Jewellery’s never been my thing. But when I saw you in those silver earrings, I wanted to own all the earrings ever made, just so some could look half as good on me. They weren’t even real silver—you said you bought them for 100 rupees from Hill Road. They cost less than the Uber I’m sitting in to go there, I think, and smile to myself. The closer I get to the popular street market, the more I almost ask the driver to turn.
Of course Hill Road earrings were made for you. The place is always full to bursting, all sweat and rickshaw horns and footpath stalls. Hawkers chase people down with factory-outlet faux leather belts and temptations of designer ladies’ jeans, and it takes a special kind of resolve to evade their expert salesmanship. Aren’t you like that? It takes a special kind of resolve for anyone to tear their attention off you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen. All those years ago, Mama joked you were like tadka—you were so talkative, so filled with excitement, that you’d bubble over like cumin seeds and spices in hot oil. I imagine pouring you out onto my food the way Mama poured tadka for extra flavour. If I bite into you, will I learn your ways well enough? Will you unfurl inside my stomach and make it glow?
I’ve been to a total of seven jewellery stalls now, and all the earrings are either too silver or not silver enough. The shopkeepers quote nothing less than 150 even for the smallest pairs, as if the perfect 100-rupee earrings were an inside joke between you and them. Something that I could never share—just watch from afar. Not that I entirely hate watching, to be honest. There’s always something happening with you, some fight with your parents or some funny incident from a party or some boy who likes you that you have to let down slowly (there are too many of those, and you’re too kind about them). The stories pass through me like ghosts. I contemplate going to Stall Number Eight, right behind a restaurant that serves violently red and pungent noodles. It’s manned by a boy around our age, and I think of how he could’ve been at school with us, worrying about our trivial concerns instead of his next meal. To stomach that thought, I wonder if he’ll give me a discount because of some age affinity. He doesn’t. Fixed prices only.
On the way home, the earrings I bought feel strange in my clammy hands. They smell vaguely like garlic, and I don’t have the strength to put them on. Mama will be happy to see them, though, even if they’re cheap imitation gold. She’d given up on pushing me towards femininity long ago, but she still wanted it. I just hope she won’t ask me what led to the purchase, because I won’t know what to tell her. The money can be explained, because she thinks I’m out for lunch with you, but you’re at lunch with three other people from school. One of them just posted a picture of you smiling at your pizza. Get someone who looks at you this way, she captioned it.
A month passes and the unworn, grotesquely shiny earrings sit at the bottom of my drawer, among other things I couldn’t throw away. There’s a broken iPod, a dried-up tube of nail polish, and a notebook from ninth grade where we’d played really competitive games of tic-tac-toe. I never told Mama I bought the earrings, and she never asked. I just told her lunch was great—the pizza was a bit bland for my liking, but you loved it. The next time you come home, she offers you pizza, but you thank her, say you’ve just eaten, and she doesn’t have to take the trouble. Besides, you’re only here to give me my birthday gift a little early, because you’ll be on a family vacation on the actual day. It’s the first time in ten years that either of us has missed the other’s birthday, and it’s less dramatic than I imagined it.
You fish a tiny packet out of your bag and hand it to me. “I know you wouldn’t buy these yourself,” you begin, a little sheepishly, “but they’d suit you so well that I had to. I spent three hours on Hill Road looking for these, so please just promise to give them a chance.”
My stomach sinks before I even open the gift.
Shreya Khobragade is a sophomore at Ashoka University, India, where she studies English and Creative Writing. She fell in love with storytelling while working at media houses, and now co-runs SMS, a youth poetry and performance collective. Her interests lie at the intersection of literature, tech, and culture. Find her on Twitter: @possiblyshreya