Story — From the August 2017 issue

New World

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On the eve of independence, Sir William drove away from the estate in his cream-colored Morris and left his fortunes in the hands of Mr. Balakumar, the Tamil manager, who promptly brought his milch cows to Sir William’s private garden to feed on the roses. We had the day off, but still we woke early and stood at the edge of the tea field, watching through the morning fog. For days, weeks, when we tried to remember Sir William’s face, his light-blue eyes, we could picture only his car winding down the hillside of Nuwara Eliya and vanishing like a cloud.

Above the field, houses stretched across the horizon like a string of baby teeth, small and overcrowded. Our great-grandparents had traveled from India and lived in these houses, one-room caves with tin roofs. If they had been alive, they would still have recognized their homes, everything as they left it, only the coat of whitewash brighter. They hadn’t owned these houses, though. Our inheritance was what they could fit inside: a wooden chair, a teakettle, maybe a chessboard. “We live as we die, owning nothing,” our parents had been told, and they reminded us of it each day until we were old enough to know better.

Standing idle in the field, we pictured Sir William sailing off from our warm island to a colder one, men and women with buttery faces waiting for his arrival. All week, a voice on the radio assured us that everything would be reborn in the coming day. Even the trees would look different, because they would be our trees. Each breath you took would be your breath. As if all these years, we had been borrowing our lives.

We collected newspapers with pictures of the new prime minister. He was broad-shouldered and wore trousers, dress shirts, and jackets in the fashion of Sir William and Mr. Balakumar. His tie clung tightly to his neck and reminded us of a striped serpent. When he first spoke on the radio, he talked in English and we didn’t understand a word of what he said. Then he switched to Sinhala, and we still didn’t understand. We caught only the word “Ceylon,” and it felt foreign, faraway. Another country. Beyond the hillside, we imagined, was nothing except endless air, where we could float on our backsides.

For the celebration, the men cooked goat, a gift from Mr. Balakumar, and the children danced around the slaughtering as we rested for once in the field, surrounded by freshly picked bushes. Under a gray sky fattening with rain clouds, we stretched our arms and legs and held on to the dry comfort of the earth against our bodies. Head to toe and weightless as lilies, we must have looked like a single being from the height of the houses, our egos pruned down to stumps. We played color games, sang girlhood rhymes, and tried to ease the anxiety, our fears hiding in the bushes as everything and nothing changed.

Given our view of the sky, we didn’t see Selvakumar approach us, but when we heard his voice, we instinctively smiled. He wore an oversize yellow shirt and had not grown more than a centimeter in the past two years, and we didn’t know if he ever would. We believed Selvakumar would always look this way: a child, who salvaged odd, broken things like a bronze figurine of a horse missing a leg, a gap-toothed ivory comb, a sparrow with one wing. As he worked alongside us picking tea leaves, performing ladies’ work in place of his sick mother, we let him in on our jokes, showed him the calluses scarring our feet, and told him about the bleeding that left us light-headed and slow. He was twelve, but we treated him as if he were older, a long-lost son who had returned to us. There was a story of a young man who ejaculated into a river and whose seed was swallowed by a fish, which became a human baby. Sometimes we imagined Selvakumar was that boy, still smelling of river water and damp mud. He had grown, it seemed, outside our wombs.

On rainy days when the chill kept us cursing, we shortened Selvakumar’s name into a girl’s, Selvi, and he would stick out his tongue at us, call us madwomen, which warmed our spirits. We were his nuisance, his heartache, all the mothers he never truly had. The month before, Mr. Balakumar had beaten the boy for ruining a bush with his awful picking. “The bud and two leaves, not too old, not too young,” he repeated as he whipped him with sugarcane, until all the sweetness left Selvakumar smelling of burned molasses, his skin the sticky color of a beet. Throughout the night, we sat by his side, holding his hand and taking turns tending to him. He didn’t sleep, but kept quiet, staring at the gold-filled tooth he had found by Sir William’s house.

Now he looked pensive, squatting on his legs and holding his drooping head with both palms.

“What’s wrong, Mr. Prime Minister?” we asked.

He shook his head and swallowed a laugh. “How can an Indian bastard be prime minister?”

“You shouldn’t listen to Muthu. He’s only repeating something his father said. It’s not what he thinks.”

Selvakumar and Muthu were best friends, but we knew Muthu would grow up to become his father, Mr. Padmanathan. The man ran the estate store and thought of himself as a big boss, even though Sir William had bought a controlling share of his property years ago. He was also a distant relation of Mr. Balakumar’s. For all these reasons and more, we knew the friendship between Muthu and Selvakumar would not last. At the moment, though, Muthu was only ten, still curious and impressionable enough to forget his origins.

Selvakumar joined us lying in the field and told us how clouds were formed. He waved his right hand at the sky and we watched bundles of gas follow the motion of his fingertips. The sky and the ocean were the same, full of water we could not see.

Muthu had been teaching Selvakumar from the lessons he learned at school. Mr. Padmanathan disapproved of this practice. What use were the names of distant countries to a boy who would never leave? Still, he didn’t prohibit the giving of scraps, a handful of bare-bones English sentences.

Everything Selvakumar learned, we heard, too. While picking leaves, he recited to us random bits of natural history, and we were lost in the quickness of his tongue. On the morning we discovered the sudden bloom of grasshoppers, Selvakumar told us about the explorer named Marco Polo, who traveled to China and along the Malabar Coast of India, where he first saw women smeared with oil standing outside under the high noon sun, darkening their skin for beauty.

“This Marco Polo must be mad,” we told him. “Only laborers stand in the sun.”

“Everything was different then,” he said.

“You mustn’t listen to Muthu. Who knows if this Marco Polo even lived?”

But really we were warning him against his own heart, already drifting kilometers and kilometers away from the hillside.

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lives in New York City. Her first book, Half Gods, will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2018.

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October 2019


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