• 20 Apr - 26 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Once, she had crouched there when the nuns came looking for her, worried about her recovery, her blameful silence. She had simply sat down in the black, loamy earth, her nostrils full of the aroma of healthy growing things. Afterward she had crept forward on all fours, making he way through the gardens like an animal, until she lay down, on her back, measuring her head against the rows of cabbages on either side of her face. The nuns had found her there and taken her back inside, and that’s when they had handed her over to Leela for care and management.

She looked up at Leela now. So what if it might drive people like her a little crazy sometimes, the convent was good or them both. It was quiet here, and peaceful, and wholesome. Even though the sharp, cold air of the mountains came through the seemingly permeable wood and stone and made her shiver, at least it made her feel pure somehow, and untouched by all the little miseries that had visited her. And they had been little miseries, she told herself, nothing to really blemish her soul, no, she was quiet certain about that, but at the convent there was nothing at all to tarnish her opinion of herself.

“This is a good place to come from,” she told Leela and waited for a response, some recognition of her decision to affirm the convent, but there was none. Leela sat silently, looking thoughtfully at her. Latha returned her gaze for a while and then grew tired of it. She looked at Leela’s dress instead. She always wore light–colored clothes. Well, that wouldn’t be entirely true; she had three pastel dresses. Clothes were what people like Thara had. People like herself and Leela, they had dresses that could be counted on one hand. But anyway, Leela was quite lovely in her own, saintly way, with or without a proper wardrobe. She parted her hair in the middle, which made her long face seem quite forlorn, but it suited her. She seemed ripe for bearing the weight of unmentionable sorrows. In fact, she looked very much like the Virgin Mary, who hung around every nun’s neck and hers, too.

Latha began to sing softly: “Mother dearest, mother fairest, help us, help, we call on thee… virgin purest, brightest, rarest, virgin help us, help, we pray_”

“Shh!” Leela said, putting her hand over Latha’s mouth.

Latha continued to try to sing under the cool, soft hand, making Leela giggle. She brought her teeth down sharply over a fleshy rise, and Leela yelped, still laughing, and pulled her hand away. “You can’t be seventeen, Latha, you are like a child!” Leela said.

Latha stopped singing. Her mouth turned down at the corners and she felt sick again. Child. She wasn’t a child. She was a woman who had lost a child, and it didn’t matter how old she was, that still made it impossible for her to claim to be one. Maybe Leela herself had been born here, and someone had taken her away from a mother like they had taken her own baby from her. Where had her child gone? She hadn’t heard the cry of an infant inside the convent, which meant that she had been taken away altogether. If every baby here was given away, to whom had hers gone? Who was looking after her baby? They had turned Leela into a servant, hadn’t they? So whose servant would her baby become? She half–rose and looked about her frantically, searching the faces of the nuns on either side of the center table. Which one of them was neglecting her baby while they sat there eating their food as though nothing evil could be traced back to them, as though they didn’t spend their days tending to girls such as herself like they were fattening calves from whom they would steal everything there was to be stolen? Those clean gowns, those serene faces, all that singing. No wonder they got down on their knees so often! They were nothing but sinners!

Next to her Leela tok her hand. “Sit, Latha Nangi,” she said. “Finish that tea.”

“I don’t want any tea,” she said, sinking back into her chair, the hopelessness of discovering where her child had gone descending upon her. “I want to know where they took my baby. Why won’t they tell me? I’ve asked and asked_”

“It’s no use asking.” Leela interrupted her gently but quickly, as if the thought needed to be stopped before it got out o control. “Sometimes they keep them at the sister house so they can train them to be nuns, but we weren’t fortunate. They didn’t keep ours.” She paused and then went on. “But at least our babies must have been beautiful. That’s why they were adopted so quickly.”

“We don’t know that they have been adopted,” Latha said. “If they had been adopted, they would be able to tell us that, wouldn’t they?”

“Sister Angelina told me that when the babies are born, if they are beautiful and blessed, they are adopted right away. If they are not, the nuns look after them till they are old enough to become novices.”

“I don’t believe anything they tell us,” Latha said bitterly, angry at how gullible and trusting Leela was. “You are beautiful and you were not adopted and they sent you to be a servant!”

Leela looked crestfallen, the concern gone from her eyes, confusion invading them, and Latha felt sorry or her. She pushed the cup of cold tea back to Leela, who drank it without a word of complaint.

“They took me back, Latha Nangi,” she said, finally. “I had nowhere else to go and I was pregnant and they took me in and looked after me and gave me a home.”

“You called me Nangi,” Latha said, after a minute or two of silence. “Can I call you Akka? We could pretend we are sisters.”

“If you like,” Leela said, sighing, then smiling at her.

“If you like, Latha Nangi. You must call me Nangi to make it real.”

“Yes, Latha nangi,” Leela giggled, sounding young all of a sudden. “I don’t have any family either. And you are not so bad. You can boil kottamalli for me when I am sick, and I will make it for you when you are sick. That way we won’t have to go to the finfirmary and be by ourselves with Sister Francesca, who is always making us feel bad till we cry and then tells us she loves us.”

Yes, Latha thought, she would like that. The nuns always said they were the Family of God, and she didn’t care all that much for the God part, being a temple–going girl herself, but she could do with a family of something. Leela would be perfect for the part.

“I liked that woman on the train,” Leela said absently, for all the world as if she had forgotten their conversation or her part in the sister–sister game. “She waited with me to make sure the nun came. I almost made her miss the train… I didn’t want to be left behind by myself and there was nobody to stand with me. But she got off the train with me, leaving her children asleep in the booth where we had been sitting.”

And once more Latha was back on a train heading toward roses. Once more with a family and a hill country and then, nothing else. Try as she might, nothing else.


There is something heart–stopping about the way the lights on the front end of the train curve and disappear around the edge of the cliff from where we sit in the back of it. It must be the sight of the engine leaving us behind, the sensation of derailment and doom that makes her feel like confiding. I have been listening to the station–master’s melismatic chant, the repetition, save one each time, of the places we pass and move beyond: Ula–pane, Nawala–pitiya, Wata–wala, Roz–ella, Hatton, Kota–gala, Thalawa–kele, Wata–goda, Great–Western, Nanu–oya, Ambe–wela, Patti–pola, Ohiya, Idalgas–inna, Hapu–tale, Diyata–lawa, Bandara–wela, El–la, Demo–dara, Hali–Ela, Bad–ulla… and that’s how he pronounces them, breaking each one into two, all except her station and mine: Hatton and Ohiya. It is like a periodic lullaby. With each town that is dropped off the list we grow closer to our destination, and farther from our sorrows. Hers and mine.

“It wasn’t my fault, aunty,” she says. “I don’t want you to think it was my ault.”

“I don’t blame you,” I say. “Men are like hat.” I pat her knee, knowing what she means and not expecting her to say anything more. Don’t I have my own tale to nurse? But she goes on as if I had encouraged her, telling me that I was wrong to imagine that she was from a good family; she was no more than a servant.

“I had worked in that house since I was a child. I don’t even know how old I am now. They tell me I am nineteen and an adult, but the neighbor’s servant told me that I came there when I was six. I’ve been with them for eleven years. She says that means I must be seventeen and not an adult. But anyway, what does it matter whether I am an adult or not? They said it was my fault, so in a way it must have been my fault.”

And she tells me about how she used to go up onto the rooftop at night and how, if everybody was sleeping, she would sing softly and practice the dancing she saw in the Hindi films the sir and madam liked to watch. She had learned how to turn on a television and how to play motion pictures on it through a video eka when nobody was home, which was very often.

“You just have to push the button and the film comes on the TV,” she tells me, and I try to imagine being able to watch films anytime at all like that. There had been a radio and a record player in the house next to ours. They had bought those things with Dubai money after the husband got a job in the desert countries at a building site, and they used to fry squid with los of chillies and invite everybody to listen to Muwan Palessa every week on the radio on the Sri Lanka Guvanviduli Sevaya. Afterward, they would play records, and I did enjoy hearing the music coming from their house all in English when I went to get my children. But one day the owners met me at the door and told me that there was a needle on the player and that my Loku Duwa had made a record get scratched by knocking it, so after that I didn’t let them go to that house. I told my children it was because nobody needed that much entertainment. Those people used to boast that someday when the Japanese government built a TV station and gave the whole country TV, they would get one of those tool. I imagine a TV screen must be like the film theatre screen, but I can’t think what it might actually look like. I suppose that is all right. I don’t know how anybody could keep track of that many stories anyway.

“How did you know what to watch?” I ask her, amazed that a person as young as she is would know not only how to handle such equipment but what to watch.

She smiles at me. “I only watched the ones with the handsome actor on the cover,” she says.

But the handsome actor always had a lady to love who wore bright–colored saris that showed off her shapely body, and they always danced and got caught in the rain, she tells me. She hangs her head after she says that and is quiet for a while. All the other passengers are asleep, nodding this way and that, or with their heads resting against the shoulders of friends unconsciously made. The sight of it makes me feel drowsy and happy. I feel my own eyes beginning to close.

“It was all because o the rain,” the girl blurts out.

“What was because of the rain?” I ask, awake now, more curious about her story than I was before. This would be the first time I’d heard the rain blamed for a pregnancy, though, considering what I’d seen and overheard on this trip alone, maybe even that was possible.

“I went up there when it was raining one night, just to see what it feels like to be dancing and seeing a man like that, in the rain, like in the films,” she says. “I took the madam’s sari too. Just the sari, not anything else. It was not one of he good saris either. It wasn’t raining much at first, just a drizzle. So I took off my dress and wrapped the sari around me sanding right there, waiting for it to start pouring like it always does in the city, after those first large drops of rain. I waited for the big downpour, which comes like the gods are trying to wash the sins away from every crack in the payment.”

And now, I can see everything. The actor, the film, the dancing, the color, the rain. I can see her body wrapped up in blue. I don’t know why it is blue, it just seems that a blue sari would look beautiful in the rain, and here she is wearing blue and it does look lovely on her. And I can see, without her having to tell me, the man who must have come upon he, and it does not matter if he lived in her house or the house next door, or even in one father down the way from her. I just know that he sees her and wants her and she is not to blame for any of it.

“Here,” I say when she has finished her story, breaking a large square of honey–coated cadju from the quarter pound of sweets I bought at the last station while my children slept, wasting some of our money on an unnecessary indulgence now that we are safely on our way and our destination that much closer.

“No, that’s okay. You should save I for the children,” she says, pushing my hand away gently.

“I have some more,” I lie.

“We’ll eat this.”