“Those are pretty earrings,’ Ammu said.

“Thanks,” I said. “I swiped them from my mom’s jewellery box.”

“How’s your mom?” Ammu asked. “I don’t see her around tonight.”

“She’s...not feeling well,” I said, making quotation marks in the air.

“Oh,” Ammu said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I said.

“Nothing serious, I hope?” Ammu prodded further.

“The truth? She was too drunk to leave the house,” I said, shrugging. “She drinks all day, these days. She’s anxious, depressed, etc. Nothing new.”

“Poor Asha Aunty. She used to be such fun when I came over to your house as a kid,” Ammu said. “Remember the time we carried all that mud through your living room,” she blew a plume of smoke and laughed, “to make a garden on your balcony.”

“It was a disaster,” I said, recalling that day. “Mud all over the floors and on the curtains.”

“Your mom wasn’t even angry!” Ammu smiled. “She yelled for the gardener to come upstairs, and he helped us make a little thing with bricks in which we could put the mud and some seeds. My mom would’ve had a meltdown.” She held her tongue between her teeth. “I used to think of your house as Neverland. It was a place where we never got into trouble.”

“If you caught her on a good day, she could be amazing,” I conceded, grinning at the memory.

It was true. On the days when Asha’s anger disappeared for a few hours, she transformed into the kind of mother one reads about in stories. She taught me how to play Scrabble, would read to me, we’d go to the fish market and she’d make the pomfrets move their mouths and pretend to sing. She had the most beautiful voice, like a crystal glass struck with a spoon.

But her anger would always return. One mother sang me to sleep, while the other woke me up with her screams. After she’d hit me, her gold bangles clinking to keep time, I’d run crying to a mirror to see if I’d changed, if the beating had registered and I was more like the children Asha loved – the ones in her orphanage.

“Have you ever thought about taking her to a psychiatrist?” Ammu asked. “Or rehab?”

“She won’t get help.” I stared at my feet. My sandals glittered prettily in the dark. “She doesn’t trust anyone. Not even us. Perhaps Dad and I should see a psychiatrist. My mother certainly thinks so. She seems to blame us for everything.”

“Why does she blame you guys?” Ammu frowned. “And what for, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” I said, taking a big sip of my drink. “Once, when I was really young, she and my dad had this massive fight. And it was because I...I pushed her. I mean, I was eight and lost my temper.”

“You’re a good person, Noomi,” Ammu said, putting a hand, cool and dry, on my shoulder. “I know how hard it’s been for your family. Everyone knows. All anyone ever says about your dad is what a good heart he has. How patient he is.”

“Oh, and my mom can’t stop talking about the fact that,” I paused, tilting my glass up to finish my drink, “my dad hasn’t touched her, you know, sexually, in fifteen years.”

Ammu took my hand. “These aren’t your problems. Have you ever thought of moving out?”

“Where would I go?” I said blearily. “And what would I do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“It’s not what I want to do, as much as who I want to be,” I muttered. “Someone who isn’t written off. Like you. Or even like Sheila Sehgal, Lily Mama, Binny. I want to...matter. I want to be,” I rolled my empty glass between my palms, thinking, “the most important person in someone’s life. Anyone’s.”

“You could move somewhere new,” Ammu offered. “A fresh start. No one about to tell you who you are or what you’re worth.” She smiled, plucked the cigarette from my fingers and took a drag. She stood holding the cigarette up and away from her sari, which shimmered like ripples in dark water.

There was a flash at her wrist. I realised she was wearing a bracelet I’d given her many years ago – a gold circlet with lion heads at its two ends. I took back the cigarette, then slipped a nail under the gold band.

“I can’t believe you’ve kept this all these years,” I said. “I thought you hated me.”

“I was an idiot,” Ammu said. “I blamed you for things that weren’t your fault.”

“Why didn’t you reach out?” I slurred. Reesh out. “All these years?”

“I was afraid,” Ammu said, letting go of my hand. “I’m sorry.”

“Afraid? Of what?” I asked, studying the lines notched into her forehead.

“Afraid of looking you in the eye, once I understood what my brother had done to you.”

A Mirror Made of Rain

Excerpted with permission from A Mirror Made of Rain, Naheed Phiroze Patel, HarperCollins India.