Ru Freeman's debut novel chronicles the trials and travails of two Sri Lankan women and their pursuit of freedom. Orphaned then absorbed as a servant into a well-to-do Sri Lankan family at the age of five, Latha Kumari grows up in tandem with the family's spoiled young daughter, Thara. However, Latha's mysterious origins and ambiguous caste ensure her a future of unpaid servitude in the Vithanages's household. Resentful, she involves herself with the man meant for Thara. This choice ultimately causes her loss and suffering. Alongside Latha's story is that of Biso's, who is fleeing a drunken abusive husband, a murdered lover and townspeople who whisper "whore" as she walks past. Biso escapes blindly to the salvation and promise of distant relatives in the north, but her journey with her three children across the country is tainted by murder and terrorism. The kindness of strangers runs out, but the end of Biso's tragic journey will end up being the promise of Latha's future. Freeman illustrates contemporary Sri Lankan life through the battles waged between lovers, friends and strangers alike in this study in dignity, strength of character, tolerance and perseverance. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A Disobedient Girl: A Novelby Ru Freeman
SHE LOVED FINE THINGS, AND SHE HAD NO DOUBT THAT SHE DESERVED THEM. . . .
Young Latha knows that she was not meant to be a servant. She was born for finer things, like the rose-smelling soap she steals from the family she has worked for since she was five, or the glasses of fresh lime juice she helps herself to after a long day. But/i>/b>/i>/b>… See more details below
SHE LOVED FINE THINGS, AND SHE HAD NO DOUBT THAT SHE DESERVED THEM. . . .
Young Latha knows that she was not meant to be a servant. She was born for finer things, like the rose-smelling soap she steals from the family she has worked for since she was five, or the glasses of fresh lime juice she helps herself to after a long day. But the hard truth is that her life is tied to Thara, the family’s spoiled daughter, and for the next thirty years they grow up bound by love, betrayal, resentment, and an impossible secret.
Then there is Biso, a devoted mother of three, who risks everything to escape from her tyrannical husband. Though her journey begins with hope, she navigates a disastrous path that ultimately binds her story to Latha and Thara’s in the most unexpected and heartbreaking way.
Set against the volatile backdrop of class and prejudice in Sri Lanka, A Disobedient Girl is a bold and deeply moving tale about the will to survive and the incredible power of the human spirit to transcend the unforgiving sweep of tragedy.
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Meet the Author
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan writer whose political journalism and fiction has been published internationally. She lives in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
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She loved fine things and she had no doubt that she deserved them. That is why it had not felt like stealing when she'd helped herself to one of the oval cakes that were stacked in the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink in the main house. Who would care if one went missing from the seven sitting there, awaiting their turn in the rectangular ceramic soap dish bought at Lanka Tiles to match the new pale green bathroom towels? And, since she had been right and nobody had noticed, it was now a reliable source of luxury. When one wore out, which it didn't for several months, she simply fetched herself another.
Every day, at 3:30 pm, she cleaned her face, feet, underarms, and hands at the well, using one of those cakes of Lux, which, despite having escaped, undetected, with thieving, not daring to smell like flowers all day long, she reserved for this ritual. Every day the soap, pink and fragranced, filled her nostrils with the idea of roses. She had seen real roses only once. That had been when the Vithanages had taken her with them on a trip to the hill country one April. She had been five or six then, her second year with them, back when her duties had been few and blissfully pleasing. The hill country, with its lush, verdant cleanliness, the ice-cold brooks, and the famous Diyaluma waterfall, at whose foot she had stood as part of the family, all their faces sprayed with mist, wet with the tears that the particular slant of the falls, airbrushed water in slow motion, invariably brought on. After the falls, they had driven down for a picnic at the gardens in Hakgala, where the roses bloomed in such perfection that only their scentdistinguished them from the artificial creations sold in Colombo. From that day on, roses had become a delicious prospect -- a memory and a luxury blending together on her face, caressing her.
Today, as always, she felt sad as the relatively warm well water took the bubbles and the smell down the sloped pavement and evaporated both instantly between the blades of grass at her feet. She straightened up and looked off into the distance, smelling the tendrils of hair that hung long and wet down both sides of her face; she used her left hand to gather the strands nudging her right cheek, that being a more dramatic gesture, she thought, than using her right hand. This was the moment when, in her soggy state, she imagined herself into a teledrama, playing the role of the beautiful yet discarded maiden, surrounded by the soft aura of the virtuous wronged.
Next to the presence of finery, she also felt, quite strongly, that her life should unfold with a minimum of three square helpings of drama, as soul minding and body feeding as the plate of rice or bread she was given at each meal. The old well at the edge of the garden, which was used only for washing clothes and, in her case, for bathing, and which therefore she considered an extension of the spaces that belonged to her, was the perfect place to dwell on those fantasies and to populate them with characters propelled by passion, wrongdoing, and guts.
"Latha! Lathaaaaaaaaa!" That call was part of this late afternoon event too; the sound of Thara's voice calling her from the veranda, making sure that she hadn't gone without her. The maiden went the way of the soapy bubbles and Latha returned to being eleven years old again.
"Enava, Thara Baba!" After all this time, she still felt silly saying it. Baba. How could someone her own age be a baby? She picked up her tin bucket, the soap hidden beneath her washed underwear, and headed toward the house.
Thara met her halfway down the path.
"Can we go to that street again today?" she asked, linking arms with Latha.
"Aney, Thara Baba, I'm going to get into trouble because of you." She said it because she wanted to put a check mark in her head after the word tried. After all, who could fault her for being an accomplice to Thara's misdemeanors if she had tried to dissuade her? It was one of the first English words she had learned at school. Try! Try! And try again! The school principal still insisted that they chant this every morning, and though there were rumors that he sympathized with the people who wore red and marched with banners embroidered with the sickle and hammer on May Day, and that his job was a front for spreading a doctrine that encouraged his students to think themselves equal to the rich, and though all of that was considered dangerous and subversive, his message and, frankly, his possibly clandestine life resonated with Latha. She had resolved to follow her own interpretation of his creed: she might get it wrong, and she might get in trouble, but by god she would try to be better than she was. Next to her, Thara giggled happily; it was time for the flowers.
The flowers they picked from other people's gardens were various, and arranging them was Latha's specialty. She liked to get an assortment but favored the pastels. Rings of white vathu-suddha studded here and there with small-petaled yolk yellow araliya, her favorite flower. Sometimes, a small sprig of Ixora for a splash of red, even though the plant was considered poisonous to the mind by some who sounded like they knew these things; Soma, the old servant, for instance, with her faded clothes and neatly whittled hands that handled vegetables like pliant but precious gems, testing their firmness with a press of concave fingernails. Every now and again, if she was lucky, a fresh, new-blooming gardenia that needed nothing else, its perfume, its satin skin, its very existence enough of a reminder of highs and lows, being and death.
But lately it wasn't the flowers that Thara was after. It was the Boy. The Boy lived on the street that paralleled theirs, within the same Colombo 7 neighborhood. Thara had explained it all to Latha one day, checking off the necessary requirements on the fingers of one hand: race, religion, caste, school, looks. Of these, Thara cared about the last two. The other three were for her parents' benefit. Of course, the right address was the icing on the cake.
"Colombo Seven is best. Next is Colombo Three, Colpetty. After that...well, Colombo Five and then maybe, if everything else is absolutely perfect, even the money, then Colombo Six. Nothing else. Amma would never tolerate it, so why bother? Right? Right, Latha? Why bother? Might as well stick with the known crowd. I'd never go for a marriage proposal, so might as well bring home someone they can stand."
"What if the marriage proposal is better?" Latha had asked.
"How can it be? If they could find someone by themselves, would they ask a Kapuwa to do the work for them? No. Only uglets with cowcatcher teeth come calling with their mothers in tow, the matchmaker with his pointy black umbrella leading the way. Not for me. I'm going to find him for myself even if I have to grow old doing it."
Well, she had found him all right, and before her twelfth birthday, and living in the right kind of house to boot. Despite Latha's reservations, she had to approve of her young mistress's resolve and enterprise, and not only because Ajith came complete with a friend: Gehan. That was a bonus.
Gehan was probably destined to be one of those who would have to rely on a matchmaker to find himself a wife. Latha felt certain of that. He had none of Ajith's grace or good looks, none of that air of knowing his place in the world. He was a hanger-on, and completely ordinary. Latha was sure she had passed by him dozens of times on her treks to the stalls that bordered the cricket grounds to buy mangoes seasoned with chili and salt from the street vendors. Yes, he had been there, buying pineapples, or maybe olives. He looked like an olive eater. Her mouth watered as she imagined the taste of a boiled green olive, the vinegar and spice orchestrating its small earthquake on her tongue. She could see him spitting the seeds onto the sidewalk. Not like Ajith and Thara, or even herself; they all knew how to get rid of pits discreetly. She sighed. Well, no matter, they came as a pair, and Gehan would always be available whenever Ajith was, and she was hardly likely to find a romantic interest anywhere else, no matter how deserved that outcome would be.
"Want to try stealing today?" Thara had asked her the day they found the Boy.
"Chee! I can't steal!"
"Come on, it's more fun," Thara begged.
"No, baba, I can't let you do that," Latha said. "It's a sin. How can we pray with stolen flowers?"
"Why not? If everything must come to an end and die, then how is a stolen flower different from any other flower?" Thara practiced her latest coquetry, shaking her head from side to side so her shoulder-length ponytails whipped the sides of her cheeks. Latha's hair came down in waves, and she thought it was prettier than Thara's, but Mrs. Vithanage, Thara's mother, had insisted that Latha wear hers in tight plaits. Sometimes she practiced the cheek whip when nobody was home but it never looked the way it did for Thara, whose straight, silky hair brushed her face like it loved it. When Latha tried it, her hair, thick and heavy, refused to cooperate, hanging down the sides of her face and making her look like the bad women in the teledramas, the ones whom the village ostracized or husbands left their wives for. She consoled herself then by noting that they got a lot more screen time than the good women with smooth, broad foreheads who parted their hair in the middle and never changed styles.
"In fact," Thara continued, "it's a better flower to offer. It reminds us that there is evil in life, nothing can last, and we must remain unmoved by these things."
"But shouldn't we remember what the priest said about not stealing? What about the five precepts?" Latha asked, trying again.
"Why do you want to bring the precepts into this? We're just talking about the flowers." Thara flung up her hands. The bangles she put on in the evenings went tinkling down her thin forearms and gathered at the joints in her elbows. She cocked her arms and shook the bangles down to her wrists again. She looked funny doing that, like a chicken flapping its wings. Latha smiled just a little. They must look like sisters standing face-to-face like that, except for their feet, one set smooth and sandaled, the other ashy and slippered. And the bangles, of course. Latha didn't own any bangles. Her eyes followed the movement of Thara's arms, staying one jingle behind the narrow circles of glass. Finally Thara stopped, her fists dug into her waist, waiting for a response.
"But if we steal the flowers, then we're breaking the precepts! There is a right way to get flowers and a wrong way to do it." This was Latha's last try.
"There is no right and wrong, and precepts are for fools. Everything is just as it is! And we must experience things without condemning them, because if we condemn them, then we're becoming too involved. That's what I think the priest meant when he talked about it last Sunday at temple."
"I don't understand all these things." Latha shook her head and looked miserably at her empty siri-siri bag, fiddling with it and causing it to make the soft tissuey squeak that gave it its name.
Thara pushed out her lips and scratched a mosquito bite on her chin. Suddenly, she grinned. "How about this? The flower must remain unmoved by being stolen or being picked with permission, or even by dying! We can remember that as we recite our prayers this evening if you like," she said, her cajoling beginning to wear Latha down. "Besides, it would be quicker."
Thara was right about that bit at least. Half the time when they went flower gathering, they would have to leave because nobody was home to ask, even when there were so many blooms on some bushes that the owners would never have noticed it if they had picked a few on their way out. Besides, wouldn't they be creating merit for the owners by using their flowers for prayers? Latha squared her shoulders and nodded.
"Hanh ehenang," she said, relenting.
The first three houses were easy. There were no gates and, more important, no dogs. But the fourth presented a series of problems, the largest of which was a grandmother moving around, albeit slowly, in the house. They watched her for a few minutes, hidden from view behind a short and somewhat prickly hedge.
"Hopefully she's deaf," Thara said. Latha suppressed a giggle. She felt a warm, pleasant excitement gather between her legs, like wanting to pee and never being able to pee again, both at the same time. She clutched Thara's arm.
"I'll keep watch, baba, you get the flowers," Latha said, warming to this new sensation brought on by good intentions and bad behavior.
"No, you pick them and I'll keep an eye on the old cow." Thara shoved Latha away from her and onto the gravel driveway. Latha scurried across it and pasted herself against the trunk of the araliya tree. But the very characteristics that made it so lovely to have in a garden -- the low, spread-apart branches; the thick, large, moisture-rich leaves; the bunches of waxy yellow blossoms -- all these ensured that it provided very little cover for an eleven-year-old girl in a bright blue, puff-sleeved dress. It was a tree meant for lovemaking, a leaning tree, not a tree for hiding from grandmothers.
"Kawda?" The voice was at once beseeching and nasty. The old lady, dressed in a housecoat of indefinite hue and cut, was at the window, shading her eyes and peering into the garden. The pee began to leak into Latha's underwear. Tears threatened to start up top. Thara was gesticulating wildly from behind the hedge, mouthing a word Latha could not understand. Run? Come? Maybe she was just gaping. After one last and somewhat manic series of gesticulations, Thara grimaced at Latha and stepped out from behind the bushes. She walked boldly to the front door and rang the bell. It had a tinny, high-pitched sound, entirely at odds with the dimensions of the soaring pillars and beams that made up the house, built in the style of a Walauwwa. The Boy opened the door before the bell stopped ringing and grinned at her.
Latha was just about to step out from her ineffectual hiding place when she heard the sly, teasing hiss behind her. And that was how she met Gehan.
"So how many of those flowers are stolen?"
"Naa...api...," she said, looking somewhere off to the right of his left shoulder but instantly aware of everything about him: that his blue-checked shirt was the same color as her dress; that he wore khaki shorts and Bata slippers, like hers; that his hair stood up on end along the path where he had just run his hand through it, like a sculpture; that he was very brown, browner even than she became during cricket season, when she and Thara climbed the roof of their house to watch the games. One more thing: he was wiry and elongated, like a reedy plant reaching for sunlight through dense shrubs; everything concentrated on the upward journey, just the barest of threads for roots.
"Don't worry, I won't tell. I'll even pick a few more for you. Look. Here, take these."
Why did he have to pick the entire bunch? She always made it a point to pick only the blooms. She couldn't stop herself: "Aiyyo! Don't pick the buds! You're wasting the flowers!"
"You're wasting the flowers!" he mimicked. "So what? There are at least two hundred on this tree, and tomorrow, two hundred more!"
Latha frowned at the bunch he had picked in its entirety off the tree: her favorite flowers, in all their golden sun-and-moon beauty. He wouldn't put them down but continued to hold them in his outstretched hand. He looked ridiculous: a romantic hero without the face or manner for it. Milky white sap was dripping onto his dusty slippers. There was dirt under his toenails. He shuffled his feet under her stare. She sighed and took the offering, stooping to rub the stem in the dirt to stop the bleeding.
She turned to go, then paused. "Thank you," she said, over her shoulder, pouting her mouth as she said it. He smiled and she felt happy; perhaps he had not guessed that she was a servant. She tried to ape Thara's confidence as she walked over to join her at the door.
Thara's voice brought her back to the present.
"Come, Latha! Let's go before Amma gets home!" Thara shouted as she ran to get their bags for the day's picking.
"Just give me a minute to change my dress. I'll meet you by the gate."
Thara stopped running and turned around. "Change your dress? What are you changing your dress for? That one looks fine."
"But I've been helping Soma nenda in the kitchen and it smells like curries and anyway it's wet now," she said.
"It'll dry as we walk and nobody's going to smell you after all so what's the point of changing?"
"I'll meet you by the gate," she said, and ran away before Thara could argue. She went into the storeroom where she slept, between the padlocked haal pettiya full of dry goods and spices and the barrel full of unhusked rice, and she put her soap away on the wooden shelf next to her mat, hiding it carefully behind an old Vesak card with a picture of the Sri Maha Bodhiya on the front. She spread her towel and wet clothes on the rack near the door. Then she climbed on a low bench and took her blue dress off the coir rope where she had hung it to air after the last time. If she was going to get in trouble, she wasn't about to let Thara bully her about her dress.
She slipped on the thin leather slippers that had once belonged to somebody, a relative of Thara's who was a schoolteacher, she imagined; they were that kind -- flat, unflattering, and noisy. They were a size too big for her, and she had to grip them with her toes when she walked, but at least they were not her old rubber slippers, at least they made her feel dressed up. She checked the picture of the English princess that she had cut out of the newspaper and pasted inside one of her exercise books. Latha had taken to the princess afresh since she'd read in the accompanying article that she had been a nobody and a nanny who looked after other people's children before she decided to become a princess instead. Having confirmed that, indeed, the look she had been practicing, peering out with her chin tucked but her eyes uplifted, had been properly copied, Latha stepped out. Then she went back into the storeroom and lightly stroked the still-moist surface of her soap. She rubbed the tips of her fingers on her wrist, then rubbed her wrists together like she had seen Thara do when she wore her mother's perfume.
Now she was ready.
Copyright © 2009 by Ruvani Seneviratne Freeman
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