They waited for half an hour before panic started to set in.
Surangi was slightly surprised that it hadn’t set in before. But perhaps it was because their driver Ramesh was unpunctual at the best of times. Nine o’clock, nine fifteen, nine thirty -the household bustle continued. He was on his way, he was a little late, he had called, no he hadn’t, did you try his new number, no not that one, his other new number.
“That man – last time we’re hiring him! How many times did we tell him to come on time because we have to be there by ten”
“Call him again”
“The phone is off”
“The new number?” “All his numbers!”
Probably got a better paid hire at the last moment, Surangi thought.
The question was what to do now. She stood by the car, key in hand. It was a pleasant morning for a change, the sticky heat of the past few days had lifted. The car gleamed. She and Amith had washed it the evening before. It would be easy to slide in –drive – drive away from the day. She liked driving and today she would like to get away from the house. Just for a bit. She swung the key from her finger. It had a little elephant key tag. A batik elephant with bright eyes.
Her aunts were arguing.
“Can we get another driver?”
“How to get anyone now- it’ll take hours even if anyone is free to come”
“Shall I drive?”
Her question fell into a break in the conversation.
“Now that it’s late maybe you should go…” Loku amma sounded as if she was considering it.
“But the chief priest is a bit funny, no?”
“Remember last time? He won’t like a woman coming alone”
“There’s no one else to send”
Surangi’s husband Ganesh was at work and her son Amith was nine. Surangi had asked Ganesh if he was coming and he had muttered something about meetings and ‘that company presentation today’. And anyway he disliked priests.
So here they were – priests who should have been fetched ten minutes ago – driver missing – one male at work and other too young.
Amith was tracing patterns in the sand, using a stick and drawing a cage around the orange monster – the battle scarred cat from next door. Surangi tried to imagine the day when he would be the one driving her. It seemed impossible.
“Look, I’ll just go” she said. “This is getting ridiculous. What’s Loku hamuduruwo going to do? He can’t refuse to get into the car, no”
The looks on Loku nanda’s and Punchi amma’s faces indicated that he just might. She sighed.
“Wait, wait” Loku nanda waved at Amith. “Take him at least”
“He’s going to chaperone me? At nine?”
“Better than nothing” She bundled Amith’s thin shouldered, protesting form towards the car (the cage wasn’t complete, the orange monster would escape, he had so many things to do)
It was at that moment just as they were about to escape that Asela’s form rose above the wall separating the garden from next door.
“Asela!” Loku nanda said.
Surangi almost didn’t recognize him. His form was rounder everywhere in a way that she couldn’t quite pinpoint. Not fat – but an air of being better filled. And his shoulders –those shoulders – had changed.
“Why didn’t I think of it? We can ask Asela”
“No” she said but too late. Loku nanda was already waving. “Aney Asela can you help us? We have to go to the temple and bring the priests for the dhane but that driver hasn’t turned up, only Surangi is here. The others haven’t come yet. Can you go with her?”
“No” she said again but quietly because she was not a woman who fussed. And Asela was looking taken aback (woken up just half an hour ago, just thought he’d ask if they needed any help next door, hadn’t expected his offer to be taken up in such a concrete form), but already agreeing because he was – had been – a well brought up boy.
He looked even more taken aback when he saw Surangi. She wasn’t quite sure whether it was because he didn’t expect to see her or because she had changed. Perhaps both.
Amith didn’t want to get out of the car again. She gave Asela the key – the little batik elephant smiling. Possibly it found the situation strange too.
“You don’t come here often, no? After a long time”
Asela spoke first after fumbling with his seat belt and taking an inordinately long time to turn onto the car onto the main road.
“No I came after several months. Specially for this dhane. It’s the first year remembrance dhane for my uncle, I couldn’t miss it”
“Ah – no of course” He laughed. “Of course you had to come”
She remembered then that he had always felt a need to speak to fill socially awkward silences. She had found it comforting then. I must have grown older, she thought. How did I not notice growing older?
She peered back. Amith was surprisingly quiet and staring out of the window.
“Don’t ‘huh’ me. Seatbelt, now!”
Her tone was sharp. Asela looked slightly alarmed. Amith looked unworried but reached for the seatbelt.
“He’s nine” she said in an effort to make Asela look less jumpy.
“Ah yes,” he turned back and smiled at Amith.
“He looks like you.”
That surprised her. Perhaps it surprised him too because he fell silent.
She felt slightly bad. After all it was obliging (irritatingly so!) of him to agree to drive.
“I didn’t want to miss the dhane for mama. I don’t come often to my aunt’s place now – work makes things difficult – but I wanted to come for this”
His hands on the steering wheel relaxed a bit. “I know. That’s why I came too. He was a good man.”
Her uncle had been a gentle man. A memory – unwanted – came back to her. She was nineteen and staying with her aunt, and Asela had come to give some food his mother had made. Things were just starting then and he needed a reason to come. Her uncle had taken the food politely and refrained from asking why Asela needed to comb his hair, change his shirt and walk up the front door when his mother could have handed the plate over the wall.
She looked back at Amith. At least he had put his seatbelt on. But why on earth was the shutter open and why did he need to poke his head out like that?
“Don’t put your head out, do you want the buses to take your head off?”
“I’m not leaning that much out”
He pulled back just a little, just enough not to get shouted at again. He was nine now and just learning the language of passive resistance.
“How much longer?
“We’re almost there”
She got out first, holding Amith’s hand. They took their shoes off and went down the flight of stairs. There was a cool dark hall with a Buddha statue at one end and cushions placed around the hall against the walls. This was where the priests usually sat and chanted pirith when people came. In their absence it felt forlorn and slightly ghostly. Amith stared with huge eyes.
“Remember, you have to worship the priests when they talk to you”
Amith nodded, eyes still moving everywhere.
A young priest appeared from the living quarters.
“We came to take the priests for the dhane” she said. “From the Perera’s house.”
He nodded but his eyes moved behind her. She glanced and realized Asela had come down too.
“I came to take them” she said, emphasis on ‘I’. She was slightly annoyed at the way the priest looked to Asela for directions. “The dhane for my uncle- Mr. Saman Perera.” She spoke slowly. My uncle.
Three priests came. The formidable chief priest got in first (Surangi sat in front, he was in the back, so in that position presumably her femaleness posed less risk)
And then when they were settling in the small one came running. He must have been around ten years old. The pattharey – bowl for food that he carried in his hand looked too big for him. He was panting as if he had been running or playing and the chief priest gave him a look. He quietened.
Amith stared at the little boy with big eyes. He was staring at everything today. Did he remember nothing she’d told him?
“Amith, come here” she said.
“I thought I was going in the back”
“There’s no room, can’t you see. Sit in front with me”
He got in, spindly small boy legs climbing over her. She pulled him on to her lap. He’d had a bath that morning. His hair had been cut in a crown and curved downwards, leaving the nape of his neck bare. She didn’t hold him much now, he
was too big. He was leaving behind the age when he could lean unselfconsciously into people, leaving behind the age where his body was something he was not aware of. But as the car took the turns his small restless body, still now for a brief few minutes leaned against her, and she hugged him to keep him steady and felt something that she was afraid to put a name to.
By the time they reached the house the other relations had come. Conversation stopped as the priests filed into the hall and settled themselves, sitting cross legged on the cushions placed on the hall floor. They sat in order of age, starting from the elderly chief priest to the little boy.
The sermon thankfully was relatively short. The chief priest did not talk about the ill effects caused by women shopping too much or ask questions from the audience (as had memorably happened on a previous occasion, causing much distress to the entire front row which had been peacefully asleep). And Surangi liked the sound of the pirith they chanted. The rhythm of the chanting was soothing and there was no obligation to try to understand. The priests chanted in symphony, one starting when the other ended. She glanced up and the little priest caught her eye. He was looking up, unlike the others, his eyes darting around the room, a curious child’s eyes, the way Amith had looked leaning out of the car. Then he remembered and lowered his eyes, restless fingers plucking at his robe.
She remembered her uncle again. She hadn’t been to a temple for many years but her uncle would have enjoyed this dhane. There was good food, family and a bit of religion thrown in which made people feel that they were doing something important.
To serve the food they walked in a line, each person taking a dish and serving each seated priest in turn. Surangi was behind Amith.
“Carefully. Hold the dish with one hand and serve with the other”
Amith nodded. She wondered what she would do if he dropped a dish over the chief priest. She suppressed the thought and made him walk slowly. He did well she had to admit, concentrating for once, bending down, taking a spoonful and dropping the contents into the depths of the priests’ bowls. ‘Make sure they eat enough’ Loku nanda had told him, and he was determined to follow instructions – she could see he was baffled when the priests covered the bowls with their hands after just one spoonful. ‘No more’.
“It’s all right” she said and pushed him forward.
At the very end the little boy was seated cross legged on the floor. He was even smaller than Amith. Amith hesitated, looking at her.
“Go on” she said quickly. They were holding up the line of servers behind her.
He bent down, took a papadam and dropped it into the bowl. Child serving child. The boy moved his hand to cover the bowl. Amith took another papadam. The boy hesitated. His eyes went to the papadam in Amith’s hand and sideways to the chief priest.
She remembered how when she was a child she had loved the papadam Loku nanda made, biting into it, enjoying the crisp slightly oil covered texture, the way the flavor was released in her mouth, the way she used to stuff the ones with bubbles with rice and potato and eat it slowly, fighting with her sisters to get the good ones.
She grasped a handful of papadam from the dish in Amith’s hand, dropped it into the little priests’ bowl, and hurried Amith forward, ignoring his startled look.
The serving done, the family relaxed. There was enough food. One of Loku nanda’s great fears went unrealized. Every year she worried about not having enough and every year they had left overs.
Surangi moved away from the hall. She’d always felt slightly sorry for priests for having to eat with so many people looking at them. How could one enjoy a beautifully flavoured vambatu monju with the faithful staring at you?
Where was Amith? She went to the door leading out. The children were in the garden. They had escaped somehow. Amith and his two cousins – one ten years old, the other seven. They had drawn a pattern of squares on the fine white sand in the garden and were jumping from square to square. You threw the stone and hopped on to the square where the stone landed. She’d played the same game in the same garden years ago. She looked over her shoulder. The other adults were clustered in the hall, not doing anything at the moment, but not quite relaxed either until the priests left.
She wondered what would happen if she took off her shoes and joined the children. She doubted her aunts would care but her son would be horrified.
The priests were leaving now. The crowd moved away from them, giving them room. She was not going to drop them, Asela had said he would go.
The little boy came last. The line of men in yellow and then the child. He was walking steadily, but his eyes moved around inquisitively. They met hers briefly and then darted behind her.
The garden. The children were still playing. Amith was jumping now, he threw the stone, it went flying through the air and landed on the top most square and he laughed because that was what you wanted most when you were nine, and he started jumping from square to square, hair flying around his small head, enjoying the breeze, the fine sand under his feet.
The small priest stopped. His feet stopped moving almost involuntarily. She followed his gaze. She almost asked ‘Do you want to play’
The dog came running in just at that moment. Kalu must have been chasing the orange monster. Surangi saw the dash of orange fur and then the dog running in through the door, past her and pushing against the priest into the hall.
Kalu was not a fierce dog, she had never bit anyone much less a child. But the little boy wrapped in robes didn’t know that. He jumped as if someone had shot him. The pattharey flew from his hands and rolled over and over coming to a stop in slow motion.
He tried to run past her towards the open door but she put her hands out and stopped him. He was shorter than Amith – just. His shoulder were bony – one shoulder bare – the other covered by the robe.
“It’s all right, she won’t do anything”
She said the words parents had to say all the time. Don’t do that. Stop. What are you doing! And always, after anger had subsided. It’s all right.
Under her hands his shoulders shook for a moment. The nape of his neck was bare. It felt like Amith’s. She had not meant to touch him but it was instinctive, you did not respect the boundaries of a child the way you did an adult. Children did not still carry that shield around them that said ‘do not touch’ the way adults did. She wondered who reminded him to wash there every night. Whether anyone did.
Amith came running in. He picked up the pattharey which had fallen near the door. He looked at her and she nodded. Give. He held it out with both hands. The small priest hesitated and took it. Then Amith placed his palms together and bent his head. Child worshipping child.
She frowned. But she had taught him to worship a yellow robe. She could not unteach him what she had told him herself.
The other priests were already in the car. Asela came in to see what was happening and hovered at the door, with a slightly uncertain smile. Seeing him reminded her of her past, the times when she had been a girl in this house, the teenage years of confusion and desire and disappointment and sometimes happiness. Amith would have to go through all that one day. He’d better behave, she thought. I’ll – I’ll thrash him otherwise. She wouldn’t of course but the fear of the years to come always worried her.
The little boy gathered his robes. For a moment he looked up at her and smiled. He had a small dimple.
She wondered what the years would bring him and who would threaten to thrash him if he didn’t behave. Ten years from now he would be a young man. Just another priest – possibly another man who would not want to be driven by her because she was a woman. The thought made her a little sad. Stay, she said to Amith, and held his shoulders tightly, coaxing his wriggling restless body into quietness, as Asela helped the little boy to get into the car and drove them back to the temple.
Written by Chiranthi Rajapakse
Winner – English Language
Illustration by DRG