- Temporary Lives
One day my husband will die, and before he dies he will hand me a letter with my name scrawled all over it, Rose Ammal, Rose Ammal, like a poem, and it will say: forgive me, there is nothing else to ask, I must request this one Christian kindness before I leave. I will gaze out the hospital window into the shell-pink morning and not say a word. The silence will tick like eternity between us, for we are alone in this moment. Victoria, who took the Muslim name Mumtaz Mahal, to please him, is long run off to England. Later I will fold the letter and slide it inside my gold tissue-silk wedding saree. At the funeral service that evening I will wonder what the Buddha advises about this word, forgive.
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 [End Page 5] 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...