When the nights were long in December, I began to fall in love with somebody. Experiencing intimacy in new ways: Easily sleeping at his home in Cubao when I had lost electricity for a while in mine, teaching me the proper way to floss as his mother was a dentist, putting makeup on his sister, lending me his toaster, extending invitations to meet his family and relatives. I would come to Saturday night dinners in Gloria Maris with this family, even to Santuario de San Jose in Mandaluyong when I had not stepped inside a church for a year.
He expressed frustration when I had constantly brought up unwarranted feelings of being an interloper, but he always found words that would keep my worries at bay. I had felt unmoored, without a home in Manila. I was from the province and in the city, the only hint of family was receiving occasional calls from my mom. Other times, a Facebook message from my sister who lived in Hawaii. A lunch with my brother once a month. It felt like such an indulgence to be with him and in many ways, I’d hesitate.
It was also during this time that I had spent my long nights reading Jhumpa Lahiri. I encountered Jhumpa Lahiri in school for a Female Novelist class I took under Ms. Clarissa Militante. In that class, we were required to read her second novel, The Lowland. But way before, I was already drawn to her because of her author’s portrait in a random article online: In a black turtleneck, scarlet lipstick, hair up in a clean bun, facing to the side, highlighting her sharp nose. She was beautiful. When I finally did under Ms. Militante’s class, I was convinced that I needed to read more of her books, captivated by the richness of her characters’ emotional lives. In a span of two months, I went through the Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Namesake (2003), and Unaccustomed Earth (2008), respectively.
Her stories revolved around mostly Indian immigrants in America, finding identity and family in a new culture, while wrestling with their culture of origin. In America, these first-generation characters were busy earning PhDs while trying to find and maintain the perfect home for their families, sometimes failing to assimilate, while the second-generation characters were always inevitably subjected to the duality, often times clashing, with their identities growing up in a foreign land. There are descriptions of long sojourns to Calcutta to visit relatives, birthday parties filled with rosogollas and chicken biryani and other Bengali children from a nearby neighborhood, frustrations about the tradition of arranged marriages.
In the mixed bag of characters, gems rose: I met indecisive, heartbroken, independent, intelligent, lonely women. These women were mostly Bengali women discovering and rediscovering love— falling at it, losing it, growing suspicious of it, diving into it headlong. I had instantly developed a kinship with them. In one passage in The Lowland, I am introduced to Gauri. We witness the marriage rituals that took place as she was entering the home of Udayan:
“She was presented with a box, opened to show the necklace inside. On the tray was a pot of vermillion powder. Her mother-in-law instructed Udayan to apply it to the parting of her hair. Taking Gauri’s left hand, she pressed her fingers together and slid an iron bangle over her wrist.
You are our daughter now, her in-laws said, accepting her though they had not wanted her, placing their hands in a gesture of blessing over her head. What is ours is yours. Gauri bowed down, to take the dust from their feet.
The courtyard had been decorated with patterns in her honor, painted by hand. At the threshold of the house a pan of milk was simmering in a coal stove, coming to a boil as she approached. There were two stunted banana trees, one on either side of the door. Inside there was another pan of milk, tinted with red. She was told to dip her feet into the red liquid, then walk up the staircase. The staircase was still under construction, there was not a banister to hold.
The steps had been covered loosely with a white sari, like a thin slippery carpet laid over treads. Every few steps there was overturned clay cup she had to crush, bearing down with all her strength. This was the first thing asked of her, to mark her passage into Udayan’s home.”
I remember reading these words and feeling privy to the whole affair. I was both amazed and incredulous at how elaborate it was to finally gain admission to someone’s home, especially someone you love, in Calcutta.
After choosing to move to America after a tragedy, to the windy town of Rhode Island, Gauri had initially found an oppressive amount of freedom. In a seemingly mundane scene, her first time outside, she goes to the grocery store to eat cream cheese in the parking lot alone, not knowing it’s supposed to be eaten with bread or crackers and yet finishing one bar on her own, her very first purchase. Eventually, Gauri begins dressing like American women, in slacks and a gray sweater, wearing her hair up, sitting in the philosophy classes at the university, moving farther away from her old identity, leaving behind her family in Calcutta. It was in Rhode Island that she finally was able to live out the person she wanted to be.
Apart from Gauri, there is also Ruth, with her pale peach complexion, two small brown moles by her right cheekbone, an English major, always so eager to see the world. There is Miranda, with silver eyes and hair as dark and as glossy as an espresso bean, sipping coffee alone outside a cathedral, finally learning how to write her name in Bengali, no longer waiting for a married man. There is Moushumi, with her slender face, heavy-lidded eyes with boldly lined lids, sitting in a small bar reading a French novel, so detached from the Bengali home she had grown up in and yet finding love through a Bengali man. And there is Sang or Sangeeta, complaining of suitors, working at a bookstore and reading thick, pungent Vogue magazines, but crying in the end inside a closet with tiny pieces of flower petals and leaves stuck in her hair for a love betrayed.
Often her stories possess this emotional template: Life as a continual process of immigration, from one place to another, from one person to another. She described these women, regardless of their own tribulations, as accomplished: in touch with their own emotions, hastily acting on their own desires, exploring themselves in the context of love. There was something encouraging about being able to read about these women, displaced from their original countries, daring to find themselves in unfamiliar spaces, allowing themselves to come undone. The personal world of these characters, I felt, was shown to me and only me, like I had a key to their diaries.
I compared my narrative to one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s characters, Gauri, as she made her way into Udayan’s home. But there were no elaborate rituals involved in my passage. One time, during his graduation dinner, his mother whispered concernedly, “Why doesn’t she bless the elders as a greeting?” This was relayed to me by his younger sister and I felt embarrassed, I was simply not taught to get in the good graces of elders that way. In my family, we got by with a hello and a trite kiss on the cheek. For the first time, I felt that the skin I wore, the person I presented weighed so heavily to an audience now. There was a greater need to show a form well put together. I was discontented with who I was. This unsettled me for all my days.
But like the women in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, I realized that I was still in the process of piecing myself together here in the new city. It was here that I first learned how to cook rice, how to squeeze myself into careening jeepneys from Taft to Bicutan. It was here too that I realized that I looked better with shorter hair, that I took care of myself by purchasing a book on a bad day, and that my mother looked older now and a bit lonelier, calling me every night. When I began to love in December, there were more things that revealed itself to me. Only because I opened myself to feel loneliness, selfishness, estrangement, but also frenzy, enthrallment, curiosity. The more that I realized this, the more that I grew comfortable in the idea of sharing my days with another person.
All my life, I’ve passed through one unfamiliar space after another, and this was wholly alien to me (the idea of love, the whole task of it) but not without learning a thing or two. In the days where I did not hesitate, I plunged myself into his life without meaning to, like the women in those stories, creating a mess by beginning to leave things at his place, misplacing my face creams and lipsticks under his bed or in one of his drawers. I have learned in love that I have a habit of silence, a tendency for jealousy, sometimes selfish in the ways I give myself compassion. When I think about hesitating again, I remember the women in Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, and I’m grateful to have found in them friends, coaxing me, whispering me secrets.