When I think about it, I don’t know why I did it. It was supposed to save face, but whose face did it save? Certainly not mine, whose original beauty attracted comments from all the women in our circle of family and friends (the men, of course, remained silent, not stepping across the traditional cultural boundaries). They all told me, “You are beautiful, kannamma, both outside and inside.” But it’s the inside that really matters. Especially after I “came of age” for marriage. Why is it that even now, after years of acculturating to the U.S., we still tell our girls that 25 is old, and that in order to be valued, their names must be preceded by a “Mrs.” And why do we make them think that the best thing that they can do is become a mother? At 22, I had just finished my bachelor’s degree in marketing, on the brink of starting a new life. And everyone added, “hopefully with a new person.”
When “boys” came to meet me, I was a big success. One was so smitten that he sent $250 worth of flowers (I checked the prices online)—assortments of roses, orchids, tulips, and other love-winning flowers from Citti’s the next morning. I was a prize for any man—with beauty, brains and a sweet nature, I was told. But I couldn’t be bought by flowers, my mom said. He wasn’t from a well-to-do family like ours, and so the match wouldn’t be good, she said. Though I liked him immensely, I decided to trust my family’s choice.
Then why did I let it happen? It made my blemish-free soft skin black and blue, and my straight honest nose bleed. My eyes became so puffy from crying that when I chatted with people online at Indianchat.com, I wore dark glasses so that they couldn’t see the translucent eyes underneath.
Of course, none of them could see me. Nobody ever saw me. When we went out to dinners and concerts, I put enough make-up on, something I had never needed to do before marriage. People talked, even my own parents, but didn’t I warn them that I’d been docile and sweet too long? That after marriage, I was going to break the rules and find my wild side. After marriage, I would be a very un-Brahmin-like woman. I was sick of being dressed in dowdy and homely clothes, sick of being self-conscious of my attire, sick of smiling at everyone. So no one asked, “Why have you changed so much? We were amazed by your ability to be yourself, such a nice girl.” After marriage, I had turned into someone else, whom even I didn’t recognize. Or like.
I didn’t have much time to explore my wild side. After the wedding, which was a splash for the community (I was, after all, the only daughter and my father’s company had, after all, been bought by Hewlett Packard for quite a large sum of money), I flew to my husband’s place on the East Coast. That’s when it started. Or was it earlier, and had I been too simple to see it?
In the few “dates” my parents had allowed, he had wooed me with his chivalry, opening doors, and holding bags. At Macy’s he bought me a bottle of Clinique’s body spray and though it wasn’t exactly to my taste, I was ecstatic. “Wow, he’ll pamper me … I could really get used to this!” I thought. My family was completely different. My father, in all my memory, never bought perfume for my mom. I could hear his voice in my head, stern and matter-of-factly, “If you want something, go and buy it yourself. There’s no use in two people wasting time.” Definitely no chivalry there.
Even then, he decided where we went. He sped on the six-lane highways in his rented ’98 Ford Mustang. It made my heart race. I didn’t care where we went … usually to small, secluded restaurants. He ordered for me. Things I didn’t like … made me drink wines, though he knew I had been brought up believing alcohol was evil.
He told me I should loosen up. Bought me a pair of high-heels which were all too high and all too him to be me. At that time, I thought, “Finally, someone’s here to help me break out of my ‘good girl’ rut. I’ll get the romance I’ve dreamt of so long.” And I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. My mother agreed. That was definitely a first.
At the New York La Guardia Airport, he met me at the gate with a single red rose (he didn’t splurge?) and I smiled shyly. He took my black bag with my purse saying, “No wife of mine should carry heavy bags.” I was jumping for joy. My father believed in equality for men and women, including women doing physical labor. I was brought up doing as much “men’s work” as my brother.
I didn’t think much of it at the time. Later when we got to the apartment, he opened my bag, ate the sweets my mother had sent, and put the bag away in the closet … it was a strange place, especially way up there on the top shelf in the guest bedroom. He told me to take a shower and wear the dress he’d set out on our bed. It wasn’t exactly what I’d pictured. No lace, no satin or silk, no sexy slits or too-tight bosom. It was a dark brown shroud-like outfit in muslin, almost like a burqa, as if there was something I didn’t want him to see. Or, I guess now, something he didn’t want others to see.
But I didn’t question him. Just before the wedding older women gave me advice. Be submissive. Don’t ask questions. Don’t pester him. Give him what he wants. Let him have his way, my grandmother went on. At least for a year. Then he’ll come around and give you everything. Did she know that that meant black eyes and cut lips in the morning? Did anybody know? So I didn’t.
I waited a week for my luggage to come, sitting inside all the time (I did not have a key to the apartment). One day, he casually mentioned that my luggage came the day before I did and he put everything in its place. In a timid voice, like the one my grandmother taught me to use, I asked, “Where is my diary and my special candles?” In my head, I thought, oh, he’ll love these candles, I know he will … we can light them over dinner tonight. I was shocked when he replied, “We don’t need candles because we have real lights.” I was crushed, like the green coconut chutney I loved to lick at the bus stops in Chennai.
I still didn’t argue, acting just as I had been prepped by the women. I didn’t even think of calling social services, where I had even worked in college, or one of the South Asian help groups I now know about, because I had been brought up thinking it was okay. After all, my grandmother listened to crap from my grandfather everyday and even till she was over 70, she always obliged politely and respectfully.
During the week, he went to work and only called to tell me what to do, what clothes to wear, what to cook, what to read. Nothing more. No longing in his voice no sweet words, and no pampering. Where were the red and black sexy lingerie I’d dreamed of? Where were the sheer chiffon dresses and the romantically passionate nights that I couldn’t wait for? Instead, I was scared of him at night, and I covered up for him during the day.
But it was more than just that. One night, after he forced himself on me, I went to the bathroom, sick from his drunken breath, and threw up. He yelled at me for daring to be sick. “You bitch! You should be happy someone took you at all. You stupid, ugly bitch.” I cowered against the cold bare tub, my hair wet, strewn across my face. Though I had been brought up in a “women’s power” era, and knew the ins and outs of married life and problems women (and men) face, though I taught other women to stand up for themselves, when it came to me, my voice grew smaller and smaller, until that day, when it became silent.
If I left him, where would I go? My mother told me that a married woman stays with her husband until she is pregnant; then she comes to her mother for help with the delivery. So home, sweet home, the sweetness of which I underestimated before, was not an option now. I didn’t have any friends nearby (how could I, being locked up all day?). I didn’t dream of a battered women’s shelter; it just wasn’t the thing for Indian women to do.
A month passed, then two. I watched outside, from the windows. Green oaks turned into brown mounds of leaves, children stomped about, happy, laughing, sweet, and innocent—as I had been just a little while ago. Snow fell and lovers licked snowflakes off of each other’s noses and eyelashes. Inside, black was turning blacker, and chutneys became free-flowing liquids. I was silent.
I got used to the abuse. During the day I prepped myself, physically and mentally, just as he wanted me to. I knew what to expect—belts loosening, feet shoving, eyes red. Between the time he came home and the beating, about 15 minutes elapsed, time when he yelled at me. He never missed a beat in this routine. I noticed the change he left in the spare change bowl by the television.
My decision to begin “stealing” from the bowl and from him was small but significant. Each day when he left, I picked up the change—quarters, nickels, pennies, dimes, and an occasional one-dollar coin. I was careful to leave money in it every time. He couldn’t become suspicious of me. My own change pot was not so easy to spot under a miniature rosebush my parents had sent for our six-month anniversary. He had let me keep it, saying that if my parents ever visited, they would want to see it. He never cared for it, so I nurtured it. With money. Cold, hard, stolen money.
A year later I had lost enough and saved enough to afford a plane ticket home. My parents were upset. They couldn’t understand how such a suave and sweet man, their son-in-law, could change so much. They told me to stop making up stories. But they would take me in if it was really necessary
I put the money back. Under the pot. At least it would help something. I still wonder why I did it, why I went through all this, when I knew better. Why I refused to hear my own voice and change. Now I know. To save face. Not mine, which had become mangled in the mirror. His, raging with hellish anger, causing cowardice in both of us.
Saroja Ayyar is a natural born American, albeit conservative, with strong ties to India.