July 2, 1969 — My wedding day
Today I’m getting married. Raksha is a handsome man — smooth skin, nice cheekbones. He’s cheerful, generous, and owns his own business, a sari shop. Aunty Easwari has done well by me, though I thought she was going to have a heart attack when I wrote to her and asked her to find me a husband. She protested — of course my parents, both teachers, would object to my getting married instead of going to college, but I can be just as stubborn as any of my five sisters when I need to be. And she knew it. Aunty also knew there wasn’t much else for me. The dark horse of the family, the one who didn’t get into U of C, or Northwestern, or even UIC — who didn’t get into college at all. Dark-skinned too, which made Aunty’s job harder. But she agreed that I had better get married.
I’m going to have babies. That’s one thing my sisters have done little of. Only three of them married so far, and only two babies in the lot. I will have hundreds of babies.
Maybe not hundreds. But seven or eight or nine or more — my grandmother had thirteen living children, and that was in Ceylon, without the benefit of modern medicine! I will have many children, and a beautiful home, and I will cook perfect meals for my Raksha — at least I can cook. I will sing Tamil songs to him when he comes home tired from work; that’s something Leilani can’t do. She croaks like a frog. And none of them can dance. I will take good care of my husband, and I will be happy.
Later — Almost midnight.
Aunty Easwari said it would hurt a little, but then it would get better.
Raksha was different tonight. Maybe it was all the wine and champagne at the wedding. The men were drinking hard liquor too. He wasn’t himself. He didn’t give me time to think. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. If this is what it takes to make many children — maybe I’ll wait a while.
It must get better.
He sleeps like a log, snoring loudly, sprawling over the hotel bed. I want my own bed, with its crazy quilt in scraps of silk and sari fabric, cornflower blue, lavender and rose. Silver threads through it, and an occasional hint of gold. I want it to be that winter again, and me sixteen, sitting in front of the fireplace and leaning against Appa’s knee, sewing together the pieces of my quilt.
August 10, 1969 — Pregnant.
It didn’t happen the way I’d planned. The morning after the wedding, Raksha did it again in the morning. It hurt more. He tried to touch me again that night, but I wouldn’t let him. I told him I’d scream if he touched me, and since we were back in my old room, in my old bed, with my parents and sisters just down the hall, someone would come. They’d all come running. He left me alone for a while, and said he was sorry he’d hurt me. I believed him; I just needed a little time.
But now I’m going to have a baby. Already.
He can’t touch me now — it might hurt the baby.
I’m going to learn how to knit. I’ve already crocheted a blanket for her, white and soft and warm. I’ll make her socks and sweaters and pink hats. I’ll start making her clothes too — I have the patterns picked out, the fabrics neatly folded in my drawer, in sunny yellow and grass-green.
I’m going to be a perfect mother. They’ll see.
December 25, 1969 — Christmas
I’m a married woman now, and pregnant — they should treat me with more respect. They won’t even let me have a glass of wine at Christmas dinner. Kili, who thinks she’s such a big doctor now, says it might hurt the baby. I’ve never heard of any such thing, but when I poured myself a glass, she just reached out and took it out of my hand, while everyone laughed.
Raksha gets to drink whatever he wants — and he’s not drinking wine. All the men drink whiskey or vodka, and Appa tells stories of when he was a boy in Ceylon, sneaking sips of arrack. Raksha hangs on my father’s every word, laughs when he does, and when Kili took my glass, he just laughed with the rest of my family, my father, my sisters. He wouldn’t let me have a sip of his whiskey either. Sometimes I hate them all.
February 18, 1970 — He hit me.
I married a drunk. Leilani was right. I’m an idiot. He had a bad day at the store. I don’t know what happened, and it doesn’t matter. He went drinking with his friends afterwards; he does that every night. He came home, and I could smell the whiskey on him. I’m sure Amma and Appa could smell it too. I’m the embarrassment of my family — the stupid girl who didn’t go to college, got married too young, got pregnant — and finally, picked a drunk to spend her life with. Raksha wants to move out of my parents’ house. I want that too, but not now. Not yet. If we stay here, Amma will be close, in case anything goes wrong with the baby. And I’ll need help, afterwards. We’ve been arguing for weeks, but tonight he got angry. I got angry too, and threw a cushion at him. He grabbed it in the air, twisted it in his hand, tore the fabric. He knew I made that cushion. He knew I’d sewn it to match the quilt, with a little more silver, shining. I came at him, screaming, my hands raised, and maybe I would have scratched him, clawed his face — I wanted to. But he grabbed my hands in one of his, and then slapped my face, hard, with his other hand. Shouting nonsense I couldn’t understand. I just stood there, my hands still caught in his. It didn’t hurt. And then the anger melted from his face, and he started crying. He let go of my hands. I turned and left then — went into the bathroom and locked the door. He stopped crying after a while, and then I heard the front door slam. He’d gone out to drink more. That was fine; he could sleep on a park bench, or in the driveway. I didn’t care. I went to the front door, and bolted it shut. It didn’t hurt. Not when he hit me, though it aches now. That was the strangest part.
February 19, 1970 — Contractions.
He came back. He broke the lock on the kitchen door and came in and woke me up and shook me, shouting. He hit me again, and this time, he knocked me down. Amma and Appa came and Appa threw him out — I didn’t know Appa was strong enough. But now I’m having contractions, and it’s so early. We’re going to the hospital in a few minutes. Amma is packing a bag for me, and Leilani is coming to drive us. There is a huge black bruise on my cheek — everyone will know.
Please, let the baby be all right.
Let me do something right.
February 21, 1970 — Chaya
They argued with me. Everyone said, "What a bad-luck name! You can’t name her that!" But she is small and dark and born under her mother’s shadow of misery and pain, and so I’m going to name her Chaya, which means shadow, and they can’t stop me. Raksha isn’t here, and the nurse is listening to me.
One small shadow to follow me. Thirty-seven hours of labor. I won’t have another child. It would kill me. And I won’t let him touch me again.
March 1, 1970 — Raksha moved out.
Everything of his is gone. He tried to argue. He was waiting for us, sitting on the steps outside the kitchen door. His face crumpled when he saw Chaya’s tiny hands and feet. He has fallen in love with his little daughter, says he wants to be with her, wants to take care of her.
He can take care of her by sending money. I’ll take care of Chaya.
June 6, 1970 — My birthday. He sends roses.
Does he think I’m stupid?
Amma loves them; Appa never brings her flowers. She insisted on displaying them in the hall, three dozen, long-stemmed, deepest red. Will rose scent hide the whiskey reek?
Appa says Raksha has joined some group for alcoholics, that he attends weekly meetings. So what? Let him keep sending money, for now, and when Chaya’s a little older, I’ll go back to school. I’ll graduate, and get a good job — we’ll move out, and I’ll take care of my daughter by myself.
November 11, 1970 — Chaya’s first word.
I haven’t recorded every first — not the first time she really looked at me, or the first time she smiled, or the first time she got sick, when I thought my heart would pound its way out of my chest.
My little shadow is with me always, carried in a small shoulder sling I made myself, soft well-washed cottons in red and amber and gold. I started helping Amma in the garden this summer, learning the weeds and the flowers. Chaya rode with me, and I told her the names — the late autumn roses, the chrysanthemums, the crimson snapdragons. I thought maybe she would say a flower name for her first word; we spent so much time in the garden together.
She said "Appa." I’m sure she’s heard me call my father that a thousand times. But still. I’m sorry Raksha didn’t hear it.
February 21, 1971 — Chaya’s first birthday.
Raksha came to the party. They didn’t warn me. They must have all contrived together — he arrived with Kili and her husband, and the rest of my sisters came sweeping in after. He looked small, and so alone. It reminded me of how alone he really is. No family. His father cut Raksha off, years ago, for no good reason; he was only a teenager at the time. Forbid him to call his mother, his little sisters. All he has is me, and Chaya. And the store, of course — he started that store all by himself, with money borrowed from friends and the bank, and built it into a thriving business. He has a right to be proud of the store. I should have written to his parents, when Chaya was born. They should have met their granddaughter.
He hasn’t taken a drink in eighteen weeks. He told me that in the kitchen, in the one moment when we were alone. I said "So?" and then I lit the last candle, and took Chaya’s birthday cake in, singing in perfect key. He followed quietly.
He looks thin. He hasn’t been eating right.
Chaya is scared of her father. She started crying when Raksha bent over her to kiss her forehead and wish her happy birthday. He left a few minutes later.
September 9, 1972 — Raksha moves back in.
He is sleeping on a cot in the basement, not in our bedroom. But he’s been visiting since Chaya’s first birthday — just a few times a month. He always called first. Chaya knows who he is now. It’s been good, having his help with her.
Appa retired last June, or semi-retired. He’s a professor emeritus now, only teaches an occasional class. He wanted to keep teaching full time, but Amma made him stop. He was getting so tired. They’re not young, neither of them.
I’ve taken over about half the garden work, though I plant herbs and vegetables instead of Amam’s flowers. I do all the digging and heavy work. They can’t really keep up with an energetic toddler, especially not one as strong and fast and willful as Chaya. You’d never guess that she was born early.
Appa says a child needs both her parents.
Raksha hasn’t had a drink in almost two years. The store is doing well; he’s thinking of opening a second store. I think it’ll be good for Chaya to have him here. So far, he’s been on his best behavior.
December 25, 1972 — Christmas.
Everyone was here for Christmas. All my sisters and all their husbands (four of them married now, everyone but Leilani). Four small cousins for Chaya to play with. Amma and Appa presiding over it all and Raksha, quiet in a corner. He’s been so good, the last few months. He takes Chaya to work with him sometimes, so I can have a day to myself. He changes diapers in the back of the shop, and carries her on his hip while he works. How many husbands would do that? He says it’s pure self-interest, that he sells more saris when she’s with him, but I can see the tenderness in his hands, in his eyes. He gave up the drinking for her, so he could be with her. That’s fine. That’s enough for me.
We felt like a family today.
January 1, 1973 — We had sex again.
It wasn’t the champagne — it was just time. The family’s been working on me. Amma pointed out that Raksha had a cough, and said it must be cold down in the basement. Kili managed to get in a few comments about how she took better care of her husband. Hah! That poor man goes around with his ribs sticking out from hunger, that’s how good care she takes of him. Never mind the fine clothes she buys with her doctor money. If he has to eat cold sandwiches for dinner, no wonder he doesn’t eat. At least Raksha eats properly. He’s tall now, and strong. He’s more handsome now than he was when I married him.
It’s Leilani’s fault, really. She’s not married, but she isn’t a virgin either — I think Amma knows that, but she won’t ever talk about it. Leilani has been telling me about sex; she made it sound good. So when Raksha came to my door last night to say good night before going down to the basement, I took his hand. I pulled him inside and shut the door. I wasn’t sure what to do then. He just stood there, looking sad and hopeful at the same time, until I tilted my head up and closed my eyes, like the girls in the movies. I’m pretty enough, even if I’m not as beautiful as my sisters, and my breasts are bigger after having Chaya. He kissed me so carefully, like a butterfly kissing a flower. I kissed back.
Leilani was right. It wasn’t bad the first time; he was gentle. Slow. In the morning, it was nice. And the way he looked at me — as if he’d been starving, and I’d laid out a feast.
I’m going to make sure we use something every time; Leilani showed me that too. But from now, I think I’ll let my husband sleep in my bedroom.
Maybe I’ll even make him a shirt.
March 5, 1975 — Our own house!
More than two years since I last wrote here. Raksha still hasn’t had a drink, as far as I know. The second store is doing well, and we can afford a house — not a big one, but ours, with enough space in the backyard for a real garden. It’s only ten minutes drive away from Amma and Appa. And I’ve done it up nicely — I just made new drapes for the living room, floor-length, in a pale spring green. Soon the rains will stop, and we’ll have real spring here at last. I’ve made curtains for all the rooms, and chosen wallpaper to match. Leilani says I have an eye for beauty. She’s a poet, so she should know.
Chaya starts school in September. I’m thinking of going back to college then. I don’t want my daughter to think her mother is ignorant.
September 19, 1975 — Chaya’s first day of school.
The house is so empty. It’s harvest time in my garden, but soon there won’t be anything to do there. I’ve decided — I’m going to take some classes, and if I do all right in them, I’m going to college. I don’t know what I’ll study — but I don’t think it matters, as long as I pick something and stick with it. I learned that from my marriage — sometimes, you just have to keep working at something, even when you don’t understand exactly why. Eventually, things work out.
June 20, 1980 — Graduation day.
College graduate — that’s me. A degree in art history, which I enjoyed, even though I’m not sure it will do me any good. Classes seemed easier than they did in high school, eleven years ago.
Chaya is ten now, and she looked beautiful in her white dress, sitting proudly in the audience. She may be dark like her mother, but she’s still lovely. Everyone says so. She’s doing so well in school — the highest scores in the class! — and at her piano lessons too. Her teacher says she has real talent. And she’s so affectionate. I’m proud of my little girl.
Maybe I should have another child. Maybe I should have several, the way I planned. I’m not so old yet — not even thirty.
Raksha looked handsome too, holding his daughter’s little hand, beaming as he watched me walk down the aisle. He never understood why I wanted this degree, but he paid for the classes, for the babysitting when I needed the time to study. He looked happier today than he did at our wedding. I am growing fond of my husband, after all these years. We may not have the perfect understanding, the great love affair, that Kili claims to have with her husband, but we have a beautiful daughter together. We are gentle with each other. That’s more than many marriages can claim.
September 18, 1980 — Pregnant again.
I hope this birth is easier. I’m knitting again. When I was pregnant with Chaya, all my socks and sweaters came out malformed. I didn’t have any patience back then; when I made a mistake, I’d just keep going. It’s going better this time around. I fix the mistakes before continuing, even if it means pulling out half the rows I’ve already done.
October 10, 1980.
It is nothing. Nothing. I’m not even sure why I’m writing this. Nothing has happened.
I woke up in the middle of the night. Raksha wasn’t in bed. I went to Chaya’s room. He was standing by her bed, watching her.
This is nothing. Every parent does this — every parent wakes in the middle of the night and goes to check on their child. Is she healthy, is she sleeping soundly, is she breathing well? Raksha has a weak heart, and we’ve always worried that Chaya might develop problems too. He loves her so much — of course he goes to check on her at night, sometimes. And if he stands and watches her for a while, so what?
The expression on his face — it’s nothing.
I called him softly, and he turned, and smiled. No guilty start, nothing.
"Just checking," he said. "I’ll be there in a minute."
And I nodded, and smiled, and went back to bed. He was there beside me a few minutes later.
What’s wrong with me? Pregnant woman fancies, that’s all.
November 28, 1980. He’s drinking again.
I’m sure of it. And I don’t know how long he’s been doing it, because there are so few signs. He doesn’t come home reeking of whiskey — he doesn’t go out drinking with his friends from work. I haven’t found any bottles around the house; maybe he picks them up in the morning and drinks them at lunchtime. I don’t know. But I’ve been watching him closely the last few weeks. Sometime is different.
He’s louder, noisier. More energetic when he plays with Chaya — he throws her up in the air as if she’s still a little girl. And when he sits her on his lap and reads to her, they’re action and adventure stories, full of rocket ships and robots. She loves them — right now she’s planning to be an astronaut when she grows up. And she adores her father, who can do no wrong. Chaya gets angry at me; she screams and shouts when she doesn’t want to clean her room, but let Appa come home and say the word, and that room is clean before you can turn around. It’s good for a little girl to love her father, and for him to love her. But — the way he gets engrossed in playing with her. He often doesn’t notice when I call them to dinner. He gets annoyed if I call again.
"Leave us alone, Lakshmi — we’re busy!" he’ll shout, and Chaya will giggle. Conspirators together.
I’ve seen nothing wrong.
It’s the drinking again. I’ll watch him for a while. I’ll make sure. And then I’ll make him get help. I’m not going to just panic and kick him out — I’m not the frightened little girl I was when we married. I will fight for this man, for my marriage, for our family. We’ll get through this.
February 20, 1981 — Talked to the lawyer.
Leilani took me. I haven’t told anyone else. I’m going to ask for a divorce.
No one in my family has ever been divorced. I always wanted to be first at something.
I caught him last night. Not drinking, though I’m sure he’s been doing that too. Maybe that’s why — who knows? Maybe it would be too easy to blame it on the drinking. Maybe he’s just a man who loves his daughter too much.
I woke up again in the middle of the night. Raksha wasn’t there. I found him in Chaya’s room. He wasn’t touching her — she was fast asleep. But she had kicked off the sheet the way she always does, so that her bare legs stuck out, and his eyes were fixed on her, on my daughter. His daughter. My stomach began to churn. I couldn’t breathe. Something was wrong with my baby, my little girl. Something was wrong with him.
He didn’t see me at all.
I wanted to rush in, to push him away from her, to scream. Instead, I went back to our room, walking as quickly and silently as I could. I climbed into bed and called his name, just loudly enough for him to hear me, as if I had just woken from sleep, and a moment later he came back.
Yes, bad dreams. The worst. He climbed into bed and held me, and I tried not to pull away, counting my breaths, forcing them to be calm, even. If I told him what I’d seen, would he hit me again? How hard? Or would he just start to cry?
I lay in his arms all night, wide awake. This morning, after Raksha left for work, I called Amma and told her the pregnancy was making me tired. I asked her if she’d mind taking Chaya for a while. Then I called Leilani and told her everything.
We’ll keep it quiet — Leilani thinks that’s best. But I am not going to leave my daughter in the same house with that man for even one more day.
March 3, 1981 — Chaya’s piano recital.
We bought the tickets weeks ago; everyone expected Raksha to be there. Leilani won’t say anything, but the others think I should let him come. Kili thinks I just had a bad dream that night; I’m sure the others think that too, though none of the others actually say it. I know what I saw. I know what it would become.
Chaya will be surrounded by other people throughout the recital. She hasn’t seen her father in days, not since we moved back to Amma’s and Appa’s house, and she’s started asking questions I don’t know how to answer. I tuck her into bed, wrap the blue silk patchwork quilt around her small body, kiss her forehead and tell her I’ll explain it all, soon. Then I curl up on a mattress on the floor beside her, trying to think what I can possibly say.
I don’t think Raksha will fight the divorce; he sounds like a whipped dog on the phone. He’s drinking all the time, I think — he cries every time he calls. I make him calm down before I let him talk to Chaya. He sounds so small.
He can come to the recital; he deserves the chance to say goodbye to her in person. He can pretend to be a good father for one more day.
July 20, 2000 — Chaya leaves for her new job in California.
I thought about burning this journal, so Chaya would never find it and suspect. But I saved it instead, buried it in the back of my closet, in a hamper full of scraps and rags. I was saving it for this day, it seems.
Chaya is leaving to start her new position; I don’t know how often I’ll see her after this. Christmas and New Year and perhaps a birthday or two. Maybe she should know what really happened that day, the day her father died. She should read these words and know the truth. I almost told her when she got involved with that white boy — I didn’t trust him. But she got free of him quickly enough. I didn’t need to say the words. But they’re here. If anyone has a right to judge me, she does.
On that day in early March, Raksha at first seemed sober. But when we got to the recital hall, he slipped away. When he joined us in our seats, I could smell it on him. Chaya waited in the wings for her turn to go up. I said nothing. He drank more at intermission. Leilani sat on my other side; when Chaya went up, she took my hand. Chaya played beautifully that day. I never told her that. She was full of smiles as she curtseyed and the audience applauded.
Raksha hugged her when she came down. He hugged her and hugged her and when we left to go to the car, he swung her up on his shoulders. I should have stopped him then — but we were surrounded by people. I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of our friends and family and Chaya’s piano teacher. I don’t know why I cared.
When we got back to the car, Leilani offered to drive; Raksha refused. It was still winter in Chicago — we’d just been through a bad ice storm, and the roads were slippery. I tried to convince him to give her the keys, but he wouldn’t listen. He started to get angry; his voice got louder, and Leilani tried to take the keys from his hand. He shoved her away, hard, so that she fell on the ground. Chaya looked scared; she opened her mouth to yell, and Raksha pushed her inside the car, into the front passenger’s seat, shoving down the lock and slamming the door shut.
I couldn’t let him drive off with Chaya. He was running around the front, climbing into the driver’s seat. Chaya was crying loudly now, and I couldn’t breathe. I was on the wrong side of the car to reach him, to stop him. I opened the back door and climbed in. It took a few minutes — my stomach was so huge — but it seemed like it took forever. He had already turned on the engine. Before I closed the door, the car started to move. I slammed the door shut as Raksha took off. He was shouting at Chaya, "Seatbelt, seatbelt, seatbelt!" and Chaya was crying harder and trying to put the seatbelt on. She managed it, and I did too, dragging it across my belly as I begged him to stop the car. I was crying too. He didn’t say anything else, just drove, racing towards the highway, towards Lake Shore Drive. I don’t know what he was planning to do, where he thought he could go. I doubt he was thinking at all. He drove much too fast. Before we even reached the highway, we hit a piece of black ice; we skidded off the road and hit a tree.
We were all thrown forward, but the seatbelts held Chaya and me. Raksha had never put his on.
Chaya started screaming, and I tried to undo my seatbelt and get to her. The front of the car was crumpled and Raksha’s head was slammed up against the steering wheel, completely still. I couldn’t reach her seatbelt release. I reached forward, unlocked her door, climbed out of the car and opened her door, undid her seatbelt and got her out. I almost walked away from the car right then. We were on a deserted side street leading towards the highway. Nobody was there — and who would fault me, seven months pregnant and with a hysterical child, for leaving a grown man in a car that might explode? But I had to know if he was still alive.
He hadn’t moved. I walked Chaya over to a tree and told her to wait there. Then I went back to the car. I must have run as well as I could, but I felt as if I were walking in slow motion; everything had been happening so fast, but now time had slowed until it was almost stopped. Chaya was safely away, and I had plenty of time to do whatever needed to be done.
Chaya, I could stop here. Or I could tell you that I found him dead there, tell you what the doctors said later, that the combination of the alcohol and the shock and his weak heart had combined to give him a heart attack and kill him at thirty-one. Maybe that’s the truth.
I walked back to the car. I opened his door. I tilted him back in the seat, and I didn’t know if he was breathing or not. His eyes were closed; he wasn’t moving. My belly hurt and my legs ached, and I didn’t know how to tell if he still lived. It didn’t matter. Because what I did then was bend over my husband, shielding my actions with my body. I covered his mouth and his nose tightly with my hands and the folds of my sari. I counted seconds in my head. One one thousand. Two one thousand. Three one thousand. How long can a person hold their breath and live? I held my own breath until I had to breathe, until the air came rushing into my lungs in a great gasp, still counting. Seventy-nine. Eighty. Eighty-one. Eighty-two. He never moved.
I stood there until I heard another car pulling up, and then I stepped back and started to cry again. It was easy to cry. A white couple came up, all shock and pity and dismay. They herded me and Chaya into their car and drove us to the hospital, where we notified the police. The hospital sent an ambulance for Raksha. The family arrived soon afterwards, and they were all around me when we received official word of Raksha’s death. By that time the contractions had started, and I was barely paying attention to anything other than my belly. Leilani had swept Chaya up in her arms; I knew she’d be safe there. Three hours later, Savitha was born, her birth so quick and easy I hardly noticed it. Savitha means sunlight.
What more is there to say? I didn’t write in this journal again. I took the guilt on willingly. My life since then has been entirely for my daughters. I lost myself, buried myself, in caring for them. But they aren’t children anymore. Savitha is married and gone away; Chaya is finally leaving too. At first I couldn’t bear the thought, but lately, I’ve been waiting for her to go. I’ve kept her too close to me, for too long. I thought once that I would die when this day came, that I would fade away, a widow in mourning white.
I’m forty-nine. I have lived more than half my life unthinking, and the rest for my children. Now, shall I live for myself? Or should I turn myself in, pay for my crime? Chaya, when you read this, come and tell me what you think. I stole away your father, and you have never seemed the same. Silent instead of laughing. So serious. I did what I thought was best; I did it for myself, but also for you. Should I have done differently?
I wanted to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good mother. I am not sure that I succeeded at any of those, even the last.
Time to pull out all the threads, and start over.
This story originally appeared in Bodies in Motion.