The gate of my grand-parents’ house in Indore is light-blue and looming. Freshly-painted, smelling of pigs that nudge the garbage piles on the street, the imposing gate swings of its own accord at passing auto-rikshas and motor scooters. It beckons small schoolchildren, who ride it with thrilled, screaming laughter until my aunt or grandmother comes out of the house to gently shoo them away. Grandfather, who sleeps in the afternoons, is awakened for tea in the early evening. He looks outside before getting ready for tea, mistrusting watch-time. He waits for the trees that droop down past the windows of his study to rise up in a faint breath of four o’clock wind, their leaves sighing over jasmine bushes he has grown in his garden.
Tea is taken in the dining room, on a table spread with a fine white cloth that once belonged to a captain in the Indian navy. The picture of my uncle in his white uniform is prominently displayed over the door of the kitchen, a kind of tribute to this contribution. My aunt’s collection of glass perfume bottles is arranged in a rosewood cabinet. It is filled with a mixture of scents that issue from the dolphins’ mouths and mermaids’ tails, converging behind quiet glass doors. I am seven years old, on summer vacation. But I have rituals already. I peer into the cabinet, trying to climb inside it to lick the mermaid’s candy-red lips. My aunt lifts me from behind and pretends to take me to Grandfather for a punishment. “He’ll sentence you to hard labor,” she says, hoisting me up overbroad, bony shoulders. “He was a High Court judge, you know.”
Tea is not a formal affair. My grandparents are not rich, but they have not known want. Money has filtered steadily through all the hair-oil and black ink and cough medicine consumed by six girls and four boys now grown. They filled notebooks with stories and plays, giggling and prancing up the stairs with ribboned plaits and bamboo canes. Their names are written in faded curlicues in the picture- books Grandmother gave to me. She cannot read English, but turns the pages slowly as I lie cradled in the folds of her sensible cotton sari, smelling sandalwood soap from her wrinkled skin. Grandmother was dark-eyed and beautiful before she ever imagined the damp softness of my tongue against her age-spotted arms. Now her hair is a pale shade of grey, and her eyes are almost blue with age.
She doesn’t know my aunt has always been in love with a woman, doesn’t hear that woman’s laughter as my aunt stops, caught, just down the hall.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna, and elsewhere, with poetry forthcoming in apt magazine and Hobart. She has received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter including for upcoming readings and events.