Brown Girl in the Ring

By Mandira Pattnaik

Mom lets us grind the spices not because she wants us girls to have fun in the kitchen but because she could do with some help. Millie peels the ginger; Lily uses the mortar and pestle to grind nine pods of garlic, three teaspoons of fenugreek seeds and half a cup of sliced onions; I add spoonfuls of water when the spice pastes become too dry. With the batches done, we put them in line like on a conveyor belt for Mom to put, in quick succession, into the wok on high heat. 

We, girls from India, must learn the art of cooking—for any of us, to have any chance, of getting married back home. This fall, we’ll be leaving Montclair, New Jersey, and back to where our parents came from.

After driving his Ford Crown Victoria egg-yolk yellow cab all day, Dad is watching TV. Or so we think. Unless he’s making endless cuts and bruises on his writing pad, carving out his savings from his earnings. 

Barely a little over a hundred tonight, he said when he came back. He needn’t have—that showed on his face.

The medallion, part financed by his father has already changed hands. Dad’s destiny has unfolded as the opposite of those behind the taxicab’s Plexiglas partition window.

Mom works in a 7-11. 

We know they’re saving for our marriages—to some suitable boys in Jalandhar.

Our home always stinks with the smells of spices and curries. Reason why we never made friends who might want to pop in. Reason why Millie never had boyfriends, though one boy from High School asked her out. She was so scared Mom would find out that we made our own defense squad—Sisters’ Alert—and stuck to Millie like glue. The boy never approached her again.

Lily was different. She let Allan kiss her right after we disbanded. 

When the chicken curry boils, Lily and I slip out into our dark backyard. Ghostly bushes cluster beneath the kitchen window sill. They smell oddly of trash and moss, but we’ve, kind of, begun to love it—the smell of escapades we steal whenever we can. We fill our lungs. Assimilate whatever we can before we miss them forever. 

Lily takes out a cigarette she’s smuggled out, in spite of Mom, and lights up. 

Allan doesn’t know we’re leaving. She tells me how he touches her smooth brown skin, plays with her gorgeous black hair, loves the way she smells—curry and flaming oil.

 I see her eyes as she tastes the moments.

Lily doesn’t exhale the smoke; she tells me it is part of what she’ll carry back. Allan will singe her chest and burn her capillaries little by little.

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Mandira Pattnaik currently resides in India. She has traveled extensively, the experiences of which she fictionalizes. Her writing can be found in Spark Magazine India and Juggernaut Publishing.

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