Akshay and Sudha stepped off the transit stop closest to their house and Sudha had a premonition that her mother was upset. They missed the school bus because Sudha had been late leaving her classroom. Akshay silently glowered at his 16 year old sister for delaying his meal.
“What’s your excuse this time?”
Akshay was not given to conversation which made every attempt seem abrupt and almost always accidental. When they were at home, their parents insisted that they speak to each other in their first language. But the heavy influence of English at school and in the world made their conversation a bilingual fluctuation.
Sudha felt that her silence would be a greater crime than her delay, so she started with, “I was helping Avani…”
Akshay scoffed as he heard the name and Sudha shut up hastily. She would not tolerate her brother’s judgement on whom she called her friends.
“You don’t see me scoffing at your lame friends!” she protested, hoping that it was more hunger than an actual distaste of her preferences which annoyed him.
“That Avani is a bad sort,” remarked Akshay, unfazed at the comment leveled a his own friends. He was more immune to her opinions than she was to his. Avani was one of the popular figures in school who could only be idolized or despised. She was not given to moderation and neither were the people who formed an opinion of her.
Sudha had nothing to say to that. Her brother’s peer group might comprise of awkward Call of Duty playing nerds who were socially inept, but they didn’t make as striking an influence on their family as her friend Avani.
“Even our parents don’t like her,” he added cementing his argument.
Rohini was a conservative religious Indian woman who had nearly passed out when Avani turned up at their door step at her daughter’s request. She was in heavy make-up and a very short, tight leather skirt which revealed a tattoo on her thigh. Rohini couldn’t understand her English queries but she assumed this girl had something to do with Sudha. Sudha was duly summoned and she had never felt more embarrassed under her mother’s piercing glare, though Avani was oblivious to it. She had quickly ushered Avani into her own room before her shell-shocked mother could recover enough for a response.
“My goodness, who is that girl? Look at her terrible appearance.” were Rohini’s first words as the door was shut on Avani. Sudha was grateful that her mother didn’t know English and that Avani couldn’t make sense of what she might have overheard.
“Ma, she’s a friend..”
“A friend?! Child, she has no modesty at all! Is this how the women of her household teach her to present herself to the world?! How can you call such people your friends?!”
“We just….She needed help in the math assignment, so…I didn’t want to turn her away.”
There was a very pronounced silence, and Sudha was sure that the divine names were silently invoked upon her to find the right guidance in her life, and upon Avani to see the error of her ways and adopt a more scrupulous lifestyle. Continued visits did not alter the first impression. As the anxious, stay-at-home mother, Rohini suspected every evil of peer pressure to befall her innocent daughter, and Avani seemed to her the very embodiment of all the corruption that she imagined.
Sudha was tired of defending herself. Often there had been nasty outbursts. Sudha had claimed that if they trusted her rigidly enforced morals, then perhaps they were strong enough to withstand the alleged moral degradation brought on by influences like Avani. She wondered why her family didn’t trust her with her own safety. After all, she could make decisions herself and she was mature enough to accept the consequences of her choice.
Nevertheless, Sudha tried not to bring her up in conversation with her family. It wasn’t her fault that Avani liked her. She wondered if Avani would think her less cool if she knew that her mother wasn’t educated, or that she had never owned anything remotely risque or that she didn’t have boyfriend, or that she wasn’t from as liberal a family as her own.
“What did she want anyway?” asked Akshay interrupting her reverie as they walked home.
“She needed some help with the biology homework due next week.”
“And that took so long?”
“We ended up talking about…..stuff.”
Akshay didn’t want to know further. He didn’t understand what all the girls had to constantly keep each other updated about all the time. As adolescents, they were still evolving into the world of discovering adulthood. As much as Akshay didn’t want his little sister to grow up, he knew he couldn’t challenge the forces that did. Spare monologues between his group of bespectacled introverts were always a concerted effort to avoid mentioning the “stuff” because a lasting awkwardness would prevail. It was the sort of discussion that their parents would cringe if they heard, but it was part of getting along with a cosmopolitan peer group.
“Stop letting her use you for her homework,” growled Akshay, changing tactics and feeling suddenly protective of his chaste sister.
“Why do you, of all people, have a problem with her? She can’t be ‘too modern’ for you.”
Akshay snorted at the euphemism. “Too modern” was how his parents classified anything that was unpalatable to their customs.
“Come on, tell me. What’s your problem with her?”
There was the obvious fact that there were far too many stories about her navigating the word of mouth as they traveled from the corridors of her classroom to his own. He knew that she strung about the boys in his class to get what she wanted and had left behind many rumor-mills, broken hearts, unfinished stories and a very sour aftertaste. Whatever little he knew of her, he didn’t want her to be his sister’s friend.
“You know what they say…”
“Since when did you start believing what the gossip says? She didn’t even know who you were before we spoke to each other. How can she annoy you when you don’t even know her?”
“She’s too….too annoying,” he justified, pouncing on the pathetic word as though it perfectly captured all that he was trying to convey about her. He could have called her that perfect expletive, but his conscience would not permit him to swear in front of his sister in either language. She probably knew what he was about to say but he didn’t want to test the boundaries of her vocabulary. After all, the same mouth might be called to chant the holy Sanskrit names in the evening prayers.
“Why does she want to talk to you?” came the deflection. Sudha was too sheltered to be considered remotely glamorous and it surprised him that someone like Avani would seek out his goody-two-shoes sister as a friend.
“I’m just a good listener, I guess,” shrugged Sudha. “She likes to talk you know, about her boyfriend and…”
“Spare me the details,” cut in Akshay, wincing at the thought of her discovering some of Avani’s fabled amorous atrocities.
“Ma will definitely yell at me,” mused Sudha as she took her shoes off as she stepped inside the door. She saw Akshay turn his back to her and wondered if he felt that she deserved the chastisement that was to follow. After all, she had never worn shorts or smoked or even remotely attempted anything suggestible to a boy. But she liked to hear of Avani’s conquests like incredible fables from a different world.
“Children, why are you so late?” came the inevitable despair mingled with relief as Rohini rushed to serve the food warm.
“Ma, I..” began Sudha on cue, bracing to face the storm at the mention of the notorious name.
“My last class stretched on and the transit was late,” said Akshay, overriding his sister.
His mother and sister calmed instantly for completely different reasons.
“Oh, you poor children,” continued Rohini in a flurry. “You could have called us at home and told us you were late. Wash quickly, the meal is almost cold now.”
Sudha silently acceded, confused at her brother’s magnanimity. Akshay silently congratulated himself on preventing another one of his mother’s long-winded interrogations about Sudha’s life decisions.
“Here, do you want another helping of rice? Sudha, why don’t you try the Spinach curry? How was school today? What did you learn?”
The questions continued but a response wasn’t expected. Sudha munched her rice slowly, wondering why he had stepped in for her. Maybe she would tell her the truth later. Akshay, on the other hand, rationalized that if the women must have their shouting matches they could do so once he was safely locked up with his xBox.
“I owe you, big brother,” beeped the text message on his phone. Akshay shoveled food ravenously and wondered if his protectiveness was spoiling Sudha’s ability to stand up for herself.