• 02 Mar - 08 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

“She’s only three years younger than I am. She’s not such a baby,” she says, staring at her sister.

Loku Duwa is right, and I feel sorry. She was only one when I fell in love with Siri and two when he was murdered, and then, all the terror followed. Twenty months when the beatings began, and that was far worse than all the drinking and breaking of things that had gone before. What was it like for her when, in the ways of these parts, children began to refer to her as the daughter of the murderer, the child of the whore? What terrors my children have known. And still, how can I not favour my youngest, who has known nothing else, even when she was still inside me? At least my son had a single year when he had two happy parents, newly wed, contented with the optimism of firstborn son. At least Loku Duwa had the comfort of having a father she could name and call her own.

“Amma, aren’t we going?” my son asks, poking his head around the corner, impatient. I want to say something to my older daughter, but she has turned and walked away, my long silence enough evidence of the preference she has always suspected me of. I cannot call out to her, with some reassurance she can believe, and risk everything; not this dawn, not with so much at stake, our lives, our future. I sigh and turn to my son.

“Yes, I’m coming. Here, take Chooti Nangi and go and wait for me by the kitul tree.”

“I don’t want to go with Aiyya. I want to wait for you, Amma,” she says, holding on to my hand and squirming against my leg like a pet scratching itself on the bark of a tree.

I separate her from my body and try to pry my fingers away from hers. “Go with him,” I say.

“Come!” he says, and she looks from me to him, one set of eyes pushing her away, the other beckoning her. He smiles and extends his hand, and I am grateful.

“Come soon then, Amma,” she says and goes with her brother.

Why do I want to look at him one last time, this man whom I never loved? He was my father’s choice for me, an arrangement made between two old men. Of course I had convinced myself it was for the best, that this was what girls did: their fathers’ bidding. A widower–father at that, how could I say no? How could I cause him any more grief? I’ve often wondered, though, if I was simply the last thing standing between him and my dead mother: the burden of an only child, only daughter. Why else would he have chosen this particular man for me? Why else would he have blinded himself to the flaws that surely even he must have noticed: the loud, uninhibited voice; the ugly way in which his future son–in–law had flashed his money at my father and me; the showy, tasteless saris and plastic, glass–lined serving trays he brought as gifts when he visited; even the beedi that he smoked right inside my father’s house. It is hard to acknowledge it, even now, but I know I am right: I was beloved only because my mother was beloved, and without my mother, I was simply a duty he had to fulfil. And once he had, my father was done with this lifetime; he was ready to seek his wife in another. How else would my father, the sure–footed god whom I’d watched dancing on the ropes that hung over our land for twenty–three years, a toddy tapper who walked as comfortably between kitul trees, extracting sweet sap to turn into intoxicating brews, as lesser men did on pavements, how else would he fall to his death just weeks after the birth of my oldest son, except from intention? No wonder people whispered things about me: a dead father, a dead lover, and soon they can go ahead and add this to that a good as–
dead husband.

But he is still alive, lying there, his back turned against me. The warm–cool air of the ocean lifts the voile curtain from the window and sucks it back again: a disclosure and concealment to the outside world of our parting. I bought him that green sarong for a long–ago New Year. Strange that he still wears it. He’s forgotten, I suppose, the things that aren’t worth remembering in the face of things that cannot be forgiven.

My husband stirs in his sleep, restless. It is not me that he cannot forgive, it is himself; the way he suffers by comparison with a man who could make me love him in life and also in death, by comparison with me, with my better caste, my better upbringing, my dignity, my where I’m from far better than his. In a last moment of grace, with gratitude to the gods for the life I am setting out to build for my children, I cover him against a sudden chill with the sheet off my side. Then I turn my back on him.

Outside, I go ahead of my children, carrying both bags. Along the way, I consider this road I have walked almost every day since I arrived here in Matara as a bride. The shops, with their walls covered with peeling white paint and covered again with years of advertisements; there are still a few old posters from a recent visit to this area by the prime minister, sticking out from underneath the new ones advertising the first English film that is showing at the town cinema. Low to the ground, I notice one complete poster in the blue and white of her ruling party. Were I not raised to be better, I would spit as I walk by the face on that poster, on the woman on whom Siri and his friends had pinned their hopes. So many times I have tried to be grateful for the semblances of equality, for ration cards and news of nationalization and independence and self–sufficiency and the larger wealth of our island, but all that cannot erase the other picture in my mind, the way a woman like her, a mother, a widow, presided over destruction the way she did. How she withstood news of the massacres that took place that year, of the numbers of the dead that rose and rose like there would be no end, all in her name.

I am not sorry that Siri was gone before that April insurrection four years ago, only days before our Sinhala and Tamil New Year, when his daughter was born. I am only sorry that he did not live to see her, that he was not there beside me in an almost empty hospital with only a skeletal staff as people stayed home to fast and tend to their hearths and cook oil cakes and milk rice, to prepare their oldest relatives to feed the younger among them with their own fingers and to bless them, to light their fireworks at the auspicious times and to pray for peace. He was not there when I pushed her out of my body and reached over to touch her wet head as she lay there, screaming the first and sweetest song of survival. He was not there to hear that, or to share in my delight over the treasure the gods had allowed me to keep. And because of all that, too, I am not sorry to leave this place.

As soon as we reach the bus stop at the old Dutch fort, I see her. Siri’s mother. She stands under the arch with its painted lions and swords and crown as she has done every day since he was killed. She is dressed in a clean white sari, her hair is combed, and she clutches her handbag to her side. I am surprised to see her so early in the morning, the sun barely risen.

“Soon he’ll be here,” she says to me, smiling happily.

“On which bus is he coming?” I ask he, as I always do, not willing even now to disabuse her of her insanity, to say to her, like the cruel do, that her son is dead.

“Maybe today, maybe tomorrow,” she says. “It doesn’t matter.”

“You can come back tomorrow,” I say. She nods, but then she seems to notice who we are and frowns. She stares at my children. Once or twice she has spoken to me as if she knows; she has asked about my health, or uttered those words we Buddhists cling to at such times, using them to keep ourselves from succumbing to the blows that life deals us: What is to be done? I must have sinned in a past life. This is how it is.

Last year, as I was returning from the dispensary, Loku Putha and Loku Duwa beside me, my little one in my arms, her legs dangling down my side, my own back arched with the effort of holding her up, Siri’s mother had stopped me and asked to hold her. I had given my daughter to her, to her unknown grandmother, knowing that she knew. Right then, she knew who it was she held. She had stroked my Chooti Duwa’s bandaged head, swaying from side to side, her eyes closed, hushing her though my daughter was not crying. When she gave her back to me, she asked me to promise her that I would take good care of the little one, that I would keep her close to me, promise her not to lose my daughter. Then she had looked down the road, consigning herself back to the life that had been left to her, and asked me if I thought Siri would arrive that day.

Now she looks and looks at my children, at our bags, at me. “You are leaving,” she says. “You are taking them all away.”

I say nothing. Perhaps she will wait for me, too, at this same place, wait in vain for her dead son, for the one he loved, for his daughter.

“Yes,” she says, sighing. “I don’t think he’s coming today. I’ll come back tomorrow.” I watch her walk away, and her body gives off the scent of grief and of the curse of having endured the loss of a child. I cannot bear to watch her go, so I turn away.

“Will that achchi come back tomorrow looking for Siri Mama?” Loku Duwa asks. Even she knows of this ritual, young though she is.

“She always comes here,” my son says. “I feel sorry for her.”

“Let’s hurry. We need to catch our train,” I tell them, not wanting to dwell on the things I cannot change, not wanting to feel too much for her, to feel anything that would prevent me from leaving. I walk the rest of the way without looking to either side, lest some familiarity trip me and cause us to tarry too long. I do not want to miss our train.

The station is crowded when we get there. I recognize a few people from the village, and I wonder if they will tell him. Why worry about that? By the time they do, it won’t matter anyway. We’ll be too far gone for him to touch us. But I don’t like the crowds; they make me feel like my plans are weak and ordinary. Loku Putha must have noticed my frown because he reassures me.

“It’s a Poya weekend, Amma,” he says. “That’s why there are so many people here. But don’t worry. I’ll get you a seat.”

“Oh,” I say, relieved, remembering the visit to our temple in the light of the full moon just the night before. “I forgot. Could you go and get the tickets?” I unwrap the edge of my sari and take out two of our ten–rupee notes; six of those and a few coins are all I have managed to hide from my husband without arousing his suspicion in preparation for this trip, and almost all of it will have to be spent on the trains. I give the notes to my son, and he folds them into his palm so quickly it frightens me. It’s the swift, stealthy movement of the drug dealers and pimps who frequent the beaches near the tourist hotels. I grab him by his arm. “Where did you learn to hide money like that?”

“Like what?” He grins, boyish and pleased. “Like this?” And he does it again.


“Don’t worry, Amma, I’m just hiding it so the pickpockets won’t try to take it from me.” His hair sticks up in various directions, and I smooth it down. His hair ha salways been uncooperative, just like the boy himself.

“There are no pickpockets here. You can worry about them when we change trains in Colombo. Just go and get the tickets and be quick about it. The train will be here any minute.”

He runs away from me, and I wish I could follow him, just to make sure that he knows where to go, that he won’t leave me stranded with his two sisters and our bags and nothing left to do but return home. I bite my lower lip and try to find him over the heads of strangers. I want to trust him, to be confident that he can look after himself, that he will come back, but I can’t. He is too young for that.

Too young to be sent away for errands like this in such busy places.

“Amma, I like this sari,”

my Loku Duwa says, pressing her face into my waist and distracting me. “It’s soft and clean.”