questions asked, and answers given, back and forth.
“What is your favorite food, Jaan?” A man’s voice asked, using a term of endearment.
“Rice. And yours, Jaan?” Kanta Apa’s voice boomed in response in the dark. “What is your favorite food?”
Gemini Wahhaj is the author of the novel Mad Man (7.13 Books, Fall 2023) and the short-story collection Katy Family(Jackleg Press, Spring 2025). Her fiction is in or forthcoming in Granta, Chicago Quarterly Review, Prime Number Magazine/Press 53, Allium, Zone 3, Northwest Review, Cimarron Review, the Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Chattahoochee Review, Apogee, Silk Road, Night Train, Cleaver, Concho River Review, Scoundrel Time, Arkansas Review, Valley Voices, and other magazines. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston, where she received the James A. Michener award for fiction (judged by Claudia Rankine) and the Cambor/Inprint fellowship. She is Associate Professor of English at Lone Star College in Houston.