JUNE 13, 2017
TO BE WHO SHE IS AND NOT DISAPPEAR — this is the great challenge for Lucky (Lakshmi), the main character of SJ Sindu’s debut, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (Soho, June 2017). The marriage ostensibly central to the book is that of Lucky and Kris (Krishna); the two met in college where Lucky knew Kris as “the other South Asian queer on campus.” They are companionable, though they are sometimes distant and spiteful with each other, carrying out the emotional byproducts of their loveless union. Both from traditional South Asian families, they are outwardly a happy heterosexual pair busily fulfilling Lucky’s parents’ expectations. Kris came out to his own family, and they disowned him; he and Lucky bonded over this, their “proximity to the cliff,” their “danger of falling.” Alone or in more accepting locales — gay bars, on the rugby field, at home — they express their irreligiosity, true sexualities, and their frustrations with the restrictive gender expectations and the sexism of their culture.
In marrying, they took the complications of their identities and fit them into a construct they could live by and be understood within the Boston Tamil community, to which Lucky’s family belongs; by moving to Bridgeport after getting married, they granted themselves a small measure of freedom. This geographic separation will prove inadequate. Their marriage cannot save them — it blocks them from fully realizing their truer selves, from the lives they wish they were living. Lucky’s marriage to Kris, though essential to the story line, isn’t what drives the book. Called home to her mother’s house when her grandmother falls and must be cared for, Lucky gets caught up in a quasi-relationship with her high school best friend, Nisha (with whom she’d had a young fling). Nisha, who is engaged to a man, strings Lucky along, noncommittal, yet desperate to be released from the life in which she feels entrapped.
Marriage is replete with characters spouting outdated and false ideas about homosexuality. Lucky’s parents are highly educated and well employed. They belong to a community that is progressive enough to vote for Obama, and yet so old fashioned as to expect that men and women will converse in separate rooms at social gatherings. The women commune in the kitchen, discussing children, household problems, and the like. The men retire to another room to smoke, drink, and discuss politics. This community changes the channel when homosexuality is mentioned, believing it to be a decision, a predilection, which the gay person can grow out of.
The two sets of parents who have to deal with this issue most closely in Marriage are Lucky’s and Nisha’s. Nisha’s parents are domineering and violently oppressive of their daughter; Lucky’s are hands off but passive aggressive and very disapproving of Lucky’s lacking femininity. They are divorced, a fact that perhaps serves to heighten Lucky’s mother’s anxieties about her three daughters fitting into their community. Lucky mirrors her mother’s passive aggression, and this interaction perfectly displays their dynamic: “You need to throw those away,” says Lucky’s mother, pointing to the faded blue high tops on Lucky’s feet. In response, adult Lucky double knots her shoelaces.
In this climate, paired with the high cultural expectations surrounding familial duty and belonging, it isn’t surprising that Lucky, Nisha, and Kris — as well as, one gets the sense, many others — would hide their true identities with behavior that Sindu attributes to “good Brown people”: “They get married to other brown people and pop out some brown kids, buy a nice cookie-cutter house and everything is forgiven.” Sindu expertly conveys Lucky’s reactive depression by showing her passivity toward nearly everything in her life — her female relatives often choose her clothing; her mother must give permission before she can go out, though Lucky is in her mid-20s and married; she is unable even to ask for the kind of coffee she likes. Most convincingly, we learn of Lucky’s state of mind through Sindu’s choice never to fully engage with Lucky’s thoughts. Hints are all we’ll get: “[O]ne flick of the wheel,” she thinks, driving on a narrow road that borders a river.
Told over and over what to do, what to like, what to wear, who to love — a lifetime of this might make action impossible for anyone. We see Lucky’s body move and react, but rarely her mind. She is there, yet she’s not. We get to see her mindset after a decade of hiding who she is, through the absence of its imposition on the text. This is also partially a product of Sindu assiduously following the edict to “show, not tell,” a choice that takes skill and commitment to carry out — not to narrate Lucky’s experiences, but to allow the reader to experience them alongside her. However, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. I would have loved some introspection, some thoughts to glue all the body movements and feelings together.
The only way out of oppression for Lucky seems to be to disappear from her family altogether as her sister, Vidya, for some undisclosed reason chose to do. Just after Nisha has said that she’s prayed for a way out of her marriage, Lucky thinks, “There’s always a way out. You could be a ghost. I could be an empty chair.” Their alternative to the lives their parents would have them lead is not a choice, but a vacancy. Because it isn’t at all clear what that pulling away would mean for Lucky, the “choice” feels like an impossible one to make. Ambiguity makes fighting for or against anything much more difficult. It eludes focus. Nisha can only see the consequences, were she to step out of the family circle. Lucky, perhaps because she’s already married, or maybe because she’s more in love with Nisha than Nisha is with her, grows more able over the course of the book to see the potential payoff, were Nisha to live authentically as herself.
Lucky meets a group of Nisha’s old schoolmates, Wellesley rugby players, who welcome Lucky and facilitate her slow progress toward coming out. Sindu brilliantly uses Lucky’s rugby progress to elucidate Lucky’s feelings about the bigger behavior she’s learning — that of letting go enough to be herself, but also holding on and fighting for what she loves in her life. While learning to tackle, Lucky explains it to herself this way: “It means knowing how to fall forward, how to lose balance on purpose, how to drive something home.”
Gender is a complex thing. Sindu illustrates this complexity with the tale of the goddess for whom Lucky was named, Lakshmi, and her husband, the god Vishnu. Lakshmi is “a Hindu goddess sometimes pictured massaging her husband’s shins.” Ah, to be a woman, Sindu seems to be saying — even being a goddess is to be deluged with mediocre tasks. But then she gets to what she really wants to express:
Every time Lakshmi’s husband Vishnu takes a human form, she does too. But sometimes Vishnu incarnates as a woman, usually in order to seduce men. And then what does Lakshmi do? Sit up in heaven and try not to watch? Or maybe she does, maybe she finds herself drawn to his new soft curves.
Sindu is not only letting us in on gender’s ability to shapeshift, but also into the complexity of culture and religion, how the very stories we claim about the gods and goddesses we worship can contradict the shape we give to our own stories. If only people were as imaginative with their own narratives (or those of their children) as the ancients were when they invented these original tales.
If this book were a sheet set, its thread count would be high. There is the motif of Lucky as a bridegroom, and all the moments across the story trajectory when she sees herself as such. There is the freedom Lucky finds through the head-on sport of rugby, the perfect antidote to her passivity in so many other areas of her life. There is the drawn-out coming-out narrative with the moments she was found out as a teenager; the sheering off of her hair, which she’s always hated; the masculine outfit Kris dresses her up in before they go out, only to be called to her parents’ because her grandmother is ill, and there is no time to change. These strands combine to form a multifaceted story about one thing — being gay inside a strictly heteronormative culture.
Sindu is at times a little too focused on gay emblems — scattering rainbows throughout the scenes with the rugby players — they hang from the women’s rearview mirrors and blanket their beds. Also, it isn’t clear why a group of adult women still share a college house. The biggest problem though is that the text, by trying hard to be in the body, leaves some would-be emotional moments to fall flat. A good example of this is when, at Lucky’s grandmother’s funeral, Lucky’s female family members — stepmother, mother, and sister — collectively embrace and wail: “The sound pulls at my skin. I walk toward them. Amma’s arms press against my face. Their wail surrounds me, crests over me. I hold onto Amma’s shoulders.”
We know where she is, what she physically does, but what is she feeling? Some of the best books expose sad truths of other people’s daily reality, making empathy possible. What often makes these books poignant are the moments in which the characters experience joy or respite from pain, providing contrast in circumstance or at least in emotion, and giving the story nuance while also granting the reader brief relief, even uplift. One memorable instance of this happens in Man’s Search for Meaning, when Viktor Frankl is describing his situation at a “rest camp” where he’s working in an “earthen hut […] in which were crowded about fifty delirious patients.”
Reading can be so absorbing that attention to one’s emotional state lapses, getting caught up, as it is, with the narrator’s. This was the case for me within this passage, but I wouldn’t have realized my own sadness, or the feeling of oppression descending over me, had Frankl not skillfully transitioned to a moment of lightness. He relays a short period of solitude, of looking out over the “green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape.” It’s not as though Frankl is imposing a false positivity here. He has just been speaking of the daily count of bodies, of “the double fence of barbed wire surrounding the camp,” and he ends the passage by highlighting the limit of his vision: “but I could only see clouds.” Bringing a reader temporarily away from the painful details of a book’s world can help her to understand somewhat the conditions of the life she’s following in the words, and can engender empathy across all divisions — time, space, gender, religion, race.
I don’t mean to draw a false parallel between Frankl’s nonfictional account of his time in a concentration camp and Sindu’s fictional one of unsatisfied longing in an oppressively heteronormative family. I bring this technique up because I was able to step into a reality otherwise closed off to me through Sindu’s book, but I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of Lucky’s emotional experience. I longed for moments of joy, however brief, to give her experience texture. When she has sex with Nisha — what is she feeling? Even without knowing Nisha’s intention, Lucky’s in love with her, and sex must have been some kind of emotional experience.
That Lucky’s voice impedes readers’ access to her emotions doesn’t detract from the book’s overall impact, as it would were the story less enthralling. Sindu is a skilled writer, and this is a remarkable first novel. She created detailed, believable characters, wove a complex history for them, and left readers on a note of hope. Lucky’s courage to come out, and the openness with which the book ends suggests that the process is neither the end nor the beginning of her story, only the catalyst for a more honest way of living a less passive, more engaged life. One in which, perhaps, she can be inside her experiences, rather than viewing her body from a distance.