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Already hailed as “intricate and compelling” by the Times Literary Supplement, The Sandglass is a striking novel by Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera, a 1994 Booker Prize finalist for his first novel, Reef.
Set in London where the Sri Lankan narrator lives, The Sandglass tells the story of two feuding families whose lives are interlinked by the changing fortunes of postcolonial Sri Lanka. In a beautifully constructed work that moves back and forth between two physical and ...
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Already hailed as “intricate and compelling” by the Times Literary Supplement, The Sandglass is a striking novel by Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera, a 1994 Booker Prize finalist for his first novel, Reef.
Set in London where the Sri Lankan narrator lives, The Sandglass tells the story of two feuding families whose lives are interlinked by the changing fortunes of postcolonial Sri Lanka. In a beautifully constructed work that moves back and forth between two physical and temporal poles, Gunesekera brings to life Prins Ducal and his search for answers about his family’s past in Sri Lanka, including his father’s rise to wealth, rivalry with the Vatunas family, and a suspect death—a mystery that further unfolds upon Prins’s arrival in London for his mother’s funeral.
Weaving together themes of memory, exile, and postcolonial upheaval, Gunesekera has written a book Marie Claire calls “utterly engaging. . . . Romantic, mysterious, and laced with a sense of yearning. . . . A heady mix of 1990s London and postwar Sri Lanka.”
Furthermore, Gunesekera's new novel, The Sandglass is a story that's as much about London where Gunesekera now lives as it is about Sri Lanka. The year is 1993, and Prins Ducal, a middle-aged Sri Lankan hotel entrepreneur, arrives for the funeral of his mother, Pearl, who left Sri Lanka nearly 40 years before, after the death of her husband, Jason. In London, Pearl was befriended by Chip, the book's self-effacing narrator, a rootless Sri Lankan. As they prepare for the funeral service, Prins and Chip try to make sense of the Ducals' knotty family history, exchanging stories that Prins only dimly recalls and that Chip has been fed over the years by Pearl as she sat in her small, yellowing flat, knitting and watching old movies on TV.
As the novel unfolds, we learn of the Ducals' long-standing rivalry with the Vatunas family, and of old Esra Vatunas' shady business dealings, designed to prevent Jason Ducal from acquiring a local distillery. At the center of this web of stories is Jason's suspicious death in 1956 -- officially an accident -- a mystery that Prins is determined to solve. Meanwhile, Prins and Chip trace the fates of the various Ducal and Vatunas offspring, as they have drifted through the ruins of a Sri Lanka devastated by relentless civil war.
The melancholy that merely colored Gunesekera's earlier work, the story collection Monkfish Moon and the novel Reef, threatens to overwhelm The Sandglass, so preoccupied are Prins and the narrator with making sense of ultimately unknowable mysteries. Why did Jason die? What do Pearl's life and death mean? Where is "home" for the men and women who hover between a Sri Lanka that no longer exists and an England far from the fictional universe of Pearl's beloved Father Brown mysteries? "You know, nothing really fits," exclaims Prins. "It all pretends to fit, like someone has constructed it all for us to see exactly how the thing works, but really it is done to hide everything. To lead us completely in the wrong direction." Gunesekera might have leavened these existential musings with a defter blend of comedy, as he did in the perfectly realized Reef -- his masterpiece to date. Still,The Sandglass remains a heartbreaking and exquisite novel, wise to both the tragedies and absurdities of the modern condition. -- Oct. 1, 1998
The story of the feuding Ducal and Vatunas families is narrated by Chip, himself a Sri Lankan who immigrated in 1975 to London (where he lived in Pearl Ducal's apartment). A year after Pearl's death, Chip, in Sri Lanka on business, is anxious to catch up with Pearl's son Prins, whom he suspects has gone into hiding for fear of his life. Cutting back first to the previous year, when Prins flew to London for his mother's funeral, Chip continues afterward moving back and forth through time and place as he tells what he learned or intuited of a story beginning back in the 1930s, when Pearl married Jason Ducal. Jason turned out to be an astute businessman, but when he bought his dream house—next to the Vatunas family's compound—the Ducal family's troubles began: Esra, the Vatunas patriarch, conspired to undercut a business venture of Jason's and was probably responsible for his murder in 1956; Esra's son Tivoli may have been Pearl's lover; and his grandson Dino seemed determined to block Prins' marriage to Lola Vatunas, Dino's daughter, and tried to deter Prins' efforts to discover who killed Jason.
As Pearl hints in deathbed reminiscences and in letters found afterward, living near the Vatunasfamily permanently blighted the Ducals' lives. Elegiac in mood and rich in evocations of character and setting, a novel that gracefully limns the origins of a domestic—and national—tragedy.
|VI||Quarter to Five||126|
`Is she really dead?' Prins stared at me, his breath wreathing in the frosty air outside my front door.
I clasped his arm and embraced him awkwardly, `I'm sorry.' His blue shoulders seemed padded with ice. I ushered him in.
He blinked under the hall light.
`You OK?' I didn't know what else to say.
`You know, I took a taxi straight to the crematorium. It was freezing. My mouth was dry. I thought I was late. But, thank God, I could see a crowd still waiting to go in. I headed straight for the middle thinking who are all these yakkoes? I didn't recognize a single face around me.' Prins spoke with bewildering speed, clutching the banister in the hallway.
`Why suddenly swoop here, all making the place even grimmer with those dark polypropylene half-wool winter coats? Those heaps of shapeless bloody Kashmir shrouds. They were beginning to stir with anticipation, but I kept thinking: Where is Chip -- you? Or anyone I might know? What has been going on these last dozen years? What the hell has the old girl been up to? Reviving Sheba's court?' He widened his eyes in disbelief. `Then this small man with gold spectacles tugs my sleeve, "Excuse me, are you friend or relative?"
`"Relative," I say. "I am the son, Prins."
`The fellow jumps back, startled. "Oh, I see." He looks around for help but by then the whole bloody crowd has vanished. "The other relatives are inside," he stammers, "but nobody said anything about Dr Viswanathan's son ..."'
Prins shoved his big hand up in the air. `"Who the hell is Dr Viswanathan?" And the fellow whispers, "the deceased."
`"What about my mother?"
`"Your mother?" he says.
`"Jesus bloody Christ! Where is my mother? She is meant to be here. Dead. What the hell is going on?"
`Next second the bugger had bolted into the crematorium like someone had lit a fuse up his arse.' Prins shook his head from side to side in exasperation.
`There I am, hatless, tieless, coatless, frigorific in the pol-polar wind and surrounded by a forest of bare bloody saplings commemorating everyone in London but her. I felt like a damn fool. The whole thing seemed a stupid joke. And if it was true, maybe I should have gone to the cemetery in Colombo -- Kanatta -- by the golf course and meditated. Or played putt. Or just got plastered.'
`But the funeral is not until Friday,' I managed to interject.
`So I discovered, but on Naomi's fax the 19 looked like a 17. Today.' He glared defiantly.
`The funeral will be on the 19th,' I confirmed. `Friday at nine o'clock.'
`I know. I've got to fly back the same night.'
Prins had tried calling Naomi, his niece, at his mother's flat several times but there had been no answer. The first fax she had sent about Pearl's death was indecipherable and the second, with the date of the funeral, was smudged and had no reply number. He had tried to get hold of me but my answering machine had run out of tape. He had to work out what had happened. It had been a rush then to catch a plane in time. He had tried Naomi again from the cemetery but had had no success. `As your phone was now engaged I reckoned you, at least, must be home.'
I said I was between assignments. I didn't say I had been calling my office to extend my leave because I couldn't face going back to work so soon after Pearl's death. `Anyway, you're here now.'
He peered at the mirror on the wall next to him. `It was a hellava journey -- all the direct flights were fully booked -- but I managed to get into a VIP lounge at the last stop: you can get really spruced up in those, you know. Shit, shave and shower all in one go. But the damn tie, I lost.' He pulled at the collar under his long jaw. He still had the face of an agitated ram, but he'd become greyer in the two years since I'd last seen him. That was in Sri Lanka, in 1991, the first time I had been back since I came to England. Prins had gone back to live there nearly ten years earlier when he'd chucked his striped shirts and kitsch-links in a black bin-liner for Oxfam and set off to find his true self in the sun. `My destiny is not in this place,' he had grumbled, aping Marion Brando. It was easy in those days to have heroes who were not like us, to borrow icons even as we smashed our own. Now with about every tenth hair turned silver he looked as if he lived permanently under moonlight. But his gaberdine blazer and brushed-cotton trousers, with their fine glacial sheen, made him look as though he was going yachting in the Mediterranean instead of to his mother's funeral; the outfit was the warmest he could find at home.
`I feel so cold and hungry. Everything is almost out-of-control, you know. Like I've misread the road signs but not quite let go of the wheel.' Prins moved his hands on an imaginary steering wheel. `What'll happen if I go hirivatuna and let go?' A shiver shook his body as he stretched, tilting his face: a misbegotten coconut tree in search of the sun.
`Where's your stuff? Don't you have a suitcase or anything?'
`We are very modern in Colombo now, you know: carry only plastic -- like our smart-ass politicos. Otherwise they think you are packing a bomb.' All he had was a small black bag on his shoulder which I hadn't even noticed before. `I knew I'd have to dash for a taxi and go straight to the crematorium. Couldn't lug a suitcase there anyway, could I?'
I took Prins into the kitchen and gave him a bowl of bran muesli. Wednesday morning, ten o'clock. Simon & Garfunkel were on the radio. I made coffee. Prins said he felt as if he was back in his mother's kitchen twelve years ago: golden oldies, Pearl pouring coffee. But the Pearl he remembered was rather different from the one I had come to know.
I felt a little apprehensive. I didn't know how Prins would react to me now, back in London: to my closeness to Pearl, made possible only by his absence, by my not being one of her children, perhaps by my not having a mother to call on. But I was the one who was there, willing to share the reality of her words and peek into another world.
On the side of the dresser behind him, above the telephone, I had pinned my only photograph of Pearl. A snapshot from before I was born. I had never got round to framing it properly. A drift of mauvish fluff and dust had collected on the curled-up corners. I wiped the photograph on my sleeve and slipped it into the drawer underneath the stack of telephone directories.
I first met Pearl when I came to London in the autumn of 1975.
I had left Sri Lanka some years before but still had no place of my own. Not having a job at the time, I had borrowed some money and travelled to London determined to live out what was perhaps a misplaced but youthful dream. Staying with Pearl, at 52b Almeida Avenue, made it possible. She had a spare room because Prins -- her elder son -- had gone to Oldham on a ten-month stint learning to sell woollen yarn. His younger brother, Ravi, was living with Pearl but he tended to lock himself away in the darkest bedroom of the flat.
Most evenings during that first cold year I would sit on a brown leatherette armchair opposite Pearl, sipping sherry and listening to her stories, while she knitted shawls or cardigans on the sofa, between scenes of vintage movies and episodes of Kojak on TV. Even then I was looking for a way to shape my life in the wake of her own effervescent trail. Pearl, then Prins, became the cardinal points for my uncertain identity.
`The trouble started when he got that tomfool idea into his head about owning a house,' Pearl put down her knitting needles and patted her lips lightly, as if to coax out one of the mischievous phrases with which she used to mock the priggish English of her childhood. `What for owning an inchy-pinchy graveyard, I ask you? But that man was so desperate for his own dung heap, he thought of nothing else.'
He was her husband, Jason Ducal.
Pearl would recount the story of those early days with such candour that I felt I was there with her, an invisible eavesdropper in the twilight of a camphoric age.
Pearl had been brought up almost in quarantine, in houses with acres of empty space; but they were never houses owned by her parents. Her father, a doctor, had moved from place to place trying to give help wherever it was needed. He had died in the malaria epidemic of 1935. Her mother had been a victim of the disease earlier, but Pearl never spoke about her -- except to give me her name, Sikata, and say that as a result her father always found a house with clean sea or mountain air for his only child. Pearl grew up revelling in Father Brown mysteries and English romances under mango trees in secluded gardens. Other people entered her world only through the surgery door: vulnerable, hurt people seeking a bit of help in their struggle to survive from one day to the next.
That was why Jason had seemed so fascinating when he arrived at their house. He had no obvious afflictions or injuries. `He didn't look ill,' she would say with real surprise in her voice. He rode a bicycle and acted as though he belonged in a Russian play. He would arrive riding with just one finger on the handlebar and a flower in his other hand. While his contemporaries swotted night and day for their future status in a ramshackle empire, Jason spoke enchantingly about the need for beauty, and the transmigration of souls. `But there was never any boru-part about him, you know. I have to say.' Pearl would shake her head in admiration, even after all these years. `No, not in those early days. Never, I guess. He was sincere. He didn't put on airs like the rest of them,' she sighed. She was young then. She had believed in Jason and his sparkling bicycle, his neatly plucked flower, his deliciously heady words. She married him for romance, she said, but Jason, it seems, quickly came to feel that he needed to replenish her world with the accoutrements of her late father's home: a sideboard, bookshelves, a garden, rather than simply with a good doctor's flair.
All the months of their courtship he had been so debonair. `He'd recite poems to me, you know, real poems. And sometimes we would walk together in the evening by the sea and he would tell me about the stars and Venus, "The eye of love in the sky".' She had been impressed by the way he could brush away the cares of the world and simply look into her face; enter her almost, through her eyes, like a smile lodged somewhere between her throat and her heart. But that ability to be inside her without even touching her had disappeared after the wedding, as if physically entering her that first night made it impossible for him to ever reach her any other way. Pearl was concerned that she did not become pregnant immediately, in the way that she had been led to expect by her father's abbreviated biology lessons. `I felt it was my fault that it had not happened right away,' she giggled, `some instinctive technique which I missed out, you know, that would have released an egg like a ping ball, at the same-same instant that he sprung his sperm.' Jason had seemed disillusioned.
Each successive day after the wedding he became more and more obsessed with finding something that would launch their lives into a richer orbit. He ridiculed the examination system for public service and bemoaned his lost opportunities with the professions. He became determined to break the mould and breach Colombo's foreign mercantile sector. All signs of levity evaporated. `You'd think our wedding had triggered a mission.' She couldn't understand the transformation. `What was this urge? I used to ask myself, this urge to go out? Why was he not there with me all the time, while I was still in such a state over my father's death?' Pearl would look at me as if the answer was lodged in my head. But she was the one who knew everything, not me. Jason Ducal was a man of no means. Although Pearl's father had provided for her, before donating the rest of his small estate to a hospice, Jason had no money of his own. And, after his marriage, this seemed to have troubled him greatly.
Before the end of their first year of marriage, in 1936, Jason had secured a unique position with Sanderson Bros., a relatively new British firm in Colombo dealing with tea, shipping and the regular cosseting of an ageing empire. It was a coup. No Ceylonese had ever before penetrated this last bastion of British colonial conservatism, not at the level he did. `The only brownskins before him had been peons and clerks,' Pearl sniffed. The firm, at the time, was exceptionally prescient; it recognized the need to ride the wave of nationalism sweeping the island and develop local managers, cultivate the indigenous elite and turn itself into a genuine Ceylonese entity before the inevitable transfer of power. While other British firms rubbished all talk of Ceylonization, Sanderson Bros. had cautiously welcomed the idea; they were prepared to experiment. Jason convinced the senior partners that he was the man who would show them the future and they appointed him to an executive position that baffled all the gazetteers of the annual Ceylon Directory. `"Who is this squirt?" The planters at the Hill Club were thoroughly miffed,' Pearl added with pleasure. But neither Jason nor Pearl quite realized how much of a turning point his appointment would prove to be.
`He was grinning like mad, the day he got that job. I don't know what he did to get it, but he could pour on the charm when he wanted to back then.' Pearl sucked in her lips, hiding them in her mouth. `I was happy to see him happy, but when I tried to kiss him, he pulled away. He wanted to talk. It was the last time he really wanted to talk. He hadn't even got to the office yet, and already he was dreaming of his house. "A proper house of out own, with a garden," you know.'
`They gave a house?' I asked.
`No, not like that. He was the first kaluwa, no? In those firms only the British were given houses. But he saw how one day owning a house might be possible for folk like us. His face was so bright with hope. He was determined to make it on his own, unlike all those other Colombo dimbats with their creepy ancestors and shady money.'
Jason proved to be an extraordinary success at the firm. He quickly rose to a position which involved him in frequent excursions around the island. `He was invaluable to the Raj-barge who didn't know what to do about all the Trades Union business and the new politics. So while that Bracegirdle chappie, the Commie, was fighting against deportation to Australia in that famous case before the war, Jason put in for a passage to England and got it.' But the travel was, as always, two-edged. On the one hand his absence put their home on a precipice; on the other hand Pearl was able to go with him. The trip to England changed her life forever. She loved to talk about that journey as though it was the true culmination of their earlier courtship.
There is only one photograph of the two of them together from that time. On the back is the caption `1938' and below that, rather more meticulously, `Jason & Pearl'. Pearl is looking at Jason, but Jason is looking straight into the camera lens like a slightly camp model. Displayed in his hand is an envelope emblazoned with the words `AIR MAIL', the latest postal service, presumably with the details of their tour abroad. Pearl first told me about that trip after we watched The Thirty-Nine Steps on TV. She had come with Jason by ship to spend two months in England and Scotland early in the summer of 1938. `We took a train just like Hannay, but Scotland was nothing like as bleak as they made it look. It was wonderful. Iain met us at the other end and took us around.'
`They filmed it in Ireland pretending it was Scotland -- a bit of Hitchcock's artistic licence plus the usual financial motive,' I offered as justification. `Who was Iain?'
`Iain Stevenson. A senior partner. Jason was his protege. He was on furlough also. Imagine us on furlough. Pretending to go home from home. But Iain was a wonderful, kind man. He was the one who gave Jason a taste for real malt whisky. He took us to his favourite distillery on Speyside. Jason loved it: the idea of being a connoisseur or whatever. And then there was the golf.'
He had taken them to St Andrews. `I got a birdie,' Pearl beamed. `At that stage I was a better golfer than Jason, you know. He was as jerky as a chicken wing; his swing was flatter than a Bambalapitiya cheesecake. But I gave it up because he would get so upset. Iain taught him first, and he taught me just for fun.'
`You gave up?' I couldn't imagine Pearl giving anything up without a fight.
She turned away and looked out through the summer-glazed windows freckled with the soft grey rain she was so fond of. `They wanted to be champions, you know. Always playing the boys' game. Later we had Ladies' sections and all, but to tell you the truth, I found the clubby life back home a little vulgar. Non-stop innuendo.' I could imagine the belly laughs, the loud jokes about improbably high arcs sprinkling the greens. `Iain was the only real gentleman out of that rum lot.'
Iain Stevenson came from Aberdeen, but had lived in Ceylon for more than half his life. `He had a lovely face,' Pearl said. The skin around his eyes was crinkly as though he was smiling all the time. The effect of twenty years of squinting against the sun, measuring a shadow as it tried to break away from the past. `He loved golf. He played it almost every day. Any time he was within striking distance of some kind of a course. Sometimes a handful of holes dotted around a Mahawamsa ruin, with anthills for bunkers and bathing ponds for water hazards. Sometimes just the potted garden of the GA -- the Government Agent. Golf was like a religion for him,' Pearl explained.
Iain Stevenson had lent Jason his sports car so that they could see more of his native Scotland and then take their time driving back to London. It was a summer of gathering clouds in Europe, but for Pearl it seemed to have been a rare moment of bliss. `We had a hoot,' Pearl would chuckle. `Jason loved that Triumph. We would go topless -- no roof you understand -- come rain or shine.'
`What, getting wet?'
`It was a Triumph, Chip putha,' Pearl whistled, `we'd go like the wind.'
For my birthday she gave me one of the photographs from that trip in 1938. `Here,' she peeled it out of the album. `You are the only one who likes looking at these now.' There were about thirty photographs meticulously mounted with silver corners. All taken by Jason. The one Pearl gave me is of her sitting in the open roadster, looking a little grumpy despite the attention that Jason seems to be lavishing on her from behind the lens. Pearl looks as if she wants to smile, to beam back, but a small doubt in her mind has cut the threads to her cheeks. Perhaps it was the car that Jason adored. You could see she couldn't tell. Jason, she seemed to be insisting, tell me you love me. Jason was always handling the camera and seems to have fancied himself as an artist. There were no photos of him from that trip. His only image was the imprint of his eye; the frame he wrapped around the world of his Triumph, his young wife, and his pleasure.
`That was near Hyde Park, I think. We had been to see the horses on Rotten Row. In the evening, I remember, he bought me roses. We had dinner at Simpsons where I wore my fanciest Manipuri sari.' In her yellow Almeida Avenue sitting room Pearl loved to describe this exotic past of hers to me as though it were the ordinary precursor to any immigrant life. Always bright and brimful with none of the sooty drabness offered by the sourer reflections of those times.
`It was before that Munich, you know,' she would say as if hers had been an innocent world. She never had to face the true terrors of war, but even so her world gained its own sorrows. Experience more sober, more sombre. Tougher. Harder. Poorer. Sadder than she could ever have expected. But when she spoke, it seemed as though she felt life could be controlled to run in certain patterns whatever its trials. As though when life was going downhill it was only gathering speed for some stupendous leap to come. A life after Jason.
I asked her what had happened to Iain Stevenson. `Did he stay on?'
`Scotland was the place he dreamed about. He left Colombo and came back here in the fifties.'
`Is he still around?'
`No,' she shook her head wistfully. `He died in a terrible accident by Loch Linnhe. He had just bought a beautiful brand new blue MG.'
I asked her when that had happened.
`Oh, long ago. That was in 1957. A year after Jason. You would have been just a boy.'
Pearl's first child, Prins's sister Anoja, was born prematurely. Pearl said she was sure the baby was conceived on the ship the night before they slid back into Colombo harbour. `I got the technique right when I heard the Captain talk about berth lamps.' Pearl looked at me out of the corner of her eye, ready to burst out laughing. She must have kicked her husband in harder than ever before that last night, right up into her womb, to make the difference. `It seemed so right, to come back bearing the ultimate wedding gift, even if it was only a gift for me. A loan.' Pearl's expression changed and a slight tremor touched her lower lip.
`But, you know, Anoja was never a happy child. Even as a baby she was so droopy. Jason would complain her eyes were so unknowing. That she never smiled.' Anoja seemed to have made Jason curiously unhappy in those early years, despite his growing commercial success. Perhaps because he felt helpless against the sorrow of the world that would seep into her new life and drown its innocence.
`But he wouldn't smile either,' Pearl complained. `I kept telling him, Don't frighten the baba with that guli-guli look of yours.'
In her first years, the baby -- Anoja -- would spend most of her time on her own or with a succession of gloomy, wizened ayahs. Each introducing an even darker sense of doom and desperation from their own doleful lives into her precarious existence. `You know, Chip putha, I was so young in those days. I just let her grow. She didn't make any fuss, you see. She was happy to jus' be. And I was so preoccupied with what was happening to my Jason: the transformation of the man.'
Jason put all his energy into his work. He was promoted swiftly to fill the vacancies left by the more disillusioned British executives in the firm who could not understand the need for any form of Ceylonization. The ones who preferred to return to a Britain stumbling from financial crisis to war than oversee a loss of what Pearl called their `prissy privileges'. Every month when Jason came back from touring the estates in the hill country he would find he had been given new responsibilities, and risen higher up the firm. `The colour ceilings, bars and walls' -- as Pearl quipped -- crumbled in the face of the need to fill vacancies quickly against local competitors. With each change came more travel and more involvement for Jason; more distance from Pearl and Anoja. But all the time the possibility of buying his own dream-house was also becoming more real.
Throughout the war years the firm was quietly overhauled; by the time of full national Independence, Sanderson Bros. had been completely reformed and had a Board of a different hue, completely confounding the ideas of commercial identity -- what made a firm the same when practically everything about it had changed? -- hitherto accepted as the norm in the comfortable mercantilist society of a colonial island.
Then, in the heady rush of 1948, while the pundits argued about the colours of a free flag, Jason Ducal bought a house where no Ducal before him had ever dreamed of owning one. It was in one of the more desirable parts of Colombo. `But,' Pearl wrinkled up her nose, `the only problem was that it bordered the land of the Vatunas family.'
The land of the Vatunases was the result of a deep and intense relationship between the sleeping earth and the ambitions of a line of modern dynasts. And for the Vatunases, from the first to the last, land defined everything: the shape of their lives, the shape of their bodies and their heads and the shape of their dreams. Jason did not realize it at first -- he was too unknowing -- but in purchasing this house he was buying into a form of destiny that would infect his own life and that of all the Ducals, including Pearl, her daughter Anoja, and her sons Ravi and Prins, with the disease of the landed.
`Funnily enough the house he bought had belonged to an Englishman, you know. The land itself was originally plain old Vatunas land, but the plot had been sold to one Captain Melrose who then built the house. He called it Arcadia.' Pearl said that Captain Melrose had always been regarded as eccentric even among his own people and had built the house as a kind of homage to a suppurating colonial dream: the dream of a voyage of adventure. The way she described it, the master bedroom seemed to lie at one end, close to the road, as if in the forecastle of an amphibian slouching towards the sea. A Captain's study had been built above it with a ship's bridge which served as a balcony. `The whole of the rest of the house went glug-glug-glug down from there.' A magnified tear.
`Jason loved that wretched house.' Pearl plucked at some stray wool on her lap. `He loved going up to the bridge early in the evening; feeling that he was high and still rising, up to his hidey-hole of rejuvenating dreams. A place of no vail. The day could be left behind him and he could find a centre to his sense of himself.' Jason seemed to have become a true colonial: a man obsessed with place and status -- geographical and social. Only once assured of his own place in the murkiness of the universe could he bring order and shape to life around him. Without him, he seemed to believe, there would be no order. Nothing would work. Pearl also seemed to subscribe to this view of the world. `For him to work his magic, he needed the boost of a couple of hops upwards to a place of his own.'
From her words I formed a picture of his study: a vast wicker chair, sensations settling down like motes in sea-ionized air. Jason closing his eyes to calm the chemical and molecular agitation of his heart. The sound of the town receding and his ears filling with the hiss of his own being; the planes of light and substance melting, and slowly the shape of his life condensing into the mood of the present. Then, when it was clear to him that all was well, Jason would emerge refreshed.
`No one else was ever allowed to pry up there,' Pearl frowned at the recollection. `One time a cousin of Jason's came with a young boy, Baresh, who was mad about ships. He had a sailor's cap. The father was quite excited about Jason's ridiculous house and let the little fellow run upstairs to the bridge. Jason got into such a state he almost threw the little boy down the stairs. But Baresh came back, you know, like a cork, when he was older. But by then it was on account of Anoja.'
I could see Pearl as a young mother: She is on the veranda brushing her first-born daughter's hair, watching the air turn to metal in the dying sun. She sinks her nose into her child's hair to breathe in the heat of her life and to hope for luck.
`There was something really very queery about that house. I could sense his need for it, but I could not share it. The whole garden felt creepy, as if the edges harboured something malign.'
She said she felt reluctant to challenge Jason's well-being with her unease, but she knew she did not want to die in this house of his. `I could feel something pushing me or pulling me out of his Arcadia. But looking at Jason, I could see that he felt the opposite. He wanted that house to be his whole life: the place where he would die.' The incompatibility still disturbed her.
`I don't know what I saw. Sometimes I feel I have blundered so many times, nothing matters any more. But how Jason became such a success in that firm is a mystery to me. I never expected him to become anything like that. He was so full of books. He talked about Coriolanus and the myth of Sisyphus. For me he had something of Mr Jeyaratnam about him, the only man-teacher I ever had. But that job at Sanderson Bros. changed everything. No more bicycle, no more books. Only his work, which he hid behind closed doors. Always shutting doors, closing things. It began to get on my nerves, actually.'
The scene unfolded in my mind. A Friday evening, in the hottest month of the year: Jason is closing the bedroom door after his bath. Pearl waiting on the Veranda, starts.
`Why shut that rickety-tick door?'
Jason stops and looks at her.
`Always you are closing doors. Like shutting me out, no?'
Jason turns away. He rubs one of his eyebrows slowly. `It's hot,' he mumbles.
`In the evening the heat comes in. I'm just keeping the room cool.'
`Don't be such a dum-dum.'
Jason gazes out at the garden. `It's true. Can't you feel it? The heat coming off the road?'
Pearl looks steadily at Jason as if waiting for his eyes to return to her. `I feel hardly anything nowadays,' she says. `Nothing moves here. It's a graveyard. I need to get out.'
Their eyes meet briefly, before Jason manages to pull his away. He does not reply. Instead, he walks down the steps into the small driveway. Pearl watches her husband grow darker as the light fails outside. The sky turns luminous for a moment, before oxidizing in the ill wind. The air is dank enough to choke on.
`Sweetheart,' he had once murmured, his skin warm and pulsing, his breath in her heart: `Sweetheart.' But now the whistling sound of those syllables seems to fly from the trees and bushes like owls and fruit bats chasing contorted shadows. Shrill in her ears, as though he himself is screaming with the deformed night creatures in his heart, although he says nothing and seems as still as a rock.
Tell me, she says to herself. Tell me, tell me, tell me why. Why so distant? Where are you?
Arcadia was meant to bring them closer together; it was Jason's dream of a family home. But it came as a surprise to Pearl. She was not involved in the decision to buy it. Jason had become used to running things by himself by then: managing offices, a company, people. He was a businessman of a new age. He bought the house and then brought his family into it. It had seemed perfectly simple. Pearl knew nothing about the trouble he had had with old Esra Vatunas over the purchase, not until they moved in.
`Our biggest problem was the shape of the land itself.' Pearl used her knitting needle as a pointer. Arcadia was almost circumscribed by the territory of the Vatunases: a pebble in the fist of Esra Vatunas.
Esra's father, Buttons Vatunas, had originally acquired a large tract of residential land in the 1880s and built a mansion -- Bellevue -- near the centre. But then he had the bizarre idea of using his family tree to make procreative sculptures out of his property, and deliberately set about carving his estate into peculiar shapes for his children. He wanted testicles for one, a vulva for another, a lingam for a third, swollen glans and so on. His early wills were a whirligig of reproductive drawings. He had six children, three of whom died before he did, and with each death his lewd land-map was modified until it became almost completely illegible. In the end he found that he had two ungracious daughters, a problem son and a map that looked like a precursor to an erotic Picasso. The daughters quickly selected husbands in the course of their first season at Colombo's then grand races and end-of-the-century balls, tame trailers to the manic millennium frenzy to come, and the old man had to give two pieces of his precious land to them before he was ready. Because he thought that their high-collar husbands were out-of-pocket money-grabbers, he simplified his dynastic map and made their land into wasp-waisted hourglass strips pushed apart by a bulging block in the centre for his only surviving son.
Then, just before he died, Buttons came to the conclusion that his son Esra was a scoundrel. Legend has it that Buttons had moaned `Arsehole' at the mention of Esra's name when reviewing his last will and testament. But Esra was the sole son, the only one who would carry on the eccentric family name. Buttons decided he had to let Esra gain his juicy inheritance, but he ensured that it had a hole punctured in the appropriate place: a vala to be remembered by, much deeper than a tomb. Before he died, Buttons sold a chunk of the central block of land to Captain Melrose. Esra was left with the remainder: a sharp, crescent-shaped piece with a stately house in the middle and a curved lane leading up to it, then out, and somebody else's property on the rim where there should have been an ample Lancelot Brown garden with lusty frills and lovely deceptions. But Esra, the son, was a resourceful scoundrel. He quickly learned to see the shape of his land itself as its virtue; he described his property as the imprint of a divine hoof as God cantered to heaven from the island, neatly obscuring the secret lasciviousness of his father's vision.
`The old goat was mostly irritated by the fact that there was a Britisher like a wasp in a honey pot in what should have been his garden.' Pearl would cackle at the picture she painted of Captain Melrose marooned between Esra's twin horns of avarice and adversity. `Thirty years before we turned up Esra was already lining the drive with prickly pears and hornets' nests; he had gardeners feed monstrous plants with the choicest, steaming, horse manure every month and burn garden rubbish in a ring of fire around Arcadia.' But the smoke, the ash, the smell of horse shit all affected Bellevue as much as Arcadia, and the border grew more luscious with every attack.
Esra Vatunas's only real satisfaction in his battle with Melrose was in outliving two generations of the enemy. He gloated over Captain Melrose's impotent family thinning out to a nephew and then finally to young Maurice Melrose who in 1948, with the independence of the island declared and the war in Europe, Africa and Asia over, decided to sell up his imperial holdings and return to his subterranean roots. Maurice had some expectation that Fitzrovia in London might become what Berlin had been before the war and preferred to be there rather than in the doldrums of Eden.
The moment Esra Vatunas heard about the imminent sale of what had become an ulcer in the land of the Vatunases, he offered a large pot of money to Maurice. But the young man was loyal enough to the memory of old Captain Melrose to insist that Arcadia go to anyone but a Vatunas. When the offer was rejected, Esra tried subterfuge and sent a dhobi in disguise to buy it on his behalf. When that failed, he started a campaign of sorcery -- burying shrunken skulls and boiled semen behind the culvert between the houses -- to bewitch the place and scare off any prospective local buyers.
Then Jason appeared. He turned out to be in the right place at the right time. Or, as Pearl would put it, in the wrong place at the wrong time with too much money to escape. When Esra heard that Jason Ducal had secured the property, he wrote to Jason offering to double his money by an immediate resale. But Jason had been warned by Maurice of the odd neighbour at the bottom of the garden, and Esra Vatunas was notorious for his sharp dealings and ability to succeed always at somebody else's expense. Jason ignored the lucrative offer. Esra became even angrier over this rebuff than over the twenty-four years of foreign occupation, and a renewed campaign of attrition ensued: smears, sneers and ever more horse shit was piled around Arcadia and its newly arrived inhabitants.