Alyssa and I enjoyed competing against each other, just like any two sisters would. We constantly tried to best the other, usually in the form of proving to our father that we were something, anything. As a wannabe intellectual, my heart insisted on his approval, though it was hardly ever won. I related to him, I even looked more like him and felt Indian in a way Alyssa didn’t. So, I guess you could say my love for him was more complex. Or maybe being Indian gave me a sense of purpose, in a way, that it didn’t give Alyssa. For me, it became my very own lighthouse: a reflection of my being, or the possibility of who I could be and what I could become. It gave me a reference.
Warm nights always ignited conversation at the Chatterjee residence. Monomaniacal by nature, Baba was a militant grammarian, obsessively monitoring our usage and syntax, turning it into a game. His English had an archaic diligence birthed from a deep fascination with etymology. “What does nadir mean? And what is its direct antonym?”
Alyssa and I grew fond of dictionaries.
“It means ‘the lowest point of any given thing,’” I would say, quickly looking at Alyssa as a buffer. “The antonym is zenith.”
I would usually stay focused on her, my hands sticky with perspiration, and as if through a chain reaction, she’d turn to watch our father. If we were right, he would sometimes nod, replying with “good.” More often than not, he would simply say nothing. If we were wrong, he would clear his throat with a hmm, dismissing us entirely.
Baba wasn’t cold, he was austere. He never learned the beauty or value of gesture, of kind words. Mama would say it was because men from India were socialized in such ways, but I disagreed. Baba was different. His austerity was rooted in a disinterest in small talk. He hated hyperbole and despised social niceties—he deemed them unnecessary. “There’s nothing wrong with silence,” he would say, muttering like a croaky parrot.
Through the years, his reluctance to show affection became manageable; it was accepted as one of his many idiosyncrasies. In some ways, I almost admired it. Still, I yearned to see a glimmer of familiarity shine through his face whenever I answered correctly. That look that would speak: Good, I have taught them well.
Alyssa, next to me, was a complete juxtaposition. People were drawn to her beauty and energy, and for that I was always jealous. In those days, I couldn’t finish a glass of water without sighing. My mind, filled with deliberations, pulled at my interiors like a harness. There was a restlessness inside me, gnawing to be sated. I was no good at it. I wanted to be like her, and it crept through me like a disease. I sometimes felt like I was stalking her, obsessed with her languid, nymphlike mannerisms; with her face, the way her skin was pucker-free, not a pore in sight, dewy like dulce de leche. She was like Rani Mukerji in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai: divine, light eyed (almost), and brown haired. Every girl at every family gathering ever wanted to be like her, inching toward her like she was Mother Mary. Her tiny waist in her lehenga, the way she made it cute that she didn’t hardly know any Bengali. All the girls fawned, and all the boys watched with wide eyes.
We sat at the dinner table, Alyssa groaning with despair about something school related, and our parents (especially Mama) gathered around her like lovers from commedia dell’arte. We were in our early teens, when Alyssa still had the verve, the steeped innocence, that she wielded so mysteriously. I remember the moon being swollen, like a wheel of cheese—when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie—a big hunk of brie, peering in and hitting us at the dining room table. The bones of the fish we ate glistened on our plates, and the mashed sweet potato that I abandoned still on mine, golden under the moon’s hues.
“Ms. O’Neil is such a bitch, though, Ma!” She had grown cocky, swearing more to see how much she could get away with.
“Lyse, please . . .”
“It’s true—Tay, back me up!”
Sometimes, I felt cuckolded by my sister. Drawn into her dance. I surrendered. “I mean . . . she’s annoying, but she’s all right.”
“Tay. Don’t . . . She’s a goddamn paleolithic cr-creature.”
“Lyse, don’t talk about women like that.”
“Maaaaa, you’re not listening to me! I’m not talking about women any kinda way, I’m jus’ saying that she’s annoying as fu—!” She clicked her tongue to fill the sound of fuck.
Mama laughed, defusing Alyssa’s strange current, the way, even when she was whining, she made you feel like she was revealing an important secret only to you. That was Lyse’s strongest skill: her ability to feign intimacy. The two of them went about whispering, and I got up to clear the mood, returning to my own internal dance, where I was paid attention to.
Baba was prone to smoking a fat, dark cigar at the dining table after dinner, ashing into a beautiful crystal midcentury modern ashtray that Mama bought in an estate sale. He looked so out of place, a brown, skinny Indian smoking a thick knob, resembling anything other than a Mob boss. Certainly not Tony Soprano, whom he was not-so-secretly emulating, given his recent and uncharacteristic obsession with The Sopranos. I returned to the table, sitting opposite him, lost in my thoughts about Ms. O’Neil, a pretty white woman who looked like a nun. She had introduced me to Toni Morrison, and I felt indebted to her for that. I related so much to Pecola, the protagonist of The Bluest Eye. As I watched Alyssa in full form, heady with confidence, I thought of how odd it was that two girls with the same parents, one white and the other brown, could feel so differently about existing in this world. How that impacted their cellular constructs in such a way that navigating life was so distinctly dissimilar. I thought of how much I longed to be seen and how I could count the people who had made me feel special on one hand.
Alyssa was beautiful in a way I’d never been, fair skinned and rapturous, the way that girls you can’t place are normally exotified. The light-eyed/light-skinned cocktail. I was darker skinned and darker eyed, which made all the difference. Baba would talk about Alyssa like a specimen of grand genetics—“An almost Kashmiri!” he’d say, slightly proud. A rare compliment from a Hindu Indian, and the absence of one directed at me hit like a flood. Today I was merely observing the grace that Alyssa exuded, Mama fully locked in to her story like an avid audience member, and I felt the darkness in my center of not being enough, even for my own family.
After her story about Ms. O’Neil, we sat still, lapsed into the night’s quiet fortress. The silence beckoning us into our separate slumbers. Nobody said another word, as we all in unison stood to help Mama clean up. That night even Baba helped.
Excerpted from Like a Bird by Fariha Róisín. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press.