Nala. A mini-novel fictional story set in the island of Sri Lanka
Appu Silva stood up to his knees in the waters of the Kelani River with the mill elephants, splashing, prodding, and whispering sounds which could only be understood by these work animals as he sought to keep them calm. Soon they’d be back at the mill hauling logs to the saws in order to fill an insatiable timber demand from the city of Colombo.
Appu had a lot of time to think as he performed the daily duties of an elephant keeper. It was a trade handed down to him by his father, and his father before him. It was the traditional work of the Silva family, and he swelled with pride as he thought of his noble ancestry. Even though dirt poor he still had pride in his Sinhala heritage.
The Sinhala were an amalgam of many people though they chose to consider themselves as having always been a unique people. History ties their language to the peoples of Gujarat and Sindh on the sub-continent of India and ancient Sanskrit writings are their shared treasure. Later invasions by the Kalinga, also of the sub-continent to the north left their mark. The Veddha pre-history people had also been absorbed into the Sinhala nation, but that was long ago and only a few traces of these ancient people remained on the island.
For much of the two thousand years Sinhala kings ruled they’d been at war with the Cholas of South India whose kingdom at its peak had extended as far as Indonesia and sometimes incorporated much of this island.
Later in turn the Portuguese, Arabs, Dutch and British left their mark on the Sinhala nation. He reflected on his surname Silva, of Portuguese extraction, as a name of equal pride and anger. He’d pride in its foreignness and anger at the invasion that had humbled his country five hundred years before.
This was his island and he was proud of its ancient history. Greek trading partners in ancient times had called it Taprobane. Arab traders had been captivated by the island’s beauty and called it Serendib this being the inspiration behind the modern English word serendipity. Portuguese in 1505 renamed the island Ceileo (Ceylon), but independence restored national pride when returning to the ancient name Sri Lamka (Lanka), in Sanskrit this meant venerated resplendent land.
His parents had not thought it necessary for him to have more than a basic education as the family was large enough to demand young men leave school as soon as they reached early teens. Survival of the family depended on all who could contribute making their financial contribution as soon as possible. Girls were considered a liability to be married off as soon as they reached early teens. Registering marriages was not considered to be of vital importance to the poor, and his family was the poorest of the poor.
Appu was deep in thought as he steered his elephants back to work at the mill. His daughter Nala had just turned thirteen and it was time to think of her marriage. Abdul a trader in one of the northern suburbs of Colombo had expressed an interest in Nala, and as Appu had borrowed money from him that would probably be a prudent move. Abdul had made it clear Nala would have to leave her Buddhist faith in the arrangement. This would be unacceptable to Appu’s community and the family would suffer embarrassment from the fallout an interfaith marriage would bring with it. Perhaps this would not be the way to go after all, but he had to find money to pay Abdul before refusing to give him Nala as a bride.
That evening as Appu walked the short distance to his beach hovel he noticed Nala talking with a boy in his late teens. As everyone in the village knew each other’s business he recognized the boy as son of a local merchant who ran a village street stall. The families were known to each other and their boys had attended school together until Appu withdrew his sons to follow the traditional trade. This boy had continued with his schooling. Perhaps his family would be interested in a match? The boy and girl seemed to like each other.
He began to think of an intermediary to make those inquiries. Making a direct approach would never do. If the families were to be united in marriage Appu would approach the merchant for a loan to pay Abdul out and remove that threat to the family.
Appu found an intermediary that evening and by next morning he had a definite answer. The merchant already had other plans for his son’s marriage.
Because the grape vine in Colombo is hyper active Abdul came to know of the marriage inquiry quickly and paid Appu a visit at the mill. Abdul was accompanied by two rather large and sinister companions, and it was made clear to Appu Abdul would have the money or the girl, and he’d one week to think it over. The two companions added to the urgency of this demand by whispering consequences of ignoring Abdul’s request.
That evening at a family conference the frightened family decided it would be safer to displease the community than to risk the consequences of a refusal to Abdul. They’d attempt to borrow within their community, and if that failed Nala would become another of Abdul’s wives. Nala who’d been left out of the conference of family men was called in and informed of the decision.
Nala was speechless. She’d experienced the feelings of early womanhood and was happily aware of the effect her developing shape had on the older boys at school so was not averse to the idea of marriage. She was learning to use those new found powers on her latest target the merchant’s son who Appu had hoped would be a solution to his immediate financial problem. But she was unaware of her Father’s approach to the merchant and subsequent rebuff. Being sold off in an arrangement because of family debt, and to be joined to a community not favoured by the Buddhist religion was not to her liking.
Nala left the family unnoticed in the gathering darkness and headed for the beach where she knew the merchant’s son would be searching for sand worms or fishing. Finding him she poured out her fear and anger while he dug in the sand. Then as he rose from digging in the sand she sought solace in his embrace.
The merchant’s son dropped his bucket in surprise. He’d dreamed of a liaison with this girl night after night, but social taboos had kept him from acting out his fantasies. He quickly locked her in embrace and smelt the sweetness of coconut oil in her hair and the fragrance of her breath. Beyond that he’d no idea how to proceed and what was expected of him in this situation. Fear of the unknown knocked loudly at the doorway to his mind.
But his manly protective instincts began to move him past the social taboo of a meeting like this. He’d marry this girl and save her from her fate as a second wife to Abdul the merchant. Nala quickly grasped the situation and nuzzled in closer. She would do whatever was called for to take charge of her own life and this was the boy she chose to bring about her salvation.
The merchant’s son suddenly released Nala and held her at arms length. Nala gasped in surprise and dismay. Was she to be abandoned for the second time this evening? Firstly her family, now this boy she thought she loved.
“Meet me here tomorrow morning while it’s still dark. We’ll run away together!”
Nala sank back into his arms relieved. He was now hers, and she was now sure he’d protect and support her.
“Now go!” He whispered looking furtively around to see if anyone had witnessed this unusual encounter.
Nala ran back to her family hovel. Her heart beat a happy tune as she thought of leaving her family and starting a family of her own.
Nala Chapter 2
Nala peered through the blackness of night at the beds of her Father and brothers in their customary positions outside the mud and thatch hut. They slept outside to escape heat and humidity during the night while the women slept inside. She’d not been able to sleep at all as her mind weighed options open to her. Presumably she’d still be able to visit with family if she went along with their decision and married Abdul. But that was not certain.
During the night in spite of a warm feeling of belonging to someone she began to think of what life would be like with the man of her choice. He was not yet a man, but he’d appeared to be decisive and clear in his intent for their future together. But how would they survive? Her family was barely able to survive with the combined incomes of Father and sons. How would two of them be able to survive? Where would they find work? Where would they live? Would he grow tired of her after some time and leave her to fend for herself? Her young mind weighed these issues carefully as she tossed on her sleeping mat.
She had secreted her meagre possessions among the coconut trees near the beach the night before. Her Mother had been asleep while Appu and his sons had been socializing with village men down on the beach where they shared their nightly ration of coconut toddy and latest gossip from the village and Colombo during the time she’d removed her things.
She’d watched them return to their beds from the darkness of the hut and listened carefully as each succumbed to the effects of toddy and fell into a deep sleep. It was then she’d crept to the family hiding place and taken some of the money kept there. This would be her dowry she thought to herself.
Long before morning dawned Nala was down on the beach clutching her possessions and peering intently at the path leading down to the beach. But as a glow on the horizon alerted her morning was near she began to panic. Where was he? Everything had seemed so definite and wonderful. She’d be in big trouble if she had to return to the hovel and it was discovered money for their daily rations was missing. Perhaps they’d take her immediately to Abdul as punishment? The thought terrified her.
She raced up the path and headed for the merchant’s home and stood across the street behind a tree to watch. Lights were on and there was such a commotion neighbours had gathered at the front of the house to watch and comment in excited voices. Nala caught one of the neighbour children and asked what was happening, her heart beating wildly with apprehension. The child ran to her parents shouting “Nala is here! She’s the one he was going to run away with and he’s being beaten for!”
The neighbours stopped talking and looked at the tree where Nala stood. One ran inside the merchant’s house to report and the rest began running to the tree. “Catch her!” They cried.
Nala ran for her life. She’d never been so frightened in all her life and ran clutching her possessions tightly. But those who pursued soon tired of the chase and returned to where the action was at the merchant’s house. One made their way to Appu’s house to report. This was prime village entertainment.
When Nala eventually realized her imagined pursuers were nowhere in sight in the back streets of her village she ventured onto the main road to Colombo. Casting furtive glances behind to make sure she was no longer pursued she paused panting to take stock of the situation. Returning home was now out of the question. A life with the merchant’s son was also a dream of the past. She was on her own!
Two men squatting besides the road smoking watched her approach with interest. They were taking a load of coconuts up country to deliver to merchants in Kandy. They’d spent the night sleeping on the beach before making the journey up country as their truck lights didn’t work. They were relaxing after having finished breakfast of string hoppers and were beginning to think about the trip to the hills. One of them called out to Nala. “Where are you going so early in the morning?”
“I don’t know!” Nala began to sob uncontrollably.
The two men immediately stood and looked at each other in surprise. Then one whispered to the other. “It’s probably the runaway girl everyone is looking for down by the beach.” He glanced at his brother, and then at Nala. The two brothers gave each other a knowing smile and stared appreciatively at their potential captive emerging beauty.
“Would you like to come with us?”
Nala not knowing what to do nodded her head and threw her possessions into the back of the truck with the coconut load. She began to climb the back of the truck but the brothers stopped her.
“If you’re running away that’s not a good place to ride. You better sit up in the cab with us where you are less likely to be seen.”
Nala climbed in and sat between the two brothers who winked at each other now and then. Nala in her innocence poured out her story as they weaved their way through early morning traffic and headed for the road up to Kandy. The brothers now knew Nala had nowhere else to turn and she was now in their power.
“Would you like to work in the Cashew Nut Stalls, we know someone there who would look after you?” The brother in the passenger seat asked Nala as he winked again at his brother driving.
“Where is that?” asked Nala hopefully. She began to feel more relaxed in the company of these men and was thankful she’d found them when she most needed someone to help her.
“It’s on the way to Kandy and a lot of girls work there. I know a lady who looks after some of them. She’d be glad to have a nice looking girl like you working for her.”
“Thank you, I think I’d like that,” whispered Nala gratefully.
Nala Chapter 3
Nala looked with interest at the passing scenery. She’d never been out of her village before except for a brief trip to the commercial centre of Colombo. She’d not enjoyed that trip. Too many people dressed in western clothes all rushing around and she’d been shocked to see so many foreigners by the ocean at Gall Face wearing what looked to her to be very little clothing on their bodies. Their bodies had been so white and she felt sorry even though afraid of them. It must have been horrible to have a disease that produced such white skin she thought. She shuddered at the thought.
She was grateful for silence. As their habit was, the two brothers had lapsed into silence soon after leaving the suburbs of Colombo. They were on the Kandy road and back into the thickness of coconut palms on this initial climb up to Kandy. It was the same boring trip they made almost every day of the week and their minds were busily occupied on family matters. Driver responses were automatic as they knew every inch of this road. Now and then one of them would glance at the other only to register surprise at the sight of Nala seated between them. This was not part of their routine and it was easy to forget her presence while they worried about family finances.
Everyone was having a hard time since the new political leadership had taken the country on a socialist path. Once there was plenty and Ceylon was considered the Singapore of the Indian Ocean. Everything you could imagine was available for a price, and that price was reasonable enough to have merchants from India making regular trips and foreigners eagerly grasping for bargains. Now everything was rationed and the economy under tight control.
The disenfranchised Tamil minority population had reacted to the new rule everyone should communicate in Sinhalese and there was danger and distrust throughout the country. The brothers had much to worry about as the breadwinners in their family. But none of this had any meaning to thirteen year old Nala. She’d been dirt poor ever since she could remember and the new political direction made no impact on her at all.
With the passing countryside now looking much the same Nala had nothing to divert her attention. A sudden fear gripped her. She didn’t know the names of these two men and had no idea where they were taking her. The few coins she’d stolen from home before running away would care for her meals for today, but what would be her fate tomorrow? Could she learn to sell cashews, and who was this woman the brothers were taking her to? Would she beat her like her Father did when he’d taken too much toddy on the beach? She shuddered at the memory of Appu’s rage as he beat indiscriminately under the influence of toddy. At least she was away from that environment … for the present!
Then on an incline around a bend in the road stalls materialized, and a hive of activity caught her attention. Stalls extended for quite a distance and there was a long line of trucks and cars parked beside the road. Girls in colourful costume pranced around the cars and trucks. “Cashew nut girls!” said the brothers together with obvious happy appreciation.
Beyond Nittambuwa on the way to the hill capital of Kandy is a little village called Bataleeya. Girls in colourful dress with long tresses swinging as they run to approaching cars with fetching smiles greet weary travellers and invite them to the cashew nut stalls.
In the early sixties business was mainly aimed at local travellers taking this route to Kandy. As months of April and May are school holidays it was prime time for sales, but in the seventies as tourism boomed in the region, the cashew industry began to redirect to foreign markets. The country was desperately in need of foreign currency to service a sinking economy. Supplies of cashew nuts became restricted in the local markets. Other means to earn money had to be found in addition to their traditional trade.
So it was believed by the local population you could get more than cashew nuts from stalls in Bataleeya, and the truck drivers had found this to have some credibility.
The truck chugged to a halt followed by a blue contrail of diesel smoke, and the brother in the driver’s seat slowly got down and stretched his limbs. He nodded to his brother who got down and headed for one of the thatch huts behind the roadside stalls. After a few minutes he returned with a pleasant looking motherly woman counting out a wad of Rupees as he came.
He looked at Nala and quickly averted his gaze to his brother who was negotiating with one of the cashew girls. Then he climbed onto the loaded truck and retrieved Nala’s meagre possessions throwing them down for her to catch. “This is the woman I told you about. She will look after you now.”
He went to join this brother and they both headed for one of the huts with some of the cashew nut girls laughing and joking as they went. They spoke to the girls with them who then turned to look at Nala and laughed before resuming their walk to the hut.
Nala Chapter 4
Nala stared at her new owner. It was not lost on her the woman had paid those men who’d brought her to this place, so it was assumed she now belonged to the woman standing in front of her. She studied the woman carefully, but without fear. Her fate was in the hands of the gods, and if this was their choice for her she’d do her best to keep them happy.
“Call me Ma!” said the woman after a long silence.
Ma was her name. It was the name given her by the girls she was responsible for, and she liked the sound of it when they called her by that name. She’d answered to another name when she first arrived at this village twenty-four years earlier as a runaway herself. She shuddered as she remembered those days on the streets of Bataleeya looking for any kind of work and begging to try and get enough to eat. Eventually in her fifteenth year she gravitated to the stalls where the girls looked relatively healthy and well fed and she there sought a sponsor.
Ma’s introduction to the trade had been brutal and she flinched as she thought of that day. For weeks afterward she went through life mechanically, all hope gone, any trust destroyed. But after some time she began to look on the girls as her family. Most of them had suffered from the rigors of their common low socio-economic backgrounds. Only a few had willingly chosen this life from among family owned stallholders who were not involved in the game, but only interested in marketing cashew nuts. This life with all its perils was a welcome change from earlier experiences and they were surprisingly happy and healthy. As Ma’s experience unfolded she found the girls turning to her for advice and solace, and when the old Madam died all eyes turned to Ma as their community head.
It was on the first day of her acceptance as head of the community Ma determined her girls would not go through the same brutal introduction to the trade she had. She initiated a savings plan for each of her girls in case a miracle should occur and they have an opportunity for marriage and normal life. There’d be something to give them a chance to rise above their circumstances. They’d be treated as sisters, as daughters. They responded with their affectionate name for her, Ma!
Ma shook her head and refocused on the girl in front of her. “What shall I call you,” she asked softly.
Nala was fidgeting nervously while Ma had been travelling down memory lane. But her confidence returned at the softness in Ma’s voice. “My name is Nala,” she said confidently.
Putting her arm on the girls shoulder Ma led her to her own thatch dwelling. She pointed to a corner of the room where there was a woven grass sleeping mat and indicated this would be Nala’s space. Nala’s eyes widened in surprise! The thatch hut was neat and tidy, and it was clean. What a contrast to the squalor she was used to living in! She turned to the older woman and whispered her thanks. Ma beamed with pleasure and placed her hand again on Nala’s shoulder as a gesture of acceptance.
Nala quickly placed her meagre possessions in the space given her. She felt embarrassed at the shabbiness of her things and contrasted herself with the smartness of the girls she’d seen looking after the stalls. “What would you like me to do?” she asked.
“You’ll keep my house clean, get our supplies from the village and draw water from the river each day for our containers. I’ll have someone teach you all these things. But right now we’ll have to take you to the village and have new clothes made up for you. We don’t want to have you selling cashews looking like that. You’ll drive our customers away! Oh, and the first thing I’d like you to do is go to the river and bathe yourself using this sandalwood soap. You should do this first thing every morning. We like everyone to be clean here.
Nala looked at herself in the mirror and coloured in embarrassment at what she saw. “Is there anything else?” she asked uncertainly.
“No those are the things you’ll be expected to do for some time. When you are older we will talk about other things, but I want you to make friends with all my girls and treat them as your sisters. There will be no fighting in my community, do you understand?”
Nala nodded her head happily, took the soap and headed for the river. She’d heard there were elephants at the nearby river. This was the same river that emptied on the coast near where she’d lived all her life. Elephants were the only thing she wanted to remember from her days in the village with her own family. From now on this would be her family, and from what she’d seen it was a wonderful family to belong to as she compared with her former life situation.
Nala Chapter 5
“Nala I want you to meet Shivanthi. She used to live with me but has now moved in with the other girls and you now occupy the space she once shared with me.” Ma gave Shivanthi a hug as she introduced her to Nala.
“Shivanthi will show you all the things you need to learn about caring for this house and what you’ll be expected to do for the community. She’s been with us for a long time now and I’ve slowly been delegating some of my responsibilities to her so you should mind what she says and follow it well.”
Nala turned to Shivanthi with a smile and folded her hands in the customary greeting. “I’ll be glad to follow your instructions,” she murmured gratefully.
Ma continued, “You’ll come with me to the village now so the clothes maker can measure you for your new dresses. After we return you’ll spend the day with Shivanthi and learn about our community.”
Nala walked beside Ma proudly as they headed for the village. She’d been apprehensive the day before when she’d seen the brother counting out rupees after his conversation with Ma, but her introduction had exceeded her wildest pleasant dreams. Ma had been so nice to her and for the first time in her life she’d gone to sleep without fear in her heart. She’d heard Christian teachers in her school talk about some place called heaven where there was no hunger, no fear and everyone was good to each other. Was this the heaven they were talking about? To a thirteen year old who’d never experienced any of these things before this had to be it.
But that afternoon as she walked around with Shivanthi being introduced to responsibilities and the community girls, apprehension again gripped her. Shivanthi was obviously the second in command after Ma and exercised her authority over the girls with relish. But the girls obviously liked her and playfully challenged her now and then. However it was equally obvious they knew where to draw the line for their own good. One word against them reported to Ma by Shivanthi would lead to censure. They considered they were on a good thing and didn’t want to jeopardise their continuation in the community. They’d seen what it was like outside the community and the thought of returning to their former lives horrified them.
Every now and then Shivanthi would make some disparaging remark about Ma and the girls would look troubled and send furtive inquiring glances at each other. They loved Ma, they accepted Shivanthi as one of them, but knew she wielded a power over them that made it practical for them to remain silent when these outbursts arose. Ma trusted Shivanthi and would never believe it if any of them repeated her outbursts anyway. They were fearful of a terrible retribution from Shivanthi should Ma make inquiry about these accusations. Nala watched this community interplay with interest and increasing concern. But she resolved to remain silent and protect her own interests.
And over months to follow Nala watched as Shivanthi strengthened her influence over the girls. Shivanthi began to question privately whether Ma had really intended to set up separate financial provision for the girls in the cashew nut community or whether this was just a ploy to keep them all happily working for her. She suggested that Ma was secretly building the earnings they’d all contributed into a fund which she’d someday abscond with leaving them all without resources to continue their lives with the comforts they’d enjoyed up to that time.
Ma went about her business with honest intent totally unaware of the challenge to her authority, but was puzzled at the growing silence and distance in her once happy relations with the girls. She discussed this change in attitude with Shivanthi who shrugged it off as the effects of a change in the alignment of the planets.
As she weaved her web around the girls she began to view Nala as a potential threat who could possibly replace her as Ma’s confidant and reveal Shivanthi’s plot already in advanced stage of implementation. Shivanthi would bide her time, and when appropriate drive out Ma. In her imagination she’d control those now sizable funds meant for the future of each of the Cashew Nut Girls. She’d have them for herself, and if necessary depart with those funds for a comfortable life in Colombo.
So she began bringing unfounded bad reports against each of the girls in turn to Ma, and when they were questioned by Ma they’d be surprised and angered at the untrue accusations. Shivanthi would whisper that Nala was the one seeking their ruin. She told them she’d begged Ma not to listen to these unfounded stories Nala was supposedly bringing to her secretly but Ma would not listen, and would rather listen to Nala than any of them.
So a plan was formulated by Shivanthi and the girls to discredit Nala so Ma would ask her to leave the community. Complaints were bought that Nala was not fulfilling her duties in the community, that money was missing from the takings and she was the last one observed near the money. Accusations flew thick and fast and were so obviously untrue Ma was nonplussed. What had Nala done to make the girls so angry they’d invent such cruel stories? The community she’d loved to belong to suddenly became a burden to her and she longed for a different life away from this unpleasantness.
She resolved to talk with Nala and advise her to improve her relationship with the girls, so while they sat together on the grass mat after supper she told Nala of the accusations and demanded an explanation.
Nala’s world collapsed as she listened to the list of things she was being accused of. She understood who was behind it and burst into tears of frustration in the realization there was no solution to her plight. Ma trusted Shivanthi and wouldn’t believe it if the truth were to be told. Tomorrow she’d be back on the streets again begging.
Nala Chapter 6
Ma sighed as she headed for the village to deposit previous day takings in the bank and pay merchants who supplied the needs of her community. Nala had been inconsolable after she’d talked with her the previous evening and eventually she’d taken her in her arms and rocked her to sleep. Twice during the night she’d heard Nala quietly sobbing and Ma’s heart went out to this small girl who she now looked on as a daughter. The girls had been cruel to her, but Nala had to understand life is cruel and herself deal with this situation. It was all part of growing up. Ma had to somehow reverse the community bad impression of the girl and wondered how she could do this without it being perceived as favouritism.
Nala had watched Ma make her way through the stalls encouraging the girls as she went. Then removing the clothes supplied to her and retrieving the ragged clothes thrown out with the refuse she put them on again. She was calm now. Nothing could be worse than her life to date and she’d face the future with courage. Folding her community clothes neatly and placing them on the grass mat she turned to go.
She took a back path to avoid walking through the stalls by the roadside, and emerged further up heading for the village. She’d made enough begging to get one good meal a day in a village before and she’d do it again until an opportunity arose to better her-self again. She’d learned some valuable lessons about human nature in this community and the next time around they’d not get the better of her.
As she emerged she heard cries from back in the direction of the stalls. Looking behind her in curiosity she saw Shivanthi and some of the girls running toward her. But fear and toughness of her life on the coast had toned her muscles and she took off toward the village at a pace the others could not match. Their chosen lifestyle did not fit them for a race of this kind, and Nala felt she was running for her life.
Shivanthi picked up a bamboo stick and hit one of the stalls in anger. Coconuts went flying in all directions as the girls cried out in alarm. They’d watched Shivanthi’s increasing tantrums over the past month and all of them were scared of her now. Some had even talked quietly among themselves about leaving the community, but soon realized they would be worse off if they did that. Some had also talked about the unfairness of Nala’s treatment and wondered if Ma would drive them out on account of their behaviour. They were beginning to wonder if Shivanthi’s description of Ma’s character was correct and didn’t know which of the two was least to be trusted.
Shivanthi sat by the roadside deep in thought. Nala’s departure did not fit into her plan. With Nala out of the way how would she advance her plot? None of the other girls would be living in Ma’s hut so she wouldn’t be able to fan the fires of jealousy. She knew the girls could no longer be diverted from seeing the bad side of her, and if tales against them continued the finger of suspicion would naturally point to her. Then questions would arise as to whether Nala had been responsible for their plight after all. If the girls all went as a group to complain to Ma she knew she’d probably be exposed and asked to leave.
Shivanthi stood up. She’d decided to make her move now. Calling the girls to gather around she told them Ma and Nala had made a pact to meet in the village and make plans to abscond with the funds of the community. Shivanthi knew where the records were kept in Ma’s home and she’d find them and go to the bank and withdraw the funds and give each of them their due.
The girls shook their heads in disbelief. This was so unlike Ma and they didn’t want to believe this to be true. But supposing it was? They’d all set their hearts on a possibility of one day leaving this community and having a normal life in the outside world. It would be prudent to see that money safely in their possession and know their dream was still possible. So reluctantly they agreed to the plan and Shivanthi ran to search Ma’s hut.
But Shivanthi while clever for an uneducated woman had no knowledge of the banking system and thought that by just appearing at the bank and making a request to bankers they’d hand over whatever money was called for. Not finding any documents in Ma’s hut she headed for the village. This would have to be done carefully as Ma had been to the bank and would be working her way through the merchants paying bills now.
She hid among trees at the edge of the village and watched Ma make her calls, and only when she’d seen Ma making her way back down the road in the direction of their stalls did she venture to the bank. She’d never been to the bank before. Ma understood Shivanthi’s lack of knowledge in finance and had always cared for banking and paying merchants. She let Shivanthi supervise collections at the stalls and huts and knew there were sufficient prying eyes watching her so there’d be a fair accounting for cash taken.
Shivanthi now found herself in unfamiliar territory as she entered the bank. Seeing the guard standing at the door listlessly holding his ancient World War II rifle she walked confidently up to him and demanded all the money held in the name of the Cashew Nut Girls. The guard blinked and looked at her intently. Obviously this was not a robbery, and he’d seen Shivanthi on his frequent trips to Colombo and knew who she was and where she lived. Why was she asking him for money? He continued to stare at her and she felt her courage ebbing. Finally he pointed to the counter and went back to staring out the front door.
At the counter she repeated her demand for all the money held on behalf of her community. The teller studied her for a while and then asked to see a letter from Ma. In any case it would not be possible to give that money as it would have to be sent from Colombo. The village branch did not keep that much cash. Then he went on to talk about the need for signatures, and the need to transfer invested money into the village account, and then finished off with the statement this would take at least a week to do. Why hadn’t Ma mentioned this to him? The teller waved her off crossly and beckoned for the next one in line to come to the counter.
Shivanthi was devastated. She comprehended there was money to be had and it was a considerable amount, but had no idea what was preventing her from getting her hands on it. It seemed Ma had the power to get it. So to compound her foolishness she resolved to instigate the girls to force Ma to the bank and compel her to sign that money over. But if she was able to convince them to do that they’d expect to have their share given them and her plan to abscond with the whole amount would be impossible. Shivanthi suddenly had the awful feeling she’d been very foolish indeed, had lost the battle and would soon be out on the streets herself.
Nala Chapter 7
Ma began her long trek from the village to the cashew nut community. She always looked forward to a day in the village swapping news and good humour with merchants, and enjoyed the thrill of bartering for community provisions. For the duration of her stay in the village she’d experienced a warm feeling of fellowship and belonging, but now she was returning to her community a feeling of sadness gripped her. She clearly remembered the evening before when her newly adopted daughter Nala had shed tears over accusations levelled at her.
Ma sighed. Hers had been a lonely life and Nala had brought a ray of sunshine into her existence. She had the same feeling about Shivanthi when she as a young girl had moved in with her, and for a time all was well, but after some time the girl had become a little too assertive for her liking. Ma had decided Shivanthi needed to rub the rough edges off her personality by moving in with the other girls. Learning to fit in with others arises from experience in conflict and it soon became apparent she’d made changes. Ma noted the girls gradually accept Shivanthi as their leader. She gratefully delegated some of her authority not understanding Shivanthi was biding time and planned to eventually drive her out.
Nala had spent the day dodging Ma as she moved around the markets. She’d not been with the cashew nut community long enough for merchants to identify her with that community, so they only registered mild surprise to see her begging once again. She’d already found a sheltered spot to spend the evening behind one of the merchant stalls. There among the empty sacks she’d take her rest.
Then as she restlessly surveyed the street looking for possible benefactors to hopefully drop a coin in front of her to eagerly grasp, she suddenly caught sight of Shivanthi moving purposefully toward the bank. Hastily gathering the few coins lying in the dirt she hurried to a hidden vantage point from which she could observe Shivanthi’s movements. This was strange! Shivanthi never left the community without someone accompanying her.
Nala watched the entrance to the bank carefully. Moments later Shivanthi appeared looking confused and angry. She crossed the road and stood motionless, glancing occasionally toward the road leading to the cashew nut stalls, and then up the road toward Kandy. Nala retreated further into her hiding place in alarm.
Shivanthi blinked as she tried to concentrate. She’d no idea why the bank hadn’t given her money when she’d demanded it. Her dreams of taking the next bus to Colombo as a rich woman had taken a quick reality check. How would she face the girls and explain why she’d not brought them their promised treasure if she returned to the community?
Then she remembered Ma would be approaching that community at the very moment. She could visualize surprised looks on the girl’s faces as they saw her entering the stalls. Shivanthi had told them Ma was absconding with their money. They’d be puzzled at her return and wonder what it all meant. She wrung her hands in despair. What could she do to get out of this predicament now?
As Ma approached the cashew nut stalls there was an audible collective gasp of surprise from groups of girls gathered around talking. They peered up the road to see if Shivanthi had driven Ma back to the community, but there was no Shivanthi in sight. Ma felt the overwhelming surprise of the group and headed toward them to find the cause of their concern. Had something terrible happened in her absence? Her eyes swept the stalls looking for Shivanthi. She’d find out what was the matter and deal with whatever issue surfaced. “Where’s Shivanthi!” she demanded.
The girls looked at each other and shifted uneasily on their feet. Why would Ma return so boldly if she’d taken all their money for herself? Where was Shivanthi, had she taken their money herself and absconded? All of a sudden light dawned. They’d been manipulated! Ma had always treated them kindly and fairly and they were angry at their foolishness. A torrent of words erupted from each of the girls until Ma held up her hands and pointed to the eldest girl. “You there! What’s going on here?”
So the story of Shivanthi’s duplicity slowly unfolded, culminating in Nala’s flight to the village with them all in hot pursuit. Ma clenched her fists in anger as the story reached its conclusion.
Back in the village Shivanthi suddenly thought of a new plan. She’d find Nala and march her back to the village. She’d confess her own foolishness and blame it all on Nala who she’d accuse of bringing a false report about Ma absconding with their community money. All lies she’d told the girls she’d claim had originated with Nala. Then she’d tell them once discovering those lies she’d gone looking for Nala at the village to bring her back to be punished for her wickedness.
Shivanthi smiled at her cleverness. Then she headed down the street to inquire from each of the merchants if they’d seen the beggar girl who’d robbed their cashew nut stalls.
Nala Chapter 8
Shivanthi worked her way systematically down the street pausing to inquire from passers-by and the merchants as she did so. With each telling the story became more expansive until the whole street was in an uproar over this young girl who repaid kindness by stealing a vast sum of money from her benefactor. The village policeman was shaken from his afternoon slumber by irate merchants and a thorough search of the street ensued.
Nala had listened to the commotion from the safety of a circle of empty drums at the back of one of the shops. She understood full well the commotion was about her. But what was this thing about the theft of a vast sum of money? She knew they made a comfortable sum from their daily activities at the stalls, but you’d hardly describe it as a vast fortune! Surely there must be some mistake?
But Nala had suffered so many misfortunes of late she was not going to linger around to find out. Keeping a low profile she sped for a clump of coconut palms behind the shops and waited there shaking with fear. Now she’d not be able to go to the village to buy food and it was a long way to Kandy. She waited until dusk and crept out to the road far from the village hailing one of the trucks lumbering up the road to Kandy. The truck ground to a halt in the gathering darkness and Nala approached it warily. Just as she reached the passenger side a hand reached out and caught her by the hair. Out stepped the village policeman.
Later she was seated on the steps of the police hut while her hands and feet were tied together. Then a small boy was selected from the gathering crowd and told to search for Shivanthi. Shivanthi came running and began raining blows on the hapless girl until the crowd moved in to restrain her.
Meanwhile Ma was making her way rapidly back to the village in the company of two of the girls who repeated over and over again happenings of the past month. Ma’s face was flushed with anger and her fists clenched. Her heart went out to the small girl who’d been treated so badly, and she blamed herself for being so innocent to the scheming of Shivanthi. She’d settle scores this evening itself.
As she passed the bank the manager was closing his door, dismissing the day guard and giving instructions to the night watchman. He spied Ma and asked her to stop a moment. Then he inquired as to why she wanted to take out all her money from his bank. Had he not treated her well? Was she angry at him for some reason he couldn’t recall? He apologized profusely in case that had been the case.
Ma’s mouth dropped open in surprise. She explained that she’d not asked for or authorized such a thing and asked for a description of the one who’d given that impression.
“Well they caught the one who did that and she’s being held at the police station now,” said the manager relieved to know this sizable account would still be entrusted to his branch of the bank. “The town has been in an uproar looking for her and they say her name is Nala. Do you know this girl? I’m going there right now so come with me”
Again Ma recoiled from this further shock. Nala? She whispered. “It couldn’t be!
At the police station Shivanthi saw Ma approaching with two girls she knew and to her horror she recognized the man who’d come to the counter to peer at her while she was trying to have the bank teller give her community money.
The manager walked up to Shivanthi and placed his hand on her shoulder. This is the girl who tried to withdraw your money this afternoon Ma.
The merchants looked at her in surprise. “You told us this girl Nala had taken a lot of money from the cashew nut community funds?” They turned to Ma inquiringly. “Did she steal money from you?”
But Ma was crying loudly as she untied the ropes around Nala’s hands and feet and couldn’t reply. She picked the shaking girl up in her arms. Finally she shook her head and rocked the girl in her arms as she sat with her on the steps. She looked at Shivanthi angrily and the girl fell down and held Ma’s feet begging for forgiveness.
The merchants were angry as they’d left their trade to hunt for Nala when there was no reason to do so. They whisked Shivanthi away from the police station and in the darkness Shivanthi’s screams could be heard throughout the village as a large crowd gathered to cheer on the vigilante mob. After some time Shivanthi staggered back to fall at Ma’s feet crying for mercy. Her face was smeared with mud, clothes torn and head shorn of her shiny long black hair. Village children threw stones at her as she lay on the ground. The policeman was nowhere to be seen.
Even though bruised and battered Nala raised herself from Ma’s lap and went over to the prostrate form of Shivanthi. She helped her former tormenter to her feet and wiping away the mud from her face she tried to arrange her torn clothing modestly. Then with an imploring look she softly asked Ma for permission to take Shivanthi back home.
The girls who’d accompanied Ma to the village were awestruck at this act of charity. In the society they’d known it was an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But Nala had seen and experienced violence most of her life and understood how damaging to the feeling of self-worth this could be. Her compassion for Shivanthi was stronger than resentment for the cruelty metered out to her by this girl.
Ma was too amazed to speak and just nodded to her two girls to bring Shivanthi back to their community home. Then placing her arm around this amazing girl Nala she gently steered her back home.
Back at the hut Ma issued curt instructions and had warm water brought. She washed the filth of the day from the girl and changed her back into community costume. Then she sat silent by the bed while the girl slept, turning the years over in her mind and thinking over events of this past day. Ma was still sitting by her bed wide awake as morning dawned and Nala opened her eyes. Ma reached out and touched the girl as a Mother would to her daughter. “Never leave without my permission again,” she said softly.
Things would never be the same again in the cashew nut community. They all realized that. Ma called a conference of the girls and gave them choices for their future. Those who wanted could take their money and go. They all chose to stay. Dreams of another life were only dreams. They knew they’d never survive outside the community.
Shivanthi did not appear in public until her hair had grown to a point where she felt like a woman again. During that time Nala visited and took meals to her each day. Then Shivanthi meekly presented herself to Ma and asked for her money. When this was delivered she departed never to be seen again.
Then Ma informed the girls she and Nala were leaving. She’d take her money and go to Kandy to set up a street stall there. She had many friends in Kandy and they rallied to support her in her new venture.
She stayed long enough to help the cashew nut girls newly elected leader learn the rudiments of leading a community and left refusing any send off or celebration.
The girls understood her smouldering resentment and felt bad they’d been part of Shivanthi’s wicked plotting and disloyalty.
The community slowly degenerated under new leadership and lost the sympathy they once held in the community but Nala and Ma thrived in their newly established business until Nala married and established a family of her own. Ma continued to be a welcome mother figure to the new family unit.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2012, all rights reserved”
2 thoughts on “NALA”
Interesting background information…
The story took a twist away from the dark side and onto the path of hope and love, one that I did not expect. You obviously know the Indian/Sinhalese culture and norms quite well.
Enjoyed it immensely. Thank you, Eric
Thank you Eric. Coming from you as a gifted writer I feel honoured by your remarks. Yes, I did spend 30 years in Asia and have travelled the India and near neighbour environment extensively