• 23 Mar - 29 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

The sound of raised voices, the sound of women and men and children, of doors shutting, and gusts from the top of a train, of perilous cliffs that hung over mists so cold and clean that she felt like her body would freeze if she breathed.

Biso Loku Duwa says, “Colombo stinks.”

Chooti Duwa says, “Can I have a Colombo?” her eyes on a basin of freshly cut pineapple that a vendor is bolding almost up to our noses; if he lifts any higher on his toes, he will either empty the basin into our laps or all between the platform and the train.

“That’s annasi, not Colombo,” Loku Putha tells her, his eyes catching mine, laughing. “Colombo is the city. That’s where our last train stopped and this train starts. My friend said that it’s the biggest city in the whole world, and the only problem with it is that it’s dirty. If it were clean, then it would be the best city too. My friend came here with his father for a wedding at a big hotel. The hotels are very clean, not like the city. They stayed in the hotel for two days.”

“I know that’s pineapple. Can I have a pineapple?” Chooti Duwa says, clearly unable to absorb all this information about cities and hotels and weddings and focusing on the one sure thing right before her eyes, the luscious yellow wedges of fruit that take even my fancy: their careless patterns, the flecks of salt and chilli on them. It is not how my mother served pineapple we ate pineapples fresh and without spices but I have learned to love them this way. Siri taught me, laughing at my high-caste ways and coming at me with pieces of pineapple clenched between his teeth, offering a new savor and himself too. Pineapples with salt and chilli, they are the taste of memory and happiness and now, perhaps, also the taste of our future. I unwrap the end of my sari again, but my son beats me to it. How did he get money?

“I took it from him while Thaththa was still asleep,” he says, his eyes nasty again, and I am sorry I asked Well, what is to be done? A last transgression can be forgiven, after all. Soon he will be in a clean place, cool and fresh and healthy from the inside all the way out.

I have already asked him twice to get down and check the name written on the side of the train: UDARATA MENIKE even though I know we are on the right train. I had asked a stationmaster to point it out to us after we got down from the Matara Colombo train along with everybody else, and the stationmaster, perhaps recognizing that I had not travelled much, or maybe seeing how distressed I was by the number of policemen on guard along the platforms, had walked us over to this train and waited until we climbed aboard. Yes, Loku Putha has told me, both times, this is our train, the Up-Country Lady. Already we have sat here for so long now, through lunch, when I bought a packet of cream crackers for them to eat, and afternoon tea, which I bought for them from a young boy who poured the dark, sweet water into smoky glasses from a simple tin kettle, that I feel nervous. As if he might have time to follow us, or that I might have forgotten how to be cautious and let a stranger persuade me to climb aboard the wrong train.

“Check again, Loku Putha,” I say. “Please, one last time? I won’t ask again.”

He climbs down for a third time and chants the name of the train, slapping each carriage on its side as he walks, up and down the length of it: “Udaraa Menike! This is our train! Udarata Menike! This is our train! Udarata Menike!” The people around us stir and peer out of the windows on the platform side, laughing, pointing at him, happy to find a way to keep their own children amused.

“Aiyya shouldn’t be out there. People are laughing at him,” Loku Duwa says.

“I like when Aiyya sings,” Chooti Duwa says, slapping the windowpane in time to the rhythm of her brother’s song.

I see a policeman accost him when my son reaches the front of the train. I don’t know what he tells him, but my boy stops singing and comes back to us, walking quickly as if he regrets having wandered so far.

“What did the ralahamy say?” I ask, anxious.

Loku Putha shrugs. “Nothing. He just told me not to loiter on the platform.”

I don’t believe him, because he looks scared. I despise the police, for the way they stoke the fears that people have of the prospect of tragedy, for the way they always seem to collude with the worst elements of our government, for the way they disregard the murders of some people, allow thuggery to go unpunished. For letting my husband live. I try to get my son to tell me if the policeman threatened him or in some other way made him feel unsafe, but he shakes his head repeatedly.

After that bit of excitement, I put my head out of thewindow only to hail a man selling thambili so we can refill our bottles. It is so hot that even the one he cuts and pierces for us is warm. After I have drained the water into our bottles, the man splits the king coconut in half and we use the scoop he fashions for us from the husk to scrape out the soft flesh. That at least is sweet and filling, and the children are happy, so I try not to worry about the germs that are probably getting into their bodies, or to berate myself for not having thought to bring a spoon along for this purpose. I hope that the goodness of the thambili itself will keep them from falling sick on our journey.

The wait is impossibly long for those of us who have already travelled far to get to this station, and, after all this time, we still have to wait for an hour and a half before our train leaves. By that time Loku Duwa has vomited once, Chooti Duwa has had to go to the bothroomin the station twice, and my son ha sflashed his money three times, responding to the relentless vendors who ply their wares among the weary and the bored:

“Kadalai! Kadalai! Kadalai!” mostly or Loku Duwa, who loves roasted chickpeas or roasted anything, really.

“Annasi! Annasi!” mostly for Chooti Duwa, who has eaten pineapples only in round slices, not in huge quarters like this.

“Ice palam! Ice palam! Ice palam!” for all of us to cool down, but especially for the little one, whose tongue is on fire from the spices on her pineapple. The children enjoy that last purchase the most, the sight of those cardboard triangular cylinders nestled in the rigiform box, the sudden cooling of the air near their knees when the vendor sets his box down and opens it, the taste of those sweet, cold blocks of flavoured Elephant House ice.

I try to be patient with them and content, to enjoy the time between one life and another. I bring up the past so I may leave it behind, to take myself adequately into the future.

It wasn’t because of the drinking that I went with Siri, though that was enough of an excuse. It was simply because he was young and I was too and he asked repeatedly. Isn’t that, in the end, why any woman does anything with any man? He was a choice and he was mine to make. Of course I would choose him. What woman wouldn’t? He was young and present and he had eyes that looked for me.

Siri looked for me at market when I went to meet my husband as he came off the largest boat, standing on the prow in front of his crew of men like he owned the ocean itself, broad-shouldered and square like a lump of sod, brutal and arrogant. He even looked for me when I went with my children to watch them play with the waved. He watched me when I went to the well at dawn those times when there was a water-cut and that was our only source, and he watched me when I went to temple on full-moon days. In the end I found that all I was doing was watching him watching me, and then it was not clear who had begun this game in the first place.

But more than his pursuit was the fact that he had turned away from his father’s fishing trade, and that made him everything my husband was not. Other women doubled their prayers when their husbands went out to sea by the light of the moon, but I, I sang. I sang because Siri was not among those men whose boats blinked on and off on the horizon heavy with their nets and gathered on the shore in the morning to pull the ma-dal in, hand over fist. He stayed with me, beside me, inside me, and I did not care that my children were asleep, alone at home, or that the neighbors might come to know. He burned the fear out of me until all that was left was desire. And I took it wherever I could, whenever I could, not caring anymore what anybody thought or said or might do. Siri was like his name to me, happiness. And I, who had never known happiness as a woman, why would I say no to that?

It filled me with hope that, when he went to work, it was to a clean-kept Muslim store frequented by the students who came back to this town from the universities in Colombo and Peradeniya. He didn’t earn much there, bringing plain tea and godhamba roti stuffed with curries cooked with too much pepper to his customers, but he learned about matters that had nothing to do with the sea from the students who knew what was going on all over the country. That’s where he learned about the leader of a movement who paid attention to everybody, even the lower castes, who was so intelligent he had been offered a scholarship to study medicine in the Soviet Union, and who had returned home to lead the people in revolution. He told me that this leader had united young people from everywhere from the universities, from the unemployed, even from the military forces!

I was proud that my Siri was going to join such a man, and that he was going to help bring our lady prime minister back into power. I was proud that the leader of our movement came from my father’s town, the place where I, too, had been born. How could Siri and I have known what would happen after the elections, how our Mathiniya would turn her back on us, how she would put his leader in prison, how the people would rise in revolt, and how they would die as the army returned to her fold? All those young people, felled in groups, falling headfirst into shallow graves.

“Biso, my Menike, someday I will be in a good position with a new government,” he told me. “My campus friends have assured me of this,” Dreamingwith me, the sand beneath us, the skies above, and only the sound of the waves to argue against the things he told me, my husband out at sea. I believed in that future the way he did, unable to imagine that we would be wrong, unable to know that when Siri was gone that future would mean nothing to me.

Siri started to meet his university friends by the boats late at night, and too often, though that was dangerous: there were always informants, there in our South, where the plans were being drawn; the police were everywhere, and they could never be trusted, even when they claimed to be with us. I used to go there sometimes, against Siri’s wishes, bringing a flask of tea as an excuse or a treat I had made with the money from the sale of the small, leftover fish my husband had no use for. I wanted to put myself in harm’s way, to join them in taunting something corrupt and deadly so that my other imprudence would pale and somehow escape the notice of the gods, that Siri and I would be safe.
One of Siri’s friends was a Buddhist monk, his saffron robes thrown on without care, quite unlike the priests at our local temple.
Revatha Sadhu looked as though he might catch on fire himself at any moment; he was energetic and restless and moved too fast for me to imagine that he had done anything meditative in his life.