Originally published in Penn Union, Johns Hopkins writing journal
Prisms: a Legacy of Colors
I heard the crash before I felt the blow to my head. The accordion door of the bedroom closet had collapsed, knocking me over like a spinning top that had lost its rhythm. Hangers, choked with my traditional sarees, had ripped out the five-foot pole along with the closet door. Yards of vibrant, lustrous silks spilled into a heap on the dusty berber carpet. I angrily massaged my head and surveyed the damage: the door hung precariously on one hinge; blue French chiffon, like diaphanous jellyfish, gently swayed from lopsided hangers; green silks draped dramatically from the broken rod, and a gold-sequined georgette glittered merrily, trapping the late afternoon Maryland sun.
Since coming to the United States seven years earlier, I had changed apartments at least five times. It was time to move again. Time to look for larger closets, closets with studier doors that could hold the hues of my past, present, and possibly a future.
“We don’t need to sell the house, Mama -- just fix the closet,” said my nine-year-old daughter, Shibani, who feared any kind of change. Shibani was only a baby when I left her with my parents to come to the United States. A failed marriage had nudged me toward completing my degree in education. Three years later, she came to live with me in my studio apartment in Silver Spring. Getting her to sleep in her own bed, in her own room, usually ended in tears that poured like monsoon rain down her face as she convulsed in anxiety. After finally crying herself to sleep, she would wake up a few times in the middle of the night just to check on me -- to make sure that I had not abandoned her. And even now, at nine, she followed me around our two-bedroom townhouse we had purchased.
“Come, help me fold these sarees,” I invited, skirting the issue.
“Kaastoooo raaaamro! (How beautiful!) Will you give me one when I grow up?” she asked as she scooped the heap in an embrace and buried her face in the soft fabric.
“How about buying you a new one? These are my old ones.” I said, wanting her to inherit my present.
“Who gave you this one -- Booba and Mamoo?” She picked up a white silk.
Ivory white, spun of sheer silk, and embroidered in gold, the saree had a glossy texture. It smelled musty with a lingering trace of mothballs and, perhaps, sandalwood perfume. That was how we packed our clothes back home in Nepal. I was fifteen when my mother gave me the saree as a rite of passage. “Here, put on this petticoat and matching blouse. Drape the saree-end around your body like a long skirt, gather some of it in folds and tuck them into your petticoat above your navel; sweep the rest of it over your left shoulder…make sure to cover your breasts.” Her instructions were shorter than the nine-yard piece of flimsy cloth I was to wrap around me. “But, always wear red bangles with white,” she had warned. “White is actually inauspicious; it repels light, renounces life -- only widows wear it.” Because I was unmarried, my mother had conceded to my wearing white. I matched the chiffon with white strappy sandals and silver glass bangles, and wore them to my high school graduation. For me, white symbolized free will, not a social taboo. That’s what a western education does to you, regardless of where you are born.
* * *
I grew up in the dusty city of Kathmandu where caste, tradition and religion defined our budding psyche: Girls were usually married off after high school; a woman was always protected by a man -- by her father during her childhood and her husband after marriage. Widowhood essentially meant a life of vulnerability, especially if she had no sons. Divorce was unthinkable and unmentionable -- there must have been a serious flaw in the woman for her husband to have left her for another woman! Amidst all these societal enclosures, my parents sent me and my sister to St. Mary’s High School, a Catholic school run by European nuns. There I had access to western literature unfettered by Nepali norms: I admired Nancy Drew’s adventurous spirit, Agatha Cristie’s Miss Marple, -- nothing really serious, just inspiring to a gullible mind. No one criticized my parents on the untraditional way we were being raised. Although my mother sometimes worried “what will the neighbors say,” rarely restrained us from Western theater, athletics, and even swim lessons. Her only superstition resided in the strict protocol of colors: in Hinduism, red means auspicious moments, marital bliss, and a long life for husbands. White garb means absolute destitution, especially for a married woman.
* * *
“Yes, this was my first saree, Mamoo gave it to me.”
Shibani scooped up a handful of colorful silks and wrapped them around herself like a mummy. Joyful eyes scanned the material as her hands gently fingered the texture.
“Why don’t you have any red sarees, Mama?”
It wasn’t a question I had anticipated or had an answer to. My bridal collection of maroon brocades with fourteen carat gold threads, tomato-red raw silks decorated in sequins matching the red dot of my once-married forehead, were sarees that symbolized faith, passion, and fertility in Hindu tradition. The ceremonial wedding silk was crimson and ornate gold. Like sinewy strands of whispered desire, the fabric slithered and contoured around my body, my mind, and my psyche. Gold threads flickered like malignant tongues of a forest fire, lurking, luring, waiting to consume. I was only eighteen, young, eager, oblivious, and in love.
I recall two traffic-light red suitcases that followed me to my husband’s home. The first, given by my parents, had twenty colorful sarees, complete with matching petticoats and blouses. The more expensive silks with heavy embroidery were for special occasions like attending weddings,
engagements, Pasnee -- rice feeding ceremonies for six-month-old babies, Diwali -- festivals of lights, Dashain -- festivals to celebrate the Lord Rama’s victory over Evil. The less expensive sarees were for family parties and visiting friends. There was also a complete set of 22-carat gold jewelry: An intricate hair ornament that rested in the mid-parting of my hair and caressed the top of my forehead; gold earrings hand-crafted like a peacock, almost brushing my shoulders; matching necklace which almost covered my upper chest; heavy gold bangles that jingled and clanked with red glass bangles -- red glass bangles were another sign of matrimony; delicately crafted, gold paisley leaves chained together to make fine anklets -- the anklets were to seductively drape my henna-decorated feet while tiny bells tinkled as I walked. Even my toe nails were painted to match my scarlet bridal saree. Wrapped in red and dripping in gold, I was the ultimate Hindu bride.
The second suitcase was from my husband’s family. It contained almost the same items as the other one with one difference -- it also included drab, red cotton sarees. I was marrying into a Brahmin family and at eighteen, I was expected to drop my studies and give up any crazy ideas of pursuing a career. I was to wear those cotton sarees as I assumed the household chores of cooking a five-course meal three times a day, washing the family laundry, and bearing healthy baby boys to ensure the continuation of the family name.
By a quirk of fate, my marriage followed a downward spiral that led my husband into a deep chasm of depression soon after the birth of Shibani. Our relationship disintegrated under the weight of his illness, the pressures of an unhappy union, and post natal stress. Nothing can compare to shattered glass bangles -- the more shards you try to pick up the more they cut you -- tiny, invisible, but deep. That was the state of my marriage when I finally tired of gluing together the useless parts. Like a Nepali saying -- by the end, my marriage was held together with spit.
After my divorce, I folded those torrid silks, packed them neatly in a cardboard box, and discarded them into the holy Bagmati River where it blended with human ashes from nearby funeral pyres. Opaque, muddy water clogged with silt swirled around the box until the container turned a dark, molasses brown. It sank slowly, without much drama. As I watched the debris of my marriage disappear, I felt no remorse about the act. I experienced relief as if a stone had been removed from my sandal. I simply did not miss their seductive radiance among my other clothes. Those sultry silks, as sticky and tenacious as cobwebs, had lured me into trying to resolve the problems of my marriage, yet again, until a tangle of knots had emerged. Those sarees had to go -- they were my siren songs, my crystal prism of red and gold. The rest I packed into a suitcase and brought with me to the United States. What followed was a period of white clothes -- from the blizzard of ‘96 to the storm of Isabella. But I was not in mourning. For the second time in my life, I was exploring the pristine, colorless expanse of my teen years.
* * *
“I don’t like reds and golds.” I answered Shibani, hastily folding uncomfortable memories back into the broken closet. It was too soon for me to tell her about my marriage to her father, his tumultuous life, our separation and divorce, and what brought me to Washington, D.C. Shibani was innocent and sheltered -- I had made sure that she would not be shadowed by vague stories of the man she had never known. In fact, the scraps of my life from the other side of the world, from a continent of rigid traditions, lay untouched at the bottom of the Bagmati River. Shibani was blissfully unaware of colors or traditions that signified strict gender roles. She had free reign to expand her inquiring mind.
A month later we moved to a bigger townhouse in Burtonsville, with larger closet space. Space enough for the sarees to rest elegantly, with breathing room for more. That was four years ago.
* * *
Last year, I married a Syrian Catholic man from India. “I can send you a gorgeous magenta-red and gold saree for your wedding,” said my mother who could not contain her excitement. Her daughter was finally re-marrying after what she refers to as “a life in the wilderness without a man.” Since my divorce, she had trudged her way to the family astrologer’s small herbal store, clutching my rolled and rubber-banded Janma Kundli -- birth chart.
“Do you think my daughter will ever remarry? She lives alone in Aamrika with her little girl and I worry. I would like to see her married -- that’s my only wish before I die.” My mother was always hopeful.
“Hmmm, I see an auspicious time to for her to get married. But I don’t see it actually happening…yet.” The astrologer would intently study the planetary movements in my birth chart and predict my husbandless future.
* * *
“The brides wear white and gold saree, in our culture,” my fiancé from Kerala, India, suggested helpfully. But what did he know about social stigmas; he was male. Even his church did not approve our union because I was a divorcee with a child. His parents and siblings had had high expectations of him: He should choose a virgin bride from his community, someone younger who would speak his language, Malyalam, and someone who would worship at an orthodox catholic church. He had disappointed them all.
I chose an ocean blue and parrot green chiffon lehenga, a toe-length, shapely skirt lavishly embroidered with fine gold threads and elegant glass beads. Blue and green released me from my past relationship with red. A matching blouse and a long, rectangular piece of scarf completed the outfit. The warm satin weave embraced my form intimately. Despite the early March chill, I felt a single bead of sweat trickle down my back. We had invited only a few friends and no family. My relatives were too far away and his were too displeased. A Unitarian minister from Bowie, Maryland, who used to be a Catholic priest, was to conduct the marriage ceremony. He was to include the Lord’s Prayer; a close friend was to read a prose selection, and finally we, the bride and groom, were to walk around a small oil lamp. The flickering yellow-orange flame of the lamp, an ever present witness to human existence, was to be the ultimate spiritual witness to our union. The wedding ceremony would be an experiment in Christian- Hindu rituals.
In my townhouse bedroom, I applied final touches of kohl to my eyes with shaking hands. My throat was parched with nervous swallowing and just for a moment, my heart fluttered. I inhaled deeply before I rose to begin the march to my living room where my well wishers gathered for the ceremony. I knew my bridal party of Shibani, her three friends and our pleasantly plump, shi-tzu named Zen-Ruby, were waiting.
Then, Shibani stepped into the room. She wore an elegant, French-vanilla-white, halter dress with periwinkle blue and coal black butterfly prints that fluttered in specks of glistening silver. Her white-gloved hands, like sacred doves, held a bouquet of white, blue and purple orchids. On her head, she wore a tiara encrusted with crystals. She was unbound, unfettered, unburdened, like the butterflies on her fragile chiffon folds.
Her eyes, glistening like wet, black river stones, gravely scrutinized me in the mirror. I wondered how she felt about my marriage. I braced myself.
“You don’t look like a bride, Mama, more like a cross between a mermaid and a bird of paradise!” she whispered, giving me a tight hug.
Last edited: 02-May-09 09:54 PM