- 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2024
A DISOBEDIENT GIRL
- 10 Feb - 16 Feb, 2024
“I’ll pour the oil,” Loku Duwa says. She takes out the old Arrack bottle that I had cleaned out and taken to the Mudalali to have it filled with a half-pint of coconut oil this morning. Standing on her toes, she fills these first lamps with great care.
My boy lights a match to the candle that the little one has in her hand now, then he bends down and picks her up. He holds her over rows of wrought-iron lamps, most of them already lit. Her dress is too short for her. Loku Duwa tugs at the fabric, giggling a little at the sight of her sister’s exposed bottom under the scrunched-up skirt, the white knickers that I stitched the way the nuns showed me, puffing up on the side closest to her brother’s body, one round buttock revealed. Together they make the kind of picture I have seen in the newspapers, the ones they put on the front page after a Poya day, to show the country that innocence has survived and will endure, to remind us that there is something worth living for when all seems lost. My little girl wriggles at the touch of her sister’s fingers, and some of the wax from her candle falls onto Loku Putha’s hand. He yelps in pain, but he continues to hold on to her. He reserves his frown for Loku Duwa.
“Stop it, modaya! You’re going to make me drop her. Chooti Nangi is going to burn herself!”
Idiot. Fool. These are the words he uses to address his firstborn younger sister, never referencing their relationship with the proper term, Nangi. I sigh and move away from them and sit by the temple wall, among other women, my legs tucked sideways underneath my body, my palms together, my mouth reciting prayers by rote, mulling over my children, their respective flaws, their way forward. Do all children come into being in the same fashion? Already marked with their future, a history-to-be prewritten by their predilections? I wonder. My son, dark skinned and full of some untouchable resentment, with his backward glances and watchful spirit, had come to me that way, come out of my body full of anticipated slights, taking his independence as soon as he could walk. There was some knot in him that no amount of breast milk could console, no amount of attention suffice to untie. Then my first daughter, dreamy and sad from the start, never able to articulate what it was that she felt, never knowing, exactly. I had tried to soothe them both in all the usual ways, done my best to keep my-self safe for their sake, until Siri found me and my attentions turned away from them; then I stopped trying, telling myself that it was useless, that they were who they were. Only his child, Siri’s daughter, my youngest, had seemed untouched by an already-known fate; only she had seemed blessed by possibility, as if, with time and knowledge, she would become something other than she already was.
Their faces are illuminated to varying degrees as they stand before the rows of lamps, first by the candle and then, when my baby reaches out and lights the first lamp, by the second flame and then the next and the next. When her brother puts her down, she runs to me and curls into my lap. I hold her close; my baby, conceived on a night like this, under the full moon, hidden by the still-wet catamarans pulled up onshore. In everything she does, I see Siri. In the way she moves, her footsteps deliberate with pride, in the way she regards the world, her chin lifted, as though she were assessing its worth and finding it both fascinating and hospitable, in the mischief that dances in her eyes. She has kept him for me, made it impossible for people to forget him or to say that she is fatherless. I know these three children, who they are, what they desire, where they are bound, and that is the proof of my love.
Tomorrow, I will go with the dew under my feet to the plantain grove beyond the kitul trees that my father put in when my son was born. Those first plantain trees have given way to the offspring who came up around their trunks; I tended them all, feeling the old to give way to the new, revisiting not jus the grove but, through my care of them, my parents’ lands, where I had first learned to be mindful of the growing things that sustain us all. I will cut down a frond from one of the young trees and I will walk home in the morning rain with it over my head. He will not hear me rip the leaves, or smell the steam when I hold them over the wood fire to turn their waxy green to dark. In silence I will lay them out, in silence make four mounds of still hot rice, embedded with hard, dried, salted fish, the taste of my life by the sea. Two pieces each for the girls and myself, three for my son. The orange coconut sambol, ground with the last of our dried red chillies, will stain the white. Condensation will have to provide the gravy. I will add them to the woven market bag that once belonged to my mother and that I have carried for ten years. I will slash the kurumba from our front yard with my knife, drain the sweet water into my children’s plastic drink bottles. Then I will go to them. Instantly awake at my touch, rising with practiced stealth, they will follow me. When he wakes up, stinking, drunk, we will be gone… gone… gone…
“Enava, madam!” She always had to yell just as hard as Mrs. Vithanage in order to be heard, and she was still working on finding a way to infuse reverence into her screams. Mrs. Vithanage was becoming testy with her.
“This girl is always somewhere else. She used to hover next to me like a cat. Now I never know where she is. Latha! Mehe vareng!”
Latha cringed. She hated it when Mrs. Vithanage used the de-rogatory conjugation of verbs on her, the varenge, palayang, geneng that was the lot of laborers. She stopped running and began to walk. If she was going to be insulted, she was going to deserve it. Let her wait. Latha passed the driver, who stood by the family car, a sedate black Peugeot with white, plastic-covered interior that had arrived in the country in a fleet that had been imported by the government seven years earlier for something called the Non-Aligned Conference; she had learned about that at school because it was one of her principal’s favourite topics, the conference, not the cars, which latter he had condemned bitterly. All day the driver loitered there, next to that car, even though he knew exactly when he was needed and even though that schedule never changed: take Thara to school at 7:00 AM, take Mr. Vithanage to the Ministry whatever that was at 8:30 AM, bring Mr. Vithanage home for lunch at 12:30 PM and return him to the Ministry after, and bring Thara home from school at 1:30 PM; on Tuesdays, take Thara to elocution lessons (where she had learned, and subsequently taught Latha to recite parts of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Song of Hiawatha” and “The Highwayman,” which last was her, Latha’s, favourite, what with the maiden and all) at 3:00 PM; on Wednesday, pick up and drop off the piano teacher at 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM respectively; on Fridays, take lunch for Thara at school and wait until she finished swimming lessons to bring her back, smelling of chlorine, ravenous; and every day, bring Mr. Vithanage home at 5:30 PM. Thursday mornings he took Mrs. Vithanage to the market, with her hair in a bun.
“Latha?” the driver said as she passed, a greeting and an acknowledgment of her existence.
She stopped. “What?”
“No… nothing. Why in such a bad mood?” He snapped a green twig from a bush of poinsettia (there were poinsettias all along the driveway, and personally, she thought they were ugly; pale, undecided colors and too much foliage) and began to pick at his teeth, sucking bits of lunch out from behind his jaws. Disgusting. He wasn’t bad-looking despite the fact that he was short, and the dark skin, but chic, what terrible manners. “Too much work?” he asked her, after a particularly robust, and clearly productive, suck.
She scowled. Why he insisted on talking to her as if she were an equal she had no idea. Didn’t he notice that she sat in the backseat with Thara when she accompanied her on occasion? Not next to him, like the gardener did?
“I don’t know why you suck your teeth like that. It’s such an ugly habit.”
The driver snorted. “Madam is in for trouble with you, isn’t she? Sending you to school and all that. You better watch your attitude. Soon…”
Mr. Vithanage came onto the veranda, dabbing at the perspiration on his face with a creased brown and white checked handkerchief. She had washed and ironed it just yesterday. Washing. She hated having to do the washing, but since Mrs. Vithanage’s now with Soma, the old servant, Latha was the only one left. She wished Soma would come back. In her absence Latha had become the cook, cleaner, and laundress, and while she didn’t mind the ironing, she detested the washing. It made her hands sore. It made her back ache. Most of all, she had no time to pick flowers with Thara, which meant…
“Latha! Child, can’t you hear madam calling you? What are you doing standing here? Go and see what she wants.” Mr. Vithanage gestured vaguely into the house, shook his head, and stepped down to the portico.
The driver held the back car door open for him and then shut it. He leaped up the steps, picked up Mr. Vithanage’s briefcase from the cane chair between the mahogany pedestal table and the matching urn with its arrangement of fake ferns the likes of which Latha had never seen in nature, and deposited it with great respect on the front seat. He got in on his side, stroked the steering wheel three times, and brought his hands together in worship. He touched the picture of the Buddha that he had cut out of a Vesak greeting card and hung from the rearview mirror with a bit of black cord, then started the car. He caught Latha’s eye and held her gaze as he drove slowly down the curving driveway. Latha rearranged her body, pulling it up to its fullest height, and shouted, this time with more deference.
“Madam, I’m here. I’m coming.”
Well, it couldn’t last, could it? She should have known it. One day they were picking flowers and eating ice palams out of green and white striped pyramid-shaped boxes, pushing the sweet bars out with their fingers on the one side, groping for them on the other with their wet tongues she, Thara, the Boy, and Gehan and the next it was done. They were all ready to go when it happened.
“Thara! Latha! Come back in here. Where are you going?” Mrs. Vithanage was standing at the top of the steps on the veranda, her arms crossed. She was wearing one of her hand-loomed cotton saris with Guipio lace edging on her blouse. A bad sign. She was most virulently Radala bearing when she wore Guippio lace. Latha did not know where it came from, that lace. It was stronger than the local kind, though if she had to choose, she’d pick the latter because of the way it felt against her skin, soft and imperfect, like the work of human hands.
“To pick flowers, Amma,” Thara said, her voice all girl and honey. Latha stifled her giggle.
Mrs. Vithanage frowned. “You’re too old to do that. You don’t need to go picking flowers anymore. Let the gardener do it.”
“Amma! The gardener doesn’t know how to do it. We knoe all the houses, and they know us!”
“Exactly. You have become common in this area. Soon they’ll be talking about you like they really know you. Yes, no more picking flowers. Get back inside and practice the piano.” Practicing the piano was Mrs. Vithanage’s idea of a solid punishment, which made Latha wonder if she was actually invested in Thara’s acquiring skill in playing the instrument or if all the piano lessons were merely serving some lesser role, as an excuse for Mrs. Vithanage to keep her daughter from other, more desirable, activities.
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