The fans circle, humming sonorously, making no difference in the dense hot air. My aunt and I sit surrounded by cascades of colourful, gold-embroidered silk as the small birdlike dark skinned shop assistant claws more saris from the shelves, fanning them out to their full glory, allowing the light to catch the subtle changes in hue, the double colours, the intricate embroidery. Motherless since the age of three, Amayi, unmarried, unencumbered by children of her own, has always been my substitute mother.
“Leela, please select two-three saris. How long we’ve sat here in this wretched heat.” Amayi turns to the many attendants waiting patiently along the walls of the shop, and beckons the youngest to her. “Please get me one ice-cold Thumbs Up before I faint.”
“Yes, Madam. Miss also wants Thumbs Up?” the attendant manages to make the insistent command sound like a polite query. I wave him away impatiently. Miss does not want a Thumbs Up. Miss doesn’t even want to be here. My stomach flip-flops as a wave of nerves courses through me.
The birdman fans a new sari, peacock blue, and heavy with gold zari edging. It billows expansively and parachutes slowly down. This has become performance art, and the birdman is a skilful and practiced artist who takes pride in showing off his prowess. The lesser attendants watch from the wings, understudies taking notes as the maestro bedazzles his audience. One day, they too will display saris tantalisingly for customers, piling them like a fallen rainbow around the podium.
“What about this pink one?” Amayi thrusts the bundled fabric at me hopefully.
“Amayi, I’ll look like one giant rose apple!”
“Ok-fine. Please, Leela. Just select some saris so we can call the driver and have some air-conditioning at last. I’m melting into one puddle, only.”
I sneak a quick sideways glance at Amayi, and notice the sweat tumbling over her face as she ineffectually dabs away with a damp handkerchief. I choose three saris, red, green, and the delicious peacock blue, and the birdman signals to one of his waiting understudies to neatly fold and package them while we settle down to the business of wedding gossip. The pointlessness of it all pricks at my conscience.
Amayi and the birdman are deep in conversation, the stifling heat forgotten, and I stare balefully at my bitten nails. Our next stop is the beauty salon where I’ll be primped, preened, and gently scolded for the state of my nails. I sigh audibly. Tomorrow, all hell will break loose, Amayi will reflect on every second, pick over each detail looking for clues, she will rake through her memory searching for any hint.
Tomorrow, I’ll be gone. Matthew and I will have stolen away in the night, avoiding the questions, pleadings, and shattered dreams of a wedding not to be, and leaving behind the recriminations and melodrama of three devastated families.