Everyone says I was born like this because amma was not in her right mind when she had me.
Maybe everyone is right because I was there when I was born. I watched amma as she held me and as she looked at me. I looked at her looking at me. There was nothing on her face, like when you wipe a whiteboard clean. She looked at me with her whiteboard clean face and I thought yes, I understand. I understand that this is what it means to be alive.
The lady in blue pyjamas said, she’s so beautiful.
Amma said, I have a son. I do not know where he is.
The nurse’s face went all strange which I know now is because she felt uncomfortable.
– I’m sorry to hear that. But you have a daughter now. Isn’t she wonderful?
– I have a son. They took him away.
The nurse looked at the man who I would call appa when I could say it, and he just shook his head and his face went down low. I now know that was because he was sad.
No-one ever tells me what’s wrong with me. They whisper things when they think I can’t hear or when they thought I wouldn’t understand. Lots of words beginning with A, lots of words with disorder at the end of the phrase. All the doctors who see me say that’s not right and because Tamil people trust doctors, they stopped using those words for a while.
Instead they started looking at me strange. Corner-eye-pinched-chin looks and they make me stand away from their children. In the photographs of behind the cake birthday parties, I am a circling moon. If they believe I do not have a disorder, they also believe that I am not normal. They do not blame me though. They blame amma instead:
– With a mad mother, how could the child be any different?
– You know what she said when they told her that she was pregnant? She said that was alright, because her eldest would help! They hadn’t seen or heard from the boy for more than a year and still! Everyone understands what happened. Everyone but her.
– She’s not in her right mind. It’s not her fault but she needs to try at least.
– She’s never tried. Even when the girl was born, she made no effort, you know? It’s not right. What kind of mother is she?
– We really thought moving to London would help. You know her brother re-mortgaged his house to bring her over? She was four months pregnant already and everyone knew she had lost her mind. Her brother thought a new place would help, that London would help. He’s a good man, he’s tried so hard. He didn’t even have the money then. But she came over and didn’t even try and carried on like before.
– You know she used to sit by the road in Jaffna and cry? Cry and cry and cry.
– I know! She used to sit in the dirt with all the other mothers, you know, the ones who had lost their children too. She would sit in the dirt and just cry.
– You know, when she came here, she tried to do that too? She tried to sit by the main road in Wembley and cry.
– You know, it’s her husband I feel sorry for. Poor man.
– You know he made another baby with her because he thought it would help? Thought it would move her on? Poor man.
– Poor man. Poor child too, although she makes my skin crawl.
– What’s wrong with her?
– The doctors say nothing, but something isn’t right about her either.
– Pity. She’s beautiful when you don’t talk to her. You know, a bit dark but nice features.
– Yes, when she isn’t moving or talking or looking at you, she is quite beautiful. Nice features.
They said this on my fourth birthday. And then at my fifth birthday. And again, on my sixth. And my seventh, eighth and ninth. They will probably say all this on my tenth birthday, too.
They always say you know, you know, you know. They do know because they have said all of this before. There is nothing new to know. They like the repetition, I think. They like feeling and tasting all the words in their mouths again and again. They hold our stories in their mouths and chew like bubble gum. They chew down on the same A words, the same kind words, the same pretend nice words, even when I want them to spit it all out.
I understand though, because I like saying the same words again and again too. But I like saying my name best. I say it on one breath like this:
And then I say it backwards like this:
One of my breaths can hold thirty Mayas but only twenty Yamas. I’m not allowed to say the Yamas loudly though, because that is the name of the God of Death and I should know better than to bug him too much.
Amma likes saying my brother’s name best. She likes to chew on Theepan’s story instead. He was born in 1991, when amma was twenty. This is important, because it means that when they took him in 2008, he wasn’t eighteen yet, he was still amma’s baby. It means he is now nearly twenty-eight, which means he is nearly eighteen years older than I am. They took him away because Theepan anna used to do some jobs for the Tigers. I sometimes imagine Theepan anna shaking hands with orangey-black, big paw cats even though I know the Tigers were the people who fought the Army in the War.
Uncles brown-liquid-wobbly cry that they were freedom fighters.
The internet written by people I don’t know say they were terrorists.
Amma just says TheepanTheepanTheepan.
Amma says he bought them things. Everyone was meant to stay inside because of the fighting but it’s hard to stay inside without money, so he would go to the shops for the Tigers who were in their camouflage stripe uniform and buy them cigarettes or biscuits or whatever they asked for, and they would pay him in small, dark coins.
When the war was ending, the Government came in white vans and said, it’s ok that you helped the Tigers, we understand. Come with us. They are about to lose. Surrender, come with us, we can help you. We will forgive you.
Amma begged and begged him not to go. She said it was a trap. She says she knew then, that she always knew. But appa said it would be ok and that this was the best thing to do, so Theepan left with them. He never came back.
They took him, amma says again and again. They took him and I don’t know where. But when he comes home, what is he going to do? We are not there. His amma is not there. When he comes home, there will be strangers in his house. How will he know we’re here? Your father didn’t want to think about it, the bastard. He said it was more important to pack up and figure out how to get to London. He didn’t care about how Theepan would know where we are. That’s because men do not care about these things. Mothers do. Mothers always care. So, what did I do? What did I do? I wrote it on our walls. You remember our house?
I was in her tummy when we left Sri Lanka but I do remember our house. I saw it through amma’s eyes, I heard it through the skin of her belly. We lived in a small house with white walls. There was an open veranda where you could sit when it was really hot inside. The windows had wooden bars, but no glass. There was a fence made of large brown palmyra leaves that went all around our house. It was always hot. At night, you could hear the cicadas. During the day, when you said something that would come true, the house gecko would chirp.
Amma says, the gecko chirped that night, did you know? It knew what I was going to do and it knew it was right and it knew Theepan would come home. I wrote on the walls. I wrote LOOK WHERE I ALWAYS TELL YOU TO LOOK in the kunkumum we use for prayers. I mixed that red kunkumum powder with water and painted it on. When your father saw it the next day, he looked sad and angry, but we had to leave so he couldn’t do anything. That’s why I waited until the last night. That was the night the gecko chirped. And Theepan would know what I meant. We used to hide money and our jewellery in a hole by the well in the garden. You remember that well, yes?
I do remember it. It was a round cement well. The top of the well came above amma’s tummy, so that when she pulled up water from it, I could feel the coldness of the cement well through her sari.
– I wrote him a letter and put it in the plastic tub in the hole next to the well, there where the earth was wet and giving. We used to hide our money and jewellery there from the Army when they came to raid our home. But we couldn’t hide all our livestock so they would take those instead. They took our cows, our goats. You know I had two chickens. Do you remember them?
I do remember them. I felt them through amma’s long fingers when she combed their feathers. I heard their bird-brain chatter and their dinosaur-heart patter when they lay in amma’s thin lap.
– I loved those chickens. They were beautiful, with supermodel long legs. Nothing like those squat dumb-dumbs here, walking around with their arses brushing the grass. I raised them from eggs. They were female and they laid eggs only for me. Only I could ask them for eggs. I would sit with them and pat their backs and say, please Kumari, please Gowri, please lay some eggs for me to eat, and they would put their head in my lap and their eyes would say, yes Shanthi, for you we will lay eggs. And the next morning, there would be eggs for me. Do you remember them?
Yes, I remember eating their eggs in the morning, feeling it slip down amma’s throat and slowly sliding its way to me.
– When the Army would come and take our things, I would hide because I knew what they did to other women in the town. I hid with the chickens because I knew they were taking livestock and I would sit in the cupboard in the shrine room and tell the chickens not to cluck and not to make a noise. And they never did. But one day the Army soldiers came without warning. The dogs didn’t even get a chance to bark. I was already in the house when I saw them out the window. I didn’t have time to get the chickens. I called to them in my head, I told them to hide but maybe they didn’t hear me or maybe it was too late. The Army camp was so close, too close to us. I smelt the fried chicken all night.
I was only very small in amma’s tummy, but I can remember the smell of chicken in her blood, her fear and grief. When she grew me in her tummy, I was fed with all that blood. She grew my toes and fingers and nose with all that blood.
Amma says, Theepan knew about the hole where we would hide the money. I left him a letter there, written on a page torn from his exercise book. He was always very clever. He was going to be a doctor. Maybe he’s a doctor now.
Amma’s face looks bright and happy.
– I left him a letter telling him that we had gone to London and that he should call his uncle so that he could come join us. I had to leave him a note. I didn’t trust anyone to tell him this. My parents wouldn’t listen to me. They told me not to be silly, that everyone knew Theepan wouldn’t come back. But the gecko chirped that night, so I know, I know he will.
She smiles at me from her bed. Her grey hair is spread around her pillow. I used to sleep next to her in this bed. I would cuddle up to her after she fell asleep, but the same thing happened every night until appa said I had to sleep in my own room. I didn’t mind amma’s nightmares. She would stretch tight and long when they started. When I felt her body go straight and hard, I would wake up. I would watch her face remain flat and still. And then her mouth would fall open like a sink hole drain and she would scream.
She would scream in Tamil, scream in languages I’ve never heard before.
She would call out for Theepan and call out for the gods. She told him not to get into the van. She told him not to leave the house. She told him that she loved him. She told him that she was sorry that she left him. She told him to forgive her.
All the time, I would stroke her hair and not make a noise whilst she screamed. Sooner or later, appa would come into the room and see us there. Amma eyes closed and mouth open, me sitting above her and stroking her hair gently.
– Wake her up, for God’s sake, wake her up, appa would say.
He would shake her by the shoulder and yell her name. Amma would come out of the dream like a cartoon character dragged out of quicksand. Slowly, stretchingly at first and then all at once with a pop.
– Why didn’t you wake her, appa always asked me. I never thought she needed to be.
I sleep in my own room now, but I can still see amma’s dreams through the walls. In my sleep, I can see the colours of her dream, like when you look into the light and then close your eyes to see all the brightness dance around behind your eyelids. I can feel the water of the river. I know the crocodiles are close by. I can sense their reptile brain smelling out the new monkey-shapes and smells. I know they will do something horrific that is not their fault. I know they will haunt amma in all her dreams. I can feel her stretch out her hand for my brother who is in the back of a white van and in the river and in the crocodiles all at once. In the place where she grew us both, she feels that he is still as rocks and does not move. She can hear a burst of thunder and sees her boy fall. She stretches out her hand for him, but he will not take it because he cannot. He is in the van, in the river, in the crocodile and in my mother.
I see the shape of her dreams always.
When the fireworks go off for the New Year, I pretend they’re actually for me. That the firework people are so excited for my birthday that they just couldn’t help themselves and set them all off three weeks early. As we watch the fireworks on the TV, amma asks me, what do you want for your birthday?
I say what I say every year because I know it will make her happy.
I want Theepan anna to come home.
I do not say that what I want is a bike.
This year, she promises. This year, he’ll come.
She takes my small hand in her cold ones and squeezes tight. I squeeze back.