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Jill Marie Jarvis is a writer hailing from the Northwestern United States, but has made her home in New York City. She has taught literature and writing to college-bound high school students from low-income neighborhoods of the city. She is also a graduate student in the Creative Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, where she is working on her first novel. As the recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship, Jill Jarvis has lived and studied in Sri Lanka; the focus of her studies there was upon the diversity of Sri Lanka’s religious communities and the Sinhala language.

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Indunil would have tea prepared and hot at the moment Ana arrived. It was difficult to anticipate what time this would be, so she set five scoops of high-grade black tea leaves aside in the metal flask. Dhammika had brought this packet from his visit to a friend’s upcountry tea estate near Nuwara Eliya last weekend. Indunil was glad to have these leaves; their scent was textured and deep, and the taste would be far richer than the medium grade teas in plastic packages at the Kandy Central Market or Cargill’s Food City where she usually shopped. She set the tea strainer on the tray beside six china teacups and saucers – one for her husband, one for her father, one for each of her two children, one for herself, and a new one that would belong to Ana for as long as she stayed with them. Six months certainly, Ana had written in her last letter, but perhaps a year. Indunil hoped for a year, or more. She set a packet of Maliban lemon biscuits, sweet moong caoung left over from the Sinhala New Year in mid-April, and a comb of bananas on the tray. There was another tin cup, not on the tray but beside it on the white-tiled counter, for Sita, her house helper, who slept on a grass mat on the kitchen floor and once a month visited her family in a small village somewhere along the Ampitiya road. Though Sita had said its name a few times, she usually referred to her home as ‘apee gama,’ our village, and Indunil could never, when asked, recall its actual name.

In today’s tea, Indunil would use fresh cow milk instead of the usual Milo milk powder. Amarasinghe had come up the road this morning, sarong hitched up between his knobby legs, braying like a siren to announce the price of the clinking glass bottles of warm milk he carried. Indunil dissolved several spoonfuls of sugar into the milk in a separate flask and then put the flask in the small refrigerator beneath the counter in one corner of the kitchen. The water was in the electric water heater, waiting for the flip of a switch. Indunil had already boiled it for twenty minutes that morning; a foreigner’s stomach could be sensitive, and better not to take risks, she thought, though she herself knew that Kandy’s water was perfectly clean. Ana would certainly be tired. Tea would be the perfect thing.

But now it was only half past two in the afternoon. Indunil calculated yet again. In a letter posted from Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. two weeks earlier, Ana had outlined the itinerary that would end at 159 Rajapihilla Mawatha: SeaTac to Tokyo Narita, Narita to Bangkok, Bangkok to Colombo Katunayaka, scheduled arrival at 11:25 a.m. Ana would then travel to Kandy in a hired van rather than struggling with all her luggage into Colombo to catch the train or the intercity bus. If she had arrived at Katunayaka on time, which, given AirLanka’s reputation of being ‘Always Late’, was highly unlikely, then Ana may have met her hired van by 12:30 for the three hour drive up the mountains to Kandy. Three hours in good traffic, Indunil thought, refiguring to allow for the possible

accidents on the mountain road or for the after-school traffic crush that clogged Kandy’s streets. Perhaps Ana would telephone on disembarkation? But if so, shouldn’t she have rung by now? Did she say that she would ring? Indunil left the tea spread and Sita chopping vegetables in the kitchen, a small knot of anxiety tightening in her belly.

Ana’s most recent letter, detailing her itinerary, rested where Indunil had left it in the lacquered letterbox affixed to the wall by the entryway; she went to the front room to retrieve it. She removed the letter from its soft-edged envelope and unfolded it as she already had so many times. The handwriting was broad-stroked and slanting, not rounded and curling and contained in the Sinhalized way that Sri Lankans write their English, the penmanship of someone with thoughts too quick and large for her own hand. Indunil’s eyes scanned the page, which she already had memorized, but found no hidden indication that Ana intended to telephone. What to do but wait, then, and be ready when she came?

Usually, by this time in the afternoon, Indunil would have been pressed, dressed and ready to go out in the van with Herath, the driver, to collect Namith and Savisha when their schools let out at three. But today Dhammika would leave in the blue Mercedes from his jewelry shop beside the Queens Hotel to drive first to Trinity Boys’ College and then to Mahamaya Girls’ College to pluck them from the white-clad throngs of Kandy’s schoolchildren. Then he, instead of Indunil, would shepherd them to elocution tuition class at Mrs. Perera’s on Old Peradeniya road. Indunil snorted smugly to herself when she thought of the irritation on Dhammika’s face over breakfast, his eyes riveted on her from across their unpolished wooden breakfast table, his right hand arrested in its trajectory toward his mouth with a bit of hopper and onion sambol.

“But the shop, Manique, I can’t be going off in the afternoon just like that…” He used her childhood nickname whenever trying to coerce her into something against her will. His hand finished its journey; he chewed and swallowed the bite of food, then stared at his wife. Indunil was unmoved.

“There’s dinner to prepare and Ana arriving today; she might at any time come and so don’t you agree I should be here to greet her? What will she think if…? Dhammi, you go and collect the children, then come. My god, man, it’s only for today.”

Dhammika conceded, but grudgingly; boarding an American researcher was Indunil’s idea, not his. She had gotten the idea from a posting on the British Council bulletin board

months ago, and here the girl was about to arrive. Without question, he would be a gracious and generous host, but was instinctively wary of this early indication that having a houseguest would somehow excuse Indunil from her usual responsibilities.

Indunil refolded the letter, slid it back into its envelope, and returned it to its place with the others in the lacquered letterbox. Then she turned from the door to face her sitting room and tried to imagine that she herself had just arrived from America. What would Ana see when she looked at this room? It was a fine, clean room, well-swept and dusted. Indunil contemplated it carefully in an effort to see the things in it as if she hadn’t seen them every day of her life. The brass pahana and their teakwood furniture bought at an import store in Colombo gleamed richly; certainly as well-to-do as anything Ana’s parents might have in her own home there. It seemed to Indunil that the framed impressionistic painting of the Eiffel Tower should communicate a certain, desirable sense of worldliness to Ana; though Indunil herself had never seen it, she had once dreamed of becoming an AirLanka hostess so that she could learn French, visit Paris and London and Sydney and New York – these dreams had faded into an impulse to hang this painting on her sitting room wall, and there Ana would see it. Indunil’s gaze traveled over the compact disc collection on a narrow shelf beside the shiny, glass-encased entertainment system sent via airmail by her older brother, Naveen, who worked for an IT company in Dubai. Indunil’s sitting room would impress even an American, surely!

Above the stereo was her oversized wedding picture, framed and hung there by her mother against Indunil’s protests. She rarely looked at this obtrusive billboard, but now Indunil studied her nineteen-year-old self for a moment, wearing her dowry jewelry and encased in an elaborate red and gold sari that Dhammika had bought for her in Madras as the wedding agreement was finalized. Her mother’s hired dresser had taken four hours to wrap Indunil up in this ornate thing the day of their wedding. Fingering the fashionable layers of thick hair she had had ironed and styled in Colombo on their last trip to the lowcountry, she remembered how, when she was nineteen, her mother had still been alive to forbid a haircut, and how it then hung heavily down her back like thick ropes of black silk. Indunil slipped back into earlier layers of memory then, recalling the strength of her mother’s vigorous fingers massaging coconut oil into her scalp and through the long, thick sleekness of her waist-length hair. While a part of her felt a fleeting sadness in the absence of that gentle weight, another part of her was relieved to be rid of it. Beside her in the photograph, Dhammika looked almost laughable in his wedding costume, an abashed Kandyan prince, eleven years her elder.

Sometimes Indunil felt an impulse to laugh at him, or to do something cruel to him. He was of good family and Goyigama caste, like her, of course, and had inherited his father’s gem and jewelry business, dutifully running the workshop behind his mother’s home and a shiny little showroom attached the Queens Hotel across from the Maligawa as if he had never imagined any life besides this. Dhammika and Indunil were recommended to each other by a matchmaker, and met not quite a half-dozen times before conceding to the proposal, delighting both of their families and gaining an auspicious nod from the astrologer who had matched their horoscopes. Yet, after ten years and two children, Dhammika was still a stranger to Indunil. She knew his favorite curries, what underwear he liked to wear, could summarize his views on Tamils, Muslims, the civil war, international commerce, the moral decline of Buddhist monks, and the attempted assassination of Madame President Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranayake. He fulfilled his duties at home, provided for all of her needs, and was nice enough in general, but Indunil often wondered what he thought about when he left her house to travel on business to Colombo or went to drink arrack and watch matches at the cricket clubhouse with his old school mates. Indunil felt that though they belonged to one another they did not really know one another; she was contained in her private universe between these familiar walls, and he, elsewhere, in his.

“It all comes in time,” her mother used to tell her; her marriage, too, had been a proposed one.

“For what? For what am I waiting?” Indunil studied the bright eyes of her younger self in the photograph, and thought to herself as she stilled her restlessness: “my life is filled with waiting.”

She had waited to pass her O and A levels, waited to wear her hair in a knot instead of plaits, waited to wear saris, waited to get married, waited for children, now she waited every day to meet them after school, waited for them after swimming practice and elocution and music classes, she waited for their marks, waited to feed and wash them, waited for them to pass their O and A level examinations so that they could go off to university abroad. She waited for the new house Dhammika said they would someday build on the hill higher up above Kandy, she waited for him to become dear to her. She had watched and waited for her mother to die, now waited to have her own daughter marry so that Indunil could tell Savisha all the things that Ranjani had once told her, waited to grow old and fat and world-weary to perform meritorious acts in hopes of better rebirth and then she would wait, as she had all along, to die, and then what? “To do it all over again?” Indunil sighed.

Indunil straightened the cushions on the divan and wiped the glass side table clean with a cloth she stored for that purpose in the concealed drawer beneath it. Beside her wedding photograph was her parents’. It was black and white, slightly smaller than the colored one, but the wedding clothes were identical to hers and Dhammika’s. Her father Princely Wickremasinghe looked proud and fresh as a schoolboy who had won a prize, her mother Ranjani demure and beautiful. This house had been their home. Indunil had been their youngest child in these rooms. She both loved and hated the open, musty spaces that contained almost all of her memories. When she was a child she had imagined the rooms haunted by the ghost of the British colonial servant who, her parents explained somewhat too proudly to any visitors, had built and lived in it with his family for decades before Independence in 1948. The house had an austere colonial grandeur, white-walled with wooden trellis windows opening onto a screened veranda that kept monkeys from invading but allowed the geckos to slither through. The floor was age-darkened hardwood instead of cool stone polished red and smooth like other Sri Lankan homes. In the early part of the century, that British official went mad with malarial fever and returned with his infected wife to die in London, the neighbors said; Indunil heard them whisper about this when she was a child, though she never corroborated that part of the story with her parents. Sometimes she couldn’t sleep at night for dread of his ghost, her eyes wide open in the blackness of the bedroom she had shared with Naveen. Manike, Sita’s aunt and their family servant before her, used to ask the devalaya mahathaya who lived behind the temple up the road for yantras to ward off any demons, promising Indunil that the chanting the yantras every night would repel even English ghosts. Though ashamed to admit it, Indunil was still, at certain moments, afraid of the darkness in the corners of the too-big rooms; they were hard to keep clean and hard to light well. Large roaches and palm-sized spiders lurked in the corners, too, and though used to these creatures and reticent to do them harm, she secretly wished she could simply forbid them to enter her home.

Indunil remembered, too, the brightness of shrieking karam games she used to play with Naveen and his friends in the kitchen when their parents hosted dinner parties in the dining room, how wild and exhilarating it was to play like a boy, a freedom that somehow dissolved after the week of seclusion when she got her first period and was kept in her dark bedroom until the feast that announced her womanhood to the entire world. She thought secretly of Rajan, the Tamil boy who used to sneak over the fence to her ground floor window to pass love notes through the trellis bars at night when she was a senior student at Mahamaya, defiant in the face of her mother’s tight-lipped disapproval. There were also moments she thought she could still smell her mother’s tumor infusing the rooms, as if the acridity of her illness had seeped into the wooden floorboards and crevices of the walls to linger since her death two years ago. Until the last day of her mother’s life, Indunil had bathed and dressed her for bed as she now did her own two children each evening. She combed her mother’s hair every night in those days, rather than the other way around, as it had always been. The memories of this made her feel heavy and tired as she stood in the room, remembering – very much alone though these walls were now permeated with the needs of her living family. She wondered, briefly, if her mother had ever felt this way.

“What way?” Indunil couldn’t quite name the feeling, but if her mother had ever felt this, she had not shown it.

A muffled shout of laughter from the room in the annex beside the kitchen startled Indunil only because her nerves were unusually taut. Her father, Princely, still lived here with them, and this shout signaled that he was in his bedroom watching television. As Indunil could rarely find him if she wanted him for any reason, she had ceased monitoring his movements, and simply ensured that enough food was left aside for him at every meal. When Ranjani died, after the one-month dana ceremony was finished, Princely had transitioned somehow seamlessly from funereal white to wearing the white Nehru shirt and white sarong of national dress, as if he had suffered more than only the loss of his wife, and as if his newly discovered Buddhist nationalism was somehow an extension of his mourning. Princely read Buddhist Publication Society pamphlets on karma and loving kindness and went every full moon day to meditate with all the grandmothers at the Dalada Maligawa. He revered the Anagarika Dharmapala, Sai Baba, and the Dalai Lama, though he was apologetically defensive to his friends at the BPS about his affinity for the Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist leanings of the second and third of these core allegiances. When not secluded in his small annex bedroom watching cricket matches or Buddhist sermons on his grainy black and white television, Princely Wickremesinghe would leave the house to roam up and down the length of Rajapihilla Mawatha, wrinkled and white-clad, dispensing proverbs of quoted Dhammapada wisdom to the neighbors’ servants like an itinerant and benignly senile bhikkhu.

Indunil put away the dusting cloth she had clenched in her sweaty palm and glanced uneasily at the cuckoo clock that hung on a wall opposite the photographs. It was a present that Dhammika had brought home from a jewelry exposition in Switzerland soon after their wedding. It still worked beautifully, the small carved chick popping sweetly from its secret box to mark the passing of each hour of her married life; still it was only a quarter past three, the little bird in seclusion for another forty five minutes. The sun was high and hot, and the house sultry even in its shaded enclave, encircled by coconut palms, banana palms, and an avocado tree. In the gated yard was a small garden with curry and chili plants and medicinal herbs that Sita tended, and a burgeoning frangipani bush from which Sita plucked blossoms every morning for the Buddha-puja that Princely would ritually perform – exceptionally loudly – with his grandchildren before the shrine in the sitting room, while Indunil cooked breakfast and Dhammika watched the morning news on the BBC.

Indunil felt encircled by this army of foliage, cut off from the road and the surrounding houses within her shaded familial enclave. She pulled closed the window shutters, darkening the sitting room to cool it, and returned to the kitchen. Sita squatted on the floor, scraping coconut meat to press milk for dinner that night. Sita was small and dark – perhaps why she never married in her village, Indunil suspected, then found herself with the forgotten name of Sita’s village on the edge of her thoughts. Sita wore a brightly patterned cloth and blue cotton jacket that exposed the leathery brown skin of her midriff, her bare feet tucked back under her lean thighs, splayed toes marking hers as feet that had grown up without shoes. Sita wiped a loose strand of hair from her sweaty forehead with the back of her arm and looked up at Indunil.

“Nona,” she asked, “meechera pol athiy wey da?” She gestured to the bowl of scraped coconut before her and to the three remaining halves of coconut waiting to be scraped; would it be enough? Indunil paused to consider. Assembled on the counter and floor were shallow palm-leaf baskets of vegetables that Sita had already cut. There were cubed potatoes for frying with oil and chilies, young jak cut into chunks, diced green beans and sliced brinjal, also chicken for herself, Dhammika, and the children. Ana said in her letter that she was a vegetarian, which had delighted Princely immensely, but mystified Dhammika.

“There are vegetarians in America?” Dhammika had marveled aloud while Princely nodded his brooding approval. Indunil calculated: the jakfruit, green beans, brinjal, and chicken made four curries, and they would need milk for the red lentil paripu; the greens shredded for maalung would require a sprinkling of grated coconut too – and there ought to be enough left over to make a spicy pol sambol.

“Madhiy,” Indunil answered her servant, “thaava ekak gahanna.” Sita would grate another coconut; she straightened obediently, stretched her spine in a way that reminded Indunil of a cat, and retreated out the back of the kitchen to collect one from the pile near the washing spigot. Indunil inspected Sita’s work to see if there was anything left that she, Indunil, could do. But enough green chilies, red onions, and garlic had already been sliced for all the curries; enough had been scraped from the hard brown chunk of sun-dried maldive fish, and Sita had gathered a pile of fresh karapincha leaves from the garden behind the house. There was a packaged stack of round white papadams ready to be fried, and saltwater, curry powder, turmeric powder, mustard seed, and chili powder were aligned in potent-looking jars above the stovetop range. Sita had already sifted the stones from the rice, Indunil noticed with satisfaction. She would remind Sita to reduce the chilies; foreigners could not tolerate full spice, at least not without some acclimation. Ana should experience no discomfort, no distaste. There was nothing left for Indunil to do besides preside over Sita’s cooking of everything, which she would begin as Indunil served the tea, and so still there was little to do but wait.

Standing in the warm, stone-floored kitchen, Indunil felt the sweat beneath her arms and in the hollow between her breasts. She looked down at herself and wondered if she should put on a sari; she never wore them except to weddings, her children’s school functions, and to business dinners to make a good impression for Dhammika. She left Sita in the kitchen again, retreating to the front entry to climb the creaking spiral staircase to her bedroom, where she surveyed the cramped contents of her closet. She hated saris, actually – the jackets were nice enough, they accentuated her breasts and fine collarbone – but she found the long swaths of cloth exasperatingly suffocating. All the pins to keep track of, the hitching and fixing and tugging, and so ungodly hot. She preferred shorter skirts and baby doll shirts from Odel in Colombo, or gauzy wrap skirts and blouses, and especially denims and trousers, though she knew the neighbors talked about her western clothing and how now that she’d married a wealthy jeweler and didn’t have her mother around to remind her of what things matter most for a woman, Indunil had grown proud and impolite. Indunil knew that the neighbors treated her and her family with deferential respect that her parents had earned, though she didn’t see any point responding to what she knew they said privately to one another about her. They would gossip more if she resisted, or simply registered awareness of their sentiment, so she generally ignored their murmurs and went about the routine business of raising her family. She hated the web of gossip but that was Kandy for you, opadupa, everyone with their nose in everyone else’s business, everyone so madly concerned with respectability and so quick to flap their tongues about any woman who breathed out of line. She decided against trying to impress Ana with a sari, but changed from her housedress to a knee-length blue cotton skirt and yellow blouse. In the mirror, she applied lipgloss but nothing more. Her face was still young, round, soft; she smoothed her hands over her body, admiring herself in a way she wished Dhammika would, remembering Rajan’s poems. For a moment, Indunil considered digging out from the bottom of her closet the concealed box of Rajan’s decade-old letters to her, just to read a few while she waited, but she then she heard the iron gate creak open and the crunch of vehicle tires on the stones of the yard. She held her breath, listening, and released the breath when she heard Namith’s anguished voice crack out of the car as soon as its door opened.

“Nangi, no, nangiiiii, nooooo, you heard me, I already called Night Rider at five o’clock! Thaththy tell her!” Indunil heard Savisha’s demonic giggle, a slamming car door, feet scrambling across the stones of the yard, a riotous wrestling at the front door downstairs, then her two children in a mad struggle for possession of the television controller.

She sighed and descended the stairs. Dhammika entered the front door just as Indunil reached the bottom of the stairs.

“Has Ana arrived?” He asked immediately, looking past Indunil and into the sitting room.

“No, not yet, but at any minute she could come. The children, Dhammi, do something, will you?”

Dhammika gave her a look similar to the one he’d aimed at her over the breakfast table that morning, set his packages and Daily News on the entryway table, and followed the hollering of their children to the television in the sitting room. As soon as he reminded them of the American Visitor who would soon be arriving, Namith and Savisha were chastened.

They turned off the television penitently. Indunil knew already that Namith, ten years old and top of his class at Trinity College, would sit and pretend to read his Harry Potter or his Tintin comic books so that he could studiously observe Ana when she walked in the door; he would ask curious and polite questions about Ana’s family and life in America in his perfectly modulated British English. Seven years old Savisha would slink to the kitchen to hide behind Sita when the stranger came; she would at first pretend not to know English, but her shyness would last perhaps a day before the wild half-Sinhala, half-English yakkhini in her re-emerged. Indunil decided to make tea for her children and husband now, because who could say when Ana would arrive, and without tea they would all be most unpleasant. But no biscuits – biscuits would spoil their supper, and too much sugar would have bad effects on their blood pressure.

“Namith, Savisha, go and change out of your uniforms and come. Then and then only will you have your tea.” She retreated to the kitchen as the children stirred in gestures of obedience. The evening call to prayer echoed up from the speakers of the mosque in the town valley below.

“Allahu akbar!” Dusk would be falling soon.

Just as Indunil clicked the water heater switch with her thumb, she heard two sharp hiccoughs of a van horn at the gate, and Dhammika’s voice, suddenly exuberant in the sitting room, as if this were his long-awaited guest: “The American has arrived!” Indunil heard the front door creak open again and his footsteps trotting outside to slide open the iron gate. As Indunil knew she would, Savisha slunk around the edge of the kitchen door and scampered silently to crouch next to Sita on the floor. With a look, Indunil communicated to Sita to light the stove and begin cooking, and the woman wordlessly obeyed. Savisha followed her like a silenced shadow, her little almond fingers clenching Sita’s redda cloth for security that her mother wouldn’t provide. As the tea water began to rumble in a soft boil, Indunil listened to her husband, using the voice he used with foreign customers in his shop as he asked the van driver if the drive was fine, any accidents along the Kandy-Colombo mountain road, if he was driving back to Colombo that night.

“No, ah, yes, relatives in Kandy, is it? You will eat and sleep then drive tomorrow? Fine, fine.” And then, “You are Ana! Welcome to our home! How was your flight? Very tiring, isn’t it? I myself have done the same. Let me help you carry…” A tired laugh, a woman’s polite protesting and gratitude, but no words that Indunil could identify.

Indunil felt her heart beat more quickly now that her houseguest had, at last, arrived, but with steady hands she poured the hot water into the flask of tea leaves. She stood perfectly still as they seeped; the water was hot, it didn’t take but a moment, long enough for Dhammika to unload Ana’s trunks from the van. Namith surprised Indunil because she heard his voice in the yard as well, polite but more eager than she’d anticipated. She poured the tea through the strainer into an empty flask, then set the strainer of tea leaves in the sink and lifted the cool flask of sweetened milk to pour it into the steaming deep brown liquid. The milk dropped and flowered in a delicate white cloud through the rich black well of tea; Indunil watched it as if meditating before stirring the milk tea into homogenous light brown with a spoon that neatly clinked the sides of the metal flask like a tiny temple bell.

Quickly now, as she heard the van pull away and the front door creak open to let Dhammika’s hospitable blather and Ana’s polite but exhausted laughter enter into her home, Indunil poured the tea from one flask to another, once, twice, thrice, once more, until it churned frothy and light. Sita had begun to fry the onions and chilies with oil and spices, preparing the base for the curries; the chilies bit at Indunil’s throat. She poured hot milk tea without an excess drip, the steam curling upward to melt into the humid air above each of five china cups. She left her own on the kitchen counter near Sita’s; she would wait to drink her tea after the others had been served.

Indunil set down the emptied flask. She lifted the tea tray with both of her hands and carried it carefully through the kitchen door, looking up to see Ana for the first time, her heart restless as a bird caught in the cage of her ribs.


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