In the Convent of Little Flowers
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Shelter of Rain

In my childhood
Deep equator skies
Whitened by an unforgiving sun
I stand now
Under the shelter of rain

I arrive at SeaTac airport early, two hours ahead of time. The terminal is deserted now, with yawning, shiny seats. After I sit, a little girl and her mother come to settle across from me, although empty places stretch to the far corner and, I think, around. The girl carries a sand bucket, which she sets down on the well-trodden carpet. Then, with a spade, she scoops imaginary sand in and out of the bucket. I watch the child's face, her cheeks puffed in whistleless concentration, her hair cut in little-girl bangs, her arms sturdy in a summer frock's sleeves. I was once like this girl – but also so different. I played in the red earth under the shade of a banyan tree, the mud coloring my palms for weeks. I had forgotten those days. But the letter came out of nowhere, with no warning, to remind me.

As I shift in my seat, the letter crackles against my leg. I take it out of my jeans pocket and smooth it over a knee. The paper is rough, unfinished, torn out of a child's handwriting practice notebook; there are sets of four lines throughout the page, the top and bottom ones red, the inner two blue. It has been so long, yet I remember the exhortations to fit capital letters between the red lines and small letters between the blue. That was how, all those years ago, I learned to write. I look again at the paper, and the blue ink swarming over the page swims into a haze.

Since the letter came a month ago, I have thought of nothing else. An envelope blue as my mother Diana's gaze lay on the kitchen counter for that time. In it, looped in an old, educated hand, words blurring before my now often-tired eyes, there is the story of another mother. The letter says she gave birth to me, not Diana. She lies sick in her house on Chinglepet street in Chennai.

A map of India has taken up permanent residence on the dining table at home. I could see the map through the corner of my eye no matter what room I was in. I knew I came from that country, twenty-three years ago, but I had not known from where. The letter told me where. It came from the Convent of Little Flowers in Chennai.

We have always had beautiful young girls here. Girls whose mothers could not keep them, dear Padmini. I hope that is still your name. It means the lotus flower. All our little girls have been named thus, after flowers. You came to us with that name. Your mother gave you the name. I am sure you have grown up to be as beautiful as the serene lotus in a village pond.

Tears come each time I read those lines. How dare she – Sister Mary Theresa – write me after so many years? I was six when Tom and Diana Merrick took me from the Convent of Little Flowers. They have never been back to India since. And neither have I. Now I am no longer that child who left.

There is a faded black-and-white picture in one of Mom's photo albums. Diana, I mean, not the woman on Chinglepet street. In it I stand with an expression so scared, so beaten, I cannot recognize myself. The picture was taken two weeks before I left India. My feet are bare, my hair in a braid swings over one skinny shoulder, a new white frock sprayed with purple flowers billows over my knees. I remember I hated the day of the year when the frocks came. I do not look at that picture very often. And yet this Sister Mary Theresa, Mother Superior, talks of it and brings back the sun-drenched mud courtyard in the shadow of the Gemini bridge.

Your mother would send frocks for you on every birthday. Somehow, she always knew the right size. For your sixth birthday it was a sleeveless white frock printed with purple lilacs. Have you seen a lilac blossom, Padmini? Your mother liked flowers. Believe me, the dress each year was more than she could afford to do then. Her circumstances had changed, questions would have been asked, but she was brave, she always remembered.

I volunteered to go on call every week after the letter came. My colleagues stared at me in disbelief at first, then escaped thankfully to their suntan lotions and backyards. But I did not care. If I was going to stay awake anyway through the July nights, I might as well keep my mind numbingly occupied. The ER at Harborview is not the place for dreaming of old memories, just brief stunning reflections of how stupid people can get when it comes to injuring themselves. I spent eight hours in surgery one memorable day trying to stitch a twenty-three-year-old man's hand back to his forearm while across the table from me, the ophthalmologist on call worked in tandem on his blown-out right eye. He had tried to pick up a lit cherry bomb.

Yet for me, there was always time to think of the letter. My mother always remembered, Mary Theresa says. But she never remembered to visit. Did she ever come? Did I know her when she came? Or did she just stand on the white-washed verandah and watch me play under the shade of the many-armed banyan in the courtyard?

That memory comes back too. One I do not want. One I try to hold away. But once dredged up, it is here to stay. Why did that letter come? Damn Sister Mary Interfering Theresa. I suddenly remember her too. Short – even to a child she seemed so – with kind black eyes behind thick glasses. Soda Booddies, we used to call them. Soda bottle glasses, disfigured by thickness. Mary Theresa had a plump face, spotted by an unrepentant and errant not-yet-eradicated smallpox. Yet her starched white wimple and her wide smile and her gentle hands that never held the neem tree-child-beating branch made us oblivious to it. But we talked under that banyan. She must have joined the convent because no man would marry her. A smallpox-pitted face is not exactly marriage market material. She was also dark. Even as six-year-olds we knew those things. What a pity, we would think, she would have made a wonderful mother. And we would turn yearning glances to the verandah when she appeared, each of us thinking, make me your child, don't be mother to everyone.

Sometimes Mary Theresa would walk down the verandah doing her day's work. Sometimes – very often, actually – she would stand with a woman or a man from the outside and point toward our group, or another one. We were far enough away not to know whom she was pointing at. But we knew that man or woman was either one of our parents or a relative come to see us, or, as we often hoped, someone who would make us theirs. It would be a bizarre game for us, watching these people – perhaps related to us by blood, perhaps judging us as their future children – trying to guess whom they belonged to. Sister Mary says my mother always remembered. Did she also come to stand on that verandah? Which one was she?

It never bothered me then. I wonder why it bothers me now. No one has pointed at me for twenty-three years from across a dusty courtyard.

I came away from that hot city to rainy green Seattle. Tom and Diana lived in a golden western sun-lit condo on Queen Anne Hill. Everything about those three words excited me. Queen. I had seen pictures of one. Anne. The name of a queen. And hill. I had not seen a hill before. Chennai, Mary Theresa tells me now, is flat. I had not seen mountains feathered with wayward snow on October evenings. I had not seen the sun set behind the Olympics or the ferry making its lone streaking way through the calm Puget Sound. Or Mount Rainier, glorious godly Mount Rainier, suddenly appearing on the horizon. For months, I knelt before the windows of our home (how easily the our comes now) and watched the sun set each day. I remember Dad, shattered in Vietnam – not from bodily harm – yelling out at night and Mom soothing, crooning, holding him in her arms, lit by the streetlight outside the windows. I would stand at the door to their room and watch until they called me to their bed to lie between them. Until then I had only seen little flowers cry at night, not grown men.

My life since has been peppered by Seattle rain. Rain in the winter – hardly had that in Chennai – rain in the spring, and summer and fall. Chennai is very close to the equator. It must be hot. I remember now it is hot. Is that why I love the rain?

I did not choose this life. I did not even choose to be born, let alone to this nameless woman in the southeast corner of India. I did not choose to be given away, or be taken by the sunny blond couple who stood on the verandah one day and, I think, pointed at me. But they took me. I came here. I belong no more to Chinglepet street.

I don't think I have ever realized I am different. I cannot say not American, because what really is American? But I look into the mirror more often now and I see that dark skin. To me it seems as dark as Sister Mary Theresa's, yet I am married where she took the veil for hers. Autre temps, autre moeurs. Sister Bloody Mary Theresa. I am so angry I will not even now allow her the luxury of having chosen then a life for the love of her religion, for the love of her God, or even, for the love of her work. It must be because somebody rejected her. Or she would not be a nun at the Convent of Little Flowers. And I would not have met her, and she would not have now written me the letter.

Do you remember much of us, dear Padmini? The convent was built in the shadow of the Gemini Flyover, the only road bridge in all of Chennai then, and a big landmark for giving directions. I have seen pictures of America. There are many many such flyovers there. Some even in the shape of clover leaves. But this you must know, these you must have seen. I'm afraid nothing much grows even now in our courtyard. It is still the same, a bare maidan, dusty when the rains do not come; but under the banyan it is shady. The tree has added a few more arms to the ground since you were last here. Every day I stand on the verandah and watch the children play under its shade and thank God it is still there. Somehow, it finds the strength to survive year after year…

© Indu Sundaresan
Contact Indu: indu (at) indusundaresan (dot) com