• 25 May - 31 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

That’s when her right hand first flew up to her ear. She moved the tips of her index and middle fingers over the earring, its carvings smooth under her touch, its solid presence a reminder of Leela. She felt Leela’s own immutable strength flow out of the gold and in through her finger and up along her arms, straightening her shoulders, emboldening her heart, and centering her body over her stubborn feet. She felt dignified.

So she cleared the plates away with an air of indifference that irked the people sitting around the table. She could feel that too. They were silent because she was neither them nor not them, and resentful because they wished she were absent but they needed her presence. Every single one of them, even Mrs. Vithanage, who scorned her, and Soma, who had welcomed her with a sort of embrace in the form of an up-down nod and a “Have you been well?” needed her there. That made her feel better.

Although Latha had never been to a wedding, and everything she assumed stemmed from hearsay or teledramas, in the end even she knew that Thara’s wedding was grand but lacked flourish. It was an at-home wedding like the old families liked, but it was muted, like the pale blush saris of the bridesmaids. Thara had three of those: a distant second cousin of hers, Gehan’s cousin, and a friend from school whom Latha couldn’t remember ever having seen at the Vithanages’ before. She supposed that when the mighty fell, they didn’t just fall, they had to begin from scratch, and that included bridesmaids. It was clearly a silver lining to be in her predicament, with an old servant like Soma, who could forgive her, and a Leela, who loved her no matter what, and even a family like the Vithanages, who couldn’t do without her.

Poor Thara, who smiled but couldn’t be radiant the way brides are supposed to be. Who cried so much when she worshiped her parents that everybody could tell it had nothing to do with the bittersweet farewell, with growing up, o with trepidation about her first night with a husband but was about something else altogether. And whose groom was obviously subpar, with not even good looks to make up for his job as an advertising executive of some sort at a company so insignificant he had to describe it not by its name but with the preamble “a place called.” Poor Gehan, too, whose education and professional accomplishments, his steady character, his income, could have shone so much more brightly in another, lesser family, but who was joining one in which he would never be good enough no matter what he did.

Latha overheard all the bitter remarks about Gehan as she went about her work, fetching this and carrying that for Mrs. Vithanage, her last duties in the house before she could leave with Thara for the new home. The only respite she had that day was when Gehan and Thara climbed the poruwa together and everybody grew silent and watched and nobody needed anything from her. Then Latha felt dizzy with all the mixed-up emotions that came over her. Tenderness, at the sight of her friend, who looked too young to be getting married, to be dressed up like that, with all those heavy jewels and her hair pulled back and too many sheaves of betel to be passed around, and not her, Latha, but only girls who barely knew her beside Thara to hold her bouquet and hand her a wedding ring to slip on a man’s hand, the hand of a man she did not love. Tenderness, at the sight of Gehan, who had not worn the grand costume she had imagined him in once long ago but rather wore the official national dress, a simple white kurta and sarong, and so managed to look even less deserving than ever of his future wife. She stood as long as she could, the magul bera and flutes filling her ears, but when it came time for the tying of their little fingers, she left her post by the door and went to the old storeroom, where she sat, pretending that the sadness she felt was something outside her body, like the sack of rice in the corner, or her rolled-up mat, something that she could look at and even touch but that she could, she would, leave behind when she had to go back outside and tend to Thara.

“I hope they taught you how to cook at that convent,” Mrs. Vithanage said as Latha passed by with a fresh glass of lime juice for Thara, who was being dressed in her going-away sari.

“No, madam, they didn’t teach me anything,” Latha said, her mouth adding the insult “They wanted me to rest.” And she kept on going, knowing that today was one day she could get away without an earful, with all those people in attendance. “They said I had been through enough,” she tossed over her shoulder before she nipped into the room where Thara was.

Inside the room there was dizzying color and movement. The bridesmaids were arrayed at the edge of Thara’s double bed, still covered with the familiar pink and white bedding, chatting, while a collection of aunts and older relatives came and went, checking their reflections in the mirrors set up to lean along one wall. The mirrors had been ordered by Mrs. Vithanage, her kindness to all of the women who had attended weddings with her in the past and who, banished from the bedroom or hotel room of the bride, had been forced, like her, to primp themselves in front of TVs and tinted car windows. Thara sat quietly at the center of everything, resplendent in turquoise blue and gold, in front of her kidney-shaped dressing table, with its sets of curved drawers on either side and the three mirrors that could be moved to show her upper body from all directions. Three Tharas.

“Thara Baba, here’s your juice,” Latha said, holding out the damp glass on a small silver tray.

The real Thara glanced sideways at her from kohl-rimmed eyes without moving her head. “Where’s the straw?” she asked.

“Straw?” Latha repeated, so taken aback by Thara’s voice that she pronounced it is-strow, like the girls who didn’t know how to speak their English words properly. She corrected herself. “Straw?”

“All my lipstick will come off if I drink this from the glass, you goat. Go and get a straw for me.” She returned her gaze to the mirror, and the three Tharas glared at the three Lathas reflected behind her. Latha glared back. Her lipstick was all wrong. Orange was not the color for Thara to wear, particularly with that blue. She should be wearing red. Latha’s eyes softened, and she was about to reach for the red tube that sat on the dressing table when someone spoke up.

“My god, you will have your hands full trying to train this one to be a proper housekeeper.” It was Mr. Vithanage’s sister, speaking through a mouthful of hairpins, with she was attempting to keep Thara’s floral headpiece of baby’s breath and red rosebuds in place.

“Is she the one you’ll be taking with you to the new house?” That was the bridesmaid who was a friend, and who sat like a pudding on the edge of the bed, her waist spilling in all directions between the embroidered bottom edge of her sari blouse and the top of her waistband. She reminded Latha of the old driver. Latha expected her to suck her back teeth. She sucked her back teeth. So disgusting.

“Yes, Latha will be coming with me to the new place.”

“You are lucky to be going to a new house with madam,” The aunt said, taking the last of the pins out of her vermilion mouth and speaking loudly. They always spoke loudly when they addressed servants directly; that’s what Latha had learned at this wedding. As if the rest of the time the servants had been deaf to their conversations.

“You’ll have to get used to calling me madam, Latha,” Thara said, standing up and giggling, nervous and haughty at the same time. She turned around to face her.

Madam? Latha looked straight at her friend. Was she really going to be madam? Thara? Who could do so little without her help? She stared at Thara, seeing Gehan instead, hearing his words so long ago, telling her how people like Thara thought themselves better than people like them only because they had the power to order them about. How they could not survive without their retinue of doers. Thara’s own eyes narrowed in the silent room, the other women watching this battle of wills.

“Go and get me a straw,” she said, “palayang.” The other conjugation. The one used for common servants and strays. The first time she had ever spoken to Latha with such anger, such condescension.

Latha wondered if this was how Mrs. Vithanage, too, had become the kind of woman she was. Perhaps long ago, the same kind of disappointment, a wrong turn, the wrong husband, had whittled her high spirits into derision. Thara had certainly found a way to get her though this evening. Well, Latha would too.

She dropped her eyes, then raised them again to Thara. “I’m going,” she said. Then, “Gehan sir is waiting for you. He said to hurry up.” She felt vindicated when Thara’s face flushed, when the corner of her mouth dipped down, discernible only to Latha from where she stood.

And then, just as swiftly, because Thara suddenly looked like the girl who had asked Latha to help her when Mrs. Vithanage gave their flower-picking task over to the gardener, she felt bad for Thara. She felt bad for reminding her of whom she was not marrying, having spent so much time that day herself trying to overcome the same disappointment in her own heart. And so, when she returned with a straw, also on a silver tray, and found everybody fussing over their own hair and makeup while Thara sat quietly in a corner with a fan on low aimed at her midriff, which was where her perspiration always gathered, Latha swiped the correct lipstick off the counter and gave it to her friend.

“You look beautiful, Thara Baba,” she said, “but this lipstick would be much better with that sari.” She reached underneath her own sari pota and pulled a handkerchief out of the top of her bra. “Here, take this and wipe that other color off.”

Thara gifted her with a genuine smile, the warmth spreading from her lips to her eyes, which filled up with tears.

“Everything will be all right,” Latha whispered so that the others could not hear.

Thara dabbed at her mouth and then at the corners of her eyes with the handkerchief. “Do you think so?” she asked, her voice trembling.

“Yes, I am sure of it.” Latha applied the new lipstick on her. “I’ll be there, Thara Baba,” she said, recalling Thara to the present moment. “Don’t worry. What can go wrong? Think about all that happened to me, and yet here I am. I’m back and I’m fine. We’ll be together, that’s what matters. I will help you to cope with whatever comes our way.”

Outside, the conch shell was blown, and Mrs. Vithanage came into the room as if propelled by its sound. Thara gripped Latha’s wrist, her voice full of panic. “Promise me that you won’t run away again, Latha; everything fell apart when you left here. If you had stayed, maybe you could have got Ajith to come back to me. If you had stayed, I would not be marrying… marrying… him. Promise me.”

“I promise,” Latha said, but she could not meet Thara’s eyes. Everything had fallen apart long before then, and she could not guarantee that it would not again. She was too grown-up to be sure of things. More grown-up even than she had been the morning she left Leela, new earrings in her ears.

Thara was bustled out of the room, and she went, looking back more than once, seeking reassurances from the only person in the room who could give her any, but all Latha could do was wave. Alone in the room full of nauseating fragrances, the sound o the happy commotion outside as everybody jostled for the confetti she had heleped to make, cutting up shiny bits of paper night after night and bagging them into mesh cloth, trying them with ribbons, Latha reached up, this time with both hands. She walked over to the mirrors and stared at herself. She was grown up, but who was she? She turned to the first mirror: a mother with no daughter? The second mirror: a daughter with no mother? The last: a woman with no man?

“Latha Nangi,” she whispered, her eyes shut. “I am Latha Nangi, and I have an older sister. My older sister gave me these earrings.”

Then she stepped out.

She could see the couple where they stood. Gehan’s eyes washed over the room and held hers, briefly, before he lowered them and dropped to his knees, along with Thara, in respect to Mr. and Mrs. Vithanage, to touch their feet, to worship them, and to receive their blessings.

to be continued...