A Symphony of Familiarity
Sharmila Jayasinghe (Deakin University, Australia)
Trigger warning: the essay contains descriptions of violence that may be distressing to readers.
The open plan small space my parents call home now bothers me. Nothing seems right. My parents don’t seem to belong. Their furniture shipped from home do not belong. The antique divan is too large for the space. The brass rooster lamp has lost its significance. My mother sits all rugged up warming her toes against an electrical heater, unsure of herself. My father paces the length and breadth of the backyard the size of a lounge carpet.
My father was the first to migrate in his family. He was a village boy who got swept in with the wave of city migrations. When he left the known and embraced the unknown my father was young. He went willingly.
He was in control. He was independent.
Several decades after the first migration my father had to migrate again. This time it was away from his homeland. Eighty years and several months old my father crossed an ocean, got off a plane, and entered the land where he was to spend the rest of his life. He was frail, hunched and with a mind that was filled with uncertainty.
He was not in control. He was not independent.
My father never dreamt of leaving the shores of Sri Lanka. Like many other fathers of the subcontinent my father’s dream was to grow old surrounded by his kids and his grandkids. He bought a large piece of land and built a house with many rooms, enough for his kids and even for his grandkids. In a country where multigenerational cohabitation was the norm, my brothers and I grew up in the knowledge we had a home to call our own. Our dreams orbited around our father’s dream harmoniously like the planets and their moons.
Then a war broke in the north of the country and a rebellion raged in the south. The unrest encroached on our lives. We felt the uncertainty of our future. We searched for an escape. We searched for an alternative future for ourselves. The first one to leave my father’s house and his dream was my eldest brother. With all the higher education institutions permanently closed, my eldest brother had wasted years of his life just waiting to walk through the gates of a university opened for her students. My father encouraged his eldest son to search for a future overseas. On the day my brother left home, our father wore a mask of happiness and said goodbye but when the car carrying my brother got swallowed by the horizon something changed in my father’s face; clouds of sorrow shadowed his eyes and lines of grief mapped his face.
My father felt history repeat itself. Just like he never returned to the village from the city, he knew his son would never return to his homeland again. Sad and broken my father buried himself in sorrow. It was only my daughter who could pull him back from his slump and bring some joy to his life. The sound of her little feet drumming on the granite and her high-pitched voice reverberating through the walls pulled my father out of his sorrow and brought a shred of normalcy to his life again. But it too did not last long.
The terror of war came too close to home when a monster strapped explosives around her pregnant belly and exploded herself meters away from where I worked. While flesh, blood and limbs rained around me, I rolled up into a ball and hugged my belly to keep my own unborn safe from harm. That night when my undergarments got soaked in blood, I cursed the woman who caused the destruction and begged the millions of gods who reigned over the small island to keep my baby alive. My father felt my distress, he shared my fear. He pressured my husband to take his family to safety. We left as soon as our second child was born. The day we boarded the plane to start a safer life in a foreign land, I remember my father clinging to the steel railing on the other side of the departure gate at the airport struggling to keep his tears at bay. Even the frosted glass wall between us could not hide the anguish he felt in his heart. He forced a smile and waved goodbye aware his dream had shattered to pieces and could never be glued back together again.
The situation in the country we left wasn’t changing but our parents were getting old. Life separated by an ocean was hard for both, us the children and them our parents. We were too settled to leave our new life and go back to reunite with the old couple. Where we didn’t wish to sacrifice, our parents did, leaving their known lives and travelling to the unknown for us.
For a while, the elderly pair got tossed between houses. They spent their first few months of the new life in my brother’s house in Sydney. The matriarch of the family who controlled her household like a captain of a ship, my mother found it hard to adjust to life under someone else’s roof and rule. Before the relationship between the in-laws became sour, I shifted my parents to our house.
With a family of five and three rooms, my parents didn’t have a space to call their own even in my house. Their belongings shipped from their house with many rooms lay dormant in boxes for many months. My parents lived out of suitcases ready to be moved from place to place. They were like balloons without a weight to hold them down, floating with no control.
‘I feel like a good old nomad,’ my father said in good humour, but we knew deep down he was sad.
They say life begins at forty and some say it begins at fifty, but no one says life begins at eighty. My parents and other parents of migrant children in similar situations, attempt to start a new life at a ripe old age. Suddenly they find themselves halfway across the world, in a strange land, amidst a strange culture and trying to lead a normal life. It is not easy for them as it was for us. I witnessed my parents’ struggle.
My brothers and I had expected quick results. We thought the old couple would blend in like instant coffee with water. Instead, for a while they lugged a loneliness around and longed for their home far away. They lamented about untended graves of relatives and unpaid church and temple dues. They regretted not being able to be at someone’s wedding or missing another’s funeral and when it was election time, they felt sad they couldn’t support their candidates back home.
My father went through his share of problems. An active man even after retirement he suddenly found himself doing nothing in the foreign land. The lack of peer companionship which he was used to drove him insane. He walked around the house not knowing what to do and got to the habit of taking long morning walks just so he could ‘see’ people.
However slow it was, change did come. My father was like a peacock flounder. Gradually he changed his thinking to suit the new surroundings. Taking advantage of the slow-paced life, he put pen to paper and wrote about his life as a government agent in Sri Lanka. He joined a local Zumba class and made some friends. He grew to love the space he called home now. It took five years for my father to put down new roots again. Given the nature of the situation he resigned to make the most of the rest of his life.
Sunday was the day my father looked forward to. It was the day the family came together under his roof. On Sundays, my father talked a lot and laughed a lot; there was no sadness in his eyes.
But I am bothered by the space they called home now. I feel it is not right for my parents.
My father’s house in Western Sydney is smaller than the garage in the home they left behind. It is a single strip like a short railway platform. When I stand at the entrance, I can see all the way through to the small yard in the back. There are two rooms, a toilet and a small pantry where only one person could stand at one time.
‘Something is bothering you,’ my father states. I am always astonished at how accurately he can read my mind. He scans the room and eases himself into the rattan chair next to me. He sits silent first and clears his throat.
‘Measurements shouldn’t matter,’ he says gesturing to the small space. I feel guilty like I have been caught doing something I should not have. He asks me if I remember his father’s house. My mind wanders back to my grandparents’ house in Sri Lanka, a six-hour train ride away from the capital where we lived. The house was old but not as old as the oaks that surrounded it like possessive guards. My father reminds me of the lengthy vacations we had at that house in the village.
‘It was a difficult adjust for city children,’ he reminds. ‘The first time we went over, you and your brothers were nervous how you would adjust to a life without electricity and pipe borne water, not to mention squatting pans,’ my father chuckles.
‘After the first long visit, you couldn’t wait to get back to the village again,’ he says, explaining it was the smells, the sounds, the people and the feeling of familiarity that made us want to be in our grandfather’s house again and again, ‘nothing else mattered,’ he adds.
The discussion brings back memories of my father’s many brothers, my uncles who drank a lot, played cards and sang every night. I remember their wives, my aunties, gathering in the kitchen cutting, chopping and boiling all kinds of spicy delights in vast vats. I remember grandfather circling the house several times a night burning coconut shells, sprinkling incense powder, and chanting to bless the house. The tastes, the smells and sounds come back to me with vivid images of the place and the people. A familiar feeling of belonging sweeps over.
Breathing a sigh of relief, my father closes his eyes and rests his head on the wooden frame of his chair. A calmness falls over his face instantly. There is silence between us. Just like my father beside me, I let my eyelids relax and close shut. When I filter out the tooting of the horns of the streets, the chirping of the birds in the backyard and the distant barking of a dog, all that is left is a symphony of familiarity; the clinking and clanking of the spoon hitting the rim of the cup as my mother stirred sugar into Dilmah tea, my brother’s voice slow and tender reciting a story from our childhood, the amused giggles of our daughters, the chatter of my teenage son explaining new technology to his grandmother, all blending in with the haunting voice of Nanda Malini on the television singing a song of a lost love. When I breathe in deep, all I could smell is the familiar aroma of spice infused curries, the distinct sour smell of boiling rice, burnt perfume of yesterday’s incense and the smell of withering flowers on the altar of my father’s shrine in the corner of the house.
A sense of deep satisfaction enters through my skin, spreads through the veins, and settles in my heart and I know exactly how my father felt.
Sharmila Jay is a journalist with two fiction novels under her belt. She’s a migrant, a wife and mother of three kids and a dog, but she has also been a classical dancer, a world traveller and has lent her voice to radio programs and her face to TV commercials. Sharmila is the curious sort who loves to imagine the lives of other people. She does her best writing sitting at street cafés. Sipping hot chocolate and watching people pass by, she steps into their shoes to create stories that are multicultural, multigenerational and multiregional at the same time.