Floating Worlds: Oriental Fantasies, 1996
The letter came to Mina in late evening, when the rattle of
the motor rickshaws, the open mini-taxis that hurtled at death-defying
speeds down the narrow Colombo streets, had dimmed to an occasional
sputtering over the chattering crowds and the bellows from the bullock
carts. Earthen lamps were lit in almost every house, and flowers
garlanded pictures of the goddess. It was Lakshmi’s night tonight,
the festival of Diwali, and throughout Sri Lanka and India, joyous
worshippers prepared to stay awake all night, in celebration of the
goddess of wealth, prosperity and happiness, or in celebration of
one of the many other gods associated with the holiday.
Mina followed the rituals, but her heart was heavy
as she wove wreaths with ink-stained fingers. Her book was
going well, but since Suresh’s death had left her a wealthy widow a
year previously, she had cared little for it. She had been alone in
the big empty house since the death of her husband last year; the
marriage had been arranged, and while she had been fond of him, he had
not been the great love of her life. Her eyes went often to a small photo on
the windowsill, of a young woman in a green sari. It had been
over 20 years since she’d last seen Raji, and her letters had all gone
unanswered. Until today.
The handwriting on the grey envelope would have been enough,
its smooth curves a reminder not only of their school days together,
but of the gentle curves of Raji’s body. Mina remembered when she
first saw those curves clearly — they had gone to bathe under a
waterfall, amidst a crowd of other schoolgirls, and the pounding torrent
had plastered the thin chiffon sari to Raji’s dark skin, so that she
was almost naked to Mina’s gaze. Raji had felt her stare, and
blushed, but made no move to cover herself or turn away. It was
then that Mina had started to fall in love.
The handwriting would have been enough, but the paper also
held Raji’s scent — somehow, despite travelling the miles between
war-torn Jaffna in the north, by train and truck and noisome bullock
cart. It was a miracle it had arrived at all — so much mail was lost
in the hand to hand passage across guerilla and government lines. Yet
the scent lingered, so that if Mina closed her eyes she could pretend
she was in the girls’ school again, slipping into Raji’s bed while the
other girls kept a complicit silence. Cupping Raji’s firm breasts in her
two small hands, sliding a thigh between hers, pressing hard and firm
against her hips. Rubbing gently, silently in the night, till the
juices flowed, sweet as mango.
She opened the envelope and drew out the letter with trembling
fingers. It tore, a jagged slash across the short yellow paper. “My
husband has divorced me. I need you.” I need you. Twenty years ago,
those words would have exalted Mina. She had made plans when the
first words were whispered of Raji’s soon-to-be arranged marriage —
letters to a cousin in the States, and saving up money from those
first story sales. Mina’s brother was sympathetic to their plight,
and had promised to loan her money when they were ready to flee. But
Raji never asked — she married the stranger instead.
Bereft of her love, Mina had had little strength or
desire to resist her own parents’ wishes. She had agreed to their
plans, and married a kind man, who indulged her in her desire to
‘I need you.’ If the words had been spoken fifteen or ten
years ago, Mina would have abandoned husband and house. Even five years
ago, an impassioned letter would have been sent in response, at the
But twenty years had passed since Raji had given in to family
pressure, and married the rich doctor with the immense dowry. His
money had taken care of her family’s needs for years, and she had
promised Mina undying and unquenchable love, and pled with Mina
to understand, tears flowing down those lovely cheeks. Mina had tried
to understand, but now, after twenty years, she was tired of understanding.
Twenty years of unanswered letters, until now, when Raji’s husband
had probably left her for a younger woman, she finally needed Mina.
Was it not too much to ask? Mina crumpled the letter in her
small hand, then held it over the goddess’ flame. As it burned, she
murmured a prayer in her heart, that Raji be suitably rewarded for the
long years of abandonment and betrayal. She had no heart to keep the
holy vigil, and when the last wisps were gone, she blew out the lamp,
lay down fully dressed, and went to sleep.
Light blossomed across the night, as the people of the city
placed rows of lighted candles along the roofs of their houses.
Sweets were shared along with laughter and conversation, as each
household celebrated their own interpretation of the holiday. Colombo
seemed aflame in light, and the joyful noise rose through the
streets. In Mina’s home, a light grew as well, a gentle radiance
slowly rising, until with a burst of flame, the extinguished lamp
Mina slept on, but her dreams were troubled. A woman with the
form of a goddess lay beside her on a sandy beach, posing questions
she could not refuse to answer. “What was Raji like?” “How does
she kiss?” “What duty is due a friend?” And finally, “Do you
love her?” The goddess lay still after asking the questions, her dark
eyes holding Mina’s captive while her arms held Mina’s body.
Mina tried to resist, to hold silent, to dive into her anger
and remain there. But everywhere she went, there too was the
goddess. When she called up an image of Raji walking away, the
goddess superimposed one of Raji lying naked beneath her, and then one
of the two of them laughing, heads together, hands clasped.
Anger, despair, frustration were swiftly dealt with, and still
the goddess stared at her, as if asking, ‘What else?’ Finally, the
fear came swelling up, bubbling black and ugly in Mina’s heart. “I am
old!” she cried. “My eyes sit in nests of wrinkles, my hair is
streaked with grey. Breasts that were once a firm handful now are
soft and overflowing, and I drape my sari to hide the folds of fat
across my stomach. What if she doesn’t want me? What if she doesn’t
like me? What if she doesn’t love me anymore?”
The goddess laughed, then answered, scolding gently.
“Coward! Look at your love more deeply — do justice to her and
yourself. What are you true fears — What if
she does love you? Are you still brave enough to run away together?
What would your family say?!” A stillness fell on the beach then, and
the waves seemed to hang motionless in midair, waiting for Mina’s
She kept silent a long time, afraid to open her eyes and see
the answer, written in the sand. Finally, the weight of the goddess’
regard grew unbearable, and Mina opened her dream eyes, and,
astonished, found her answer. “I don’t know,” she said, as the
joy welled up inside her. “I don’t know — but I can find out. I
am not entirely afraid — I can at least face her and see what is
left after twenty long years.”
“Of course you can,” the goddess answered, laughing once
more. “A poor worshipper you would be, otherwise.” She disappeared
then, leaving Mina alone on the broad black sand beach. In the
distance, a lone figure in a green sari was approaching, her long
ebony hair whipping about her in the wind.
Mina awoke hours later; Diwali was over. The city was quiet,
recuperating, and the lamps had been blown out across Colombo. When
she returned the lamp to its cupboard, a yellow piece of
paper fluttered out from beneath it. The letter, whole again. Mina
folded it small, tucked it in her blouse, next to her heart, and began
to pack for her journey.
May 17, 1996