Munna was on the last set of his hundred push-ups when a screeching bird crashed into the rusty window grill outside. Crows were the harbingers of doom, but to Munna's relief this bird was not a crow—unless white crows existed.
With every rise of a push-up, he glimpsed on the wall before him the dappled dancing patterns of the shadows cast by the branches of the Neem tree outside. All the walls were stained with soot and grime—he made a mental note to clean them. Nothing would escape his elder sister's sharp eyes.
The bird flew across to the Neem tree and came crashing at the window again, and then back and forth it went, repeating its madness. Bonk-bonk-bonk. Silly bird, he thought. No way could it peck holes into his joy. Lost in his dreamworld, Munna imagined himself as Salman Khan, the actor, always risking his life to save others; he did have Salu's smile, but when would he get those amazing six-pack abs?
"Bhaiya," his sister, Meena, said, holding up against her slender neck a paper necklace she had cut from an old Femina magazine. "Nice, no?"
Munna sat up, sweat streaming down his face. "I'll get a solid gold one for you on your Big Day," he said, though not sure how he would manage to do it. Meena, however, stretched her list of desirables: "And matching earrings and bangles and a nice purse…"
Their one-room flat in the chawl or tenement-house was steaming hot. Ma, who catered meals for a living, was cooking a special meal for Didi's homecoming, following her wedding last night. Over the charcoal stove was a big black pan of sizzling curry, on the floor were plates of aloo gobi, bhindi, parathas, and mango pudding, Didi's favorite.
Didi's actual name was Asha, Hope, but to him she was Didi, elder sister. As the brother of the bride, Munna would welcome the newly-wed couple home. And as they stepped inside, his other sisters, Reshma and Meena would throw rose petals to welcome them. Ma would bless them and they'd eat the special meal.
The angry bird crashed once more against the window again, this time with more force, thrashing its white wings and screeching like a banshee. The bowl in Reshma's hands fell, scattering the rose petals on the cement floor.
"Oh God!" Ma cried out, pressing her hands over her mouth. This could mean bad luck.
"It's fine, Ma." Munna went and sat down beside his nervous mother, pressing his cheek against hers. "The silly bird's blind as a bat."
"Ha, its pecking at its reflection," observed Meena with a chuckle.
Reshma began to sweep the floor. Munna ducked his head out the window to wave the bird away. A wetness plopped on his arm. He wiped the insult with the rag, when there came a knock on the door.
Meena opened the door and to Munna's immense surprise, Uncle Suraj waddled in, his large flat feet crammed inside a dainty pair of gold-embroidered mojri, swaying from side to side, one hand on the umbrella, the other holding Didi's arm.
Munna gaped. Why had their meddling uncle brought Didi? And, why was she still in her red bridal sari? And… and where was the groom, his brother-in-law, Raju? Didi's gaze was downcast, the red powder streak of sindoor in her hair-parting, denoting her married status, was missing.
Ma came forward. "Bhai-Jaan, what is the meaning of this?"
"Sister-ji," said Uncle, with a sorry look, "Didi has been returned."
"I'm sorry." Didi put her head on Ma's chest and sobbed. "My dear girl," said Ma, putting her hand over Didi's head.
Munna's hands balled into angry fi sts. "I'll kill that stupid Raju."
"Shhh," said Ma. "It's our kismet. What is, will be."
Uncle said that Didi's father-in-law had called him to take Didi back because he felt insulted at the measly wedding gifts received, especially as his son was an engineer. Uncle mimicked the father-in-law. "Where is the big-screen TV?" "Where is the gold jewellery? No gold, no bride."
Munna gripped at his marble collection in his pocket. A rejected bride was a disgrace to the family regardless of the circumstances. He knew that dowry was illegal in India. The law stated: Dowry is a two-way street: unless there is a giver there can be no taker, so both could be persecuted. Still, to give Didi a good start, Ma had borrowed money from Uncle and given her in-laws a refrigerator, a sewing machine, a set of stainless-steel utensils, and a pressure cooker.
They were all filled with a deep sense of shame and grief.
On top of that, Munna felt an intense anger. Was this one more outcome of the curse he had been born with?
They sat down on the bedsheet on the floor to eat. Didi excused herself and left with a bundle of clothes to wash. Uncle was the only one who ate.
The meal over, Munna went to look for Didi. Past the hallway—their flat was on the topmost floor of the six-storey chawl—down sixty-six fat stone steps into the dark bowels of the building to the communal bathrooms on the ground floor shared by all the tenants. Didi's beaded slippers lay outside the plumbing room that led to the wash area outside. He smiled: he would surprise her. Creeping into the dark, dank room, past a hot-water tank, he almost tripped over a fallen stool—oops—and bumped into a pair of legs dangling in the air.
He looked up at the network of water pipes in the ceiling. Suspended from one of them, Didi swung pendulumlike, head fallen on one side, neck coiled in the red bridal sari, two limp eyes staring down at him pitifully.
He screamed, but no sound came, except for a bird cawcawing lustily outside.