The Secret Tara
- by Tara Sidhoo Fraser -
Two winters ago, my grandfather joined the night sky. As one of my uncles would say, he became a star. That evening, as my grandfather lost his body to the earth and sailed upwards into the dark, I was on an adventure of my own.
Curled up against the itchy seats of a chilly Greyhound bus, I headed into the Seattle core. I’m not certain if the heater was broken that night, or if it was just so cold that the draft had chilled the radiator, but everyone on this bus was still wrapped in their winter gear. The bus driver, however, seemed impervious to the night’s chill, wearing nothing but a thin uniform shirt. I decided his name was Greg; he looked like a Greg. Bus Driver Greg enjoyed the icy air, smoking cigarettes and a Miller Lite at every unscheduled rest stop we took.
Contouring my body into a tight, cross-legged position, in hopes of trapping what warmth I could, I gazed out the dusty window. Outside, it was already dusk, the brief moments of daylight had grown lazy and were now fading into an orange glow. During the winters here, the sky burns modestly even when the wet cold freezes your bones and nothing else is capable of catching fire. Yes, even then, the quiet light erupts before fading entirely. I watch the last remaining strokes of orange before leaning back and re-crossing my legs.
My stomach grumbles and I start thinking about the food I don’t have, the stuff I can’t afford. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this broke for so long. Two weeks ago, I called my mom for money because I couldn’t afford a box of tampons. I didn’t tell her I’ve been to the food bank three times this year, maybe because I’m embarrassed as hell about all of this. I’ve never considered the guilt I would inflict on myself as I sat in the community waiting area, waiting for my take home box to be made. That day, my heart sat in my throat as I played connect the dots with the dark streak marks on the tile floor. I know this is just a rough patch. I can get through this, nothing lasts forever.
I switch my brain to Seattle, to Sam, my almost blind date. She bought me this bus ticket so that we could officially meet each other this weekend. Our initial introduction was through OkCupid, where she told me a funny story about purchasing a new cell phone and her distaste for malls. Now, three brief messages and two Skype calls later, we’ve discovered a similar lust for tattoos, music, and sex. This thin thread of connection has won me a seat on a chilly tin can with wheels to Seattle, where I will meet my date face-to-face at the Green Tortoise Hostel. Emotional hunger can be dangerous but always exciting.
But by 7:00 PM the bus is two hours behind schedule due to the lengthy border wait and Bus Driver Greg’s three cigarette stops. The dull ache in my lower left leg is making its way into my glutes and the two women a few rows ahead of me are trading secrets so loudly that I feel as though I’m part of their conversation. So when the phone call arrives, all I can hear are the laughing women over her almost whisper.
“It’s all right. He was ready, he’s all right now.”
And then my mom sighed and emptied her lungs.
Months later, back in Vancouver, my family begins sorting through my grandfather’s treasures. We create careful piles, tenderly removing belongings from his worn boxes as if performing surgery. Jackets in one pile, books in another, miscellaneous items over by the hats. The task is to build roadways to my grandfather’s identity. And between these roadways, in the depths of one of the boxes, we unearth the photographs and letters.
In Sooke, BC, where the Kapoor and Mayo Mills operated, my grandfather, Jab Sidhoo, was raised after he left India. He saved up for his first car and tricked the DMV into allowing him to take the road test without a parent present when he was only fifteen years old.
My grandmother, Nirmal Dutt, also left India when she was fifteen. Against the wish of her parents, she came to Canada with my grandfather and joined him in creating a family and a carpet business in Vancouver, BC.
In other boxes are sand-coloured letters, some wrapped in envelopes, and others short-sentence postal notes. Most of them are love notes from friends and family, others are letters from the strangers of yesterday to my grandmother, who has now been a dancing star since her mid-sixties. But one holds a family secret.
The secret was born in India many generations ago, discovered in one of the many letters addressed to my grandmother. And her name, like my own, is Tara. Her mention is less than a paragraph long, wedged firmly between two other unrelated sentences. Her name skips and then vanishes.
Now, there are two Taras on our family’s tree: I am one and my uncle Yogi’s mama is the other. Yet, this letter, written when my mother was still an infant, was not referring to Uncle Yogi’s mama. We began to dig further, speaking to family members in India, and thin threads of the tale, which had been whispered and then swallowed, started to emerge. Each one remembers her story, though in every version it is told differently. My first cousin and I have dreamt of her, and in each of our dreams more of the story is revealed.
It was before the Partition that split India and Pakistan into two countries had occurred. Before the Dutts’ grand home was overtaken by the British army. At this time, their home stood tall: an elegantly decorated, colonial palace dressed in white marbled stone. The architect of this palace was one of baba’s business friends, Sirish Bhamra, who was the first and only son of Girish and Toyo. Though Girish and Toyo were not in the business themselves, they carried important acquaintances and a trust specifically for Sirish’s future. Sirish had purposely designed the home to resemble a small palace, caked in thick coats of cream-coloured stucco and flecks of gold. It took Sirish four years and 250 men to build it. Once the work was finished, Sirish placed his strong, weathered hands over his heart and proclaimed that this house, the one that grew among well-placed fruit trees and rose toward the sun-drenched sky, was truly blessed. This was, of course, well before the curse had occurred.
The Dutts would enjoy their evenings in the house’s large indoor sitting area. Among books, tea, and snacks, Ravi, the youngest of the family’s two boys, would clumsily slide his fingers over the sitar, replaying troublesome chords until he found a slightly better pitch. When the family reached frustration, he was asked to rest for a while over other various activities such as reading or working on his theory books for entertainment instead. Abhik, the elder of the two, spent his time impersonating statues. His spine, unnaturally straight and very stiff rose over many people. It was said to be his most favourable feature. Tonight, he sat on the edge of his favourite chair, situated very close to the fireplace, a novel, World History, resting on his lap. Ravi, cross-legged, chirping to someone about what he had just read, and Tara belly-flopped on the silk runner which held various school papers and pens, busily falling in love with someone outside the windows, whom only she could see.
When the air dropped a few degrees, it was time for bed. Ulka, Tara’s maid and confidante, would make her way down the long hallway to the resting room to collect her. Each night was a similar note. Ulka would carry a metal lantern, down the narrow hallway, sometimes purposefully swinging the light to cast dream shadows along her path until she saw the warm glow of the living space, heard the quiet conversation among the Dutts. Her entry was always unannounced, for she enjoyed the first few seconds of observation.
“Who do you see when you look out the window?” Ulka once asked Tara one night as she warmed the small of Tara’s back with the round of her belly. Tara sighed and pushed her body closer to Ulka until her thin neck was almost against Ulka’s lips.
“The night birds,” she said.
Her room was dark and swallowed her breaths. Ulka’s thick arms pulled Tara closer, pretending they were a safety blanket. She knew Tara was avoiding the question, for if Tara had answered truthfully it would have been like a mouthful of bees, a soft pain that grows over time. So Ulka waited and, instead, traced the outline of the mountains over Tara’s back. Felt the small shiver bumps emerge from hiding and closed her eyes.
As Tara grew older, her parents began the discussion on their daughter’s suitor. For more than a few years now, the Dutt empire had been a strong, growing entity of wealth founded in international businesses. However, union with another well-made family would land them an even higher title. So the suitor was to be well-educated and, of course, high caste. He must also be a good man.
“A good man is as important as a calm ocean,” said one.
“A good man is a steady trail,” agreed the other.
Family meetings at the home became arranged in a calculated fashion. Monday, the Singh’s would join for supper. Their two sons were both readily available and the sole inheritors of a successful motor vehicle corporation. On Tuesday, it would be the Chakos. They had one older son who was set to become president and sole owner of their international carpet business. And though both families seemed promising, much research would be done, for marriage was not to be a frenzied dance. A family’s union should take time. Besides, Tara, who was only fifteen, was still a year away from decent maturity.
After much research, they settled on the Mehrotras. Ambar, the eldest, was a decently mannered boy who soared in his studies and his family was set to take control of the up-and-coming financial sector through the Imperial Bank.
When Tara was told that a suitor had been found, she pursed her lips, a mirror image of her mama’s expression after a great disappointment:
“I can’t . . .” she gasped between thick, full-bodied tears. “If I marry Ambar, we will be forever cursed; I do not love him.”
She then chipped her heart and handed baba all the fragmented reasons.
And though he understood, he also knew that over time Tara’s feelings would settle and mute. He knew, as one that was older, that marriage was not merely an act of lust between two parties. For, the beast of immediate love was comparative to drunken swallows who now are barely able to fly, being so heavy with the frivolous notion of escape. His meaty hand squeezed his daughter’s shoulder softly.
“Two strong families ensure stability and with that comes freedom. You will understand in a few years. Ambar is a good man.” And with those words, the curse began.
We are told that it was the evening, that the sun had set and Ulka was away. Someone said she was sent to another home and another said she took ill that night. We are told that the rope she used was found near the gardening shed. Yet, others say it was her bed linens, for how was she to find a rope and why would she have used such a dirty object, and wouldn’t someone have heard her? Either way, by the time Tara was found it was already too late. Her body was already stiff from rigor mortis. The noose, being the rope, had rubbed along the soft bits of skin around her neck creating large blood blisters that sometime in the night had burst.
This, of course, is all hearsay.
A few months after the death of their daughter, Tara’s name was removed from the Dutt family tree. It was said that only one that was deeply ill could have done such a wretched thing. The Dutts then paid the Mehrotras a handsome wage for their silence and removed all sign of her existence throughout their beautiful house. Soon after Tara’s death, the night birds who sat in the Dutts’ fruit trees began calling in shrill screeches until the early morning hours. At first, hunters were hired to clear the gardens from the horrendous criers, but the night birds never ran thin. Even after a week of continuous slaying, more of the small creatures would congregate in the backyard. Eventually, most of the help, exhausted and frustrated with the noise and their bad-natured employers, left for employment in other homes.
Soon after, The Partition occurred and their grand home was taken over by the soldiers and the Dutts were forced to flee in the middle of the night. Only as they quietly exited through one of the kitchen doors, carrying a small bag of clothing and valuables, did the wailing birds’ cry finally stop.
In 1982, I was born in Vancouver, BC, and named Tara. My parents had originally decided on Jasmine, but at the last minute they felt Tara was a better fit. Her memories were kept folded and tucked between each vertebra of our family, passed down from mother to daughter. And sometimes, when in the sweet silent moments I think of her, I can feel my arm hairs raise.
Some nights after we discover her story, beneath the open sky, I write the secret Tara a letter. It begins:
“I’m sorry . . .”
Though it is summer, and the heat licks my skin, leaving behind small beads of sweat, I shiver.
“You are not forgotten.”
Later, safely concealed in a metal coffee canister, I set this message ablaze. I watch the smoke and ashes rise toward the stars. I hope my uncle is right and that we do become stars.
© 2019 by Tara Sidhoo Fraser
Tara Sidhoo Fraser lives, works, and writes on the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Skxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh nations, AKA Vancouver, BC. You can email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @50trillioncells.