Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 Homecoming

 

 

 

It was 3 p.m. and Shantha woke up suddenly to the sounds of her mother, older sister Nilli and grandmother snoring under shimmering mosquito nets. The snores rose up and down like wheezy violins and mingled with the drone of the ceiling fan, the high-pitched “zzzzzzzz” of mosquitoes, the birdsongs and occasional startling saw-like sounds in the trees.

“Where am I?” thought Shantha, all groggy and sticky as she wriggled out of her net, toes first, body all restless bones and hard edges, forehead clammy from the heat.  She spotted her red suitcase and it all rushed back to her—the snowy drive to the airport in Switzerland, the goodbye waves to her father, the hours of cloud-watching, the smooth landing among palm trees and dusty red roads, and the excited clapping of the passengers. Yes—this was her first day “home” in Sri Lanka, a land of tea and paddy fields and monkeys—it was the monkeys who were creating the saw-like sounds as they swung like large brown shadows from tree to tree.

She was finally here on holiday, at her grandmother’s house, with no school, no piano practice, no bedtime at 8:00 and no nagging from her mother—at least there was less nagging from Mummy during holidays. Oh if only Mummy could learn not to worry so much, she thought, and if only Nilli would play with her, but Nilli at fourteen was six years older than her and only interested in boys. Mahen was older still and far away at university in England (she was used to Daddy traveling—her brother being away was something new and raw), but never mind all this, the main thing was that in just a few hours all her uncles and aunts and cousins (Tamara and Chandra and Romesh and the others) would rush in with “oohs” and “ahs” and great big bear hugs and she would be magically transformed from being a solitary youngest child to being an equal member of a pack, a swarm of twenty-one cousins ranging in age from seven to nine who would run freely and powerfully through the palm-lined garden. It didn’t matter that these cousins were mysterious Buddhists, that they didn’t speak English well, and that some were poor and wore funny smelling coconut oil in their hair. What mattered was that they were her cousins and that they were her age and that they would fight over her, throwing their arms around her, listening to her stories and making her, not her mother or Nilli, but her, a part of their warm brown-skinned horde. She had been waiting for this moment all year. Only two hours to get ready. She considered waking Nilli but decided against it—Nilli would call her a pest.          

Shantha tiptoed into the hall, towards the curtain that divided the formal living quarters from the cavernous kitchen, and smiled at Magalin, the servant, who was sweeping. The coarse green and gold of the fabric tickled Shantha’s bare arms and legs as she passed through.

She approached the place where the hot concrete hallway spilled out into the breezy back garden. She noticed that the curtain to the servant’s room was drawn shut. How odd, she thought, Magalin never closes her curtain during the day. Nervously, she parted the curtain slightly and there, seated in a row on the narrow bed were three thin little children dressed in colorful batik clothes—could they be Magalin’s grandchildren? The oldest child, a girl, seemed to be about Shantha’s age and the leader of the group. She and her younger brother and sister each balanced a huge plate of rice on their laps and were busy eating and throwing things in the air. Shantha felt a twinge of envy.

The flying objects turned out to be disks of onion—white, large and spinning and landing all over the straw mat. How extraordinary!  She would never be allowed to do something like this back in Geneva, where nothing was ever out of place.

Shantha felt like an intruder. She tried to close the curtain but the powerful aroma of the onion caused her to sneeze. The little boy looked up startled and pointed at her. “Balanna, balanna,” he shouted.

Nikkung inne, Malli,” the older girl responded, holding him back. “Hello,” she said finally and giggled. Shantha responded with “Hello” and the girl smiled, delighted. Shantha watched, fascinated as the onions soared into the air. As though reading her mind, the older girl said, “Menne, ganne” and stretched out her hand to Shantha—who took the onion.

Istuti,” said Shantha thanking her.

The girl motioned to Shantha to sit next to her on the bed. Shantha sat, knowing that she was breaking some important boundary. Her heart was pounding. The girl raised her arm and threw an onion. Shantha raised hers and swung it forward. The onions collided in mid-air and the girls laughed together.

Shantha suddenly heard footsteps approaching and she felt guilty but it was too late. Her mother stood at the doorway, displeasure spreading across her face, nose twitching. “Shantha, come with me now.” Shantha’s heart sank but she followed dutifully, afraid to turn and wave goodbye to her new friends. Back in the hallway, her mother continued. “You know you shouldn’t be playing with those children.” But Shantha couldn’t understand. None of their friends in Geneva had servants. It was hard to adjust to rules that didn’t make any sense.

“You never want me to play with anyone,” she blurted out.

“Shantha!” her mother replied, sounding shocked. But it was true. Back in Switzerland, she would often hear Mummy turning classmates away at the door. “Sorry, Christina, sorry Marie, Shantha is practicing her piano,” and her friends would disappear even before she could say hello.

They walked briskly back to the bedroom.

“Shantha, stop pouting and get ready—I’ve ironed your dress. See—isn’t it beautiful?” Her mother pointed to a pink dress, with starched puff sleeves, white Peter Pan collar and double frill at the bottom.

“Oh please, not that dress!”

“Shantha—stop it—don’t start that again—your aunts and uncles haven’t seen you in over a year. Don’t you want to look pretty?”

Tears welled up in Shantha’s eyes. She had hoped to wear her new blue jeans and tie-dyed T-shirt to impress Tamara, but she was afraid of making her mother angrier so she slipped the dress on. She hated seeing Mummy angry, something that seemed to happen a lot when Daddy was away traveling or working very late in his office in Switzerland. He was working so hard right now, that for the first time he couldn’t even accompany them on the trip home.

As she rushed out of the bedroom, Shantha nearly collided with her grandmother, who drew her so close that she could smell the baby powder on her skin and feel the comforting softness of her ancient sari.

“You look beautiful darling,” she whispered and kissed Shantha on the top of her head.

*  *  * 

At 5:15 p.m. Shantha stood alone by the gate—a drop of pink in an increasingly dusky landscape with street vendors selling red furry rambutans and coconut drinks. A flock of birds flew overhead.

A black car turned into the driveway and Uncle Raj, a friendly giant of a man, stepped out of it singing, “Shantha, Shantha, how’s my girl!” He scooped her up and spun her around. Her cousins Ravi and Romesh stood by shyly waiting to hug her. Tamara emerged next and as soon as the girls saw each other, they kicked their sandals off and rushed to stand back-to-back, heads touching, behinds wriggling together until Uncle Raj placed his hand over their heads and proclaimed “the same, 124.5 centimeters,” which cheered Shantha up since last year Tamara had been 3 centimeters taller. An endless procession of cars arrived and filled up the circular driveway. Shantha’s mother and grandmother stood in the verandah greeting everyone.

“Shantha, have you seen Nilli?” her mother asked.

“Nope,” Shantha responded.

“Where has that child run off to?” her mother muttered. “OK—Shantha—you go then—run and help Ammanta with the refreshments.”

“I’ll be right back, Tamara,” she said, squeezing her cousin’s hand.

All her senses came alive as she rushed into the huge dark kitchen where Ammanta, her grandmother’s sister, was making a special batch of her aromatic cheesecakes. “Would you like a cheesecake, darling?”

Shantha threw her arms around Ammanta’s waist. “Yes,” she replied.

Ammanta, who was not much taller than she was, wore tiny white tennis shoes and kept her sari tucked in so that her hands were free to make cakes, grow flowers, and even drive the family car. Ammanta broke the rules and didn’t bother carrying a parasol, so her face was sun-darkened like a ripe fruit with eyes that sparkled like jewels. Shantha felt how compact and strong Ammanta was underneath her green sari.  “I want to be just like you,” Shantha said and it was true—Shantha wanted to be strong and doing things, making things for everyone, but back in Switzerland, her mum shooed Shantha away from their sparkling kitchen with words like “Darling, please, Nilli can do this faster,” or “Run and read your book.”

As though sensing Shantha’s thoughts, Ammanta said, “I could use some help getting these out of the oven.”  Shantha’s face broke into a wide smile. A few minutes later Ammanta handed her the promised cheesecake.   “For my number one helper,” she said, smiling.

The cheesecake was small and round, and the outside was crunchy and almond flavored. “Yum,” Shantha said, as she bit into the warm and gooey inside. “Thank you.” She gave Ammanta a kiss on her leathery cheek and waved at Magalin, who was grinning from the far side of the kitchen. “I have to get back.”

“Wait a second—take this,” said Ammanta and placed a large tray into Shantha’s hands.

The tray was so shiny that Shantha could see her face reflected there in between the beautiful cakes. She felt as though she were carrying a treasure and this was confirmed when her entry into the living room was met by a chorus of “Cheesecake! Cheesecake!” and the cousins swarmed around her, hand after hand grabbing the cakes. She felt incredible, like a queen handing out pieces of gold, and as the tray got lighter and lighter, she too felt lighter and lighter, and she spun around and smiled at everyone and forgot that she had ever experienced loneliness or envy or anything else unpleasant. It was at this moment that she noticed her mother at the far end of the room, leaning against a doorway, arms crossed but with a sweet smile on her face, watching her, and something about the way her mum was leaning there, alone, away from everyone else, something about her expression, as though she were seeing Shantha for the very first time, made Shantha suddenly terribly lonely—and she found herself thinking a new and surprising thought—Mummy is lonely too. She hates Switzerland, she doesn’t understand French, and Daddy is never home.

Shantha smiled back at her mother and rushed over to hug her.

Outside a monkey screeched in the evening breeze, sending a coconut to the ground with a heavy thump while street sellers called out “Ram-bu-tan” in high-pitched voices and three-wheelers sounded their horns in the fading light.

 

Iromie Weeramantry is a fiction writer who was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Switzerland and New York. She was a long-time member of the Writer’s Studio in New York City, where she has given public readings of her short stories. Her story “Sujitha Underground” was published in the 2012 edition of The Alembic and she is excited to be included in Green Hills Literary Lantern. Iromie studied international relations at Johns Hopkins University and interactive telecommunications at New York University. She works as a digital marketing strategist for IBM.