Was ambition even the right word? Asti thought to herself, uncomfortably, as she stared at Tiyash, still wanting to win the argument but realizing that there was really nothing more to say. She was having a hard time understanding her sister, relating to her, as they said in US. Asti didn’t really want to relate; she was stuck at not even being able to comprehend how and why Tiyash wanted what she did. With advanced degrees from India’s top fashion design schools—NIFT in Kolkata and NID in Gujarat—Tiyash should have been aiming for the zenith of the global creative universe. A boutique in New York City or at least her own design firm in the posh Lansdowne district would have been a reasonable goal. Instead Asti’s younger sister desired a nine a.m. to ten p.m. job in downtown Kolkata, slogging through rush hour traffic each morning, only to come back to a household overflowing with extended family.
Tiyash seemed unconcerned that the presence of so many uncles and aunts and in-laws would limit her personal space to a single room with a bed, dresser, and modest closet in which to hang her collection of purses. Granted, the furniture could be custom-made, high-end—a prospect Tiyash was so looking forward to, cutting out images from lifestyle magazines. Post-2004, India was booming with luxury furniture stores and designer handicrafts advertising their splendour for the ones who could afford. But it wasn’t only about material possessions and personal space. What about creative satisfaction and social consciousness? Asti contemplated writing short stories of import and directing documentaries on social issues. Mediocrity repelled her, whereas Tiyash appeared to be settling for just that. Named closely to unsubtly hint their relation, the two sisters couldn’t have been anymore different.
Asti’s silent, frustrated musings were interrupted by her mother’s reminder to get bathroom needs taken care of. The maid was waiting to wash clothes and complete the daily bathroom cleaning, which could be done only when all family members had finished their bathing and ablutions. Another frustrating thing about India, Asti thought to herself. Throw garbage in the streets and walk amidst it every day, but do wash your bathrooms and mop your floors. Even if the maid was sick or house members wished to relax, house cleaning had to happen every day, day after day. Rajendran, her friend from grad school, was discussing his efforts to get some kind of union started for maids. To standardize their minimum hourly wage and negotiate regular off days with the employers—meaning middle- to upper-class housewives. Rajendran was freshly US returned, so this ludicrous prospect was still a plausible endeavour to him.
Tiyash had always been the concerned one. The one who cared if the maid didn’t come and mother needed to do the cleaning herself. Or if the power went off, she was the one calling the local offices to see when they could expect it to come back. Asti considered herself a believer of not worrying if it didn’t serve a purpose. How could it be considered a calamity—which their mother would insist it was—to skip one day of cleaning? Failure to assign the right level of importance to something and subsequently cause exaggerated grief for herself was a problem their mother needed to address. Not pass on to her daughters. Tiyash would look at her with bewilderment when Asti stoically stated the same. Now in the bathroom, bent over the sink to rinse the soap out of her hair, she calmed herself, revisiting such numerous past situations in her mind. Following her own rules, she needed to stop worrying, as she could really do nothing here. If Tiyash wanted to limit herself and do her possibilities tremendous injustice, that was a choice for her to make.
Calm evenings were rare this time of the year in Kolkata. Summer storms were frequent, followed by heavy rain. But today was different. The evening was pleasant, peaceful, not stuffed with humidity building up to burst into the next storm. Asti decided to take the opportunity to go to the public library and try some writing. She hadn’t done as much as she had intended on this visit home. India trips and vacations were the only times she had to invest time into her ambition. Her gruelling job in US left her with little energy to do much else in the late evenings but crash on the sofa. The TV remote was her nemesis. The dinners she shared with her American husband were often microwaved or ordered in.
She had tried everything, from setting up reminders on her phone to motivational techniques to encourage her to write. All had failed. Six months back, she had exchanged her job for an easier one. One with lesser possibilities, but also less hours. She could take a day off mid-week, and Friday afternoons were always available for pursuit of other interests. She had meticulously set up a schedule, intending to read literature on Wednesdays and compose short stories on Friday afternoons. But the same ambition, the impatient, unprejudiced ambition, had begun needling her about her career prospects. While trying to become a published author, she’d made herself an observer of her colleagues climbing up the corporate ladder. The other ladies she knew who had made similar choices—not for as unique a reason as Asti’s but for the much more conventional one of raising offspring—seemed perfectly happy. Asti wasn’t. She went back to working long hours, rummaged for writing time once again. The latest plan had been to write as much as possible during this trip. After all, a three-week visit to India amongst family members she couldn’t relate to anymore in a city where none of her friends stayed anymore called for any respite possible. Tiyash, the only one whose company she enjoyed, was finishing an internship that kept her busy on weekdays, so only weekends could be used for sister trips and conversations.
‘How is your writing coming along?’ her father asked one evening. Asti was extremely irritated at the question. Her annoyance was directed at both her father and her sister, the latter being the obvious source from whom her father could have procured this information. She hadn’t planned on sharing with too many people that she was trying her hand at writing, and she definitely didn’t want to be asked about something that wasn’t progressing. Such intrusions, although acceptable from the standpoint of her Indian heritage, were intolerable to her American sensibilities that had taken over in the past years. So she retorted back with spirit that she’d be happy to discuss her endeavour when it was something successful, but right now it wasn’t. Her father wasn’t discouraged. Indian parents seldom are. He continued to offer some advice on how writing productivity can be increased by choosing a proper place and time. Interesting perspective from someone who had never been a writer and was barely a reader, his daughter told herself.
The truth was, her writing wasn’t going well at all. She had ideas—starting points for all sorts of instances, chance encounters, coincidences—each of which had the potential to mature into consequential stories. But they were not. Endings, or sometimes even continuation past the initiation, were hard to come by. Her language proficiency was also frustrating. Writing in English, which she was adamant about doing, posed challenges. It was not easy when the languages of thought and expression differed from one another. Her many years in the US had added patchy layers of rust over her once crystal-clear proficiency in her mother tongue. Being married to a foreigner who knew exactly three Bengali phrases hadn’t helped. Asti had started to doubt her once unfaltering confidence in her ability to become a prolific author. Listening to her father, and later as she embraced the pleasant summer breeze that brought respite to what had been quite a hot day, she tried to forget about the possibly broken dream of becoming a writer. She breathed in the mixed smells of fried potato patties, musty soil, and jasmine and thought that, after all, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d experienced disappointment.
As they lay side by side on their childhood bed, whispering to each other as they’d done growing up, the two sisters differed from each other in form and thoughts. It was hard for Tiyash to see what her successful sister could still possibly need to worry about. Asti had achieved everything—a dream job, a successful husband, an independent life and, recently, a four-bedroom house with a swimming pool. She had toured Europe and South America and was a legal resident of US. Always on the receiving end of advice on how to be like her sister, Tiyash couldn’t comprehend Asti’s restlessness. She would have been so happy to have achieved what her sister had. The only thing on her mind would be contentedness and the only thing on her agenda would be to enjoy what she had achieved. She wanted achievements too—nicer things or better credentials—but she also wanted to pause, and enjoy what had already been achieved. Perhaps such pauses held her back in some ways, but more often she felt sated—she wished she could extend the blissful feeling to her sister like the blanket they were sharing. She thought of the things her sister had, and how she in Asti’s place would feel about them. She would receive the praises of enamoured relatives during trips to India, spend hard-earned money buying nice things for herself and others, and float on her back in her outdoor swimming pool. In fact, she imagined herself doing just that, staring up at a starry sky in US, as she barely listened to her frustrated sister.
Tiyash was going to be happy married to Ratul. She knew that in spite of being told otherwise by everyone. They’d be staying with his parents, but once she got a good job, which should happen within the next few months, she’d have money to spend on whatever she wanted. The job she was aiming for would have transportation to and from in an air conditioned vehicle, a huge perk for anyone who knows what rush hour commute in an Indian metropolis means. Additionally, the work cafeteria would provide daily lunch and there’d be an on-site gym where she planned to exercise regularly. Given the hassles she had gone through in her internship days, commuting two hours each way, clinging to a pole in a crowded bus with sweaty bodies crushed against hers, and gaining pounds from not finding time to exercise—a worry she had been harbouring in light of her upcoming marriage—achieving these incentives would mean attaining the unthinkable. That was dream enough for her. That and marrying Ratul. ‘I’m thinking about having a baby,’ her sister was saying. Tiyash came back from the nice, cool pool water to the slightly uncomfortable bed
Having a baby was the only time extended leave was possible, Asti told her sister. Three weeks prior would be applicable in her case and six weeks after at least. Mark had been trying to stir her thoughts toward the idea of starting a family for quite some time. Up until now, she’d had other things preoccupying her. Other things that needed to be taken care of before she could afford to be tied up with a baby, but now—going unpaid, she could get up to three more months, she said to Tiyash, who merely nodded silently.
Marrying an American had been difficult for certain things, but Mark didn’t have ties to his family, which made other things a lot easier. When she couldn’t get him to participate in Dandiya nights or Diwali bashes, Asti reminded herself that she didn’t have to deal with Indian male prejudices or in-laws. Mark was spontaneous about cooking and considered cleaning house as much his responsibility as hers. He mopped the kitchen floor and cooked up pasta on a whim, with no need to discuss how two salaries meant responsibilities needed to be shared for traditionally female chores. Initially though, she’d found it hard to understand that her husband was estranged from his parents. It was a foreign concept to her: that there was a choice one could make to not be in touch in case of severe disagreements. As she became more and more familiar with the idea, she started secretly liking it. It had been a huge point of contention during their marriage; her parents had been willing to accept her marrying outside of caste, creed, religion, and nationality but quite upset by her choice to marry someone who had cut ties with his parents. Even to Americans, it was quite a European thing to do. Understandably, it was beyond the realm of acceptance for Indians. But, well, those days were behind them. Now everyone was comfortable with the status quo that could be maintained with phone calls once a week for five minutes and on special occasions, and Asti’s mostly solo visits to India. Well, her next visit to India might not be solo, she confided to her sister, holding both her arms out in front of her imagined swollen midriff.
Tiyash was excited about going to the US. While in school, she’d chosen NID over San Francisco rather than spend two years away from Ratul. But visiting her sister for a month to help out with the pregnancy was quite agreeable to her. She planned to cook every day while she was there and started compiling a recipe journal. Asti had been relieved upon learning that Tiyash was coming, not their parents. The latter choice would have caused too much interference into the privacy she valued in spite of the badly needed help. A lot of help was needed to have a baby—that is all Asti had been hearing since confessing her condition. No one forgot to add how beautiful and absolutely necessary the event was, but the discussions started with monologues on sleepless nights, diaper changes, frequent feedings, and exhausted parents. Thankfully, her reasons for having this baby were so beyond anyone’s comprehension that she could smile silently at all the advice without feeling concerned. She merely waited for her leave to start; specifically, she waited for week thirty-seven. Her greatest fear was not labour pain or postpartum nuances, but going into labour prior to the fortieth week and missing out on three uninterrupted weeks of writing opportunity.
Asti was practical yet not entirely ruthless. Her maternal instincts were kicking in, and she was reasonably concerned for the baby’s well-being and upbringing and tried to do all the right things. Her husband was so excited, anticipating their baby. Asti felt that their relationship was improving; since the pregnancy, the two of them were less distant toward each other. Although she had always enjoyed the space a slightly aloof marriage allowed, she was surprised to find herself in a happier space with more intimacy between wife and husband. Her nurturing instincts, till now, had been concentrated around the welfare of her sister. She had been fiercely protective of Tiyash growing up and while only carefully suggestive in the recent years, she had always been concerned. Her sister’s happiness and success, as she was increasingly realizing, were in a matrix different from her own choosing and comprehension. But they were still of her concern and her financial planning had been around those goals. Ensuring a college fund for Tiyash had been primary among her reasons for taking her current job. Tiyash was the designated beneficiary for her work life insurance policy. Mark didn’t mind, either. He had selected a charity as his beneficiary, and to Asti that was fair enough. They both believed that either would be capable of continuing to earn comfortably in the event of any mishap and should not need to rely on spousal posthumous support. Would Tiyash ultimately be replaced by the baby? ‘Most certainly,’ is what echoed back from wisdom all around her, but not when Asti listened in silence to the voice from within. Yet.
The third trimester hadn’t been particularly hard so far, except for the struggles of still trying to look presentable when her wardrobe had so less left of what still worked. Her parsimonious nature stopped her from buying maternity clothes she could very well afford for three months’ use only, and her creativity was running out of options for making what she had work. But that apart, she enjoyed the end of her pregnancy. When the day came—the day of her leave, not her delivery—she was ecstatic. Every night she lay in bed, unable to sleep with the usual late-term nuances of pregnancy, but overall unperturbed, planning for the next day. Well-wishers, blissfully oblivious of her thoughts, centreed their discussions on the arrival of the newborn. The anticipation, the tenderness, the adoration, the elation. She pretended to listen, while her thoughts revolved around a completely different universe. The condemned one, ambition.
She went through childbirth relatively unremarkably. There was some drama surrounding how her water broke on the way out to dinner, and some anxiety in the last few hours of unbearable waiting. But she was able to have normal delivery and a healthy child came into this world wailing, like so many did.
The child that everyone said was beautiful was lying in its crib next to her desk. After a full effort of feeding, it was still hungry and staring toward the sound she made as she hurriedly typed away. Before the baby started crying again, a paragraph needed to be completed. In two weeks, she hadn’t written much. And the golden pre-partum three weeks were gone. Not lost, but she was not where she’d hoped to be. Other things had come up—getting the house ready, and some emotional lethargy. Now she needed to type until the next crying. Seven stories needed to be completed and sent out to her list of possible publishers. But the feedings took too long—every time. Her expectations of nursing her child to contentedness, allowing the next phase, where she’d type uninterrupted, seated next to a blissfully sleeping newborn, were not being realized. Instead, her baby slept while nursing and awoke when put down. Hours drifted by, but stretches of leisurely writing, so simple a wish, eluded her. Disappointment changed to anger, and anger changed to guilt. When she delayed picking up the child until it started actually wailing, utilizing every precious moment to type away, she was distracted from her plotlines by the knowledge that she should be at least folding baby clothes. Attention to the loads of baby laundry that needed to be washed and dried could justify some temporary obliviousness to her child’s cries. Torn between duty and desire, her intention wavered and became shrouded in guilt, causing her to lose track of what she’d intended for this or that character to do. Her sister watched silently from the doorway as she abandoned both child and keyboard and simply drank coffee and stared at the walls.
Aren’t you tired, didi? Tiyash asked cautiously, in a moment when the child was quiet and Asti was intent at her keyboard. Such moments were more and more rare, filled with frantic attempts to achieve a single paragraph of a story. One that didn’t flow well, and was punctuated with highlights for spell-checks that needed to happen later. But still, it was one more block towards the ending.
Asti didn’t respond. She chose not to respond to questions that had potential of leading to a discussion. She didn’t have time to waste in lengthy conversations. Instead, she would like to finish a paragraph or at least her coffee. Of course she was tired. She was tired of being pulled into family discussions. She was tired of having to justify personal goals and interests preceding maternal duties, and tired of convincing herself that she wasn’t selfish. But she wasn’t tired of wanting to be famous. In her forties, she wanted to make her mark, to achieve something beyond raising a child and keeping a nice home, and hosting numerous successful dinner parties or helping to resolve family crises. Her irritated thoughts couldn’t transpire her intentions to her sister—thoughts couldn’t always be readily converted to words. A glance at her blinking cursor confirmed that. But she needn’t have worried. Her silence conveyed more to Tiyash than anything Asti might have said aloud.
There was a drawer in which Tiyash kept them—her writings. She was not as good as her sister in most things, a fact that had been made obvious to her in everyone’s obvious attempts to convey otherwise. All the condolences that ended with praise of her achievements were painfully glaring in exposing what they were meant to hide. But she was better at writing. She knew so, even with no one ever having read her prose. She didn’t write to be famous; weaving stories came naturally to her. She wrote what she observed. Sometimes she gave the people she wrote about made-up names or different endings to certain events, following the whims of wistful thinking. Sometimes she cast herself, with the endings appropriately meek to mirror reality. She knew she had something precious. Hidden in her drawer underneath her paintings. Her one secret that she hadn’t shared with her sister.
Tiyash’s wedding preparations had been long delayed, derailed again and again by life events and complications. The arrival of her sister’s child, illness in the family, illness again, disagreements, reconciliations. When at last the wedding was accomplished—Asti had brought the baby but not her husband and would stay a few days to visit—despite feeling pleased with her choices, Tiyash couldn’t yet concentrate on being happy. An uncle, who had always been somewhat questionable—a bleeding heart cursed with a mind not competent enough to bear the associated burdens—had attempted to end his life. Tiyash’s mother had taken up his care since then, against the rational wisdom offered by all. So there they were, for how long was anyone’s guess, bound to take care of a now paraplegic uncle with limited means to do so. His treatments were costly and never-ending, and his mental state a cause of continuous agitation. They were exhausted physically and mentally, and trapped financially. Going broke, bearing all to attend to the uncle, was not an option—livelihood luxuries they were used to still needed to be attained. So the burden mostly fell on their combined mental capacity, and a lot of ‘their’ was actually Tiyash. Her sister seemed quite unaffected, something Tiyash recognized as a shield. Asti was hurting inside. So much that she needed to show that she didn’t care. In reality, she couldn’t afford to care, living three thousand miles away. Caring would initiate questions that were maybe too uncomfortable to ponder? Tiyash wondered about all of this on the night of her wedding, after the ceremonies had concluded and the wedding party was ensconced in a hotel suite rented for the night to spare the trouble of having to leave the venue the same evening.
She looked at her exhausted sister, lying in the bed next to her. The baby was happily asleep, as the little one had been all evening, but the still new mother was not. In spite of the sheer labour she had put into making this event a success—no small task, given the grand scale of Indian weddings and the lack of prework completed for this one—sleep was evading Tiyash’s sister. She stared blankly at the ceiling—but Asti was not wondering about her life choices. To her, the choices she had made weren’t choices at all, they were the only way things could be. She was instead mulling over how happy her sister seemed to be in spite of the mess she was in. Asti would return to US but Tiyash would remain here—with a rambling, anxious mother and a helpless father, both of them aging and unable to keep up with the latest burden they had taken up. With hospital calls she would have to make when her uncle required nighttime emergency assistance, as he had been needing over the last few months. Tiyash would have to do this while staying with her in-laws, that too not very amiable if the mother-in-law’s temperament was anything to gauge from. She wouldn’t be allowed to wear the shorts she cherished, thought Asti, but although that was something her sister brought up often as a nuisance and a small heartbreak, still she seemed happy. It bothered Asti, in a way different than her usual obsessive bothering about her sister. It bothered her like a discomfort that was yet to materialize into a sore throat.
The soreness increased over the next couple of months. She and Mark had been drifting apart for quite some time now. Her inability to make the baby the center of her universe couldn’t stay hidden for long and was unfathomable to even the son estranged from his parents. Asti hadn’t expected her well-planned implementation to hit this road block—the practical life she had chosen founded on brutal honesty was discovering the need for pretense in real life. Because when it came to motherly love, nothing short of selfless dedication seemed acceptable. The pretence that might have sustained their marriage was something Asti was incapable of and the truth baffled her husband, leaving him incapable of respecting her anymore.
Tiyash called her once a week to share her happiness. Her calls, genuine in intention, caused Asti as much heartbreak as Mark’s indifference, although she couldn’t bring herself to state what had transpired in her marriage. She couldn’t be proven wrong, especially to her younger sister, who seemed to have rightfully found happiness in spite of doing everything wrong. Sitting by her lavish swimming pool, Asti stared up at the starry, desert sky, ignoring her ringing phone. Mark had left with the baby. And she hadn’t objected. It was better in a way, even if she missed her child, the soft, tiny fingers curling around hers.
‘I am just tired,’ she said, when she at last answered the phone, ‘so you do the talking.’
She stretched out on the stairs that led down into the pool, liking the feeling of warm air frisking around her upper body as water lapped gently around her legs and waist. She closed her eyes—they felt comfortably heavy—as she listened to her sister’s delighted exasperation about trying to keep up with the guest flow of relatives. Asti could hear them in the background—they were having a party again. When she fell asleep, with her carefully planned achievements all around her, the desire for more was the only task left incomplete.
Today was a big day for Tiyash. Asti’s book was getting published. The younger sister had had no trouble finding a publisher for the dazzling stories left behind by a female Indian engineer living in the US, an attractive new mom, found tragically drowned in her own swimming pool. If Tiyash had any opinions about how the untimely death occurred, she kept them to herself. As for the stories, she had no use for them. After all, as her sister had pointed out to her so many times, she had no ambition.