• 04 May - 10 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I work, but my work is between me and my cloth and threads. Nobody can find fault with me for anything I do, not even I. The city is different. I could never go back to it.” Leela looked so contented that Latha felt sad. What was wrong with her that she could not feel that same sense of peace?

She sat down next to Leela, thinking about how quiet and restful her room was, even with two people in it. At the Vithanages’ her sleep had never come gently to her, finding her stretched out, clean, and hardly ever tired, like it did here. She had been used to nights coming upon her like a storm, making her curl up to ride them out, making her wake up still tired, her bones stiff from the floor. She had a bed here, and they had just given it to her the day she came; she hadn’t had to be somebody’s servant for most of her life to earn her bed and privacy.

She stood up and walked around the room, touching one thing and mother. The brown wooden shelf over her bed with the requisite picture of Jesus and a pointy red bulb, which stayed lit through the night; the switch by the door, which was a little grimy from the many hands that had searched for it in the dark, and, beside it, the rectangular mirror, which showed her face; the rack by the window with her nightdress and the pair of socks that she wore for sleeping folded neatly over it; the simple latched cupboard, which now stood empty of all her belongings save the last.

She put her palm over her box of treasures. The box had once contained chocolates. Mr. Vithanage had got a Christmas hamper one year from somebody in the government. It was the only such delivery the family had ever received, and what excitement it had caused her and Thara! It had come full of foreign things: Kraft cheese in a round blue tin, black Christmas pudding in a ceramic bowl, Christmas cake wrapped in red cellophane and tied with a gold ribbon, packets of fancy tea biscuits from England, a blue tin of butter cookies separated from one another by crisp, pleated, transparent wax paper, a bottle of scotch whiskey, a bottle of rum, and the best thing of all: a wooden box packed with twelve once more at the memory of that day, the evening when all of it had been opened, the small tastes she had received when Mrs. Vithanage, obviously swept up in generosity at the sight of this feast, had sent a single plate to the kitchen with the thinnest of samplings for the servants; herself, Soma, the gardener, and the driver.

The box had been given to her by Thara. She would have liked to have the tin, but Thara had taken that for her hair clips, and so Latha had decided to prefer the box because it still, after all these years, smelled of chocolates, and the tin was just a tin as soon as the butter cookies were eaten, because it had to be washed of all the crumbs, and the local soap and city water took the scent of luxury away. Latha knew exactly what was in her box now. A yellow araliya flower pressed into silken brown delicacy from the bunch that Gehan had given her that first afternoon, a draft of the note she had written to Ajith to bring him to her that first night, the rectangular green wrapper from the cake of jasmine soap that Soma had given her when she came of age, the flat gold earings in the shape of stars that Soma had said she arrived in and that she had never taken off until she got Thara’s ruby ones, Thara’s two gold bangles, which she had never actually been allowed to wear, five pictures torn from magazines that she had received as birthday presents, and the strip of gold paper Thara had given her. She heard a sniffle and turned around.

“Don’t cry, Leelakka,” she said, “I will send you letters from Colombo.”

“There’s no point writing letters to me, nangi, I can’t read them, and anyway, you should go forward from here and live your life. I just feel sad because you’re the first child they gave me to look after,” Leela said. “I feel like I’m losing a daughter.”

“Not a daughter, a sister, Leelakka! I’m too old to be your daughter.” But Leela didn’t laugh. She just sat and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief from one of her pockets. Leela’s dresses always had pockets. Latha wondered whether Leela sewed her own dresses complete with pockets or whether the nuns knew she liked pockets and gave her only the old dresses that had them.

Leela heaved another sigh, and Latha tried to feel as miserable; but no tears would come, not even when she tried to imagine never being able to see Leela again, because somehow that did not seem likely, like a baride. And brides always came back later to visit and make people happy to see them and comment on how domestic they looked, or to have their bellies patted knowingly. She had witnessed many such visits at the Vithanages’ when their nieces and nephews brought their new spouses around for personal introductions. She and Thara had always wondered what the wedding was for if the newly married couple had to “do the rounds” afterward. Maybe Thara would be busy doing that after her wedding. What would she, Latha, be doing then? Would she have to accompany Thara? She pictured herself walking beside Thara, carrying the obligatory bunches of ambul plantains and packets of Marie biscuits for the relatives, laughing about one thing or another, perhaps at the way an aunt wobbled, or an uncle wore his sarong tied just under his chest, like a priest who had discarded his robes and returned to the life of a layman. Yes, life was going to change for the better again.

Next to her, Leela wiped her eyes again. Latha turned back to her box, opened it, and took out the gold paper. It slipped from her fingers and unravelled, so she had to roll it back up carefully. By the time she was done she had goldtipped fingers. She held it out to Leela.

“You can keep this to remember me, Leelakka,” she said. “If you start to worry about me, you can look at it and know that I’ll be shining like that somewhere in the city.”

Leela blew her nose into her hankie and then wiped her eyes with the edge of her dress. She took the gold paper and unrolled a corner of it. A little glitter came of on her fingers, and she rubbed them together. More tears started to roll down he face, but they were soundless and the sight of them finally made Latha feel that she, too, was about to lose something she would miss. She knel by the bed andput her arms around Leela, pressing her face against her chest. Leela rocked her back and forth, murmuring words that she could not make out over her head.

And the sound of Leela’s voice reminded her of something. It was the voice of her mother, stern with the effort of holding back some sorrow, soothing her, reassuring her, telling her that she should go, she should go and the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, they would bless her and keep her from harm. Thunuruvange saranai mage Duwa, Budhu saranai mage Duwa. Yes, those had been her words, but where had she uttered those heartfelt blessings? From what television show had they come to get tangled up with Latha’s real memories from her life with the Vithanages?

She pulled away from Leela, hearing Sister Angela’s voice outside. Leela reached out and traced the imprint of the cross she wore on a chain where it had pressed into Latha’s face.

“You will be blessed,” she said, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.” She smiled.

The Triple Gem; The Holy Trinity; Mr. Vithanage, Mrs. Vithanage, and Thara. Between the designs of three sets of threesomes, she should be happier. She turned away from Leela and added the rosary to her box of treasures. The she unpinned the bright blue medal of the Virgin Mary from her blouse and put that in there too.


The girl has opened her suitcase. Inside, I see that her belongings have come undone.

I am glad that our bag is made of hard nylon, that my children’s possessions are pressed tight inside so there is no chance of anything unraveling; but I feel bad for her. Things would not slide around this much if she had more to pack in her bag. She rummages inside, and I try not to look.

She pulls out a dress and hands it to me. “Here,” she says, “it will fit your little one.”

I refuse, push it back, and she offers it to me again. We go through the ritual a few times before I smile and accept her gift with great gratitude. I unfold it and admire the white cotton fabric, the lace edging, the bow at the back. It looks like the kind of dress a mother would have asked a tailor to make for a daughter. I used to have dresses like that too, as a child. My mother used to walk along the railway tracks with me to reach Simeon Appu, the tailor who made all the clothes for our family. I remember it well, the walk, the weight of cloth in a brown paper bag, the frayed old Butterick pattern books, with drawings of English girls, arranged in a rack, and the smell of the tailor’s shop, like machine oil and ironing. His hands, too, pinpricked and arthritic, yet oddly soothing as he measured me for this year’s new dress. But all that ended when she died. My father didn’t know much about little girls. After the nuns took over, it was school uniforms most o the day, and the nuns taught me how to make those myself. I never did like sewing, though another reason for my husband’s wrath. It made him furious hat I would take our children to the tailor for their clothes, saving my patience only for darning or lengthening a hem.

My mother’s Singer sewing machine with its wooden wings served as an end table most of the year, and as a magical toy the children liked to open and shut, my son doing the difficult job of reaching into its cave to bring up the heavy, curved black inside, with all its bobbing and sliding moving parts. Now, with this dress in my hands, I am reminded of all hat. I feel the soft cotton between my fingers.

“It’s probably a little big for her still, but by next year it’ll fit,” the girl says. “That’s the dress I wore when I felt the convent. The madam told me it was a new dress they had made for me to wear when I accompanied them home, not like the ones I had. I wore it only for special occasions and only for that first year in Colombo, to temple, or when the madam and sir had family visiting. It’s still like new.” She touches it fondly.

“You should keep it, duwa, to remember. Or maybe for your new baby?” I rub her stomach with the edge of the dress, but she is quiet.

“They won’t let me keep the baby, nende,” she says, after a while. “The convent is for the girls, not for their babies.”

“What will they do with the baby?” I ask. I am shocked, and she sees it. I look down at her belly and then at the dress that I have rolled into a ball in my lap.

“No, it’s okay, don’t feel bad. They treat the babies well. They take them to the sister house down the hill so we don’t have to hear our babies crying, and they look after them thee until they are given away.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Madam told me. She said that’s what happened to the children of people like me who forget their place. I know she meant to be hurtful, but it made me happy to hear that there would be a place for my child.”

“Don’t you want to keep your baby and look after her yourself?”

“How do you know it’s a girl?” she asks and smiles at me as though this would be a good thing. How could she think that? A daughter growing up without a mother? What would happen to a girl like that?

“I’m just guessing by the way you look,” I say. “It is how I looked when I had my daughters.” And then I ask the question again, unable to imagine this life she seems to have chosen. “Don’t you want to keep your baby?”

“What would I do with a child?” she asks, and I wish I hadn’t brought up that possibility with her; something in her quiet voice blames me for asking he to think about an option she does not have, motherless as she is herself. What would she do with a child? I straighten the dress out and fold it carefully. I think her again, then bend down and find space for it in one of the side pockets of our big bag. Yes, what would she do with a child? I say to myself, and yet I cannot reconcile myself to her attitude. It seems unnatural to be that resigned, even for someone who has no knowledge of the pain of labor and delivery or the mad love that is birthed along with a baby.

Once more I take her hand, this time in both of mine. “Maybe you could come with us,” I say at last. What else is there to offer than a chance to keep what belongs to her? At least I could try; try to help.

“Where are you going?” she asks, and there is a small note of hope in her words.

“I’m taking my children to my aunt’s house. She lives with her daughter and soninlaw and their children, and I’m sure she will be more than happy to make space for you.”

to be continued...