A Rotten Deal
Umeshi Uyangoda saw her husband, Udesh, off to work every morning with a heavily scented handkerchief pressed to her nose, and a sordid little secret coiled inside her chest. Both were sickening, but neither as sickening as the stench from the municipal garbage dump down the road. It was this abomination, she told herself—this gigantic purveyor of toxic gas and ill fortune—that necessitated her perfume and her treachery.
Once Udesh was safely out of sight, Umeshi scuttled up to the second floor, ignoring the leftovers on the breakfast table, the swarm of black flies gathering over globs of egg curry that were soaking into her tablecloth. These were no ordinary insects. They were Dump Flies and they came in their dozens, clumped together like bunches of black mulberries, unafraid. Rolled up newspapers were no match for them, a curio from The Days Before the Dump. She’d taken to stashing electric fly swatters around the house. Neon-colored weapons shaped like toy tennis rackets, peddled by enterprising door-to-door salesmen in these parts. One swipe and zzzppp—her table was littered with tiny fried corpses.
But not today. She went directly upstairs to her daughter’s old bedroom, whose door still carried Umanga’s hand-painted sign: Beware! Highly Educated Woman Inside. Little had been touched in the five years since the girl left for college in the United States—wooden shelves still sinking under the weight of so many books, walls still papered with magazines cutouts of Umanga’s idols, all women whose names eternally escaped Umeshi. No matter. She had eyes for only two things in this room: the Sunday newspaper supplement and a bulky Windows PC.
While the machine revved up, Umeshi spread out the Classifieds, using her thumbnail to crease down the centerfold of the BRIDEGROOMS section. The paper’s flat rate of 25 rupees per word encouraged brevity, which in turn exposed the base, unfiltered aspirations of an entire nation:
Govi-Buddhist parents seek obedient, fair girl for our son (5’10’’). He is Devoid of All Vices (non-smoker, teetotaler, hardworking), employed in leading bank, possessing Australian Permanent Residence (PR) and Significant Financial Assets. Desires immediate union with a slim and pretty bride. Reply with horoscope.
One had to be vigilant about the fine print, of course—Divorced after brief incompatible marriage or, even worse, Christian parents seek—but Umeshi had learned quickly that these proposals were all of a pattern, reflecting a society clinging to old feuds and ancient bloodlines. While the profession or height of a future spouse might be negotiable, caste, community and color were not. It wasn’t quite to her taste; she and Udesh had shunned all such considerations in their own union, a true ‘love match’. But she was willing to overlook these families’ outdated notions in exchange for The Promise, the great offer of exchange that all the personal advertisements rested on: emigration. Dual citizenship for both bride and mother. A life abroad, overseas, elsewhere. Anywhere But Here.
There were no names attached to the ads. Those, presumably, came later, when BrideProposal4455@yahoo.com or email@example.com had shuffled through their responses and decided that she—and Umanga—were worth their time. But that hadn’t happened yet. And it stung.
Umeshi refreshed her inbox. She clicked on ‘Spam’ and then, growing desperate, on ‘Trash’. She was new to this computer business, the mysterious world of the screen where things disappeared into black holes called Folders, never to be seen again. Not like real life, where everything piled up until you were forced to confront it. Here, On-Line, you pressed a button and started fresh—a new day, a New Window.
Udesh despised it. Having spent his life balancing the books the hard way, with a calculator and columns of figures, he viewed the machine as a cheat and a usurper. That he had consented to having one in the house at all was due entirely to Umeshi playing an expert hand. Against her wishes Udesh had urged Umanga to accept a scholarship from a university in Massachusetts. Against Umeshi’s better judgment he’d sunk their retirement savings into plane tickets, College Meal Plans, On-Campus Housing Deposits. Then—a slap in the face—he’d allowed the girl to take what she called a Gap Year after she got her degree. Umeshi held her tongue, totting up the offenses until they amounted to a decent trade: Udesh wanted their only child to remain at large, unwed, on a distant continent? Very well, then Umeshi would have Skype Video Calls and Google Hangouts and Facebook Chats and everything Udesh deplored. From the day it arrived, the computer transformed Umanga’s bedroom from the dwelling place of their greatest treasure to the terrain of their bitterest battles. Would this latest transgression, sharing her daughter’s sacred star chart with strangers over the Internet, be the breaking point?
Her neighbor Ganga dismissed such concerns as “bloody nonsense.” She had found the perfect husband for Her Chuppi after extensive email exchanges with a suite of suitors and was confident Umeshi could do the same.
“Men are useless when it comes to these matters,” Ganga said later that morning as they hung up their washing. “But wait and see, he’ll worship you when it’s done. So? Any decent candidates?”
Umeshi thought of her sparsely populated inbox.
“Don’t dilly-dally,” Ganga said. “After thirty, no one will want her.”
“What do you want me to do?” Umeshi asked. “I’m not a magician, I can’t pull a man out of thin air.”
“Don’t get glorious with me. I’m trying to help you. If you’re not happy with the selection why don’t you put your own advertisement?”
“Are you bloody mad, Ganga? Suppose Udesh opens the paper and sees? He’ll massacre me.”
“Can’t be helped.” Ganga wrung out a sock ruthlessly. “Anyway Udesh only reads the political pages.”
“Aiyo here.” Umeshi pegged up a pair of her husband’s underpants. “Stop playing the fool.”
“What fool? You want to look up and wait until Umanga is barren? Mothers must take the initiative. Then you can control the situation, no? You ask the questions. You check the horoscopes. You be the one to send people packing.”
A shiver of pleasure danced down Umeshi’s spine, but still she faltered.
“How will I know what to write? Can’t men.”
“What Umeshi! I thought you studied English Literature in school? At last you can put your degree to good use!”
Umeshi managed a mirthless smile. There was a time when this morning routine had brought her solace, the communal clothesline an amusing nod to their shared domestic confinement. But Ganga was building a life raft. Her daughter Chuppi’s new husband was Doing Very Well, shorthand among the upwardly mobile for Making a Lot of Money. Soon Ganga would join them in their semi-detached London home while Umeshi was bound to this rotting municipality whose population was defined, demarcated and divided by its proximity to the city’s refuse. True, she was better off than the slum dwellers who lived at the foot of the landfill, whose gutters and gardens acted as a kind of sieve for the black sludge that ran from the dump at the onset of rains. It was these residents who bore the brunt of legions of rats, cockroaches and mosquitoes that thrived in the filth. But parasites are discerning creatures. Not content with the meager offerings of poor people’s kitchens, they’d begun their march towards the bigger houses, where scraps were meatier, juicier, more plentiful.
Even now a murder of crows kaak-kaak-ed menacingly at the women from a branch. These were the runts, driven from the dump by bigger, healthier flocks. Hunger had emboldened them. One slum dweller swore to having witnessed a stray dog carried off by the ravenous creatures; another said she’d seen a crow pluck out a baby’s eyes. No one could substantiate these reports. All they knew was that when the birds banded together in a blur of beaks and talons that cast the whole neighborhood into shadow, everyone took cover, venturing out only hours later to find their world coated in a patina of shit.
When they’d first moved into the neighborhood there had been nothing at the end of the lane but a wetland, a quiet, humid soup of mangroves and monitor lizards. The dumping began shortly after their daughter, Umanga, was born. It grew alongside her, she alongside it—a mountain arising abruptly from flatness; an odorless swamp spiraling into a festering tower.
Umeshi could still recall the first time a truck discharged its contents in the area.
The family were out on their evening stroll. Udesh pushed the pram while she held the umbrella. Umanga was awake but quiet, occasionally shaking her rattle which made a shucka-shucka-shucka sound like seeds inside a pod.
They smelled it before they saw it, a streak of rankness in the air. The baby made a fussing sound. Umeshi clutched her husband’s arm as they rounded the corner. And there it was, a coagulated mess of other people’s filth bursting out of flimsy plastic bags, food waste and half-crushed beer cans, soggy, sloppy egg cartons and empty cigarette packets. A glossy black raven dipped its beak into a rivulet of rancid rice porridge, just as Umanga started to cry.
It had seemed monstrous at the time but not insurmountable. They were a civic-minded couple, respected in the community, so it didn’t take them long to assemble a team to gather up the rubbish—everyone wore gloves—and return it to the roadside. But that was only the beginning. Each day more trucks arrived, too many to count, and with them a squadron of waste pickers, who spent their days scavenging and their nights erecting a shantytown around the garbage.
Udesh had tired of the whole thing in a matter of months, but Umeshi became like a woman possessed. She could think of nothing but the dump: the sight of it, the stench of it, the spread of it, inching closer all the time. She battled pests and fetidness with poisons and incense. She joined the Residents’ Committee Against the Dump, a group of likeminded, middle-class families who made appeals to municipal bodies and public servants.
“What for, darling?” Udesh often asked. “You think those government bureaucrats will bother reading letters? They’re too busy scratching their backsides and drinking tea!”
Perhaps he was right but she stuck with it. If nothing else, it helped to pass the time.
That was twenty years ago. Umanga went off to college, while Udesh sailed peacefully on the still waters of a dead-end career at the finance company where he never ruffled feathers and never received a promotion. The dump grew from a single peak to a mountain range, its undulating form forever blocking Umeshi’s view of the horizon. So she’d done the only sensible thing she could think of: found herself a new hobby. The Bridegroom search was a reason to get going every morning. Tucked away insider her, it tingled deliciously all day long and allowed her to forget, for several blissful hours, the stinking reality of her surroundings.
Ganga was right about one thing: time was against her. Umanga was returning next month for her first visit in five years—The Gap Year having widened into a gulf—and the tide of longing she and Udesh had held at bay was now surging back. Udesh started marking off the days on the kitchen calendar, slanted rows of red slashes tipping towards the day of Umanga’s arrival.
One thing did not bode well for Umanga’s visit, the protests at the dump. A schoolboy had died of a rat bite, ten years old and apparently beloved in the community because hundreds of people from the informal settlement emerged from their shanties waving signs and chanting slogans. A group of youngsters blocked municipal trucks from entering the town by burning rubbish in the streets. Plumes of black smoke darkened everything they touched. The old stench of decaying waste took on a new bouquet, the spice of singed rubber, the musk of melting polythene. A politician arrived to calm the unrest but crowds pelted his shiny white SUV with garbage. Someone hurled a coconut through the windscreen and it split the driver’s forehead right open.
Ganga called it ‘slum behavior’ and Umeshi silently agreed. When they’d been part of it, things had been more dignified—letter writing and so on. But the Residents’ Committee had been replaced by the People’s Movement Against the Dump, which appeared to be directed entirely by members of the colony, hotheaded men and loud-mouthed women who wasted no time on pleasantries.
“They’re so aggressive,” she complained to her husband. “Ugly behavior doesn’t get you anywhere.”
“I say, this is the only language politicians speak,” Udesh said. “Haven’t you watched the debates in parliament? Slinging garbage at each other is what they do best. Thugs respond to thuggery! Maybe now something will be done.”
While the neighborhood buried itself in the standoff, Umeshi agonized over the marriage proposal. What to say about Umanga, who had become almost unrecognizable to her? Take this latest Facebook post, a photograph of the girl dressed in a pair of shamelessly short shorts, her man’s haircut mercifully hidden by a gold-sequined cap. In one hand a sign that read, “Proud to be marching for #ImmigrantRights!” Her other arm was slung around someone who had begun to make regular appearances in the posts, a petite girl with flowing auburn hair and heavily tattooed limbs. Both Umanga and her friend sported pierced noses—not the elegant diamond studs Umeshi was accustomed to but thick rings of silver that hung from the septum. Their photos betrayed a closeness that echoed through strings of comments: Uma, you stunner, love those booty shorts and My fave LGBTQ cuties fighting the good fight!
For the life of her, Umeshi couldn’t understand it. When Umanga had left for a university called “UMass”, she had wholly embraced her generation’s mission: to surpass their parents’ status in life at breakneck speed. Everyone was on the move; to be stationary was to fail. Old classmates with whom Umeshi had parted ways on more or less equal footing—poised for unremarkable lives—now boarded planes to visit their children in Toronto, Singapore, Melbourne, Dubai. Udesh chastised her for peering too closely at other people’s lives, but he didn’t understand. Her Homepage was addictive, a bottomless parade featuring all the participants in the Great March Abroad, which is to say, everyone except Umeshi and Udesh Uyangoda. For reasons they never discussed, their investment in the future had failed to bear fruit. Somewhere along the way Umanga—or Uma as the girl now referred to herself, pronouncing it Ooma—had gone off track. She took a job in a bakery called Doughs Over Bros. After the bakery it was babysitting, then a short stint in an office that ended prematurely, according to a Post that read: “Just not cut out for a 9-5, ya’ll. Down with wage slavery!”
Wage slavery. It was one of those utterly foreign expressions that now peppered her daughter’s Facebook Wall, the place where Umanga directed her mother for updates about her life. But the Wall contained none of the information Umeshi desired, such as where the girl shopped for vegetables, or what on earth had become of the unspoken agreement between all Sri Lankan parents and their children, that sacrifices made would be repaid with interest. The Wall did not communicate; instead, it blared slogans at her: “Abolish ICE” and “Black Lives Matter”. Once upon a time she had been able to peer over the Wall and catch a glimpse of her daughter, but every day it grew more impenetrable.
Her ad came out the following Sunday. Umeshi rose before her husband and intercepted the paper boy on his dilapidated bicycle. He had recently taken to wearing a surgical facemask during his rounds of their neighborhood. Ganga called it “the height of bloody cheek” that a person who would not be permitted even to cross the thresholds of their homes should be so offended by something they must live with. But Umeshi couldn’t blame him. It was monsoon season and lashing rains had disturbed the dump, loosening the topsoil and churning up older, fouler waste, so that the stench was an almost physical presence.
The boy didn’t linger. He flung her the paper and sped off, shrilling his bell at a knot of pedestrians advancing up the lane. They were a motley crew. Some of the women wore burqas, some wore sarees or skirts. The men were all of a similar stature, that odd combination of muscular yet emaciated, which marked them immediately as labourers. Not until they were standing opposite her did Umeshi notice one of the women held an infant close to her chest. Whether it was asleep or comatose from the heat she couldn’t tell, but it was motionless in its mother’s arms.
They said they were part of the People’s Movement Against the Dump. Would a member of her household attend a community meeting tonight? The residents were mounting a legal challenge against the city but they needed more support. Had she heard about the little boy, just ten years old? Was she aware of the dengue epidemic spreading through the slum? Or how the police shot water cannons at the protesters? Unless they joined forces to fight for their rights the municipal council would ignore the mess, death and disease would proliferate and—
Umeshi Uyangoda promised to pass the information on to her husband, the man of the house. She backed away from them, locked her gate, and hurried upstairs.
Safe in Umanga’s room, she peeled open the paper with trembling fingers. She spotted it at once, her little square inch of text nestled among the other BRIDES, a gem in the gravel. A twinge of pride plucked at her. She’d never had anything published before and there was something thrilling about seeing her own words in print. For one reckless moment she was tempted to share the news with her husband. Had she been wrong to exclude him from this? How much sweeter it would be with him by her side. They would laugh together at the mismatches and when they finally made their choice, Udesh might even take her hand, or plant a dry kiss on the crown of her head.
A hammering on the door crushed her thoughts. She shoved the paper into the bin. The doorknob rattled furiously.
“What the devil are you doing there?”
Udesh wore a towel around his waist. Wet hair hugged his egg-shaped skull and a trail of water tracked his passage from the bathroom.
“You’re deaf or something?” he said. “How many times I called you!”
“Sorry darling. I was just checking on Umanga.”
“Your work is checking. Checking email, checking Facebook. Meanwhile no one is checking on the important things. Fridge is empty. Gas cylinder is empty. No soap in the bathroom even!”
“Wait. I’ll bring a piece of Sunlight from the kitchen,” Umeshi said.
“Are you bloody mad, woman? I can’t bathe with Sunlight.”
“So what do you want me to do? Bring some sand from the garden?”
“You think I’m a baas to be scrubbing with sand?”
“Why, you don’t have legs to walk to the supermarket?” Umeshi asked. “There is enough and more soap there.”
Udesh slammed his fist against the doorframe.
“One of these days I’ll smash that cursed computer,” he said.
“Smash to see,” she said. “Then think of a nice story to tell the police when I call them, okay?”
He stood dumbstruck before her, beads of water dangling off his earlobes and
nostrils. “The devil has got into you,” he said at last. “That much I know.”
Fights like these were a new development. Theirs had always been an untroubled union: a chance meeting on a bus followed by a flurry of love letters which, Umeshi realized too late, would not translate into amorous encounters in the bedroom. They consummated their marriage once or twice, in the dark under the sheets, and when the act bore fruit they never spoke of it again. They settled into a steady life strengthened by a straightforward division of labor—he earned the salary while she kept the home and raised the child. But just as a single snagged thread can ruin a whole garment, Umeshi’s newfound obsession, which lay somewhere between the newspaper pages and the Internet pages, had become a ragged rent in the fabric of their home.
Later Umeshi tried to earn clemency by pretending to listen to Udesh’s news. A great many people had been present at the community meeting, he said. The speaker was a young lawyer who’d grown up in the colony. He rejected the government’s plan to relocate poorer residents to high-rises in remote localities—called it a ‘rotten deal’. It was the dump that should move, he had said, not the people. They may not have much but they had their homes, their vegetable plots and their pets, their neighbors with whom they were now fighting shoulder to shoulder to stay together—
Must be nice, Umeshi thought, to feel such loyalty among neighbors. Not like Ganga, who was jumping ship after all these years of griping and giggling together, as though they owed each other nothing but a goodbye.
—and when they dared to speak up they were treated like cattle, the lawyer had said, bludgeoned with batons and threatened by plainclothes policeman in the dead of night. Was it right to ask thousands of people to accept poisoned water, putrid air and pestilence as a way of life simply because they were poor? Think about the children!
That’s what it all came down to, Umeshi thought, as Udesh droned on. Our children. When you realize that the road behind you is longer than the one ahead, you reach for those vessels into which you’ve poured so much and you try to add more, a little bit more, until you’re satisfied that some part of you will live on, a drop in someone else’s bloodstream, a faint pulse in their veins.
The boy’s name was Ganaka. He was the correct height, the right age, the perfect breed. His mother, a Mrs. Sriyani Dissanayake, was sensible and well spoken, prompt with her correspondence and incisive with her questions. Would Umanga be willing to relocate to London after the wedding? When the baby came, would Umeshi be able to join the family there? Could Umanga drive? Because women in England were independent like that.
Using a ratio of one-part memory to two-parts pure fiction, Umeshi served up a version of her daughter that surpassed even Sriyani’s exacting standards. Umanga’s barista job was translated as Head of Sales, her activism rebranded as Volunteer Work. Umeshi emailed a stream of photos from the days before piercings and politics, and Sriyani said she couldn’t wait to meet the girl. Ganaka was also due back for the Sinhala New Year, so they scheduled a tentative gathering of the clans, agreeing for some flexibility around the demands of the holiday season.
With the technical details out of the way, their talk turned to more intimate matters: anticipation of their children’s return, joyful musings about grandmotherhood. One phone call at a time they stitched their dreams together until they were indistinguishable. They adopted the collective possessive pronoun: our wedding. Our future.
“How you have kept this a secret from Udesh I don’t know,” Ganga kept saying. “You’re blushing as if you’re the one with a new boyfriend!”
It was true. With Udesh immersed in community meetings and Ganaka waiting in the wings, the situation was as close to ideal as it could be. Except for the bombshell that Umanga had dropped a week before her arrival. It came in the form of a Status Update on the Wall, a photograph of Umanga and her auburn-haired friend, their faces half hidden by a little blue booklet with a golden eagle on the cover. “Mo renewed her passport, ya’ll!” read a caption beside an icon of a plane taking off. “Island paradise here we come!” The destination was tagged as Bandaranaike International Airport.
“Just say no,” was Ganga’s advice.
“Udesh doesn’t know the meaning of that word when it comes to Umanga,” Umeshi said.
“Then you do it, put your foot down. Can’t have an outsider here while you’re trying to settle the arrangement.”
“Apparently this girl wants to stay for a whole month. Volunteer Work.”
“My God! You better hope she finds something to volunteer for,” Ganga said. “Some big crisis that keeps her out of the house and out of your way so you can plan the wedding.”
They agreed that Udesh would fetch the girls from the airport while Umeshi made up for weeks of neglected housework. She attacked every surface with bleach and sprayed chemicals into every crevice. She scoured gecko shit off the windowsills and scraped rat droppings from the insides of cupboards. As she worked, the tiresome creatures squeaked and scratched, out of sight, on the roof, inside the walls, making a mockery of her efforts.
In the end it didn’t matter. When the front door opened neither she nor Umanga had eyes for anything but each other.
The girl crossed the threshold in a rush, stopping just inches from her mother. Her face was stormy with tears.
The word broke them both. Umanga’s body crumbled like sand. On her hands and knees, she touched her mother’s feet. Umeshi placed a trembling palm briefly on the girl’s head before dragging her fiercely into an embrace. How long they stood sobbing into each other’s shoulders Umeshi didn’t know. She kept pulling back to press her lips to Umanga’s cheeks and search her body for signs of damage but no, nothing was amiss; miraculously the girl was whole. Each inspection washed away that ancient maternal terror that a child taken from the nest will disintegrate, waste away.
It was replaced with a new awareness, neither better nor worse: her own obsolescence.
When they came apart at last, Umeshi’s eyes alighted first on Udesh, standing silently among a pile of luggage, and then on the stranger in their midst.
“Amma,” Umanga said, wiping her eyes, “This is Mo.”
“It’s so great to meet you, Mrs. Uyangoda. Sorry, I mean Aunty! After all the stories Uma’s told me I feel like I know you guys already! And you have such a lovely home!”
Mo’s smile was too bright. Umeshi wanted to close her eyes against it, and shut her ears to the nasal accent that also tinged Umanga’s speech. She wanted immunity from the electrified current that passed between the girls.
“Please.” Umeshi gestured vaguely at the furniture. “Sit.”
But Umanga was dragging Mo around the room and Mo was saying “wow” and “totally” and “aww Uma, is this you as a baby? Cutie!”
Udesh had disappeared with the suitcases, leaving Umeshi standing awkwardly in the middle of the room, unsure where to put herself and overcome by the notion that she was now a visitor in her own home.
“I made crab,” she said uselessly.
“Oh my God!” Umanga clutched Mo’s shoulders. “Just wait until you try my mother’s crab curry it’s, like, the best thing you’ll ever eat.”
A butterfly wing twitched in Umeshi’s chest. She said something about serving lunch and disappeared into the kitchen.
The flies were worse than ever today, thick on the crockery and the cooker. A discarded crab claw at the bottom of the sink looked blighted, pocked with black pustules. When Umeshi opened the tap they swarmed over her head, dispersing and regrouping as she waved them away, tiny bodies brushing her cheeks. She snatched up one of her murderous tennis rackets and swung it. Five in one go. She swiped again, backhand this time, and the satisfying smell of burning insects arose around her. But still they swarmed. She hit out at random, not troubling to avoid shelves, or vases, or teacups. With eyes closed she attacked blindly. Pots clanged, something shattered, a voice shouted “Ho, HO!” and then someone was wrestling the thing out of her hands.
She opened her eyes. Dead flies and dishware littered the floor and countertops. Udesh, Umanga and Mo stood around her, their faces a palette of shock. She tried to speak but could only stare down at Umanga and Mo’s interlaced fingers, the closeness of their bodies. Behind them, the front door loomed large, for someone was ringing their doorbell.
It was the Dissanayake family, a trio of tentative smiles and fervent apologies for dropping in unexpectedly, but they were in the neighborhood anyway and Ganaka was so excited about meeting Umanga—and Aunty and Uncle, of course! They wouldn’t stay long, just a quick hello. They didn’t want anything, thank you, not even tea or a soft drink, really. So this was Umeshi’s husband? Udesh, right? A pleasure, at last! And where was the famous Umanga? I beg your pardon? This was her? Oh. She looked…different in the pictures. And this was her…friend? Visiting from America? How…nice. Yes, very nice. Well. So, anyway. Maybe they should get going, lots of relatives to visit. Sorry, again, for barging in like this, they never meant to surprise anyone. They thought…Umeshi had said…It was a simple misunderstanding. No harm done. Suba aluth avuruddak wewa, blessings for the New Year and for the future, which would no longer involve them, the Dissanayake family, whose son was just as handsome as his pictures and who was raking Umanga over with eyes awash in relief, like someone who has narrowly dodged a bullet, and whose father was shaking hands with Udesh in a bracing, consoling manner, as though to reassure a man humiliated before his own family, and whose mother was staring around her with pursed lips and scrunched nose, the face of a woman who has just caught a whiff of a rotten deal.
Some people said it was an earthquake. Others blamed it on a methane explosion in the heart of the dump. Whatever it was had the strength of a tidal wave. It crushed stone walls as easily as if they were made of cardboard; asbestos roofs became crinkled crepe paper. Shabby dreams got stuck under someone else’s filth, choked, and expired.
They said three people were dead. They said ten, twenty, thirty. Thirty-one…
News crews arrived before emergency response teams and filmed families digging through the debris in search of the missing. Morgues returned bodies wrapped in polythene to the bereaved. Someone remarked that life is cheap but coffins are expensive.
Talking heads popped up behind microphones: Political corruption. Crime against humanity. They called for investigations; they called for arrests. Meanwhile, residents of the demolished colony braced themselves for a second deluge, not of filth this time but of charity—dry rations and used clothes and good intentions. The government declared a national day of mourning, which was observed by all but the pests, whose appetites remained monstrous. They stuck close, packs of strays and plagues of parasites, their noses and antennae assuring them that after the fuss died down, fresh mountains of rubbish would rise. Even as the funeral processions passed through the streets, skeletal men in orange vests hauled dustbins full of meat and plastic from the homes of the wealthy, grunting as they emptied their contents onto municipal trucks bound for the landfill.
Udesh, Umanga and Mo joined the relief effort and Umeshi took advantage of their absence to double down on her own search and rescue mission.
Umanga’s bedroom was now a mess of unfamiliar garments and smells, Mo’s clothes mixed in with her daughter’s, strands of auburn hair entangled in Umanga’s brush on the dressing table. But Umeshi had eyes only for her inbox. She sifted methodically through the responses that were still trickling in. It was harder this time around, with the debris of her recent failure strewn about her. Sometimes doubt bubbled up in her, a cold rush of hopelessness, but she quick to banish it. What good did it do to stand helplessly among the ruins? What use was a life devoid of plans? In the end everyone picked up the pieces and followed whichever compass pointed due north, to the future.
She was close to selecting a new candidate. His name was something-or-other, his profession was What It Should Be. She tracked him down on Facebook and spent many hours scrolling through his Wall. Each time she thought she’d hit rock bottom, the damn page refreshed itself.
One evening, as she sat gazing at a photo of the boy leaning against a shiny new car, she heard voices downstairs. The trio had returned from their volunteer work earlier than usual. Soon they’d be cooking dinner, the girls teasing Udesh about something silly he’d said earlier. He would have a glass of wine with them. Later, when he came to bed flushed with drink and the satisfaction of public service, he’d reach for her clumsily under the sheets. When it was over, he’d whisper in the dark: Wasn’t it funny that just a few days ago they’d squabbled over something so idiotic as a marriage proposal? He forgave her, he’d say, for her deception; water under the bridge now. She must forgive herself also, she must come out and join the relief effort. Come out and rejoin her family.
Umeshi guided the mouse to the top left corner of the screen and clicked the X that made the whole world disappear.
Kanya D’Almeida is a Sri Lankan writer. She won the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her fiction has appeared on Granta, Jaggery and The Bangalore Review. She holds an MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and hosts The Darkest Light, a podcast exploring birth and motherhood in Sri Lanka.