Nikkitha Bakshani grew up in India and the United States, and is in London to get an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths. She has worked in journalism since 2013, with a focus on food media. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Morning News, Vice, and more.
The following two chapters are excerpted from a larger project called Her Life in 9 Goodbyes, which strings together different moments in the same character’s life.
1996: The Maids
The maids of the house on Cenotaph Road wore davanis, or half-saris: a type of outfit gifted to girls in Tamil Nadu when they got their periods. Like a full sari, it has a blouse and a petticoat, but less fabric to cocoon the body. The middle child was cared for by Lakshmi, who often wore a silvery blue one that could have been raw silk but was something much cheaper. The middle child said it reminded her of moonlight.
The eldest child also had a maid, and the youngest, a boy, had three. One morning, the eldest child sat the middle child down on the water bed and said: ‘Nobody loves you. They love me because I’m the oldest, and they love our brother because he’s the youngest.’
The middle child suspected as much. Last week, the father came back from business trip to Australia with a hat, a stuffed kangaroo, and rubber snake for her brother, and just a school girl doll for her; not even a real Barbie. She still played with it, taking off her clothes to examine the hole-less crotch, but after the eldest child left the room, the middle child laid face-down on the water bed and cried violently, banging her fists so that her whole body squiggled like an eel’s. When she realised nobody heard her, she walked down the stairs to the kitchen, where some maids were sitting cross-legged on the floor, chopping onions or mixing sourdough for dosas. Others, like Lakshmi, were just gossiping. The middle child sat on Lakshmi’s lap.
‘Can you take me to your village with you?’
‘Nobody loves me.’
‘She wants to go to my village, she says,’ Lakshmi told the other maids in Tamil. ‘Did your sister tell you this?’
The middle child nodded.
‘No you’re not.’
Lakshmi had been instructed by the mother not to give the middle child food outside of mealtimes.
‘No, don’t make me.’
Lakshmi moved the middle child to one of the other maid’s laps, stood up, and put two biscuits that looked like dehydrated pieces of toast on a plate.
‘I hate rusk.’
‘You want your mummy to find out or not?’
The middle child winced.
Lakshmi walked the middle child to the balcony, where a long wooden rod hung from the ceiling by two ropes on each end. Lakshmi had to lift the middle child so she could reach it; she was to hold on to it with her hands and hang like that without support for a few minutes each day. The parents were told this made kids grow tall and slim.
‘Why won’t you take me to your village?’ said middle child, unable to hold on the wooden rod for more than a few seconds. Lakshmi caught her and lifted her back up.
‘There’s no room on the spaceship.’
Lakshmi had told the middle child she lived on the moon, on the bruise farthest to the left; she was the princess of that small island.
‘Can you say I’m your child? That you had me with the watchman?’
‘Where do you learn such nonsense?’
‘Can Devi come?’
‘No, there are too many snakes.’
Lakshmi and the middle child sniggered with their hands over their mouths.
Unlike the other maids, who were mostly teenagers—taken out of school at the age of 11 to start work—Devi was alive when India was still a British colony. She had silver hair and wore a full sari. Sometimes Lakshmi and the middle child followed Devi around the house and, when she least expected it, threw the youngest child’s rubber snake near her, so it landed like a slap. She’d screech and jump away, with reflexes of someone half her age. Lakshmi and the middle child concluded that she was either a snake in her past life or killed by one.
Some evenings, the middle child played a game with the maids in which they exchanged torn pieces of paper, which they called chits, by sliding them face-down on the floor to one another in an intricate pattern. On them were written the names of Tamil actors (Vijay was unanimously voted as the most handsome), movies, and songs; whoever matched the three correctly first won the game. The maids spoke in Tamil, and laughed with the middle child as she tried to mimic words in this language she did not need to learn, though she lived in Tamil Nadu like the rest of them. English and Hindi would see her through upper class life in India just fine. But they doted on her, practice before they were to have kids of their own. The middle child knew the birthdays of all their favourite Tamil stars, and joined the other maids as they teased one another. Lakshmi and watchman sitting on a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g; it was a tune the middle child learned in school and presented to the maids like a gift. They mixed and matched the names as they sang it in broken English.
When the mother came home from work one evening, she instructed the maids to bring the two daughters up to the room they shared. The maids slept there too, on rattan mats with no blankets. The mother wanted to assess the girls’ wardrobes. Clothes that no longer fit the girls were piled on the floor and offered to the maids, in case they wanted to gift their younger sisters any Western clothes. Lakshmi watched as the mother instructed the middle child to remove and put on clothes.
‘Oh god,’ the mother closed her eyes and turned her head away from the middle child, pointing at her stomach. ‘Look at those tyres. Lakshmi!’
‘Has she been playing outside?’
The mother brought her face down to level with the middle child and inserted a finger in the middle child’s belly button. ‘Thank god I can still reach it.’
That night, when Lakshmi gently and repeatedly patted the middle child, as was customary for the maids to do until the children fell asleep, she also held her hand. The mother wasn’t so bad; she was kind to the maids and paid them fair wages. Lakshmi had cousins who had to sleep in quarters outside the house, or in the stairwells of apartment buildings. The mother was educated, working, not like some of the housewives the other maids complained about from previous jobs, who’d follow them around the house to see if they were cleaning properly. If the mother said the child needs to eat less and play outside, she shouldn’t disobey her. She thought of her own mother, who let her father gamble away all the money she sent back to them. It was good to be strict.
The middle child had a ritual that she did not tell anybody else about, not even Lakshmi. After she pretended to be asleep and noticed everyone else was too, she took the small alarm clock off the nightstand, changed the alarm to earlier in the morning (she could do this in the dark, having memorised the feel of it), and put it under her pillow. When the alarm rang, the noise was muffled and she quickly turned it off, set it back to its intended time, and walked around the house with soft steps. She loved being awake when nobody else was; the world felt like her own, like she had a purpose to inhabit it. Her -est siblings were sleeping, but she was sleepwalking, like she saw Heidi do in her favourite Saturday morning cartoon. It was the only time she did not want to be noticed. She’d return to her bed just before the alarm went off and everyone else woke.
One morning, as the middle child was sitting on the kitchen floor playing with her doll and the rubber snake, Devi saw her and screamed gutterally. It seemed to come from deep within her, that box of essential soul that stayed with her as she jumped from life to life, body to body, as the Hindu scriptures Lakshmi taught the middle child about said. She had just returned from the fish market; the pomfrets and karvaadu she bought fell to the floor and scattered. One pomfret slid to the middle child’s foot, its slack jaw against her toe like it was about to eat her, in cruel irony. It stared up at her resentfully with its rubber dots for eyes as the middle child stayed silent. The whole house woke up; Cenotaph Road stirred.
‘I thought there was a snake in the house,’ Devi told the mother in Tamil.
‘It’s fucking rubber!’ She responded in English, and fired Devi on the spot. The maids gossiped all day.
‘After all those years.’
‘Could happen to any of us.’
‘She was very old.’
‘Does the boy really need three maids?’
The middle child locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out. ‘Everybody is angry with me,’ she told Lakshmi through the keyhole. She didn’t know what guilt was, so she registered it as disgust, a more intense version of the way she felt when her sister taunted her as she was changing her clothes: shame shame puppy shame, all the monkeys know your name. When she came out of the bathroom, her round face blurry from tears, Lakshmi took her hands and realised they were covered in bite marks. It was a nervous habit the girl had—anytime a surge of emotion hit her, even if it was boredom, she banged her head against the wall or dropped a heavy encyclopaedia on her foot. She always stopped short of a real injury, as though flirting with pain. Lakshmi never told the mother about this because she didn’t understand it, and that made her feel incompetent. Today it infuriated her, so she took a deep breath and slapped the middle child.
‘What did I tell you about the biting? So hungry you ate your own hands, huh? Fatso.’
The middle child gave up on her morning sleepwalks. By now she naturally woke up earlier than her alarms, but just laid in bed awake and thought of the dead, helpless, rubber dot eyes of the pomfret. She’d known Devi for as long as she could remember. She saw her more than she saw the mother. She missed Devi’s big gold-plated earrings, which she’d press like a doorbell if she wanted to ask for something, usually food. Devi, being older, always mixed some sugar into milk or broke a murukku in half for her, not understanding why the mother cared so much that the girls be slim.
These games stopped after Devi left, as the maids were too scared the mother would find out and take it as evidence they were not taking their responsibilities seriously. The middle child grew more and more attached to the cartoons on television. The Powerpuff Girls and SWAT Kats made up for the noise of the maids’ games. The big house was so silent without it. She knew who was in the house just by listening to the echoes of footsteps against the marble floors: the maids scurried around barefoot, her parents and their guests’ shoes clapped against the floor like cavalry.
One Saturday morning, while the three children were watching Captain Planet and Lakshmi was folding laundry near them, the eldest child turned to her.
‘Get me water.’
‘You shut up.’
‘I’m telling mummy you told me to shut up.’
Lakshmi pushed herself off the floor and walked to the kitchen, the dress she was folding still open on the floor. She couldn’t stand the eldest child, who bullied all the maids around like she owned them. Sometimes she thought of running away, like Sundar the watchman suggested when they fooled around in the backyard. A few of her cousins had done that—run away with men they met on the job—and no one had heard from them since. They probably became husbands who beat their wives late at night until they howled; neighbors might tsk-tsk and say, in nasal voices, so sad, but never do anything about it. And she couldn’t leave the middle child, whom she was certain, at times, that she loved, though the other maids warned her it was just an illusion, an income. While reaching for the faucet on the Aquafina filter, she looked at the regular sink with an idea. She filled the glass with unfiltered water, which would surely have at least one parasite in it.
‘What are you doing?’
The middle child looked up at her. Lakshmi adjusted her davani.
‘Isn’t that poison?’
‘No. That’s for me. That’s the water I drink.’
‘Can I drink it?’
‘It’s for moon people. You’ll get sick if you drink it.’
‘Why are you here?’
‘Amrita told me to bring her water, because you were taking too long.’
As Lakshmi filled a glass with water from the filter, she felt the middle child watching her. The middle child was suspicious, but she wasn’t sure of what, so she took the water from Lakshmi’s hand and darted out of the kitchen quickly to give it to her sister.
A few weeks later, Lakshmi’s mother came to visit the house on Cenotaph Road. ‘The queen is coming,’ the middle child said during lunch that day, when both her parents were present.
‘Yes, she is,’ her father said, ‘and so is the Duke of Edinburgh.’
‘Lakshmi has a father?’
‘She’s always talking nonsense,’ the mother said as she scratched her daughter’s head, taken aback by and a little afraid of her own tenderness. She did not want to be indulgent. She took her hand off the girl’s head. ‘Darling, don’t be cute.’
When Lakshmi’s mother delivered the news that Lakshmi was to get married to a man from her village at the end of the year, the other maids showered her with sex advice. It didn’t take long for Lakshmi to figure out that, from their detailed descriptions of ‘what men like’, the watchman had also deflowered some of them. This made her feel both sick and slightly better about leaving him. The middle child refused to speak to her for days. When she came around, she asked Lakshmi if he was a moon prince, and whether they’d eventually take over the island.
‘No,’ she said sadly, ‘he’s a school teacher.’
‘Does he look like Vijay?’
‘No. He looks like no one.’
When Lakshmi left Cenotaph Road, she wore the silvery blue davani because the middle child loved it so, even though her breasts had outgrown it by this point. She dragged her toe along the streaks of the marble floor, feeling its coolness, knowing she might never walk on such a luxurious floor again. ‘Give her attention, OK?’ she warned the other maids, wagging her finger. When the day she had to leave finally arrived, the other maids peeled the middle child off her as she got into the auto rickshaw with her mother. The middle child did not get a new maid, and shared her brother’s and sister’s.
One evening, before going into her parents’ bedroom to ask if she could use the treadmill—something she hoped would impress her mother—she heard her parents arguing.
‘The kids will get spoiled here,’ the father said. ‘See how Amrita bosses people around?’
‘But I just bought the Spencer Plaza shop. It’s right next to the escalators.’
‘I know a man who can rent it from you.’
‘You already asked?’
‘When was the last time we saw all the kids together?’
‘I’ll have to learn to drive.’
The middle child rushed back to her room.
‘Mummy and daddy are getting a divorce!’
The eldest child, who was counting the tubes of Lip Smackers she got as birthday presents, told her to shut up.
‘You’re such a liar,’ she said, counting the flavours in her hand—Coca-Cola, Watermelon, Ice Cream Cake—like money. ‘Stop staring, you can’t have one.’ But she rolled one titled Root Beer Float across the floor anyway, which the middle child opened and smelled before applying on her lips and her wrists. When she woke up at 4 a.m., the sweet, unfamiliar scent lingered.
‘My weird family nickname? Middle.’
‘Odd,’ Patrick said. ‘But cool.’
‘They always teased me for having “middle child syndrome,”’ Muskan said. Always going on about how nobody loves me.’
‘Did no one love you?’
‘They loved me fine.’
Patrick was from Kansas, which made Muskan think of tornados and little else. She told him this on their first date and regretted it at once. She really liked him. Not even really, but un-really; it was spiritual, like they’d been lovers in a past life. When she first saw Patrick, something pinched. It was like the time she walked up hundreds of stone steps to a monastery on top of a hill in Florence, and only when she turned around to pick up the water bottle she dropped did she notice the view of the city within its fortress, triangular roofs undulating like gowns at a ballroom dance. All the beauty of Florence in kansasroyal02’s face. Muskan was so stunned that instead of saying hi, she asked Patrick if he would like some liquorice. She had some leftover Halloween candy in her pocket.
Patrick was the eldest of five brothers, and he designed websites of a living, to which Muskan said: ‘No way! I use them!’ As Muskan was talking about an exposé she read on the New York Times about how nail salon owners exploited undocumented workers—how these women lived, stacked atop one another, behind the curtains of Chinese grocery stores in Queens—Patrick reached for both her hands.
‘What colour are your nails? Blue or silver?’
‘It’s “Flirty in Florence.”’
‘No,’ she said. ‘But my dream job is to come up with dumb names for nail polish colours.’
‘And what’s your current job? Besides using websites?’
‘I take PDFs of print magazine articles, copy and paste them onto TextEdit, then I copy and paste them onto WordPress, and they become online articles. For a luxury travel magazine.’
‘Want to play darts?’
When Patrick kissed Muskan, the darts were still in her hand. They left the bar and kissed outside too, and at every intersection on the way back to Muskan’s apartment. He stayed the night but they did not have sex, but only because she had her period. When Muskan reached for the shoebox at the top of the cupboard to get a tampon, it fell on her head and various purple and yellow pieces of plastic cascaded to the floor. They laughed themselves to sleep. Muskan thought she heard his heart beating.
In the morning, Patrick realised he lost a contact lens.
‘What’s your power?’ Muskan asked him.
‘My power?’ He asked, puzzled.
‘Prescription,’ she replied too soon. Although Muskan spent the past sixteen years in America, a random Indian-ism would announce itself. She gave him a contact lens—‘keep, obviously, not borrow, haha’—and marvelled at the fact their vision was equally terrible. If they got together they could split the cost of contact lenses. Muskan was glad to see Patrick go, before she said anything stupid out loud.
Muskan texted various friends: The curse has been lifted!
Various friends texted back: There was never a curse. You go, girl!
Muskan: Astrology Zone said that Saturn, planet of hard lessons, would leave my house of true love, and Venus would enter.
Various friends: #ByeFelicia to Saturn! Susan Miller does not lie.
Two hours later, Muskan: He hasn’t texted. Should I text him?
Two hours and two minutes later: I texted him.
Muskan and Patrick set a date for the next weekend. She decided she would wear a short velvet dress with a sweater, and blue socks with coconut trees on them—classic with one quirky detail. Despite knowing her outfit days in advance, she fussed in front of the mirror and showed up 20 minutes late. Patrick called to say that the cocktail bar he picked was quiet at first but got crowded with frat boys soon after, and that they should go somewhere else, so they met at a quiet pub on Avenue C instead. Muskan sensed that its lack of atmosphere bothered Patrick, but tried not to overthink it.
They spoke about living in New York—the skyscraper-high rent, their favourite subway buskers. A baseball game played on the bar’s TV; the Yankees vs. the Kansas City Royals. She asked him if that was his team, even though she knew that from his username. He said he couldn’t continue with the date and would have to leave immediately. By the time she realised he was not joking, he had put on his scarf and left the bar. She followed, then chased him down the street, demanding answers.
‘It’s not a good time,’ he said.
‘I’m very anxious. I have an anxiety disorder.’
‘That’s okay!’ Muskan said. ‘I’m depressed!’
When he turned around the corner, she realised she left her winter coat at the bar. She walked back, paid for both their drinks—‘my date ditched me,’ she told the bartender, who did not ask—and walked back towards First Avenue to get the subway. Two girls sitting on a stoop, balancing a box of pizza, stopped her.
‘I was reading about this British word that means, like, the moment you realise a stranger’s life is just as complicated as yours, and I totally just had that with you,’ one of them said. ‘Crazy, right?’
‘Yeah,’ replied Muskan.
‘Here, have some pizza.’
The girl dangled a slice of pizza with her two fingers, and Muskan took before a drop of red oil could fall to the sidewalk, as it threatened to do.
‘Weren’t we just talking about that word?’
‘We literally were.’
Muskan ended up going to a bar with the two girls, desperate to change the course of her evening.
‘I’ve just been on so many dates that end,’ Muskan yelled at the girls so they could hear her above the music. ‘Badly. Dates that end badly. All dates end.’
‘Me too,’ one of the girls said.
‘He jizzed in my eye by accident,’ Muskan shouted over the music.
‘Oh my god.’
‘But wiped it off really gently.’
They did not hear her.
‘My heart just feels like an eraser, you know?’ She said even louder. ‘The pink ones kids use in school. You know the ones, they’re shaped like parallelograms?’
‘I miss erasers.’
‘You know how they turn to shreds, after you use them? They rub away grammar mistakes, long division problems, doodles, and they turn to shreds, make nothing and become nothing. That’s my heart. My fucking lead-poisoned heart.’
The girls turned away to say hi to another friend who’d just joined them. Muskan left, realising that her decision to drink with two first-year university girls didn’t out-story what happened before it. She took a taxi home. As it drove across the Williamsburg Bridge towards Brooklyn, she turned back to look at Manhattan. It didn’t lift her spirits, but there was no denying its magnificence. She once had a dream in which the island lifted off the water and tipped to the left, all its buildings sliding down crashing to the bottom where the Twin Towers once stood, as though they weren’t built into the ground but simply placed on the surface like toys. All this happened as she watched from a rooftop bar across the river.
When she woke up the next morning, she realised she would be late for lunch with her mother, so she took a taxi back across the bridge to Manhattan, the view not saying much this time around. When she approached her mother, who was sitting at the table with a glass of white wine, Muskan expected the usual insults: Late as usual, and for what? Hair looks frizzy, dark circles, have you been going to the gym?
‘Darling, this wine is so refreshing,’ her mother said. ‘It tastes like frangipane. I ordered you a glass.’
Now Muskan couldn’t even blame her mother for her problems. She hung her head and did the unthinkable; she asked her mother for advice.
‘Sometimes people like you and sometimes they don’t,’ her mother said with a shrug.
It wasn’t the answer Muskan was hoping for, but it was inarguably the truth. The two fell silent for ten minutes. Her mother checked Facebook on her phone, and Muskan pushed a boat-shaped crust of bread around a puddle of olive oil, which her mother had salted and peppered prior to her arrival.
‘Everything happens for a reason,’ her mother said suddenly, facing Tenth Avenue. ‘Look out this window. All you see is all there is. That boy has turned around the corner, no longer in your vision, and perhaps if he was in your vision, he would have led you straight into a car crash. But I hope you at least put your hair in a ponytail?’
Eureka. But Muskan lost the urge to blame her mother. She was 26 now; to do so would be childish. So she chuckled and put her hair in a ponytail, satisfied that her mother at least tried to be helpful. She also felt comfort in her mother’s familiar insults. Since that promising first date meant nothing, Muskan needed at least one prediction—that her mother would find something to criticise—to be right.