• 30 Mar - 05 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I recall the thrill I felt in my spine to be in the presence of a priest without the requirement of devoutness. It was heretical, that behavior, but once we had dispensed with the usual taboos, what more was there to do or be but worse? Worse than could have been thought of me, worse than I could have imagined of myself.

They were young, even the priest, and they had opinions about everything, things I had never considered before.

I listened as they shouted at one another, as they fought, and announced truces, and loved one another with a fierceness I had never seen among men. Even the sadhu, roaring right alongside them, the future almost here, their plans for things I didn’t quite understand laid out, nearly complete. They didn’t treat Siri differently. He was one of them. That’s how he moved in their midst, contributing his thoughts, cajoling them to stop smoking or drinking, advising them about some absent girlfriend or other. I was fascinated. I sat beside him and was content to be there, like him, learning, absorbing, hiding from my

real life.

But then, in one night, four of them disappeared. My Siri and three of this friends, Thilak, Priyantha, and Gamini. I think those were their names, Or maybe it wasn’t them. Maybe it was some other boys, some boys whose names I hadn’t caught. When Siri returned to me, limping, bleeding, all of them stopped coming to the boats and went into hiding. He grew quiet about his hopes after that. He loitered on the beach whenever he could, hoping one or another would show up, but they did not. There was only the sea, and the sea betrayed us. The sea brought a body to shore.

“Menike,” Siri called to me that morning. Menike. Lady. The other half of my given name. “Menike, come down to the boats.”

“Tonight? He’s home tonight. I can’t come,” I said. I had jut returned home after leaving my children at school my son at the Rahula Vidyalaya and my daughter at the girl’s school, St. Mary’s Convent, where I ahd begged the runs to ake her without payment, persuading them by dint of my mother’s education and my own association with the convent in Hambanotota.

“Our sadhu’s body has come to shore, bloated and full of holes.”

I did not need to know more. I was familiar with the sensation of futures ending, of hopes dissolving like the froth of the waves. And because he called me, because I went to comfort him, to comfort myself, risking everything, with my husband at home to notice my leaving, to follow me, because of this, my Siri died, with a knife in his back, his life easing out of his body into me. If he could have chosen an end, I know this would have been the way for him. In my arms, beside those boats he would not step into, on that soft sand, not far from where his friends had once stood with him, convinced of success. And I am gratefull, still, despite all of it, that I had one year in which I got to be a woman. Not a daughter, not a wife, not a mother.

News of his murder spread through the neighbourhood like the cholera that came and went in faraway places, or the droughts we heard about on our radios. Siri’s body was dragged and left in our front yard, and his parents came, weeping, to collect their dead son to the sound of curses from my husband’s drunken mouth, the whole neighbourhood watching, relishing my punishment. And even though they knew, his parents knew, nobody would accuse my husband It must have been easier for them too, to believe their son had died at the hands of the police, whom everybody despised, and for a cause that was more noble, grander, more lasting, in their minds, than love for another man’s wife.

And now I remember how my husband looked this morning when I left him. How I stood and watched the rise and fall of his body, the breath leaving and entering him. I looked at him, but it was Siri I saw. The way the breath left his lips in a whistle when I walked by, so soft that only I could hear; the way the breath left his lips when we stood together in the dark; the way the breath came out of his body, all of it, leaving him behind, and me, never to return on that last night.

The train lurches forward without preamble, jerking me out of my mixed-up reverie with is passions and losses and hopelessness and pride. As we crawl sluggishly out of the station, comfortable in our relatively empty carriage, the rain begins. It looks dreary outside.

“I am glad we are not staying in Colombo,” Chooti Duwa says, pronouncing the word with aplomb, now that she knows what it means.

“Good. You will like the hills.”

“How big are they?”

“They are not hills, they are mountains,” her brother tells her, warming to his role as the deliverer of information. “We learned about them at school. It’s where all the tea in the country comes from, and the land is so good hat the vegetables are bigger than any you’ve ever seen. And there are waterfalls.”

“What arewaterfalls?”

“Waterfalls are when the water in a lake is falling down from one high mountain to a smaller mountain,” Loku Duwa says, trying to restore some balance to the usually shared role of knowledgeable older siblings. She has always managed to sound older than her years. It’s the curse of the oldest girl in the family, I suppose. And a blessing, too, for me, for any mother, for how can one woman take all the responsibility for a family? No, there must be help, and I am glad for my older girl. I take her hand in mine and hold it. She has small hands and her fingers are short, like her father’s. She is small, too, with lots of soft flesh to keep her small bones safe, not good for manual labor. Siri’s daughter, on the other hand, is like him and me: lean and strong and somehow, even at this age, peculiarly capable. I take her hand in mine too and compare my girls, tracing the lines on their pals as if I were like one of the Tamil fortune-tellers from Kataragama who pass through town, their dark green and orange cotton saris tight around them, their mouths red with betel stains, their nose rings and their baskets of potions and papyrus and twine balanced on their heads, always grateful for plain tea.

“Will the water fall on our heads if we stand under it?” Chooti Duwa aska, a baby again.

I smile. “The water in the mountains is very cold, not like the ocean. You can bathe in it, but you have to get used to it, and unless it is a very small waterfall, you don’t stand right underneath it. You stand in the pool at the bottom, away from the falls, on the rocks in the river.”

“I want to go to a proper school, not a Montessori school,” she says, after a few moments of quiet.

“You’ll be five soon and then you can go to a proper school, al-though in those parts it might be a mixed school.”

“What is a mixed school?” Loku Duwa asks.

“Both girls and boys, not separate like our schools now,” my son tells her.

“Chee! I don’t want to go to school with boys!” Loku Duwa says.

“I don’t want to go to school with girls either!” Loku Putha adds, as if he means only one girl and that would be his own sister.
I laugh.

to be continued...