Friday Nights

(Author: A. Muttulingam Translation: Siva Lakshmi)

(Original Story: வெள்ளிக்கிழமை இரவுகள்)

Aagavi rushed into her room as if a wild animal were after her. She was only ten. The breeze she carried along in her haste entered the room with her. She threw her bag down on the floor and looked all around as though searching for something. She was breathing heavily like a runner who had just completed ten miles.

Hearing the commotion, Aagavi’s mother Akila looked out from the kitchen. This happened every Friday. Aagavi always returned from school with some reason to pick a fight. Akila had been four months pregnant with Aagavi when she came to Canada as a refugee. Aagavi was her mother’s only child, her darling.

She made her daughter lie down on the bed, cradling her head on her lap and ran her fingers gently through her hair.

“Stop doing that. Just hold my head tight with both your hands,” screamed Aagavi. Akila complied.

“Okay! Now fill my head with your lies,” she snapped again. Aagavi never used to speak with so much anger earlier.

Akila knew how to mollify her daughter. “Why don’t you eat first? Then you can tell me who it was that said I was lying.”

“It was Skinny Mike.”

“How would he know?”

“He knows everything. He has two dads. Both are pilots.”

“If they are pilots, would they know everything? What else did he say?” 

“He said that my dad had run away.” 

“What did you tell him?” 

“I called him donkey-teeth and square-teeth.” 

“Why did you call him that?” 

“I don’t know anything worse to call him.” 

“What did he say then?” 

“He said ‘Your mom should have thrown you away and kept the umbilical cord instead.’”

“Really? What did you tell him?” 

“‘You look like an umbilical cord,’ I told him, and the school bell rang.”

Aagavi hated Friday evenings, and so did Akila. She worked the dayshift the first four days of the week but had to work the nightshift on Fridays, when she packed items for export, in boxes all night long. Heavy trucks came Saturday mornings to cart those boxes away. On Friday evenings, she made Aagavi eat dinner early, then tucked her into bed before leaving for work. Aagavi would watch TV from her bed for some time before falling asleep. When she woke up the next morning, her mother would always be beside her. 

There were five types of kids in Aagavi’s school – kids with two moms; kids with two dads; kids with both a mom and a dad; kids with single moms; kids with single dads. The kids with two moms, or two dads, or both a mom and a dad, were proud of their parental situation. They made fun of kids with single moms and single dads. “Where’s your dad? Did he run away?” they taunted Aagavi all the time. 

“Where is my dad?” Aagavi had screamed at Akila several times. Recently, she had become quite impudent and talked back sharply to Akila. She also kept losing her pencils. That year alone Aagavi had lost close to a hundred pencils at school. Whenever Akila asked her about the missing pencils, she always screamed back, “I just lost it.” Akila wasn’t sure if other kids in school too lost their pencils. She thought Aagavi’s behavior was becoming stranger.

When she was asked, “How are you doing?”, Aagavi never replied, “I am fine.” She always said, “I am whole.” If someone asked her at a potluck or get-together whether she had eaten, she never responded with an answer. She just stood there with a silly grin on her face.

 “Where is your pencil?” asked Akila.

“It got lost.”

“Where?” 

“Did the pencil inform me before it left? It got lost somehow.”

“How do you lose a pencil every day? I am going to be poor buying pencils for you.”

“Are we rich now?”

“Don’t speak to me like that. I work day-and-night just for you. I cook for you. I wash your clothes. Can’t you be more responsible? Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Which of those words you just said should I look up in the dictionary?”

One evening, Akila gave Aagavi a small ball from the rice dough she was kneading to make Idiyappam. Aagavi sat under the dining table rolling the ball in her hand while she read a book. That was one place where her mother never bothered her. After she was done cooking, Akila placed the steaming Idiyappam strands she had taken a long time to make, on a plate. She bent down and held the plate under the table. Aagavi took one look at the color and shape of the food and refused to eat it.

“Try it. It’s good.”

“Nothing you make is good.”

“You have become very bad nowadays. You never caused any trouble when you were little.”

“What did I eat then?”

“Me.”

Aagavi got out from under the dining table and ran in circles around her mother while shouting, “Mom is my leftover food. Mom is my leftover food.” Akila started to laugh. She could never win an argument with her daughter. Words just tumbled out of her mouth without much effort.

How does such a bright girl lose her pencils? Akila got more and more irritated thinking about it. Aagavi’s class teacher was of the opinion that she lost her pencils on purpose. Even Aagavi’s classmates whom Akila talked to couldn’t help solve the mystery. Akila then took her to a psychologist who spoke to both of them together. He then talked to Akila alone.

“Aagavi feels a loss deep inside her heart. Try to find out what it is that she is missing,” he said later. That was when Akila started to suspect if her daughter’s behavior was caused by the absence of her father.

She telephoned her friend Sylvia in Sri Lanka. Sylvia had gone to University with her and was now a popular investigative reporter in Colombo. When Akila’s mother had died in Mangulam, she couldn’t travel back from Canada because of the fighting. Sylvia was the one who performed the last rites. She also knew fully well what had happened to Akila. When Akila had escaped the heavy fighting and traveled many nights to reach Colombo, Sylvia took her in and helped her move to Canada using a fake passport. Akila now explained to her what was happening to Aagavi and sought her help again. Sylvia asked, “Do you know the name?”

When Akila told her, Sylvia asked, “How did you know the name?” They discussed the details some more.

“Do you have any other information?”

“The attack was led by the commando group under Major Jeyanath.”

“That’s all I need. Don’t worry anymore,” said Sylvia.

Two months after they spoke, Akila got a call from Sylvia in the middle of the night. “Can you start at once? I have the information you wanted,” she said. Akila wrote down what she heard on the corner of the newspaper she had nearby. She informed Sylvia that she would start in a couple of days.

“You have to hurry. I found this after two months of research. If you miss this opportunity you won’t get one again,” said Sylvia.

Akila and Aagavi landed in Colombo on Friday, July 9, 2010. Minuvangoda was twenty-five kilometers from Colombo. From there, they had to travel a few more kilometers to a small town named Udugampola. Akila was hesitant to travel there as it was a Sinhalese region. Sylvia laughed when she heard that and said, “You were very scared when you flew to Canada. Do you remember what I told you then? Mary traveled on a mule for ten days to give birth to Jesus. The war has ended. It’s only an hour from Colombo. Don’t worry. I have arranged an auto-rickshaw driver I know well.”

Aagavi couldn’t control her excitement. She had never seen an auto-rickshaw before. She leaned out of the moving vehicle and admired the clear sky that looked like it had been wiped clean. Sunlight poured in waves. When the paved road ended in Minuvangoda and the auto-rickshaw started to bump around over unpaved streets, Aagavi too jumped along inside the vehicle. Plastic bags chased after them as they sped through the streets. Bunches of bananas hung from banana plants by the roadside. Clear bottles with small necks hung from mango trees. Inside each bottle was a big mango fruit.

“How’s that possible?” Aagavi exclaimed in surprise.

“Why don’t you figure it out? Don’t you know everything?” replied Akila.

Aagavi had seen turkeys only on dinner tables and had never seen any roaming the streets. Here turkeys were walking around with their big bodies and small heads. She was quite amused and giggled uncontrollably. She couldn’t fit that many delightful surprises into her young brain.

“Where are we going Mommy? Are we going to see Grandma’s relatives?” she asked after a while.

“Wait for some time. I’ll tell you later. Look, I expect good behavior from you. Don’t speak as if you are spitting out the words. If someone asks your name, say it politely like a nice Canadian girl. Don’t just stand there with your mouth wide open.”

“That’s all fine Mommy. What will you give me if I behave myself?”

“Why should I give you anything? If you come first in your class, you can ask for something. Why should you get anything for good behavior?”

“Oh my God! Did we fly ten-thousand miles to show off my good behavior?”

“Alright! Stop it. We’ll be there in a few minutes. This will be a day you’ll never forget.”

Akila knew some Sinhala. She decided what to say and formed the words in her mind. All the houses in the street seemed to have three or four rooms, some with asbestos roofs over them. Flower plants adorned the front of all the houses. Anthuriums, carnations, roses, and bougainvilleas were in full bloom.

The driver stopped the auto-rickshaw and asked a man on the street where Siripala lived. The man pointed at a house and walked away. Akila was surprised that a regular soldier’s house could be so big. She asked the driver to wait there and walked towards the house holding Aagavi’s hand. When she rang the bell, a woman opened the door. The slightly overweight woman appeared to be thirty and had a pleasant looking face. She wore thick gold chains around her neck, both her hands were adorned with bangles up to the elbows.

“Who are you looking for?” she asked with some apprehension.

“Siripala.”

“Oh! Come on in,” she welcomed them in with half a smile, but her face showed quite a bit of anxiety.

“My name is Akila. I came from Canada. This is my daughter Aagavi,” Akila told the woman who stood there blinking. Hearing the voices, a girl came out from another room. Akila and Aagavi were stunned to see this girl. She looked like Aagavi’s twin – same height, same curly hair, same large eyes.

“This is my daughter Asundha. Will you have something to drink?” asked the woman.

“Just water,” replied Akila.

“My husband is here on leave. He’ll have to report back in two days. He just stepped out to buy some groceries,” the woman said and walked to the kitchen.

Akila and the other girl looked at each other in shock. Just as the woman returned with a glass of water, Siripala got off his bicycle in front of the house. He walked in carrying a bagful of groceries.

Akila stood up from the chair. Siripala saw Akila and Aagavi and took a step back. He looked at Aagavi and then his daughter. He didn’t understand what was happening. His wife stood there staring at him. He looked as if he were seeing an apparition.

Akila looked at Siripala. She never forgot his face with the half chipped front tooth. She formed the words in Sinhala in her mind and started to speak; the words tumbled out in a halting but measured voice. “Operation Jayasikurui.. November 21.. 1997.. Friday night.. Mangulam village.. 1 a.m.. You got off the military vehicle with another soldier and broke down the door.. Your friend hit my mother on the head with the back of his rifle.. This is your daughter, Aagavi.. I traveled from Canada so she could meet her father..” Siripala’s wife fainted and slumped down to the floor. The glass in her hand fell and water splashed all around. Siripala stood shaking, with his mouth wide open.

Akila grabbed Aagavi’s hand and rushed out the door and got into the auto-rickshaw. The driver stood next to it combing his hair. “Let’s go. Hurry,” she told him. Aagavi didn’t understand what was spoken inside that house, but she understood that her mother was in a hurry to get out of an awkward situation. She looked at her mother’s face. It was drenched in tears and looked like someone else’s.

“Did I behave well Mommy? Who was that man you talked to?” Aagavi asked.

Akila embraced her tightly and planted a kiss on her. She then told Aagavi, “His name is Siripala. He’s your dad. Try to remember his face. You won’t ever see him again.”

“What about that girl Asundha? Are they her parents?”

“From now on Asundha will be a single-parent child.”

“Just like me?”

“Just like you!”

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