“Chinnu is expecting her second baby”. I woke up to a text from my mother that came with supporting evidence – a picture of a young mother with her husband, and a toddler happy, and squirming in his fathers arms. “What is your plan?” she asked.
I laughed to myself. After all these years, Chinnu still managed to find a way to outdo me.
Chinnu, the maid’s daughter, wore her hair like the girls in my Hindi textbook illustrations.
A carefully drawn middle-parting, twisted into 2 braids that were held together by ribbons tied into a bow. The kind of bow that you would make when wrapping a birthday present.
Which was sort of fitting – because everyone thought Chinnu was God’s gift to the family.
“I saw her reading the newspaper the other day, while Tutu watched TV” my grandfather would declare, with the kind of special admiration grandfathers have for people who read newspapers, write letters and play chess.
“She told her mother she wants her to stop working in houses as soon as she gets her first salary”. My mother would repeat, for the 5th time, the type of statement that everyone, except mothers, would find a little cheesy.
“She has learned my medicine schedule now. I don’t have to worry about my evening meds anymore” my grandmother would add, with the type of excessive gratitude senior citizens reserve for young people who bear even the slightest inconvenience for them.
“She knows her multiplication tables perfectly. You better focus on your math”, my father would say with the measured, approving nod of someone who likes to think he isn’t easily impressed.
Chinnu was everything I wanted and didn’t want to be at the same time. I wanted her clear skin, without her unibrow. Her math grades without her broken english. My grandfather’s approval, without having to read the newspaper.
Despite us being the same age, I would admire her from a distance. But with the kind of fragile, teenage admiration that could spoil easily and fester into envy.
It wounded me that Chinnu didn’t seem to notice that I might have something she did not.
That I didn’t have a unibrow. That I had a cellphone. That my skirt ended 2 inches above my knee. And that my TV show was more interesting than her newspaper.
She’d simply leave me to marinate in a delicate mix of my privilege and my insecurities, refusing to acknowledge either of them into existence.
That year, Chinnu topped her class in her board exams while I barely passed. She rang the doorbell at 4pm like she always did, but this time, with a box of sweets. The family lavished her with unabashed, enthusiastic praise – making me feel compelled to contribute to the celebration.
“Congratulations Chinnu, so happy for you” I said, hoping it sounded authentic.
And Chinnu looked back, with her unbearably pleasant smile, and handed me my favourite sweet – a diamond shaped Kaju Barfi, glistening in silver in the afternoon sun.
That somehow tasted sour.