• 27 Apr - 03 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

She takes it from me. And we sit in the carriage, and no the clanking of metal underneath the train, or the night wail of the horn far ahead of us, or the whoosh and sigh o the winds can make us feel lonely so long as we sit like that, so close that we can hear each other scrunch and bite.

When we reach Watawala, I am glad that it is night and we cannot see the pass that the train goes over, carried, it seems, on nothing but a prayer. I remember going over it as a new bride, my husband and I making the rounds of visits to all our relatives; I had felt a self-conscious pleasure, the kind generated by the ought-to-be-happy wishes of those who had put us on a lorry to go from my village in Hambantota to his in Matara after the ceremony, my beautiful teak furniture stacked neatly behind. The dressing table, the almirah, the bed my father had made especially for my mother, my smooth, heavy trunk, the oval dining table and six chairs. I remember how empty my childhood home had seemed when it was all loaded into the vehicle. Still, my father had looked delighted, so I tried to be too. For his sake. Everything, all that followed, for his sake. I remember the way the young girls giggled and the men patted my husband’s back. He must have had hoped too. We had already wilted, though, a little, by the time we reached the new home two hours later; just like the coconut flowers tied to the front of the lorry had folded over, their seed-filled fronds somehow having lost the promise of vigorous fertility on the bumps and stops and in all the heat along the way.

My husband and I had reclaimed a little of that optimism on our one trip to the hills to visit my dead mother’s older sister, reclaimed it exactly over this pass. Some sensation of taking a real risk, perhaps, of my needing his assurance of safety, of his pride in the ability to give it. We had held hands coyly, and when I hung my head over the window to watch how we moved over the abyss below, he had rested his chin on my shoulder and joined me. We had both looked at it, this pass. I wonder now what it was that he saw.

I see nothing now, but I can sense what is outside. Everything feels lush here, even in the darkness; the mountain air is cool, the fecund soil giving off a certain scent, like a beautiful woman with many children secure in the knowledge of more to come. I ask the girl to hold my sleeping baby while I go to stand in the open door-way of our carriage. She opens her arms with rue delight, taking her from me and shushing her back to sleep, her voice instinctively pitched to soothe.

The train has emptied, a few passengers at a time, ever since we left Kandy, and by now thee is nobody left to fight with over the pleasure of sitting on the steps. I lower myself to the floor and pull the folds of my sari up between my knees and tuck it underneath me; then I drape the fall over my head and around my shoulders. I hold on to the metal railing on the step and lean my head against my arm. In some places, the hills have reclaimed so much of the tracks that fronds of grass and leaves of trees I cannot identify caress my face and feet as we pass. I am amazed by their resilience, the way they have prevailed over steel and fumes and noise.

There’s a little light behind me from the inside of the carriage; outside, it is pitch-black but for the moon, which is still on its first day of waning. The whole country is asleep. I sit there and wonder about the lives that are resting, what the day might bring for each one. For me. I stretch my arm out into the night, daring it to hurt me if it can. Nothing happens. My fingers brush air. We enter a tunnel, and what I had considered darkness before now feels like the first touch of dawn. It is so loud in there, the train’s journey echoing repeatedly against those curved walls, that it feels as though the tunnel is angry that we have entered it at all. I draw my body in, though to save myself from what terror I cannot say. When we come out at the other end, I can see better for a while, but soon enough this relative light reclaims its former strength and once more I feel just as blind. I stretch my arm out again and again, but with less surety, and for shorter lengths of time. Eventually, I give up. I don’t want to feel scared anymore. After a few minutes the moon shows again from behind the clouds.

When I return to our seats, I find that the girl has fallen asleep too, leaning against the window, my own little one’s face nestled in her lap. They look like sisters, my daughter in her orange checked dress and the girl. Across from them, Loku Putha and Loku Duwa are also still asleep, supporting each other but only with their backs, their faces turned away from each other and resting flat on their seat. I touch each head and utter a blessing. The same blessing, four times. I sit next to the girl and put my feet up on the seat in front of me, forming a small barrier between the children and the rest of the occupants with my body. I listen for a while to the assurance of the tracks under this machine, the thakas thakas and then the pause, and again the thakas thakas and then the pause. It is soothing, like the feel of a mother’s lap as she rocks a baby to sleep. I close my eyes.

“Nende! Nende! Wake up!”

“What is it? What?” I ask, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. My feet find the floor, and I half-stand.

“No, sit, it’s nothing. I just wanted to show you the dawn,” she says, the girl. “Look. By the time you reach Ohiya it will be here.”

Outside the darkness is relenting, but only incrementally. The girl’s eyes are fixed on her reflection. It’s still dark enough for that. Too dark to wake up the children; there are a few hours left of our journey. I stare at us in the glass, and then, just like her, I blurt out my own sins to a stranger.

“I had someone who loved me,” I say. “He died in my arms. My husband stabbed him to death.”

“Just like in the films,” she says and looks interested, as I were relating a story about somebody else, not sharing my truth.

I nod, curling my secrets back into my heart. She is nothing more than a child. I picture her holding a baby in her arms, sitting in front of a screen with colourful moving pictures. “My mother came from the hill country,” I say, distracting her from the story I cannot tell with one she can understand. “And she was from a very good family. They were the sort that gave alms to the priests and made donations to the temple near their home. I never knew where, exactly, my grandparents passed away before my mother got married. She was living with her older sister in Ohiya when she met my father by chance. He had come up to the hills on pilgrimage to Sri Pada and then to visit a cousin. They fell in love and she moved to the low country with him. That’s where I was born. In the South, the real South, beyond the Benthara River.”

“Where is your mother now?” she asks, not caring which part of the South I am from, not knowing these distinctions of which my father used to speak so proudly that I, too, grew straighter with that pride.

Leela said she was happy for her that her madam and sir had wanted her back, though she also added various cautionary words about things, like political skirmishes, which had never worried Latha. She warned her to be careful, because the JVP leader had been killed and all the young people who had fought for him so many years ago were going to be agitating and things were bound to get bad in Colombo, and Latha needed a good house to live in, with people who wanted her. That was the only way, Leela said, that she would be safe in such a city in these bad times.

“And anyway, it isn’t this way for everybody, Latha Nangi, even if nobody was fighting and there was peace in the country, not every girl gets this chance to go back and set things right. You must be grateful and not make any mistakes this time around,” she said. She was sitting on Latha’s bed, helping her pack her suitcase. It wasn’t as if she had that much, but certainly by Leela’s standards, she had enough to turn packing into an event.

Latha had washed her clothes in twos and threes over the past week, a couple of dresses here, a skit there. The pieces of underwear in particular had to be washed well in advance so they could be dried discreetly, hung on her foldout rack, hidden between the blouses in the front rows and the convent walls behind. It didn’t matter that they were all discards passed on to her from somebody else; they were just not convent-quality. It was what had brought trouble her way, the nuns had said, when she first got there and they looked through her belongings, dressing for somebody other than herself underneath her school uniforms and servant-girl dresses. They had kindly gifted her with two yards of white cotton fabric, which she had dutifully sewn into the panties of their dreams; bunched up high around the waist and ballooning like mushrooms, only to be cinched again at the tops of her thighs, which, after inspection and approval, she had sent away with the cooking girl. They had also given her, still in their pink and white boxes and plastic wrappings, two new Angelina bras, which were the kind Mrs. Vithanage wore; their support came entirely from concentric circles of threads, which grew ever smaller until they reached sharp points. Latha could not imagine any human breasts fitting into such contraptions, and she wasn’t going to subject hers to them. She had passed them on to Leela, who accepted them with gratitude, and she had continued to wear her old underwear, hiding her sin under two slips instead of one.

Watching Leela touch these things, Latha felt her loyalty to her own notions of right and wrong waver. Her clothes looked obscene in Leela’s hands. Leela was right; she should be careful of her second chance. She reached over and crammed the underwear into a siri-siri bag. “I’m not going to wear these, Leelakka, I’m just going to take them and give them to somebody else.”

“That’s a good idea,” Leela said, smiling indulgently, “but keep something to wear home.”

They continued to work quietly, sitting side by side, the card-board suitcase open between them.

“My suitcase had green and white checks,” Leela said, stroking the side of Latha’s bag, “but when I knew I was going to stay, I gave it to the kitchen girl.”

“How did you know you were going to stay?” Latha asked, absently, smoothing her hands over the pleats of a yellow and black dress that had belonged to one of Thara’s aunts and was clearly of another era, stitched from a Butterick magazine pattern, the kind that were stacked in Mrs. Vithanage’s house.

Mrs. Vithanage. Latha wondered why Mrs. Vithanage had decided to let her come back, knowing that everybody assumed her own husband had been responsible for the pregnancy. Latha had listened to the convent cooks talk, after her baby had been born and when she was still spending time alone in the vegetable gardens. Just like the students at her old school, the cooks had been talking about the girls who came and delivered babies under the care of the nuns. When she overheard their voices, she had stopped to listen. They come here making all kinds of excuses, all kinds of stories, but I believe what the nuns say, it is always their own fault, she had heard the oldest of them, a hunchbacked woman named Maggie Achchi, say. They go to work in Colombo houses and before long they want to take their madams’ place. And even though the youngest among them, the kitchen girl, had tried to argue that perhaps it was the other way around, that perhaps it was the masters who forced themselves on their servant girls, Maggie Achchi had insisted that the girls were to blame: If it isn’t the master, then it is their own bad character. They are nothing but whores, running around with drivers and gardeners and then blaming it all on the head of the household, the good man who pays their salaries, and for what? Nothing but spite. She had fallen silent only when Latha turned the corner and stood there, saying nothing, staring at all of them until the kitchen girl had stepped forward and led her back inside the convent. Latha felt glad to be leaving a place where everybody from the nuns to the cooks believed the worst of her, and where there was no place for the complexities of a life like hers within their limited experience of the world.

“When I stepped into this place, I felt at peace,” Leela said, reminding Latha of the question she had asked. Leela had trucked her hands underneath her hips, and she was smiling. She looked young and innocent.

“How could you feel that with all these rules?” Latha asked, because Leela was clearly aching to explain. She folded the dress and laid it in the suitcase, wondering if the clothes would get crushed when she set it upright.

“Here at the convent my rules are only to do with discipline and prayers.