In the end, what I remember are the fingers. My aunt is holding the door shut, and she is crying. On the other side, my uncle is crying, too. But it is he who holds the kitchen knife. And it is my aunt’s fingers, visible only up to the first knuckles that stay on my mind.
They were fighting about property. Ultimately, every fight in the house was about ownership and birthright, and both those things led to a claim to a bit of earth that we, Buddhists, are never supposed to consecrate ourselves to even in death, though we have learned to linger: blown about as grey ash, tossed into rivers, spread among fields, tipped off the edge of a precipice. And though we are expected to leave everything behind except our sins and our merits which will decide our next incarnation, we drag our mourners with us when we go, causing them to look up from weeping only to take receipt of ancestral feuds; to possess and possess the land.
The funeral, at least, had ended. My grandfather was now gone, taking with him anything that could be asked for or given: regret, forgiveness, absolution. Nothing remained but pieces of paper and an unwieldy expanse of land farmed by tenants known only to my grandmother, now 81, my father, the secretly favored son-in-law, and the second of my two older brothers, the best beloved. But there was no animosity between those three, no. All the grief, all the rage belonged to the daughters, mostly my aunt, who had married a low-caste and my uncle, the oldest son, whose sideshuffle gait and now-pout-now-grin mouth were but the visible manifestation of the cranial lacks he had carried into the world at birth with his own two hands. Two hands with artistic fingers that missed the strength with which to play anything but a bata nalaava, a simple flute, and even that, with only two notes know to us children, and ridiculed by the adults, as twa twa.
“Asoka stop that twa twa!” my mother would yell. And even as small children, my brothers and I knew that the world contained some wickedness we would become intimate with one day. We could tell by the way his face crumpled and only the pout remained; only the eyes cast down under an easily summoned frown.
Which is why, when he asked, his voice trembling and his hands shaking, if we would wash his plates for him, or his shirts, we would do it without a word. Even I, the youngest, at the age of eight. The feel of that hand on the backs of our heads was sufficient repayment for this task. It paid in spades for the drudgery of getting the grease off the collars of the shirts he wore to the job his oldest sister’s husband, our father, had arranged for him to inhabit for more than a quarter century: welder. This scion of a high caste landed proprietor, this first-born son of a princess of the ruling elite, this sibling of an engineer, a bank manager, teacher of western classics and English literature and two women of leisure, worked as a welder at a small business near our home. He was paid a pretend salary of 150 rupees a month when he began, 350 by the time he retired thirty five or so years later, and went from boarding house to boarding house because of the arguments.
The arguments were usually on payday and they involved one thing and one thing only: nobody believed that he was from such a family. Nobody believed his stories of grandparents who owned tuskers and had a multitude of servants, of being driven to school as a boy in laundered white clothes, of the one brother and four sisters who lived in the city, of his nieces and nephews. Above all else, nobody believed the story of his piece of riceproducing, coconut-tree lined land.
But it did belong to him, that piece of land. His father had ensured that, in this respect at least, he would be treated no differently than his siblings; he would get an equal measurement of land. Except that his plot of land was the least cared for; it had the lowest yield, and it lived across the road that divided the contiguous estate from the smaller lot on the other side. In case it was sold, they said to each other, In case he gambles it away when he plays cards and drinks kasippu with the union-organizers who live in the park.
But, for us children, that land was made of myth and fairytale because it contained an island.
The year my grandfather passed away was the last year in which we visited that island. During the coconut plucking that our grandparents attended, driving up from their pillared, verandah decked walauwwa to supervise the hired hands Who Could Never Be Trusted, us kids were set free with just a few cautionary words.
“Be careful when you are near the pluckers!”
“Watch for snakes!”
“Don’t go too far!”
And, of course, the Watcher’s wife sent periodically to check on us, to provide us with kurumba from the young coconut trees, the clear water sweet and cool in our mouths, the flesh inside scooped from the “ladle” she carved out of the husk; or the pieces of sea salt she gave us, one hand cupping the other with due respect, to ease the sourness of the raw mangoes she had peeled and sliced at our request; her own children on guard, fingers in their mouths, bright curiosity in their intense eyes as they watched us from behind her body.
We had to jump off the road to reach one of the ridges that chequered the fields to reach that island. That was another difference: the land this uncle owned had no wide access way, with planks laid on supporting beams buried into the moat-like river that irrigated the fields on either side of the road, no gate posts or padlocks or a watcher to be summoned with the beep of a horn. His land lacked any barbed wire. It was open to the beings that populated both heaven and earth. As children we believed that there were more serpents and crocodiles and birds around and in his fields than in any other place, for surely it appeared to them as it did to us: mysterious, welcoming, fragile. In fact, a place to inhabit as long as it was possible to do so, for the end lapped palpably at us all.
That last visit was also the only one we made with this uncle, our Loku Māma, a titular respect bestowed upon him by the recognition of his birth order and his role as our mother’s younger brother that had no corresponding material goods by which to buttress it: no car, no advanced degrees, no ability to bequeath anything on us but his own presence. I don’t remember how he happened to be there. He had never accompanied us before. Had he been on leave from his job? Or was he “on probation” as he often was, a trick also arranged between my father and his friend, to manage Asoka, and used whenever the latter issued a drunken threat or created a scene at a family do. This time, unlike all the other times when we had
ventured across the road to the island, we did not charge ahead, our thoughts on getting from the road to the island without disturbing something venomous or sharp-toothed. This time, we strolled.
“This, putha, is my land,” he said, pointing it out to us from the road on which we stood, waiting for the right moment to leap down. None of us said we already knew. “This is what your Aththa, what your grandfather, has set aside for me.” He patted his chest a few times and we watched, three faces turned upward, two boys and a girl, aged eleven, ten and eight respectively.
“Putha,” he continued, taking me in with his eyes along with my brothers and, being accustomed as I was to my status as mostly ungendered among my retinue of brothers and male cousins, I smiled, “someday all this will come to me. When my father is gone, there will be nobody for your Loku Māma. But I will have this.”
We all gazed out at the fields that glistened under the morning sun, the new rice brightly green against the muddy brown earth below. Around us the day was still, only the small sounds of fast-flying creatures and the screech of the occasional group of black crows above our heads. A breeze sang over the rice and made us all flap our clothing to catch it; my brothers lifted their shirts up to their armpits and I tugged at the front of my dress. Something splashed in the underwater close to our ridge and we moved to the center of our perch.
Beside us, Loku Māma was silent. His mouth turned down, self-pity overcoming him, at the thought of that bereft future or at some current lack, and his eyes welled up as they did often, usually before a full-blown attack of weeping, but just as regularly before a violent lashing out against whichever sibling or parent or brother-in-law was proximate. The only people he did not fight with were us three children and his younger brother’s wife. The wife of the brother he despised for being favored, for being normal, for his achievements. I wondered why many times, over the years. I imagined that in her presence he remembered that he could have been the better man, could have had such a wife, had fate not touched him with his shortcomings. After all, we knew that to be true and we were only children. Loku Māma had great love and great kindness. The type that children sense instinctively and trust forever. Which is why we continued to stand, waiting for him to decide which it was going to be: sadness or rage.
“Let’s go, putha. I will show you the rest, but you have to be careful here. Very careful. There are snakes here. You have to watch where you are going.”
And, unlike all the other adults, it was my hand he held. The youngest, the girl, still a girl despite the seemingly seething masses of boys swirling about me, inside the family, outside too, coming at us in yearly streams from the all-boys schools at which my mother taught and my brothers and cousins attended. But not for Loku Māma who, like my grandfather, referred to me as The Damsel and predicted great fortune for me somewhere in the future. A future full of books and learning and, commandeered by me, celestial quakes that would change the order of the universe; the kinds of predictions designed to win the heart of a child and, also, to direct its future.
“Where is The Damsel?” my grandfather was given to inquiring, usually of my grandmother. And if I were within earshot, I would pause to listen in to the accolades I knew would follow.
“Your Damsel is out there climbing olive trees and mango trees higher even than the boys!”
“That’s okay. Damsels must also have fun.”
“Like a monkey! Not like a damsel!”
“I should give her a little more money now for reading the newspapers to me.”
“How come there is no money for the boys?”
“She reads better than them.”
And into the lack of response that followed his I would walk, basking in my favored status. My grandfather would be sitting there, stroking the left-over grey hairs over his exposed skull, chuckling at my grandmother’s pursed lips. But those are things carefully resurrected as an adult. As a child it was merely The Way Things Should Be.
The difference with Loku Māma was that I noted every favor I received from him, even as a child, accepting it with care, enjoying it then as much as in the afterward of looking back. Like that day, his hand holding mine, and helping me to walk carefully through the fields, even though in truth it was my hand that steadied him as he tried to take care of me and also keep an eye on my brothers. It was an excess of simultaneous responsibility that was hard for him to manage, wired as he was to take in only a single stimulus at a time.
Up ahead of us, my brothers’ feet had gained speed. Loku Māma tried to quicken his and so I matched my step to his, trying to stay ahead of him, knowing that if we were too far apart and I yanked back, he would slide right into one of the bordering fields, and he would be blamed for whatever mud we got on ourselves in attempting to rescue him.
“Putha! Avindra! Stop! Don’t go too fast, Putha,” he gasped, equally fatigued by the heat as well as his quick panic, “I have to be close by.” He let me go for a moment and clapped his hands together several times, quickly,to get their attention. “Mahinda, putha, wait for us. Nangi can’t walk that fast. She’s small!”
Of course my brothers would not listen. They knew better. But so did I. “I’ll tell,” I shouted, and that was all that was needed; their pace slowed until they came to a halt. We caught up with them. One of them cuffed my head, but they allowed Loku Māma and me to squeeze by, sideways, so we were now officially leading the foray. Ahead of us loomed Ovitiya, an unoriginal, generic name, we children learned much later, given to any such landmass in the middle of a field of paddy. Back then we assumed it had been chosen in consultation with astrologers and with great care, the name uttered in an auspicious time by somebody blessed with good fortune. Someone such as the head priest at our great-grandfather’s temple or someone even before then since, to us, longevity and enduring ancestry appeared to be the true measure of worth in those around us.
“Wait!” Loku Māma said, his palm held up like a traffic policeman. “I will go and see that everything is okay and then I will help you up.”
We waved our heads vaguely, side to side, in agreement, and shuffled in place. What could there be to harm us, after all? Securing an all-clear was an adult preoccupation and we were willing to stand aside and let him venture forth and then return with the added satisfaction of feeling more capable than we were.
Loku Māma tried to climb up onto the raised earth by holding on to stray plants. The plants he picked were the wrong kind, the transitional type, with shallow roots and deceptive leaf.
“Try the other one, no, not that one, the other one. That big one in the clump!” my oldest brother said, yelled really, because such moments always appear to require yelling.
“Take this,” the other brother said, giving him a sturdy dried up branch of coconut flowers that he had picked up along the way. “You can push this into the ground and then with the other hand you can grab the top.” These further instructions were taken by our uncle, whose own comments were now self-deprecating now full of curses at the shabby earth itself and all the equally shabby plants that had landed upon it.
“I must get the watcher to put up a proper set of steps here,” he panted, talking mostly to himself. “That rotter does no work all day. He should cut down a couple of coconut trees and build a nice bridge to go up here. Then you my little ones won’t have to worry about falling off this. It’s very dangerous. You must only come here with your Loku Māma. Otherwise you must stay on the other side next to your grandparents. You hear me? This is not a place for small children. Not a place for you. Putha? Avindra? Mahinda? Both of you must never let your little nangi come this way alone.”
“Aththa won’t let you cut coconut trees,” my second older brother said, matter of fact; this was the brother who never learned to varnish the truth, and eventually grew up to believe that truth was the way to varnish the blows of life.
Loku Māma had reached the top by now and was looking down at us. He looked deranged in that moment; his hair, usually slicked down with Bryl Cream, was sticking out to the right side of his head, sweat was streaming from his hairline and there were large stains under the armpits of his red short-sleeved shirt – the same shirt he always got dhobi-washed for Good Occasions where decency was called for. He laughed, and his grin, which we ordinarily found delightful in its uncontrolled generosity, was now more a grimace of crooked betal-stained teeth held in place by cracked lips. “Your Aththa…Your Aththa…” he stopped to catch his breath and step. He made a sweep of the fields behind us with one arm that stretched out from the seemingly cavernous interior of his hand-me-down shirt like an exceptionally long, hairy brown twig; he turned in a circle taking in, also, the fields to either side and behind the island on which he now stood. “Your Aththa will let me do anything I want with this land. He gave it to me. His son. His oldest son! I am the heir.” And he pointed to himself, his mouth turned down, this time with pride.
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