By Koom Kankesan –
The dream always begins with four dark ladies:
The ladies had less than half their lives before them. They knew this and the only thing that could offset the sweet misery of their slow departure from youth was the authority and certitude that came with it. They knew for example which one of their nieces was throwing her career away pursuing a degree in the social sciences, which man was no good as a husband, and which grandchild would rescue the faltering family reputation and whom all hopes must be pinned upon. Sarojini aunty, Lakshmi aunty, Deepa aunty, and Rekha aunty had been meeting at each other’s houses in the afternoon since they were children. As girls in Jaffna, they would get together after school, growing comfortable in each other’s company, trading dolls for gossip. After they arrived in England, one by one, they came together as often as their busy lives and families would permit, their girlish giggles now supplanted by hoarse cackles and throaty guffaws. Their ribbons and makeup had long been replaced by thick jewelry and chains of gossip and opinion which wove a stiff ring around their lives. The flighty awkwardness of their immigrant lives had thickened into a limey comfort and tyrannical stubbornness. They ruled over their families like vultures, not stirring from their roost, their eyes became clearer, their beaks sharper, with time.
Sarojini’s nephew had now married a Sinhalese girl and as the de facto leader of their stubborn group, commanded the most sympathy. For years, the other women had allowed her to air her grievances first, doling out tea for sympathy. Lakshmi’s daughter was moving from undergrad to grad school with no clear direction, muddled as ever. Deepa and Rekha were both grandparents, having married their children off young, and revelled in the daily complaint of how tiresome their grandchildren were, that they lived now only to serve.
They were at Sarojini’s house and she seated them, fussed after them to such an extent that they could never have cause to complain. She served them deluxe crackers with lemon filling and large granules of sugar sprinkled on top, tea with cardamom, liberal slices of cake. They encouraged her to stop fussing, to sit down; as the host, she was entitled to the spotlight, the primary wave of attention.
Lakshmi aunty patted the seat on the sofa beside her, “Sarojini, stop it and sit down! Tell us all about your nephew. What’s he doing now?”
Sarojini aunty sat down, the sofa cushion sinking beneath her weight, a small porcelain saucer of tea held daintily in her hand. She raised the cup and blew on the tea, took a tentative sip, and wrinkled her face. “What is there to say? What can I say that hasn’t been said before?”
“We tell them, again and again, until our voices go dry,” said Deepa aunty patiently.
Taking the cue, Sarojini aunty put her cup down and jumped in, waving her hands: “Do you know what that boy is doing now? He’s taken out a loan and his wife, who as you all know thinks of nothing but money, wants them to start a hamburger restaurant. A hamburger restaurant, can you believe it? ‘We don’t even eat meat,’ I told him. ‘You’re supposed to be Hindu. What do you know about hamburgers?’
“ ‘I know about making money,’ he said. ‘We’re not going to eat it. We’re going to sell it,’ added his wife. She’s made him like her so fast, I can’t believe it! And you know what the worst is? They expect to serve to Hindu children. They’re expecting the boys to come in and defile themselves. He even wants to give it a Hindu name: Durga Burger.”
The other ladies gasped.
“He wants a large sign of the Goddess in the front window, each of her six hands holding a burger, french fries, onion rings, milkshake, apple pie, and chicken wing!”
“Do they have no shame?” asked Lakshmi aunty. “Where will we all end up?”
“I’m not worried,” replied Sarojini aunty with a stoic wave of her hand. Her bangles clattered as she picked up her teacup and drank. The story timed perfectly, the milky brew was just the right temperature now. She placed the teacup back on its saucer with deep satisfaction. “If I know that boy, he’ll run this into the ground like everything else. And then come crying to me. And I’ll tell him I told you so.”
“Don’t give him any more money. You must draw a line,” declared Rekha aunty authoritatively.
“But then his wife will push him to try something else,” muttered Deepa aunty, looking down with austerity at her long wrinkled fingers.
“He’ll want to cater to the Portugese Tamil community.”
“And call it Burgher Burger!”
They all shrieked with laughter.
“Those Sinhalese will do anything,” continued Deepa aunty darkly, staring into the black dregs of her teacup. “Did I ever tell you about the time in the early eighties when my husband, may he rest in peace, was a lawyer in the Colombo high courts? If he lived to see how things have turned out today, he would shoot himself and fall back into his grave.”
The other ladies had heard many stories about Deepa’s husband, with his towering frame and magisterial voice, who had interrogated defendants so intimidatingly that they had received heart attacks. The old barrister had been kidnapped and was never heard from again, but was alive more than ever in the reminiscences of his mournful wife.
“Mahinda Rajapaksa was a lawyer in those days. He was a failed politician and a hanger-on in the judicial scene in Colombo. This was after he made enemies for trying to get the United Nations interested in the JVP killings. The irony of how things have changed!
“In any case, some friends of my husband who held him in high esteem threw a birthday party for our first girl. She was only seven then. They were eager to curry favour from my husband and spared no expense. They made reservations at the Galle Face Hotel and you should have seen how the food flowed! The tablecloths and the service! The napkins even. Everything the best! Somehow, Rajapaksa had been invited or had wrangled an invitation, many of my husband’s colleagues were prominent Sinhalese lawyers and politicians.
“So he arrived late to the party, without any children of his own, this was before he got married you see. He was in a grey sharkskin suit and clutched a briefcase. This was before he wore that traditional white kurta and shawl, his costume for politics. He had a very thick orange tie and he was sweating constantly around his fat neck. He seemed uncomfortable and agitated and kept on pulling at his big moustache; frankly, I was afraid he would scare the children.
“The children had finished their games and the cake had been cut and eaten; all the presents had been opened. So he arrives and slams his briefcase down on a table and pulls out a wad of something wrapped in pink paper. Only, it seemed like the paper had been wrapped so hurriedly and messily I wondered whether it was a package of fish he was carrying. I pushed our daughter to be polite and go accept the gift.
“She took it from him and even at that age, she seemed hesitant to take the gift from the strange, uncomfortable man. Inside was a G. I. Joe doll in a box. It was a white doll of a blonde haired man with combat fatigues and a rocket launcher. We looked at this box in surprise and then my daughter said ‘look, Amma, what’s this say?‘ A small envelope with a card had dropped out the back. I picked up the envelope and opened it. The writing was in English. Now, my English wasn’t perfect so I had to read it slowly and it took me twice as long to understand what was going on. When I understood, my blood went through the roof. My husband was the intimidating one, but I could have killed that cheap bastard right there! This nobody, this nothing, who hadn’t even been invited, had re-wrapped a gift someone else had given him and brought it to my daughter’s birthday. It must have been given to him in America by someone who thought he had sons. He hadn’t even taken the time to find the envelope and card and remove them!”
The women chuckled ruefully. “What did you do?” asked Lakshmi aunty after she had stopped laughing.
“What could we do? We got the hotel to get him some food and fed him. Everybody avoided him and after half an hour, he left without telling anyone.”
“You think that’s bad?” put in Rekha aunty. “Well, sit back and I’ll tell you all something that’ll make the hair on your arms curl.”
Sarojini aunty, her need for sympathy soothed, now sat back and graciously gave the spotlight to Rekha. As dramatic as Rekha’s teaser had been, it was universally acknowledged that they should all get up to refill their teacups. Lemon biscuits were liberally passed around. Saris were straightened and blouses readjusted.
“Well,” said Rekha aunty, “this isn’t something that I’ve ever told any of you before. To tell the truth, it’s not something I want people to know. But we’re close aren’t we? I know that you’ll understand and feel my misery, the sorrow I’ve been carrying around for more than twenty years. I don’t know why I haven’t told people before.”
“Stop being nervous,” said Sarojini aunty, “you’re among friends here.” The others murmured and sipped their teas. A couple of them burped due to their bad stomachs.
“Well, as I said, it was some time ago. Just after the ’77 riots. I had a niece, the eldest daughter of my oldest sister, she lives in Portland now. She went to the States for the first time to meet her husband and get married. She’s a nurse there still – you’ve seen photos of her and her family. When she moved out there, she was very young and I went there along with her mother and another one of our friends to help her. We escorted her to the wedding stage and before that, washed her, dressed her, reassured her. She was so nervous and continually asked us for advice. One of the things she asked me was what good deed she should do on the day of her wedding. As you know, the bride is supposed to do a good deed, something substantial, to bring her good luck, good karma in her ensuing marriage, her life.
“I told her – remember, this was just after the ’77 riots where they’d burned those houses and killed those Tamils because the TULF had gotten so many votes – that she should adopt a Sri Lankan child through World Vision. She wasn’t going to adopt the child and have her live with her, you understand. She was moving to the States. She would adopt an orphan in Sri Lanka and send some money every month through World Vision. So she took my advice and signed up to adopt a child and got on with her wedding.
“We naturally assumed that the child would be Tamil – a lot of Tamils had just been killed or displaced because of the riots and I’m sure she told World Vision that she was Tamil and that’s why she was sponsoring an orphan. Well, World Vision wouldn’t allow my niece to pick and choose – she didn’t have power over whether the child was Tamil. She wrote a Tamil letter in good faith to her new ward from her home in the States. To her shock, when they sent her a folder with a photo and description of the child, there was no return letter. The child was Sinhalese! She had committed to supporting a Sinhalese child for the rest of his natural childhood. Well, as you might guess, she didn’t speak Sinhalese and he didn’t speak Tamil. So, just as she was learning to live in America and started working on her English, she had to write letters in English to this child that she didn’t want. But she didn’t dare cancel her sponsorship.”
“How could she?” asked Lakshmi aunty. “Think about the repercussions to her marriage!”
“Exactly,” continued Rekha, “the marriage, the repercussions. So my niece didn’t say anything to her new husband or her family. She just told me as I had given her the idea. I felt badly for her because I was somewhat responsible so I said ‘What can you do? He’s a child. He doesn’t know anything. You must keep writing.’
“So she bit her lip and continued sending her monthly letter as best she could. The two tried to continue writing to each other even though both of them had the English of seven year olds. The letters started to dwindle and eventually both stopped writing to each other and my niece just continued sending money. She sent extra on Vesak and other Buddhist holidays as if she herself was Buddhist. She took the money out of her own personal allowance and kept it up religiously until the boy turned eighteen, never missing a payment. It was as if she had a contract with the Devil himself.
“She said that the day he turned eighteen was the best day of her life. She went out on a drive just to be alone and screamed where no one could hear her.”
“How horrible,” murmured the others.
“I haven’t told the worst yet,” sighed Rekha, her chest heaving slowly, her words slowing down. “My niece lost touch with the child but she heard that he didn’t graduate from school. She heard from his foster parents that he had a very unhappy and troubled life. He joined the Sri Lankan Army and left them. The last they heard, he was involved in the fighting over Elephant Pass around 1997. He deserted the army and was supposedly involved in a massacre of Tamils in a village outside of Killinochi. My niece never heard from him again. But she has nightmares once in a while that he shows up at her doorstep in America, holding a machete with blood on his hands…”
“You’re lucky to at least have a niece and children that are all grown up and well taken care of,” sighed Lakshmi aunty. “All of you –
“My daughter is still in school. What’s the point of all this school if you don’t know what you’re doing?” I ask her. “This is the worst time it’s ever been to raise children. None of them care about values anymore, about being good. They’ve all become corrupted by life here. My daughter’s going to school in London as you know, and running around who knows where. When I call her at night, she doesn’t answer the phone.”
The rest of the women sighed, imagining the worst.
“I’m going to get a call from the police one of these days, asking me to come identify her body in a gutter. What’s the point of leaving things back home if these young people just forget everything and destroy themselves? At least it’s better to stay home and be killed there, where you can die for a cause and go to your child’s funeral with some dignity.”
“What’s she doing in school now?” asked Rekha.
“She’s just graduated from her undergraduate degree in Postcolonial Literature and is now going to do her M-Phil. What is the point of all this reading if it doesn’t make you smart?”
“At least she’s educated – it will make her a better match.”
“If anyone will want her,” snorted Lakshmi aunty, “she takes this too far and no one will be interested. Just wait and see! You know, I went to visit her once, without telling her?
“I went to her address in the evening, a communal house in Soho. She wasn’t even home. What does she do there? All these people and tourists coming and going. How is she affording to live there? I’m her mother and I don’t know anything.
“As I was leaving, there was a crazy person shouting on the street corner. The only thing was that he wasn’t shouting in a crazy way that you or I might understand. He wasn’t shouting about Jesus or that we needed to be saved. He was shouting about Jane Austen. Jane Austen! Can you believe it?
“He stood on a box and yelled out: Jane Austen died for your sins! Jane Austen lived alone and never married and devoted herself to writing so that you could benefit. Stop and realize that Jane Austen died for your sins! I said ‘come down off there and get yourself something to eat.’ I tried to give him money but he only glared at me. Perhaps he knows my daughter? It was very strange. Even the crazy people are different in her world. What will I do?”
– – –
Mahinda Rajapaksa woke up in his hotel room drenched in sweat. The top of his kurta was soaked thoroughly and the sweat had gotten into the bedclothes and felt damp and heavy underneath his back. He remembered slowly where he was. Why this dream now? It came back again and again. The stories were different but the women were always the same. He understood Tamil and knew what they said. Were they reminiscent of women he had known as a child?
He got up slowly and looked at the alarm clock. It was 5:42 p.m. Picking up his earth coloured shawl, he draped it around his shoulders protectively and walked over to the curtains. Peering through the window, he could see the English Tamil mob shaking their fists and stamping their feet and rattling their placards, chanting threats into the hazy air. He was so high up in the hotel that he could not hear them but he could see each individual head, curly with black hair, looking up at him, could form ghostly Tamil syllables in the rising air from their vociferous throats. There would be no address; the speech was cancelled, so there was no reason for him to hurry or stir.
Beat your breasts, ladies, he thought to himself, now is the time to beat your breasts and wail! What else can you do?