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[Story]

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.

Mr. Padmanathan’s store once served tourists interested in buying miniature models of hill-station trains made of dark chocolate and finely engraved sandalwood boxes for tea leaves. But his business had done poorly, and by the third year, he began to sell belongings from his home, recycling his wife’s saris into patterned place mats and rugs into blankets, leaving the house bare, stripped of its comforts, with only four chairs as furniture. Sir William insisted on purchasing a share of the shop after the original estate store became infested with rats and burned down. Mr. Padmanathan couldn’t afford to protest. He put away his porcelain teakettles and saffron-dyed lace and began to sell plain, everyday items.

To boost his profits, he diluted the arak but sold it to our husbands at full price. We didn’t mind, because he saved us from some trouble. Still, we didn’t trust him. Although he was also Tamil, we didn’t call him brother, and after we paid, he whispered about us, called us Indian coolies. None of us had ever visited India, but he didn’t care about those details. Like Mr. Balakumar, he prided himself on his ancestry and spoke of lineage most adamantly around his son. “Remember,” he would say, “You are Ceylon Tamil. Your great-great-great-great-grandfather was the king’s adviser.”

Selvakumar first noticed Muthu two years ago. Muthu was sitting outside the store wearing a Jesuit-school uniform, his spindly calves covered by red wool socks. Something about the socks and the way the boy mumbled to himself made Selvakumar pause, long enough for his companion to ask if he could whistle. Selvakumar stood silently with his lips pressed together as Muthu expelled the air and pointed at the birds he was trying to call.

“I’m no good,” Muthu said. “I have a weak chest, just as my brother did. When he was a year old, his lungs flattened and nobody could fill them.”

When Selvakumar tried to whistle, he choked, the sound dry and painful. Later he would tell us how they sat in the darkness of the store’s back room, where onions and potatoes were stored. They ate biscuits, which tasted deeply sweet and satisfying. He brought us back a packet and instructed us to eat with closed eyes, and we could see clearly then how they both harbored a similar loneliness.

When we watched the pair run around the hillside, slapping lizards with twigs, we privately warned Selvakumar. “Be careful of him.”

“There, there, Amma Kuti,” he would say, patting us on the cheek as though we were children who needed to be soothed. Then he boiled us a brew of tea dust as he did for his mother.

In the dull glare of the afternoon, Mr. Balakumar inspected the charring goat and pronounced the men, women, and children lucky witnesses to the independence of their nation. He touched the belly of an expectant mother and said her baby would be born free and know nothing of white men from a cold island. “Hear, hear!” he yelled, holding up a bottle of arak before taking a swig. “We rejoice in the new day for us, for Ceylon.”

He took another swig, drinking with the occupational vigor of Sir William, who had been a soldier in India, though the only combat he endured was drinking gin and quinine in the fight against malaria. We wondered if this was a sign of longing. We all remembered Mr. Balakumar weeping as Sir William drove away, but we could not tell whether it was from sadness or joy as he hugged the blue lapels of the suit jacket Sir William left for him.

Mr. Balakumar was a heavy man with the stern, strategic face of a clerk. His wife stood quietly behind him, clutching their two-year-old son. She looked suspiciously at us, wondered if we had received gifts from her husband, if he had taken any special interest in one of us. Her gaze came to rest on Selvakumar’s mother, who sat in a gray sari by the cast-iron pot of boiled rice. The skin on her arms and neck was speckled with pale dots, and clumps of her hair were missing, revealing slivers of scalp. She was once known for her beauty, and we had been both jealous and grateful then not to have the burden of it. Four years ago, she had a child as pale as Sir William’s Morris, and before it could become her shame and pride, it died, only a week old.

We joined her by the pot and sang harvest songs, knowing nothing else to sing for the occasion. Lakshmi had cut out pictures of the prime minister from newspapers, and we agreed he looked handsome but prideful.

Our husbands meanwhile drank with Mr. Balakumar. We had never seen him acting so freely with them. He slapped their shoulders and they exchanged bottles, kissed the rims still wet with one another’s saliva. If he hadn’t been wearing a suit, they might have been equals, breathing and enjoying the same air. Suddenly our husbands’ hopes for their own crops and livestock felt possible. Maybe they would have three Mahalakshmi cows and enough lentils for a year. The estate might stop growing tea.

Our children paraded around in the fashion of a train. Maythuri’s son, in the front, whistled loudly. We looked toward the bend of the hillside and listened to the rattling of the actual train grinding methodically in its slow descent. It would return in the morning with the engine cursing and laughing along with us.

Selvakumar sat next to his mother, the tail of her sari wrapped around him. They leaned on each other, heads delicately balanced. He asked whether she was thirsty and she shook her head. He took his mother’s hand. There were times he had wished she wasn’t his mother, because then he could dislike her less for the comfort and care she could not give. And for all he knew, she was only the husk of a mother, unraveling before his eyes.

He kept still when Muthu appeared at the gathering. Everyone greeted the boy politely, knowing his father from the estate store and his relation to Mr. Balakumar. Propriety kept Muthu’s hands in his pockets.

“Do you know the prime minister says he has a third eye?” he said. “He can tell the future. He’ll know what will happen in the country. That’s what he says.”

He spoke loudly and glanced toward Selvakumar, waiting for him to join in. His belief that Selvakumar was his closest friend was something he did not question. They would spend their lives together on the hillside. He, too, could foresee the future. He was sure of it.

We were envious of his undiluted belief, pure arak to intoxicate dreams. We wanted to drink it up as well, to remember what it had been like to be girls. To make promises that could never be kept.

Selvakumar didn’t budge and Muthu left two bananas near his friend’s feet.

“Om Guru Selvakumar,” Muthu began, his hands folded in prayer. “Please bless these bananas as an offering for the new country.”

He bowed his head and Selvakumar couldn’t help but laugh as he touched the head of his sole devotee. Without a word, they ran into the evening and looped around the houses as if nothing had changed.

Mr. Balakumar stood before the feast and raised another bottle. “In India, they received their independence and acted like animals. Hindus killing Muslims, Muslims killing Hindus. We will be different, more civilized.”

We ate quickly in anticipation of hunger. When was the last time we had eaten meat? Two months ago, perhaps. Who could afford it? Someone had decorated Mr. Balakumar’s cows with garlands and turmeric. Kuppuswami played the nadaswaram poorly, but once we were too full to move, he struck up a wedding rhythm, and the young ones in the group danced. We all clapped our hands, counting the beats, the minutes until the new day arrived.

Over the hillside the sun broke into a golden yolk before drifting below the mountains. Muthu and Selvakumar held out their banana peels at the edge of the cliff across from the feast.

“To Ceylon!” they yelled and dropped the peels.

They twisted and writhed in the air. An ugly pair of falling stars.

The rain smelled of camphor and matchsticks. As the sky darkened, we could hear trembles of thunder in the distance, but it was too faint for worry. We opened up our mouths to drink. The water teased us, drop by drop. Our grandparents would tell us stories of those faraway cities of Madurai, Thirunelveli, Tiruchi, where the land was dry and people died of famine. We were afraid of places we could only imagine, and felt lucky to live on land so green.

Mr. Balakumar washed his face with the rain, splashed liquor around his mouth, let it trickle down his neck. We enjoyed him better this way, and we wondered if his true self had yet to be revealed. As the men tried to sober up, they decided to make a wager on Mr. Balakumar’s cows. They pooled their money and he agreed on the game of his choosing. Horseshoes. His wife groaned, but Mr. Balakumar insisted, and she reluctantly set up the stakes. Tending to a man as demanding and fat as Mr. Balakumar must have been difficult. “Raychel,” he said. She looked over at him. “Bring me my set of horseshoes.”

We knew her only as Mrs. Balakumar. Her Christian name felt oddly intimate, as if we had seen her in her nightgown, drinking a cup of tea, her hair loose.

The rain began to hit harder. The wind pushed the droplets, interlaced them momentarily into silver webbing. Paari was elected as the representative for the group. He was chosen for the lightness and precision of his hand, the way he could prune the smallest branch without troubling the rest. Mr. Balakumar puffed out his chest and slapped the muscle under Paari’s arms. “You sure you want this skinny fellow?” he asked. “If I win, no pay for three days.”

Paari agreed, though we were all frowning. We would either go hungry or feast on yogurt and milk; curd rice had been a delicacy here since we were babies. We imagined our own children reaching their proper height and secretly we wondered if we still had any growing left in us, if we were all just stunted giants.

Mr. Balakumar slicked back his wet spiral of hair, stretched his arms, and took aim. He threw the horseshoe far but crooked, maybe a consequence of rain and wind.

When it was Paari’s turn, the crowd chanted his name wildly and shouted out advice about his stance. The rain-slicked U flew high but stopped short of Mr. Balakumar’s. It was best out of twenty, we reassured ourselves. In that curve of metal our hopes wavered, flew, and crashed to the earth.

The two men took their time, while above them sound and light circled each other until they met in a spectacular shrill blaze. We were winning before the downpour began. The ground softened under the thick rain as we ran to our houses, thinking this was the end, the beginning.

From our one-room redoubts, we peeked through the bare windows to feel the wash of water over us. We swallowed mouthfuls, tasted a saltiness, and knew we must be experiencing the sea. Both excitement and dread filled us as the water blew inside and combed through our daily lives, so much more porous than we had believed. The dye in the paper calendar bled along the wall and the single encyclopedia crumbled into soggy fragments. Outside, a bloated doll floated by in a stream already jammed with baskets and shards of glass. Our winning cattle shrieked and slid through the mud. Our children huddled around us as the tin roof distorted into a fat belly. Our daughter yelled, “It’s Ganesh!” We thought she was right, because only the elephant god could have such a jolly rampage.

We stood by the doorway, unsure of where to risk our lives. In the end, we bet on the open skies rather than the damp walls of our small homes, already beginning to smell of black mold. As we assembled on the dirt road under the beating rain and watched our roofs collapse, we pictured our old selves dying, crushed by the weight of all our previous days. Whatever was left of our girlhood survived in small things: the stones our daughters carried in their pockets, and the shriek of a koel bird we had dreamed of eating for its voice. For the new world, we must all transform, shed our skin and rename everything. The flowers were stripped, the trees slanted with torn limbs, and we needed to make sense of it while the water shriveled us into old women and plowed through the land to bring new life.

Our children clung to us tighter, fearful in their smallness, and we told them not to be afraid, because we had nothing to lose in the first place. We own none of this, we reminded them patiently, and their wide eyes looked over the imploded houses, the silver glint of metal, and they pointed at their buried things, waiting to retrieve what was lost.

In the distant fields, we could imagine bare tea bushes underwater, the buds floating and brewing in liquid, warm with humidity. When Mr. Balakumar returned to his senses, he would count each pillaged bush, calculating his losses because he loved to accrue misfortune. But for now, Mr. Balakumar lay senseless in a wagon, slumbering while his wife struggled to push him with her son tied to her back. She cursed him in a way she normally would never have dared. Coarse pig, fat donkey, stinky radish face. She seemed to enjoy herself, paused to rest under an awning with her husband’s feet sticking out in the rain. The flesh would turn numb, but she minded only the flies circling his face. She slapped at them, accidentally striking his right cheek.

We felt almost tender toward him in his infantile state, but we knew better than to be fooled by a single day. He would make us work twice as hard to compensate for the holiday. “Pick doubly fast,” he would say, and we would curse him as we concocted plans to reincarnate into Durga with eight arms so we could pick with four times the speed.

In a dream we sometimes had, the men didn’t trim the bushes and we didn’t pick. Ripe koruntus went unplucked. The bushes finally grew into trees with full pink blossoms, resurrecting the ancient forest that had existed long before our great-grandparents ever left their villages in India and crossed the sea for the temperate climate of this high soil. As the rain blinded us, we waited for that world, our feet buried in wet dirt, soft as a womb, our heads raised.

After the weather quieted, we fell asleep by the ruins of our homes and woke to our independence as refugees. We were sick, feverish in our mops of clothing, and though we were surrounded by puddles of water, thirst claimed us. We greeted the sight of our new nation with delirium. We knew this event would define us more than the rain had. People would forget the storm.

Together, we assessed the damage. To varying degrees, the houses were dented, lopsided, fully collapsed. Because they formed a line connected side by side, the overall structure had the appearance of a flattened snake, unevenly crushed. The houses had been built in a matter of days, and we were certain they would rise again in less. Inevitably the damage was compared, and those who had fared better gloated about an unhinged door still standing. Children’s injuries were measured by the severity of pain. A twisted ankle was less notable than a numb, blue arm.

Selvakumar’s mother, bleached of all color, limped along the roadside and called out for her son. We watched her fear collect, her mouth open wide, lower lip hanging loose. We tried to think of when we had last seen him, but all we could picture was his face from weeks ago, when he chewed betel nuts with Muthu, grinning at us with his cherry-red teeth.

We searched through the field and parted the bushes for the boy we prayed was still alive. His mother was already nearing death. We hoped the boy had not rushed ahead of her in fear of witnessing her passing. “I’ll be alone,” he said the morning she hacked up blood, and we shook our heads. Never alone.

Choosing to love was risky. There was always more to lose.

We uncovered a barrel riddled with termites, the wood soft and supple. A tattered pink sari clung to the branch of a tree, and we paused in silence as if staring at a bright, defeated flag. Along the tea field, battles had been fought, the winners unknown. If Sir William returned, he would stand on the tallest hill and say, “My, my, they sure did make a mess of it.” Tea leaves dotted the earth in the shape of baby footprints. Young shrubs were upturned by their roots. The storm revealed what was unseen under the ground. Rich red soil, dense with iron, appeared in clumps the size of anthills, and children molded it like precious clay, straight from the center of the earth. Sparrows were more fearless after losing their nests; they strutted beside us, claiming material to rebuild.

We were all beginning again. The sun spread over us, reflecting all the trapped water. By the time we discovered the yellow-tipped butterfly on the fat corpse, Muthu’s father had rounded the hillside, dragging his son by the ear with one hand and comforting the wailing Mrs. Balakumar with the other.

This was what we knew: Selvakumar and Muthu found shelter in the estate store. Muthu hid Selvakumar in the back room, because even during a vicious storm, his father didn’t want any Indians sleeping in his home. Selvakumar suggested that they visit the capital the next day to attend Independence Day ceremonies. On waking, he asked for all the money in the cashbox, and Muthu handed it over, never realizing he was being robbed — his love disarmed him of caution. Selvakumar locked him in the back room and ran off to the train station, but before he left in the early-morning darkness, he must have looked over the hillside, wishing he could both stand there forever and never return.

Mr. Balakumar possessed an even smile, with his teeth peeking over his bottom lip as if he found death unremarkable, worthy of only three-tooth derision. On the curve of his neck was a puncture wound. He might have drowned in a puddle and been pierced by a sharp object. Or murdered.

Though none of us deeply mourned Mr. Balakumar — perhaps only his wife did, out of habit and obligation — people agreed that a thief was capable of murder, even while we argued about Selvakumar’s gentle nature. His departure seemed to implicate him fully, because why else would one leave a verdant hillside for the crowded filth of cities?

Mrs. Balakumar declared that if the boy returned, he would have equal punishment. She sliced the air near her throat with one hand, and Selvakumar’s mother wept quietly, and we knew she wouldn’t make it through the week without her son. We felt both anger and apprehension. Alone in an unknown city, a child carrying pieces of things: How would he survive?

Mr. Padmanathan twisted his son’s ear into a throbbing knot. The boy’s face broke open with grief and pain. “We will be compensated,” Mr. Padmanathan promised, and he and Mrs. Balakumar talked of police and justice.

We felt Mr. Balakumar turning his wet, dead face toward us. In India, they act like animals, killing one another.

The dread of a ghost filled us all. What would become of us? Secretly, we knew we would be the ones to pay, though we had done nothing wrong. We thought of poor Selvakumar, exiled forever from the hills, from our lives.

This was our new beginning, we chanted to ourselves. In the shape of the pink sari trembling in the wind, we saw a shadow of a man made from no more than fallen branches and dark leaves. Just for a moment, we were possessed of the prime minister’s power and we could see all our desires for Selvakumar’s future. He is an actor in a film with M. G. Ramachandran, then he’s a clerk, a doctor, a train conductor. He has a pretty, dainty-necked wife who lounges about, and three or four children running around, grabbing at his limbs as he tells them stories of the hillside where the women curse and laugh, standing under the beating sun and becoming more beautiful.

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

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August 2017