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Authors: Nayomi Munaweera

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors

BOOK: Island of a Thousand Mirrors
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To my parents,

Upamali and Neil, who made it all possible


And to my sister, Namal, who fought for this book,

earliest and best beloved reader



Title Page

Copyright Notice


Map of Sri Lanka



Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Part Two

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12



Family Trees

About the Author



The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting



I lie in the cave of his body, fluid seeping from between my legs. Shadows spin slowly
across the sky-blue walls of this humid, airless room and my limbs are heavy, weighted
with exhaustion and frantic, war-like lovemaking. Sweat beads on our skin, it runs
in thin rivulets between us so that we are stuck together, glued one to the other,
conjoined twins. He sleeps with an arm thrown across his face to block out the silver
threads of dawn, the sugary-sweet film sound tracks rising from the neighbor’s radio,
the roaring of that fierce and relentless ocean. His lips move. From the drowned depths
of his sleep, it is my sister’s name, the single syllable of it that emerges over
and over. A whispered keening of the sound I bestowed upon her lifetimes ago. I stay
perfectly still, perfectly quiet, my hands folded on his fluttering heart. From here,
this close to him, I can still hear her breathing on the other side of him.


Part One



It is 1948 and the last British ships slip away from the island of Ceylon, laboring
and groaning under the weight of purloined treasure. On board one such vessel, the
captain’s log includes the tusks and legs of elephant herds; rubies, emeralds, topaz;
fragrant mountains of cinnamon, cardamom, mustard seeds; forests of ebony, teak, and
sandalwood; screeching peacocks; caged and pacing leopards; ten-foot-long monitor
lizards whipping their razor tails; barrels of fermented coconut toddy; the jewel-encrusted
thrones of Kandyan kings; the weapons of Chola warriors; priceless texts in Pali and
Sanskrit, Sinhala and Tamil.

At the foam-drenched stern, a blue-eyed, walnut-burnt sahib searches for the vanishing
island and says to his pale young wife, “A shame, really. Such a nice little place.”

And she, only recently having left Manchester for the colony and now returning in
triumph, a husband successfully hunted and captured, says, “But so hot! And the mosquitoes!
It will be such a comfort to be home again.”

The Englishman contemplates the meaning of this word, “home,” remembers decades of
waving palms, soft sarongs against his thighs, the quick fingers and lithe embraces
of burnt brown bodies. He has not seen the dome of St. Paul’s for ten years. On his
last visit to the frigid metropolis, he had felt an odd creature, neither fish nor
fowl, smirked at by elegant ladies, his skin chaffed, fingers stiff and unable to
determine between fish and salad fork. A sort of anger rises in his throat.

He tells himself that he will no longer dream of palm trees and sunshine. His wife
takes refuge under his arm, her breast knowingly close to his fingertips. She utters
a quick, coquettish laugh. She knows she has sufficient charms to distract him from
his island memories. He turns his head resolutely away from the fast-disappearing
island and toward the other, colder one ahead of him. His eyes are bone dry.

Behind the retreating Englishman, on the new nation’s flag is poised a stylized lion,
all curving flank and ornate muscle, a long, cruel sword gripped in its front paw.
It is the ancient symbol of the Sinhala, who believe that they are descended from
the lovemaking between an exiled Indian princess and a large jungle cat. A green stripe
represents that small and much-tossed Muslim population. An orange stripe represents
the larger, Tamil minority.

But in the decades that are coming, race riots and discrimination will render the
orange stripe inadequate. It will be replaced by a new flag. On its face, a snarling
tiger, all bared fang and bristling whisker. If the idea of militancy is not conveyed
strongly enough, dagger-clawed paws burst forth while crossed rifles rear over the
cat’s head.

A rifle-toting tiger. A sword-gripping lion. This is a war that will be waged between
related beasts.

*   *   *

My name is Yasodhara Rajasinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one
possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped
into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much
earlier than my birth and I must start with the boy who will become my father.

As the last British ships slip over the horizon, my seven-year-old father-to-be, Nishan,
cavorts on beaches he does not know are pristine. He dives into an ocean unpolluted
by the gasoline-powered tourist boats of the future.

In the months before the thunderous monsoon, the ocean tugs at his toes, wraps sinuous
limbs about his own, and pulls him into its embrace, out until it is deep enough to
dive, headfirst, feet overhead, inverted and submerged. Eyes open against stinging
salt, he sees coral like a crowded, crumbling city, busy with variously marked, spotted,
dotted, striped, lit, pompous, and playful sea creatures. Now and then, he encounters
the curious, swiveling eye of a small red octopus emerging from secret passageways.
Approached recklessly, the octopus blanches a pure white, and with an inky ejaculation
torpedoes away. So he learns to approach slowly, in rhythm with the gently rolling
water, until the creature coming to know this stick-limbed biped is lulled enough
to allow his quiet presence.

Farther out beyond the reef, where the coral gives way to the true deep, at a certain
time of day a tribe of flat silver fish gather in their thousands. To be there is
to be surrounded by living shards of light. At a secret signal, all is chaos, a thousand
mirrors shattering about him. Then the school speeds to sea and the boy is left in
sedate water, a tug and pull of the body as comfortable as sitting in his father’s
outspread sarong being sung to sleep.

When he emerges dripping from the sea, it is to find this father, the village Ayurvedic
doctor, perched on an upturned catamaran, deep in conversation with the fisherfolk
who squat on their heels before him.

The fishermen wear sarongs splotched with octopus ink. Their hands are leathered by
handling rope, mending nets, wrestling sharks by their tails onto the beach. They
are ruthless with the flesh of the creatures they catch, upturning gentle sea turtles
in the sand to carve off chunks of the living flesh. The turtles bleed slowly, drip
salt tears from the corners of their ancient eyes. In this way the meat stays fresh
for days, the fishermen explain. For similar reasons the fishermen grasp just caught
octopuses and turn them inside out, exposing delicate internals that flash through
cycles of color. Decades later, in America, when my father sees Christmas lights for
the first time, he will astound us with the observation that they look just like dying

The sun drops fast, blazing momentarily crimson on the horizon. Father and son wander
home. At the front door, his mother, Beatrice Muriel, waits, a lantern in her hand.
In her other hand, she grips the shoulder of Nishan’s twin sister, Mala, who by dint
of her girlhood is not allowed on beach wanderings. Beatrice Muriel ignores her husband.
She is angry that they have spent the day with the fisherfolk, listening to fisher
songs, picking up fisher habits, coming home covered in beach sand. It is too dark
to bathe, she scolds. Cold well water after the sun has set will result in sneezing
and a runny nose. “Running here and there, like a savage. One day I will find you
up a coconut tree with the toddy tappers. That’s the day I will skin you alive. Wait
and see if I don’t.”

As she scolds, she pulls the bones out of fried fish with deft fingers, mixes it with
red rice and coconut sambal into balls, which she pops into the mouths of her children:
a bird feeding its chicks. Her monologue ceases only when the plate is empty.

Afterward, he goes to sleep on the straw mat next to Mala, sea sand frosting his limbs
and gritty in his hair and eyelashes, the dark shapes of his parents on either side
of them, their breathing soothing him into sleep.

His mother, Beatrice Muriel, comes from a prominent southern family peopled with Vincents,
Victorias, Annie-Henriettas, Elizabeths, and Herberts in tribute to the former ruling
race. Now, after marriage to the Hikkaduwa Ayurvedic doctor, she is the village schoolteacher.
In the small classroom, open to the sea breezes, she teaches the children to read,
leads them as they chant loudly an English menagerie: “Q IS FOR QUAIL! R IS FOR ROBIN!
S IS FOR ESQUIRREL!” In the sultry afternoons, she teaches them to work numbers so
that they will not be cheated when the Colombo buyers come for fish.

Seven years before, Beatrice Muriel, at the age of sixteen, married for a year, finds
herself bloodless and nauseous. Her new husband examines her tongue, pulls back her
eyelids, nods his head, but propriety will not allow him to name her ailment. Three
months later, as custom demands, he sends her home to her mother by swaying bullock

In the ancestral house, she is fed and pampered, stroked and coddled. When the pains
begin, she labors surrounded by the various women of her family. Her mother parts
her thighs, whispers endearments and encouragements into her sweating ears.

There are the usual hours of sweat-drenched, pushing, ripping pain before a tiny creature
slips forth. A boy! The gods have been benevolent! But wait, Beatrice Muriel on her
childhood bed is still sweating, still straining and pushing. With a final effort,
a great gush of red, another child slips headfirst from salt water into the wide,
airy world. The women submerge the child in the waiting basin of water, hoping to
reveal some lighter, more appropriately golden skin tone. The water turns hue, but
the baby does not, and Beatrice Muriel, taking in the pair, one eggplant hued and
the other milk-tea fair, cries, “If only it had been the boy who was so dark! This
black-black girl! We will never get her married.” To which her mother joins, “A darkie
granddaughter. Such a shade we have never had in our family. Must be from the father’s
side!” There, revealed for all to see, on the skin of this girl, the stain of low-caste
origins. Beatrice Muriel, torn and exhausted from birthing, hangs her head in shame.

Because by this time what had not been known before the nuptials has since been revealed.
Namely, that sometime in the years before seeking out matrimony, the Doctor had paid
a visit to the local registrar’s office, where he had worked a sort of alchemy. A
handsome bribe to replace his family name, Aposinghe, with its fishy associations
and marketplace odors, for the princely sounding Rajasinghe. In this way the Doctor,
like so many low-caste persons, had escaped the limitations of fate to win both medical
training and wife.

BOOK: Island of a Thousand Mirrors
4.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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