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Double Promotion Sudha Balagopal

I pick a pattern from the teacher’s sewing book: a single pink-petaled lotus balanced on a thick stem, with big, round leaves on either side.

The teacher wears a stern look and spectacles, lenses the thickness of soda-bottle glass. She tells us we must purchase cross-stitch fabric and colored skeins to reproduce the art on our serviettes. The finished napkins will flaunt a fringe on all four sides―even-hanging threads forming one exact centimeter of symmetry.

Ma glowers when I tell her about the project, eyebrows squiggling like earthworms. “This is the problem with schools run by nuns. They give you a double promotion and then ask you to sew. What will you use these silly serviettes for?”

She pestered the principal with calls, letters and visits, then celebrated by distributing sweets, laddoos and barfis, when the school allowed me to skip eighth grade.

Ma plucks a stack out of the cupboard, tosses it on the floor. “Let me show you what I stitched before my marriage. This nonsense was part of my trousseau.”

* * *

Classmate Parul says there’s no point working hard at school; she’ll get engaged at seventeen, married at eighteen. Her parents have been collecting her trousseau―a bride’s possessions―since she turned ten: saris, blouses, petticoats, jewelry, bed sheets, tablecloth, pots, pans. And more.

Seema, another schoolmate, makes slurp-kissing sounds. She says, “Eww, I know what you’ll do with him.”

The girls here are fifteen or older. They discuss boys and the burden of monthlies. I long for my old class where we passed tight-folded notes about the math teacher’s long nose hairs, where we swapped alu parathas and egg sandwiches at lunch.

Parul’s patterning a complex scene: the sun, mountains, a river and birds.

“Parul’s failed a year. And,” Seema whispers, “she started kindergarten at six.”

* * *

Ma says we’ll unravel the stitches from her trousseau’s embroidered napkins. She beheads a knot with tiny scissors, shows me how to undo the brilliant-shaded peacock pattern.

“We’ll wash and iron these and they’ll be as good as new,” she says. “I don’t mind spending on books. Not this stuff.”

I unwind the turquoise, navy and gold threads, pulling and yanking, until all that remains is the faint outline of Ma’s work on embarrassing, yellowing cloth.

“The nuns should be teaching you math and science,” Ma says. “Is this why we pay such high fees? So you can make fripperies?”

* * *

Parul and I share a desk, the oldest in class and the youngest.

She visits the man she will marry. “We’re practically engaged,” she says. On her serviette, a golden sun sparkles behind brown-gray mountains.

“Your parents allow that?” I ask. Ma nags me to focus on biology and mathematics; she expects I’ll become a doctor or an engineer.

“He asked for my hand. My father knows him.” Parul sings tunes from Bollywood romances as her fingers flit, butterfly quick. The design on her serviettes is based on a painting that hangs in the man’s dining room.

The bell trills. She tucks her sewing under the desktop.

I take mine home, labor over the task, prick my fingers and suck on blobs of blood.

* * *

Parul doesn’t return after semester break. Or the next week. Or the month after.

Seema imparts information gleaned from the grapevine. “Parul’s father’s can’t afford the school fees. He says his daughter is a responsibility.”

At home, Ma hammers in my responsibilities―finish your homework, read ahead from the textbooks, solve extra math problems.

It’s almost the end of the school year when Seema says, “We heard Parul’s married.” She sighs. “Imagine! No more studying. It’s like double promotion, from school to marriage. No college.”

When it’s time to turn in our finished serviettes, I rummage under Parul’s desk. Her incomplete mountain scenes glow vivid; my lotuses wobble on too-thin stems.

“What should we do with Parul’s things?” I ask the teacher.

“Empty her desk, take everything to Principal Gertrude’s office.” Her eyes narrow behind soda-bottle glasses.

The principal is six feet tall with a voice to match. She sends us to detention for untrimmed nails, loose shoelaces or crumpled shirts.

* * *

Ma studies my report card, lips tight, nostrils flaring, insists we visit the principal.

At school, I falter outside the principal’s room. When Ma urges me forward, I remove her hand, sink into a chair in the waiting area. She huffs, enters the office.

Her loud-angry voice carries, and I cover my ears.

“What do you mean my daughter struggled? Why is she not ready for tenth grade? Because of the fifty percent in sewing? Is that even a subject?”

A dusty black car pulls in, the driver a balding man with a ring of sparse hair.

It’s Parul!

“Stay here,” the man orders as if she’s a maid. He adjusts his sunglasses, places a cigarette between his lips. The buttons of his shirt strain across a barrel-like torso.

I rush toward the car. “Hi! Why aren’t you . . .”

Her belly is huge. I swallow, then shift my gaze to the spider-web crack in the car’s windshield.

Nausea assaults, pummels my insides.

I need Ma.

I find her, still in the office, arms folded across her chest.

* * *

The principal raises a hand, asks Ma, “Give us a moment?”

Ma does not budge.

Principal Gertrude raises her brows, turns to the balding man. She thumps her fist on the table, and my knees quake.

He twirls his sunglasses.

“How many times must we call you?” Her words echo, bounce off the walls. She points to the paper sack on her desk. “Settle the unpaid fees and take your wife’s things.”

The man snorts, grabs the bag, dumps Parul’s serviettes―and incomplete mountain scenes―into the trash bin.

I slide close to Ma, hold the warmth of her arm. At home I’ll tell her I yearn for my old class, where we passed tight-folded notes about the math teacher’s long nose hairs, where we swapped alu parathas and egg sandwiches at lunch.

PATREON EXCLUSIVE: THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY BY AUTHOR SUDHA BALAGOPAL

Double Promotion grew out of a prompt during an online session. We were asked to dig deep, go back to our childhoods, and think of something unusual. 

And so it was that my tenth-grade classmate, who left school to marry someone picked by her parents, popped into my mind.  At the time, when she came to school to make the announcement and to exult at her ‘good fortune’, we giggled and huddled and gossiped.

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© Sudha Balagopal

Meet the Author

Sudha Balagopal

Sudha Balagopal

Sudha Balagopal‘s fiction appears in Fractured Lit, Flash Frog, Smokelong and Split Lip Magazine among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her novella-in-flash, Things I Can’t Tell Amma, was published by Ad Hoc Fiction recently. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions, is included in Best Microfiction 2021 and listed in the Wigleaf Top 50. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com.

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