• 06 Apr - 12 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I“It is not so bad. If there is a private convent, I will try to get you girls there, but if not, you will be fine. When we get to my aunt’s house, I will enrol you in school with her daughter’s children, your second cousins.” I can share these details with them now, of relatives I had rarely mentioned before, wanting more than anything to protect them from the misery of knowing there were options we could not follow, people we could be with, trapped as we were by our reliance on their untrustworthy father. But no longer. Now, we are free.

“How old are they?”

my son asks.

“She has three sons and a daughter. The oldest is thirteen; that’s the girl. The boys must be nine, seven, and five.”

Chooti Duwa claps her hands. “One for me!”

“He’ll want to run away from you. You’re such a pest,” her sister says, but she’s smiling and I can tell she is happy to hear there will be “one for her” as well, and an older sister at that. They notice my amusement, and their own grins broaden until I can see their teeth, crookedly perfect. My little one’s smile is particularly childish, with two early gaps, which her first permanent teeth are beginning to fill.

My children, who have never been anywhere beyond our town, are excited by everything, even the long stretches of paddy on either side of the train as we approach and pass Ambepussa. When night falls, they talk loudly about the patches of forest, thrilled by the way the clumps of trees look dangerous in the dark. We are fortunate enough that I am able to show them Bible Rock and even a glimpse of Siri Pada, both of which appear and disappear from our view like mirages in the moonlight. I consider these to be signs of blessing and bring my palms together as we pass.

I put off dinner for as long as they can stand it, hoping that sleep will follow soon after. When I finally relent, I am slightly embarrassed that our food smells so good that several passengers glance over at us. Still I am glad we have it… that the plaintain leaves have kept it from spoiling, and that we did not have to purchase buth packets from the Colombo railway station. I have never bought cooked rice from the Muslim stores, although, on occasion, to demonstrate his distaste for anything associated with me, my husband has returned home with a single packet of biryani rice and curries for himself and my mouth has watered at the fragrance. The children eat with haste and enjoyment; it is something to do, I suppose, eat, on a journey whose length I can only guess at, having learned early to think of trips such as these in terms of time, not distance. These days, even that measurement is unreliable. Timetables are for us, but it is fate that decides. Electrical outages, skipped tracks, derailments, delays that is what we are trained to expect under our present government, nothing too bad, just enough of everything inconvenient to small people like us, people without power and wealth. Still, watching my children, their contentment, I am convinced that our journey is blessed.

I wish I had added some washed green chillies and onions to spice my own packet of rice, but I was in too great a hurry to think that far ahead. I eat my food quickly and finish before they do so I can help Chooti Duwa with hers.

“Here, hold your hands out of the train window so I can wash them,” I say when they are done, and each one complies. I pour a little water on each right hand to wash the indul away.

“Amma, can I drink the rest of the thambili now?” Chooti Duwa asks.

“Yes, but not all of it. We still have a whole night to travel.”

The small basket is no longer full. Only the almost-empty drink bottles and a packet of Maliban lemon puffs remain, along with the remnans of unfinished wedges of pineapple. It is very late when we get to Gampola, and there is nothing to see but the people inside the train. It is packed, and we have had to squeeze in against one another’s bodies to accommodate each new group that climbs in with the same focus and effort that we ourselves must displayed at the start of our journey. I try to keep the children from pressing too close to the windowsills, leaning too heavily against the sides. This is a cheaper compartment, and who knows what kind of illness has rested in its corners? The overhead luggage racks are jammed with bags, and ours sits between our feet. I am grateful for our arrangement, my two older ones in front of me, the little one and I across from them; at least we are together, at least we have the window. When people cough or sneeze, I motion with my eyes so the children lean out and breathe in fresher air, giving their lungs a fighting chance against whatever colds and fevers might have climbed aboard.

All along our journey there are points where solid ground seems so far below our carriage that I hold my breath, expecting some kind of punishment. Some divine blow that would put an end to me and my children. But the train passes over them again and again and it is gone, that sensation of guilt and foreboding, and I am glad. At Nawalapitiya, the train sits for what seems like a long time. I hear a rumor, confirmed by a sharp jerk of the train, that they are adding on a pusher for the up-country climb. We are still stopped, but at least the air is cooler now and my children can sleep.

“Can I shut this window a little?” I ask an older woman sitting next to my son. She nods and smiles at me.

“Your children must be cold,” she says. She has gray hair and wears a cheap red sari. There’s a smear of red in her hairline too. I wonder if she is returning from visiting relatives in Colombo or if she is on her way to visit family on the tea estates. The tea estates are full of Tamil tea pluckers, my mother had once told me, something in her voice conveying a criticism of them, and they often send their children to work as servants, she had murmured, which was what had prejudiced me, too, toward these people. But this woman looks decent.

I can’t picture her sending a child to slave at some house far away. Maybe my mother did not know all there was to know about these parts. She had grown up in a good home, sheltered from the world; how could she have picked up facts like that? But I don’t want to think less of my mother, so I shake the thought and smile at the woman.

The older ones are fast asleep, and I have to dislodge my Chooti Duwa from my lap to shut the window. Sensing my predicament, a young man next to me holds out his arms and takes her from me. I stand at the window and try to figure out how to shut it. Our train rounds a bend, and, with my face so close to the window, I see that, in place of the forests my children had been looking at with such wonder, there are now plantations of pine and tall eucalyptus alongside the hills that I assume must be covered with tea. I am sorry that the children are asleep, and I consider stirring them awake. But they will wake up soon enough, by dawn anyway, and there will still be beautiful sights outside for them. For now, I decide that I should let them sleep. I ease the window down as far as I can. It is stuck and creaks when I move it. Creak-creak, creak-creak. My struggle and the sound my efforts produce have a comical effect on me, and I start giggling, my back to the other passengers. I lean against the window and laugh. It is the first time I have laughed in this way, silly, unafraid, since Siri was murdered and so I feel the tears come through as well, along with the laughter. Behind me I hear the young man and then the Tamil woman and then others across the aisle join in the laughter.

When I get the window closed and turn around, wiping my eyes and then covering my still smiling mouth with the edge of my sari pota, I see a young girl standing by the door, watching me. She is pregnant, about five months by the look of it. Her face is long and serious, and though her body is swollen, she is beautiful. She seems so young to be taking on such responsibility. I am immediately sober.

“Come and sit here, duwa,” I say, holding out my hand and gesturing to my seat. She must have just climbed aboard at the last station, for otherwise someone would have given up a seat for her already.

She steps forward through the crowds, her light blue dress sot and at odds with the garish overhead lights. She is wearing new sandals, and her feet are clean, a well-brought-up girl. She takes my hand and eases into our small space. I help her to sit down. Someone else passes the girl’s suitcase to us. It is square and has green checks on it. The young man beckons to me to take his seat. He stands up, holding my sleeping girl, waits for me to sit, then lays her down gently in my arms. I think him profusely and call him son. He blushes, and I realize that he is not that young.

“How old is she?” the girl asks, caressing my baby’s arm gingerly, as if she is asking to be forgiven for touching her at all.

“Four,” I say, stroking my daughter’s hair, marvelling at how perfect she is, how beautifully her features sit on her small face, her upper lip sloping down like a steep hill on each side, the bottom one full and round, her lids held down by thick lashes, something definite and confident about their straightness, the way they press against the tops of her cheeks. “But she will be five soon.”

Latha Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb: Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

The Amen always gave her pause. It reminded her of men. Our men. Or, to be more precise, her men, the ones she had known in one way or another: Mr. Vithanage, the driver, the gardener, the fishmonger, Ajith, Gehan. Okay, so the boys weren’t men the way Mr. Vithanage was a man, but still, they weren’t women. Now that she had Become a Woman which was a term that appeared from nowhere and stuck to her body the minute a penis came into contact with her vagina, like an unwieldy wand surely they had Become Men? How was it, though, that men and women became so only by bringing those parts together? What happened to those who didn’t? Did they stay girls forever?

Latha stole a surreptitious look at the nuns on either side of her. Definitely not girls; no, definitely women. But how had they done it? What had touched them? She lifted her eyes, the pupils rolling upward under her soulfully lowered lids, her eyebrows arching to accommodate the move, to gaze at the figure of Christ that hung, bloodied and barely robed, above the altar. Yes, she thought, there was something decidedly attractive about Jesus: arms outstretched, eyes half-closed, the face dipping down, that meagre bit of cloth over.

“Latha! Prayers are over!” It was Leela. Leela was not a nun, but she was somehow wedded to the convent in the incarnation of a devout liaison between the nuns and the laypeople. Leela sat in the parlor all day long except during mealtimes and prayers. She sat there and embroidered. She produced slim rectangular boxes of white cotton days-of-the-week handkerchiefs (which seemed a trifle excessive to Latha, for who could handle a grief requiring so many handkerchiefs?) and table linens with hand-crocheted lace edging. The table linens were always scream or white. If she ever had a home, Latha had decided, she would have orange table linens. She wondered sometimes if she should learn to crochet so she could make them herself. Then again, why bother? There was, surely, some place where people like Leela produced orange table linens.

“I’m coming,” Latha said, replacing her prayer book in the wooden salt in front of her. She crossed herself three times, then unwound the rosary from her hand and put it into her pocket. She liked that rosary; it was like jewelry, smooth and pearly and pale blue. It reminded her of luxuries and new things and, of course, Mrs. Vithanage’s saris. There was no escape, she had found, from the memory of Mrs. Vithanage’s saris. In a way she didn’t really mind that, because Mrs. Vithanage came complete with Mr. Vithanage and Thar and even Soma, and all of them came with Ajith, who, of course, came with Gehan.

“Were there any letters for me today?” Latha asked. She always asked.

“No.” Leela shok her head. “But we can’t say that you won’t get one tomorrow, isn’t that so? We can always check tomorrow.”

“Yes,” Latha said, acknowledging the possibility and the kindness of a friend who would utter it against all evidence to the contrary.

“I came here about eleven and a half years ago,” Leela had told her one day when Latha asked, sitting next to her in the parlor, sorting through her skeins of embroidery threads.