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I didn’t know I had a sister halfway across the world. And since I’ve known, I’ve wanted to meet you and hired a detective to help me find you.
The third winner of our December 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Vijayalakshmi Harish.
It was unsettling, how similar they looked. From the beauty spot on their right cheek, to the angle of their nose, the likenesses in their features left her feeling disoriented. The differences –the woman’s blond hair and fair skin made the similarities starker.
As if someone had stolen her face. Her identity.
And this woman was a thief. Wasn’t she? She even had the same name, in a way. Rose Morgan. Her half-sister.
Her half-sister, whose existence explained so much and yet explained nothing.
“Don’t cry, Roja kutty. Appa will come back soon. I’ll get you so many new toys. Don’t you want a Barbie doll? Appa will get you one from America. Azha koodadhu, chellame. Appa poyittu varen.”
Roja’s mind flashed back to that summer evening, twenty years ago, when she saw her father for the last time. She remembered the feel of his cotton shirt, its collar wet with her tears, rubbing against her cheek as he lifted her up and kissed her. The sounds of the evening prayers and temple bells, from the little Hanuman temple around the corner, had accompanied the leave taking.
Her mother had stood silent. She didn’t seem happy or sad that her husband was going so far away. She had just stood stoic, and grasped Roja’s hand tightly, to stop her from running out into the road behind her father’s receding taxi.
Then, Roja had blamed her mother’s silence for her father’s departure. Surely, he would have stayed if she had asked him to. Now, she wonders if like the Mona Lisa’s smile, her mother’s silence had a depth and a meaning that was not easily fathomed.
Had her mother known that he would never return?
How does one even begin a conversation with a sister who is a stranger?
Rose had just shown up at her doorstep that morning. She had with her a family picture which left no doubt that her father was Roja’s father too. Stunned, Roja had invited her in, but now, as they both silently sipped their coffees, neither woman seemed to know what to say.
“I can’t believe I found you. I didn’t think I would,” Rose said, finally.
“I wasn’t expecting to be found. I didn’t know anyone was looking,” Roja said. “At least you knew I existed. I’m sorry, but this makes me uncomfortable –you in my house, saying that you’re my sister. Do you understand how confusing this is for me?” she added.
“Believe me, I do. You have no reason to welcome me, and every reason to resent me. The thing is, I found out about you only a year ago. I didn’t know I had a sister halfway across the world. And since I’ve known, I’ve wanted to meet you and hired a detective to help me find you. I understand if you don’t feel the same, and I can leave if you want me to.”
Roja was tempted to ask Rose to leave. What if she was nothing but trouble? Could she be trusted?
And yet, the part of her mind that wanted answers, wanted Rose to stay. The part of her that still ached for her father, wanted to know about him.
“I don’t know what you want from me, Ms Morgan. I have nothing to give you. Not even promises to stay in touch. You say you hired a detective –I wonder if the detective told you about the full extent of my troubles. But I would like some answers. About my father. Our father, if you really are my sister. If you are okay with that, we can talk. If not, please leave.”
“Absolutely. I can tell you whatever I know about him –which to be honest is not much. But it may give you some closure.”
Rose’s mother, Iris, had met her father, Kumaran, at a strip mall where they both worked. He worked in the Indian restaurant as a chef and she worked in the McDonald’s as a waitress. She was just nineteen. Kumaran, a much older 28 year old at the time, had come to the US on a cruise ship as an employee in the ship’s kitchen and had illegally stayed back.
They fell in love, and soon Iris was pregnant. Kumaran wanted to do “the right thing” by her and so they got married, much against the wishes of her parents. The fact that he got a green card in the bargain was never mentioned. It was much later, after Rose was born, that Iris found out that he already had a wife and daughter in India.
This changed things between them drastically. Iris no longer trusted him. Kumaran resented that and took to alcohol, which made things worse. They fought constantly, and accused each other of being unfaithful, and of being irresponsible. They stayed together for a while, for Rose’s sake, but then, one day, when Rose was around 3, Kumaran left home and never came back. There were rumours that Rose had heard about how he was living as a homeless drug addict in New York, but she hadn’t investigated. She never really knew this “father.” It was her mother who had brought her up, as a mixed race child in a predominantly white community. Her mother’s parents hadn’t offered much support, either financially or socially, so it was an uphill battle for both of them.
Roja felt a lump rise in her throat as she heard Rose’s story. Rose told her, not just about their father, who had abandoned her just like he had abandoned Roja, but also about how difficult it was to grow up as a mixed race child. The bullying and casual racism. The way she had started to hate the “Indian” side of herself, and had rejected that part of her identity for a long time. How that made her feel even more confused and lonely, as she seemed to fit in nowhere. How she blamed her mother, even though it was her mother who kept fighting for her and loving her unconditionally.
She understood this, because she had lived like this too.
Kumaran had incurred a mountain of debt by gambling. He also had a penchant for drink, and a reputation for being irresponsible, even before marriage. Thinking that the responsibility of a wife would sober him up, his relatives got him married to Madhavi.
He seemed to get on track for a few days, and even ran a small business, selling idlis and vadais from a roadside cart. But soon, he was back to his old ways, and it fell upon Madhavi to run the cart. Till he lost that too in a gamble. Pressured into conceiving, because “having a child makes a man responsible,” Madhavi sustained herself through her pregnancy only on the kindness of neighbours or friends. When Roja was born, Kumaran seemed to change, once again. He doted on his daughter, and she loved him back. He held on to a job in a factory for a few years, but was fired for fighting with his manager and hitting him. Eventually, a distant relative got him a job on the cruise ship. It paid well, and would help him pay off all the debt. He would keep Madhavi and Roja very happy. Or at least, that had been the claim, as he went off.
Roja remembered how the other children at school would whisper and laugh at her. How she was teased for having a “runaway father.” How the other children always had lovely clothes and new books, and she had to make do with roughly treated hand me downs. She was in awe of the other mothers, who looked so beautiful in their fancy sarees and hair full of flowers. She was embarrassed for her mother who wore plain, shabby cotton sarees, and who swept floors and washed dishes for a living. The unfairness of it all made her angry, and not knowing what to do with that anger, at that young age, she directed it all at her mother who bore it silently, and still loved her.
Memories came to her, of her mother weeping, hiding beyond a closed door that a man kept banging on constantly, demanding money. Of her mother being yelled at by a woman whose house she worked in, accusing her of seducing her husband, and her mother protesting weakly that it was he who had touched her inappropriately.
Unable to hold her tears back, Roja let them out, and found them mirrored in Rose’s eyes.
Roja’s phone rang, its shrill sound cutting through the heaviness of the moment.
“Hello,” she answered, wiping her tears.
“Is this Mrs Madhavi’s daughter? We are calling from the hospital.”
“Yes. Is everything okay?”
“Your mother is serious. It looks like she may not survive. Please come quickly.”
Roja stared at the phone in her hand. Of all the times for something like this to happen…
“Roja, what it it? Did something happen?” Rose asked.
“Mmm..my mother. The hospital…” Roja managed to choke out, before she broke down.
Rose took charge immediately. She went out and hailed an auto, and bundled a weeping Roja into it.
“What hospital, Roja?” she coaxed gently.
“Aurora hospital,” Roja gasped.
At the hospital, Rose made the necessary enquiries and completed formalities, leaving Roja with her mother. Madhavi was barely breathing, her frail frame already almost lifeless. The machines whirred and beeped, as Roja prayed for a chance to hear her mother’s voice for the last time, to feel her kind touch. She held Madhavi’s papery hands, between her own and tried to infuse life into them.
After a while, when she couldn’t bear it anymore, she went out to sit in the corridor, just outside her mother’s ward.
“I’m sorry, Amma. I’m so sorry. I understand you now. Please, please don’t go. Don’t leave me alone,” she prayed, rocking back and forth, burying her face in her hands.
The sound of muffled crying distracted her. She looked up to see Rose standing there.
“I’m sorry, I thought you could use a cup of coffee as you sit with your mum,” Rose said. “I couldn’t help but overhear. It reminded me of my own mom dying. Last year. Cancer. It was on her deathbed that she told me about you. I think she sensed how scared I was to be alone in the world, and so she told me about you. I understand how you feel.”
“I’ve been such a bad daughter, Rose. She struggled so much to educate me and to keep me fed and healthy. And all I have done is blame her for letting my father go. And now, here you are telling me that he was the asshole. I mean, I have always known it, but it was easier to blame her, you know?”
“I did the same to my mom. If it is any consolation, I am sure your mom doesn’t resent you for blaming her. My mom didn’t. She forgave me, as I am sure your mother forgives you. My mother always felt guilty for not reaching out to you mother and you. But frankly, I don’t know how she could have. We were never well-off. She never even travelled outside of our town. I hope you both can forgive us.”
“There is nothing to forgive. I admit that when you showed up earlier today, I hated you because I thought that you had lived the life I was supposed to. I thought you had stolen it from me. But I see now that you are just as hurt. That you suffered too. Neither of us is to blame for the others pain. And even if you had lived a comfortable life, none of this was your fault, or your mother’s. It was always his fault –the man we call father.”
They hugged each other. They were still strangers. But they were also sisters, and not just by blood.
Editor’s note: In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month got bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for December 2019 is this quote from the poem The Princess saves Herself in This One by poet Amanda Lovelace, whose book The Witch Doesn’t Burn in This One was selected for the Goodreads Choice Award 2018 for Best Poetry in 2018.
“it is strange
a bit of both.”
Vijayalakshmi Harish wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
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