Aishwarya Rai

In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta presents the regional winners of the 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Sanjana Thakur’s story is the winning entry from Asia.


The first mother Avni brings home is too clean. She wears white at all times, perpetually a mourner, and roams the two-bed flat with a feather duster tied to her slim wrist. ‘Don’t I look just like Aishwarya Rai?’ she asks, and pours bleach into the bathtub and onto her body. Scrub-a-dub-dub. Avni asks her no questions and takes her straight back.

At the shelter, they lead her to the back and shoot her. ‘She’s had multiple placements,’ they explain. ‘Sometimes, this is the humane option.’

The second mother is mean, and very, very beautiful. This one actually does look like Aishwarya Rai, Avni thinks. A star. She buys a weighing scale and makes Avni stand on it and watch the numbers wobble.

‘Too high!’ she decides when they steady.

‘Let’s play a game,’ Avni says, stepping off the scale. She crosses her arms over her body and watches as she shrinks in the mirror. ‘Would you rather have a fat, happy daughter, or a daughter who is thin and sad?’

The second mother doesn’t hesitate: ‘Thin.’

‘And sad.’

‘Yes,’ she agrees.

Avni nods. ‘How do you sleep?’

‘Too well,’ she confesses. ‘Like a baby.’

The shelter people take her back, no problem. She has a highly desirable look, they say, and will find another home quickly. And does Avni want to take another look around?

Avni does.

The third mother is sad. All she talks about is the village she came from, where she’d had cows and babies who all died one by one. She’d longed for a living child her whole life, she says, but Avni has never been to a village, nor once felt the urge to milk cows.

‘Did you love your husband?’ she says, and when the third mother nods, asks why.

‘My choices were to love him or not,’ she says. ‘And loving him seemed easier.’ ‘That’s a good answer,’ says Avni, and decides to keep her, at least for a while. They learn each other slowly. Third Mother wakes each day to make kadak chai and drink it on the two by two foot balcony with a wrought iron railing that Avni never uses except to dry her underwear. Third Mother drinks several cups of chai a day. Third Mother cooks in the late afternoons for dinner and next day’s lunch. Third Mother packs tiffins and sends them to Avni’s office with the neighbourhood dabbawala. Third Mother puts too much salt in her food, but Avni’s tastebuds adjust. Avni starts to crave salt. Avni likes having a hot lunch every day. Avni likes having a hot dinner. Avni likes that Third Mother snores because she can hear it through their shared wall. Avni has panic attacks when she tries to sleep. Avni gets cold all over and her legs twitch like the limbs of a dying insect. Avni feels frightened and lonely and frequently lightheaded. Avni needs company in the night-time but Avni doesn’t like men.

‘How old are you?’ Third Mother asks one week into living together. She’s opened the small kitchen window for ventilation while she fries bhindi in hot mustard oil. Through the metal bars, Avni can see the alley, and past it, into the balconies of the building next door. In the early mornings they are parrot perches, and in the afternoons, drying racks. In the nights, smoke spots for fathers, sons, rebel daughters.

‘Twenty-three,’ Avni replies. ‘You?’

‘Thirty-seven,’ she says. The bhindi crackles.

‘You look much older,’ says Avni, surprised. ‘It must be all the grief.’

Third Mother wears salwars on weekdays and sarees on weekends and tries on short dresses from Avni’s cupboard when Avni isn’t home. She marks her parting with sindoor and has long, butt-length hair that Avni pulls from between her teeth at mealtimes and out the shower drain each week. Her eyes are deeply lined.

Avni panics on a Saturday night and doesn’t know why. Her arms and legs spasm, stop being hers. She clenches her muscles for ten seconds, breathes in, breathes out. She wants to call her mother but they haven’t talked in nearly six months. She folds her knees under herself and leans forward in child’s pose. She lets her belly hang between her thighs. She tries to rest her forehead on the floor but fails. She times her breaths to Third Mother’s snores and makes it through the night.

‘How did you sleep,’ Third Mother asks the next morning, and Avni lies. ‘Fine.’

Third Mother hums but doesn’t push.

Avni had thought that she liked that about her. She doesn’t say anything. She says, ‘Do you need anything washed?’

Third Mother brings her a basket full of clothes and cotton panties with lace trims. Avni’s bedsheets are soaked in sweat. She strips them and throws everything into the machine. She sits, watches soap bubbles form and froth and go round in circles. The day is a wash. Scrub-a-dub-dub.

‘Why did you choose me?’ Third Mother asks one day while Avni is making coffee.

It has been nearly a month since Avni brought her home. The knobs for the stove stopped working years ago, so she turns the dials until she hears the click of the gas then holds a lighter to the burner until it catches flame.

‘You looked like all the mothers on TV,’ Avni says.

All the mothers on TV look tired and sad and like they are singularly holding their families together.

At work, Avni adds subtitles to ads for shampoo and Knorr instant soup mixes. Her desk is infested with roaches but the view is good. Sixteen floors high, the Arabian Sea a kilometre away. Aishwarya Rai tosses her gorgeous, bouncy hair over her shoulder and says, ‘Total Repair 5: Because we’re worth it.’ A little boy says, ‘Mom, do we eat or drink this?’ and his mom replies: ‘Knorr Soupy Noodles! Swallow how you like.’

The noodles make Avni hungry. She sneaks away. Outside the front of the building, there’s a Starbucks and a Crêpe Suzette. To the back of the building, under big swathes of tarpaulin stitched together, a khao gully. She buys a vada pav for thirty rupees and asks for extra salt, extra chillies, extra bhajji. Her mother had never let her eat street food growing up. She breaks off small bits of the soft buttered bread and feeds them to the calico on the corner.

Her job bores her. The cat accepts crumbs from her hand then sets to work with her rough tongue. Scrub-a-dub-dub. All detergent ads are the same. A child comes home from school dripping in mud. A mother says, ‘Ay-hay!’ But she isn’t angry. She knows she can fix this. Avni remembers this from her own childhood. Laundry’s an easy thing to fix. Her mother calls. She doesn’t pick up and she feels guilty about it. She doesn’t want to fight.

They’d fought frequently when she was young: about Avni’s weight and her face and her body and her birth. They were very good at fighting – they always said things that were mean and true. Avni would say something mean and true, like, ‘You’re just a mother,’ and Mother would say something meaner and truer, like, ‘I was going to leave your father but I got pregnant with you.’ Then Avni would run away to the terrace and pretend that Aishwarya Rai was her real mother, that any minute she’d show up in a white stretch limousine and take her away.

Avni strokes the cat’s white patches. The cat blinks at her, and she blinks back. She’d heard that slow-blinking is a way of saying ‘I love you’.

When the cat wanders away she goes back upstairs. Dating apps. Wellness drinks. Travel agents. Paint. Bridal lehengas. Coffee. Gold. Food delivery. Dabbawala delivery. Third Mother sent mooli ke parathe and thecha. The parathe are soft and flaky. The thecha is sour and spicy and tingles all the inside walls of her mouth. Her co-workers buy food from the trolley like she used to, but she finds it bland now. Lacking salt. She cries on the bus home. There’s the salt. She licks her stinging lips and thinks of Mother.

‘Tell me about her,’ Third Mother says, when Avni explains why she’s been crying.

‘She was a size four her whole life,’ Avni says. ‘Except when she was pregnant with me, and then she was a size eight. She was a bad cook but a good baker. She never let me lick the spoon. Her Victoria Sponge was so soft you hardly had to chew. She didn’t love my father until she had me, and then she had two choices, and loving him was easier. She loved yoga and she could carry her whole body on the palms of her hands like a crow. She didn’t have any friends except me. I was her only friend. She thought Saif Ali Khan’s voice was sexy. And she sang to me most nights.’

‘She sounds nice,’ Third Mother says.

They hug for the first time. Third Mother’s arms circle her shoulders loosely, cautiously. Avni finds it lacking.

In the morning they brush their teeth side by side, spit-spit-gargle-spit. The Colgate is minty-fresh and the shower is freshly wet and the bathroom smells like mehndi. They drink chai on the balcony, then Avni drives Third Mother back to the shelter.

In the car she whites and wilts and asks what she has done wrong. Avni notices newly the way her hair catches a copper tang under sunlight, like Aishwarya Rai in 2008. She doesn’t know what to say.

The shelter people fuss over Third Mother and give each other knowing looks. ‘Perhaps,’ they suggest gently. ‘You might try an older mother? One with more training and experience?’

The shelter houses one hundred and fifty women who used to be or long to be or have no choice but to be Mothers. They live in small double rooms with identical furniture. They cook together in a common kitchen and grow tulsi plants on the windowsill. On Sundays they sit in a long line that winds its way past the rooms and around all the living room furniture. They oil and braid each other’s hair. Avni did high school community service hours here. They seem happy enough to her.

‘All right,’ she decides. ‘I’ll give it a shot.’

They bring out a tall, unsmiling woman with white hair pinned behind her ears.

‘Avni,’ they say. ‘This is Nazneen.’

And so Nazneen becomes the fourth mother. She is significantly older than all the other mothers. Practically a grandmother. She is stern, but when Avni drives them home she rolls her window down and sticks her head out to feel the breeze. Then she laughs and laughs like a child.

Nazneen makes different food than Third Mother had. Lots of meat, cheap cuts but perfectly cooked so they fall off the bone. She is from Hyderabad and she buys whole chickens straight from the butcher. She makes Avni learn how to clean and cut.

‘It’s gross and sad,’ Avni says. ‘I don’t want to do it.’

‘If you want to eat you will cook,’ Nazneen replies, unfazed. ‘You have got yourself a mother, not a maid.’

She places the chicken on a wooden chopping board. ‘See,’ she says, indicating where with her big knife. ‘If you can, always cut through the joints instead of the bones.’

Avni watches as she makes clean lines across the body of the chicken until it is disassembled and what’s left looks less like bird and more like meat.

‘This knife is not sharp enough,’ Nazneen observes. ‘Got it?’ Avni nods. Her mother calls and she hits ignore.

Nazneen’s face softens. She cuts breast, thighs, drumsticks, wings into small, fairly even pieces. ‘This is called karahi cut,’ she says. ‘Your mother never taught you?’

‘No,’ Avni says. ‘She must have thought other things were more important.’ ‘Like what?’

Avni shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says, picking up a piece of raw chicken and squishing it between her fingers.

Nazneen thwacks her hand with the hilt of the knife and she puts it back down. Nazneen says, ‘Tell me more.’

‘There’s nothing to tell,’ Avni says, pressing her damp, sticky fingers together. ‘My mother never really cared for food. And I think I was a disappointing child.’

She was not a beautiful child. The last time she had spoken to her mother, she had been on her knees. They were doing yoga together in her mother’s spare room. Child’s pose. Avni couldn’t fold herself forward far enough for her forehead to touch the floor then, either. Her stomach got in the way. Mother had been genuinely sad. She had said, ‘You look nothing like me.’

The chicken karahi has less salt than Avni is now used to, but it’s moist and delicate and she hardly has to chew. She swallows; Nazneen pretends not to see her tears. It goes down easy, and there’s the salt.

They do dishes before bed. Avni scrubs, Nazneen rinses.

Nazneen doesn’t snore, so Avni feels extra alone in the nights. She can’t sleep again. She paces the flat and tries to regulate her breathing. Over and over, she counts down. Five things she can see, four things she can feel, three things she can hear, two things she can smell, one thing she can taste. She watches people smoking from the kitchen window. She chews on ice; she throws away the weighing scale.

‘I heard you,’ Nazneen says in the morning. ‘Do you often sleep badly?’ ‘Yes,’ Avni says, stirring instant coffee into her bubbling milk.

‘Does anything help?’

Avni shakes her head. ‘Nothing you can do.’

‘Something for another mother, perhaps?’ Nazneen guesses.

Avni takes her coffee to go.

At work she gets to observe a shoot for the first time. She is tired and jittery and building a booth with thick black cloth in the lobby of an ugly high-rise near Atria Mall. She stands in for the model while the cameramen set up their lights. She moves as instructed to. She flinches at the flash. She closes her eyes when the lights get too bright.

‘You, move!’ someone yells.

When Avni opens her eyes, there, two feet away, surrounded by hair and makeup ladies, dressed in all-white with strings of pearls wrapped around her swanny neck, wind machine blowing her hair dramatically back, is Aishwarya Rai.

The shoot takes hours. Aishwarya turns this way and that, offers long, slow, catlike blinks to the cameras. She is selling ‘Volume Shocking Mascara’ and it is shocking how beautiful she is. Avni tries to lock eyes, tries to slow blink back at her. They break for lunch and someone brings around chutney-cheese sandwiches for the crew. Aishwarya sits on one of those high makeup chairs and feeds herself a Caesar salad. Avni watches. The pieces of romaine are too big. Oh no. They’re smudging her perfect makeup. Her personal assistant is putting on a pair of disposable gloves. Her personal assistant is ripping each romaine leaf into smaller bites, one by one by one.

‘Chai?’ someone says.

Avni takes it without shifting her gaze. She drinks without shifting her gaze. She spills chai on her white shirt and says, ‘Shit!’

Aishwarya hears; Aishwarya sees.

Avni doesn’t know what to do now that they are actually holding eye contact. She slow-blinks. Aishwarya’s eyes narrow, but she does not blink back. From somewhere else in the room, the director claps his hands loudly and Aishwarya disappears under a fluster of people armed with cotton pads and makeup brushes and bobby pins.

Avni dabs at her shirt but she only makes the stain worse.

Her boss’s boss’s intern, a skinny man in skinny jeans and a ganji, comes up to her and says they don’t need her anymore. She can leave.

‘But what if I don’t want to leave yet,’ she protests, holding the shirt away from her body and squeezing. A few drops of chai fall to the floor.

‘Sorry,’ he shrugs. ‘Aishwarya Ma’am wants you gone.’

‘No,’ Avni says, letting the fabric go. It falls back onto her body, sticks wetly to her stomach. ‘Why?’

The intern tugs at his own ganji uncomfortably. ‘She said you scared her?’ he says, like a question.

In Avni’s head, an image reverses: a white stretch limousine pulls up outside a middle-class apartment building in Panvel, Aishwarya Rai inside. The passenger door opens, then closes. The limo speeds off. A young girl picks herself up off the ground and watches as it disappears.

‘Aishwarya,’ Avni says, while the intern tries to tug her away. ‘Aishwarya, I’m sorry!’

From the middle of all the make-up artists and hairstylists, a long, pale arm extends outwards and rises up like a kind of deity. It offers a graceful red carpet wave. Goodbye.

Avni drives home in a very regular sized Maruti Suzuki.

When she arrives, Nazneen is at the dining table. She has found Avni’s old photo albums and is looking through them carefully.

‘Hey,’ Avni says, reaching for the book. ‘No.’

She flips, unrepentant. ‘Is this your mother?’ she asks. ‘It must be. You look just like her.’

Avni sucks in a breath. She sits down. ‘I don’t want to talk about her,’ she says.

Nazneen closes the book. ‘I do,’ she says. ‘Do you want to tell me what’s wrong?’

‘Not really.’ Avni gets up and moves to the kitchen. Nazneen follows her in. She takes off her shirt and stands over the sink in her bra. The Vim is running out, she notices. She drips what’s left onto the top and turns on the geyser, then the tap. Scrub-a-dub-dub. When she bends over she feels her stomach curve and expand over the waistband of her pants.

‘Why don’t you call her back,’ Nazneen says.

‘I can’t let the stain set,’ she replies.

Nazneen takes off her dupatta and drapes it over Avni’s shoulders. She says, ‘I would like you to take me back to the shelter.’

‘What,’ Avni says, dropping the shirt. ‘Why?’

‘You should be using Surf for this. Never mind.’ Nazneen takes over. She switches off the geyser and turns the tap to the coldest temperature. She soaks the stain. A few minutes pass. She says, ‘I don’t think I am the right mother for you, Avni.’

Avni laughs. ‘What a shit day this is,’ she says. She pulls the dupatta over her body and covers herself.

‘I am sorry to upset you,’ Nazneen says, switching off the tap and wringing the shirt with all the ferocity of a TurboDry until the excess water has sweated out. ‘But I don’t think you will find what you are looking for in a new mother.’

Avni says, ‘Let me put on a shirt.’

The shelter people are tired of her, Avni can tell. What is wrong this time, they ask, and why has she returned, and does she understand adoption is a serious lifetime commitment?

Avni says she is very sorry for troubling them and lets Nazneen go.

Nazneen doesn’t try to hug her. She takes her hand and holds it just long enough for Avni’s to feel warmed.

‘You must have been a good mother,’ Avni tells her.

Nazneen smiles. ‘You say that because you are not my daughter.’

In the house, Avni finds her white t-shirt drying on the balcony that has been unused since she took Third Mother back. It is spotless, as if the stain was never there. As if the chai had never spilled. Somehow she knows that she could have done exactly what Nazneen did and still made everything worse instead of better. Something-something mother’s touch.

She goes to bed without eating and she can’t sleep. Her stomach feels like it is being wrung dry and her head is on a spin cycle, being vigorously washed. Scrub-a-dub-dub. She draws her legs up to her chest. She clenches her muscles, she breathes in, she unclenches her muscles, she breathes out. She picks up her phone and calls her mother back.

‘I didn’t call you to fight,’ she says as soon as Mother picks up. ‘I know why you called,’ Mother says. ‘I can always tell.’ ‘Sorry,’ she says, and feels better already.

‘You can’t do like this,’ Mother tells her. ‘Calling me only when you need me.’

Avni closes her eyes and decides to say something mean and true just one more time. ‘If I call you when I hurt,’ she says, ‘you make it better. If I call you when I’m not hurting, you make it worse.’

Mother says, ‘Well,’ and blows her nose loudly.

‘Sorry,’ Avni repeats. The breath on the other end of the line tells her Mother is still there. She pictures her, in bed at this hour, in one of those thin cotton nighties she buys from Love Lady every spring. For better or worse, she knows Mother as well as Mother knows her.

‘Do you want to hear about my day?’ Mother asks finally. ‘Do you want me to sing for you?’

‘Yes,’ Avni says. Her head slows down. She uncurls her legs slowly and evens out her breathing. She stretches out so her whole body is flat against the mattress. ‘Please.’

And Mother starts to speak, and Mother starts to sing.


Photograph © Keerthana Kunnath

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