Authors: Mary Anne Mohanraj
THANI STOOD JUST OUTSIDE THE CONVENT SCHOOL GATES, WAITING FOR SISTER CATHERINE TO COME AND MEET HIM. BOUGAINVILLEA
spilled over the walls, lush and crimson; he was briefly tempted to break off a small sprig to present to her. It was her favorite plant, the brilliantly hued paper-thin leaves hiding their tiny white flowers. But any flowers he broke off would only wither and die; better to leave them growing on the vine, surrounded by their own kind, beautiful in their profusion. Thani watched the young girls instead, demure pairs walking in their crisp white school uniforms across the wide lawns; he heard the nuns giving strict instructions to their charges.
An accustomed pleasant thrill of anticipation energized him; after all these years of friendship, he still looked forward to his walks with Sister Catherine. Their conversations had started when his daughters were girls, fatherly duty bringing him to the convent school grounds, to that large white building, its tall pillars and broad marble floors so reminiscent of his own Cinnamon Gardens home. When the convent had put in tennis courts for the girls, and his wife, Bala, had worried about the propriety of allowing their daughters to play, it was Thani
who had come to talk to the nuns, who had then come home and reassured his wife. Had he been convinced by reason? Or by the bright young face of Sister Catherine, with her sharp green eyes and her red hair forever escaping the confines of her demure garb? Her face had been so fair, like a water lily, too delicate for the touch of the sun. And her mindâquick, rich with the accumulated knowledge of European civilization, the literature and philosophy she taught. When he talked with her, Thani felt like a young coconut tree, growing tall in the bright light of her regard, enriched and enlightened.
There she was, at the top of the white steps, hurrying down, heedless as a girl despite the constrictions of her nun's habit. His heart beat a little faster, and he entered the gates, crossing the broad expanse of grass to meet her. Thani walked slowly; his heavy middle-aged build didn't allow him to move as quickly as she did. He was slow but steady, unreasonably happy. Thani never inquired too closely into his feelings for Sister Catherine. It was enough that for twenty-five years, since the day his first daughter started school, until today, when his last daughter was finally finishing, it had brought him pleasure to come here, to spend an hour or so walking the grounds in Sister Catherine's company, listening to her talk of Chaucer and Milton, Plato and Aristotle.
“Mr. Chelliah! I am so sorry that I've kept you waiting!” She landed beside him, slightly out of breath, hands reaching up to tuck stray wisps of hair back under her wimple. There were a few strands of grey among the red now, but it was still beautifulâso fine and delicate. After all these years, Thani still felt the urge to reach out and touch the strands.
He smiled down at her. “It is never any trouble, Sister. When I received your message that you wanted to see me, I was delighted to come. I hope nothing is wrong.”
“No, no.” She started to walk, and he fell into step beside her. “It's about Shanthi, but certainly nothing is wrong. Everything is perfectly right, in fact.”
“I wanted to knowâwhat are your plans for her?”
Thani felt mixed apprehension and pride. This had lately been a source of mild contention between him and his wife; Bala was determined to get the girl safely married, as Shanthi's eleven elder sisters and her one brother had been. But Thani wasn't ready to let his youngest daughter go; she was his favorite, the one he could talk to. She was bright, a good companion for his thoughts; he had wondered whether Shanthi might perhaps study for a teacher's certificate. Then she could stay with them a little longer.
“That is not yet decided; my wife and I are not entirely in agreement on this.” He flushed, slightly embarrassed, wondering if the nun would think less of him. A man should be able to rule his own houseâthat was what his friends at the club would say, if they heard him. But whatever men boasted to one another, it was different within a marriage.
Sister Catherine glanced shrewdly at him. “Yes, I thought that might be the case. But if my own words might carry some weightâ¦”
“My wife and I have always thought very highly of you, Sister.” That was true; the nun had been a frequent visitor to their home, had shared innumerable cups of tea with Bala. They had become friends in their own way, the way of women together, talking of the children. If his wife had been a different woman, Thani might have wondered whether she had carefully chosen to cultivate Sister Catherine, whether she suspected the attraction Thani felt for the pretty nun. But Bala wasn't smart or shrewd enough for such a strategy. That was part of why their marriage was happy and successful; Thani could relax around his wife.
Sister Catherine took a deep breath before saying quickly, “Shanthi must go to Pembroke for a crash course; there are a few girls studying sciences now among the boys at Pembroke. We've taught her what we can in private tutorial, but we have no science courses here. Then she must go on to university; she must continue her physics studies properly. After a year or two there, she can apply to Oxford.”
Thani stopped short, shocked, turning to face Sister Catherine. “You're joking, surely, Sister. Pembroke perhaps, although Bala will be worried about her, with all those boys; her reputation might be compromised. And universityâ¦she's clever, but no girl has everâ”
“That's not true,” the nun interrupted. “Shanthi wouldn't be the first to attend, though the few other girls have gone straight into medicine. But Mr. Chelliahâ” Sister Catherine put a hand on his arm, and Thani flushed under the bright Colombo late-morning sunshine. “Your daughter is more than clever. She is brilliant. Exceptional. Sixteen, and she has outstripped all the maths and physics we can teach her; she soaks it up like a sponge, her mind leaping ahead of our poor stumbling explanations. She must go on, must go to England. Only there will she get the education she deserves. She will be a beacon at Oxford, proof of what astonishing heights your people are capable of.”
Her last words were like a splash of icy water in his face. Thani had been floating in a pleasant haze, flattered by the compliments paid his daughter; Shanthi had gotten her brains from him, after all. He had thought often enough that if he had applied himself more to his studies as a boy, he might have ended up a professor, perhaps even principal of a school. Thani knew that in England Shanthi would get the best education; all the world knew the shining towers of Oxford. But the nun's last wordsâwas his beloved daughter to be a trained monkey, a performing dog? “We are quite aware of our own capabilities, Sister.” Thani pulled back from her, surprisingly annoyed. He had never been angry with her before.
“Of course you are.” Sister Catherine stared up at him, undaunted, those green eyes earnest and determined. “But don't you want the world to know? Don't you want
Thani felt disappointed then. She had never allowed her white skin to come between them before. He had almost forgotten she was whiteâor, rather, forgotten that he was not. “After all this time, Sister, are you still one of them? Or one of us?” His voice was gentler than his words.
S VOICE ROSE IN RESPONSE.
T I BE BOTH?
I'm not English, you know.” Her voice gentled again. “Ireland has enough reasons to resent Englandâbut are you sorry the British came here? Are you sorry for what they've brought to Ceylon?”
Thani didn't know how to answer. At one point, he would have said, unequivocally, that the British had done great things for his little island. They had brought schools and roads, new systems of law and government, and had brought that great treasure, the English language, the language of Shakespeare. The language that, if a man mastered it, allowed him to rise high in the world. Thani had learned English as his first language, and his family had benefited greatly from the coming of the British, had made fortunes in trade of coffee, tea, cinnamon. They enjoyed high tea with the local white officials and their families; they celebrated the King's birthday with as much pleasure as anyone in England. And yet. He was silent, not knowing how to begin to respond.
The nun said softly into his silence, “Oxford is more beautiful than you can imagine, and full of the brightest minds in the world. Would you deny its benefits to your daughter?” She paused, then asked fiercely, “What will Shanthi's future be, if she stays here? To marry a stranger, to serve him as wifeâ¦to have a dozen children like her mother?”
There was scorn in the nun's voice, and Thani wanted to recoil, to protest on behalf of his devoted wife. It was honorable to be a good wife, a good mother. But shame held him steady. Hadn't he, occasionally, watching Bala surrounded by their demanding children, watching her tired face, hearing her voice as it turned high and shrill, hadn't he felt exactly the same scorn? Thani shook his head, took a step back. “You have given me much to think about. I will take your words to my wife. Good-bye, Sister.” He turned and abruptly made his way from her, across the perfectly manicured lawn.
THANI SENT THE WAITING CAR WITH ITS DRIVER BACK TO THE
house; he began walking. He found his heart longing for the clamor of the marketplace, the jumble of voices speaking Tamil and Sinhalese, and yes, English, but not English alone. He had been speaking English for so long, and Sinhalese to the servantsâdid he even remember how to speak Tamil anymore? Could his children speak it? Thani felt a swift desire to pack them all up, abandon their house and go back to the north, to Jaffna, to his great-grandmother's home, where he could rest his head against her sari-clad knee and hear her soft lilting Tamil again. But his children were grown now, most with homes and children of their own, and his great-grandmother was dead.
The sounds of the market washed over him, the bright colors of the booths, the thin, dark men hawking glass bangles, homespun shirts, sandalwood soap, fresh flowers. The market was dizzying; Thani always shopped at Cargill's, when he shopped for himself at all. British products were of such high quality. He found himself overwhelmed, needing a quieter place to think. Thani wandered from wide paved roads to dirt lanes, bought a fresh coconut and sipped the sweet water under the shade of a palm tree, ventured into the sunshine again.
By late afternoon, he had made his way to the beach market, where the fishermen's wives spread out their husbands' catches. Scraggly women in faded saris, they haggled fiercely with their customers, demanding more rupees, more, more. He paused at one net, where glistening dark fish shone wetly up at him, beckoning. Thani was tempted to buy someâbut he didn't know what fish they were, and Vidu, the cook, had undoubtedly already ordered the supplies for supper. Bala would be upset with him if he insulted Vidu; the young Sinhalese man was a genius with spices, and he could produce a mackerel curry so fierce and yet meltingly delicious that every mouthful was a taste of heaven. Bala had never learned to cook herself; she'd had no
need. They'd be in real trouble if they lost Vidu, though their son Rajan's new wife had certainly shown a deft hand with last Sunday's hoppers. Her rice pancakes had sides high and a crisp light brown, had centers soft, spongy, and slightly sour.
Perhaps they should have done more to encourage their girls to learn housewifely skills; though, of course, they'd arranged good marriages for them all, to men whose families could easily provide sufficient servants to ensure a comfortable living. None would ever need to cook. They had done well by their daughters, almost entirely. Except for poor Chellamani.
They had arranged a marriage for their eldest daughter, proud of their newfound responsibility. Chellamani had resisted, had said she wasn't sure she liked the boy. Bala and Thani had overridden her, pointed to the many successful arranged marriages of her aunts and uncles, to their own flourishing marriage, had told her that this
business was foolishness. Marriage was not about liking; it was about working together, taking care of each other. They had been so young, so sure of themselves, so strict with their eldest daughter. In the end, Chellamani had bowed her head, had acquiescedâand then.
When she had come home a few months after her marriage for a visit, when Thani had realized that the clumsy makeup smothering her cheek was an attempt to cover a bruise, he had been overcome by a righteous, guilty fury. He had raged that day, shouted dire threats and imprecations, had refused to be calmed until Chella had, sobbing, admitted everything. She had undraped her sari, let them see the welts where her husband had taken a piece of bamboo cane to her back. The child had blamed herself for her husband's brute nature. The boy might have come from one of the finest Tamil families, but apparently that was no guarantee of civilized behavior. Thani had insisted that she move back home immediately. Bala had disagreed.
He remembered her wordsâhis wife had said, “Chella, rasathi, you must go back. You must try to work things out with your husband.”
Thani had shouted, astonished. He had asked, “What can a woman
possibly work out with a man like that?” Had demanded, “How can Chella put up with this kind of behavior?”
His wife had replied sharply, “You would be surprised what women are able to put up with.”
Eventually, Thani had convinced Bala to let their daughter come home. They had barred the door to the man who dared to call himself a husband. He, perhaps ashamed, had soon stopped attempting to see his wife. Chellamani had begun helping Thani with the family accounts, and while she was not as bright as Shanthi, she had always had a good head for numbers and seemed to enjoy the work. It kept her busy. Chella was becoming the prop and comfort of his old age.