The Women by Amy Olassa

The Women

For dinner, grandmother serves duck roast, mutton biryani, and raita. On a cooling rack sits a slab of pound cake. Everything moves slower here, at my grandmother’s. We eat more patiently, with our eyes on our plates and not on a television. We talk without cell phones distracting us because there’s no network indoors, and the cable and electricity fails when there’s a storm or heavy wind. Grandmother’s unhappy when I mention the job offer.

“This, this is a job?” she asks. She serves mother, then me, another generous spoonful of biryani.

“Night shifts, talking to strangers in America. Is this the sort of job an engineer does, Sara?”

She serves herself. We’re half done when she begins to eat. 

“Will they make you talk with an accent?” she asks. “I dislike how contrived the whole thing is.” I keep my eyes trained on the orange gravy spot on grandmother’s cream-colored housecoat.

“They might send her to America,” mother says. 

“That’s not what I said. The company has American clients, that doesn’t guarantee onsite work,” I say, but no one’s listening. 

Grandmother’s deep in thought. “America doesn’t suit everyone,” she says. “You remember what happened to Raki.” 

“This is different. Sara will move to America for work,” mother says. She turns to me. “You remember Raki. She was so happy here, good at everything, and that shut off like a tap the moment she left. She was the best at gossip, was she not? And she watched all those silly movies and those disgusting soaps and was such a bitch to everyone. Talk, talk, talk about family name and legacy, and how her father gave her a big dowry, all the jewelry and those ugly sarees and a Godrej almara to lock it all up in, fat good it did her.”

“Anna!” grandmother scolds. 

“It’s all true,” mother says.

Grandmother laughs. “You were always so jealous of Raki.” 

“Jealous?” mother asks. 

“Well Raki’s different now, she’s smart, modern, so American. She’s figured it out,” grandmother says. 

“That’s true,” mother says. “The last time she visited she talked about real problems that the rest of us living under a rock know nothing about. She told me fairness creams are wrong. She criticized the population and the religious extremists, like we have a choice in these matters. She might as well have called us backwards like she wasn’t born here. She can no longer understand why the electricity goes out so frequently, the water shortages and the corruption, oh the corruption, when she herself, here, she was a social terrorist, she sat on her ass and talked shit about everyone and she stopped that talk not for the right reasons, not because she realized her words were cruel and wrong, because it turned out that her daughter got pregnant by some man and her son won’t marry, he refuses, and she’s scared the people she bitched about will bitch back. Nothing like a dose of one’s own medicine.”

“Stop,” grandmother says but mother goes on. 

“She doesn’t know that no one cares about any of that over here. We’ve progressed twenty lifetimes in a decade, we accept that love is love, love will happen with who it must,” mother says. 

“Anna, really,” says grandmother. “What about the thugs who manhandle those boys and girls in the public parks on Valentine’s Day, slap them silly and marry them off. And it doesn’t matter where, things will always progress slower for women than for men. Remember Alo, silenced, so abused. She moved around her own house like a soft breeze. You wouldn’t know she was coming, she was going, and all those bruises, who can forget, on her arms and her face, and that broken jaw that set eventually, yes, but it destroyed that beautiful, soft face.” 

Now the fragrance of the food, the fried onions, the swollen kismis is suddenly revolting, and the meat of the duck that was freshly slaughtered in our backyard smells like blood and raw flesh. I cannot eat another bite, my tongue feels thick with grease. I gather empty plates and carry them to the kitchen sink. I wash my hands and when I return to the table, mother and grandmother are still quiet. I drink a glass of water and set the glass down.

“When her father was on his deathbed, even then he wouldn’t let Alo go and after the father died, he became remorseful and said, oh, I shouldn’t have done that. A man who shows remorse may be quickly forgiven but it’s impossible to forget the monster who wouldn’t let her sleep or eat, bathe or breathe,” grandmother says.

“None of us did a thing,” I say. 

“She told me once, she’ll stay with him, so at the end when he begs for a sip of water and his mouth is parched, she’ll let him thirst,” grandmother says.

“Did she really,” says mother.

“Shouldn’t she hate him forever, the beast!” 

“But we’re still so decent to him,” I say. 

“What else can we do?” mother asks.

“We could’ve helped her leave,” I say.

“And if she refused?” 

“She wouldn’t have always refused,” I say, but grandmother shakes her head like I’m too naive to understand these things.

“Anyway, everything’s fine now,” mother says. “His parents are gone, he’s no longer demented and there’s piles of money lining their floors and the walls. Now Alo calls to give me advice, she says Anna, you poor thing, do you need money? Money, money, like she’s running a blade-company.

“Enough. Let’s not talk about this anymore,” grandmother says. 

On cue, the maid brings a cutting board and the bread knife that she warmed at the stove. Grandmother cuts the cake, and neatly, she topples slices onto saucers. The maid serves us first before she carries her saucer to the kitchen. We dig in. The cake is warm and rich.

“It’s perfect,” mother says. 

Grandmother nods. “I used the expensive butter,” she says.

Amy Olassa grew up in India, and currently lives in the Bay Area. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California. She is an alumna of the Community of Writers, Tin House Workshop and was a 2018 Fellow at the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Her fiction work was featured in the Oyster River Pages and the Aster(ix) Journal.

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Art Brooklyn Museum Public Domain ALT Two women sitting on a picnic blanket sharing tea and talking

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