The Sister Line20 min read

By Vaishnavi Patel

As revolutionary fervor sweeps their town, Priya stays indoors and sweeps the hearth.

Neeti does not wish for her younger sister to become a solitary housekeeper, but the British beat protestors down and fire bullets in the square. They are desperate, maddened by the dawning certainty that soon India will be free. So Neeti begs Priya to remain in their home. She gets down on her knees, clasps her hands, and pleads, tears pouring uncontrollably down her face as she imagines Priya lying bloody and bruised in the street. Neeti has never begged for anything in her twenty-two years, not even for mercy when the British dragged her father away. But she begs now, and Priya, perhaps frightened at the sight of her usually impassive older sister crying, agrees.

While her sister stays home, Neeti stands in picket lines and riots in crowds, shouting about self-determination. Only her conviction that this will bring a better future for Priya keeps her standing day after exhausting day. Then the rumors start that soldiers are pulling young women out of their homes for fates worse than bullets, and a young British boy corners Neeti in an alley and touches her until her friend finds her by chance and the boy runs away in shame.

Priya’s promise to stay in cannot keep invaders out, and so the next morning, as word spreads that a new regiment of British will be upon their town within the week, Neeti hikes out to the forest and asks the dayan living there for help. She has heard the townspeople’s stories, peppered with the word witch, but she will take any risk to keep Priya safe.

The dayan looks like an ordinary woman, no trace of malice in her features. “I can give you the power of a Lakshmana Rekha,” the dayan tells her with a voice as sweet and full as a ripe mango. Each word thrums with energy. “But you must understand that its enchantment cannot stop a person from leaving its safety. Sita stepped over the line, and she was an incarnation of the devi herself, the source of all magic. If a goddess could not resist the temptation, how could a mortal?”

Neeti knows the story well. As a child, she loved the Ramayana, and requested tales from the great epic every night despite Priya’s protests. Her father insisted on including the story of the Lakshmana Rekha even though it bored Neeti, who wanted to hear of great battles and supernatural inventions. It seemed too straightforward at the time: Lakshmana, the devoted brother, drew an impassable line around Sita’s cottage to protect her. The Lakshmana Rekha. Nothing could cross the line from the outside, not even an army of demons, but in the end it did not matter. Sita chose to step over the brother’s line.

Now, though, Neeti is grateful for her father’s stolid insistence on telling the story. It gives her the means to protect the only thing that still matters. “My sister has agreed,” Neeti says. “She will stay within the line. Tell me what I must do.”

The dayan springs to her feet and rummages on a shelf, her long black plait swinging against the ground. According to rumor, that braid is the source of the dayan’s power, and can never be cut by mortal means. After a moment, the dayan turns around with a small bottle in her hand and the thought is gone. “My mother taught me this spell long ago, after I stepped out of a Lakshmana Rekha she drew for me.”

“Why did she…” Neeti trails off. She does not want to be overly familiar with a dayan,for fear of getting cursed.

The dayan smiles, displaying a row of gleaming white teeth more perfect than those of any townsperson. Her mouth looks almost British. A shudder runs down Neeti’s spine. “There was a witch hunt,” the dayan says. “Every day for a month, people tried to enter the house, but none could. Finally, when the monsoons came, the townspeople stopped coming, but still my mother would not let me out. So I escaped myself one night.”

“Oh.” Neeti avoids meeting the dayan’s eyes. “I see.”

“Leaving the Lakshmana Rekha brings bad luck,” the dayan continues. “Sita was captured and imprisoned for many years. I got lost in the forest for a fortnight following the storm. Break the line with your foot when you are ready to erase it. Do not cross it.”

“Must I stay inside the line?” Neeti asks. She had not anticipated that possibility.

“You will draw the line, so you are not beholden to its rules. Lakshmana could cross back and forth as he pleased.” The dayan holds her hand out, palm up, and a smooth wooden stick flies into her fingers. She mouths a few words that Neeti cannot catch, then hands the stick and bottle to Neeti. “When you are ready, dip the end of this branch into the tincture and then draw your Lakshmana Rekha. You must work quickly. This is enough for a small house.”

“How much do I owe you?” Neeti asks, searching through her purse for some rupees.

“I don’t want your money,” the dayan says. “Or any payment. I know they call me witch where you come from, and hunt my kind, but I will gladly keep a young girl safe for nothing at all.”

Neeti’s eyes widen in shock, but she bites her tongue before a skeptical response slips out. She has heard many rumors concerning the dayan but it only now strikes her that they may hold no truth at all. She bends to touch the dayan’s feet in a show of respect, and the dayan looks down at her as though she has grown a second head.

Neeti stands, cheeks burning, and the dayan tilts her head back and laughs and laughs, rich and full. “Nobody has done that to me in all my years,” she gasps at last. “Not a single visitor. Thank you, Neeti. Perhaps your Lakshmana Rekha will be the first to work.”

That night, once the moon has fully ascended and Priya is fast asleep, Neeti slips outside and draws the Lakshmana Rekha. Her stick pierces unusually deep into the dry earth, and she completes her task without incident. The next morning, she extracts a promise from Priya not to cross the line. As the vow leaves her sister’s lips, a knot inside Neeti uncoils for the first time since the call to revolution was issued.

Her sister is safe. All will be well.

*

One day after drawing the line, nothing happens. Neeti wonders if perhaps she overreacted, but paranoia is better than regret.

Two days after drawing the line, as Priya is preoccupied in the back room, Neeti catches a glimpse of a British soldier approaching their home. He swaggers up the path, and Neeti’s fists clench in worry. Perhaps the dayan’s magic will not hold. How can ancient magic compete with a modern man? He walks up to the line, and a small whimper escapes her mouth. She doesn’t have to worry. The moment his foot hits the invisible wall demarcated by the Lakshmana Rekha, his whole body twitches. He puts his foot down and shivers, then turns sharply on his heel and walks away. Neeti slowly uncurls her fingers and ignores the half-moons pressed into her palm as a sick feeling settles in her stomach.

Three days after drawing the line, Neeti stays on edge from sunrise to sunset, convinced that the British soldier will return with more soldiers to investigate the strange line. They will find out who lives in the home and track her to her place of work and interrogate her. But nobody comes, and Priya complains that night of boredom.

Four days after drawing the line, Neeti heads home after a torrential midday downpour to find Priya sitting on the rickety front steps of their house. Fear tears through her, knocking the wind from her lungs. She gasps in a breath and sprints down the street. As she nears, Priya gives a little wave.

“Priya, you promised!” Neeti shouts, gripping Priya’s shoulders with shaking fingers. “You gave your word,” she says, more quietly.

“I gave my word to stay inside the line,” Priya says, shaking off Neeti’s hands and rising to her feet. She gestures to the line two feet away. “I have remained within your boundary. I have done as you asked, I have waited in this house for weeks. But today, after the rain, I looked out the window to find your line untouched.”

“And you decided to leave the house?” Neeti asks. Her heartbeat slows under her skin, leaving deposits of panic at her pulse points. “Come inside.” She stalks up the steps and enters the house.

Priya follows, if only so she can continue their argument. “What did you do?” She walks to the center of their front room and stands there, hands on her hips.

Neeti carefully closes the door and leans against it. “It is dangerous outside. Two people died today. More would have, if not for the storm. And they are going door to door, looking for young girls.”

“Nobody has come to our door,” Priya says, taking a step forward. The afternoon shadows cut her face into unfamiliar planes.

“You would not know if they had. They cannot cross the line. Only you and I can do that.” Neeti had wanted to keep the truth of this line a secret, but the rain has ruined her plans.

“How?” Priya asks, and Neeti catches the slightest tremble in the word. Her sister is afraid.

Neeti tilts her head back to look at the ceiling, sturdy and watertight, built by their father in the time before British control became unbearable. No matter what, their father used to say, you will have a good roof over your heads. “Do you remember the Lakshmana Rekha? Lakshmana drew a line around their cottage that kept out all those who sought to hurt Sita.”

“That’s a myth, Neeti.” Priya laughs and reaches out for Neeti’s hand. “It’s not real.”

“I went to see the dayan.”

Priya drops Neeti’s hand as though it is a burning coal. “You did what?”

“She gave me something to make a Lakshmana Rekha.”

“And what did that cost you?” Priya turns away from her and Neeti wants to cry. “This house? Your firstborn?”

“Nothing,” Neeti says, and the words sound unbelievable to her ears. “She said she wanted nothing in return.”

Priya looks over her shoulder at Neeti. “There’s always a price. Or didn’t you listen to the myths?”

“When did you get so wise?” Neeti asks, trying to regain Priya’s affections.

Priya shakes her head and walks towards the stove. “When did you get so stupid?”

Neeti does not respond to the taunt, although it pains her. “Just promise you will remain inside the line. The dayan said that leaving the line will bring bad luck.”

“Maybe the bad luck comes first and forces people to leave the line,” Priya says. “Did you consider that? Nobody would draw such a line in good times. Demons coming to kidnap Sita would be considered bad luck, and that happened before she crossed the line. You have no idea. All you know is what a witch told you.”

“She is a dayan,” Neeti argues. “Not a witch. That’s an awful British term.”

Priya snorts and does not respond.

Neeti presses on. “Whatever you think of it, just –”

“When will you release me?” Priya interrupts, words clipped.

“Release you?” Neeti echoes. “You are not my prisoner.”

Priya snorts. “Are you sure?”

“I’m tired,” Neeti says. “We can speak about this tomorrow.” Priya has always been the emotional one of the two of them, prone to outbursts of anger, stubbornness, pride. That is one reason Neeti wants her to avoid the commotion engulfing their town: she is likely to get swept up in the feeling of the crowd and endanger herself. But for all her excitability, Priya is predictable. In the end, she always forgives Neeti. Of this, Neeti is certain.

That doesn’t make her sister’s ire any easier to shoulder in the moment. She goes to the back room, lies on her pallet, and pretends to be asleep. She listens to Priya slam pots, mutter to herself, and finally, take the even deep breaths of slumber.

*

Neeti must have drifted off sometime in the early morning, because when she awakens, Priya is gone. Neeti rushes outside in only her shift and shouts her sister’s name.

Priya emerges from around the house and floats towards her on feet so light they barely leave an imprint in the damp earth. With her flowing hair and face bright and flushed with waking, Priya resembles an apsara, a heavenly dancing spirit. Perhaps in another life, Priya will be born a dancer, or a doctor, or anything other than a poor girl in a small town in the heartland of colonized India. But they are living this life now, and Neeti knows better than to dream beyond it.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Neeti demands.

Priya puts a finger over her lips and her mouth quirks upwards. “Shh, you’ll wake the neighbors,” she says.

“What are you doing outside? Did you cross the line?” Neeti hisses.

Priya heads into the shack and beckons Neeti inside. “I didn’t cross the line.” Priya lights the fuel under the stove and begins boiling water for the morning chai. “I just wanted to see how far it went around the place. I can walk around our whole home without going outside the line. So please, let me go outside and get some fresh air. Please Neeti, please.”

Unlike Neeti, Priya begs and pleads often. Most days, Neeti finds this habit annoying and embarrassing, but today she is glad of the practice she has received in resisting Priya’s cajoling. “If someone sees you, they may try to talk to you, or worse, seize you. When they realize they cannot cross the line, they will know it is made of magic, and then the whole town will be after our blood.”

“Even if they are, they cannot cross the line to actually get to us,” Priya counters.

“They could hurt me. You are safe, but I still need to leave.”

“You need to?” Priya asks, her tone a challenge.

Neeti sighs. “I must do my part in this struggle and buy food for us besides.”

The water begins boiling, but only Neeti can see it. Priya has turned her back to the stove in favor of advancing slowly towards Neeti. “What is my part in all this? I could march, or throw stones, or distribute information. I could go to the market.”

“It’s not safe for you out there,” Neeti says. “I can do my work only because I know you are safe.” The water hisses as it bubbles over the side of the pot and onto the fire.

Priya spins around and starts frantically stirring the water, adding in the chai mixture and removing the pot from the fire to let it cool. It is a few minutes before she speaks again. “If it is unsafe for me, how is it safe for you?”

“It’s not,” Neeti admits. “But I would rather put myself in danger than you.”

“I am eighteen,” Priya says, turning back to face Neeti. “I would rather put myself in danger than you. Why does your choice outweigh mine?”

“Because I’m the head of this family,” Neeti snaps, unwilling to entertain this foolishness any longer. “I raised you. I am the reason you are still alive, so I get to decide. Not you. Be glad I haven’t married you off yet.” More anger seeps into her tone than she would have liked, and hurt ripples across Priya’s face.

“Right,” Priya grinds out. “I am so lucky that my sister has not trapped me against my will.”

Neeti meets Priya’s eyes and does not respond. Her sister scoffs and turns away. “How can you claim to fight for freedom when you keep me locked in here? I am not free.”

Neeti has plenty of answers – this arrangement is temporary, Priya is not hurt by an inability to leave the house – but she knows Priya will not hear her out. Instead she stalks to the other room, changes, and splashes some water onto her face.

“I’m leaving,” Neeti announces. “Stay inside.”

Priya slams the door behind her.

*

Neeti arrives late to the day’s demonstration, having had several customers to assist immediately before closing time. The store where she works is now the only medical center in the town, an unforeseen consequence of the town’s British goods boycott. Neeti has little formal education, but the owner has trained her well, and her expertise is in high demand. When she finally arrives at the designated location for the protest, a long lawn in front of the local army barracks, she discovers signs discarded and people clumped together.

“Neeti!” hisses a familiar voice. She quickly locates her friend, the same one who saved her from the British boy, and heads towards her.

“What is this?” she whispers.

“The regiment never got here. Apparently –”

“Citizens!” a raised English voice calls across the yard. Neeti’s stomach drops out from under her, but her body moves instinctively. As one, Neeti and the rest of the would-be-protesters form a tight group, a defense against whatever the British are about to throw at them.

“We are withdrawing from Sangola.” Murmurs break out among the assembled Indians, but Neeti cannot make out any particular words. “We make our preparations tonight and depart tomorrow.”

Her friend gasps in her ear, and Neeti’s lips stretch up into a smile so wide it hurts her cheeks. The man continues, “you may not have heard, stuck as you are in this backwater, but India has been granted independence from the United Kingdom. The exchange will occur within a month, God save you all.”

Complete quiet descends over the crowd for a moment, and then they all scream and cheer as one. Neeti pinches her arm, half convinced she never woke this morning, but she still remains standing in this square. Nearly free.

Her group begins to disperse, and Neeti walks home, allowing herself, at last, to dream. Perhaps when the British are gone, her father will return, having survived prison. Perhaps she and Priya can move to Mumbai, and Priya can enroll in a school with more than one room. A whole uninhibited life unspools before her. A dream.

She rounds the corner and hears a scream from behind her. Sharp popping noises pepper the air. Neeti knows the sound well. Bullets. Another scream, closer.

For a moment, indecision paralyzes her. Turn back and help those who have been wounded, or return to the safety of the Lakshmana Rekha? Priya would never forgive her if she left other townspeople to die.

She walks back towards the sounds of violence, breaks into a jog, and quickly nears the main square.

More gunshots, and then panicked brown faces stream towards her, shouting as they run. When they rush past, Neeti catches snippets.

“Some of the soldiers went crazy –”

“They heard the news –“

“Started shooting –”

“In her home –”

“My brother –”

Her blood pumps so hard that her fingertips pulse with it. She turns back towards the direction of her home and runs. Priya, Priya, Priya, can bullets pierce the Lakshmana Rekha?

Behind her, more pops pierce the area. Around her people stumble, fall, but Neeti does not miss a step.

Back around the corner, and she sees their beautiful home. Priya stands just inside the Lakshmana Rekha, her mouth open in an O of horror. She makes an aborted motion to cross the line, then looks down and hesitates. Priya glances back and Neeti follows her gaze to the home they have shared all these years, the two rooms and the sturdy roof. She is so close to safety, to her sister.

“Stay inside!” she shouts, or perhaps she only imagines it, because as the bullet pierces through Neeti’s torso Priya does not move.

Momentum keeps her going one more step and then she falls into the dirt. She cannot breathe, her body is a flame. Maybe the bad luck comes first, Priya’s voice echoes in her head. She keeps her face up, watching –

Priya, turning back.

Time slows.

Priya, eyes finding Neeti on the ground.

Senses blur.

Priya, screaming.

Pain stops.

Priya, crossing the line.

The Sister Line” is also published in 87 Bedford’s Historic Fantasy Anthology.

© Copyright 2020 Vaisnavi Patel

Author’s Note

Like the characters in my story, my sister and I grew up hearing stories from Indian mythology. In the summer, our grandma would come to visit from India, and lunchtime became storytime. We begged her to tell us stories about Krishna and Shiva or about the battles of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The epic Ramayana tells of the clash between good and evil, but it also focuses in on quieter moments of personal choice and sacrifice that turn out to have incredible significance. The same can be said about the fight for Indian independence. My family knows that firsthand—my great-grandfather was one of tens of thousands involved in the freedom movement, and he lost a great deal for it. 

The Sister Line is set in the last days of the British occupation of India, a threshold moment both for the country and for the sisters in the story, and pulls in a literal threshold moment from the Ramayana: Sita crossing the Lakshmana Rekha. In the Ramayana, Lakshmana leaves Sita alone in a house in a dangerous forest but draws a line around the house which nobody but Sita or Lakshmana can cross. A man comes to kidnap Sita disguised as a needy beggar, and Sita chooses to step over the line in order to help him. Against the backdrop of 1940s India, the two sisters in this piece recreate the story of the Lakshmana Rekha, exploring Lakshmana’s motivations and Sita feelings about protection at the cost of individual freedom.

Finally, all my stories have speculative elements, and for this narrative I brought in dayans, or witches. In some parts of India, women suspected of being dayans are still hunted and burned as practitioners of black magic. But the dayan’s magic in this story is linked instead to the Lakshmana Rekha—she gives the main character the ability to create a Lakshmana Rekha of her own. Magic is not good or bad. It is simply a choice.

Vaishnavi Patel is a Midwesterner attending Yale Law School. She spends most of her time reading casebooks and writes fiction to unwind. She has a short story out in The Dark and forthcoming in Helios Quarterly, and was a member of Pitch Wars class of 2019. You can find her on Twitter as @VaishnaWrites.

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