A DISOBEDIENT GIRL

  • 11 May - 17 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I say that, but the uncertainty in my own mind must have seeped through because she asks me the one thing I do not want to think about: do they know I am coming?

“No. I don’t have time to tell them.”

I say these words even though I did have time. I could have sent them a telegram, done what is usual in such cases. I know that the cryptic, expensive words typed p with full stops, the carrier ringing his bicycle bell at some odd hour, would have told them that this was urgent, and they would have understood that they could not refuse me the shelter of their home no matter what. But I had chosen to trust that they were not that different from me, even if they were from the hill counry. Surely they, too, believe that only pleasant visits for several days by older relatives, grandparents, or inlaws need to be announced. Surely they do as we do in the South, surprising people by showing up unannounced, the surprise itself the only way to erase any doubt that we are welcome, a trick we play with one another, constantly unsure of our own worth. Isn’t that how they, too, deprive one another of the time that could be spent anticipating? Anticipation rewinds time and plays back the bad, the small slights, the little neglects that have turned into deeply buried hurts. No, I could not risk giving them that time, any time at all. Most of all, I could not risk them sending a return telegram, alerting my husband that I was leaving or, if I had left, where it was I was going. Better that he thinks me drowned, the children too. He can wait for the sea to bring us back, one by one.

“She is my mother’s sister,” I add. “She will help me.”

The girl squeezes my hand, and I am ashamed of what I have kept from her, of my dismissal of her because of her youth. “I’m sure they will be happy to see you,” she says, and this time it is she reflecting my doubts back to me, for I can heart it somewhere behind her calm voice.

Outside, the darkness has finally lost and daybreak reaches us through the trees. Everything is visible again. The mountains and plantations still dominating the landscape, but more than that, the smaller, more intimate details of life closer at hand; the rhythms of people who live with the roar of trains with which to mark time. It reminds me of the house I have left behind, these flyby pictures of women tending small fires, halfnaked children brushing teeth and waving to metal cars with blurred faces. Spaces where men are entirely absent or are only now stumbling out of thatched homes, waking to a clear day in an alreadyswept dirt yard, the ekel marks still visible in the backandforth patterns women make each dawn, which are swept away by other feet before they have cooked breakfast, these mandalas that nobody notices unless they are created by monks in saffron robes. I feel free as I am carried away, and I want to call out to them to join me; as if this compartment, which now contains only me and my children, and a young mother to be, is travelling toward a true heaven. As if there is room there for all the others like us.

“You can come with us, duwa,” I say again, turning to the girl, and this time I am certain of my offer.

“The nuns will be waiting for me at the station,” she says. “What will they do if I am not there?”

“What can they do? They won’t know where you went, and they probably won’t care. Won’t they be glad not to have to tend to yet another one like you?” I don’t mean it unkindly; I say it to be practical, but it has upset her. Of course she feels special. She must want to believe that the nuns would miss her if she does not get off the train at her station. That, when her baby is born, she will be unlike any other child that ever grace the world.

“They will call madam and she will be angry,” she says. “She could not have children, and she would not want me to keep a child who should have been hers.”

I understand now. We are both quiet. The sun has risen higher, and the scenery outside has lost its magical quality. It is just an ordinary day, dry to the touch, and we are in a passenger train going only so far. Two more stations and we will be in Hatton, where she and I will part. I feel responsible for her, and sad. I want to give her something, my first friend in our new life, a friendship restrict ted a single journey. I want to ensure that the gods will look favourably upon me, too, for my kindness toward this girl. But I have nothing to give her, not even food. I fiddle with the two bangles on my wrist, but they are gold and I have two daughters…

“The next station will be mine,” she says, disturbing my thoughts. She is regretful.

“I will get down and hand you over to the nuns,” I say, “and I will give you my aunt’s address, so if you need to, you can come and find us.”

“Aney nende, you will be blessed. I was worried about getting down alone.” How grateful she is for such a simple gesture. I feel tears in my eyes, and I distract myself with the task of easing myself out from under my sleeping children. I gesture wordlessly to the girl, and she opens the bag at my feet and takes out one of my saris. Chooti Duwa stirs in her sleep but does not wake up when I lift her slowly off my lap and slide the folded cloth under her head. I open my handbag and pull out a stray scrap of paper, some receipt for a once essential purchase, and write down my aunt’s name and the road on which she lives. The girl takes it from me and looks at it.

“I can’t read, nende,” she tells me, not ashamed, just stating the fact.

“That’s okay. Keep it. If you need to find me, you can ask someone to write a letter for you.”

I watch her fold the paper and tuck it into the top of her bra. The place where we put our most precious things: love notes and money and handkerchiefs for when we cry. It makes me smile. My legs are stiff from sitting, and I sway unsteadily on my feet when I stand up. The girl holds my shoulder to balance me. She seems happier now, forward looking. She has not lost hope in the bright light of the sun, when everything is only as it is. She is still travelling toward a sanctuary.

When the train stops, I step down first with her bag, then turn and help the girl. The conductor walks by us and takes a leather purse looped on a stiff handle from a man who must be an official though he doesn’t look like one in his maroon cardigan and white wool cap pulled down close to his head. A couple, one child, and an old man appear before us, one behind the other, and just as quickly pass us by. They must have got down from other carriages. Nobody climbs in.

I must have expected the station to be special, somehow, for I feel worse now than I did when the train first came into the station, the announcement still ringing in the air. It is not that it is any more desolate than the other stations we have passed, and I can imagine this very platform bustling with the pilgrims who visit Sri Pada when it is the season for such things. It is just that the black and white board, with “Hatton” written in three languages, seems to offer so little to a newcomer. “4143 feet above mean sea level,” I read at the very bottom of the sign, also in all three languages. Then I notice a smaller sign pasted on the glass window of the ticket booth, which appears to be closed. The names of three schools, a hospital, and The Convent of St. bernardine. That at least is hopeful.

“The convent is named for a saint,” I say to her, then. “Ay me duwa? What’s the matter?”

“There’s nobody here,” she says, and now she is crying.

I look up and down the platform. She is right. We are the only two standing in the cold air; we and the train, which belches almost gently, wheezing as if it needs to catch its breath after the long climb. I remember an odd bit of information that the nuns had told me in grade school: Hatton is predominantly Tamil if one counts the plantations. I hear this fact again now, uttered in their cautionary voices. I don’t want to leave this girl alone. The train toots and shudders, but half heartedly.

A man comes out of the main building carrying a green flag and walks toward the edge of the platform. He is wearing an old black coat that is short at the sleeves, and white trousers. He must be the stationmaster. The girl begins to sob audibly. I turn away from her and grab his sleeve.

“Wait!” I say, to the man. “This child is waiting for the nuns from the convent, but I cannot leave her alone.”

He glances at her disinterestedly. “The train has to go. You can stay with her and catch the next one tomorrow…”

“My other children are asleep inside this train! Please, sir, please, could you delay for a few minutes?” I bring my palms together. “The blessings of the Buddha upon you, sir!”

“For two minutes,” he says and puts the flag behind his back. The train appears to rock back on its wheels, changing its mind. He takes out a cigarette and lights it with a match, then he waves the match in the air till the flame goes out and inserts it back into the same box.

I turn away from him. “Sit here, duwa,” I say and lead the girl to a smooth wooden bench. I walk the length o the entire platform, searching for some sign of life beyond the station, but find nothing. There is only what is already there: the old, low white building, the platform that stops without notice at each end, the man, the girl, the train. I come back and sit next to her, and take her hand.

“If nobody is here by the time the train leaves, you come with me,” I say. “We will know then that it is what the gods wish for you.”

She nods and stares at her hands. When I look up, I see my Loku Putha and Loku Duwa standing at the top of the steps that we climbed down.

“Amma, what are you doing?” Loku Putha asks.

“Amma, who is that?” Loku Duwa asks.

“Go inside and wait with Chooti Nangi,” I say to my daughter, then, knowing she will not listen to me, I turn toward my son and use his name so he understands that this is important to me, “Raji… Putha…”

“I’ll go,” he says, looking from the girl to me, and turns to his sister. “Come.”

They disappear, and I can see them inside the train, a red shirt, then the pale yellow dress, moving past the empty seats, still staring at me through the windows.

The man looks at his watch and then at me. “I have to release the train,” he says. “You have to decide what you want to do. The girl can stay with me. I will be here for another hour or so. Goods train is coming, that’s why. I can make sure she gets to the convent.” He raises his palm before I can cask him. “She’s not the first, and won’t be the last.”

“Come,” I say to the girl, standing up. I pick up her bag. We are about to get back into the train when she appears, a nun unlike the nuns I’ve known, who all dressed in white. This one wears gray and her head scarf is black, and though I want to believe otherwise, she looks harmless and even apologetic. Almost maternal.

“Mr. Coorey, I’m sorry I was late,” she says to the man.

“She was about to get back in,” he says to her, bowing slightly, showing her the kind of respect he hadn’t found for me.

The girl turns from me, though I am still holding on to her bag.

“I’ll take her bag,” the nun says, and I give it to her.

The girl folds into my arms and sobs.

“There’s no need for that,” the nun says. “You will be happy here at the convent. We will look after you well. Come now, child, we have to go.”

“Wait,” I say. I take off my earnings, not caring that they are gold, or that they are the only things I now have from my mother. I press them into her palms. “Keep these.”

I don’t know how she finds grace, in her condition, but when she falls to her knees and worships me, it is as though she is lighter than the araliya that used to fall without a sound into my open bag when I picked flowers for the temple.

“The blessings of the Triple Gem upon you, duwa,” I say, touching her head with my palms. “Do not be afraid.”

PART II

Latha

Latha had developed a new habit: touching her ears. Whenever she felt upset, whenever things did not pan out as she hoped they would, no matter how small the disappointment a burnt mallung, a particularly gray afternoon, a severe reprimand for some task left undone she fingered the earings that Leela had given her just before she got into the Vithanages’ car with its new driver, who, middleaged and round, unlike the previous one, seemed incapable of swift or threatening movements.

to be continued...

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