• 09 Mar - 15 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Instantly, I forget my son’s youth, consider instead my older daughter’s age: seven, almost eight. I stroke her head and kiss it.

“And yellow and white,” Chooti Duwa adds, joining her sister and rubbing her face on my sari. My little one’s eyes shine with excitement. She has never ridden a train, only counted carriages as they whipped by the shore and practiced balancing on the looping tracks that carried other people to adventures somewhere that required speedy travel. Her sister, too, is smiling.

“Amma, where are we going?” Loku Duwa asks, her fingers caressing the fabric of my sari, judging by my expression that it is safe, now, to ask me such a question.

“We’re going to my mother’s sister’s house in the hills,” I say, proud of the words: my mother’s sister’s house. They sound rooted and safe.

“Where are the hills?” she persists.

“Up–country, where the tea is grown.”

“But you never took us there before,” my little one says, her voice a perfect illustration of innocence of the question. “How do you know it’s there?”

“Oh, the hills are always there, baba, just like the sea is always there. It’s people who move about.”

“Like us,” she says. She grins at her older sister and takes her hand. “Like us, Akki. We are moving to the hills.”

“We’re visiting,” Loku Duwa says, looking up at me.

I return her gaze. She looks good, my older girl, in her pale yellow dress with the embroidery on the white collar that I had to pay extra to have done. Apart from the money, that had cost me another beating, but it was worth the price: with her hair combed back into the two plaits I put in and tied up in matching ribbons before we left, she looks clean, from a good family.

“We’re visiting, aren’t we, Amma?” she says.

“No, we’re moving,” I say, taking her chin in my palm, bracing for the reproach in her eyes, for the protests, but they don’t come. Instead she shuffles her feet and tucks a stray hair behind her ear.

“Do you want me to hold the bag?” she asks me at last.

“No, just keep Nangi close to you. I should go and see what Aiyya is doing.”

But I don’t have to. When I turn around, I see him coming toward us, the tickets in hand. Just in time. The train howls around the bend, long and insistent, then comes into view, the smoke spewing from its chimney, the wheels turning slow and slower tillit comes to a looming halt with a final belch: mphghhww… hiss… hiss…

We join the surge of people. My son picks up the baby, and she holds on with arms tight around his neck. I take Loku Duwa’s hand. We are absorbed by the machine, and it leaves the station before we can even find seats, while we are still figuring out how to stand in its juddering belly.


She knew why she did it. She did it to show them.

“What do you need your money for? It’s safer in the bank.” That was what Mrs. Vithanage had said when she’d asked for her money. She had worked it out in her head: after ten years of paid work with them (she didn’t get paid those first two years, when she was four and five and still considered a child, even by Mrs. Vithanage), and with the New Year and Christmas bonuses that she had been told she was given, she should have eleven thousand and seven hundred rupees in the bank.

“I want to buy some sandals, madam,” she said, assuming the position least likely to offend Mrs. Vithanage: looking down at her feet, her hands clasped in front of her.

It was Sunday, and Mrs. Vithanage was sitting on the front veranda, having already read both the weekend papers, the Silumina and the Sunday Observer, and measured out the rice and dhal and dried spices for Soma so she could get started on cooking lunch. She was waiting for the fishmonger to come with the daily catch. She wore her morning look: authoritative yet calm, the weight of household matters heavy on her mind, but more than equal to the task.

“Are your slippers broken?” she asked, glancing at Latha, then turning away.

“No.” But they were old and her feet were too big for them, and in any case, it wasn’t about what she had but about what she wanted and should be allowed to buy with her own money! Besides, hadn’t she waited for a whole year and a half until Thara’s latest heeled sandals, with the looped clasps on the sides, had long been discarded, for there to be no chance of Mrs. Vithanage mistaking her request for a claim to equality? Even for those kinds of sandals to be out of style? Well, all right, she did have her eye on the ones that were in style now, but still.

“Then don’t waste your money.” Mrs. Vithanage even sounded motherly, the tone she used on Thara when she wanted unreasonable things.

Latha continued to stand, wondering if perhaps Thara could be enlisted on her behalf. Probably not; Thara barely had time for her these days, with the O/L exams looming on her horizon. She saw Ajith with her school friends now, at cricket matches and rugger matches and parties that started at 10:00 PM where they served something called punch and for which Thara left and from which she returned in good–girl dresses but to which she actually wore short red skirts and tight black tops that showed off her new breasts; all of which Latha had heard about from the otherwise–faithful driver whose sworn–to–secrecy lips could be so easily undone by her presence and conversation as he reveled in being able to give her something she truly wanted: knowledge of that after–hours world.

Frankly, Latha was tired of yearning for the things she felt should be hers, like the soap she still helped herself to, or the teaspoons of mango jam she hid on her tongue, scooped as she carried the bottle from the fridge to the breakfast table, or the milk powder she stole for her tea. She hated plain tea. She hated plain anything! And why shouldn’t she? She reasoned that she had acquired tastes, and with those tastes, longings, particularly for the thins that were paraded so relentlessly before her day after day on the body of her friend, Thara, the most difficult to resist being shoes. Everything else she could, by careful dressing, by pinning and tucking of hand–me–downs, contrive to present as her own, made–especially–for–her attire. But real brand–new footwear was different: it was what set the blessed apart from the unspared. Her own feet, no matter how clean, how fragranced with Lux, how softened with cooking oil and polished with the stone she kept for that purpose by the well, were no match for the feet that came clad in new shoes. It didn’t matter that nobody else seemed to notice. What was important was that she did. She always looked at feet when she walked; she knew how to tell character from the way people presented their feet, wealth from the cut of their shoes.

Besides, she didn’t want to go back to the cobbler who lived his life, it seemed, crouchedinto a corner between the People’s Bank and the General Photo place with its glass windows full of black–and–white photographs of radiant brides. How could she? The last time she went there, her old slippers in hand, asking him to paste the sole back again, he had looked sorry for her. He had called her duwa and tried to give her some coins for sweets. Yes, she had gone to him all her life, year after year, bolding one old discarded slipper or another, asking for a stitch here, a bit of gum there, a clasp maybe. They were almost friends. But no matter how kind he had always been to her, how amused she had been by his mouth with its few teeth and more betel juice, to think that a man like that, all hunched and as leathery as his wares, his tiny old backside planted in a bundle of cloth, who charged people cents–cents! To fix their footwear, would pity her? It was too much. No, she would not go back there. From now on, she would buy her own shoes. Brand–new. In style. Today. But how?

Mr. Vithanage came into the room just as she was about to give up hope that the sandal war could be waged and won right then. He had developed some kind of chronic back pain, which, instead of making him curmudgeonly, had only made him kinder; it was as though he believed that meeting the injustice the world had dealt him with an excess of goodwill would somehow relieve him of his pain. Now he eased himself into the chair on the other side of the floor–to–ceiling doors that Latha had to open and dust each morning before leaving for school, the doors to the sitting room that was surrounded by the wraparound veranda. They looked like benign sentries: Mrs. Vithanage in her pastel yellow cotton sari, Mr. Vithanage in his worn brown sarong and white shirt. Odd how his clothes always looked old even when they were brand–new. He was the kind of person who had been born looking old and largely unthreatening.

Latha picked up the Sunday newspaper and gave it to him, her left palm holding the wrist of her right hand to signify the correct amount of decorous deference.

“I would like to buy some sandals, sir,” she said, desperate enough to risk raising her eyes to Mr. Vithanage.

‘Will you stop talking about the sandals? Didn’t I just tell you thee was no need for sandals? What is the matter with you?” Mrs. Vithanage rarely had to raise her voice to reprimand any of her servants; the tilt of her head and the slant of her eyes were quite sufficient to achieve the desired effect. But this time, the first time, really, she was loud. She sounded a little bit like Thara did when things did not go her way.

“Let the girl have sandals. What’s wrong with that?” Mr. Vithanage said, but it was hopeless. He said it so mildly, disinterestedly.

“Go and tell Soma to make tea for the master,” Mrs. Vithanage said, and that was that. There were no possible openings for further requests. And the very fact that she continued talking, that she knew Latha could hear her, effectively ended the argument.

“I manage the servants, and that one needs to be reined in,” Latha heard her say. “All this government nonsense about sending servants to school, that’s what has ruined her. It’s time for that to stop. Ten years of reading and writing is good enough for her. I mean, what is this house? An orphanage? No, when this year is over, I’m going to take her out of school. She’s getting too old for that anyway. Before long some betel seller will knock her up on her way there. Much better for me to pull her out of that place now so she can start learning how to cook and clean and get ready to be a proper servant.”

And that was what made her do it. Be a proper servant indeed. Her math was better than Thara’s, her social studies and science were better than Thara’s too, and she didn’t even get extra tuition like Thara did. Even her handwriting, curving with perfect ispili and papili, was better than Thara’s. In fact, the only things Thara had that were better than Latha’s were her clothes and her fancy boyfriend. And even Thara’s fancy boyfriend looked at her, Latha, in that way. Proper servant? Ha!

It took her a while to figure out how best to go about getting her revenge, but when she did. Latha knew her plan was foolproof. Ajith came because she sent a message through Gehan: Thara wanted to meet him urgently; would he come to the back gate around 9:30 that night? A one–line plea signifying all manner of possibilities, some more dire than others.

Latha leaned on the gatepost as she waited, knowing the way fifteen–year–old girls know these things, even those who have never had the need to put their theories to the test because there were always enough

men in their worlds to let them know in subtle and not so subtle ways that they would be proved right I they did have the chance to do it that this would be easy.