Swarna Pinto (Macquarie University, Australia)
Somebody was pounding on my head with a heavy mallet. I was in a strange bed and I couldn’t move. Clear tubing went into my left hand. A white sheet swaddled me. A low continuous beeping came from somewhere.
Flashes of sitting at the dining table filled my mind. And then I realised: they have found out my secret and they are punishing me for neglecting him. They are hitting me on the head and sending poison into my veins. But unbeknown to them, I did look for him, although I didn’t start looking until my daughter Renu was born five years after his birth. Renu brought him back to me. When I first heard her cry, I heard his first cry. When she was put to my breast to be fed, I saw him opening his little pink rosebud mouth to an emptiness. At that moment, I felt as if I had been pushed into a deep black hole. The sensation eased when I didn’t give Renu everything I could have given her. I chose to bottle-feed Renu to everyone’s bafflement. It was not that I didn’t love Renu, as she said many times when she was a teenager. I was with Renu all the time and I missed him. If only I could see him, at least once. I looked for him everywhere I went—in the streets, playgrounds and schools. In shops, and at bus stops and train stations. I kept looking for him when Brian, my husband, said he couldn’t live with me anymore.
‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘Don’t I do enough work at home? I get up at five in the morning to cook breakfast and rice and curry for you to take to work. I take Renu to school, do shopping, and then come home and do cleaning and washing clothes. Then I bring Renu back, help with her homework, cook dinner, wash the dishes, mop the fl—’
‘Yes, like a robot.’
Brian left me soon afterwards. Then Renu said that she wanted to go overseas as soon as she finished school. She went to Stanford the next year. Still, I kept looking for him.
Back then, when Renu visited Melbourne she stayed with her dad most of the time and would stay at my house in Daylesford only a day or two. But that particular time when Renu came with her boyfriend Rohan, she asked me to meet them at the airport.
As soon as I saw Rohan at the airport, my heart raced. Is it him? Please God! While driving them to Daylesford, I kept looking at him in my rear-view mirror. Is it him?
Tired after the long-haul flight to Melbourne, both went to bed early. I remained wide awake, wondering. What if he’s––? I felt as if I had been walking uphill for ages and had reached a narrow cliff.
‘Ammi, Rohan is a very good cook,’ Renu told me during lunch the next day. I had cooked Renu’s favourite meal: fried rice and chicken curry. Rohan smiled shyly, making dimples. A distant memory flashed through my mind. Something I had read somewhere came to me. Dimples are genetically inherited. But since Renu had told me that he was from India, I decided that it could not be him.
‘You are Indian, right?’ The question shot out of my mouth like a bullet.
‘Yes and no.’ Rohan smiled, showing his dimples again.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. My heart was racing so fast I thought it would burst.
‘I don’t know my origins.’
I waited, and he continued.
‘I was adopted at birth. Soon afterwards, my dad was transferred to Delhi. They decided to stay in India as I had friends and loved school there.’
‘Where were you born?’ I heard myself ask in a strange voice.
‘Ammi, stop it. You’re being weird.’ Renu was staring at me. I realised that I had skirted to the edge of my chair and was leaning forward. I was gawping at him. My son.
The kitchen walls moved, and the furniture warped and tilted. The table floated up, taking Rohan away from me. Renu opened her mouth. A whooshing filled my ears and darkness claimed me.
‘You had us worried,’ a woman’s voice said. ‘I’m Sonya, your nurse today.’
I looked around. I was in a hospital bed.
‘Where’s my son?’ I heard myself asking.
‘You mean your daughter. It’s usual to get words mixed up after suffering a stroke. Don’t be sacred; you’ll recover. She’ll be back soon.’
I started to cry.
‘Don’t get upset. I’ll give you something to relax.’
But I want to see my son.
‘Ammi, can you hear me? Can you talk?’ Renu was bending over me.
‘Where’s my s—? Rohan. Where’s Rohan?’
‘Rohan? He’s back in California. Why?’
I tried to stop the tears welling in my eyes. I sobbed and choked. There were hurried footsteps and once again everything went black.
I stayed in that hospital for nearly two months. Now and then, I still feel the pounding on my head. But it’s not as bad as the first time I felt it in the hospital. I am in an assisted living home now, where Renu put me before she returned to California. I don’t mind this place. It’s mostly quiet. Its leafy surrounds are pleasant. The staff are friendly and they give me Valium tablets whenever I ask for them. I think all the time. I want to see Rohan again, but Renu doesn’t talk about him. Sometimes I tell myself that I have no proof. But my mind immediately contradicts me. He’s your son. He’s very much like Navin at the same age.
I met Navin almost forty years ago, when I was studying at Astrakhan University in Soviet Russia. I was a scholarship student from Sri Lanka. My friends and I went to classes during the day, cooked our own meals and did our homework. We went off-campus some nights. We’d go to Cosmos occasionally and watch Russian movies. Then we would walk along the Volga River, eat ice cream and go on boat rides. Sometimes we would just watch boats gliding far away on the green river until the sky became orange and the sun golden. Other times, I’d go to campus dances. I loved those dances, where red and blue and green lights flashed on and off and Western music blared.
I spent one of the dances with Navin. He was a postgraduate student from Mauritius, and I had a huge crush on him.
‘Where’s your girlfriend?’ I asked him during our second dance.
‘Gone.’ He smiled and his cheeks dimpled. I had a sudden desire to touch those two dimples, but suppressed it. As the night wore on, I swayed to Donna Summer’s love songs. Afterwards, he took me to his room. It was a bigger room with only two beds.
‘Where’s your roommate?’
‘He went home last week. I’m flying home tomorrow.’
Navin’s bags were neatly stacked near the wardrobe. He set two wine glasses on the table and took a bottle of champagne from one of the bags. He said it was for a friend back home. He said he would buy one at the airport.
‘Ni naada,’ I remember protesting in Russian. But he kept twisting the corkscrew. I tried to wrestle the bottle out of his hands and the cork flew off and hit the fortochka—the little ventilation window set in the top part of the window—cracking its glass. We laughed as we both got drenched in a spray of champagne.
When I woke up the next morning, Navin was already dressed.
‘My taxi will come soon. I wish I didn’t have to go.’
I wriggled into my red shift dress, put on my high heels, and said my goodbye in Russian.
‘Do Svidaniya.’ I was smiling, remembering fragments of our night together.
‘Not yet.’ He took my face in his hands and kissed me, and we fell back onto his bed. All too soon, somebody knocked on his door. His taxi had come.
I went to my hostel and crept into my room without waking my roommate Indra. After grabbing a towel and a change of clothes, I went downstairs to the dush and took a long hot and steamy shower. I still remember how Donna Summer’s I Feel Love was playing in a loop in my head.
And I remember fainting during a boring tutorial on Lenin a few weeks later. A doctor and a nurse were attending to me when I came to. The doctor asked me to visit her the next day at the campus medpunkt . I didn’t go because I was perfectly well the following day.
After a week or so, when I couldn’t eat breakfast, Indra commented, ‘If you had a boyfriend, I’d say you are pregnant, the way you are carrying on. Go to the medpunkt.’
My heart stopped. Pregnant? Oh my God. What will happen to me?
‘It’s just a bug. I am okay,’ I stammered.
My insides turned to ice. I just wanted to continue my studies, have some fun, and go back home to my mother and brothers. I didn’t go to the medpunkt as I didn’t want anyone to know what was happening. I would have to do this myself.
I bought a packet of Analgin pills from Apteka, pretending I had a headache. I looked around my room and found Indra’s allergy pills. I swallowed the lot in the bathroom but immediately threw them all up. I jumped from my bed to the floor when I was alone in the room. Surely, the impact will dislodge it. I kept seeing my mother’s angry face. I sent you there to study, not to get pregnant. She’d want me to marry Navin. I couldn’t tell her that I hardly knew him. She would not forgive me for bringing disrepute to the family—for ruining my brothers’ marriage prospects. I wished I had a handful of sleeping pills so that I could go to sleep and never wake up.
I didn’t feel like going out, but I forced myself to appear normal.
‘Are you okay?’ friends would ask sometimes.
‘Your eyes aren’t smiling,’ somebody commented.
A great big weight was pushing me down. It got heavier each day. I would go to the library and stay there for hours with a book or two open in front of me.
‘When are you going to Moscow?’ Indra asked me one night.
I had forgotten all about it. Months before, I had been hired as a Russian Language Interpreter to assist the Sri Lankan staff who would be promoting Ceylon Tea during the 1980 Olympics. The games would start in three days. This was great. I expected I could find a solution in Moscow, where no one knew me. I immediately started packing. For good luck, I took my Russian doll—a six-doll matryoshka that I had bought with my first stipend in Astrakhan.
In Moscow, huge red banners with yellow sickles and hammers on them, and colourful Olympic flags, flew from every building. Everyone seemed to be talking and laughing. I reported to the Sri Lankan embassy as I had been instructed. A middle-aged diplomat named Walter gave me a bunch of papers to sign and a key to an apartment. He gave me a lanyard with my ID card, and my work uniform: yellow saris. I was relieved that I would have my own apartment and my uniform would hide my belly. I would find time to visit an information booth in the city and get directions to a hospital or a women’s clinic.
I went to bed that night thinking I’d wake up early and go to the city before work. As I was setting an alarm, the phone rang. It was Walter.
‘An embassy car will pick you up for work.’
‘No, no need. No, thank you. I know the way. The metro is just across the road. It’s easy,’ I blurted out.
‘The embassy provides your transport. It’s in your contract. Please be ready by eight. Do you need anything? No? Okay. Good night.’
I set my alarm to five in the morning so that I would have time to find a hospital and come back before my ride to work arrived. When the alarm went off, I was so groggy that I went back to sleep. I would do it tomorrow.
At the Ceylon Tea stall, I translated Russian for Anu, a glamorous Sri Lankan girl in very high heels. She closed the tea stall when the games started and went with me to watch. We’d rush back before the guests came for tea.
After work, I often felt tired and dozed off in the car. At the apartment, I would make a cup of tea, nibble on a sandwich I saved from work, and go to sleep thinking I’d find a hospital the next morning.
‘Are you going to the closing ceremony?’ Anu asked one morning, and I realised that it was already the last day of the games. Straight after work, I avoided the embassy driver and headed for the metro station. I inserted a five-kopeck coin into a slot to open the barrier and rode a seemingly endless elevator to an underground platform. I got on the first train that stopped.
My heart was pounding. I kept seeing my mother’s face with tears streaming down it. A big sob escaped me. I brought up the fold of my yellow sari and stuffed a part of it into my mouth. When the train stopped at the station where I had boarded, I realised I had got on the circle line. I got off at a random station and strode ahead, along the tomb-like grey marbled platform.
A train was accelerating behind me. As it came closer, I lifted one foot to jump onto the tracks, but two strong hands wrapped around my stomach and dragged me backwards.
‘Hey, let’s sit down for a bit,’ a familiar voice whispered. It was Walter.
He was panting. He had seen a girl in a yellow sari too close to the edge of the platform and had caught me in time. He sat me on a bench and let me cry on his shoulder.
At the time, I thought what happened that day was a miracle. Walter took me to his home. His wife led me to their guest room and gently closed the door as she left. The next morning, they told me that they had no children and wanted to adopt my baby. They would take care of me until the birth. Then they would take the baby and I would go back to my studies. Back then in Moscow, it seemed as if I would get off scot free.
Now it feels like I am reliving the past, from the moment Indra uttered the word pregnant. Again, I am alone and unable to find a solution. At night, I think of calling Renu first thing in the morning and telling her everything. All through the night, I practice what to say. But in the morning, it feels like a very bad idea. In California, it would be her bedtime, and I shouldn’t upset her. I promise to call her at night. At night, I picture her rushing to work in the morning and I don’t call.
Sometimes I think that I must say this in person when Renu visits me next, for she visits about twice a year. But when she’s here, I get tongue tied. I fear that I will lose her. I also fear that I will lose Rohan, just after finding him. He will hate me for putting Renu and him in such a sinful situation. Maybe I should write a letter and keep it with my will.
On my bedside stands my matryoshka, which I have managed to keep with me for nearly forty years. I stash Valium inside the third doll. To make room for my cache, I removed the smallest three dolls and put them away in my wardrobe. Whenever I look at my matryoshka, she looks back at me with the same pleasant smile and kind eyes. She takes me back to the sweetest days of my life. She will give me solace one last time. And my secret will stay with me.
Swarna Pinto was born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to Australia in 1990. She completed a Master of Science degree in Soviet Russia. Swarna’s life experiences provide a narrative canvas for her writing. Her fiction has been published in The Quarry and SWAMP. She is a Master of Creative Writing student at Macquarie University.