• 29 Jun - 05 Jul, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I stop running and allow the man to help me into the carriage. He gets in behind me and walks with me. When we reach the first lavatory, he taps me on the shoulder.

“You should stop and clean your face,” he says, “before you go back to them.”

I go in, not caring about the stench, and sob over the sink. I sob as I never did for Siri. I had not cried then, not one tear. I had held it in so that the man who killed him would not have the satisfaction of seeing how broken I was. No, I had lain there, my arms around his dying body, the blood from his wounds flowing into me along with his passion, his body shuddering until there was nothing left except the blood that came over his body and included me in its embrace. I had stayed like that until he slipped out of me, and then I had stood. I had walked into the ocean and let the salt water wash my skin, the churning sands scrubbing my exterior of his blood even as the night air hardened my pain into a first inside my chest. I came out of the sea, dripping, and went home. I walked by the drunken murderer sitting on the front steps and changed into the white sari I had bought to mourn my father. Then I took my two older children and walked to the temple to light a single lamp. And all that time, not one tear. Not one until now, when I have been reminded of what I once had, what I miss, that feeling of safety.

I rinse my hands in the trickle of water that drips from the faucet. There is no soap. Finally I wash my face and dry it on the edge of my sari, not understanding why it is already damp till I remember my daughter’s wound. I begin to cry again, this time for my children, the things that I cannot keep from them, and I cry until I realize I heed to relieve myself, so I squat over the toilet and urinate, my sari gathered up to my waist in my arms. Then I wash my hands again, my face again, and again wipe myself with the edges of my wet sari.

When I come out, the man is still waiting.

“They say it is the most painless way to die,” he tells me. “They say that you are hypnotized by the train as it comes closer and closer, and then it’s over.”

“IT was painless for him,” I say, and my voice sounds odd to me. Deep and full of the bitterness I had shed with each station on this journey. “He poisoned them.”

“How do you know?” he asks, his brow furrowed.

“They ate and drank before they died, that’s how I know.”

I want to say more, but the train begins to roll backward slowly, and I have to catch myself before I fall.

We walk silently to where my children are waiting.

“Amma! What took so long?” my daughter asks, reproach in her eyes as she hands me the now cold banian.

I take it, open it out, find a dry area, bunch it up, blow on it, and give it back to her wordlessly. The blowing calms me.

“I heard them say there was an accident,” my son says, searching my face.

“Some… some trees… some trees had fallen across the track,” I say, sinking into my seat. “The railway workers are removing them. It will take some time.”

“So we have to wait here again?” the little one says, her voice disbelieving. “But there aren’t even tea leaves for us to pluck!”

I see a vendor approaching us through the train, a basin of sweets on his head, a basket of mangoes in his hand. I stop him.

“Why don’t you buy some mangoes or sweet s with your new money?” I say.

I help Chooti Duwa to buy a chocolate-flavored lollipop and a mango; Loku Putha buys a bar of Cracker Jack, and Loku Duwa buys a bag of toffees. The vendor gives each of them their change separately, and they put the coins away in places that seem safe to them.

I wipe my face with the now abandoned banian, then lay it on the seat next to me to dry There is hardly any blood on it. My child’s wound is a mere scratch.


Latha!” Gehan yelled. “Go and attend to Nona.” And then he got in the car and was driven to work as if it were no problem at all that his wife was crying and bleeding.

According to Gehan, Thara didn’t fall; she cut herself with a blade. Latha heard him saying that as she stood, just out of sight, and waited for him to leave. What Gehan thought about Thara and her motivations had deteriorated steadily over the first three years of their marriage, and now, right on the eve of the first birthday of their second baby daughter, it seemed that he had reached a new low. Latha shook her head as she went into the bedroom where Thara was. She was half-propped on her pillows, holding one of Gehan’s banians to her head.

“Give me that,” Latha said. She took the banian, found the blood-stains on it, and spat all over them as Thara watched.

“Chee! Wha are you doing?” Thara asked, some disgust creeping into her voice, which Latha felt was out of order considering the source of the stains.

“Getting the stains out. Otherwise I will have to use salt, and it’s not good to waste salf. If we waste salt, we’ll waste money. Soma nenda taught me that.”

“Oh,” Thara said, affirming Soma’s knowledge about such things. “Has that para balla left?”

Latha bit her lip. She hated the way Gehan treated Thara, and not only because it was an extension of the way he treated her, with an absence of recognition. But she felt that way only when she thought of him as Thara’s husband, someone responsible for her happiness. Other times, she silently took his side.

When she watched him with Madhavi, for instance, and her heart melted at the way he held the baby or took her from Latha’s own arms, and she could almost feel that the tenderness with which he surrounded his daughter was extended to her, too. Then she would feel as though he was willing to share the same space with her so long as their affection was directed outward, away from each other and toward the treasures only a baby could bring: a stray curl, a fist unfurled in sleep, toes gripping the feet of a father as he held her outstretched arms and seesawed her up and down every evening after work. Or when she listened to Gehan singing in a voice he had revealed he possessed only when he had a daughter to soothe. Latha would hold the mosquito net aside while he bent down and laid his daughter down to sleep and covered her with her cotton blanket, all the while singing the last lullaby of the night, “Bilinda Nalave Ukule.” Thinking about that lullaby, that first verse dedicated, ironically, to the love of a mother for her child, Latha would find it difficult to forgive Thara for the way she held herself away from her baby, and she would choose, instead, to let her sympathies rest, unchecked, unexamined, with Gehan. She would remember him as he had once been to her, someone who had treated her with respect and who had, she was certain of this, loved her, and she would feel resentful of Thara’s remarks. Like now. Yes, he wasn’t from the right family and he didn’t have all the right connections and credentials the way Ajith had, and he wasn’t even good-looking, but that didn’t make him a stray dog. Or if it did, and Thara was his wife, she was nothing more than a stray-

“Latha! I asked you if he’s left!”

“Yes! The car is gone! Why? Didn’t you hear it drive away?” Either Thara didn’t notice or she was too self-absorbed to care about Latha’s tone of voice this morning.

“The bastard has the nerve to say that I cut my own face with a blade. Why would I do something so stupid? If I wanted to cut anything, I would have cut his! Maybe it would be an improvement!”

Latha thought that, post-marriage, her friend had grown from the twinkling stars implied by the first part of her name, Thara, into the virulence of her full name, Tharindra: terrible goddess of the universe. Wasn’t this one example? This kind of remark that she threw around so easily, as if she were not even speaking about a human being? As if a human being wasn’t listening to her? Sometimes it sickened Latha.

“The baby is crying. Shall I bring her to you?” Latha asked, her voice crisp.

“Babies, babies, nothing but babies. Look at me, Latha!” Thara rose from the bed, strode to the mirror, and ripped off her skirt and blouse. She threw them on the floor and stood there in her underwear, staring at her reflection. After a few seconds she began a fresh bout of tears. “Just look at me! Look at how you are and then look at this!”

Latha could not see anything the matter with Thara. Yes, she was a little plumper than she had once been, but she had always been curvier than Latha. The only differences now were the scars from the cesareans. All right, there was more undulation to the surface of her skin around her lower belly. But neither of these things diminished the fact that she was a pretty woman in the traditional way: oval faced, rounded in all the right places, and with that air of clean sweetness that came with privilege.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, baba,” Latha said, reverting to the soothing childhood moniker that Thara loved to hear. “You look just the way you always did. You’re a mother now, that’s all.”

“But why don’t you have all this?” Thara wailed, grabbing hunks of flesh from the sides of her waist.

“I only had one baby,” Latha said, amazed at how those words came so easily to her now, no regret, no attachment. She tried to add something, a few more words of comfort, but the baby began to scream at the top of her lungs and she shrugged. “I’m going to get Chooti Baba,” she said to Thara’s reflection, shaking her head at the sight of he friend, her palms clapped over her ears.

How it all got to be this bad so fast, Latha could not imagine. The first year had seemed so perfect for them all. Thara had her lunches, which, though they came with the usual disparaging remarks from her friends, Latha learned to steel herself for by squeezing the lime juice for herself and the houseboy and on particularly bad days, the day drive to in advnce. Every couple of months they had dinners for Gehan’s friends from work. Latha liked the dinners because. Thara cooked the desserts she had learned to make at her pre-wedding cookery class, which meant they got to spend the whole Saturday together in the kitchen, she with her buriyanis and seeni sambols that she had perfected with each new try, and Thara with her pineapple fluffs and trifles and fruit salads with custard, laughing and joking and tasting dry ingredients and cooked food all day long. During cricket season, Gehan and Thara went to matches at the SSC and the Oval, and Latha and the houseboy watched the games on TV. And on Poya days they went to temple together Gehan, Thara, the houseboy, and Latha dressed in white, standing in a row, no differences apparent in their status or circumstances, their heads bowed together, the fragrance of thousands of lotuses and na mal and delicate araliya flowers in all their shades of color yellow, white, pink, dark red transporting both women back to their youth.

The only lows that whole time had been during Thara’s unruly and fankly, in Latha’s mind, overly indulged first pregnancy. Still, even that had taken the usual course to celebration when the baby arrived, except for the sacking of the old houseboy, who was discovered tasting the milk from the baby’s bottle.

“I was trying to check for the right heat for the baby!” he wailed as Thara screamed at him and sent him to pack his bags and called Gehan’s mother to report this crime, clearly deriving great satisfaction from the act, given that the houseboy had come from “his side.”

Of course, the baby had become the highlight of everything for Latha. Nothing could change that; not even bad news. Not all the celebrations after the departure of the Indian soldiers, whom all the fighting factions had joined together to drive our, shouting from one loudspeaker or another, screaming from the radios and TV’s that she heard in the shops and the neighbors’ houses as she walked by. Not any of the other agitation going on in the country, with the communists from the South and the terrorists from the North and a corrupt government. Not the kidnappings and disappearances and curfews here, there, and everywhere that seemed to worry everybody, even. Thara. None of it could touch Latha. Her world was lit like a Vesak pandal by Madhavi from the minute she was born. From that moment Latha knew, not knowing why, how to love a baby just so: madly when she was freshly washed, powdered, and oiled, and ready for the morning; gently when she was full-bellied and sleepy; tenderly when she had hurt herself; and secretly, behind a veil of steady nerves, when she was a stinking, mewling, parasitic and decidedly ugly blob of flesh. Thara, too, loved her baby daughter, but it was a tolerant love, vaguely distant, cautious and self-aware, like that of a visitor.

“We’re going to name he Madhavi,” Thara had told Latha after the astrologer had been consulted.