Groundviews

Sari

Photo by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

2009

When Sidath’s mum wore her wedding sari, she would tell her children, ‘the lotus would fully open.’ The large lotus was noticeable because its bright red sequins, dazzling in the light, added the only colour and texture to her otherwise white sari. In what was for twenty five years a generally happy and loving marriage, her sari occupied pride of place on the top shelf of her cupboard. She glanced at it, every once in a while, when searching for something to wear. Occasionally, she would pull it out to touch and examine. Knowing it was there, reassured and comforted her.

‘Is there a problem?’ she asked the army driver on approaching the camp, deep in the jungle. Sidath’s dad was the senior army commander there. Despite its proximity to the warfront, she was allowed to visit; his rank and her political connections securing such privileges. She brought the sari on this trip because she wanted to show it to him before they gifted it to their daughter for her wedding.

‘No problem, Madam. Sir is on an important phone call to Colombo,’ he replied politely, bringing the jeep to a halt. This added to her irritation. She had endured several hours of travel with a laconic driver in a small uncomfortable military jeep; at the last military base, she had been required to give up her driver and her large, air-conditioned 4WD.

‘Why can’t we go further? Why are we stopping here?’ She inquired.

‘Madam, Sir is coming.’

‘Why is he coming here?’

Moments later, her husband approached the jeep. He asked if she was tired and apologised for the duration of her journey. He dismissed the driver, recommending he go have a cup of tea. She could tell that he was tense and anxious. Sights, smells and sounds of battle surrounded them.

‘Darling, there’s a big problem. Do you have any white cloth?’

‘What? What for?’

‘The infirmary has run out. The nearest kitchen and laundry are at the base, hours away. ’

‘I have this hanky,’ she said waving it about frivolously, ‘but I suppose you need something cleaner.’

‘Yes, and we need more, urgently.’

‘Any mills nearby?’ she joked. He shook his head once.

They looked at the sari which lay between them. She began to shake her head.

‘No, no, no. Don’t even think about it.’

‘I wouldn’t ordinarily.’

‘No. I’m telling you, no.’ She placed her hand on top of the sari. ‘How can you ask me for this?’

‘I’m sorry.’ He placed his palm on hers, squeezing her hand gently. ‘I don’t want to do this.’

‘What if I didn’t bring it? What if I was delayed coming here?’ she persisted, uncoupling her hand from his.

‘This happened 15 minutes ago … an urgent call from Colombo. I told them you’d be here very soon. And that you’d have enough material.’

‘You did what? Why would you say that to them? Just tell them I don’t have it.’

‘This came from up top … they were adamant … it wasn’t easy…’

‘It’s not meant to be easy. You’re a senior professional—’

‘—who is doing his job,’ He continued to face her. ‘Please, darling. I know what this means to you. To us. Our promises…’

‘You should’ve thought about all of that before opening your big mouth. Did you tell them it’s my wedding sari?’

‘No, I didn’t. They wouldn’t care anyway. National security…’

‘Isn’t everything a bloody national security matter these days? My wedding sari, bloody collateral damage…’ She knew better than to allow tears to show. That could wait.

‘I’m sorry about this. I wanted to tell you earlier, but it’s dangerous for you to be here. You should head back straightaway, please, for your own safety. I’ve made arrangements at the base…’ He leant over and kissed her on the cheek. She winced.

He picked up the sari and got out of the jeep, instructing the driver to take her back to the base. He gave the sari to his deputy and went into his office.

Sidath’s dad’s mobile phone beeped, the tone of an incoming message. He was contemplating the message when his deputy came into the office.

‘Sir, here is the sari. We’ve done our best.’

‘Thank you. Please leave it with my papers to take back to Colombo. Are the arrangements in place?’

‘Yes sir. Is it time?’ the deputy asked.

‘Yes, we have the orders from Colombo. Only you and I are going on this mission.’

His deputy hesitated. ‘Sir, do we have that in writing?’

He nodded. ‘Yes. Here, it’s best if you read the orders as well.’

He showed his deputy the message. The two of them left the office and walked towards the edge of the camp. They positioned themselves on either side of a narrow path.

‘Let them know it’s safe to approach,’ he commanded a few minutes later. His deputy gave the agreed signal.

Soon, six enemy combatants emerged. They walked in single file along the path leading away from the jungle towards the camp. Each of them held their hands above their heads. His deputy looked through his binoculars, carefully studying his foes. ‘Sir, they are unarmed. Their hands are up. They are surrendering. Sir?’

He said one word. ‘Fire.’

 

2014

Uncle Java put down the tasting spoon.

‘I am ready to guess what it is. The pandan ice cream is for green. Sliced mango for saffron. Sticky red rice for magenta. The dessert is inspired by the national flag you love so much. It really shouldn’t have taken me this long to guess but I was stumped by the coconut jaggery mousse and cinnamon sugar. What are they for?’

‘The rest of us…’ replied Sidath.

‘Ah, all shades, multiple and intersecting flavours. Very inclusive. Clever.’

‘Thank you. It’s inspired by how much richer the national flag could be … only two problems though.’

‘What?’ asked uncle Java.

‘It tries too hard. It’s too tidy. Manicured.” Then he smirked mischievously, skilfully arching his left brow with the insouciance reserved for the facially agile. ‘Not quite unlike this new Colombo of ours … with all these beautiful gardens and abundant pavements.’

Uncle Java frowned. ‘Hmm. Let’s agree to disagree on that. What’s the second problem?

‘Sri Lanka is not yet what the dessert is,’ said Sidath with perfect equanimity.

Uncle Java’s frown took a sceptical turn. ‘Maybe, maybe. But if you take it together, it’s formidable, no? And besides, quite scrumptious. Or ‘dope’ as your lot say nowadays.’

Sidath looked up from the kitchen bench at his father’s oldest and dearest friend and grinned.

‘Ah, is that a smile I see? Oh, and there they are, those wicked dimples. Haven’t seen much of them today, have I?’ Uncle Java had the right of it. Sidath was not in a jocular mood.

Sidath’s parents had been arguing for the better part of the day. The arguments began after that morning’s Wikileaks exposé identified his dad as one of the men who shot and killed six surrendering enemy combatants. The rest of the house was quiet. On days like this, the staff attended to household chores with greater vigour. Sidath, however, struggled to find his usual discipline. His morning surf was inexplicably clumsy. He desperately needed to prepare political science lectures which he had volunteered to give at the University, but lacked the willpower to make a start. So he attempted to distract himself with yet another hobby, the dessert; his entry to the Colombo Food Week competition, now in its fifth year.

‘So what are they quarrelling about? ’ Uncle Java asked.

‘I don’t know uncle. Maybe it’s that leak on the news today. Don’t know why they’d fight about it though. It’s not like we didn’t suspect dad must have done terrible things…’

‘Yes, I watched the Wikileaks programme this morning.’ Uncle Java poured a bit more of his milky tea onto his saucer, blew on it gently, and slurped the tea off it. ‘What did you think of it?’

Don’t mention the war is the house rule,’ Sidath mimicked lyrically. ‘Remember the wedding promises?’

‘Yes, yes, will we ever be allowed to forget their wedding promises? Her promise to support him fighting in the war and his promise to keep the war out of your lives.’

But he pressed on. ‘Between us though, what would you do in those circumstances?’

‘I don’t know uncle. I really don’t. It troubles me that they were unarmed. Also, the surrender had been approved. Why assist and then massacre?’

‘Why resort to such subterfuge? Why gun them down?’

‘Why indeed?’ Sidath deflected, detecting a trace of casual mockery, a hint of stray menace, in Uncle Java’s vocal parry.

‘For the greater good perhaps?’ Uncle Java beamed.

‘Where have I heard that argument before?’

‘Why? You think heroes like Dutugemunu or Rama would not employ such tactics to defeat an opponent?’

‘I have no idea what they would’ve done. Much less, what I’d have done,’

‘True, you don’t. Anyway, you’ll all need to rally around to get through the public circus that’s on its way.’

They were interrupted by the maid’s unexpected arrival. ‘Baby sir! Baby sir! Come quickly please.’

‘Why? What is it?’

‘There’s a fire in the garden. It’s Madam, Baby sir! Madam’s wedding sari!’

‘A fire? Mum? What’s going on?’

All present knew the story of the sari’s trip north and return south. It was returned, damaged. There was a point when the battle-scarred sari surfaced like the scab of an unhealed wound, every time his parents argued. But that was in the past. Lately, she would even joke about it as ‘my not so hari-sari.’

Sidath rushed towards the garden. The maid followed. He asked Uncle Java to check on dad, who they remembered was alone upstairs.

When he saw her, Sidath was relieved. She was not wearing her wedding sari. Most of all, he was glad that the fire in front of her was a small one.

‘Mummy, you ok?’

‘No, darling.’

‘Ok, what can I do?’

‘Just be here with me.’

‘Sure.’

‘I am angry with him, darling. He broke his promise. But most of all, this…’

She started to unfold the sari in her hands. ‘See these square cut-outs. When he returned it, I never asked, and he never told me. I never found out why he needed it. I thought … I thought they used it for bandages.’

But that was not so.

‘They were used to make white flags. The flags were given to those six unarmed cadres to wave over their heads – and for what? What a waste.’

He looked at his mum in disbelief. This was too serious a matter to tolerate doubt. ‘Mum, I can see you’re upset. But the white flags could’ve come from anywhere. Wikileaks could be wrong.’ Sidath hoped desperately for uncertainty; uncertainty attributable to a misunderstanding or mistake would be an easier outcome for all of them to navigate.

‘No, my darling. I am sure. It was seeing the broken red sequins and lotus petal on one of the blood-stained flags that made me realise. How can I not recognise my own sari? I asked him about it after I saw that programme today … He couldn’t deny it. Here, I want you to see it too.’

Sidath looked. When he finished looking, he was certain.

The light from the flames flickered across their faces, casting them in anguished relief. Their maid watched them, wishing that the light would penetrate their expressions and reveal completely and openly their thoughts and feelings. Today, the flames did not grant her this secret wish.

‘She looks at me, as if I am overreacting, as if I should just go back upstairs and put it back in the cupboard,’ she whispered, nodding towards their maid. ‘“Madam, let it lie there” she said to me earlier, presumably with good intentions. I laughed. I told her that’s precisely what it’s been doing for the past five years.’ She leant closer towards him. ‘Maybe my sari is cursed, whatever I do.’

‘Shhhh, mum. Don’t think like that.’

They stood still, in silence, staring at the fire below, gazing at the stars above.

It occurred to Sidath that whistle-blowers’ revelations designed to expose the practices and hypocrisy of western democratic statecraft, inadvertently shone light through a chink in the official narrative of his small country – whose peacetime democracy teetered on a precipice. Just like that, serendipitous vicissitudes of liberating technology and digital culture prompted timely reminders of and connected with decency and wisdom – through tales of dealings between medieval kings of the north and south and, beyond that to, ancient mythologies of gods and devils incarnate. And just like that, a harsh reminder of an island nation’s troubled and receding past entered a home effortlessly and engulfed the present of its inhabitants.

Sidath wondered, if a thing so sacred is so heinously defiled, what remains? If an act so profane is woven indelibly into their everyday fabric, what does it require of each of them? Whatever remains and is required, what does it mean for nurturing things precious and inviolate? Sidath thought of his dessert too, lying in the kitchen; he recoiled from the previous excitement he felt, in drawing inspiration from the national flag. Now, the thought of using a flag nauseated him. He decided to throw the dessert away.

Sidath put his arm around his mum’s shoulders. He felt the goose-bumps on her forearms.

‘ … I am trying my best to understand … what allows a man who loves and cherishes to have spoiled and butchered … I keep picturing my sari being torn … I see six men trying to shield themselves unsuccessfully with it … their wives and children screaming, holding bloodied white flags and shaking their fists, showing the world their grief and a terrible wrong…’

Sidath hugged her more tightly. She was trembling now, her voice breaking.

‘I can’t keep this, my darling. Not now that I know it’s been tainted in this way. Look at the way my lotus has been cut…’

She lowered, bit by bit, the full length of the sari into the fire. There were nearly six yards to burn. Six yards of silk. It burned slowly. The sequins popped and crackled in the flames. The lotus was no more. In the end, there was only black ash.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.