Excerpt of Island of a Thousand Mirrors
By Nayomi Munaweera
If we could have entered the dead telephone lines that day, followed them across the burning city, down to our pregnant aunt’s quiet bungalow and into her bedroom, this is what we would have seen. As smoke rises over Galle Road, as muffled screams make their way over her gate, and though there are still two months to go, our aunt Mala’s belly is wrenching and twisting. It is the third day of twenty-four-hour curfew and Anuradha, white faced, fingernails bitten past their quick, has been watching his wife writhe for the last two days. He says, “The hospital. We have to go.” And Mala, gasping, “No, Anu, please. It’s only the heat. And the baby kicking.” He says, “Alright. I’ll go and bring the doctor here.” But she can’t allow this. Has terrible visions of what could happen to him out there, in the unseen nightmare beyond their gate.
He carries her to their old yellow Volkswagen, the tight, battered Bata slippers dangling off her feet. She worries about this. The impropriety of leaving the house in her house slippers. But then Poornam has pulled open the gate and it is too late to ask for other more appropriate shoes. They drive into the lane. A lull in the faraway shouting, the street festooned in sunlight and birdsong, foliage spilling everywhere, and for a moment there is normalcy, the sense that they are leaving the house for a walk along Galle Face Green or Mount Lavinia beach. They turn onto Galle Road; drive into thick, rolling smoke; glimpse armed men, abandoned cars, looted shops. Mala, the aching of her womb momentarily shocked still, presses a knuckled hand against her mouth.
Anuradha whispers, “God,” as the clearing smoke allows them to see. He is wrenching the wheel around, homeward, when the hand smacks, splay fingered against the glass next to Mala’s head. A teenage boy in a torn, stained school uniform. Behind him, the mob congeals, and the boy, in his terror, scrambles onto the hood of their car. Through the garnet smears on the windscreen, they see the glint of knives, broken bottles, machetes. The mob surrounds them completely now and though she cannot see the men’s eyes, Mala knows that they are expecting sacrifice. Knows that this Tamil boy in his school uniform, his face squashed against the glass so close to her own, the open fish mouth, the wide eyes, and that terrible gushing cut on his head, has been chosen as sacrifice for years of deprivation, broken governmental promises, failed examinations, and decades of relentless physical labor. And the boy himself, knowing this, his hands raised to protect his delicate face, does not even beg for mercy.
She hears the door slam. She sees Anuradha push through the men, pull himself onto the car, his body in front of the boy’s.
She hears his words through her own shuddering sobs. “This child. He has done nothing. He is no problem for you.”
Her fingers struggle on the lock. She will jump out. They won’t hurt a pregnant woman. There are greater human laws they will abide by. She is sure of it. Just outside her window through the dirty glass, a machete is raised, hefted from hand to hand. She sees the silver gleam of it, sinks low in her seat.
Anuradha negotiating, “I can give you money. Anything. Just let me take this boy and go.”
The voices, “What have you got to do with this Tamil bastard? These motherfuckers ruining this country. Think they can take over. Time to teach a lesson they won’t forget. Crack some heads before they murder us in our beds. Move aside.”
Anuradha turns, wraps his arms around the cowering boy. His eyes search for hers through the blood-smeared glass. She sees the blade raised and brought down. The flutter of his lids so familiar. His body jerking and then sagging as it has innumerable times over hers in the sanctity of their bed. But this time, it is the unnamed boy who receives his weight, who shrieks the ear-shattering screams of an animal in terror. More blood than she can imagine, running onto the bright yellow paint of their car. Then a hundred hands reaching out and pulling him and the screaming boy into their midst.
She is huddled on the floor of the car, arms wrapped about her belly, when the door is eased open. A voice in Sinhala whispers, “Come, Nona, come with me.” She looks and sees Alwis, the coconut plucker, slum denizen. “Nona, let us go home now.” His calloused hands pull her onto the seat and then out of the car.
The mob is gathered in front of the car, a blur of limbs, and the metallic arc of weapons, but Alwis’s sinewy, coconut tree–clasping arms will not allow her to break away, throw herself in the midst of the mob, beg for her lover’s life. She is hurried away. When the smoke has cleared for a moment, she struggles loose, looks back to see men on the upturned car like flies on a day-old catch, white cans upturned, gushing petrol. A roar as the spark ignites, catches, bursts into flame. The men’s voices roaring and falling in time to the jumping flames. A dancing circle of men. Those on the periphery pushing forward, curious to see what the center holds. A louder shriek as a sarong catches a flying cinder and the circle scatters open. And what is it that my dark aunt sees at that moment? Too grotesque to be revealed surely. Too horrific to be imagined. But in the name of veracity it must be told: two vaguely human figures, lurching in an almost comic fashion, garlanded, each, with a flaming tire. Hands bound, black rubber melting onto skin, red flames dancing skyward, funnels of smoke obscuring wide open mouths, a glimpse of damaged eye. The swirl of men closes ranks. The scene is shut off from Mala’s eyes like a book of naughty illustrations slammed shut. So fast that she almost cannot accept what she has seen. A soft rain of ash is falling, settling into her hair and skin. At her ear, a steady stream of words. She knows she must concentrate on this to avoid losing herself. She knows she must walk home now without allowing what is sheltering within her to pour out like water onto this smoky street.
Alwis’s lips, close to her ear, whisper, “Look down. Glass, madam, all over the road.” She trains her eyes on her swollen feet in their tight rubber slippers. Watches them curiously as they step carefully over broken glass.
They move with a will she cannot recognize as her own. She marvels at these feet, at their earnestness in moving away from loss. At the biology in her that has so assuredly chosen her unborn child over her dying husband.
At the head of their lane, a bus on its knees, front tires exploded, hemorrhages thrusting, pushing passengers. At the far side, a particularly jovial mob gathers. Reaching high above their heads the men pull a woman out of the small side window. They catch her sari pallu, pull, jumping and climbing on each other’s shoulders. Mala has stopped in the street, turned to salt, Lot’s wife, despite Alwis’s panicked urgings. She sees the woman’s open mouth, her arms flailing in this most exposed and air-bound uncertainty between the bus and the men. A long streak of red bisects her forehead, and then like a cork out of a bottle, the woman is dislodged. She falls into the circle of men, streaming to earth, sari fluttering like a parachute. A roar of delight drowns the woman’s screams. Then, again, the sound of gushing petrol. And finally Mala allows herself to be pulled away, down the street, into the quiet of the lane. Her red gate within sight. The scent is rising again, the thick fragrance of charred flesh like that which wafts from the Muslim quarter during Eid, the festive roasting of animal flesh.
She whispers to Alwis, “Not blood. On her forehead. It was her pottu. She must have tried to rub it off so they wouldn’t know she was Tamil. It wasn’t blood. It wasn’t blood.” Her mind turns over the image. The woman falling, the pottu streaked across her forehead, the waiting men. She knows this fixation is just another trick of her biology to keep the other images far away.
(From Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.)
Nayomi Munaweera’s debut novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, about two women living through the twenty-six-year-long Sri Lankan civil war, was originally published in South Asia and long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia and was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. It was released in America by St. Martin’s Press on 2 Sept 2014. Nayomi lives in Oakland, California, and is currently at work on her second novel. Learn more at www.nayomimunaweera.com.