Kanta Luthra once wrote, “I confess, I have two lovers.”
Both possess her heart and soul, she says.
“One haunts my nights, my dreams,” she writes in her poem about India, the land of her birth, and the United States, the land that adopted her.
“I’ll adore and cherish both to my last day,” she ends her poem. “My beautiful two lovers.”
Life in India was not easy for Luthra, now in her 70s.
“My dad died when I was 3 months old, and my mom, his third wife, was 19 when she became a widow,” Luthra says. “In those days women had no right to her husband’s estate unless she had a male child. So I was raised by my uncle who was more of a father to me than my real father.”
In 1947, when her country fought for independence from Great Britain, her uncle was stabbed to death. Traumatized by the many atrocities she witnessed during the warring, Luthra then traveled to New Delhi to live with her aunt.
“I was not her favorite person,” she says. “At age 14, I reunited with my mom, but we couldn’t connect. There was no bond between us. She didn’t know what to do with me.”
Luthra’s mother did send her to college, and while Luthra was there, she met and married one of her teachers. The couple had two children, but their marriage was lackluster. Luthra’s life in India was no better.
“Women were told to keep our eyes down while talking to men, otherwise we were considered shameless,” she says. “Being a woman in those days was not in the same par as with a man.”
When she was almost 30, the family moved to Oregon where her husband was studying for his doctorate. Luthra, too, began her studies at the University of Oregon, and eventually got her master’s in English and special education at Oregon College of Education, now Western Oregon University, in Monmouth.
“And then the whole world opened up to me,” she says.
After several job offers, Luthra got her first job at Veneta High School, near Eugene. She then taught at Oregon Youth Authority Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility, a job that allowed her to connect with the girls there because of the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her aunt as a child.
“Wounds cling to you like lichen on an apple tree,” she says. “My message to them was, ‘You can do something with your life.’”
Luthra’s next outreach was teaching high school courses to sex offenders incarcerated at the Oregon State Hospital. She also taught at Oregon City and Franklin high schools, and nine years at Chemeketa Community College.
Combining her passion for writing with a desire to share the struggles of women in India, Luthra penned two fictional books. The first, “Beyond the Reach of Darkness,” is based on her mother’s life and tells the plights of widows in her native land. The second, “Partition of the Hearts,” is based on her own life and continues with the plight of women’s issues in India.
Like Jyoti, the main character in her second book, Luthra is finding herself by helping others. She helps financially support a friend, a cancer survivor in India who works with women battling cancer. To promote women’s rights, she has written to India’s prime minister advocating stricter laws to protect women.
“Justice in life drives me,” she says. “Men are still calling the shots, and we’re still taking second fiddle.”
Luthra, now single, wants a better world for her six grandchildren.
“I am here now in my adopted land, the land of Lady Liberty,” she wrote in one of her poems. “Blessed with a new identity, a new dignity and self-esteem. I am now her daughter. I owe her my allegiance. I speak her language.”
On Aug.15, India will celebrate its independence day, but for Luthra, the holiday holds mixed feelings.
“Losing my father, leaving my home, being a refugee, seeing so many killings,” she says. “Even after so many years, we are still fighting. It never ends. India has made a lot of progress, but still has much to address.”
Luthra loved celebrating America’s Fourth of July, a holiday that to her means she has found her voice and is a person in her own right.
“To live with dignity and let others do the same,” she says is the defining factor of Independence Day in the United States.
Luthra’s life now revolves around tending to her garden, meeting with friends, and playing with her Pomeranian, Reggie. Speaking Hindu, Urdu and Punjabi, she works part-time as a translator. Future plans include writing a book of her short stories and poetry, taking a computer class, and teaching a class on Eastern Religion at Center 50+ in Salem.
“I’m glad to be an Indian American, and that my children and grandchildren have the freedom to expand their wings,” Luthra says. “The sky is the limit. They will carry my legacy.”