My mother awoke in the holy hour before dawn, rumple-eyed and irritable. From the branches of the coral jasmine tree, a night-flowering wonder, small orange-centered blossoms fell to the ground in slow rhythms outside her window. She let a comb creep through her hair, with her fingertips touched sandalwood oil to her throat, between her breasts, her eyes closed in dreams. Perhaps she thought of marrying again. My mother wore a sari of pale yellow, and I imagined she felt she could write a novel then and there. Didn’t she have forty-six years of life to tell?
But in came my grandmother, scattering my mother’s thoughts away, shuffling on feet that had turned as hard as stone. Trumpeting words like an elephant, she asked my mother, “Have you brushed your teeth yet? Do you want your coffee now?” My mother, caught in her dreams, caught with her hand on her breast, nodded yes. The house was awake. The maids began to wash the dishesfrom the night before, and the cook yelled at them while cutting vegetables. The orange vendors and tomato sellers were already at the doorstep, calling out their wares. In the midst of this morning chaos, it was my mother who was labeled the maddest. She was the strange one, the daughter gone wrong, the bad woman who refused to go to temple, who needed her own mother to fetch her morning coffee, who would not wear widow-white. “Why should I wear white if I still have fifty years more of my life to live?” she had asked when her first husband died, refusing to look at my grandmother’s face.
I imagined my mother in the mornings like this, imagined her thoughts, her longings. She did not speak to me. When I was six, and arrived at my grandmother’s house on the island of Pi, dusty and yet presentable after a sultry train and boat journey from India, only my grandmother and Great-uncle Raj were at the table set for the midday meal. Even before I saw her bold-patterned sari and unbound hair, I knew my mother was watching me, suspicious, from acorner. For days we edged past each other. She spoke no words to me.
When I turned fifteen, I came to my grandmother’s house for a long stay, this time to rest, to get over a dragging spell of bronchitis. I had been given four months leave from my pre-university. My life was filledwith so much illness that I had become a kind of heroine for my younger cousins. (“This is Sonil,” they told their friends. “She gets a lot of diseases,”) There were hardly two days apart when I was not sick. It was when the huskiness in my voice was lifting, and my chest no longer ached as if atiger were walking about inside, that my grandmother suggested I spend the summer months at her home, away from the infected cities.
“The island air is so good-she’ll recover well,” wrote my grandmother to my guardian aunts in Madras.
“And Lakshmi, what about Lakshmi? Has she recovered as well?” whispered my aunts on the phone.
Lakshmi: that name had been whispered, lingered over in soft tones in my undetected presence for years. My mother, Lakshmi, who hadn’t seen me in nine years. Only from the merest shreds of conversation had I gathered bits of my mother’s story. They would not tell me the whole truth, so I became an eavesdropper, not knowing they shielded me from whatever harm could be imparted in words. It would be unthinkable, they said, to live with my mother. Only bad would come of it, they thought. What are they afraid of? Would shespit at me, scream at me, shake me as enraged madwomen do in the movies? Or was it simply the association they feared, that her strange ways would rub off on me, the way certain flowers left gold dust on my fingers? But despite the protests, my grandmother, who can wear a face as strong as any god’s, had her way.
So I went to Pi, to spend a summer full of change and wonder. It was a summer of attuned perceptions, a turnover, a prelude to adulthood; even now, I have not fully recovered from it. It was a summer ofawakening. My grandmother’s house was different from my home in Madras. Here, I could walk under the mango trees in a place that lacked only a waterfall tomake it a kind of paradise. In the mornings, tiny parrots, blazes of red and green, rushed into the skies that were brighter than any in Madras. The trees were full of monkeys, bright fruit stuffed into their mouths. I could make a telescope out of my hands and see their glittery old-man eyes.
Since she wouldn’t speak to me, I spied on my mother, wanting to learn the facts, the truths to tie a kind of monkey-knot to her, a knot that could not be undone. I wanted to know about the circumstances before and after my birth. They had said my arrival was not graceful.
They wouldn’t let my mother in the kitchen, I observed, to ward off the evil that must surround her, to keep it away from the most holy place in the house. She would take her coffee outside to the brick steps near the pots of roses. She would snap off a deep red bud to adorn herself, having no patience to wait for the lame girl who sold stringed jasmine wound with sage to wear in one’s hair. My mother, from her perch, and I, from mine, kept abreast of the flirtations between the cook’s daughter and the driver, noting the way he casually brushed by the daughter’s perfumed arms before mygreat-uncle rushed out for his morning drive. They didn’t worry about my mother’s gaze, so inconsequential was she.
My mother was infuriating. She refused to eat with the rest of us, making Grandmother set an extra plate for her after we’d eaten, before she, my grandmother, could eat. My grandmother insisted on serving all of us, Mother included, before she herself ate. This I did not think was nice of my mother, to delay my grandmother’s dinner. But maybe my grandmother enjoyed the conversation with my mother, for the two of them often spoke together for two hours, one for my mother’s dining, one for my grandmother’s. Their voices were only murmurs, hard for me to hear.
Maybe my mother ran away from me because there was a gene in our family that caused people to run and hide. Our family was shy, excepting my mother, and even she might be shy, for wouldn’t that have caused her to flee from me, her third daughter? For she did run away, run away from the American, my father, and leave me to my aunts.
My mother had three daughters. Her first she presented to a husband who wanted a son; she tried to fix things by choosing a name that could pass for masculine: Ramani. After her husband died, taking his secrets to the fire, several trendy college girls began to invite my mother, lovely at twenty-one, to their lawn parties. At one party, a rich boy, coolly dressedafter the fashion dictated by his affected English accent, a filmmaker’s son, promised to marry my mother. Whether she believed him or not, surely she was seduced by his voice, which ran like warm champagne. She named his child after Savitri, the most dutiful of wives in Hindu legend, a woman whose footstepsfollowed her husband’s even after his death. My mother didn’t trail after the filmmaker’s boy, though. She met an American expatriate, a photographer who came to Pi to capture on film the faces of wise seers and shy, mysterious women. The village women say she asked him to sleep with her, and he accepted, and she gave birth to me.
They named me Sonil, a name with no definite roots. When I was younger, I used to make up stories regarding my father’s death and my mother’s grief but they brought me nowhere. My parents remained as distant as any in a thousand tales from folklore. Why did she want a third daughter? What caused her need to be full of another baby? Why did she send him away? Perhaps my mother had always wanted to raise a troop of strong highway-bandit queens by herself and perhaps she was prevented. She would have been a good robber rani herself a brave woman with a fearless stance. She stood straight under the scrutinizing eyes of neighbors whose mouths never closed. She watched the brightly saried servant girls who gossiped loudly at the gate, catching thehush of their voices when they spoke of her. She was the only woman who didn’t turn away in disgust when Ramachandran, the senile gatekeeper, hunched withage, lifted up his dhoti to relieve himself under the banyan trees in the opposite lot.
They must have told her she was different, to give her that boldness. Some chanting woman in an orange sari and with a shaven head musthave gripped her hand and told her she had the fingers of an artist. Some troupe of fanatics leading a cow wearing streamers and bells, shaking with an intensity that only the most devout or near insane have, must have told her she was not meant for a peaceful widowhood. They must have told her it was fine to wear bangles and anklets, emboldened her to conceive two more children after her first, freed her to think of marrying again in her forty-seventh year. But who would marry a madwoman? If she advertised in the marital columns, only self-proclaimed free–thinking widowers would answer her ad, and who knew how crazy they were? No one would answer from Madhupur, or from the other townsnearby. On the island of Pi, reputations traveled.
Lunchtime, and Great-uncle Raj was trying to teach me Italian. He was my grandmother’s eldest brother, a man whose eccentricity almost surpassed my mother’s. Long ago, my great-uncle had a job with a company that sent him overseas. For two months, he traveled in Europe, pretending not to be a tourist. When the company asked for his return, he refused and was fired. He stayed on abroad, coming home only for funerals. But one year, seven of our relatives died, and he ran out of money. So he made his home at my grandmother’s, but he spoke of his travels constantly. He knew dozens of languages and spent long hours at the USIS library, reading foreign dailies. Once I saw him there with stacks of thin-sheeted papers in front of him, wearing the smile of the truly indulged. Now he insisted on coaxing Italianstresses from my tongue, finding my progress slow. My grandmother interrupted the lesson.
“How are you feeling? Are you well? Do you have a temperature?” she asked.
A dozen times a day, she questioned me about my health. She made up careful menus of non-fried foods for me and sent back reports to Madras. (Vasanti, the cook, felt sorry for me and sometimes sneaked outlawed savories and buttery pooris to my plate.) Great-uncle, annoyed at the disturbance to his lesson, rose from the table, leaving me with unlearned verbs. My grandmother brushed crumbs from the table.
“Don’t believe his nonsense, Sonil-ma,” she said. “He doesn’t know a word of Italian.”
Vasanti was going into town for groceries, a plastic bagfrom Paris, a relic from my great-uncle, in her hand. She met my mother on her way to hang her wet saris, a tangle of color, on the terraced roof.
“Do you want anything from the shops?” asked Vasanti.
“A jar of Pond’s—a large one,” replied my mother.
“And something for your daughter?” asked Vasanti who thought she was being diplomatic. “Should I buy her something?”
My mother pretended not to hear. Sometimes I wanted to scream, to shout out loud, I AM YOUR DAUGHTER, TALK TO ME! I wanted to force her to regard me, to stop pretending I didn’t exist, to stop denying my part in her life. I could accept her madness, but not her hatred. If all her acts could be explained away by her madness, then I was safe, because she was not responsible for her actions. To ask why she didn’t want to raise me herself, to wonder why she continued to live at my grandmother’s house then became moot. Vasanti left by the back door, and my mother climbed the outer stairs. The milkman had come at dawn to deliver our milk. I thought of his bicycle clattering away on the pavement and began to dream of going away, of leaving everyone behind. I wanted to travel fast.
Feeling the pull of the afternoon, my grandmother lay down on the couch to read the mail. There was a letter from my sister Ramani full of house-talk and news of her children. Both of my sisters were pregnant again and neither planned to Invite our mother to her baby’s first birthday celebration. They liked her even less than I did. I pressed my grandmother’s feet and told her my dreams.
Because I had nothing else to do but read while I was sick, I pulled first marks in all the school exams. In the room I shared with twocousins in Madras, I’d tacked up a picture of an American college from a catalogue a teacher had once given me. If I continued to do well, and if I took a qualifying exam in Delhi, I told myself I could go to Radcliffe.
“What is that place?” asked my grandmother.
“Do you knowLove Story? Love Story took place there,” I said.
My grandmother in her wisdom glasses looked at the wall a long time before replying.
“I don’t think I approve of that sort of life, Sonil,” she said.
The sun had calmed for a moment, but it would be back, fierce as ever. The village herders brought back the indifferent cows from pasture. Their thin bodies passed like ghosts behind the gate. The sweets seller made his late rounds while the iron man clattered his cart down the street. My grandmother was in the back garden, watering the plants. I rocked myself on the veranda swing, sucking experimentally on the cigarette butts my great-uncle had left behind. While I tried to compose a letter to my aunts, I could pick out from the street the voice of the man who sold pinwheels and silver ribbons to children.
Two of my aunts raised me, both sisters of my mother’s, Aunt Leila and Aunt Shalani. Aunt Leila was thin and Aunt Shalani even thinner. They were warmhearted, the two of them, indulgent with their riches. Their husbands, Uncle Petrov and Uncle Dan, were in Abu Dhabi, oil investors by night, engineers by day. They were Russian and Irish; my mother wasn’t the only one in her family to look outside the island or India for marriage.