Sophie Shah was six when she learned her mother, Nita, had died. For twenty-two years, she shouldered the burden of that loss. But when her father passes away, Sophie discovers a cache of hidden letters revealing a shattering truth: her mother didn’t die. She left.
Nita Shah had everything most women dreamed of in her hometown of Ahmedabad, India—a loving husband, a doting daughter, financial security—but in her heart, she felt like she was living a lie. Fueled by her creative ambitions, Nita moved to Paris, the artists’ capital of the world—even though it meant leaving her family behind. But once in Paris, Nita’s decision and its consequences would haunt her in ways she never expected.
Now that Sophie knows the truth, she’s determined to find the mother who abandoned her. Sophie jets off to Paris, even though the impulsive trip may risk her impending arranged marriage. In the City of Light, she chases lead after lead that help her piece together a startling portrait of her mother. Though Sophie goes to Paris to find Nita, she may just also discover parts of herself she never knew.
Sophie Shah presses her slim body against the cold wall that separates her bedroom from her papa’s. What used to be Papa’s, she reminds herself, but can’t dwell on that thought for too long. If she does, tears will flow, and it is senseless to let that happen again. A strand of her long, thick black hair loosens from her braid and falls across her forehead, irritating her eye. She does not dare tuck it behind her ear, fearful that if she moves even a centimeter, her fois will hear the thin gold bangles on her arms jingle and stop their conversation. She blinks hard, forcing her eyes to obey and not tear up again, and she concentrates on the exchange in the next room.
Sharmila Foi and Vaishali Foi, Papa’s older sisters, are packing his clothing and personal effects. As a dutiful adult daughter, Sophie should have handled that task. But she couldn’t. The clothes still smell of him—of the almond oil he used each morning on his unruly black hair and the talcum powder that kept his skin dry during the blistering summer heat in Ahmedabad. She cannot bear to see the dress shirts neatly pressed, folded, and stacked according to their muted tones inside the wardrobe, knowing Papa would never wear them again. Knowing that when he placed them inside, he did not know it would be the last time he would do that. His death was sudden. Heart attack. He’d been at his office, and an employee had found him on the cold white marble floor. Sophie often wonders what his last moments were like. Could he feel the life drifting out of him? Was he in pain? Has he moved to his next life already? Will his soul find Sophie again as she continues through this one? Will she feel his presence against her skin like a gentle breeze on a warm night?
Vaishali Foi has a ring of keys on a clasp tucked into the top of her sari slip, just below the exposed, doughy belly rolls that separate the top of the slip and her blouse. The keys clink against each other as she moves through the room. Sophie has grown up in this house and knows every corner of it, including the perfect place to cup her ear against the wall to listen to what is going on in the bedroom next door. She’d learned that spot as a little girl, when she used to hear her parents speaking in hushed tones.
“This will be better for her,” Vaishali Foi says to her sister in Gujarati, their native language.
Sharmila Foi clucks her tongue. “Hah, it is the only way.”
“Who knows how it will end up if we wait much longer, yaar. An unmarried girl her age living by herself would be unthinkable.”
Sophie cringes. Papa passed away nine days ago, and these two women are the only family she has left. She has no siblings, and her mummy died when she was six years old. It has been her and Papa alone in this house for the twenty-two years since. She would give anything to stay in her home, but it is not proper for a twenty-eight-year-old woman to be living alone. Her fois made that very clear. And even if they hadn’t, Sophie knows living in the house is no longer possible. Customs are not up for debate, and she has always abided by them. Well, almost always.
By this point, she should have been married and living with her husband’s family. Her friends had all married years ago, like they were supposed to. Sophie has always been an avid rules follower, and not being married yet is the only custom she has broken, but she could not leave Papa. And now, after such a quick and unexpected end, it is she who is suddenly left behind. So, when her fois approached her not even three days after Papa’s death to tell her that they had found a suitor available for her marriage, she agreed. What other option did she have? She had managed to avoid her arranged marriage for longer than most. People would raise their eyebrows after she passed the age of twenty-five and had yet to marry, but they assumed she was the devoted daughter looking after her widowed papa. And they hadn’t been wrong. After her mummy died, she knew she had to take care of him. But now there were no more excuses.
“She’s a good girl,” Sharmila Foi, the younger and softer of the two, says. “She knows she cannot live in this house by herself. I just wish we had more time to give her.”
“Time is not up to us,” Vaishali Foi says. “The auspicious dates are running out, and then we would have to wait for the next propitious period. We are lucky the Patels are willing to take her at this point. Who knows if they will find someone more suitable if we wait? Young men these days are so fickle. It’s not like it was when we were young. Now, they want too many choices and don’t know how to work for the marriage, hah?”
“The Patels are a good family,” Sharmila Foi says. “Local. Good biodata. Kiran has good height-body. Rajiv would have approved of this match.”
Vaishali Foi clucks her tongue. “Whether he approves or not, it must be done. Sophie is smart with her numbers, but she knows nothing of the ways of the world. Rajiv made sure of that. She needs someone to take care of her properly.”
“It is true,” Sharmila Foi says. “We will not be here forever . . . someone must protect her when all the blood relatives are gone.”
“That is the husband’s duty,” Vaishali Foi says.
Sophie hears their bangles clinking as her fois move about the room.
“It’s good that it only took us two days to teach her to make a proper Gujarati meal,” Vaishali Foi continues. “It would be such an embarrassment if after all of this, she cannot perform the basic duties of a wife. Rajiv let this go on too long, not teaching her the proper roles she must serve.”
Sophie flinches, feeling the sting of their words. Her fois have served as her surrogate mummies since hers passed away, but she knows they have never understood why Papa didn’t arrange her marriage earlier, when Sophie would have had her pick of the suitors. Their children had followed conventions when it came to beginning the marriage phase, and for the past three years they had begged Rajiv to make this a priority for Sophie so she didn’t end up with a half-wit, or, worse still, alone. Rajiv made the occasional inquiry, but ultimately no one seemed worthy enough for his only daughter, and he could not bear to part with her. After he passed, her fois made it their top priority to find someone to take care of her when all of them were gone.
But their task was not easy because Sophie is damaged goods in the Indian marriage market. A now orphaned spinster whose papa allowed her to focus on her education, obtain an accounting degree, and pursue a career rather than forcing her to learn the ways of the kitchen and management of servants. Her fois were relieved to have found a man from a good family willing to marry her despite her untraditional lifestyle. Sophie knows marriage is for the best, but as she thinks about her future surrounded by strangers and the fact that she will never see her papa again, the cloak of loneliness wraps more tightly around her.
“Maybe if Nita had been around, Sophie would have been raised to do the right things at the right times,” Sharmila Foi says.
Vaishali Foi scoffs, the keys at her waist jingling as she walks. “Like that woman could have taught anyone right. Look what she did with her life.”
Sophie pushes her ear closer to the wall. Nita was her mummy, but Sophie recalls so little about her now. Just a few distant memories: the heady smell of paint while she worked on canvases near the dining room window, the round red chandlo between her brows signifying she was a married woman, the way she would stare at the sky when she sat with Sophie on the family’s hichko in the front yard, that she brushed her hair with 101 strokes every morning and every night and did the same to Sophie, counting each one aloud. The main thing Sophie recalls about her mummy is that although she had never set foot in the country, she loved France.
That was why Sophie ended up with her French name. Nita had shunned the cultural norms that mandated that Rajiv’s mummy select Sophie’s name based on the location of the stars, and so Sophie has spent her entire life explaining to everyone in India why she doesn’t have a normal name like Swapna, Reena, Ketan, or Atul, like her cousins do. As a child, she often wished that Papa had been less progressive and lenient with Nita and had forced the traditional naming conventions upon her so that Sophie could blend in. She had hated saying her name aloud in school or at work and having people stare at her. She took after Papa and did not crave the attention of others, and living in Ahmedabad with a name like Sophie meant she went noticed more often than she cared to be.
After Nita died, Papa and their family barely spoke of her. With the passage of time, Sophie’s memories of her mummy started to fade, and with no one willing to speak about her, there was no way to revive them. Yet even though she remembers very little, Sophie still feels the urge to defend her mummy from her fois’ words. After all, who else is left to do it?
Sophie begins to move from the wall when she hears Sharmila Foi say, “I wonder how Sophie would have turned out if she hadn’t left.”
Vaishali Foi murmurs something Sophie cannot hear, and then, in a louder tone, says, “She would have filled Sophie’s head with all those crazy dreams of hers. She would have turned her into the same rebellious spirit who doesn’t know her place. The best thing for this family was when she ran away. With her gone, Rajiv at least could teach Sophie duty without disruption.”
Ran away?! Sophie’s mind reels. Her mummy died.
As Sophie mulls over her fois’ words, she scans her memories of the events surrounding Nita’s death twenty-two years earlier. She recalls that she had been too young to attend the funeral. But she remembers her fois coming home from it and putting a garland of vibrant orange marigolds around the framed photo of Nita that had been added to the puja room. Sophie presses her ear even closer to the wall, sure she has misheard her fois because she would have known if the story of her mummy was something different. In Ahmedabad, the streets have eyes and the wind has ears, so secrets like this would have been impossible to keep from her for all these years.
Sophie wants to burst into the room and ask them what they are talking about, but she knows better. She would only be chastised for eavesdropping. A good Indian girl should never speak out of turn is what they would say while looking at her disappointedly. And she has been that—a good Indian girl—for as long as she can remember.
If only Papa were still here, she thinks to herself as tears continue to prick her eyes, then I could ask him what they were talking about.
The burden of truly being alone in the world sits heavy on her heart. Because it had been just Papa and her in this big house for most of her life, they had developed a tight bond—closer than the average parent-child relationship she saw with her friends and cousins. He would never lie to her, and she never lied to him. It is what made her such an obedient daughter. She never wanted to disappoint him, so she’d never snuck out of the house with friends or tried alcohol that someone in university had gotten from a foreigner with a liquor license. Instead, she always behaved as was expected. And she will honor him by continuing to do that even though she desperately wants to tell her fois not to speak poorly about her parents when her memories are all she has left of them.
Sophie had convinced her fois to let her stay alone in the bungalow for one final night before moving into Vaishali Foi’s home until her wedding the week after, and then into her husband’s family home, where she will spend the rest of her life among the strangers who will become her new family. She has never been alone in the bungalow she grew up in. There were always servants or Papa or another relative, but now the servants have been dismissed, and her fois are in their own homes tending to their own children and grandchildren after having spent the majority of the last week and a half dealing with Rajiv’s passing.
The night is eerie as Sophie moves through the bungalow. The windows are open, and Sophie inhales the smells that waft in, letting them linger around her. Jasmine that blooms just outside the living room and releases the sweetest scent at night, the smell of fire and charcoal from the street vendor who roasts cashews with black pepper at his tiny cart, and lemon from the water the servants use to mop the floors. She will never smell this combination again. She will never smell home again.
Sophie hears a pack of dogs nearby, rickshas and scooters tooting their horns as they swerve through the streets, and firecrackers off in the distance. There must be a wedding somewhere, she thinks, knowing that October is the start of the wedding season in Ahmedabad. Her heart feels so broken and empty that she cannot contemplate celebrating anything. She cannot fathom that in a week she will be part of a wedding herself and embark on the most unknown chapter of her life. Who will greet her on the mandap? One of her fuas?
She glides across the cool marble floor and brushes her fingers along the ornately carved wooden dining room chairs. Last month, she and Papa were sitting in those chairs, going over the wedding schedule for this year. With so many weddings, each spanning a week or more, they strategized about which events to attend for which couple. They considered which families would have the best food and planned to go during mealtimes for those. They talked through which ones were all the way across town, requiring them to navigate hours of Ahmedabadi traffic, and came up with polite excuses. Of the nineteen weddings on the calendar between late October and the middle of December, before the auspicious period ended, none of those weddings were meant to be Sophie’s. Until now. Papa’s passing had made her Wedding Number Twenty for this season among their family and social circle.
She slowly climbs the marble staircase and pauses outside of Papa’s bedroom. Her fois had left the door open, his bed littered with piles of clothing, evidence of their efforts to pack his belongings. Having spent today removing all the valuables and transporting them to the safes in their homes, tomorrow they will ask the servants to finish what remains.
She moves into the closet room and tugs on a door, wanting to smell Papa’s shirts one last time. Memorize the scent. So she never forgets, the way she forgot the smell of her mummy. She knew it as a child, but it faded so many years ago despite how much she tried to conjure it, and she doesn’t want that to happen again. She has a set of house keys fastened to the waistband of her panjabi, and she finds the right one and begins to unlock the wardrobe doors, opening them all. She touches Papa’s button-down shirts and slacks, some still folded and wrapped in thick brown paper bundled together with twine from the cleaners. The paper crinkles as she unties the twine and exposes the shirts. She buries her face in the starched cotton and inhales deeply, knowing that unmistakable smell of Papa that lingers even after the clothes are washed. His shoes are lined up along the bottom. Everything in its place. Just as he had taught her. She smiles as she pulls open the drawers. His watches and rings are now gone, tucked away in his sisters’ safes; only the red velvet lining remains, and she imagines the items that used to be there.
In the very back of one drawer, she sees a box covered with dust. Her fois must have forgotten to look that far back. Wanting to make sure all Papa’s treasured possessions are preserved, she removes it. It is the size of a shoebox but is ornately decorated, like her fancy jewelry boxes that are wrapped in cloth and adorned with colorful stones.
She lifts the lid, expecting to find watches or cuff links, but is surprised to see a stack of thin blue onionskin airmail letters. Papa used to send this type of letter to their distant relatives in America or Australia, and they would send the same back. Par avion, the envelopes say. By plane, she thinks, remembering the only bit of French Papa had let her learn.
The Gujarati lettering on them is a feminine scrawl. She knows these are private but is unable to resist the temptation to share in whatever memories her stoic papa had cherished enough to save all these years. She doesn’t see a return address or sender name on the outside of the first one and opens it. It is addressed to Rajiv. Without reading the body, she quickly moves to the signature and sees her mummy’s name scribbled at the bottom. An icy chill sweeps through her body. She turns back to the postmark on the letter and sees March 23, 2000. She freezes.
Sophie’s eighth birthday. A year and a half after her mummy had died.
Then she sees the postmark from Paris, France.
She collapses to the floor, the letter falling from her fingers as if she has been burned by it. She had not misheard her fois. Her dead mummy is alive.
Excerpt from The Direction of the Wind by Mansi Shah.
Copyright © 2023 by Mansi Shah.
Published with permission of Lake Union,
an imprint of Amazon Publishing.
All rights reserved.
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