• 15 Jun - 21 Jun, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

“There isn’t much work up here,” he says. “But, if you find your–self unable to get anything else at the factories, you may be able to get a job at one of the bungalows.”

“Doing what?” I ask, curious and interested in any information he can give me. I am determined to be self–sufficient, to look after my children on my own.

“As a domestic servant,” he says. I lower my eyes and look at my hands.

He must feel ashamed for suggesting it, or be embarrassed by the look on my face, for he pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket and writes down his name and phone number in Colombo. His next words come quickly, as if he does not want to give me time to reflect on what he has just suggested. “If nothing works out, give me a call at this telephone number and perhaps I can find something better for you in Colombo, maybe working at one of the big fabric shops or at The Joseph Fraser, The Lady Ridgeway… or one of the other hospitals. I have friends there who would be willing to help out, especially an intelligent mother like you with some convent background and a pleasant manner.” He smiles as he says these things, broader and broader, pilling on the possibilities as though that would erase the insult.

“My children are all bright. They will do well in school. My son, he talks of becoming a lawyer. And my older girl, she says she’ll study medicine and look after me. We’ll be all right. They have been brought up well, like my mother raised me, not like the common people.”

“I can see that,” he says, his face genuinely apologetic. “You must forgive me. I was simply trying… It is only because I know these parts… Jut keep the number for an emergency.”

I gaze at the writing on the paper. I should be grateful for his offer, but the idea of doing anything in Colombo seems offensive. Even the word sounds all out of balance, unlike the names of the towns we have been passing and the ones yet to come, or even Hambantota and Matara. Colombo is like someone hacking out phlegm and throwing I on the pavement to lie shining in the sun till it is fried. Still, what is there to do but incline my head a little in gratitude and fold the piece of paper and place it with great reverence in the center compartment of my purse like it means something to me? He bought my children sweets: He listened to my story. Surely I owe him this bit of grace.

“Whom are you visiting?” I ask after I have gone through those motions, changing the subject to spare him from his embarrassment.

“I am going to see a friend in Pattipola. Usually, I would have driven, but I wanted to get off the road for a change, and be by myself. I was in another compartment up front, but there was some trouble there, somebody was drunk and threw up, so I moved.”

We both grow quiet as the train draws into the station at Nanu Oya and then moves on. Not far from there I see the peak of Sri Pada come into view once more, reminding me of our temple, of the pilgrimages that people make toward the divine. I imagine the slow trail of devotees climbing up to the mountain to gaze at the footprint of the Buddha. I have never had the good fortune to make that climb, though it would not have been difficult to get to Ratnapura, our city of precious gems, from the South and climb from there. I have only heard of the mystery of this journey, the coolness of the stream, which exists as though only for the relief of the pilgrims, halfway to the summit, the way the sun pierces the eastern horizon at the same moment that the sacred mountain casts its conical shadow for the fortunate few to see on the western side.

“It is said that when the sun comes up over Sri Pada, it offers its irasevaya in worship to the mountain,” the man says, observing my intent contemplation of the view.

“I have never been able to go,” I say, “but someday I wish to take some kapuru and add it to the lamp that burns on the top of that mountain. I would like to do that in memory of my parents, and of my husband too.”

“It will bring you great merit,” he tells me. “I would like to do the same one day.”

“Do you have children, sir?” I ask. I do not know why I added that mathaththaya to my words; it slipped out of my lips as though he might deserve the title.

“Yes,” he says, twisting his wedding ring with the thumb of his left hand. He is married and has a daughter. He looks over at my children and points to my youngest. “About that one’s age.”

“She will be five, my baby; she is four now. She is what I pictured when they told me I was pregnant, so I named her for that.” I think about that for a moment, remembering her arrival, how dear she seemed without the father who created her and without a father to claim her. My girl, my princess.

“One day she will grow up,” he says, “just like my daughter.”

“And she will still be my girl.”

“Yes, you are right. They will still be our little girls.” His voice is sad. It worries me a little, because he looks over at her when he says that, as if he can see her future and it is not as I have imagined it to be. So I think of the other girl, that older–daughter–in–another–time, and imagine her safe. She must be at the convent now, and I picture her being fed, being tended to, received into a house of women. It is a beautiful thought, and I delve deeper and deeper into it, my memory of the nuns I had studied with providing the images: a room of candles and prayer, of low voices, of the deep mystery of woman’s souls, forgiveness, comfort.


The first time they called her that, it was after a lunch. Lunch was simple and had only three curries, while a lunch had five and the fruits cut up in prespecified shapes for dessert. She had been sweeping the house. Again. It was the most useless of tasks in Latha’s mind: this endless sweeping of the dust that crept through the doors and windows of a Colombo house. Sometimes she paused, her chin on the top of the broom, and remembered the convent: its particular coolness, the absence of dust, the crispness of it all. It made her happy to think of those spaces, but only on the good days.

On the bad days, when the memory made her feel an odd despair, she crushed the image by bringing on armies of nuns. Nun after nun after nun, their hands lifted in prayer, their skirts down to their ankles, and nothing but serenity on their countenances. Then, when she had turned the convent into a relentlessly uninspired tomb of deprivation, she rearranged her shoulders and felt happy to be in dusty Colombo. With Thara. Even if that meant not with Gehan, who now had no made, just a title: Sir.

“I’ll ask my woman to make us some fresh lime juice,” she heard Thara say.

And then, the comment from Thara’s new friend from the office where she worked as a secretary, after the task had been relayed to Latha by the houseboy and she had prepared the lime juice just the way she and Thara had once enjoyed it as girls though she had only a teaspoon or two now except on the days when she felt angry about one thing or another and made herself a glass without asking for permission to use a lime sweet and tart in perfect complement, with just the dusting of salt and enough pulp to communicate its authenticity, and after the first sip had been taken: “Your woman must be good. From where did you get her?”

And she was still standing there! Worse, Thara had appeared not to notice. Latha had become just as invisible to Thara as she had been to Mrs. Vithanage, except for those occasions on which Thara’s mother had been told of the onset of puberty or her request for those sandals or her pregnancy, except for those times. But this person, this “woman” that Thara and her friend continued to talk about, was not like the women who became women when they lay down with a man for the first time. This particular woman had no name, no past, no future, no desire or need. She had a function: servitude. To comfort herself, Latha went back to the kitchen and made herself lime juice with extra sugar, and then she squeezed more limes and made lime juice for the houseboy as well; he grinned like a monkey when she gave him the glass.

A real glass, not the tin cups reserved for the servants. And though they both gulped their drinks down, his eyes big and on the lookout, his ears pricked, she felt as though they were a team, that she had an ally, little as he was.

The houseboy peeped around the door leading to the dining room from the kitchen, and Thara shooed him away. She poured some water for Latha and then held out a serviette. It was orange, but Thara had used it to dry her hands after she had washed her fingers in the bowl of water next to her and so the cloth was already damp and had indul on it from the curries, and the chilli got in Latha’s nose and made her sneeze six times in a row, as she did whenever she started sneezing. She giggled nervously and peered at Thara, who stood watching her.

“They took my baby from me,” Latha said, this time with no tears, “and I never knew what happened to her.”

“You had a baby girl?” Thara asked, and there was a sweet reverence in her voice, as if she, too, would want a daughter.

“A daughter, yes, but they didn’t call her that. They called her ‘the infant’ and never spoke to me about her or answered my questions. They just left me there. It was still and silent, and much later, it seemed, a nurse came by to clean me up. She was older and she asked me my name, but I didn’t say. I didn’t talk after that for a long time.”

She looked up a Thara, who said nothing. She stood, one hand on her belly, one on the edge of Latha’s chair. She seemed far away, probably in a place of romantic imaginings about daughters, lost and found. Then, just as Latha was about to stand up, Thara reached out and stroked her shoulder.

“We’ve having a baby now, Latha,” she said. “Don’t worry about it any more. Forget the past. There will be a new baby in this house, and you can share.”

Latha nodded, but she knew that sharing willingly was a concept, that did not apply to the living beings that spring out of a woman’s body. Thara was talking about things she did not understand. But she would. And what would happen then?


After we pass Ambewela, the landscape gives way to dense forest. I miss the open hills of tea, but the children welcome the change, their eyes watchful for what is new. It is still relatively early in the morning when we reach Pattipola, at the very least, and the children have not tired of their mountains and the cold air. Between stations, I let them sit on the steps. Chooti Duwa in my lap,

my boy and Loku Duwa next to me, my arm stretching across their chests to the opposite side so I can keep them out of danger. I imagine that this immersion in the chilly gusts of wind that catch their hair and make their eyes fill up clear and constantly, the way they do only sitting on the steps of a train climbing up the hills, will cleanse their lungs of all the grime accumulated in Colombo during our trip and the stench of fish before then and even the uglier, psychological dirt that stains their insides. When we get up and go inside, the gentleman is preparing to leave.

“I will be in Pattipola for a week,” he says as he gathers his belongings, and then, I must go back to Colombo.” He sighs.

I don’t know what else to do but thank him for the sweets, which seems insufficient, even though he has not done anything further for me. Something tells me gratitude is called for. Then I remember the number. “Thank you for giving me your phone number, sir. I will keep it safe.”

“You are a good mother, Biso,” he tells me. “Your children should be proud of a mother like you.” He looks over at them, but only the littlest hears him, so he speaks to her. “Look after your mother, little daughter.” Her brother and sister continue to hang out the window, looking up and down the platform, pointing to odds fruits on the thorny bushes in pots beside the station walls. There is only one vendor here, a child about my son’s age, selling Uswatte chewing gum and Delta toffees, and even he appears to have got off the train. The toffees are in the center of white basin, with the packs of gum stuck like a bordering wall all along the sides. My mouth waters and I am distracted.

“You are a good mother,”

he repeats, talking as if only to himself.

I turn away from the sight of the sweets. “It is kind of you to say so, sir; they are good children.”

“Yes, I can see that,” he says. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his purse.

He hands me three crisp two–rupee notes.

“Give these to your children to keep for an emergency,”

he says.

to be continued...