Shelley Wood is the winner of our Winter 2016-2017 Non-Fiction contest.
We had traveled to South India to explore the famous Kerala backwaters, but we figured while in Kochi, we may as well visit Mattancherry Palace with its mural of Lord Krishna playing the flute while pleasuring eight milkmaids at once: six with six hands and two with his feet.
“His feet?” Tyler asks, his eyebrows hopping.
“His feet,” I repeat, pointing at our guidebook. We take a moment to gaze at one another, husband to wife, 13 years married.
Our guide, Jaisal, leads us through the building—a squat, whitewashed house that was a gift from the Portuguese to the Maharaja of Kochi in 1555. It is 97°F indoors with 76% humidity –our slow ooze through this musty palace feels as if through a toor daal, so thick and spicy is the air.
We drift past the colorful murals teeming with beasts and humans, a tangle of many-armed torsos and jumbled faces, trying to pick out the regular cabal of Hindu gods and goddesses –Vishnu with his conch, Shiva with his cobra. We’re keen to spot Krishna, easily identified by his blue complexion and deific dexterity with the milkmaids. But Jaisal begs us to pause before each painting, explaining that these murals are a series depicting the Ramayana, the epic love story of Rama and Sita.
Panel one depicts the three wives of Dasharatha with his three sons, one from each wife. In the second panel is Rama, one of the sons, banished from his father’s court for 14 years. The next features Rama’s faithful bride Sita, captured by the evil king Ravana who flew over from Sri Lanka in a flower helicopter.
We snap awake.
Jaisal nods, smiling. “Yes, a flower helicopter.” He knew this would get our attention. “Even at the very beginning, they had this kind of flower technology.”
I’m wilting. I don’t have the energy to press Jaisal on the finer mechanics of floral aeronautics any more than I can summon the enthusiasm to ask him whether he himself is married. This is my standard question –like all Westerners we’re fascinated by India’s arranged marriages.
Indeed, with every guide tasked with showing us the marvels of the subcontinent—on the long hours spent driving from city to city or strolling through the monuments and mosques—we’ve grilled them with questions, prying shamelessly into their marital history.
What I sense from their responses is a subtle lack of uxoriousness. Subir, our guide in Rajasthan was proud to the point of bursting over his two grown daughters, but questions about his wife he brushed aside. Avi, in Varanasi, shrugged when we asked his opinion on marrying for love. “No need”, he pronounced, swaying in the bow of the tattered dinghy he’d hired to shepherd us up and down the banks of the Ganges, the banks smudged by the smoke of funeral pyres. Couples can fall in love after they get married, he explained. And if they don’t? No problem, they just start a family sooner. Avi and his wife married young and swiftly had three children. “This is better,” he assured us. “Marrying young. Then the girls know what to think, you understand.” Seeing my blank face, Avi tried harder. “They have someone to follow,” he clarified. I shot a look at Tyler, who answered me with a wink.
Avi addressed the question to Tyler, not to me: “And you? Many children back in Canada?”
“None,” Tyler answers cheerfully, and Avi’s gaze, sad as the brown river, glides over to me pityingly. I look away.
Later a man with Bollywood eyes, and a silk-weaving company that had been in his family for generations, coaxed us successfully towards the purchase of some overpriced scarves. During the performance of flinging out and layering piece after piece of exquisite fabric—saris, shawls, and stoles—on the floor of his shop the man said: “This is the difference between India and America. In America, you hang beautiful things on your walls. In India, everything beautiful we hang on our wives.”
At the time, we laughed. How true, we murmured, how lovely. But later the silk-seller’s comment sneaks back and riles me: the objectification and imbalance. Where is the to-and-fro, the mutual respect, a place for choice and partnership? Or, I reasoned, would I feel differently if I, too, could be a wife so revered and inscrutable? I can’t be sure. What if this was the only world I’d ever known?
But my unease tags along with us, a sulky sightseer. It doesn’t help that we are visiting fortress after historic fortress, each with lavish rooms built for wife-one, wife-two, wife-three –none of whom were permitted to leave their quarters. At the Amber Palace, the Raj had 12 secret corridors leading to the separate chambers of each of his 12 wives so he could come and go unobserved. At Fatehpur Sikri, the emperor had a life-sized game of Parcheesi installed in his courtyard, where he used real women from his harem as game pieces.
“And can you guess what his prize was if he won?” our grinning guide ribs my husband: wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
Our genial chaperones must see me frowning from time to time and inevitably turn our questions around: how long have we been married? How many children? Our answer—13 years, no children—makes their eyes turn soft with confusion. “One dog,” we tell them at first. Then we realize, in India, where tatty mutts skulk through the streets like drug-dealers, this answer has no connection to the question. And this, it seems, may be one spidery thread linking everything that seems so unfathomable in India to the world we know back home. Because even in North America, some of our closest friends don’t understand that our dog, who we chose over human offspring, has been woven densely into our first-world, childless love for all these many years.
In Mattancherry Palace, Jaisal is doing his best to hold our interest through each of the Ramayana murals. Towards the end, he tells us, Rama ends up trooping over to Sri Lanka via Adam’s Bridge, built by monkeys across the Gulf of Mannar, ultimately slaying Ravana and rescuing his beloved Sita. I’m charmed by the story, particularly since this legendary couple had been married 14 years before Rama set out to save Sita. I turn a blind eye to the lower corner of the penultimate panel, which depicts Sita seemingly squatting in a Hibachi leaping with flames to prove her chastity to Rama. I want to believe in this love story, just as I’d also like to see the many-limbed Lord Krishna giving his eight milkmaids their due until he’s blue in the face.
Alas, we never get to see it. This particular scene is in a downstairs gallery, closed for renovations. There are no postcards of this painting in the gift shop, and I’m too chicken to hazard an Internet search of “Mattancherry Palace Krishna pleasuring maids” for fear of what Google might turn up.
The next day, we head out from Kochi onto the Kerala Backwaters —a warren of lazy waterways lined with soaring coconut trees and rice paddies. Fleets of houseboats thatched with palm fronds glide languidly past kids being paddled to school, mothers laundering clothes on the steaming banks. Some houseboats are ferrying foreign tourists like us, but the backwaters have also become a popular destination for Indian honeymooners.
In the scorching afternoon, we step into a slim and tippy skiff to tour the narrower channels that serve as paths between the homes. Another couple joins us: newlyweds from Tamil Nadu, married in a ceremony just three days ago.
The couple endures our nosiness politely. Yes, they are very happy together. No, they hadn’t met before they wed. They are both engineering professors, only at different universities. They beam at this detail, as if it is proof of their compatibility. Side by side on their narrow bench, bobbing in the current, they could be newlyweds in Venice or Disneyworld, awed at the prospect of a life together –whatever it might bring. I think: who am I to presume their marriage might end up anything lesser than my own?
Later in the canal, we come across a snake, thick as a bicep, floating on the surface—dead or sunning itself, it’s not clear. The sight of it causes the Indian man to spring up, rocking the boat, then cower towards his new wife, who looks on amused. “I’m very afraid of snakes!” he tells us, unnecessarily. Then he turns to his wife and repeats himself more tenderly since this is new information for her as well. Everything is. My dear, I am very afraid of snakes.
Door to door, it takes five flights and 42 hours for us to return from Kerala to the Pacific Northwest. We are somewhere in the flight path over Myanmar when our beloved dog, back home, is rushed to the vet and diagnosed with a fatal mass that is bleeding internally –terminally.
He holds on until we get back, cradling him like a toddler while he bellows with pain. Our second night home, he collapses in his blood-red urine. Our minds are a thick clot of jet lag, insomnia, and anguish by Friday when the kindest vet that ever walked the earth comes to our house to help our old boy die. After the vet leaves, my husband turns to me with a face so stripped and raw with shock and grief I’d do anything in my power to keep more hurt from getting at him.
Here is our own Ramayana mural. In panel one, a childless couple flies over the sea in a flower helicopter, hurrying back for a stricken creature that is part child, part beast. In the next, a medical man is carrying a bundle of soft fur and old bones wrapped in a brown fleece blanket out to a chariot in the driveway. In the third and final panel: the man and woman are standing as one, husband and wife, bodies clenched so tightly together they’re a single torso leeched of color, weeping on both faces, four tangled arms holding on for dear life.
The woman says: “India feels like a million years ago.”
The man’s face is contorting against her shoulder –she can feel it– wet with tears, his mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out. Finally, he manages: “We went to India?” And they stand there, shaking with sobs or laughter—it doesn’t matter which, so long as they can just keep standing.