On Sal Mal Lane1979

The Listeners 

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

The Herath children were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane. It was not simply the neatness of their clothes, washed, sun-dried, and ironed for them by the live-in servant, or their clean fingernails, or the middle parting on their heads for the girls, on the side for the boys, or their broad foreheads and wise eyes, or even the fact that they didn’t smile very often, some inner disquiet keeping their features still. It wasn’t their music-making or their devout following of deities of all faiths who came and went through their house with the predictability of monsoon rains. It was the way they stood together even when they were apart. There was never a single Herath child in a conversation, there were four; every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together.

These things, discovered as the months wore on, came to bear upon a day of loss, a day crystallized into a moment that the whole neighborhood, yes, even those who had encouraged such a day, would have done anything to take back, a day that defined and sundered all of their lives. But let us return to the beginning, to the year when, in a pillared parliamentary building that had been constructed overlooking a wind-nudged blue ocean, a measure was passed under the title the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It was an act that built upon a previous one, an act declaring a State of Emergency, the kind of declaration that made adults skittish, elevated small quarrels into full-blown hatreds, and scuttled the best of intentions, for how could goodwill exist under such preparedness for chaos, such expectations of anarchy? The only goodwill to be had was among children unaware of such declarations, children like the ones on Sal Mal Lane, children moving into a new home that brought with it the possibility of new friends. Let us return then to the first days of that year, the days that filled so many people with hope for what the new family would bring to them. Let us pay attention to their words, to the way they enter this house, alone and together, close or from a distance, intent and wish inseparable. Let us return to observe the very first day that foretold all the days that followed.

On the day that the Heraths moved in to the last empty house on Sal Mal Lane, the one located exactly at the center where the broad road angled, slightly, to continue uphill, the Herath children happened to be learning hymns and hallelujahs from their mother. The children’s mother, Mrs. Herath, herself a staunch Buddhist, was given to taking on other faiths based solely on the musicality of their songs, faiths of which she partook like others tasted of side dishes, little plates piled high with crispy fish cutlets and vegetable patties. Right now she was going through a Jesus phase, having not yet discovered the chants of the modern Hindu sage Sathya Sai Baba. On the very first afternoon, even before she tended to her anthuriums and pride of Japans and other potted plants that had been brought over in an old borrowed Citroën, she sat at their piano and played while her sons and daughters, two of each, belted out “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” in perfect harmony.

In the house across the street, an old man, Mr. Niles, long confined to spending his days reclining in his armchair in languorous apathy, stirred. With some degree of exertion he pulled himself up to a sitting position and listened. Although he was, himself, raised in the Catholic tradition, it was not the familiar hymns that moved him, but the voices. He tilted his face this way and that, trying to untangle them, one from the other. He picked out four distinct voices: one imbued with refinement, the word endings clear and elegant, the notes held to beat; another sensitive and rich, the melody heroic; and a third that did not seem to care for timing and so was lifted with a too-soon, too-late delight that was refreshing. The last, a boy’s voice, he could not place. It seemed both dogged and resigned. Earnest, as though he wanted to please, yet not entirely committed to this particular form of pleasing, it wavered between ardent expression and the mere articulation of melancholy words set to music. Mr. Niles listened more intently to that voice, which spoke of a spirit that required soothing, curious as to what could trouble a boy so young. Unseen by anybody, not even his wife and daughter, each busy with her own weekend preoccupations, he listened through that afternoon, piecing together the unuttered feelings that lay beneath those angelic voices, conjuring up an image of each child and imagining a life for them in the house into which they had moved.

This house was very much like every other house down Sal Mal Lane, rudimentary if with a little style added by the verandas at the front and the back, both shaded by crisscross wooden half trellises, and the bordering hedges that rimmed all but two of the front gardens. At its heart was a large open space that Mrs. Herath had turned into a sitting room and whose focus was the upright piano. At the back of the house, Mrs. Herath had chosen to install her dining room, which, therefore, sat right next to the kitchen in defiance of the centuries-long tradition that dictated a dining table never to recall the kitchen in which food is prepared. The children shared two rooms, she and Mr. Herath shared a third, and the live-in servant, Kamala, was given the storeroom tucked next to a garage for which Mrs. Herath had found no good use since they did not own a car. Nobody down Sal Mal Lane, a dead end traversed almost exclusively by people on foot, owned a car except for Mr. Niles, who could no longer drive it, but this did not matter since all the neighbors felt able to ask for its use when necessary, and all the neighbors glanced with distant possessiveness at their empty garages and contemplated a future date on which they might convert them into fee-charging flats.

The real reason that Mrs. Herath had wanted this particular house, however, was the potential for a real garden that would meander wide on three sides around her home, the fourth side dedicated to a shared driveway. Unlike her neighbors’ properties, which were graced by plumes of dancing hibiscus, bunches of creamy gardenias, and bold thrusts of anthuriums, her own, untended for many years by a previous owner, seemed barren. In little more than a year Mrs. Herath’s garden would become a showpiece, decked with ferns, flowering bushes, and fragrant varieties of orchids that many of her neighbors had not heard of, she would become an authority on landscaping, and all the little flower thieves who lived down other lanes would flock to her garden in the early-morning hours and reach for her flowers like large butterflies. Today, however, her garden was depleted and the one person staring at it as he stood, hatless and scorched in the still, noonday heat, wondered why the children who had come to inhabit it, smartly dressed as they were, did not seem less pleased with their surroundings.

Sonna, the Bollings’ son, fourteen years of age, had spent the day leaning against his uncle’s gate, watching the activity across the street. He had arrived that morning dressed in his Sunday churchgoing clothes, though if someone had pointed out that he was trying to present himself at his best, he would have denied it. Sonna had come to assess potential, which, in his mind, meant one of two things: the ability to bully others or being susceptible to bullying. He had watched the children all day, his face arranged in an expression between scorn and disinterest, trying to gauge to which category they belonged. So far he had not been able to tell, and not even his uncle, Raju, who peered over the gate with him, had a definite opinion.

“Can’t tell if they are good or not till we talk to them,” his uncle said at last, hitching up his loose trousers as he went inside.

Sonna continued to watch. The boys were not muscular, they were lanky and long-fingered, their mouths full and at ease, which augured well for classifying them as victims. Yet there had been a steadfastness to their gaze when they had first seen him that confused Sonna. They had nodded, their arms full of bags and boxes filled with books, but had not smiled, which he took to mean that they, too, were able to judge character and had him pegged as a neighbor but not one they were likely to befriend. He spat into the ground. They were adversaries, those boys, though the source of their strength was not one that he could identify. The girls, too, had resisted the title of victim that he yearned to pin on them, they with their matching dresses and their laughter. They resisted it by not noticing him at all, though how was that possible? He was tall, good-looking, and strong— and standing right across the street from them! He had been standing there for hours. How could they not have noticed?

“Fuckin’ snobs,” he said to his uncle, who had come back out to ask him if he wanted some tea. “Think they’re too good for us. Probably only wan’ to talk to the Silva boys. Probably jus’ like them. We’ll see about that. We’ll see how they manage to live here without talkin’ to us Bollings. Think they can jus’ talk to themselves?”

“Maybe they are busy today, moving and all,” Raju told his nephew. To be proximate to Sonna when he was not happy was not something that Raju ever enjoyed; in the end he always wound up being clobbered for nothing he had said or done. “Youngest looks sweet,” he added, watching the little girl, who had abandoned her siblings and was skipping in the veranda, the rope smacking rhythmically both on the floor and on the ceiling above her. After a while she called out to someone they could not see, dropped the rope, and ran inside. Raju craned his neck toward the front doors of the house through which the children had disappeared, one by one. From inside came the strains of a piano being played.

“Din’ even smile once,” Sonna muttered.

Raju lowered his head, anticipating trouble. He tried to think of something soothing to say, knowing, as he had known on every other such occasion, that words would fail him.


Freeman, Ru (Brenda Carpenter)RU FREEMAN is the author of the novels On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl, which was a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and has been translated into seven languages. She is an activist and journalist whose work appears internationally. She calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

Adapted from On Sal Mal Lane, by Ru Freeman. Copyright © 2013 by Ru Freeman. With the permission of the publisher, Graywolf Press.

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