Short Fiction by Kavita A. Jindal. This story appears in the anthology ‘Love Across A Broken Map‘ which is available from Dahlia Publishing and features stories from the The Whole Kahani collective. The collective will be appearing at The Manchester Literature Festival in October.
‘What’s in a name?’ you might ask.
When you’re mixed race; a lot hinges on it.
Take Perry Krishna Buckle.
When we met him at the singing class he introduced himself as PK.
It was not until the third lesson, when we congregated in the pub, that he told my twin sister and I that PK stood for Perry Krishna. His mother was Indian, he said, and she was from Mathura. His middle name was in honour of Mathura, Lord Krishna’s birthplace.
My twin Sonali half-shrieked, half-laughed. ‘Perry Krishna is a very odd name. But cute, too,’ she added.
Then she dug her elbow into me, and announced to him, ‘We’re quite similar, you know. My middle name is Candida.’
PK looked taken aback. He regarded us closely. He had olive skin, light brown hair, flecked with even lighter wisps and brown eyes. In London, he could be from anywhere, any land, any race. Sonali and I had tried to figure out his ethnic antecedents but we never guessed he might be a person with the middle name of Krishna. Of course, we had half-expected that most of the people signing up to classes to sing Thumri would have some connection to the Indian sub-continent.
That’s what you might expect, but in our class of ten, two of whom only showed up once, four are not Asian and they are the ones most deeply interested in all aspects of north Indian light classical music, knowing more about raag and the traditions than us. They seem to have studied the music rather than merely enjoyed it. We’re here to learn the songs we like to listen to when we are cutting or sewing. We’d put PK in the category of serious hobbyists on a spiritual musical journey; people whom we assumed had no exposure to this kind of music in their home. We learnt to love ghazals and thumri because our Dad made us listen to his CDs when we were growing up and given us intense explanations of the singers and the songs.
Everyone in our singing class is pleasant but PK is the only one near our age. We think he’s in his late twenties, max early thirties. Although we head to the pub as a group, generally Sonali and I sit closest to PK and chat with him.
That evening after the third lesson PK turned to me after Sonali had announced her middle name. ‘What’s your name, Himani? Full name, I mean’.
‘Himani Charlotte Joy Dalzel Sahni.’
‘That’s a mouthful. Is your family of Indian origin?’ He asked it hesitantly.
Of course, he knew we were. Presumably he could easily guess from my first and last name. What he was asking was, ‘Are you mixed race? Really?’
It was obvious he hadn’t guessed. Because, again, in London, with our dark hair, dark eyes, our average height and our names, we were firmly South Asian in our appearance. The slight give-away of Sonali’s features, different from my own, were detected in India but not here. In one way our Dad was a stereotypical British Asian statistic because he was an ENT consultant. In his early youth he’d had a moustache but that had gone when he’d decided to settle in London. Our mum was English, from the Lakes. She had studied architecture but didn’t practice it. She had brown hair and light blue eyes which neither of us had inherited.
We’re non-identical twins. We’ve always adored each other. We did have the occasional quarrel and it was usually because Sonali, who was older by two whole minutes felt she could boss me about, disapprove of the clothes I wanted to wear, or the subjects I wanted to study, or the boys I wanted to hang out with.
We parted ways at university so we could be free of each other and the people who knew us as twins. We enjoyed that phase of striking out on our own but somehow on our twenty-seventh birthday we agreed that we were most comfortable with each other and that we should work together. Sonali had the design experience and I had the MBA. After a year of toying with the idea we finally set up our own small fashion business. We named our label ‘Two Singers’.
We loved singing, although we weren’t very good at it. I was better at holding a tune, but Sonali opened her mouth more when she sang, as she wasn’t shy, and she sang loudly and lustily. When we signed up for the group sessions of learning semi-classical songs, there was an unsaid assumption that we might meet some like-minded men in a neutral but fun environment. It was too bad that we were both currently single and unattached. I reckoned that even if we didn’t meet anyone interesting we’d have spent some evenings doing something we loved. The classes were my idea because I don’t like my time to be wasted.
Well, we met PK, and hit it off from the first session, but there weren’t two of him. Unless…
My response to PK’s question was to say that yes, we were Indian, or part-Indian and part-English, or just English, whichever way he liked to cut it; knowing that he would understand like nobody else would. I asked if he had a twin. Or a brother…
‘I’m an only child’, he replied.
At home Sonali and I guess PK’s shoe size and shirt size. We guess what his mother might look like, since he seems to have gone entirely on his father. There are not many traces of Indian-ness in him. We wonder if he feels the same connection to our city, and whether he feels that pull towards Indian culture just because one parent took the time to inculcate an interest. We wonder what’s brought him to the singing sessions.
I like him. He has an earnest air about him; he’s not an aggressive type, his manners are refined, he’s handsome. He’s a good listener but he doesn’t tell us that much about himself, except when you ask him a leading question. Sonali, on the other hand, drip-feeds him too much information about us, including telling him I’m the ‘geeky’ one. He looked startled at that, rightly so. I suspect Sonali likes him too, more than she’s letting on.
There’s a one week break in our lessons and then we’re back in the church hall for our first session after two weeks. We have six more to go. Then we can sign up to another term if we like. Our teacher is trying to gauge interest, as she has to fix the dates with the hall and pay a deposit. I wonder if our voices carry out into the nave of the empty church and if the statues turn their ears towards us. What would the Virgin Mary make of the songs we like to rehearse? Thumri lyrics and melodies were written for courtesans, about two hundred years ago, and sung by them to entice and entertain their patrons. The compositions were based on classical raags and on devotional folk lyrics, but the words are flirtatious, and about the relationship between lovers. Often we sing about an ache for a missing lover. I can relate to that, I think. It’s not that I’m missing anyone in particular, at this moment, it’s more that I’m missing having someone to miss. The songs make me weepy inside and I sing them softly.
I don’t know what music sounded like when Jesus was a youth. All the hymn compositions came much later. But no doubt people all over the world sang or chanted and even two thousand years ago enthusiastic groups must have exercised their lungs together, and that joy hasn’t changed.
Sonali pipes up to tell the tutor that we would sign up for the next term. ‘We love it’, she states. ‘The classes have definitely met our expectations.’
I wonder if PK will last six more weeks in the course, and then another twelve thereafter. He’s certainly been committed to the sessions, but life outside of this may take over. He’s often mentioned his past travels. How many Thursday evenings will he give up to this amateur singing group? We are only six regulars now, with two others dropping in when they can. But the six of us, led by our teacher, make a good harmony.
We begin to sing a slow thumri. The lyrics of this one are based on Radha’s love for Lord Krishna. ‘Mora Sanyan Mose Bole Na’. I sort-of join in, but as Sonali can be heard ‘aaa – aaa – aahing’ in a heartfelt but showy manner, I burn with indignation. She has a habit of flirting with the men I like before I can get round to it. Is she now going to make moves on PK without checking with me first?
In the event it is Sonali who is miffed when PK asks me to have a coffee with him.
‘How about Saturday afternoon?’ he said to me. ‘I’m interested in hearing more about your fashion start-up.’
Sonali had gone to the loo when he asked. I broke it to her on the way home.
She was so astonished she actually said out loud what she was thinking. ‘I thought he’d prefer me!’
That is what she said. My twin.
She sets my teeth on edge the way she assumes that every male in the universe will think of her as the more attractive one. We both know that it’s not true; experience has proven that some men do exist who fancy me more than her. To be sure, in most of our unspoken wranglings over the same boys when we were teenagers, Sonali always felt she had first dibs. But why now, why today, does she believe PK would favour her?
What’s so special? Is she preening herself on our differences? Sonali is precisely one inch taller than me. She makes a deal about it. Like she does about her pointy chin, which is like our mother’s. She also has our mother’s soft eyebrows, small nose and thin mouth. I have more striking brows and fuller lips.
My belly jabs at itself with fingers of acid. PK has individual looks I think, and an independent brain, and he asked me to coffee.
I won’t let her upset me. She does say this sort of thing sometimes, oblivious to how it hurts me. I know we are all navigating the world based on our appearance and other people’s gut response to it, but it is crazy that my sister can have the perception of only her own beauty.
‘My personality,’ Sonali says sharply, suddenly aware of what is going on in my head. ‘I thought he would like my style.’ She presses her lips into a pained expression, turning herself into the aggrieved party.
To appease her I say that PK wanted to hear more about our work and see our designs.
She snaps at me immediately: ‘I’m the designer. Did you tell him that? I do all the work.’
I glare at her then. ‘I’ll be sure to tell him on Saturday. I’ll tell him that you do all the work. I’ll tell him I have the brain. I’ll tell him I wrote the business plan. And I can cut and sew too. And I have to make the sales pitches with you.’
On Saturday, Sonali went for a swim while I met PK. I wasn’t really sure that I was on a date. Coffee is not really a date date, is it? PK and I have a happy and easy conversation. The fact that we have sung together, when neither of us are cut out to be singers, makes us very relaxed in each other’s company. I’m surprised that he actually does ask a lot of questions about our work.
‘Was it really your business plan that got you the loan, Himani?’ he says. ‘I’d like to see it.’ He notices my hesitation. ‘If you don’t mind, of course. You may not want a stranger checking your plan and stealing your secrets. But I may be able to offer some tips.’
‘You’re not a stranger,’ I tell him, feeling flattered that he wants to see the schedule of business growth that I’ve devised. He told us before that he’s an IT consultant but today he’s shared the fact that he also has a business background. His father owns a small chain of supermarkets, a franchise of high-end watch dealerships, and real estate, among other things. PK says he usually doesn’t like to mention his family business empire.
I am curious about why he’s at the thumri class but I don’t ask him outright.
I babble a bit about my reasons instead. ‘Some friends like to learn Bollywood dancing. I mean, not just Asian friends, but everyone. But when it comes to loving Hindi film songs, both old and new, it’s only Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, right? Some of our friends think it’s weird that we’re more interested in light classical music. I keep telling them that often the film songs are based on classical raags. They don’t get our obsession with thumri but I think it’s something that reminds us of our childhood. Then, we used to sigh that we were being force-fed this additional culture; now we listen to it by choice, especially when we’re working.’
PK gives an understanding nod. He discovered thumri when he was dragged to concerts in Delhi while he was visiting friends. He had such a wonderful time on that visit that he was trying to re-create some of that magic in London. ‘I’m trying to gain more of an insight into the art-form so I can fully appreciate it when I go to a live recital again,’ he says, looking endearingly earnest.
I let my heart indulge in little leaps of delight. I want to sit closer to him, touch his hands. I could tell him about upcoming concerts at the South Bank and we could go together.
‘I don’t even fully understand the words,’ he says wistfully. ‘At least Sonali and you speak the language.’
‘Not very well,’ I assure him. ‘But yes, of course, we can get by. As for the lyrics, they are not that different from song to song. My mother always says: there’s the monsoon, and the lovers are either separated and pining, or about to get together. Even she’s an expert.’
I don’t mention that he sometimes mispronounces the words we sing in the class.
I’m staring at his shoulders, thinking I could have a fusion Indo-Western jacket made for him and how good he would look in it, when he asks, ‘‘Coffee again, Himani?’ Next Saturday? Same time, same place?’
Another coffee? I think. Another Saturday afternoon? A tame time, I think.
I try not to be too disappointed that he pecks me airily on both cheeks when he goes off. I mean I am disappointed but he hasn’t led me to expect anything more.
At the Thursday singing lesson Sonali is subdued and I’m grateful for that. She’s not muscling in now. He’s attracted to me, I think to myself. Me. He likes me for my intellect and poise and self-sufficiency, and my wavy thick hair, all things he’s complimented me on. I find myself smiling a lot more at everyone in the class. When I exchange a look with PK I know I shine with happiness.
The next Saturday PK tells me more about himself. He seems quite intent that I get to know his background. He seems to have been lonely at boarding school while being a high-achiever. He doesn’t say so, but I’m drawing my own conclusions as he shares some of his memories. His parents are divorced. He asks me my experience of being mixed race. ‘Do you feel English? British? Indian? Wholly of one culture? A bit of both? Disconnected from both?’
‘Disconnected?’ I say, puzzled. ‘I think of myself as multifaceted, blessed. I am not A or B; I am A+B, I am lucky to draw the best from two cultures.’
I am very emphatic on this point and he quickly nods, although he looks sad.
‘You couldn’t possibly have a problem, PK, with not fitting in,’ I say, ‘not with your looks.’
He grins then. ‘I don’t have a problem; I’m just sometimes confused. Now, has the intelligent multifaceted person brought the business plan?’
I love his cheekbones when he grins like that. I hand him a folder of some pages that I’d photocopied for him. I did want to show off – I couldn’t help it.
‘If you don’t mind, I’ll read it right now,’ he says. He orders another coffee and studies the document. I begin to wonder then if one reason he prefers my company is that I’m quiet, unlike Sonali. I’m watching his concentration but not showing how restive I’m getting. What kind of relationship does he want? The question races around my brain while I try to tranquilize my disobedient heart.
PK finishes reading and returns the folder to me. ‘Do you need an investor, Himani?’ he asks.
‘Why?’ is the first response that escapes my lips.
‘If you do, I would like to invest in your business.’
My insides sink and soar at the same time. A cash injection would be marvellous. PK, essentially an outsider, showing conviction in our work is even more wonderful. But if he becomes our business partner will he be a boyfriend? Wouldn’t that be too complicated? Focus on the positive, I think. We could employ a tailor. We must have won PK’s trust if he wants to put money into our venture. He must be sure he’ll get a good return. He must be very impressed with my business plan.
PK leans forward. ‘I feel like you’re my sisters.’
I want to crash through the floor. Yet I’m still sitting here, hiding my wounds. I am beginning to comprehend him. He’s investing in family. We’ve won his affection. But I haven’t managed to steal his heart and fly away with it and I won’t be bringing it back with the monsoon clouds.
I haven’t managed to say a word to him yet. PK raises his coffee mug to his lips, twists his mouth in distaste at the dregs, puts the mug down and smiles. ‘Himani Charlotte,’ he croons softly, persuasively, lifting a finger. ‘Sonali Candida’. Another finger. ‘Perry Krishna’. He lifts a third finger. ‘A minor re-brand is all that’s required,’ he says.