By Chanis Fernando Boisard
[This story is reproduced from Chanis Fernando Boisard’s short story collection, The Ayah and Other Stories.]
A lizard called from its corner. An air of uneasiness settled in the kitchen. The firelight picked out two figures. One had the bent appearance of an old woman, while the other’s careless posture against the wall brought out her extreme youth.
The younger woman turned to face her companion and in a single word seemed to pose a question.
‘So?’ she asked.
The older woman spat out some betel with deliberation, and then shook her head.
‘I still don’t like it,’ she said.
‘But why, Asilin?’ insisted the other. ‘What have you got against him?’
Asilin, the older woman, spoke again: ‘I don’t have anything against him, but I know the ways of the world…yes, I do. I may be just an old servant, but I have seen life and seen plenty of these foreigners. There were hordes of them here during the war. If only you had seen those foreign soldiers and the way they behaved, you would never want to marry an outsider, Miss Nelun.’
‘He is not a soldier, Asilin. You know that,’ the girl, Nelun, interjected quickly.
‘Yes, I know that,’ answered Asilin. ‘But, Missy, why don’t you want to marry one of our own boys? Look at your mother now, and your aunts – they are happy, aren’t they? Local girls should many local boys. You should have found a nice young Ceylonese boy. What about that young doctor who used to spend so much time here? Why not pick one of them and….’
Nelun broke into an impatient laugh. ‘Ah, you can laugh,’ continued the older woman, ‘but Missy, I’ve worked with this family for three generations. I’ve seen your grandaunts and your aunts and then your cousins. They have all settled down quietly and happily with their own people. They bring their children here to see me and just like their mothers used to, these children too, sit in my kitchen and listen to my stories. But you Missy, of all people, the little one I’ve looked after…I never thought I’ll live to see you marry a stranger and leave your home.’
Moved, the girl reached out and placed her hand on the old woman’s bony shoulder. The ring she wore on her fourth finger touched Asilin’s leathery skin for a moment. A strange fear possessed Asilin. Fear for this child, who meant more to her than even her own children. Questions tossed and turned in her mind like grains of rice being winnowed. They thumped in her brain with the dull insistence of a pestle thumping into a mortar. How would this young girl live so far away from everyone who was close to her? She was everyone’s darling; from Juanis, the old driver, to Banda, the mischievous young servant boy. How would she adjust to her new life? She had always lived a sheltered and cloistered life within the family circle up until now. And now here she was, casting away – as Asilin saw it – her entire life for a complete stranger. Would he treat her well? Would he always want her?
She began to speak again, as if to herself.
‘I told myself that Miss Nelun is a sensible girl and knows what she is doing. She is her parents’ only child and wouldn’t do anything to displease them. I never thought this would happen…I can’t believe it even now.’
She paused, but when she saw that Nelun had nothing to say to this, she spoke again, and this time directly to Nelun.
‘Look Missy, you are no ordinary girl. Your father is the district judge. Everyone here knows him. I will not talk about the tea estates, which should be yours one day. Now, I do not know to whom they’ll go. I just want you to remember that your parents have just you – and they are about to lose you.’
Asilin recognised the familiar expression of obstinacy that settled on Nelun’s face. Seeing it, she started to speak gently, almost as if to a child. It seemed as though she was chiding Nelun for having been naughty.
In Nelun’s mind, the years slipped back and she was a child again, being guided by her ayah. She saw Asilin run to pick her up as she rolled down the kitchen steps, she saw Asilin holding her hand at night when she was kept awake by scary memories of a ghost story she had read. She saw images of the two of them under an umbrella on a particularly rainy day, or of herself sitting goggle-eyed listening to Asilin’s well-spiced, exaggerated tales. The screen in Nelun’s mind focused on two tiny little hands knotted tightly round Asilin’s neck, when she threatened to go away after having fought with old Juanis. Finally, the flashback came to rest on Asilin trying vainly to hide behind a scraggy guava tree in a game of hide and seek!
She shook her head vigorously as if to clear the cobwebs off her brain and tried to listen to the servant’s words. It seemed as though she was once again in a classroom trying to concentrate on a lesson which she was not really interested in learning.
Asilin’s concern for her well-being had affected her more than she would want to admit. She heard the old woman speak again, ‘Missy, just think. This boy is lonely here in Ceylon; that’s why he wants to marry you. What will happen when he goes back to his own country and is amongst his own people again? Will he still want you?
The unanswered question hung like suspended smoke in the silent kitchen and kept throbbing in Nelun’s head. The darkness deepened, hiding their faces from each other.
To cover her uneasiness, Nelun made an attempt to change the subject.
‘Come now, Asilin,’ she pleaded with an attempt at gaiety. ‘Just think of the nice things I’ll send you from abroad. Think of how nice you’d look in those nylon saris. You’d look young again. I’ll send you a nice black wig and you can then hide your grey hair. I’m sure Juanis will be on the kitchen steps again….you’ll look so pretty!’
‘What for,’ snapped Asilin, ‘Will all this be for my funeral?’ Immediately regretting her thoughtlessness she said in a kinder tone: ‘I don’t want anything from you Missy. I only want you to be happy.’
‘Don’t worry. I will be happy. I am sure of that. I will let you know how I am faring. And when I have children, I shall bring them to see you. I’ll tell them how you looked after me when I was a child.’
Asilin was slient. From some dark, hidden nook, the unseen lizard gave out its melancholy chirp again.* The old woman shivered slightly.
Tired of the tense silence, Nelun broke into Asilin’s somber thoughts like a clumsy child eager to show off a new toy. ‘Asilin!’ she exclaimed, holding out her palm,‘when I was younger you used to read my palm and tell me about the future. Tell me what is to come now. You told me before my last exam that I would do well and you were right. Tell me now what you foresee about my marriage?’
Asilin pressed her lips together firmly. ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I am not a palmist. How can I predict anything? I shall leave it in the hands of the Buddha. He knows best what is good for you. I certainly do not. But you have my blessings. Now go and help your mother. She must be tired. She needs you.’
Two weeks later, Nelun sat at the mirror while the hairdresser combed out her hair. She was to wear it loose, with jasmines adorned on it.
A dozen people who thought themselves useful kept getting in her way. People, mechanical and robot-like, hurried around the room. Out in the yard, the women were playing the rabane.** The bridesmaids were giggling and anticipating the fun with delight. They minced about with awkward steps as they were still very young and were wearing a sari for the first time. Servants rushed about misinterpreting orders – generally causing confusion and consternation.
Nelun’s parents moved about sad and anxious, but resigned and philosophical at the same time. They tried hard to look like a bride’s parents should look, but the smiles kept sliding off their faces. They had learned their words, rehearsed their parts and they knew their cues. Now they blew words in different directions as they thought right and constantly kept correcting the downward twist of their mouths with a forced semblance of a smile.
But something was wrong. Or rather, everything seemed to be wrong. Someone whispered something in someone’s ear, and soon there were busy whispers circulating around the room. Everyone spoke at the same time and everyone sought explanations. Then someone boldly demanded a confirmation. The bride’s mother left the room to find out the truth. Someone nudged their neighbour and said that the bride must not know the sad news. The word passed round from one to another like a tasty morsel of food which they resolutely refused to share with Nelun. In the next few minutes, nothing remained in order. The hairdresser stopped, wielding her brush in mid-air, looking around, waiting for someone to enlighten her. Her curious screwed-up eyes analysed each person present in the room in turn. A row of blank faces stared back steadily at her, revealing nothing. The room seemed to be filled with people, but people that were like wooden carvings, looking down from the walls…onlookers to a crisis, a tragedy.
Nelun’s mother entered the room. Her eyes caught her daughter’s in the mirror and the sadness in them was reflected there. She began to speak to her daughter in a voice that was rather unsteady, yet somehow comforting.
‘Nelun,’ she began, ‘I have some bad news for you…Asilin has passed away. She fell in the bathroom.’
She stopped, but when there was no response from her daughter, she continued, ‘they said she looked rather peaceful lying there…almost happy.’ She paused once again.
Everyone waited for Nelun to speak, to react. They all waited for some sign of grief, of Nelun having understood. They expected tears…bitter tears.
Nelun turned slightly. The tension in the air was palpable.
Then, quietly, she said: ‘Will someone hand me the jasmines, please?’
*A lizard’s cry is said to foretell evil.
**A rabane is a large drum placed on the floor, played by women in Sri Lanka on festive occasions.
Excerpted with permission from Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing House.
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