The day I shifted into 27 Carlton Hill, a seven minute walk from Leeds University, Ahalya fed me lunch. Steamed rice, yellow dal with coriander, eggplant in coconut gravy, and dry fish cooked in a red pumpkin chilly sauce.
Ten minutes earlier she had held out her hand, her two thin gold bangles nestling closely at her wrist. Hello, I’m Ahalya.
She stood at her bedroom door, leaning against the jamb, left hand scrunched deep inside the pocket of her pink hoodie, watching me drag a carton of books across the landing. Her electric blue skirt covered a radius of around three inches on the floor.
I held out my hand, breathless. Hello, nice to meet you. I’m Uma.
She smiled and a little half moon scar ran out from the right corner of her lip, turning upward.
Do you have a TV license? she asked, indicating the old portable television set I held in the crook of my left arm.
Do I need one? But I’ve only had it for a short while! I shifted the TV set to the other side, its half circle antenna quivering.
It was actually Divya’s given to me when she left for India two months ago. Since then I have not missed an episode of Top of the Pops or the Antiques Roadshow.
You need a license to watch TV here. But it’s ok, I have one. Not to worry.
She smiled again, even white teeth against the deep tan of her skin, softening the sharp planes of her cheekbones, her half moon scar furrowing deep into faint laughter lines.
The house was kind of run down, sitting awkwardly at the bottom of the slope at the end of a row of equally run down terraced houses, the roof pulled low over its walls like a slouchy hat. Scraggly overgrown grass loitered in the small approach leading to the house, faded red carpets ran across the living room and up the stairs. A mingled smell of damp and citrus air freshener hung in the air, sharp and heavy at the same time, like a pair of well-kept secrets. Three bedrooms upstairs, kitchen and living room downstairs. My room had just enough space to hold a bed, table, and bookshelf. The window looked out to the rugged tops of terraced houses and a stretch of sky.
Almost five when I finished stacking the last carton by the bookshelf, I called out to Ahalya, running down the cramped stairs. I’ll see you in a while.
She came out of her room, looking down at me from the landing. Where you going?
To get something to eat. I skipped lunch today.
She furrowed her brow. But why go out to eat? There’s food at home.
I hesitated. Thanks. But …
Don’t go out to eat.
She came down the stairs, briskly walking past me to the kitchen. I heard the fridge door shut, the double, triple beeps of the microwave, the clatter of plates.
Stepping into the kitchen I saw the casseroles neatly laid out on the dining table.
Sit, she said simply, scooping rice and dal onto a bright yellow dinner plate. Outside, as if on cue, the rain came down in a rush, splattering the kitchen windows in straight sheets, deepening the gray outside. Twisting shadow lines unfurled from the patterned lampshade over the dining table. She scooped more eggplant onto my plate, more dal, some more dry fish curry, sitting down to watch me eat, leaning in with her elbows on the table, familiarity slowly creeping around us like a purring cat.
By the way, I’m from Sri Lanka, she said.
I’m from India. Doing my M.A. here at Leeds University.
Yes I know. The landlord told me. By the way, welcome to the house.
Days and weeks segued into a pattern, our lives, playing along the grooves of classrooms and corridors and libraries, clicking into place comfortably with Sunday afternoon ginger teas, grocery shopping at Abubakar, and happy hour buffets at the Thai Lotus and China Dragon. We labeled our spice jars, took up part time jobs, oiled our hair every Saturday night with warm coconut oil, lit our bookshelf altars with jasmine scented tea lights, and spent dark rainy evenings in the kitchen cooking and stacking up our stories like marbles in a cookie jar. Of coconut gardens and army planes and monsoon rains and the bluest sea. Landmines, landslides, grandmothers and grandfathers, mad aunts and favorite cousins, our easy trail of a thousand and one stories, stretching from Jorhat to Jaffna.
When it rains in Assam, it pours like buckets of water. Not like this, I said, looking out to the rain, drizzling like fragile confetti, outside the kitchen window. We were cooking in the kitchen, making dinner, stirring little eddies of conversation.
It’s the same in Jaffna, she said, adding coconut milk to the wilting spinach and onions in the sauté pan.
So much rain and the garden would fill up with water. And we would make paper boats out of our exercise books and set them to sail. After the rain, I used to go out in the garden, looking for my boats. I used to think about the ones I couldn’t find. I was sure they had found their way to the sea.
But I was only a little girl. She smiled.
I told her how the monsoons washed away everything in my hometown, carpets, tables, chairs and TV sets, caking the road with red soil afterwards, filling up the Brahmaputra which crawled up the banks and sat obstinately on the main streets, the ferries bobbing close behind like sly accomplices.
She remembered the Jaffna rains, the sky splitting thunder, lightning streaking across the sky like the forked tongues of a ten headed snake, waking her up in the middle of a rainy night, drenched in sweat, unable to speak.
My grandmother said, let her be, the rain will bring her voice back. Twelve months later, I spoke again, sitting in the verandah, watching the monsoon break in.
Sometimes we brought back the debris of the day to 27 Carlton Hill, a scratched heart, a lost pen or skewed paperclips that wouldn’t hold the pages together. Ahalya tried to explain how Grierson patted her head, trying to describe the exact way his hand lightly brushed the nape of her neck. She tried to connect the dots between her new coat and something she said and something he said. But they didn’t quite connect in a comforting way. But we were bound together by what couldn’t be explained, curling up like smoke inside our hearts, throbbing with the certainty of things we knew well.
Just be careful next time okay? I mean, you know …
Yes she said.
It was quiet in the kitchen, smelling of fresh hot rice and eggplant curry. Upstairs, we could hear Elaine on the phone, agitated, floorboards creaking angrily as she paced around her room.
Later we sat cross-legged on her bed, painting our nails scarlet red, warmed by the radiator, the cold November wind howling outside, talking of marriage proposals from unsuitable boys.
I would like to be married you know, Ahalya said.
I kept quiet.
I’m 32. I’m just getting older. And I finish my Ph.D. next year.
But where are the boys? She suddenly frowned, rubbing out the red polish, which had spilled out from the edges of a toenail.
Appa sends me phone numbers. He says Ahalya talk to them and I talk to them and all they want is to come over here. I don’t think they want me.
It was suddenly quiet outside. The rain and wind had died down.
You know, I don’t mind going back to Sri Lanka provided I find a good boy.
Ahalya dreamed of Jaffna. Of spicy fried fish dipped in golden batter and sold on the beach, of college boys preening themselves in motorcycle mirrors, of airplanes dropping bombs.
Those memories refused to die away, snuggling along the jagged edges of the life she held on to, seeping in like rainwater through cracked walls. Her two brothers were in London.
They had arrived as illegal refugees, seeking political asylum. They were never going to be able to go back home. She had wanted to escape Jaffna, any way she could, through marriage, a job, whatever. The crackdowns, the camps, soldiers on the streets, boys disappearing, fear, anxiety, anger, war, death, of knowing, yet not knowing, the smell of desperation just waiting a few steps round the corner, of endless questions and very few answers. She left Jaffna on a cloudy afternoon, student visa in her hand, boarding an Air Lanka flight for London.
But though the little piece of land that curved like a bird’s beak, the palmyrah trees, the salty sea, boats, bridges, bicycles, remained where they were, they still crossed over with her, jostling for space with the memory of flowering purple bougainvillea and a clear blue sky on the road to Karainagar beach. And so she carved her own kingdom in the sand and stuck her little red flag in it, her Jaffna of the mind, stretching her roots so deep they clawed back into her heart and wouldn’t let her sleep, her jagged little memories of sky, sea and tsunamis, of arriving and leaving, again and again.
It was the end of November and summer was months away but Ahalya declared, we’ll go for a picnic this summer. She was leaning against the kitchen counter, watching me, her long hair open to the waist, twisting her gold chain in concentric loops.
Summer is a long way off, I said.
Yes, but doesn’t mean we can’t plan. She proceeded to list all the things that we would need to buy for the mini barbecue: chicken, crabs, mushrooms, prawns, the portable barbecue grill from Morrison’s, plastic crockery from the pound shop, the chilli marinade for the chicken skewers, garlic for the crab, and of course, orange juice.
It was the promise of summer that Ahalya wanted, unfolding in blue skies and warm sunshine.
Maybe we can even plan a day trip to Scarborough! What do you think, Uma?
Maybe Scarborough will be a little like Jaffna.
On a cold December morning, at the start of the Christmas holidays, Ahalya left for Jaffna, wearing a gray overcoat, her long black hair twisted in a braided bun, carrying toys for her baby nephew and cardigans for her mother, packed into two neat trolley suitcases.
I’ll see you soon. Be good, she said, hugging me tight.
As the cab pulled away I thought what if she seriously followed up on that job application to Colombo University or what if she found a suitable boy. Without her, I thought of my days piling up like unfinished homework. I wished her back almost as soon as she was gone.
Ahalya came back to Leeds forty-three days later, carrying packets of dry fish, joss sticks, sandalwood soaps, spices and coconut sweets.
You have to see pictures of my nephew! She said.
And here’s something for you. She opened her suitcase, and carefully pulled out her present for me, a jade green silk skirt and blouse wrapped in shiny cellophane paper.
Now that we both have the same skirts, we can call ourselves the Pattu Pavadai Girls, she laughed as I admired the fall of the silk around my legs, bordered by a temple design in yellow and silver.
Later, stuffing ourselves with coconut sweets we spread the photographs on her bed in twelve neat lines going over the uncles, aunts, cousins, once, twice, thrice removed, her mother with a fixed smile and jasmine in her hair, her father always stiff and gaunt in the background, her brothers in photographs mounted in ornate frames on salmon pink walls, the purple bougainvillea clambering wildly over the fence as her parents stood unsmiling in the sun, holding her sister’s baby. There were pictures of the baby naming ceremony, of the neighbors, the flower beds, of her mother in the kitchen, her aunts, the kolam (drawing of rice flour on the floor), the sky from the terrace, over the tops of the neighboring houses, her six weeks frozen in sixty five photographs to last her till next Christmas.
What happened to the job application in Colombo? I asked her.
The interviews were postponed. The woman couldn’t tell me when they’ll announce the next dates. Or maybe wouldn’t. She sighed.
I moved out of 27 Carlton Hill before summer arrived, on a chilly March morning, packing my belongings into a suitcase and two cartons, moving into a shared apartment in Headingley with two other girls. The landlord refused to give me a refund of the hundred pounds security deposit because I hadn’t given him a month’s notice, but by then I didn’t care. I just wanted to leave. Ahalya’s presence hung over the house like a layer of sleet seeping through the slates on the roof to the timbers and slats, staining the walls and creeping into my dreams, following me down the stairs and into the kitchen, and back to my room again. I ate muesli and sandwiches in my room and stayed awake at nights, watching the shadows dance, having imaginary conversations. Her brother drove down from London to collect her belongings. We sat in the kitchen, across the table from each other, a stranger I knew only by name and from a photograph in a photograph, Ahalya stretched like a shadow between us. He drove away as silently as he had come. The police came calling twice, asking questions, letting me know it was just a matter of time before they arrested the suspects. I wondered what Ahalya would say. That it just didn’t matter anymore? Or would she exhale in relief, finding some justice after all?
In the split second when the car screeched to a stop behind her and the men rushed out towards her, how did Ahalya feel? Did fear rise up like thick black tar and clutch around her heart? Did she feel like she has been through this before, when the same thick black tar clutched around her heart and rose up her throat, as they fled Jaffna town in the night, soldiers at their heels, planes raining bombs, crossing the lagoon to Vanni. When they snatched at her shoulder bag, and pushed her down, her head hitting the side of the concrete pavement, splitting her skull open, and kicked at her face and chest, did she think, This isn’t supposed to happen, not here. I have already crossed the lagoon to safety.
Debjani Mukherjee trained as a filmmaker and then went on to get a masters in Communication Studies from the University of Leeds. She has worked in academia and also has her own independent production company, producing human interest shorts and documentaries. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Judges comments: “Ahalya” traces the journey of a friendship with warmth and nostalgia. We felt that this quiet story, with its rich description and surprising metaphors, showed a strong command of characterization and voice.”
The judges were Tania James and Amit Majmudar.
Tania James is the author of a novel, Atlas of Unknowns. Her most recent book is Aerogrammes and Other Stories, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The San Francisco Chronicle, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal, as well as a New York Times Editor’s Choice.
Amit Majmudar is a novelist, poet, and diagnostic nuclear radiologist and was a Katha Short Story contest winner himself for two years in a row. His first novel, Partitions, and two poetry collections were published to wide acclaim. His most recent novel is The Abundance. Visit www.amitmajmudar.