If they came right out and asked, Anurag, are you a witch, he would have said, why, how perspicacious of you to be asking, yes I am and my speciality is credit card fraud. Instead they sold the old Hoover – which, okay, was not in the best of condition after being smashed against various parts of the Cambridge built environment a few times – without considering the implications for anyone's burgeoning new identity. This is why Anurag Naranyanan is in the emergency room at three o'clock in the morning with a bag of frozen tater tots on his face.
The new Roomba, incidentally, is part of the recent family acknowledgement that We Do Not Celebrate Christmas, We Now Present Artefacts of Corporate Consumerism To One Another On Diwali Like Normal People. The Roomba is great. You can just switch it on and leave it. It gets in all the corners. The attending physician says Anurag is lucky he didn't die.
"Dude," Sparrow says, "you gotta tell them sometime."
Which is fine for her to say – she rides a ShopVac her mom rode before her, it's not like she had anything to break to her family – but Anurag smiles distractedly and says, "Sure, I will."
Sparrow gives him a sceptical look, but she goes with him to collect the prescriptions and afterwards takes him home, so he can't argue.
It's not a shameful thing, to be a witch. Just unusual. Like an Indian kid doing rap battles or bonspiels. It might happen. It just… doesn't.
"Isn’t that a white people thing?" Nidhi said when Anurag told her, which made his heart sink. “What do you mean, credit card fraud?”
Anurag found that reassuring, weirdly; at least she was engaging with the specifics. "I'm pretty good at alphanumeric codes," he explained. "So, like, if you forget your password, I can probably crack it? If you give me enough time and, ah, some ritual stuff. Stuff to burn. It's for reversing credit fraud. Though I'd pretty sure I’d be good at actually doing it. I mean. If I tried.”
"So, you don't, like… fly?" Nidhi said, wistfully. Which – okay, that was reassuring. She was thinking about what she'd do, if she were a witch. Empathy was good. It was on the way to acceptance. “I’ve seen witches fly by my window sometimes. You don’t wanna try and do that?”
Anurag had never thought of trying it. But he screwed up his courage and went to the campus witches’ meet-and-greet, which is where he met Sparrow, and the rest is history.
(Bloody, frozen-tater-tot history. Nevertheless.)
The morning after the Roomba incident is a Saturday. Anurag sleeps in, wakes up feeling better and goes down to breakfast without looking into a mirror first, which turns out to be a mistake.
“Beta, your face!” his mother says as he comes in, which, okay, he should have seen coming. But it started snowing early this morning, and the combination of the white-cloaked ground and Anurag’s painkillers makes the night before seem like a dream.
“Arré, such a shit batsman, bhai,” Nidhi says, turning away from the sink. Nidhi and Anurag aren’t identical twins, of course, but they do have that twin telepathy thing. Through the opiate fog in his brain Anurag is very grateful.
“Ah, yeah,” he says. “Yes. I was hit, by, a. A cricket ball. Which I should have, uh. Hit.”
Their mother gives Nidhi a look. “Be kinder, Nidhi.”
“He is shit, na,” Nidhi says, and changes the subject with ease, so by the time they’re finishing off their breakfast the twins’ mother is on one of her well-worn grooves about how you could take a little more care, Nidhi, just a little nail polish, a little threading, your so-shaggy eyebrows, chhee, chhee.
Nidhi endures it with an expression that suggests Anurag owes her his firstborn, and as soon as she can, she hustles him out into the snow-covered backyard so they can talk in private. “What happened to you?” she demands. “Why’d you get in so late? Are you and Sparrow doing it? Ooh, is it a weird sex thing?”
“It’s not a weird sex thing!” Anurag says, too loudly. He stuffs his fist in his mouth for a second. “I just – I couldn’t. Uh. Dad put the Hoover in the garbage. And, you know. The Roomba.”
Nidhi looks at him in utter horror. “Oh, my God, you didn’t.”
“Sparrow drove me to the emergency room. I’m fine. I’m fine!”
“Oh, sure, that’s why you look like a domestic violence PSA,” Nidhi says. “Hey. Did you say you and Sparrow aren’t doing it?”
“No,” Anurag says. “No, we’re friends, she’s helping me with the witch stuff.”
“Fine. Witch stuff, whatever. Just fucking go to Target and buy a new Hoover.”
“I can’t!” Anurag says, panicking. “I can’t – I’d have to smuggle it in, I’d have hide it in my room, they’d find out, they’d know—“
“They’re going to know anyway, bhaiya,” Nidhi says, kisses his forehead and leaves him out there in the snow.
But here’s the thing: Anurag loves being a witch. He loves technomagic and algorithmic enchantment and the clean, meditative feel of ritual. The family spend half the year in Cambridge and the other half in Delhi, and last time they were home in Chittaranjan Park, Anurag went out on a broom just to see what it was like. Sparrow has taught him a lot, but he knows that soon he’s going to have strike out on his own, find out what kind of witch he’s going to be, and it felt right to do that at home. So he waited for an evening when his parents and Nidhi had gone to some wedding function, launched himself out of his window and into the night sky.
For a few seconds he was wobbling, terrified. Then he took a breath of air sharp as bone shards and then it all came together: the scent of the dust; the passage of night birds; the sparkle of low-flying aircraft. The colony teams were playing cricket on the maidaan below, with the spotlights angled on the wicket so no one would see Anurag even if they looked up. He hung in the air a hundred feet above the field, counting overs, and felt good, and safe, and present in his body.
So he doesn’t want to be like, hey Mom, Dad, I’ve got something really important to tell you and have them say in response, Anurag, beta, last time you said you wanted to be a performance artist. They weren’t wrong last time – Anurag did not drop out of MIT for a career in confrontational spoken-word – but if they don’t understand this, that at some point he stopped being some random out-of-place Indian kid and turned into Anurag Naranyanan, Indian witch, loved and gifted and finally content in himself, he thinks his heart will break.
That’s why he hasn’t told them.
And despite Nidhi and Sparrow’s dire prognosticating, it turns out he doesn’t have to. Because the second time on the Roomba is much better than the first. He enchants it to float outside Sparrow’s fifth-floor window while she hovers on the ShopVac and tells him he’s being an idiot, and when that has no effect on him she gets the whole coven to join in, including Ariel who rides a Dyson and who Anurag has a vague crush on, but that doesn’t work either. Anurag is stubborn.
Anurag is stubborn as hell, and it goes fine. It goes better than fine. He steps on and wobbles for a minute, but he stays upright. He keeps on wobbling as they start off in a coven-murmuration down the street, but he feels safe with Sparrow and the rest of the coven around. He figures people learning surf or snowboard have to start from scratch, too, and this is basically the same thing. Sparrow grumbles but even she’s trying not to smile as Anurag slowly figures it out. By the end of the night he’s feeling confident enough to talk and fly at the same time, the Roomba holding him steady through the lovely snow-crisp air. It doesn’t have the dust scent it had over the maidaan, but it’s wonderful in a different way. By dawn, he’s safe home in bed at his parents’ place, tired out and so happy he can’t breathe.
The third time, he doesn’t even wobble. He tells Nidhi all about it in the morning while she’s re-lacing her Docs, and he can tell she’s trying to be disapproving but the smile still sneaks out the corners of her mouth. It’s cute.
The fourth time, he falls.
People are yelling, and then they stop. Something sparkles in Anurag’s nose and mouth: hospital technowitchery. This was a much worse fall than the first.
Someone is crying, saying, why, would he do this. His father’s voice, shouting, “Who the hell are you?”
Someone else crying. Anurag thinks it’s Sparrow. A brisk voice saying, “If you can’t all control yourselves, I’m going to have to ask you to step outside. Yes, sir, we appreciate you’re his parents. Out.”
After that the shouting mostly stops. When Anurag wakes up properly, it’s dim and quiet. He’s still aware of the magic in the air around him, finding it a comfort that it’s his own craft that’s sustaining him right now. He can remember the moment of falling. He understands he’s very lucky to be alive.
“Hey, bhai,” a voice says, and Anurag turns his head. Nidhi is sitting beside him, looking tired but happy. “Welcome back. You remember I told you you’re a fucking idiot?”
Anurag nods. She didn’t, not in so many words, but she is not wrong.
“Yeah, exactly,” Nidhi says, kissing the top of his head. “I’m gonna fix it for you, though. All of you, get in here.”
Anurag’s parents shuffle in, followed by Sparrow, whose eyes are red and puffy. Anurag is surprised to see her there, then wonders why he’s surprised. It was her window he fell out of after all.
“Okay, listen up,” Nidhi says. “Mom, Dad, Anurag is a witch. He didn’t try to kill himself, he was trying to fly on a Roomba because you got rid of the old Hoover and he’s a fucking moron. That’s Sparrow, she probably saved his life so stop yelling at her. Oh, and she’s not Anurag’s girlfriend, she’s mine.”
Anurag passes out again.
In the end, it’s okay: partly because Anurag is just naturally lucky and partly because Sparrow has roller derby reflexes and slowed his fall. While magnificently concussed with a couple of cracked ribs, Anurag has sustained no permanent damage. Nidhi wasn’t planning to come out so soon, but it did prove distracting at the right moment, and this is just how much she loves her brother. And as it turns out, Anurag’s chhoti dadi from Calcutta, the one who died before he was born, was also a witch.
“You could have told us,” his father pronounces, while his mother considers the amendments to her years-in-the-making spreadsheet for Nidhi’s hypothetical wedding.
“Two lehnga cholis, with the gold edging, so pretty,” she says, wiping her eyes. “The brides could have complementary colours! And the jewellery in matched sets! But Nidhi, na, she never listens.”
Sparrow is actually more femme than Nidhi, Anurag observes through the lesbian desi technowitch chaos which now constitutes his life on earth, and the only flaw in the plan is that – as far as he can see – Sparrow is not, in fact, his sister’s girlfriend.
“I was gonna ask her out!” Nidhi says. “I just got carried away. And she’s so – you know. Pretty. But she’s your friend, and she’s a witch, and she’s so cool—“
“Ask her, please, before I go insane,” Anurag suggests, and he doesn’t hear anything about that for a day or two but Sparrow is soft-eyed and happy when she comes to see him next. He gets her some coffee and they go sit on the porch, wrapped up against the cold. The light is reflecting strangely because of the snow, which transforms the look of the ordinary things around them. It reminds Anurag of his own magic, and how it’s changed him.
“Dude, serious question,” Sparrow says, when they’re done talking about Nidhi and Anurag can avoid any further consideration of his sister’s sex life. “Are you going to fly again?”
“I’m gonna stick to password cracking,” Anurag says. His head hurts, partly from the concussion and partly because his mother made him spend all day yesterday unlocking the Ravelry account she lost access to in 2016, cracking open the trunks in the attic with combinations they forgot in the eighties, and persuading his dad’s broken radio to broadcast the Boxing Day Test. He also got the laundry to sort itself and the refrigerator to self-alphabetise (accidentally). Anurag figures this is just his life now.
“If you’re sure,” Sparrow says.
“I’m sure,” Anurag says, but later, when Sparrow and Nidhi have gone out, his mom comes down from the attic with a long broom, tied at the top with twine. It’s like the one they had at home. The sharp tips help you get in all the corners.
“When we came to this country, I thought it was backward,” his mother says. “I thought they wouldn’t have household goods.”
He really is an idiot, Anurag decides, wondering why he never thought of it. He gives his mother a hug.
In the spring, the family return to Delhi and the house in Chittaranjan Park. Anurag and Nidhi join their parents when the semester ends, and for the first time, Anurag steps aside for the TSA so his magic won’t interfere with the scanners. It’s intrusive but in its way, affirming: he’s publicly a witch in front of the huge line of cranky American desis. Sparrow couldn’t join them this time because of her roller derby commitments, but Anurag thinks it’s a good sign that their parents suggested it. It’s reaching twilight when they arrive, the sunset thick with brazier smoke and the mandir bells ringing out.
“Take me with you next time, bhai,” Nidhi says, tagging along with Anurag as he heads up to the roof. “I’ll ride on the back. It will be fine.”
It will not be fine, Anurag is sure. It is absolutely another thing that she and Sparrow will talk him into and which will then go horribly, ludicrously wrong. He pulls Nidhi’s hair, picks up his broom and leaps into the sky.