It is a strange thing to go through life as an outsider. Anu had never quite thought of herself as one, but the disconnect she felt with her surroundings and with her life was an all-pervasive thing, lodged in her gullet like a dry piece of bread. Something that reminded her she did not belong. That she had never belonged. And try as she might, she would always be found out for what she was - a fraud.
At the school gates, she nodded and smiled at a few mothers, too shy to start a conversation. She watched how they laughed and chatted amongst themselves with ease, finding casual words to describe their days, their children, their lives. Why couldn’t she do the same? What was holding her back?
It had been three weeks since her daughter had started at primary school. Neha was no extrovert either, and watching her struggle to make friends reminded Anu of her own difficulties. Would Neha also go through life standing on the fringes, hoping to be invited in? No, she could not allow that to happen to her child. She would do whatever it took to help Neha find acceptance, even if that meant stepping into a circle of women who seemed terribly intimidating.
She inched closer to the group of women who were waiting en masse in the school playground. They were all listening in rapt attention to a blonde woman standing in the centre, talking animatedly, her hands flying everywhere. The story must have been a good one because they were leaning in so as not to miss a single word.
Anu was too far away to hear them, but she watched this woman, fascinated by her confidence and self-assurance. From the sleek bob to her Converse shoes, she was every inch the polished wife of a city broker. Dressed down in her Boden jeans and T-shirt, a patina of wealth still shimmered on her person. The women that surrounded her were not much different. Monied, privileged and very aware of their status in life, they weren’t readily accepting of someone new.
When Ravi had insisted on moving into the stockbroker belt of England, she had protested little, even though it had taken every bit of their savings, on top of the sale of their house, to buy a small three-bedroom terraced property in a wealthy area such as this.
“The schools are wonderful,” he had assured her, when they’d had to sell her gold jewellery from their wedding to pay the movers. He wanted the best for Neha, and how could she argue with that?
London was filled with pockets of privilege and pockets of destitution. They had sat comfortably in the middle, in an area that was overwhelmingly Asian in its demographic. These were upwardly mobile Asians working in offices, running businesses, having airport jobs of note, and at first, it had felt like the right place to be - amongst her own people. Folk that understood the language, the food and culture of her homeland. Yet Ravi was never at home amongst them, pointing out how different they were from people in India.
“You and I came here in the late ’90s, but these guys are stuck in the ’60s; that’s when so many of them migrated here. India has moved forward in leaps and bounds in the thirty years since they left, but they carry on like they’re still stuck in the middle of the last century! Anu, we don’t think like them, we don’t talk like them, and I definitely don’t want my daughter growing up amongst them.”
Ravi loved where they were now. This house was smaller than the one they had sold, but he was in his element, chatting to all the neighbours, making friends at their local Sainsbury’s. It was she who was still struggling to fit in.
One woman looked over at her and gave her a slight smile. Anu took that as a sign of encouragement and walked over.
“Hi, I’m Anu, Neha’s mum.”
“Hello, I’m Jill. Are you new to the area?”
“Yes, we just moved in a few months ago.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Welcome to the neighbourhood. Whereabouts do you live?”
“On Grant Road, not too far from here.”
“I know it.” Jill seemed to stiffen and back away, turning ever so slightly as if to show that the conversation was over. Perplexed, Anu stood next to the group waiting for the school bell to ring, and for this daily torture to be over.
School was where she’d make friends, Ravi had insisted. Other mothers she’d meet through Neha, women she could chat with about homework and school plays and all such things that women discussed. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she wasn’t interested in the things that these women discussed. Unlike him, she had no talent for small talk, and she couldn’t see a single soul here who would reach out and get to know the real her.
The bell rang, and the doors to the classroom opened. The blonde woman was already there, swamping the teacher with a dozen questions about the pretty blonde girl who stood next to her, presumably her daughter.
Anu waited for Neha to exit the classroom. Neha didn't do things in a hurry, so she knew it would be a while. In fact, her slow-moving ways often frustrated Ravi, but Anu understood it was her daughter's way of reassuring herself that all was well in her upside-down world.
A few minutes later when she came out, her eyes searched for her mother, and upon espying her she smiled so sweetly that Anu’s heart filled with a love so painful it threatened to spill out of her eyes.
“Mummy,” Neha came and held her hand.
“Hello baby.” Anu kneeled down and kissed her cheek. “How was your day?”
They had gone through the phonics book together, mimicking the sounds, laughing at the ‘ssss’ and ‘bbbb’. Now Neha was in the bath, and Anu looked through her school bag for anything she may have forgotten to tell her. A scrunched up piece of paper lay at the bottom and she pulled it out, laid it flat on the table and smoothened it. It was a crude drawing of a stick figure with an enormous head and pigtails. Next to it was a childish scrawl that said ‘ugly’.
Anu folded the paper and slipped it into her pocket.
Upstairs, she took Neha out of the bath and towelled her dry. Combing the tangles out of her wet hair, she asked, “Are you enjoying school, baby?”
“Have you made any friends?”
“Oh!” Anu felt a sharp relief. “Who?”
“Mr Ferreira, the caretaker.”
“How... how has he become your friend?”
“Well, he sees me sitting on my own at lunchtime, so he comes and talks to me sometimes.”
“But why don’t you sit with the other girls?”
“They don’t like me.”
Neha’s tone was matter-of-fact, as though she had come to terms with her reality. Her voice quavering slightly, Anu asked, “Why don’t they like you?”
“The girls say I look like a dirty brown puddle, and the boys say I smell like curry.”
Anu pulled her daughter into an embrace.
“It’s all right, Mummy. Mrs Pellow is a really nice teacher, and she said to me I was very smart.”
“Did she, baby?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be okay. You don’t have to cry.”
Before Ravi came home, Anu washed all of Neha’s school uniform sets again. Every radiator had something hanging off it, with the heating on full blast.
“What’s going on here?” He laughed, looking around. “It’s like a Chinese laundry.”
“Don’t say that!” Anu hissed. “I’m trying to get the smell of cooking out of all the clothes. Can you smell anything on this? Tell me quick! I might have to put it through another wash.”
“Only the fabric softener. What’s going on, anyway?”
“Neha has no friends. They are calling her brown and smelly. And all our cooking smells are on her uniform.” She broke down.
“Hey, hey... it’s okay. It’s only been a few weeks. It takes time to make friends. All these children have known each other since their nursery days, and Neha is the new girl, so she’s the one who has to make the effort. You do too. You know you can call some of her classmates over for playdates, that way they can get to know each other outside of school. My colleagues’ wives do it all the time. Now come on, cheer up. It will all work out, I promise.” He ruffled her hair and headed to the kitchen. “Something smells good. What have you made for dinner?”
That night, as they lay in bed together, with Ravi talking about his office politics and his upcoming review, Anu’s mind wandered back to her own childhood. Mama had been so unlike the other mothers. A statuesque beauty, thrice-divorced and four times married, she had never cared about what people thought of her. Her children had been housed in various boarding schools while she travelled the world with her airline pilot husband. Anu had not adjusted well to the hostel life, was sickly throughout and had been sent to live with her elderly grandparents, neither of whom had wanted to be saddled with the responsibility of a pre-teen girl. So, she’d grown up in a vacuum of sorts. Her basic needs met by the servants in her grandparents’ employ. Her emotional needs met by a retreat into art and books.
The few times that her mother breezed into her life, it was like an exotic bird had landed in their midst. All the half-siblings would gather under one roof, some pitying Anu while the others resenting her residence with their maternal grandparents. Their mother would dole out her attention erratically, concentrating on whichever child caught her fancy, while the others watched, hoping they too might get to bask in some maternal warmth. Anu rarely got that chance. As a middle child of five, she felt neither attached to nor repelled by her half-brothers and sisters. They simply existed as an adjunct to her mother’s life, and by extension, her own. When they all scattered in their twenties, she felt no grief - it was as it was always meant to be.
When Mama’s fourth husband died, she took up with a much younger man, installing him in her Nainital home. Her parents had willed the Delhi property to be sold and shared between the five grandchildren, knowing their own daughter’s ways. Mama’s anger and resentment against her parents’ last wishes overlooked every bit of kindness and understanding they had given their only child in their lifetime. Anu hadn’t called her in over a month, fearful of the bile she would spew, turning their interaction into a bitter tirade against her deceased parents.
Anu wished she had known her father. He had been a kind man, her Nani had told her. Mama was a wilful wife, and he had been patient with her. Perhaps too patient, for after two years of marriage she had moved on to her third husband. He had died shortly after of a heart attack.
“Where are you?” Ravi nudged her on her side.
“You were miles away. I asked you a question, but you didn’t respond.”
“Sorry, I was thinking of Mama. What did you ask?”
“I was considering booking tickets to India over the Christmas holidays. What do you think?”
Anu’s heart sank as she contemplated spending Christmas at Ravi’s aunt’s house in Delhi. Since his parents had died, his father’s sister, a spinster in her seventies, was the one family member he gravitated towards. His brother had migrated to Dubai, and she wished they could go there instead.
“What about Anil bhaiyya and Smita? They’ve been inviting us to Dubai for the last three years.”
“Yes, but Varsha bua is all alone, and she loves having us stay. We can always go to Dubai over the Easter break.”
Anu agreed, but not without the tiniest bit of resentment about once again being made to do something against her will.
As a new driver, Anu tried parking as far away from the school as possible, so that her parallel parking skills wouldn’t embarrass her. She always got to the playground car park early to ensure she had a good parking bay. Then she’d sit and read her book until there were just ten minutes to pickup.
Today her mind kept wandering, not allowing her to focus on the murder mystery she was reading. Why had she given up painting? Was it because of Neha? She could remember the sleepless nights, the colicky baby refusing to settle, and Ravi moving into another room to get his sleep. She had packed away all her paints, the brushes and easel to make way for a nursery. And somehow, they had stayed in the attic ever since. Perhaps it was time to resume her hobby. Loneliness didn’t bother her too much, but the lack of a creative outlet did.
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was 3:13 p.m.! Just two minutes till the bell rang. She dashed out of the car in a panic, mentally berating herself for her absent-mindedness.
Neha was standing next to Mrs Pellow, looking lost.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs Pellow, I completely lost track of time.”
“It’s quite alright, Mrs Dhawan, you’re only two minutes late. Take a breath.” She smiled kindly at Anu, who suddenly felt like a little girl herself, wanting a bit of the maternal warmth and comfort the teacher was exuding.
“Would it be possible to have a chat one of these days about Neha?”
“Is everything okay?” Mrs Pellow’s brow furrowed in concern.
“Yes, I...” Anu glanced down at Neha, who was looking at them curiously. “I’d rather not talk about it right now.”
“Oh, I see. Yes, of course, I’m more than happy to fit you in next Tuesday afternoon after pickup. Shall we say 3:30 p.m.?”
“Yes, that’ll be wonderful. Thank you.”
Mrs Pellow smiled before turning to talk to another parent.
Anu and Neha walked back to her car slowly.
“How was your day, baby?”
“What did you study?”
“Did you make any friends?”
“Did you finish your lunch?”
“I don’t want cheese sandwiches any more. Can I have Nutella instead?”
“But sweetie, they’re terrible for your teeth.”
“That’s what all the other girls have. And crisps, and a Frube. Please, Mummy, please!”
“I’ll think about it.”
Is this what peer pressure looked like now? Was her five-year-old already subject to it?
Back at the playground, there was an attractive red-haired lady standing next to her car. She looked up and smiled as she saw Anu approaching.
“Hi! I’m Simone. My daughter is in Year 2. I saw you rushing to pick up your girl, and I don’t think you noticed this fall on the ground.” She was holding up the dog-eared book Anu had been reading in the car.
“Oh no! I hadn’t realised... Thank you so much. I’d have been so upset if I’d lost it.”
“Looks interesting. I’ve never read this author before. Any good?”
“It’s quite gory, but the storyline is interesting. You’re welcome to borrow it once I’m finished.”
“Thank you, that would be nice.”
They smiled at each other.
“Where’s your daughter?” Anu looked around, not spotting a child resembling the slim, pretty woman standing in front of her.
“She’s probably on the swings. Dragging her away will be a pain now.”
They looked at the playground milling with children of all ages, running around, playing on the swings and the see-saws, climbing to the top of the slide, and squealing as they landed in a heap at the bottom.
“Have you ever taken your daughter in there?”
“No. I just park my car here because it’s easier. We are new to the area, so we don’t really know too many people.”
“I think she’d enjoy a bit of play-time here. Why don’t you join us tomorrow?” She smiled down at Neha, who hid behind Anu, staring up at the strange lady chatting to her mother.
“That’s very kind of you. Yes, we’d love to join you. What do you say, Neha?”
Neha looked down at the floor as she mouthed a quiet ‘thank you’.
At home, Anu gave Neha a snack and allowed her half an hour of television before they tackled the homework. In the meantime, she went through her school bag, pulling out the various notices and drawings hastily shoved in. She sifted through them all, looking for another cartoon like the one before. Much to her relief, there was nothing.
As she was emptying her lunchbox, the phone rang.
“Who is this?”
“Forgotten me already?”
Anu hated how some people just assumed she would guess who was on the other end of the line, without bothering to introduce themselves. Did they really think they were that memorable?
“I’m sorry, I can’t place you.”
“Oh, Annie, how are you?”
Her cousin was just a few years older, but considered herself decades wiser than Anu. Married to a much older man, a professor at the University of Bath, she had assumed all the airs and graces of a Dean’s wife. There had been a time that Anu had thought they could be close, but in the last few years it had become increasingly apparent that they were on very different life paths.
Antara had met Richard online, and their relationship had progressed quickly. Before her parents could react, she had declared that she was marrying the shy academic fifteen years older than her. These days it was she who looked older. Richard was still the thin, bespectacled, balding man that they’d first been introduced to. Antara, or ‘Annie’ as she preferred being called, had ballooned to twice her size.
“Who ate all the cakes?” Ravi had muttered in an undertone when they’d gone down to Bath to see them.
It had been over a year since they had met each other, or spoken. It was no wonder that she had completely blanked.
“I’m so sorry, Annie, I was in the middle of preparing dinner. How are you? How’s Richard?”
“We are all fine, but it’s been so long since we heard from you. How is the new house? Did you get our card?”
“Yes, yes, we did. I thought I’d acknowledged it. But it must’ve slipped my mind.”
“Not to worry. Anyway, the reason I rang was to ask if you’re free next weekend. I’m coming up to London for some work and wondered if I could crash at yours for the night?”
“Uh, yes, ummm... of course.”
“Great! That’s settled then. I’ll text you all the details closer to the time.”
“Sure. Uh, Annie, I have to go. The timer is beeping on the oven...”
“Bye! See you soon.”
Anu replaced the receiver with a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. Antara always made her feel uncomfortable, and she was not looking forward to spending an evening in her company.
Simone waved at them from a park bench, showing that she had saved her a spot. Anu sat down next to her with Neha clinging to her arm.
“Hi! I brought some Indian chai.” Anu took the flask out of her bag. “Would you like some?”
“Oh, I love everything Indian!” Simone grinned back, accepting the proffered cup. “By the way, I didn’t catch your name yesterday.”
“It’s Anupama. You can call me Anu for short. And this is Neha.”
“Such pretty names. This is my daughter, Kayla. Say ‘hi’ Kayla. Why don’t you show Neha around the park?”
Anu hid her surprise at discovering that Kayla was mixed-race, smiling down at the seven-year-old grinning at her daughter. Nervous, Neha hung back, but upon Anu’s insistence she allowed Kayla to lead her away.
“Oh, this is so lovely and aromatic,” Simone exhaled after taking a sip. “I bet you’re a wonderful cook too.”
“I am a pretty decent one, but I wouldn’t call myself wonderful,” Anu laughed.
They sipped on their teas in a quiet, convivial silence.
“Would you mind if I asked you a question, Simone?”
“No, not at all.” She turned herself to face Anu, her body leaning forward slightly.
“Is there something wrong with Grant Road?”
She raised her eyebrows as she looked at Anu speculatively.
“Depends on who you’ve been talking to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s just say Grant Road is not Millionaire’s Row. If you live there, then you probably haven’t inherited your money, you’ve earned it. Or your husband has. But not in the high-flying jobs that a lot of men around here have.”
She flicked a bit of lint off her skirt, then looked her in the eye.
“Anu, I don’t know you much, but heed my advice. Don’t get too involved with the mothers at school. They’ll rip you to shreds without breaking a fingernail. I’ve been there, and I can tell you, it’s not pleasant.”
Anu digested this silently.
“Neha is a very shy child. I worry about her not being able to make friends, and if I don’t reach out to the other mothers, she may end up being isolated completely.”
“She doesn’t look very shy to me right now.”
From a distance, Anu saw Kayla and Neha being chased by another three girls. They were ducking and diving and then giving them the slip, giggling incessantly.
“Kayla has never been a shy girl, so I can’t say that I’ve ever faced your issues. But we don’t exactly fit in here either. If you think they look down their noses on Grant Road, imagine what they think of Holly Drive where I live?”
Holly Drive, Ravi had pointed out, was the council area populated by social housing. He had insisted on buying as far away from there as possible.
“I’m a single mother,” Simone shrugged. “It was all I could afford.”
Tucking Neha into bed after her bath and milk, Anu pondered the irony of making friends with someone from the sort of socio-economic background that Ravi frowned upon. But Simone and Kayla were the first people who had shown them any kindness in their first month at school. She was going to keep it quiet from Ravi for a while. She didn’t want him to put an end to a budding friendship between the girls either. It was the first time that she had seen Neha as happily tired as she’d been after her play in the park.
Anu had been wanting to take up jogging for a while. Five years after having Neha, she had still not shed the baby-weight. Although never the slimmest in her family, she had at least been well-proportioned enough to be considered curvaceously attractive. Now, however, her little potbelly, the back rolls and the chafing thighs reminded her daily that genetically she had taken after her father. If she didn’t watch out, she could end up obese, diabetic, and prone to cardiac problems.
She pulled up her jogging pants, grimacing at herself in the mirror. A beauty she was not. Her half-sisters looked more like Mama than she did, but Ravi had always insisted that he liked her as she was. She leaned towards the mirror and examined her face. A clear complexion, dark brown eyes, thick hair that fell in waves down her back. She supposed she wasn’t all that bad looking. If only she were taller. Or thinner. Well, the first she couldn’t do much about, but the second she was going to try her best to fix.
Plugging her earphones in, she took off at a gentle trot. Jogging out of Grant Road, she took a left, running uphill. For a while there were only meadows on either side, with cows grazing on the grass. The sky was a bright blue, and the air crisp as she breathed in and out steadily, pacing herself.
A few miles later, the houses slowly got narrower and more cloistered. This was the less salubrious part of the village, and as she ran past the houses, she saw broken windows patched up with newspaper sheets, a mattress lying abandoned on someone’s front lawn, dirty net curtains fluttering in the wind. Further still, a soiled yellow couch gathered dust in an alleyway, with a cat curled up on it. At a distance she spied ‘Holly Drive’ on a sign that had been overlaid with obscene graffiti.
She did a quick U-turn and jogged in the opposite direction, her breath coming out in little puffs now. Running past Grant Road, she carried on beyond the school and the playground. She stopped and waited for the light at the pedestrian crossing to turn red as she massaged a stitch in her stomach. Then she ran northwards until she reached Grisham Place. Her pace slowed as she ran past the million-pound homes with their gleaming gates and intercoms, their manicured lawns and perfect hedgerows.
Slowing to a brisk walk, her eyes skimmed over the names of the houses - St Anne, Dimbleby, Hawthorne. Then she saw a black Porsche emerge out of the house at the end of the road. The blonde woman that Anu had watched in the school playground not too long ago was driving the car, and she threw Anu a contemptuous look as she laughed with her companion, another mother from the school.
Deflated, Anu trudged home. As she entered Grant Road, she looked at the houses with fresh eyes. They were modest homes, but beautifully kept. The residents took pride in living well, and while it wasn’t Millionaire’s Row, she was happy she lived here.
The old lady from two houses down was shuffling slowly with her shopping trolley. Anu slowed down so as not to rush her.
When the old lady tripped and fell suddenly, Anu was by her side in a trice.
“Oh, my goodness! Are you okay?”
She looked around to see if anyone else had spotted them, but at 11 in the morning, the street was quiet. She helped the old lady up, noting that her knee was bleeding profusely.
“I’m just one door away. Do you think you can make it inside? I can take care of you there.”
Moaning slightly, she nodded an affirmative, allowing Anu to help her up and take her indoors.
Susan wouldn’t stop thanking her for the next half hour. Anu had cleaned and dressed the wound, made her a strong cup of tea and brought all her groceries in.
“My dear, I don’t know what happened. One minute I was fine, the next I was on the ground.”
“It happens. At least you didn’t break anything. Now, are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the doctor’s? I can drive you there.”
“They will not do any more than you have. I am ever so grateful.”
“Please stop thanking me. I did what anyone else would have done.”
Having taken Susan back home, and after multiple assurances of visiting her soon, Anu sank into her sofa, exhausted. What a day it had been! She couldn’t wait to tell Simone all about it.