My novel is centered on a doomed relationship. What inspired it? Here are two personal stories behind that fictional one.
The stories behind the story.
Story 1: Arranged Marriage
I was 18-years-old and had just completed high school. While my friends were choosing which college to attend, my parents were choosing something very different for me — a husband.
My parents immigrated to the U.S. from India when I was six months old. It was the grooving ‘70s then: flower power, free love, drugs.
My parents landed in the heart of America’s heartland – Minnesota — only a few short years after the Beatles had made the opposite journey to India to study Transcendental Meditation.
India became hip and my mom, with her waist-long braid, colorful saris and nose ring, was the coolest person in our Minneapolis neighborhood. My parents embraced their friendly new neighbors but they missed their home and families back in Hyderabad, India.
So they created a “little India” smack in the middle of Minnesota. Meaning, they surrounded themselves with people who resembled them: Muslims from India who spoke Urdu and cooked chicken curry.
This is what many first-generation immigrants do, no matter where they come from. I joined other first-generation authors, Junot Diaz & Edwidge Danticat on NPR to talk about our childhood experiences.
Still, I was growing up in America, eating McDonald’s and going to the movies with my friends. But each year we went back to India.
So while I was an all-American girl, I was also raised in my parents’ traditional Indo-Paki Muslim community. The girls in the community knew they would be married away young because marriage, our parents told us, equaled a productive life for a girl.
The boys, on the other hand, were pushed to pursue a higher education. I have two brothers and both went off to Ivy League colleges … while I got married. What was supposed to be the start of a “productive life” took a very strange and unexpected turn.
Worse than I Could Have Imagined
Suddenly I was with a man I didn’t know, but expected to be intimate and share a life together! It was worse than I could have imagined. My new husband seemed as confused as I was and to my genuine relief, he didn’t want to be intimate or have sex with me either.
But as a year went by – yes, a whole year — I started wondering why and I began to feel that he was staying away from me because he found me ugly. It wasn’t until we came back to the U.S. that I understood what was really going on.
I brought him back to Minneapolis from India and he immediately moved to a different state — far away from me — where he started graduate studies and lived in a small studio with a male roommate. Whenever I visited, I stayed for just a few hours before he sent me back to my hotel.
Unexpected Phone Calls
After we filed for a permanent visa, he began calling me late at night. But he would talk in a strange high-pitched voice. He asked if he could go out to clubs with me — to pick up boys together. He asked if he could borrow a dress of mine and share my lipstick. The calls unnerved me and I yelled at him to stop, but he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
The interview for his visa was coming up fast and he began prepping me by phone about what to say to the immigration officers. We didn’t live together, we didn’t have sex; it wasn’t possible for me to know the things about him that a wife would know. He needed me to get our story right.
Nowhere to turn
While my husband was prepping me, I was telling my parents I wanted a divorce. They wouldn’t hear of it, saying I would bring shame to our family. Divorce wasn’t done in nice Indian families. I was a 19-year-old college undergrad with no money, and no place to turn.
So I turned to the immigration authorities. At the appointment, when they separated us for questioning, I immediately told the officer that the marriage was a sham and I needed help ending it because no one else was helping me.
Talk about falling into the stereotype of being a helpless Muslim woman!
It took time, but the U.S. government did help me. They built a case and eventually I got out of my marriage.
But I was very much on my own. My small Minnesota Muslim community reacted with venom, blaming me just because I am a woman. Although I had grown up among them, they turned against me.
They said I had ruined a perfectly good man’s life with my behavior. The hostile atmosphere was exactly what my parents had feared when they’d warned against the divorce.
Although they’d done their best to keep me sheltered until then, the misogyny was so great that my parents advised me to leave the state.
Turning My Adversity into a Story of Hope
My novel, Madras on a Rainy Day, is based on this experience.
In it, 19-year-old Layla is forced to marry against her will. She goes along because she doesn’t think she has a choice. All she knows is what’s expected of her. She’s Indian, she’s Muslim, never mind that she grew up in America, she has to get married – right?
Only in the course of the novel does she realize that her faith actually does give her rights. (Huh, why didn’t anyone tell me this? On second thought: why didn’t I research it myself!)
Layla can actually choose whom she wants to marry, she can choose to divorce, she can choose her fate.
She’s powerful. And that’s what she ends up doing.
Taking the Novel’s Message to the Streets
If I didn’t completely know my rights, I wondered how many other women also didn’t.
It was to help educate women about their rights so they, too, could stand up for themselves — to stop women from blindly giving away their power — that I founded Daughters of Hajar, an American Muslim feminist organization.
We marched peacefully into a mosque in W. Virginia to reclaim women’s rights to equal treatment. And helped to reshape policy on women’s rights to enter a mosque through the front doors and pray in the main sanctuary.
Men Can Be As Trapped as Women
In the novel, it was important for me to show that Layla’s husband, Sameer, is just as trapped as she is. He’s the oldest son so he’s expected to get married, expected to have kids, expected to take care of his parents when they grow old.
But what happens to those men who can’t fulfill these expectations? Where is their story? Sameer goes along with it and only when he’s married does he confront the fact that he is physically repulsed by women. He throws up just by the smell of Layla’s nakedness.
His only option is to come to the U.S. He believes that he’ll be able to be himself here. The American Dream for him is simply the freedom to express his sexuality.
Funny thing: after people read the novel, those who are straight often say, “What! He’s gay! I never saw that coming.” While those who are gay often say, “It was obvious from the first page. You should have made it more suspenseful.”
When I think back to those phone calls and my ex impersonating a woman, I now know he was trying to come out to me. He just wasn’t equipped with the language, nor was I.
Coming out in other countries, especially in places where you aren’t even supposed to exist, is very different than coming out in the U.S.
Story 2: Dying While Giving Birth
Ten years later, at 28, I had finished grad school and was in the midst of writing the first draft to the novel. I remarried (man of my choice) and moved to California.
When I got pregnant, some intuition kept telling me there was something wrong with my pregnancy, that the fetus hadn’t implanted itself correctly.
I was so convinced that I nagged my OB until he finally performed an ultrasound and there he was, my baby boy, at ten weeks old, right where he ought to be, his heart galloping like a racehorse.
I couldn’t believe I had been so wrong.
I was so embarrassed by my mistake that whenever my intuition rose up again during my pregnancy, I ignored it … well, at least until the end.
Two weeks before my son’s due date, I went in for a routine check-up. By now, my hands and feet were so swollen they were painful. I had strange specs in my vision. And I was throwing up, even though morning sickness had long passed. Most notably, I didn’t need to use the bathroom.
Weren’t pregnant women always rushing to the bathroom? Well, this one only used it once in the morning.
My Doctor Nearly Cost Me My Life
So I found myself nagging my OB again. This time, he refused to do any tests.
So the following week, when I had to go in again for my final check up, I brought my husband with me. I thought that having a man speaking on my behalf might force the OB to do what I was asking.
As I expected, the OB actually performed several blood tests because my husband asked him. But it was already too late.
By the following night, long before the results had come back from the tests, I had landed in the neuro-ICU, the intensive care unit for patients with extreme brain trauma.
I had gone into labor the same night that I saw my OB. During delivery, I had severe chest pain and a headache like I’d never experienced. My head hurt so much that the pain of birthing was nothing.
Twenty minutes after I delivered, I had a grand mal seizure (the worst kind of seizure you can have) and went into a coma.
Things went downhill from there.
Liver failure, kidney failure, my blood stopped clotting, pulmonary edema, cerebral edema so severe my brain wouldn’t respond to medication and a minor heart attack.
My Three-Year Journey to Recovery
Here I am. No doctor predicated that I would survive, much less be fully functional. My recovery was a long and intense three years.
The first few months after I woke up from the coma were the worst: I was intermittently blind in my right eye. I had no short-term memory. My arms and legs were black-and-blue from all the tubes and needles. I had severe aphasia, so the words I wanted to say wouldn’t come out.
I was trapped inside my body with no way out and my head hurt so much I was mostly curled up in a ball in bed.
Maybe worst of all, I didn’t recognize my husband and felt no bond with our new baby.
I couldn’t take care of my son.
You’ll Never Write Again
Remember, I had been in the midst of writing Madras on Rainy Days when I delivered my son?
In one of my many ongoing appointments, a well-meaning doctor told me that I would never write again. He explained that when we write, we use every part of our brain: our memories, our past experiences, our imagination, our ability to plan and see into the future.
Every part of my brain was damaged.
He didn’t see how I would write again, much less function on a daily basis. The woman who had gone into the hospital was very different from the one who came home.
You can read more about my delivery and what my neurologist says about my miraculous recovery here.
No became a challenge
So how did I recover when even the doctors had given up on me? Well, I credit the process of writing my book and telling my story.
When the doctor told me I’d never write again, I refused to believe him. Why should I? When I told the doctor that something was wrong with my pregnancy, he didn’t believe me and look what happened. So why believe him now?
I went to the computer every day and forced myself to write two sentences, then three, then four. It was painstaking. When I spoke, my words didn’t come out correctly and when I wrote, they didn’t come out correctly either. It was all gibberish.
But worse than gibberish were the times I went to the computer and wrote two sentences that actually made sense – only to return the next day to see they were completely nonsensical.
That my brain had thought they made sense showed me the extent of the damage in a way I didn’t want to face.
Like this, day after day, week after week, month after month, setback after agonizing setback, I went to the computer and slowly wrote my novel. And in that process – the one the doctor said I would never be able to do – I was creating new neuro-pathways in my brain. It took 3 long years.
I completed that book and healed my severe brain damage along the way.
Writing about one adversity helped me to recover from the other.
Unfortunately, my health complications – along with other factors – ended my marriage. And I was a single mom for many years.
Now I’m in the process of writing a book on HELLP Syndrome. What almost killed me, it turns out, has a name.
HELLP stands for:
Elevated Liver enzymes, and
Low Platelet count.
Too much remains unknown about the life-threatening complication, including its exact cause and diagnosis – and yet, approximately 50,000 women develop HELLP every year in America alone.
Through my book, I hope to educate women around the world about standing up for their own health and healthcare and, maybe even save lives.
In the process, I’ll show what it’s like to recover from traumatic brain injury and stroke. If you have anyone close to you who has suffered from stroke, I hope this book will be helpful to you too.
As you can imagine, the doctors told me never to have a child again. But I hope by now you know me well enough to know what I did.
I got married after nine years of being single.
And I had a second child, a daughter.
Do me a favor
If you’re moved, inspired, or touched by anything I’ve shared, please share one personal story with me on GroundbreakHers.
As women, we’ve all faced setbacks and obstacles, to one extent or another. We’ve all been told “no.”
That’s not what I want to hear.
I want to hear about that groundbreaking moment in your life when you pushed past limitations and expectations to write a new narrative to your story. I want to celebrate your courage and power.
By sharing your story, you’re not only showing what’s possible for women around the world but also inspiring others to live their lives to the fullest potential.
I can’t wait to hear from you!