In the Convent of Little Flowers

More praise for Indu Sundaresan and
“Indu Sundaresan guides us through a culture in transition…. The characters are unforgettable…. Sundaresan’s skill with language opens the door to India as well as the human heart.”
—E. Ethelbert Miller, Director, African American Resource Center, Howard University
“India, land of fragrances and colors! Indu Sundaresan shows us these two qualities in a smart way.”
—Shahrnush Parsipur, author of
Touba and the Meaning of Night
“Sundaresan unfolds her bittersweet story in flashbacks that are full of sharply drawn details and adroit dialogue. It’s a riveting read.”
—Seattle Times
“A sprawling story of forbidden love.”
—Publishers Weekly
“A colorful, engrossing read.”
—Library Journal
“Indu Sundaresan expertly blends together history, memorable characters, and the sights, colors, and smells of India to create a hugely compelling novel. It is, quite literally, a feast for the senses.”
—David Davidar, internationally bestselling author of
The Solitude of Emperors
“Finely researched and full of evocative details, this sweeping tale of intrigue brings to life a fascinating era with richly drawn characters and a story that is engrossing, deep, and surprising.”
—Samina Ali, author of
Madras on Rainy Days
These titles are also available as eBooks
The Splendor of Silence
The Twentieth Wife
The Feast of Roses
In the Convent of Little Flowers


Washington Square Press
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Indu Sundaresan
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Atria Subsidiary Rights Department, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
First Washington Square Press trade paperback edition September 2009
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“Shelter of Rain” was first published in
The Vincent Brothers Review
(2000). “Bedside Dreams” was published in
India Currents
(November 2004) and
magazine (India, July–August 2005). “The Faithful Wife” was first published in
The Pen and the Key: 50th Anniversary Anthology of Pacific Northwest Writers
Designed by Jill Putorti
Manufactured in the United States of America
10     9     8    7     6     5     4     3     2     1
The Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data for the hardcover is available.
ISBN 978-1-4165-8610-4 (pbk)
ISBN 978-1-4165-8618-0 (ebook)
For Sitara
Who lights up my life
In the Convent of Little Flowers

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 for that 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
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 whitewashed 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
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
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.

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