It was the second time it happened.
You were rearranging your wardrobe.
You had taken all the sarees out and piled them up before cleaning out the bottom of the shelf. You were deciding which saree to keep on top, the light-yellow one with small, embroidered leaves, or, the dark-brown one with white tassels when you remembered you wore a light-yellow saree when he first came to see you with his family, once your mother responded to the wedding proposal advertisement in the newspaper.
You recalled how he had looked at you from head to toe, how you had felt embarrassed, and how you wanted to do the same but couldn’t amid the dozen sets of eyes that were staring at you.
You thought about the first words you said to each other.
‘How was the drive up-’
‘Your degree is in Social Work, no?’
‘Yes. Are you interested in Social Work?’
‘No, no. Well, sort of-’
‘So how was the drive up-’
‘You did your degree in English medium, no?’
‘Yes. How did you find the journ-’
‘You doing Masters?’
‘You should, soon. Do it on Social Work.’
You remembered how you had asked him if he was offering you employment since his questions were all about degrees and work experience and not about your childhood or previous boyfriends. You remembered how he laughed when you said that. And how you laughed when he laughed.
But he was a considerate man, you thought. You recalled the time he was madly worried about the rash on your ankles. How he had brought you various creams every time he had come to see you after the engagement. Your father had said you didn’t deserve such a loving and caring man. Your mother had agreed. And you had strongly believed they were right. Also, the time he had driven you seven hours to see a popular Ayurvedic doctor who was known for his treatments for the eyes, to get your short-sightedness treated right, and had paid five times the cost of the herbs the doctor had asked for, you had thought he was one-of-a-kind. Looking out of the window at the distant areca nut trees swinging with the monsoon wind, you smiled.
He was also an open-minded man, you were certain. Why else had the paper advertisement said ‘a bride between eighteen to thirty-five years old’ when he was twenty-eight years old. It wasn’t normal to see a son of a Govigama Buddhist family being okay with marrying a girl older than him.
You missed him. Looking the stack of sarees, you sighed. And in a second, you heard another sigh.
Then it turned to a soft cry.
You kept your ear to the back of the wardrobe to listen to the sound coming from the other side of the wall. It was not an instant cry of pain; it was a slow gasp of some fermented grief. You left the sarees on the floor and slowly walked to the door of the library and touched the knob. It was locked. You took a deep breath and knocked.
You knocked again. ‘Amma?’
You decided the light-yellow saree with small embroidered leaves should go on top.
Next morning, during breakfast you looked at your mother-in-law’s face and tried to read it like a book, line by line. You asked her if she wanted more tea and she said she did not. Then you asked her if her water was warm enough and she said it was, why? Then you asked her if she wanted more milk rice and she gave you a stern rigid look. You looked down and mixed red chilli paste with the neatly cut diamond shaped piece of milk rice.
Reading a book, seated on the shaking teal couch after lunch, you felt your mother-in-law’s stare and you looked up. She loosened her tight face and you wondered for a second whether what her lips held was a smile. You smiled anyway. She asked you if you wanted to read the Sunday paper and you said yes. Then she carefully went through the sections of the paper and gave you the ones on food and fashion. When you looked at the pages as if you didn’t understand the language even though you were supposed to have a ‘good command of English’ as the proposal advertisement in the paper said, she asked why. And you told her you would rather read the section with news and she smiled. You thought perhaps this time, it could’ve been a smile.
The first time it happened, you were still a new bride.
People came to see you for days, with glass bowls and porcelain tea sets and sometimes with coconut toffee and lime pickle. And when you said where you were from, they started telling you about their memorable trips to visit the ruins in your hometown. About the nostalgia that haunted the luxurious places they had stayed at, the roofs of which you had seen above colossal cement walls, growing up. They called your classic curries and coconut roti ‘exotic rural food’ and the replicas of the ruins of the country’s past you had played hide and seek with as a child, ‘souvenirs.’ You didn’t understand how a past could be remembered by a stone statue, you only knew how to live in it, travelling back and forth from the present, but you didn’t say a word, you just smiled. Their overwhelming enthusiasm made it difficult for you to breathe, also, to understand whether they had liked your hometown or had wanted to get away as soon as possible. When they asked you what it was like to live in a city full of ruins, you didn’t tell them it was surreal, instead, you said it was nice. And when they started asking questions about your family, your mother-in-law started talking about your degree. How you were the only girl from your province in your batch. You wanted to think she was proud of you, and so you did. But in her eyes, you only found a translucent liquid that jittered, like the flickering flame of a lamp that left you restless, threatening to diminish after a flare, every time.
The day after your husband went abroad, you went to your mother-in-law and asked if she needed a hand with scarping coconut or peeling onions to prepare lunch, because that’s what you did back at home. She looked at you with terror-stricken eyes, told you there were three kitchen maids in the house, and walked to the library with some jasmines in her hand and closed the door. Since that day, during meals where you and your mother-in-law were seated at the two ends of the table, you started noticing the designs on the round plates as you mixed your curries with red rice. The floral design with orange buds was balmy, but you were sure it was filmy, so you wanted to feel it with the tip of a finger, to see if it dissolved with the seer fish curry. The leaf design with oversized lemons was pretty but it looked unreal. You had never seen lemons like that, so you didn’t like to have rice on the plate which had that design. The beautiful porcelain teacup in which you were given tea, shone like a tooth brushed with charcoal and it made you happy. At home, your teacups didn’t shine. Those were stained and faded, and often the handles were cracked.
One day, your mother-in-law came to your room with a seamstress and got measurements for saree jackets for the sarees she had got you. Pale cotton sarees with mosaics. Sometimes leaves. Sometimes carvings. But never flowers or buds. You touched the sarees with both your hands and felt softness of a pleated sandy turf of a temple back home. So, you smiled. But your mother-in-law didn’t return the smile. She waited until the seamstress left to tell you that the family wore sarees in that house, that whoever wore a dress, was a maid. You didn’t tell her that you had spent all the money you had saved on the dresses you had bought to bring here, instead, you crumpled a frill in the dress and stayed inside the room until your saree jackets were ready to be worn. That evening you looked out the windowsill and wondered whether those distant areca nut trees that swirled with the force of the monsoon wind, howling, as if those were in a trance, lay within the estate or beyond. You closed your eyes and thought of the shady trees back home, that were never shaken, but were steady and were at peace in shielding the ruins.
You never thought your life would be like this when your parents came to you and announced that they liked the son of the late Army Officer best out of all the wedding proposal options you had; the one who was planning to migrate to Canada. You just smiled. Then your friends started dancing around you, saying things in English – ‘lucky bride’, ‘Canada wife’, and you started doodling hearts along the margins of your lecture notes. And, after a glamorous wedding in a magnificent hotel by a foul-smelling lake in Colombo, the man you had just started to get to know received his visa to migrate abroad. The day his letter arrived, you sat on the teal couch near the ebony cabinet in the living room and stared at the pendulum of the grandfather’s clock for a reason you did not understand.
You were terrified, but sad that you were not sad.
When your husband who went to Canada first ‘to settle things before you arrived’ slowly stopped calling after the first few days, you started staring at the pendulum again and again, time after time. You watched how the pendulum arrived at the centre, every time it swung to one side. But the wood dust sliding down the pendulum like rain, had made a tall pile on the ground and you were worried the antique grandfather’s clock would any minute collapse to the ground in broad daylight.
One day, you were watching the gardener who on certain nights got drunk and shouted at your mother-in-law exaggerating how he was often underpaid for the essential work he did, uprooting the banana trees in the backyard, twisting the tassels in the fall of your dark-brown saree, when your mother-in-law came and asked whether you wanted to go home for some time. Since you said yes though you had no dying ache to visit the past, you were packed and sent back to a history to which you had gladly bid goodbye. On the way home you counted the corroded patches in the car your mother-in-law owned that must have been a silver bullet decades ago and it came to eighteen. The driver told you how difficult it was to drive that car which fit to be in a museum. You just smiled. But he said he understood what the family was going through, with all the estates sold and gambled on; to survive on one pension was not easy, he agreed, but you didn’t return the smile this time.
You wondered why you felt like a foreigner, as you walked through your favourite stone pillars and broken arches in a saree as a wife. One day when you walked back home after a long day among the fallen castles, your father who was standing in the veranda, asked you when you were planning to go home. You stood still wordless and wondered whether you wanted to tell him you were already home. Or were you not? You looked down and walked straight to the kitchen and put a clove in your mouth before telling your mother that you wished you could do something with your life. She said again and again that you should’ve had a baby because then you could’ve lived your life for the child, but you yelled it was impossible to do it without a man in your life. She said nothing but crushed the garlic and the ginger in the mortar with the pestle so ferociously that a small piece of garlic landed on your right hand. That day during dinner, she asked whether the nerve to shout at your mother in your father’s house came from your degree or the expensive saree you had wrapped around your pride. You silently went to your bed and tried to close your strained eyes.
In your dreams you were taken along the gravel road by the oldest tank in the area in a beautiful palanquin, and seeing the grassy land near the kumbuk tree, you got down. In expensive silk clothing, with a gold crown embedded with gems on your head, you ordered that a garden shall be built in that land. You told the soldiers where to place the stone arch entrance, what trees to plant for shade, and where to have a pond with pink lotus. You were wondering whether you really wanted a pond when there was a tank nearby, when you saw the mass of water in the tank, foul-smelling and dark, rising up to the clouds and coming towards you in a wave with a roar of a hungry lioness – its pink lotus hanging down by their stems like beheaded pigeons in a folk sacrifice. You wanted to shout but you were muted by whoever was watching your dream. You tried to run towards the areca nut trees far away, but in your expensive silk saree, you could not. No matter how fast you moved your legs, you didn’t move a step. Only your gold choker necklace broke into two and the pearl waist band tore into pieces with pearls rolling around like raw coconut flowers sprinkled during good times. Finally, the mass of water got you. It lifted you and flung you towards the garden, like an elephant, and when you fell down, your face hit a polished floor and got bruised. The one who was watching your dream was laughing now. The floor was made of porcelain. The pillars were made of porcelain. It was a walled porcelain garden. Shining, but fractured and cracked. You wanted to get up, but the floral design with orange buds that had got tangled around your ankles didn’t let you move. And suddenly, a dozen oversized lemons came rolling towards your face and you yelled from the top of your lungs asking them to let you live your life. And when you woke up in the middle of the night, you heard your parents discussing in hushed tones, how the neighbours were wondering whether you were really married or pretended to be, and about your birthmark, which, according to the village astrologer meant you were never to be happy in life. Early morning the next day, you rushed back to your in-law’s place, in a saree with your suitcase and your pride. And you opened the doors of your wardrobe full of sarees and cried.
Then you heard something from the other side. That was the first time it ever happened.
The next minute, you slowly walked to the library and lifted the thick curtain hung over the panel doors and you saw a shade of dim light through the stained glass with a lotus design. You didn’t have the courage to knock, so you looked in through the keyhole. You saw the brass key inside. And around it, a dim yellow light. You walked back to your room and stood awake the whole night.
Today was the third time it happened.
It took you some time to hear it because you were shocked and bewildered by the folder in your hands and there was a cold current running through your intestines that didn’t let you think straight.
The folder was named ‘Canada Migration’ and each page had sticky notes with your name and some points on it. Page one was about age, highest points, eighteen to thirty-five. Twenty-five, ten marks. And you thought he was an open-minded man.
Page two had a list of occupation fields. Social work, high-demand. And you had thought he wanted you to be able to help people cope with the baffled pickle of a world. Ten marks.
The page with education qualifications came next, Bachelor’s degree, ten marks, Master’s degree, fifteen. Bachelor’s, check, Master’s, exclamation mark. You had boasted to your village friends about the MA in Social Work your husband-to-be had got you registered for.
You sat down on the floor because your legs felt numb. And you looked out through the window into invisible monsoon wind before looking at the page titled Medical Test. Skin rash, short-sightedness. This page made a tear roll down your cheek. You touched the polished cement floor and sighed. As the monsoon wind blew violently outside, you threw away the folder across the room and cried.
And you heard another cry.
You wipe your tears and walk out of the room towards the library. You see a dim yellow light through the stained glass and a slim slit between the panel doors. You push one door from the brass knob and take a step in, your heart beating at the same speed of the jingle of a breaking news during war. The room smells of citronella and regret, of memories and pink lotus. And pages and pages decayed. As you place your other foot on the colourful circular rug, your mother-in-law appears before you. She doesn’t ask why you’re here; she only stares into your eyes. And you see the reflection of the flickering flame of the oil lamp nearby, in her long translucent eyes. As you say sorry and turn back, she says ‘no’. And you wonder whether she wants you to stay. You watch her walking to the other end of the room and sitting on the cane arm chair by the window.
You start taking slow steps towards her, looking around, step to step. It’s a long narrow room.
Cupboard and cupboards full of books. Dictionaries. Thesauruses. Complete sets of encyclopaedias. You touch the thick spines of the hard covered books with your fingers. Dust she had not wanted to wipe off. In front of the books are ornaments. A porcelain bride and groom. An elephant. An ashtray. A painted clay pot. And next to the books, a huge wooden cupboard with a brass padlock. Woven sesath, maroon and gold. A rack with a peaked cap on top. And beyond that, a lotus shaped bulb. Incense sticks. And jasmines.
Behind the cupboards of books and wardrobes, is a chamber enclosed with photos framed. Brown and black and white. Life-sized. Kept on the floor, hung on the wall, kept on four wooden stools. As you stand in the middle of the replicas of a man—once in a dark green uniform, once in a handloom sarong, and once in a formal lounge suit—your heart beats like a deafening temple chime. Over the one where he’s a Brigadier in a peaked cap, is a garland of jasmines with a white thread. And a small piece of coconut toffee next to it.
She tells you it was his favourite sweet, the green one. You have no expression on your face.
She tells you the library was made with his favourite books and you stand up to go through the book rows, line by line. You move from cupboard to cupboard. From Wickramasinghe to Silva to Spittel. From fiction to culture to history. You pull out a book from a bottom shelf and sense the smell of dusk in the air. And you look at her who is still looking into your eyes. Her translucent eyes are now liquified. Knowing not what to say, you twist your fingers left and right. A tear rolls down her eye. And you let her cry.
Standing close beside her, you feel the velvet petals of a jasmine until she finally wipes her tears and sighs. You look into her eyes and smile. She smiles back, this time you are certain it is a smile.
And then you leave her with the photos of a man long dead, who to her, is still alive.
During lunch next day, your mother-in-law asks you about your childhood and you are surprised. She asks you what part of the ruins was your favourite and you tell her it was the royal garden by the tank.
She asks you why.
You count the neatly kept pleats in her saree’s fall before telling her that a garden reminds you that happiness can sometimes be created, that’s it’s not always something to be found. She nods and adjusts her gold-framed spectacles before eating the next mouthful of rice.
Then you tell her you like reading and she slowly pours two spoons full of dhal curry over her plate of red rice before saying you can borrow books from the library at home. You like the way she pronounced the word home.
When you lift the thick curtain the next day, you find the door to the library unlocked. You walk slowly inside. You pass the dictionaries and go to the section labelled ‘Fiction.’ You wonder why it feels like a walk among the ancient ruins as you move from one cupboard to the next. It takes you a long time to find a book. Once you’re done, you want to meander towards the chamber with photos, and you do, looking back at the panel doors like a novice thief. When you reach the corner of the room, you’re startled to see her, asleep, on the long armchair by the window. As you quickly turn away, a tassel in your saree’s fall gets tangled in the brass oil lamp and it shakes.
And she wakes up.
You say sorry, you came to borrow a book.
She asks you to sit down. Then she calls a maid and says that tea shall be served in the library today.
She tells you how it happened, his death. How they were getting ready for the New Year when they heard about the bomb blast in Elephant Pass. She tells you how she was scolding the maids who were not polishing the brass oil lamps right when an Officer rang the doorbell with the news. How she had many maids back then before all the factories started and maids went looking for better jobs. How the maids had polished all the brass items in the house when she had woken up in the morning the next day. And how she had stared into the tall oil lamp by the coffin during the funeral because they didn’t let her see the body of the man she loved. Because there was no body to see, there were only parts of him.
‘I remember the sealed coffin. It was dark brown.’
‘Beneath the Lion Flag on top, I could see it was well-polished.’
‘It shone better than the brass oil lamp’
You rub the cover of the dusty book in your hand for a long time and tell her, that past cannot be relived, it can only be visited on and off.
‘But it can always be loved’
You both stay silent, staring at the sepia toned photos, before you tell her what you found out. That your life and the folder on migration match better than the horoscopes of you and her son.
She asks you why you agreed to marry his son.
You tell her, with the hope for love.
She says you can never hope for love.
You ask why.
She says it arrives unplanned; that it’s a strange thing – love.
You’re worried it might never even come.
She says it does, but not always from where you look.
‘But doesn’t hope keep you going?’
Silence. ‘How far have you gone now?’
Clutching the dusty book to your chest, you walk towards the panel doors and turn back. ‘You said these were his favourite books in the world, no?’
‘And you don’t want to know what’s in them?’
After dinner, you turn to the first page of the book you borrowed from the library in your home. The spine of the book smells of citronella even now. When it’s almost midnight and you’re halfway into the book, you switch off the dim light and open the window. Moonlight that curled and creeped through the cracks of the closed window panes now come down flowing like a waterfall into the room.
A breeze blows through your hair and gives you a slight chill and you wonder whether you’re by the tank near the garden from your past. The teacup on the table by the window shines with the glow of the moonlight and you smile. You feel happy. Seeing the croton leaves brushing against the breeze blowing outside, you wonder whether you want to lose a home all over again.
You touch the boundary wall of the library to your right. It is warm. You open the door of your wardrobe and sit on the red cement floor.
You count the sarees on the bottom shelf by the moonlight. You keep the book on top of the stack of sarees and lean on to the wooden door of the wardrobe. Then you pull the dark brown saree with white tassels out and feel its softness against your cheek and close your eyes.
Next morning you open the panel doors of your room to a breakfast table laid for two side-by-side. You look at your mother-in-law to find her staring out through the window at the sky. She says the monsoon wind is strange today and you walk towards her as the clock strikes. You see the book What the Buddha Taught turned to page two on the octagon table nearby.
You see it’s like a white cotton saree, the sky.
A maid appears from the overgrown garden with some croton leaves in hand and arranges those in a porcelain vase outside.
‘Time to redo the garden, no?’
‘Yes, it’s time.’