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Dimple groaned and clutched her head, feeling like that ancient pressure cooker Mamma still used when she made idli cakes. She was sure there was an actual chance she would explode. There was no way she and Mamma were related; they may as well have been two entirely different species. “Seriously? That’s what you think I should be relegating my brain space to? Looking nice? Like, if I don’t make the effort to look beautiful, my entire existence is nullified? Nothing else matters—not my intellect, not my personality or my accomplishments; my hopes and dreams mean nothing if I’m not wearing eyeliner ?” Her voice had risen incrementally until it echoed off the high ceilings.

Mamma, caught up in the moment, stood to meet her glare. “Hai Ram , Dimple! It is not eyeliner—it is kaajal !”

Dimple’s temper flashed, the heat tempered only slightly by the dampness of disappointment. This was an argument they’d had so many times, she and Mamma could probably say each other’s lines. It was like they were constantly speaking two different languages, each trying to convince the other in an alien lexicon. Why couldn’t Mamma make the smallest effort to understand where Dimple was coming from? Did she really think Dimple had nothing valuable to contribute besides her looks? The thought made Dimple’s pulse skyrocket. She leaned forward, face flaming, ready to speak her mind about how she really felt—

The doorbell chime echoed through the house, bringing them to a standstill. Dimple’s heart still raced, but she felt all the million old arguments stall, unspoken behind her lips.

Mamma adjusted her dupatta , which had begun to fall off during the argument, and took a deep breath. “We have guests,” she said demurely, patting her hair. “I trust you will behave for them, Dimple?”

Papa looked at her with big, pleading eyes.

Dimple managed a curt nod, thinking, Saved by the bell, Mamma. You don’t know how lucky you are.

CHAPTER 2

Mamma bustled out of the room in a cloud of sandalwood perfume to open the door. Dimple tried to take deep, calming breaths. Stanford was only a few months away, she reminded herself. And if she could swing Insomnia Con, freedom would be hers very, very soon.

“Helloooo!” Dimple heard after a moment. The word trilled and echoed like a small, annoying bird’s song.

Papa grimaced. “Ritu auntie,” he said, half resigned, half annoyed. He reached over and grabbed the phone. “Important phone call,” he murmured as he disappeared around the corner.

“Traitor,” Dimple called softly at his retreating back. She stood and pressed her palms together just as Ritu auntie rounded the corner in her wheelchair, pushed, as usual, by her silent, watchful new daughter-in-law, Seema. “Namaste , Ritu auntie, Seema didi .”

Technically, Ritu wasn’t her aunt, and Seema wasn’t her didi —older sister. But it was customary to always be respectful of your elders, a lesson that had been drilled into her since she was a baby. And yet, somehow, Dimple found herself questioning them—and really, everything—all the time. Mamma often lamented that her first word had been “why.”

“Namaste!” Ritu auntie said, beaming up at her. Behind her, Seema watched unsmilingly through a curtain of long, sleek black hair.

“Please sit, Seema,” Mamma said. “Can I get you some chai? Biscuits? I have ParleG, bought specially for you from the Indian market.” Mamma was constantly on a mission to make Seema feel at home. It was her opinion that the reason Seema was as withdrawn as she was, was because Ritu auntie hadn’t done a good enough job making her feel welcome in her sasural —bridal home. This had created a strange rivalry between Ritu auntie and Mamma. Dimple pitied Seema, caught like a helpless fly in the web of their crazy.

“Oh, Seema and I found something she likes better,” Ritu auntie said. “Milanos. Isn’t that right, Seema? Tell her how much you like those.”

“They’re delicious,” Seema said dutifully. After a pause—perhaps awaiting another directive—Seema sat in the empty armchair next to Ritu auntie. Dimple sat down too.

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