Kala nursed her newborn son. His tiny, demanding mouth brought tears of pain as if, at two days old, he knew his place in her life. Once satisfied, he slept. Kala changed his diaper, swaddled him in a soft blue blanket, and placed him in the bassinet.
Dim light cast grotto-like curves on her narrow face while she carefully draped a yellow silk sari in the Punjabi style her grandmother had taught her. When her eyes fell on her daughter, Devi, Kala smiled, revealing for a moment the radiant beauty smothered by her arranged marriage.
Staring without focus, Kala plaited her long black hair while a silver barrette waited between her teeth. Engraved on the back with Kala’s birth date and name, it was a gift from her grandmother. Kala believed the barrette protected her, as if imbued with Amma’s loving energy. She secured the end of her braid with the silver ornament as she had done for as long as she could remember.
Devi opened her honey-gold eyes as Kala slipped a red embroidered party dress over her head. The three year old’s bright eyes filled the room with happiness. The child smiled but made no sound. She had learned not to wake her father in the next room.
Kala and her husband, Atal Achara, lived in a mansion in Mumbai owned by the Achara family since the English left India in the 1940s. Atal’s brother also lived in the mansion with his wife and young sons. Atal, his brother, and his father were government officials with power over the privileged as well as the indigent. Although they had well-paying government jobs, the bulk of their income came from graft. Kala’s husband, the oldest, was nearly as gray as his father. They were tall for Indian men, with copper skin, fairer than most, and a strong family resemblance. Their bushy hair sprung like unruly garden weeds. Menacing ebony eyes revealed the cruelty they were each capable of, but Atal’s eyes were golden and even more sinister than his brother’s.
Kala’s father had arranged the marriage as a business favor to the Achara family. They treated the beautiful bride as they would a worthless bauble, not with cruelty, but with total lack of love, respect, or devotion. Kala gave birth to a five-pound girl nine months after the wedding. Atal and his parents blamed Kala for the unfortunate result. A girl.
From the day she gave birth, Kala walked with Devi in the vast fragrant garden and often napped with the baby on a blanket under an arch of passion flower vines. The girl, small for her age, learned to walk on soft, manicured grass. Kala taught Devi Punjabi words for mama, hello, and bye-bye as well as names of fruits and vegetables.
Although he never struck her, Atal crudely mounted Kala every night, not with passion but with duty. He rolled off as if finishing an unpleasant dental appointment, and rarely spoke to her again until the next coupling. He slept in his own room. When she gave birth to a son a few days after Devi’s birthday, Atal was pleased. He dyed his gray hair to look like a younger new father. “Now I have a boy child, get rid of that girl. Leave her at the orphanage!” he commanded, as if Devi were a worn-out plastic toy.