“I think of my grandparents as one coiling length of rope,” writes Krystal Sital in her wrenching new memoir, Secrets We Kept. “She the rope unfurling for infinity, and he all the kinks and knots.” Sital’s debut opens in 2006, when her grandmother, Rebecca, discovers her husband, Shiva, unconscious in their New Jersey apartment following a massive cerebral hemorrhage. When Sital learns from her mother, Arya, that Rebecca hesitated before summoning help for her partner of more than 50 years, the author is compelled to uncover the truth of her grandparents’ marriage. She learns that the women in her family have been victims of violent abuse stretching back generations in their native Trinidad.
Sital’s raw and intimate book alternates between the stories of her grandmother and her mother. Central to both their lives is Shiva, a wealthy Hindu landowner beloved by the author, who has to reconcile her memories of her affectionate, indulgent grandparent with the discovery of the savage treatment he inflicted on his wife and children.
Rebecca, who was beaten by her father, trades in one abusive situation for another when she meets Shiva, a pattern later echoed by her daughter. It’s an alarming indication of how widespread domestic violence is in Trinidad, where it has traditionally been considered a private family matter, not an issue of public interest.
Rebecca surely didn’t believe she had many better options than staying with Shiva. In addition to being rigidly patriarchal, the Trinidad Sital vividly evokes is rigidly divided by class and race. While Shiva is a wealthy Indian, Rebecca is impoverished and mixed-race – half-Indian and half-Venezuelan – making her the target of prejudice and ridicule.
One wouldn’t describe her early days with Shiva as a courtship. “Mistah Shiva di assess meh from de moment e lay eyes on meh chile,” Rebecca tells Sital (the book’s dialogue is written in dialect). “Leg like tree stump, tough ahms, and broad back…. E know ah was somebody toh wok like ah horse.” He barely spoke to Rebecca but within days of meeting her installed her in his home, putting her to work taking care of his farm and preparing him intricate meals. He worked her hard and beat her for the slightest perceived infraction, even throughout her pregnancies. While she gave birth to seven healthy children, another four were stillborn.
As a young child, Arya, hidden, observes a particularly brutal episode, as her father punches and kicks her mother before lashing her with a gasoline-soaked rope, threatening to set her on fire. Arya dreams of escape and seems to find it in her husband, Dharmendra, a police officer on the island. When he beats Arya early in their marriage, she, unlike her mother, fights back. Their relationship is unhappy, but Sital’s mother feels she has no choice but to stay with him. “Me eh hah no money, no job, no security,” she tells her daughter. “Wah ah oman like me go do on ah island like Trinidad?”
As Trinidad’s economy stagnates and its crime worsens, the extended family members gradually emigrate to America. While Shiva is comatose, Sital’s mother and grandmother, no longer in fear of him and eager to unburden themselves, spend hours answering the author’s questions about their early lives. These conversations often happen while the women are cooking together, moments Sital describes in lush detail. (“She browns two cloves of garlic in oil. The garlic somersaults among bubbles until golden brown. She pours the torrid, garlic-infused oil into the dhal; it whistles and pops.”)
These revelations affect Sital profoundly. As the book’s subtitle, “Three Women of Trinidad,” suggests, the author allies herself with her mother and her grandmother, and “Secrets We Kept” is suffused with a fierce compassion for them. Her feelings for the family patriarchs cannot help but be forever altered. “As I learn about the men in my life – my father, my grandfather – men I’ve been enamored with and admired, they take on dimensions I’ve never imagined.” They are, she writes, “fathers, yes. But also husbands. Perpetrators.”
When Shiva is set to be released from the hospital, Rebecca makes plans to place him in a nursing home. Despite the fact that Shiva terrorized all of his children, and despite the fact that they were witnesses to his terrorizing of Rebecca, these adult children now unite to insist that their mother care for their incapacitated father at home instead. The cultural norms are inviolable; like cooking, this is simply what wives do. Only when Shiva dies four years later is Rebecca finally free.