(An opening chapter of a novel)
There are strangers in my house.
Okay, not exactly strangers. Just people who I personally haven’t met before but who are somehow familiar with my parents. I hear them from downstairs, fluent Bengali exiting their mouths and accompanying loud cackles—all signs that I have to make an appearance as the perfect Bengali daughter of Manna and Turjo Farooq sooner or later.
"Belia!” Mom calls from the hallway. But it’s not me she’s calling. She’s calling someone else because my name isn’t Belia. It’s Velia. Not Bee-lee-ya, Vee-lee-ya.
She stomps up the stairs and I know it’s something bad.
“Don’t you ki me,” she says with a scowl on her face. “We have guests. Put on something nice and come down.” She doesn’t wait for me to answer or ask her what her definition of ‘nice’ is because she’s already barging downstairs again.
I go to the closet at the back of the room, the one where Mom has put my, what she calls, “respectable” clothes. So, shirts which aren’t cropped and jeans that won’t hug or show off my ass. I choose a baby blue loose fitting sweater that hides, what my mother calls, my “enlarged” bosom, and a pair of grey mom jeans—in this outfit she can’t possibly think I’m trying to show anything off. I walk down the stairs hastily, ready to get this little shindig over with.
“Ah, there is our shundori, Belia,” the woman across from Mom says when I walk into the living room. “Sit with us, please.” She bobs her head furiously and I’m scared it might snap. I do as I’m told and sit down in between Mom and Dad on the couch. I pick up a samosa so I have something to do as the questions start firing at me from both the woman and the man beside her.
Woman: How is school?
Me: Outlook good.
Woman: Any idea about college yet?
Me: Cannot predict now.
Man: What do you want to do after graduation?
Me: Ask again later.
Okay, I don’t actually say any of that. My mother would slaughter me for imitating a Magic 8 Ball, so I mostly just shrug my shoulders. They interrogate me and I do my best to answer in a mild and monotone manner, trying not to set any lie detectors off. They talk to and look at me like I’m a piece of meat. Every question they ask has a purpose, but I don’t know what it is. Mom gives me the signal to go upstairs when she mentions that I have homework. I am grateful for the exit but also apprehensive. I dawdle towards the steps, trying to make as little noise as possible while I eavesdrop from the middle of the staircase.
“Shy girl,” the man says. His voice is croaky and everything he says sounds straight out of a mafia movie. “Good.”
“Beautiful eyes,” the mom says, “pictures do not do justice.”
Mom and Dad don’t say much, I can only assume they are beaming at the compliments. At least, I hope they are.
“And when can we meet Neerav?” Mom pipes up. “Bhalo chele to dekte hobe!” I try to translate as much as I can, but my Bengali has gotten rusty since the last time I was forced to take it, which was in elementary as an after school activity. I think she’s talking about a boy? A good boy?
“Kotha bolbo,” the man says. “Tonight. We see what he says.”
“Take this,” Mom says and hands something to the man. I can’t see from where I’m standing in the stairs, the space between the legs of the banister too thin.
“Bhalo bhalo,” my dad says in a, for him, cheerful tone. “Now, who wants some paratha and goru mangshu?”
They all start moving toward the kitchen and are no longer in hearing range. I go upstairs and type into Google the phrase Mom used about that Neerav person. I start to think he’s famous because the first link that comes up, and the ten following ones, are all YouTube videos of an upbeat Indian song.
I send Annalise the link via messenger and await a response along the lines of, “Parents found you a hubby already?” I’m not too far off as her reply is immediate and partially racist.
Annalise: Guy w/ glasses kinda cute, not gonna lie?
Annalise: He the guy you gonna marry?
Annalise: Parents set you up?
Annalise: Can I be a bridesmaid?
The questions marks aren’t really in the messages, but they are implied. Everything she ever writes or says always sounds likes a question, like she’s never sure if she’s allowed to say the thoughts she has in her mind. Which, in hindsight, is a good filter considering most of what she says is not actually politically correct, and ninety-eight percent of the time fairly racist.
I send a quick “haha” and toss my phone on the bed. I slump down in the chair and look up at the ceiling, counting the amount of glow in the dark stars, when I hear Mom and Dad ushering the couple out of the house. I peek through my window and watch them stand on the curb for a minute or two, a piece of paper in their hand. They talk in hushed voices, so even though my window is open, I can only catch one or two words.
One of which is my name.