In a rite of passage, Sita is warned by a priest to avoid mirrors. He’s told, “Mirrors steal your manhood.” But there are secrets he is keeping from his family, secrets about his true identity. “Husband, Lover, He” by Shastri Akella is a story about love and tradition set against the backdrop of colonial India. Dive in below:
The men in Sita’s family—his brother, and before that, their father, and his father—are weavers. The rhythm of their fates may vary: Sita’s brother clothes the weapons of the Sultan’s army—scabbards for the swords, for canons rainproof covers (sewn from oilcloths), for shields sweaters made of microfiber; his father is the village chief’s employee. But the undertow of their lives is the same: a needle moving through fabric.
Mirrors steal your manhood. That’s why the boy is in the temple. He stands shivering in the dark, colonnaded entrance, his eyes hot with sleep. It is the hour between the moth and the butterfly: One has slept, the other hasn’t risen. The hour without flutter. The temple doesn’t smell like a temple. It secretes not the scent of frankincense but the mossy odor of damp stone.
A flickering light floats up the steps. The priest and his acolyte appear at the entrance, washed in the halo of a lantern. They walk past the boy and unlock the Deity’s Chamber. The Eternal Lamp burns bright at the foot of Hanuman, illuminating his muscled, vermilion body.
The godmen commence the ceremony, the rite of passage that, before him, his brother was subjected to, and before him, their father, and their father’s father, when they each turned sixteen. It begins with the bellow of a conch (how could so small a shell, contained within the cupped palms of the acolyte, produce a note so plangent?); then comes the electric contact of ash against his flesh: the second acolyte flings at him a gritty fistful; and finally, the renunciation itself: the boy hands over his mirror, wrapped in wool, to the priest.
“Mirrors steal your manhood,” the priest warns him. “Don’t look into one again.”
* * *
He enters the room of his parents. His mother naps on the floor with her forehead pressed to the cool cement wall. He unveils the mirror and looks at himself. His presence unlocks the mirror like it’s a door, his manhood steps out of his body, crosses that passage, and leaves. He’s certain. Why would a priest lie? He veils the mirror once more. He steps over his mother and exits the house. He renames himself Sita. His body is ready for the game of Wife.
* * *
The farmer’s boy and the boy meet in the cowshed. Sita slips a small bale of hay under his shirt. The inanimate unborn tickles his flesh as he massages Husband’s farmer feet.
Later, the cow eats the hay, warm with Sita’s heat.
“You wasted my seed,” Husband says.
“The cow will have your baby,” Sita says. “We’ll take your surname, the calf and me.”
Husband rewards him with a kiss.