• 16 Mar - 22 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

And it was. All she had to do was wait for him to come, to be alone with her for a while, to be forced to make small talk with her while he waited, for their talk to be necessarily quiet, and therefore intimate, for the proximity born of that and the darkness that enveloped them to override the social norms that worked only in the dread light of day, and eventually no longer even then.
It was easy to make him forget who she was, or why it was that he had come. And so much easier than even she could have imagined for her to forget who he was and why she had wanted this, and whether it was worth the pain the first time or the longing and heartache all the other nights of that year or the fact that her days had turned into miserable drudgery now that she was not allowed to go to school, that she could not see Gehan or even get word to him to come and see her, that she had to steal Thara’s textbooks and read them in secret to stop herself from losing her mind, and that at the end of it all she still did not have new sandals. The only thing that she told herself mattered was this: she became an addiction for Ajith, which meant that Thara had no boyfriend and that she wilted and waned until her B pluses turned into Cs and then into Fs and she failed her O/L exams. And Mrs. Vithanage was crushed by that.
Yes, Latha had her revenge, and she enjoyed it and held on to it for as long as she could, even afterward. After the driver found out and she had to keep him quiet, her body still and soundless as he groped her and ogled her with derision as she went about her day and there was nothing she could say to stop him; she had given that right away for a pair of shoes that she could not have.
After Soma found out and stopped talking to her, but only after she called her vesi, and Latha didn’t know what that word meant but she knew she deserved it, the way Soma said it.
And after Gehan found out because Ajith told him.
“Gehan wasn’t happy about this for some reason,” he whispered to her one night, and she felt her desire fly up into the mango trees and hang there out of reach and she had to pretend the whole rest of the way, with soft, seemingly heartfelt moans, that nothing was wrong. But why should it have mattered? Because Gehan had never said he loved her, and he had never promised her anything. All the had ever said was that she was beautiful, unlike Thara, who was only pretty because of her good fortune. And he hadn’t had to talk about her body or her hair or any one part of her; she had known what he meant. It was the difference she had always seen when she and Thara stood side by side, pushing against each other for a fuller look in Mrs. Vithanage’s oval mirror, which tipped upward and made them seem taller: a girl of privilege could never posses the deep longings that just ripened Latha’s own looks into a luminous, irresistible heat.
And even though she knew that nothing about her appearance had changed, that those longings were still there, still coursing through her blood and making her more desirable than Thara could ever be, even to this boy, Ajith, for whom she was his first love, knowing in that instant that she had lost Gehan’s regard pained her from within in ways that made her no longer a child but an adult. And all the nights after with Ajith could not erase the loneliness of her walks to the small shops outside the gate for one thing or another, remembering him and feeling the lack; no bicycle beside, no teasing voice to make her feel like a girl with no chores.

And after that until the end, there was no relief from being a girl with chores that she wasn’t being paid for, a girl with no new sandals, and a friend who wasn’t a friend but a mistress, and a family that wasn’t a family but people who owned her and ordered her about, and nothing at all but her pretty breasts and her round bottom and her misbehaving hair to help her feel any different.
Nothing and nobody could change the way things were going to be. The only person who had advocated on her behalf had been the school principal, who had walked up the driveway early one morning and asked to see Mr. Vithanage, who had already left for work, and so got Mrs. Vithanage instead.
“It’s against the law to keep a child under bondage like this, without sending her to school,” he had said. “Against the law!”
“Until grade eight,” she had said, and refused to listen to any further arguments or chastisements, and laughed when he had compared Latha with her own daughter and asked Mrs. Vithanage if she wasn’t ashamed to send a child of hers of the same age to school while depriving another, and a smart one at that, a chance to finish her education. Instead, Mrs. Vithanage had called out to Latha, herself, to bring her principal a cup of tea.
He had not drunk it. “You keep reading your textbooks,” he had told Latha, pushing the cup of tea away. “You are an intelligent child, and you should not forget that. You are too good to be working for people like this. Do well in life. Somehow, do well in life.” And then, he had left.
The sisters at the convent weren’t unkind. They had seen everything before, heard everything before. They asked no questions of Mr. Vithanage, simply filled out columns of information in a thick binder with fine yellow paper edged in red. Her name, her age, her height, her weight, Mr. Vithanage’s address, and her medical history, which was mentioned and written down as being “clean,”
in clear, flowing blue script, all of it pouring onto the page along the space allocated for Entry No. 1193. After he left and they settled her in, they taught her to pray, kneeling and standing, morning, noon, and night. She had tasks but not too many, just enough to be useful but not enough to be harmful to her. It was like a holyday. At first, they took her for walks in the convent gardens, to see and smell roses again. But the scent of real roses made her feel ill and the walks tired her out, so they gave up on that and taught her to sew instead.
She sewed and prayed, sewed and prayed, sitting by the window of the stone wing in which they all lived. She embroidered stacks of clothes: doll clothes, with three holes in each for a newborn’s arms and head, and a ribbon to tie it on at the back. Pale green, pale yellow, pale pink, pale blue, white, like Mrs. Vithanage’s saris, which she no longer saw because she was at the convent and thankful to be there after all the trouble she had caused.
“Who did this?” Mrs. Vithanage had asked when Soma told her about the early morning vomiting and the craving for pickled mangoes, “Who? Do you know, Soma?”
“Ajith, sir,” Soma had said. “He’s the one who did it.”
“Ajith? Who the hell is Ajith?” Mr. Vithanage had demanded, the angriest she had ever seen him.
“A boy who lives down the next lane,” the driver had told them, standing by and sucking his back teeth like he had always known this would happen. Disgusting.
“A Colombo Seven boy?” Oh, Latha was evil to have felt and still feel that momentary flash of glee at the horror in Mrs. Vithanage’s voice. And when Mrs. Vithanage had yanked her out of the storeroom by her hair, her hands and body shaking with rage was it because of the inconvenience? The shame? Or because Colombo 7 was just as crass and vile as the worst of slums? And screamed at her and asked her what she had been thinking to repay their kindness with her whoring, she had taken pride in her defiance, and in the absence of a single tear.
“I wanted a pair of sandals and you wouldn’t let me have my money,” she had said, which was the absolute truth. Then Mrs. Vithanage had slapped her. Once, so hard her face spun on her neck. And she still had not cried, but turned to her and said, “he was Thara’s boyfriend, but he preferred me.”
“Thara? Did you say Thara? She’s madam to you. Do you understand? You filthy bitch, you–“ But Mr. Vithanage had stepped forward and taken his spluttering, weeping wife away, and yes, Latha had felt remorseful at the look he gave her: disappointed in her behaviour, as if he had expected more of her than that, as if he had believed her to be capable of something higher. And she had cried then, heaving and sobbing on the mat in the storeroom because of that look and because of Gehan, but no even Soma had come to comfort her this time.
The Vithanage hadn’t eventold Thara the truth when she came home from school. They had blamed it all on the driver, for whom Latha had felt sorry for the first time, for having been sacrificed in the name of the Vithanage family honor that way, and for not blaming her for her role in bringing about his fall from grace.
“That’s how it is,” he had said bitterly to her. “They have to find someone to pile their filth on. This time it’s me. Nevermind. I can always find another family, but let’s see if they can find a better driver.” He had looked back at the house and spat on the ground before he walked out of the gate.
As soon as they had dismissed him, they had prepared to take her to the convent. “For training,” they had told their friends and relatives, who had nodded as if they believed that story though they all knew what that meant and that it had nothing to do with improving Latha’s skills as a servant and everything to do with getting rid of the result nefarious activity between Unequals and who, therefore, looked knowingly at each other.
Everybody assumed it was Mr. Vithanage who had done It. Wasn’t that how it was always rumoured to be in such cases? The man of the house unable to resist the seduction of the servant woman of the house unable to resist the seduction of the servant woman who prowled his kitchen, waiting for the moment to strike? It was the sort of story the girls in her, Latha’s, school had related, and she had laughed at, about the goings–on in houses where they or their mothers worked, about how the men came after them and how, invariably, it was the servant who got blamed. About how even when somebody else a driver or a gardener had been responsible, the girls blamed the master of the house, knowing that he would survive the accusation but that their fellow servants could not afford to lose their jobs.
So many lies that it was impossible for anybody but the two people involved to know the truth. And even if the truth was told, who could believe it?
Everybody who heard of the impending trip to the hill country and visited the Vithanages had felt sorry for Mrs. Vithanage, Latha could tell, by the way they glanced at her and then at Mrs. Vithanage and looked pointedly away when she brought them their tea. Yes, they sighed, it happened to the best of them, and by that they meant nobody else but Mr. Vithanage. And that was the real reason, Latha knew, that Mrs. Vithange could not forgive her, and swore that she would not let her step into the Vithanage house ever again.
The convent was good for her, she supposed, in those months that they cared for her and waited for her baby to be born. But then, she hadn’t known what it would feel like after; the pain, the hospital, the sterile room they left her in, the utter quiet after all that noise, the emptiness after a presence that held her so close and then let her go, taking its comfort–seeking cries with it.
It was only natural hat she should hold on to that silence, at least for a while, to say nothing more; her prayers inside, her hands sewing, sewing, while her breasts swelled up and hardened into a heart–blaming pain and soaked the gauze tied around them with milk again and again until at last they softened to ineffectual pliancy.
Sewing as she sat at the window, looking down at cascading mountains filled with tea bushes and a scent in the air that she recollected but could not place exactly.