Thursday, September 06, 2007

Write Stuff Short Story Contest: Skin

Music plays everywhere, the Punjabi drumbeats that always sound exactly like happiness to me. My feet itch to dance, but it’s my mendhi party, so I sit instead, as the three mendhi artists write my fate on my hands and feet. I’m a bride. Finally, as my parents would say in relief. Finally, as my aunts and uncles would sigh. Finally, as my whole culture would shout, one collective shudder of joy. I had escaped that horrible fate, the one everyone had predicted when I went away to college. I wasn’t going to be some rebellious American girl, like Dadiji had predicted, staring balefully into her chai cup. Every relative was full of stories that had to be told. Warnings that had to be delivered. They tried to convince me. “Not that you shouldn’t go to college, beta. It’s important for you to be a smart, well educated girl. But…go closer to home. Stay with your parents. Lots of crazy things happen in this world. It’s not like home, you know. I see what it’s like. I watch the news.” I only managed to escape by promising that I would always remember who I was. Who I had to be.

Since all I could move was my head, I concentrated on watching the partiers, these people who came together for every wedding, naming, funeral, then scattered themselves to the winds again. These people who had seen me grow up in steps at each event. Family that never seemed to change, that seemed to exist only to celebrate, dressed in fine silks, bent by heavy gold jewelry. I couldn’t connect these people to the mundane tasks of life any more. It was like we kept them into storage and brought them out for parties.

I know how much my parents saved and scrimped for today. I remember my mother tracing her hands on the big motel ledger, muttering numbers to herself, chanting prayers for our prosperity in Hindi. They wanted to step out of the day to day too…everyone here was pretending to be in a Bollywood movie, or else back in India. Outside this hall might be gray Atlanta skies, but inside, we were all in Bombay. For a few days, my whole family stepped back into their native skin, speaking their language, eating their food, telling the same old stories and jokes, and singing the same songs that had been sung at their weddings.

All of the women invited were sitting around me on the floor, getting less elaborate mendhi on their hands, laughing as they tossed compliments and teased each other. Babies and toddlers ran around their mothers, sitting on the floor, thrilled to be taller than Mummy for once.

So I watched them, these mendhi women as they held their cones of putty like pencils and concentrated on covering every inch of my skin. They tucked their mangal sutras into their buns and wiped the tips of their cones carelessly on the old cotton saris they wore for their work. The green goop feels cool on me, like cucumbers on your eyes after a night at a smoky club. Not that I would know anything about that, ha ha. My brown skin turns into a canvas, full of swirls and pictures and lines. Telling the ageless story of every Indian wedding through my skin. I tried not to shift too much. One false move and everything that was so clear now, would smudge and become unrecognizable.

They continue to write on me, to draw the ancient wishes that would help turn me, for one day, into an incarnation of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth and Good Fortune.

And I wanted to be that. I wanted to make my parents proud, to take the seven steps that would turn me into a woman, into a wife. To wear the bridal sari and the sacred markings on my forehead, the jeweled bindi of a bride.

I wanted the mendhi to write over everything that had come before this day. The tumbled kisses as we danced, he and I. The feel of his calluses on my skin—hard meeting soft. The way his skin grew whiter when I told him, harsh so he would leave, that I would never choose him over my parents, over everything I was.

The way I felt it in my skin when he left and slammed the door.

My parents were surprised when I told them I was finally ready to be married. But they tugged on the family network and before I knew it, I was engaged. I like him, my betrothed. Like my parents would say, “He’s a nice boy. Good family.”

The mendhi was done. The women stood up, wiping their hands on their laps and stretching. Everyone crowded around me, their bare feet sounding like the tabla drums beating through the speakers. This was their favorite part of the ceremony.

“Look and see, Nisha…now you have to try to find his name in your mendhi. That's how you know he's the one who is fated for you!” I looked down at my hands, covered now by a gorgeous intricate design.

I tried, stared intently at hands grown beautiful and foreign. And they waited, these women I’ve known forever, waiting for me to become one of them.

I tried, muttered something. The aunties laughed and shouted, "She's just too modest, a proper blushing bride!"

But that wasn't the truth.

The truth is, I couldn't find it.
For more entries in the Write Stuff Short Story Contest, go here.

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Blogger Becca said...

I love this it, love it! Your stories are so full of atmosphere and texture, and I always find a character to empathize and identify with.

You are the best :)

3:24 PM, September 06, 2007  
Blogger Lisa said...

This is fantastic. I was transported and now I'll wonder all night what the future holds for this bride.

3:50 PM, September 06, 2007  
Anonymous leah said...

i love the descriptions of the mendhi as writing the brides fate on her skin, writing on her skin as a canvas and drawing ancient wishes. beautiful story!

4:05 PM, September 06, 2007  
Anonymous Write Stuff said...

Hi Mardougrrl!

I counted 914 words in your story. Good work! Good luck in the contest and thanks for entering!


8:19 PM, September 06, 2007  
Blogger Jo said...

My favourite!

5:03 AM, September 07, 2007  
Blogger Rach said...

I was so there with you when I was reading. Fantastic writing that left me so absorbed in your words

6:24 AM, September 07, 2007  
Blogger paisley said...

and i must say your own writing is equally as intriguing... excellent story,, an insiders look for those of us that will never be there...

8:04 AM, September 07, 2007  
Anonymous Manictastic said...

An entire new culture just opened up to me. Thank you!

11:35 AM, September 07, 2007  
Blogger John B. said...

Marvelous--an emotionally-complex ending.

9:57 AM, September 09, 2007  
Blogger coarse gold girl said...

You are brilliant! Thank you! How you captured the cultural and familial expectations,baggage and customs while also writing about family in a way that transcends all cultural boundaries--amazing. KEEP WRITING. banish all the inhibitions and internal censor--write because you are good at it!


4:34 AM, September 12, 2007  
Blogger deirdre said...

I loved this story, but then I'm always entranced by your work. The colors come off the page. Culture clashes and secret hopes and a perfect turn of phrase all come together perfectly.

9:56 PM, October 10, 2007  

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