Our Family of Hard Truths

By Mandira Pattnaik

Woama says we hurtle from one disaster to another. I think she’s the only one who speaks the whole truth. When Woama was looking to marry off her sixth daughter, the daughter wasn’t ready for it, purposefully throwing tantrums when presented before prospective grooms: refused to sing a line or two when requested, kept her hair short and side-parted against Woama’s wishes. 

My seventh year on earth, we have not yet made the annual visit to Woama because it depends on how everything is aligned. Besides the sun and the moon, it’s dependent on how my mother–Woama’s third daughter–manages to divulge her plans to her husband, my father, and to the elders at her marital home. Our visits are sometimes thwarted by things as fleeting as what everyone is concerned about at that particular time: what my grandmother has just heard in neighborhood gossips, or something as trivial as too much salt in that day’s lunch.

Following another disastrous year for us in the year of the floods, I know something about mixology: how they mix hard and soft, truth with falsehood.

Things spell out differently if you speak only the truth. Like I’m always doing in our place, though it isn’t exactly exciting to tell sixth-grade friends their new haircut looks awful, or that their chosen boy seems to stray, or about the witch story being fraudulent, or that their smile reminds you of your dead aunt, Woama’s sixth daughter, married and dead all in a year, all very mysteriously. Things you know—and they know too, just won’t bring to their lips. I can’t help the violent storm brewing inside, and I must puke it out, often, but then I’m left with no friends at all, because no one likes to be told the truth. 

To tell the truth, I do have one friend, just my age—Mariah. There she is! Waiting. Bicycle leaning against the garden wall, as I return the cleaned pans, rice cooker, and dishes to order after lunch. Mother is sick, she’ll be in labor any day now.

I slip out. We pedal away on the dirt road.

Okay—I tell Mariah the truth—nobody sees you

Doesn't nobody see me? 

She looks like she knows, but sighs when I nod a yes. 

An eagle swoops at a distance.

They see that?

They do.

Mariah sighs again.

We stop by the fields. Drizzle in the morning has given way to spotless sunshine. She bends to look for her reflection in the puddle. There’s only me, I say, hoping she is no longer in doubt. She ought to stop kidding herself. 

She brings out a strange-looking pebble from her pocket. Says, It’s a black rose. 


She giggles. Things without escape. Trapped, you see?

I don’t know what to say. I sound stupid: It’s—a rose?

Depositing that thing with me, she jumps into the puddle, splattering dirty water on her dress and mine. I’m worried mother will know I was in the fields behind the house. She’ll know it without telling. And that means I’ll need to tell her about Mariah, and she’ll not believe, and Dad will be angry I spoiled her calm.

Before I can think, Mariah hurries me along, across the stumps of the recent harvest, to the far end which I thought was the horizon because they never let me near it. Turns out there stands a decrepit red brick building. On the cemented front yard, a slide and a skipping rope lay abandoned under layers of soot and dust.

I’ve never been—this—far.

Dad’s face appears before me. Annoyed, his raised hand inches from my nose.

The truth is—we cross into the building. Peep inside the room with its gaping doors and windows. Watch the bay window at one end of the room swing on its hinges, flutter like wings, taking some torn notebook pages with it.

Mariah points to the blackboard, which is all pockmarked. She turns and clasps my hand, takes me to have a closer look. 

Bullets?  I ask, terribly upset.

Six girls. Another six abducted.

I hardly breathe.

Mariah yawns. Despite the abundant light outside, she appears translucent, then only the outline of her body, the hem of her dress, and finally, nothing.

I don’t know when I let go of her hand, but I remember turning, running, the crisp wind on my face.

I think of Woama as I run, her contorted face when she told me the story of how she went to school before she was married at age thirteen, how she fled from fanatic pursuers, because there were riots all across Bengal, and these men, they wanted blood, more blood.

I want to tell mother and father the truth about the abandoned school near the fields, but one thing stops me: will it be believed? If we hide these things from each other, stop telling the truth, will we still hurtle from one disaster to another, as Woama says?

I will wait to answer that, in all honesty.

Twenty-three winters on, we have averted disaster of the kind Woama foresaw.

I’ve still kept the secret about the red brick building from Dad, and everyone else.

This is an occasion laid out by chance: my extended family congregating at Woama’s tenth death anniversary. 

Like rings on a tree-trunk, our years have collected on our bodies–bucket-bellies, triple chins, baggy upper arms. Devastating floods and sowing-seasons have come and gone, like additional contours on wrinkled skin; our joys and sadness are leaves gathered in spring to shed in autumn. Like prop-roots and threaded branches of the banyan, we cluster around the same root. Much of our bonhomie remains a compressed solid mass—youngest to oldest, wherever they may be based around the world, for work, or marriage.

Apply Henna on your hair to conceal the grays, a cousin teases from the hall. I roll my eyes. 

Not so gray yet, it’s pepper—black and gray, I retort.  And, for your information, I’d rather flaunt my grays of wisdom.

Mother calls,  we are a Ferris-wheel of faces and tones in front of the screen, greeting, in turns, the only absentee—she. 

The more of everything–personal updates, careers, promotions, friendships, vacations, admissions, graduations–is spread thin on tongues. The one who doesn’t take her turn speaking to my mother is my niece. She keeps to herself, barely understands our language. At thirteen, Woama’s granddaughter cuddles her iPhone like a baby. Her parents act like newly-weds because—some theory of ageless longevity or other. I think they told me it’s about staying young if you stay in love.

I bring the flaming wok of lemon chicken to simmer before it’s time to shred the baby carrots for halwa. The khoya, a bright white bundle of sweetness, is still firm, and must wait before it can be grated.

At this and other reunions, we’ve so far steered clear of the dangers that fragment families; we skirt away from discussing certain topics. We believe mentioning pay packages, marriages—failed or otherwise—deaths and accidents, IVFs, geographical migrations, dementia and arthritis, and job losses are subjects best kept clothed instead of naked.

I’m sure Woama must be happy—our truths stay locked in mouths glued with halwa

About the author

Mandira Pattnaik is the author of collections "Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople" (2022, Fahmidan Publishing, Poetry), "Girls Who Don't Cry" (2023, Alien Buddha Press, Flash Fiction) and "Where We Set Our Easel" (forthcoming, Stanchion Publishing, Novella). Mandira's work has appeared in The McNeese Review, Penn Review, Quarterly West, Citron Review, Passages North, DASH, Miracle Monocle, Timber Journal, Contrary, Watershed Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She edits for trampset and Vestal Review. More at mandirapattnaik.com

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