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A Sparrow falls

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Sumi comes back after ten years in England to the little fishing community in Ceylon where she lived until she was sixteen. A clever village girl in the 1970s, she reads whatever she is able to lay her hands on. The local cook in the household of Mr Graham, an Englishman living in the village asks her to work as her helper. Mr Graham decides to help her by teaching her in her spare time. As they come to know each other, he begins to admire her intelligence while she comes to think of him as a friend. Sumi is attracted to Ranji who is also attracted to her but tries to keep her off balance by behaving coolly towards her and flaunting his admiration of the village belle. Meanwhile the political situation changes to a more nationalistic outlook. The Englishman feels that the time has come to leave the island. He proposes adopting her and taking her back with him and obtains her father’s approval and things are set in motion for her official adoption. The news of her good fortune turns the villagers’ mood ugly. The bad feelings towards her culminate in Sumi being violated as she ventures out to bring her little sister home before a storm. Feeling unsafe in the village she crawls away from it and sees the cross of the church lit up above and makes her way towards it. On her return to the island after ten years, she meets Ranji who says he cannot speak to her but asks to write to

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Chapter 1

The wind rushed at her like an old enemy. Another blustery day in the village and a fitting one for her return. The people around here were used to this, living as they did on the edge of the sea. As she slowly walked forward, she could hear the distant boom of waves on the shore. The wind rose and buffeted and roared. The pistol shot noise of sand crunching beneath her feet resonated loud in her ears, even over the noise of the squall.

Were those the same huts still lining the narrow beach road? They had seemingly survived the battering over the ten years since she had last seen them. Maybe another cyclone was brewing in the Bay of Bengal. That used to be the commonest reason given for those radio warnings of storms that would hit the coast. The people who lived here had learnt to put up with it over the years. They knew to stay away from the beach in the relative safety of their little huts. She hated that last warning, for a storm that never came in the end. Though it wreaked enough damage anyway. On a day like this, you’d come out of your hut to be greeted by the wind in full force, slapping you in the face and trying its best to send you running back for cover.

Back inside those meagre walls, where the windows rattled vigorously with each gust. Any venture outside to fetch water or to chase after an escaping tin pot rolling over and over with its flower plant, was a battle, a trip into a purgatory of wind and sand. And if that were not enough the wind tried maliciously to whip your skirt above your head. She could almost hear the bump and clank-clank of tins rolling away in the wind.

A girl stood framed in the doorway of a hut, tugging at a makeshift door behind her trying to shut it. A thin lass in a knee length cotton dress pausing a moment to brace herself against the wind. So had Sumi halted in her ramshackle doorway many times over the sixteen years she had lived here. What kind of a life lay ahead for this girl? she couldn’t help but wonder. Would the good, the bad, and the unexpected be thrown at her? Was there shelter for her in the arms of a kind young man with whom she could live a contented life despite poverty? Or was there a virile drunk of a husband lurking in her future. The provider of a brood of children, and generous beatings and not much else.

Or something even worse. Something that would strip the girl to her very bones, leaving her naked in the rain. Sumi shivered in the warmth of the dying sun.

In a lull between the squalls, the sing-song chant of evening prayers wafted over the twilight air. The dying sun cast forth long yellow fingers in a bid to hold on to its dominion of the spent day. She had only the sting of unshed tears behind her eyelids and the tightness of her throat for company.

Make the decision. And now!

Had she travelled all those miles for nothing, only to lose her nerve right at the gate to hell? But did she really want to venture any further? John would not want her to walk further. The safety of turning back was attractive. She hesitated as the wind began to rise again to its back-and-forth tremolo. The idea that the village still existed unchanged somehow, came to her. Those people she had known, would still be here. But she knew time would not have stopped. Some were surely dead and gone, others grown old. Children become men and women, the young turned aged and sour with disappointment before their time.

The girl in the doorway was gone too—back to her toil and daily battles, looking out for any morsels of pleasure where she could find them, in the way that Sumi had done. The watching woman headed forward into the sea winds. John Graham would be horrified, but she was never one to shy away from a risk. She would take one last look at the ugliness, at the poverty and twisted beauty that limned her heartbreak. Hoping to find something here to help ease some of the ache she still carried within her.

Two crows flew up from a roadside bush cawing harshly, fighting in mid-flight over a scrap of fish offal. As they rose higher, the wind whirled and battered them apart. Their lonely cries fading away into the sky, sounded like despair. Their echoes dissipated into the expanse of blue, the residual notes lent a measure of familiar beauty by remoteness. The salt stung her eyes again. Distance tended to make things less unlovely—and time was a great distancer! Peering down the tunnel of the past, the crudeness and disappointment were never visible. All was cloaked in the tender guise of regret and nostalgia. Though in her case the memory of cruelty spiked through the veil of time and distance.

A carpet of waxy green leaves and the purple blooms of bimthamburu* covered the beach, fighting with the spiky tumbles of maha ravana ravul. * A step to the side, and the sand by the edge of the road would grab her sinking high heels. She had run free, barefoot and light-hearted, until envy had transformed her life. There had been sunlight every day. Until the village had cast her as their very own Magdalene. Walking on the sand was not for her now. She had her high heels on and would walk proudly on the tar road. Straightening her spine, she let her footsteps ring out boldly in the manner of a strong Western woman, not one of the beleaguered women living in those huts ahead.

Faced with the worst, she had not given up. Had not surrendered her dreams, not when terrible memories had tried to drag her down into a black pit of despair. Even when she had felt nothing would ever be right with the world again. Felt those dreadful hands, that breath, sliming over her like black slough, the whisper of horrible words. No, she had especially not given up because of them. There was no way she could have given in to the weight of filth and let them win. She had once been the cleverest girl in this same village. And had been happy here. Until they had taken away her happiness; deprived her of it for a long time. Nevertheless, the first quality had still remained, she was still clever. It had been a matter of pride that she should outwit them in the only way left to her. She wished tersely that those voices and the bodies they belonged to, had died long ago. That they were nothing but grinning skulls and disjointed bones somewhere deep in this earth.

Sumi came through the front door, ducking habitually to avoid the low lintel. Why, she wondered, could there not have been a taller doorway? She ran across the thin slip of road to the water pump, kettle in hand. How many times would she make this run throughout her life? Probably fifty thousand. Thinking of it made her cross, and she kicked the edge of the cement trough beneath the tap. Her eyes wandered over its grim greyness contrasting with bright green clumps of moss and patches of moist black something else, while waiting for the kettle to fill. Well, she shouldn’t be complaining. They were lucky to have a tap this close to the house. Or else it would have been a longer trek to that well further on into the village, and then a long wrenching draw on that thick rope with her thin arms to coax the laden bucket upwards. On the bright side, when her little siblings grew up in a few years they could take on this chore and hopefully many others, too.

Back in the hut, their grandmother would have stirred to wakefulness. Sumi made it a point not to disturb her, letting her make the most of her slumber to rest her poor old bones. They were all familiar with achchi’s* bones. They were another member of their little family, Sumi reflected smilingly. By now, she would be up feeding sticks of firewood between the three bricks that made up their cooking fire. Hunkering down she would vigorously blow air through the tubular metal bambuwa*, coaxing the flames to catch.

The children would still be enjoying the sweet, deep sleep of childhood. Sumi was careful not to wake them too early, especially her little brother. Not a morning person, he was not at all nice upon being roused. He grumbled and whined and had to be pried away by force from his bedclothes.

‘Let me sleep a little more. Just a little more.’ he would moan on every single weekday.

Soon, the two little ones would need to be hurried and harried into their uniforms and sent on their way to school. The small school, with its limited resources, ran double sessions, morning and afternoon, to accommodate all the village children. Sumi attended the afternoon shift. Balappuwaduge Sumithra would be present in class when the register was marked at one o’clock. There was never a mention of Lourdes, her middle name, which she kept a well-guarded secret. She knew where they would go with that. All the Lourdes’ she knew ended up being called ‘loose’, which on the island was synonymous with ‘screw loose’: as in not right in the head. It was better that the no one in class was wise to her middle name, and she intended to keep it that way!

Their home was very cramped, with clay walls and a roof of woven coconut branches. The front room was more of verandah with a pair of battered wooden chairs and table and her father’s armchair with a brass spittoon by it. On the rare times when he was at home, he would lie in the armchair chewing betel, chatting to some other fisherman, intermittently aiming a stream of red betel juice into the spittoon. This was also where he slept at nights. Through the door lay the bedroom where the rest of them slept, achchi’s hammock bed and the mats rolled up in corner against the wall. Through this space was the outhouse with its tin roof where all their cooking was done. There lay the hearth and the table holding their kitchen utensils and some shelves which had been made by their father.

The children were up, knuckling their eyes against the sting of wood smoke. Handing the kettle of water to her achchi, Sumi followed behind them, rolling up their mats and gathering the old clothes scattered beneath to soften the impact of the packed earth floor. They tottered off under Sumi’s direction for their morning ablutions while she moved around the room, briskly aiding their grandmother in getting breakfast ready. The roas paan, hard-roasted bread from yesterday needed slicing. It was crisp when fresh when new baked but tended to be hard and dry going on its second day. There was no question of buying a new loaf while there was still a fair amount of the old one left. It would challenge their jaws quite severely though. That never mattered to their grandmother as, new or old, she sopped her bread in her tea anyway.

Metal handles clinked against buckets heralding the village waking up to another day. Baras, baras, came the sound of the coconut scraper plied by her grandmother, adding to their morning symphony. Once she had asked her school friend Shyamala what sounds she woke up to. ‘I hear Rover’s chain rattling as he walks up and down his cage’. Rover was their big Alsatian dog which was worth probably the sum total of all the possessions of the fishing village. ‘Then I hear the sound of the clinking of bottles as the milkman places them on the doorstep’. Sumi liked to shut her eyes and let herself imagine that kind of morning, that kind of world, sometimes. Shyamala’s pampered Rover didn’t have a bad life at all but that he couldn’t or didn’t want to read books. Hopeless dog but cosseted all the same. She would be happy to bark and bite people all day long for that kind of treatment.

Achchi would mix in chilli powder, lime, and salt to make a coconut sambol. She made the best pol sambol*, knowing instinctively to add exactly the right amount of each of the secondary ingredients. Ath gunaya, they called it—the goodness of the hands.

Through the window, she saw her brother running back screaming shrilly past the beached boats – which were in the opposite direction from the pump he was supposed to have gone for his wash. Where had this blighted child gone instead? He seemed to be in the throes of a tempest of anger, his howls punctuated by sobs. ‘She made me fall! She hit my legs,’ he screamed. Sumi didn’t even bother to ask who ‘she’ was. It was always his small elder sister, eight years old to his six. If the sky fell on him, she would be the one to blame. The accused came into view, strolling in serenely from the pump with a face wet from her morning wash.

Malli,’* Sumi called to her errant brother. ’How can it be? Chuti akka* was washing her face, and you came running in from over there in that direction. Don’t you think something else struck you on the leg, maybe a branch falling off a tree?’ As her brother paused his lament to consider the logic of this, she pursued the advantage. ’Could it be a rock? A big one, then! That’s what it was surely! Rocks are so much like chuti akka.’ Both accuser and accused joined in laughter at their elder sister’s words.

Soon, the two younger children were ready to set off for school, all lost exercise books and pencils having been located. ‘And why didn’t you children think of getting your schoolbooks together last night?’ grumbled achchi as usual. Running to her they received the sign of the cross on their foreheads to shield them through the day. They were sent on their way with a pat and a push from Sumi along with a blessing of ’Jesu pihitai.’*They looked what they were – two children from the poorest of village families, she saw with a pang. Wearing worn out shoes and clothes and books held against their chests.

As she watched them go, she wondered if the blessing actually held any power. Was Jesu actually able to guard them against evil when they had already been born into a poor fisher family? That accident of birth had ensured that most of the usual protections had bypassed them. Sumi made a sour face at the idea. Achchi had begun her morning rosary, kneeling in front of the sacred heart statue in its niche in the wall. The oil lamp by it was kept lit as long as they could remember. The unspoken covenant was that while the flame flourished it would keep them safe from harm.

Once they had all finished their breakfasts, she kept aside the left-over pol sambol to be eaten with rice for lunch. She had to make sure to eat before she donned her school uniform. That dress, more yellow than white, was worn down in places to a sheerness that was approaching transparency. It certainly didn’t need any stains added to it. Sumi wondered where on earth she could find a replacement when this one finally wore out. She took some comfort in the fact that there were many other girls in her class in the same plight; wearing the threadbare, shiny, yellow-white uniform of the poor girl. They all surely sent up the same prayer at night to heaven for the miracle of a new white dress. ‘Just the one should be enough, thank you!’ There was no harm in hoping, even if she had read somewhere that hope deferred makes the heart grow bitter.

After her morning prayer, achchi would consider what she would prepare for the family for the rest of their meals. Sumi would take the green leaves to the tap to wash and then chop it up for making a mallun. There was some dried fish to fry, and she could see her grandmother dipping her hand into the tin of red lentils to gauge if there was enough left. At midday the old lady would pray again at the statue and then again at bedtime when her grandchildren joined her in supplication.

The noonday sun was at its highest when she set out for school. Her footsteps fell right on the head of her foreshortened shadow as she walked. She cradled her exercise books, without brown paper covers, of course. It was unthinkable to use her family’s small store of money for that. The Queen and the Prince of Wales gazed out serenely from the front covers. Did they ever think of the sunburnt lands and windswept beaches that once belonged to them, living as they did in a land where snowflakes dropped gently onto pristine snow. The poor Royal Family of England would never know the strange places their faces ended up in. Sumi derived a great deal of quiet amusement from that.

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