Now in paperback, internationally bestselling author Indu Sundaresan presents a poignant collection of contemporary short stories about the challenges and consequences faced by women in Indian life today.
Like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, Indu Sundaresan’s In the Convent of Little Flowers gives readers an eloquent and illuminating collection of stories about contemporary Indian life, exploring the cutting-edge issues that surround the clash between ancient tradition and modernity. In the collection’s title story, a young woman adopted by an American family in Seattle receives a letter from Sister Mary Theresa, a nun at the Convent of Little Flowers in Chennai, where she stayed as a child. Unbeknownst to the Indian woman, the nun is her biological mother’s sister. In another story, the grandmother of an Indian journalist begs her grandson to intervene and stop a young widow from being burned alive. And when a teenaged daughter bears a child out of wedlock, her entire family is thrown into turmoil. With their lush prose, vividly rendered settings, and complex characters, these and the other stories in this elegant collection bring readers into the experience of Indian women at home and abroad, where modernity offers them lives their grandmothers could never dream of, while at the same time taking away parts of their history. With a delicate touch, Indu Sundaresan weaves the pieces of the conflict together, presenting a nuanced and unforgettable tapestry.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.36(h) x 0.65(d)|
About the Author
Indu Sundaresan is the author of four novels, including The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. Born and raised in India, she now lives in Washington State.
Read an Excerpt
Shelter of Rain
In my childhood
Deep equator skies
Whitened by an unforgiving sun
I stand now
Under the shelter of rain
I arrive at SeaTac airport early, two hours ahead of time. The terminal is deserted now, with yawning, shiny seats. After I sit, a little girl and her mother come to settle across from me, although empty places stretch to the far corner and, I think, around. The girl carries a sand bucket, which she sets down on the well-trodden carpet. Then, with a spade, she scoops imaginary sand in and out of the bucket. I watch the child's face, her cheeks puffed in whistleless concentration, her hair cut in little-girl bangs, her arms sturdy in a summer frock's sleeves. I was once like this girl but also so different. I played in the red earth under the shade of a banyan tree, the mud coloring my palms for weeks. I had forgotten those days. But the letter came out of nowhere, with no warning, to remind me.
As I shift in my seat, the letter crackles against my leg. I take it out of my jeans pocket and smooth it over a knee. The paper is rough, unfinished, torn out of a child's handwriting practice notebook; there are sets of four lines throughout the page, the top and bottom ones red, the inner two blue. It has been so long, yet I remember the exhortations to fit capital letters between the red lines and small letters between the blue. That was how, all those years ago, I learned to write. I look again at the paper, and the blue ink swarming over the page swims into a haze.
Since the letter came a month ago, I have thought of nothing else. An envelope blue as my mother Diana's gaze lay on the kitchen counter forthat time. In it, looped in an old, educated hand, words blurring before my now often-tired eyes, there is the story of another mother. The letter says she gave birth to me, not Diana. She lies sick in her house on Chinglepet street in Chennai.
A map of India has taken up permanent residence on the dining table at home. I could see the map through the corner of my eye no matter what room I was in. I knew I came from that country, twenty-three years ago, but I had not known from where. The letter told me where. It came from the Convent of Little Flowers in Chennai.
We have always had beautiful young girls here. Girls whose mothers could not keep them, dear Padmini. I hope that is still your name. It means the lotus flower. All our little girls have been named thus, after flowers. You came to us with that name. Your mother gave you the name. I am sure you have grown up to be as beautiful as the serene lotus in a village pond.
Tears come each time I read those lines. How dare she Sister Mary Theresa write me after so many years? I was six when Tom and Diana Merrick took me from the Convent of Little Flowers. They have never been back to India since. And neither have I. Now I am no longer that child who left.
There is a faded black-and-white picture in one of Mom's photo albums. Diana, I mean, not the woman on Chinglepet street. In it I stand with an expression so scared, so beaten, I cannot recognize myself. The picture was taken two weeks before I left India. My feet are bare, my hair in a braid swings over one skinny shoulder, a new white frock sprayed with purple flowers billows over my knees. I remember I hated the day of the year when the frocks came. I do not look at that picture very often. And yet this Sister Mary Theresa, Mother Superior, talks of it and brings back the sun-drenched mud courtyard in the shadow of the Gemini bridge.
Your mother would send frocks for you on every birthday. Somehow, she always knew the right size. For your sixth birthday it was a sleeveless white frock printed with purple lilacs. Have you seen a lilac blossom, Padmini? Your mother liked flowers. Believe me, the dress each year was more than she could afford to do then. Her circumstances had changed, questions would have been asked, but she was brave, she always remembered.
I volunteered to go on call every week after the letter came. My colleagues stared at me in disbelief at first, then escaped thankfully to their suntan lotions and backyards. But I did not care. If I was going to stay awake anyway through the July nights, I might as well keep my mind numbingly occupied. The ER at Harborview is not the place for dreaming of old memories, just brief stunning reflections of how stupid people can get when it comes to injuring themselves. I spent eight hours in surgery one memorable day trying to stitch a twenty-three-year-old man's hand back to his forearm while across the table from me, the ophthalmologist on call worked in tandem on his blown-out right eye. He had tried to pick up a lit cherry bomb.
Yet for me, there was always time to think of the letter. My mother always remembered, Mary Theresa says. But she never remembered to visit. Did she ever come? Did I know her when she came? Or did she just stand on the white-washed verandah and watch me play under the shade of the many-armed banyan in the courtyard?
That memory comes back too. One I do not want. One I try to hold away. But once dredged up, it is here to stay. Why did that letter come? Damn Sister Mary Interfering Theresa. I suddenly remember her too. Short even to a child she seemed so with kind black eyes behind thick glasses. Soda Booddies, we used to call them. Soda bottle glasses, disfigured by thickness. Mary Theresa had a plump face, spotted by an unrepentant and errant not-yet-eradicated smallpox. Yet her starched white wimple and her wide smile and her gentle hands that never held the neem tree-child-beating branch made us oblivious to it. But we talked under that banyan. She must have joined the convent because no man would marry her. A smallpox-pitted face is not exactly marriage market material. She was also dark. Even as six-year-olds we knew those things. What a pity, we would think, she would have made a wonderful mother. And we would turn yearning glances to the verandah when she appeared, each of us thinking, make me your child, don't be mother to everyone.
Sometimes Mary Theresa would walk down the verandah doing her day's work. Sometimes very often, actually she would stand with a woman or a man from the outside and point toward our group, or another one. We were far enough away not to know whom she was pointing at. But we knew that man or woman was either one of our parents or a relative come to see us, or, as we often hoped, someone who would make us theirs. It would be a bizarre game for us, watching these people perhaps related to us by blood, perhaps judging us as their future children trying to guess whom they belonged to. Sister Mary says my mother always remembered. Did she also come to stand on that verandah? Which one was she?
It never bothered me then. I wonder why it bothers me now. No one has pointed at me for twenty-three years from across a dusty courtyard.
I came away from that hot city to rainy green Seattle. Tom and Diana lived in a golden western sun-lit condo on Queen Anne Hill. Everything about those three words excited me. Queen. I had seen pictures of one. Anne. The name of a queen. And hill. I had not seen a hill before. Chennai, Mary Theresa tells me now, is flat. I had not seen mountains feathered with wayward snow on October evenings. I had not seen the sun set behind the Olympics or the ferry making its lone streaking way through the calm Puget Sound. Or Mount Rainier, glorious godly Mount Rainier, suddenly appearing on the horizon. For months, I knelt before the windows of our home (how easily the our comes now) and watched the sun set each day. I remember Dad, shattered in Vietnam not from bodily harm yelling out at night and Mom soothing, crooning, holding him in her arms, lit by the streetlight outside the windows. I would stand at the door to their room and watch until they called me to their bed to lie between them. Until then I had only seen little flowers cry at night, not grown men.
My life since has been peppered by Seattle rain. Rain in the winter hardly had that in Chennai rain in the spring, and summer and fall. Chennai is very close to the equator. It must be hot. I remember now it is hot. Is that why I love the rain?
I did not choose this life. I did not even choose to be born, let alone to this nameless woman in the southeast corner of India. I did not choose to be given away, or be taken by the sunny blond couple who stood on the verandah one day and, I think, pointed at me. But they took me. I came here. I belong no more to Chinglepet street.
I don't think I have ever realized I am different. I cannot say not American, because what really is American? But I look into the mirror more often now and I see that dark skin. To me it seems as dark as Sister Mary Theresa's, yet I am married where she took the veil for hers. Autre temps, autre moeurs. Sister Bloody Mary Theresa. I am so angry I will not even now allow her the luxury of having chosen then a life for the love of her religion, for the love of her God, or even, for the love of her work. It must be because somebody rejected her. Or she would not be a nun at the Convent of Little Flowers. And I would not have met her, and she would not have now written me the letter.
Do you remember much of us, dear Padmini? The convent was built in the shadow of the Gemini Flyover, the only road bridge in all of Chennai then, and a big landmark for giving directions. I have seen pictures of America. There are many many such flyovers there. Some even in the shape of clover leaves. But this you must know, these you must have seen. I'm afraid nothing much grows even now in our courtyard. It is still the same, a bare maidan, dusty when the rains do not come; but under the banyan it is shady. The tree has added a few more arms to the ground since you were last here. Every day I stand on the verandah and watch the children play under its shade and thank God it is still there. Somehow, it finds the strength to survive year after year of drought as the trees and saplings around the city wilt and die. It has been five years since an adequate rain has visited Chennai.
The lowering skies have now completely engulfed the Cascades outside the floor-to-ceiling glass of the airport. I want to send them westward, across the vast Pacific Ocean, flying over Hawaii, over Hong Kong and Singapore and China, sweeping down the Bay of Bengal to hover over the Gemini Flyover. We have enough rain here. The little flowers could do with some of ours. When she writes like this, in her singsong talking voice, I can remember her even more.
The Merricks came one rain-threatening day to stand on the verandah to choose me. Later Mom would say they brought the rain from Seattle. I firmly believe it was me they wanted among all others. Mom said so, night after night when I asked her. I could barely speak English when I came here, just a few words. It was a long plane ride from Chennai to Seattle. I sat between them in the white frock I hated. They had brought jeans for me, but only boys wore pants; why would I all of a sudden? Besides, the frock was the only thing then that was mine. Under it I wore a baggy pair of Mom's stockings, pooling around my ankles in frothy beige, knotted and pinned at my waist. One of Dad's sweaters flopped over my shoulders down to my knees. Somehow, in giving me their clothes, they made me theirs. They patted me a lot during that flight, not knowing what to say. They would pat me on the head, on the shoulders, on the knees, all accompanied by a stream of gibberish. English, I found out later. I dutifully nodded my head and chewed on unforgiving limp lettuce and candy bars. I had not tasted chocolate till then. I still like it. I guess the flight was not so bad after all.
School was hard. At the Convent of Little Flowers we had our classes in a haphazard fashion. It depended on how free Sister Mary was during the day. She taught us math and English (not very well, obviously). A schoolmaster came in for Tamil. Strangely, I remember him very well. He was a handsome man, with a commanding movie-star mustache and a deep male voice. At the Convent of Little Flowers, we were all either little flowers or older women teachers and sweepers and clerks. The schoolmaster was a welcome distraction, despite his polio-affected limp that made him swing to one side as he walked. As we forgot Sister Mary's smallpox face, we forgot the schoolmaster's polio walk. With the precocity of children left to themselves most of the day, we made up happy endings for Sister Mary and the schoolmaster. It did not matter that one was a nun and the other married.
For my first day at Coe Elementary, sometime in mid-October, Dad took the morning off from work and the three of us walked down the road together to school. They insisted upon holding my hands. I let them. It was a nice feeling. The first person we met was Mrs. Haley, my class teacher, with her triangular glasses and her formfitting sweater dress and her short cropped hair artfully arranged in curls around her head. I asked her, my English still not strong, if she was married. She was. She was most unlike Sister Mary. Then I thought it was the glasses that did it. It was the glasses anyway that made me unclench my hand from Dad's large one and willingly put it in hers, and for many hours in the next few months I would stare at Mrs. Haley's pretty face in class. She was never as pretty as Mom, though.
That first day she took me into class, to the very front, and said, "Class, this is Padmini Merrick. Everyone, please welcome Padmini to the class." The class promptly chorused back, "Welcome, Pud-mi-ni." There was one little boy in front who yelled out the loudest, Mike. Even then I thought him quite handsome with his brown hair and hazel eyes and two front teeth knocked out in a schoolyard brawl. For many months after that Mike would fight for me when someone teased me about my accent, or the English I learned painfully at first and then rapidly, or for sitting quietly in the schoolyard in May as the plum and peach trees burst into wondrous pink and white blossoms. The banyan seemed to be always green; I don't remember flowers in the Convent of Little Flowers. A week ago Mike told me what he thought when he first saw me standing in front of the class.
We were sitting on the park benches on Pier 66 a few minutes before sunset. It had been a warm day and there were people all around us, laughing and talking and feeding the persistent gulls. "You were wearing a red sweater and black jeans," Mike said. I was. Funny he would remember that; he never seems to notice what I wear now. "But," he continued, "I mostly see in my mind a thin face with deep black eyes, huge and frightened. Your hair was long and braided down your back to the waist. You cut it in fourth grade, I remember that too."
I had not seen many boys until then, only little flower girls. So I was fascinated by Mike with his blown-out front teeth which he showed endearingly each time he smiled and his spiky hair, and his dirty hands and face. Over the years that face has changed only slightly. I think I must have known I would marry Mike one day, because I don't remember having seen anyone but him in all the years of my memory.
Are you married now, dear Padmini? Do you work? I hear that in America all women work. Do you have children of your own, Padmini? Who did you marry? Is he Indian? American? So many questions to ask of you. So many things I want to know. Not just for myself, child, but for another person who asks after you. I have told you of your mother, who wishes she might see you now that she is sick. She has uterine cancer and has undergone months of chemotherapy and radiation. She is very brave really; she bears her pain and her nausea with a strength I would not have attributed to her. She does not talk about you, but I know she thinks and wonders where you are. I know her well, your mother. I knew she always wanted you but could not keep you for various reasons. Reasons I will not go into here.
Why? I want to cry out each time I read that. She talks of knowing my mother, of being next to her and not hearing her ask after me. Why does Meddling Sister Mary Theresa care what has happened to me when my own mother no, the woman who gave birth to me does not seem to care? And why does she want to know if I have children? Mike and I have none, not yet at least. Somehow, my memory fills with pictures of little flowers who have no parents. But I think at times I would like a boy with spiky hair who fights ferociously for what he thinks is right...or a girl just like him like Mike.
I called Mom when the letter came. They live in Bellingham now; Dad is retired from Boeing. They have a tiny cottage on four acres of land, spilling into the Pacific at the edge of the garden. I think it was living on Queen Anne that made them want the space. So they gave Mike and me the condo and went to their little house up north. Dad is still too young to be retired, but he wanted to stop working and potter about a garden, his own for once. Mom works now in the administrative offices of Western; she says it drives her nuts to have Dad home all the time, pestering her about something or the other. Dee, get me the wheelbarrow; Dee, are you sure the spaghetti isn't overcooked? Dee, when is Padma going to visit? He won't pick up the phone and ask me; he will just pester Mom until she does.
They called me Padma from when I came to them. When the letter came, I asked Mom why they did that, when my name was Padmini. Padma also meant lotus, Mom said, and they asked Sister Mary Theresa for a nickname, a shorter form of Padmini. They did not know Tamil well enough to do so themselves. Looking back, it was a peculiar conversation. We were almost like strangers with each other again, afraid to say anything outright, filling up silences with thoughts. We talked of my name, of Mary Theresa; I read out parts of the letter to her. To them both. Dad had picked up the extension as he always did when I called, but he did not say a word until the very last. I just heard his presence on the other end. Then gently, his voice cracking, he said, "Padma, are you going to India?" I had to say I didn't know. Then he said, "I have to go now, sweetheart, the dandelions are growing even as we speak." After Dad put down the extension, I asked Mom a question I had not asked for a long time. It had not been necessary to do so, but now it suddenly was. "Mom, was it me you wanted from the Convent of Little Flowers?" And she answered as she always did: "Only you, my dear, noone else. Ever."
I used to be fascinated by my parents at the beginning. I would sit on Dad's lap and stare into his eyes, blue as the midsummer sky on a breathless morning. Then I saw the lines around his mouth, which showed he smiled a lot. I hung from his arm with my knees swinging off the ground. Mom brought me milk in the mornings; no one had done that for me before. I learned to sleep in my own bed, without fleeing across the hall to theirs in the middle of the night, knowing I would wake them. And I learned to be fiercely protective of them, and jealous if they bent down to talk with the neighbor's child. They were mine, I thought. And so I filled in pieces like a jigsaw, a history of my own with Mom and Dad, without the little flowers.
We do not usually keep in touch with our little flowers, dear Padmini, yet here I am writing to you. When the Merricks came to the convent looking for a little girl, I judged them very carefully. I was still very young then, perhaps I did not seem so to you, but I watched them, I listened, I heard the kindness in their voices and saw it in their eyes. I knew they would be good for you. Did I make a good choice, my child?
I should not say however that the choice was entirely mine. When Tom and Diana Merrick came to the Convent of Little Flowers they wanted a child younger than one year. Later, I took them out onto the verandah to show them the school and the mess hall and the playground behind. You were playing hide-and-seek with your friends between the arms of the banyan. You were the seeker and as you danced your way through the tree roots, you were singing. I cannot remember anymore what the song was; it was in Tamil. Even for a child you had a haunting, lilting voice. Diana Merrick wanted you then, just as you were, your hair sticking to your head in sweaty strips, your arms and legs dusty to the elbows and knees, your bare feet the color of mud.
It wrenched my heart to give you away. But they insisted. No other child would do, not even the one picked out ahead of time. I said yes after four weeks of pleading from them. Four weeks when I watched and listened and decided they would love you as much as I do. Have they been good to you, my dear?
Why the hell did she give me away if it wrenched her heart? And yet how could anyone but Tom and Diana be Mom and Dad? It has been a month since the letter came, but they have not come down to visit. Every week, Mom and Dad used to pop by on some pretext on Sundays for lunch. Oh, we were in the neighborhood. Your dad wanted to shop at a downtown store, nothing else would do. (Dad has, to my knowledge, never been in what he calls "fancy stores," and neither has Mom.) Or the fresh vegetables at Pike Place beckoned to them all the way from Bellingham, where they grow at least half an acre of vegetables in their garden and give away crates of carrots and cauliflowers under a FREE sign at the top of their driveway.
But they have not come down in four weekends. I have been on call, at work; that was my excuse. They rapidly grow old waiting for me to do whatever I want to do. If I could burn the letter and flush the ashes and it would all disappear in the toilet water, perhaps I would do that. But then I would not be here at SeaTac, waiting for the flight to arrive from L.A. I looked up the route. Chennai to London, London to New York, New York to L.A., and then here. Exactly twenty-four hours in flight. The least I could do was come here two hours ahead of scheduled arrival. I sit at the gate now, staring through the Plexiglas as the cleaning crew, the catering crew, the refueling crew, the baggage-handlers, the tire-pressure-checking crew all buzz around some airplane, swarming into it and then popping out at odd places.
The letter is folded inside my jeans pocket. I wear pants now.
Tom Merrick showed me his citation for the Vietnam war. He said he was wounded in it and decorated for bravery. I don't quite remember what the incident was, dear Padmini, no doubt you do. He must have talked to you about it. But when he told me, I wasn't listening to his words, just the tone of his voice. Here was a man who would be kind to my little Padmini, I thought. Have they been kind?
It has been twenty-three years, yet I feel as though I know what you look like. You must have your mother's looks. She has always been a beautiful woman; even now, when the cancer has ravaged her, she has an ethereal beauty, a charm of manner. Her children think so, and I agree with them.
That kills me each time I read it. She had time for other children, not just one more, mind you, children. Why did she not keep me? Sister Mary Bloody Theresa.
Yes, I know your mother well. As well as I know myself. You see, we were born to the same house, the same mother. Your mother is my little sister. She has always been somewhat young, somewhat petted. Your birth was unexpected. Enough said. I had found my calling before you were born, if I hadn't I would gladly have taken you. As it turns out, I did take you, in another capacity. And perhaps you would have known me well these last twenty-three years if the Merricks had not come that day to the convent. But, everything happens for a reason. If the smallpox had not visited me and left its mark, I might have married...I might be married anyway, there was a man. But...things did not work out. I changed my name from Chandra to Sister Mary Theresa. When I was converted, they asked where I would like to do God's work and I said it would be at an orphanage, at the Convent of Little Flowers. A year later, you came to me as a baby. But do not worry, your mother married well. The indiscretion was forgotten, not made public, anyway.
This is when I hate her the most. Bloody Sister Mary Theresa. How easily I was forgotten. How easily I was made an "indiscretion," how well my mother married because she was young and pretty and fair, Mary Theresa tells me. I don't feel sympathy for the woman lying sick on Chinglepet street. She has her other children. I have never been her child. Even now, it is Sister Mary Theresa who writes.
In another world I would be your perima. Your Chandra perima. It means "Big Mother." As your mother's older sister, I am your mother too. Oh, Padmini, have I done right by you? Do not ever think I forgot, or didn't know where you were. I knew. Just as I have known where to write now. And I write to ask this. May I come to see you? There is a conference of Catholic nuns in Seattle, imagine me coming to your hometown! I am not very old yet, but life tires me now. I cannot even look after your mother very well, for the duties at the orphanage weigh me down. But I do want to see that I fulfilled the responsibility your mother gave me. Would you like to see your perima, my dear Padmini?
A brief, stunning thought comes now. The frock in cheap cotton that came every birthday, was it Sister Mary Theresa who sent them? I have a sudden vision of a nun in a dimly lit shop, peering nearsightedly over bales of garish cotton, giving away two or three ill-afforded rupees for a few square centimeters of cloth. Then she would have gone to the tailor and put out a hand from the floor, measuring me for him. This tall. Only this thin. The frocks never fit. For her, I was always taller and fatter than I actually was. She saw me as a mother would. And she let me go to a better life, away from her, as only a mother could.
I have wondered why Mom and Dad went to India. I asked Mom once. It was Vietnam, she said. Dad had done his tour of duty three years before India, but it stayed with him. So they went back for a vacation to that corner of the world, drawn to the mysticism, the history, even the peace in India, in search of something...and came back with a daughter. They never had more children. I did not ask why.
I have come alone to SeaTac. Now the terminal is hissing with muted conversation. It has started to rain. Again. The lights have become brighter inside; outside the tarmac glistens wet, and airplanes have their windshield wipers on. The little girl with the sand bucket and her mother are long gone, where I do not know. I did not notice them leave. I think only of her.
I wonder what she will be like. My perima. I am to find out in two minutes. The plane landed and nosed its way to the gate a short while ago. As the people pour out of the doors I stand at one corner and look for her. And I see her. I had not realized she was so short or that a nun's habit could look the same after twenty-three years. I should have known she would even travel in her habit. Perima. I roll the word around in my mind. No, to me she will always be Sister Mary Theresa. But I am suddenly glad we belong together. I stare at her. Fatigue creases her skin, and she walks a tired walk. Just then, she sees me too and smiles. It is a shy smile, a wonderful smile. She will meet Mike today. Tomorrow, I will take her to Bellingham to meet Mom and Dad. I think they will like her. I do. Already.
She comes up to me and holds out her hand. I clutch it wordlessly; even tears will not come now. Padmini, I am so glad you kept your name. That smile again. I think I have always known this beautiful woman with her smallpox-marked face.
It is just like my face, after all.Copyright © 2008 by Indu Sundaresan
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for In the Convent of Little Flowers by Indu Sundaresan includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In this collection of stories, celebrated author Indu Sundaresan departs from her body of historical novels to explore themes of significance to Indians today. These nine works of short fiction tell the stories of contemporary Indians challenged by ancient traditions and culture, struggling to find a place and a way of life in a world that offers some women more opportunities than ever while denying others even the most basic freedoms. With Sundaresan's trademark lush prose, vividly rendered settings, complex and appealing characters, and compelling narratives, In the Convent of Little Flowers illuminates the lives of Indian women living at home and abroad, embracing and rejecting modern lives.
Questions for Discussion
1. In "Shelter of Rain," why is Padmini so angry to hear from Sister Mary Theresa, the woman who practically raised her until her adoption at age six? What reasons does the nun give Padmini for her mother's abandonment and neglect? How does Padmini feel about those reasons? Do you sympathize with her mother at all?
2. Indian culture has long emphasized the importance of respect for elders, particularly with regard to aging parents. In "Three and a Half Seconds" and "Bedside Dreams," we witness the devastating effects of the rejection of this tradition. Why do Meha and Chandar ultimately choose death over asking for help or standing up to their cruel son, Bikaner? What does "Bedside Dreams" say about the effect of Western Culture on young Indians with elderly parents? Do you think the nameless narrator and her husband, Kamal, did in fact "go wrong" raising their twelve children to be cast off so readily?
3. Compare and contrast the way Payal's grandmother in "Fire" and Kamal and his wife in "Bedside Dreams" are treated. Describe the situations these elderly characters face at the end of their lives and explain how they got there. Do you think they deserve their fates? Why or why not?
4. Banyan trees appear in several of the stories in this collection. Identify which stories this symbol appears in and discuss the ways in which the characters use the banyan tree. What do you think the tree symbolizes?
5. Though not all of the narrators in this story are women, the stories do seem to center on one or several women's experiences. What do these stories tell you about the traditional roles of women in Indian culture? What is expected of women in their roles as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers? How do you feel about these expectations?
6. The idea of an arranged marriage often seems cruel to modern minds and hearts. But these stories portray another side. What are the benefits of an arranged marriage as experienced by the characters of In the Convent of Little Flowers? What are some of the detriments?
7. In "The Faithful Wife," we follow a reporter back to the small rural village of his birth, where a twelve-year-old girl is about to be burned alive in the ancient (outlawed) tradition of Sati. Does the issue of Western encroachment upon Indian traditions drive the conflict here, or is this an example of age-old sexism mediated by evolved opinion? What do you think of Ram's observation on page 58, that the villagers perform the Sati with "a vicious need to connect with the past, with a willing scapegoat?"
8. Why do the members of the Key Club stop seeing each other outside of their meetings? Why do they use false names, even though some of them have been friends since childhood? What does it mean to Ram that his wife, Sita, avoid choosing Sat as her mate, and how does this relate to her repeated choice of Vish? Do you think Ram is missing something important in this story?
9. Using these stories as examples, discuss the ways in which Western values and concepts have infiltrated and affected Indian culture. What aspects are new to India? What aspects have always been present, but are newly exposed by changing perspectives and ideas of what is acceptable?
10. In "The Most Unwanted," Nathan struggles with feelings of shame and betrayal. His daughter has committed the ultimate sin giving birth to a bastard and remaining unmarried. What is it that ultimately begins to heal the dull ache and bitter pain inside his chest?
11. In "Fire," Payal says her grandmother "hides behind a strange and immovable logic." (Page 88). Identify the ways in which this statement applies to other characters in the collection. Discuss what this really means and what effect, both positive and negative, this stance has on each story.
12. While many of these stories portray tragic lives with even more tragic endings, there is happiness found among the pages of this collection, too. Where do the women of In the Convent of Little Flowers find happiness? Compare and contrast these sources of joy with the ways in which modern Western women find happiness.
13. Which story did you most identify with and why? Do you think the challenges these women face are universal? Why or why not?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Several of the stories in this collection address the benefits and detriments of arranged marriages, an ancient tradition in India. Not only is this tradition still practiced by modern Indians, it is also currently practiced by several other cultures, including modern Asian cultures and some Jewish sects both at home and among those members who have transplanted to the United States. Do a little reading about modern arranged marriages and share your findings with your book club. You can start here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tag/arranged-marriage
2. The preparation and serving of certain foods and drinks plays a central, if subtle, role in the Indian households portrayed in these stories. Get into the mood by preparing some for yourself better yet, make your next book club meeting an Indian buffet! There are many Indian cookbooks available, and the internet offers a host of recipe collections (check out www.indianfoodrecipes.net). If you don't quite feel up to cooking, seek out the nearest Indian restaurant and try something from the menu.
3. Though movies aren't necessarily reliable sources of information, they can provide a peek into foreign cultures and ways of thinking that is very effective for Western viewers. Try renting a few "Bollywood" movies or Hollywood movies about modern Indians (such as Bend It Like Beckham) and watch them with your book club.
4. Author Indu Sundaresan has previously written historical novels that take place in ancient India. Try reading a few to see how her characters in the past compare to her portrayal of characters living in modern times. You can also learn more about Sundaresan by visiting her website, www.indusundaresan.com
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am honoured to have the opportunity to review Indu Sundaresan¿s new book In the Convent of Little Flowers. She writes her new book with the same prose and sincerity that I have come to attribute her with. I have been hooked from the time of The Twentieth Wife, one of her earlier novels, and was looking forward to her latest work, and Ms. Sundaresan delivers again!
In this wonderful collection of nine short stories we are introduced to a variety of modern-day and mythical characters that range from being inextricably entrenched in age-old Indian traditions and ancient beliefs, to the other extreme of nonconformist Indians. I found it interesting that Ms. Sundaresan drew from real life experiences and discussions in writing these stories. All authors are inspired by various means, but when the basis of a story has true life ties it makes for a more intriguing read.
First we meet an orphan, adopted by an American couple, who as an adult living in Seattle receives a letter from the nun that runs the orphanage revealing that she is her Aunt, and that her biological Mother lies dying surrounded by her husband and legitimate children. The story of four and half seconds unravels in a unique manner, and is by far my favourite; it is the poignant tale of an elderly couple who take desperate measures in dealing with the mistreatment of an ungrateful son. In the story of a sati, we feel the desperation of a man who attempts to stop the burning alive of a young widowed girl on the funeral pyre of her husband. Then there¿s the one of two married women with strong attractions toward one another, who are compelled to leave their respective marriages for a life together in a society that even today does not openly condone homosexuality. In keeping with the unorthodox theme is the tale of a swingers club, in which a group of married socialite couples agree to meet up regularly and swap partners for the night in a posh hotel.
With each story Ms. Sundaresan is able to engage her reader almost immediately and unfold an entirely different idea within a short span of pages. In some cases I was left wanting more.
This book comes highly recommended! Please buy yourself a copy you won't regret it!
I always enjoy Sundaresan, and the only problem I found with this book was that sometimes it seemed like the stories were too short, I would have loved to hear more.
I¿m a huge fan of Indu Sundaresan. I read and loved both The Twentieth Wife and Feast of Roses. I¿m happy to report that In the Convent of Little Flowers lives up to her earlier work.I loved all the stories, but there were a few that stood out to me as slightly better and more interesting than the others. Sundaresan covers a lot of controversial issues like honor killings, sati, homosexuality and even parental abuse. Many of the stories are absolutely shocking and heartbreaking to read, and a lot communicate the cultural idea that the individual is less important than the society or family unit as a whole. The last story in the book reminded me a lot of Deepa Mehta¿s Fire (the film). She¿s beautifully descriptive and I especially liked how she used flashbacks and waited until the final few pages or paragraphs to reveal the entire story to the reader.
Her writing was excellent as usual. I would have loved to see these short stories made into novels. Even with short stories she has a way of touching your heart.