Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Carlos Bobadilla
It had been ten years since Preeti encountered those black eyes twinkling back at her. While everyone in their family inherited brown irises, Nidhi alone had acquired black ones.
Preeti had known her sister was troubled, but she hadn’t expected her to run away. She’d noted Nidhi sobbing to her pet squirrel alone, begging to lie on Mother’s lap often and making sure she spent more time with Father after work. Nidhi had left a letter, her tear stains on the paper being the only part of her she left behind. They had searched the entire village, but couldn’t find her.
Nidhi was missing and so was Devan; they must have eloped. But no one dared to say that aloud. Father had declared in front of the entire village that he’d kill her if she came back home and that he considered her dead. Devan’s parents simply said, our son’s happiness is ours and had continued on with their lives as though nothing had changed.
At their own house, everything had changed. Mother cried, her Sari cloth always covering her face as she hiccuped and sniffled in intervals. Father kept sharpening his aruval, the billhook, and gazing out the windows. All the photographs of Nidhi were thrown into a burning pile of her clothes and books. Preeti had hoped to hide the photograph they took last summer, an oddly timed photo with Nidhi pushing away her curly hair from her eyes and Preeti looking away from the camera. It had been the most recent photograph of her sister and she hadn’t wanted to lose it. But Father had noticed her trying to steal away the photo, and wrenched it from her, promptly thrashing it into the fire. He had been so desperate to remove every trace of Nidhi that he had even wanted to throw her squirrel into the fire. It slipped from his fingers and bolted into the forest never to appear again, maybe having found Nidhi by itself.
When Preeti had seen Devan’s parents at the Village Festival, they hadn’t looked like they had lost a son. His mother’s face wasn’t tear-stained—she had a broad smile plastered across her face. His father’s eyes weren’t searching the crowd, aruval hidden within his clothes, waiting for vengeance. When any prying neighbours mentioned their son’s elopement, they gave a kind smile and said our son’s happiness is ours and nothing more.
A few months later, Mother stopped crying, but Preeti decided she liked the crying Mother better; at least then she showed some sign of life. Father still sharpened his aruval every day. Preeti wed a man, Murali, whom she had chosen herself. Murali had the approval of everyone in the family since he wasn’t the son of the family they had feuded with for centuries. Father declared on her wedding day, with his head lifted high, that she was his sole daughter. She had yearned to be their only daughter—their favourite daughter—when younger. But hearing those words from Father after losing Nidhi stung like a slash onto a scar.
Over the years, Preeti caught glances of Devan’s parents every time they visited the temple in her street through the window. She wished to talk to them, ask them if they had encouraged the elopement and if they had heard anything about her sister. She wanted to meet them, see their gentle smiles up-close and take all the strength that she could from it. She had loved her sister; the only bitterness in their bond had been foolishly fighting over who got to eat more candies or whom Mother and Father loved more.
Now, by the door of her house stood Devan’s parents, a girl child hiding behind them. It had been ten years since Preeti had seen those black eyes looking at her. She pushed away her curly hair from her eyes to peek at Father, then Mother and then Preeti. Preeti waved and the little girl lowered her gaze to the floor with a smile.
Preeti realised they had been standing with no one offering them chairs or water. She yearned to do so and walked towards the kitchen, but Father, who was the only one sitting, crossed his legs and gave her an intimidating look. Mother stood by the wall, determined to look anywhere but at the uninvited guests. Preeti didn’t dare move then and wished Murali wasn’t at work since he wouldn’t have been reluctant to be cordial towards them.
“Nidhi and Devan died,” said Devan’s mother after a moment. “This is their daughter. She had been asking to see her Amma’s parents. And so we’re here.”
The air in the room shifted. Father put his legs down and the intimidation on his face paled into the vulnerability she saw every time Nidhi’s favourite song played on the 9 AM Radio. Mother clutched the wall and her legs wobbled. Preeti couldn’t bring herself to glance at the little girl anymore. It had been obvious that she was Nidhi’s daughter upon first seeing her, but it suddenly hit her that this little girl was the only remaining proof of her sister’s existence. The bridge of her nose burned and the air in the room felt like it was closing in on her.
No one inquired how. Devan’s parents said they’d come back later and walked out of the house after giving an encouraging smile. Father motioned for the little girl to come closer and she hopped a little and hugged him. Mother let out a strangled cry and rushed to where the girl stood. Preeti stumbled closer and they all took turns embracing her and searching her face and tiny hands for every sign of Nidhi they could. It was astonishing how similar they looked. Just like the day Nidhi was born, three brown irises filled with tears of joy met black orbs glistening in the daylight.