Here’s my short story published in the Write To Reconcile Anthology II. I wrote the first few pages of ‘The Memory Box’ during the Write to Reconcile workshop. The story is based on the experiences I gathered throughout the workshop in Batticaloa.
Sri Kanthi couldn’t tear her eyes away from the shining earrings and bracelets, the bright colours of the outfits worn by the group of young ladies who were visiting the convent. Their earrings had many dainty parts like mini chandeliers, unlike the traditional big, gold earrings her Amma used to wear for kovil. Amma had a pair of gold bangles but she never wore bracelets. Sri Kanthi made eye contact with one of them and the lady smiled. She’s kind. Sri Kanthi was pleased at the friendly gaze of this stranger, but meeting anyone eye to eye was unusual for her. Every time Sri Kanthi went beyond the convent compound, on her way to school or to court, she tried to avoid eye contact with the men scanning her from head to toe. Whenever these men did happen to make eye contact with her they smiled as if showing concern, but Sri Kanthi felt there was a hidden message that she was unable to interpret.
Sri Kanthi was sitting in the last row of the convent’s meeting room next to the old wooden door. The group of young women from Colombo was sitting on the stage. Their well-groomed figures and bright colours contrasted with the faded beige wall behind them. Sri Kanthi looked away through the window at the concrete arches of the gateway to the convent.
The visitors were asking many questions. A Tamil man who introduced himself as a school teacher translated the English-speaking women’s questions. One of the women, wearing a black abaya, also spoke Tamil. A few of the girls in the hostel answered their questions but the others remained silent. Sri Kanthi wasn’t listening to anyone but now and then some of the words drifted into her consciousness: “During conflicts…” “Troublesome times…” “Your studies…”
Sri Kanthi looked up and saw cobwebs tangled on the wooden trusses supporting the roof. A question from one of the women grabbed her attention: “Do you face any issues when you are going to school? Perhaps when you pass army checkpoints?”
“Why do you ask all these questions?” Sri Kanthi muttered to herself in a low voice. These types of questions were very familiar to Sri Kanthi and other girls in the convent. There had been many similar groups in the past, and the same types of gatherings in the convent’s meeting room. They asked the same questions, distributed books and new clothes, clicked their cameras and then they walked away.
One of the women was saying something long, the English she spoke not easily understandable to Sri Kanthi. The translator paused a while before he translated the words of this woman.
“These ladies are university students studying literature, they are here to help the girls in the convent with their studies. They want all of you to pass the A level exam. They want you to enter university and excel in your higher education. They are asking your backgrounds and experiences to see if there’s anything that prevents you from achieving your goals.”
These words sounded sincere. If they really intended to do what they said, then they had to be saints, Sri Kanthi thought. Many social workers had visited them before and tried to change their lives. But they gave up after some time and left.
Sri Kanthi took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She visualized the statue of Saint Mary, her face divine and pure. A flush of courage went through her and she raised her voice. “You said you all are university students. Didn’t you face any troubles during your A Levels?”
The man quickly translated and the women nodded their heads to say they understood her words. The women spoke to each other and then said something to the translator. From the tone of their voices Sri Kanthi realized an inside joke had been made; they were teasing the translator. The ladies laughed and looked at Sri Kanthi with inviting eyes gesturing her to join in their joke.
But how could she laugh with the translator? He had to be from this area. Perhaps he knows my past. If Sri Kanthi laughed at him, wouldn’t he reveal her past to these women? And after knowing the truth, wouldn’t these women despise her like her cousin sisters did?
The translator started talking to Sri Kanthi with a shy smile. “I’ll answer your questions according to my own experiences. Don’t think too much about the problems in your life. We cannot stop obstacles appearing on our path. If we start thinking about our problems they occupy our minds all the time and we will not be able to focus on our studies. Set targets and think only about your targets. Study well, enter university and then you’ll get a good job. People will look up to you when you have a good job.”
Sri Kanthi carefully analyzed the translator’s face. Dark oily skin and curly black hair. A typical Tamil guy in his late twenties. Anna too would be his age by now, if he was alive. Sri Kanthi sighed and the warmth of her breath brushed her upper lip. If Anna was alive.
A memory rose in her of how she used to walk to school with Anna. He was six years older than Sri Kanthi and he knew what was good for his little sister. Whenever Anna was around she felt protected. “Sri Kanthi, don’t play with the next door boys!” Anna’s worried voice would call to her. Once Anna had punched the two little sons of their neighbour because they had pushed Sri Kanthi while playing and wounded her knee. Later Appa punished Anna for beating the neighbour’s kids. But thereafter Sri Kanthi’s playmates in the neighbourhood didn’t dare to hurt her.
If Anna was alive he would have earned money, so Amma wouldn’t have had to go to Saudi Arabia for work, leaving Sri Kanthi alone with Appa. After she left, Appa, who was constantly drunk by now, beat Sri Kanthi every night and did other things to her. There had been nobody to save her, until she begged her aunt to let her stay at her place. After seeing bruises on Sri Kanthi’s skin, her aunt questioned her. Sri Kanthi wept in her aunt’s arms and uncovered her secret. The aunt informed the police and Appa was put behind bars. Appa got released on bail after the court hearing and the court decided that Sri Kanthi should stay in the convent under the supervision of a probation officer.
The women stood up, their action breaking into Sri Kanthi’s thoughts.
“We are leaving now,” the translator said. “Tomorrow we are taking you all to the Peace Garden. Be ready by 9 a.m.”
The ladies walked out into the corridor. Sri Kanthi saw Mother Superior and Sister Matilda go with them. The girls slowly went to their rooms. Sri Kanthi followed the four other girls she shared her room with.
Sister Matilda stood with a dozen girls under the arched portico of the convent waiting for the bus that had been arranged by the group of university students. Excited eyes on timid faces were fixed on the gate. The shadow of the convent’s pillars made a bar pattern on the grass. Standing with the girls, all of them dressed in their best outfits, Sri Kanthi examined her reflection in the glass doors of the convent. Her thick curly hair got messed up easily by the wind. She ran her fingers through her curls pressing them down.
“The ladies have planned to stay in our hostel for three days, because they like to spend time with you. They could have easily stayed in a luxury hotel,” Sister Matilda told the girls before she instructed them to be friendly with the ladies and ask them about their lives in Colombo.
Some of the girls in the convent had visited the Peace Garden earlier and Sri Kanthi had heard about the wonderful experiences offered there. They had told Sri Kanthi about the dancing lessons they had, the games they played and the painting they did. A painting by a girl from the convent was once selected for printing in the Peace Garden Calendar.
The bus arrived and Sister Matilda gestured for the girls to follow her. The pretty faces of the smiling ladies appeared through the windows of the bus. They waved like a bunch of colourful butterflies flapping through the air. The girls formed a queue to get into the bus as Sister Matilda had instructed them earlier. Sister Matilda wanted the girls to be on their best behaviour in front of the ladies.
Sri Kanthi gripped the metal bar of the footboard and climbed in. The bus was air-conditioned and the metal bar was very cold. The windows of the bus were covered with yellow and green floral curtains edged with tassels. Sri Kanthi inhaled the chilled air, fragranced by air freshener that smelt of gardenia. The coldness gave her goose bumps. The ladies were purposely sitting with spaces next to them and the girls were expected to sit with them. Today there were fewer ladies present, only half the group. One by one the girls sat. Sri Kanthi took a seat next to a Muslim woman. They smiled at each other; Sri Kanthi remembered this lady was the one who had spoken in Tamil yesterday.
The bus started.
“We want you to mingle with these ladies and speak freely,” Sister Matilda said in a grave manner, her thoughtful eyes shining behind her reading glasses. Sister Matilda was always keen to try new things that she hoped would help the girls learn about life outside the Eastern Province.
“What’s your name?” the Muslim lady asked in Tamil.
Sri Kanthi felt cold air entering her throat when she opened her mouth to speak. “Sri Kanthi,” she said, happy to be speaking in Tamil.
The Muslim lady had fair skin. Her round face with high cheekbones and upturned eyes reminded Sri Kanthi of ancient paintings of Hindu goddesses. The lady was wearing a black sequined abaya, just like yesterday. The abaya was like a warning to Sri Kanthi. She’d heard that women wearing abayas belong to Muslim extremist families.
“I’m Nazreen. Today our group formed into two clusters. The other set is going to interview random families in Pasikuda, while we go to the Peace Garden.” Her smile made her eyes glow.
Sri Kanthi had seen many Muslim women in Batticaloa before, but this was the first time she was able to talk to one. Sri Kanthi’s two uncles, who had campaigned for a well-known Tamil politician of the area, were killed during a fight with a group of Muslims. Thereafter her family declined to associate with Muslims. “Don’t play with Muslim girls,” Amma had said a few days after her uncles’ funeral, angry when she saw Sri Kanthi playing with the next door girls. Tamil girls, both Hindu and Christian, went to a Tamil school while the Muslim girls went to a Muslim school. Thus the chance to befriend Muslim girls was rare for Sri Kanthi. She never understood why this school segregation was necessary when both Tamils and Muslims spoke the same language.
But this lady is from Colombo, she must be different from Muslims in Batticaloa, Sri Kanthi thought to herself to justify going against Amma’s wishes. Amma, who had gone to a land of Muslims to earn money and had stopped sending letters.
In her first letter, Amma had written that she had to cook for twelve people in her employer’s house and she was left without food often. In her second letter, she wrote saying she had been beaten when she was caught searching for something to eat in the kitchen cupboards. In her third letter, she said she had planned to escape from the employer’s house and go back to the agency which provided the job contract. Sri Kanthi’s family never found out what happened to her after that letter. Appa inquired at the Foreign Employment Bureau but they were unable to find her whereabouts. The agency informed them Amma had terminated the contract and walked away. People said she must have died in the foreign land. News about migrant workers who died or were disabled because of sexual violence, abuse and torture was frequent these days.
Sri Kanthi touched her forehead to check that the pottu she had pasted was in place. Whenever she walked under the harsh sun in Batticaloa, the sweat on her forehead made the glue of the pottu melt. Nazreen was enthusiastically observing Batticaloa town through the window. Perhaps it was the first time she had been here.
“Have you been to the Peace Garden before?” Nazreen asked, looking directly into Sri Kanthi’s eyes again, her own glowing with an invitation to friendship.
“No… No.” Sri Kanthi’s voice sounded shattered to her. It had been a long time since someone looked at her in a friendly manner. After the court case against Appa commenced, her relatives looked at her with disgust, other girls of the convent with eyes wet with sympathy, and men on the road with lust.
The air inside the bus was getting colder. Sri Kanthi felt an agitation in her abdomen from the cold. Nazreen, however, was sitting comfortably. Her abaya must be keeping her warm. Sri Kanthi looked around and saw other girls from the convent keeping their hands crossed over their chest. Sri Kanthi also crossed her hands to cover her chest from the cold air.
“Isn’t the view beautiful?” Nazreen pointed towards the sea.
Sri Kanthi nodded. The view was very common along the coast line of Batticaloa – sea, palmyrah trees and fishermen’s boats. The road, as they went along, leaving the town behind, got narrower and bumpy. The sun rays peeping through the curtains pierced the head scarf Nazreen wore. The sunshine added a glow to Nazreen’s fair skin. Sri Kanthi looked at her hands and compared her skin tone with Nazreen’s.
Amma was fair and so was Anna. Sri Kanthi was dark like Appa. After Anna died, caught in crossfire, Appa was drunk every evening. He sold everything once his money was over to buy kasippu. Sri Kanthi recalled the ringing tone of Amma’s voice, her tearful face pleading with her aunt to look after Sri Kanthi in her absence. “I have no choice. My husband has lost his mind. He had even mortgaged the deed to our house. Getting a job abroad is the only way I can secure Sri Kanthi’s future.”
The bus jolted into a small pit and jerked out of it. Sri Kanthi rose up from her seat a few inches, then fell back. Everyone in the bus sighed and laughed. For the women from Colombo, it must be a fun journey, rolling and bumping, she thought.
After a few moments, Sri Kanthi started feeling sick, an unpleasant taste on her tongue, like she was about to throw up. “Akka, I feel I have to vomit,” Sri Kanthi told Nazreen, in a panic. She was ashamed of her helplessness.
“Keep your head on my lap. Try to sleep a while, you’ll feel better.” Nazreen put her hand around Sri Kanthi’s shoulder and motioned her to put her head on her lap. Sri Kanthi was hesitant for a second, but she was afraid the bus would bounce again making her vomit in front of everyone. She put her head on Nazreen’s lap and closed her eyes.
“Akka.” Sri Kanthi touched Nazreen’s arm. The bus had finally come to a stop.
“Yes, we are here!” Nazreen smiled warmly as Sri Kanthi sat up and looked through the bus window.
A pair of tall figures was standing in front of the bus. “Wow!” Nazreen pointed at the two boys stilt-walking in the Peace Garden.
Sri Kanthi saw a large mud hut and smaller mud huts, floral patterns painted with lime paint on the walls, a pond and a tree house in a margosa tree. It was a normal hot day in Batticaloa but the large pond in the Peace Garden brought coolness to the air. The many shades of green of the bushes made the garden look like a botanical garden.
“See that mud hut!” Nazreen said after they got down, pointing to the larger mud hut where some children were painting with crayons and watercolours. “Shall we also try drawing and painting?”
“Mmm… I have only tried painting a few times before,” Sri Kanthi said.
“Then that makes two of us!” Nazreen giggled.
Sri Kanthi had a good time with Nazreen in the Peace Garden. They painted, even though neither of them had much experience of art, both of them laughing at their ineptness but also complimenting each other. The Garden was animated with playful kids who looked like a swarm of flying honey bees. The sound of children singing echoed from the mud huts, their roofs made of dried and smoke-treated palmyrah leaves. Some children were sitting in the shade of huge margosa trees and reading. The birds’ chatter mixed with the crunching sound of dried leaves under Sri Kanthi’s feet as she and her new friend went about trying different crafts and activities.
As they worked together, Nazreen told her about her extended family and her university friends. “My grandparents and aunt’s family also live with us. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers. My five cousins are all boys.”
“Your house must be a huge one,” Sri Kanthi said, surprised.
Nazreen nodded. “ Our house is where my father and aunt grew up. My father built a new section when my elder brother was born. My family lives there. My sister is about your age. She doesn’t like to study. I always tell her knowledge is the most valuable asset a girl can have. I wish she was willing to learn like you.” Then Nazreen fell silent as if waiting for Sri Kanthi to say something about herself.
Kadavule, please don’t let her ask about my family, Sri Kanthi thought, her hands cold with sweat.
“Come, akka.” She pointed to a mud hut which some children were decorating. “Let’s go and help them.”
After an exhausting but fun day Sri Kanthi and Nazreen returned to the convent. Once they had got off the bus, they went quickly to shower and change for dinner, promising they would meet outside the dining hall and go in together. Sri Kanthi was a bit late arriving because she had to share her bathroom with her four roommates, but Nazreen was waiting for her. The bell rang indicating dinner and the two of them nodded, smiled to each other and went in for dinner.
Sri Kanthi, as she sat at the dining table next to her friend, wondered whether Nazreen would feel uncomfortable when the Christian girls said their prayers before meals. Sri Kanthi, who was born a Hindu, had learned to adapt herself to the daily routine of the convent.
As Sri Kanthi took a bite of bread soaked in hot dhal curry, she noticed the translator who had been with the ladies yesterday, walking towards them down the corridor. Beside him was Mother Superior. His face was dimmed as a dark cloud and Mother Superior looked tense.
When the man and Mother Superior appeared in the dining room doorway, the room fell silent. They signaled gravely to Nazreen and the other women of her team. The ladies got up and went out into the corridor.
“Girls, Girls,” Sister Matilda called out to the silent staring girls, clapping her hands, “get back to your meal, please.” Sri Kanthi tried not to watch the ladies in the corridor but her curiosity overpowered her and she sneaked discrete glances in their direction. They looked worried, talking to each other in hushed tones. Sri Kanthi noticed an ant struggling in her glass of water. She put a finger inside the glass and took the poor insect onto the tip of her nail. After a while, the revived ant started running along her finger. Sri Kanthi placed her hand on the dining table and the ant moved to the surface of the table.
“Ah that’s sweet. You saved the tiny creature’s life.” Sri Kanthi looked up as Nazreen sat down again, smiling.
“Sri Kanthi, I’m afraid our team has to leave tomorrow early morning. There has been a change in our schedule.”
Sri Kanthi frowned at Nazreen with surprise. “Yesterday Sister Matilda told us you would be staying a few more days in the convent.”
“Yes,” Nazreen said avoiding Sri Kanthi’s eyes. “Some facilitators of our project are coming from abroad, so we have to be in Colombo tomorrow. It wasn’t planned however.”
Sri Kanthi and Nazreen silently ate their dinner. The sound of bread being chewed and water being poured from jugs to glasses was all that could be heard in the dining room. It was clear the other girls had also heard the news and were subdued and disappointed. Nazreen and Sri Kanthi said goodnight to each other after dinner.
“I believe our team will get more chances to visit you later,” Nazreen said squeezing Sri Kanthi’s hand. Sri Kanthi smiled. They went their separate ways to their bedrooms which were located in different corners of the convent.
The bright light and warmth of the sun woke Sri Kanthi the next morning. Her roommates were already awake and had bathed and put on the old gowns they wore in the convent when nobody visited them. Seeing their shabby dresses, Sri Kanthi realized that the ladies had already left.
The painting Sri Kanthi had made yesterday in the Peace Garden was on her study table. She had drawn two girls holding hands, one girl taller than the other wearing a black abaya. Sri Kanthi remembered Nazreen’s words when she saw the painting. “They look like sisters.”
Sri Kanthi had a bath and pulled one of her old gowns quickly over her head. The nuns provided, as much as they could, good books and dresses for the girls, but it was hard for them to provide well. The number of girls residing in the convent had increased rapidly after the end of the civil war. Sri Kanthi knew there were a few other girls in the convent who had also been raped. She guessed all the girls in the convent had untold stories, more or less bitter, like her own.
She went back to looking at the painting and a moment later Sister Matilda entered, pushing aside the curtain in the doorway. “Sri Kanthi, Nazreen left this letter for you.” She held out a piece of folded paper.
“Sister, you told us that they would be staying longer. What made them go back suddenly?”
“Well,” Sister Matilda said, coming further into the room, “some of their team went to Pasikuda, to interview some locals, while you went to the Peace Garden. There, a politician confronted them and demanded to know what authority they had to interview people, whether they had any connection to NGOs and so on. Also that politician informed the police. Later the organizer of their project was questioned by the police. That incident made the organizer decide to leave immediately fearing some harm might come to the team.”
After Sister Matilda left, Sri Kanthi turned the letter over in her hand, wondering why Nazreen hadn’t told her about this incident yesterday during dinner. Perhaps she thought Sri Kanthi was too naive to understand such situations and that she shouldn’t expose the brutal side of people to an immature kid.
If I had told her everything I have been through, I doubt she would still think me immature or naive, Sri Kanthi thought with a bitter smile. She unfolded the piece of paper. Nazreen’s Tamil handwriting was neat.
Dear Sri Kanthi,
We are leaving early morning when you all might be sleeping. I sense you have hidden talents for drawing. I would be happy if you continue drawing and painting.
When I was little, my English was weak. My parents hadn’t learnt English so they couldn’t teach me at home. Also, they were unable to pay for extra classes. But then I self-studied a lot and asked my peers who were brighter than me to help. Now I can communicate in English very well. I want you to do the same.
God Bless you!
A smile spread over Sri Kanthi’s face. Even though Nazreen was gone, at least she had been kind enough to leave a letter. And in the letter, Nazreen had answered the question Sri Kanthi had asked on the first day they all met in the convent’s meeting room: how she could overcome her obstacles and succeed in her A Level exams.
Sri Kanthi opened the drawer of her study table. She took out a worn cardboard box, her ‘Memory Box’, and opened it. She put Nazreen’s letter and the painting she had made alongside a few photographs of Amma and Anna, and the three letters Amma had sent from abroad.