ON BEAUTY • by Madhumitha Koduvalli

The first winter, she was ten. The world was made white. She watched the glass fog up around her face, and her nose grew numb. She closed her eyes and heard her grandmother’s voice from far away, from the summer, saying: “America is an amazing place. It has beautiful cars and beautiful houses, and you will have those things too.” Her grandmother spoke in the hot monsoon cocoon of memory, sitting on the veranda, the space around her face a hazy assortment of green: coconut palms and wild grass, sharp with the scent of peppercorn vines. The girl opened her eyes to the stark whiteness and the naked trees, turned to the bare room with its blankets sprawled on the gray-carpeted floor, and saw only ugly things.

The third winter, she was twelve. She had decorated their first ever Christmas tree with a ribbon of popcorn, careful not to bend the plastic branches. And now it was New Year’s Day, with snow falling fresh outside the window and her brother already making tracks through it as he made hasty snowballs and laughed with the red-faced neighbors. Her mother sat on the couch, feet tucked under her, sipping tea. Her father sat at his desk in the corner, working, forever working, but still managing a smile every once in a while as she practiced her speech for debate on repeat. She paused, her mouth dry and throat weary, and her mother told her it sounded good, that she didn’t sound like she had an accent anymore, but the teacher would know better. She was proud because she was slowly shedding the ugly things.

The fifth winter, she was fourteen. Her mother had spent weeks making her the perfect dress for her first ever winter formal, and now she wore it as she leaned against the wall of the middle school gym. Paper snowflake chains hung from the ceiling, and glittering lights frosted the floor. Her friends, both with milk and roses skin and eyes that varied between the colors of the ocean and the sky, had worn spaghetti straps without cardigans, and now they had abandoned her and her long velvet sleeves to grind on the dance floor. She went to the bathroom and in the long mirror she saw too-dark eyes and too-brown skin and too-hairy legs. She cried because she was the ugliest thing.

The seventh winter, she was sixteen and she had to spend her whole winter break in India. Her grandmother tried to scoop her up like before, but she was too big now. When she buried her face in her grandmother’s sari blouse, the smell of it was different. “Say something,” her cousins would say, and when she said “something,” in her most sarcastic tone, they only laughed at her strange American accent, her angry American way. They’d say, “Sorry, memsahib,” and she’d walk away. She wanted to go home, but she didn’t know where it was anymore. Her mother told her to stop being so melodramatic, and she cried because maybe the ugly things were inside her.

The ninth winter, she was eighteen. There was a new Indian girl in school: Fatima, with brown skin and dark eyes and a hijab. On a day that dawned cold and gray, the old snow turned to smoky slush on the sides of the roads, someone spray painted “GO HOME, TERRORIST” on Fatima’s locker. She found Fatima in the bathroom, shaking. There was nothing she could say, except her grandmother’s words from a lifetime ago: “America is an amazing place. It has beautiful cars and beautiful houses, and you will have those things too.” Fatima shook her head, and said, “That is a lie.”

“But we will make it true,” she said, and together they tried to love the ugly things, for themselves and for tomorrows in their country, tinged brown with snowmelt-soaked earth and growing, verging on beauty.


Madhumitha Koduvalli hails from Maryland (and formerly from Iowa, Illinois, and Kerala, India).


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