This week, in a story by Akhil Sharma that will leave you devastated, an Indian woman in an arranged marriage wakes one day to discover that she loves her husband. “If You Sing Like That for Me,” originally published in the Atlantic in 1995, is available this week at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading in conjunction with the release of Sharma’s short story collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight, which collects this story and seven others that focus on the lives of Indian protagonists as they negotiate relationships and the difficulties of the human heart. The opening lines of “If You Sing” give away the ending but cannot prepare the reader for the emotional devastation the experience of reading the story will bring.
Late one June afternoon, seven months after my wedding, I woke from a short, deep sleep, in love with my husband. I did not know then, lying in bed and looking out the window at the line of gray clouds, that my love would last only a few hours and that I would never again care for Rajinder with the same urgency — never again in the five homes we would share and through the two daughters and one son we would also share, though unevenly and with great bitterness.
The story’s protagonist, Anita, tells the story of she and Rajinder’s arranged marriage from their interview-like first meeting, to the wedding that is more trauma than celebration, and through the emotionally bereft first several months of matrimony. Sharma’s prose is minimalist and highly charged at the same time, each description infused with meaning. On their wedding night, the wetness between Anita’s legs is “like breath on glass,” connoting something barely there, fleeting, cold, breakable. When her father, a lifelong drunk, tells her he loves her on her wedding night, “the soft, wet vowels of his vomiting were what [she] remembered.” The first time Anita and Rajinder are alone after their wedding, their “voices were so respectful, [they] might have been in mourning.”
In much of “If You Sing,” Anita seems to be going through a grieving process, mourning the loss of a life of freedom, friendship, and love that she never had and never knew she wanted until it was too late. As Anita reconciles herself to her marriage, it feels like a woman preparing herself for prison, a life sentence. In a way, that is exactly what she is doing, giving her life over to the control of another person, a person who barely knows her and does not love her. Anita comforts herself with the fact that Rajinder does not beat her, as so many husbands do, and that he tries to be gentle: “He was always polite. Even in bed he was formal: “Could you get on all fours, please?”
What a good man, I thought, and was frightened, for that was not enough. I knew I needed something else, but I did not know what. Being his wife was not so bad. He did not make me do anything I did not want to, except make love, and even that was sometimes pleasant. I did not mind his being in the flat, and being alone is difficult. When he was away on his trips, I did not miss him, and he, I think, did not miss me, for he never mentioned it.
When a heart attack puts Anita’s father in the hospital, she leaves Rajinder for two weeks to stay with her family. Sitting at her father’s bedside, listening to his sentimental regrets as he evaluates his life, observing the bitterness and callousness between her parents, Anita suddenly and inexplicably feels love for her husband. Perhaps it’s a response to the stress and heightened emotions of her father’s health scare, or a reaction to the her parents’ loveless existence and the vision of her future it foretells, or simply the desperate desire to feel companionship in her marriage, to feel wanted and maybe even loved. Whatever the reason, for the space of an afternoon Anita dedicates herself to loving her husband. From the story’s first lines, we know how that turns out. It’s heartbreaking to read.
Tell me your stories, I would ask him. Pour them into me, so that I know everything you have ever loved or been scared of or laughed at. But thinking this, I became uneasy and feared that when I actually saw him, my love would fade and I would find my tongue thick and unresponsive. What should I say? I woke this afternoon in love with you. I love you too, he would answer. No, no, you see, I really love you. I love you so much that I think anything is possible, that I will live forever. Oh, he would say, and I would feel my love rush out of me.
After you finish reading, head over to the New Yorker where Sharma writes about this remarkable story that has earned much acclaim over the years, the inspiration for it, and why he feels very differently about it than he once did.
Logo art by Max Winter.