And then it’ll be gone, this childhood of mine. Outside, the sky is this perfectly yellow color. It reminds me of grain fields, but it’s slowly falling into the soft pinkness of dusk. The first stars are already rising. A breeze flutters the white curtains, making the first disturbance in the stillness.
“The cake is coming through,” My mother’s raspy voice ambles through and it is soon followed by her footsteps as she enters the kitchen, carrying a large white cake. Ma often likes to pretend that she’s baked it herself, though we all know that it’s the handiwork of the muggle bakery down the street.
A curly script reads in green icing: Happy Birthday, Padma and Parvati
My father follows her as he always does, carrying the plates and the candles. Parvati comes last, holding a knife and looking eager.
Our birthdays have always been like this. A private little afterthought. Our parents had never chosen to make an occasion of them. Without the cake, perhaps all of us would have forgotten altogether that today, we were eighteen.
In the wizarding world, seventeen meant of age. But eighteen was still the special barrier between childhood and adulthood – that special place once left could never be undone.
Parvati was especially unsentimental about these kinds of things. My sister is pragmatic. Painfully pragmatic, even. She likes her birthday cake as much as the next person (white cake with vanilla icing; I always preferred chocolate), but she rolls her eyes at me when I get started on this topic. To everyone else, we look the same. To us, we find it bizarre that we’re even related.
My mother begins arranging the plates. My father dents the perfect white sheet of the cake with the candles, making a fuss as he looks for his wand to light them.
“With this, you two are all grown up, eh?” he says, taking my mother’s wand instead. With a flick, he lights the candles.
“My little daughters,” my mother murmurs, looking a little sad.
A breeze blows through, nearly setting it out.
“Almost,” I say. “Almost all grown up.”
There are just a few seconds left. It isn’t that I want to cling on.
“Can we just cut the cake already?” asks Parvati, taking the knife.
I want to remember it all one more time.
All of it. India to London. The hard times, the happy times, the lonely days, the empty nights. Now, these places and people are just memories, but they are the memories of my life.
I wonder sometimes if it should mean more to me.
It means something. Certainly, it means something. It has that feeling, that sound. Like a bell ringing if you say it just right. But I never can. Honestly, I think it’s the English accent. Makes it sound like a flower or something and it doesn’t do it justice.
Ma can. She says it perfectly and as it should be said. With fondness, with nostalgia. With that far away look in her eye – the faraway look that tells me that she has covered thousands of kilometers right to the exact centimeter of where she wants to be. In a land and a time that I can never reach or understand except through words. She says it just right. With a tiny hint of scorn, of begrudging. She says it with the certainty of someone pronouncing the name of their home.
Papa, on the other hand, says it methodically. It wears him down to think about it because he knows it’s too late to return. For him, there is plenty left in India. Three siblings – all younger sisters and their brood of children. For Papa, every reminder of India is bittersweet. It doesn’t stop him from nearly leaping when our family owl – affectionately named Garuda – arrives from overseas once in two months.
He yells up the stairs. “Aarati! It’s here!”
And Ma runs down, usually still carrying her books or her cooking (she always has something in her hands).
They devour it together, their heads bent over a shared secret before they burst out into discussion.
“Zafar and Sonia are getting married!”
“Rajeev is off to America. Ministry offered him a position there.”
I don’t understand, but I want to know.
Parvati is disinterested. The few times I’ve asked her, she’s given me a casual shrug. She never understands why I need to know. “But India’s boring, though. Trash everywhere. Creepy old men on the streets. Poor people.”
I don’t point out that we’ve seen some of those things in London too.
“Don’t you remember it?” she asks me.
Of course I remember. How can’t I remember?
We were six when we left. Papa got an offer here in the Ministry for Magic. He had spent years working as a magical architect, designing ornate palaces that nobody without our magic could ever see. But the letter had come one day from overseas.
Ma had set it in front of the picture of our grandmother that was propped in a closet. She had arranged us all in front of it and clasped her hands and said a prayer to Shiva. It was long and musical, like an undulating crow’s cry. At the end, she had nodded at my father, who unclasped his hands and opened it.
India was India.
Women wearing bright colors. Traffic everywhere. Dust getting into clothes. Heat baking dirt.
There was the usual. Children skipping across, shouting to each other. Streetside shopkeepers selling food.
There was the mundane. Cows ambling across, stopping traffic. A car darting past, sending somebody or the other cursing. The usual lack of proper toilets anywhere.
And then there was the magical India. Cool Saturday evenings where Parvati and I practiced our very first spells, our uncles and aunts all gathered around, watching interestedly. Old Hindi love songs crackled through a nearby radio and a cousin I no longer remember would sing along softly. After we’d both managed to set a few sparks off, the interest weaned and their chatter returned. There was always chatter in India. Somebody was always looking for a job or in a fight or going off to school. There were always a few nieces or granddaughters that needed to be married off to nice boys.
Magical or not, cricket was the drink of choice for my mustached uncles. They happily passed long hot afternoons arguing between each other. Magic was there. It was simply there. In the giant monuments that we casually drove past in Delhi – some hundreds of years old. I had seen them a hundred times before, but in the proper angle at sunset, I could imagine the ghosts of the rajkumaris – the princesses – still running around, their colourful veils flapping in the wind.
Perhaps that was why they could afford to be so careless with their magic. Muggles were still there, but an odd spark, a woman never growing old, soft, bodiless voices whispering in the wind…I thought perhaps India had seen it before. India was never surprised, merely politely curious.
I haven’t gone back since those first six years, but they have profoundly changed me.
I can’t speak Hindi. Ma calls me and Parvati her little English daughters when she’s feeling bitter. But the traces of those places is still there somewhere in the earliest memories of my life.
My father complained about the overtrafficking of portkeys to my mother as she cooked. Aunts and uncles filtered out of the house, all bickering and laughing. My sister and I holding a competition to see who could send a crow feather soaring the highest. I always won. An old man who lived across from us who let me play with his dog. Spending Saturday evenings dancing in my room with my cousins.
And somehow, those six years passed in a haze as the beginnings of childhood tends to do – frittered away in carelessness and bliss.
Then, we left.
We left, though I hardly think that’s the point of it. Rather, it’s the turning point.
Because one day, I’m going back.
A/N: This is a story I've wanted to write for a while now. I apologize if it seemed a bit scattered - it was cobbled together rather hastily. This first chapter is part of a series of reflections on Padma's life going in a chronological order. I'd love to know your thoughts and hear your feedback.