• 18 May - 24 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

“Latha Nangi! Wait a little!” Leela had yelled. It was the first time Latha had ever heard that voice raised beyond the murmur she used for communication with everybody other than God, to whom she spoke with a bowed head and no words.

“I am waiting,” Latha said, but mostly to herself. She didn’t feel like shouting just then, particularly after she heard the new driver sigh and turn the key in the ignition, the car sound dying and leaving a singular reprimand behind along with the silence. Clearly, there were ways to compensate for age and rotundity. She watched Leela come, shuffling a little to keep her rubber slippers on her feet as she ran, hugging her pale gray cardigan to herself, her arms crossed and gripping her elbows on either side, her hips swaying. Tendrils of hair came undone in the breeze as she made her way from the dark mahogany double doors of the convent, down the front steps to the car parked well outside the circular driveway. She looked youthful and pretty. Latha tilted her head to the side, taking it in, considering.

“Take these,” Leela said, when she got to her, pressing a pair of earnings into her palm. They were grownwoman earnings, heavy, intricately designed in the shape of a flower unlike any that could grow on earth; smooth and round, and full of history as they rested in her open palm.

“But these are your earnings, Leelakka,” she said, “and I already have some.”

“You will need these now that you are going back. Something of your own, passed down so you won’t forger your older sister.”

Latha laughed. “we’re not really sisters, you don’t have to give me your jewelry, Leelakka. And I don’t need earrings to remember you by, how can I ever forget you?”

“Keep them. When that mother on the train gave them to me, they made me feel cared for and bound to her, as though she were my own family. And now that you are going away without knowing what awaits you, you should have them. Please take them.”

“I’m going back to Thara. I’ll be all right,” Latha said, and then, because Leela stood there without saying anything more, “All right, I’ll exchange mine for yours.” Latha removed the ruby earrings that had once belonged to Thara, twisting the stems out of their grooved clasps, and dropped them lightly into Leela’s hand. “I don’t need them anymore.” She felt happy saying that; it was as though she were saying farewell to one chapter of her life and embracing a new one.

“They are like earrings for a small child,” Leela said, curling her fingers so the earrings sank into the careful well of her palm, creased with fortune lines and heart lines and a line of fate that was entirely pointless in lives such as theirs.

But she had been right, Leela had. Her foreboding had been the accurate measure of what awaited Latha, whose own optimism had dropped from her shoulders like a sack of jewels turned to coal when she got to the Vithanages’ house.

Of course she should have known that Ajith’s family would never consent to a marriage between their precious son and the daughter of a family where the servant girl had to be sent away. How could she ever have imagined otherwise? The Vithanages had refused to listen to the truth, or haul the real culprit out of hiding. They had thought that all the usual adjustments, the usual smoke and mirrors, sending her, Latha, away, dismissing the driver, would work. They had trusted in the invulnerability of their social status over engaging in a battle with another family of their means. In fact, they had probably thought they were protecting not simply their daughter but also that other family’s son. They had been wrong. They had lost. And why should she be surprised? Hadn’t she seen and heard the false narrative that was spin around her pregnancy with her own ears? First before she left the Vithanages and then at the convent? That somehow all of it would come to lay at Mr. Vithanage’s blameless feet, and that in their circles that was the ultimate downfall, the one scandal that would cling to them and to their daughter like hot tar the rest of their lives?

How could she have pictured only feisty Thara and her childhood love ascending the jasminedrenched poruwa from opposite sides, decked with smiles, all the colourful Manipuri saris and smooth suits watching? She had seen all of that, all the little details, all the lies uttered by the priests about virginity and chastity and unblemished children nurtured by unsullied parents, all the drums and the decorations and the tables upon tables of luxuries seen only on such occasions, and the great roostertopped brass oil lamps that would stay lit long after the couple had left. She had even pictured the walk up the Colombo 7 block to Ajith’s house seven days later, the white cloths on the ground beneath Thara’s jewelled feet, even a temple elephant dressed in bright satin in front, the fanfare that announced to anybody who cared that Thara had been proven to be above reproach thanks to a red stain on a piece of white cloth taken from their nuptial bed the morning after the first night of their honeymoon. She had annoyed the driver all the way to Colombo with her inwardly focused smiles, picturing herself in some carefully chosen handmedown from Thara that would allow her to look just a little better off than all the attendants who would surely come to tend to other people’s children during these celebrations. She had seen herself standing just outside the gate, watching Thara arrive in her glory to step into the house from which she had stolen those first flowers, and Ajith with them. She had planned to wave at Thara, for surely Thara would catch her eye as she passed, uniting them for a moment in that shared past.

But Thara was not going to marry Ajith. She was going to marry Gehan. Latha’s Gehan. Gehan who had once been hers but was no longer and would never be hers. Ever again. That’s when the jewels turned to coal. That’s when she knew that somewhere at the back of her mind her imaginings of Thara and Ajith on their wedding day had hidden her longing for a day that would belong to her and Gehan.

It was too late now to have regrets, to reconsider the magnitude of what she’d brought to pass, to hope that the gods would not have noticed or that, if they had, they would forgive her, for having been no more than a child with a child’s quickness of temper, a child’s inability to hide the desire for selfrespect, a child’s need to fight back somehow, anyhow, a child’s comprehension of retribution. Too late now for her to remember that, no matter her motives, whatever cruelty had been done, some countervailing cruelty would come to attend her too. Wasn’t that what she had spent so many days meditating upon, all those years ago with Thara beside her, flowers in their open palms, the scent of incense and the smell of a burning wick above their heads, the serene face of the Buddha looking down at their upturned faces?

“Amma says I’m lucky to make a match with someone like him.” Thara confided to her the very night she got back there. Latha was lying on the new mat that Mrs. Vithanage had bought for her and that she had flung on the floor of the storeroom; apparently, Soma told her, her old one had been burned after she left. She had been told to sleep there, in the storeroom, but Thara had insisted that she sleep on the floor of her bedroom, and nobody argued with Thara now that she had finally stopped throwing tantrums and agreed to this latest marriage proposal.

Latha was shocked by how Thara had changed. She looked the same as she always had, the same height, the same wideset almond eyes beneath the eyebrows that shaped upward like wings, the same curves and graces. But Thara’s precociousness had turned into something harder, something that sharpened her tongue, her words falling like tiny wounds, the kind whose pain was out of proportion to their size. She had learned how to embarrass her parents, saying things that were not meant to be uttered in public; she had worn them down with her ridicule and her slights, taunting them for how they looked, for their concern, for their fallen fortunes, for their inability to change the way things had turned out. She had learned how to hide her life’s disappointment: that Ajith had not chosen to rescue her from her plight, not looked for her and fought for her and turned on his parents the way she had turned on her own, if that was what it would have taken, not even when she had gone to his house herself to beg. Their servant woman had come to the door to tell her he was not home. She had learned how to hide that pain with unpredictable invective that she hurled at Mrs. Vithanage.

That story, too was told to Latha as she lay on the floor, culminating with Thara’s revelation about her future groom. All these tales, everything that had happened to Thara during those last years, had been related, one after the other, without pause, as though this alone, to be told these stories, was the sole purpose for Latha’s return.

“Do you want to marry him?” Latha asked. “He used to…” She paused, struggling to find the words to describe her relationship with Gehan, which had been almost more of an understanding, an expectation of each other than a relationship. Thara interrupted impatiently.

“Yes, I know he used to be Ajith’s friend, but they are not friends anymore. Besides,” she added bitterly, “who cares about what Ajith thinks? Why should it matter to him whom I marry?” And Latha knew with a jolt of shock that all the time she had lived as though they were two girls in love with two boys, she had been invisible to Thara. An addon meant only to further her affair with Ajith, not to have one of her own with Gehan. No wonder Gehan had hidden their relationship from Thara. No wonder nobody had suspected anything when he agreed to marry her in the end. Whose idea…?

“It was Gehan’s idea that we get you back to come with us to the new house when we move. I told him about you, stuck in that convent after the fuss with the driver and all and how I wished you were back. So he told me to ask Amma to get you back to work in our house. He felt bad for me, that’s what he said. He said that if it would make me happier, then I should just ask you to come back, he didn’t mind.”

“Hmmm,” Latha said, feigning a yawn, sadness finally pinning her to the floor.

She wanted to examine this information privately, that his concern had been for Thara, not for her in her exile, and the fact that he had thought she would find it more pleasing to work as his servant than to stay away.

A few days later, when Gehan visited in the afternoon to go over some detail about the wedding, she experienced for the first time what would become her habit: feeling sympathy for Thara in one moment, Gehan the next. That day, she felt sorry for Thara and for Gehan, who sat next to her in his creased, dark blue trousers and white, short-sleeved shirt, looking so ordinary. For a few moments, as she brought him tea and served it, she forgot how precious that very quality had once been to her and still was, but saw instead how different he was from Ajith. She had never been fond of Ajith, but there was no disputing the fact that he was a splendid-looking man, someone beside whom a mother would walk straighter, someone women rested their eyes on when he was in their midst. She remembered how right they had looked together, Thara and Ajith, how, when they walked beside each other, their heads held high, laughing and talking, it had seemed that there was order in the world. And now here Thara sat with Gehan. And, next to Thra, with her new pouts and annoyed sighs, her hair flung first to one side of her head, then the other, he seemed completely out of his depth.

But then, later, when Latha saw him sit at the table and wait to be served and look at her only once and even then with businesslike approval, she knew that it did not matter that he had not learned to live like Thara had, in such a home, and had once scorned families like hers; he would be as Mrs. Vithanage had been letting her wander through his house doing the work of a housekeeper, a cook, a cleaner, a laundress even, but with no concern for her welfare beyond that, or one that he would ever reveal.

to be continued...