• 24 Feb - 01 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

“Then let Latha wash me!” Thara wailed. “When Soma was gone she washed all our clothes, so she’s as good as the dhobi.”

“You should be glad I’m not getting the toilet cleaner at the public park to wash you!” Mrs. Vithanage said. Latha shrank into herself at the change in Mrs. Vithanage’s voice. She tried to clear away the dishes without making a sound, but it took longer that way, and she was certain that the longer she tarried, the more likely it was that Mrs. Vithanage would find fault with her for something.

“I want Latha!” Thara howled, turning to her. “Can you bathe me, Latha?”

“Aney, baba, I don’t think I can. Madam knows best,” Latha said, gathering up as many dishes as she could, not caring about the sound now that she was in the spotlight, and backing out of the room.

On day six Mrs. Vithanage strode into the room and made the announcement that indeed Latha could substitute for the dhobi, and if Thara could stand the fact that Latha would get her favourite ruby earrings and the two gold bangles that she had foolishly been wearing when she got her first period, even though she had been told time and time again not to wear her gold bangles for–no–good–reason, just as the dhobi would have, she would not say one more word to persuade her otherwise.

On day seven, at 4:34 AM, Latha poured the first bowl of warm, fragrant water over Thara’s head as she crouched on a stool, shivering. Before she went in, Thara had removed her jewelry and put it on top of her nightdress and left it outside the door of the bathroom. Latha had woken up at 3:00 AM and scrubbed the white tiled floors of the bathroom clean with Vim and disinfected it with dill water. Then she had helped Soma to boil two large pots of water and carry them into the bathroom and pour them into the two new purple basins, and she had mixed the water so it was just the right temperature. All this while Thara slept on. Mrs. Vithanage had added the right kinds of leaves and herbs and flowers that the astrologer whom Mrs. Vithanage had visited no less than three times to make absolutely sure had told them would assure Thara of a good marriage and fertility: kohomba for purification, saffron for beauty, and jasmine for scent and sensual pleasure, plus a sachet of bark and seeds of unclear origin for good health and the safe delivery of babies. Latha had wanted to throw in a few rampe and karapincha leaves for a touch of elusive spice, but she didn’t dare.

Now, as Mrs. Vithanage waited outside, the water, sweet smelling and warm, flowed first over her friend and then over her own bare feet. Latha had never touched shampoo, so she took the opportunity to pour more than was necessary into her palm, a large, creamy pool of yellow. Sunsilk, Egg Protein, she read, silently. It even looked like egg yolk. She breathed in the smell of it, then regretfully turned her palms over onto Thara’s head and began rubbing the cream into her hair. She had never touched Thara’s hair before, either. It felt odd to be doing it now, Thara naked and vulnerable, herself clothed, albeit wet, with her day dress clenched between her knees. But they were both content to her here: Thara, her eyes closed, enjoying the sensation of strong fingers massaging her head, Latha lost in the sensory pleasures around her the aromatic steam, the feel of silky hair in her palms, the suds falling in large, careless thuds around her.

“Only ten more minutes till you have to smash the coconut hurry up!” Mrs. Vithanage said, rapping sharply on the door. The voice.

Thara tipped her head up and rolled her eyes at Latha. “You think if I tell her about Ajith she’ll stop worrying about good marriages?”

“The coconut is for fertility,” Latha said, giggling. “Some nenda told me that.”

“So silly. Like a coconut can make me have children.”

“Don’t you want children?”

“Not till I’m quite old. After university, after I become a lawyer, after I’m famous for working on all the big cases and people write about me in the papers, then I’ll have children, and only sons. I’ll probably be twenty-five at least,” Thara said, stretching out her legs.

Latha wished she had definite plans like Thara did. Or felt definite about anything, really, other than her desire to enjoy lie. Or decisive. Maybe that was the word for Thara’s way of doing things. She always had a plan, she had always made up her mind, she never tried to do anything, she just did. How did she do that? Maybe Latha could practice. She picked up a bowl of water and poured it on Thara’s head, making her squeal.

“Don’t wash it off yet!”

She ignored her and poured another bowl. “I still need to put soap on you, and madam will shout if I don’t finish this on time,” she said. Thara settled down.

So. It was as easy as that. She squeezed the water out of Thara’s hair, picked out the stray leaves that had got wound in it, then coiled it on top of her head in a knot. She picked up the bar of soap Sandalwood, it said on the center and began to rub it into Thara’s skin. She did it in a methodical way, just like when she bathed herself: the ears, the neck, the shoulders, the armpits, then along each arm, over her chest no breasts, definitely no breasts yet her back with its two side-by-side birthmarks right in the middle of Thara’s spine, her belly, her thighs, behind her knees, her knees over the bump of a raised scar on the right that still remained after a three-year-old tricycle accident, her soft calves, and, finally, each foot, between each set of toes, the soles of her feet. It was almost like washing herself; Thara’s body was just as lean, just as tall, an their skin was the same color, like milk toffee darkened slightly with a ground spice, something used for special occasions, she thought, like nutmeg or cardamom. She held the soap out to Thara, who stood up and washed herself between her legs. She wiggled her bottom at Latha, and they both laughed, shy and nervous. Latha took the soap Thara held out and put it away, then leaned over to pour more warm water from the second basin, the rising one, onto Thara’s body.

When she was done, Thara was so clean. So clean and so sweet smelling. Latha felt proud of her friend and of herself.

“You’ll get breasts soon,” she said, not knowing what else to give Thara but that hopeful promise.

Latha was just coming out of the bathroom, after having washed the floor and then the basins and leaned them against the walls to dry, when Thara on her third try with the curved knife that Soma used for cooking, its handle held between her toes as she crouched on the floor, fingers darting over the sharp upturned blade that was used to slice the daily quota of onions and green chillies smashed the coconut into two neat halves. Latha picked up the girl-size ruby earnings andthin bangles that had been discarded on the dirty carpet outside the bathroom door; they were soaked with the water from the coconut.

It wasn’t that she expected it to be the same; of course she didn’t. She went to a different school, didn’t she? She went to a school where only the richest girl, a scooter-taxi driver’s daughter, was dropped off, riding in her father’s taxi, her father dressed in a sarong; where the teachers didn’t wear beautiful clothes or even robes or veils but came travelling on crowded buses, wearing cheap nylon saris they had prettied up with scratchy, brittle, brown-tinged scalloped patterns made by holding the edges to a candle flame. She sat in a classroom where no girl was ever absent for seven days, and nobody ever looked like she had new clothes, even on the first day of school, and where their uniforms, though white, were all different, with hand-embroidered monograms ripped off pockets before they had been given away to the poor. But still, after all that fuss, Latha must have expected something, because when she did get her period, and when she told Mrs. Vithanage and Mrs. Vithanage clucked her tongue as if she had burdened her with something and yelled out to Soma and told Soma to show her how to fold strips of cloth (torn from Mr. Vithanage’s old, soft, threadbare sarongs, no less) and put them in her underwear and wash them afterward, and when there was no talk of a dhobi or a bath and certainly no talk of the kind of party that Thara had on that seventh day, a party she had not known was going to be that grand all that time spent keeping Thara company in her seclusion with so much gold and money and jewelry gifted by so many well-dressed people in so many cars and Thara in her new dress of orange georgette and lace (because the astrologer said that was the auspicious color), made specially for her, when all that happened, Latha did feel like crying. And so she went ahead and cried. And she cried more when Soma came into her room that night, even though nobody had asked her to, and laid down he mat on the floor next to her.

“Go to sleep, duwa,” Soma said. “These things are like that. Now go to sleep.”

Daughter. Latha wondered if Soma had a daughter. She wondered if she had a mother, or brothers and sisters; if she did, or once had, Soma never mentioned them. Somewhere in Latha’s own memory was a house by the sea and a journey at dawn somewhere, but that must have been a rip taken with the Vithanages because there was no clear image in her head of parents or siblings or even a place in which she had once lived. But she remembered a sound: of big, endless water, coming to shore again and again, as if it was trying to claim a piece of land for itself, as if it was grasping for something that it had one owned.

It is so dark still when I wake up that at first I am afraid to move. When I stretch my legs out, I can feel the foot of my bed. On either side, the edges. Any father and I would touch the heat that I can feel rising up from his sleeping body, wakeful and vigilant, a malignance waiting to trip me up. Outside, the sounds of creatures bidding the night farewell, and airborne things rustling awake, one feather at a time, readying themselves to take flight with the day. I ease my body over the side of the bed and feel my way on all fours to the front door.

By the time I get back with the plantain leaves, cook and pack our meals by the quieter light of a kerosene lamp, time has moved closer to light than dark. The children rise and follow me like small ghosts. At the kitchen door I motion to them, and they come, one at a time, their palms outstretched for the tooth powder I shake out from the packet of Dantha Buktha in my hand; one shake, two, three. I stopped buying the SR toothpaste that they had always used, months ago, saving every cent for our journey. The complained at first, but not too loudly; living with violence made them quiet about their own unmet needs. They stand in a row before me and brush their teeth with their index fingers the way I’d taught them to do, even my baby, her skinny body lost in the droop of the hand-me-down that serves as her nightdress, her eyes large and fixed on her older sister, mirroring her movements. Watching them, I can almost taste the sweet grit in my own mouth, almost feel the sensation of fingernails scraping the way back of my tongue. They spit, then smooth the dirt over the wetness with their bare feet. I lead them to the pot of water by the drain and rinse their mouths and feet. They take turns holding on to my shoulder, and I wipe their feet dry.

“Go and get your shoes,” I whisper, and the girls scurry indoors. My son waits.

“Do I have to put on shoes?” His mouth is unsmiling.

“Yes, Loku Putha, it would be better. Otherwise, I will have to carry them, and we have so far to go. The big bag is already heavy as it is with all our things, and the second bag with the food and the drink. Go now and put them on.” The set of his shoulders tells me that I am demanding a lot more than he is willing to give.

“I can’t find my shoes!” Chooti Duwa says, far too loudly, coming out to the kitchen door. She is naked but for the clean underwear I left out for her, and shivering slightly from the early morning air.

“Shh. Where did you put them yesterday when we came back from temple?”

“I don’t know,” she says, looking left and right as if the answer will come to her if she just avoids my stare.

“If you don’t find them you’ll have to walk on bare feet and they’ll soon be full of cuts and dirt,” I say, trying to sound like I mean that. But of course when she looks up at me I relent and join the search. I find the shoes in the most obvious place: under their bed. I want to cuff he ears, scold her, but she is so happy to put them on, so grateful, that I smile and hold her face in my palms, stroke her cheek with my fingers. Such a baby still. Barely old enough to have to do all her walking herself. I wonder if I could carry her some of the way. Maybe I should make a sling with a different sari.

“You spoil her,” my older one says, watching us from the bed-room door, frowning just enough to let me know she disapproves but not enough to convey any disrespect.

“She’s just a baby, duwa.

Let her be. She’ll grow up soon enough.”