The Rice Mother
A "luminous" (Publishers Weekly), get-lost-in-another-world debut novel of magic, determination, and the bonds of family
At the age of fourteen, Lakshmi leaves behind her childhood among the mango trees of Ceylon for married life across the ocean in Malaysia, and soon finds herself struggling to raise a family in a country that is, by turns, unyielding and amazing, brutal and beautiful. Giving birth to a child every year until she is nineteen, Lakshmi becomes a formidable matriarch, determined to secure a better life for her daughters and sons. From the Japanese occupation during World War II to the torture of watching some of her children succumb to life’s most terrible temptations, she rises to face every new challenge with almost mythic strength. Dreamy and lyrical, told in the alternating voices of the men and women of this amazing family, The Rice Mother gorgeously evokes a world where small pleasures offset unimaginable horrors, where ghosts and gods walk hand in hand. It marks the triumphant debut of a writer whose wisdom and soaring prose will touch readers, especially women, the world over.
Mother said her sister was once lured off and possessed by just such a spirit, and a holy man from two villages away had to be sent for to exorcise the evil in her. He wore many chains of strangely twisted beads and dried roots around his neck, testaments to his fearsome powers. The simple villagers gathered, a human ring of curiosity around the man. To drive the spirit away, he began to beat my aunt with a long, thin cane, all the time demanding, "What do you want?" He filled the peaceful village with her terrified screams, but unmoved, he carried on beating her poor body until it bled streams of red.
"You are killing her," my grandmother howled, held back by three appalled yet horribly fascinated women. Ignoring her, the holy man fingered a livid pink scar that ran all the way down his face and walked his determined, tight circles around the cowering girl, always with the darkly whispered query, "What do you want?" Until eventually she screamed shrilly that it was a fruit she wanted.
"Fruit? What sort of fruit?" he asked sternly, halting before the sobbing girl.
A shocking transformation occurred suddenly. The little face looked up at him slyly, and perhaps there was even a bubble of madness in the grin that slowly and with unspeakable obscenity spread its legs on her lips. Coyly she pointed to her younger sister, my mother. "That is the fruit I want," she said, her voice unmistakably male.
The simple villagers were united in their gasp of stunned shock. Needless to say the tall man did not give my mother to the spirit, for she was surely her father's favorite. The spirit had to make do with five lemons, cut and flung into its face, a searing sprinkling of sacred water, and a suffocating amount of myrrh.
When I was very young I used to rest quietly on my mother's lap, listening to her voice remember happier times. You see, my mother was descended from a family of such wealth and influence that in their heyday her English grandmother, Mrs. Armstrong, had been called upon to give a posy of flowers and shake the gloved hand of Queen Victoria herself. My mother was born partially deaf, but her father put his lips against her forehead and spoke to her tirelessly until she learned to speak. By the time she was sixteen she was as beautiful as a cloud maiden. Proposals of marriage came from far and wide to the lovely house in Colombo, but alas, she fell in love with the scent of danger. Her elongated eyes lowered on a charming rogue.
One night she climbed out of her window and down the very neem tree upon which her father had trained a thorny bougainvillea bush when she was only a year old in an effort to deter any man from ever scaling the tree and reaching his daughter's window. As if his pure thoughts had fed the bush, it grew and grew until the entire tree, ablaze with flowers, became a landmark that could be seen for miles around. But Grandfather had not reckoned on his own child's determination.
That moonlit night thorns like bared fangs shredded her thick clothes, ripped her hair, and plunged deep into her flesh, but she couldn't stop. Beneath was the man she loved. When at last she stood before him, there was not an inch of her skin that didn't burn as if aflame. Silently the waiting shadow led her away, but every step was like a knife in her foot, so she begged in terrible pain to rest. The wordless silhouette swung her up and carried her away. Safe inside the warm circle of his arms, she looked back at her home, grand against the vivid night sky, and saw her own bloody footprints leading away from the tree. They remained to taunt her father. She cried then, knowing that they would hurt his poor heart the most. He would beat his own head and cry, "How willing her betrayal?"
The lovers married at daybreak in a small temple in another village. In the ensuing bitter quarrel, the groom, my father, who was in fact the resentful son of a servant in my grandfather's employ, forbade my mother even the mere sight of any member of her family. Only after my father was gray ash in the wind did she return to her family home, but by then her mother was a widow gray with loss.
After issuing his heartless sentence, my father brought my mother to our backward little village far away from Colombo. He sold some of her jewelry, bought some land, built a house, and installed her in it. But clean air and wedded bliss didn't suit the new bridegroom, and soon he was off-lured away by the bright lights in the cities, summoned by the delights of cheap alcohol served by garishly painted prostitutes, and intoxicated by the smell fanned out of a pack of cards. After each absence he returned and presented his young wife with jar upon jar of all manner of white lies pickled in various brands of alcohol. For some obscure reason he thought she had a taste for them. Poor Mother, all she had left were her memories and me, precious things that she used to take out every evening. First she washed off the grime of the years with her own tears, then she polished them with the worn cloth of regret. And finally, when their wonderful sparkle had been returned to them, she laid them out one by one for me to admire before carefully returning them to their golden box inside her head.
From her mouth issued visions of a glorious past full of armies of devoted servants, fine carriages drawn by white horses, and iron chests filled with gold and rich jewelry. How could I, sitting on the cement floor of our tiny hut, even begin to imagine a house so high on a hill that all of Colombo was visible from its front balcony, or a kitchen so huge that our entire house could fit into it?
My mother once said that when she was first placed into her father's arms, tears of joy streamed down his face at the sight of her unusually fair skin and her full head of thick, black hair. He held the small bundle close to his face, and for a while all he could do was breathe in that strange, sweetish odor that is a newborn baby. Then he strode into the stables, his white veshti flapping against his strong brown legs, jumped onto his favorite stallion, and galloped off in a cloud of dust. When he returned, it was with the two largest emerald pieces that the entire village had ever seen. He presented them to his wife, little baubles in return for a marvelous miracle. She had them fashioned into diamond-encrusted earrings that she was never seen without.
I have never seen the famous emeralds, but I still have the black-and-white studio photograph of a sad-eyed woman standing stiffly in front of a badly painted background, a coconut tree growing on the edge of a beach. I look at her often, frozen on a piece of paper long after she is no more.
My mother said that when I was born, she cried to see that I was only a girl, and my disgusted father disappeared to make more pickled lies, returning two years later still roaring drunk. Despite this I still retain crystal-clear memories of a village life so happy and so carefree that not a day goes by in adulthood that I don't think about it with a bittersweet ache. How can I even begin to tell you how much I miss those carefree days when I was Mother's only child, her sun, her moon, her stars, her heart? When I was so loved and so precious that I had to be coaxed into eating? When Mother would come out of the house with a plate of food in her hand and search the village for me so she could feed me with her own hand, all so the tedious business of food would not interrupt my play?
How not to miss those days when the sun was a happy companion that stayed to play all year round and kissed me a careless nut brown? When Mother caught the sweet rain in her well behind the house, and the air was so clear that the grass smelled green?
An innocent time when the dusty dirt roads were surrounded by slanting coconut trees and dotted with simple village folk on rickety bicycles, their teeth stained red inside untroubled laughter. When the plot behind each house was a supermarket, and one slaughtered goat was adequate for eight households blissfully unaware of an invention called the refrigerator. When mothers needed only the gods who gathered in the white clouds above as baby-sitters to watch over their children playing in the waterfall.
Yes, I remember Ceylon when it was the most magical, most beautiful place in the world.
For many years I hated the taste of rice or any kind of vegetables, content to live on sweet milk and yellow mangoes. My uncle was a mango dealer of sorts, and crates of them used to sit in the storeroom at the back of our house. A skinny mahout on an elephant would deposit them, and there they waited until another arrived to pick them up. But while they waited ... I sprinted to the very top of those wooden crates and sat cross-legged, without the slightest fear of the spiders and scorpions that inevitably lurked within. Even being bitten by a centipede and turning blue for four whole days didn't deter me. All my life I have been driven by the blind compulsion to walk barefoot down the difficult path. "Come back," people scream desperately at me. My feet bleeding and torn, I grit my teeth and press on in the opposite direction.
Dissolute and untamed, I tore the skins off the succulent orange flesh with my teeth. It is one of the most powerful images I still carry with me. Me all alone in the cool darkness of our storeroom, high atop those wooden crates, with sticky, sweet-warm juices running down my arms and legs, gorging my way through a heap of my uncle's wares.
Unlike boys, girls didn't have to go to school in our day, and except in my father's presence I was mostly left to run wild. Until, that is, at the age of fourteen, when the first drop of menstrual blood proclaimed me suddenly and distressingly a grown woman. For the first week I was shut up in a small room with the windows nailed shut. It was the custom, for no self-respecting family was prepared to risk the possibility of adventurous boys climbing up coconut trees to peek at the newly found secret charms of their daughters.
During my confinement period I was forced to swallow raw eggs, washed down with sesame seed oil and a whole host of bitter herb potions. Tears were to no avail. When Mother came in with her offerings from hell, she came equipped with a cane that I quickly found to my utter amazement she was prepared to use. At teatime, instead of her delicious sweet cakes I was handed half a coconut shell filled to the brim with hot, soft eggplants cooked in a surfeit of the dreaded sesame oil. "Eat it hot," Mother advised as she closed and locked the door. In a fit of defiance and frustration I purposely let it get cold. Between my fingers the cold, slimy flesh of the eggplants squashed satisfyingly, but in my mouth they were utterly disgusting dead caterpillars. Thirty-six raw eggs, a good few bottles of sesame seed oil, and a whole basketful of eggplants must have slid down my throat before the small-room confinement was over. I was then simply confined indoors and made to learn to do women's things. It was a sad transition for me. The deep loss of sun-baked earth under my running feet is impossible to explain. Like a prisoner I sat and stared longingly out of small windows. Almost immediately my long, matted hair was combed and plaited and transformed into a sleek snake down my back and my skin suddenly pronounced too sun-darkened. My real potential, my mother decided, lay in my skin. Unlike her, I was no Indian beauty, but in a land of coffee-colored people I was a cup of very milky tea.
A prized, precious color.
A color surely to be actively sought after in a wife, subtly encouraged in a daughter-in-law, and lovingly cherished in one's grandchildren. Suddenly strange middle-aged ladies began to appear in our home. I was dressed to the nines and paraded in front of them. They wore the shrewd look of diamond merchants. Their sharp, beady eyes inspected me carefully for flaws, without the slightest trace of embarrassment.
One hot afternoon, after Mother had tugged, pulled, and expertly rolled my stiff, awkward body into a great deal of pink material, decorated my hair with bruised pink roses from the garden, and dribbled me in precious stones set in dull yellow gold, I stood scowling by the window, marveling at how quickly and completely my life had changed. In a day. No, less. And without warning.
Outside, the wind rustled in the lime tree, and a playful breeze flew into my room, teased the curls on my temples, and blew softly into my ear. I knew him well, that breeze. He was as blue as the baby god Krishna and as cheeky. Whenever we dived from the highest rock into the waterfalls in the woods behind Ramesh's house, he always managed to reach the icy cold water first. That's because he cheats. His feet never touch the dark-green velvet moss on the rocks.
He laughed in my ear. "Come," his voice tinkled merrily. He tickled my nose and flew out.
I leaned out of the window, craning my neck as far as I could, but to me the shining water and the blue breeze were lost forever. They belonged to a barefoot child, happy in a dirty dress.
Standing there nursing my resentment and frustration, I saw a carriage stop outside our house. Wheels creaked in the dry dust. A heavy woman in a dark blue silk sari and slippers too dainty for her frame heaved herself out. Stepping back into the gloom of my room, I watched her curiously. Her dark eyes roved around our small house and meager compound, nurturing some secret satisfaction. Surprised by her strange expression, I stared at her until I lost sight of her cunning face. She disappeared behind the bougainvillea trees fringing the garden path. Mother's soft voice inviting her in wafted into my room. I stood pressed to my bedroom door and listened to the stranger's unexpectedly musical voice. She had a lovely voice, one that belied the sly, small eyes and the thin compressed lips. Presently my mother called out to me to bring in the tea that she had prepared for our visitor. As soon as I stood at the threshold of the front room where Mother received visitors, I felt the stranger's quick, appraising glance. Once more it seemed to me that she was satisfied by what met her searching eyes. Her lips opened into a warm smile. Truly, if I hadn't seen the smug, almost victorious look she had thrown at our poor dwelling earlier, I might now have mistaken her for the adoring aunt that Mother smilingly introduced her as. I dropped my glance demurely as I had been instructed to do in the presence of benevolent adults and sharp-eyed diamond buyers.
"Come and sit by me," Aunty Pani called softly, patting the bench beside her. I noticed that on her forehead was not the red kum kum dot customary for married women but a black dot signifying her unmarried status. I walked carefully toward her lest I should trip in the six yards of beautiful cloth that swirled dangerously around me, humiliate my mother, and amuse this sophisticated stranger.
"What a pretty girl you are!" she exclaimed in her musical voice.
Mutely I looked at her from the corner of my eye and felt a strange, inexplicable revulsion. Her skin was unwrinkled, smooth, and carefully powdered, her hair scented with sweet jasmine, and yet in my enchanted kingdom I imagined her a rat-eating snake woman, oozing like thick tar out of trees and gliding into bedrooms like a silent ribbon. All the while, black and hunting, she flicks out a tongue, long, pink, and cold-blooded. What does she know, the snake woman?
A plump, beringed hand delved into a small beaded handbag and snaked out with a wrapped sweet. Such treats were rare in the village. Not all snake women were poisonous, I decided. She held the morsel out to me. It was a test. I didn't fail my watching mother. I didn't snatch. Only when Mother smiled and nodded did I reach out for the precious offering. Our hands touched briefly. Hers were cold and wet. Our glances met and held. She hastily looked away. I had outstared the snake. I was sent back to my room. Once the door had closed behind me, I unwrapped the sweet and ate the snake woman's bribe. It was delicious.
The stranger didn't stay long, and soon Mother came into my room. She helped me with the complicated task of getting out of the long swathes of material, folding them, and putting them away carefully.
"Lakshmi, I have accepted a marriage proposal for you," she said to the folded sari. "A very good proposal. He is of a better caste than we are. Also he lives in that rich land called Malaya."
I was stunned. I stared at her in disbelief. A marriage proposal that would take me away from my mother? That land of the bird's-nest thieves, so many thousands of miles away. Tears welled up in my eyes. I had never been parted from my mother.
I ran to her, pulled her face down to mine, pressed my lips against her forehead, and cried desperately, "Why can't I just marry someone who lives in Sangra?"
Her beautiful eyes were wet. Like a pelican that claws at its own breast to feed its young.
"You are a very lucky girl. You will travel with your husband to a land where there is money to be found in the streets. Aunty Pani says that your husband-to-be is very wealthy, and you will live like a queen, just like your grandma did. You won't have to live like me. He is neither a drunkard nor a gambler like your father."
"How could you bear to send me away?" I breathed, betrayed.
There was aching love and pain behind her eyes. Life had yet to teach me that a child's love can never equal a mother's pain. It is deep and raw, but without it a mother is incomplete.
"I will be so alone without you," I wailed.
"No, you won't, because your new husband is a widower, and he has two children, aged nine and ten. So you will have much to keep you busy and plenty of companionship."
I frowned uncertainly. His children were almost my age. "How old is he?"
"He's thirty-seven years old," Mother said briskly, turning me around to release the last hook on my blouse.
I wriggled around to face her. "But Ama, that's even older than you!"
"That may be, but he will be a good husband for you. Aunty Pani says he owns not one but a few gold watches. He has had plenty of time to amass a huge fortune and is so rich he does not even require a dowry. He is her cousin, so she should know. I made a terrible mistake, and I have ensured that you will not. You shall be more. More than me. I will begin preparing your jewelry box immediately."
I stared mutely at her. Her mind was made up.
A first novel of Eastern exoticism, myth and magic, and unforgettable characters, living and dead... You’ll be hard-pushed to find a more powerful, moving read this year. (Glamour, UK)
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