Contest Winner Spotlight: “Baby Arjun”

“Be there in half an hour.” Pari read the message from Rachel several times. After graduating from their Master of Arts program, they had unintentionally followed each other to Colorado, where their husbands bonded over home renovations and artisan coffee, making it possible to stay friends over the years. Now Rachel wanted to meet Pari’s newborn son, Arjun. Thirty minutes was enough time to clean the kitchen, change out of her sweats, brush her hair, and apply a pinch of makeup—but it wasn’t enough time to find herself a baby.

Opening her Instagram again, she checked the likes on her last post: the dark green crochet blanket she’d lain out so carefully, splayed along the edges of the crib, the sides spread thin to allow the afternoon’s last rays of sunshine to seep through the tiny holes. “Made this to keep my sweet Arjun cozy” she had written as a caption along with the hashtags “#homemade” and “#proud momma.” 

“Beautiful!” wrote a woman she’d played soccer with in an adult league last year.

“Amazing! How did you find the time?” wrote an acquaintance with two kids of her own.

And now, four months since they’d played baby trivia and snacked on cupcakes at Pari’s baby shower, Rachel’s comment posted: “I’m in the neighborhood and want to meet Arjun! I’ll text you.” Minutes later, as promised, a follow-up text read: “Be there in half an hour. I’m not taking no for an answer!”

For so long, Pari had dreamt of this very moment. When she had met her friends’ babies, she’d lingered over their tiny fingers and toes, wondering when it would be her turn. After huddling in a windowless conference room to celebrate her third coworker baby shower in a month, Pari had found herself done with waiting. Initially her husband, Nadeem, had been hesitant; though her persistence had finally paid off. 

“We can try it,” Nadeem had agreed, using the same response he’d given the week before when they ordered from a Mediterranean restaurant with mediocre Yelp reviews that had opened on the east side of town. Over the course of two years—first trying naturally, then through increasingly invasive and expensive interventions—Nadeem had appeared too unaffected each time they found out they weren’t pregnant. He’d skipped multiple doctor appointments for work, and slept peacefully while she spent long nights researching new methods to overcome infertility. When the doctor’s office called to tell them IVF had worked, the news provided confirmation of what had been brewing all along: Nadeem finally admitted he didn’t want to be a father. Within weeks, they both knew it would be better if they separated. 

“I can’t believe he left. At least you got alimony,” her friends had said. 

“I’m going to be a mom,” Pari had said, trying to keep her voice from breaking. “I’ll be fine.”
And she was—or so people thought, even nine months later, after the divorce papers had been quietly filed, and the baby’s due date had passed. For a while, she’d bought herself time, layering on excuses and delayed responses that had deterred visitors from her home. When friends inquired why there were no pictures of Arjun online, her response had been simple, for it was now popular in social settings to pretend to value privacy: I don’t want his picture all over social media, Pari had responded, who knows where it could end up?
But now, her privacy had run out. 


Seventh bullet point, twelve size Serif font in slate gray: chance of miscarriage for women that undergo IVF is 22%. Pari had read the stat multiple times, but it wasn’t until the doctor offered the percentage as a strange consolation that she remembered the ivory pamphlet in her kitchen drawer. She was almost twelve weeks into her hard-earned pregnancy. In mere seconds, the title she had worked years for had been stripped away. She and Arjun had discussed music, how to make paneer, and witnessed Virginia bluebells and sedums blooming in the backyard. Pari lay exposed on the cold examination table in a pale blue gown. The doctor repeated her apology, along with an incorrect pronunciation of Pari (Par – eee, extending the “e” as though holding a note on the last line of a verse). 

“You have more frozen eggs when you’re ready to try again,” the doctor reminded her, pulling off her latex gloves, one leg pushing down on the trash can’s foot pedal. 

Try again? After four rounds of IUI and a round of IVF, hadn’t she tried hard enough? Besides, Nadeem was gone. She didn’t have his sperm anymore.
After her miscarriage, Pari spent months slumped on her couch. Pregnant women haunted Pari. They visited her at night, their bellies round and full and faces aglow, laughing and pointing at her as she walked naked down the street, her flat stomach repulsive near their fertile bodies. During the day, she replayed her pregnancy in her head. It’s not your fault, the doctor had said, but Pari felt that it must be. Had she eaten too many brownies? Had the Butler Gulch hike been too strenuous? She’d kept asking for answers, but the doctor had only offered apologies and statistics.
Pari waited until night to call her mom for their weekly chats, where it was early morning in India. Pari’s mom would just be sitting down for chai and egg bhurji, the streets quiet while the city cautiously awakened. Pari missed her family and friends back home. It had been difficult to make deeper connections with friends she made in the US; each relationship survived on the surface level; at this age, it seemed, nobody needed supportive friendships as much as they needed a social network.
“I still haven’t been able to get myself to share the loss,” Pari said.
“Beti,” Pari’s mom said, with tenderness. “Things will improve. In certain ways, this is better for you. Men don’t want to raise someone else’s kid. You can start fresh.”
“I’m not ready for that.”
“Just give it a try. Did you reach out to Arvind? I sent his email. He’s going through a divorce as well, so he won’t mind you’re a soon to be divorcee,” Pari’s mom said between sips of chai.
“Isn’t he the guy that only dates women with graduate degrees?”
“He’s adjusted his preferences since his twenties. You can’t be so picky. The pool is smaller now. I know a few families with children that have remarried though, so all is not lost.”
“Great,” Pari sighed, her fingers rubbing her temple. It was always a toss-up on whether Pari would feel better or worse after talking to her mom. “There’s hope for me yet.”
“Things will get better. You’ll see.”
The next day, after a restless night of sleep, Pari walked into the baby room at the end of the hall, partially developed just like Arjun. It had once been Nadeem’s study, and now the crib, which she had spent weeks researching for the safest model on the market, was unassembled in an open cardboard box, the front side had a picture of a smiling, straight haired blonde woman watching her sleeping newborn. The bookshelf in the study was empty minus a few stuffed animals that Pari had played with as a child. And what should she do now? What was this room to become? Gazing around the room, she noticed two stubborn faded caramel spots on the carpet, drops that had escaped an overflowing cup of coffee when she had chased after Nadeem the morning before he left for good. 

“But why don’t you want a baby?” she’d asked, but no answer he’d given had made any sense to her. At that moment, she had promised to never let Arjun down the way his father had. I have to be there for my baby, Pari thought, as she looked around the room at the unfinished walls. She wet her paintbrush before dipping it into mortar black paint, her hand steady as she finished the zebra’s stripes. Next, she finished the giraffe’s tails and the antelope’s horns. She sketched a sunrise on one side and a sunset on the opposite wall, and drew each blade of grass with bright green paint; a scatterplot of tiny dots of dew formed a lush, moist ground for animals to prance on. It felt good, finally, to do something—anything—for Arjun.
Three weeks later, Pari stood back and gazed upon her finished masterpiece. The baby room walls had been transformed. Grabbing her phone, she clicked a quick photo. “Arjun’s room,” she captioned, quickly hitting the plus sign to post it on Instagram. The post was complete so that it was done almost before she realized it. What did I just do?
But, by then, it was already too late. And then there they were: 50 likes in 5 minutes. 60. 70. 100. Comments started to roll in.
“Arjun! What a beautiful name,” one of them wrote. “He’s going to have a very talented momma!”
“Superstar mom!” Another posted.
And more: “Always knew you’d be an amazing parent.”
Seated cross-legged on the round hand-loomed rug, she watched breathlessly as likes rolled in, scrolling through words of support and encouragement. Some comments were tinged with jealousy, but they all confirmed what she wanted to hear: She was still a mom.
Over the next few weeks, she put all of her energy into the baby room. Cutting out shapes from swaths of fuzzed felt, she created a growth chart resembling a baobab tree. Next, she assembled the crib and bought board books to fill out the bookshelves and hung a baby mobile over the crib. She drove further out to stores—thirty miles or more—to avoid running into anyone that she knew. During one of her expeditions, she found the coveted baby sloth wearable blanket, which had sold out almost everywhere after being featured in a recent edition of Parenting’s “Trendsetting, Yet Practical Baby Items.” Thrilled by her discovery, Pari posted the item on Instagram: “Snatched the last one in stock. This mom is a hustler,” she captioned.
From there, the likes—and the lies—started to pile up. But then, who could she be hurting? Nadeem had left shortly after they found out they were pregnant—now Arjun was gone too: and this was all she wanted. In online parenting community groups, Pari saw a lot of unanswered questions. Maybe I can help, Pari thought, and on a sunny spring morning she drove downtown to the local library. Most people she knew no longer visited the library, but she went early anyway, just to be on the safe side. Her sneakers made noise on the linoleum floor, like a squeaky toy in a puppy’s mouth, signaling her presence to the librarians as she headed straight back to the non-fiction section. Her fingers traced along the spines of different books as she read each name aloud.
“You have to read this one.” A very pregnant woman in a striped maxi dress pulled a book off the shelf and handed it to Pari. “Trust me. Is this for you?” Pari nodded.
“When are you due?” the woman asked. She radiated an energy that Pari assumed was only achieved through motherhood.
“Late August.”
“Your first?” Pari, in spite of herself, nodded again.
“Then I got this to you just in time. I didn’t find this book until after my first was already a year old. Would have saved me a lot of headaches.” The woman smiled.
“Do you like being a mom?” Pari asked.
“It’s wonderful.”
“You wouldn’t trade it for anything?” Her voice lowered, even softer than a whisper.
“Not for the world.”
I knew it—I was right all along, Pari said to herself as she drove home.
Pari huddled on her family room floor, her borrowed stacks of books encircled her like passersby observing a street performer. She absorbed everything there was to know from the information she had available, her curiosity unsatiated. She became rated a “supermom” based on the frequency and speed in which she answered questions in community groups, and received grateful messages from anxious and expecting parents. “People like you make this community thrive. Thank you for answering over a hundred questions in six months,” the Senior Community Manager wrote in an email, and a bright gold star appeared next to Pari’s handle. She received a maternity pregnancy pillow in the mail as a thank you. Finally, she was doing something right.
Those first few weeks after Nadeem had left, Pari’s friends had called and reached out. As the weeks went by, the supportive calls and drop-bys dissipated, until her friends slowly disappeared, swallowed back into their own lives like fish in a tide. However, her friends had an unlimited capacity for joyous occasions, and as Pari’s original pregnancy date drew near, they insisted on a baby shower, which was set up for on a Sunday afternoon. I have to tell people the truth, Pari thought, but then she pulled the invitation card out of her mailbox: a beautiful semi-gloss five by seven tri-fold card. Four website clicks later Pari had a ninety-three-dollar silicone false belly that was arriving in two days. Just once, Pari told herself, as she snapped the silicone belly in place. So, this is what it’s like when you’re further along, thought Pari, as she rotated side to side with her fake belly. She slipped on a bright yellow jersey dress with dandelion patterns around the waist; she admired herself in the mirror and pushed her hair behind her shoulders before snapping a full-length selfie, which she then posted on Instagram. Once all the guests had arrived, Pari told an elaborate story of how a rude woman at the store had touched her belly. They all told her she looked great, but kept their distance. They sat in a circle while Rachel led them through various games. A few of the women were mothers and teased Pari about all the things she had to look forward to. 

“You’re in the mommy club now,” her friend said, and they all did a toast.
That night, Pari danced around the kitchen while she called her mom for their weekly chat.
“You sound happy.”
“I had a great day.”
“Samita Aunty said Arvind hasn’t heard from you. Should I have him reach out to you instead?”
“No, no. I’ll do it.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better. It’s best to move on,” Pari’s mom said.
“I’ve moved on from Nadeem,” Pari said, rubbing the top of her silicone belly.
Pari folded the baby clothes gifted to her from the shower and organized them in almost full drawers. She held up a powder blue onesie with a Tyrannosaurus hugging a Brontosaurus. She rubbed the tail of one of the dinosaurs with her thumb and wondered what it would look like worn. She reached for the stuffed elephant perched on the edge of the bookshelf and pulled the onesie over its head, gently fastening three timberwolf gray buttons at the bottom.

 “Don’t you look beautiful?” She cradled the elephant in her arms and brushed strands of plush out of its round black eyes, softly humming while swaying back and forth, her heels lifted a half inch off the carpet as she turned in slow circles. She knew she should take the onesie off and put it back in the open drawer, but instead she walked to the crib and gently laid the stuffed elephant down, tucking him in under a blanket. 

“Goodnight Arjun,” she said, giving him a soft smile. “It’s you and me.”
The next day, Pari put Arjun on the playmat while she cooked moong daal for dinner. Afterwards, she carried him in her arms as she walked around the house.
“This is your nani,” Pari said, pointing to a picture of her mom on the wall.  “Once she meets you, she’s going to spoil and love you. When I was a kid, she made me drink haldi doodh every night. I won’t do that to you.” Pari showed Arjun her framed degrees and taught him the names of the Indian spices in her masala dabba. “Baking soda is the trick to getting turmeric off the counter; but preferably just don’t get it on there in the first place,” Pari laughed.
A week later, Pari took Arjun outside for the first time to Stephen Goodman’s Park, a place parents often preferred for fresh air because of the wide cement walkways that allowed for large strollers and easy passage on both sides. She sat on her favorite bench, one that she had sat on often as she jealously observed parents with their children. She snuck Arjun under a nursing cover and lifted him to her breast while geese floated in the lake, and, after another moment, shared a knowing smile of motherhood with a woman that walked past her. A handful of kids played soccer nearby. Maybe Arjun will play soccer, Pari thought, then remembered her friend’s advice that she sign up early when he becomes of age since those classes fill up fast. Later that evening, Pari changed Arjun into a soft green Dino footed pajama set. She hummed a lullaby and rubbed his head before turning off the bedroom light. For months, this became their nightly routine. It was just the two of them, until Rachel arrived.


An hour and ten minutes after she sent her text, Rachel showed up at Pari’s door, yellow roses in one hand and a massive wrapped box in the other.
“You don’t even look like you’ve had a baby!” Rachel lay her coat on the bench by the doorway, making herself at home. Pari took a quick inhale of breath.
“Don’t keep me in suspense,” Rachel insisted, her eyes peering down the long hallway.
“He’s sleeping. He’s had a few rough nights. I’ll make chai,” Pari said, grabbing her red kettle pot and turning the heat on high. She reached for Taj Mahal tea from the cupboard and mashed cardamom with a force stronger than needed to crack the pod. Out of the corner of her eye, Pari watched Rachel walk around the family room. Rachel was looking at each baby item, as though she was doing a home inspection for potential house buyers.
“Even your mess seems tidy.” Rachel smiled as she sat back in the armchair, gratefully accepting a hot ceramic mug from Pari. “Your Instagram is on fire. You’re going to be one of those momfluencers soon with thousands of followers. I didn’t even get that many likes when I posted a picture of myself in a bikini on the Amalfi coast,” Rachel laughed. “How is it being a mom?”
“It’s like I imagined it,” Pari said. “It’s nice to be called a mom.”
“In a few years you’ll hear Arjun say it every waking second.” 

Pari pictured him giving her a kiss goodnight, pulling on the edge of her cardigan to pick him up, begging with his bright, round eyes for one more story to be read before bedtime; she thought about him running inside after playing basketball, sweaty and smiling, calling for her to give him a glass of water. Arjun was never going to do these things. Pari held her elbows, her arms pressed under her chest while she scanned the room, a work of art designed with the utmost care: the pack and play near the couch inhabited by Sophie la girafe; activity cubes scattered near the fireplace; a green bouncer by the ottoman and a paisley diaper changing pad on the floor near the coffee table. Suddenly, Pari felt tired. She imagined telling Rachel the truth; Rachel enveloping Pari in a big hug, promising that everything would be alright, that one day she would have a real baby. Pari would know that all was not lost; she would know that she was not alone. Rachel would be there for her. Pari straightened her back and leaned forward.
“I’m pregnant,” Rachel blurted out, placing her mug dangerously off balance on the coaster. Her brown eyes sparkled and her cheeks glowed like the sun reflecting on water, forcing Pari to avert her gaze. “I couldn’t keep it in any longer. Fourteen weeks now.” Underneath the cotton fabric of Rachel’s dress there was a slight bump, now noticeable with this admission. At fourteen weeks, Arjun had been dead.
“Congratulations,” Pari sputtered, not sure whether her smile was big enough.
“It happened so quickly. Matt and I just decided to start trying and within a month we were looking at two pink lines on a pregnancy test. Good thing we got that trip to Italy in,” Rachel said, her words fast and breathless. “You’ll have to teach me everything you know.”
“Of course,” Pari said. All those doctor appointments she had been to, trash bins full of negative pregnancy tests. And the day she lost Arjun. She’d fumbled her way home and laid motionless in bed, staring at a piece of peeling paint on the ceiling. She’d imagined ripping it off, pulling more and more until the whole ceiling came crashing down, matching the motion inside of her. How useful was her advice, when it hadn’t helped her?
“Our kids will be close in age. We can have playdates. Speaking of, I can’t wait a second longer to meet Arjun.” Rachel stood up.
“Nadeem came by to see Arjun,” Pari announced, and then rambled the thoughts and words that formed as they were being said. “He drove him to a nearby park—Stephen Goodman’s park—and should be back any second.  I should have told you sooner, but it happened so fast. It would be better if you weren’t here when he comes back, though.”
“Wow, he came by. How do you feel?”
“Alone,” Pari said. Rachel nodded and looked around the room again. She opened her mouth, but then shook her head and closed it. She rubbed the emerald stone on her necklace.
“Must be hard not to have Arjun,” she offered. Rachel’s diamond band on her left hand shone, her swelling bump she carried with pride.
“You have no idea.”
Pari locked the door behind Rachel. She walked to Arjun’s room and pulled back the blanket cover in the crib, revealing the stuffed elephant. She watched him sleep.
“Arjun.” She lifted the elephant to her face. Stroking his cheek, she whispered his name again. When he didn’t respond, she threw him back into the crib. He lay face down, one arm tucked underneath his body.
“I’m sorry,” her voice burst forth as soon as she’d seen what she’d done, reaching forward to pick him up, hugging him tightly against her chest.
Pari’s phone vibrated. Rachel had posted a picture of her and Mark, both of his hands on either side of her belly, Rachel’s hands in front forming a full heart. “We’re expecting,” written underneath.
Pari wiped her eyes, wrapped the elephant in a blanket, and held her phone at an angle to block out the stuffed animal. She took a picture and quickly typed a message. Nap time she captioned and applied a filter. She hovered over the post button. Fear grasped her. How long could she carry this on? Who would come by next, after Rachel? Watching her finger poised there, ready to post, she knew if everyone knew there was no Arjun they would do what they had done when Nadeem had left, what people always do because compassion had an expiration date: at first they’d reach out and then they’d disappear, leaving her with nothing but passing condolences. They would expect her to move on, as her mom did, while they went back to their families. Their kids. Their full lives.
She posted the image.
She placed her phone down and leaned her head against the wall, staring at an antelope grazing lazily in the grass. Her phone buzzed. Someone had liked her post.

Author’s Note: Have you ever had someone say to you, “Don’t worry, it’ll happen”? Well, what if “it” doesn’t happen, and the thing you want most is not in the cards? This question was the seed that started “Baby Arjun.” The story went through multiple revisions and parts of the protagonist’s backstory fell away, left as only a few lines. But the emotions of coping with a failed dream continued to propel my creative process. I wanted to see what my character would do when her dream didn’t come true—when family, friends, and society shifted from saying “Don’t worry, it’ll happen” to “It’s time to move on.” 

Monika Gupta [she/her] is an alum of Tin House and One Story workshops, and she is a former Vice President of Marketing at a cybersecurity startup. Her work has been featured in the New York Times’ Modern Love at 13 project and her short story, “Baby Arjun”, won first prize in So to Speak’s 2022 Fiction Contest and was a Finalist in ScreenCraft’s Cinematic Short Story Competition. She is currently working on a novel exploring identity, belonging, and cross-generational prejudices centered around a Midwestern South Asian community. She can be found on Twitter @guptamnka.






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