The thunder and murmur of the surf became somewhat muted as the road turned inland away from the sea. The wind blew strongly enough to whip stray strands of hair into her eyes. The warmth was still tolerable, as the sun was behind clouds for now. Before long, the heated sand would fry the air above it into sizzling ribbons. Walking in rubber slippers could become quite uncomfortable then. The road curved and veered off towards the church, which lay in the middle of a large expanse of green. The path across the churchyard was the shortest way to reach the school and all scholars availed themselves of it. Children were walking in knots of twos and threes across the compound, enjoying the brisk breeze blowing across the open space Sumi sighed with relief as her feet touched the cool grass. It was hard to imagine that a red-hot sandy beach lay within eyeshot.
The church building stood silent and empty at noon. Inside, it was a cool cavern echoing the occasional chirp of a sparrow: fairly large for a village shrine, with its long nave and short wide wings on either side. Every Sunday before the Mass, the elderly sacristan patrolled up and down the nave, swooping like a hawk on any of the children who had been presumptuous enough to land their unworthy bottoms on the sacred pews meant for the adults. Herded into the pew-less wings, they had to follow the service sitting and kneeling on the floor, praying to a god of discrimination who was well aware where these faithful rightly belonged.
All this to save the seats for the grown - ups! Hadn’t Jesu said ‘suffer little children to come unto me’ as stated in that English Bible at school? In this village, the suffering was on those bottoms perched on the hard cement floors, thought Sumi with a decidedly unchristian acerbity. She longed for the day when she could be considered a child no more. Then would she sit firmly in a pew and stare the bent old sacristan in the eye, daring him to try and budge her from it. He never hounded the well-to-do children, judging to a nicety, which ones were fair game from their appearance.
Groups of children were converging at the school gate. Here, they gathered each day, chattering, waiting for the morning scholars to exit. When these came pouring out of the gate, gabbling like geese, the evening scholars would make their way in. The majority of them wore yellowing threadbare garments and were shod in rubber slippers. There was the occasional barefoot unfortunate, too. The rare flashes of true white stood out like beacons. These were the better-off students, who also wore white socks and shoes, carrying the flag for prosperity. As the stream of outgoers flowed past her, Sumi was seized with a sudden pang of longing. What wouldn’t she give for a pair of shoes! Socks could come later. She’d settle for shoes first, for what use were socks without them? A pair with silver buckles like Shyamala had. Or better, they might have little golden bows on top. She had seen Disna wear a pair like that. Even a pair of lace-up shoes would be welcome, but that did not give the feel of a proper shoe, really. A tug on her elbow brought her down to earth. Her sister was standing by expectantly. Sumi patted her head, causing the girl to flash her teeth, beaming widely. No yellow there—all white. Her sister was not given to talking much. She was an eight-year-old tidbit with a face perpetually wreathed in smiles. If Sumi were asked to capture her sister’s essence in a sketch, she would draw a smile with thumb in mouth.
Her nangi* took after their dead mother in face and features as well as character. Amma had been quiet and gentle. How a woman like her could have been coupled with their father, whose temper was legendary, Sumi could not fathom. Her mother had seemingly not passed on her gentle ways to her eldest daughter. My smile is more vinakiri*, and I talk more as well, she mused.
The half-walled classroom, with its red-tiled roof, harboured thirty worn desks and chairs, arranged in rows facing a blackboard closer to grey than black. Sumi did not mind school. She actually liked it and did well at lessons, rated one of the brightest in the whole school. Inexplicably, at times she felt her heart sink when she entered the classroom. A feeling of not belonging, of having no right to be there absorbing knowledge, nagged her from time to time. Deep down inside, the unreality of it lay like a stone in her heart. Doubt as to what she could do with this learning lay at the edge of her conscious mind. How would this ever change her life? She lived in a hut by the sea, wore virtual rags, and had never in her life owned a pair of shoes. Her imagination, even when taxed severely refused to reveal a Sumi who held any responsible job in the future. It was difficult to do so when you wore an old, faded dress and rubber slippers to school. The clouds of disbelief lay too thick to be pierced by even the most creative ideation.
Then again, there were such things as fairy godmothers in every fairy story she’d ever read. They made a grand entrance at just the right time and presented you with exactly what was lacking right when you needed it. A modern-day version would be nice. Maybe when she passed her exams superbly, a benefactor somewhere would get word of this and come along to brighten her life. She could still hope.
Heartened by this, she walked to the front of her classroom. The teacher, ‘Miss’, was already seated at her desk, and Sumi obtained the library key from her. The ‘library’ was a small glass-fronted bookcase with a cracked pane that housed around forty books. Each day, Sumi read for a few minutes before the starting bell, bent on garnering as much pleasure as she could before lessons began. She located the book she had been reading for the past few days. The first few pages were missing, as were its front and back covers. There was no way of finding out its title or author. Perhaps she could ask the white mahaththaya in the big house, if she ever got a chance to speak to him. He was sure to know the name of the book. It was very well written, a classic probably. This story was about a village of miners in Wales. True, they were not well to do. But there was poor and then there was poor. These people were not like Sumi and her neighbours. They led incredibly rich and textured lives. The descriptions of the food they enjoyed were enough to make her mouth water. They could afford attractive clothes that made her heart beat rapidly with excitement.
She read avidly until the bell heralded the day’s lessons. The teacher began by leading a recitation of prayers and ended with the greeting of ’Ayubowan’* with her joined palms held together mid-chest. The pupils replied in kind, chanting like a flock of parrots.
The day wore on in a golden haze. The sun waned, and the land cooled off to a tolerant level of warmth. Achchi and all the elderly folk would be catching a quick nap by now. Most of the girls began to nod off to the rhythmic drone of chanted lessons coming from the junior classes. Not Sumi, though! She was wide awake during lessons, probably because her stomach was never full. She had eaten rice hot off the fire with fried salt fish and green leaf pol mallun* for lunch. A scant half hour later, her stomach had already forgotten and was begging to be refilled. Her mind and fingers sped easily through arithmetic and history, leaving her enough time to help her straggling fellows. This was one of her daily tasks, going around the class helping others as ‘Miss’ directed her. However, when it came to the English period, the lesson was unbearable to Sumi. Her class went through the exercises slowly, bumbling their way through the doings of perdurable Nimal and Padma, who sprang to sluggish life in their English Reader. Not much by the looks of it! Why could this pair of children not do anything remotely interesting? Could they not visit a zoo or a museum or something? However, Nimal and Padma weren’t to blame. They were only allowed to do what Sumi’s classmates were able to cope with. Today they were off to the Sunday fair where they did not do anything worthwhile mentioning. Strangely enough, she had always been able to pick up the language with ease. This was puzzling to her, as she never heard a word of it spoken at home or anywhere else in the village. Her teacher said that Sumi had a natural ability and that she probably had a knack for other languages, too. But she might never find out!
During the interval, Sumi and Mary as the class monitors, ran to the school office, swinging an empty wooden drawer between them. In a corner of the office, boxes of free biscuits supplied by a foreign welfare organisation were stacked up in an orderly pile. The girls arranged thirty neat piles of three biscuits each in the empty drawer. Now, these did not taste as nice as shop biscuits, but they were specially fortified with protein, vitamins, minerals, and suchlike. Sumi knew these ingredients were vitally important, especially the protein. The compassionate foreign organisation which supplied the biscuits hoped this would help develop the children’s brains and help them climb out of poverty eventually. That was so kind of them. These wealthy foreigners actually worried about the brains of children in poor countries!
The white uniform girls did not like the taste of the charity biscuits, and they would let the poorer girls have their shares. Sumi regularly had six not-too-crisp sweet biscuits at the interval, courtesy of her friend Shyamala. These were very good at stilling hunger pains as they sat satisfyingly heavy in the stomach. Shyamala and her like had sandwiches that they brought from home. Sumi couldn’t help eyeing these covertly. In between the white slices of bread making way into their mouths, she spied the green of salad leaves, the crimson of tomato, and the brown-pink of some meaty substance. She forbore with great effort from licking her lips. Ragged she may be, yet she had a position to maintain. She was a class monitor and the best pupil in the grade although her mind kept harking back to the meat, hungrily. Her family only had it for Christmas, if they were lucky. Cooking pots full of beef bubbling in hot, rich gravy and towers of white sandwiches with meat peeping around the edges kept swimming in her head as she bent over her books.
When the school bell finally rang at five o’clock, signifying the end of the day’s lessons, she walked home past the stretch of houses where the better-off townspeople lived. Appetising smells wafted over from their kitchens. She could guess what each household was having for dinner. The aromas of fragrant white potato here, brinjal curry and fried fish there, and tantalising beef curry in another had her mouth watering as she wended her way home.
As she approached the beachfront, she spied Ranjith’s head with its shock of black hair as the boy stood propped against a beached boat. Sumi stiffened imperceptibly. Her pulse sped up as soon as she knew she was within his line of sight. She seemed to encounter him regularly these days, almost daily on her way home from school. They would always exchange a few light-hearted words, as was their custom. Those meetings and the ensuing banter made her feel giddy. Or, as she put it to herself, not quite right in the head. Sumi wanted to confide in Shyamala and Mary about this affliction. She had heard other girls whisper and giggle amongst themselves about boys. But all in all, she was a sensible girl. She knew Ranji could be called Malani’s boy as much as he could be called anybody’s. Had she not seen him stare avidly at Malani several times, like a hungry fisherman with a plate of hot rice and curry? There were the villagers’ opinions on this subject which she too had heard. Obviously, her brain refused to agree with her. A little voice piped up squirming excitably in her head whenever she saw him, flapping its mouth that he could, maybe, still be hers. Well, today it seemed there was to be no banter. His lips were sealed as his glance slipped over her, oh-so-casually. Sumi poked her tongue out at him in passing and felt, rather than saw, him smile at her retreating figure.
Was that progression? He had not said a word. But he had been there as he had been this whole week. And he wasn’t doing anything. Merely waiting – for someone…else. Would he not talk to her, if he was waiting to catch sight of her? Was he waiting for that other girl? It was a pity that she could not hide somewhere so she could find out the truth of that.
Why did he always seem to stare extra hard at Malani when Sumi happened to be within sight? She wished there was someone she could ask. But that question was sure to scandalise and worry her grandmother. It would make her think that her granddaughter who was sensible and intelligent was losing her mind. Sumi wanted to avoid that if possible.
The children were on the verandah doing their homework. They both needed their sister’s help and had been waiting for her to come home. Sumi threw herself into a chair beside them, dumping her books onto the table.
‘Akka, we learnt about the continent of Africa today. What did you do?’ asked her sister sidling up to her until she was pasted against Sumi’s side. ‘Oh, lots of sums and for English, again that pesky Nimal and Padma. I could throw them out of the window. That’s how bored I am with that pair.’
Her sister was drawing the irida pola, the Sunday fair, for art homework. Sumi helped her with the composition suggesting she place the various vendors who sat in the open air in the foreground and the stalls in the back. Her brother wanted help with his divisions. She flipped through her own books until their grandmother called out for help with dinner. Her family ate sitting on mats and a couple of low wooden banku. * Their main source of light was provided by a streetlight fortuitously placed only a few feet from their hut. There was a little kerosene lamp in a niche in the clay wall which did not make much of a dent in the dark by itself. They never lacked for light at night, although they could not switch it off at will. Their father tended to wander in later for his dinner, long after the children had gone to sleep. He was out somewhere seeing to the repairs of the boats, mending nets, or talking and drinking with his cronies.
Her brother came over to sit beside her, plate in hand.
‘Aah,’ said Sumi, ‘here comes trouble.’
‘I will never eat dry fish when I grow up,’ he confided. Balancing her plate on her knees, Sumi pressed her hand to her heart. ‘Aney Ammo, oh my mother! What is the world coming to? Babies hardly out of the cradle talking in this way. Fishermen were created to catch fish and eat dry fish. Not to eat fresh fish.’
The three of them laughed loudly while their grandmother watched in silence.
‘Where is that said,’ asked the little girl. ‘Did you read it in a book?’
‘I am sure it is in a big book somewhere. I haven’t read it yet, that’s all,’ said Sumi, provoking more mirth. ’Maybe I will write it and put it in that our kolla* is totally against this idea. Indeed, I will.’
’Kollo,’ said achchi to her grandson, ‘if you want to eat what you like, you will need to study well and get a fine job when you grow up.’
Her eldest granddaughter’s vinegar tongue slipped its moorings at that. ’Why didn’t our thatha* do that then? That could have made life easier for all of us.’
Life would also be easier if he remembered to bring some of his catch back to his family, as most other men did. Somehow, their father always seemed to forget or, on some days, merely handed his share to someone on the beach. The generous soul! None of them, not Sumi, not her grandmother, ever dared to ask him why he did this. She knew he spent too much of his money in the tavern as well. Some villager would always report to them that Jusé aiya* was having a good day today, in the tavern. Sumi had a faint remembrance of her mother’s feeble outcries on the subject of drink. Since her death no one had ever dared to remonstrate with him. Her grandmother’s mouth pursed up. ‘Talk of the past is of no use. Let’s see then what you three can do in the future.’
‘I still won’t eat dry fish when I grow up even if I don’t study hard,’ the little boy said to himself in a low stubborn tone. Her little sister stared at them all with rounded eyes. Sumi sighed and wished she had stopped when they were still laughing. Making her family laugh was something she could do easily, and it never failed to give her a sense of pleasurable achievement.
She wondered idly what Ranji might be doing now. Eating his rice and squabbling with his family? Sleeping with his curly head on his pillow? Did he think of that girl or of those pleasant chats with Sumi? How would he dream of her? She didn’t own a decent frock fit to grace his dreams. Can you actually imagine yourself wearing your old, old worn-out brown cotton dress with the red flowers, and running and weaving your way through the rose bushes in a technicolour dream? ‘Oh, do grow up and do it quickly!’, she scolded herself as she scraped up the remaining grains of rice on her plate.
After they had finished, she washed the plates in a basin of water in the outhouse. The dirty water was decanted into their plants growing in pots outside. The doors were drawn to and locked. After prayers, Achchi withdrew to her low bed while Sumi rolled out the mats with the children helping and getting underfoot. Soon they were all settled, and she lay watching the moonlit square of the window through half closed eyes, on the verge of sleep. The others were already asleep judging by the regular sound of their breathing. By and by her father came on to the verandah. She could hear him humming a song. From the sound of it he had had enough to drink. Nothing out of the ordinary there. The armchair creaked as he lay down heavily. She listened to him still trying to catch the tune in his head as it did its best to escape his clumsy tongue. After a while he gave up and walked in to get his plate of rice. Sumi saw his dark shape walking back to his armchair as her eyelids fell closed.