Authors: Roshi Fernando
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2010, 2012 by Roshi Fernando
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in Great Britain, in somewhat different form, by Impress Books Ltd., Devon.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Random House, Inc., and Curtis Brown, Ltd., for permission to reprint excerpts from “As I Walked Out One Evening” from
Collected Poems of W. H. Auden
by W. H. Auden.
Copyright © 1940 and renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc., on behalf of print rights and Curtis Brown, Ltd, on behalf of U.K. print and electronic rights.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Homesick / Roshi Fernando.—1st American ed.
“This is a Borzoi book.”
1. Sri Lankans—England—London—Fiction.
2. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Front-of-jacket image: (eye) Rhona Clews / Millennium Images,
U.K.; (pattern) Tama-iris / Imagezoo / Getty Images
Jacket design by Abby Weintraub
ictor is thinking of other parties, of his childhood: quiet, dignified, the productions of an excitable wife of a dour clergyman. Homemade marshmallows, he remembers, lightly coloured with cochineal, dusted with icing sugar. He stands in the hallway of his own home in southeast London, looking at the late afternoon sun colouring everything with a honey glaze. My, he thinks, he can even see his own pudgy hand, reaching up to the table to steal a sweet, and a servant clucking away behind him,
him, as if he were an escaped hen. If his father had seen him, there would have been the nasty, damning words about thieves, about hell. He hears Preethi and Nandini in the kitchen, the pan lids banging, the murmured voices, one of them chopping at the table, a small laughter. I am rich, he thinks.
He walks into the sitting room, adjusts cushions on the plush cream sofas, a recent investment. The plastic covers have been removed for this evening but will go back tomorrow: Nandini said that, once bought, this three-piece suite would be their last. It must survive thirty years, then, he thinks, for we are so
still, barely fifty. The sun is setting. He stands by the window, looking out to the opposite houses. Already there is music from the end of the street: West Indians, their party will be raucous. Never mind, never mind. He takes his C. T. Fernando record out of its sleeve, holds it carefully by the edges, blowing the dust
away gently into the last pink rays of the sunshine. When he places the needle onto the
of the grooves, he can smell poppadoms frying, he can feel the warmth of other air, he can hear the voices of people long left behind. And Victor’s eyes fill with tears, for there is no going back in his life, only the moving forward to better things. There is only the climb up steep green hills that signify this Britain. He sits gingerly on the sofa as if he were the guest and the sofa the host. “
Ma Bala Kale
,” C. T. sings, and Victor hums along, remembering that the poppadoms will not be fried until the evening.
Preethi is angry. Nandini is again talking of money, of wasted opportunities. She is talking about resolutions, and Preethi is tired of saying—
, I will work harder, I will forget that under this skin there is
. She wants to say—you know I’m slow, I’m not like Rohan and Gehan, I just can’t
what you want me to
. But she changes the subject. Talks about Clare, her friend from school, coming to the party.
“She’s got the whole of
on video. Sometimes we watch two episodes—”
“Watch? But I thought you studied together?”
“Yes. We do. But sometimes we take a break and watch—and it is by Evelyn Waugh. And you used to watch it with me.” Which wasn’t true, she thought—Ammi was always asleep on the sofa.
They are silent.
“So, who is coming tonight, Ammi?”
“Wesley and Siro. This one, Gertie—she is bringing that foster child of hers. And her brother. He’s done
well. He is here attending
“What? For the army? Which army?”
“The Sri Lankan army, fool.”
Preethi pauses for effect. “The Sri Lankan army who like to repress and murder Tamil people. You know, Tamil people like me and Dad?”
“Don’t be clever-clever. We left that behind, all that talk. You’re in England. Talk of English politics. How can you understand Sri Lanka? It is not ours to understand anymore.”
“That’s rubbish,” she starts, but her mother slaps her hand. It stings.
“Don’t say ‘rubbish’ to me. Do you think I would have said ‘rubbish’ to
Preethi washes her hands and, wiping them on her backside, edges around her mother’s chair in order to leave.
“Where are you going? Come and chop the rest of these onions, then peel the carrots and grate them.”
She wants to call Clare. Tell her to bring a bottle of wine, which they can sneak to her room and enjoy by themselves. She sits back down at the table and starts to peel the carrots.
“Onions first!” her mother says. It is going to be a long New Year’s Eve night, Preethi thinks. But tomorrow will be 1983, and something good should come of it.
Nandini finally in the shower, Victor takes another journey around the theatre of his house, imagining the characters who will be there shortly, seeing them stand with drinks in their hands, their colognes mixing with smoke, the perfumed silk-saried ladies perched on the chairs he has
placed around the sitting room and dining room. The table is laid: Rohan and Gehan helped Preethi by lifting it and pushing it into the centre, so that people can travel around it, serving from the various dishes Nandini has prepared. They argued this morning, about the expense of a party. Nandini said he should have asked fewer people. But he knows that not everyone will come. Nandini is tired all the time, he reminds himself: he had been on Preethi’s side. He would have let her go to college. She was happy at the local school. But Nandini took a second job, begged the private school to take Preethi on. Every penny is saved—no, he won’t think about it now. He wears a Nehru shirt, khaki, and cream slacks. He looks into the hall mirror, combs his floppy straight hair back into the quiff he has worn since he was eighteen. All his friends wear their hair this way.
The clock in the hall strikes seven. Gertie said she may come early, but the rest of the crowd are always late. Victor can hear the television upstairs in his bedroom. He helped Rohan carry it up there, in case the younger crowd got bored. He walks upstairs to see what they are watching. He looks around the door. His three children are lying on his double bed. Gehan holds the video buttons and leans on his elbows, flat out on his tummy. He is still a baby behind his glasses. Rohan and Preethi lie leisurely side by side, propped up by pillows. The tape finishes rewinding, and Gehan presses PLAY.
The familiar trumpet solo, the white words, and then the fade into a single face, a stilted Italian accent: “I believe in America.”
The Godfather, The Godfather
—it is all you watch,” he says from the doorway. They shush him. “Hmm, hmm—that can wait. Your mother will need to get ready. Enough, enough. Go and change, Gehan. Rohan.”
“I’m changed, Papa,” Preethi says.
“I know you are, darling. You look lovely,” he says as she walks past. He touches her face, pinches the burgundy satin of her dress. “Come and choose some music with me,” he says gently. “They will all be here soon.”
Preethi watches from her window for Clare. She managed to call, and Clare said to look out for her dad’s Mercedes. Clare is staying the night, as her parents are going to a party in a hotel in town. Down the road, there is laughter, reggae music, shouting. Preethi wishes she was there: all her friends at her old school were black. She misses Sonia and Marcia and Shanelle. She wonders if they are partying somewhere, maybe in that club in Peckham they used to go to.
She can see cars stopping on the street and people getting out. Saris, men in suits. She turns to her door: “Someone’s here! They’re here!”
Chitra and Richard don’t arrive until nine thirty. They have battled with public transport, pushed against the crowd on their way to Trafalgar Square, and now walk leisurely up to the door.
“Listen,” Chitra says. Richard pulls her to him and kisses her. “Listen,” she says again.
“Music. Baila music. And can you smell it? Can you smell the curry?”
She stands on the doorstep but doesn’t ring the bell. What will they say? The people who knew her before she left her husband for Richard will all be there, sitting as they
always do, in vicious eyeing circles around the room. But she cannot resist, and Victor said he wanted her to come. He insisted that she come. And she is proud of Richard, this famous writer, this gorgeous god with his shoulder-length, greying, Byronesque hair. Suddenly the door opens, and she peers in as Preethi throws her arms wide.
“Aunty! Come, come!” and they are pulled into the warm embrace of the party.
Victor knows they are expecting him to say something. Nandini has indicated with a nod that the food is ready to serve. He looks around him, from face to face. There are thirty or forty people there, talking, laughing, some kissing on either cheek. Mr. Basit is sitting in the centre of the sofa, his wife, Rita, perched on the arm next to him; Jenny, their daughter, is upstairs. Nandini is not happy, because Mr. Basit brought a bottle of whisky and insisted that Victor try some. Victor gave up drinking in the summer of ’77, the same week Elvis died. But Victor respects Mr. Basit, and it is an honour that he brought such a special bottle of whisky—old whisky, Basit says. Victor had opened the bottle, taken cut-glass tumblers from the kitchen (Nandini had specifically told him earlier that only plastic cups must be used), and poured a glass for Mr. Basit, a glass for Wesley, a glass for Hugo, a glass for Mr. Chatterjee, and a glass for himself. He had not offered any to Kumar, Shamini’s cousin, even though he had slinked about the back door, purring obsequiously at Victor. Nasty-looking fellow, drunk when he got here, Wesley said. They had stood together outside in the garden, five friends, toasting the New Year. It had been a quiet moment of clarity, filled with the resonance of the cold, bell-like clinking of their
glasses. They had all knocked the drink back, in one, as they would have done with arrack in Sri Lanka. And the salt harshness of the spirit on his lips dances there still. He looks around at the party, and he sees them all in the swimmer’s gaze of a whiskied moment. Nandini’s eyes shine black and hard as he raises his glass and shouts, “Friends! A toast! Here is—I mean—
!” and he stumbles a little, and laughs. “Time to eat, time to eat …”