I attempt to snatch the drawing pad away from her, trying to interrupt her conversation with the paper. Those lines she so delicately balances and the colors she splashes in-between slowly spread across her manila canvas. I cross my arms and petulantly whine at her to play with me. But she does not listen. She’s bent over the paper, her back arched against the wall and seated barefoot near the weeds. A peacock slowly emerges from her pencil, head cocked slightly to the side and feathers displayed in its mating fan. It appears to bat an eyelash. Startled, I step back into the sunlight, but she motions at me to wait just a bit.
I lower myself down next to her, watching her put the last stroke on her peacock all blue and green and gold. The same colors on her threadbare blouse have turned lifeless from repeated scrubbing. But the paper bird is perfect, not a single drop of color smudged in the wrong place and not one exaggerated proportion. She stares wistfully at the creature before handing it to me. And out of habit, I sign “Gauri” in deep black ink in the corner because she does not know how to. She quietly murmurs a thank you and hands me the drawing. She knows I love her peacocks more than her other sketches.
She brushes her tousled brown hair out of her face and tries to pat down the ruffles of her skirt before turning to me, a wide smile dancing on her face. “Akka, catch!” she cries, throwing a big green plastic ball at me. She darts quickly from corner to corner, gleefully embracing the remaining rays of sunlight as they spill into the courtyard. Akka means sister.
The ball soars through the air, sometimes bouncing off the guava and mango trees lining the fence. The ripe fruit dangles just beneath the magpie’s nest, waiting to be bitten into, the juice dribbling down our sticky chins. Sometimes the ball careens off a bangle vendor’s cart jostling down the road that runs past my grandmother’s house. We’ll run up to him, demanding he give us our green ball back, while he tries to entice us into buying his sparkling ornaments. Gauri loves these bangles. She’ll run her finger along the ones she likes most, imitation gold leaf encrusted with pavé emerald and ruby glass chips. She never buys any, those twenty rupees no more than a dream, but I know the same shade of fiery chili pepper red will be tossed onto her drawing pad tomorrow.
I wake up each morning to my grandmother’s piping hot chappatis with spicy red chutney and ice cold milk, buttery and smooth. But Gauri never sits with me. She spends her mornings in the heavy summer air slowly dipping clothing into the well behind the house. Water laces between her fingers as she carefully lays out each sari, each T-shirt, and each pair of jeans before squeezing the clothes so tightly her face contorts with the effort. The soft jingling of bells and communal voices fill the air as the daily morning prayers drift out from each house. And while I pray with my family in the cool morning air, Gauri rinses and repeats her weary chore over the hours that bring the sun to its hottest point in the sky.
The Gauri I know who plays catch and draws sketches of beautiful peacocks for me is lost somewhere amongst the soapy water and the dust she sweeps into the corners of the afternoons. I ask her why she does so many chores for my grandparents, and she always replies that it is her duty. And with the characteristic childhood innocence that brushes away the incomprehensible, I dismiss her replies without a thought.
In the little time she’s allowed from her “duties,” she is always pressed up against the dirty courtyard wall, the drawing pad in her lap. Her pencil is poised as daintily in the air as the baton of a conductor the moment before the symphony begins. A symphony of colorful grace notes, lacy flourishes, and embroidered codas dance upon the dresses she sketches. Lime green saris wound loosely around a bamboo frame, tight-fitting kurtas peppered with golden thread and long flowing lehengas that look like waves undulating over folds of cloth. I can recognize each color she used in her sketches – some from the juicy ripe limes she helps my grandmother put in biryani and some from the bangle seller’s cart. Gauri claims she’s drawn a thousand dresses over the years, each one unique from the one before it.
I ask her why she draws so many dresses and not as many peacocks. In a soft whisper, barely audible, she murmurs she wants to design clothes. But the way she mouths her words makes it seem as if she is afraid to confess this, afraid to proclaim that she, too, has the right to dream and weave her dreams amidst her dresses. Impatiently, I tug on her sleeve. I want another peacock.
My grandmother always tells me not to trouble Gauri, saying the “poor girl” has “enough to struggle with already.” But these phrases are too foreign a language to my mind and as such, they simply recede into scattered shards of memories. For me, life is like Gauri’s peacock – not a feather out of place or a hint of color missing. Mornings are full of lazy sunshine, afternoons bring family trickling in with recipes for a new kind of masala, and as the last rays of sunlight spread across our garden, Gauri and I share her drawings.
One day, Gauri is drawing a peach-colored dress, so light and airy it looks like it might blow off the page if I breathe too strongly on it. But it is plain, with none of the usual flourishes she places on her creations. She lifts her face as if to judge my reaction, but stops short of meeting my eyes, her attention suddenly diverted by someone walking slowly towards the house. The man is wearing a frayed plaid shirt, edges encrusted with dirt and grime, and scruffy khaki pants. In his hands is a parcel tied up with string, and on his face is a grim, stolid expression.
Gauri’s eyes grow wide, and as she stands up abruptly, the drawing pad slips from her clasp, staining the peach dress with dirt. Before rushing inside, she turns to me and says only one word. “Appa.” The word struck me as alien. Gauri had never spoken of her father or of any of her family for that matter. She was like a shadow to me, slipping away during the nights and tiptoeing in during the mornings. The question of where she vanished at the end of the day had never really occurred to me.
I follow her inside and see Gauri’s father handing out sweets to my grandparents, little round laddoos perfectly golden and crunchy. He offers me one, too, and smiles at my childish delight. “For Gauri’s marriage,” he says before handing her the parcel he is carrying for her. I repeat the phrase to myself. She rips the parcel open.
It is peach, the same pastel shade she’d chosen for the last dress she sketched on her drawing pad. Her father motions at her to try on the dress, and as she tugs it on and slowly turns in a circle, I catch a glimpse of her face. Her expression is muted, almost dazed, by the dark cloud of realization that had crept over her. There is a change hanging in the stagnant afternoon air, but it is not yet tangible to my innocent mind. Something about my Gauri is different.
We left India shortly thereafter. Back home, my mom hands me the phone to talk to my grandmother, and the only thought that flits through my mind is Gauri, but instead, I talk about my last few days of summer, school about to start, and the last movie I watched. But just before hanging up, I manage to stammer out a few words. ”How is Gauri?” My grandmother pauses a bit before answering. Gauri no longer works at her house. She now lives with her family, with her husband, and with her in-laws. Later, I overhear my parents discussing how her marriage had brought much-needed money to her family, but it still didn’t make much sense to me. Why would a 13-year-old be forced to marry a man more than double her age?
It is said that time waters down pain, but time also tricks its culprits into believing that the incomprehensible can be understood. And so it tricked me, too. In a few months, the confusion slowly crept away into the shadows, and Gauri became nothing more than a story. And as the year drew closer to an end and summer began to loom on the horizon again, we found ourselves packing for yet another trip to India.
I stepped into my grandmother’s house, reveling in its familiarity. Yet it was no longer the same without Gauri there. I wanted to see her one more time. Just once. Just once to say goodbye and wish her well in her married life. And so I cajoled my grandmother into asking her to visit one evening. I spent the whole morning waiting, fantasizing about all the sketches she’d draw and all the games we’d play.
When Gauri walked in, I almost didn’t recognize her. A sari woven in the muted tones of a married woman was draped over her body, tucked neatly in at the waist. Her hair was up, no longer wild and free, and part of her sari covered her head. When she walked past me, she never looked up, her eyes cast down at the bundle in her arms. I called her name, and she glanced at me for a brief second. A smile seemed to flicker across her face before it vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. Perhaps she saw herself in my eyes for a moment, just before she remembered her unrealized dreams. She was so quiet I wondered if she had forgotten how to talk, but more so I wondered if she had forgotten me. My grandmother asked her how she had been and if she was happy, but her responses were murmured so quietly and were so brief I barely heard them. She cradled an infant in her arms, gently rocking her back and forth. And in that moment, I could feel Gauri’s discomfort. She knew that I could never understand her limited choices, but she didn’t blame me.
India was no longer like Gauri’s peacock to me. It was now a place of crude reality and silent acceptance. It was the place where Gauri’s drawing pad lay face down in the dirt and where she left to do her duty without demur. It was the place of a thousand torn dresses. It was a place of limited expectations and forced acquiescence. And as I sat there watching her cradle her beautiful little daughter, I was afraid. Afraid that her daughter would grow into a strong-willed young woman with hopes and dreams of her own that she would never come to realize.