As the only Indian American kid in her small town, Lekha Divekar feels like she has two versions of herself: Home Lekha, who loves watching Bollywood movies and eating Indian food, and School Lekha, who pins her hair over her bindi birthmark and avoids confrontation at all costs, especially when someone teases her for being Indian.
When a girl Lekha’s age moves in across the street, Lekha is excited to hear that her name is Avantika and she’s Desi, too! Finally, there will be someone else around who gets it. But as soon as Avantika speaks, Lekha realizes she has an accent. She’s new to this country, and not at all like Lekha.
To Lekha’s surprise, Avantika does not feel the same way as Lekha about having two separate lives or about the bullying at school. Avantika doesn’t take the bullying quietly. And she proudly displays her culture no matter where she is: at home or at school.
When a racist incident rocks Lekha’s community, Lekha realizes she must make a choice: continue to remain silent or find her voice before it’s too late.
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Chapter One chapter ONE
It’s funny how something as small as a dot could matter so much.
But it did.
Most Desi kids I knew had been asked about it at some point in their lives. “Do you have a dot?” “Where’s your dot?” “Why do you guys have dots on your forehead?” It was kind of annoying.
But I didn’t know any Desi kids who had to walk around with a bindi on their forehead at all times. I had to, though. For eleven years and counting. That’s because mine was a birthmark. A bindi-size, dark-brown freckle that I couldn’t take off. And that was really annoying.
But despite how much I wanted to forget my permanent bindi at school, I loved looking at the real bindis I had at home. And on this Friday night, I was staring at the mother lode. Ignoring the cobwebs draped around my dimly lit basement, I sifted through white packets full of bindis of every color and size. There were neon circles; jewel-tone diamonds; pastel, snakelike swirls; and metallic, oblong spears.
While I loved staring at the glimmering bindis, they weren’t what I was looking for. I broke free of their hypnotic spell and peered into the box full of knickknacks from India. There were glittery bangles, shimmering decorative cloth with hundreds of tiny mirrors sewn into the embroidered cotton, and sparkling gold and red coasters. We clearly liked shiny things. It was the Desi way.
I paused at my permanent bindi’s reflection in the mirrors of a soft blue pillowcase. I quickly adjusted the long diagonal sweep of thick black curls I kept pinned over the birthmark, and then I spotted what I had been searching for. Four dandiya. And, yes, they were sparkly too.
I grabbed the wooden sticks that had been wrapped in green and orange fabric with ribbons of gold spinning around them and shut the box. It was just in time, as thundering footsteps made their way down the stairs, getting louder and louder. You’d think it was a giant coming in search of whoever’s beanstalk had invaded his yard. But it was just my next-door neighbor Noah. He was as scrawny as me, but somehow his footsteps made him seem stronger.
I had shown Noah a video from my cousin’s wedding during our last trip to India almost three years ago. Our side is Marathi, and the bride’s side is Gujarati. All five hundred guests did raas together, the Gujarati folk dance with sticks that seems more like a fun game than a dance. Despite my great-uncle’s grumbling about the noise, we had a blast, jumping, twirling, and hitting sticks to the beat of the catchy music.
Apparently, it showed, because as soon as Noah saw that video, he asked me to teach him. And since then, every year around Navratri, the Hindu holiday celebrated with nine nights of raas at the Hindu temples in Detroit, Noah would play raas here.
We lived an hour away from Metro Detroit, and were the only Indian family in town, so it was nice to be able to have someone to play raas with, even if that someone had a hard time pronouncing the word and we were doing it a couple of weeks late.
“Just in time,” I said, turning with the dandiya.
Noah was wearing a lumpy, crocheted gray fish hat with uneven, oddly shaped eyes that bugged out.
I laughed so hard, I almost dropped the dandiya. “What is that?”
Noah shrugged, grinning. “My dad’s latest creation.”
“A whale?” I guessed, looking at the wide face of the frumpy, half-collapsed hat.
“A whale? Uncool, Lekha,” said Noah, pretending to be offended. “It’s a shark. And a dolphin. A sharkphin, actually. It’s a dolphin for tomorrow morning, to wish you luck at tryouts.”
“Thanks,” I said, nervous butterflies fluttering. I tried to remain calm about the swim team tryouts where I might finally become a full-fledged member of the Dolphins.
“Except I’m not going to wear it there ... cuz, you know ... it looks like this. And I don’t want to embarrass you on your big day. But tomorrow night, on Halloween, I will be wearing it. Because on Halloween, it’s going to be the shark to your Michael Phelps.”
This time I did drop the dandiya. They rolled on the thin brown Berber carpet. “Really?”
Every year we flipped a coin to see who got to pick the costumes. For the past two Halloweens, ever since he wanted to be a reporter, Noah had won, and we went as some random newspaper reference I didn’t get (but the grown-ups who answered the doors strangely found adorable). I was bummed when Noah won again this year. I’d wanted to go as Michael Phelps and a shark ever since Dad showed me an old online video of the Olympic swimmer racing a computer-animated shark. “We’re really not going as those reporters?”
“No Woodward and Bernstein. I realized it wasn’t really fair for me to pick our costumes three Halloweens in a row. So here I am, the shark from your little video, even though no one is going to get it. I swear, your costume ideas are even more out-there than mine.”
I shrugged, grateful I wouldn’t be in Dad’s old suit tomorrow. “Whale, I guess they are.”
“No. We’re not doing this,” said Noah, picking up his pair of dandiya.
“Oh, I sea,” I said, grabbing my sticks. After we learned about puns in fourth grade, I started to make them every now and then to annoy Noah, who thought newspaper articles were art and puns were the pits. “You don’t want me to make puns on porpoise.”
“You’re shrimpossible,” Noah replied, trying not to smile.
“That’s a good one.” I beamed. “I need to remember that for next time.”
“Just play the music, please.” Noah handed me his cell phone. My parents didn’t let me have one because Dad thought I was too young and Aai thought it was too much radiation. Noah threw one of his dandiya in the air and caught it. “I could do a piece on raas for the Gazette,” he said, his “raas” sounding more like “Ross.”
The thought of everyone at school reading about this made my palms sweaty. “Trust me. No one is interested in an Indian dance.” I wished Noah would drop it. That he would understand, without me having to explain, that I didn’t need another reason for people to ask me more dot-related questions. Sometimes Noah just didn’t get that highlighting how different my culture was from everyone else’s at school just made everyone think I was, well, different. I scrolled down Noah’s browser and got a garba-raas playlist up. “Ready?” I asked, twirling one of my dandiya like a baton as the music started to speed up.
Noah nodded, and I began to count.
“One.” We each hit our own dandiya together, down by our knees.
“Two.” We tilted our pair of sticks to the right, clinking the other’s pair to form an X.
“Three.” We tilted to the left and made another X.
“Four.” We tapped our own dandiya together, back down by our knees.
“Five.” We took the dandiya in our right hands, hit them to each other’s, and spun around until we faced each other again.
And then it was time to do it again, and again, and again, until I no longer had to count. We were just jumping and turning and almost accidentally smacking each other’s fingers while cracking up. As the music grew louder, I spun fast, and my frizzy curls decided to spin too.
I stopped to slide them back over my birthmark and bobby pin them in place.
Noah, midturn, ready to hit my sticks, stopped just before he accidentally hit me instead. “Lekha!”
“What?” I asked, even though I knew what was coming next.
“You know it’s fine, right? That no one cares?” he added, pointing to my forehead.
“Let’s get some water,” I said, changing the subject.
Noah followed me up the stairs, his footsteps booming as we passed the canvas prints of pictures my dad had taken in India. It was easy for Noah to say no one cared. But it was also untrue. Lots of people cared. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten made fun of for my bindi birthmark when I first started elementary school in Oakridge.
“You always do that,” said Noah as I reached around an array of spiky aloe plants in the kitchen to get to the water pitcher and pour him a glass.
“Change the subject when you don’t want to talk about things. It’s really obvious.”
I gulped my water down. Before I could think of another topic to discuss, to throw this nosy reporter off the scent, a loud honking interrupted.
Noah and I looked at each other. “New neighbors?” we both said at the same time.
The dentist across the street from us had moved away from the Michigan winters, retiring on her cavity money to Florida, making all the other old, cold people on our street jealous. We ran down the hall, skidding on the oak floor, threw on our shoes, and raced out the door. We stopped at the porch, under a swinging plastic ghost, but there was no car in the dentist’s former driveway.
All we saw were my parents, raking leaves and trimming plants for winter. Dad smiled at us, his mustache scrunching up on his face. Aai gave a small wave and tossed her silky black hair back out of her eyes. I was watching her hack at the dead sticks on the rose mallow with shears when another honk startled me. It was coming from a car to our right, in Mr. Giordano’s driveway.
Mr. Giordano was bent over a sign in his yard, struggling to get its metal feet into the hardening soil. Satisfied, he got into the car, and the driver pulled out of the driveway.
I could finally see the sign, but it wasn’t too exciting. It just said WINTERS FOR CONGRESS.
“Ugh,” said Noah. “Can you believe that?”
“He’s voting for Winters. My dad says she hates anyone who looks different from her.”
My smile disappeared slightly as I felt my heavy black bun with my brown fingers. I knew I didn’t look like Abigail Winters, with her blue eyes, light-brown hair, and skin the color of peeled almonds. I turned away from the sign, glancing at Noah, who was frowning and shaking his head. I could tell he was getting worked up and needed calming down. “Could you be more Pacific?” I asked.
“Yeah. For starters, I read in the paper that she—wait. Was that another pun?”
I grabbed Noah’s sharkphin hat. “You otter run if you ever wanna see this again!” I raced to our backyard, my laughter echoing down the street as Noah chased after me, grinning, leaving Abigail Winters far behind.
Maybe Noah was right. Maybe I did change the subject a lot. But it was just a silly little yard sign, and he was getting so upset over it. Something that small couldn’t really matter that much. Could it?