Things We Leave Behind by Tanushree Baidya

The rain had stopped and Sakhi Waghmare was kneeling in the kitchen garden with her mother picking doodhi while Elsa, their ten-year-old German Shepherd mix, romped around on her three legs. In four days, Ashraf Khan would be taking Elsa with him to Pune where it was safe, and in thirty-six hours Sakhi would be leaving India to attend graduate school in Boston. She had made plans to see Sheetal Auntie at the Dhotre Traders shop the following day, but had yet to respond to the invitation to meet Ram Dhotre. Still, his name was always at the back of her mind. Ten years ago, they were all the talk in their tiny town of Daksar when the thirteen-year-old Sakhi was caught by her father, Anil, at the temple wearing an oversized red wedding dress that belonged to Ram’s Aunt Sheetal. Ram was seventeen. She still remembers the sight of her Baba and Ashraf Uncle, all running up the hill that day towards the two of them. Her mother was distraught. Where did we go wrong? she kept saying to Anil, before the girl was sent to a boarding school in Gwalior, nine hundred miles away. 

Sakhi thought of the early years at boarding school, and the constant pining for home that marked them. The letters she would receive from her father about Elsa's “antics,” and from Ram about the new dye factory and the promise of new jobs. That first year away she wrote her mother a letter a week begging to be taken home. Halfway through the second year, the begging stopped. Now the girl who thought she understood abandonment intimately had returned home with a new visa to say good-bye to them this time around. The Waghmares weren’t expecting their daughter. They were to go and see her off in Bombay. “Why are you even here?” they asked when the girl showed up at their door. Sakhi simply said that she’d rather spend the last days at her true home in Daksar than squat at a friend’s place in Bombay. She didn’t mention Ram or the cryptic text about Elsa that sent her bounding home.

In the garden, the earth was soft with an herby scent. Her mother, Sapna, was singing a Tagore verse in Bengali, a language Sakhi hadn’t spoken in ten years. Elsa was sniffing around the jasmine vines basking in the last light of the day.

“So, you’re really giving her away?” Sakhi asked.  

Her mother sighed and wiped the mud off her gray kurti. “Don't be upset Tutul,” she said. It was the first time her mother had called Sakhi by her Bengali nickname since she returned home. “We are getting old, and you’re leaving for America. It makes sense to give her away to Ashraf. She’ll be safe with him.”

Sakhi watched her mother with trepidation and wondered when her childhood home in Daksar stopped being a safe space. Over the past four days, bad news at home had been rationed and doled out whenever her father was away at one of his meetings or holed up in his study mumbling about contaminated water or uneducated buffoons. On her first day at home, after the ten-hour bus ride from Bombay to Daksar, she was told about the accident four months ago that cost Elsa her left hind leg. It was the son of one of the big local landowners on his motorbike trying wheelies her mother said. It was just an accident. Nothing at all to do with our activism. As for what really happened, the details were murky at best. When her father went to the police to file a report, they laughed at him. On the second day, her mother told Sakhi about the trembling in her father’s hands. Possibly early onset of Parkinson’s, we don’t know yet.

On the third day, Sakhi had questions for her mother after a reluctant Anil took her into town, a short hurried trip to buy packaged water. Their filter broke three weeks ago. Anil pointed out the saffron flags over the town square, like confetti strung in midair. When he saw a raucous group of young men dressed in khadi white shirts and black pants sitting outside the store by the Panchayat hall, he shook his head. Fanatic buffoons, Anil mumbled. When Sakhi asked who they were, her father said they were people she better stay away from. Ram was initially lost in that sea of black and white until he stood up and smiled. Once he stood up, the other men followed his lead. They began teasing a flustered Anil about the failed world bank project, the promised water filters. Their brazenness shocked Sakhi. Ram neither condoned nor condemned their actions. He stood mute staring at her as Sakhi and Anil rushed in and out the store with the packaged water. Later that day, Sakhi told her mother what happened. She didn’t mention Ram. At first, Sapna was hesitant to answer her questions. When pressed, she whispered that the landowners and the dye factory had backtracked on the promise to fund the water treatment plant, but instead were donating heavily to the temple renovation project. The world bank grant—the promise of twenty seven water filters never came through. All this had complicated their long and protracted fight for clean water for the village. Her father’s efforts were rendered useless. Further, his opposition to the temple renovation had led to a backlash not just from the politicians and contractors, but also from some locals. There’d been heated arguments, veiled threats. 

Sakhi remembered the summer she was finally allowed to visit, four long years after the scandal. How violently she had fallen ill and how she had to be rushed to Ambedkar Municipal Hospital. Her mother blamed the water from the Udupi restaurant. Sakhi paused as she remembered something else. There’d been a death, a newborn, the mother wailing in the hospital bed next to her. That’s when it really began—her parent’s activism for clean water and sanitation for their town and the village nearby. At the time, Sakhi did not make the connection. Illegal dumping from the factory, the corruption and bureaucracy, the lack of funds. These were buzz words her parents were always chanting that meant little to her. It was their fight, not hers. And they’d been fighting for a long time. The handful of times she’d visited home young Sakhi hadn’t pried too much. Her head was buried in books. It was what her parents wanted.

Sapna began scratching the earth with her garden trowel. Sakhi closed her eyes, breathed in deep and waited. She knew there was something worse her mother was building up to. The August air was thick with humidity. Fat drops of sweat slid down her back, staining her kurti, as her mother finally spoke of how a mob had surrounded Ashraf Uncle’s house a month ago while his daughter, Amina, and grandson Kabir, sat trapped inside. Ashraf Khan worked with the Waghmares at Sakhi, the six year old nonprofit organization Sapna and Anil Waghmare created after the bad water incident, and named after their banished daughter.

“They vandalized his car,” she said as she cradled the doodhi. “And they smeared his walls with pig’s blood.” Later she clarified that it was really red paint. Some of the boys in the mob had been Ashraf’s own students. 

Sakhi’s hand sunk deep into the wet ground beside her. “So, that’s why Ashraf Uncle’s leaving here and moving to Pune?” she asked, unable to believe that opposing a temple renovation project would lead to this violence. “Because of the temple issue?” 

Sapna nodded, plucking a spoilt doodhi from the ground for compost. “Kabir and Amina have already left.” 

Sakhi thought about the old temple, the crumbling steps and the red wedding dress as she steeled herself for the next question. It was a question she was almost too afraid to ask. “Was Ram part of that mob?” When the seventeen-year-old was arrested by the police for trying to elope with an underage, upper caste, Brahmin girl, Ashraf Uncle was the only one that advocated for his release.

“Ashraf won’t say,” Sapna replied slowly. “But, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was.”  

Sakhi removed some decaying leaves from a creeping vine above her. “You don’t know that, Ma!” She had been in touch with Ram all these years in exile. While it was true that some of his emails in the past year had made her wonder about his sudden passion for the Hindu cause, she couldn’t imagine him being violent. 

Sapna abruptly stood and shuffled back into the kitchen. “It’s getting dark. Come in, before the snakes get you.”

Sakhi and Elsa remained, ignoring their mother’s warning. The garden, flecked with orange marigold and sagging red dahlias, suddenly dazzled in the twilight of the day. Wilting white and yellow flowers of the fennel plants swayed in the gentle breeze. Elsa started digging at a root near Sakhi’s hand. The dog was a gift from Ram after the disastrous scandal at the temple. He found the brindle shepherd puppy abandoned by the side of the road and gave her to her father Anil as a peace offering. Anil accepted the puppy, but not Ram’s apologies for the almost marriage. Anil was Marathi and Sapna was Bengali. Their intercaste marriage still raised eyebrows in their community. Sakhi and Ram’s near marriage only brought more shame on the family.

Sakhi raised a hand to her face, surprised to feel the wetness. She wanted nothing more than to leave all this behind. Fuck, Sakhi mouthed to herself. Elsa came and licked her face. Sakhi saw Elsa’s gaze drift past her, through the dark shadows of the mango and banyan trees that flanked the garden. “What is it?” she asked. “A mongoose, a rabbit?” Elsa let out a growl low in her throat and Sakhi grabbed hold of the dog’s collar. “No chasing anything, you three-legged bully!”

For dinner that night, her mother made doodhi, chana masala, fried okra, buttery parathas, rice pulao and stuffed and spicy eggplant. A lavish spread just for their daughter. Her father sat at the head of the table, Elsa lay by his feet. He had returned from a town hall meeting just minutes ago and was agitated. Sapna told him that they were almost out of water. Anil ignored his wife. The water was too contaminated, he mumbled to himself. Simply boiling water wasn’t enough. Most villagers cannot afford water filters. Most villagers cannot afford anything. 

“You know Baba, I read about this town in America called Flint,” Sakhi said. The article about the water crisis in the town of Flint had caught her attention on Twitter; she’d skimmed through it curiously. Now, a year later the uncanny parallels were screaming at her. But Anil wasn’t listening.

“Children are bloody dying, and they want to renovate a damn temple,” he finally erupted. “That goddamn temple.” Sapna glared at him, in her ‘please-not-in-front-of-our-daughter’ look. The wooden windows rattled gently from the wind outside and a fear that darkness would eventually consume their tiny house crept into Sakhi. Her father’s reference to the temple made her uncomfortable. She looked down and tore a piece of roti and dipped it in the black dahl. Sapna served her some more doodhi. 

“Tutul, eat more,” Sapna said.  “You’ll miss it.” 

Through the open window and the veranda screen door Sakhi could hear frogs croaking in the garden. Lightning streaked across the dark sky. They ate in silence. She watched her father’s hand tremble when he passed a bowl to her. Sakhi and her father finished the entire bowl of kheer and he picked the raisins from his bowl and put them in hers, like when she was young. She forced a smile. Elsa watched them and once in a while Sakhi let Elsa lick her fingers. 

“So, you’re really giving her to Ashraf Uncle?” she asked, finally looking up at her father. She was desperate to start this conversation. 

“She’ll be safe with him.” 

Sakhi pounced, voice cracking. “If there is real threat, why aren’t you leaving too?” 

Anil flinched. “Where would we go? This is our home, our life.”

Sakhi struggled to stay calm. “Please don’t oppose the temple, please don’t get involved.” 

“I am not fighting anyone or anything,” Anil said. He turned to Sapna, and repeated the words as if a mantra. “I am not fighting anyone. Stop telling your daughter these things.”

“You’re the one screaming about the temple all the time,” Sapna shot back, her voice rising. “She’s been home four days, and you have barely looked at her. Mumbling and ranting like a mad man. Do you think your daughter wouldn’t want to know why?”

“Madman?” Anil tossed the empty glass bowl of kheer across the room. It crashed against the window and shattered. He glared at his wife, his voice booming, “You want her to leave so that she doesn’t end up like you, you say, and then you create these ripples. Why? Why is she even here?” 

Sapna got up and left the room and Elsa followed. Sakhi sat back, alarmed. She felt locked out of her parent's world. All alone in a glass box. A box ready to be shipped to America. 

Anil looked at his daughter. “I did not expect them to be violent. I really did not,” he whispered, switching to Marathi. “Ashraf was only following my instructions.” 

Sakhi came to her father’s side and gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “Baba, how can I leave now, knowing all this?" 

Anil looked up, surprised, and his voice softened. "Oh, my sweet girl. Don't be silly. You know nothing of this. It is not your life, this vicious circle that goes on. Your life begins there in America. We have done everything we can to make sure you don't remain here. Go fight your own battles. This one is ours.” 

He pushed her away as he slowly got up and shuffled over to close the windows rattling in the wind. Sakhi stood watching him as the rain outside tumbled down relentlessly. He retreated to the temple room. The shattered bowl lay untouched. 

 

It rained through the night and Sakhi slept badly on the makeshift bed in her father’s study. Her childhood bedroom had been converted to half study, half storage area a long time ago. In the morning, camphor and cumin smells wafted in. She heard muffled sounds outside the room. She placed her father in the temple room burning kapur and her mother in the kitchen. It was a little before 7 am. She put on her green kurti and jeans and waited for her father to leave. A layer of dust sat on old paper reports, stacks of National Geographic and How To books piled high on plastic chairs and wooden shelves; a broken water filter, another broken water filter, empty five gallon-sized plastic water cans sat in the opposite corner. Sakhi lay in bed regarding the room. It was a space that seemed to encapsulate her parent’s life and Sakhi felt like an interloper.

She was surprised to find Ashraf Khan on the sofa in the living room sipping chai and reading the Times of India, a plate of bun-maska by his side. Dressed in a blue t-shirt and black linen pants, he looked up and smiled when Sakhi walked in. His short goatie style beard was now completely gray. His green eyes still striking.

“Sakhi beta, kaise ho?”

“I am well Uncleji. Where’s Ma?”

“She made me this and took Elsa out for her morning business,” Ashraf replied in English. “I am here to collect some papers for your Baba.” Sakhi nodded and smiled. For as long as she could remember Ashraf Khan had been a constant presence in her parent’s life. Birthdays, anniversaries, festivals, funerals, running errands, He even had a part in advising her parents after the scandal at the temple, and in choosing the boarding school. He’d been a part of it all. Before she left for Gwalior, he asked her to call him chacha, and Sakhi had refused. But you’re not Baba’s real brother, thirteen-year-old Sakhi had argued. Still, the two families had shared both triumphs and tragedies. Asraf’s wife had died during childbirth. His only child Amina was a few years older than Sakhi and was married off at eighteen. Amina became a widow at twenty-two when her husband, Hasan Naseer, a young captain in the Indian army, died in crossfire along the line of control in the Poonch region of Kashmir. My daughter carries my curse, Ashraf had said. Sakhi had returned home for the funeral and watched the entire town of Daksar mourn with Amina and her father. Had the mob forgotten that? Sakhi wondered.

“I am reading news of America,” Ashraf said, referring to the travel ban that had stressed Sakhi out for weeks. “India is not on the list. It’s only countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia.” 

But Sakhi was only half listening. She stood by the door to the verandah looking out the window. She watched her mother at a distance as she walked back from the creek with Elsa. This was her moment, she thought. The only time she would be alone with Ashraf to ask him about Ram. She turned towards him and asked, “Uncleji, was Ram part of the mob?” She hadn’t asked how Ashraf or Amina were doing after the attack. Calling Amina had not even crossed her mind.

Ashraf looked up surprised and pursed his lips.

“Ma told me,” she said. “I am sorry it happened.”

He bit into the buttered bread, and did not make eye contact now. “Ah Sakhi Beta! Kya kar sakte hain, what can you do? What can you do? I tell your Baba the same thing.”

A palpable resignation descended between them. Sapna walked in and smiled. “Ashraf, you want more chai?”

Elsa bounded in on her three legs to greet Ashraf. He laughed and patted the dog. He told Sakhi that they were going to live with his brother in Pune for a while and rejoin the family sweet shop business. Their renegade son returns, he joked. He assured her that it was a big home, with a big garden for Elsa to explore.

After Ashraf left, Sakhi asked her mother for the car keys to the white Maruti. 

Sapna’s face tightened.  “You don’t have to go.”

“Ma, come on, I need to buy the oil. Plus, I promised Sheetal Auntie I’ll come say goodbye.”

“Only her?”

“Who else?” Sakhi said and wondered if her mother would invoke the past.

“Don’t drink their water even if they say it’s boiled,” Sapna said as she placed the keys in Sakhi’s hand. “And take Elsa with you.” 

The dog was ecstatic, half her body hanging out the tiny white car. Sakhi maneuvered through the puddles and slush on the broken road. She decided to take the route that went past the dye factory. She slowed down as she approached an old thatched hut she remembered from her childhood, wet from rain, cow dung cakes slapped on the walls. Cows with bells were grazing all around, but there was nothing green. Despite the rain nothing grew there anymore. She noticed five men dressed in khadi long shirts and black pants, sitting on their bikes on the side of road. They were watching her. She stopped the car when she recognized two of them. Boys she went to middle school with before she was sent away. They used to all swim in that same pond as children. Now the water was dark, with a faint smell of rotting eggs. She asked if they knew where Ram was? The question was fodder for gossip, but Sakhi did not care; she was leaving all of this behind soon. The boys sneered and shrugged. Elsa growled from the back seat and Sakhi drove away. 

In town, there were more saffron-colored flags everywhere, probably put up by the Hindu youth activist group Yuva Sena. Sakhi sighed as she parked the car. Those Yuva Sena boys, Anil had screamed into the phone two nights ago after their water run. Uneducated buffoons!  Sakhi was relieved to see that there were no flags hanging outside Sheetal Auntie’s store. She tied Elsa to the store gate. Inside, she asked the boy at the counter for her ‘special order’ coconut hair oil. Sheetal Auntie, the proprietress and Ram’s Aunt, came rushing out from the back room. "No need to tie her out there, bring her in. She’s a good doggie, we know.” She spoke in a hard tone Marathi that was different than Sakhi’s soft tone. To an outsider it would seem as if Sheetal Auntie was yelling at Sakhi. Sakhi brought Elsa in. Sheetal Auntie handed her the oil. “Here, I have packed it in a way that it won't leak in your bag. You’re going far away now, don’t forget us.” 

Sheetal Auntie leaned across the counter, her chest and belly sagging over it as she wrapped her arms around the girl. Sakhi hugged her back, breathing in the familiar cumin-tinged body odor emanating from Auntie. She could hear the slow deliberate whirring of the fan. The store behind Sheetal Auntie looked even more disheveled than before. The wooden shelves were crooked and dusty, and there were fewer things stacked on them—Old boxes of Ferro Rochers, Arnica Plus, Biotique jars, Cinthol soap bars, Fa deosprays, herbal lotions and balms. Sakhi wanted it all to represent something she could take with her. She felt the shop boys glaring at her. Or was it at Elsa?

“Next time you come all this may not remain,” Sheetal Auntie said, adjusting her red saree. Ever since a Kmart had opened in town, her business had struggled Auntie explained.

“I told Ram you’d be coming today,” Auntie continued. The night after the scandal it was Sheetal Auntie who hid the girl in her store for two days after turning in her nephew Ram to the police. He committed a crime. She’s still a child, she maintained. Ram had tried to elope with an underage, upper caste, Brahmin girl. Two weeks later he was released from police custody with a fractured femur. The police in their zilla district were known for rampant custodial abuse and neglect.

“I saw him by the Panchayat hall on Tuesday with some guys on motorbikes. I was with Baba, so, I couldn’t really speak with him. They were all dressed the same, white kurta and black jeans. Why?” Sakhi asked.

Sheetal Auntie shrugged. “Meet him before you leave, will you?”

“Auntie, do I need to worry about Baba and Ma? After what happened to Ashraf Uncle, I am not sure.” 

Auntie’s face relaxed. “They would never do that to your Baba. Your father is right in opposing the renovation. Ashraf cannot, and shouldn’t have.” She paused, as if trying to find the right words. “We don’t oppose his place of worship, why should he oppose ours? Why should he oppose ours?”

Elsa growled. Sakhi bent and held Elsa’s collar. “Ssssh! It’s ok.” There was something more fundamental at play that Sakhi could not fully comprehend. Her phone beeped, cutting into the tension.

“Is it Ram?” Sheetal Auntie asked. Sakhi left the store without answering. What the fuck was that, she thought to herself. Elsa barked twice and hobbled along beside her.

Sakhi walked around the town, leash and plastic bag in hand. There was the Kmart, the abandoned car dealership, and the dismal-looking mall that loomed on one side of the town square. She remembered how she would ride into town with Baba on his blue scooter on Saturday evenings for Dosas when she was a young girl. She called back the hours she would spend at the bazaar with her mother, heckled by hawkers selling clothes, bindis, bangles, and jewelry. Now, the bazaar sat desolate, a single shack selling dried fish. 

Sakhi found her way to the back of the town towards the old temple past houses and huts she remembered from childhood, the gentle drizzle of the rain accompanying her. Women in their courtyards craned their necks to watch as Sakhi and Elsa passed by. Waghmare’s daughter? That’s their dog for sure, they whispered. Sakhi heard a furious clinking of a bicycle bell and she stepped aside to let the man pass. He glared and Elsa growled at him. 

She finally made it to the base of the hill. It was shimmering with green undergrowth wet from the rain. Purple wildflowers everywhere. The old temple sat at the very top, an ancient structure sculpted from granite, a few hundred years old. Sections of partially assembled staging were being prepped for the big renovation. That damn temple. Sakhi had forgotten how beautiful this place was. It remained untouched by the ravages visible everywhere else.

She looked around, but there was no one. For a moment she wondered whether she misunderstood Ram’s text. As if to summon her, the sound of the temple bells filled the air. She looked down at Elsa who was panting a bit. “Will you be able to walk up? Yes? Yes, YES!” The girl and the excited dog rushed up the hill

Ram sat at the back of the temple, perched high on the boundary wall. Some of the stone steps leading to the top were crumbling, almost all of them were covered with moss and undergrowth. It was more overgrown than the last time, back when Sakhi was thirteen. She tied Elsa to a column and made her way up, careful not to step on the fist-sized snails. Their shells were a lovely shade of black.

Ram cast an appraising glance her way before looking at the temple. “Hello Madam.” His English had a vernacular twang that Sakhi had lost a long time ago. Despite herself, Sakhi smiled. He still had that Shahrukh Khan swagger.

“I have been coming here every day this week, waiting for you, thinking if you will come,” he said.

“I leave tonight,” Sakhi said. Below Elsa began barking. 

Sakhi took a step forward. He fumbled a step back on the broken leg that never set properly after the police beating. They looked at each other, the temple behind looming, Elsa’s barking echoing. They spoke in Marathi.

“It’s like she doesn’t even need that fourth leg,” Ram said. “They told me it was an accident.” 

“It was no accident,” Sakhi said. “You know this.” 

Ram looked away and stared at the forest. “Don’t worry,” he said, after a moment. “I won’t let anyone hurt your Baba.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sheetal Ātyā called me right after you left her store.” He stopped to run his hand through his hair. “I know Anil Sir means well, but he is careless with his words. There are no factory jobs, it’s all machines that need no human hands. Farms are dying. This rain turns to poison the moment it touches the ground. The temple, once renovated, will bring in tourists and devotees. This will help our econamy. We can buy our own filters.”

He spoke like a politician. Sakhi imagined him standing on a podium talking to an audience. “Who is us?” Sakhi asked, her voice a whisper. 

Ram smiled. “You’ve seen us.” And then she knew. Yuva Sena. 

“Are you their leader?” she asked. 

“No. We are all followers. But for those men that day, yes, I am.”

Oh!” Sakhi said, a little disgusted. 

Ram smiled and said nothing. Sakhi watched him, afraid he was making too much sense. “Baba has dedicated his life to this town. How can you say he doesn’t get it?” she countered.

“That World bank project he promised us for years came to nothing. I know he doesn’t oppose the temple. But he needs to sit back, let us take care of our town now. It’s not just about the water.”

Sakhi glared at Ram, ready to spit out her next question—was he part of the mob that attacked Ashraf Uncle, the man who fought for his release from the police even when his own aunt would not? But she didn’t frame the question. Even now she was resisting the truth, seeing only that seventeen-year-old boy.

“You promise? You really, really promise you’ll protect my Baba?” Those were the only words she could manage. 

Ram smiled and took her hand in his. Sakhi closed her eyes, as he whispered into her ear. “Yes. I have nothing else to offer you. Be well in Amreeca.”

As she drove home that afternoon with Elsa soaking the seat behind, Sakhi didn’t think about the future or the past. Ram’s reassurances did little to assuage her guilt of leaving. In a few months, Ram would be part of a mob that would beat a young boy for allegedly desecrating the temple walls. There would be riots in the village. More people would be forced to leave. Her parents would stay on, Anil’s condition worsening. Sakhi would speak to them once a week. Her mother would often ask about the news of America. But Boston is not like those other places, right? they would ask. The irony was not lost on anyone. Sometimes they would Facetime, and Sakhi would show them the city: the public library with its courtyard and white people, the Boston Common blooming in the fall, the geese and the fat squirrels. Her mother would marvel at the size of the squirrels. They are so big there! Her father would laugh and say wistfully, Oh, Elsa would love chasing those things.

 

“Your Baba and Ashraf will be here soon, Sapna said. “We will take Ashraf’s car. From there he has decided to leave for Pune, and we take the bus back. All packed?”

Sakhi nodded as she rummaged through her mother’s bookcase looking for Gitanjali, the book of poems by Tagore. “Ma, can I keep it?”

Sapna smiled and hugged her daughter. It was a familiar, strange sense of relief and foreboding that Sakhi recognized. Relief that she was leaving Daksar, foreboding for what waited in Boston. Sapna sang softly into her daughter’s ear in Bengali. “What emptiness do you gaze upon? Do you not feel a thrill passing through the air with the notes of the far-away song floating from the other shore? I used to sing this to you all the time. Do you remember?” 

“I remember, Ma.” Sakhi recalled a time in the garden. She must have been seven or nine, potting dahlias with her mother, her father watching them from the verandah, sipping chai. Lil’ Sakhi parroting her mother’s verses, Anil interjecting in Marathi with his. Tutul, ask your Baba who won the Nobel, Tagore or Mardhekar? Anil laughing. That doesn’t prove anything. A happy memory, one that Sakhi needed to carry with her. She stood in her mother’s embrace for a long time not moving until Elsa nuzzled her face against her calf.

“Are you ready to let her go?” Sakhi asked as she patted the dog’s head.

“We’ve been ready for a while,” Sapna said.

Sakhi left her mother in the kitchen and approached Elsa with her leash for a last walk. Elsa backed away from her. Sakhi crouched and smiled at her, dipping a hand in a pocket to produce a treat. Elsa’s nose quivered, and she limped forward to take it, allowing Sakhi to attach the leash to her collar. “Come on, one last walk. We have a long car ride.”

Sapna closed the kitchen door behind them. “Watch out for snakes.”

There was a break in the rain. A text from Ram. A peacock pranced on the other side of the creek, his long sweeping tail not touching the ground. Elsa growled at the cows as the peacock began his shrill calling and singing. Sakhi felt the first raindrops on her back. She pulled out her phone and deleted Ram’s text without reading it. Then she kneeled down and buried her face into Elsa’s neck. She promised that she would send money home to fix that water filter the moment she started earning some. She told Elsa that Baba and Ma would always love her and that she was sorry. Elsa remained still and let the girl nuzzle and cry into her neck. Together they watched the cows across the creek grazing in the rain until it was time to leave.


Contributor Notes

Tanushree Baidya is a graduate of the Yale Writers’ Workshop and a member of the (GrubStreet supported) Boston Writers of Color group. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Kweli Journal, 2040 Review, London Journal of Fiction, the Wrong Quarterly, GrubWrites, and Half the World Global Literati. She recently won an honorable mention in Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest 2018. Born in India, Tanushree has lived in Boston since moving there from Bombay six years ago. She can be found on Twitter (@tanushreebb) and Instagram (@tinksfloyd).