“Archana and Chandni” by Iona Sharma

“Your sister is such a sweetie-pie girl,” Manju Auntie was saying, sticking a pin in Archana’s middle and then hissing between her teeth. “Oof, beta, hilo mat, this all is coming down.” She undraped the sari entirely and Archana resigned herself to standing in petticoat and blouse in the middle of a public bathroom. “She will be getting married next, hai na?”

“Not for a long time,” Archana said. “Owww, Auntie, the pin—don’t, not there—ow. Okay. She’s out on deep-space exploration. But she always says. . . .” She trailed off before she could finish the sentence about Tara-didi’s breathless missives all about Sasha this and Sasha that. Sasha was from Russia and had beautiful cheekbones and was also Tara’s ship’s chief engineer, not that that fact had come up all that often in Tara’s letters. “Right now it’s just me.”

“Ah, you,” Auntie said. “No, no, beta, it is Chandni I am meaning. She is a sweet girl. Not at all modern! She will drape your sari at her marriage even, ha.”

“Chandni?” Archana said, confused, and then the floor lurched under her feet, so Auntie squeaked and Archana hung on to the faucets for dear life; when the world righted again she pulled off the petticoat and blouse with no further ceremony and fished a shift dress out of her bag. “Come on, Auntie,” she said, “they all saw me in my finery, now all they care about is the food”—and then ran for it before there could be any argument.

Out in the space of the corridor it was quiet, except for the soft echoes of the welcome-to-the-wedding party drifting along the ventilation shafts. Definitely the sound of a lot of munching going on. “You,” Archana said, “are such a cow.”

“Aww, didi!” Chandni appeared at her left shoulder, as she always did. “You’re so mean.”

“And tipping Manju Auntie into the urinal wasn’t mean?”

“There wasn’t a urinal,” Chandni said, sulkily. “I had them all ripped out, they make me smell. And I wouldn’t have let you fall.”

“Huh,” Archana said, not quite convinced. “And why’d you do it, anyway? Can you even get married? Like”—she warmed to the topic—“with a giant baraat and everything?”

“It’d have to be light-years across.” Chandni frowned and bounced her hair over her shoulders. Such beautiful hair, Archana thought. Chandni looked young for her age and always would. “It’s not the same for us. Though I’m sure I’d look nice in red.”

“You mean, you”—Archana pointed to Chandni’s pretty pink anarkali and the roses in her hair—“or you?”

That time she pointed to the wall, to indicate the exploratory mining vessel Chandragrahan. Both Archana’s baby sister, though. She suspected Auntie had just forgotten.

“Both, I think,” Chandni said thoughtfully. “Later on can I try on your lehenga? The one for the reception day?”

“Do you really want to do that?” Archana asked, surprised. “I thought you were—you know. You’re a ship, kiddo.”

Chandni glared at her. On her baby face, it looked more adorable than anything. “Yes,” she muttered, “but I’m not at all modern.”

“Well, then, of course you can,” Archana said, amused, and they went back down to the party.

* * *

Lupita was not on board. First, it was Archana’s father who had been doubtful—“Beta, it does not seem right”—and then Supriya Auntie had made noises like chee, chee, and after that Chandni had refused to open the docking bay doors.

“Not till afterwards,” she’d said when Archana complained, and later, in the privacy of the room they were sharing for the wedding festivities, she added: “Dad doesn’t like it! And I can’t. You know.”

Archana took a deep breath. “Chandni, we’ve been living together three years.”

“I know,” Chandni said, conciliatory, but the docking bay doors stayed firmly shut and Archana gave in.

“Just a week,” she said brightly to the screen, “and it’s been two days already, it’ll be fine! Christ, you look so hot and I miss you so much, let’s run away to Oort Station and elope.”

Lupita twirled in her dress for Archana’s benefit. “That bad, huh?” she asked, laughing. Her voice was crystal-clear, as though she were right there in the room, or as though someone somewhere were paying special attention to the quality of the connection. “And tomorrow’s the blessing ceremony, right? We’ll see each other then.”

“For, like, five minutes,” Archana said, “and there’ll be some guy chanting Sanskrit at us.”

“If that’s what’s on offer I’ll take it,” Lupita said. “Hey, is that your room? What’s with the” —she squinted and came closer so for a second the screen was entirely her nose—“florals?”

Archana looked at the pastel extravaganza walls with a sigh. “Chandni,” she said. “Every room I’ve ever shared with her has ended up looking like this after a while. Before you ask”—she held up a hand—“yes, it’s a ship, yes, there’s a tonne of space for all of us. But Mum thought it was important we shared a room growing up, for socialisation.”

“Chandni’s or yours?” Lupita stepped back. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding. How are you holding up?”

“Urgh,” Archana said, morose. “All the aunties spent hours draping me. And undraping me. And pretending not to understand me when I spoke English. And complaining about my complexion.”

“You have a lovely complexion.”

“Shut up, what the hell even is a complexion.”

“I don’t know, but I’m sure you have a lovely one.” Lupita grinned at her. “See you tomorrow, honey.”

“Yeah,” Archana said, and the screen went black. After a minute Chandni sidled in, still immaculate in the same pink anarkali.

“I’d have given you longer,” she said, “but Naya is a bugger, na.” Naya was the orbital station where Lupita was staying. “Don’t you know there’s important traffic on the channel, blah blah. This was important.”

Chandni really did believe that these good-night chats with Lupita were important, Archana thought, trying to take comfort in it, but that night the bed seemed empty and cold. Chandni was curled up at the bottom of it and taking up three extra pillows, and that was nice enough, but she gave off no heat.

* * *

There was a package from Tara-didi in the morning, delivered via orbital station pickup with a note stuck to the outside. Should be opaque to little sister’s sensors, she’d written. Us bad girls need to stick together. Archana only had time for a quick peek at something pointy-pink with four speed settings before Dabbu Auntie barged in to call her to the beautician. “She has come from Naya Bharat!” Dabbu Auntie announced. “To thread your eyebrows! You want to get married with those so-shaggy caterpillars? Come!”

“Auntie,” Archana said, “Lupita already knows what my eyebrows look like. And Chandni can probably do them better, and less painfully, with a narrow-beam laser”—but Dabbu Auntie clapped her hands and strode forth, and once in the beautician’s chair Archana was poked and prodded and seared (with portable, not ship-mounted, lasers) while her mother wrung her hands and tried to be diplomatic and encouraging.

“Archana always had such different interests, na?” she said to Dabbu Auntie, who only sniffed, and the beautician made a noise like aaaaaie! at Archana’s bitten-down fingernails.

“That means butch,” Archana said helpfully, but no one was listening to her, and later, she kept her voice soft when she asked: “Mum, would you have liked it better if I’d been into this”—a gesture at the rows of nail polishes on offer, prismatic, sugar shimmer, and classic red—“stuff? When I was growing up, I mean.”

“Married woman now! Should take more care,” Dabbu Auntie said, and Mum just looked apologetic, so that seemed to be that.

* * *

Chandni had gone all out for the mehndi party, decorating her observation deck with streamers that trailed sparkles and changed colour with reference to the elliptic plane. The girls from grad school had brought bottles of bubbly and put on music, and no one had told any of them that they wouldn’t be able to touch anything while they waited for their mehndi to dry, but the girls who were still waiting held glasses to the lips of the ones who’d had it done, and Archana had to admit it was pretty fun.

“Thanks for inviting us all,” said Lily excitedly; she’d been in Archana’s first-year class on Structural Engineering for Interstellar Mining Operations, and they’d made friends originally because she reminded Archana of Chandni. “I mean, this is just super, isn’t it? And I’ve read up loads on Indian weddings, I don’t want to put my foot in it by mistake. Is it true that the night before the wedding the bride’s girlfriends steal the groom’s shoes? I guess”—she grinned—“the other bride’s shoes.”

Before Archana could reply, an arm was put around her shoulders. “Arré, bacchha,” said Supriya Auntie, “time for talk-shalk later! Mehndi time. You want to look beautiful for your wedding, no?”

Where Mum had got the mehndi-walla and his three minions out here beyond Ceres, Archana had no idea, but she went along with it quietly enough as she was put in a chair and told to extend all extremities. The mehndi-minions chattered in Hindi while they produced cones of the stuff, doing beautiful intricate patterns across her fingertips, her palms, her ankles and wrists. It was customary to hide the beloved one’s name somewhere in the design: Archana wondered if they’d left enough room for ‘Lupita.’

“Mum,” she said in English, “I don’t think they know I understand them. They keep talking about how giant my feet are. Also I have to pee.”

“Don’t you dare.” Her mother looked up and laughed. “Just be patient and bear it, okay, beta? I’ll send them for Lupita too if she wants it. Will she want it?”

“Maybe,” Archana said, honestly unsure. “Let’s keep them on hand and get Chandni to ask her.”

“Sure,” her mother said, said as much to the minions, and went off to speak to Chandni’s local terminal; Archana shifted slightly in her chair and tried to convey, through gesture and movements of her eyebrows, that she could do with a break. The mehndi-minions looked at each other blankly and Archana sighed and let it go.

“Lily?” she called. “Come offer the bride a libation, why don’t you.”

Lily grinned, bowing with the glass before holding it up to Archana’s mouth, which made her snort with laughter into the bubbles. One of the mehndi-wallas turned to his friend and said in Hindi, She’s simple, like a little girl, and Archana was patient and bore it.

* * *

Chandni gave a dance performance the night before the marriage ceremony. “For our friends in the audience who may be unfamiliar,” she explained, standing on the little stage at the front of the ship’s main function room, “we call this bharatnatyam. It’s a classical Indian dance form that is thought to be thousands of years old.”

When she began, the room became quieter, if not silent. “Oh, wow,” Lily said, her eyes wide, “that’s beautiful. How come you never did anything like that?”

Archana tensed up, then forced herself to relax. The room was full of people clearly entranced; a minute ago they’d been intent on the buffet table or showing off their mehndi. Archana didn’t know if Lupita had had it done, but her sisters and cousins certainly had: they were here tonight in beautiful borrowed saris and shouting in joyful Spanish at monolingual aunties. They were all getting along fine.

“I don’t know,” she said, at last. “I guess—I wasn’t interested. I knew what I was like pretty early on, you know? Staying home from family parties and driving Mum mad with the state of my clothes. And Chandni—well, she knows every human language now, pretty much, but she went to Saturday Hindi class to please Dad. Took dance lessons from when she was twelve. She was”—Archana smiled, suddenly, looking up at Chandni in mid-execution of a smooth and graceful form—“perfect. She is perfect, isn’t she?”

“You’re pretty great too, Archana,” Lily said, steadfast, and Archana grinned.

“Thanks,” she said, and would have said something more, asked about Lily’s kids or her thesis, but was drawn away by an arm around her shoulders.

“Arré, beta, five minutes only,” said Sanjita Auntie, and Archana sighed and went along with her to the buffet table.

“Hi, Auntie,” she said, looking down at the vat of dal makhani with some resignation. “What can I do for you?”

“Ah, I can’t come and say congratulations?” Sanjita Auntie said. “You should be very happy, beta, the family are very good.” She meant Lupita’s family, now applauding wildly at the close of Chandni’s performance and looking thoughtfully determined as the first of the proper dance music came on. “And when the babies come it will be different, na? We will all help.”

“With what?” Archana said absently, skipping over the whole babies thing and wondering if there might be dessert soon. Indian after all, murmured a voice in her head; she told it to get stuffed.

“Ah, beta, don’t worry, you will learn Hindi before they come, and Chandni will teach them dancing, and your ma will—”

“Oh,” Archana said, cutting her off, still half-thinking about fruit and ice cream and wishing very devoutly that those were the only things on her mind. “It’s like that, is it?”

“Beta, don’t get upset! I only say these things because. . . .”

“Because you love me,” Archana said, louder than she’d meant, “because you bloody love me”—and she was going to cry any minute, she thought. Thirty years old and she was going to start crying into a bowl of dal, like at every family party since the beginning of things. “You’re going to fix me for the sake of my children. That’s it, isn’t it, Sanjita Auntie?”

“Archana, beta, why you say such things!” Sanjita Auntie said. “We all want to help you only.”

“Thanks,” Archana said, “but no thanks. Keep your goddamn help.”

“Kya bath hain ye,” Sanjita Auntie said, sniffing, and Archana looked over her shoulder at her mother bustling across the dance floor, deftly avoiding Lupita’s whirligigging sisters; her father was coming in through the far door, with the quick eye for trouble you developed when running a six-day multiple-shindig event, and Archana thought it was still possible that she might make it through this without crying herself, but a good full-throated scream was coming up as an option—and then a quiet voice said:

“Step back.”

“Chandni beta,” Sanjita Auntie said, dabbing at her eyes with her dupatta, “this is grown-up talk, you just sit down and. . . .”

“Auntie,” Chandni said sweetly, “I am the deep-space exploratory mining vessel Chandragrahan. I have a top cruising speed of fourteen times the speed of light in a vacuum and enough standard armament to blow up an asteroid nine hundred and fifty kilometres in diameter. Step back from my sister before I make you.”

From behind her, a woman’s voice said, “Archana? Chandni sent a shuttle across. She said you needed me urgently.”

Archana looked up and burst into tears.

* * *

“There, there,” Lupita said, a while later. They were in one of the little anterooms off the function hall, where Chandni had provided soft lighting and Lily another bottle of bubbly. “Don’t cry any more, it freaks me out.”

“Sorry,” Archana said, sniffling, and then took another chug of the wine and felt better. “Sorry, sorry, I’m ridiculous.”

“Maybe you are,” Lupita said, comfortably, “but your sister is soothing all your aunts and your mom and mine are comparing outfit notes and your friends from grad school are teaching my tía Marta how to do shots and we haven’t even gotten married yet, so, you know.”

Archana laughed a little and hiccupped. “We are married,” she said. “We are in every way that matters. This is just to”—she gestured—“keep my damned family happy.”

“Is that so bad?” Lupita asked; Archana sighed.

“They want to change me,” she said. “They want me to be a good, perfect, beautiful Indian girl. Like. . . .”

“Me?” Chandni asked. She came in and sat cross-legged on the floor, pouring herself some champagne. There hadn’t been a third glass a moment before, but that made no difference to her. “Archana-didi, I’m a ship.”

“Well, yeah”—Archana gestured—“but. . . .”

“But nothing. I won’t get married. I won’t give Mum grandchildren.” She waved the drink around, a little unsteadily. “What, you think I’ll meet a planetoid with prospects? Yes, I’m perfect. I’m a perfect AI.”

“Well,” Lupita said conversationally, “what an interestingly complementary inferiority complex.”

“You shut up, you’re taking my didi away.” Chandni folded her arms and glowered. Lupita grinned.

“Chandni,” Archana said, meaning every word, “you’re perfect and I love you”—and that time Lupita rolled her eyes.

“Good thing you brought me over,” she said. “Clearly y’all need someone smart around.”

Archana laughed a little at that, and Chandni smiled shyly, and Archana was thinking they might talk about it again, but not now, not yet. Lupita shook her head with amused resignation, then stopped short, looking at her feet. “Chandni,” she said, after another moment, “where the shit are my shoes?”

Chandni looked expressionlessly at her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’ve put them on a fucking asteroid, haven’t you.”

“Technically,” Chandni was saying, as Archana stood up and walked back into the function hall, “Phobos is more of a moon”—and Archana kept on going, across the floor, to where her mother was standing back from the riotous dancing.

“Better, beta?” her mother asked, and Archana considered, then nodded. Her mother smiled wryly at her. “They do love you, you know,” she added after a moment, and Archana didn’t need to ask who she meant, following her mother’s gaze to Dabbu Auntie and Manju Auntie flailing wildly and trying to persuade Lupita’s abuela to join in.

“Yeah,” Archana said, “I know.”

“Why don’t you and Lupita get ready together in the morning?” her mother said. “We can’t send the poor girl back so late and Chandni can find another room to sleep in, I’m sure.” She grinned. “She’ll complain, but it’s brides’ prerogative.”

Archana grinned back: she knew what her mother, in her own way, was trying to say. She thought that she might ask Lupita to dance with her, in a little while, and then maybe Chandni, or her dad; and after that, when Lupita’s sisters got back from carrying Tía Marta to bed, it would be time for dessert.

Iona Sharma is a writer, lawyer, and linguaphile, and the product of more than one country. Other than speculative fiction, she likes politics, travel, and land rights. Her other stories are available at www.generalist.org.uk/iona.

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