The jasmine-scented night sky in Urumpirai did not look so much different six years later. Appamma looked up at the vast night sky that was scarred by the tall palm trees that clawed shadows out of its lower lip. Knowing that Karthik would see the same stars, the same moon was a petty consolation. His mridangam kiss and the way his hands made her understand the rationale for her belly’s sloping curve had tipped Appamma into the same cradle of first love as Karthik. Her ears never stopped listening for the sound of his voice, and at night as she slept, she dreamed of hunting for him in the streets of Singapore.
Appamma’s dreaming ghost haunted Karthik on the streets of Singapore. She was always a little ahead of him, always turning a corner and vanishing into the crowds of people. The apparition was too thin to be physical, translucent and nearly invisible, but it undeniably had Appamma’s distinctive tip-tilted doe gait. Karthik could never catch up to her.
Karthik was devastated when Appamma left. He watched her ship disappear into the vanishing blue, resentment twisting its way around the love that was wedged in his throat. There was such power in leaving. He was left behind, left behind like the scrawny chicken not worth taking, the piece of furniture a bit too battered to sell or bring with you. Appamma had refused to elope with him, to run away and live in the kingdom of love with him. The vast sea that stretched between Singapore and the pulpit in Urumpirai had not been enough to still the white sound of the Anglican priest. A respectable Protestant vellalar girl like Appamma could never marry a Hindu.
If Karthik drank enough, the liquor’s veil made Appamma’s ghost a little less translucent and made her curves reappear when he peered through his nicotine-stained fingers. When he drank even more, it brought him a little closer to the dimension within which the ghosts walked and Appamma’s apparition seemed almost real to him. It was never enough. Desperate to contain his heart that clawed at him incessantly, he wrote her letters. For a time, Appamma wrote back to him, furtive love letters smuggled out of the Urumpirai family home. One day, just as inexplicably as they had met, her letters stopped.
Karthik could not know about the slow burning hell that began one afternoon in the storeroom where Appamma’s family kept the mangoes. Appamma never told him.
Appamma was seated on the kitchen floor, cutting okra up in preparation for the family dinner. The house sighed with the sweet stillness of the family asleep on the verandah. There was a slight sound at the doorway, and Appamma looked up. Out of the pressing afternoon heat, sodden with arrack, Muthu stood at the door.
Muthu looked at Appamma seated on the floor with her sari hitched up around her knees; sweat beading on her upper lip and along the neck of her blue choli. The oil in his eyes pooled and became viscous. He thickly asked Appamma to bring and cut a mango for him from the storeroom. Appamma looked up at her half-brother briefly and then resumed slowly slicing her okra. Muthu felt a dart of rage pass through him. These bloody Jaffna women, he thought, guarded so closely in their family homes, out of reach … not at all like Singapore women. He nudged Appamma with his foot.
Appamma slowly stood up, shaking off the sticky end bits of okra from her sari. The pinching reek of arrack wafted past her nose as she turned to go into the storeroom. As she reached down to pick up a reddened mango, she heard the door behind her close gently with a finite click. She straightened up to see Muthu in the reflection of the window, oily-eyed and moving with the speed and grace of a snake in the grass.
“Not that mango,” he hissed into her ear as one strong hand grasped her from behind by her belly, and the other slid without ceremony into her choli. Her belly. The one that Karthik had given meaning for its existence to. Appamma’s stomach twisted and revolted, but she was paralyzed, her throat dry and voiceless. There no sound in the room but for sough of Muthu’s breathing against her ear and the choli hooks breaking.
Appamma’s mind raced in discordant triads. Muthu’s hands twisted her breasts, pinching the skin. His fingers were inching below her sari pleats. Karthik, you are not here with me. If she just opened her mouth to scream, Appa would wake up and see this. Or did she want him to see this. How to explain this? What would they do?
As if he could hear her frantic thoughts, Muthu extended his tongue and left a long wet streak along the edge of her earlobe. “Don’t even think to scream,” he said in a voice guttural with desire. “I saw you with that Hindu parayan in Singapore. This is nothing new for you. And don’t think this is the last time with me.”
The heaviness of knowing Muthu’s darkness pushed Appamma’s head underwater and stilled her voice. She felt the deadened realization that she had opened the door to this world before marriage and in having done so she had made herself free game to anyone. Nothing special about it really. Only she had wanted to with Karthik. If she remained silent about Muthu, no one would know about either him or Karthik. Any protest would come with a heavy price.
He left her in the storeroom with a wet kiss on her cheek, dishevelled hair and an admonition to clean herself up. Suffocation hemmed around Appamma and made her hiccup. She clutched her choli together and willed her feet to walk to the secret place where she hid Karthik’s letters in the bedroom wall. Muthu was nowhere to be seen. She took the bundle to the kitchen and watched them smoulder into ash. Every letter she wrote after this would have been a lie anyways. She belonged to no one now.
At dinner, Appamma was unusually silent. Muthu defiantly shovelled mouthfuls of rice and sambar into his mouth with his blunt fingers. If Amma’s eyes noticed that Appamma’s choli now did not match her sari, her tongue remained still.
It wasn’t the last time. It happened again. And again. Appamma learned to unhook her choli. For every choli unhooked, another letter burned. Her heart curled itself up into the smallest space possible and her Amma’s ghost was conspicuously absent.
The weeks melted into months and Appamma lugged her secret shame around, taking it with her to school and back home again. One day she returned from school to find guests seated on the verandah. A tall, thin young man sat nervously with his parents. The young man had caught sight of Appamma through the school window as he walked by weeks ago. The sight of Appamma did not stir the beginnings of love in his eyes but rather, the secret sorrow in the shadows around her lips and her remote eyes moved him. He did not know about her tip-tilted doe gait much less about Gods behind blankets. Appamma was introduced to them and they asked her about her school. Appamma was sent inside after a few perfunctory exchanges.
After dinner, Amma told her. The young man’s family had come for her hand in marriage. The young man was not well to do, but came from a good Methodist family. Appamma protested because her family was Anglican. Same tree, said Amma. Amma told Appamma that she would be expected to stop going to school. Appamma protested. She was so close to finishing school. You’ll be able to read on your own time once you’re married, Amma said. Appa had given his consent – he had too many mouths to feed and this would mean one less daughter to marry off.
Appamma’s wedding trousseau was hastily assembled and her father gave her part of his land as her dowry. Her only consolation was that she was constantly surrounded by the women in the family and Muthu was compelled to stay away from her. He eyed the wedding preparations from a distance and remained silent. Appamma moved in the dutiful dance of the sleepwalker, and the neighbours nodded their approval. She was a shining example of the good daughter who was sad to leave her family home, nothing but respectable ambivalence incarnate. They did not know how Appamma’s heart woke up too late, how it cried out when the minister proclaimed them man and wife. They did not see what the camera’s unforgiving eye recorded in Appamma’s wedding photograph. Flanked by her wedding party and standing next to her husband, Appamma’s eyes reflected the dank, profound sorrow of knowing she still loved and longed for a young man who lived on the other side of the vast ocean.
Choli–sari blouse, usually matching and tailored to fit tightly
Arrack–any spirit distilled mainly in South and South East Asia from fermented fruits, grains, sugarcane, or the sap of coconuts or even tree bark and is usually 66 to 100 proof
Mridangam – percussion instrument that is pivotal for Carnatic music performance
Parayan–a derogative term for a low caste person, used as an insult depending on context. The word has origins in the Tamil word for “drum” and this caste is mentioned in Sangam era (300-600 BCE) literature as drummers who performed for religious/social functions.
Vellalar–land owning/farming upper caste in Sri Lankan Tamil society
Natasha Thambirajah is a first generation Canadian. Over the space of time it took to create three generations, her family moved from Sri Lanka to Malaysia, and finally to Canada. She completed a graduate degree in modern South Asian history, focusing on 20th and 21st century politics and history in South Asia with a specialization in nationalism, gender, separatist movements and post colonial theory. She lives on the left side of Canada and is a great lover of round, pear-shaped sounds and sailing.
December 15, 2008
Goose Lane Editions Launches New Online Media Resources
December 15, 2008
New From Gaspereau Press