The Girl in the Garden Excerpt by Kamala Nair


By the time you read this I will be flying over the Atlantic on my way to India. You will have woken up alone and found the diamond ring I left on the bedside table and beneath it, this stack of papers that you now hold.

But for the moment you are sleeping peacefully. Even when I lean down, touch my face to yours, and inhale your scent, you do not stir.

Watching you sleep, my heart aches. I have done a terrible thing.

I would like to say it began with the letter I received two days ago, but it goes back much further than that. It goes back to the summer I turned eleven when Amma took me to India and everything changed. Anyone who knows the full truth about my past, and there are not many who do, might say I have emerged unscathed from the events of that summer—in a few weeks I will graduate with a masters from Yale School of Architecture and begin a promising career at a design firm in New York City; I have a good relationship with most of my family; a wonderful man has just proposed marriage to me—but I haven’t overcome any demons, really. I may have wrestled and bound them beneath my bed, but they have clawed their way free, as I should have known they eventually would, and I cannot marry you until I’ve banished them.

This is why I am leaving behind the diamond ring you gave me, which I never should have accepted in the first place, not when there are still these secrets between us. Until I have gone back to the place where it all started, and told you everything, I cannot wear your ring or call myself your wife.

You know the basic facts, but I have never filled in the details. I haven’t even told you about Plainfield. You still think I grew up in Minneapolis and when you ask why I never take you home, I tell you Minnesota has nothing to do with who I am now. I left when I was eighteen, built a new life for myself, and have never looked back. For a long time I convinced myself this was the case. Aba has kept quiet as well, even though my father has met you on numerous occasions. He doesn’t think it’s his place to say anything, but I know he disapproves of my reticence. I remind him of her.

Once while searching through my desk drawer for a pen, you found the old family portrait I keep. Amma is wearing a blue silk sari and her hair is loose and long. You told me my mother was beautiful and that I look like her. I took the photo from your hands and tucked it back into the drawer under a pile of papers. No I don’t, I said and went back to my sketching even though I felt a swell of pride and longing at your words.

It is no secret that I have been writing back and forth to India for years, though whenever you asked who I was corresponding with, I lied and said it was a lonely relative I felt sorry for, nobody significant. When I called on the phone I made sure you were not around to hear the conversation. If I had told you the truth, then the whole story would have had to come out.

But once you asked about my mother. Do you ever write to her or call her? When I answered no, that was not a lie.

This letter that I received the other day was from a person in India whom I have not seen or heard from since that long ago summer. But I immediately recognized the handwriting on the old-fashioned aerogram stamped Par Avion, and had to sit down on the bench in the lobby. The doorman asked if I wanted a glass of water.

I drank the water, went upstairs, and locked myself in my little art studio with its paint-splattered walls. I sat on the floor and read the letter. I read it over and over again.

That night I dreamed I was in a garden surrounded by shriveled, coal-black flowers. The only hint of color was in the branches of a giant tree studded with red blossoms. An Ashoka tree. My mother was sitting underneath it dressed in the white cotton of a widow.

Amma, I called out, and she stood up and began moving toward me. Her face seemed not to have aged—she could not have been much older than I am now—but her body had shrunk to skin and bone. As she came closer, I stretched out my arms, but she glided past me as if I was invisible. I turned to find her leaning over the edge of an old stone well sheathed in moss. It took me a moment to realize what was about to happen, but when I opened my mouth to scream No, it was already too late. She had dived off the edge and in a fluttering arc of white, disappeared into the well. I ran over and looked down into the hole, hoping to catch another glimpse, but she was gone, swallowed up by the dark water.

I woke up and booked a flight to India right then and there. I met you for dinner later that night, but I of course kept my trip and my dream a secret, like so many other things.

It has been this way between us since the beginning. Not long after we met in drawing class our first year, you told me about your parents’ divorce and of your conflicted relationship with your father, who left when you were a child, and how you had vowed never to be like him. I listened and nodded, and my heart pulsed with the first stirrings of love, even though I hardly knew you then. Still, I could not share my own story. As much as I wanted to tell you everything, I was paralyzed. Keeping secrets had become second nature, an inheritance passed down from mother to daughter like an heirloom. But one night, the night of our big fight, you refused to let the subject of Amma drop. You kept asking questions.

What was she like?
Where does she live?
Why don’t you speak?
Is she even alive?

I got that panicked feeling that used to plague me as a young girl during piano recitals, sitting on the hard bench with my foot trembling on the pedal and my fingers forgetting their hours of practice. I gave a few vague, stumbling answers about how she had gone back to India when I was young and she was no longer in my life and that was that, but you were not satisfied.

Look, obviously this is something that still bothers you a lot. Why won’t you talk to me? Maybe I can help.

You placed a hand on my shoulder and something inside me closed up.

There’s nothing to talk about, I said and changed the subject. We made stilted conversation over dinner and then I excused myself and left early.

After that night I avoided you for a week, turning off my phone and ignoring the doorbell. I skipped all my classes and stayed alone in my apartment. The first two days I lay in bed, unable to move. The third day I got up, showered, went into my studio with a pot of coffee and began to paint. I think I might have gone temporarily crazy in those days, painting in a frenzy. I don’t even remember if I slept or if I ate. All I remember is painting and the feeling of relief it gave me, like taking a drug, and also the feeling of not wanting to lose you. Finally I stopped. I packed up all the paintings, threw on my coat, and ran outside into the winter night. I ran all the way to your house, clutching the portfolio.

You looked shocked when you opened the door and found me standing there, out of breath and contrite. I can only imagine how wild I must have appeared, and you had every right to hate me after the way I behaved, but in spite of everything you let me in. You let me in.

I went over to the kitchen table, set down the portfolio, and began pulling out my paintings, one by one.

This is Amma’s magenta parka that I still keep in my closet.
This is the daffodil cake she baked for my third birthday.
This is the canopy bed she convinced Aba to buy for me when I was seven.
This is her orange pill bottle.
This is the oil lamp she lit in the hall closet when she was praying.
This is a rose from her prizewinning garden.
This is her hair covered in snowflakes.
This is the scar on her right shoulder from a snake bite.

You looked at each painting and listened. When I got to the final one I hesitated. It was of a magnificent white bird against a bright green background.

And what about this one?

I looked up at you.

I’ll tell you about this one another time, I promise.

For then, it was enough. But I knew it would not be forever.

So I began to write it all down, partly for myself, and partly for you.

For months I wrote feverishly, late at night while you slept, and though I felt immense relief when the story was complete, I still locked it up in a drawer.

I am finally ready to share it.

I hope that when you are finished reading, you will understand why I have left like this with no warning, no explanation, no goodbye; only this story, the ring, and an address in India where you can find me.

Most of all, I hope I am not too late.

Buy the book here

Written By
More from Geetanjali Read More