Indira and Daisy
A multi racial young adult/adult novel.
Grammar schoolgirls fourteen-year-old Indira Nathwani and Daisy Royston have been best friends since they were four years old. Indira lives in Southeast England with her wealthy Hindu family, an older brother, pious grandfather, parents, and aunt and uncle. In their temple room her grandfather teaches her to worship and serve God with love and devotion. Daisy lives with her mother, a single parent who works hard to provide for her. Since her devout Christian grandmother’s death, Daisy rarely attends church. Sometimes she and Indira agree to disagree about their cultures and religions, but it never affects their friendship. However, Indira, who is not allowed to go out alone, is envious of her best friend’s freedom. Daisy’s only known relative is her mother, who she loves and appreciates, but she struggles not to envy Indira for having a large, perfect family. Daisy stays at the Nathwani’s house to celebrate Diwali and the Hindu new year on the next day. To reciprocate, Daisy’s mother invites Indira to stay for three nights at her house to celebrate Christmas. The Nathwani family’s refusal leads to tragedy, which Indira is blamed for, then a shocking revelation causes distress. Indira is distraught. Daisy realises Indira’s family is not perfect.
Daisy Royston hoped Indira Nathwani would be allowed to spend Christmas with her and her mum. Eleven years after they met at nursery school, when they were three years-old, they were still best friends.
“Indira, I’m looking forward to next week when I’ll stay at your house to celebrate Diwali. This year please spend Christmas with us.” Daisy wriggled with excitement on her seat in the ancient, Austin the best car her mum could afford.
Indira fidgeted. “I’ll stay with you if my parents agree.”
Indira caught her lower lip between her teeth. Sympathetic, Daisy squeezed her friend’s hand. She knew Indira longed for the freedom her mother, Julia Royston, a single mum, allowed her. “Promise to ask you mum and dad later.”
“Is there a problem, Indira?” Julia asked from the driver’s seat.
“N…no,” Indira replied. “If I’m allowed to, I’d love to spend Christmas with you and Daisy.”
“And we’d love to have you, but, of course, you must have your parents’ consent. Tell you what. I’ll ask them if you may join us,” Julia said.
A week later, on Diwali, Indira’s mum, Kumud Nathwani, picked them up from Chermister Grammar School. Daisy grinned as she dumped her heavy school bag on the floor and settled down on the luxurious back seat. She always enjoyed a ride in the BMW, so different to her mother’s bumpy old car. Mrs Nathwani was very fortunate because Indira’s dad gave her the car, with the personal number plate KMD 1. Some people are born lucky, Daisy reflected, but Indira’s family experienced mixed fortunes. They were among fifty-thousand Asian passport holders, whom the president, Idi Amin, expelled from Uganda ten years ago in 1972. When they arrived in England, the Nathwani family struggled to make ends meet after living in the lap of luxury in Kampala. They were saved from poverty when Indira’s grandfather won a fortune on the lottery. Daisy wished her hard-working mum could win one.
The car drew to a smooth halt in one of the garages at Nathwani’s large timber-framed house in the most exclusive part of Cherminster. “Hurry up girls,” Kumud said. “There’s lots to do.”
Excitement, like the bubbles of the champagne her mother had allowed her to taste at a wedding, fizzed through her. For the first time she would spend a night in the eight-bedroom, detached house, which had several bathrooms, attics, a large cellar, and immaculate front and back gardens maintained by a gardener and located in the most exclusive part of Chermister. The council house, one of a terrace she and her mum lived in at the lower end of town, only had a tiny garden in which they grew a rose bush, flowers, and vegetables. She wished it were larger and backed onto a large park like the one behind Indira’s home.
Indira stood on the doorstep. Her expression anxious, she looked up at dark blue-grey clouds. “Diwali will be ruined if it rains.”
“But we’ll be indoors, won’t we?” Daisy asked.
“Yes,” Indira’s mum said as she opened the front door. “Hurry upstairs, girls. Please shower quickly and change your clothes. I want you to help me while we wait for the men to come home.”
Daisy knew better than to walk across the thick cream-coloured carpet in the hall wearing her shoes. She took them off and put them side by side on a shelf in the shoe rack. After years of visiting the Nathwani’s, it seemed as natural not to wear outdoor shoes in their house as it did to brush her teeth every day.
Indira lingered at the foot of the stairs. “Ba, it’s lovely having Daisy here for Diwali. May I spend Christmas with her?”
“If your bapuj agrees.” Ba shook her forefinger at her. “Don’t start arguing with me and take that sulky look off your face. Now please get changed.”
Daisy frowned. Although Indira didn’t answer back, she knew her friend was upset. What was the problem? Why couldn’t Indira’s mother say ‘yes, of course you may?’ Why was it up to Indira’s father?
In Indira’s large bedroom decorated in pink and white, Daisy put her suitcase down, and resisted the temptation to stroke velvet the colour of pink sugared almonds that upholstered the window seats and a pair of chairs. She looked up. For heaven’s sake! Instead of a shade around a single bulb, a crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. At home, her clever mum had sanded and varnished her bedroom furniture from the junk shop to make it look as good as new and covered her bed with a beautiful, second hand patchwork. Nevertheless, looking at Indira’s luxurious bedroom, she suppressed the twinge of the green-eyed monster which seemed disloyal to her mum who did her best to provide for them.
Indira pointed at one of the twin beds with pale pink satin bedspreads. At the end of each one lay pink towelling bath robes and piles of neatly folded towels. Too much pink? Maybe, but Indira was lucky to have a large loving family, who lived together and had oodles of money. Ashamed of her jealousy. Daisy shrugged. She wouldn’t swap her mother, who loved her to bits, for anyone else in the world. However, as Grandma used to say, “Money might be the root of all evil, but give me some of it.” Daisy forced her mind away from her late grandmother who she missed so much that remembering her brought tears to her eyes. She blinked, wishing Grandma was still alive, then looked at Indira. “Do you think your ba and bapuj will let you come to us for Christmas?”
Oh, I’ve learned so many Gujrati words that I didn’t say your father and mother.
“Maybe,” Indira said, her tone of voice sharp as a carving knife while she took off her green and gold striped school tie.
Curious, Daisy scrutinised her friend’s face. Possibly, the Nathwanis didn’t think her home was good enough for their daughter to stay in. “My mum said you may come on Christmas Eve and stay with us for three nights. Of course, our house is very small, but you would be comfortable sleeping in my bedroom.”
“I’m sure I would.” Indira took off her school uniform and collected a bathrobe and large towel. “Let’s get a move on. My mother and aunt need our help.”
While Indira showered in the ensuite, Daisy picked up a sari from one of the bedroom chairs. She draped one end of the feather light, pale gold silk embroidered with gold, and intertwined with silver, over her head. She peeped into a full-length mirror. “I’d like to wear one,” she murmured. Her reflection stared back at her when Indira startled her as she entered the bedroom.
“I wondered what I’d look like in a sari,” Daisy explained, aware that she blushed although she hadn’t done anything wrong, had she?
“You would look gorgeous.” Indira sat at her dressing table and combed her lustrous, thick, black hair which was long enough to sit on.
Daisy tried to refold the sari, failed, and put it in a small heap on the chair. She picked up the robe and a towel from the end of her bed. In the bathroom with a pink-veined marble floor, awestruck by the expensive decor and fragrant toiletries, she showered quickly.
In the bedroom she smiled at Indira dressed in a turquoise blue top printed on the front with an image of mother and baby dolphin, and the logo, Save the Dolphins. “You look nice. I hope you really like the top,” Daisy said. She had saved her pocket money to buy it and given it to Indira on her fourteenth birthday and chosen it because of her own interest in Green Peace and environmental issues.
Indira squeezed a pair of gold bangles over her hands onto her wrist. “Yes, I love the colour. I wouldn’t wear it if I didn’t like it.”
Reassured by the expression in her friend’s large mahogany brown eyes, Daisy put on her underwear. She adjusted her bra, pulled on a favourite pair of faded denim jeans, and a second hand sky-blue jumper she bought the previous week from a charity shop. A quick glance in a full-length mirror confirmed the jeans were too short because she had shot up in recent months. She sighed. Mum never had quite enough money, so she didn’t want to ask her for a new pair. Perhaps she could find a pair in a charity shop to buy with her pocket money.
Had Indira noticed she had outgrown the jeans? “Mum bought me a new dress in a sale to wear on Christmas day. What will you wear to celebrate with us? One of your gorgeous Indian outfits, a sari, or western clothes?”
Her friend squared her shoulders while she put her dirty school clothes and underwear in a pretty laundry basket with pink ruffles around the rim. “You don’t understand!” Her face averted Indira hurried towards the bedroom door.
Daisy looked in the mirror to check she looked tidy. Hurt, because she had believed she and Indira kept no secrets from each other, she tweaked a curl before she spoke. “What don’t I understand?”
Indira turned around. “Oh, nothing.”
Were there tears in Indira’s large eyes? Surely not. What did her friend have to cry about? She didn’t have to watch her mother struggle to save money for rainy days that came too often.
Her slippers sank into the deep pile of the carpet as she followed her friend out onto the landing. They linked arms as they went down the broad stairs. On the ground floor, she gazed at the three feet wide, two feet long wall hangings with geometric designs formed by small beads as brightly coloured as gemstones stitched onto a background of white beads. She pointed at them. “When I grow up and have my own place, I want door hangings like those.”
“Do you? My kaki thinks they are old-fashioned, but my Dada likes them and as the eldest member of the family he has the final say about everything.” She patted Daisy’s arm with her free hand. “If you still like them when you move out of your mum’s house, I’ll ask Bapuji to order some for you from India.”
“Would your father really do that?”
“Perhaps we could share a place.”
Indira’s long black eyelashes veiled her eyes. “Who knows what will happen in the future?”
Unexpectedly, Indira laughed as she gestured to a rosewood corner table with a marble top. “I suppose you would also like to have a bronze statue of Ganesh?”
“Yes, I would.” Why did her friend seem so sad? “Do you and your family really believe that if you worship him, he will remove all obstacles?”
“Kaki worships Ganesh, but the rest of us don’t although we respect him. We worship Lord Krishna, who, as you know, we believe is God.”
Daisy looked at the well-polished figure the size of an average three-year-old. Ganesh had become such a familiar sight that she no longer found his elephant head and round belly with a deep navel strange. She was also surprised because, for the first time, she appreciated the twinkle in his painted eyes. “If something’s bothering you, Indira, ask Ganesh to help you,”
“I don’t think he would.”
“Try. He might amaze you, or you could ask Krishna. Before she died, my grandma said faith in God can move mountains.” She smiled at the statue.
Would Ganesh help Mum if she asked him to? Shame heated her cheeks. Such a thought would have horrified her grandma, who had attended church every Sunday and taken her to Sunday school when she was little. She had respected the ten Commandments, one of which was thou shalt not bow down before graven images. But was the figure of Ganesh one? Grandma would have said yes. Daisy considered it was merely an interesting statue and she would not bow down to anyone or anything.
Indira said something. “I beg your pardon. What did you say?” Daisy asked, dragged out of her thoughts.
“I said I’m hungry. Let’s see what there is for tea.” At the end of the hall, Indira opened the door to the dining room and beckoned to her.
Daisy sniffed the delicious aromas of incense, flowers, and sandalwood from the half-open door of the temple-room, and ones from the kitchen. Her tummy rumbled. Afternoon tea in the Nathwani household would be as substantial as every other meal served. She must curb her appetite. If she ate too much, she wouldn’t have room to enjoy the Diwali feast.
Kumud put a steel plate piled high with deep fried triangular samosas made with pastry stuffed with spiced potatoes and peas, which Daisy knew Indira’s grandfather, Balaram, had offered with other teatime snacks to the family’s deities, statues of Krishna carved from black marble and Radha carved from white marble.
“Sit at the table in the dining room, girls,” Mrs N, Indira’s Aunt Pushpa, said.
Seated, Daisy couldn’t control her giggles.
A frown appeared on the lady’s forehead while she adjusted the end of the sari which covered her head. “What’s funny, Daisy?” She waited for an answer while she served them with gattia and sev, snacks made from spiced dough pressed through different sized sieves into macaroni, spaghetti, or vermicelli widths, then fried until they became pale gold and as crunchy as crisps.
“I remembered the day when I said the lentil soup – what-do-you-call it, oh yes, toor dhal, smelled nice and-”
“And Ba threw it away,” Indira interrupted.
“Yes, until your mother told me, how was I to know smelling food counts as tasting, and your family doesn’t eat anything which has not first been offered to your god, Krishna, to enjoy,” Daisy said.
“I’ll never forget it,” Mrs N said. “When my husband asked me to serve him some dhal, Daisy’s face turned as pink as the tip of a petal of the flower she’s named for.”
Fortunately, Indira’s mum also saw the funny side of it and laughed.
“I’ll bring the tea,” Mrs N called from the kitchen.
Daisy hoped it wouldn’t be masala tea. She didn’t like the brew of sugar, tea leaves and milk with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and freshly milled black pepper boiled with water and milk.
“Which kind of tea have you made, Kaki?” Indira asked when her aunt brought a tray on which were two teapots.
“Masala tea for us and plain tea for your little friend,” Mrs N said.
Daisy frowned. Not so little, I’m nearly fifteen. I wish she wouldn’t speak to me and Indira as though we are still small children.
Mrs N’s smile softened her angular features. “You should drink masala tea, Daisy. The spices would help to keep you free from coughs and colds.”
Daisy kept quiet because it would be rude to insist that she really didn’t like the taste. Instead, she smiled back at her friend’s aunt, whom she always addressed as Mrs N.
The tray seemed too heavy for the thin lady. Daisy stood and went to help her.
“Thank you, you are very kind, but I can manage.” Mrs N put the tray on the table and transferred the contents onto it. “Please be seated and serve yourself.”
Daisy helped herself with some of her favourite tomato chutney and a dollop of bitter-sweet tamarind chutney to eat with discs of thin sliced potatoes coated with gram flour batter and then deep fried.
“Ba, what do you want us to do when we’ve finished our tea?” Indira asked brusquely.
Puzzled, Daisy looked at her friend, whose family’s harmony fascinated her, though she sometimes suspected there were ripples beneath the tranquil atmosphere in their home. But she never questioned her friend about them. Instead, she enjoyed their hospitality and admired the beautiful house.
“Indira and Daisy, I want you to put candles in jars,” Indira’s mother said. “If it stops raining, we’ll stand them along the edges of the paths in the front and back gardens.”
“You’ll light the candles to celebrate the return of the divine couple Rama and Sita to their kingdom after Rama was exiled, won’t you?” Daisy asked to make sure she understood the custom.
“Yes, Daisy, as I said, if it stops raining.”
Indira’s grandfather had told her the romantic story of the God Rama, who set the example as the perfect husband and king, and his eternal consort, the Goddess Sita, whom a demon stole while they were in exile.
“I hope Sita, the Goddess of Fortune, will bless all of us this year,” Mrs Nathwani said.
How sad Indira’s aunt looked. Probably because, as Indira had once told her, Mrs N longed to have a baby. Perhaps she would pray for one.
“What else do you want me to do, Ba?”
“Clear the table, Indira, before you arrange the candles. When you’ve done that, spread the white cloths over the floor of the lounge for everyone to sit on.”
“What about the furniture, Ba?”
“Before your father and uncle went to work this morning, they pushed all of it back against the wall.”
Daisy picked up the empty teapots and put them on the tray.
Mrs N’s hands fluttered. “No, no, put them down. You’re our guest. Indira will clear up.”
Daisy smiled. “I’d like to help.” Mrs N opened her mouth to protest again, but before she could do so, Daisy continued. “All of you are kind. You’ve always made me feel like one of your family.” She glanced at her friend, who was busy putting dirty plates and mugs onto another tray. “I hope Indira will feel at home when she comes to us for Christmas.”
Neither Mrs Nathwani nor talkative Mrs N said a word. Daisy frowned. Had she said something wrong? “The least I can do is to carry a few things to the kitchen,” she said made uncomfortable by the silence.
Indira eyed her mother and aunt.
Puzzled because neither lady acknowledged her comment about the proposed visit, Daisy carried the tray to the kitchen.
“After I put the food away, we might as well load the dishwasher,” Indira said when they finished clearing the table.
Indira rinsed everything and Daisy put it into the machine, wondering why Indira hunched her shoulders. However, plump, good-natured Mrs Nathwani didn’t seem to notice how anxious Indira seemed when she bustled into the kitchen.
“Oh, thank you girls, for clearing up. Too good of you to help, Daisy. Indira, I suggest you wear your green sari embroidered with peacocks, this evening.”
“Not my mauve one with-” Indira began.
“No,” Mrs Nathwani’s warned her daughter not to argue. “What about you, Daisy? I hope you have something nice to wear.”
She nodded, hoping Mrs Nathwani would approve of the ankle-length, cotton turquoise dress she bought in a charity shop at the posh end of Cherminster, but possibly it was unsuitable. She took a deep breath before she spoke. “Mrs Nathwani, you and Mrs N always look so beautiful in your lovely saris that I wish I had one instead of a dress.”
Kumud clapped her hands. “I’ll give you one.”
Her cheeks hot with embarrassment, Daisy twirled a strand of her hair around her forefinger. “No, no, I could not accept it, I only want to borrow one.”
“Don’t worry about it, Daisy,” Indira tried to reassure her. “You would be doing her a favour. Ba hoards more new saris than we can wear. Bapuji pretends to disapprove of her extravagance. He says that if he’s ever bankrupt, he can make another fortune by selling her saris and gold jewellery.”
“Your family are so kind and generous that I hope we can repay them during Christmas,” Daisy said.
Daisy and Indira held opposite ends of white cloths. One by one they spread them over the carpet in the drawing room. After putting beeswax candles in jars on windowsills, they went upstairs to Indira’s bedroom.
“Ooh, for me?” Daisy looked at the delphinium-blue, silk sari, matching blouse, and blue cotton petticoat at the foot of the guest bed.
“Ooh,” she repeated. Her mum would like the fabulous material as much as she did.
Indira removed her emerald-green sari from a cupboard. “Ba took you seriously when you asked to wear a sari. I hope you weren’t joking.”
“No, I wasn’t. For ages, I’ve wanted to wear a sari.”
“Well then, I’ll show you how to put it on.”
Surprised by Indira’s cross voice, Daisy stared at her. “What’s wrong? Why are you grumpy this evening? Have I upset you? Do you want me to go home?”
Indira sighed and shook her head. “You haven’t. Sorry for being so-” her voice trailed away before she added. “Of course, I don’t want you to go home. I want you to enjoy the Diwali celebrations.”
“Something’s wrong, Indira. What is it? Please tell me. I won’t repeat it to anyone else.”
“You wouldn’t understand.” Indira wiped her eyes on the back of her hand.
“What wouldn’t I understand?” Her best friend lived in the lap of luxury with her loving family. Why was she miserable?
“How I feel.”
“Explain it, Indira. I might be able to help.”
“I’m sorry for being irritable. Forget what I said,” Indira said.
“I can’t. We’ve always been best mates, able to confide in each other.”
Indira shrugged. “Things change. We’re still best friends but we’re growing up. I’m nearly fifteen, no longer a child.”
“I know, but why are you upset?” Daisy persisted.
“Forget it. I was being foolish.” Indira’s smile did not alter the sad expression in her eyes. “We must change before my father and uncle come home.”
Daisy put on the short-sleeved blouse that left her midriff bare, then slipped the floor length cotton petticoat over her head. She held it in place with both hands at her waist.
“Tie the drawstrings tightly toward the right, Daisy.”
“How can you be sure it will fit me?”
“Saris are wide and long enough to be suitable for everyone.”
“How can they be?”
They’re adjusted by tucking the upper edge in at the waist. Short ladies like Pushpa Kaki tuck more in at the waist than taller ladies.”
Indira shook out Daisy’s sari, found the top right-hand corner and tucked it into the petticoat between the line of Daisy’s right hip and belly button. “You’ve tied the petticoat tightly enough to prevent the sari from falling down,” Indira said, as she tucked it around the petticoat into the waistband. She brought the other end around Daisy’s back, under her right armpit and over her left shoulder. “Excellent. It’s long enough to either hang to the back of your knees or drape over your head.”
Daisy looked down at a loop of surplus material. “What about that?”
“You’ll see.” Indira stood behind her, put her arms around her waist, pleated the excess silk, and tucked it in at the waistband, then stood in front of her to check that the pleats hung properly.
Daisy giggled nervously. “I’m afraid the sari will fall down if I move.”
“It won’t, but I’ll pin the pleats in place at the waist.” Indira fetched a large safety pin, thrust the pointed end through the petticoat and sari and fastened it.
“Do you and your mother and aunt keep your saris in place with safety pins?”
“No, we’re used to wearing them.”
“I’m surprised, because although I’m wrapped up like a parcel, the sari is featherlight. Do I look nice?” Daisy asked anxiously.
“Gorgeous, look in the mirror and see for yourself.”
Daisy looked at her reflection in a mirror on a door of the fitted wardrobe. Did she know the girl looking back at her? One completely different to her everyday self. In the traditional clothes which the Nathwani ladies always wore, had she become another person? “Don’t be silly,” she whispered too low for Indira to hear her and admired the sari, as blue as her eyes, and pink embroidery and sequins the colour of her cheeks. She twirled around several times and glimpsed the reflection of her thick, waist-length, wavy, blonde hair fanning out. Satisfied with her appearance, she looked at her friend. “And you look beautiful, but you always do, even in school uniform.” She paused for a moment to appreciate her friend’s oval face, large eyes, long lashes, and a cupid’s bow mouth with dimples on each side.
Indira laughed. “In boring school uniform?”
“I’m not beautiful, but Mum says you are and that you always stand out in a crowd.”
Indira opened the bedroom door. “Time to go downstairs.”
In the hall, Daisy gazed at Indira’s mother, dressed in turquoise-blue silk chiffon sari embroidered with gold thread, and decorated with sequins. Indira must be an image of her mother at the same age. No wonder she had received an offer to star in a film. “You are beautiful,” Daisy said with genuine appreciation.
“It’s kind of you to say so.”
“It is true. And thank you for lending me this lovely sari.”
A smile rippled across Mrs Nathwani’s face. “No, no, Daisy, it’s not a loan. It is a Diwali gift.”
“Oh, no, I’m sure it’s too expensive for me to accept,” Daisy said, embarrassed because she had not brought Diwali gifts.
“Think nothing of it.” Mrs Nathwani looked around. “Where’s Indira?”
“I don’t know. I thought she followed me downstairs.”
Before Indira’s mother could say anything else, the front door opened, and Mr Nathwani entered the hall, took off his coat and hung it up on the coat rack. “Goodness gracious me, who is this lovely young lady?” he teased and looked affectionately at his wife. “Please introduce us.”
Daisy smiled at the tall, handsome man, his skin the colour of wheat, his thin lips that often curved, as they did now, in a smile, and clear, chestnut brown, observant eyes. Looking at him dressed in a well-cut grey suit, she wished she remembered her own father. “Mr Nathwani,” she protested, “you know who I am.”
“Are you, can you be Daisy?”
She nodded and giggled.
“I’m sorry for not recognising you at first because you look like a princess.” He turned toward his wife. “But where is my very own princess?”
“Here I am, Bapuji,” Indira said from the stairs.
Mr Nathwani beamed as Indira stepped down them toward him, the emeralds set in her gold earrings, necklace and nose ring sparkling by the light of the crystal chandelier.
Again, the green-eyed monster, jealousy, which her grandmother had warned her against, surfaced. Indira was lucky. Her father’s face lit up like a Christmas candle whenever he looked at her.
Daisy sighed. Would my dad have looked at me as lovingly as Indira’s dad looks at her? Twenty-six was too young for him to have died.
“Daisy’s mum invited me to spend Christmas with them. Please say I may.”
Indira’s Uncle Harish, a head shorter than his older brother stepped into the hall and removed his cashmere coat, which his wife hurried to hang up.
Indira tilted her chin, her large eyes raging with inner fire. “Bapuji, please say I may go to Daisy’s on Christmas Eve and come home on the twenty-seventh.”
“We’ll see what your Dada has to say about it. Where is he?”
“Dressing the deities in their new outfits,” Mrs N explained.
Indira’s mother stepped forward. “Don’t pester your father and grandfather about the invitation.” She fetched a box of matches and tapers. “It’s dusk. Shall we go outside with Daisy and your aunt to help me to light the Diwali candles?”
“I’m glad it stopped raining. The garden looks like fairyland,” Daisy said later as she admired the magical effect of dancing candlelight on the steps, the paths, and the patio. Indoors, her impression intensified when Mrs Nathwani and Mrs N lit candles on all the windowsills and turned off the electric lights.
“Surely the Goddess of Fortune will pass over our house, see the candlelight indoors and out, and bless us.” Kumud stroked Indira’s back. “I wonder what she will make of my silly daughter.”
Did she say Indira was silly because she wanted to accept the invitation to celebrate Christmas?
Mrs Nathwani looked at the clock. “Six o’ clock. Your brother should be home.”
“Perhaps he missed his train.” Daisy looked forward to seeing Gopal, the most handsome young man she had ever seen, with his mother and Indira’s wheat coloured skin, black curly hair, and his father and grandfather’s height.
His mother frowned. “Since he started his course in Business Studies and Law in London, he’s always late coming home. Sometimes he eats out instead of returning home to have dinner.”
Daisy sensed that although she loved her daughter, her twenty-one-year-old son, would always be more important to her. Sorry for her friend, she remembered a puzzling remark made by Indira’s aunt a couple of years ago. “My niece isn’t really a part of our family. She’s part of her future husband’s family.”
The Nathwanis have peculiar beliefs. If I get married nothing will stop Mum and me from still belonging to each other. She had no time to think any more about it. Guests were arriving to celebrate Rama and Sita’s return to Ayodhya, their capital city.
Daisy heard the conch shell, which always struck a thrilling chord in her, announce the beginning of the service. She hurried into the marble-floored temple room where worship commenced with songs of praise after which flowers, money, food, and drinks would be offered to Krishna and his consort Radha Rani.
With a twinkle in his eyes, Indira’s grandfather had explained, “Christians ask their heavenly father to provide their daily bread. We offer God food before we eat.”
Puzzled, she had said, “But you have more than one god.”
“Ah, you are confused. We believe Krishna is supreme. Sometimes he takes birth as Lord Rama or in other forms who we worship. Like a prime minister who assigns tasks to cabinet ministers, He delegates jobs to demi-gods. He also sends his representatives to earth with specific roles, among whom, I believe are Lord Jesus Christ and Mohammed,” he explained and smiled at her.
“Is that what every Hindu believes?”
“Ah,” he had repeated. “You are a clever child. Hindu is the name the Muslim invaders gave to the nation when they crossed the River Indus. Some Hindus worship demi-gods, but my family doesn’t, we are Vaishnavas, which means we worship Lord Krishna, who we accept as The Supreme Person.”
His explanations are always interesting, Daisy thought when she stood on the left-hand side of the temple room next to Indira with the ladies and children. Although she did not think of herself as religious, she could not resist the beautiful oil painting of Rama and Sita in front of the altar, decorated with a flower garland; and she admired the tall marble figures of Krishna with a peacock feather tucked into his turban, and a flute in his hand, and Radharani, with fragrant garlands of flowers.
“Their clothes are new,” Indira whispered. “My Dada ordered them from India.”
Daisy admired the jade green silk outfits embroidered with padded lotus flowers. She opened her mouth to murmur, ‘their clothes are fabulous,’ when Indira nudged her. “Come and offer them some flower petals.”
Daisy copied her friend, who took a handful from a silver tray held by Mrs Nathwani, then put a few at the feet of each of each statue. She didn’t want to imagine what her grandmother would say if she looked down at her from heaven.
Balaram blew the conch shell to announce the ceremonies were over. Again, the loud, hollow sound sent a shiver down her spine. The turquoise-blue velvet curtains in front of the altar closed. Appreciative of sandalwood incense, she followed the crowd of guests into the sitting room where everyone sat down and chatted while waiting to enjoy the Diwali feast. She wished Indira could sit next to her, but she was busy serving sweet rice simmered with sugar, flaked almonds, and raisins.
Daisy heard Indira’s grandfather say her name to a lady sitting near her as he ladled a portion of cauliflower, peas, potato curry onto her plate. Her mouth watered so much that it seemed as though she had already bitten into the spongy cheese that had absorbed the delicious flavour of tomatoes and spices.
She smiled at the tall old gentleman with silver-white hair, dressed in a long white cotton tunic and trousers, who she liked very much. “Thank you. What did you say about me to that lady in the purple and green sari?”
“I told her you’re Indira’s friend, and that I’m sure Lord Rama and Lady Sita are pleased by your presence on this auspicious occasion.” He moved on to serve the lady who sat on her right.
Did his words imply some guests thought a European should not be at the celebration? She frowned as she looked down at her plate, and then looked up at Indira’s uncle, who served her with chickpeas cooked with tomatoes, chilies, and spice.
“My father’s right, Daisy. You look so beautiful in your sari that I’m sure Lord Rama and Lady Sita had a delightful surprise when you offered them flowers; and that Lord Krishna is pleased to see you. He is every living entity’s friend, and even knows their past, present, and future.”
Daisy blushed, not at the compliment, but because her tummy rumbled with hunger. She didn’t need to worry. The embarrassing sound could not have been heard above the high-pitched conversations made by over forty guests sitting in four rows, the men in two, the ladies, dressed in brightly coloured saris, and children in the others.
She shivered, despite the warmth from the central heating increased by so many people. Was it true that Krishna knew what would happen to her in the future?
Mrs N served thin, round flat breads called chapattis. Mrs Nathwani served her with her favourite Indian sweet, gulab jamans, round, brown balls made with milk powder soaked in sugar syrup. Indira, who had served the sweet rice, ladled salted yoghurt mixed with grated cucumber on Daisy’s large metal plate. Someone she didn’t know put rice next to the curry and another lady ladled lentil dahl, a spiced soup onto it.
Everyone chanted a prayer, which Daisy knew thanked God for the food they were about to eat, then tucked in. Everything looked so scrumptious that Daisy did not know what to taste first. She broke off a piece of chapatti with her right hand, used it to scoop up curry and popped it into her mouth. The meals here were always delicious. Today it tasted heavenly.
“Are you liking our food?” the plump lady seated next to her asked.
“I love it, if it’s not chili hot.”
The lady’s gold bangles tinkled as she gesticulated. “Chili is good for the digestion.”
Daisy smiled. “That’s what Mrs Nathwani says.”
“It’s true. Even if they make your mouth burn.”
“Thank you, I’ll remember it,” Daisy said. She ate engrossed in the meal, the scents, and the buzz of conversation.
When the last guest could eat no more, the family and others who had served ate quickly. After the dishes were cleared away, everyone went into the garden to watch the fireworks.
Gopal, who arrived at the beginning of the temple service, gave her a sparkler. “Be careful. You don’t want to set your sari on fire.”
Daisy held it at arm’s length. She loved the effect of the silver sparks that shone so brightly before they died against night’s dark backdrop.
Indira took a sparkler from her brother, circled it around and around until it died. She faced him. “Gopal, would you talk to Dada, Bapuji, and Kaka for me?”
“About what? Are you planning mischief?” he asked, his voice sharp.
“No. Please persuade them to allow me to spend Christmas at Daisy’s house.”
His arched eyebrows drew together. He spoke after hesitating for a moment or two. “I will, but, as you should know by now, I can’t influence them where you’re concerned.”
“Please try, Mum and I really want Indira to enjoy herself with us,” Daisy said, admiring Gopal’s thick hair swept back from his forehead and his large dark eyes with long eyelashes any girl would envy.
Gopal gazed into her eyes. “Daisy, to please you and Indira, I’ll try, but I am sure that by now you should know what my parents are like where their princess is concerned.”
* * *
“What did Gopal mean when he said I should know what your parents are like where their princess is concerned?” Daisy asked later while she and Indira got ready for bed.
“You wouldn’t understand, Daisy,” Indira said, her voice muffled as she pulled her pyjama top over her head. Seated on the edge of her bed, Indira hunched her back, drew her knees up to her chin, and linked her arms around them.
“Indira, my grandma said that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Please tell me what the problem is. I’ll help you if I can,” Daisy said while she brushed her hair.
“Although you’ve been visiting us for years, there’s so much you don’t understand. I’ll spell it out for you. My brother meant that I’m an Indian girl born into a family from Gujarat whose family is Vaisnavas.”
“Vaisnavas believe Sri Krishna is God. Anyway, my family think of me as their princess, who must follow all the conventions and obey them without question. Surely you know by now that the men’s decisions are law in this household.”
“I’ve never thought about it, but I suppose I do.” Daisy put the hairbrush down. She turned around on the dressing table stool to face her friend. “What has that to do with my mum’s invitation?”
Indira sniffed. “I’m not allowed any freedom, not even to decide if I’ll spend Christmas with you. If they could dictate how many times I breathe every minute, they would.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Daisy said sympathetically.
“Not from their point of view. My family enjoy each other’s company and that of other members of our Lohana community. They’re afraid that if I go out without one of them, I’ll either do something they don’t approve of or something bad will happen to me.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Daisy repeated. “I’ve been safe popping down to the corner shop and back since I was seven or eight years old. As for going into town alone or with friends, my mum trusts me to behave. Your family should trust you.”
“Yes, they should, but to be fair, they are afraid. Gopal was attacked by a racist and they fear I might be.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Shocked, Daisy twisted a strand of hair around her finger.
“It was a verbal attack that hurt his feelings, but it could have been worse.”
“That’s terrible. Poor Gopal.”
Indira sighed. “If I go to university, they will be proud of me but insist I study near enough to live at home. When I pass my final exams, they will expect me to live with them until I marry.” She pressed her face against her knees. “Sometimes it seems as if they are suffocating me.” Indira caught her lower lip between her teeth. “I don’t think that one day your mum would object to you leaving home to live at your own place. My parents would never agree to that.”
Daisy frowned. Indira’s life with a large loving family was not as great as she had believed. Anyway, she wouldn’t swap her mum for anyone, and she would always do her best not to disappoint her. Should she be sorry for her friend? “Indira,” she began, “when you’re eighteen you can please yourself. Your family couldn’t prevent you from moving out.”
“That’s true, but it would hurt them too much. They really do enjoy spending time with me, love me and expect me to spend all my spare time with them.”
Indira sat up straight. “They don’t trust anyone else to look after me. That’s why they haven’t agreed to let me spend Christmas with you.”
“I don’t want to be rude, but it’s silly of them. Mum would take very good care of you. I’ll ask her to have a word with them.”
Indira clenched her fists. “I really want to join you for Christmas, but although I’ll be angry if my parents refuse, there’s nothing I can do about it. After my Dada, Bapuji, and Kaka make their minds up about something, nothing will change it. That’s the way they are, and they expect me to accept their decision.”
“Don’t your mother and aunt have a say?”
“They can disagree, but they are not allowed to make the final decision.”
Daisy yawned, stretched, and got into bed. She understood her friend bitterly resented the restrictions imposed on her. One day, Indira’s temper would erupt like a volcano and her relationship with her family and community would be ruptured.
In future she would remember she had not believed something tragic would happen.
Indira stretched and yawned. If she had not realised it was the first day of the Hindu New Year, she would have gone back to sleep. She smiled, looking forward to the celebrations, and glanced at the clock on the bedside table. A quarter past seven, time to get dressed.
“Daisy are you awake?” she asked quietly. No reply. Should she wake her friend? No, they had a day off from school.
By now Dada would be conducting the daily morning service, which she usually attended. Indira swung her legs over the edge of her bed. For a moment, she was tempted to go to the temple room, but it would be unacceptable to enter it dressed in her pyjamas and dressing gown.
If she hurried to shower and dress, she would be in time to hear Dada reading from the Bhagavadgita, the beautiful Gita Govinda, The Song of God. No matter how many times she listened to him recite it, neither the first verses about Krishna persuading the warrior, Arjuna, to engage in the battle in which good triumphed over evil, nor any others ever bored her.
If she had the opportunity, while the curtains were closed in front of the altar, she would ask Dada to tell Bapuj and Kaka to allow her to accept Mrs Royston’s invitation.
New Year’s Day, Indira thought, several times, and began a new account book. This year she would be allowed more freedom. Though being able to do as she pleased would be welcome, she could not imagine life apart from her loving family.
Indira stepped out of the shower, dried herself, and put on a bathrobe. She partially dried her hip-length hair, brushed, plaited it, and secured the end with a ribbon, and put the towel and her pyjamas in the large, wicker Ali Baba shaped laundry basket.
As she dressed in a new jade green sari printed with tiny multicoloured flowers, she tried to be optimistic. Who knew what would happen this year? Daisy’s mum might persuade Dada, Bapuji, and Kaka to let her spend Christmas at the Royston’s house. She looked at her reflection in the mirror, admiring her sari and matching blouse. Her mother, who chose all their clothes, really did have good taste. She had so much to be grateful for. Although her friend never complained, her mum could only afford to buy Daisy a few new clothes. Indira couldn’t imagine being forced to search for bargains in charity shops and jumble sales.
She opened the bedroom door, shut it quietly behind her and saw her mother who was about to enter the bedroom. “Happy New Year, Ba.” Joyous, she stooped to touch her mother’s feet and receive her blessing. Before she could, Ba clasped her arms and drew her upright.
“Happy New Year, Indira, but why are you whispering?”
“I don’t want to wake Daisy.” She looked at her mother’s new vibrant yellow silk sari woven with a pattern of embroidered vine leaves and flowers. “You are beautiful, Ba.”
Flustered like a young girl who received a rare compliment, Ba adjusted her gold necklace and covered her lustrous hair with the end of her sari. “Beautiful! An old woman like me?”
Indira chuckled. No one knew better than she did how much trouble Ba took when she selected the new clothes, which in accordance with custom, they wore on New Year’s Day. “You were only sixteen when you married, so you are not very old. Bapuji thinks you’re beautiful. I’ve often heard him call you Champuri.”
“Yes, well, he’s very kind to flatter me,” Ba said.
Amused, she smiled. Ba is blushing because I said Bapuji calls her Beauty. He’s right. Her face is almost smooth as a young girl’ and her eyes are shining. “And, because he loves you, Ba, he also calls you pyari, his darling.”
Still blushing, Ba glanced at her Rolex watch. “Oh dear, by now, your grandfather will be waiting for us in the lounge with the rest of the family.”
Too late to speak in private to Dada about Christmas. It was for the best. If he refused, Indira feared that her exasperation, caused by refusal to permit her to do the simple things her school friends enjoyed, would erupt in a torrent of anger like molten lava. What harm would it do if she went to town at the weekends to meet her friends, go to the cinema or browse in shops? Envying Daisy, whose mother trusted her not to do anything foolish, Indira clenched her fists.
“Hurry up,” Ba urged.
Head bowed she followed her mother downstairs while she tried to make sense of her disordered thoughts. Yesterday evening, out of loyalty and the family solidarity she had defended and explained her family’s outlook on life to Daisy but –
Ba opened the sitting room door.
Indira looked at Dada. Fear clutched her. During the last year, he sometimes took a deep breath and put his hand over his heart. It frightened her. Today, he was in good health as he stood facing the family who stood facing him.
Indira took her place beside Ba and Kaki. She gazed at the men, who looked very distinguished in their new clothes. Dada, Bapuji, and Kaka, shorter than his father or brother, whose skin was several shades darker, didn’t smile as often as them. Nevertheless, his posture erect, he looked equally handsome in the white tunics with long sleeves and white dhotis, lengths of cotton cloth around their waists pleated in the front and reaching the floor. Her exceptionally handsome brother, who moved with the natural grace of a big cat, had compromised like most young men of his generation. He wore a white shirt with long sleeves, without cuffs, and a band at the neck, and trousers instead of traditional clothes.
Dada’s long, wide Kashmir chaddar, which Daisy called a shawl, was folded into an oblong. In front, it hung from his right shoulder to his waist and at the back to his hip. If Dada felt chilly, he would unfold the soft fabric and drape it elegantly around him.
Bapuji, his face illuminated by love, stepped forward. Out of respect for his father, and to receive his blessings, he touched her grandfather’s feet, then stood upright. Grandfather drew him up into a close embrace. They wished each other Happy New Year and Dada popped a piece of burfi, a fudge-like sweetmeat made from sweetened, homemade condensed milk, into Bapuji’s mouth, and then gave him an envelope which contained money.
Her father stepped back, and Ba, her hair covered by the end of her sari approached Dada. A beautiful picture of humility she touched his feet, then straightened. After they exchanged the seasonal greeting, he put a piece of burfi into her mouth then an envelope into her right hand.
Kaka observed the custom. Dada embraced him, fed him with burfi and gave him an envelope. Kaki took her husband’s place. Her expression guarded she quickly observed the custom. Had anyone else noticed the sheen of tears in her eyes, which Indira guessed were because she hoped her saintly father-in-law’s blessings would fulfil her longing to have a baby. Gopal took her place. With a smile he paid his respects straightened, received blessings, burfi and an envelope, and hugged Dada.
Next, she paid her respects to Dada, then Gopal paid them to their parents. turned to pay them to her father. About to touch Bapuji’s feet, Indira turned her head to see what her brother was staring at.
Daisy! Dressed in pyjamas, her hair a riot of untidy curls, her feet bare, stood at the threshold. For how long had she been watching them? Her eyes glittered, her mouth was shaped like an O, and her nostrils screwed up. How could she explain to her friend the old-age custom of paying respects and receiving blessings from senior members of the family?
Her cheeks hot, Indira stood still.
“Indira, your father is waiting,” prompted Ba who stood with her back to Daisy and, obviously, had not noticed her.
Reluctant to observe the custom in Daisy’s presence, Indira hesitated.
“No, no,” Bapuji protested. “Don’t force my princess to touch my feet if she doesn’t want to.”
In some Hindu families, daughters never touched their elders’ feet because they were considered members of their future husbands and in-laws’ family. Her mind raced. Was that how her father thought of her?
Embarrassed by her friend’s presence, Indira wanted to take her upstairs to get ready for the day, to prevent her witnessing her touch Bapuji’s feet, but he might be hurt if she didn’t make the traditional gesture. She took a deep breath and stooped. His warm, gentle hands clasped her upper arms and drew her up. her. She smiled at him. He embraced her, put a sweetmeat into her mouth and gave her a box. She opened it and took out gold earrings and a nose ring set with diamonds. He smiled at her. “Happy New Year, Indira. May Srimati Sita, the Goddess of fortune bless you.”
“Thank you for my beautiful present. Have a very, very, happy New Year,” she mumbled through the mouthful of burfi.
Grateful for the suggestion, she looked at her kind, helpful brother who, as her parents often said, was an ideal son, brother, grandson, and nephew. More important to the family than her because he was the son who would inherit the business, and, when she married, she would be part of another family, she loved him so much that she was never jealous. “Thanks for the very good advice.”
* * *
In her bedroom, after she and Gopal had been blessed by Kaka and Kaki, Indira made the beds while she waited for her friend to come out of the shower.
“Why did your family touch each other’s feet?” Daisy asked, her voice sharp as the edge of a razor blade, when she entered the room wrapped in a towel.
“It’s a custom.”
Daisy discarded the towel and put on her underwear. “Well!” She sniffed. “I wouldn’t bow down to anyone!”
“What are you going to wear today?” Indira asked, hoping to distract her friend.
“A denim jacket and jeans and a white blouse.”
“Unless you want to borrow a sari from me.”
Daisy shook her head. “No, thank you.”
Indira shrugged. “Okay. We’ll have breakfast when you are ready.”
“Aren’t you going to explain?”
“What?” Indira asked to give herself time to think of what to say.
“Oh, that,” Indira said as nonchalantly as possible. “It’s a tradition. On New Year’s Day we wear new clothes and touch our elder’s feet out of respect. In return, we receive their blessings and gifts.”
“It shocked me.”
Indira shrugged. No less than we were when we saw Daisy watching us wearing those thin pyjamas.
“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. It’s only our tradition.”
Daisy scowled. “I think it’s humiliating.”
“Only because we have different customs. What about your one of even kissing strange men under the mistletoe? I can’t imagine allowing any man other than my future husband to kiss me.”
“But-” Daisy began.
“I’m hungry we can eat breakfast at the breakfast bar,” Indira said, pleased with an excuse to escape from her friend.
Things have changed, Indira thought sadly as she went slowly downstairs, Yesterday, I’m sure Daisy would have jumped at the chance to wear one of my saris.
* * *
“Let’s go and see Srimati Radha and Sri Krishna before we have breakfast,” Indira suggested.
“What does Sri and, what-did-you-say, mean?”
“Sri means lord and Srimati means lady.”
Really, though we’ve been friends for so long, I didn’t understand how religious Indira is. Strange ways she and her family have, even if there’s nothing wrong with them. The Nathwanis might think my belief in the Holy Trinity strange. She peeped through her eyelashes at Indira.
“Why do you want to see them?”
Indira led her downstairs and opened the temple room door before she spoke. “To present myself to them and ask for something.”
Indira’s grandfather, who sat on the floor in front of the altar, looked up from his book. “Sometimes our prayers are answered not in the way we anticipate.”
“But Dada, you’ve always told me to pray to Krishna and Radharani.”
Daisy gazed at the dignified old man. “What do you ask for, sir?”
“To forgive my mistakes and serve them perfectly.”
“I understand you are puzzled. Please allow me to explain. We must serve something or someone even if we only serve ourselves. For example, parents serve their children by looking after them. So, tell me if there is anyone better than God to serve?”
Daisy shrugged and toyed with the ends of her loose hair. She looked at Indira, who stood before the altar, the palms of her hands pressed together in prayer.
Daisy breathed in the scent of incense which she identified as sandalwood, and admired Krishna and Radha’s new clothes and flower garlands made with dahlias.
“What did you pray for,” she asked when Indira’s hands parted. “Do you believe that if you tell anyone you won’t get what you asked for?”
“No. I prayed to be allowed to stay with you at Christmas. Please come with me to have breakfast. I expect Ba and Kaki are waiting for me to finish mine and then to help to prepare a New Year feast.”
Indira’s dad came out of the lounge into the hall.
“Good morning, Princess. Good morning, Daisy, have you had breakfast?”
“Not yet.” Daisy’s tummy rumbled.
Bapuji smiled at them. “Eat now because we’re going to be busy all day.”
“Busy?” Daisy asked.
“Yes,” he said. “We will welcome our relations, friends and business associates who will come to give us sweets and other treats and we will reciprocate at their houses.”
“Oh, that sounds like fun,” Daisy said.
“Yes, it will be,” Indira agreed, and led her into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Mrs Nathwani, good Morning, Mrs N.,” Daisy said. “I’m sorry for coming downstairs in my pyjamas.
“You’re forgiven,” Ba said.
Kaki frowned “Provided you never make that mistake again.”
“I promise I won’t,” she said, delighted because she might be invited to stay with them again.
“May we have breakfast, before Daisy’s mum comes to take her home?” Indira asked.
Daisy crossed her fingers behind her back, hoping Indira would be allowed to spend Christmas at her home.