Sharmila Jayasinghe (Deakin University, Australia)
Migrants are like turtles. They cross borders carrying their homes on their backs. There are traditions, rituals and beliefs they cannot do without. Sometimes they are dim, like a petromax which has no pressure, but when the opportunity arises, they shine bright. A girl reaching puberty is one of those occasions, when the custom of the adopted country is swept aside like the dust off an ebony Dutch box so that those of the homeland would shine once more.
My mother lit up when I showed her my blood-stained undergarments the first day it happened. Grandma swooped in. Together they pushed me inside my room and locked the door.
‘Ohhhh, ohhh,’ Grandma said, placing her hand on her chest like it was too much to bear. ‘So much luck, luck,’ she said, eyes wide, smiling from cheek to cheek and shaking her head to the rhythm of her words. ‘Aththamma here!’ she declared. ‘I look after you just same my mother did,’ she pledged in her queer English.
She strutted around the room looking for things to do. The blinds were shut, and new sheets were laid on the bed. I was served a thick concoction of black coffee mixed with a raw egg and too much sugar ‘for strength,’ the women said as they watched me gulp down the repulsive drink. I was intrigued and excited, like a new bud opening to drink the morning dew. Father paced the length of the corridor outside the room while my little brother skipped around. ‘They can’t come in,’ Mother said in a hushed tone. ‘You shouldn’t be seen by males till you bathe.’
Astrologers from overseas were consulted. Relatives and friends were informed. ‘Come to the celebration, okay?’ My mother’s voice went up an octave each time she ended a call. Happy to be the centre of attention, I forgot to ask why, what and when.
‘Girl can’t stay alone. Bad luck,’ Grandma said, moving into my room to keep me company during my confinement. She ground her teeth at night like she was making beetle pulp in her sleep. The sound didn’t bother me much; it stayed in the background like the ticking of a clock. It was the summer heat and the dead air that kept me awake at night. Grandma couldn’t stand to have the fan on. ‘Catarrh get worse,’ she said. ‘I sleep well with no fan.’
‘Respect!’ Mother halted my protests before they sprouted.
‘I wasn’t going to say anything,’ I said. Grandma was a well of love that quenched the thirst of us kids. I didn’t wish to muddy the waters.
Activities outside grew each day I was stuck in my room. People were greeted, meals were prepared, and laughter filled the house. I waited eagerly for that auspicious time when I might bathe and become part of the merriment.
With a silenced fan and blinds drawn to keep me hidden from the world, the heat inside the room became too much to bear. In the dead of the night, I tiptoed away from my grinding grandma in search of cold comfort outside. On one occasion I bumped into my Melbourne cousin, shirtless and roaming the kitchen. We stared at each other, stunned, unable to form proper words. I felt as though I had been caught in my birthday suit.
‘You can’t come out of your room.’ He stated what we both clearly knew. His eyes slipped from my face to my breasts. Piercing through my nightgown, they lingered there a while. He then licked his lips. I felt the warmth rising from the pit of my stomach and spreading to my cheeks. He wasn’t the puny kid who pulled on my pigtails anymore. He had grown with broad shoulders and a hint of a moustache. He saw the difference in me, and I saw his.
‘Shhhhh,’ drawing his eyes back to my face, I pleaded with a finger over my mouth.
Nervous about what evil I may have conjured by letting male eyes fall on my unbathed self, my heart refused to settle that night.
‘How come boys can’t see me before I bathe?’ I fished for information the very next morning.
‘Ohh,’ Grandma was animated. ‘Them boys, like police dogs, know you ready to mate.’ Grandma wasn’t a woman who could put words right. Not in Sinhala. Not in English. Her response was crude, like burnt toast. Her words made me feel like a monkey in her backyard.
Mother was more mellow. ‘You go into the room a child, you come out as a woman,’ she said. ‘Everyone will see you differently after this. Including boys.’
Mother’s Singer worked night and day till a dress in gold with frills and ribbons was completed. She slipped the dress over my cotton nightgown and smoothed it over my hips. In the mirror it was someone else with breasts firmed up like cantaloupes, a shrunken waist and longish legs. I gasped. Grandma gasped. Mother forgot to blink. Her mouth curved and opened, showing a set of teeth, white and shiny like eggshells. I could see she was proud. Of me or of the dress she had made, I wasn’t certain. At that moment, I didn’t care. I was the sun and she orbited in my space. Tears glistened in mother’s eyes. She gripped my shoulders, appraising my reflection she planted a kiss on the back of my head.
‘Shaa,’ Grandma said, pulling us back from that dream state. ‘Real Kandyan beauty!’
The isolation ended, just as it began, with rituals. The morning of my liberation, Mother and Grandma woke up before the sun. They prepared a bath with medicinal sprigs and fresh flowers and bathed me like I was a queen of some sort. I was taken out of my room adorned in gold with my hair oiled and pulled into a ponytail. At the foot of the steps my father watched in awe as if he was seeing me for the very first time. My little brother went a deep crimson and hid behind father. In the midst of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ I floated down the stairs to the waiting arms of everyone who had gathered in my honour. The elders were like the wise men bearing gifts of gold, silver and stone. The dining table overflowed with treacle-dripping deep-fried sweetmeats. We ate, drank and celebrated my departure from childhood.
Grandma fastened a thick gold chain around my neck, like the ones that rappers wear. ‘Part of your dowry,’ she said with glee, and wiped a tear from her cheek with the end of her sari.
‘Huh?’ I asked.
‘Dowry, Dowry. Go to husband house taking all you can. Respect come then,’ she said.
I smoothed my fingers over the cold metal. For the next couple of days happiness churned in my soul, turning my dreams colourful and lightening my step.
Still in that state I floated to the bus stop, ready to gloat to my school friends who were waiting.
‘Oh-em-gee,’ Stellar Lindt chirped in surprise. The roar of the engine made her yell, causing many more ears to hear. ‘How embarrassing! I would have just killed myself.’
Kristina Barwick the Brit was intrigued. ‘Aha?’ she smiled. ‘Wouldn’t mind a bit of gold every time I bled.’
‘Not every time, just the first,’ I explained, wrinkling my forehead in annoyance. Ignorance didn’t sit right with me. ‘Just the very first time.’
‘I got a packet of Stayfrees, two tablets of Nurofen and then off to school I went while my insides poured out like a leaking tap,’ Kelly Kirkguard chimed in.
‘Five days locked up in your room?’ Vani Smith was quick to judge. ‘A bit primitive if you ask me, and eww, not bathing while having your period? Disgusting!’ She leaned on a pole and peered into my eyes, a Mariska Hargitay investigating a crime.
Fight back, you idiot, something inside me insisted. Only the cultured will understand culture. My mind formed words but my mouth gated them.
‘It’s a brown people thing,’ I said instead, and there went all the tales of the gifts I had received.
‘Is it, though?’ Sam Pereira, the brown girl with the monobrow, interjected. My ally by colour cornered me till I couldn’t move. ‘My parents never did any nonsense like that. Your people are villagers?’
‘My mum is rural,’ I darned an excuse. ‘Backward. It was silly. Really embarrassing,’ I lied and heard all the excitement slowly leak out of my soul like air from a tiny hole in a balloon. I tried to pump more in, but the leaking hole grew larger. I was Simon Peter denying my all, and becoming what grandma mockingly referred to as being ‘a coconut’, brown on the outside and white inside.
‘My grandma is illiterate,’ I said, nailing the coffin shut. ‘She’s the one who insisted on all the bullshit.’
Sharmila Jayasinghe is a journalist turned author of full-length fiction Butterfly Kisses and The Untold Story of My Lover. Her short stories appear in literary magazines SWAMP, Wordly and Verandah. She’s a migrant, a wife, and a mother of three kids. A lifelong learner Sharmila has also been a classical dancer and has lent her voice to radio programs and her face to TV commercials.