Sushila Atha, I think of you frequently. I wanted to name my daughter with your name. I would be thinking of you all the time if I had.
You’re not my atha, of course, you are my Amma’s. Her father’s only sister. Her mother has a sister named Sushila too, so I think I was nearly ten before I realized that mentions of you were different from conversations about Sushila Pinni.
You were the first girl in the family to attend college, but Amma was the first to graduate, a whole generation later. Because you were married before you could. Were married off. And then one day, Amma says, you returned to your parents’ house. Pregnant. Refused to return to your in-laws. Married women aren’t welcome at their birth houses without their husbands, you were told. You ran into the backyard, past the cows bellowing at the camphor flames, and jumped into the well. You were dead before they found a servant who could swim, who could save you. Amma says you were very beautiful. Hair past your knees. Accomplished. There are needlepoint pillowcases somewhere to prove it. Amma has never actually seen you either.
I’m sorry I wasn’t there. We could have gone to classes together, graduated, found jobs, brought our babies up together. (We’d do needlepoint or grow our hair only if we felt like it.) It’s not very difficult, they’ll let you bring your babies to class even, most of the time. They say your mother wanted to intervene but she was too afraid of her Gadadoss husband to do so. Gadadoss husbands still have that reputation. The Gadadoss women are, most of them, subversively feminist because of it.
Amma was horrified that I’d give my daughter your name. But it wasn’t to revisit your history upon her. It was the dream of reworking it, a chance to do your life differently. To let you roam the house raucously, gurgly, never expecting you to be demure. To let you be confident, independent. To keep you happy. To remember you always; you who are usually so secret, from tumbling further away from memory.
That picture of yourself in academic drag you took when people were consistently mistaking you for an undergraduate (because genes, but a...