“Lips that taste of tears, they say,
Are the best for kissing.”
In his eyes, mounted on the back of his motorcycle, my black arms around him, I was Radha, a goddess of great beauty. I was suddenly imbued with a strange black power. I, Thanam, the color of Krishna, the Hindu God of Love, was no longer reviled but revered. His love heightened the blackness of my skin and enhanced the whiteness of my eyes and my teeth, brought fullness to my body and a luster that caught the suspicious gaze of my brothers. Long before I was aware that I was being watched, my every move and word monitored, long before my breath caught in my throat, choking it, long before my bones were battered, and my frail body had suffered the welts inflicted by my brother’s belt, and my black skin bruised, they had arranged my marriage to Singam, a Labor Officer, in the Malaysian civil service.
I lost my mind. When the groom’s party arrived at my brothers’ house, I fluttered like a wounded crow under the bed. The rough, raw ends of the bed-boards caught my hair as I retreated to the furthest corner. The darkness there was comforting. In what felt like the arms of the Mother Goddess, away from the hot humidity of the afternoon, I uttered little sounds to comfort myself, hugging my bare bones to my chest, folding myself away, amidst the dust and an old trunk, as if I were nothing but a bolt of cloth.
They had threatened to belt me in the presence of the wedding party if I did not put on the silk sari and gold, diamond and ruby ornaments that had been laid out for me on the bed. I looked at the huge silver chakarams that whirled deliriously all over the charcoal grey sari they had chosen and my head began to spin. Like a person already dead, like a wooden drum, my heart had beat hollow inside me as I wrapped the grey silk around my black body. Doing as I had been told. The clock struck three times, and the sound of it shuddered through my body like death. It was as if our love had already been reduced to a pile of ashes. I simply dropped the talcum powder, spilling its perfumed whiteness on the dressing table and shot under the bed. The windows had iron grills, and the curtains only occasionally moved. All the rest of the room was still.
For the groom’s party, and my brothers, in the living room, it was time for tea, biscuits, and polite conversation. In the kitchen, the servant girl steeped the tealeaves in the white Pyrex teapot and set out the imported English biscuits. In a little while, the groom’s party would make little rustling noises and it would be time to view the bride. Under the bed, I felt like the sacrificial lamb tied to the outpost, in the courtyard of the temple of the Mother Goddess. As often as I had seen the ritual slaughter of the lamb, I had not up until now focused on anything but the festivities and the feast that followed after. Today, I was in the catatonic state of the animal, trembling in anticipation of nothing but the inevitable.
I think it was that day my body was sold but not my soul. That fluttered to the far corners of the earth as my body crushed under the bed. I was afraid for what I already knew was going to happen to me. I remember casting about for a comforting look from my mother, but she stared down from the photograph mounted on the wall with pursed lips. The dead do not and cannot speak to the living, she seemed to admonish, her disapproval bearing down on me, black and white. Would she have approved of such a marriage, I wondered. Had she herself been married in this manner? I pondered. If she were alive, would she have intervened on my behalf or rebuked my brothers? Futile. Such thoughts. I chided myself for having them because none of it was going to avert the course of these events. Prayers, I could not utter.
“What God or Goddess,” my mind asked, numbly, “would require such a sacrifice of me?” Singam had said, yes, they said and what did I have to say, they asked. Was I, Thanam, willing to marry their son, they asked. “Yes. Yes!” my brothers answered for me, in a chorus. She is shy they said when I stood there, head down, refusing to speak. She is a motherless child, so we spoilt her growing up. She is obedient though. She will do as we tell her, they said. “Won’t you, Thanam?” my oldest brother, asked drawing close menacingly. “She is so shy she ran away to hide under the bed when she heard you are all coming to see her. We had to coax her out.” He told the wedding party. “Didn’t we Thanam?”, he asked me.
I held the edge of my sari in my hands, took it to my mouth, and began to giggle. He was smiling but his words were spoken through gritted teeth. I found the charade amusing. The silver chakarams on the sari began to whirl, and my brother ordered me to leave the room. I heard him say, she is shy, so shy to the bewildered wedding party and I laughed even harder.
My lover had always chosen colors like red, orange, gold and green for me and cooed, as if I were a prize pigeon, ‘kaka ke than konjoo, pon konjoo’ in Tamil. I had translated that in my head to English and laughed. Those words meant that to a crow, its babies were golden. I had no illusions about my looks. In the most ornate of mirrors, or in the most elaborate of garments, I am ugly. Once I got over the pain of it, I began to cultivate a sense of humor and even enjoy the cruel jokes about the color of my skin, making some of my own. I must have frightened, the Gods, I told my friends; they fled with their tools when they saw what an apparition they had created.
Many a time before I met my lover, I had sighed into the mirror, staring at my reflection in anguish, asking the Gods why they had chosen to give me a form at all. Or life.
All that changed when my lover spoke to me at the bus stop.
“Great Expectations, ah?” he asked, startling me.
“Yes. Charles Dickens.” I replied tersely, unaccustomed to talking to strange men.
“I know. I read the Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist…have you often wondered what it must have been like to have been born in those times and places, Teacher?’, he asked with all the earnest curiosity and interest of a new student.
I looked at him, startled. Teacher, he had called me. I might have given my heart to him then. Everyday after that he stood outside the teacher training college, his motorcycle leaning near the barbed wire fence that surrounded the compound. Soon, even as I ran down the steps of the college all giggles and braids, I began to look for him. Then, I rode on the back of his motorcycle, ignoring the occupants of the bus and the whispers and nudges of the other teachers as both vehicles stopped at the traffic lights.
I was a virgin when I married Singam. My lover prior to Singam did not kiss my lips or attempt in anyway to act dishonorably towards me. We spoke like the blackbirds in English, Tamil, Malay and a smattering of Cantonese, Hokkien and Hakka. I put my arms around him and embraced him like a thousand good books and a million ideals, yes. Our love, such as it was, was pure. But my arms around my lover, and the rides on the motorcycle, gave rise to talk in the community. The words whipped like the wind about our ears and soiled the way I was perceived. In the eyes of the students, the teachers and my brothers, I was no more ‘Teacher’. I dropped to the level of a common prostitute. My lack of physical beauty did not help me; it assassinated my character and reputation by imputing unnatural passions and lusts to my otherwise ordinary person.
“Look. Look how shamelessly she walks now”, they said. Though I walked as I always had, my head down, books or bag held in my hands, the sweat staining my sari blouse and my braids looped around the back of my head. Shameless. Shameless. Shameless. The words rang in my head like a school bell. As the priest chanted the mantras around the fire, I walked burdened as if I still had all the books in my arms, behind Singam.
I barely looked at him, though the wedding photos record something different. There, we are, like still life paintings or statues, placing garlands around each other’s necks. And here, another photograph, Singam is placing the thali around my neck. I must have been grimacing in pain, but it looks like a smile. Each photograph burns in my memory as something different but here, all the black and white photographs record a Hindu wedding. Woman walking behind a man, the edge of her sari tied to his veshti, the holy words rising upward to the Gods and Goddess like the flames of Agni. The Hindu priests, the yellow rice stinging my skin, the myriad relatives, the deafening sounds of the drum…my aching head. I would have shed blood for tears that day but my brothers had said that if they caught me crying or red-eyed they would whip me again with the belt. So, on my wedding day to Singam, Labor Officer in the Malaysian Civil Service, I wore the traditional red sari and a turquoise blue one. The colors are significant. In the months leading up to the mattuchamantham or exchange weddings, Singam, I was told, repeatedly, was a ‘good catch.’ My brother, Murugan, who is fair skinned and handsome as a Greek God, with a shock of black hair, a classic nose and red lips, was making a sacrifice for me. “Who would ever consider marrying you if Annai does not marry your samanthi’s daughter?” they asked as if they had not just driven a suitor away. I learned painfully to remain silent. Annai is short in stature and his future wife, Urvasi is taller than he, but the marriage parties had already made arrangements to correct for the shortfall. Urvasi would never again wear high heels. Only flat – heeled sandals. No doubt some of the money my sister-in-law brings into the marriage, in the full regalia of her dowry, would go to pay for a pair of men’s shoes for Annai. It was all for the common good. I began to giggle, again. It struck me as funny, somehow. Great Expectations..ah?
My lover had given the turquoise blue sari to me by making private arrangements with the owner of the sari shop. The shop belonged to one KalyanaSundram, a fat kindly Indian gentleman who got all his silk saris from India. KalyanaSundram had two wives, like the Lord Murugan, my lover told me. KalyanaSundram was in love with the idea of love and marriage, like his namesake he loved weddings and marriage and love and could quote entire dialogue spoken by his favorite Tamil movie star, Sivaji Ganesan. KalyanaSundram had married both the daughters of a wealthy man. A two in one deal, he liked to joke because he had married sisters and they competed for his attentions. Genially, he broke into song when he saw me. …..pavadai thavani yil parthe uruvamaaa…or is this an apparition I had seen dressed in the attire of a young pubescent girl…. It was his clandestine acknowledgement of our prior arrangement.
My lover had gone ahead and chosen the turquoise blue sari for me. “I am giving you the unclouded blue sky, my blackbird,” he had said. “Your body may belong to another, but your soul is free. Remember that. When we are both ashes, we will rise up and find each other and once again resume life. Ours is not a love that ends in a pile of ashes. Ours is not a love of the physical body and sensual pleasures. I have loved your spirit. I will continue to love your spirit and mind, and wish you well from the four corners of the earth.” My lover spoke these words to me earnestly, in front of KalyanaSundram owner of the sari shop. It was if we were married before him because KalyanaSundram’s eyes misted over. I knew my lover fully meant every word he spoke but it was all drama to KalyanaSundram. Like all Tamil men, he loves a good story. Tamil men are raised by doting mothers who feed them rice with their right hand, telling them stories about just kings and watching over them fondly, combing their hair and fawning with barely hidden maternal pride. My lover’s words touched KalyanaSundram about as deeply and as momentarily as his favorite actor, Sivaji Ganesan’s, dialogue. Once the curtains came down, it would be business as usual for KalyanaSundram. But for me, the words, took root. I knew the words were uttered with all sincerity and that one day, I would fly like a blackbird in the sky. Duty first. Love afterwards. I listened to my lover’s words with the fervor of a disciple of God and received his love into my heart. After all did not Krishna, the God of Love say, even if a devotee were to offer me a leaf of grass with love, I would accept? How could I refuse the gift that comes unadorned from a sincere and spiritual heart? I had only read the Bhagavad Gita in its English translation, Sanskrit being esoteric gibberish to me but even the rocks know what is holy.
Singam’s mother and sister arrived to take me shopping. I giggled all the way there and back. It struck me as funny that I could choose the color of my sari but not my husband. As KalyanaSundram brought out the Orange Spot bottles for my future in-laws, indicating that he recognized them as favored patrons of his shop with this gesture, all the while humming the song under his breath, I began to giggle. As the uncontrollable sounds of mirth escaped me, and I ducked my head into my neck, KalyanaSundram began to frown. I could almost hear him think, as he breathed harder. This is not good for me, the bride to be to laughing nervously in such a manner before my clients. How can I make her stop? The prospective in laws might decide that she is improper in conduct and reject her as a suitable match and storm out of the store. That would be bad for business.
Unrequited love was one thing on the movie screen. Quite another matter in commerce. KalyanaSundram lost his genial air and assumed a stony, stern expression. I giggled harder, my thin, black body rocking in the red Nylex sari I had chosen to wear for that morning’s expedition. My black feet in the cheap, jeweled slippers I had carelessly slipped on winked back at me.
“Great expectations, ah?” I giggled again. It was a deeply private, internal and intimate joke. One that perhaps only my lover would smile at.
My oldest brother, hair shiny and thick, a sheen on it from Brylcream greeted us at the door when we came back to the house with a plastic bag from the sari shop and a box with the turquoise sari my lover had arranged for me to have. I saw him standing there in the small doorway and he looked like the opulent rat the fat Hindu Elephant god rides. All slick oil and shine and I began to giggle again. I wasn’t sure what was so funny. That he looked like a rat or that he was fat like the Hindu Elephant god.
“Well, well, samanthi, what did you think of ‘our’ Thanam?” he asked.
“She is….very quiet and um…shy.” They replied, hesitating to say what really troubled them.
“Well, as I have said before, she is a motherless child and we raised her you know, all by ourselves, my brothers and I. Father died soon after mother and it was been a struggle…she is a poor motherless child.”
A poor motherless child. That made me giggle. I felt all of a sudden like Oliver Twist and wondered if I ought to ask for another chance at marriage with my lover instead of a second bowl of porridge. It occurred to me that that would nourish me quite a bit more than porridge. I bit hard my lips to stop giggling. I just could not stop.
“Murugan will be good to your daughter, samanthi. Thanam just needs some discipline. Marriage will mature her and cure her of her giggles. She is like a child, sometimes…my brothers and I have done our best but you know how it is….a poor motherless child…”
“A poor motherless child.”
“A poor motherless child.”
“A poor motherless child.” the words reverberated in my consciousness and produced more giggles. Whirling in the dark depths of my being, swirling upward in the silver chakarams of my sari, and drowning me in mirth. Did they not say, the Hindus’ that the world is an illusion created by the laughter of the gods? Leela. It’s all a play of the Gods. Maya. It’s all illusion.
I giggled, again. A poor motherless child…. The sounds escaping the folds of the turquoise blue wedding sari and the sharp sting of my brother’s hand across my face. I giggled, like the blackbirds, whirling in the sky, and return to the post of duty, again and again, honoring those marriage vows taken before KalayanaSundram. Duty first. Love afterwards.
Anushka Anastasia Solomon’s poetry and writing draws heavily from the rich formative years in Malaysia where she was instructed in the language, tradition, culture and values of the Hindu. Her conversion to the Christian faith has provided her with additional lenses with which to view church, temple, God, man and nation. Solomon writes to examine east and west, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible, to experience life in America, reflect and reimagine what it is to make this pilgrim journey of life. Author of three poetry chapbooks published in the US:Please, God, Don’t Let Me Write Like A Woman, (Finishing Line Press 2007), The Hindu and The Punk, (Pudding House Press 2009) andThe Buying, Babe, Is Good Only In America, (Finishing Line Press, 2012),A.A. Solomon’s work has been read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in Scotland by Amnesty International. Originally from the vibrant, diverse and cosmopolitan city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, A.A. Solomon and her family are now U.S citizens who reside in Colorado.
 Radha –the mythical lover and highly favored gopi (cow-herding damsels/followers) of the Hindu God Krishna
 Krishna –Hindu God with blue-black skin who is depicted in the Bhagavad-Gita
 Chakarams – metallic discs that the Hindu gods and goddesses hurl to kill demons
 kake ke than konjoo, pon konjoo – to a crow, its own are gold.
 Tamil – the language spoken by ethnic Tamil-Malaysians, immigrants to Malaysia from South India and Sri Lanka or Ceylon.
 Malay or Bahasa Malaysia – the national language of Malaysia
 Thali – gold necklace that is a symbol of Hindu marriage
 Veshti – a silk garment like a sarong worn for weddings by the groom
 Agni – Hindu god of fire
 matthuchamanthan – a complex arrangement when two families come together for the purpose of marriage. The son from family A marries daughter from family B, the daughter from family A marries the son from family B. This arrangement usually ends up in a double wedding. Financial and emotional ramifications follow.
 Annai –brother in the Tamil language.
 Samanthi –in-laws in the Tamil language
 Urvasi – a woman’s name meaning beauty.
 Dowry – money given in trust for the Tamil daughter’s well-being in her husband’s house. It is commonly believed in Sri Lankan Tamil-Malaysian culture that this money and jewelry given to the daughter will make her more valuable in her husband and his family’s eyes.
 KalyanaSundaram – ‘BeautifulMarriage’, the namesake is a reference to the Tamil word, Kalayanam which means Marriage, or Wedding. Sundram, is reference to beauty. A good -looking man is referred to as sundram and a beautiful woman is referred to as sundari.
 Lord Murugan – A Hindu god who has two wives.
 Sivaji Ganesan – (1927- 2001) a popular Indian actor and politician, the Marlon Brando of South Indian Cinema.
 Pavadai thavani yil parthe uruvama – romantic Tamil song lyrics celebrating the lover’s delight upon encountering the transition of a young Tamil girl to sari clad womanhood.
 Bhagavad- Gita – a sacred text of Hindu philosophy
 Nylex – cheap synthetic material
 Hindu Elephant God – a reference to Vinayagar, a Hindu household deity who is fat and very much favored. This deity is often depicted seated on a rat.
 Leela – meaning the divine play of the Hindu Gods
 Maya –illusion, the Hindu concept of seeing the world as illusory and transient.