Birth. My face was pressed against the bones of Amma’s pelvis, stuck there, so that instead of slipping out, I was bound like a lost fish in a too narrow stream. It wasn’t until the midwife, tiring of my mother’s screams reached in with her forceps, grabbed the side of my head and wrenched me out that I was born and Amma was born into motherhood, both of us gasping from the effort of transformation.
For three months after, there was a hornish protrusion on the left side of my head. It subsided eventually but for those months my parents were alarmed. “We didn’t know if it would ever go away. I didn’t know what sort of child I had given birth to. You were the strangest creature. A little monster.” Amma admitted, “But then the swelling went down and you were our perfect little girl.”
After that the doctor looked at my mother’s slimness, her girlish frame and said, “No more. Only this one. Any more will wreck you.” She had wanted scores of children filling the grand old house. She had wanted so many to love her. The love of an entire army she had created herself. She rubbed her nose against mine and said, “ only you to love me. So you must love me double, triple, quadruple hard. Do you see?” I nodded. She kissed me on the forehead, searched my eyes. I was blissful in the sun of her love, my entire being turned like a flower towards her heat.
Yes. I could love her more. I could love her enough to fill up the hole all those brothers and sisters had left by never coming.
* * * *
I was born in Sri Lanka, the green island in the midst of the endless Indian Ocean. I grew up in Kandy, the hill city of the Buddhists. A city held high like a gem in the setting of the island. “Maha Nuwara,” is the name of Kandy in Sinhala, “the great city.” Or even, “Kande Uda Rata” the “land on top of the mountain.” It is the last capital of the Lankan kings before the British came to “domesticate and civilize”, to build railroads and scallop the hills into acres of fragrant tea. In their un-sinuous tongue, “Kande Uda Rata” collapses, folds into itself and emerges as, Kandy. But not candy sweet in the mouth because this place has a certain history.
In the capital’s Colombo Museum in a dusty glass case lies the sari blouse of one of the last noble women of the Kandyan Kingdom. Splotches of faded red stain the moldering fabric of each shoulder. The last Kandyan king was fighting the British when his trusted advisor too turned against him. Enraged, the King summoned his advisor’s wife. His men ripped her golden earrings out of her flesh so she bled down onto this blouse. They beheaded her children and placed their heads into a giant mortar. They gave her a huge pestle, the kind village women use to pound rice and forced her to smash the heads of her children. Then they tied her to a rock and threw her into Kandy Lake as the King watched in triumph from the balcony of the temple palace. Soon after, the British conquered Kandy and took over the island for centuries.
This is the history of what we do to each other. This is the story of what it means to be both a child of a mother and a child of history.
* * * *
The house I grow up in is big and old. It has belonged to my father’s family for generations. It has rooms full of ebony furniture, polished red wax floors, white latticework which drips from the eaves like lace and dark wooden steps that lead to my little bedroom upstairs. A wrought iron balcony hangs outside my window under a tumble of creeping plants. If I stand on its tiny platform just over the red tiled roof of the first floor I can see our sweeping emerald lawns leading down to the rushing river. Along the bank a line of massive trees stretches upwards towards the monsoon clouds.
* * * *
In the living room is a small slightly moldy, taxidermied leopard. There are very-much-alive dogs in the house, but the leopard is my infant obsession. This is because the leopard lets me ride him, while the dogs do not. Amma says I should call him, Bagheera, for Kipling’s black leopard, but Kaa is what I choose. The sound is easier and something slithering in his yellow marble eyes. Exactly between these eyes is the neat bullet hole that my father’s father put there. The hunting guns are locked away in a chest in my father’s study, but the leopard is here as evidence of their presence.
A portrait of my grandparents hangs above the leopard. They are old already and formal. My grandfather is in a three-piece suit and curling moustache, my grandmother in a Kandyan osari over a Victorian blouse, ruffled and buttoned against the tropical heat. My father is a boy in short trousers to his knees, the only child of the five my grandmother gave birth to have survived the ravages of malaria.
* * * *
The house is a kingdom, divided into dominions, inside and outside and ruled over by the keepers of my childhood, Samson and Sita. In the kitchen, Sita shuffles about in her cotton sari, her bare feet. She has been with my father’s family since he was a baby. She and her sister came as young girls. Her sister was my father’s ayah while Sita set up court in this kitchen which she has never left.
Samson is Sita’s nephew. His mother has returned to the down-South village they came from so long ago but Samson stays to wrestle our garden. Once a week he cuts the lawn, balancing on his heels, sarong pulled up along his thighs. He swipes the machete in a liquid swing back and forth as he makes his crab-legged way across the grass. His skin shines wet eggplant and at his throat a silver amulet flashes in the sun. “Inside this. All my luck!” he says. He has pulled it open before to shown me what it holds, a tightly rolled up scroll of miniscule Sinhala script, a prayer of protection bought by his mother from the village temple at a great price. She believes it will keep him safe from the malevolent influences, the karmic attachments that prey upon the good-hearted.
* * * *
I am eight years old, tiny and spindly, and Samson is my very best friend. After school I race to throw off my uniform, kick away my shoes, slip into a house-dress, Bata slippers, and escape into the garden. The red hibiscus flower nodding its head, yellow pistil extended like a wiry five forked snake tongue, the curl of ferns, the overhead squawk of parrots, these are the wonders that welcome me home.
Samson speaks to me in Sinhala. He says, “Ah Baby Madame. Home already? Come!” He swings me onto his shoulders, my thighs grip the sides of his throat, my legs hook behind his back. I reach both hands up into the guava tree to catch the orbs that are swollen and about to split, a wet pink edge in their jade skins. I grab, twist and pull. The branches bounce and the birds rise in loud outrage. His arm reaches up to steady me. When my pockets are bulging he gently places me on the ground.
I bite into sun-warmed guava, that familiar sweet tang, small gem like seeds crunch between my teeth. Samson is cutting away dead leaves from orchids that are suspended in baskets from the tree trunks.
I ask, “Why do they call these flowers Kandyan dancers?”
I already know why. These small yellow orchids are named for the dancers of this region because they imitate perfectly with petal and stamen, the headdresses and the sarongs, the drums and white shell necklaces that the twirling dancers wear. But I ask because I want to hear him talk and also because I want to show off what I have learned in school. I want to show much more I know even now at eight years old because I have gone to school and he has only ever been a servant in our house.
He says, “This is the name. No? What else can we call them but their name?”
“No! I mean, did they call the flowers after the dancers or the dancers after the flowers?”
“You are the one who goes to school, Baby Madame. How could Samson know these things? Ask your teachers? Ask someone who knows these big-big things.” A perfect yellow flower loosens its grip, tumbles to the grass. He stoops and picks it up between thumb and forefinger as gently as if it were a wounded insect, places it on his palm and holds it out to me. I tug the rubber band at the end of my plait loose and settle it there.
He says, “Come Baby Madame. I need your small fingers to work in the pond today.” We walk over and he sits on the edge while I kick off my rubber slippers, hike up my dress around my thighs and slip into the water. My feet in the mud, I reach into the water up to my armpits, follow the fibrous stalks of the lotus plants down to their main stem. I pull so they tear loose, the mud releasing the roots reluctantly. The koi fish come to investigate this curiosity in their midst. Their silver, orange streaked quickness flashes all about me, their mouths coming up to nibble at whatever they can find, shins, calves, fingers. I work my way across the cool muddy water, throw the too-fast growing lotuses onto the bank where a mound of uprooted leaves, stems, unfurled flowers open to the sky. Samson gathers the beautiful debris. He will burn it with the evening’s other rubbish.
Other days, I am the watcher and he, the worker. I squat on the bank with a bucket as Samson wades in. He spreads his fingers wide to catch yards of gelatinous strands studded with shiny beadlike eggs, returns to deposit these offerings in the bucket, which turns quickly into a shuddering jello mass. Waist high in the deepest part of the pond, he says, “Bloody buggers. Laying eggs everywhere. Pond is chock-a block full already.”
I say, “In France people eat them.”
Astonishment on his face, “What? No Baby Madame. Don’t tell lies. Who would eat these ugly buggers? What is there to eat?”
“Yes they do. Our teacher said. They eat the legs.”
He stares at the water between his own legs he says, “No. Can’t be. Legs are so thin. Nothing there to eat… Maybe the fat stomach no?”
“No. The legs. She said.”
He shakes his head, “Those people must be very poor. I might be poor like that if I wasn’t with your family.” A little nod acknowledges all the years he has lived with us, all my life, all his much longer life, “But even if I was on the street I wouldn’t eat these buggers.”
“But they are a delicacy there. In France.”
“Shall we try, Baby Madame? We can catch them and give Sita to make a badum. Badum of frog.”
“That’s what Baby will eat tonight. Just like the people in Fran-ce. Fried frogs curry with rice.” He raises his arms trailing streams of jelly in the air, looks like a tentacled creature rising from the depths, shakes his fists so the water sparkles, lands on my bare thighs. Our laughter echoes across the pond.
In the monsoon months, the gardens are a different place, the ground sodden, the pond swollen. The sky lights up in the midst of dark stormy days as if a mighty photographer is taking pictures of our little piece of earth. It isn’t unusual to come upon a flash of silver and gold, a koi flapping on the wet grass, swept out of the pond by the onslaught of rain. The river is dangerous at this time. It rushes by, carrying all manner of things, furniture, quickly rolling trees with beseeching arms held out to the sky, drowned animals. It is a boiling, heaving mass. The banks could crumble inwards, the ground falling away under your feet. We all knew this; in these months we keep away from the garden and the river.
From WHAT LIES BETWEEN US. Used with permission of St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2016 by Nayomi Munaweera.