-UP AND COMING AUTHOR-
Releasing the Djinn
Pulling up to the curb, Nadira stopped the car and put it in park. The loud constant squeal from somewhere in the engine grew louder as the car idled. Switching off the noisy car, Nadira sat back in her seat with a deep exhale. Slowly she dragged her eyes to the beige and brown front of her family's townhouse, mentally preparing herself to go inside.
She did not want to go inside. She wanted to drive away as far as her tank of gas would let her. Then what, she thought with a humorless laugh. Become a drifter?
There were two cars sitting in the driveway, so already she knew that both of her parents were at home. The leased matching Mercedes sedans were symbols of wealth her parents doted on, they kept the cars meticulously cleaned and polished, and the insides still smelling new. Their gleaming black surfaces contrasted heavily with the dated beige two-story townhome that had seen better days.
Getting out of the car, Nadira grabbed her backpack from the backseat and shut the door. The soft click of the door indicated it didn't close fully, but she was far too tired to try and throw her weight behind the heavy metal to make it shut properly. Like the house, her mushroom colored Mercedes was built in the eighties and never failed to remind her with a daily wailing squeal that it wanted to be put out of its misery. Smiling to herself, she silently thanked her hand-me-down car for another successful journey home as she walked towards the front door.
The smell of cooked meat and spices greeted her as she hung her keys on the hook near the front door. Immediately her stomach growled at the aromatic greeting. Every day her classes started at eight in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon, and since she was taking more than a full load at Berkeley college five days a week, along with a half hour commute, it gave her very little time to stop and eat lunch. Not that she had the money for a meal anyways, she thought bitterly. With her backpack slung over her shoulder, she walked down the short entry hall and turned right into the kitchen, relieved to find it empty. Scanning the kitchen quickly, Nadira could feel her heart plummet and dread seep into her bloodstream, completely washing away the feeling of hunger. There were far too many pots on the stove for this to be a normal Tuesday night. Walking forward, she hesitantly lifted a lid on one of the silver pots and felt her heart sink even more at the sight of her mother's signature Biryani dish. Growing up, Nadira quickly learned that her mother's traditional spiced rice and chicken dish only ever meant one thing--they were having company.
"Nadira!" her mother's commanding voice rang down from the stairs down the hall.
Having an idea what her mother, wanted Nadira quickly opened the fridge and grabbed an old container of leftovers, and stuffed it in her bag before replying back.
"Yes, I'm home," she called back politely.
Rounding the corner into the kitchen, Candrii Razdan's dark eyes examined her daughter with eagle-like scrutiny. Nadira resisted hanging her head at the inspection, she knew already what her mother would see when she viewed her eldest daughter. Jeans that were too big, cinched tightly around her waist with a belt, a blouse that was in-style maybe a few years ago draped across a gaunt frame with bags under her eyes.
Candrii's eyes flashed with annoyance before she walked past her towards the stove. "Your father wants you to finish working on your grandmother's room today and expects you to finish getting it sorted and packed. But," her voice snapped like a whip as she turned back to give her a reprimanding look. "I want you back in enough time to get cleaned up and dressed for your sister's arrival. Nazma and her husband, Kedar, will be coming back from their honeymoon and will be here around eight."
All of that left no time to work on her homework, but she didn't dare bring that up. Nodding, she smiled benignly at her mother and walked back towards the front door. Taking the other set of keys off the hook, she walked out the front and headed next door. Like all the other townhouses in the neighborhood, the attached matching beige unit was in dire need for a new coat of paint. Unlocking the door, Nadira stepped into the quiet, musty-smelling house.
Closing the door behind her, she felt herself immediately relax in the solitude of the quiet house. It had always been like this for her here, even when her grandmother was alive. Having been widowed for the majority of Nadira's life, her grandmother's house had always been a place of quiet refuge for her, the only place she could truly be herself without any judgment.
Walking into the kitchen, she was thankful that the microwave was a built-in unit that doubled as a ventilation range hood. If it had been detached, it would have surely been claimed by one of her various uncles already. Popping in her stolen leftovers, Nadira leaned against the counter and surveyed the empty kitchen that overlooked the empty living room. Just months ago, this house was filled with beautiful furniture, ornate silk embroidered tapestries, and a homey warmth all exuding from one woman. Now the house sat dark and vacant, its furnishings picked over and the walls bare. Every darkened corner, dusty bare shelf, and echoing sounds of her footsteps served to remind Nadira of her loss. The microwave beeped, pulling her from her thoughts. Wrapping the hot Tupperware dish in a towel, Nadira grabbed a large serving spoon, the only thing still left in the drawer, and headed to the master bedroom. Identical to her house, the master-bedroom was located downstairs while the other bedrooms were upstairs. Setting her bag and food on the floor, she pulled the remaining boxes of jewelry towards her. With only costume grade jewelry and trinkets still left from her mother's careful selection of the finer pieces, Nadira pulled the printed emails from her aunts and cousins from her bookbag and continued sorting the pieces to each person's claim.
Between spoonfuls of leftover Rojan Josh, a red curry lamb dish she had made herself earlier in the week, Nadira listened to some music from her phone as she sorted. Reaching the last printed email, a request for her grandmother's items from another cousin, she bagged up a few bracelets and rings and wrote her cousin's name on the bag with a sharpie. Sitting back with her arms braced behind her in support, Nadira surveyed the remnant pieces of jewelry no one wanted. Laying forgotten against the dusty velvet liner of the jewelry box, a few beaded necklaces lay tangled around a couple of mismatching bangles lost from their tribe and one pendant necklace.
Taking the last bite of her food, Nadira resealed the container and stored it back in her bag. Turning back, she paused as she caught a warm glow from the jewelry box. Blinking, she stared harder at the remnant pieces still in the box. She could have sworn she saw something glow. Reaching out, she plucked up the pendant piece and carefully untangled it from the rest of the pieces. Looking closer at it she realized it wasn't as plain as she initially mistook it for. About the size of a walnut, the amber stone pendant was dull and muted. Holding it up towards the light coming in through the drawn windows, Nadira squinted as she noted the deep red and orange tones infuse together, making a dim cognac color. Lowering it from the light, she held it in the palm of her hand as she traced the metal frame surrounding the stone. It was actually far more detailed on closer inspection. Carvings covered the little stone from front to back while the bronze metal framing was inlaid with its own repetitive design. The cord she mistook for simple and cheap earlier was actually a finely woven fiber braided so tight she wasn't sure she could break it even if she put all her strength into it.
"No one wanted you, huh?" she asked, her voice sounding too loud in the desolate room. Letting the necklace dangle from her finger, she watched as the sunlight passed through the stone. "I'm sorry, I don't think any of the pictures I took did you any justice."
Lowering her hand to place it back into the jewelry box, she briefly imagined what would happen to the necklace after she gathered and donated the rest of the items no one wanted. It would probably sit for years on some shelf with tons of other old cheap jewelry before eventually being tossed for trash or ending up in someone else's collection of never-worn items. Running her fingers over the odd carvings once again, she felt a tinge of sadness for the necklace's fate.
Making her decision, Nadira grabbed both sides of the corded loop and held it wide before slipping it over her head. Immediately, she felt unexplainably happier with the decision and tucked the necklace into her blouse. Glancing at her watch, she jumped up at the time. Making quick work of the rest of the room, she dragged everything into the living room and added it to the already large donation pile. Stuffing the baggies of claimed jewelry into her bag, Nadira made a mental note to stop off at the post office after school tomorrow.
Locking up the empty house, Nadira rushed next door back to her house and up to her room. Her heart tightened at the thought of seeing Kedar again. The last time she saw him was at his and her sister's wedding. She had never seen a man look more handsome in a sherwani than him, embroidered with deep garnet reds and sparkling golds set against the bright crimson silk of the jacket he had looked like a prince out of a storybook. She had spent most of the ceremony cloistered deep in the reception hall's kitchen feigning the look of an overly helpful sister dedicated to helping make sure the ceremony went perfectly, while all the while stealing secret glances at the man that should have been with her instead of with her sister.
Shutting her room door softly, Nadira grabbed her best saree from the closet and laid it on the bed. The gorgeous orchid pink crepe fabric of her scarf matched beautifully with the white and pink floral skirt and solid pink blouse. Opening the drawer to her dresser vanity that sat across from the end of her bed, she laid out her makeup. Removing her newfound necklace and placing it on the dresser, she removed her clothes and pulled on her robe. Walking quickly to the bathroom, she took a quick shower and washed her hair. There was a giddiness to her step while her heartfelt like a lead weight. After drying her hair, she leaned against her vanity with both hands she took a deep breath. Why was she acting like this? Looking at the makeup, she carefully laid out and glimpsing at the pink material in the reflection behind her, she closed her eyes at the feelings of guilt and shame.
"You're being pathetic," she whispered to herself. "He is married to Nazma now."
Swallowing the lead weight in her throat, Nadira looked up at her reflection in the mirror. Dark circles under her eyes took away from her once bright wide-eyed gaze. Thin and little hollow looking, her face seemingly took the brunt of her drastic weight-loss, leaving her looking far too tired for a twenty-four-year-old college student. Running a brush through her drying hair, she poured some hair polisher in the palm of her hand and ran the clear serum through her wavy hair, hoping that it tamed her usually frizzy black locks at least for a couple of hours. Carefully applying her makeup, she did her best to cover the dark circles of fatigue while keeping an eye on the time. If she didn't hurry, she was going to hear one of her parent's scream up to her, demanding she come down and help them.
Standing up, she turned to grab her saree when she spotted the reddish hue of the stone necklace. Picking it up, she ran a thumb over the textured surface of it, feeling immediately calmer by the rhythmic motion. Slipping the cord over her neck she let the stone rest between her breasts. The flash of the green glowing numbers of her alarm clock on the dresser vanity startled her back into motion, dressing quickly she slipped on a pair of plain sandals and went downstairs.
Looking across the dinner table, Nadira had to clench her free hand in her lap until she felt the sharp pain of her nails bite through the skin just to keep herself from rolling her eyes at her younger sister. Sitting diagonally across from her, Nazma rattled onto her mother and father about the "wonderful" time during their "exquisite" honeymoon in Jamaica. With their mother siting to Nadira's left and their father sitting at the head of the table to her right, that left Kedar directly in front of her. She could feel his gaze subtly shifting to hers throughout the meal and Nadira could not help but wonder what he was thinking. Did he think about their first and only date three months ago how they both talked the whole night about esoteric architects and places around the world they both wanted to see? Or was he contemplating how brutally painful it must be to sit across from the person you were so sure you were going to spend the rest of your life with, but after days of silence and no calls returned, you were told by your parents he chose your sister instead? Steeling herself to the familiar aching pain, Nadira didn't allow a trace of it to show on her face as she kept her face turned politely towards her sister as the girl recounted the beauty of their suite.
Wearing a deep shimmering royal blue lehenga with large embroidered gold details that sparkled in the light and a matching dupatta, her sister sat in her chair as if she was sitting on an elegant throne and not a simple dining room chair. Her sister had always been that way, with her chin held high and her nose upturned to the sky, Nazma walked through life as an empress merely temporarily gracing the lower caste with her presence. Nadira did not need to look to her right to know that her father was looking at his youngest daughter with his customary pride and adoration. Samad Razdan doted on the girl ever since Nadira could remember. Nothing was out of the question for his beautiful daughter. Nazma was the photo he showed his colleagues at the Codec Laboratories, where he worked as a Facilities engineer, the perfect bragging rights for a man without a son. Nadira knew without a doubt that her father likely spent an obscene amount of money paying for the couple's honeymoon on top of the outrageous over the top wedding.
Thankfully their mother wasn't so smitten by her youngest daughter's charms. Raised in a poor village just outside of Jammu and Kashmir, their mother wasn't necessarily smitten with anything in life. Obtaining her MBA on scholarships while pregnant and immigrating to a new country, Candrii Razdan was the true head of the table in this family. Tough, brazen, and never one to mince words, Candrii's only goal was to see her daughters married and bearing children soon after. That was why it came as no shock to Nadira when her mother ruthlessly accommodated Kedar's request to change sisters, rather than sit and hope that an interested man from a good family and good-paying job might take a chance on their plain and quiet daughter, why not accommodate his request and direct him to the daughter that was born to be wed. To her mother, feelings could always be mended later, but time would not wait and time was the number one enemy to a young woman's prospects.
Feeling more than dispirited from her thoughts, Nadira reached for the basket of hot naan bread sitting in front of her.
A tsking noise from her father stopped her hand cold. Looking to her father, she felt her stomach drop in acute embarrassment at the shaking reprimand of his head.
Pulling back her hand, Nadira kept her gaze focused on her plate as she heard her sister giggle at the sudden silence at the table.
"You probably don’t know this, Kedar," her sister began in a syrupy sweet tone, laced in mockery. "But Nadira used to be kind of fat."
Her stomach tightened until the point of pain as she risked a glance up only to see Kedar's handsome dark gaze look from his wife then directly to her with an awkward sort of pity. Nadira prayed her sister would just choke and die right there at the table or a giant hole would at least open up on the floor beneath Nadira and swallow her whole so that at least she wouldn't have to sit here and endure this burning mortification.
"Nazma," her mother hissed.
Normally, the reprimand accompanied by the older woman's threatening expression would have been enough to set both girls’ back to ramrod obedience, but there was a newfound glint of euphoric freedom in her sister's eyes as she sat across from their mother. It was as if she had taken the time during her short week of married life to truly come to grips that she was no longer simply Nazma Razdan's daughter that could and would be struck for any misbehavior and simultaneously admonished at any moment, she was now a free woman in her own right--a married woman.
Laughing off the verbal warning as if she was talking with a dear friend or distant relative and not her mother, Nazma continued. "What? We are all family here," and Nadira couldn't help but stiffen at the malicious sting of Nazma's eyes as they purposely cut her way at the use of the word "family" before lighting back up with gleeful amusement. "She was a bit--stocky-- for a while and dad forced her to eat practically nothing until she was suitably thinner. Although, I think personally you may have taken it a bit too far, sis. But once you get a husband, then you can get round again, but this time with kids."
An awkward, almost deafening silence fell over the table and Nadira thought she might drown in the humiliation she felt. Her skin felt like it was on fire and her head began to spin as she imagined Kedar's pitying gaze looking at her.
Clearing his throat, her father turned and spoke to Kedar. "Tell me, how is your firm doing? I heard from your father that you will be working on the new music hall in San Pablo."
Nadira barely listened to her father's and Kedar's conversation about his architectural firm, all she could focus on was the feeling of her mother's fuming anger at Nazma. Although Nadira knew it was more for the blatant act of defiance towards her long accustomed authority rather than for Nadira's sake.
Shifting in her seat, she could feel the warmth of the stone against her chest and resisted the urge to touch it. She wasn't sure at what point her sister began to hate her but as ever since Nazma fully came to grips with her beauty and the power it gave her in their parent's eyes, she had used Nadira as the butt of every vicious remark and weaseled her way into any sliver of spotlight that attempted to shine on her. For Nazma, it was never enough, no amount of attention could ever fill the girl's bottomless tank of need. If Nadira came home with academic awards, then Nazma would take that moment to recount the praise she supposedly received from her teachers for her average grades. Nazma was only ever truly happy with what she could take from Nadira's plate, and that included Kedar. Nazma had purposely stayed up late that night to see Kedar escort her back home. All it took was one look at the younger prettier sister and her naturally seductive looks and Kedar, and the evening they shared together was lost to Nadira. That was why she didn't dare lift her hand to her necklace hidden beneath her clothes, it may be small and insignificant if not a little ugly, but it wouldn’t matter. If she saw it, if she sensed that Nadira wanted it Nazma would cry, pout, and rage until she coerced their father to snatch it from Nadira's hands and put it in hers--exactly the type of victory Nazma adored.
Later that night, after the dishes were stacked in the sink--for Nadira to wash later--they all sat on the couches in the living room.
"Make sure to help your mother-in-law as much as she needs, Nazma," their mother cautioned.
Waving at her as if batting away the unnecessary advice hanging in the air Nazma leaned back against the cushion and gave her an imperious smile. "Of course, I will. We will be living in the annexed building in the back of the property so once I make Kedar breakfast each day before he goes to work, I will walk--"
"We will be staying in the basement my uncles remodeled," Kedar corrected, pulling himself away from the conversation he was having with her father at his wife's pronouncements. Turning in his seat, he looked over to Nazma, waiting for her reaction.
Nazma's smile faltered, whirling in her seat to face her husband fully, she gave him a fierce look. "You told me that we would live in the annex while your brother and his wife live in the basement."
A dark look of authority passed through Kedar's dark eyes. "My father texted me the other day and I agreed to it," seeing her look of outrage, he continued his voice rising just one octave in even deeper command. "My brother just shared the news that they are expecting their first child and will need the extra room of the annex until they buy their first home."
Stricken and nearly shaking with pent up outrage, Nazma turned to the one person who always fixed her problems, their father. But the words never got to leave her beautiful cherry red lips. As if expecting his daughter's oncoming outburst, their father shook his head silently, immediately dousing the flame of hope in Nazma's eyes. She was married now and from now on, Kedar would be the one she would turn to whether she liked it or not.
Taking this opportunity, Nadira stood from her seat and looked to her mother and father. "If you do not mind, I have quite a bit of homework I need to do," she left the unspoken question hanging in the air.
With a nod to her mother and a dismissive wave from her father, she was excused from the room. Resisting the urge to take the beige carpeted stairs two at a time, she left for the solitude of her room.
In the confines of her room, Nadira let herself smile at the revelation her sister had to experience and let herself linger on the memory of Kedar's authoritative face. It was not an expression she was prepared to see on the handsome architect. On their one and only date, he seemed kind and gentlemanly, not at all like a man ready and willing to set his wife to rights in front of her family. Although if anyone in the world needed a firm guiding hand in life, it was Nazma, still, Nadira thought the idea of going from one controlling house to another was not at all what she wanted. Maybe marrying Kedar wasn't such a bad thing, a part of her even felt a thread of pity for her sister. Shaking her head of the thought, she reasoned that if anyone could figure out how to get her own way, it was Nazma, she would probably have that house heeding her every beck and call in a matter of weeks.
Reaching for the stone necklace around her neck, she pulled it from her blouse and let it rest in her palm as she methodically rubbed her fingers across the warm carved surface. Comforted, she began to undress and put on some pajamas. Setting out all her homework on one side of the bed, she grabbed her laptop and settled herself against the headboard. Looking around her room, she tried not to let the depressing realities of her life sink in. Unlike most other young women her age she didn't go off to college in some faraway place putting much-wanted distance between herself in her family, she had no colorful dorm room designed just the way she wanted, and no time for a job that gave her money and independence. Her room was still the same since she was twelve, the same furniture, the same layout, and the same pictures on the wall.
"But I have a plan," she told herself firmly as she toyed with the stone necklace. Letting it dangle just before her face, she brought it closer, letting the light of her bedside lamp shine through the iridescent red amber stone. "I am going to work hard and obtain a study abroad position, hopefully with either the archaeology department or my own the art history department. Either way, I am getting out of here," she confessed to the stone. "Either way, I will be free."
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