Returning home is a strange experience. Amali is amazed by the dazzling emerald lilt of the paddy fields, singing their own tune in the sun, as the flight swirls down to Katunayake. She had asked for a window seat this time; she doesn’t want to miss the first glimpse of her island. Or perhaps it has ceased to be home. Homes are not exotic. You don’t look at them with your jaws open. They are shades of comfort one ignores while looking at them, unlike these colours that make Amali gasp: After passing the dreary brown landmass of India, the shallow ocean turns a seraphic aquamarine. Fringed with bridal veil-like waves, the yellow ribbon of a beach separates the blue from green. The surprised coconut groves!
Serendipity. That’s my favourite English word…Amali hears Ron’s voice next to her.
She turns around to see her co-passenger, a frayed old Tamil woman, frantically searching for a paper bag. Amali picks it out in a flash, rubs the woman’s back for support, as she pours in to it. She strives to ask the woman if things are ok. The few Tamil words she used to know desert her.
Shariyama? She manages. The woman gives her a grateful nod. Immediately, Amali feels guilty for not knowing Tamil. What a hypocrite she is. She was the champion for bilingualism in Sri Lanka back in her Masters class in Princeton. And this Tamil woman has been sitting next to her for the past ten hours, all the way from Frankfurt. How much of your life could you tell another if you had ten hours to talk? How many childhood memories, remembered poems, tales of love and loss and god? Yet they sat in squirming silence, limited to occasional smiles and obligatory politeness. Amali knew she would write her Masters’ thesis about it nevertheless, which nobody except an insouciant examiner would read; then her fiery opinions and policy recommendations would sink into the unfathomable depths of a Princeton Library Database.
Amali sighs. The glorified pursuit of knowledge: her raison d’etre; as against Ron’s calm anarchism. She closes her eyes and leans back – a moment the carrier chooses to touch the ground. The passengers break into a relieved round of claps. Tourists glad to reach their promised bit of paradise. Natives glad to be home. She feels a tug at her heart; she just doesn’t know which way it goes, to the ground they landed or back to the sky.
As she steps out of the plane, a worn-out hostess bestows a painted smile and a lifeless Ayubowan. A steward starts quarrelling at once with the ground staff. A couple of harsh words in Sinhala…
The sun hits you like Incubus through an amp. Welcome to Sri Lanka.
Amali walks through the airport the new president has started renovating again. Colombo International Airport is the ultimate metaphor for the developing world, she notes – forever under construction. A new Buddha statue, foiled by a clump of plastic flowers, sits disconsolately between the two rows of immigration counters, where natives and foreigners, travellers and aid workers, businessmen and paedophiles are stamped into the country.
Ammi waits for her at the arrivals gate. She has dyed her hair to hide the greying. Achchi stands close behind while Seeya walks forward to take the trolley from her. Amali looks at them with new eyes. They seem eager for their Airport Moment – the Happy Reunion.
The heat of Colombo clutches her like family.
On the other side of the world, at the beginning of the journey Amali just completed, there was another Airport Moment – the Sad Goodbye, which Ron refused to act. He had grown stiff during their last few days together. Since the day she started packing, to be exact. The suitcase took up the space they had for emotions and the legroom of their tiny apartment. It got in their way constantly with a tumble of clothes, horrid as an anti-hero from a cheap Hollywood flick.
He could only touch her cheek with the back of his palm. She held it a moment, gave it a soft peck and walked away. By then, they were timorous with uncertainty.
“So what do you think about Vishwajit?” Ammi’s voice pipes into her world from a distance.
“Vishwajit, why baba, that proposal Annesly uncle brought…the boy from Vancouver…”
They are tending to pots of Bougainvillea, an evening two days after her arrival. It had started to rain after the Esala Poya and Ammi had some action planned for the garden. She had bought new plants from the local flower show and decided the spots they were going to get in her kingdom. She had managed to get the consent of Seeya and Achchi to cut the old Frangipani tree Amali used to climb as a child. It angered her that Ammi hadn’t even bothered to tell her about it over phone.
“Well I have only seen him in photos. Means nothing” She tries to hide the brusque tenor in her voice.
“Annesly said the whole family is coming to Colombo for two weeks. They want to finalise his marriage this time. He’s pushing thirty-five now. Annesly is very hopeful about you”
“Hmmm…” she wonders how to react.
“Of course, he is completely trustworthy. Annesly won’t recommend anyone otherwise.”
Amali chooses silence.
“Besides the boy’s horoscope says that he’s a good character. He only takes a bit of wine, for socialising ” Ammi continues.
“How is it going to work Ammi, just think? He’s in Vancouver, and only here for two weeks…how can I agree to something like that! I don’t know him”
How long did it take her to know Ron? Two days? Two hours? Two seconds? She frowns at the realisation.
“Look, Seeya got his friend to find out everything about the family there. Very respectable people, it seems…” she waits for a reaction, and continues quickly to avoid awkward silences.
“The mother is from K caste though. Never mind. Their surname is G. Times have changed. He’s from a good background. That’s all that matters.”
“Ammi you know I hate this talk! I don’t believe in these things!”
“People in this country do. And you are Sinhalese; don’t forget that, just because you’ve been to all these posh foreign universities.”
Amali wants to scream. Instead she clips the dead boughs of Bougainvillea furiously. The over-pruned plant looks harassed.
Amali gives the garden a sweeping look. It is hardly the garden from her childhood. It used to be a mottled patch of green overgrown with Hibiscus and Croton, Frangipani and Albesia in a homely sort of way. The Albesia, also known as ‘gandapana‘ was a handy tree for a child. Its supple and straight stalks could be used to make a playhouse. Amali remembers treating her visiting friends with ‘kompittu’ – sand cakes and Albesia ‘mallum‘. When crushed or chopped, Albesia leaves had a pungent smell Ammi hated. For Amali, nothing reminds of childhood more than the tangy smell of Albesia.
After Amali left for higher studies, out of Ammi’s immediate locus of attention, Ammi turned to the garden. She had enough free time, she said. She hired a landscape artist and a gardener. The team did a truly professional job with the garden. Croton and Albesia were wiped out. The manicured monotony of Buffalo grass replaced the variety of wild overgrowth. Expensive and imported plants were carefully placed and pruned periodically. Ammi basked for a while in neighbours’ compliments, who came in to check out the new breed of Bougainvillea and share the latest gossip. Sitting in the garden sipping tea, they discussed fertilizers, flower shows, whether their mutual friend Marianne regretted allowing her son to marry a Tamil girl from Wellawatta, and how Amali must hate to be away from such a lovely home and a garden for so long. Those cold Western countries, they jittered, in the warm evening air.
She’s trying to control nature… Amali thinks, looking at the garden, trimmed; tamed; conformed.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the Araliya tree?” Amali whispers, almost to herself. She does not wait for an answer. She drops the pruning scissors on the grass and walks to the empty corner of the garden, which used to be her childhood haunt. Ammi finishes her plant, removes her rubber gloves and walks into the house, cursing the mosquitoes.
In Amali’s mind the huge Frangipani tree gave a touch of Bawa to her plain little home. Of course, she had got attached to it as a child, long before she came to know Bawa. It was her spaceship, her Sherwood Forest, her treasure island, her Malory Towers; the constant companion of her somewhat lonely childhood. At times, she pretended that it was her father, whose spirit, Ammi often said, would guide and protect her.
Amali feels ashamed that she has started clashing with Ammi two days after her return. Luck took her side in sending her to London and then Princeton with sumptuous government scholarships – places she couldn’t have afford to attend otherwise. Years of study and travelling became her destiny. Not that Amali considered herself particularly bright; being a plain, dark-skinned girl with heavy spectacles, she had none of the distractions her fairer classmates had while in school. She never had boyfriends or secret admirers her friends actually had or invented for themselves, in their girl-to-girl heart-to-heart chats. In any case they kept getting into trouble with their little affairs, their parents constantly being called to meet the principal. Amali’s uneventful adolescence in fact was idealised by schoolteachers: The devoted student. In truth, she had just followed her heart like anyone else, only her heart had none to follow but a book.
Much later, when Ron remarked, half-serious – you love by the book – she bursts out laughing – hey, that’s suppose to be MY line – still, remembering her lonely years in school.
When Amali first met Ron at a friend’s place, she couldn’t quite place him. He was too well dressed to be a hippie; too shabby to be of Princeton stock; he wasn’t quite hoody-in-baggy-jeans style though he wore a jumper; nor artsy-ethnic type in cotton pyjamas. He was disinterested in the conversation which as usual was about Bush administration, but too humble to act aloof. He poured a glass of wine for her and gestured if he could sit next to her.
“Rosé?” he asked.
“Thanks” she accepted.
“My great grand pa had a small château and a vineyard in a village in Bordeaux. A distant uncle still runs it there. They make really nice Rosé wine…”
She sips her wine in silence. She was not sure she wanted to talk wine with someone who probably specialised in it for generations.
“I was there for a while, helping them out in the vineyard. You know, picking berry and rolling the barrels…they are not doing too well…”
“Well, the EU doesn’t quite help the small-scale winemakers…they don’t help any small farmers, for that matter…the poor are getting poorer all over the world! Don’t you read that kind of stuff in school…or is it only neo liberal bullshit in your course?”
“Err..well…kind of…are you a Marxist?”
“Heavens NO! I’m too God-fearing for that! I hate these camps…all these isms and ideologies…no wonder I hate universities…”
“So you are not a student in Princeton…”
“Hell NO! I use to dabble in a bit of Philosophy. But my interests have changed.”
Another dead end. Amali wonders whether she would find a common interest, just so to last the evening pleasantly. They listen to the Bush Talk in silence for a while.
“Listen, I am so sick of discussing the fabulous destiny of this country. Would you mind taking a walk outside with me?”…
When they returned from wintry outdoors, nothing about American politics had changed, Bush was still in power and their friends were drunk and asleep…
Amali listens to Ammi’s rhythmic breathing beside her. Since they lost her father when she was a toddler, Amali had grown up sleeping on her parents’ marriage bed. It was a four-poster bed made of Teak that Ammi had inherited as a part of her dowry. White mosquito netting fell from its canopy like a misty waterfall. When the net was tucked in from each side, after chasing away the mosquitoes every evening, the bed became a sealed womb with limited freedom. One had to slither into it like a seal, to avoid the sly mosquitoes from getting in along with you. Once inside, you had to wait till sleep descends on you, wishing you hadn’t got in so early. Often, Amali had had sleepless nights, fully aware of her mother’s feather-like body next to her, and wondering why she felt a sense of chagrin that intensified as she grew up.
Amali’s adolescent reveries were more about her mother than about herself. On moony nights she would watch the floral patterns on the canopy and fantasise about her mother finding new love. Since Ammi showed no signs of interest Amali had crushes on behalf of Ammi: the math teacher, the badminton coach. Widowhood, in her country, is an invisible purdah, though not without power. Indeed, it even made the world’s first woman Prime Minister Sri Lankan. But for women like Ammi, who had no elections to be won on tears, widowhood brought about a less glamorous fate: care for the children if there were any and grow old with honour.
Honour. The last nail on the coffin. Because Love’s not meant to be found twice in life. Were you to find it, it was only sin in disguise. Maybe there were less honourable widows who fought against that fact. But Ammi wasn’t one of them. She went to the temple every so often; started wearing white cotton sarees; listened to the lamentations of Nanda Malini, her voice revolting for the fate of the country’s women. In the vacuum of her being she turned to Amali, as avidly as the politicians in their country took to canvassing.
Ammi became a hackneyed, mundane tragedy common to many in a country at war which, at the same time, seemed to have singled you out. When Malathi Dias at number twenty-five took Ammi as a confidante when her husband turned unfaithful, Ammi came home and took ages to regale the tale to Achchi. She shuddered at its disgrace. At least, Ammi was spared such pain and shame. That was her victory. In time she probably came to believe that the grave was the best place for husbands. And some dead men carried more honour than the others.
Amali remembers askjing her literature teacher in school: Ma’am, people who bottle up their feelings, are they really strong? …
The more successful Amali became in her studies and career, the more ambitious Ammi became on behalf of her. Now that Amali has done the Ivy League, the only hurdle for her to cross is Settling Down. With a Suitable Boy. This fabulous destiny of Amali became Ammi’s project.
And Settling Down, for Amali, is a most unsettling idea. In the lapse of time she had become a hermit and a gypsy, who could live with none but one of her kind. Travelling brings its own kind of romance, those that flutter into life and fade… like the cities she had entered, explored and revelled in with passion but eventually pass by, as you always do with cities.
But Ron…Ron was like water. He took the shape she wanted him to be. He quietly fitted into her life without giving her much time to ponder. He had taken her to watch The Fabulous Destiny of Amalie of Montmartre, a French film he said would become her favourite film, as Amalie had to have something in common with Amali. When they stepped out into the frozen streets after the movie, the frost had settled thickly over everything around them. The barks and boughs of trees were crystallised, the streetlamps shone as if in a dream. They ran down the street, slipping in the slosh, and she panting to him, “this is like a movie set”… When they stopped, they could still hear the soundtrack from the movie, above the rush of their breath. And that’s when he kissed her, in the middle of the city square covered in snow.
That night, Yann Tiersen, the composer for the Fabulous Destiny of Amalie, orchestrated their moves, the fumbling of unfamiliar bodies, to his tempo. Finally, when the music died inside their head, while resting his cheek on her dark breast, he said: “We don’t have much time. Live with me…”
She gained some weight in the months that followed for which Ron admitted his Thai cuisine was solely responsible.
She slips out of the bed, taking a few steps in the darkness. She leans on the doorway and watches the silhouette of her mother, sleeping. She cannot detect any sadness or torment from Ammi’s breathing. In fact it is Amali, who is anguished. Her career-less, man-less, love-less Ammi, she thinks. Moonlight makes the veiled bed a crystal cocoon with the translucent body of Ammi in it, wings and a halo appearing on a fossilized angel. But nobody will give Ammi an award for being such an angel. To Amali she is a control freak, a difficult woman to love. Perhaps we invent a heroic façade to cover up the mundane misery of motherhood, she thinks, the way we martyrise people who die at war fighting for things they are trained to believe in like puppies. No one is going to give life in return for that life-loss. Be it a mother or a soldier. That heroic façade is all we have to give to cover up their nudity of sadness.
In the dark, Amali could still see the portrait of her father in white uniform in a gilt frame; ammi’s hero, who was never unfaithful, who never grew old. The contours of his young face contrasted with the aging of ammi, making Amali wither and mourn for a backdated loss. No one was going to give Amali’s mother and father a second chance in lieu of their sacrifices. Before she returns to the bed, Amali wavers a moment in the doorway, between her desire to flee, and her aching for Ammi.
Back in the bed, sleepless beside her mother, she hatches wicked little missions like a guerrilla fighter, almost suicidal, to gain over control of her life. The next moment, her mother’s lifetime of grief and loneliness tosses her like a pebble into a stormy sea. Her boundaries had grown amorphous with time, and so she knows her choice would be a difficult one to make, when the morning comes.
For the movie ‘The fabulous Destiny of Amalie’ click http://www.virginrecords.com/amelie/index.html