The Other Oneby Author / HollyBodger
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used factiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The characters in this novella were inspired by 5 TO 1, a novel by Holly Bodger. 5 TO 1 was published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
Text copyright © 2016 Holly Bodger. All rights reserved.
Cover image copyright © iStock/Altin Osmanaj
I stare at my dressing table mirror while the stylist—Pranil? No, Praney—finger-combs gooseberry oil through my hair. It’s my duty as Poster Girl to look good—correction, to look perfect. As Mummy likes to remind me, I “must be what every girl in Koyanagar aspires to be: beautiful, smart, accomplished, proper.” I used to resent the time these duties stole from my day. Now that I’m married, I’m grateful for anything that gives me an excuse to stay away from Banevi. How’s that for irony—the girl all others aspire to be wants to be someone else.
I close my eyes while Praney applies the hairspray. Although he shields my forehead with his hand, some of the mist lands on my lips. I pucker at the taste. It may smell like apples, but it tastes like furniture polish.
When I open my eyes, I startle a little. Mummy has snuck into my room and is now standing a few feet behind Praney. She’s a great deal shorter than him and practically fades into the floral wallpaper behind her. That’s nothing new. Her sari is another shade of dull green and has a very simple border with no beadwork or embroidery. She has always been afraid of color. Afraid of standing out is probably more like it.
“Your hair has never looked better,” she says as she steps around Praney so she can move a curl off my shoulder. She’s lying, of course. My hair never looks good until the monsoon season has completely passed. How could it? The humidity level is near ninety percent. Even with a hefty dose of gooseberry oil, I’m one rain cloud away from looking like I’ve covered my head with black cotton wool.
Praney steps backs, lowering his head out of respect or, perhaps, habit. Mummy pulls some folded yira notes from her choli and holds them out to him. He barely looks up enough to take the money. In fact, he keeps his head bowed until he has stepped backwards from my room. I don’t know how he does this without hitting the wall. Practice, I suppose.
“Is he doing Sudasa’s hair now?” I ask even though I know he’s not.
Mummy makes her way over to my bed, stopping at the footboard. The cerise sari Nani had custom-made for me is draped over the dark wood and onto my silk quilt. Mummy runs her fingers down the Kundan lace border. The embroidery took weeks, I’d bet. Every pearl is perfectly placed, and every glass bead sparkles. I’m quite sure it was made by the same man who did the sari Sudasa wore to my wedding. I still don’t know why he thought she needed those suns of luck. I was the one marrying a complete stranger.
“It’s twenty minutes before nine,” Mummy says, finally acknowledging my question. “There’s no time.”
“There would have been if she’d let him in when he arrived two hours ago.”
Once again, Mummy acts like Sudasa has done nothing wrong. She did the same thing when Praney arrived at half past six. She’d knocked on Sudasa’s door to see if she was ready, but Sudasa had bolted it shut. She refused to open it, yelling something about not wanting to look like a painted elephant instead. Of course, Mummy had pretended this was all part of the plan. She made up an excuse about misunderstanding the booking, and then she pushed Praney off to me saying he’d actually been ordered to do my hair instead. Although he’d smiled and nodded, I don’t think he believed her. Even if I am meticulous about my appearance, I would not have chosen to spend over two hours on my hair for the first day of my sister’s Tests. If I remember correctly, she didn’t even brush hers for mine. Not that it mattered one bit. No one cared how she looked two and a half years ago, and no one will care today. It may be her big day, but we both know the people of Koyanagar will be looking at me, judging me. That will never change.
“You should get dressed,” Mummy says as she turns back to face me. “The carriage will be here soon.”
“I’m not the one who needs to be there,” I remind her.
Mummy shoots me a glare. It bounces off my mirror, striking me as intended. “I don’t need the attitude, Surina.”
My blood boils, but then it always boils around Mummy now. It’s her fault I’m living this life, after all. If I have to suffer, I want her to as well.
I remove the gold chandelier earrings from the tray on my dressing table, sliding them into my ears as I continue to watch her reflection. She wanders around my room, staring at every picture and pillow as if trying to find something she can criticize other than me. I want to tell her she’s in the wrong room. It’s Sudasa’s turn to be scrutinized. I’m already living my punishment.
I put on my gold bangles one at a time. Unlike my charm bracelet, which was an obligatory gift from Mummy, my bangles were gifts from the people who came to my wedding. These are one of the few traditions that we’ve kept from the Old Country, probably because they were one of the few that actually worked in the bride’s favor.
Mummy stops at my door. “I suppose I should go wait with your husband,” she says. She always calls Banevi that—your husband. It’s as if she thinks I need to be reminded that I’m married, which is stupid. You don’t remind prisoners that they’re surrounded by bars, do you?
When she leaves, I make my way over to my bed—my real prison cell. I slip into my cerise petticoat, pulling the drawstring waist until it’s fitted but still comfortable. I don’t have the same option with my choli. Nani ordered it using my regular measurements, and while my ribcage and shoulders haven’t changed, my chest certainly has. I’ll be lucky if I make it through the day without it tearing at the seams.
I tuck the plain end of my sari into my petticoat and then wrap the fabric once around my waist. Next, I carefully make the folds so they’re precisely five inches wide, just like Mummy showed me when I had my Ritushuddhi ceremony after I turned thirteen. She told me this was the most important part of the sari. “If your pleats don’t have swish,” she said, “you might as well be wearing the dining room drapes.” That’s likely the real reason she’s so meticulous about the draping of her own sari. She doesn’t want people looking at her because it’s sloppy. Mummy doesn’t like people looking at her for any reason. That’s why she married someone who liked to be the center of attention. Well, that and she had no choice, much like me.
Once I’m satisfied the pleats are perfect, I affix them slightly to the left of my waist with the largest safety pin I have. Although I’ve never been nervous about a pin holding before, I am today. My stomach seems to be expanding like a wet sponge, and the last thing I need is to have it exposed to everyone in Koyanagar. Not yet.
I wrap the sari around my waist one last time and then drape the pallu over my shoulder and arm. I turn sideways in front of the mirror and frown. I know I look the same, but I cannot help but wonder if someone will see a difference. Will they notice the way my face looks rounder and my cheeks more flushed? Will they be able to tell that I’m nauseous every moment I’m awake? I’ve tried very hard to hide it from everyone in the family. Everyone except Nani. There’s no point in trying to deceive her.
As soon as I’ve slipped on my beaded juti shoes, I make my way to the entrance of our penthouse, taking my place between Mummy and Banevi. I tell myself, “Don’t look at him, don’t look at him, don’t look at him,” but like usual, I cannot stop myself from seeing what I don’t want to see. Unlike Mummy, he makes no effort to not stand out. His hair is exactly as it was when he rolled out of bed, and his kurta is so wrinkled, he might as well have slept in that, too.
“You look nice,” he says loud enough for everyone to hear. Score one for the obligatory compliment.
“I’m supposed to,” I whisper through gritted teeth. “We’re both supposed to.”
The bite in my words is wasted. Banevi’s problem is not that he doesn’t understand how I want him to look, to behave. His problem is that he believes he’s already doing it. Compared to living in a slum, I suppose he has improved a thousand-fold. Unfortunately, he still has a million-fold to go before he’ll ever impress me.
I turn away from his smile, staring at the clock above the door instead. Five minutes pass, then ten, eleven, twelve… Mummy fiddles with her charm bracelet, turning it around and around her wrist. Nani checks her watch over and over again. After the tenth time, she sighs and then waves at Mummy. “Go, Nalini. Knock on her door again.”
Mummy doesn’t move at first. She already reminded Sudasa that the carriage would be here precisely at nine o’clock. She told her last week when she booked it, and last night when we finished supper, and again this morning when she tried to