Winner of the 2017 Disquiet International Literary Program Prize in Nonfiction
Ninth Letter is proud to feature “Memory, Loss,” by Ru Freeman. Her essay is an account of a desperate time in Sri Lankan history, when civil war reigned. But the essay also remembers this time as one of youthful optimism and adolescent excitement, when a young girl’s father secretly harbored in a small home nine young men who would otherwise be the victims of roving security vans and summary execution. The threat of disaster hovers over every page of this essay, and the power and rhythms of the author’s voice, and the unlikely humor of her nostalgia for that stressful time, lead us to a moment of overwhelming danger that, once remembered, cannot—still—be safely set aside.
I don’t know which year it was, exactly.
It couldn’t have been 1971 when my paternal uncle (my older-father, in the terminology of Sri Lankan culture), was bodyguard to the world’s first female prime minister, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who rose to prominence, and would forever be known as “The Mother,” after her husband was assassinated, and this is true, by none other than a rabid Buddhist monk, and who presided over the mass murder of thousands of young men, and the rise in stature of the country in the World Bank reports, which hailed Sri Lanka as “the new Singapore.”
It couldn’t have been 1983 when the cities burned, and neighbors were butchered, and refugees filled our homes, and we children pretended to play in the gardens outside so nobody would think to come looking for the people with the wrong names in our houses where they sat, rendered speechless, clutching passports and identity cards and their bits and pieces of gold jewelry.
It couldn’t have been 1989 when the death threats flew into our home from every available orifice like a determined summons to Hogwarts at Four Privet Drive, except that we lived at 601/2 Havelock Road, Colombo 6 and there was nothing magical about life in those times except that people disappeared, and eighteen-year-old boys were found arranged in rings like the circle of the Buddhist Dhamma Chakra, dismembered, beheaded, or with tires around their necks, charred streaks of black on the pavements like chalk, the shaded avenues of the universities, on streets, by the riverbanks.
It could have been in 1990, when our house filled up with boys. My brothers, yes, but nine of their friends, all occupying my brothers’ room, while I slept, alone, alas, I thought, in my bedroom. Among them, my boyfriend, in my preferred ilk—a girly-boy, sweet-faced, slender, sleepy eyes, a generous mouth, sensuous and seducible, who did, very late at night, sometimes knock softly on my door behind which I waited, having communicated with the subtle play of eyes that the goodnight murmured was not a farewell but an invitation to have one.
They were hiding in our home and I know this will dismay and perhaps even horrify every real estate agent from coast to American coast, there were fourteen of us in the house and we had only one bathroom! Somehow, none of us ever needed to defecate elsewhere, urinate in our pants, or greet the day unwashed. There was never enough food in my parents’ house, but fourteen of us had lunch—the most important meal for us—anyway. Mostly it was rice and okra, which we planted in the ground behind the house the day the boys moved in, and which sprang into life and fertility like Jack’s beanstalk, providing the something-to-go-with that we needed for our rice. What should we make for lunch, we’d ask each other every afternoon, and each afternoon we’d give it some thought, the silence falling over us, until one of us blurted, with great excitement, “how about okra?” Yes, we’d say, Okra! and we’d high-five each other.
Were there people being murdered? Why, yes. But we were teenagers reveling in our version of the French resistance, playing our small parts in the great revolution that was not coming, it was already here! We wore red and called each other comrade, and we quoted Marx and so I now think it must have been 1989, because I remember, the younger, less knowledgeable sister that I was, drawing one of my brothers and a few of the boys aside and asking, because oh how I loved that dizzingly happy moral high ground, “but what about Tienneman?” and there being a lot of head-shaking and consideration and soothing murmurs of “someday,” as in “someday” you will understand, which led as these things do to my hearing not the words but the beat of those words “you will understand,” which tripped not toward understanding but to the light leap into the “we shall overcome,” that it recalled, and which I then proceeded to sing with religious fervor as though it were the new Internationale, in the bathroom, which had a door which fell far short of the ceiling so that anybody passing, any of those boys, but particularly the boyfriend, could go up on his toes and watch me cavorting underneath the shower which had no showerhead and merely fell like a forced waterfall, hard on my head and on my body, and I could turn my back to that door and pretend I did not know this.
Each night I unfurled a long pink carpet that my mother had purchased in the Black Market under the almost-Singapore policies of Mrs. Bandaranaike, and lay down a sheet and fluffed the three available pillows and the cushions off my mother’s rudimentary living room furniture—which remains, to this day, stiff and uncomfortable—and I made a bed for the boys, who lay down like sardines, each head to another’s toes, and spoke only in whispers. Each morning I’d help them roll up the carpet, and put the bedding away, and we’d leave the curtains drawn over the shut windows because we lived within twelve feet of the house next door, a mirror image, except that it was filled up with army boys. Army boys which meant government, which meant green, and the symbol of the elephant, and paramilitary forces called Black Tigers and Yellow Cats, and all kinds of other two-legged felines who roamed the streets and picked up boys such as ours, and did not ever bring them back. Ever.
And each morning my father went off to work for that government, civil servant that he was, called to duty and being dutiful, while his house filled up with boys from the villages. I remember now that it was the year when my father was appointed to head the Agrarian Research and Training Institute, which came with a house for its director. A house with two stories, in other words, the house of my dreams, because only rich people lived in two-story houses, and we had never been rich. My father, a Trotskyian to this day, refused the house, but continued to direct, while we languished, and we did languish, in the bliss of being a part of dangerous times.
All, that is, except my oldest brother, the musician, the one who swore fidelity to the sage, Sathya Sai Baba, and all things spiritual, but also liked perfume, and did his hair just so, and was, therefore, the butt of many jokes within the family, but particularly among us, his younger brother, these nine friends, and his only sister. He did not care for politics, did not want to participate in the revolution, did not want to think about who was dead or dying, or might be killed or jailed, he never liked Marx, did not follow in his illustrious father’s socialist footsteps, and was mostly deeply disappointed by his brother’s equally determined desire to repeat, what he called, “the foolishness of that stupid man.” He also acquired a British accent for words like that, “stupid.”
Among us all, the one he loved the best was my boyfriend, also a musician, whom he’d lure to some corner with his guitar, while the boyfriend brought his Esraj, (and that instrument had a special place in that bedroom, namely, on the one bed, because it was revered by everybody, this classical curved instrument belonging to a real musician), and the two of them played, very very quietly—remember, those army boys?—in the furthest part of the house, which was, unfortunately, the kitchen, which was a little difficult for me, because the kitchen had cockroaches. The giant, flying kind. And though I loved nothing more than to sit with this particular brother—because it meant also sitting in the presence of, if not in intimate proximity to, the boyfriend—to have an opportunity (when my brother left the room to light a cigarette, or use the (one) bathroom, to stroke the boyfriend’s inner arm in such a way that changed the tempo of his breathing, which made me feel very womanly, I did not like the cockroaches. And the cockroaches loved me.
It must have been on a day after one of those frustrating kitchen-music-nights, as I called them, when the phone rang. Another friend, calling from a town where the disappearances had been the greatest, asking for refuge, asking to speak to one of the boys, Priyantha. Priyantha, whose features only seemed to improve when I hadn’t seen him in a while the way people do— you know, you don’t see someone and in your mind’s eye, you intensify the good and the bad, and in this case, the ugly, it gets uglier and uglier until you finally see them again and are mightily surprised by how good-looking they are. That’s a theory he shared with me, by the way, when I commented on it once, how good he looked. Priyantha, who was only second to my other brother in terms of how passionately committed he was—despite the death of two of their closest friends—to the romance of the revolution, the defiance of it all, the bravado of breaking curfews and ducking into alleyways, and flaunting their red-hued slogans whenever they could, because they were convinced—and they convinced me—that we would win. Priyantha picked up the phone and began to speak in explicit terms about what was going on, the word on the streets, the hope in the air, the plans afoot, about who else was in residence in my parents’ house. Until he heard the faint clicking on the line.
Did I forget to say that along with the death threats came the tapping of our phones?
Even Priyantha’s voice faltered as Premasiri, on the other end of the line, asked, did you hear that? And the silence fell between them. A silence from Priyantha, still holding the phone, that curled and twined around everybody in the house, even those not in sight of this one boy, until the whole house became unnaturally still and for the first time we became fearful, not brave.
When we talk about that moment now, we laugh. We don’t speak of the way my mother took a bus to my father’s office, to tell him in person, alone, of what had happened. We don’t speak of how my father sent his official vehicle to help his family that had never had the use of this vehicle before, driven by a man, Mullegama, who had once revealed an allegiance which matched ours in response to my question: “So, how do you feel about the JVP?” The JVP being made up of those whose predecessors had been tipped into mass-graves during that first year I told you about, 1971, the year of the advent of The Mother.
We do not talk about how Mullegama arrived, the Pajero painted the color of the ruling party, and how I bid the boys a sorrowful goodbye as they each slipped, quietly, their few belongings in tissue-paper thin plastic bags, into the Pajero, the pink-and-white carpet rolled and placed over their knees. There were tears, and we do not say, now, that the tears were for the time that we were losing, this time we’d had of hope and excitement and the charge of being a part of something massive, of having had the time of our lives play-acting change in the confines of our home, the danger all but invisible to us because the feeling of that time together was everything, fuck the revolution.
We do not talk about how it became, the way we abandoned our home, and how the boys hid in the new house my father had never wanted to accept, the rich people’s house which came with furniture fit for such people, where our bottoms could find plush seats, where the floors gleamed, the kitchen had an oven—for baking what?—and mirrored almirahs in every room even though everything we owned, all fourteen of us, could have fit into one. We do not talk about how we dug up a square of the ample backyard and planted okra anyway, even though the chef at the canteen now walked the quarter mile from the offices to the house carrying large plates of rice and bowls of curries, how the lemons dripped off the lemon tree at the back, piling up and rotting and how we all got sick of lemon juice we could have for free without the sugar we couldn’t afford.
We do not talk about how my paternal uncle, now the head of a security agency, hired the boys for pretend jobs, how they went to become security guards, because to be in the city without a reason to be there, when you were eighteen, and nineteen, and twenty, and twenty-one, was a death sentence.
We do not talk about the death threats that found a new address, or the army patrols that sometimes stopped in front of the high walls of that house and stayed there for hours, watching, listening, as we watched, and listened on the other side. We do not talk about the security guards at the Agrarian Research and Training Institute who patrolled the premises late at night, causing the boys to quiet their voices; or how though the boyfriend now climbed the stairs at night, and though my room had a Juliet balcony complete with floor to ceiling drapes, though I still had my girl-only room, and though masses of printed intoxicatingly fragrant airmail packages had arrived for me from colleges in the United States, with offers of full scholarships, what I felt was a lack, not a gift.
What we talk about now of that day is this. How, ha ha! Thilak, who hailed from the most rural of the villages, grabbed the phone from Priyantha and slammed it down and called him a fucking donkey, how he rushed around the house and burned all the books, including the notebooks, and journals, that had any mention of themselves or their beliefs, how he stammered tearfully that it was over, it was all over, they were all going to die. But most of all, we talk about my oldest brother, how furious he became over what was to befall him, who had no damn interest in any of this nonsense, and how in that hour when we all gathered their belongings and erased the evidence of their stay, how he paced, and how he rushed over to Sathya Sai Baba’s shrine, the shrine he had in his room, and stood there chanting inaudible prayers, and how he reached out to take some of the ash from the incense that gathered each night, and rubbed it on the forehead of each boy, and, lastly, himself, and how in the last second, something overcame him, and he grabbed a fistful of that ash and shoved it into his mouth, a sob escaping his throat. Remember that, we say? Remember? Remember? And we laugh. We laugh far too long and far too loud, remembering everything.
Ru Freeman is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), a New York Times Editor’s Choice Book. Both novels have been translated into several languages including Italian, French, Hebrew, Dutch, and Chinese. She is the editor of the ground-breaking anthology, Extraordinary Rendition: American Writers on Palestine (2015). Her writing appears internationally including in the UK Guardian, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe. She blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics, is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and is the recipient of many fellowships including from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Lannan Foundation. She is the 2014 winner of the Sister Mariella Gable Award for Fiction, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for Fiction by an American Woman.