Temporary lives: for my grandmother, Pushpam.
But I am getting ahead of myself. This story begins before 1921, when I was married, or 1905, when I was born, in the village called Idiayangudi in the district the British called Tinnevelly--which we knew in Tamil as Thirunelveli--in the southern part of India. This story begins with my grandfather, our first Christian, an 1862 missionary convert, who was the wealthiest palmyra farmer in the village, the first in his family to secure a plot of land to call his own, and who had been a palmyra climber for years before that, on other people's plantations. For twenty years of his life, from the time he was ten, he struggled as a common laborer. But with his brothers he hoarded his money, and with his brothers he bought and cleared and sowed the small red patch of soil he could afford. Because the palmyra is a desert tree and will grow anywhere, he was saved. He hired other climbers to climb his trees, he sold padhini, nungu, toddy, jaggery--all the many fruits of the palm--all over Thirunelveli district. He sent these off by train to the north, to Madras and Calcutta. He gained a reputation among the British as the best-quality jaggery merchant in Madras Presidency. The whole family of brothers worked at it, yet my grandfather was the one who believed in it enough to make it happen. For years, while I was growing up, my sisters and I would hear this story. Your grandfather had to climb many trees, my father would say, before he could pay a man to climb a tree for him. When you are young, it is natural to have to struggle. To reach your true-life, you must battle hardship.
This is why my mother's silence, all through the years of my growing up, became to me natural, because I believed there were places in the world you had to pass before you reached your true-life. Tunnels deep in the earth's heart, or wide-open fields filled with blowing wind and rock. Tests of courage meant to be painful, dark. I used to think these places were stones across the water to your real world. Before you arrived, you had to travel.
My mother's silence, I learned many years later, began in the year that I was born, 1905, when she fell into a long darkness of the spirit she never fully recovered from. I was her fifth child, and the fifth girl. My mother was frail and small-made, not strong, and she could not bear the thought of having to bear yet another child. But a woman is not whole without a son. She is not far from being barren, the people in the village said, looking at the five of us. Five girls is a curse, not a blessing.
My mother had two more children after me, over a period of six years, and they were both boys. She saved herself in this way from the villagers' contempt. She also restored to good standing the reputation of my father, who was the village schoolmaster. A man, after all, who fathered sons, was more than a man who fathered only daughters. More virile, more a man.
In those years, though, before my brothers were born, all five of us girls experienced my mother's unhappiness--it was a cloud that hung over all of us. My eldest sisters Champa and Malli told me that after the birth she would lie in her room with the windows closed, night and day, and refuse to wake. My sisters took care of me as a baby, because she would not listen when I cried; she simply refused to hear. Even I noticed, very young, when I entered the room, how she would turn away, or find something for me to do somewhere else. Against my will, I began to understand I was a terrible reminder to her, living proof of her inability to conceive a son. I felt, very early, that turning in her; it was inside her, like a seed is inside a fruit, already there. After I felt it, and saw how solid it was, how undeniable, I did not go toward her anymore. I did not ask for her attention. I did not stand in the doorway of her room and look longingly across to her. I understood how it was. I felt what she wanted me to do, and I did it; partly for her, and partly for myself, I turned too--I turned away from her.
My two eldest sisters, especially, were saddened by this. They were kind always. I grew up thinking of them in the way, I think, other children think of their mothers. In the night when I woke and called out to them, they answered.
There was always, in my dream, too, the ocean of the true-life waiting just beyond the line of jagged rock that scarred my present shore. For now I could only see it hovering in the distance as if from a train window--shimmer of blue and silver, a beckoning. But I knew I would come some day to water's edge, break past the rocks, the churning, and there I would be, knee-deep in aquamarine, so clear the sand at the bottom glittered, and the pearly shells of crabs and snails glowed like buried gems, rubies or amber. I would look up and the world would stretch before me, all ocean, my own: breath of my breath, skin of my skin, the world mine.
I held this dream for so long, consciously and asleep, that it wove its way insidiously into who I was and all through my life sustained me, like water rests on your skin when you bathe and slowly enters and softens. I was not prepared for any other kind of thinking. But one day my dream of the ocean broke, and there was nothing beyond any more, nothing in front of my feet but dark, nothing in the train window but my own reflection, no eyes meeting mine but my own.
When I was sixteen, my mother came to me in the courtyard where I sat hulling the rice, picking out stones and husk and bits of ulundu that had got mixed up in it at the store, and said I was to be married. I looked up at her. Her shadow blocked the sun. The skin around her eyes looked tired. She had been sweeping the compound in front of the house, and there was sweat on her face and neck. She wiped at it with her pallu as she spoke.
"It is a good family," she said. "We know them well. Not directly, but through our people. We hear only good things about them."
She waited. I didn't know what I was supposed to say. I kept silent.
"The family lives in Madras," she said. "The boy is a clerk for the government. He just recently got the job--and you know, that is quite prestigious. To work as a clerk for the British government is not a small thing--not everyone can get such a job."
I tapped the morram in my hands, thumb against edge, so the rice leapt and settled, husk flying clean.
"The father is a doctor. There are other sons, other children in the house."
I tapped away, my head down, her shadow on the grains in my hands. I could not tell what I felt. I could see the shadow on the rice, the dark slope, white gleaming.
"We have fixed the date for the twenty-seventh of May," said my mother. "We knew right away it is the kind of family you cannot refuse--we have given them your consent."
I ran my fingers through the rice, and the pale dust from their skins shivered lightly over mine.
"They'll treat you well," said my mother. "The boy has seen your picture, and he has said he likes you."
She stood a few moments longer beside me. She had said more to me than she usually did. I could not tell what I felt more confused by--what she had said, or the fact of her speaking. The silence in which we lived returned, at the end. It was reassuring--I was used to it. It was almost noon. The heat was in my bones. I could feel the sweat in the crease behind my knees slip down my call under my half-saree. There were crows in the coconut trees, hoarsely calling. Parrots screeched. I sat very still, my fingers idly touching the rice. She stood quietly beside me. Then she went inside.
Red earth, palmyra, huge blooms of cacti. I saw these from the train as we sped north to Madras.
I was afraid, but I was also full of secret excitement. I wondered if the ocean of my true-life was at last going to approach. I tried to imagine how it might look, far off in the distance, a glisten of blue and silver, a beckoning.
Steel tracks stretched before me. Steel tracks in an and landscape. I sat so still, and looked so hard, that the clack-clack of the wheels on the tracks began to beat in synchrony with the pulse-in-pulse-out of my heart, and the sky, packed with fish-scale clouds, came thundering toward me. I felt after a while I was the train itself, sealed within its cabins of steel, bound to its ancient tracks, with its many windows the eyes of my soul unleashed on the still, unmoving world as it hurtled onward. Every now and then I saw long rice fields, so green the water and spring shoots in them shimmered iridescent, like parrot wings, on the land. I was hungry, I took hope from these.
At the time of the wedding, I had only glimpses of the man I would marry. When we were exchanging vows, at the part where you had to say until death do us part, my new husband swiveled his head around to give me a penetrating stare, and I, discomposed, unsure of the right thing to do, glanced up and caught its spectacled scrutiny. It felt cold, passionless, his gaze. I could not tell what he was thinking. It felt like he was trying to read my mind, or wrest something from me. I looked away.
We went to the studio in town the day after we got married. I had to wear my wedding saree again. I sat on a high-backed, ornately carved armchair made of teakwood in the studio. The cushion beneath me was scarlet and made of velvet. The armrests, too, velvet. I looked down, did not lean my arms on them. I clasped my fingers in my lap for the picture. I did not look up until the photographer asked me to.
Gold rode high on my arms. I could feel the smooth cool weight of gold hanging from my earlobes and resting on the bare skin of my neck. The band of gold around my midriff kept my saree and veil and pallu in place and leaned tight into my breath.
My veil was tulle. The cloth was imported from England, and it was very light, and fluffy and full about my shoulders. My mother had pinned it back to my hair, all wound up into a plait piled on the nape of my neck. There was white baby powder on my face.
My husband stood beside me in full British splendor--a suit with a waistcoat and chain, no less. We had not said much to each other. He said, "Careful!" when we came out of the church into white sunlight and I almost tripped on the steps. I said, "I can't see my parents, can you see them?" when we arrived at the school hall for the reception afterward.
At the studio, with the bright lights focused blindingly on us, he turned to me and gave me a white cotton man's handkerchief. "Here, wipe your face," he said. "You're sweating."
He seemed very young. He wore his hair parted in the center and slicked back with oil. His moustache was small, trimmed very carefully at the ends. His hands were delicately shaped, almost like a woman's. The fingers were long and thin. The nail-faces oval. I thought, this is a man who cares about himself.
Three nights after the wedding, my husband consummated our vows, despite my confusion. I had never known the touch of a man on my body. I had not expected the physical pain I felt. But I found out soon enough it was only the beginning. Through the first ten years of our marriage, I learned what my mother knew, I learned the living of a woman's life. I opened a book I had not known existed, I turned the pages: the meeting of bodies, woman-blood, man-semen, the flaring open, distending of the hidden womb, forming of child-hands, child-eyes, in the supine darkness, the long tear and pull and in-held breath, pulsing of the universe, the final freeing, woman-body expelling flesh: child-heart, child-soul.
I bore nine children, seven of whom lived--five of these sons. Like my mother, I learned silence. All things seemed to take place in silence. A woman's world, I learned, was shaped and formed of silence, its contours (husks falling from rice) were silence, its breath (rice ground to a powder) silence, its flesh and bone (milk heaving in its skin of cream as it boiled) silence. The sounds I heard were silence. I gave to my children the yellow spill of my breast's flowing milk, and silence.
I lived without knowing I lived, in the echo of other women's voices, in the sleep of other women's dreams. My feet were held within the jeweled slippers of all the women who had come this way before--I heard their anklets ringing when I walked, felt their birth pains when I heaved. Knowing and not knowing, I fit my soles in the footprints of all the women who had walked before me.
For many years, I dreamt repeatedly of newborns, their bare heads round and shiny with birth-fluid, eyes scrunched tight, voices raised in rage at the pain of birth. Sometimes they tumbled in a stream in the middle of the house, clawing and scratching at each other. Sometimes they were miniscule, thumb's width, finger thick, they pushed up against my face, my hair, my clothes, pulling, pushing, tearing. Sometimes they floated, man size from the ceiling, the walls, they hung upside-down in space, eyes greedy and vengeful, they looked grotesquely down at me.
I was never present in these dreams as a figure or face or silhouette that could be seen. The babies crowded, demanded visibility. I was hidden in this crowding, shrouded by limbs, buried by eyes. Each time I woke I felt the residue of that crowding and I felt I knew, even then--I myself, thanks to the screaming children torn from me, I would never be seen.
Where was the dream of the true-life in those years? Was there a dream? Was there a scent of the possible in my wakings, my tendings, my sleep? A longing I kept sealed in my heart like an envelope to be opened on another shore?
I do not know.
The wind passes. At night you hear it in the trees high above the house, it goes through the knife blades of the coconut trees, palm upon palm, like a melody.
The rain passes. It comes from the Indian Ocean--a handful of clouds, a scattering--and goes toward the Ghats, pausing for a moment on the shore that is our town.
When my last child was seven years old, my mother died. I took the train with three of the children--Rani, Stephen, and the youngest, Martha--and went to the Idaiyangudi house for the funeral. My father was very old, and greeted me on the veranda. I have done your mother a great disservice, he said. I used up her life. He did not have to explain to me what he meant. My sisters and brothers were all in the house. We tried to reassure him, but secretly, in our hearts, as we sat with her body for the night, and kept the candles lit, we felt we understood. No one said it, but in our minds we could all see a room closed in daytime, all the windows closed, and my mother forever asleep on the bed, her back turned to us.
I returned to the day-to-day routine of cooking, washing, feeding the children. The house grew around me like a living thing. The walls crept, the doors crept, the rooms leafed and tendriled around me like a dusty vine. Hands reached out to me from the peeling plaster. Limbs locked with mine 'on the terrace.
I lived like a snail deep in its living shell, unable to move too far from its silvery shelter. I learned the shape and texture of the walls with my hands, the peeling of rust on the veranda's trellis work. I listened to the bright light from the high windows speak in planes to the floor, I communed with comers where dust slept. I listened to sparrows, to the crackle of wood burning in the kitchen.
Small things came toward me, their hands open: rain in the papaya, the deep mysterious hearts of flowers, the white pigeons on the neighbor's roof. I took small things into my hands.
I came to know that who I was equaled who the woman in the next house was, and the next and the next, all the way down to the end of the street. We lived the same lives. It didn't matter what we were-Hindu or Muslim or Christian. We woke to the calling of our children, to the long day of cooking and cleaning and listening, pallu over our heads in the heat, saying little, listening. When my husband spoke, I listened. When my mother-in-law spoke, I listened. When my father-in-law, my sisters-in-law, my brothers-in-law spoke, I listened. When my children spoke, I listened.
Those who heard me speak were women or children: the woman who sold keerai every morning at eleven in our neighborhood, the woman who came to work in our house, the women who came to see my father-in-law, the doctor-sir, my own children.
Time slipped through my fingers like rice when you clean it.
One day I woke, my sons were grown, my daughters ready to be married. In five shapes, my sons grew into their father. I was their mother, the woman who brought them forth into the world. I was a woman. When my sons spoke, I listened.
All through those years, in my mind, I was seated at a train window, traveling. I was looking across a loneliness of desert to a distant ocean.
The ocean was often invisible, so thinly silver a line it vanished in the sky's shining.
But as the years went by, I dreamt the ocean grew sharper in color as you approached, tangibly blue, green, violet. I dreamt it roared and sprayed on the rocks like a wild and buoyant spirit at play. I dreamt the sound and spray of it. In the midst of all the water once I dreamt a singing--at once of the earth and unruly, out of this world, a vibrance, soul-passion issued on the vigor and power of a human voice--my voice.
It was this, hearing the singing in my dream, that made me realize my own long-grown, long-coffined desire for a voice, a way to release all the depths of mingled feeling in my heart, buried and entombed in silence. I wanted to break the silence with my words. With my own voice, break it open.
Being a woman, doing a woman's work was the darkest tunnel, I thought, in the world. I believed in ends and beginnings then. I believed I could pass through it.
But then the change in our lives that would continue until my husband died began. One afternoon he said to me: you are not educated after all.
It is true, I had stopped studying after the tenth standard.
We were sitting outside in the front garden. He was talking about his work, how it was so different with the new government (it was 1951), after the British left. He had made his way up the ranks over the years and he had a fine position now, as Secretary with the Ministry of Education.
He was much respected. At church, he was always on the board of some committee or the other. He had a great presence in church, he stood for something. The pastor often brought visiting bishops and senior members of the diocese around after the service to meet my husband. And at home, there were always people coming to see him, to ask his advice, or bring him something--a box of sweets, a crate of fruit--for some favor done. It was much like when his father was alive, and patients came in to see the old man or bring gifts. I did not get a chance usually to sit and talk with him.
But then he rarely spoke to me. He said little to the women as a rule. He spoke to our sons, to his brothers, to other men. I had learned very young this is how it was, men spoke this way. Women were not for the speaking to.
But this evening he said his work was getting more and more difficult, the old system was better, these people were out to dishonor you all the time, and I said, when he was finished, this is what I said: you mustn't be discouraged, I am sure no one can deny the quality of your work and your experience.
He said then it was clear he could not talk to me. That I could not follow the nuances of his tribulations. He said, even Victoria can follow me when I speak.
I said, who is Victoria?
He looked exasperated. She is the daughter of my friend, Victor, he said, the one who is in medical college. He started to smile as he said this, at the thought of how bright she was.
I said, I would have become a doctor if my father had let me.
He snorted at that and fell into silence. He didn't talk to me about his work after that.
That was the first time I heard him speak of Victoria.
Her name floated around the house like the scent of cinnamon after that--deep, accented, ambiguous. My children spoke of her. They looked at me and away, they stopped talking when I entered rooms.
So, very early on, I knew there was something there, something I felt in my bones I did not want to know.
I was reading a lot on my own then, rocked from the world into caverns of my own self, filled with searching.
At first only the Christian publications that lay around the house--My Daily Bread, a life story of Sadhu Sundar Singh. Then I found some of my children's textbooks and I began to read them--Ancient Indian history, the history of religions, a book on Hindu scripture, a book on Buddhist thinking, poems by Rabindranath Tagore, translated into English.
I looked long at a picture postcard of the seated Kamakura Buddha a cousin sister had sent us a long time ago from her missionary travels in Japan and China. Closed eyes, crossed legs, the body lotus-ed, folded and flowering in repose. The drape and Grecian fold of stone on the statue falling as if in solemn, natural curves around the in-held heart of the tranced, unawoken god.
I knew from the beginning that something in Buddhism was calling to me. The peace and sanctuary of the Buddha's closed eyes spoke to all the soreness of my seeing. I wanted that inwardness. Here, in this life, this moment. Not after my death, in heaven, as the resurrected Christ promised. But in this living.
Then I came across a passage from one of the great Buddhist masters that iterated the Buddhist credo: that our deaths were knit into our lives, that we were born already broken. That to live as the Zen Buddhists did, in the here and now, the only moment, was the only true living.
Something opened inside me like a red wound, a flower, when I read those words.
A very strange thing. I could no longer believe only in the Christian idea of salvation, the karmic afterlife in which recognition was conferred, and heaven and hell, both terrible and all-consuming, approached us as reward or sentence, one or the other. I found I did not want the God of my childhood, the God of my husband. I could feel how I was turning from Christ, deep inside, a deliberate turning. I did not question it.
Yet I kept going to church all this time. Because there is always the life of the surface to be lived, and I excelled at it.
I also knew by now something large was happening in my husband's life. He was away from home for weeks. He was short-tempered, impatient, when he returned. The amount of money he gave me for the house was dwindling.
My older children worked and gave me money for the house and the family. Much was done in silence. I said little to them. But they must have talked among themselves. They respected my need, unspoken, for silence. They gave me money, I used it. There was rice to be bought, and parripu, and meat, fish, vegetables. There was the electricity bill to pay, curtains to be sewn, clothes for school and work to be bought. We ran the house as before, we tried to keep up the same standards.
Then of course, the moment arrived, the moment all things ended in my seeing, all things broke, and the ocean of my dreams disappeared forever.
I was prepared, and I was not prepared.
I knew it was going to happen, yet I could not have foretold the depth and intensity of my own reaction.
My husband came to me one morning, after yet another long interlude in the south, where he said he had had work to do--and he said, without preface, he had become a Muslim, he had changed his name, and he had married another woman. He said, as a Muslim, a man can have up to four wives--and this is why I have done this. He said: I want you to know you are the mother of all my children. I would not harm you in any way. He said, your position will not change in any way. Your life will be the same. Only mine will change. I will live half the year in Vellore with Victoria, where she has a medical practice.
He said, in my heart I will always be a Christian.
It was midmorning; the day's heat was in the room. On the table was a glass of cold water I had just drawn from the clay pot for him.
At the fore of my thoughts was a chaotic, irrelevant questioning: what did it mean that we were exchanging gods so easily, that we had both come to this, professing one God on the outside and pursuing another within?
Outside, on the mango tree, there were crows. I heard them calling. My husband was fifty-four years old. I was forty-nine. I looked down at the tumbler of water and in its still, circular surface, I saw my own questioning.
I went to the beach that evening. No one came with me. My children may have thought I was going to church. I did not correct this impression.
I walked down the long stretch of still-hot six o'clock sand, taking my slippers off, sinking barefoot in the debris from shells, nets, and fish scales that litter the marina, toes scrunching in and out of white sand. People crowding the sand.
By water's edge on damp sand I walked, waves cool and foamy on my ankles, drenching the cotton of my saree. I did not lift the pleats up with one hand. I let the waves buffet, flow over me, I went in deeper and deeper.
Children were playing beside me. Fisher children, bare-chested, diving and swimming and shouting and tossing water at each other. A man with a child on his shoulders stood to my left. His wife beside him, her saree neatly hitched up at her waist. Jasmine in her hair.
The waves blew sand and shell at me. They were coming in higher now, up above my waist. My hands wet, legs wet, saree wet, face drenched in spray.
The man with the child called to me above the sound of the wind. Madam, Madam! What are you doing, the tide is coming in-you're going in too far!
The ocean was a deep, heaving green. The sky grey. No hint of aquamarine anywhere.
I looked down. I could not see my feet in the sand when the waves swirled and the sand swirled and ropes of seaweed, dead chrysanthemum tossed into the sea from a funeral wreath perhaps, caught and clung.
Madam, come back!
This was my life, I realized. It was not waiting in the distance, clear glass, lit and ringing. It had never waited. It was here. It had always been here. And it was not mine, not my own secret to break open and into--it was vast, it was endless, it was full of debris, and I was knee-deep in it.
I looked down, and I could no longer see the ocean.
The water was black around me. The water was dead.
The water was an emptiness, a black chasm, I fell through it. I closed my eyes, I could feel myself falling. Born, already broken, I thought. Our lives broken inside us. Our lives a breaking.
And what is the life after?
After the man on the beach had saved me, literally dragged me out of the water and thrust me, dripping, dazed, on the sand, people gathering around me, round-eyed, scolding me for my thoughtlessness, I sat, saree a cold second skin around me, looking at the sea.
What was to come? What was the life after to be like?
The dream of the true-life was dead in me then. I knew there was to be no true-life shimmering in the future. There was one-life, there had been one life all along. And right now it was dead water foaming around me. Ropes of seaweed around the neck, closed eyes of fish, ground and eaten shell. It was death, a constant dying.
Not the life I wanted.
The sea heaved and crested and foamed ahead, steadily darkening. Wind blew. Salt crusting on my skin as it dried.
I wondered what my husband had changed his name to. I wondered how Victoria was newly named, she too had become a Muslim.
I had thought that the lives I had lived were makeshift lives, in-between lives. Before-lives, in-waiting for the true life. But here was the ocean, here was the true-life, here, where it had been, all along, here, where it would never recede. Never dreamed-of, unwanted.
A streak of lightning broke through the sky. Its white shimmering falling on the water like a heavenly shining. I looked at the explosive gleam of silver water and saw the high, uneasy churning. A ragged wind blew sand into my face. It was going to rain. All around me, people were leaving. Down the long row of vendors selling hot groundnuts and sundal, the yellow flicker of kerosene lamps shook in the wind.
I picked myself up, took my slippers in my hand and began to walk up the beach. Every now and then a white shell glittered in the sand. I bent without thinking, picked it up. I shook the sand off, held it in my hand. I smoothed its blunt, eroded contors, I felt the satin inside the mouth. Then I picked another, and another, and another. Some of these shells were broken. They were bits of shell--a curve, a flattened scoop, some shiny, ended part of a once living mollusk. I picked them all up. I felt I would never have the true-life of my dreaming. But perhaps I could actually live in the in-between, one makeshift to another, keeping that before me, the transience. All my dreaming broken. All my lives temporary.
My children were careful in what they said to me afterward. I saw them watching me now and then, as if worried, as if uncertain. They were afraid to speak. They did not speak. Silence, the river of seeming calm between us, resumed its usual flow.
My husband lived with us a few weeks or so at a time. He would go away and come back after a month. My daughters-in-law began to take over the duties of the house. They made time for me to rest, supervised the servants who helped cook and clean for us, called me in to eat.
There was no one among all our relatives who did not know what had happened. I wondered what they thought sometimes. I would walk into rooms and voices would drop, eyes turn away. Sometimes I felt a tide of sympathy sweep over me from some quarter. Yet I knew I could not rest on it. Because I was a woman, and a woman carries her husband's name with her.
I thought then: In the house of my marriage there are many rooms. Who built this house? Not me, nor my husband. My husband opens the door and steps out into the world. The sun removes itself. The walls grow and grow around me. The windows seal themselves. Vines and roots wrap themselves round the brick, the glass, the wood, I wander from room to room, hearing the sound of my breath. I look through the dust-grimed, vine-wrapped windows at the world.
When I walk in the streets with my children I carry the house around me like a cloak. If I stepped outside it, let myself be seen in public without that concrete burkah, I would be a woman exposed and naked, revealing her family's shame to the world.
There were some things, I learned, a woman could do. After church, one Sunday morning, I made breakfast for the beggars who came knocking on our gate. That is how it started. Word passed around. More and more people came by from the slums on Sunday mornings. I had my son bring in long wooden benches from a school nearby. I put them in the backyard. Every Sunday our household fed the poor.
My husband did not say a word. He seemed distantly approving. He approved my piety.
My children began to regard me in a somewhat exalted light, as if I were a saint. This was such a Christian thing to do.
They did not know I had stopped praying or reading the Bible. Somewhere inside I had slammed doors shut against the old Christ I had known, the God of the bible, my God. I kept the postcard with the Buddha on it in my Bible--I took it out and looked at it often.
The house of my marriage still grew around me its walls of brick and ivy, but I knew now my soul was not inside it.
I also went to church in the evening for the 6 p.m. service, even if I'd gone once already in the morning with the family. The hand-rickshaw man on our street came to the door regularly at 5:30 every Sunday evening. I closed the gate behind me, climbed in, he unfurled the big fanned shade over my head. It was a restful moment.
I went to be alone, to sit with the organ's slow sound before service, white flowers at the altar, dark pews, dusk turning to violet in the sky, the slowly turned-on lights of the crystal chandelier. I went to sing.
Our church had a large compound around it, and on one side of it, at the far end, a graveyard. On the other side, beyond a small garden, was the pastor's house. You could look out of the big double doors of the church on either side and see flowers, sky, trees, headstones. In the evenings there were birds in the shoeflower bushes and the gulmohar and the tamarind--sparrows, mynahs, parrots, pigeons.
It was the old people's service. You looked around and you saw all the old people in the parish, the ones who couldn't make it at seven for the morning service.
I lifted my voice up to the heavens, I sang. The songs themselves were not uplifting, at least, not the melodies. The songs were old. Old English hymns, written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Our organist had a predilection for the most mournful among them. But I liked hearing the sound of my voice, raised in song, against the closely held leaves of the hymnal.
Victoria and my husband were together for eighteen years. Then she divorced him and married a doctor friend from her college days, and they emigrated to England. She was still young, after all, she must have been in her late thirties then. My husband was seventy-two. He came back to the house to live, and he kept to himself and his routines. Between us, there was too much silence to overcome.
The heart and lung trouble he started having in his sixties returned. He was under treatment and faithfully took his medication, yet, within one year, his heart gave out. The day we sat together by the hospital window, and the light, new gold, began to enter the room, it is true I could not speak. But I looked at the letter once more, to please him, and I put my hand over his. Both our hands were warm and trembled. He asked me if I would sing, and I opened the hymnbook. I looked for the song "Amazing Grace," and I started to sing. Something glistened in his eyes, faintly. His breath was labored. His eyes beginning to close. I kept on singing. I heard the strength in my voice as I raised and lowered it, feeling like a rower in a boat, pushing and forging a way through a wave-filled ocean. His body heaved a sigh. A small whistling sound escaped his lips. I knew he was leaving by the end of the first verse but I could not stop. The minutes passed. The morning came into the room, and I was singing.