(published in Bodies in Motion and Breaking the Bow)
It is always summer in the forest. The sun shines down through the tall trees, the leaves of spreading banyan and coconut palm. Monkeys race from limb to limb, hanging precariously by single arm or leg; parakeets swoop and glide, silhouetted for dark moments against the brightness of sky.
The princess walks for hours, her face smooth as an undisturbed pool of water, her eyes laughing, light as butterflies. New-married, full of adoration for her husband, her prince. Rama hunts in the forest; he pursues the slender hart, lays traps for cunning rabbits. But always he comes to his Sita before the sun is down, comes to their modest hut, their gentle home in exile. He smiles to see her, lays the game aside and takes her in his arms, draws her down to the forest floor, the soft grasses, and she loves him then, as the gopis loved blue Krishna, she loves him with everything she has, everything she is.
“Shanthi—you’ll be late!” her husband scolds from the kitchen doorway, their youngest daughter tucked under one arm, a book nestled in the other. Three days a week he watches the children, the days he doesn’t teach, so that they can spend that time with a parent instead of with the hired black nanny. Shanthi doesn’t know how he can read and mind the girls at the same time; she can’t even think when she’s with them. She can’t understand now what had possessed her to keep having children, one after another, until there were six small heads to be tucked into bed. It was only after giving birth to Lakshmi that she had finally come to her senses.
Shanthi had told Aravindan that she would have no more children, that as soon as Lakshmi was weaned, she wanted to find a job. She had been ready with her arguments—had expected that she would have to win her husband over, talk him around. None of the other professors’ wives worked. But she was different; she was smart, special. Shanthi had left Ceylon at nineteen, had attended graduate school at Oxford, one of very few women admitted. She possessed a doctorate in physics from Oxford, even though it was now a decade out of date, surely someone would hire her to teach. Shanthi had been unaccountably angry when Aravindan hadn’t given her a chance to use her readied arguments, had only placidly agreed to her proposal.
Lately, even his gentlest words have driven her into a fury.
“I’m going, I’m going. I can’t find my gloves. Where’s my coat? What did you do with it?” She’s frenzied, stomping from one room to the next, looking behind overstuffed leather chairs, under sofa cushions.
“Your coat’s in the closet; I hung it up. The gloves are in the left pocket.” Lakshmi has fallen asleep against Aravindan’s shoulder, soothed by the solidity of his thick body. She is four now, too old to be carried around on her father’s arm, but she has been a strange, slow child from the beginning, and Aravindan doesn’t seem to mind the extra attention she needs.
Shanthi should be grateful for his care for the children, for her, but a wave of resentment sweeps through her instead, at the criticism implied. It isn’t fair, but she can’t help it. Should she be grateful, that the important University of Chicago professor allows his wife to work, takes time out of his busy day so that she can teach at the high school for money they don’t need? Other wives would be grateful; her own mother would tell her to thank Mother Mary for such a saint of a husband, and would then scold her for not spending more time at home, taking good care of such a kind, brilliant man.
“You’ll have to reheat the rice and curries from yesterday; I need to meet with a parent after school; I’ll be home late.” Instead of feeling grateful, Shanthi takes a small, petty pleasure in making Aravindan eat old food, a pleasure somehow more intense because she knows he would not have noticed if she hadn’t pointed it out. And without a kiss, or another word, she pulls on the coat, storms down the hallway and out the door, not bothering to button the buttons or pull on her gloves, taking satisfaction in the winter wind that will undoubtedly give her a cold before nightfall. Let Aravindan work a little harder the next few days. It will be good for him.
In the evenings, Rama cleans and dresses the game; Sita slices wild onions, cooks savory curries and coconut roti over a small fire. They each have their appointed tasks and perform them together, companionably, in perfect harmony. The prince’s brother arrives, just before the meal is ready. Lakshman is a lazy thing; he rarely brings anything to add to the pot. What does he do in the forest, all day long? There is nowhere to go, no one to see.
They have been in the forest for days, weeks, years. They have been in exile so long that the princess has forgotten what it is to see a familiar face, a face other than that of her husband or his brother. Sita has only monkeys for company, who screech and gibber in the day, in the night, endless in their complaints. With wide faces and brazen eyes, they follow her as she moves barefoot through her days, her crimson wedding sari (all she owns in this exile) like a slender flame in the forest. The monkeys do not worry her; she is a princess, after all, and her husband is a prince. She has nothing to fear from monkeys.
But his brother watches too, with eyes wide and shameless. Rama is oblivious, will think no evil of his brother. But Sita knows; she feels it. His heated gaze strips the silk from her skin, leaving her naked and trembling.
Shanthi cannot pay any attention to the white man, the concerned father who sits across from her desk. There was a time when Shanthi would have worried about a student of hers who was doing so poorly, would have taken extra trouble, extra time to tutor the child. In her first year of teaching, she’d been so grateful to be out of the house, away from the endless rounds of washing diapers and cooking dishes (two sets—one spicy for her husband, one mild for the children), that she’d thrown all her frustrated mental energy into her students. But the endless weeks, one after another, teaching the same things to the same slow minds—it was just as bad as diapers. What they called algebra, geometry—it was only arithmetic, really. It wasn’t anything that stretched her mind, made her feel like she was actually doing something interesting, worthwhile, important. Only the novelty had made it seem an improvement over diapers and dishes.
As the man drones on about his errant daughter, Shanthi slips into her familiar daydream, the epic story her own father had told her, at night, as she fell asleep. He had filled her head with stories of brave Rama, his beloved wife Sita, loyal Lakshman. As a child, Shanthi had believed every word, had absorbed them as she slowly fell asleep. Her father had sat under the mosquito netting with her, smoothed sweat-damp hair from Shanthi’s forehead in the heat of the Colombo summer. He’d even fanned her with a handy piece of paper so that she could fall asleep, the paper invariably scribbled over with math. It was from her father that Shanthi had learned to love math and physics, the clean sense of their underlying structures. He had taught his youngest daughter as a game, an amusement, at first. But she had been quick to learn, eager for the challenge; he had become caught up in her excitement, ignoring her mother’s protestations, until the day when Shanthi stepped on the boat for England. Only then did she see the stricken realization in his eyes, that everything he had taught her had only served to send her away from him. She had wanted to tell him that fathers always lost their daughters in the end, but she hadn’t had the words.
He had gotten sick in the midst of the war, while she was away at school. Mail, already slow, had been disrupted; letters took months longer than normal to traverse the long distances. He had died before her letter back had arrived; she had heedlessly offered to come home, though there was no guarantee that she could even find someone to carry her back across the dark waters. Aravindan had already proposed by then, and Shanthi had accepted, though she had not yet had the courage to write to her father, to tell him that she had met a man, had fallen in love, that she wasn’t coming home, not yet. And then it was too late. Would her father have wanted her to marry Aravindan, to move with him to his new job in America? Would he have worried about her, as this father worries about his own daughter?
The poor student’s plight is not enough to focus Shanthi’s attention—now she considers the body of the white man sitting across from her, at a student’s desk. His long legs fit awkwardly under the low desktop, and Shanthi wonders what he would look like if he could stretch out properly. On a low sofa, perhaps, or a broad bed. He stares fixedly at her, and she wonders what he sees. A brown woman who should better know her place? Or does he see an exotic beauty, a princess from the storybooks? After six children, she is no longer slender, but her breasts are full, her broad hips might seem appealing. Shanthi is a respectable woman, a professor’s wife, a Catholic. She would never accede to any invitation. But she does wonder what it would be like, to be looked at, to be desired again by hot and feverish eyes—that, she imagines, would be satisfying. That would be some compensation.
Someone has stolen the princess! It is a demon, a monster, who stole her away, who flew Sita up over the mountains, across the sea, to the barbaric island of Lanka. The prince was away, hunting; the prince was not paying proper attention. And no one knows what Lakshman was doing; he has served his purpose, his part in the story is done. But now Rama gathers a great army, and it is the monkey king who leads them, through the dark forests, over the churning sea.
The princess waits in a tall tower, resisting the demon’s advances. Sita wants to be a good wife; if the demon comes too close, she threatens to throw herself off the edge, down onto the sharp rocks. She has never been in a tower so high, and secretly, she wants to jump, to feel the wind rushing again as it did when the demon snatched her. His glossy obsidian claws came down around her, caging her in, sweeping her through the air, her crimson sari trailing like a banner behind them. Nothing in her life has been as exciting as that flight. But Sita does her duty, she clings to the crumbling stone of the ancient tower, she teeters over the edge, but does not, in fact, fall.
Shanthi knows she should go straight home. The girls will be fed by now, but they will still be raucous, full of energy. Leilani will be running up and down the stairs, Harini and Kili will undoubtedly be fighting, over dolls, or clothes, or makeup they aren’t yet allowed to wear. Mayil will be drawing in her sketchbook; Shanthi thanks God every day for giving her one quiet child, and tries not to worry that all the girl seems to want to draw are human skeletons. Neriya won’t have eaten enough, and Aravindan will be coaxing her to eat a little more, and Lakshmi—Lakshmi will be sitting on the floor, sucking her thumb. Shanthi knows exactly what it will be like, and so she turns east instead of west, heading along the Midway to the lake, heedless of the cold which bites her nose, her cheeks.
She kicks her way along snowy sidewalks until the hem of her sari is drenched. Aravindan is always trying to convince her to wear Western clothes, insisting that she will be more comfortable; he has never understood that it is only the clothing from home that makes her feel comfortable. When Shanthi wears her saris, she can close her eyes and block out the brutal cold; she can imagine herself back in Colombo, in her father’s study perhaps, sitting beside him under the lazy ceiling fan, working out the answer to a problem he’s set her—or in the market with her mother, listening to the cries of the fruit and vegetable sellers, fingering the rows of cheap glass bangles. She would throw a few coins to an armless beggar and feel rich, and blessed, and lucky. Once, Aravindan had refused to buy her new saris, and so Shanthi had worn the same green sari every day for a month, to faculty dinners and receptions, until he was so ashamed that he gave in.
She crosses the bridge over Lake Shore Drive, her fingers icy against the metal handrail. She walks out onto the broken stones, the massive rocks leaning into the lake. Her feet are still nimble, and for a moment she remembers the dancer she was as a little girl. If she had never studied physics, never gone to England, whom would she have married? Would she have become the perfect wife, the Sita of the story? Shanthi stands there a long time, watching the waves crash hard against the unyielding stone, feeling the wind whip against her, before turning back for the long walk home.
It has become apparent that the demon Ravana is only going through the motions. Sita does not know why he stole her away at all; he appears to have lost all interest. If he really wanted her, he could have taken her by now, before she ever made it to the tower’s edge. If she jumped, he could snatch her out of the falling air. What could she do to resist him?
“Shanthi, come to bed. Come to bed, rasathi.”
Rasathi. Princess. Aravindan is full of soft touches and honeyed words these days, the guilt lacing through him. She can tell. You don’t marry a man against your mother’s wishes, you don’t give up your work to have his children, you don’t spend a decade sleeping by his side without knowing when something has changed. Shanthi doesn’t know who the woman was, but she knew when it started, and when it ended. Months of carrying on, and Shanthi never said a word, to anyone. If she had written to her mother in Colombo, she knows what would have come back—written in a pale hand on fragile onionskin paper, instructions to be patient, be understanding, and perhaps to take a little more trouble with her appearance. Instead Shanthi cooked with abandoned fury, dissolving entire sticks of butter into the uppuma, tossing the rice with toasted almond oil, heaping her plate high with spicy potatoes. Ate bite after bite until her stomach felt swollen, painful, and the sweat rolled down her face. When the affair ended, she almost relented, almost gave in. Almost.
“Soon. When the news is finished, I’ll come.” Let him toss and turn in the bed, hungry for relief that will not come from her. A brief warm pleasure kindles in her stomach at the thought. Perhaps this is why she hates Aravindan most of all—because he has turned her mean and spiteful, bitter and old. When they met, Shanthi placed her hand in his, let herself be drawn down, down to the sweet green grass. She listened to his words of love and thought she had found her prince, her Rama. Later, she felt herself betrayed; she comforted herself with bitterness, thought herself trapped with an uncaring demon, a Ravana. But she finds it harder these days to disappear into either fairy tale, either fantasy.
When Shanthi is feeling particularly fair, she doesn’t hate Aravindan at all. Sometimes, she only hates herself.
At the end of the story, Sita is rescued, the demon is killed, the monkey king dances in triumph. But the people demand that she die, for she is only a woman, and undoubtedly she has betrayed her husband by now. She could not live so long in a barbarian land and not open her thighs for the demon. They know that all women are faithless, in the end.
She is lost, alone, and when Sita turns to her prince, he does not stand by her, he does not hold her up, exhausted as she is by all of these difficulties, more than any princess should bear. Rama claims to love her, to believe her—yet he gestures to the screaming crowds and says sadly that he cannot defy them. He is not an evil man, but he is, in the final analysis, weak.
What should happen now? Should Sita walk away from her prince?
Eventually, Shanthi cannot keep her eyes open any longer; she checks on the sleeping girls, then goes to her bedroom, to her marriage bed. Aravindan is long asleep, turned toward her half of the bed. She stands there, watching him sleep—then climbs under the covers and lies down with her back to him. Shanthi closes her eyes, feels the heat of Aravindan’s body beside her, slowly warming the chilled sheets. She wishes she knew how to open to him again, wonders if he could warm her. Or, if it is too late for them, wonders if there might be another path for her.
But what would she do, without her husband, her children? Whatever else she might have been is long gone; the paths are barred by walls of thorns.
It is late, and Shanthi knows how this story ends.
Sita volunteers to undergo the trial by fire, to have her virtue tested; what else can she do to keep Rama by her side? She is nothing without her husband, so what can she do, alone in a strange forest, with the sun going down?
Sita walks into the flames, her body consumed, her spirit rising up, up, up. The princess flees home, to her sisters’ bedrooms, her mother’s arms. But they do not know her, they shriek in horror at this ghost, this pale monster. Her father might have known her, but he is long since dead. So she returns, weeping salt tears in the night, her spirit crossing the bitter sea once more. Sita returns to her burning body, walks out of the fire, cooling so quickly as she goes, until she is solid again, composed of ice and snow. She never knew ice until her exile began. Sita walks out of the fire, her body transparent and brittle, but the prince does not notice. Perhaps he chooses not to notice. He takes her in his arms to the crowd’s acclaim, he lays her down in the forest grass.
This is supposed to be a happy ending.