Nishu wanted a Double X for his birthday. He confided this daily to his grandmother, Bernie, who, at eighty-three, had lived through a war, and endured displacement, and knew a weapon when she saw one.
“The features, Paati,” he breathed. “The camera quality. Okay, say I take a picture of you, right?”
He pressed a button and it made that grrr-ick sound. He extended the diabolical little device across the kitchen counter. Bernie bowed obediently to examine her face on the screen: her vast, glistening forehead; the perfect Jaffna-Tamil nose that had skipped her daughter, Vindhya, but found its way to Nishu; mauve-brown lips drawn tight over all the things she didn’t say.
She was satisfied. But Nishu said, “Now with the Double X, I could erase all these lines here, and cover up this ugly thing over here. No more grey hairs, no more spots.”
“Paithiamma! Keep stirring,” Bernie said. “See all those lumps in the batter? Cake will look like it has chicken pox.”
Nishu got busy with the wooden spoon. “Only one person in our class has a Double X. Lyam.”
An acid retort tickled Bernie’s tongue. She did not approve of Lyam, or any of Nishu’s classmates at the British Academy, a bright new institution that abutted an old slum in the heart of Colombo. Perhaps it was the school’s motto—The Cream of the Crop—that rankled.
“Dada said to ask Mama,” Nishu went on, “but Mama said to ask you. She said you’re a rich lady now.” He dropped his arm. “This is so tiring. Why can’t we use the Cuisinart?”
“This blessed thing?” Bernie cast her eyes over the silver stand mixer crouching on the countertop like a malevolent cat. “Looks like a spaceship. I’ll stick to my method, thank you. Go and bring the butter.”
She spoke curtly to mask her apprehension of everything in this kitchen, like the cavernous steel refrigerator that cried out for pints of milk and packs of meat, then spit out fungus-furry food because it was too much for this little family to consume. She yearned for her outdoor kitchenette with its creaking coconut scraper and grumpy old grinding stone. But that house was gone, flattened by a Chinese development project that had replaced the spidery streets and dusty Hindu temples of Old Mutwal with a shopping arcade and corporate head offices. It was why she’d come here, into this dead apartment in the sky where furniture the color of milky coffee pressed against blank white walls.
“Also, the Double X screen is shatterproof,” Nishu said. “Even if I dropped it off the balcony it wouldn’t break.”
“Adey! If you fall off this balcony, you’ll break… your skull. Seventeen floors. You’re telling me this gadget is tougher than a skull?”
“And smarter than a human brain,” he said solemnly. “So, will you? Please Paati.”
“Chee, you’re not shy? Going to a posh school but indulging in this shameless beggary?”
Laughter rippled out of him like a bright streamer fluttering in a breeze, enveloping them both. “Shameless beggary! You say the funniest stuff, Paati.”
She lined up the cake tins, eyeballed equal measures of batter into each, then tapped them gently on the counter until the tops were perfectly smooth. Nishu hurried to preheat the electric oven which Bernie refused to operate, holding fast to her memories of gas cylinders and matchboxes. It was precisely this division of labor that made them—to use Nishu’s phrase—“an awesome team”, she the Granny Nanny and he her navigator in this new world. Together they assembled a triple-layer cake for his party the following day. Nishu wanted to do the “spreading” of the icing using a spatula but ceded the more delicate decorating to the expert. With an expression touching adoration, he watched Bernie twist a piece of parchment into a piping cone, slip in a silver nozzle at the tip and ooze out a border of perfect ganache roses.
“That’s so cool, Paati! It never comes like that for me.”
“You have to keep practicing.”
“Urghh!” He threw his head back. “It’s just so frustrating!”
She didn’t know whether to laugh or smack him. “Enough of your nonsense, time to clean up this mess.”
He trailed his finger lazily through the dregs of batter in the bowl. “Mama said to leave everything for the servants.”
“Your Mama is a busy woman,” Bernie said. “She works hard. Do you have a job? No, no? So what for leaving for the servants? Anyway, in my kitchen I have rules, if you dirty something you wash it yourself.”
“But this isn’t your kitchen Paati.” Nishu sucked insolently on his chocolate-covered index finger. “It’s my kitchen.”
Wordlessly she began to stack soiled utensils and carry them to the deep sink embedded in a black marble countertop. She waited for Nishu to extol the virtues of the dishwasher, to pry open its maw and insert a plump sachet of detergent, teasing her all the time about her old-fashioned ways. But he said nothing. Each of them stewed in a heavy, sugary silence that was broken only by the pings and clicks from Nishu’s cellphone. Such interruptions had become the soundtrack to her life here, but she resented them all the same: the empty urgency of each incoming message set her teeth on edge.
Eventually Nishu slid off his stool and pattered down the corridor. Soon he’d be splayed on his bed with that thing in his hand. Whole hours could pass with him repeating the same motion, flicking his thumb upward on the screen over and over again. The process sapped him of vitality, turned him into a slovenly heap, an airless balloon of a boy. His mouth hung open. Sometimes he laughed a lonely laugh, shared with no one and stolen, the moment it left his lips, by that infernal screen.
You’re a rich lady now.
Nishu’s words swirled like dirty drain-water in her mind. Her whole life Bernie had regarded financial matters in much the same way as bowel movements, unpleasant but necessary functions to be tackled primly and privately behind closed doors. Afterwards, ideally, you lit an incense stick: to refresh the room and purge your soul. But her daughter Vindhya had left behind the best traditions of Tamil austerity when she joined Capital Plus Bank and later married the branch manager, Devinda. They brought home mugs and nightclothes bearing the name of their employer. They drank and dreamed Capital Plus, its special offers, credit lines, and interest rates.
“Fourteen percent,” Vindhya was fond of saying. “If you sell now, you can put the money in a fixed deposit and live off the interest. No point hanging on to a house if you can’t even pay the light bill, no?”
But Bernie did hang on, to the two-bedroom matchbox on St. Wilfred’s Lane that had been her whole world. Vindhya was born on the kitchen floor and her husband had expired on the bathroom tiles. When a gasoline-drenched mob torched the house during the searing riots of July 1983, she worked overtime at a government ministry full of leering clerks and crooked accountants until she could resurrect it. Both she and Vindhya had been devoted to its upkeep. Bernie recalled her daughter at Nishu’s age and her array of toys that weren’t so much playthings as diminutive versions of Bernie’s domestic tools. A tiny broom with which she mimicked Bernie’s expert sweeping strokes until the skin on her palms hardened into callouses; a benign old knife for pretend-chopping bitter gourd and pumpkin. A clutch of scrappy rags for mopping spills. And, most treasured of all, her chatti pots, a fleet of miniature clay vessels that mirrored Bernie’s formidable earthen cookware.
Sometimes, alone in her new bedroom, Bernie wondered why she had given it all up, stepped into an elevator that resembled the cockpit of a jet, and pressed a silver button that glowed a sickly neon orange before delivering her, in a matter of seconds, to the seventeenth floor of High Life Residencies—a place where no fishmonger would dare to venture, where she never heard the tinkle of the bombai mottai man’s bell.
What she heard instead was the sound of Vindhya returning late, alone as usual—the forlorn clip of high heels in the corridor, the thin gurgle of wine into a glass. She brought it with her into Bernie’s room but instead of flopping onto the bed as she usually did, she handed over a sleek silver bag.
Bernie crinkled back its plastic mouth to peer inside. “You’re spoiling him,” she said in Tamil.
“It was on sale,” Vindhya answered in English. “Twenty-five percent discount for Capital Plus cardholders.”
“Even so.” The Double X was smaller than she’d expected. Its cellophane wrapper felt like silk. Bernie made her palm a scale, bouncing the box the way she would a cut of fish, trying to determine its worth from its weight. “Too much for a small child.”
“Think about his face tomorrow morning,” Vindhya said. “That smile of his? I live for that.”
Bernie counted out the money into her daughter’s hand. She doubted she would ever be at ease handling these newly minted five-thousand-rupee notes. Just the sight of them—not so much a dull gold as a sick mustard color with a bemused looking bird on it—pained her. She had measured her life, her sacrifices and savings, in tens and twenties, hundreds if she was lucky. But at High Life Residencies everything was magnified, multiplied. A lakh here. A Double X there.
“How was he today?” Vindhya asked.
“We made the cake.”
And—because she too lived for the smile on her child’s face—Bernie said, “He was very helpful.”
Vindhya’s shoulders dropped in relief. “He’s a good boy, Amma.”
“You must be careful about the people he associates with. All these Lyams and Beeyums…they come from broken homes.”
“All homes are broken in one way or another.”
“Chumma eruma. Why do you talk like this? Mothers have to be strong for their children.”
Vindhya tucked the money into a red leather purse. She had lost weight, Bernie observed. Her wrists were skeletal, and her rose gold and ruby engagement ring hung loosely on her finger, the stone tilting sideways rather than standing upright.
Bernie set the Double X in her lap. “I’m not giving this to Nishu tomorrow morning.”
“Oh my God, Amma.”
“There are other ways to get smiles out of children, not only spending money.”
“So why did I sit in traffic for an hour to pick up this damn thing?”
Bernie stroked her daughter’s hair. “Eyes are looking tired. Put two cucumber slices before you sleep.”
Vindhya exhaled slowly, as though pacifying a torrent of words in her throat.
“Here.” From beneath the bed Bernie extracted a wooden box, the kind that is held together with brass hinges on one side and a silver clasp—like a bright, puckered mouth—on the other. “Open to see.”
Vindhya lifted the lid. Nestled in pleated sheets of white crepe paper were the chatti pots. Her brow unfurled, furrows softening into an almost childlike expression as confusion became recognition became nostalgia.
There were six containers arranged in descending size. Individually they were jewels; as a collection, a mosaic that you couldn’t take your eyes off. Vindhya selected the smallest pot which fit into the palm of her hand. The artist appeared to have lavished special attention on this one. Not a bit of clay was visible beneath the paint. The neck of the pot was chili red and its sloping sides were a king coconut sunset of swirling paisley patterns, ending in a spiral of ivory dots.
They had bought these together in 1983, when the riots had sent them tearing through burning streets and into a makeshift refugee camp in the sports field of a big public school. Each morning as Bernie queued for water, Vindhya made kolams outside their tent by dragging a stick through the sand. They ate rotten rations and Bernie sang the girl to sleep with promises of return. Two months felt like a year. When it came time to leave Bernie had intended never to look back but as they passed through the gates, they spied a hawker squatting on her haunches on the pavement. Spread out before her was a threadbare sheet on which were stacked crooked piles of chatti pots. The woman exuded a supreme indifference to customers. She was wholly absorbed in painting a set of pots in shades of blue from sapphire to peacock and did not look up as they approached. That’s when Bernie noticed the woman was missing her right arm. In her left hand she held a spindly paintbrush, and as she worked, she cradled each pot between the soles of her feet, using her big toes to tilt the vessels this way and that. Mother and daughter watched the artisan in silence, each puzzling over their desire to purchase a souvenir from a place they had no wish to remember. At last Bernie inquired about the price.
“Aimpathu,” the woman answered.
Vindhya squeezed her mother’s hand. It was more than they could spare.
“For all six?” Bernie asked.
The hawker nodded. Her rich dark skin shone with sweat. She wore—Bernie recalled this vividly—a very bright, very dirty yellow saree. When Bernie handed over the coins, she knotted them into the tail of her pallu, then deftly encased each pot in old newspaper and placed the lot of them into a roughly stitched gunny sack. Vindhya held the parcel in both hands as though it were a baby bird.
The craftswoman spoke directly to her. “Thanks to your mother my family will eat a meal after two days. You must learn to cook so you can also feed your family when you get big. Remember me when you prepare your Pongal food. My blessings go with you.”
That was nearly thirty years ago. A lifetime, Bernie thought.
“I found them when I was packing up the house,” she said. “You left them behind when you moved here.”
Vindhya returned the pot to its place. “I can’t believe the paint hasn’t faded after all these years. Look at them, they’re like new!”
“Those days you were careful,” Bernie said. “Not like now breaking a different glass every day. Worse than Nishu!”
Vindhya laughed softly, a puff of air.
“I’ll give him his silly Double Trouble after the party when all his friends have gone home. That will be my surprise. But this one,” Bernie put the lid on the box, “this one is special.”
Vindhya studied her hands. Then she inched forward and did something she hadn’t done in years, put her arms around her mother and buried the top of her head in Bernie’s neck just as she used to do as a child.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, when darkness had fully stripped away the bravado of daytime, Nishu found his way into Bernie’s bed. Dawn revealed a comic pair. She was elegant in sleep, hands folded in prayer supporting her cheek, body curved into a gentle S, legs stacked one on top of the other. Nishu was an untidy bedfellow whose limbs flung themselves into an arrogant sprawl, forcing her into a sliver against the wall while he—a child, dimly aware of manhood—claimed the bulk of the mattress. She usually disentangled herself gently at sunrise before slipping out of the room but today she wrapped him up in an embrace and kissed him awake.
He succumbed with a shy, sleepy smile.
“Turn that way,” she said, rolling his body away from hers. “Now put your hand under the bed.”
“My Double X!” His head dangled close to the floor as he made swiping motions for the hidden gift. “Thank you, Paati, IloveyouIloveyouIloveyou!”
Bernie reached for the housecoat she always kept neatly folded at the foot of the mattress. Nishu’s nighttime antics had reduced it to a crumpled heap. She shook it out and put it on.
“Read the card first,” Bernie said.
Nishu did as he was told. A perplexed expression hardened his features as he scanned her cursive penmanship. He set the card aside and slowly unwrapped the box, taking care to peel back the strips of sellotape so they didn’t tear the balloon-patterned paper. For several moments he just stared at it; not a flicker.
“We call these chatti pots.”
“Your mother learned to cook in these when she was your age. But see? How she has forgotten everything I taught her? Now it’s up to you, you hear? I’ll give you all my secret recipes.”
Nishu said, “Okay, Paati.”
“I won’t be here forever, no?”
“So, there, the family heirloom is in your hands now!”
In his bedroom across the corridor his cellphone chimed aggressively, demanding human contact, the soft imprint of Nishu’s thumb on its cold face. A stream of birthday messages, no doubt, from the many mysterious worlds he frequented, Facebook and WhatNots. Cling, tring, ching-ching, almost—Bernie thought—like the first coins falling into a clay till.
In Bernie’s book, a child’s birthday party involved homemade rainbow sandwiches and crumbly meringue kisses, musical chairs and Passing-the-Parcel. Instead, a caterer brought in a long table laden with sushi—Nishu’s favorite—and twenty boys and girls stood around staring at screens in their hands. Though it was Nishu’s birthday, it was his friend Lyam who commanded the room. If he sat on the couch a crowd coalesced around him; when he moved to the balcony, he took the center of gravity with him. It needled her to see it, though she wasn’t precisely sure why. The boy was polite enough, in a Hi-Aunty, Bye-Aunty way. Perhaps it was his assuredness that she didn’t like, the fact that he seemed utterly devoid of curiosity—as though the world itself bored him to death. Such a quality was unbecoming, she thought, in a child.
The adults were no better. Gathered in a pot-bellied circle, Devinda’s bank associates sloshed down whiskey like it was milk. Ordinarily she would have sought refuge in the kitchen with the other women but it was overrun by “waiters” and, anyway, Vindhya’s friends with their long, painted nails seemed more content to sit in gold tiffany chairs balancing plates of raw fish on their laps.
Lost, she claimed an uncontested corner of the pantry for the task of planting candles into the cake in the shape of a number eleven. She tied a ribbon to the handle of a butter knife and used a pair of dull scissors to stretch the ends of the bow into curly tails. She had just lit the candles and hoisted up the platter when Nishu appeared next to her.
“Don’t bring the cake. I don’t want people to sing and all. Just…cut it here and serve it, okay?”
“Nonsense only you talk. You invite your friends for a party and won’t even cut the cake?”
He snatched the knife from her hand and blew out the candles in an angry hiss with two sharp downward strokes of his head.
Not even a wish, Bernie observed darkly.
“It’s babyish,” Nishu said and she didn’t know if he was talking about the cake, or the ritual, or the ribbon, or what. “Nobody does it anymore. Anyway, I’ll be twelve next year.”
“Twelve doesn’t mean you’re a big man,” Bernie said. “Twelve is still a child.”
“Fine, I’m a child. A baby. Okay? Just please don’t embarrass me.”
A terrible coldness enveloped her. There was a desperate ring to his voice, as though he were on the edge of some precipice, hoping to be pulled back. It struck her how small he was for his age, an imp of a boy, really, standing there with his phone in one hand and a knife in the other.
Too easy, she thought. He has it too easy.
In one quick motion she seized his wrist, twisting it inwards and upwards so sharply that he cried out. The knife clattered to the floor, but she didn’t release him, not until he raised his eyes to meet hers. He opened his mouth defiantly, but nothing came out.
She picked up the knife, set it on the stand and transported the whole affair to the table outside. There was the usual shuffling that accompanies the arrival of a cake, people got to their feet and pulled out their phones. Vindhya dimmed the lights while Nishu’s father re-lit the candles. Someone, she wasn’t sure who, pushed Nishu into place and struck up the song on a faulty key: Haaaaaa…py buuuuuurthday! Everyone joined in except Lyam and a couple of other boys who hung back in the doorway of the balcony, rolling their eyes. Two dozen screens, glowing dimly in the darkened room, swallowed the scene, reduced it to a smaller, poorer version of itself.
Bernie wondered if anyone else noticed Nishu’s wooden movements as he cut the cake and fed his parents the first slice. Their bites squashed the cake deep into his palm. Icing seeped between his fingers. He reached for a napkin, but Vindhya said, “Don’t forget Paati.”
He lifted his fist. Bernie bent her knees until their faces were level. Her lips brushed his fingers as rich sweetness filled her mouth. She felt the chocolate thickening on her tongue into a paste too thick to swallow. She coughed, putting her hand up in front of her face to shield herself from the cameras. She left the gathering in a daze and shut her bedroom door.
The Double X lay unwrapped on her bed. She carried it out onto her balcony which faced a block of government flats, a mess of grimy walls and tangled washing lines. Like her the occupants of this building lived in the sky but seemed somehow to have retained their connection to the earth. At dusk they gathered by the dozens, dragging plastic chairs onto their own balconies where, among their potted bougainvillea, they talked and laughed until night dropped like a sheet upon them. Women oiled each other’s hair, plucked lice. Men played carrom and cards. They were entwined, as they were meant to be: children, children’s children, all in one place.
Bernie dangled her arms over the railing. How quickly would the box somersault to the bottom? She marveled again at the lightness of the thing. Nishu’s face flashed before her wearing that crumpled, fallen look, the shadow that settles over a child’s features the first time someone they love truly hurts them. She must erase that look. Replace it with a smile. She would make amends, pay the bribe. That’s what you did, isn’t it? Traded in the past for the present? Sold the present for the future.
Out on the front balcony Lyam dangled his arms over the railing. Down below, on the terrace of Apt #616, a star tortoise made patient progress across the tiles towards a cardboard box full of slimy greens.
“Who the fuck keeps tortoises anymore?” he said.
One of the girls tittered. “My grandparents have one in their garden.”
“Urgh!” Another of the girls performed a full-body shudder. “They’re so gross. They’re basically, like, giant lizards. With shells.”
“God, Himaya, how dumb are you?” Lyam leaned his spine against the balcony rails. “Tortoises aren’t lizards, they’re a completely different kind of reptile species.”
“Whatever, they’re still disgusting.”
Nishu came outside, sliding the balcony door behind him.
“Aw, wook, it’s wittle Nishy-Wishy,” Lyam drawled. “Has Nishy-Wishy come to feed us cake like he did for his Mummy and Daddy?”
“Shut up, man.”
Lyam put his arm around Nishu’s shoulder and drew him into a rough embrace. “Is Nishy-Wishy getting angwy? Is the bwwirthday wuined?”
“Fuck this birthday, I just want it to be over.”
“Oh, come on bro, it could be worse. You could live in a house full of tortoise shit like your neighbors here. Seriously, look at that thing, it’s the most useless pet a person could have.”
Nishu peered down at the creature which had gone stiff and still. He happened to know it was a male tortoise named Buddy who had a particular liking for beetroot leaves. There was a time, not so very long ago, when Nishu paid daily homage to Buddy, fed him out of his own hand.
“Maybe it’s dead,” Himaya said hopefully.
“Himaya you really are the biggest ditz on the planet,” Lyam said. “You watched it crawling one second ago.”
“Well it’s not moving now.”
“It just needs a little encouragement.” Lyam plucked a tekka maki roll off Himaya’s plate and lobbed it at Buddy but missed by a foot. The seaweed wrapper split, rice and tuna escaped.
Himaya hung her upper body over the railing. “Nice going genius.”
“Damn it. I need something a little heavier. Like a glass, or a plate.”
“Are you crazy?” Nishu said. “Our stuff’s way too expensive.”
“Williams-Sonoma.” Himaya held up her plate so Lyam could read the stamp underneath.
“Fine, bring any old piece of crap, whatever’s breakable but not valuable so your mother won’t notice it’s gone.”
Nishu disappeared inside. He returned a moment later with the box of chatti pots.
“What are these?”
“They’re kind of cute.” Himaya lifted out the littlest pot. Chili red, king coconut sunset, dots of ivory.
“You’re not going to hurt him, are you?” one of the girls asked.
“Here.” Lyam pulled his Double X out of his jeans pocket and handed it to Nishu. “Get a video of this.”
Nishu held the phone like a piece of glass. He stroked a finger lovingly across the screen. The icons moved with him, as though reading his mind along with his touch. When he tapped the camera button the world lit up—everyone and everything looked brighter on the screen, the glossiest version of themselves.
Nishu said. “Ready? Go.”
Lyam took careful aim but the chatti pot shattered inches from the tortoise’s ancient, starry shell. With practiced fingers Nishu zoomed in on Lyam’s hand plucking a second pot from the folds of tissue—green this time, painted to resemble a sun-dappled leaf in shifting shades of dark moss and young lime. On the screen it gave off a ghostly glow. Nishu tracked its movement, an arc through the air, the landing impact that sliced it clean in two. One shard shot into the far corner of the balcony, the other lolled to a halt in front of its target.
“You suck at this,” Himaya said but Lyam’s fingers were already grasping at a third piece of cannon fodder, a pink-and-white striped vessel, the largest in the collection.
Nishu focused the camera on Buddy. Like a curious old woman peeping out of her window, he thrust his head out from under his shell. Flying fish and falling clay did not faze him. With dark steady eyes he surveyed the shrapnel, then tentatively extended one scale-encrusted foot, as though to test the waters.
Himaya shrieked. Lyam laughed a lonely laugh that was picked up and swallowed by the Double X. It thrived on laughter, on memories. Fattened off them. The phone seemed to grow heavier in Nishu’s hand. Buddy was bright on the screen. Impervious to the commotion he had resumed his journey towards sustenance. He was close to eighty years old and had survived a war. Decades of human folly had passed over him, yet he remained much the same as his ancestors, who carried memories of millennia in their DNA. A pot broke beside him. Deep purple, the color of an eggplant. He navigated the wreckage, cut a path around it, kept going.
Kanya D’Almeida is a writer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She earned her MFA in Fiction at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. From 2010-2015 she worked for the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency, first as the United Nations Correspondent and then as Regional Editor for Asia and the Pacific. In 2016 she joined Rewire.News as the Race and Justice Reporter, covering reproductive justice issues across the United States. Her reporting has appeared on Al Jazeera, Truthout, and Alternet, among others.