ONLY THE EYES ARE MINE by Usha Alexander introduces us to two generations of Indians living both in India and America. Her main character, Sita, straddles numerous stories as well as the two continents. Alexander’s lush writing envelopes the reader in the dusky, earthen tension which underlies Sita’s story in India and also wraps the reader into the somewhat “sanitized” toils of Sita’s offspring in America. Alexander provides the reader diverse settings with similar catastrophes.
Only the Eyes are Mine, a book of secrets, gives away the secret of its title early as Sita reflects that her image in the mirror displays her old age masking all of her beauty except that which remains in her eyes. Eyes are of importance for more than Sita. Meera, her granddaughter also understands the pull of eyes as she struggles to decide whether or not to marry the “perfect” Indian suitor, “Meera’s heart missed a beat. She caught her breath and looked steadily into the empty, crystalline depths of the impressive diamond, because she could not look into his eyes. She opened her mouth and heard her mother’s voice answer, ‘Yes’.”
Sita’s personal revelation in the mirror happens early, but the secret of Meera’s heart and the secrets of Sita’s past life do not reveal themselves as quickly. It takes nearly three-fourths of the book for the reader to learn of the unthinkable, hidden life of Sita, the grandma, including her travesty against her daughter and her multiple lovers. In the beginning of the book, Alexander deftly presents Sita as a wise, angelic old woman. Therefore, the reader becomes shocked upon learning of the mayhem under which she flourished on a different continent.
However, Alexander does not portray Sita’s catastrophes as happenstance. With intricate language she crafts Sita’s world of strife, “Many months passed thus, worldless attachments and silent tensions gathering and mingling in the air, rising up against the corrugated roof, settling heavily onto the skin and tongues of those who lived beneath it.”
With her intriguing characters, Alexander tackles many complex subjects, weaving a story which on one level wrestles with the question of what is “Indian”: “It so shocked and horrified them, he surmised, because it upset the appearance of their stable and successful family. Indians supposedly figured out three thousand years ago that life is illusion, he mused, and yet they are so completely hung up on appearances today. They only care about projecting the image that all is well, when they aren’t really even paying attention to what’s going on within.”
On another level, Alexander succinctly writes characters dueling with acceptance of change, “It occurred to Ravi that perhaps the reason his aunt and father liked Rajan so much was precisely because he had no passion, much like themselves. None of them seemed to have much of an inner life, an appreciation for art, an understanding of joy, anger, grief, or any kind of searching. This was starkly in contrast to himself and Meera.”
Throughout, Alexander employs beautiful language to describe the cacophony: “She spoke of how Sita must be more grown up, must attend to what was asked of her, must put her energies back into looking after her family. Sita stared blankly on the textures of the stone floor impinged on her, falling with the force of monsoon showers, shattering against her skin and, very slowly, soaking in.
“In Only the Eyes are Mine, Alexander crafts a book of contrasts. Once Sita leaves behind her lust and cravings in India, she becomes seen as demure and somewhat silent. However, as her grandchildren struggle to meld traditional Indian culture with current American life, they run into her same complications: incorporating the twists of relationships and duty, the struggle to avoid marriages without love but with appropriateness. With attention to detail and writing grounded in sensations, Alexander leads the reader on a completely surprising journey, one which satisfies and fulfills.
Monique Maria Schmidt, author of Last Moon Dancing [Clover Park Press, 2005] has her MFA in creative writing from Syracuse University and teaches poetry and composition. In September, she will travel on a Fulbright scholarship to live and work in Togo, West Africa. During her year there she will conduct creative writing workshops for adolescent girls and teach at the university.