(published in Bodies in Motion, 2005)
Selvan stood just outside the convent gates, waiting for Sister Catherine to come and meet him. Bougainvillea spilled over the walls, lush and crimson; he was briefly tempted to break off a small sprig to present to her. He knew it was her favorite plant, the brilliantly-hued paper-thin leaves hiding their tiny white flowers. But any flowers he broke off would only wither and die; better to leave them growing on the vine, surrounded by their own kind, beautiful in their profusion. Selvan watched the young girls instead, demure pairs walking in their crisp white school uniforms across the wide lawns; he heard the young nuns giving strict instructions to their charges.
An accustomed pleasant thrill of anticipation energized him; after all these years of friendship, he still looked forward to his walks with Sister Catherine. Their conversations had started when his daughters were young girls, fatherly duty bringing him to the convent grounds, to that large white building, its tall pillars and broad marble floors so reminiscent of his own Cinnamon Gardens home. When the convent had put in tennis courts for the girls, and his wife, Arasi, had worried about the propriety of allowing their daughters to play, it was Selvan who had come to talk to the nuns, who had then come home and reassured his wife. Had he been convinced by reason? Or by the bright young face of Sister Catherine, with her sharp green eyes and her red hair forever escaping the confines of her demure garb? Her face had been so fair, like a waterlily, too delicate for the touch of the sun. And her mind — quick, rich with the accumulated knowledge of European civilization, the literature and philosophy she taught. When he talked with her, Selvan felt like a young coconut tree, growing tall in the bright light of her regard, enriched, enlightened.
There she was, at the top of the white steps, hurrying down, heedless as a girl despite the constrictions of her nun’s habit. His heart beat a little faster, and he entered the gates, crossing the broad expanse of grass to meet her. Selvan walked slowly; his heavy middle-aged build didn’t allow him to move as quickly as she did. He was slow but steady, unreasonably happy. Selvan never inquired too closely into his feelings for Sister Catherine. It was enough that for twenty-five years, since the day his first daughter started school, until today, when his last daughter was finally finishing, it had brought him pleasure to come here, to spend an hour or so walking the grounds in Sister Catherine’s company, listening to her talk of Chaucer and Milton, Plato and Aristotle.
“Mr. Chelliah! I am so sorry that I’ve kept you waiting!” She landed beside him, slightly out of breath, hands reaching up to tuck stray wisps of hair back under her wimple. There were a few strands of grey among the red now, but it was still beautiful — so fine and delicate. After all these years, Selvan still felt the urge to reach out and touch the strands. Though of course he never had, never would.
He smiled down at her. “It is never any trouble, Sister. When I received your message that you wanted to see me, I was delighted to come. I hope nothing is wrong.”
“No, no.” She started to walk, and he fell into step beside her. “It’s about Samiksha, but certainly nothing is wrong. Everything is perfectly right, in fact.”
“I wanted to know — what are your plans for her?”
Selvan felt mixed apprehension and pride. This had lately been a source of mild contention between him and his wife; Arasi was determined to get the girl safely married, as Samiksha’s eleven elder sisters and her one brother had been. But Selvan wasn’t ready to let his youngest daughter go; she was his favorite, the one he could really talk to. She was bright, a good companion for his thoughts; he had wondered whether Samiksha might perhaps study for a teacher’s certificate. Then she could stay with them a little longer.
“That is not yet decided; Arasi and I are not entirely in agreement on this.” He flushed, slightly embarrassed, wondering if the nun would think less of him. A man should be able to rule his own house — that was what his friends at the club would say, if they heard him. But whatever men said among themselves, it was different within a marriage.
Sister Catherine glanced shrewdly at him. “Yes, I thought that might be the case. But if my own word might carry some weight…”
“Arasi has always thought very highly of you, Sister.” That was true; the nun had been a frequent visitor to their home, had shared innumerable cups of tea with his wife. They had become friends in their own way, the way of women together, talking of the children. If his wife had been a different woman, Selvan might have wondered whether she had carefully chosen to cultivate Sister Catherine, whether she suspected the attraction Selvan felt for the pretty nun. But Arasi wasn’t smart or shrewd enough for such a strategy. That was part of why their marriage was so happy and successful; Selvan could always relax around his wife.
Sister Catherine took a deep breath before saying, “Samiksha must go to Pembroke for a crash course; there are a few girls studying sciences now among the boys at Pembroke. We’ve taught her what we can in private tutorial, but we have no science courses here. Then she must go on to university; she must continue her physics studies properly. After a year or two there, she can apply to Oxford.”
Selvan stopped short, shocked, turning to face Sister Catherine. “You’re joking, surely, Sister. Pembroke perhaps, although Arasi will be worried about her, with all those boys; her reputation might be compromised. And university — she’s clever, but no girl has ever…”
“That’s not true,” the nun interrupted. “Samiksha wouldn’t be the first to attend, though the few other girls have gone straight into medicine. But Mr. Chelliah — ” Sister Catherine put a hand on his arm, and Selvan flushed under the bright Colombo late morning sunshine. “Your daughter is more than clever. She is brilliant. Sixteen, and she has outstripped all the maths and physics we can teach her; she soaks it up like a sponge, her mind leaping ahead of our poor stumbling explanations. She must go on, must go to England. Only there will she get the education she deserves. She will be a beacon at Oxford, proof of what astonishing heights your people are capable of.”
Her last words were like a splash of icy water in his face. Selvan had been floating in a pleasant haze, flattered by the compliments paid his daughter; she’d gotten her brains from him, after all. Of course he agreed that in England Samiksha could get the best education; all the world knew the shining towers of Oxford. But the nun’s last words — was his beloved daughter to be a trained monkey, a performing dog? “We are quite aware of our own capabilities, Sister.” Selvan pulled back from her, surprisingly annoyed. He had never been angry with her before.
“Of course you are.” Sister Catherine stared up at him, undaunted, those green eyes earnest and determined. “But don’t you want the world to know? Don’t you want usto know?”
Selvan felt disappointed then. She had never allowed her white skin to come between them before. He had almost forgotten she was white — or rather, forgotten that he was not. “After all this time, Sister, are you still one of them? Or one of us? His voice was gentler than his words.
Sister Catherine’s voice rose a little in response, “Can’t I be both? I’m not English, you know!” Her voice gentled again. “Ireland has enough reasons to resent England — but are you sorry the British came here? Are you sorry for what they’ve brought to Ceylon?”
Selvan didn’t know how to answer. At one point, he would have said, unequivocally, that the British had done great things for his little island. They had brought schools and roads, new systems of law and government, and had brought that great treasure, the English language, the language of Shakespeare. The language that, if a man mastered it, allowed him to rise high in the world. Selvan himself spoke English first, and his family had benefited greatly from the coming of the British, had made fortunes in trade of coffee, tea, cinnamon. They enjoyed high tea with the local white officials and their families; they celebrated the Queen’s birthday with as much pleasure as anyone in England. And yet. He was silent, not knowing how to begin to respond.
The nun said softly into his silence, “Oxford is more beautiful than you can imagine, and full of the brightest minds in the world. Would you deny its benefits to your daughter?” She paused, then asked fiercely, “What will Samiksha’s future be, if she stays here? To marry a stranger, to serve him as a wife, to have a dozen children like her mother?”
There was scorn in the nun’s voice, and Selvan wanted to recoil away, to protest on behalf of his devoted wife. It was honorable to be a good wife, a good mother. But shame held him steady. Hadn’t he, occasionally, watching Arasi surrounded by their demanding children, watching her tired face, hearing her shrill voice, hadn’t he felt exactly the same scorn? Selvan shook his head, took a step back. “You have given me much to think about. I will take your words to my wife. Goodbye, Sister.” He turned, and abruptly made his way from her, across the perfectly manicured lawn.
Selvan sent the waiting car with its driver back to the house; he began walking. He found his heart longing for the clamor of the marketplace, the jumble of voice speaking Tamil and Sinhalese, and yes, English, but not English alone. He had been speaking English for so long, and Sinhalese to the servants — did he even remember how to speak his native Tamil anymore? Could his children speak it? Selvan felt a swift desire to pack them all up, abandon their house and go back to the north, to Jaffna, to his great-grandmother’s home, where he could rest his head against her sari-clad knee and hear her soft lilting Tamil again. But his children were married now, with homes and children of their own, and his great-grandmother was long dead.
The sounds of the market washed over him, the bright colors of the booths, the thin dark men hawking glass bangles, homespun shirts, sandalwood soap, fresh flowers. The market was dizzying; Selvan always shopped at Cargill’s, when he shopped for himself at all. British products were of such higher quality. He found himself overwhelmed, needing a quieter place to think. Selvan wandered from wide paved roads to dirt lanes, bought a fresh coconut and sipped the sweet water under the shade of a palm tree, ventured into the sunshine again.
By late afternoon, he had made his way to the beach market, where the fishermen’s wives spread out their husbands’ catches. Scraggly women in faded saris, they haggled fiercely with their customers, demanding more rupees, more, more. He paused at one net, where glistening dark fish shone wetly up at him, beckoning. Selvan was tempted to buy some — but he didn’t know what fish they were, and Vidu, the cook, had undoubtedly already ordered the supplies for supper; the groceries had already been delivered. Arasi would be upset with him if he insulted Vidu; the young Sinhalese man was a genius with spices, and could produce a mackerel curry so fierce and yet meltingly delicious that every mouthful was a taste of Heaven. Arasi had never learned to cook herself; she’d had no need. They’d be in real trouble if they lost Vidu. Though their son Rajan’s new wife had certainly shown a deft hand with last Sunday’s hoppers; her rice pancakes with their sides high and crispy-brown, their centers soft, spongy, and slightly sour.
Perhaps they should have done more to encourage their girls to learn housewifely skills; though, of course, they’d arranged good marriages for them all, to men whose families could easily provide sufficient servants to ensure a comfortable living. None would ever need to cook. They had done well by their daughters, almost entirely. Except for poor Annakili.
When she had come home a few months after her marriage for a visit, when Selvan had realized that the clumsy make-up smothering her cheek was an attempt to cover a bruise, he had been overcome by righteous fury. He had raged that day, shouted dire threats and imprecations, had refused to be calmed until Annakili had, sobbing, admitted everything. She had undraped her sari, let them see the welts where her husband had taken a piece of bamboo cane to her back. The child had thought herself guilty, had blamed herself for her fool husband’s brute nature — the boy might have come from one of the finest Tamil families, but apparently that was no guarantee of civilized behavior. Selvan had insisted that she move back home immediately. Arasi had disagreed.
He remembered her words — his wife had said, “Annakili, you must go back. You must try to work things out with your husband.”
Selvan had shouted, astonished. He had asked, “What can a woman possibly work out with a man like that?” Had asked, “How can Annakili put up with this kind of behavior?”
His wife had replied, sharply, “You would be surprised what women are able to put up with.”
Eventually, he had convinced her to let their daughter come home. They had barred the door to the man who dared to call himself a husband. He, perhaps ashamed, had soon stopped attempting to see his wife. Annakili had begun helping Selvan with the family accounts; while she was not as bright as Samiksha, she had always had a good head for numbers, and she seemed to enjoy the work. It kept her busy. Annakili was becoming the prop and comfort of his old age.
Not that Selvan was really old. He had wandered onto an empty patch of beach, away from the fisherwomen’s nets. Selvan walked down to the water’s edge, his step as steady as if were a young man. The waves were fierce today, the wind whipping them up to churn, to pound against the shore. He sank down to sit cross-legged on the damp sand, his movements smooth, comfortable despite his bulk. Fifty-two was old in the villages, old for a field worker, bowed down by work and unrelenting sun. But for a resident of Cinnamon Gardens, one of Colombo’s privileged elite, it was nothing.
Selvan lived a life of pleasure and ease; he lived, in fact, much as the British colonial administrators did. He had played cricket and studied with their children. When he was a boy, he would have thought himself exactly the same as they were. Sitting here on the sands, gazing north and west, Selvan could almost imagine that he could see England, far across the sunlit waves, could almost imagine himself truly a citizen of Her Majesty’s empire. But the 1915 troubles, the brutality of the British response — those had made it clear to every Ceylonese aristocrat that an English education, a law degree, and quiet subservience to British rule, were no guarantee of true acceptance, of admittance to the ruling class. The vaunted justice of the courts and the philosophies of reason had proven no protection for the brown-skinned.
Selvan had been ten years married at that time, with several small children to protect; he remembered the fear he had felt then, the sense of betrayal. The British were better masters of Ceylon, perhaps, than the Dutch or Portuguese had been. But they were still masters. They promised freedom and independence, but those promises had not yet been kept.
He rose slowly and turned away from the water, crossing the beach towards the city, thinking hard. Could he imagine his daughter in Britain? He had done well under British rule. He was widely-read, cultured, prosperous, strong. Selvan could easily live into his nineties, as his grandfather had. Or so he had once thought. Lately, his doctor had been saying some worrying things. His heartbeat was a little fast, sometimes irregular, and though Selvan felt fine, healthy and strong, the doctor was concerned. Selvan hadn’t told Arasi anything; with no proof of a problem, there was no need to worry his wife. Still, it made a man wonder. Made him think differently about the future, take a wider view.
Selvan paused in the road, lost in contemplation, and was jolted from his thoughts by a bullock cart rumbling past, inches from his nose. The street was lined with vendors shouting, hawking fresh curry buns, steaming hot samosas; it was almost suppertime. His wife would be worrying. Selvan hurried towards home.
“You’re a mess — there’s sand all over your pants. What have you been up to?” Arasi’s voice was annoyed, but she was smiling too. She was sitting at the grand piano, elegant in a green silk sari. Despite thirteen children, his wife was almost as slim as a girl. Selvan felt the full weight of the extra kilos that had settled around his belly in the last few years. The doctor hadn’t been pleased about those either.
He leaned against the piano, watching her fingers running quiet scales, up and down the keys. She liked to practice for an hour or so before supper, just to keep her hand in,she said. Arasi had been quite the pianist as a girl; one of the many accomplishments which had made her so very suitable for one of Cinnamon Gardens’ most eligible sons. “Just out walking, kunju,” Selvan said. “Had some thinking to do.”
“You and your thinking,” she said, dismissively. “Go and get washed up; we’re dressing for dinner tonight. Rajan is joining us; his wife has thrown him out of the house for the evening, and the boy with him. Says they talk so much that she can’t hear herself think.” Arasi played a few loud notes, then quieted again. “What she has to think about, I don’t know. Isn’t thinking about her husband and son good enough for her?”
Selvan smiled. “Ah well — not all wives can be as perfectly patient as you, my rasathi.” His princess, he called her, a fair description of the girl she had once been. She was more of a ruling maharani now; they had servants, of course, but it was Arasi who arranged everything, who made sure that the servants knew each family member’s preferences and desires. She saw to their comfort, their happiness. Arasi had worked so hard to find good matches for the children, and Selvan knew that she already had her eye on a few suitable boys for Samiksha. Good families, good prospects, good hearts.
Arasi blushed at his compliment. “Enough of your foolishness. Go say hello; they’re in the library. No need to hurry — Samiksha isn’t home from the club yet.” Arasi was frowning now. “You should never have given her that bicycle; it’s become impossible to keep track of her. I’m not going to have an easy time, finding a husband willing to put up with her wild ways.”
Selvan reached down, touched her hand, stilling it on the keys. “She’s not really wild, just restless.”
His wife shrugged helplessly. “I know, I know. She’s a good girl. But look at what happened to that poor girl of Ranjee’s — caught fooling around with the chauffeur, and now no one will have her. Wild before marriage, wild after — that’s what everyone says, and what man wants a wife who will run around? So no husband for her, no children; that girl will die in her parents’ house, miserable and alone.” Her tone was bitter, grieving.
“I know.” Selvan squeezed her hand, released it. “But our Samiksha is a good girl, and our boy is good as well. I’ll go see him now.”
They would find a good husband for Samiksha, someone to take care of her, cherish her like the bright jewel that she was. That was what every parent wanted for their children, to give them every chance at a good life — if possible, an even better life than their parents had. Selvan’s own parents had done an excellent job finding a match for him. They hadn’t tried to find a girl who was his intellectual equal; Arasi wasn’t interested in his books, his dabblings into mathematics, physics, philosophy and literature. It would have been pleasant to have a wife more engaged with the life of the mind — a woman more like Sister Catherine. That’s what he would have chosen for himself, if his parents had been foolish enough to let him choose. But his parents had known that there were more important proprerties in a wife than the ability to carry on an interesting conversation. Arasi was beautiful, still, and she worked tirelessly to ensure his comfort. He knew he was one of Ceylon’s luckiest men.
Selvan’s step quickened as he walked down the carpeted hall — he could clearly hear his grandson’s voice, its brightness seeming to light the hall, to lighten the dark wood. It was a beautiful house, but so empty these days, with most of his children grown and gone. Selvan wondered what it would be like to live in a small house on the beach, some place constructed of mud walls, a clay-tiled roof, a dirt floor — and the door always open to the churning sea. He had inherited this vast space from his parents when they retreated to a tea plantation in the high hill country, at Nuwara Eliya, where it was always pleasant and cool. Perhaps it was time to gather the children and visit his parents again. It had been too long; it would be good to have all the family in one place again. And then perhaps a trip to Jaffna, visit their ancestral home. Remind them all where they’d come from.
“Father!” Rajan sprang up as Selvan entered the library, the boy rising as well. “It’s good to see you again.”
“And you as well, son — come, Villa, embrace your old grandfather.” The boy came forward shyly for a quick embrace, then pulled back again. He was growing so quickly — he wouldn’t be a boy for long. “What have you been showing him?” A book lay open on the floor, thick with text. Not a children’s book.
“He wanted a story about kings, so I was trying to tell him about Ceylon’s history; I wasn’t sure of a few of the details, so I had to look them up.” Rajan smiled sheepishly. “Reminded me how much I don’t know, actually. Did you know about these irrigation channels? Apparently once they were the most advanced system in the world. Fascinating stuff, quite impressive, considering how backwards those people were.”
Selvan raised an eyebrow. Those people, was it? And his son’s voice, those intonations — had he never noticed how British his son sounded? “Glad to see you’re taking an interest,” he said, dryly.
“It’s Villa, really.” The boy was standing quietly by his father; Rajan ruffled his son’s hair. “He’s completely caught up in this stuff. Can’t seem to get enough of our ancient history. I keep telling him that he should be concentrating on his English literature, on the great philosophers.”
“Like Aristotle and Plato.”
“That’s right. That’s what will help him get ahead, you know.” Rajan frowned in concern. “I say — are you quite all right, father? You look a bit odd.”
Selvan forced a reassuring smile, though his head was suddenly pounding. “Just faint with hunger, I suppose — and look,” he pointed out the tall library windows. “there’s Samiksha, riding her bicycle across the lawn again. Your mother will be annoyed. I must go wash up and dress. I’ll see you in the dining room.” Selvan patted Villa’s head, and turned to head out the door.
“Oh look, Samiksha’s taken a bit of a fall on her bicycle.” Selvan turned quickly, following his son’s gaze out the library windows to where his daughter sprawled on the grass in a tumble of limbs. The girl appeared all right — and though he couldn’t hear her, she certainly looked as if she was cursing her bicycle. Kicking it too, despite her prone position. Rajan continued cheerfully. “Think her sari’s gotten caught on the chain again; that’ll take her a bit to put right. So you have plenty of time to wash up.”
After dinner, while they lingered over caramel pudding and coffee, it was Arasi who brought up the subject of Samiksha’s future. “So, mahal, I’ve had word of a few exciting prospects.”
“Oho, is it time for little Sammie to be married off?” Rajan asked cheerfully.
“No one’s being married off here,” Arasi said, frowning. “You make it sound like we’re putting her up on an auction block. We’re not barbarians. We’ve just found a few nice, handsome boys for Samiksha to meet, in appropriate circumstances. She might like them. What do you think, Samiksha? Are you ready?”
There was an uncomfortable pause, with Samiksha quiet and blushing, her eyes cast down. It was impossible to tell what the girl was thinking. Into that pause, Selvan found himself speaking.
“Actually, Sister Catherine had a suggestion for Samiksha.”
“Oh?” Arasi said, a bit sharply. “I wouldn’t think she would have had much…opportunity, to meet suitable young men.”
“Not that kind of suggestion.” Selvan wasn’t sure why he was bringing this up now; he had meant to discuss this quietly with his wife, in private. Something was pushing him to say the words now, out loud, for everyone to hear. “She thinks Samiksha should go to Pembroke, then university — and then, if they’ll take her, to Oxford.”
The table erupted into a storm of voices, arguments, protests. Villa was asking his father if hecould go to Oxford; Rajan was congratulating Samiksha heartily, with just the slightest tone of smothered envy. Annakili was asking questions, wanting more details, while Arasi was simply refusing, flat out, saying that it was an impossible idea, what was that ridiculous woman thinking? Selvan ignored them all, his eyes locked on his youngest daughter. When Samiksha looked up, her face was shining with a mix of fear and excitement. Selvan hadn’t known before he said the words, hadn’t known what the girl would want. Now he knew.
It shouldn’t have made any difference, but it did.
“She’d be alone,” Arasi said, as he closed the bedroom door behind him, shutting them into their own private world. Nothing had been resolved over dinner; the arguing had continued while the food grew cold, until Selvan had shouted for silence, told them all to be quiet and eat. They had obeyed him, eventually.
“There’s no guarantee they’d take her,” Selvan said. He would be sending his daughter, his little flower, to a cold country, to a land where people would look on her as an exotic stranger at best, a half-civilized barbarian at worst. They wouldn’t want to believe that she could be as smart, or smarter, than their sons. That she could do the work. The would want to send her back.
“Of course they’ll take her,” his wife said sharply. “Don’t be foolish.”
Selvan knew that, of course, had always known that while all the children were clever enough, like himself, that Samiksha was special. She learned everything fast, too fast, remembered everything that was told her, could repeat it back flawlessly. Selvan had taught her a little math when she was just a child, and he remembered how quickly she’d learned it. It had been a game between them, he posing simple problems, and her solving them. He’d come to tell her bedtime stories from the Ramayana, and she’d want to do math problems instead. A pretty girl, a sweet girl — but above all, a smart girl. What had Sister Catherine called her? Brilliant. Shining, like a faceted gemstone. Like the sea, sparkling in the sunlight. Could he dim that brightness, drawn down the clouds? Had he the right? However anxious he felt at the idea of putting his child into British hands — could Selvan deny her the opportunity to shine?
He reached for his wife then, pulled Arasi close, into the circle of his arms. “It’s years away. She may not want to go by then. She may want to marry instead.”
“She’ll want to go. I would, if I were her.”
Selvan was startled to hear that; he couldn’t imagine Arasi on the grounds of Oxford, striding across the quadrangle in a black scholar’s robe. His daughter, yes, perhaps, but his wife? It was a ridiculous idea — so why did it disturb him so?
“What worries me,” Selvan said, “is the idea of her among all those white boys. What if one of them tries to take advantage of her? What if she is seduced by one of them?”
Arasi shook her head. “Not worth worrying about. She would just as soon fall in love with Vidu.”
Selvan chuckled at the idea — his daughter and the cook? Impossible.
His wife continued, “Samiksha understands that like is only happy with like. The whites can never think of us as equals; they’ve ruled us for too long. A brown-white match would never work.” Arasi pulled back then, looking steadily up at him. She said softly, “Only a fool would even entertain the possibility.” Selvan realized then that his wife knew — knew the thoughts he’d had about Sister Catherine, the years of idle fantasies.
He had been so sure that he had been utterly discreet — after all, nothing had ever happened. He had done nothing. But the way his wife gazed at him told him she knew, that she had always known. He felt a sudden sharp fear that Arasi would say it out loud, would be angry, feel betrayed — might she even leave him? The thought was terrifying; Selvan had grown entirely dependent on her care. If she left him, he would be like a tree in a monsoon storm, torn up by the roots.
He could see the possibility in her eyes — Arasi couldwalk away from him. He had never known that about her. She leaned back against him then, her cheek pressed against his thumping heart. The moment of danger passed.
When his heart had calmed, he said, “Maybe you’re right.” Arasi’s head nodded against his chest.
Selvan was no longer a tree alone; they were two trees, twined together. Together, they would withstand such storms — that was what a marriage was, after all. Protection against life’s storms. The kind of marriage his parents had given him, sheltering, safe. The kind of marriage he would like to give his daughter. If that were only what she needed, what she wanted. If he knewwhat was the right thing to do.
“It’s so far,” Arasi said softly.
That was the heart of the problem. Not worries about white boys seducing his daughter, or even concerns about how the British would treat the poor colonial subject; Samiksha was strong enough for either of those. He simply didn’t want to let his daughter go. To let her go so far, all alone. Samiksha would be excited, eager for the opportunity. She would be changed, inevitably, when she returned.
Selvan squeezed his wife, trying to reassure her, to reassure himself. “Uncle knows some people in London, law students. She would have family nearby. We would write letters.”
“But how would we know that she was safe?” Those words almost a wail, his wife’s hands pressed hard against his chest.
“We wouldn’t know,” he said heavily, his heart sore. It was so very far. There would be difficulties for Samiksha there — insults, slights, dangers and hardships. “But can you tell her no?”
Arasi was silent for a long time. Then she shook her head, as he had known she would. She was remembering the same thing he was, he knew. You grew to know things like that about your wife, in a marriage. Remembering how Annakili had resisted, when they had first arranged her marriage, how she had said she wasn’t sure she liked the boy. How they had over-ridden her, pointed to the many successful marriages of her aunts and uncles, to their own successful arranged marriage, had told her that this like, not-like business was foolishness. That marriage was not about liking; it was about working together, taking care of each other. They had been so young, so sure of themselves, so strict with their eldest daughter. In the end, Annakili had bowed her head, had acquiesced — and then.
She was safe with them now, and unlike Ranjee’s girl, her reputation was intact. But no husband, no children; a barren future stretched before their Annakili. It was their fault, and Selvan knew that since that day she returned to them, neither he nor his wife had been willing to take the chance of forcing another child down the wrong path. Did it make them bad parents, that in the end, after giving out advice, passing out as much wisdom as they had, they had chosen to let the rest of their children choose their own way? Many of their friends thought so, Selvan knew. His own parents thought it hopelessly indulgent. Dangerous, to let children make such important decisions, decisions that could bring them such heartache. They thought it a coward’s path, abrogation of parental responsibility.
Perhaps. But it was the path they chose to take. They no longer lived in the village, safe in a thousand years of tradition. Their island was no longer isolated if it ever really had been. The colonizers had come to Ceylon, and would someday go. The world was changing, and they were changing with it.
“It will only be for a few years,” Selvan said. “She’ll get the degree, she’ll come home to us.” There were no guarantees, but he said it anyway, said it as if he knew.
Later, when they were both in bed, the lights out, the covers pulled up tight, enclosing them, Arasi turned to her husband. She asked in a whisper, “After years in that country, with them, what will she be? Will we know her, when she returns?”
“We are her parents,” Selvan said. “We will always know her.”
The next morning he woke late, stumbled from bed feeling exhausted, sluggish. Selvan found his way to the washroom, splashed water on his face. Delicious scents perfumed the air — was it breakfast time already? Had he missed it?
Selvan made his way to the kitchen, still in his pyjamas. There he found Samiksha, her mother, and Vidu, the cook, all bent intently over a simmering pot.
“What’s going on here?” Selvan asked, bewildered. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d found his wife in the kitchen.
Arasi turned, smiling. “Samiksha woke me this morning. You were fast asleep, snoring like a sick cow.” His wife was teasing him, still punishing him perhaps for his thoughts about the white nun. “The girl said she wanted to learn how to cook.”
Samiksha grinned up at her father. “If I do go all the way to England, I need to have something decent to eat.”
Arasi added, “I had to confess that I can hardly cook anything — so we’re both going to learn, together. Vidu has kindly agreed to teach us.” She reached out then, in a spontaneous gesture of affection, and pulled her daughter close. Samiksha looked startled, but then leaned her head against her mother’s shoulder.
Selvan smiled, slowly. His wife had never truly understood their youngest daughter, had never felt close to her. Samiksha was too bright, too quick, for Arasi to be comfortable. Perhaps that would change now. This wasn’t a consequence that Sister Catherine had been anticipating, but Selvan would take such blessing where he found them. He knew himself to be a lucky man.
He felt an urge to shake up his wife a little; she was growing too complacent. “Well, move over. I might as well learn, too.”
“You?!” Arasi was startled, about to protest — but then she surprised him, smiling. “Why not? Might as well learn something useful, instead of just sitting around with those musty books all the time. Come — we’ll make room.” She and Samiksha took a few steps closer to the wall. “Vidu was just showing us how to fry curry leaves in oil. Tell Mr. Chelliah what you’re doing, Vidu,” she said in Sinhalese.
“I’m just frying the curry leaves, sir, with mustard and cumin seed.”
“He says that’s how he starts almost all our curries. I never knew that, but it does smell like home, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” It was Selvan’s turn to pull his daughter close, to lean into the pot, their heads wreathed in scent. He closed his eyes and breathed in deep, willing himself to record this moment, to fix this memory and hold it close, a talisman against the time when his daughter would be gone, far across the churning seas.