Your parents need the crap kicked out of them for raising such a disrespectful little terd.
A disgruntled Army veteran sent me the tweet on August 10, 2015, while I debated a retired three-star general on Fox News. It was the most colorful response I had ever received from a brother-in-arms. The general and I had been discussing how much to open combat roles to women. My take? All the way.
My fellow veterans had a habit of throwing the worst insults at me in order to defend the military’s sacred status quo. In part, the troll was right. General William “Jerry” Boykin was a warfighter several times over (I most certainly was not). I had offended all sense of military decorum by talking back to an officer several rungs up the chain of command, without any hint of shame.
In the heat of the segment, Boykin said, with more than a little flourish, “You cannot violate the laws of nature without expecting some consequences . . . The people that advocate for [women in combat] have never lived out of a rucksack in a combat situation.”
I hit him hard. How else were you supposed to hit a general? “I think the general is just wrong. Thirteen years of warfare have proven that women can live out of rucksacks in completely hor
rendous conditions in combat alongside men . . . They have fought and died in combat, in fact. And we should remember that.”
Of course, my words out of someone else’s mouth might have been less shocking. I was a woman. With brown skin and a name that certainly did not hail from the Bible. Boykin himself was not your average general, having made a hard-core turn to evangelical Christianity after retiring his uniform. He was now the executive vice president of the Family Research Council, an organization the Southern Poverty Law Center classified as a hate group. All of this was supposed to bolster his assertion that women had no place in the infantry.
Boykin’s military background and his Christian creds made him a beloved Fox guest, the kind who inspired nods and Amens all across America. His voice had the deep, weathered bellow of someone who had made a lot of people run for their lives. (Truth be told, the junior officer within me wanted to Sir him up and down, even while I ripped apart his arguments.)
Where did that leave me? On Fox News, I was a Brown female target with a name no one could pronounce and loyalties no one trusted. A former Marine, I was possibly the only activist around who would speak to the conservative masses about what the military needed to do for women in uniform. For Americans who saluted the flag no matter what the state of the union, it meant that my words often amounted to heresy.
Being an ex-Marine gave me some cover when talking about things like sexual violence in the military, or, in this case, integrating women into combat arms jobs. It meant that my trolls had refrained thus far from sending me rape and death threats, the kind usually sent to my civilian women counterparts when they spoke their minds. Still, what I did receive was unnerving, and sometimes terrifying. Women were not supposed to say what I’d been saying for years now. It was unruly. It was unbecoming.
A former Army Ranger, Boykin had recited a series of not-so-relevant talking points from the nineties about women in combat, in
cluding the propensity of uniformed men to lose their marbles at the sight of a nubile woman. All his claims had been debunked this week by the first two women who had graduated from Ranger School, the Army’s grueling combat leadership course.
Taking on an evangelical Christian general and ex-Ranger who’d served as an Army infantryman more years than I’d breathed oxygen took gumption. A year earlier, the organization I led had joined forces with four uniformed women and sued the Pentagon so all jobs in the military would be open to women. And it worked. The floodgates opened, as service women who wanted to see what they were made of entered all-male schools and assignments, and the defenders of the fiercest old boys’ club in America dug in like their lives depended on it.
The military’s culture wars had been brewing for decades. Hundreds of thousands of women had served in Iraq and Afghanistan. And back at home, we were ensuring the military did right by them. It meant confronting some of the nation’s most precious myths about men in uniform. It meant exposing truths about sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the daily humiliations women had to suffer through in order to wear the uniform. I’d seen it all firsthand. And there was still no end in sight.
I knew the military was better off when women succeeded, and no decorated Army general was going to convince me otherwise. The days when no one was listening were over. We had organized and spoken out years before #MeToo made headlines. And we had convinced an entire nation that service women were worth caring about.
These changes didn’t happen by chance, nor did they happen overnight.
As for me, it took joining the Marines to find my voice. Once I realized I could trust it, there was no turning back.
Anyone watching closely would have understood. I joined the Marines because of them.
I had always been my parents’ little girl. Their only child, for some reason. I was shy in front of people, and terrified of being in groups. I listened to Mom and Dad completely. Because they had a lot to say, I did a lot of listening.
Mom met Dad in Boston when she was in graduate school at Harvard and he was teaching at MIT. They were both economists. This all meant nothing to me except that they were always going to the office or on their way to conferences. I remember flashes. Mom wore saris and a red powdered bindi on her forehead, and Dad made me a mug of hot chocolate with Hershey’s cocoa powder and milk for breakfast. Sometimes he and I sat together before sunrise in the quiet house while I sipped my cocoa through a plastic straw and he listened to the morning news on a tiny black-and-white television set.
I remember snow blanketing our neighborhood in Lexington, Massachusetts, for months, and Dad, in his black woolen overcoat, thick black-rimmed glasses, and Russian fur cap, trying to push our car up the hill to our house. Dad was dark brown with wild bushy
eyebrows and a thick head of black hair that he matted down with gel and a wooden horsehair brush. His eyes danced when he spoke, and laughter always preceded his punch lines.
Mom was just a shade more olive than white, with thin arms like a cartoon princess. Her hair was black and wavy, and tied back into a bun with a long piece of black yarn and a dozen black bobby pins. She had a straight nose. Dad had a round nose. Everyone said Mom was beautiful. Everyone said I looked like Dad.
I was born in Boston in 1975 when the city was mostly white. Though Black families existed in small numbers, Asians were practically invisible. A few months earlier, a federal judge had ordered the integration of Boston’s public schools. White parents organized a boycott. There were riots and attacks on Black children. It could have been the Deep South.
For Mom and Dad, there was simply India, and there was here, where Mom was re-creating her life from scratch with a focus that allowed for no distractions. They were working to achieve the American dream. They were protected from the worst white animosity by the bubble of the ivory tower and the enclave of intellectuals who were moving to the suburbs outside Boston.
In the fifties, Dad was taken in by a cadre of Jewish mentors at MIT, men like Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow, who would win Nobel Prizes and rewrite how economics was understood in the Western world. In 1968, Dad’s professors gave him early tenure, and he and Mom moved from a cramped apartment to their first house in Lexington.
I was about three when Dad was driving us one day along winding suburban roads. Being economists, Mom and Dad could tell you where everything in the world came from, like cars and refrigerators and crayons. If you were sensible, you drove only Japanese or German cars, because they were better made. This was why we had a Toyota.
I was in the back, strapped behind a seat belt, reading. Mom was in the passenger seat. Dad had stopped driving. Maybe it was a red light. Maybe he was lost. A car sped up from behind us and screeched
to a stop alongside us. A man was making big movements with his arms. Dad rolled down his window.
The man’s face looked like boiling water. He was yelling at Dad. I didn’t understand what his words meant but they scared me. I was too young to know much, but I knew that this man felt like he was better than Dad, and this meant we were different. I looked away from the man’s face, which was red and white at the same time, because he reminded me of monsters in my picture books.
Dad didn’t say anything. Something uncomfortable was moving in my belly, like a stomachache when I was sick. The man suddenly drove away. Dad and Mom were still quiet. Then they began whispering in Gujarati. I felt something new rising up inside me. I felt shame. I wanted to be as powerful as the light-skinned monster man. And I did not want to be like Dad.
• • •
My father was constantly being told he was brilliant, and he believed it. When we walked through airports on trips to India, random men would stop before him and bow. Dad loved these moments. Mom hated them. But for all of Dad’s fame, he never seemed settled.
It is a testament to my family’s strange narcissism that I knew what a Nobel Prize was when I was a toddler. My parents referred to it as “The Nobel,” and the consensus was that Dad had been robbed. Every September I witnessed my parents’ tortured theater as they tossed the names of potential winners around the dinner table.
Each year when Dad was passed over for one of his colleagues, I would ask him gingerly how he was. He delivered the only line that ever made him feel better.
“Oh, I’m fine. Even Gandhi-ji didn’t win a Nobel.”
• • •
I was five years old when Mom was offered tenure at Columbia University. Dad quit his job at MIT to support Mom’s career, and we moved to New York City. The girls and boys in my new school were
mostly white and Jewish. I’d been to many synagogues in the city but couldn’t recall ever visiting a Hindu temple.
“Daddy, are we Jewish?” I asked when I was six. We were not. I would never have a bat mitzvah. It was a terrible disappointment.
Lunchtime at school was torture. In the early morning hours, my father made sandwiches for me with great care, wrapped them up in paper bags like my friends’ parents did with theirs, and dropped me off at school. His sandwiches became one more reason I kept my guard up in the company of white kids. Their lunches held power over mine, even though their tuna fish was bland and mealy and their bread was white and crustless. My brown paper bag was flooded with Indian ingredients conquerors had traveled the oceans to get their hands on: finely cut vegetables flavored with cumin, coriander, and turmeric; shrimp salad sandwiches on whole wheat bread; and chicken sautéed in spicy tomatoes, mustard seeds, and onions. My lunch smelled different. It smelled, period. It made me want to hide.
At the dinner table, under the watchful gaze of Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, we ate dal, subzi, raita, and rice that my mother had made from scratch after a full day at the office. Mom and Dad ate with their hands, while I clutched my fork and fumed, trying to reconcile their savage eating methods with the lessons I was being taught at school about the proper use of utensils and keeping elbows off the table. I didn’t know that most Brown people around the world ate food with their hands. It wouldn’t have mattered. None of those people had any leverage over my childhood.
One afternoon I was playing at the sandbox in our classroom. Joel Stein approached me. He was shorter than most of the other boys, and chubby, with wispy blond hair. He started talking to me about Gandhi.
Joel faked an Indian accent, in the confident way white folks fake Indian accents, not knowing they are widely missing the mark. He started prancing around the table as though he were wearing Gandhi’s white dhoti and tripping over himself. Shy and introspective, I watched his performance. I had no witty comeback. I was too
young to summon outrage, though even then I wanted to tell Joel that we called him Gandhi-ji as a sign of respect. I stayed quiet. It was not in my nature to confront someone who was picking on me. I remember the sting of humiliation. If India’s national hero was the object of ridicule, what chance did the rest of us have?
• • •
My parents made it clear to me that my grades mattered more than anything else in the world. And so I studied, all the time. The grown-ups in my life weren’t just adults, they were elders. In Indian culture, elders were practically demigods. Kids didn’t just bow to their grandparents, they touched their feet in respect. One didn’t say no to parents, aunties, or uncles. And every adult was called Uncle or Auntie, regardless of their actual connection to you.
Mom and Dad had no rulebook for raising an Indian kid in the States. Sex ed and the subversive nature of pop culture were not things Indian parents had to contend with in the motherland. When I came home at age nine singing Madonna’s latest album and asking, Daddy, what’s a virgin? my father was stunned. Couples didn’t even kiss in Bollywood movies. (Dad rapidly deflected, telling me it meant a person hadn’t yet been married. I lost interest.)
As I approached preteen years, I was aware of the shifts happening in the bodies around me. Training bras and boys’ wandering eyes appeared suddenly, causing a disruption in the group order. This budding sexuality was something I tried to ignore, but the buzz generated by my light-skinned classmates let me know I could not just hide in my homework. These kids outnumbered me and shaped my every move.
I went along with the charades my classmates played, but in my gut I felt a separation that made me feel like a fraud. My classmates’ sexual and social preoccupations didn’t correlate with the attention and approval I would get back home. I lived in two worlds.
My Indian cultural indoctrination would be no match for the influence of the prepubescent white girls in my life. At age eleven, these girls were deep into gendered rituals that defined their changing
relationship to boys, before I was aware that gender was even a thing. For them, shaving legs and removing facial hair were vital to their survival. As I listened to them obsess about their transformations, self-preservation took root. The thought that I might be teased, or worse, forgotten by the other kids, became fuel for altering my skinny Brown body.
My hair was a problem. I used tweezers to yank out the soft black wisps on my upper lip and the tufts in front of my ears. The hair on my head was thick, curly, frizzy, and endless. Indian mothers were inexperienced and uninterested in the self-love birthed by the Black Power movement. Mom’s solution for managing my lustrous hair was not to let my fro be free but instead to cut it all off.
No one in my world celebrated my mother’s pragmatism, least of all me. An older Black girl—one of so few Black kids in our school that we might have banded together if we’d known any better—whom I looked up to approached me in the hall one day and declared, “You look like a boy.”
I took this to mean that boy was the worst thing a girl could be called. I did everything I could not to cry.
I made my mother let me grow my hair out. But there was so damn much of it. I didn’t understand why my hair didn’t stay put like it did on the white girls at school. There wasn’t a knot or tangle anywhere on their heads. Even the Black girls knew how to braid and barrette their hair. I was an outlier among all the kids, an ugly duckling who belonged nowhere and didn’t understand why.
Still, I tried my damnedest. These white-girl rituals were expensive and time-consuming. I had to gather the right equipment: pink plastic razors, women’s shaving cream, and cherry-flavored lip gloss. The careful, calculated entrapment of adolescent males was no easy task. It was pure orchestration, planning and counterplanning, like considering the best way to ambush one’s enemy.
To tame my hair I tried bobby pins, elastic bands, plastic combs, and wooden brushes. Side parts and middle parts. I went through
enough brands of shampoo and conditioner to make me a Procter & Gamble poster girl. But nothing would help me look like them.
In any case, my obsessive, unsupervised primping didn’t seem to make a difference. I never got the attention the other girls got. White boys noticed white girls. This was the unspoken rule of things, but I figured it was my fault. My body would never be that kind of body, the one that got talked about by boys in hushed tones in the hallway, the one that provoked lust-filled glances from men on the street.
I learned about sex and love at the homes of my white girlfriends, where we watched movies like Dirty Dancing and played games like spin the bottle and truth or dare. Slumber parties were where I discovered important childhood rites of passage, where we assembled our sleeping bags in front of the television, bingeing on ice cream and watching late-night pornography on cable, where naked adult bodies engaged in acts of contortion and pounding that made no sense to me. I was in no place to ask questions. I kept my head down and ate my ice cream.
I was just the smart girl. But smartness had no currency in this world; it was only back home with Mom and Dad that it was both everything and never enough.
• • •
Every Indian family seemed to have a story about a handsy Indian uncle or neighbor. Stories about sexual violence were told in whispers, if they were told at all. Without any talks about birds and bees, I had no way of knowing the difference between sex, love, and violence. I had to find out on my own.
At thirteen, Bianca was one year older than me, and very thin, with budding curves around the hips. She wore shoes that adult women wore, with tapered toes and heels. Her jeans fit closely to her legs. I could spot Bianca in a crowd of kids by her bright-red lipstick. It drew out the green in her eyes and the dark brown in her hair. Bianca was some kind of Italian goddess, and I would never look like her.
Bianca was crying this morning, and our teachers had surrounded her. Mascara was dripping down both of her cheeks. She had a com
plexion that was beyond white. It was the kind of porcelain I saw in museums, where security guards warned us not to touch anything. A face like Bianca’s inspired great art, and grave concern.
The news reached us like the telephone game, from one child’s seat to the next. On her way to school, a strange man attacked Bianca, touched her in some harmful way. Bianca was still crying audibly, surrounded by a ring of adults.
I wondered who this man was. I imagined him as handsome. Even then, I recognized what jealousy felt like: a narrowing of my chest and heat behind the eyes.
• • •
Mom got a PhD in economics in the 1950s from Harvard, on full scholarship. The saris Mom wore to work in Cambridge were delicate and elegant, like her. She carried them in a single leather suitcase on a ship from India to the States. My favorites had flowers and plants, tiny elephants, and peacocks. They reminded me of the stone sculptures in our home, where the gods were animals.
In New York City, at her new job as a professor at Columbia, she was going through a wardrobe change. I accompanied her to department stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, where she tried on all the latest pantsuits by designers from Italy, because they were the best. Mom’s red bindi powder remained unused now on her bedroom shelf. The elephants and peacocks came out of the closet only on special occasions.
There was that day when, early on in her tenure, Mom stopped by a colleague’s office. He was a senior faculty member in the political science department, a large white man with a big reputation. He stood up to greet her. Then he unzipped his pants. She flew out of there before he could go any further. Mom told Dad immediately, and then reported the man to the dean, who said, “That’s the way he is.” Nothing was done. She wouldn’t speak about it in public till she retired forty years later, after the guy was dead.
• • •
I was a quiet, good girl. Sex was forbidden to me. It surfaced in hidden places, where adults didn’t roam.
When I was five, my camp counselor sat me on his lap on the train back from swimming practice. The others were doing kid things. Singing songs. Picking their noses. Zack embraced me in his sun-tanned arms and planted a warm kiss on my lips. Whatever line he had crossed with me was blurred by my sense that I was wanted. I adored him.
Three years later, my friend Sophie and I were hiding under a bed in my parents’ apartment, with jigsaw puzzles, cards, and board games. Sophie told me to stay quiet and take off my clothes. I did. She got close, touching me in places I didn’t know could be touched. I was shy, and willing. She was gentle, and very focused, as if she were following a script. Something was exciting me, and hiding from my parents and whispering was helping that. I didn’t say much. She was in charge.
I was safe with Sophie, but something about her was unsettled. Mom and Dad spoke about Sophie seeing a therapist, which was apparently a serious thing. She sometimes picked her eyebrows clean off her forehead. Unlike Mom and Dad, I looked at Sophie’s face and saw a face just as it was supposed to be.
I was accustomed to the rumblings at her enormous Park Avenue home, the raised voices, her mother’s anxiety, her stepfather’s scoldings. Sophie’s anger with them was quick to burn. I could not yet relate to this anger, though when she cried afterward and refused to eat, I wondered what would make a child so sad.
• • •
For a teenager in New York City, taking the subway from home to high school and back was a pride-building rite of passage. Long gone were the days when my mother followed me like a private investigator, across the avenue and half a block behind, to make sure I looked both ways before crossing the street.
I spent most of my hours drowning in homework and a rotating schedule of extracurricular activities that would get me into the Ivy League. I went to Stuyvesant High School, a prestigious math and science
public school, so Mom and Dad didn’t pay a dime. It was okay to be smart now. Even the mean girls got good grades. I was surrounded by kids from poor, working-, and middle-class immigrant families whose hell-bent focus on hard work and getting into college was familiar. Asian kids made up the majority of the student population, and whiteness held less sway over me now—I sought refuge in my community of multicultural nerds.
One particular morning there was too little room on the train to open a book. So I shoved in and made my way to the pole. On its way down to the financial district, the train was crammed with brokers and briefcases and black-and-white newspapers held up and folded just so to maximize readability and space. There was no moving until doors opened and people forced themselves out, elbows, hips, and shoulders violently carving a path to the platform.
In this crowded subway car, where a person could barely breathe, someone was touching me before I even realized that I was being touched. His hand was up my skirt and his fingers were roaming on the surface of my panties, pressing and rubbing into me.
I looked up suddenly, wild-eyed. I only saw heads looking beyond or down into a sea of newspapers. Did I imagine it? I must have.
And as I settled back into the rumbling of the train, it began again, this humiliation I could not verify through eye contact, this pushing, searching, probing over and into the fabric of my underwear. I searched the crowd again, silently, and it stopped again. Still, I found no one to validate my experience. No witnesses to this scene, not even the guilty party.
I imagined I must be insane. My senses had heightened and my voice had disappeared, a combination that was infuriating in its biological design, making me feel useless. Any trust I had in myself eroded rapidly, like the safety in my childhood, like the certainty that I could succeed at anything by trying hard enough.
It continued like this, for minutes that seemed like hours, till the train came to a stop and the doors opened. Faceless, nameless bodies poured out and others rushed in. I stood at the pole, frozen and silent.
I told no one about this moment. I don’t know why. What would
I have said? And to whom? I packed this morning away in the darkest corner of my memory and didn’t think about it for twenty-five years.
• • •
As high school continued, I became increasingly aware of my ugliness. When curves arrived officially one summer, my father called me fat and disgusting.
I can’t even look at you, he said, storming out of the bedroom and far away from me. I was used to this. Dad had always hated my curly Indian hair and grimaced when he saw me wearing it loose around my shoulders. It didn’t matter that his hair was like mine. Or that he was far from thin. In fact, the only one who was thin and would always stay that way was my mother, who avoided things like butter and desserts and made sure you knew about it, too. My father’s addiction to fried food and pastrami had already given him one heart attack. But none of this mattered. I was the one out of control.
I stood looking in the mirror, studying the rolls on my belly. The only thing worse than his cruelty was my self-hatred. Too ashamed to look into my own eyes, I vowed never to be fat again.
I disappointed my father in other ways because I loved sports, and by high school had become obsessed with basketball. I captained my team several years in a row, but this meant nothing to my folks. Dad may have disapproved of my body, but exercise was beneath him and organized sports were a waste of time. My straight As were irrelevant. Dad was fed up with the number of hours I spent training and became exasperated as I watched Patrick Ewing and the Knicks run back and forth on TV. Dad would storm into the kitchen, stomping his feet, gesticulating at the enormous men on the television set, turning it off while yelling my name. I would just turn it back on after he left.
I rarely went to school without a Georgetown Hoyas baseball hat, the rim curved just so, tugged down over my forehead and ponytail. I began to wear black, gray, and navy blue. My pants became baggy. I wanted to hide.
There was also the matter of my period, a monstrous thing filled
with pain, hiding, and more silence. For as long as I can remember, that time of the month was excruciating. I hid in library corners, withdrew to bathroom stalls and private rooms, clutched my knees to my chest, and writhed in pain. My muscles wrapped around my intestines and squeezed until liquid gushed from every orifice in my body.
The toilet was my refuge. Urine-stained rims and dark brown halos below did not deter me from sprawling on bathroom floors. I emptied out my guts from both ends, as if to exorcise some demon possessing my body. When the pain turned from hot and searing to sharp and metallic, I vomited again and again. Sometimes too late to make it to a toilet, I wrapped my mouth around the nearest available bottle, filling it with stomach bile out in the open. I threw up so much that in the end, there was nothing left but empty heaving.
Through this private physical upheaval, I cultivated a long-suffering patience. I became an expert at masking pain. I thought this was my lot in life. And so I told no one. No other woman revealed any personal stories about pain to me. My mother had done a brief but shocking tampon demonstration for me when I was twelve, but aside from that—I was mortified to learn that she had private parts, more than anything—she had shared little with me about life outside of her academic obsessions.
As far as I knew, I was the only girl on earth who felt like I was being drawn and quartered from the inside out every month. No one told me it would be okay. For all I knew, nothing was okay in this world.
• • •
I was sixteen when I met Sam. She was point guard to my power forward. She was calm and moved like water, paving endless routes to the hoop without seeming to try. She didn’t know how good she was.
She had shy eyes, except for the occasional glint of mischief that grew from a political sensibility about what was right and wrong with the world. She didn’t like her whiteness. She believed white folks had irreparably harmed the world. At only fifteen, she took responsibility for that harm, even if she didn’t cause it, even if it hurt.
I had my head lost in books, assignments, and expectations about my future. And then, suddenly, my world was Sam. She was everything I thought I was not—cool in the face of hysteria, unfazed by the pressures of striving for academic perfection. She rejected the systems that made book-smart people powerful. She preferred poets and writers who shaped minds and created revolutions off the syllabus. There was a vibrant world beyond school in which Sam seemed alive, a world of protest and revolution. I didn’t know that world but I wanted in.
Sam told me I thought too much. She was present, and real. She took me to dives in the East Village that became places of refuge from home—holes in the ground with heaping pots of Middle Eastern lentils and hot pita bread, giant black bean burritos with fresh salsa, natural soft drinks in flavors I’d never imagined, like ginger beer.
That winter was my wonderland. Basketball was where I felt alive. I spent any feelings of inadequacy and rage on the court. One evening after practice, Sam and I walked with heavy book bags to one of her havens. Our faces were red, hair slightly matted from sweat, the backs of our chairs overflowing with scarves and hoods. As we ate, she grew quiet. Then she looked up from her plate and told me.
“I’m falling for you.”
I didn’t know what this meant. I shifted in my seat. I avoided eye contact. I chewed excessively.
I knew what this meant. Sam was my best friend. And Sam loved me. Did I love Sam? What would it mean to love her?
I don’t remember how it happened. One week we were giggling, following some rich old lady in a mink coat down the street, yelling at her that she shouldn’t wear fur. The next week she was in my arms, wrapped up on a sofa, and everything was quiet and still and warm, and I was in her hair, and all I could smell in my dreams was her.
Somehow I knew that what I felt was forbidden. No one else knew about us. But my mother was suspicious.
“Sam is a troubled teenager.” And then, “Why are you spending so much time together?”
When Sam was over on weekends, my mother hovered and glared at us like we would burst into flames. Her anxiety turned into paranoia and then hatred.
On a mandatory family trip to Mexico, I pouted. I was silent and distracted. I wandered away for hours at a time to be alone. This infuriated my parents.
One night my mother stormed into our hotel room, sobbing, waving her arms around like some rabid beast. She declared that she had read my diary.
“You’ve written about her . . . her hair!”
She cornered me into admitting the truth.
I did. And then I wished I were dead.
The rest was a blur of tears and silence interrupted by fits of my mother screaming in my direction. I don’t know how we got to the airport. On the flight back to New York City, my mother told me of the shame I would wreak upon her family in India.
“Two women kissing. It’s dis-gust-ing.” And then, before I’d fully digested all of this, she said, “If you do not end this now, I will kill myself.”
She looked away wretchedly, and that was that.
I sat next to my father on the plane, crying, while my mother sat in a seat across the aisle, in some desperate, wild-eyed fugue state.
There was no question of who held the authority here. My mother had the only and final word. There were no opposing points of view to be had. No question of my mother’s intentions, or her ability to follow through with this threat. Her ultimatum came from deep beyond her own language, as if brought forth by our ancestors. There was no question of my responsibility. My dharma.
My father was strangely gentle with me. He never raised his voice. He did not disapprove. He did not remind me of my unbearable shame.
Back home in the city I left my suitcase at the apartment and called Sam from the phone booth on my parents’ college campus.
“I can’t see you anymore. My mother found out.”
Sam accepted this news, too quickly, too quietly.
At school that week, Sam avoided me, but I found her during lunch hour, pulled her into an empty classroom, and explained how much I still wanted to be with her.
She was detached and cold. I was hysterical. I crumpled up a piece of paper from my notebook and threw it at her. It was all I could do to connect to her, this pathetic act of violence. I hated her for being like this, for pretending I didn’t exist. God, I loved her.
The next winter, my senior year and her junior, Sam didn’t show up to our first practice. I was devastated. I found her in the hallway that week and asked why she wasn’t playing ball with us this year. She said nothing. I was desperate for an answer.
“Is it because of me?”
I had lost her. Some part of me shut down then and never woke up again.
• • •
Silence over things that mattered most had held my family together for years. I had my secrets, and I discovered my parents also had theirs.
The sense that my mother was carrying some larger-than-life pain had weighed on me since as long as I’d been conscious. She said nothing in my childhood to explain the reason for her sadness. I assumed, because I was never told otherwise, that it was my fault.
My mother was capable of moments of great joy, but they were often interrupted by longer moments of melancholy. Dad was in his own intellectual world, oblivious to the full impact of her moods. Mom handled every challenge in her life by throwing herself into her work, obsessively. When they were together, my parents spoke for hours about international relations, economic theories, and famous thinkers, but no one ever explained why that’s all they talked about. When I walked into their conversations, I became their audience. Who could blame them? They lectured for a living. They had no off switch.
My mother’s sadness was my sadness. Her long, frequent moments of staring out into space became my responsibility. Her pain
seemed to be provoked by me and my inability to do things right. Her tears came often, and hard, hitting me like giant waves and taking the ground from beneath my feet.
I was about sixteen when she told me she wanted to talk over coffee. I remember how strange this felt. My mother and I did not “have coffee.” We had no mother-daughter dates, or heart-to-heart talks like I saw on television and imagined my high school friends having. The space between us was uncomfortable and vast.
In a coffee shop in the neighborhood, we sat on stools before large windows. Mom’s revelations had no warm-up phase, no adjustment time.
“Dad and I thought it was time you knew,” she said. “I was married to another man. In India.”
I do not remember most details from this day. Whether Mom sipped coffee while she told her story. If she looked at me while she spoke. I don’t remember what we wore, or the season, or the year. I just remember a feeling of falling.
As I sat there trying not to listen, my mind created ways to escape Mom’s confession. I thought, Oh god, is Dad not my father? Please tell me I was adopted. These cannot be my parents. It would have explained everything. But I was not adopted. And in fact, Dad was my father. The narrative came at me like floodwater.
“He slept with prostitutes. He gave me a venereal disease. I couldn’t have a child for years.” I remember how clinical her words sounded.
“He seduced me.”
What the hell did she mean, seduced? I knew something wasn’t right, and I wasn’t sure how, but I knew this like I’d always seemed to know about Mom. There was a moment when I was conscious and present, and everything seemed clear. I’m not even sure how I knew this word.
“Mom. Did he rape you?”
She looked away and paused. Mom was no longer lecturing.
I was furious, mostly with my grandfather, who made sure that my mother married the man who “seduced” her. Indian custom wouldn’t have it any other way. Consent was not a factor. Sex before marriage—consensual or not—was like heresy, and choices were irrelevant for women. But Mom was resourceful. She found a way out of her marriage by converting from Hinduism to Christianity, a dramatic move that circumvented Hindu law and left her husband powerless to prevent a divorce. Still, she felt that she’d brought shame upon her family and disappointed her father by abandoning Hinduism for her freedom. Even after all of this, she worshipped her father.
Mom’s revelation would be the beginning of a lifelong dance between us. She was stuck in another time and place, with rules and language that did not apply to my present. For decades, I wrestled with her story. A few years after our talk, I had the audacity to ask her again, as if I hadn’t heard it the first time, “Mom, did he rape you?” And she told me, “No.”
I felt crazy. A teenage girl does not invent such horrors about her mother’s past and then rack her brain from that day on to try to understand how such a thing could happen. Why would my mother, this pillar of precision and discipline, change her story?
Decades later, my mother still had an impeccable memory for details from her past, but did not remember that we ever had that coffee. In what coffee shop? she asked me. How is it possible for her to forget a day that I will never forget?
And just when I thought perhaps I’d gotten it all wrong, she slipped again.
Even if you don’t want sex, it happens. You get used to it. Everyone warned me he was a horrible man.
It would take a long time for me to understand that trauma and memory are like that. Mom insists she wasn’t assaulted. She was slowly, methodically lured into a relationship by a calculating man. In my mind, he was a predator. I believe that my mother was abused more than she does. The details of how this man hurt my mother are not as important as the fact that she continues to hurt because of him now.
I didn’t tell anyone about Mom’s past. I could have used a sounding board, but I could think of no one to confide in without heaping more shame upon my family. The thought of bringing harm to her and my ancestors caused visceral pain.
Now that I knew about her first husband, Mom spent years either pushing me away with dramatic retellings of the same painful memories—You have no idea what I went through, she would tell me ad nauseam as I listened dutifully, without any choice—or detaching and dissociating, like the disciplined intellectual she wanted to be.
Lost in her memories, she couldn’t stop herself from reminding me, “When I was your age, I was nothing. I was nobody.”
“Mom, you were not nothing!” She didn’t believe me.
As her anxiety and sadness spiraled out of control, she and Dad refused to recognize the lingering impact of her trauma. The worst was this: ever the economists, Mom and Dad saw the time Mom could otherwise have spent building her career as the opportunity cost of her marrying a scumbag. I was infuriated by their pragmatism. All I wanted to know was if any of her academic success mattered if she was still this torn up inside. Dad sidestepped these questions with typical cruelty: If only you would spend more time with your mother, she wouldn’t be so anxious.
Mom was terrified of me making some horrible “mistake” that would echo her own experience. She saw red flags in every option I had, for love, for life. So she and Dad dug in hard. And that meant I could not breathe. I suppose they thought that my knowing about her past would be the end of the story. But they did not account for
how much work would be necessary for me to trust or let them in again.
Around this time I became aware that I could not allow them to touch me physically. I hated the feeling of my father’s lips on my cheeks. Mom’s arms around my rib cage felt like she was squeezing the life out of me. They left me feeling violated. I avoided them, locking myself in my room, storming by them when necessary, and rarely looking them in the eyes. I was done being the source of their comfort and the solution to whatever mistakes Mom thought she had made in her life.
If Mom had not been my mother, I would have been her ally. I would have been her advocate, and the one who raged on her behalf. But I was her daughter. When my mother got upset now, when she spaced out and drifted off, when something I did made her weep, my father mercilessly reminded me of the sacrifices my mother had made, like I was supposed to suffer for an eternity. I was suffocating. It was only a matter of time before I’d leave home and never look back. I
. Even decades after Mom’s abuse, marital rape not only continues in India but is widely condoned by the society and government. In 2017, despite marital rape affecting 40 percent of marriages, the parliament voted not to criminalize it.