(written in 1989, pubd a few years after)
The waters of the Niagara gush forward – the horizon is
a great blue goddess sticking out a white frothy tongue,
while saliva drips and accumulates so that little boats can
float on the saliva of life. I stand transfixed, trying to
decide if it is beautiful or just enormously terrifying. I
want to bathe in it, wash away all thought from my mind.
Like Ginsberg bathing in the Ganges? Maybe not.
An overwhelming thirst creeps into my consciousness. It
is, yet not. For water? No liquid ever satisfied this
thirst. If I sing? The roar of the falls will drown out my
voice, I think. I can open up my heart and sing …. Two
lines of the song. The meaning seeps into my soul (or
whatever) but I don’t really know the words. Over and over
again. Each time a little louder. Listen to me, my heart
cries out to the sky. While my mind tries to understand what
it is I sing. As the big white birds squeal, my heart knows.
Perhaps it always did. Will.
Language is no barrier for the heart.. Or is it, I
wonder, as an odor – familiar and dear to me brings me back
to my `real’ surroundings. Mark.
“Let me guess,” he says. “A pentagonic scale.. is it
moha,” a pause as he tries to pull the unfamiliar word out
of his memory. He snaps his fingers and his green eyes light
“You learn fast.” I say. Not knowing what I mean.
Because I’m not really listening to myself talking – not
really. I’m somewhere else. Images overlapping as the
metaphors in my life do. Now. Here.
” Really, really, you know.”
” No Shruti, I don’t know.”
And she laughed. “You’re off on that abstract plain
That laugh. Can women love women? They do you, know.
Very much. We read those books together too, didn’t we?
“Did I hear the words `tat tvam’ in what you just
sang?” asks Mark.
I try to explain meaning. As I know it. But is it as
Annamacharya meant it?
“I think it means – Once my thirst is quenched, I shall
find identity, meaning, god ..” I shrug, and smile wryly. As
usual Mark wants more than I am able to explain. I continue.
“The first line means…. um..
How will my thirst ever be quenched, and how will I ever know.
At least that’s what I think it means – I really don’t know
my mother tongue all that well.” An oft repeated confession.
On the way back to Pittsburgh, we play some Indian
classical music in the car. Mark is really serious about
this. This business about trying to understand what is most
important to me. What is ingrained in my being. But is it
all an act? I wonder. What if – when – he tires of this
And me? Am I what I say I am?
Peel it off. I think. Layer after layer of pretension
and then what are we?
“Alfred J. Prufrock,” and Shruti is laughing again.
This time at me. Because…
What am I? Shilpa. Sculpted out of Nothing. (Assuming
that `Nothing’ might possibly have a negative value?)
Or it’s POOF! A puff of dust from a cartoon strip.
Suddenly I feel the need to touch. I grab at the air in
front of me trying to feel its solidity. It’s possible
sometimes – the fingers can feel solid air, just as a man
without a leg feels the pain in the leg that was. The music
is beginning to take over my mind.
Mark! I scream in my mind. Shut that thing off.
Revathi ragam makes me want to cry.
Do you understand?
I am voiceless, but my hand moves forward as if it no longer
belongs to me, and turns the music off.
Marks hand freezes in mid-tapping, and rests quietly on
the steering wheel. He turns to look at me. He senses that I
am upset, so he does not say anything. How can anyone be so
understanding, I think. Panic hits me in the pit of my
stomach. Too much of a good thing. I think. It might not
last. And then?
Next morning, at dawn, I lie on my bed. Trying not to
move lest I wake Mark. An arm reaches out for me, but falls,
limp with the lifelessness of a sleeping person. I can feel
the blonde hair on his arm with my nerve ends.
Aware of Color today, are we? I think. I will have to
quell this inexplicable …. revulsion? But I really do love
him, you know.
Really, really? And Shruti laughs again.
Definitely at me.
I try to get up, trying not to exert pressure on the
creakable parts of the bed.
Mark mumbles nevertheless, slurred and incoherent as
mumbles sound. And he’s back in that dream of his. Shutting
me out. What does he dream,I wonder. Words? Abstract
mathematical formulas perhaps. But I’m the mathematician -
he’s the `words man’, the English Guru-to-be. Maybe physical
contact, living in the same Space,colliding with each
other’s mental borders – thoughts and dreams mingle
(interfere!intrude!). Oh, but they fight.
In the bathroom sink, they entwine – the strand of
black hair with strands of blonde, glued together with
translucent blue toothpaste, pushed down the drain by
crystal clear gushing tap-water.
I move to the couch in the living room. Soft, blue and
deep-sinking. Like the stuffed toy I never had. Will never
let go.I stuff my face in its furry (synthetic, of
course,like everything else in my life?) surface. I thank
God (`Is he there?’) that I have no allergies.
Mark is grumbling now. You woke me up, he says. I did?
I ask. For lack of what to say. And then again, feigning
innocence,(or admitting you’re wrong even if you’re not) is
the easiest way to avoid a fight. Because when it’s a
fight – it’s a fight between hemispheres – East and West
(not just the sexes) – imagined stereotyping. And it seeps
into my mind to form an internal turmoil. Clammering. Mind-
I hear Mark get off the bed, creak and all. `Make
the coffee, make the coffee,make it…’ the voice in my head
nags. The voice of preconditioning. Let him get it if he
wants it,I think, stuffing my face harder into the couch.
Why should I? Always.
Mark stumbles into the bathroom, forgetting, in groggy
abandon, to control his fart. So it’s noisy and loud. The
apartment is so small, I can hear – muffled splosh of the
water in the toilet bowl; the creak of the toilet paper
stand. I cringe as the sounds conjure up visual images.
Visualize, I think. Visualize nature. What is nature, Mr.
Wordsworth? Fields of daffodils and serene blue lakes? What
about the corpses that burn on the banks of the Ganges flesh
burning and brains on fire (scenes I witnessed through
Ginsberg’s `eyes’ – on a white page with black ink marks)?
Why is it that biographies of great people – Russell,
Ginsberg, even Rand – seem so much like story books? Is it
true, perhaps that fact is stranger than fiction? I wonder.
Or…. – images from the color television flash in my
mind’s eye. Advertisements with the not-so-small small print
that says – “This is a dramatization of the real event”. Is
But read them, I must. Because I want to see the world
through someone else’s eyes. At least try?
How do I explain that I live intensely (intensely
private, privately intense)? And that I have this traitor
within (a bunch of them) my mind. Within. Without. Who
knows? Go see a psychiatrist.But my upper middle-class
Indian upbringing scorns the thought. Besides, I’m not
I smell coffee. Funny, the sound of the flush didn’t
get through to me. I must have been engrossed. I lift my
head, take a deep breath and plunge my face back into the
couch. And serve her right too, I think. My mother.If I
I sent her a photograph last year. Soon after Mark
moved in with me. Mark was in it – amidst a group of
others – his arm around my waist, grinning from ear to ear.
Mama dear called. “Who’s that phirangi holding you so
close?” she hissed, her Naagin hiss. I laughed, then -
forced,and artificial. “For heaven’s sake, Amma, he only has
an arm around me!” (For heaven’s sake,Amma, he’s only f—
ing me) What can I say, really.
Yes, there were the happy, grinny times – in our
`relationship’. Still are – still will be. Maybe.
Images – light-hearted ones – flash on my mind’s
There’s one of us out jogging. Mark’s baby-soft blonde
hair is being caressed gently by the cool autumn breeze.And
is that me,next to him – panting and puffing in a brave
effort at trying to keep up? But it’s useless. I was never
the athletic kind. Mark stops too. Pulls a funny face,
suggesting I’m `hopeless’. Such antics never cease to amuse
me. I’m down , squatting cross-legged on the side-walk, my
hand clutching at my stomach , a bundle of giggles. And the
whole world stares.
“We’re out of cereal, Shilp, ” Mark says. Smelling of
Lectric Shave and deodorant. I’ll make him some dosas. No
the batter’s not ready – maybe some upma, I think. But I
don’t answer him. Pretend your asleep, I tell myself. He’ll
find the waffles in the freezer – by himself. He is a grown
It’s me, I think. I spoiled him. He was quite self-
sufficient before I began to do things for him (I thought he
was `cute’ when helpless in the kitchen).
Shruti’s laugh again. My, how she cackles! “Still
stuffed with romantic notions, Shilp?”
This notion of romance , I think – it’s a purely
Western notion,anyway. Starting with my English medium
education and my Georgette Heyer novels and other forms of
…crap, Mother dear? Certainly not. I’m increasing my
English vocabulary. Broadening my mind too. Yes, even the
Harold Robbins -varied reading,you know (But wholly from the
Western world, if she can help it – how else to progress?
Anyway, she reads them too).
So, have there been any recent changes in your
life, Ms.Rao? Changes? No doctor, definitely not. How can
there be? (Are you kidding? I think. My whole life’s gone
amuck. Topsy-turvy, you know.)
I hear him wash out his plate. At least that, I think.
He’s dressed, shoes and all. I wonder if he’s leaving
yet. But shoes don’t always mean outdoors. People here don’t
live barefoot -even indoors. But neither did we, in my
“Are you ill, Shilpa?” That Americanized `Shilpa’ again
- he tries hard enough, but he was brought up on different
phonetics, after all. He comes and sits next to me, on the
edge of the couch
(My space). I make vague noises – as if still half-asleep,
and turn around. My eyes are still shut. Shutting him away.
He feels my forehead. “Alright, sleeping beauty. I’m off to
school.” He drops a light kiss on my forehead. My prince
charming? The brother I never had. Why can’t we just be
friends? Like friends friends, know what I mean? (Do I?)
I hear the bang shut of the door when he leaves, and I
promptly get up.Saris to starch and iron. Laundry to be
done.But my stomach needs attention and I’m yearning for
food cooked by my mother (or rather my mother’s cook).So I
pick up a bag of Ruffles and stuff my depression away into
the depths of my stomach.
Many days ago, he took me to a symphony – it wasn’t a
`date’, it was education. But I knew about Tchaikovsky,
Mozart and Beethoven. Which culture freak from Indian `high
society’ didn’t? So I watched as the maestro bowed and the
audience clapped, and he bowed and they clapped and some
more performers bowed and the audience clapped. A sudden
hush. Listen to the silence… “Do you know a lot about this
kind of music?” asked Mark. What’s to know – music is music
isn’t it? But I shake my head, acknowledging ignorance. The
violins make me cry, too. But I don’t. It’s not
sophisticated to cry and let mascara streak
down my cheeks. Is it.
And she keeps on laughing. That cheshire cat Shruti.
Afternoon. I plod back to the apartment through the
snow. My friends back in
Hyderabad will tell me how incongruous I look –
snow-boots and a sari. “Shilpa, you’ve
worn jeans and T-shirts all through your college life here
in Hyderabad,” they’ll say. “How come this sudden change to
starched cotton saris.” She’s crazy, they’ll gossip. But I
want to preserve my identity in this strange (yet not-so-
strange-because-I’ve-read-about-it-all-my-life, even seen-
it-on-the-screen, yaar) land.
The cold breeze and snowflakes that slash my face have
an invigorating effect. Once I’m inside the apartment, I
feel a freshness surging up from deep within – an
anticipation, an urge to do something spectacular. But by
the time my boots are off, the mood dissolves.
I change into an old, comfortable cotton skirt and one
of Mark’s shirts (his smell lingers, along with the smell of
I turn on the radio. “Life is a moment in Space,” she
sings. Whoever. I can sing along, because I’ve heard the
song before. And before and before – English `pop’ songs
have a special place in the lives of the educated Indian
I notice that my long, black hair is soaked in snow .
I unplaid it, driving my fingers through its thickness.I
look at the Tanpura lying in a corner of the living room.
Gathering dust. Just a showpiece from exotic India. When I
came, I thought I’d practice my music everyday – like I used
to at home. A raaga buried in memory is trying to surface.
I try to sing -like many times before. But the tune sticks
in my throat. And the secure sound of the loud Niagara falls
does not exist in my apartment. My voice opens up only to
accompany the `foreign’ tunes on the radio.
Well? Have there been any changes in your life lately,
Ms. Rao. Changes, doctor? Why no. It’s been more than two
years since I came to this country. Nothing’s changed.
(Except my perspective -it’s all jumbled up, but I can’t
tell the doctor that, can I?)
Might as well cook, I think.
I get the packet of chicken drumsticks out of the
freezer. Grateful to God (if he’s there,of course) that I
don’t have to chop up a whole (maybe even live?).
You’re sublime, your a turkey dinner, I sing. I’ve
heard it on some musical. Can’t remember where.
Spicy food and wine, I think. Lure him into the
spider’s web again.
Why? Asks the laughing Shruti-in-my-mind’s-eye.
He’s beginning to stray. I tell her. (Can’t you see?) Maybe
Shut up, Shruti! I bang the pan on the kitchen counter.
I wash the chicken and marinate the pieces in a mixture
of sour yogurt and spices. I do this often. But there’s
always that wave of nausea. I rush out of the kitchen , open
a window and stick my head out into the freezing afternoon
air. My senses are numbed. If you’re so squeamish, Ms.
Vegetarian, why bother to cook the muck, I ask myself, as I
shut the window. Preconditioning, I reply. Then why am I
not preconditioned against living with a phirangi?
Preconditioning, from too much exposure to the images of the
West? I ask. Growing more and more uncertain of myself
Later, I watch it cook (the blood oozing out, mingling
with the innocent brown gravy) with a kind of perverse
fascination. What is the Indian – really, really Indian
notion of romance? I ask myself. I remember a married
friend of mine saying, “How do we explain to these Americans
that an arranged marriage can be very romantic?” I remember
thinking that something was wrong with me because I wasn’t
sure I understood either. So how Indian am I really? But I’m
not anything else either. The realization seeps through -
living my life in an atmosphere I know so well but that does
not recognize me (if you know – if I know what I mean?).
But why explain? Do I need to justify the way I breath
just because it’s a `different’ way?
One day. Another day in my life. Past. I took Mark to
the SV Temple here in Pittsburgh. Listening to the orchestra
on WQED-FM play the Star Spangled Banner, we drove up the
slope. Towards the Indo-American version of the God of the
seven hills. The music faded into the background of my mind
as we entered the all-Indian atmosphere. Yet – not quite
like home. I missed the feel of the cool, rough stone under
my barefeet and the sweaty smell of tired but devoted people
with the hair shaved from their heads, trying to catch a
glimpse of their Lord. The desperate hope in the eyes of the
starving old man and the unfaltering faith of the mother of
many children. The God at Penn Hills version was the rich
god of rich people.
I sang that day – showing off my knowledge of South
Indian classical music (yes, an `all-Indian’ understands
both the North and the South, Mark. And I have training in
both styles). Thyagaraja’s emotion was spiritual – `bhakti’.
Mine is mundane carnal confusion. Pale skin, dark
skin,touch skin, smell skin.
It’s so comfortable sometimes to have the `others’ to
blame. For that makes me good (but never ever constant).
`Life is never black or white’ -shades of gray. Even here, I
am not original. Everyone else knew this before I did.
Piles of books in my friend’s uncle’s study. Our
hideout. So sneak them in, book after book. Under the
mattress. Under the bed. Gargantuan as it is. With my great
grandmother’s spirit still sleeping in its carved, antique
massiveness (she knew her role in life. Comforting. Escape.
Be it sleep , fiction, or ideas.
In my friend’s uncle’s study, then. Amidst piles of
Bestsellers,Do-it-yourself manuals, porno paperbacks, and
the Kamasutra ; I discovered Rand, Jiddu, Russell and
Advaita -Illusions. Causing an explosion in my
head. Never believe in or absorb contradicting theories and ideas. You
need black and white.I didn’t know. I refuse to know.
A discussion. Two Americans – Mark and Jane and four of
`us’. Jane is amazed at the thought of marriages being
“How can you let that happen?’ she asks. Seems
“Oh, It’s not so bad,” says my friend Ratna. She’s
standing next to her dark, firm-jawed, chisel-nosed husband
(his eyes are laughing; carefree and amused). They look
such a well-adjusted,much-in-love couple, that,(even as I
see them in my mind’s eye, as I reminisce) I feel a twinge
Arvind, the bachelor from, bristles at the
suggested criticism of the ways of his home-country. (Far
away from home, the home he walked away from is something
sacred, not to be defiled by the words of these `Safed
chamdis’- these white skins.)
“I am a staunch advocate of our system of marriage,”
says he. “My parents are already on the lookout for a
“But why?” asks Jane. “Why are you ready to marry a
total stranger? Can’t you make your parents understand that
we are not in the Feudal Age anymore?”
“Ah, you Americans,” Mahesh , the other one of `us’
butts in, smiling to soften his words. ” You really believe
that you are the most enlightened society in the world, do
Mark grins – an open, frank grin (one I still love).
“Jane, when you think about it, this arranged marriage
system makes perfect sense, you know.”
“Oh?” says Jane turning to face Mark with a whose-side-
are-you-on look on her face.
Oh? I think. Too.
“Well, it’s endogamy, you know. That’s probably the
reason why arranged marriages came into being. To keep
people from marrying outside their race, caste or class or
Mark looks around at all of us, his head cocked to one
side and his eyebrows raised high. Mahesh, Chandran and
Ratna nod in agreement. Arvind, Jane and I are not sure.
Maybe we don’t know the meaning of the word endogamy. Some
things in our lives we just accept or defy – not looking for
definitions, labels or reasons. Perhaps.
Mark continues. “How much chance do you think there is
of the average American marrying outside his or her social
or religious or racial circles? If we’re from a small town,
we probably won’t even marry outside our own neighborhood.
Endogamy exists in free America too. Though it’s probably
I stare at Mark. What he says doesn’t really make sense
to me – yet. But I begin to fall in love with this man who
at least tries to make me see my own background in a
brighter light. Jane is not happy. Or perhaps that too is my
perception of how Jane feels. Expectation.
Who cares? When there are enough Indians looking at India
with a mixed up perspective. Is the country
merely a great, ancient was? My only hope for me is that I am not yet
completely converted to the `Scorn the Is India’ cult.
Meanwhile, Jane. Yes, India is a country where we
travel on elephants, and men dress in loin-cloths.
Would you care to come home with me Mark? Not just to
experience it as a `novelty’.But to live as I have, in your
country. Trying not to let barriers cloud understanding. As
much as possible.
The telephone rings. Mark . Won’t be home for dinner.
My suspicious nature wonders if. But I do the dishes
What next? I ask the empty sink.
Later that evening. I put on a tape of Geeta
Dutt, and pour myself a glass of wine. As she sings (the stars know
not the height of the sky ; the eyes understand not the
depths of the mind), I drape myself on the couch. Pretending
am a Maharani. Or maybe some sort of female Omar Khayyam,
I think. Without a hookah, though. I get up again, and light
up some agarbathis to create an intoxicating aura.
Back on the couch. Sipping wine. I wonder what friends
and relatives are saying of Mark as they hear rumors of me
and my American lover (for they must have heard, they always
“Ah,such white skin!” they’d say,perhaps, with a sigh
of satisfaction. “Like the snow on the Himalayas. And such
strong muscles …”
I giggle. Mark has no muscles – or fat. He is mostly
skin and bone. Certainly not Sylvester Stallone (won’t they
be disappointed in me? Those convent educated girl-friends
I should live up to their romanticizing, I tell myself.
Now that I’ve experienced an American man, I should move on.
Not just to another man, another variety of food or
type of dress, but to other countries. To Russia next.
Exploring attitudes. Explore the truth of every country in
the world. China, Japan, South Africa, Israel, England,
maybe even Iran and Iraq. `Truth’, is only what you see and
feel for yourself, I tell myself sternly, wagging my
forefinger at the empty wine glass. (When you allow yourself
to see and feel.)
I know what people will say of me. The international
prostitute. But what fun, I think. Collecting sexual
experience like souvenirs from each land I visit. I giggle
Shruti squats next to me. We guffaw. Together. Just
like old times, I think. And turn (“of all things!”) to the
bra commercial for solace -
Life is just a bowl of cherries…
Live and laugh at it all..
No doctor, there have been no changes in my life.
Change is a figment of the imagination.
[This piece was first posted informally on SAWNET (South Asian Women's Network) - on internet - in Feb/March 1994. It was published in Vol 9 (1-4): "Telling Tales" of the Committee on South Asian Women Bulletin in Summer 1994.] This piece was presented at a Graduate Student Conference – “Cultural Cartographies: Mapping the Postcolonial Moment” held in NCSU, in March 1995.