Search form

Scroll To Top
Out Exclusives

Summer's First Must-Read Has Arrived: Read Our Exclusive Excerpt Here

Swati’s Smile
Illustration by Marina Muun

In Rakesh Satyal's No One Can Pronounce My Name, a lonely indian immigrant loses his sister and vows to keep her spirit alive. His plan: to don a sari every night and pretend to be her. 

Harit descended therubber-coated stairs of the bus and tripped as he jumped to the sidewalk below. He turned around to see if anyone had noticed, but the bus was already pulling away, dispersing a cloud of smoke and people. It was a short walk to his house, but within 10 paces he began to sweat. The heat seemed worse here because the surroundings didn't look as if they could stand it any more than the residents. The thick roofs (many-shingled and arched), the roads (bracketed in deep curbs), and the trees (branches bursting and then shivering in leaves) were all suited to a cold landscape. Harit had seen this theory proven during his first winter in Cleveland, when snow piled on top of those shingles, nestled into those curbs, and spackled the leaves in ice. But in the summer, the neighborhood seemed like a tired, old man who could not endure such exertion.

The house in which Harit lived stood opposite a large baseball field. The field was surrounded by a sextet of light posts so large that they could have constituted a new Seven Wonders of the World had another counterpart been shoved into the ground. It seemed that a different group of boys appeared on the field every night, clad in uniforms of red, yellow, and gray polyester, or -- during practice games -- an assortment of sweats and mesh. Their hollers would last until 9:00 p.m., when the lights would shut off with an ear-splitting pucker. The field's diamond was on the opposite side of where the bus stopped and Harit's house stood, so he didn't have to interact with the kids very often. But there were those afternoons when a ball would find its way to Harit's side of the field, and some fragile little kid would run over to get the ball and look terrified that Harit was going to do something awful to him. There was that quick shake of the head, a short No, and Harit, who should have learned to look in front of himself and not at others by now, would move away.

Today, thankfully, he had an uneventful walk home, and when he slid his key into the back door of his house, he had one second of peace. But as soon as he turned that key, it was time to get into costume.

He wasn't sure why he put on the rose oil anymore. It had seeped into his skin by now; Teddy had already sniffed him and asked why he had started to smell like someone named "The Dowager Countess," whom Harit didn't know but who, according to the tinny voice that Teddy used to say her name, sounded like a very small woman. Harit cursed himself when he remembered that he had run out of lipstick yesterday. Luckily, he had a bit of raspberry Chapstick left, and a few heavy circles around his mouth pretty much did the trick. The sari that he had been using for the past week was beautiful, a peacock blue, but he had started to smell in its folds a stale version of his own pungent body odor. He tipped the bottle of rose oil against his index finger and, trying not to stain the fabric, flicked small droplets onto it. He then whipped the sari into the air the way he did with his blanket when making up his bed in the morning. He sniffed the sari again. There was still the unmistakable sourness, but the rose oil now clouded it enough that his mother's old nostrils would not detect the smell.

She was in her armchair in the living room, and the stereo was going. Gital Didi had brought a new batch of cassettes for her, and the latest one was a Mohammad Rafi best-of collection. That voice, normally lively, was so muffled by the old stereo's speakers that it sounded as if poor Mohammad himself were trapped inside the machine. Harit -- for all the sadness of the situation -- had to stifle a laugh as he looked at his mother, this sentinel of a caged mega-star singer. She had taken to wearing a pair of gigantic, purple-rimmed sunglasses -- also a gift from Gital Didi -- which made Harit's job both easier and harder. Easier because they filtered out such mistakes as his Chapsticked lips; harder because they made his mother even more inhuman and unapproachable. Her eyes, even under the gossamer of burgeoning cataracts, were a pair of darting, glimmering circles that were abnormally large for her face and that had often made people mistake her for a South Indian instead of a Punjabi. But now, with her new eyewear, she had become a wax figure of herself, an effigy upon which some child had played a prank. Still, something in her defied total weakness. The way that her mottled hands rested on the chair's armrests, the way that her white sari, though jaundiced with time and overuse, flowed like the raiment of Saraswati, the way that her hair, ghastly white, held its bun save for a few defiant wisps -- it all emphasized her determination to mourn forever.

"Is that you?" his mother asked in Hindi. It was always the first thing that she said. She didn't speak English anymore, and she used the informal you in a childlike manner.

Harit gave his usual response: "Yes, Mother. It is Swati."

He wasn't exactly sure how the dress-up game had started. It had just seemed like the logical thing to do. He had found himself holding one of Swati's lipsticks to his mouth and knew that it would be a routine. He had never thought of putting on women's clothing before and had certainly never thought of putting on makeup, but in the midst of his suffering, or the catatonic nothing that turned out to be suffering, he had done both of those things so easily that he wondered if perhaps he had once dreamed about doing them, if they had been occupying the same part of his mind that a childhood phobia of snakes or an affinity for lassi had occupied. Perhaps it was because, at the beginning, it wasn't just his mother who needed Swati to be alive but Harit himself. That was it: He did not question his actions because part of him believed that Swati was the one performing them.

His mother's eyesight had turned blurry by then, and there had been times when she had confused Harit with Swati. The brother and sister could not have looked more different -- Harit with his large eyeglasses, mustache, and messy, long hair sprouting from a receding hairline; Swati with her beautiful face, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, and that smile. Her teeth were not terribly white or straight, but her smile brightened up her entire appearance, and that was something that no amount of dissembling could give Harit, who hardly ever smiled and, maybe worse, did not understand why smiling was such a big deal. He practiced Swati's smile in his bathroom mirror before offering it to his mother. He looked as if he had indigestion. But it was a sign of just how far his mother's eyesight had dimmed that she took this horrible version as the real thing.

He first approached her three days after the funeral, after they took Swati's body to the entirely un-Indian local crematorium, after the people there burned her off with a lack of ceremony that stunned not just Harit but all of the families gathered. At the end of it, the owner handed Harit his sister's ashes in an urn that seemed too plain -- What did an ideal urn look like, though? -- and Harit was surprised at how light it was. Since Swati's passing, their mother had not spoken -- or wept, for that matter -- and generally stayed clear of Harit, so it wasn't very difficult to hide the urn from her. She was folded into the backseat of a car by three aunties who stood by like ladies-in-waiting, while Harit was driven home in a separate car by the pandit's wife. For the next three days, his mother sat in her armchair, not moving, not speaking, not even getting up to use the bathroom.

At the end of the third day, soon after the lights from the baseball field had gone out and left them in the gray dust of a nighttime house, Harit entered the room dressed in his costume. He was almost as dazed as his mother and, later, would remember the experience as if it were something he had seen years ago in a strange movie.

"Is that you?" his mother asked when she saw him, and it startled him to hear her voice, not just because she was speaking but because she said this sentence as matter-of-factly as if had come in with a cup of chai. He had expected her first words after this long silence to be torn, exhausted, hollow.

"Yes, Mother. It is Swati."

He didn't have time to worry if she believed his impression because his mother broke down. Her outburst lasted only a few seconds, but Harit would never forget the way that his mother's body unfurled, as if she were a ball of paneer expanding after being freed from a cheesecloth.

"Arre, beti, you scared me so much. I was so scared! I was -- don't ever leave me like that again. I would -- I don't know what I would do. My child is home. My child, my child ..." She was weeping horribly, hitting her eyes with her hands. Harit had seen her cry only once before, when he was 7 and her cousin Jyoti had died of tetanus. Instantly upon hearing her cry now, he felt just as he had then, vulnerable and terrified, a weak child with a weak mother. He backed away from the living room and ran to his bed, rocking himself to sleep in his sister's sari and wishing that Swati were there to pat him to sleep, as she had done for so many years.

This is an edited excerpt from No One Can Pronounce My Name: A Novel by Rakesh Satyal, out May 2 on Picador.

Like what you see here? Subscribe and be the first to receive the latest issue of Out. Subscribe to print here and receive a complimentary digital subscription.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Rakesh Satyal