c h a p t e r 1
L a k s h m i : F i r e
Parvati, please don't be afraid. I won't harm you. I'm Lakshmi, daughter of Sita. Remember Sita, my ma? Sita, your oldest sister who could hand loom the finest khadi in India? Yes, Sita. I'm Sita's daughter. I'm Sita's only daughter. Yes, I'm your niece. I mean, I was your niece. I'm glad you remember, Parvati. I'm happy to meet you finally. I'm Lakshmi. I mean, I was Lakshmi. We never met. I hope I don't frighten you talking to you in your dream.
Parvati, your brows are black horse-mane brushes, just as I've imagined, just like Ma's. May I sit down on the slope between your brows? I've run so many dream-miles in six days. My legs are screaming. It feels so good to sit down. I think better when I sit down, too. And I need to think better because I'm here to plant a dream that has a root cotton-thread long and intertwined. I'm also here to make a small request. Please stay asleep and hear me speak.
You know, Parvati, Ma talked about you often. Your bold charcoal eye liners, your strong coconut-oiled hair, your enormous second toes, your nine-inch palms, your cypress arms, your heavily ornate nose, your famous spit into what'shis-name's face, your going to secretarial school in Bombay, your brown hat fat cigar photograph, your wild love with a snake charmer despite his cobras, your rearing of a mongoose later, your first cigarette in the closet, your forgetting-ownstomach type of giving, your fire-speed wit, your straight face humor, your dreaming of a white elephant with wings, your marrying a Chinese man, your improvised golden red sari that fitted like pants, your diligent reading of western magazines under moonlight, your meal forgetting learning of the English language, your confidence, your independence, your freedom, your strength were my childhood stories.
Parvati, so many times I imagined you a winged white elephant with forty-four pure gold nose rings. Other times, I thought you a sacred cow with one five-pound gold hoop looped around both your nostrils. Secretly, Ma and I thought of you for strength. You were inside us. You were the venom, the power, the dream.
Ma said I was like you, Parvati. I'm still like you. I long for wild love. No offense to Pa and Ma, softdeeplong kind of love bores me. Neither am I equipped to love softlydeeplylongly. I'm afraid if I'm in such a love I may accidentally yawn making love or snore out loud in the middle of his medium-spicy orgasm. And I may get so bored that my female mustache may start growing itself denser and stiffer under my nose.
Like you, Parvati, I long for wild fire love. The kind that goes amok across the Himalayas, over the Deccan plateau. The kind that boils dry all the water in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. The kind that drove you to walk ten miles to borrow books and learn to read. The kind that consumed you and the snake charmer. And like you, I feel my tiger all the time. My lips are hungry. All the time. Fire leaps in my jugular. All the time. I am hungry. I am ready. Ready to walktalkreadwritethinklaughfightlove in a fire storm way.
But Ma said wild love doesn't last. She said there is no such thing as a sustainable wild love or a committed passion. None. Ma said passion is passion only if it is spontaneous and momentary. A constant ecstasy is no ecstasy. A long passion is no passion. Since big happiness comes with big sorrows, big love grows big hatred; she said water love is better than fire love. The best is three parts water and one part fire. But she said knowing me, Sita's daughter, the most water I can garner is probably one part. So I should be realistic and strive for one part water and three parts fire instead.
She knew, like you, I am all four parts fire. And I am a tiger.
But Ma said that I must make peace with my fire tiger inside. I must learn to tame her. And if I tame her well, then occasionally, I can choose to let her loose, go amok, fight for truth, make fire, make love. Only then will I have a satisfied face in my next life.
But here I am, in between lives, and my face is far from satisfied. I should have listened to Ma. I should have tamed my fire tiger so that her eyes could see far and clear. I should have fed my tiger at least one part water.
Parvati, I hope I don't frighten you. I'm a ghost now. I became a ghost six days ago. Please stay in dream while I tell you my death, my journey, my life.
I married the youngest son of a textile distributor a year ago. That was two years after Ma died in her dream. Poor Pa wanted to give me all his three wooden hand looms as dowry. I couldn't. I took only one. But, deep in our hearts, Pa and I knew one or three looms, they were meager without distinction. Pa was worried about me being bullied because of the small dowry. I hugged Pa and told him Vasu loves me, he despises the caste system, he will protect me. And I used my small savings and bought myself a gold nose ring and Pa a new pair of convex glasses.
The day I married, Pa's sallow eyes were old wells choked with water and love. Later, Pa spent all his time waiting for the wheel of reincarnation to come. He prayed to elephant-headed Ganesha. Mornings. He prayed to Rama. Nights. He asked Rama and Ganesha if he could join Ma in next life. Pa died two months after I married, in his dream. Truly, their love is Ganges, flowing deep and long. Defying place. Defying time.
Like you, Parvati, when I married, I was hungry and ready to die for anything passionate-a spiritual love, a sexual love, an ultimate truth, a social justice, or a cause to alleviate any human suffering. I was sixteen. My tiger was blissfully drunk. Drunk swimming in a lake of flaming love wine. I sincerely thought I found a half human half divine, a two-partswater- two-parts-fire man. Yes, I do I do I do, I said, I love you, Vasu.
But, Parvati, my tiger was fierce but blind. I married a man far from human, let alone divine. I married a serpent husband. Incidentally, I also married the other thirty-four snakes in his family.
You see, Parvati, he spoke all the right words. His mind was as sexy as his body as his scent as his words. I thought he was different. He told me he didn't care that I was a shudra and that I was poor. He told me he would teach me to read and write and he would buy all the books I wanted and I could read till I died. He told me it didn't matter whether I was a shudra or a vaishya. He told me he needed me. He told me he would protect me from all harm. He told me he wanted me to be the mother of his child. He told me it was his dharma to love me. He told me I was the most precious in his life. He told me he remembered buying a lotus flower from me in our previous lives. He told me he would stand up for me if his parents, sisters, brothers looked down on me.
Those vaishya snakes. Not all vaishyas I knew were snakes. But those were. Parvati, I married a pantheon of snakes. Smiling snakes. Drooling snakes. Filial snakes. Indifferent snakes. Biting snakes. Pregnant snakes. Fashionable snakes. Khadi-wearing snakes. Wrapped in gold bangles snakes. And then there was this greedy father-in-law python who would swallow an elephant whole and worry about digestion problems later. I sincerely did not notice their blood was cold like the freezer in a refrigerator. I married indeed a pantheon of icy fangs and big bellies. Bite, kill, tear, swallow, digest, breathe. Bite, kill, tear, swallow, digest, breathe. That's what snakes do best.
The fact is that Vasu had neither fire nor water in him. Only intelligent cowardice and a lot of snake shits. I believe he was
in love with me. For half a year or so. That was before we were married. You see, Parvati, he was the youngest in the family and therefore had the least power. He married me because his parents were old and they wanted their remaining unmarried child to fulfill his dharma as a son. He married me because the family needed a pair of cypress arms to boil, cook, wash, sweep, clean. He married me because I had nice face nice body and he wanted to share a bed with me. He married me because I was aflame with love and he was no fool. He married me because I was a shudra and shudras are good serfs and shudras don't complain much.
Well, too bad. This shudra complained. And this shudra fought like a warrior. With twenty fingers forty toes. Just to survive all sorts of snake bites. But their blood was still freezer cold. When I spoke up, dirty snake underwear doubled in piles waiting for me to wash. Hate in snake eyes grew eightfold in size. Beatings became twice a day.
One time the dowry matter came up. The father-in-law python punched his mad hammer fist onto my face and tore my gold nose ring off and said it's time to get rid of me for a new wife a bigger dowry. As if he needed more rupees to secure an additional layer to his python-belly fat. And I was supposed to revere this man, the almighty father-in-law. Where were our scores of Gods and Goddesses? I bled. I bled because my gold nose ring was stolen. The nose ring was you, Parvati. You were my strength. I sat you on my nose. And he tore you off. I ran to the police. The police looked at my bleeding nose and black eye and asked what I did wrong.
The truth is that I was a girl and a shudra. I was a subclass. A less-than-a-slave slave. Really, they respected cows and fish more than they did me. They didn't kill cows. And they ate fish with care. I think they felt that they had made a rotten deal. Because this sub-serf-I-took their words bravely. Kneaded them into steel arrows and shot them back quickly. And I had good eyes and aimed well.
My tiger was completely sober when Vasu slapped me, for the first time. I spat on his face hard hoping to pierce a hole on his cheek through the back of his head. But I missed. I spat on his ear instead.
And all this while, I was hoping Garuda would stop by. You know Lord Vishnu's mount? The white-faced bird? The one with the body and arms of a person, feet, beak, and wings of an eagle. The one who carries Lord Vishnu on her golden back. I prayed. Mornings and nights. I prayed for Garuda because I heard she's an excellent serpent devourer. I was hoping she would stop by and have a big dinner.
Those vaishya snakes. The day Vasu told me it's my duty to obey and endure, that was it. I told him it's my dharma to see him and all his snake-blooded relatives nailed on a needle bed and skinned alive and bled to death or their skin burned or their flesh eaten by dogs. He whacked my head with the ten-pound holy book in his hand and asked how could I, a serf, forget my place and have blood this bad. Whacked. I said you bloody son of a bastard snake. I spat on his face right into his left nostril. That was a real hot joy.
By then, my hope had wilted to zero. It was only six months ago that my tiger was swimming drunk in his mouth on his bed the first time. Amazing how fast things could change. I packed up all my papers into a handkerchief. I carried them with me in my secret pocket inside my sari. I was all ready to go to Bombay. I was going to Bombay to learn to read. I was ready to pluck chickens or sell lentils or dry tea leaves or work as a tailor assistant to save up all the rupees I needed to learn to read so that I could become a teacher, a librarian, or a letter-writer. I had heard that a tailor assistant could make thirty rupees a day in Bombay.
Then no blood came that month. My heart almost fell off my tongue. Garuda didn't stop by. A new life did instead.
Parvati, I didn't know I wanted a baby so bad. I forgot about the rupee-saving handkerchief I hid in my sari. The snake underwear pile shrunk in front of me. I knew they were waiting for a baby with a man thing. I didn't care about their subtle caring. My tiger grew very happy. I wanted my baby. I told them I'm keeping the baby. Boy or girl. I told them I'm keeping the baby even if sky collapses, sun perishes, moon breaks, rivers die, I want my baby. I told them I'll scorch them alive if they scratch even one baby fingernail.
I wondered why Garuda did not stop by. The fourth full moon after I became pregnant, Vasu's father and two brothers tied me up and drove me to some back-street sonographyclinic. My belly was scanned. It was said to contain a disappointing vagina. Just as they had suspected. With force they ordered apart the mouth between my legs. Further and further. I squirmed. I kicked. I boxed. I cursed all Gods. My every tooth-root split into halves. Earth was sucked out. She was red, puce, wet, and really pretty. She had a broad smile. So broad that I could not help thinking she must feel so lucky not having been born to me, her ma, whose eyes were swollen black grapes, whose back had scars like a nest of centipedes. Her broad smile hurt me. Bad.
Parvati, I can't tell you what followed because I don't know. I don't remember. For weeks, I could feel nothing. I must have been an afternoon shadow for weeks. No pain. No joy. No moon. No sun. No sky. No Ganges. No Gods. No snakes. No nose ring. No dreams. Really, for weeks, an oil bottle or his thing, I couldn't tell the difference. For weeks, my tiger was hibernating, deep in earth, deep in my navel.
Excerpted from Firewife by Tinling Choong. Copyright © 2008 by Tinling Choong. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.