Roopa Swaminathan | April 2023

It first happened when I was 6. I lost my best friend, my Barbie, Lovely, somewhere on the nature trail behind our home, and I cried and cried as my heart was broken while he went out late into the dark night and searched for two hours and found Lovely looking at him with her left eye raised askance as if to ask – How could you forget me? – and brought her to me. I jumped out of my bed and hugged him laughing with my teary eyes. He flinched for that one micro-second but then the shock subsided gently. He didn’t hug me back but that day he promised me that he would always be there for me, no matter what. “Pinkie swear?” I blurted. And he solemnly held my pinkie and nodded.

At 11, he held my pinkie finger tight as we stood right outside the entrance of the hotel in Kumbakonam where we had planned to stay for one night even as the unseemly and unexpected rains lashed the small town we were in for a cousin’s poonal (a Tamilian Hindu thread ceremony for boys to welcome them into adulthood). There was no entryway to the hotel. It was on a street with no pavement where we waited outside the garish red door with swiggly letters in the Tamil alphabet as they readied our room.

He held my pinkie tight even as I jumped up and down the puddles of water and splashed the dirty water all around me and on me and him and him smilingly telling me to ‘cut it out’ because ‘your clothes will get mucky and stain your new white blouse and brand-new jeans.’ I pretended I didn’t hear him. When the cycles, autorickshaws, taxis, buses, and cars zoomed past us and splashed the same mucky water on us I gestured my left hand wildly at them and screamed about their ‘rude behavior’ and turned to him angrily and demanded to know “Why people have no manners?” And continued to jump up and down and make the ‘whoosh whoosh’ sounds of the splashing water.

He held my pinkie tight when a few months later we were walking down a busy street on yet another rainy day and we had no umbrellas or raincoats, and hugged me tight as if that would protect me from the incessant pouring of water even as the catcalls and eve-teasing of the men on bikes and cars continued. And for those gents, it did not matter if the ‘eve’ in question was a shivering almost 12-year-old lithe, almost boyish-looking almost-teen, clutching her father’s pinkie with both hands and trying hard to cover her fully soaked and now transparent silk blouse with embroidered roses over her flat iron board chest or the ‘eve’ was a 66-year-old woman inveigling her way past the traffic and puddles, trudging every step with the aid of her walking stick even as the wet weather had caused her rheumatoid arthritis to flare up. The catcalls continued. They whistled and hooted and hollered at me and the old woman even as he continued to hug me tight, crossed the road quickly, and helped the old lady reach her apartment building that was down the next block.

He continued to hold my pinkie tight literally for many years. He protected me. From the world, the eve-teasers, the rains, the filth, and during those moments he was a bigger hero than Ironman, Thor, and Batman combined.

They protected the world.

He protected me.

And I would always tell him wistfully, “I wish mamma wasn’t at work. I wish she was with us. She would know what to do!” And he would gently nod.

He held my pinkie metaphorically when I turned 29 and told the slimy real estate agent that I was the buyer of the house at Loni Kalbhor (a far-away suburb of Pune) and not my father and that I had saved every penny of the Rs. 22 Lakhs to buy the one-BHK apartment in the newly built housing society.

I saved the pennies from babysitting toddlers in my extended family who clapped their hands with satanic glee as they threw their mother’s hard-pumped breast milk and mashy carrots and a gooey green paste (that deserved to be tossed just not at me) and their poo-filled diapers at me. I saved every penny taking care of six-year-olds who ran me ragged wanting to play catch as they ran up and down spiral stairs that at once took my breath away from awe at the splendor of their home and then left me breathless after running after them without them losing a beat.

I saved money by giving tuition for Maths and Physics to teens who sidled up to me, told me how ‘hard they wanted to DO ME’, and then ran away and slammed their door shut (and probably jerked off) when I turned tables on them and gently ran my left index finger over their callow face and blew a whiff of air at them. I saved every penny when I worked as a hostess in an upmarket nightclub while going to college full-time and lived with 5 roommates – one of whom never flushed the toilet after he took a dump because ‘once is enough’ when it so, so, so wasn’t and I took to flushing the toilet twice as soon as I entered the shared loo just to be on the safe side.

I saved every penny when I became an adjunct professor because my Ph.D. was no longer enough to get a tenure-track job since every one of those was taken by a 50-year-old who had no plans to retire or resign anytime soon. I lived amid fart sounds and bass sounds and smells of poo and weed and kimchi and clogged toilets with 20 different roommates over 11 years so that I could find peace and quiet and a place of my own. And eventually, yearn for the sounds that made me sleep better.

He didn’t save me from the patronizing agent. He looked at me with a combination of love and pride and let me decide for myself. I dumped the sorry-ass realtor halfway through his condescending spiel and found a wonderful lady realtor whose flat cost me one lakh more. I worried that he would be upset that I paid more money than I wanted to or could afford. He gently squeezed my pinkie and said, “You got a house and respect.”

He held my pinkie tight when I was 30 and we both looked in awe at my still stylish mamma who wore her self-bedazzled blue jeans and white shirt and brown wedges with painted pink toes that peeped out and said hi to the world. My mamma whose laughter I would always remember when I wasn’t with her. From the gentle and coquettish giggles to the laugh-out-loud sounds filled with mischief. I remember her hugs, her kisses, her running her fingers through my hair, and holding out her arms as I returned from school and picking me up with gusto, and asking me about my day.

My mamma – who never asked me when I planned to get married and would patiently apply moisturizer on my back when I was in-between boyfriends, brush my hair, and chide me gently for not taking care of my God-given gift of strong, lengthy, and thick hair and listened with a smile as I complained for the millionth time that “Mamma! You never let me cut my hair. I wanted a stylish bob like you do!” I’d remember her when I’d flick my waist-length hair in a crowded London metro and watch as men, women, and children looked at my long silky auburn hair with awe and envy.

He and I looked in awe as mamma would start cooking three days before the holidays began and made every favorite dish of mine – avial, paal payasam, paal poli, puran poli, vegetarian lasagne with peppers and mushroom – year after year. And then stare at her chagrined as she would ask me to make myself something that Saturday evening because “You’re not a kid, now, love. You can take care of yourself” and walk out at 7 pm briskly to go to her book club meeting for wine and charcuterie with her friends because as much as she loved me and yearned for me, she also loved her friends and needed them and would never ever break their monthly book club dates.

My mamma – whose one smile, whose one look, whose one gentle squeeze was the espresso shot that I needed to function like a well-oiled machine on auto-pilot. My mamma whose simple glare when I’d argue with our extended family about the ‘right to choose’ and ‘there is a big difference between atheism and agnosticism’– my mamma’s glare was enough to bring my wildly gesticulating and incoherent but cogent arguments to a halt. I might’ve been a house-owning adult but for my mamma – I was her child – and when she raised her eyebrows at me, I’d quietly zip it. My mamma seamlessly navigated the space from being a mom to a best friend even though she never wanted to be my friend. “I’m your parent,” she’d say firmly.

He held my pinkie tight when I came home that summer when I turned 32 and she was diagnosed with a little tiny lump in her left breast the day after my birthday in July. He held my pinkie tighter when she was gone by the end of that year.

We spent a few years in complete silence amid the grit and grime and noise of a world that did not have the decency to stop and mourn my mamma’s loss with me. While I traveled between screaming in anger and feeling abandoned, he stayed still in his solitude. He often looked as if he got struck by a truck – mostly wondering how he got so lucky that mamma said yes to him back then to now understanding that, of course, his good luck with her wouldn’t last. As we took seven steps back to each step forward, I lived with his actual and metaphorical hand on my head and arms around my shoulder. He was always ready to pounce and carry me on his back if I needed to when the grief almost ended me. But, mostly, he just lurked around me.

He continued to hold me. When he walked me down the aisle at 35 and ‘gave me’ to my husband but did not make any silly and macho speeches about how he would ‘kill him if he ever treated his daughter badly’ but just stared at him long and hard and then gave him a quick nod. And I cried. Even though I felt her in every little nook and cranny of my body – every moment I ached to see her, feel her, touch her, and get irritated with her.

He held my pinkie tight when my twins were born a year later and my body looked and felt like it had been through a meat grinder and said, “I’m so sorry for how much you had to suffer so I could be this happy today” and I cried on his shoulder that I wished mamma had been around to see her grandbabies.

As the years went on he held my pinkie – not so tightly now – as he experienced grandfatherhood and was loud and rambunctious with my children in ways that he never was with me. He started to hold the twins’ pinkies as he walked them to their school bus in the mornings and had long and deep conversations with the 7-year-olds that were a secret between them. He held their pinkies as he encouraged them to make a beat-up oval-shaped Planet Earth in rainbow colors for their science class project, as they got ready for their soccer playoff games, and as they made their pitch to him about whether they should be Harry Potter for Halloween or Harry Potter’s wand.

He tried hard to hold my pinkie when he had his first heart attack. I rode with him in the ambulance and he continued to silent-speak with his eyes that ‘all will be well’ as he saw the panicked look on my face. Within the next week, he’d had two more attacks and looked ready to leave his beaten and tired old body behind and join his beloved if an afterlife existed. He could no longer move his hands but he saw the fear in my eyes…the fear of becoming a member of the “Adult Orphans Club’ and tried hard to console me with a faint smile on his face as if to say “It’ll all be OK.” He smiled as the twins – now 10 – seemingly understood the momentous event about to befall upon the family and somehow gathered the magnitude of the situation with their grampy and quickly climbed up on either side of his bed, patted his head gently and then reached out to me and held a pinkie each and said, “Don’t worry mamma, we are here.”

As a single lonesome tear fell from his right eye, I saw remorse and an apology in his tired eyes as he enunciated each word slowly, “Sorry. Your Mamma. Not. Here.”

In the background, the twins said their goodbyes to their beloved grampy with the promise “We’ll come back after school tomorrow, grampy!” and in the fore, I took his right hand and felt the weight of life and his old age and said, “It’s OK daddy. I’m fine now. Go be with mamma.” He said, “Pinkie swear?” I squeezed his pinkie tight and nodded and let him go.


Roopa Swaminathan writes essays, opinions, humor, and fiction. Her fiction, satire, and creative non-fiction essays are published on Outlook, Sybil, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Kitaab, The Federal, Free Flash Fiction, The Lark, Eksentrika, Women’s Web, and more. She now has a monthly opinion column on Elephant Journal. Her humor is published in The Belladonna Comedy, Slackjaw, Frazzled, Greener Pastures Magazine, The Haven, and more.

Check out her writings at


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