(Continued from page 2)
My brothers came back a little later, their palms filled with masang and kottamba and a few small, wild guavas. Where had they found a fruitbearing tree on this pretend estate willed to my uncle? How far had they dared to go in the wake of what we had witnessed? What did it matter? It occupied us all, the preparing and sharing of that fruit. At first he refused to eat any of it, but eventually he accepted a guava and then some slivers of wild almond, spitting out the stray pith that found its way into his mouth. When we were done, I fetched the shirt, crumpled but dry, and buttoned it on him while he sat. He didn’t bother to tuck it in. It looked far too festive on his body, that red. It reminded me of untidy things, like red shoeflowers, crimpled and curled. A red shoe-flower impaled at the top of a brown branch.
I thought of that all the way back to where my grandparents were waiting, sitting outside the watcher’s hut, supervising the counting of the coconuts. We could hear the counting from across the road; the steady rhythm of coconuts being flung, one at a time, from a pile at one end of the swept, sanded midula to a pile on the other. So steady that it seemed it would never cease, the dull smack of the unhusked coconuts, followed by the numbers being called out by the watcher. I knew that my grandmother was keeping track, writing down the numbers in hundreds in a notebook in her convent-perfected handwriting. I knew that my grandfather, dressed entirely in white, was alert, beside her, double checking her figures. I knew that they expected that some portion of the coconuts had already been hauled away and sold by the watcher for his own gain, before they could get there. That was the price of being landed aristocracy: a certain degree of theft was allowed to go on without comment. I knew all this, but I did not know what would happen to Loku Māma and to us children who had rescued him from the terrible burden of witnessed humiliation.
“We won’t tell Aththa and Aththamma, will we?” I asked my oldest brother, leaving Loku Māma behind and running ahead a little to catch up to where my brothers were walking, both with their heads bowed.
“No, there’s no need to tell them,” my second brother replied.
“Then what will we do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” my oldest brother said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“Can’t we tell the police?” I persisted, the fighting instinct slowly returning to me now that we had left the island behind.
“We can’t tell the police without telling Aththamma and them,” my second brother said, “so we can’t tell anybody.”
“But you said you would tell the village!” I said, feeling the event slipping away from our grasp, turning from significance to silence.
“The villagers don’t want us here either,” my second brother said. “They want to own the land.”
“Then they should buy some,” I said. “They can’t take our land. This is our land. This is Aththa’s land.”
My brothers said nothing. Loku Māma had caught up to us. “Putha…” he began, addressing my brothers only this time, “your grandparents…my father and mother…what happened…”
“We’re not going to tell them Loku Māma, you don’t have to worry,” my oldest brother said, “We’ll say that you jumped in to get nangi out of the water and that’s how you got dirty.”
“I’m not wet!” I protested.
My brothers glanced at me. “We’ll tell them that I fell in,” my second brother said, “and you helped us out.”
Nobody said anything else the rest of the way.
The story was greeted with concern and a large allocation of blame directed at our uncle.
“Asoka we have told you not to take these children all over the place. You can’t manage them. You can’t manage yourself!”
Loku Māma pouted and frowned but remained silent. After a few rounds of protests from us filled with precise details as to how our uncle had rescued my brother, and how glad we had been for his help all of which ended invariably with the same reprimands toward Loku Māma, we gave up and said no more.
On the way back from the estate the rains came down and, once we got home, we children were allowed to bathe in the back garden, splashing in the wealth of water collected in the barrels placed under the gutters, sticking our heads under the one spout that protruded from the kitchen roof.
“Get all that dirt off yourselves,” my grandmother said, “specially the mud from the fields.” She sent Seela, the servant girl, for three towels and a cake of Kohombha soap for us to use.
Loku Māma sat next to our grandmother on a bench in the back verandah and watched us as he usually did, but without the instructions he had called out on other occasions: don’t slip, watch the edge of the barrel, there’s thunder in the distance, come in. We pretended not to notice.
We didn’t forget that day, it simply retired behind our conscious lives but for the almost imperceptible alteration of our relationship to Loku Māma. He became more willing to run errands on our behalf rather than the other way about. He continued to take care of us when help was requested by one of our parents, but we all knew it was a charade based on the difference between the height of his body and the smallness of ours. We washed his plates and clothes and ironed his shirts and even fetched his slippers and took away his empty tea cups, but we did these things of our own accord, not because he asked, and when we did, he simply bent his head further into his chest. He didn’t flash his old sheepish grin in thanks; he seemed more often than not, ashamed that we had even volunteered our services.
We didn’t return to the island, and we didn’t discuss what had happened there until our grandfather passed away one night, without fuss, except for the sound of tears when my grandmother brought him his tea and found him still in bed, with peaceful countenance but almost cold. The moment we heard, we three instinctively went to the back of the house and stood there in silence and I knew my brothers were, like me, back on that island, hearing our uncle talk about wills and land, seeing not the relief of tending to what had been passed down, but the misery of accepting something soiled.
The altercation broke out the day the ashes were to be collected from the crematorium.
“We should spread the ashes on the land,” my aunt announced, before even our mother, the oldest child, had expressed an opinion.
“Appatchi’s ashes should return to the place where he was born and raised,” our father said. “Back to Nattandiya.” That was all he said. My father was usually right and we knew when he was wrong because he offered supporting arguments and repeated himself too many times and on too many occasions.
“Nattandiya is not the place for our father,” my aunt declared. “His life was with us, it is Kekunugolla which meant something to him. He left Nattandiya behind when he married Amma. Didn’t he Amma?”
My grandmother, dressed in the white of mourning, sat in her usual seat to the right of the head of the table, and kept her peace. That meant she did not agree.
“Amma is too upset to think about these things. That’s why we have to do it,” my mother’s sister continued, after waiting a few moments to give my grandmother a chance to respond.
“Who is in charge of the ashes?” my mother asked, obliquely. As the first born child, she had the greater say.
“We are all in charge!” her sister replied. “We are all his children, no matter who was born first and who was born last. He was our father. Even Asoka has a say. Asoka! Come here!”
Loku Māma had always been used like a weight at the butcher shop, tossed into one flat pan or the other when his sister’s fought, his role one of adding to a count, not for supplying an independent point of view. I was sent to fetch my uncle who was hiding out in the front verandah.
“Loku Māma, they’re looking for you,” I said.
“What for? My father is dead now. What is there to talk about?”
“They’re talking about the ashes. Where to put the ashes.”
“Ashes should be thrown to the wind,” he said, flinging his own arms haphazardly toward the garden. “That’s where the ashes should go. My father’s ashes should be everywhere.” He shrugged. “Dust to dust,” he added, some remembered bit of Catholicism from his Saint Anne’s primary education coming out.
“Kudamma says the ashes should be taken to the land,” I informed him, hoping that he would agree. He had been inconsolable at the funeral, grabbing at the coffin and howling when it had to be shut after the wake, having to be held back by two of my uncles when it was time to lift it out of the house. In the end my father had calmed him down by insisting that he shoulder the front left of the coffin while his estranged brother, our other uncle, carried the right. My father had stood behind Loku Māma and had a hand on his shoulder all the way to the kanatta where the body was to be cremated.
But he did not agree. My uncle leaped to his feet and charged into the dining room where the others were sitting. “My father’s ashes cannot go back to the land!” he screamed. “I won’t allow it. You will have to do it over my dead body!” And in an instant he was the shaking, angry man he sometimes became, his right shoulder jerking forward from his thrusting half-bent frame, his pointing finger, the spit that alternately foamed and flew as he yelled. I went over to my brothers and added myself to their clump.
Everybody but my grandmother rose to their feet. Some of my other aunts hustled our younger cousins out of the room and earshot. We three oldest grandchildren stood our ground. My aunt began to berate Loku Māma, accusing him of making a spectacle of himself at the funeral and now causing more grief in a household brimming with it.
“Let him have his say. He has a right to an opinion,” my father said. He was the only one still sitting down at the breakfast table with my grandmother and he removed the tea cosy and poured her more tea from the white ceramic pot. She held the cup with one curved palm and watched him add milk and sugar. She didn’t drink it, but she held it close.
“Asoka, we are not saying that the ashes will be only on the main estate, we will spread it equally on all the fields, even in yours,” my aunt said.
That was when my uncle picked up the knife and lunged at my aunt. Other adults moved toward him trying to wrest the knife from him, but he was waving it in the air and nobody could get close enough. Swipe swipe swipe. A curtain ripped. The fridge got scraped. Somebody yelped in pain. In the end all they managed to do was to back him into the kitchen, and my aunt had to hold the doors shut while Loku Māma raged from within. There is language for anger and there’s language for grief. When the two combine, there is no room for politeness. Only curses remain: at family, at the gods, at the dead. My uncle found new lucidity in the kitchen, as he screamed and wept and sharpened and sharpened his knife.
“It’s okay,” my aunt sobbed. “You can take all the ashes!” she said, “You can take all the ashes and spread them on your land!”
“Move away from that door!” my mother told her.
“I’m calling the police,” the other uncle supplied in lieu of help.
“I don’t care if he cuts off my hands. Just leave my children alone!” my aunt wailed.
My brothers and I exchanged glances. Loku Māma hadn’t threatened her children. Loku Māma never threatened the children. All his problems were with the adults.
“Send that old bitch in here!” Loku Māma screamed from inside. “I’m going to kill her and kill myself! Then we can join him!” We could hear him throwing pots on the floor. We could hear the clay pots shattering, the metal ones bouncing off walls.
“Let’s go around to the window,” my second older brother said. We slipped out of the dining room, through the front porch and around the side garden until we were at the window.
“Loku Māma! Loku Māma! Loku Māma!” we called, but softly so only he could hear. We didn’t seem to register at first, on Loku Māma’s face. He stared at us, the knife dull in his hands except for the edge that he had just sharpened; that shone silver in the relative darkness of the kitchen. Beyond him, the only other thing that strived to be seen and was, were my aunt’s half-knuckled hands, gripping that door. Having attracted his attention it seemed none of us could think of what else we could say. In the absence of his screaming all we could hear was our aunt crying about land, about her dead father and about his ashes.
“Loku Māma, put down the knife,” my oldest brother said, and his voice was neither soothing nor unkind. His voice was firm and compassionate like that of our mother tending to one of our wounds; a necessary voice.
“We’ll ask our Appatchi to tell them to spread the ashes here, on this land,” my second brother said, “they always listen to him in the end.”
That was true. My mother’s family eventually came around to my father’s way of thinking. And if anybody could find a way to end this impasse, surely it would be him. Loku Māma put the knife down and came over to the window. With his hands clutching the bars on his side, and our three sets of fists on ours, we stood, us three looking up at him, he looking down at us. He seemed half mad. I wondered what we looked like to him. Did my brothers and I seem as small as I felt? I tried my best to think of something to say, something special and useful like my brothers had done. But all I could think of was fruit trees. All I could think of saying was “the trees on the island have fruits on them.” And I didn’t know if that would upset this equilibrium we seemed to have found, balancing quiet between him and us on either side of the kitchen window, so I didn’t say it.
Then he spoke. It was the first time that he had ever sounded like an adult to me. “You three must take care of me now,” he said, just before the door behind him opened, cautiously. I could see the faces on the other side, all the aunts and uncles, the one aunt still crying, another holding her bruised hands in her own, but all of them seeming to both move backward away from the kitchen and also forward into it. I could not see my grandmother or my father. But in the face of those people that I could see, and in the company of my brothers, I felt strong.
“First Son” was originally published in World Literature Today.