Maharajas in Our City

The gods changed without telling us. Our lazy summer was cut in half when the Results came in – ninety percenters lording over the just passers, smiles in newspapers cut by my dog’s paw. We had to bow before the new gods, our bribes turned back by the peons. The bigger fish were admitted into the best colleges, greasy hands behind closed doors manipulating data they didn’t touch for us. The rest of us looked abroad, willing to work as waiters in Canada, or drivers in England.

We used our English-medium articulated arguments to convince people of how bad India was. There was no scope here. There were no facilities, unless you wanted to spend lakhs for air-conditioning and five-star level food. We realized we weren’t the only rich anymore. The spaces between us grew greater. Some of us left to never talk again.


I sat in a toilet in a fast-food restaurant, my eyes picking out needles from the garbage cans. A friend waited outside, having convinced to me have some junk food once in a while. The pink and blue cubes of the flooring made a pretty grave for a moth. Two pieces of toilet paper surrounded it, big scoops waiting for patient hands. I flushed the toilet and picked up the moth with a paper towel, its embossed rose caressing the insect’s head. I didn’t want to throw it with the junkie needles and the used tampons. I packed it up in a neat little package. The body bulged out. The flaps at top hid the legs. I placed it at the edge of the bathroom mirror, flat against the wall, pulled a few free strands behind my ear, and left the moth behind.

My friend asked me what had taken me so long. I joked about the laxatives they must put in the food to get customers to eat more. She laughed and told me to dip my fries in the strawberry frostie. I did so, and it didn’t feel strange to me, the sharp salt and the sweet ice disappearing in my mouth within seconds.


I was in the parking lot of the grocery store. I was my father, hit by something I didn’t see coming, a clean slap in a bad neighborhood. My turban came askew, the careful center now an upturned mountain. It was one of the miscreants who had called me a raghead the other day. He hit me again on the head, the sharp punch a soft thump on my hair. The turban came apart, falling into my eyes. He ran away before I could raise an alarm.

I piled the cloth in my hands, slightly swaying on my feet as my vision cleared. I went inside. The cashier let me use the bathroom. He must have seen what had happened. His lips were smashed against one another, the red disappearing in an all-absorbing white of America.


I wondered what to do after graduation. A couple of my friends were going to backpack through Europe. Others went to get jobs to save for graduate schools, while the richer ones went straight to get a doctorate. I was my mother with a completed degree and a marriage offer. His family had status, and he was a landlord of fifty acres. It was a surprise that this family wanted me.

He was a Jatt or else he won’t have been allowed to propose a marriage. He was going to America. He had passed the visa interview, making him the pride of his village. It was the blood, they said. You can’t keep noble blood down. Even the Americans recognize this.

I accepted the marriage. It was set a mere month away, in the coming spring. My parents didn’t want me to change my mind. They packed my bags to go to America the night his family had come with the marriage offer.


I only had one friend. I thought I would have more friends in college, but I had one real friend. We ended up doing everything together. It irritated the both of us. She threw a tantrum once in the middle of a clothing store because they didn’t have the color in her size. The pimply attendant let the abuse wash over her. When she was done, my friend walked away, her purse clutched close to her chest. I followed her with my head down.

A boy in my writing class asked me whether I would edit his stories. His eyes were blue when I got closer. I accepted. He would mail me the stories from the school mailroom. I would pick them up every Friday, edit them from front to back and back to front and then put my copy in his mailbox. He started talking to me. There were texts, long and inconsequential, ramblings really, of writing and the future of writing, and what he thought about before he wrote, and his rituals when he finished, and could I please look over a poem he wrote yesterday.

It was a frustrating friendship but he didn’t call me to ask why I wasn’t with him at lunch or why I watched a movie with someone else. I started hanging out less with my other friend, the one with tantrums and purses. She noticed and yelled at me in the cafeteria, calling me inconsiderate and rude, a sad excuse for a friend, a loser from another nation. She stood screaming while I walked out, my back straight, and my pace measured.

The boy kept sending me stories. I edited them in front of him at lunch and he grew less nervous each time.


We stopped being we when the first one of us got married. She was a simple girl, someone from his local village. Her family stood awkwardly at the wedding. Her mother shushed her siblings. They sat beside their mother, straight faces with clothes pressed lovingly, sharp creases standing straight.

The bride wasn’t one of us. Her smile was too big, too at unease in this big banquet hall that had more decorations than anything she could ever remember. We laughed, knowing the bridegroom was standing still only because of prescription drugs, that his hair was shorn under the turban, that he hadn’t graduated college because he always had too big of a hangover. It was our secret, but she would find out soon. It was not our duty to tell.


I decided to go to graduate school. Life was still in front of me, with scholarships and grants helping penniless college graduates. I picked the university that let me stay for winter break. The boy with the stories decided to go for a MFA in the same school.

I was my grandmother marrying a man for his potential. It was a risk my parents disapproved of. My elder brother threatened to shoot my fiancé dead. Monsoon smacked outside under the gulmohar trees as his threats reverberated in the house. I knew the head of the police. I lodged a harassment complaint. The superintendent begged me to reconsider, to think of my family’s honor. I had the single-mindedness I had developed on my own. My brother spent a night in jail.

The village waited with bated breath on the morning of my brother’s release. I stood next to my fiancé. My brother walked into the house without looking at me. His bloodshot eyes spoke of a night unslept. Blood streaked the back of his long shirt. I was expelled from my parents’ house until my brother died drunk in a graveyard, hugging an old blue shirt crusted with bloodied vomit.


I went to New Delhi to catch my flight to America. My parents made me stay at a relative’s house. We had a room to ourselves, presumably their guest room. There were signs that it was lived in before. The bottle of coconut oil on the dresser had a wet ring. The bathroom had lotions and shampoos and body washes in various stages of use. The tub was filled with fresh water, cold to touch but warm for the body. In their hospitality, the only thing they forgot to give us were towels. My mother had packed a hand towel, which my father and I used before sleeping.

They were surprised, the relatives, that my parents were sending their girl to America. Their own son was studying in a local college. He stood at the doorway while the adults talked about how wasteful it was to study abroad. I wanted him to take his under turban off. The black material was cutting into his forehead. Half the cloth was damp with sweat, running down the pimples near his temples. We were family after all; he could open his hair in front of us.

After my father skillfully turned the conversation to politics, I excused myself. They let me go. I had a fourteen-hour flight, I already looked tired, my face was pale. And I was going to study hard and make them proud, right?

It was strange trying to sleep with my parents. The two beds were pushed together to make one. The edge of the bedsheet flew under the fan’s current. I longed for an air-conditioner. I knew my father thought so too, because he got up to wash his face when the sweat got unbearable. There was nothing to do but wait. The conversation with the relatives had petered out.

I was too jittery to sleep. My father made a cup of chai at two in the morning. We had to use our cellphones for light in the kitchen because we didn’t want to wake anyone. My father told me I should have asked the lady of the house to make it. But I had felt bad for her. She had spent the entire conversation in the kitchen, telling me it’s okay, she would make me more rotis, while I listened to her husband talk about love jihad.

My father found the cardamom and cinnamon, and I pulled out a Lipton tea bag. The water took three minutes to boil. My father told me that he was proud of me, that he had given me everything he could, and he hoped it was enough. I hugged him as the water started hissing, and told him we felt like maharajas in our city. He laughed in my hair. His left hand poured the water in a teacup.


I brought my writer boy home and we were more than us. His father was one of us who had left long ago. We all had families now, even the ones who had yelled at the sun that we won’t marry, even those with ugly bumps on the noses. We had stopped being we a long time ago, bright colors left from Holi refusing to go back into the mud.

The gods had changed and we had changed with them.

The boy was a hit. A tragedy returning home, a maharaja in my city. My father taught him to tie his turban, my grandmother invited him to high tea, my mother wanted to talk to his parents for a rishta, my cousin got him loose kurtas to wear. We stood together with our heads covered before putting our feet in the gurdwara water basin. The dirt was washed from our feet, swirling into the water, until it became clear again.

American Smile

I clenched my teeth, seething at this age-old American innocence, the belief that at the end of the day, Americans meant well and, really, that ought to be enough. Enough to claim the perch of fame, the pedestal of saviors.


For some women, taking the higab—that permanent oath, that fabric tattoo—can be seen as a form of sacrifice but, for my sister Soraya, one of the most fashionable women of Cairo, if not Egypt, even the world, this would be the ultimate sacrifice.

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