by Himali Innis, Granta, May 11, 2023
When Nisha performs the burial ceremony for AJ, her 26-year-old son, she has to imagine his body lowering into the earth. Without a body, cremation is impossible. This ceremony, instead, is a commingling of the Christian traditions practiced by Nisha’s husband Sam, and the ancient Hindu rites of her own ancestors. A pot of ghee, a spoonful of raw honey, sandalwood oil. A garland of marigolds sewn together, the flowers bought earlier from the Cornwall Park Superette on Great South Road. Psalm 23, written out by Nisha on a sheet of paper pressed with petals. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. A rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’, one of Nisha’s favourite hymns, plays on her iPod. AJ wasn’t religious, but since he left three years ago to fight his war of liberation, Nisha finds herself turning towards holy things for comfort. And now her son is dead, his mother’s prayers spent. She refuses to think that AJ’s body might be in hundreds of pieces, somewhere in the north-east of a tiny island in the Indian Ocean. Instead, she imagines him whole, perfect, hands clasped as if in prayer. She does not cry, yet her skin prickles with the sense that someone is watching her, keeping time with her, but when she turns around, she sees no one.
She comes from a line of fire, this much she knows. Nisha is Tamil; yet Tamil or Sinhala are just superficial distinctions to her. Dig deeper for descriptions more resonant with meaning: merchant, poet, warrior, peasant. Thousands of couplings, some volitional, some forced, across the still heat of centuries. She comes from a line of people who embrace uncertainty, the spirit world, the existence of knowledge beyond touch, taste, sight or sound. Nisha’s great grandmother and great-great-grandmother, her shimmering ghostly companions since childhood, are as real to her as the living. Death has had no impediment on their constant catty comments: You are looking too fat, Nisha, time to cut down . . . We know a nice Tamil boy from the up-country station, ask your Appa to make a proposal before you become an old crone . . . Ferment the ground rice batter for three days, get the hopper pan sizzling, serve with hot hot sambol, no man will be able to resist your palappum. They follow her to New Zealand. Of course they do; they wouldn’t allow her and AJ to leave without them.
Her husband Sam doesn’t believe in what he calls ‘bat-shit nonsense’. He’s an engineer who dwells inside the solidity of tar-seal, the gravity of mortar, the fissile tension and compression across a bridge’s span. You don’t know what you don’t know, Nisha wants to say to him. When she tells him she is going to have a burial ceremony without confirmed news of AJ’s death, Sam shouts at her.
‘You can’t possibly know that that idiot is dead, Nisha! Until we have proof, I’m not wasting my energy.’
Nisha cups soil to her lips, whispers words of blessing in Tamil, throws dirt over AJ’s invisible body. I forgive you. She folds the marigold wreath inside, carefully covering the hole with more soil. There are no other mourners on this windy day in her Auckland garden. Only wax-eyes chittering and commenting – her favourite bird, olive-green feathers and bright eyes stencilled with silver, so small an entire family can fit inside her cupped hands; their te reo Māori name tauhou, new arrival, Nisha’s constant story despite fifteen years in her adopted land. Rain settles like tiny diamonds on her hair. The prickly presence stands so close she can feel it breathing.
‘How do you know AJ is dead, Nish?’ Annie asks. Annie lives next door. ‘I mean, how do you know the silly bugger hasn’t finally come to his senses and decided to come back home?’
Where is home, Amma? AJ asks when he is twelve, caught between uncertain childhood and angry adulthood. I don’t belong in New Zealand. In Sri Lanka I’m less than a dog. So where exactly is home?
The boy becomes a man who leaves in 2003 to fight a war he thinks is his. She is angry when he leaves, so she does not cry. And now he is surely captured, tortured, murdered; blown to smithereens by a bomb.
‘I know it here, Annie,’ Nisha says. She places her palm against her chest. Across vast oceans, across the schism of ideological differences, she knows. ‘The absence of AJ; it woke me a week ago.’ She doesn’t mention the content of her dream: AJ’s hands cupping her face, his eyes bloodshot, his lips mouthing sorry. She woke because she felt someone shake her shoulder. But no one was there, just Sam snoring.
Parents should not have to bury their children. I will come to you, she whispers. I will gather you up like the scent of jasmine, the drunkenness of gold, the frantic whipping of a kabaragoya’s tail.
The burial ceremony does not bury her grief. It opens up a maw inside her, a wormhole of darkness that calls to her across water and land. She needs to see him. She has not been back since she left fifteen years ago, but she starts to pack the next day. She does not tell Sam. He’d scoff, then yell, perhaps hide her passport. He does these things because he cares, she tells herself. Sometimes love looks like fear.
Since January, the only news from Sri Lanka is death. The 2002 ceasefire, four years old, is crumbling.
‘Five Tamil students killed by Special Task Force at Trinco Beach.’
‘Gomorankadawala massacre: 6 Sinhala rice farmers gunned down by LTTE.’
‘Sri Lankan Navy kill 13 Tamil civilians in Allaipiddy in retaliation for sailor deaths.’
‘Attempted assassination of General Fonseka by pregnant Black Tiger suicide bomber: international condemnation.’
‘Claymore mine kills troops in Jaffna.’
AJ is nine when Sam visits the tea plantation, high in the central hills of Kandy. Nisha knows white men often look at her with desire. She wonders what they look like naked, the paleness of their flesh. Nisha in her mid-twenties, not yet broken by eleven-hour 500-rupee days. Proud eyes, leopard moving in the jungle of her flesh.
This white man, Sam: he is persistent. He comes back to the plantation day after day and asks for time alone with Nisha. The plantation owner senses a lucrative deal. Nisha is sure money changes hands. The white man says he’s in love. She’s the most ‘exotic’ thing he’s ever seen, he can’t keep his hands off her. He offers her a ticket out. She takes it. New Zealand is a cold place with warm people and she is grateful for her new life.
But AJ struggles. He refuses to listen to Sam. Hisses behind his back when he thinks Sam can’t hear. Fucking FAKE bat-shit. Metal rod against bucking soul. You’re not my father! Nisha hugs him tight and he protests, wriggles free.
He never finds out who his real father is, because Nisha never tells him. The Sinhala plantation owner’s son, the quiet boy who fell in love with the Tamil tea-picker. So young, both of them. Stolen moments in her family’s shack. In the laundry of the big house. A dry patch of jungle floor. The sudden whisking away of the boy to study overseas as soon as Nisha’s pregnancy becomes the number one topic of gossip on the plantation; she never sees him again and the pain of this calcifies into anger, hard as coconut shells in her heart. The union of lion and tiger produces a terrible hybrid, but a hybrid who is like his father: sensitive, nervy, a poet. How does such a soul become a terrorist? Or a freedom fighter – where does the truth of war lie? The irony of a half-Sinhalese man fighting other Sinhala men.
The calls from AJ are sporadic. A hesitant tingle of Nisha’s ringtone, a vibration beside her ear, and she shoots out of bed to cradle the phone like a lover. Sometimes he calls from a public phone somewhere in Tiger-controlled Mannar district, or Kilinochchi township. Sometimes from deep within the jungle in Mullaitivu, staticky on a satellite phone. The last call was two weeks ago, and he’d sounded tired and frustrated.
I’m fine, Amma. Yes, I’m eating. Food, Amma, that’s what I’m eating! The leaders have big plans, I can’t say much, but you’ll hear on the news. Soon. I’ll be home soon.
He’s lying to make her feel better. She lets herself believe him. AJ left New Zealand in winter; it is now winter again, an August wild with her sadness. She squeezes her eyes shut, clenches her fists, refuses to cry.
Nisha picks up the old images encased inside glass frames and thinks back to when she was fifteen. ‘Take them, Nisha,’ the Sinhala boy tells her as they lie on the floor of the disused shed. She rolls onto her stomach and puts her face close to the pictures. ‘They belong to your family more than they do to mine.’ The images are a touchstone, talismans to guide her into the future. Somewhere in Europe, various white men refined and developed photographic processes while Nisha’s ancestors sweated under the Equatorial sun. The first image: a daguerreotype, silver and chalk darkening with light. A white man in a pith helmet surveys his kingdom while a coterie of indentured labourers squat with their sacks of freshly picked tea. Camellia sinensis: the British solution to replace failed coffee crops. The 1860s or thereabouts. One of the woman squatting is Nisha’s great-great-grandmother, Vellamma. All the women have their heads covered, their eyes lowered. A few brown men stand around with turbans on their heads, sarongs around their waists. No one smiles. There’s a child with his bags of tea. The British abolished slavery in 1834, but Vellamma and her co-workers, transported to the Lankan highlands from Tamil Nadu, worked long hours for little pay and lived in utter squalor. Yet Vellamma’s expression burns with fire, and the sheer vitality of her spirit refuses to rest, even now.
Nothing changes. A century passes. Independence. A Sinhala government labels Nisha’s people ‘temporary immigrants’, despite 200 years of contributing to the goddamn economy. Citizenship – finally – in 2003, but second-class citizens. Go and live in your shacks built by the British, the government tells them; there is nothing wrong, do not complain about the cold, about your hacking cough from the sooty fires of your cooking, do not be so bold as to look your masters in the eye. The Sri Lankan Tamils in the north and east look down on Nisha’s sort of Tamil people. Is AJ an acceptable Tiger because of his foreign passport? Vellamma tells Nisha that the afterlife is blessedly free of all this class and caste rubbish.
The second image, taken twenty years later. A tintype, not as shiny as the daguerreotype. A thin sheet of metal coated with enamel, spread with photographic emulsion. Nisha’s great-grandmother Velu, named after the Tamil queen who fought the British and won, leans against a bank with eight other women. Their faces lit by sun, shadows under chins. Above them, tea bushes slant up hillsides. The women wear saris tied over one shoulder, metal bracelets on their arms, wooden beads around their necks. Their feet are bare. Velu is the only one who stares directly at the camera; she looks exhausted but defiant. Nisha feels Velu inside her, a spiteful avatar hell-bent on revenge.
‘I’ve got a work trip to Singapore, love.’
The lie slips out smoothly. It’s only a half-lie; Nisha will attend a work conference for a few days. But her mind is focused on the journey beyond. She will hide behind her married name. No one – not the government forces, not the Tigers – would dare hurt a foreign citizen. She tucks Buddy, AJ’s tattered teddy bear, inside some clothes.
You’ll come with me, and together we’ll bring AJ home, eh Buddy? The bear’s placid brown eyes watch her gently. I’ll be damned if I leave my only child to rot in that godforsaken country.
She could have been so many things. A goddess dances in her bones, goddess-heat melts her eyes like wax. Somewhere inside her is a country of full-throated birds, fantastical as peacocks, bridal veils of green and iridescent turquoise set with the eyes of the giant Argus. Fleet-footed deer, spotted and quick-tailed. Monkeys that swing from branch to branch with the lithe ease of wild things. The rumbling tread of elephant feet, toes splayed against red mud, eyes that never forget. The ancient hymns sung by earth upheld by mountains, unfettered by cement or fence line or asphalt. This is the country she wants to call home.
She is eight when she starts to work. She picks and picks and the bags are heavy. The men work on another section of the plantation, cutting back overgrowth with curved kokaththa knives. Her leaf-picking stick gets hung up inside her hut at night. There is a school she attends sometimes, but families need income from small hands more than they need educated minds. Leeches crawl up bare legs. Don’t pull them off or their bite marks bleed and bleed, Amma says. Apply salt solution so the little suckers shrivel and fall. The mist. The way the white tendrils caress her skin and face like a lover. The Sinhalese supervisor, fond of his arrack. The fog, thick and obscurant the morning he creeps up and clamps his hand over her mouth. The man lean and wiry, fuelled with liquor. He treats her like property, a mahogany chair to bear his weight, an antique spoon to feed him kitul treacle.
Katunayake airport is bare white walls and cement floors. It’s 1 a.m. when the plane lands. A crowd mills around outside the barbed wire barricade. Defence force personnel are everywhere, khaki fatigues, polished boots, Heckler automatic assault rifles in their hands. A porter grabs her backpack and heads towards a taxi. She doesn’t need his help, but pays him a hundred rupees. She’s packed light. Quick-dry trousers and shirts. A sturdy pair of shoes. There’s no knowing how far she’ll cover on foot. She plans to speak only English or threadbare Sinhalese; not a word of Tamil must spill from her lips, or someone might see who she really is. The streets of Colombo glow with golden orange lights. Fluorescent white tubes illuminate battered metal shop fronts. Gunadasa Jewellers. Nuwara Eliya Arrack. Ceylon Fertilisers. Green Cabin Restaurant, Bambalapitiya. Nisha sinks inside her memories. A bullock cart kerbside. Ironwood trees, interspersed with frangipani. She winds the window down and the night air smells warm, dusty; the scent of frangipani luminous and citrusy; the Indian ocean sighs nearby and she catches black and silver glimpses of it as the taxi winds its way along the main Galle road, straight as a Dutch canal, arrowing south towards Galle fort. Her Sinhalese is stilted and trips off her tongue as she pays the driver and steps inside the Radisson Hotel.
The next morning she eats breakfast alone – fish curry and string hoppers and sambol – as she scans the papers. The Daily News, The Island, Lankadeepa. ‘Suicide bomber kills Army Deputy Chief of Staff Kulatunga outside Colombo.’ A mouthful of fish, rolled with string hopper. ‘LTTE attack bus to Anuradhapura, kill 64 civilians.’ A gulp of coffee, too sweet with condensed milk, makes her feel like a child again. ‘Kebithigollewa massacre: 140 dead in NE Sri Lanka.’ The sambol so fresh and so good she eats spoonfuls of it, and her lips swell with blood. ‘Tiger cadre requests asylum at US Embassy, claims brainwashing.’ All the news in Colombo is carefully one-sided: there is no mention of any government-sanctioned killings.
Oily smoothness of coconut, freshly roasted spices, whole red chillies, sour tang of tamarind. The food more than just food: emotion and memories and fire, heat in her face, desire in her womb. AJ at eight: ‘This is the best food I’ve ever eaten, Amma.’ Everything starts and ends with him. Every year, Nisha manages something special for AJ’s birthday – fried fish from the lake, smuggled in by a helpful security guard in return for small sexual favours; mutton balls in exchange for one of her gold bracelets. For her only child she keeps her eyes low, her mouth shut, her legs wide, puts up with the long hours and the suffocating sweat of men she does not love. AJ stumbling into the hut. His mother on all fours, crying, her hair pulled back in the fist of a man, the supervisor behind her, thrusting. The supervisor throws a shoe at the boy and he stumbles out again.
Did AJ’s anger start then? Or was he born angry, bathed in the amniotic fluid of a girl who wants too much?
She boards the 9.20 a.m. train to Kandy from Maradana Railway Station. After that, she’ll take a bus to Kilinochchi. Contingent on the buses still running. She won’t think about her fellow passengers, won’t wonder if one of them is pretending to be pregnant while hiding a bomb on her belly. Things are heating up in the north and east. The papers talk of new curfews, an impending state of emergency. If she gets stopped at a checkpoint, she’s got her story down pat. Visiting my sick sister. Yes sir, dying of cancer, sir. My last chance to see her, please officer, you don’t want to be responsible for the grief of a foreigner. Do you?
The prickly presence from the burial ceremony travels with her on the plane, sits with her during her conference in Singapore, boards the flight to Colombo with her. It now sits on an empty train seat and doesn’t speak. Nisha both knows and doesn’t want to know what it is. She knows it is not Vellamma or Velu. Both those women enter rooms with fanfare – objects drop to floors and splinter, ceiling fans whir so fast they almost sever themselves from their stems, the temperature fluctuates hot then bone-chill cold. Those old women know how to party, now that they are dead. ‘We’re making up for the long hours we worked while alive,’ they always tell her, ‘you won’t believe how much gold we can wear here, it’s unbelievable.’ But this other presence is quiet and nervy and waiting for the chance to speak.
The tea plantation is unchanged. Camellia. Sinensis. Semen. Tears. The supervisor, long dead of alcoholic cirrhosis. She hears that he drowned in his own blood, rupturing swollen varices, gut surging into lungs. The spot on the riverbank where she and the Sinhalese boy first made love. Both of them the same age, but Nisha ashamed at being so experienced. The boy just a boy, and she loves him for it; his eyes wide with wonder, his fumbling fingers, incense smell of his hair from pooja. Her heart swells with memories of him, with a longing she’s never felt for Sam. The old mansion with a new cream coat. Rusty iron replaced with shiny corrugated tin, shingles cleared of moss. The owners moving around inside – is he in there, does he have a respectable Sinhala wife and beautiful Sinhala children now? No one recognises her. Her hat wide, brim hiding face in shadow. As the tourist group walks through the plantation, she spots Kala and Parvati and Kuntha, the girls she once picked tea with; skins burnt by constant sun, backs curved question marks, faces crepe-de-chined with lines. Nisha turns and stares at a distant blue hill. The guide asks if she is from Japan and the question catches her off guard. The silver-tip tea tastes bitter and metallic.
A text from Sam: How’s Singapore? Need a pick up from the airport?
I’ll get a taxi. Sleep tight, love.
The bus to Jaffna. The A9 highway, open to traffic for now. In all her life, Nisha has never been north of Kandy. Dusty fields, thin-ribbed cattle, jumbles of barbed wire at army checkpoints. Do the soldiers look like teenagers because she is getting old? The bus stops often. Nisha takes it all in, these places she’s heard about but never seen. Dambulla, with tin signs pointing to the Sigiriya rock fortress and ancient cave temples. The turn-off to Anuradhapura, with its 2,500 year old ruins. Mihintale, a mountain peak the birthplace of Buddhism on the island, now a site of pilgrimage. Barbed wire and sandbags sprout everywhere like menacing mushrooms. The air full of ozone, crackly with electricity. An ocean of water pours from above: the mid-year monsoon season. Cords of rain like thick silver ropes strike the dusty earth and turn the soil slick with mud. The rain whips the ghosts of Vellamma and Velu who are riding the coat-tails of the bus, whooping and cackling like crows. I come from agitators, disruptors, warriors. I am leopard woman, I will fight for the body of my child.
‘National Identity Card, Madam!’ The bus is about to enter Vavuniya and Tiger-controlled territory. Everyone disembarks and waits for a new bus. A female soldier with broad shoulders checks papers. In her flat-lining lips Nisha senses pain; burning anger crouches on the young woman’s shoulders and tightens her neck, black as a storm cloud. A Bushmaster M4 assault carbine hangs on her right shoulder. Nisha is tired, her mind so dense with memories it moves like rubber sap. She pulls out her passport and the soldier eyes her suspiciously, but flicks through the pages, then throws the passport back at her. Disappointed. She’ll need someone else to bully today.
The prickly presence speaks to her the night before: Go to Kilinochchi. One kilometre out of town, on the road to Jaffna, you will see a dirt road into the jungle. Take it. You will walk for twenty hours. You will find a boy called Siva. You will know him when you see him – slit-soul cautious, yellow eyes like cobra; trust him with all your heart. Speak my name. He will take you to me.
Tiger cadres at LTTE checkpoints. Teenagers with acne and bloodshot eyes. It makes Nisha feel old in her bones, even though she is only forty-two. A teen mother herself once, an escapee from slavery. Old men stare at her breasts. A young man with a tilak of turmeric and ash on his forehead sits next to her and presses his thigh into hers, moves his hand towards his groin and smiles. The ghost of Vellamma sizzles with indignation, spits in his face. The man flinches in surprise and looks around, wondering at the sudden wetness. Nisha uses the distraction to shove his shoulder hard. She gets up and stands in the aisle. The bus driver stops the bus and gets off to pray at a Hindu kovil by the side of the A9 highway – cement walls painted in stripes of yellow and cream, thatched roof strung with red prayer flags, crouched under a spreading banyan tree – before getting back on and continuing the journey north.
In the end that is all any of us ever have, Nisha thinks; prayers, which are just another word for stories, memories, familiar ghosts that reverberate down the centuries.
‘LTTE Identity card!’ The cadre barks and leans toward her. His eyes glazed red, maybe on something chemical to stop him sleeping. Her New Zealand passport, the confused look on the young man’s face, the disappointment as he gives her precious document back to her. Power is a drug, the more you get, the more you want; she hears him shouting at someone else further down the bus. She gets off at Kilinochchi and walks. Dusty streets. The monsoon rains dried up, the sun in full force, wetness in the air promising more rain soon. Even thinner cattle. Some children play marbles outside the Nallurbhavan Vegetarian Restaurant. An old woman squats by the roadside, sells drinks stacked inside a styrofoam box with Coca Cola logos plastered on it. Nisha drinks a lukewarm Fanta in one gulp. She buys several packets of murukku, seven fried lentil vadai, three packets of garlic chilli potato crisps and a two-litre bottle of water from the Aathuri Multi Shop. Armed Tigers on a camouflaged utility truck drive down the street. Everyone keeps out of their way.
How long is your conference? You left so suddenly, Nish. The neighbours say hi. Did you get to the Raffles Hotel? Those Singapore Slings. Yum.
When AJ leaves in the winter of 2003, he leaves suddenly. There one day, gone overnight, his teddy bear Buddy on his pillow with an apologetic look on his face. Nisha does not get the chance for a hug. AJ hates displays of emotion. She wants to tell him that old men start wars in which young men die. Nothing ever changes; the cycle of history repeats across aeons.
Can you reply to my texts, Nisha? This is bloody ridiculous!
She turns the phone off. Soon she will have no reception anyway. An explosion booms in the south, back towards Kandy. Shock waves ripple through the air. Nisha imagines she hears the wailing of mothers. Everyone stops to listen. The Tiger truck speeds up and disappears around a corner. She walks and does not look back. Twenty minutes out of town she follows the dirt track into the jungle. One foot in front of the other. Keep walking, don’t look back. She falls into rhythm with the prickly presence, which goose-steps beside her. Vellamma and Velu float through the trees ahead, uncharacteristically subdued. They look at her from time to time, then look away before she catches their eyes. If they know what is ahead, they aren’t saying. The heat hypnotic, the lacey pattern of leaves on the ground like fretwork from an ancient civilisation. Right foot, left foot. A blister on her left foot starts to agitate. Termite mounds as high as her chin. Crows with strong black beaks, shoulders hunched and eyes hooded. A pile of bodies inside an open pit, hands tied behind their backs, fly-buzz stench so strong she almost vomits. Trance-state, dream-state. The alcoholic supervisor swaggers up to her holding his shrivelled penis in one hand, teeth loose in rotting gums, tries to say something about his dreadful childhood. She hits him so hard he deflates like a punctured balloon. She is a child-woman, loose black hair billowing like raven feathers to her shoulders. Five hours pass, then six, ten. She eats as she walks. Drinks as she walks. Descends into the underworld along a forest path flat and well-worn by combat boots. The sound of voices behind her, and she hides in a copse of trees until the Tiger cadres pass by – the war is heating up, something big is happening, their excited chatter ricochets around the trees. Right foot, left foot. She has no more sweat, no more urine left in her body. Everything is dissolving, leaving behind just the essence. She is fire. Buddy sticks his head out of her backpack and whispers gently, ‘You know you’ll stay with him, yes? You can’t take him back, it’s too dangerous. Home is here.’ Twelve, fifteen, eighteen hours. She walks all night. She must find the only person she’s ever loved. Rain falls, dust runs off her in rivulets of brown. She sticks her tongue out and it is reptilian with dryness. Twenty hours of walking, her body so thin yet so heavy, reaches a clearing in the forest. A cobra’s yellow eyes glint from deep inside a pile of sandbags. She speaks AJ’s name, and the slither of cobra scales through a smaller path and further on, further in to a country she’s always known she would find.