Mrs. Jain didn’t show me the mirror until I was eleven.
In the years before, Ishani and I only danced in the lounge room, while Mrs. Jain sat facing us on the sofa, an indulgent smile on her face, clapping along. Sometimes, she’d stare out the window, and we had to wave our arms and stick out our tongues to get her attention.
On Ishani’s insistence, we danced to pop music on the radio, not the Indian songs I would have preferred. But they were Ishani’s moves, learned at her Indian Youth Club, where she took dance classes. If I argued too much, it meant I wouldn’t learn the next part of the routine.
One afternoon, I was having trouble with one of the moves: a spin followed by a graceful arm twist.
“Are you passing a footy?” Ishani teased.
I hit her arm. I didn’t practice at home. I tried once and caught my mum gazing at me, her eyes narrow with pity.
“I’m trying my best. It’s not like I …” I trailed off, about to say, it’s not like I have a real teacher, but I knew Ishani would take offense. “It’s not like I’m Indian.”
Ishani rolled her eyes. “I can’t remember the rest anyway.”
Mrs. Jain frowned and stood up. “I have something I want to show you, Jess.”
Taking the radio, she led us to the spare room at the end of a long hallway. The space was drafty, thick brown curtains drawn. I gazed longingly out the door, imagining the warm glimmer of sun shining onto the lounge room sofa.
Ishani crossed her arms. “What are you doing, Mum?”
“You’ll see.” Mrs. Jain smiled in that lovely way. I wished my mum was just as beautiful.
Mrs. Jain placed the radio on the windowsill. Desi Pop music played, an upbeat song with a high-pitched female voice. I looked to Ishani, expecting an eye roll, but she seemed uncertain, like in class when Mr. Ruben called on her.
“Seriously, Mum!” Ishani’s voice rose. “Did you get this room ready for Jess?”
Ishani scowled at me, and I had no idea why. I didn’t want to be in this room either, with its wall of full-length robe mirrors. Watching myself dance next to Ishani? I didn’t need to see my pale skin next to hers, how much more beautiful she was, how she performed the routine perfectly and I faltered, lacked whatever it was I needed to truly pull off those graceful, energetic moves. When we danced in the lounge room, I could pretend we weren’t so different.
Mrs. Jain waved her hand, gesturing for Ishani and me to strike our opening pose. Neither of us moved.
“Ishani,” Mrs. Jain began. “You know you have to start.”
Ishani pursed her lips to hide a smile, like she did in PE class when Mr. Attridge said she had the most graceful way to side-step getting tagged. Then she wrapped her arms above her head and whispered, “five, six, seven, eight.” The routine began with my favorite move, a jumping stomp with our arms sharp above our heads, alternating to the beat. But still, I didn’t move.
In the mirror, I watched Ishani’s feet spark small flames of blue and purple, then bright white. I glanced down at her feet beside me. They were the same brown Ugg boots, no sparks. Then steam appeared in the mirror, as if we were taking a hot shower.
When it cleared, the white walls behind us were no longer reflected. Instead, the mirror showed us the sea. On the shoreline a camel wore a red blanket over its humps, led by a man wearing a long white gown. There was a fruit seller, and another pair of men pushing a blue fishing boat into the cresting waves. When I stepped closer, the image shimmered and faded.
“You must dance,” Mrs. Jain said.
When I began, our images in the mirror transformed too. Reflecting back were two girls wearing purple dresses inlaid with gold, hemlines scraping the sand. We had a diamond stud each in our noses and copious bangles. Once, I’d overheard a family friend describe me as plain. My mum hadn’t denied it. But here, in this mirror, I was something else.
I turned to Ishani, grinning madly, then remembered I didn’t want her to focus on the real me, only the girl in the mirror. But before I turned back, I glanced at Mrs. Jain, who met my glare with a wink. This was her magic, and she’d decided to show me. I didn’t even thank her.
I begged to see the mirror every afternoon. I badgered Mrs. Jain with questions about how it worked, but only received vague responses about ancestors and tradition. Just when I’d start to think I’d never see the magic again, Mrs. Jain would glare out the window and lead us to the mirror room. Sometimes she brought us reluctantly, Ishani and I hyper after some celebration at school involving cupcakes, or in conflict over how to spend our afternoon together, or when I complained, but didn’t mean, that I wanted to go home.
Each time, the scene in the mirror changed: a veranda with palm trees and a lazy cat on a porch swing, a dirt road with a woman in a bright sari carrying a silver canister. There were alleys and mountains, sunshine beaming onto children’s faces and rain falling on the goods of a street market. There was never the same scene twice, except for the sea. I watched Mrs. Jain when the sparks flew and the new scene appeared, checking if she moved her fingers or mouth, casting a spell. I never saw anything but her serene glare.
Once, when my mum was late, I stayed for dinner. Ishani was busy with homework while I sat listless at the dining table.
“C’mon,” Mrs. Jain called. “I’ll show you how to make kadhi.”
She spooned yogurt into a pot, added a yellowish flour, then poured in more spices than I’d ever seen, with smells and colors equally new to me. For all the time I’d spent in this house, this would be my first time eating Indian food. “Can we do the mirror after dinner?” Knowing I would see the mirror later might help me get through the meal.
Mrs. Jain shook her head and yawned, and I imagined her waking very early to start her shift at the makeup distribution center where my mum also worked, so that she could end her workday in time to pick up Ishani and me from school. I wondered why my mum didn’t take an early shift. Understanding crystallized like the salt Mrs. Jain stirred into the pot. My mum was happier to have Mrs. Jain look after me, and so was I. Around the table that night, the kadhi with rice and vegetables tasted better than any meal I’d had at home.
The next morning, my mum handed me a key. She’d arranged for the school bus to drop me off near home. I was twelve, old enough now. My complaints were futile. Ishani and I weren’t really friends anymore. I sulked for a fortnight, knowing that Mrs. Jain’s afternoons with me had just been an interlude between work and dinner, while they had been the highlight of my day.
In high school, Ishani hung out exclusively with other south Asian girls. Once, a popular boy with blonde hair and blue eyes gave her a twirl at one end of the crowded hallway. As she spun, sparks reflected in the window overlooking the football field. I turned bright red. Ishani had learned the mirror magic and was wielding its power with abandon. While I had begged to see the mirror, Ishani had flipped through Seventeen. While we’d danced in the mirror, my face lit up as she gazed out the door.
After school the next afternoon, while Ishani was with her friends at the local cafe, I walked over a crowded intersection and past a suburban shopping center to finally arrive at Mrs. Jain’s. I sat on the front porch for half an hour until Mrs. Jain’s car pulled into the garage. She didn’t notice me, so I rang the bell.
At the door, Mrs. Jain’s face was a question. “Jess? What a surprise. What can I do for you?”
“I want to cook my parents a special meal for their anniversary. Could you teach me how to make that dish, the kadhi?”
Mrs. Jain bit her lip. “I wish you would have called first.” She put her hands on her hips and laughed. “I was just going to order pizza tonight.”
“Sorry,” I began. “I couldn’t ask my mum for your number and ruin the surprise. And anyway, I didn’t want to call and have Ishani answer. She might think I was bothering her.” I gazed at the door mat, blinking.
“Of course, she wouldn’t think that. You would never be a bother. Come in and we’ll make that kadhi. I can’t believe you remember that.”
I stepped inside and smelled the spicy liquorice scent I’d barely noticed when I entered this house every afternoon. In the kitchen, Mrs. Jain placed each item on the counter: onion, yogurt, flour, lentils. She named all the herbs and spices: ginger, cumin, chili, coriander. She instructed me to slice the onion while she set out a large pot.
Mrs Jain tsked my onion chopping efforts and took over, slicing much more finely than my chunks. After sliding the slivers into the pan, she looked at me, concerned. “Shouldn’t you write this down? Go grab the pad and pen from the lounge room.”
I searched for the items near the sofa and the TV cabinet but couldn’t find them. I stepped toward the hallway leading to the mirror room, then heard Mrs. Jain’s footsteps behind me. “Sorry, I forgot I left the paper on the hall table.” When I turned, she was holding up a notepad, frowning.
“Could I see the mirror again?” I blurted.
Mrs. Jain sighed. “Is that why you’re here? Have a seat. Just let me turn off the burners.”
The sofa still smelled like popcorn. During sleepovers, I’d lay here watching scary movies with a half-dozen other girls.
Mrs. Jain sat beside me, smiling in a pained way, her eyes crinkling. “So that’s why you’re here, to find out about the mirror?”
“Are you teaching Ishani? Could I learn too?”
Mrs. Jain shook her head. “It was a mistake to show you.”
“So, you won’t teach me?”
“I’m sorry, Jess.” She grabbed one of the cushions and hugged it. “For hundreds of years, people from all over India have been leaving to make lives elsewhere, but they missed their homes. Families in Ravsham, the town where I was born, developed a way of reflecting scenes from their childhood to prepare for their departures. When music played, when we danced and laughed, there was a certain energy in our bodies. We would make our own backyards appear in the mirrors of our rooms, a neat but useless trick, until we left, and what appeared wasn’t our backyard anymore, but something more precise than just memory.”
“It’s not fair,” I said softly. Ishani had beautiful skin, sparkling clothes, delicious food, exuberant dances, and magic. Real magic learned through generations. I felt envy so sharply and deeply that I gasped, put my hand over my mouth and managed to suppress a sob.
Mrs. Jain dropped the cushion and placed her hand on my shoulder. “I asked your mother to let me look after you so Ishani would have a white friend. I wanted her to fit in. And you were so enthralled by the dancing that I wanted to show her through your enthusiasm how special it was to belong to two places.” She took her palm off my shoulder and stared at her lined hands. “Now Ishani’s making mirror images with her friends. What she projects are my memories, mixed with her own fantasy. It’s their own combination now.”
She rose, smoothing her pants. I followed her to the kitchen, and we continued cooking. After we ate the kadhi, Mrs. Jain drove me home before Ishani returned, before my mum could discover I hadn’t been home all along.
I saw Mrs. Jain again ten years later at Ishani’s wedding. It turned out my boyfriend, Dev, had been childhood friends with Ishani’s fiancé.
I found Mrs. Jain at her table next to the bride and groom. Her hair was grey, her eyes slightly rheumy, her arms and neck fleshy. “Congratulations,” I said. “It’s so nice to see you.”
“It’s been too long.” Her voice was deeper than I remembered.
We both gazed at the empty dance floor.
“Have you kept up with your dancing?”
I laughed. “No, I was never very good. Only in –” I didn’t say it.
Mrs. Jain grabbed my wrist. “I didn’t realize how the mirror might affect you. I always regretted that.”
“It’s all right.” I didn’t know what else to say—that showing me the mirror had been the defining moment of my life?
Tightening her grip, Mrs. Jain said, “I wanted Ishani to see all she had, but not to make you feel like you had less.”
“I do have less.” I shrugged. “That’s ok.”
These past ten years I’d tried to get back the mirror magic I’d lost. In university I found other white people like me, searching for a culture. We majored in Anthropology. I learned Hindi and won a fellowship to do research in India. I travelled all over Gujarat, visited Ravsham several times, but no one would speak to me about the mirrors. When I dared bring it up, they looked at me like I’d gone crazy or was making fun of them.
I was about to submit my PhD thesis and was on track to one day be a professor of Indian religions. I’d dated Indian men exclusively. Still, there was nowhere I could go, no person I could meet, no fact I could learn which uncovered how the mirror had made me feel.
Mrs. Jain watched Dev step onto the dance floor and perform an exaggerated hand jive with one of the flower girls. “What you have, and what you will belong to, this is so much more than what I showed you in that mirror.”
“I keep trying—” I stopped, deciding there was no point in describing the ways I’d tried and failed to find the mirror. I’d accepted that for me, the magic was gone. All the years I’d spent studying India, all my relationships with Indian men—none of it could make up for what I lacked. Because once you’ve touched a world beyond your own, one where you’re beautiful, you can’t let go. “I keep trying to perfect that recipe you showed me, for kadhi. I make it once a week.”
She squeezed my wrist again. “I’m sure it is perfect.”
Then Mrs. Jain joined Dev and the little girl on the dance floor. She did a simple, elegant dance, like she was swaying in a sea. She caught my eye and winked.