Her Eyes

January 9, 2011
There has never been a time in my life when I do not remember Sudha Iyengar (Auntie to me) existing in my memories. When I was younger she was like a second mother to me; however, as the years passed by us, she changed and it scared me beyond reason. But today I was able to look into her eyes, her barely open, milky blue eyes. Those eyes that I hadn’t been able to face for the longest time though they could not even see me cringe in ignorance.

But today when I looked across the once black lacquered wooden dining table, worn from years of pots and pans abusing its surface, I was able to meet them. Her hair was thinning, and her face drooped, and of course, her eyes were pigmented unnaturally--I felt as if her entire body had a sadness weighting it down. She hadn’t lost her identifying scent, though cooking had been removed from her repertoire of doable tasks. She was simply perfumed with the subtle smell of warm lentils or dahl stewed with the sinus cleansing mirchi, or chili—she had always enjoyed spice to present in her life, perhaps more than I could accommodate for. She now blinked and rummaged in her bag filled with failed medicines ranging from strictly pharmaceutical to Ayer Vedic, and took out a small white bottle and set it upon the table. She then proceeded to coif her hair and straighten out her purple pea coat and long flowing blue skirt, an exotic combination of both her Indian heritage and her American culture. In the background the bhajans, or devotional songs, were playing harmoniously with their upbeat rhythms and meaningful lyrics. They were so central to life in the Rajagopalan-Venkataramen household that I didn’t even notice them until a quarter of the way into the interview. She unfolded her in a series of answers to my probing questions, and each time a new truth was revealed, or perhaps I should say, a new loss. When she spoke, she maintained the very firm and enticing voice she had acquired from the days of being an acclaimed orator. Each word was articulated beautiful, each phrase carrying its own emotional flavor that could move the listener to either tears or genuine laughter.

As the interview slowly began to come to an end, I looked over to the right, to where my best friend, Auntie’s daughter was sitting. I saw her poised so carefully, positioned in such away that she wouldn’t miss a single word her mother uttered. On the table in front of her lay a small puddle of warm and salty tear drops, resonating the feeling of sorrow Auntie’s mournful story induced. I looked down onto my paper to find the next question I was planning to ask and instead found a page full of smudged words, mutilated by the wet, destructive tears of sympathy. And despite every drop of water shed by both her daughter and myself, Auntie’s eyes remain dry, unfazed, and focused. She spoke of all the money she deprived herself of to support of her family; she recited her story of her cataracts that caused her loss of vision. She told the stories of the failed surgeons who only aggravated her condition, and all the things she has missed out on because she cannot see.

I only felt grief burdening my soul throughout the interview, but then I asked her, “Do you ultimately feel content or regret for the life choices you have made and how do you reconcile those feelings with your current day situation?” She paused for a couple of seconds and picked up the white bottle she had set upon the table and squeezed two drops of the solution into each of her eyes. She silently recoiled in pain when each droplet made contact with the volatile surface of her deteriorated eye. She closed her eyes for a moment, as she always did while preformed this hourly routine, and murmured a short prayer under breathe that asked for her divine surrender to the lord in the sacred language of Sanskrit. She slowly opened her eyes and said indifferently, “I believe everything that has played out throughout my life has been a lesson for me to learn and grow stronger from. So I have nothing but respect and happiness for everything that has occurred to me in this life and I truly and humbled by all I have been granted.”

I sat back in the chair exasperated by her answer. How, I thought, had a woman who has lost everything and more importantly, the ability to do anything, settle on such and optimistic outlook on her ruined life, or was it just bravado? How could she not realize that all her suffering will only lead to more? How did she not feel any resentment for the fate written out in her stars, or did she? How could she be so humble or was it nonchalance? Her tone was unreadable. I sought out the answers to these daunting questions, unable to find a logical explanation, but then I remembered the profoundly deterministic thoughts of Rukmani, the ideal example of a woman has had to face adversity. “It is true, one gets used to anything” (62). “…and what if we gave in to our troubles at every step! We would be pitiable creatures indeed to be so weak, for it not a man's spirit given to him to rise above his misfortunes?” (111). I was then able to come to terms with Auntie’s situation and her decision because I was finally able to comprehend she had never thought about the sorrow and misery of her situation, ever. It had always been about embracing her loss with open arms, standing vulnerable for any other misfortune that God decided to bestow upon her. To her it was all just karma—everything was well deserved and opportunistic.

Culture is what shapes one’s thoughts and views, and both Rukmani and Auntie were taught to uphold the traditions and guidelines laid down by their society. Though they both were put into new communities later in life, they always reverted back to the original customs of their childhood. This culture grasps hold on a person when one is a child and etches its principles and guidelines within the unalloyed depths of one’s minds. As the one grows older, these customs percolate within one’s consciousness and bear great weight when it comes time for one to make decisions. Even now, as I cite the latter quote on page 111, my inherent Hindu Indian culture subtly vexes my mind until I make note of the ‘auspiciousness’ of the number 111—an odd number comprising of three ones, a holy trinity. Similarly, both Rukmani and Auntie were raised in communities in which determinism set a precedent for conducting the way of life, causing them to accept destiny as an insurmountable experience that they must utilize as a chance for growth and should learn from.

Universally, women “’… are taught to bear [their] sufferings in silence, and all this so that the soul may be cleansed’” (112). Whether it be through the implementation of karma and determinism or the simple optimism that women employ to put up a façade of happiness during a time of indomitable misery, women throughout the world truly “bear [their] suffering in silence”—often alone. No matter where one is, she is taught that it is always better to find light in despondency than to complain, a women often bears all hardships alone and allow herself to wallow in misery before she inflicts such pain upon others, due to the love for their culture, family, and principles. Women are the sole victims of the miseries that they burden themselves with, under the good pretenses of alleviating another’s sadness. This emotional load that they carry gradually wears away at their being until they start to fade under the pressures of the suppressed misfortunes.

I looked up after pondering her answer to my final question, and thanked her for an insightful interview. There is so much unsaid behind the faces of the women around us, their disparities do not succumb to pity or sympathy of others, nor do they dwindle within their cages in the hearts of these burdened women. Burdens are never apparent, but every woman carries at least one, high upon her head, back erect, chin high, with a smile on her face, ready to approach the next one with even more dignity that the last. When these burdens are stacked high, like in the case of both Auntie and Rukmani, the reverence of culture is not longer able to tame the demons of the past, and indistinct signs of privation are made visible due to the weight of her woes. “…[She] grieved no more; so now [she] accepted the future…only sometimes when [she] was weak…[she] found [her]self rebellious, protesting, rejecting, and no longer calm” (62). Like when I look into Auntie’s eyes I see nothing but a sea of black even though her eyes are blue from cataract. And when she says that life is a lesson, I know she means it, but the years have given her optimism a melancholic connotation. When she eats I know that she subconsciously resents the fact that someone else has to inform her about what she is eating. When she cries at the sound of a beautiful bhajan, I know that the tears pouring down are not only those praising the glory of God. And when she holds my hand while she walks, I know that the eyes behind the protective sunglasses are no longer a calm and tired blue, but a pitch black, frantically moving side to side, hoping that the sight comes back and all suffering is gone.

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ch0xp3ngu1n said...
Feb. 24, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Beautifully articulated,


It makes me want to read that book again even though i hated it!

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