When born to a place and brought to another the heart remains torn between the two – this is true to many migrants across the world today. Sharmila Jay ( Sharmila Jayasinghe Niriella) a Sri Lankan born Australian author discusses this unseen struggle of a migrant woman in her fiction prose published in the current issue of Swamp Literary Magazine.
Mrs Fernando woke up with a dreadful feeling, a dreadful feeling for she had lived through the night. She had nothing to do but she still woke up early. Her mother’s voice had nagged her every morning all her life, telling her ‘girls shouldn’t sleep till the sun shines on their bums’. It was an alarm she couldn’t silence. She dreaded facing the empty day but forced herself to sit up. Her morning ritual was predictable. The day didn’t begin till she’d had an overly sweet black coffee. It was oil to her machine. Outside, the morning was still struggling to wake when she sat to break her fast. The table was empty but for a single plate. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. In the silence, her thoughts searched for her husband. The crunching of his bite, the drag of his sip: that ever-present music to her ears had been silenced. She could only hear her own munch and sip now, and she hated it. Everything took place in slow motion until her mind pinched her and reminded her today was going to be different. Her daughter Pooja visited once a week; when she couldn’t, she sent one of her kids. Mrs Fernando preferred the grandkids to come. They did not try to discipline her like Pooja did.
Her grandson Duleep arrived mid-morning. The boy rung the bell impatiently. Mrs Fernando struggled with the keys, then with the lock. It took nearly ten minutes for her to finally jiggle the thing right and pull the door open.
‘The lock gets stuck when it’s cold,’ she explained apologetically. ‘Fine in summer but not in winter.’ Mrs Fernando was not used to opening doors. Someone always opened doors for her: her father, her husband, her kids, her servants.
‘Oh, don’t worry Achamma. I didn’t have to stand out too long.’ Her grandkids treated her well. They didn’t come as often as she wished them to, but when they did, all was well.
‘Here you go,’ he said, handing over a freezer bag. ‘Amma sent this.’
Mrs Fernando inspected the bag and pulled out one plastic box after the other: fried brinjal curry, coconut sambal, fried chicken and beans—all her favourites and none of her husband’s. Pooja had sent a stack of curries every week since Mrs Fernando’s husband’s death, leaving her with even less to do.
‘Tea for you?’ Mrs Fernando asked, placing the curry boxes neatly on the granite bench top. She was so slow now that it was impossible for one to imagine her ever being fast.
‘You like chocolate cake, don’t you? Marianna next door brought a Woolworths cake. I’ll cut a piece for you.’ Opening a drawer, she pulled out a fancy plate and a silver fork.
‘Maybe later,’ her grandson replied, fiddling with the TV remote. ‘I had Nutri-Grain.’
‘Hmm, tell me when you are hungry.’ Mrs Fernando hovered around the pantry, then stepped out into the backyard with a pouch of tools in hand, knowing the boy would follow.
‘Alone in this place, Achamma, you must feel lonely.’ The boy cocked his head and scanned the surrounds. Back bent, Mrs Fernando dug the ground ferociously like she wished to pour her insecurities out and bury them deep.
‘Yes, sometimes,’ she answered in her mood. She did not want to give out much to her grandson.
Mrs Fernando remembered how vocal her husband had been about not wanting to end up in a nursing home. ‘It’s our culture or maybe a generational thing: we don’t let our elders die among people they don’t know,’ he had said. ‘Lonely and cruel places, soulless boxes.’ That’s what he had called nursing homes.
Pooja had argued with her father. ‘These are not at all like the facilities in Colombo Thaththa. They are clean and expensive, and there is so much for elders to do. One day if you, Amma, or even I have to be cared for, those are the best places.’ After a brief battle with cancerous cells, Mrs Fernando’s husband had died at home. When his chest sunk and his face fell flat, grief and insecurity had seeped into her world. ‘None of us will end up in an old people’s nursing home, not if I can help it,’ he had promised. But he was gone and there was no one to stop her from getting dumped in one now. Mrs Fernando didn’t want to give reasons for Duleep to think his grandmother needed to be cared for.
A single bloom struggled to unfold its petals on the lone rose bush Mrs Fernando had thought was dead. She eased up on her knees, squinted her eyes, and inspected the bud closely. Her joints protested in agony, but she didn’t care. A silk scarf shielded her from the sun—she didn’t knot it under her chin the way she would when she went out. The scarf hung like drapes on either side of her face, swaying in the gentle breeze.
‘Do you think you will ever go back to Sri Lanka, Achamma?’ The boy was full of questions.
Mrs Fernando let out a deep sigh, making ripples on her scarf. She was careful not to speak ill about the country she now called home. Not after Pooja sat both of them down and reminded them it had been their decision to follow her to Australia. ‘Martin and I spent so much money to get you residency here—it’s not fair when you keep complaining about everything. Too cold when cold, too hot when hot and too lonely,’ Pooja mimicked her mother. ‘It was, after all, your decision to come,’ she had emphasised.
It had indeed been their decision to come. Mrs Fernando didn’t mind either way, but her husband had wanted to come. ‘Pooja can’t visit us more than once a year and the kids even less.’ He’d said he felt hollow living so far from their daughter and grandkids.
‘We are not getting any younger, Nalini. There will come a time when you and I will be too frail to take that eleven-hour flight to see them. Then what?’
‘I am scared,’ Mrs Fernando had confessed. ‘This is our home.’
‘This is our homeland, but home is where our children are.’ Her husband had decided for them. While other parents who couldn’t join their children overseas envied, the old couple had packed their bags and migrated.
Mrs Fernando hadn’t liked her house in The Ponds at first. Her bungalow back home had been four times bigger and much airier. She had locked herself in the bathroom and sobbed every morning for the very first week in her new home. Then she had realised the town house was the right size for the two of them, only because there were no servants to mind the place. A Korean couple came fortnightly to clean, but they didn’t do a good job—not as good as the live-in servant back home. Mrs Fernando always waited till the cleaners left, then dusted, swept and mopped again. At night, when her limbs started aching from the unfamiliar labour, she complained and cried, wanting to be back home. She did not stay in the gloom for long. With the dawn of the morning she busied herself cooking for her husband and tending to her garden.
‘I do miss home,’ Mrs Fernando confessed, contemplating if she should add more. She carefully retrieved a pair of flower printed scissors out of the waterproof pouch, placed them on the grass and then pulled out another garden tool.
She was gentle with her plants. She didn’t have many. Her back yard was just a small patch about the size of a living room carpet. The landscaper had taken a thousand dollars to set it up. Sir Walter turf, a bird bath and two enormous pots was all the change he had made. Mrs Fernando thought it was money well spent. On one side of the yard there was a small vegetable patch, which her husband had tended to. On the other side, Mrs Fernando had haphazardly planted all kinds of flowers she thought were beautiful. With her husband gone, the vegetable patch did not survive the winter. Mrs Fernando watched her plants, willing them to come back to life. She didn’t speak any more about missing home. Still on her knees, she observed her grandson, who was perched on a cement block with eyes glued to his phone screen. Though his skin was light, the boy—tall and lanky with a full head of curls—was the picture of her husband. Even the way Duleep sat with his head bent like he was dozing off reminded her of him.
‘Let’s go see Seeya,’ she suggested, surrendering to her heart’s wish. She would have visited her husband’s grave every day if she could, but with her husband gone there was no one to drive her around. ‘You haven’t driven me anywhere in your new car.’
The boy, mind stuck on his device, wobbled his head and agreed.
‘I’ll change and come.’
Nalini Fernando was a petite woman with a full head of salt and pepper curls she pulled back to a bun at the nape of her neck. Though she tried, she couldn’t tame all those unruly curls: they rebelled and spiralled out like tentacles of an octopus. She didn’t mind displaying the tentacles when she was at home, but if she needed to go out, she lathered coconut oil on her hair and pasted them into place.
She had two sets of clothes. One, she wore when she was in the house and one, she wore when she went out. She never wore the inside clothes out or the outside clothes while at home. She put on her pair of denim jeans and white long sleeved kurti, oiled her hair, and re-secured it in a bun at the nape of her neck. She rummaged through a plastic box of fancy jewellery and chose a white beaded necklace, which she wore over her thin gold chain. Mrs Fernando hadn’t worn colours since her husband passed. She would have avoided the blue of the denim if she could, but she didn’t own a pair of white pants.
Out in the common courtyard, Mrs Fernando was vocal. She spoke to everyone they met.
‘Good morning, Reeta, or is it afternoon?’
‘Oh, Nimal, the black swans are back. You should take some bread.’
‘Malia, did your parents go back? You must be missing them.’ She knew everyone by name. Her mouth worked overtime until she and Duleep reached the car.
‘Seat belt,’ the boy reminded, just the same way his mother always did. After a lifetime of travelling without a seat belt, Mrs Fernando needed to be reminded.
‘I still forget.’ She was apologetic for the second time that morning. As they sped off, Mrs Fernando waved at passers-by who noticed her in the car.
Inside Castlebrook Cemetery, they could drive close to where they needed to go. The hillside was like a battle grave, with eternal pillars erected to house the ashes of residents. Mrs Fernando stopped at pillar number seventy-seven, where her husband’s ashes lay among the ashes of people he didn’t know. A silence cast over the pair as they sank into a wooden bench erected for mourners to rest.
‘Do you miss him?’ the boy asked as if it was his duty to break the silence.
‘Hmm.’ Mrs Fernando nodded, gently caressing the gold cross dangling on her chain. ‘But I’ll see him again soon.’
Her grandson’s fingers stopped dancing on the screen, but he didn’t comment.
‘Nights are the worst, when the house is silent.’ Words jumped out of her mouth without pause. ‘Your grandfather snored loud, like he was gargling saltwater in his sleep. Without that, I should be sleeping well now,’ Mrs Fernando added for good humour. ‘He was in uniform the first time he came to see me. The tallest man I ever saw.’ She snorted out a reluctant chuckle. ‘I got used to looking up when I spoke to him. Like talking to God.’ Lost in a faraway memory, she continued. ‘He had all his medals pinned on like he was going to a parade. I could see my reflection on his shoes, he had them polished that well.’ Mrs Fernando spoke over the whirl of the cemetery keeper’s lawnmower. ‘Your grandfather didn’t have the send-off he deserved,’ she lamented.
She would have liked her husband’s casket to be draped with the Lion flag, paraded down the streets of Colombo and taken to the Independence Square for a state funeral. She was sad it didn’t happen: the Independence Square was oceans away and the state in the new country didn’t know him at all.
‘He was a war hero back home. Over here, he was nobody,’ she whispered, swallowing her emotions, not trusting her eyes to retain the tears welling up. For days after his death, Mrs Fernando’s Facebook feed was showered with condolences, but at the funeral, the chapel pews had remained relatively empty. Their neighbours and Pooja’s friends had come, but they were just a few. Someone from the Sri Lankan Association came, spoke to her, and wrote a one column article like there was nothing much to write about him. It had made her grief bloat.
‘If he died in Colombo, he would have had a hero’s send-off, a military guard of honour and all that,’ Mrs Fernando explained.
‘Hmm,’ the boy acknowledged, eyes still glued to his phone.
Mrs Fernando halted her thoughts of anguish and smiled. She didn’t want Duleep to go home and say, ‘Grandmother is sad.’ She suspected her sadness would trigger all kinds of planning and she would end up in a place she didn’t want to be. ‘I don’t want Pooja to put you in an old people’s home if I go before you,’ her husband had worried constantly. If she was in her house in Colombo, there would have been any number of people willing to move in and care for her. The old couple hadn’t thought that through when they migrated to a country where they knew only four people.
When the whirl of the lawnmower neared and disturbed her time with her husband’s ashes, Mrs Fernando escaped the grip of the wooden bench and signalled she wished to leave.
Back at home, Mrs Fernando changed into her house clothes again. It had been a good day. Even if it was only the two of them, she wanted to set the table and do lunch right. The scent of lavender tinged with mothball filled the room when she flung a lace tablecloth in the air and let it drape over the highly polished mahogany table. Standing on tiptoes, she carefully lifted her best crockery out of the corner cabinet and placed it gently on the table. She heated several curries on the stove and poured them into gold-rimmed white dishes. The pair sat ceremoniously and ate off Noritake plates and drank water in crystal glasses.
‘I like your dhal curry better than Amma’s,’ Duleep confessed. Boys were not afraid to tell the truth.
‘I’ll make you more next time.’ Mrs Fernando felt needed. She cut the Woolworths chocolate cake for dessert. A piece for Duleep, a piece for her and a piece saved for her granddaughter. Sitting on tub chairs they ate cake and watched reruns of Millionaire Hot Seat.
‘What will you do now?’ Duleep asked, collecting his keys to leave. That awful feeling of emptiness crept into her soul again, but Mrs Fernando feigned cheer.
‘Time for my afternoon nap,’ she said. Duleep bent down and touched her feet. Mrs Fernando kissed the top of his head and followed him outside. She placed a newspaper covered brick against the door to stop it from shutting her out and watched till her grandson’s car disappeared round the curb. With the heavy brick in hand she walked back in and let the wind close the door behind her.
Inside the house there was no noise—only the tick and the tock of the grandfather clock. The old clock was tired just like the old lady, having travelled from house to house and then across the seas. But it wouldn’t stop working. As long as someone wound the coil, the arms rotated, the bell chimed, and the pendulum swung. Eyes fixed on the clock, Mrs Fernando counted the number of hours left before the day would end. Though she wished the days to be shorter, they seemed to stretch like rubber bands. A deep heaving sigh escaped her bosom as it did many times a day.
She slumped down into a chair and flicked through other people’s Facebook feeds. Joe Samson posed with his fourth grandchild. His wide grin spoke of happiness. Photos of the Jayasuriyas’ trip to Batticaloa beach were splashed all over their profile pages: clear blue skies, a calm sea and smiling children. She licked her lips and imagined the taste of the ocean. She had been to the beach in Batticaloa as a child, first with her father. It was there that she learnt crabs walked sideways. The memory brought a smile to her lips. On his Facebook page, Peterson’s son ranted on about something she didn’t know. Her husband would have explained. Mrs Fernando hadn’t studied beyond ninth grade. She had been boarded at a convent in Colombo from a young age till her father decided she had learnt enough. Her parents had found her a match and that was that. Though in the military, her husband was a gentle sort. She had spent most of her life with him. If he was alive, come Christmas, it would have been fifty-eight years.
Sliding her finger across the screen, she read her own life on Facebook next. A photo of her and her husband on their fiftieth anniversary popped up on the screen. It was a happy moment: her husband had his mouth open and she was feeding him wedding cake. Mrs Fernando made it her profile picture and put the phone down.
She eased to her bedroom, washed her feet, and climbed onto bed for her afternoon nap. Her husband’s walking stick stood against the wall. Mrs Fernando shuffled over to his side of the bed and inhaled deeply. The fragrance of Old Spice—her husband’s aftershave—still lingered on, as strong as when he was alive. She gently stroked the cotton pillowslip and let the world become a blur.
Sleeping tears woke. No one saw, no one heard. No one was there.
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.