Originally wrote this for hp-holidaygen over on Livejournal, ages ago; realised that I'd completely forgotten to post it here.
Also, for the record, I am perfectly aware of the appropriate pronunciation of 'Birmingham', but a surprising number of Indian immigrant-types I know aren't (no offence intended to those who are!), and I thought that this mispronunciation might be an amusing little quirk to introduce. (hah.)
They leave India in the summer of the year that Padma turns six. It's a long, warm, golden summer, the air heating to a strange still shimmer in the afternoon haze. On the last day, her mother holds her very close and smiles like the smile in the photograph on the wall ('1979. In Bombay.' on the back, and even though it's a picture from the very first days of colour photographs in India, printed on cheap paper and faded now to sickly unrealistic hues, the details of it are still there -- her father's hand resting on her mother's shoulder (most of the time, although sometimes he raises it and waves cheerily). The way her mother's pallu catches the wind, sails out and flutters behind her over the sea. That smile.) and her father rushes around like a nervous hurricane, mumbling about suitcases and tickets, and Parvati dances excitedly from room to room. Padma wanders around the garden and looks at the flowers and the dust and the black-beetles and says goodbye to each one as though it is an old friend, which it is.
Birmingham is an unfamiliar place, and its name is strange. Birming-ham, her father pronounces it, awkward and stumbling over the word, and Padma thinks it sounds like burning ham which is funny, because of course burning ham is no good to anyone.
(She has never eaten ham, but there was a little girl who used to live in the next house to them who explained to her, loftily, what it was. She thought, eating a pig is very strange. But the girl was nice, and played wonderful games, and so Padma didn't say anything. Never says anything, not to anyone. Parvati is the talkative one, and that's how everyone tells them apart -- oh, they'll say. Parvati, she's the clever one. And Padma, she's the nice one. What lucky parents Suman and Ashish must be, to have such pretty and nice and clever little girls, and they'll pat Padma on the head and offer her a sweet. Padma doesn't like sweets, and she doesn't like the fact that Parvati is clever and she is only nice.)
Birmingham is dark and cold and it is raining, and she asks her father, is it always raining here? He says no, and he ruffles her hair, but she cannot really bring herself to believe it, because this is the sort of rain that takes away even the idea of the world's ever having been dry, and in the all she can see is her mother's bright sari like a flame. Her mother is sitting very straight, a bit like a candle and a bit like a fighter.
They reach their new house at eleven-thirty, and at first sight it is huge, bigger than their old house in Ahmedabad, and, Padma thinks, there will be rooms and rooms and rooms, and maybe she can have a whole room for herself and spread books out all over the floor. But she's wrong, because inside there are doors and doors, and the whole corridor's peeling and shadow-browned, and when her father takes out a key and opens one she realises that it's like a little house inside a big one. Inside it's grey and damp and dusty and it smells like old dreams.
It is the first time that she has ever seen her mother cry.
-- They're on the beach, and her parents are wandering down at the water's edge, hand in hand; Padma can't quite hear what they're saying, but she can see her father's gestures and her mother's brilliant laugh. Parvati's running ahead of them, occasionally turning back and watching, edgy and slightly impatient and full of movement. Padma is loved but she isn't a part of the scene, and if she entered it all she'd be is someone reading a book on the rocks near the water, occasionally looking up as if to make sure that everything else (the sea, the sand, the laughing people) has retained its moorings.
Hogwarts is magical, which is really quite a ridiculous statement but it's very, very true; there's a sort of wonder to it which she can't quite understand or explain, because everything about it rushes together and collapses into some sort of bright explosion of wonder. All it's supposed to be is a school (school, n. citadel of torture, generally.), but that seems not nearly enough.
She might or might not be completely mad.
Padma is twelve, and she's looking at herself in the mirror, examining every angle of her face, the geometry of it -- all curves/angles/lines in some form or the other, no? -- but she still can't figure it out, can't figure out why, if Parvati has the same face, same eyes-nose-mouth-ears, why Parvati is the pretty one. It all comes down to the same skin, the same bones-under-skin, after all; skin and skin and bones are all that anyone is made of, but there's something -- some trick of light or of expression or some imperceptible difference in the way they move or stand or even smile. She wonders whether if she screws up her face very tightly and shuts her eyes and wishes, she will look like Parvati, but then --
-- it can't work, can it? She already does.
It's almost-Christmas, 1994. Over in the corner, Parvati is all smiles and pink-and-gold and surrounded by a crowd; Padma's listening to a boy from Beauxbatons whose name she can't quite figure out, his accent obscuring most of what he's trying to say; there's lights and colours and music and the whole thing's blurring into something huge and bright with ill-defined edges, and when she looks up at the ceiling it is snowing, which seems strangely fitting.
Padma is sixteen, and there are whispers of wartime (which gradually become louder, not whisper-soft any more but closer to dinnertime discussion, and then they're louder and truer and will probably escalate to wartime-screaming) in the newspaper and on the wireless and in her parents' long after-dinner talks; her father says that there's nothing to worry about, nothing at all, and he smiles – but it's a shaken smile, and it doesn't convince anyone; and there are lines drawn across his forehead as though someone had taken hold of a quill and etched age into his face, and he looks: oh, so very tired. And her mother's a swish of silk pacing back and forth across the kitchen, what should we do? and Padma wants to say some questions don't have answers.
When her parents decide to leave the country, she isn't entirely surprised, but that fact doesn't stop her from thinking this is the way the world ends.
(Though not, of course, with a bang; with an argument and a broken plate and four tickets towards comparative peace; and she can't really explain why she feels this way, because all she knows is that she does.)