My Name Is Sita


9789533514369

The following is from Bea Vianen’s My Name Is Sita. Vianen rose to prominence as a writer in both her native Suriname and its European colonizer, the Netherlands, with the publication of My Name is Sita in 1969. Considered a contemporary Dutch classic, My Name is Sita makes it all too clear what women have had to, and continue to, sacrifice in the name of claiming their identity.

Several factors drove S. to Ajodiadei’s shack on her birthday.

It is one o’clock. School is out. She is standing with the other girls in her class on the big, round stone terrace, chatting animatedly about all kinds of senseless, girly topics, the events of

the day, the pranks. The sky is gray. From the riverside, dark clouds roll in from the east, indicating rain. It’s muggy. Small droplets of sweat bead under her nostrils. She wipes them away with a handkerchief and slides it back under the edge of her sleeve. She says something to Selinha, waves back, and crosses the street with Agnes. They giggle, laughing at the red-faced nun who teaches German. In those moments, she can shake it all off, laugh about the tears that suddenly well up in her eyes. In those moments, it’s as if nothing is wrong, as if she were any other girl in the class—cheerful, elated. But what does she know about their real lives? Selinha is an exception. She’s a close friend.

“What are you going to do when you finish school?” S. asks Agnes.

“Bookkeeper,” the girl replies, “and then we’ll go to Hong Kong.”

The answer depresses her. She hates the thought of having to say goodbye to people she likes. Time has nothing to do with it. The farewell is coming as soon as it’s announced.

“What about you?” Agnes asks.

“I don’t know yet.”

She might as well have said nothing. Uninterested in S.’s personal affairs, the girl moves on to another subject. Not that S. wants to say anything more about it. Their friendship is based on a passionate rivalry and, on Agnes’s part, a little jealousy, hostility. It has to do with grades related to formulas, properties, grammatical rules, years, mountains, rivers, and layers of

the earth. S. is playful and indulgent in her attempt to come out on top; Agnes is a formidable adversary whose eyes narrow like a snake’s when the two are pitted against each other. Still, Agnes is never truly vicious or hostile in her actions afterward. On the contrary. Their rivalry works like a magnet, drawing them to each other from the corners of the schoolyard. They need each other. They have something worth fighting for, living for.

They pass shops, department stores, and houses, red acacias in full bloom. The brownish sand under the trees is red and littered with dark pods. The girls gaze apprehensively at the sky, and then rush into a Chinese shop at the same time, laughing. It rains for quite a while. Rain on my birthday, S. thinks. She is sixteen today.

Now that she’s surrounded by so much noise and exuberance, between chewing mouths, burning from the pepper in the pickle juice that they bought at the Chinese shop, she hardly has time to think about everything that’s happened since her mother’s death a year ago. She can only be grateful for the coincidence. She has a right to be happy. And she should be thinking about other things. She is only vaguely aware of the small biological changes happening in her body. Her outward growth is far too slow and hesitant. She is boyishly thin, but also strong. There’s an enviable vitality about her. But her tempestuous spiritual growth makes her feel like an adult, if adulthood is the urge to discover the essence of things, without the frills.

The rain stops. One by one, the girls leave the store. Drops fall from the acacia trees. The sandy sidewalk is a soggy mess of footprints. They turn a corner. Before them is a long paved road. King palms wave their crowns on either side. She listens thoughtlessly to the drops falling on the sidewalk. Occasionally something unimportant is said, and after a few corners they say goodbye to each other.

She is alone again and starts walking more quickly. It’s a habit. Nothing more. She doesn’t like going to Rukminia’s house. Instinctively, she feels that her father’s relationship with her is more than just business. Again, she is alarmed by the fact that her mother, before S. suspected anything, probably had the same intuition when he started coming home at odd hours and sometimes very late. Did her mother feel humiliated, hurt? Is that why she started talking more and more about death even though she was only thirty-three? She would rather not think about it. She is embarrassed by all things erotic and also feels resentment, jealousy, and hatred.

A melancholy mood swells up inside her. She is hungry but doesn’t feel like eating. Even the alluring aroma of bread and currant buns from the bakery she is nearing doesn’t seem appetizing. Still, she steps inside. It’s dimly lit. She stands at the counter next to a pile of big burlap sacks. She buys a white roll for five cents and asks the Chinese man behind the counter to put some butter and peanut butter on it. She counts out eleven cents while the man skillfully wraps her order in whitish paper. She puts the warm sandwich in her school bag and heads back out onto the street.

She walks slowly. Rukminia’s house is nearby. It’s a typical house, long and narrow, extending deep into the back. She can’t help but notice that the windows are always open, even late at night. S. can’t say that about the other houses. As far as she knows, windows are usually kept shut to keep out the heat, dust, and rain, and also to hide the poverty inside. Still, even with the windows open, Rukminia and Sukhu’s house isn’t particularly bright. The windows are partially covered with green blinds, and very little sunlight gets in. The front door is exceptionally narrow and difficult to open due to the latch.

The front part of the house is a kind of atelier where Rukminia embroiders veils, pillowcases, and sheets for her customers. S. knocks softly on the door.

“Who’s there?” a nasal voice asks.

S. doesn’t answer. There’s soft stumbling inside. Above the blinds, Rukminia’s lovely, girlish face appears. Her skin is smooth, with invisible pores. Her dark eyes look suspicious, startled.

“Where is my father?” S. asks.

“He hasn’t been by yet.”

“Oh,” the girl replies, disappointed.

For a moment, S. looks away. Then she asks, “Where is Ata?”

“He’s playing in the backyard. I’ll call him.”

The woman steps back and fiddles with the latch on the door. S. doesn’t wait; she pushes open the wooden door to the yard. She walks along the length of the house, which is partially lined with zinnias and cockscombs. A couple of clucking chickens scurry around and root in the sand. Along the brick wall between the back of the house and the kitchen, a puddle of water catches her eye. All of a sudden, she sees Ata. He is crouching beside an enamel tub of dirty sludge and a bucket of water.

“Ata?” she asks in surprise.

Her little brother looks up shyly and proceeds to scrub the large aluminum pan with a sponge made of coconut fibers, some ash, and a piece of blade. S. can’t believe her eyes. It’s as if her throat has been sewn shut.

“Ata?” She gently pulls him up by a sleeve. The little boy stands there, occasionally sticking his tongue between his cheek and lower jaw, wiping the greasy petroleum soot from the wood fire on his shirt and pants. S. forces a smile, but she wants to scream and storm into the house.

“It’s my birthday, Ata,” she says, her voice trembling.

He looks up shyly. Under his long black lashes, his brown eyes gaze at her with unreasoning sadness. He is six.

“It’s my birthday,” she says again.

He smiles shyly, timid. In the doorway, Rukminia appears. How many times has this happened? No wonder she never receives a warm welcome when she shows up uninvited at the door.

“I’m going to tell my father about this,” S. says with a menacing look in her eyes.

“Do whatever you want.” The woman walks over to Ata, grabs him by a sleeve, and drags him to the stall outside the kitchen to wash him up.

S. stands there awkwardly for a while. She looks up at the sky and figures it must be about 2:30. The sound of puddling water coming from the stall is suddenly mixed with that of the rain softly seeping through the leaves of the mango trees in the backyard. She hurries inside. The pungent smell of pepper, garlic, and masala hangs in the kitchen. The wooden planks of the countertop and floor are stained red from the daily scraping of a knife. Ata’s work? Perhaps. Rukminia does keep a clean house; that was one of the first things S. noticed about her a year ago. Her place is always a tidy, no-nonsense unit of food and furniture. Under the stairs is half a bag of rice, and next to it a black, hollowed-out stone where the sharp smell is coming from. S. has slept here a few times while her father was away fishing, hunting, or checking on his business in the Saramacca district. She pushes open the door to the atelier. Inside is the smell of machine oil and the new fabrics stacked on shelves against the wall near the door to the kitchen. She sets her bag on the square table. Alongside it are two long benches. She considers starting her homework, then decides to do nothing and walks over to a window, where she sinks into a wicker chair.

It starts to rain harder. She can hear Ata and Rukminia on the stairs to the attic bedrooms. S. stares out at the rain, at the traffic on the road. Is Ata perhaps just a distraction? It’s scandalous how her father has turned the boy into a tool. He’s so blind! Rukminia is playing with fire, with her life. Both of them are. The Ramessars and the Sukhus will take revenge on her father, ruin him, maybe even kill him. S. has a naturally good business instinct. This house forms a threat to their economic well-being. Doesn’t her father know that? S. doesn’t trust the submissiveness of the Sukhus and the Ramessars one bit. It’s a weapon they’re going to use to destroy him. Yet, he trusts them as if they’re friends. Sukhu isn’t blind, nor are they. Rukminia isn’t sophisticated enough to hide her feelings. The looks on her face, the terror too slowly concealed when her father walks in. He electrifies her, forces her to oblige, while he himself remains extremely calm and composed, joining the Sukhus and Ramessars at the long table to discuss the financial matters of the recent days and weeks. He barely notices that S. is there. She is a list of grades that are paid for with money from that cursed brown briefcase. He is a shadow that moves silently through the house, acting as if he’s the only one who’s suffering from the emptiness of it, sulkily assuring S. that Ata is far better off with Rukminia, that she needs to study, and that having the little boy at home only complicates that for her.

But what is she supposed to do? How can she stop it? She doesn’t dare to complain about Rukminia. He most certainly wouldn’t believe her. The woman’s indifferent response offends her, but it says enough. It makes S. feel like an outsider, that she’s defenseless and has nothing to say on the matter. Rukminia has the security of her father’s protection. And it is, after all, her house. On the other hand, the fact that she was so noticeably startled a little while ago must be proof that Rukminia is keeping an eye on the girl.

As S. reflects on all these things, she wonders if she hasn’t been a bit feckless in her actions. But what could she do in her childish dependence that was once again up against her father’s impenetrable nature, his vague presence, his infatuation with this woman? It was the latter especially that made her feel scared and insecure, silenced by her own powerlessness, her pent-up rage. Where’s he off to again? She knows from experience that he’s forgetful and indifferent to birthdays. The ordinary things, awkwardly promised, are always quickly forgotten. Like a pair of new shoes. She hoped she’d run into her father here, and that her mere presence would remind him of his promise. That’s why she didn’t go home, why she didn’t walk with Selinha. She also wanted to see Ata.

She becomes impatient. Above her, the floor creaks under Rukminia’s feet. She hears them on the stairs and expects them both to come walking into the atelier. When she looks up, it’s only Ata. He shuffles in wearing clean clothes, his hair wetly combed across his forehead.

“Where is she?” S. asks softly.

“Outside.”

S. gently pats the seat of the chair.

“Come sit down,” S. says.

“Come sit,” she repeats invitingly.

The boy does as he’s told. She stands up and walks over to the table to get the sandwich from her bag.

“Here,” she says and hands him half.

Side by side on the chair, they chew the bread. They’re lonely; they’re estranged from each other. Their capacity for recognition is regulated by an instinct. Their conversations are primitive: few words, mostly glances and gestures. She doesn’t want this. She can’t stand this distance. He has changed so much, become so shy in just one year. Clumsily, she strikes up a conversation about school. She keeps asking questions and has to answer them herself because all he does is listen. Every now and then his little head perks up, and he sticks his tongue between his cheek and lower jaw. The sound of Rukminia’s footsteps makes him even more hesitant. He scooches toward her a bit, keeping his head bowed guiltily, his hands folded together between his knees.

Rukminia returns to the atelier and takes a seat behind her sewing machine. Then she stands back up, turns on the radio, and goes to work. Her slender fingers move smoothly around the bamboo hoop as the needle follows the lines of the flower pattern. She is small and looks like an eighteen-year-old girl. Her skin is a yellowish shade of brown, thin and shiny. Her black hair, gathered in a long, thick braid, falls over her large, round breasts. A gold flower studs one of her nostrils.

S. always sits by the window. From here, not only does she have a good view of the street, but she can also easily watch the woman out of the corner of her eye. It’s a matter of unagreed modesty that they both avoid eye contact as they keep a close watch on what the other is doing. It’s no accident that S. doesn’t look up when Rukminia looks at her and vice versa. But today she is breaking that agreement. She keeps looking at Rukminia. She wants to catch her glances, to taunt her. S. knows she can be very penetrating and impertinent when she wants to be. It works too. Rukminia quickly averts her gaze and continues her work to the hellish sound of the desperate, miserable Indian music blaring from the radio.

“Are you hungry?” Rukminia asks after a while.

“No,” she lies.

“Do you want some more?” she asks Ata.

Ata looks at his sister and shakes his head defiantly. It’s stopped raining. White clouds drift across the light-blue sky. Beside them, someone throws open a window. Out on the sidewalk, a bicycle rattles. It’s Ram, Rukminia’s brother-in-law. He leans the bicycle against the house and detaches the brown schoolbag from the rack. Then, a narrow face with a big, hawkish nose appears above the blinds of the other window.

“Open up,” he commands.

“I’ll be right there,” Rukminia replies nervously as she stands up. The latch is sluggishly lifted, and finally both doors swing open. Ram sees S. sitting, greets her politely, and asks if she has been there long. He puts his bag on the table. The girl responds coolly, looks briefly at Ata, and then at the traffic on the road. Can’t he tell that I see right through his gentlemanly behavior? S. thinks. She doesn’t trust Ram. His shirt is wet at the back, his hair windswept. She watches him walk from the table to the other window, where he stands for a moment and complains about the weather. Rukminia asks if he has eaten yet. He replies that he was just over at his other sister-in-law’s house. His answer does not please Rukminia. A disgruntled expression appears around her lips; she kicks irascibly at the machine. Ram smirks and winks at S., as if they are conspirators, and then bends down to remove his shoes. Once they’re off, he heads toward the kitchen, pushes the door open, and disappears. He goes upstairs to change.

S. hates the way he walks around as if he’s so superior. She’s disgusted by the politeness, the sliminess, the airs he puts on to please her. It only reinforces her distrust of the Sukhus and Ramessars in their business dealings with her father. Ram has already failed the national high school exam twice. Nothing bothers him more than being a victim of his own grades. S., who does well in school, knows full well that the submissiveness with which he listens to her explanations on various subjects is feigned. He is envious, burdened by his male honor, wounded in his Oriental superiority. As soon as she walks into the room, he assails her with questions, forcing her in a show of flattering humility to take a seat at the long table, to explain physics formulas to him, the rules of grammar.

He would throw himself at her feet if he had to. Although she isn’t a full-blooded Hindustani, he might still ask her to marry him to subdue her and prove to her that he is a man and her superior. She finds his friendliness utterly repulsive, and she exerts tremendous effort to hide her contempt. Ram is twenty and determined not to go back to the rice fields in the district.

He’s walked her to the bus a few times and even asked if she wanted to go to the movies with him. She told him she didn’t have time. He insisted. S., who knew how stingy he was and who liked going to the cinema every once in a while, finally gave in. Afterward, she was in a cheerful mood, talking, laughing, as if she were walking beside someone else. He misunderstood and in the darkness of the street made an awkward attempt to kiss her. Startled and completely beside herself, she slapped him in the face. The next day he showed up near the school. He begged her not to say anything to her father. That afternoon, she was scattered. She couldn’t concentrate on her work, her books. She had never been kissed by a boy before. Without asking for it, she’d been forced to delve into something she was afraid of, embarrassed about, and something she also knew nothing about. This is another reason why she can’t stand him. On top of that, she thinks he’s a tyrant to his sisters-in-law, imperious and arrogant in the company of women.

Ram comes back downstairs. She thinks about the incident in the dark a month or so ago. She wonders why he’s being even friendlier than before and concludes that he hasn’t given up.

“Shall we study together?” he asks.

Ata looks helpless. He doesn’t want to be left alone. He knows once she starts studying, she loses all interest in what’s going on around her. She immerses herself in her books with such seriousness that she loses all sense of time and forgets that the boy is even there. This is, of course, only one side of the issue. She doesn’t want to study with Ram.

“I’ve already finished my homework,” she lies.

He smiles indulgently and sits down behind his books. After fifteen minutes, he asks if she could explain the answer to a physics question to him. Deep down, she has a soft heart and is far too humane not to help him. She gets up and sits down across from him.

“Turn the light on. It’s dark in here,” she snaps.

He jumps up enthusiastically, walks toward the shelves, and switches on the light. An hour of intense studying goes by. One problem after the other. First the laws of speed, then geometric sequences. He has to pass. Otherwise, he’ll have to drop out of school. And for him that means going back to the fields in Saramacca.

Rukminia has abandoned her embroidery work. The smell of hardi and other spices on the grinding stone drifts from the kitchen. Ata sits with his back to them. For a while, she stares pensively in his direction; she feels the anger rising up inside her again. She hunches over the book but can no longer concentrate.

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From My Name Is Sita. Used with permission from the publisher, Sandorf Passage. Copyright © 1969, 2021 Bea Vianen, Kunti Elstak, and Cossee Publishers. Translation copyright © 2024 by Kristen Gehrman.



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