Sudha Balagopal | Flash Fiction

We have no electricity. Again. I bathe with cold water in a dark bathroom, wear unironed clothes.

Ma completes her prayers, places the prasad into my mouth for good luck with the GRE exam. Papa sharpens my pencils with a knife, the graphite exposed just enough so the tips won’t break during the test.

“Today, you must go in a taxi.” Papa leaves for the corner stand, returns frantic because he couldn’t locate one. “Damn taxi-wallahs are on strike when my son has a big exam.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll take the bus.” I hug Papa, grab pencils, a handkerchief and some money and dash.

Panic arcs through my body when I see the back of my bus, 21C, turning into the main road. I collapse on the bench.


Faint hope ignites when I see Sona across the street, combing her silky, waist-length hair under a ceiling fan.

Their family owns an inverter that powers their home. A sleek Premier Padmini sits parked under the portico. The neighborhood grapevine informed Ma that Sona, too, is taking the exam today. She attends an elite women’s college in New Delhi. I’m enrolled in the local, government-run institution.

My heart swells, as it does every time I see her, when Sona steps out in a pink salwar kameez topped with a flowery odhni. She opens the car’s door. Her father’s at the wheel.

I fell in love with Sona at sixteen, when she wanted help with mathematics. Their maid arrived with a note requesting my presence. I tucked the note in the pocket next to my heart. Four times I resolved Sona’s trigonometry issues, four times I became submerged in awareness―in her kajal-lined eyes, in the gold loops around her ear lobes, in the off-center bindi decorating her forehead.

Then she moved to New Delhi.

When she came home during college breaks, I hung out with the boys playing cricket on our street, embracing morsels from her: a wave, a nod.

Last week Ma caught me. I was watching Sona from our balcony as she practiced reversing their car. Ma kissed my forehead, told me not to set my sights so high; Sona’s family would never accept me. I didn’t tell her I dream of attending the same US university as Sona. There we’ll become equals, there we’ll be together.

Now I quick-check my finger nails for embedded dirt, straighten my crumpled shirt, and press a hand against my chest to calm rapid beats.

I dart across the road, approach her father.  “Sir, I must go into town for my GRE and I’ve missed the bus.” I bring my palms together. “Please, if you’re heading that way, may I go with you?”

“The GRE?” He takes in the pencils peeking from behind the handkerchief in my shirt’s front pocket. I cling to the faint approval in his nod.

From the back seat, I study the curve of Sona’s neck.


A man wearing soda-bottle-thick glasses sits at the front desk in the exam hall. The words “Invigilator: Mr. Roy” greet me from the blackboard. The “o” in the word and in his name are filled in. I can guess the meaning from the “vigil” inside the word. Sona’s vocabulary is probably better than mine. Her degree’s in English.

The room’s packed. My pulse dances when Sona seats herself in front of me. Her odhni rests on the back of her chair. I could reach out and touch the rose-printed fabric or stretch further to caress the creamy skin above the neckline of her kameez.

Huge fans circulate air around the room, bright with fluorescent lights.

I fill in ovals with my pencil as I did in the practice tests at home. In my college, we wrote until our answer sheaves grew into thick dossiers. 

I’m halfway through a page when the lights go off and the fans stop turning. This abrupt cut, called load-shedding, has marked our 1980’s. I imagine the electricity company dropping the load they cannot carry, as if they’re tired of providing us with power to run our homes, our schools, our businesses. A collective groan rumbles.

“Shh!” Mr. Roy says.

A blanket of heat envelops us. Sona’s neck glistens. The back of her kameez reveals an irregular  patch. She wipes her hands on her sleeves, looks at the clock on the wall.

The hands of the clock tring an alarm through my body. If I do poorly, I’ll never get to the US, never be worthy of Sona. Heart drumming, fingers shaking, I careen through the remainder of the test. Perspiration blotches my pages when we must stop. I blow on the damp sheets before placing them ―upside down, as instructed―in the basket. As I exit, I press-hold the handkerchief to my face.


I shove the now-blunt pencils and moist handkerchief into my pocket, eyes seeking Sona. My legs, stiff from sitting for so long, protest as I lope to fall into step with her.

“Which universities are you applying to?”

I have to know.

She stops at the entrance to the building. Her father pulls in. He gestures, indicating that I, too, should get into the car.

“Universities? Just one. My fiance’s in Texas, so that’s where I’m headed.”

My heart shreds.

She adjusts her crushed odhni over her shoulders, opens the car door, settles in.

I step forward to open the rear-passenger door, then shake my head and draw back. Her father shrugs before he drives away. She doesn’t turn around to wave.

I slow-walk to the nearest stop. My bus, 21C, arrives. I let it go, sit on the bench.

The street lights turn on.