All of the coastline of Sri Lanka is indented, mysterious, and beautiful—but no place is more mysterious than Batticaloa. The city is famous for its lagoon, where extraordinary things can happen. The fish here can sing: true. Absolutely true. Place a reed to your ear, lean down from your paddleboat, and you will hear the music of the fish of the lagoon. At midnight, the water’s skin breaks, and the kadal kanni, mermaids, emerge out of the lagoon dripping with moonlight.
From the time he was about four or five years old, Danny had wanted to talk to a mermaid.
From the rooftop of his school, he could look over the palm trees and brightly painted houses of his city to the spot where the many-pointed, many-lobed lagoon narrowed before flowing into a greater body of water. Just before joining the Indian Ocean, the lagoon’s face burned like fire, like the unriddling of an ancient puzzle: the motto beneath his school’s coat of arms. Lucet et Ardet. Translated by the gray-robed priests as Shines and Burns. (But what shines? And what burns?)
Now Danny, standing up here, understood. This lagoon shines. This lagoon burns.
He knew, as he watched the burning spot in the distance, that there was a second place where the lagoon joined the ocean; and that this spot was a secret one—hidden for most of the year, in a spot called Mugathwaram, the Face of the Portal, near the old Dutch lighthouse. Danny was sure it was there, at this hidden portal, that the kadal kanni came out into the open.
He had to wait till he was fifteen, a few years after his mother’s death, to find the Face of the Portal. One Saturday, telling his father that he was going to a school picnic, he sat pillion on a friend’s bicycle and went, for the first time in his life, to the old Dutch lighthouse and then beyond it, to the hidden beach, from where, he was told, you could see the second opening. When he got down from the bicycle, he was disappointed, because all he could observe in the distance was a continuous sandbar blocking this part of the lagoon: “There is no way it could flow out into the ocean here.” After covering the bicycle with palm leaves so that it would not be stolen, his friend, a Tamil Christian, said: “We have to go out there, and it will appear.” So he and Danny stole a boat from the lighthouse and then took turns rowing it all the way out to Mugathwaram. They drew nearer and nearer, beneath them the music from the fish grew louder and louder, and then it happened: the sandbar parted, its unity revealed to be an optical illusion, and now a gap of meters showed between the two arms of sand.
The Portal had opened.
In the middle of the gap gleamed the magic island of Mugathwaram, coral- and jellyfish-encrusted, on which the two boys alighted to watch—as cormorants, red-breasted sea eagles, broad-winged pelicans circled over their heads—the meeting and churning of waters. Currents of the lagoon flowing out and those of the Indian Ocean flowing in neutralized each other, producing an illusion of perfect stillness in the water: a solitary white egret stood with one black foot in the spot, to mark the gateway to the world. Danny knew he had guessed right. This was where the kadal kanni were most likely to come up. Sitting side by side, he and the Christian friend waited for a mermaid. The tide began to rise, and the boat they had brought began to rock. The light dimmed; the ocean had become the color of old family silver. By now his father, who expected him home at five-thirty every evening to begin his homework, would be sitting outside with a rattan cane. Danny waited. He had a friend by his side; he was not frightened. They were not going back without talking to a mermaid.
Housecleaner, Danny was about to reply, sixty dollars an hour, but instead smiled at the woman.
Strapped to his back was what resembled an astronaut’s jet-booster—a silver canister with a blue rubber nozzle peeping out and scarlet loops of wire wrapped around it—but it was just a portable vacuum cleaner, Turbo Model E, Super Suction, acquired a year ago at Kmart for seventy-nine dollars. In his right hand, a plastic bag with the tools of his trade.
“I asked,” repeated the Australian woman, “what are you?”
Maybe, Danny thought, she’s annoyed by the golden highlights in my hair. He sniffled. From the outside Danny’s nose looked straight, but from the inside it was broken; a doctor had informed him when he was a boy that he was the proud owner of a deviated septum. Maybe the woman was referring to it.
“Australian,” he hazarded.
“No, you’re not,” she replied. “You’re a perfectionist.”
Only now did she indicate, by pointing with a finger, that she was talking about his way of having breakfast.
In his left hand was a half-eaten cheese roll, which he’d made himself while walking by opening a packet of Black & Gold $2.25-for-ten cheese slices that he’d brought with him along with his cleaning equipment, and placing two slices in the middle of a sixty-cent wholemeal bun—and then the woman, who had apparently been observing him combine things into a sandwich and take a bite out of it, had made these remarks to him.
Shifting his vacuum on his back, Danny chewed and examined what was left of his self-made cheese roll and looked at the Australian woman.
So this is why I have, he thought, become visible. Because my way of eating bothers her. After four years, he was still learning things, still making notes to himself: Never walk and eat in daylight. They see you.
Now talk your way out of this, Dhananjaya. Maybe you should say: I used to do the triple jump in school. Hop, skip, and leap? Same way: plan, eat, and walk. I do these things all at once.
Or maybe a story was needed, a quick but moving story: My father always said no, I couldn’t eat while walking, so now it’s a form of rebellion.
Sometimes, though, with white people, all you have to do is start thinking, and that’s enough. Like in a jungle, when you find a tiger in your path, how you’re supposed to hold your breath and stare back. They go away.
Although she certainly appeared to be going away, the woman suddenly changed her mind and turned back to shout: “That’s irony, mate. What I just said about you being a perfectionist.”
Did she mean, thought Danny as he finished the sandwich on his way to the end of Glebe Point Road, from where he would take a left and walk up to Central Station, that I don’t do anything well?
His forehead was furrowed now with the woman’s word: irony. Danny knew what the dictionary said it meant. In practice,
he had noted, its uses were more diverse, slippery, and usually connected to a desire to give offense with words. Irony.
So by calling me a perfectionist, she must have meant . . . Fuck her. I like eating like this.
Danny made himself another sandwich on his way to Central, and then a third one on the platform, as he waited for the 8:35 train to St. Peters Station.
His five-foot-seven body looked like it had been expertly packed into itself, and even when he was doing hard physical labor his gaze was dreamy, as if he owned a farm somewhere far away. With an elegant oval jaw, and that long, thin forehead’s suggestion of bookishness, he was not, except when he smiled and exhibited cracked teeth, an overseas threat. On his left forearm a bump, something he had not been born with, showed prominently, and he had let his third fingernail on the right hand grow long and opalescent. His hair had fresh highlights of gold in it.
The train was nearly full. Danny had a seat by a window. Stroking his fingers through his golden hair, for which he had paid $47.50 at a barbershop in Glebe, he became aware that he was being watched and turned toward the Asian man with the black-and-white shopping bag.
The man was looking not at Danny but at his backpack. Even worse.
An astronaut faced growing competition these days, it was a fact. Two-man, three-man Chinese teams were spreading over Sydney offering the same service, at the same price, in half the time. And let’s not even talk about the Nepalis. Four men at the price of one.
That’s why Danny came with his own stuff. He had invested his capital. In addition to the portable vacuum on his back, he carried, in a plastic bag, a paper roll, disposable pads, a foam spray that he used on glass, and a fire-alarm-red rubber pump that would suck the problems from any toilet bowl. Sure, every home keeps a vacuum and brushes and sprays in a closet somewhere, but a cleaner impresses with his autonomy.
Aussies are a logical people, a methodical people.
Also in his plastic bag: a small but thorny potted plant with care instructions stuck into the dirt (I AM A CACTUS ), which he had bought for $3.80 from a woman who sat next to the park in Glebe, and which he planned to give someone later in the day.
A surprise gift.
At Erskineville Station, the Asian man stood up with his shopping bag just before the glass door opened, and Danny knew he was not a rival. That black-and-white bag did not have a portable vacuum inside. This was just a busybody on the train.
Stretching back, running his fingers through his hair, Danny sniffed them to check if the scent of the dye they used at the barbershop was still detectable—nasty stuff—and then raised his fingers to his scalp to stroke himself again.
He remembered the way Sonja’s eyes lit up when she saw his hair. “Weird.” That was what she’d said. That was a compliment. Because people in Australia were famished for what was weird, self-assuredly weird, even belligerently weird: like a Tamil man with golden highlights in his hair. A minority. And once you found out what that word minority means over here, tasted the intoxicant of being wanted because you were not like everyone else, how could anyone possibly tell you to go back to Sri Lanka and once again live as a minority over there?
To celebrate his golden head of hair, Sonja had made dinner in Parramatta the previous night, and Danny had kept looking at her as he ate, refreshing his vision of himself through her vision of him.
I’m here in Australia, he thought. I’m almost here.
True, after the flush of triumph following the first night in bed with Sonja, which was also his first time with someone not Tamil, he was confused by the idea of seeing the vegan Vietnamese girl again. He’d always thought that like marries like. How do you end up with a woman who doesn’t speak Tamil, or know a thing about your heritage? Danny reconciled himself to love. There were precedents at hand. In Malaysia, for instance, so many Chinese-Tamil marriages had taken place. Not that Sonja was Chinese, of course, but he was just saying. These half-Tamil/ half-Chinese children did very well in life. One of them had come to Batticaloa for a summer. He lived like a millionaire.
A root of a banyan tree, in a village near Batticaloa, burst through the corrugated tin shed protecting the grave of a pir, a Muslim saint, and touched his green cement grave like a giant’s finger: here on this new continent, Danny remembered that transgressing banyan root, remembered it like one who knew that life had not yet expanded sufficiently through him or through his body.
So he met her again, and then again, and their relationship was now into its second year.
Sonja believed in things. Veganism. Socialism. LGBT rights. Political views. The developers control the Labor Party, yes, but the developers are the Liberal Party. Do you see the difference, Danny? Some of these things Danny didn’t even understand, but he knew Sonja stood on them. Her Beliefs. He liked that about her. He also liked that her place in Parramatta had a spare room. After dinner, Danny went over there and sat by the duvet on the bed, playing with the table lamp, while shouting answers to the questions she asked from the kitchen.
“Yes! Vocational enrichment! I will investigate evening classes at the TAFE! You are so right, Sonja! Cleaning is not enough!”
Maybe she got the hint. Maybe she’d invite him to live in the spare room.
This morning she had called him just before starting work at the hospital—reminding him, ostensibly, to buy the cactus, but he knew it was just to hear his voice—and when she had asked, “What is your plan for this week?,” for she believed that everyone needed a plan, both for life and for each of its individual weeks, Danny had replied: “The average weekly take-home pay, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, is one thousand one hundred—” “That’s not what I meant,” she had said, laughing. “I meant what is your plan for this week regarding seeing me?”
He got up. Shifting the weight of the canister on his back, he stood by the glass door. He checked the time on his phone: its back had fallen off, and Danny had used Band-Aids to strap the battery into place. The display glass was cracked, an accident, and the time was four minutes fast, by design. The goal was to alternate anxiety—late late late—with relief—four extra minutes, remember, four extra—a pattern that intensified Danny’s sense of duty.
Hissing hydraulically, the glass doors opened at St. Peters Station. Danny hefted his plastic bag and stepped out onto the platform.
Another workday began.
Four dark steel-rimmed chimney stacks, like Egyptian obelisks, rose right outside the station, as if declaring, This Is Where It Ends—though in truth it did not end here, there, or anywhere—always expanding, this city of Sydney, except for those people for whom it was always contracting. Danny walked. He saw, behind suburban fences, tropical plantains, begonia leaves whose undersides were as red as the tongue of a man chewing betel juice, and frangipani trees whose white petals, fallen over the pavement, partially covered handwritten signs in chalk—ABSOLUTELY NO FREE PARKING HERE— PLEASE PLEASE ELIMINATE CHILDHOOD CANCER. Peeping through the charcoal-colored slats, a pitbull terrier, guardian of the secrets of white people, growled.
Danny sneezed. A blue mist sat in the trees like on a throne and the smell of smoke was everywhere: he guessed at once there was a fire in the mountains. Tonight on TV news, they would say: Bushfires that began last night near Blackheath are being put out right now, though we might smell the smoke for days in parts of the city. He walked by a parked car inside which he observed a pink rubber shark, a newspaper dedicated to racing and betting, and a lovely relic, a mounted globe, the kind that the supervillain flips on a finger. Danny had stooped before the globe, searching for
Sri Lanka, when from behind, someone—
He turned but found nothing human there.
A plane flew low and loud over the suburb, passing from one building to another, the red Qantas logo appearing and disappearing.
A pair of broken classical columns had been deposited by the next gray fence; and next to the columns lay a decapitated cement statue, which represented, Danny felt, one of those gods that white people worshipped before Jesus. With the hint of smoke in the air, it was as if this Sydney suburb had summarized centuries of ruination in a night. Danny looked at the statue, wondering if it would make a good gift for Sonja, a better one than the $3.80 cactus he had in his plastic bag, when he heard it again.
It was a brown man’s voice.
Walking around the fence, Danny saw the owner of the voice in the garden. He was wearing a gray mover’s uniform, phone wedged against his right shoulder, and talking, as he ripped cardboard sheets apart with casual power. Each thrust of his brutal forelimbs said: I am here, Australians. Whether you see me or not, standing right here.
Stopping his work, the muscular man dropped the cardboard and looked at Danny as if he meant to speak to him.
This brown man was Javanese or Malaysian, surely—not one of ours.
Before Danny could say anything, the muscular man turned to the right, shifted about as if finding a direction, then got down on his knees and closed his eyes. His lips moved. After turning his face from side to side, the brown man began to touch his head to the pavement while saying something. Ah. He’s praying, realized Danny. He was looking at me to see if I was a Muslim too and wanted to join him.
Some human bodies generate time from within them. Like this man’s, right now. All the ticking hands in Sydney were being reset to his heart.
They did it five times a day, didn’t they?
So is this the second or the third? Danny wanted to ask as the praying man turned his face from side to side before touching his forehead to the earth again.
An angel with a red-and-green tail materialized over their heads: when Danny looked up, he saw that it was, appropriately enough, an Emirates flight. Sydney airport was not far away.
He sneezed again, and wondered if he had disturbed the praying man.
With a final look at the Indonesian, who, done with his prayer, was again handling furniture, Danny moved.
Thirty-six Flora Street rose above its neighbors, a three-story brick building, bare and basic, built for young professionals. Danny divided Sydney into two kinds of suburbs—thick bum, where the working classes lived, ate badly, and cleaned for themselves; and thin bum, where the fit and young people ate salads and jogged a lot but almost never cleaned their own homes. Erskineville was in the second category. In a suburb like this, a building like 36 Flora Street, with fifteen or twenty units, was a honeypot for a weekly cleaner. Danny sometimes couldn’t believe he had just one regular job here.
First, the key.
A man could break into half the homes in Erskineville just by looking under the doormat or behind the second flowerpot. Here, the key was left someplace even more obvious. Danny raised the broken lid of the mauve mailbox and removed a shiny silver object from it.
Then he entered 36 Flora Street and ran up the stairs.
From AMNESTY by Aravind Adiga. Copyright © 2020 by Aravind Adiga. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.