Flash Fiction: Compassion

I wrote this piece of flash fiction on the plane home from California. Its influence is a collision of reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel titled The Namesake and from spending the past weekend admiring old pictures of my great grandmother Marian.


On the plane ride home from Mumbai, Wendy rummages through her purse, trying to locate the images of her great grandmother that she peeled from a decaying photo album. She remembers zipping them into a pocket but the purse is wide and has too many compartments: some sealed with zippers, others with Velcro. Wendy is leaned over her thighs. Strands of thick shiny hair obscure her view of the bag’s interior. Her hand touches a leather notebook, pencils, coins, a wooden comb. She begins to unload the belongings onto her lap. A soft cover book of short stories starts the pile. Then the notebook, the comb, her passport, a draw string bag of clip on earrings. Wendy’s cheeks are florid, hands shaking, her mouth goes dry. The passengers on each side of her seem in tune with the panic. Having abandoned their crossword puzzles, they are watching her. They are wondering if the item she has misplaced is vital like a wallet or cell phone.

Wendy begins to reload her purse. Every bend and stretch of her elbow is felt with defeat.  They are on the bed, Wendy admits. Scattered and bent, the images are holding up a stack of clean clothes on the bed she and her cousin Amina shared. It happened after Amina’s mother handed Wendy an invitation addressed in Bengali to her family. It was an invitation to Amina’s wedding that autumn. She knew the family would decline, knew it was a waste of handwriting and ink. Wendy’s family prepares rice from a box with a tablespoon of butter. No sides of dal. No cilantro garnish. They watch Jeopardy in an air conditioned living room, answering the questions in English. They wear jeans with Birkenstocks. They carry coffee in tall travel mugs.

Despite all this, Wendy packed the invitation and its resentment into her purse, appeasing her aunt. She put it in the same pocket as the images of great grandmother Pranali. It bothered Wendy. She did not like the shared space. She moved the images onto the bed for a moment to reorganize her purse. And then, through a doorless archway, Amina walked in with wet shimmering hair asking Wendy to weave french braids down her back.

The plane is warm, uncomfortable. A crochet sweater is folded on Wendy’s lap. The flight attendant pushes a cart down the aisle, offering coffee or water to passengers. Wendy can hardly respond to the bald, distinguished looking man. Her eyes are red and swelled with tears. In a small voice, she asks for water. The man hands her the plastic cup wrapped in tissue. Wendy is grateful and startled by the man’s compassion.

She wipes her eyes. A few eyelashes and specks of mascara come off. She sips the water, closing her eyes. Pranali develops on the back of her eyelids. The reds and pinks of her saris. The sequins and vermillion. Her immaculate skin. The indifference of her closed lip smile. Pranali sits in a cove of massive Gulmohar trees, creating a thick canopy around her. And for a moment Wendy prefers it this way. She prefers seeing the images in her mind. Not worried about her fingerprints smudging the scene. The colors more vibrant. The crinkles gone. And, this way, the face of Pranali is her own.


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