Ayah by Leela Soma

Leela Soma lives in Scotland where she works as a Principal Teacher in Glasgow. She recently won the Margaret Thompson Davis Trophy for the first 10,00 words of a novel. This is an extract from her short story Ayah which has previously been published in SQA’s new ‘Write Times’. 

It was a tropical night, a heavy navy curtained sky lit up by the silvery stars. She is too tired to look up, she walks in, locks the flimsy door. Ayah takes in the scene; her little one room outhouse with the asbestos roof is still too hot to sleep in. Anjali her daughter is lying on the mat fast asleep. The pots and pans are stacked neatly at one end of the room, beside the stove. The small steel trunk in which she has locked away all her meagre earthly possessions has a straw fan on the top. Anjali’s dowry of a few saris and the one thin gold chain is kept in the trunk.
Ayah moves out of the room, lies on the charpoy under the stars, a much cooler option. Her chores for the day are done. She puts her weary head on the pillow but her mind starts racing. Anjali’s wedding was looming ahead, how was she going to meet the expenses? I must ask the mistress in the morning she told herself as sleep closed her tired eyes.
* * *
I watch her as she draws the most intricate pattern of rangoli on the freshly cleaned veranda. Its half past five in the morning, the quietest time of the day, the coolest, and the sun lazily peers out. Ayah adjusts her thin sari, tweaks the rice flour of the rangoli pattern into perfect shape and moves on to her next chore. The cook is busy. The smell of freshly roasted coffee beans rises up. The cook turns the coffee grinder with gusto, a sound that one cannot miss. The milk boils as he prepares the ‘decoction’. The aroma of fresh coffee fills the air. Dad is busy reading the Hindu newspaper, waiting for his coffee. The driver arrives, the Ayah runs in to get the car key. He hurries away to start cleaning the car. The morning bustle starts like bubbles frothing up. The sounds of the day breaking out in little chunks, the peace of the morning is broken.
The marble floor in my room is still cool from the AC last night. I look out at the garden. Mali is busy tidying up the paths. The bougainvillea branch bright with magenta flowers sways gently in the breeze.
I reach for my dissertation. I need to complete it soon. The deadline for submission is scarily near. Ayah hands me the coffee and waits, smiling.
“Anita’ma, I’ve got some good news this morning. I want to tell you first.”
“Yes what is it?” I look at Ayah, and then place the saucer on the table beside me, as I sip the coffee.
“Anjali is getting married.” Ayah almost whispers it. The excitement in her eyes is just visible.
“What! Anjali? Isn’t she is too young? She is lots younger than me.” This was stunning news.
“She is already sixteen years old, nearly four years since she matured. My relatives would be unhappy if I let her remain unmarried.” A worried wrinkle creased her forehead.
“Have you stopped her from going to school then?”
“Oh yes, last year, it was not a good thing to let her out. Too many boys were eyeing her up, Anita’ma.”
“When did you arrange it then?” I was still taking it all in. I gulped my coffee quickly.
“Just last week, the wedding date has been finalised. She has been home, learning to cook and clean.”
“Ayah, why didn’t you mention this before?”
“You were all so busy with your sister Gita’ma’s wedding I couldn’t bother you with my business.”
“Mum, Mum” I shouted excitedly, “Did you hear, Anjali is getting married?” I ran to the veranda. Mum was chatting quietly to Dad as he tried to read the paper.
“What? That’s great news, Ayah, so soon after our Gita’s wedding. Tell me all about it.” My mum was surprised too.
“Amma …” Ayah hesitated, her head bowed down. She never spoke in front of my Dad. Mum, Ayah and I moved back to my room. Mum sat on the sofa bed and asked.
“Who is the boy then?”
“Amma, he is from our village, my brothers have arranged it.”
“Your brothers? They were no good at all when you had all the problems Ayah.” Mum was annoyed and it showed.
“I have to listen to them Amma, as I am a widow. They are the males in the family who make all the important decisions.” Ayah explained.
“So where is this boy working?” Mum wanted all the details.
Ayah shuffled a bit, “He is in the village. He works on the land.”
“Not a landless labourer I hope, Ayah. Anjali has lived all her life in the city, how could you?” Both mum and I were amazed.
“Amma, he is her ‘murai pillai’ chosen from birth, I can’t go against the family tradition.” Ayah’s shuffling increased. She twisted the end of her sari between her fingers.
“How will she adjust to a life in the village, are the family good?” Mum continued.
“I know very little about them, my brothers arranged it all.”
“Ayah, why didn’t you tell me, we have boys in our company who are smart, working and earning well. We could have arranged a good match for Anjali.”
“Amma, my brothers would not agree to any one but Muthu, it is a family tradition to marry as arranged at our birth.” Ayah smiled faintly and then asked.
“Amma, about the wedding expenses…nearly 10,000 rupees…”
“Of course, I’ll get it sorted for you, though I can’t give you the whole lot. I’ll talk to the master. Some will be a loan that you’ll have to repay.” I noticed that mum’s practical side never let her down.
“Thank you Amma, You’ve been like God to me.” Ayah was about to fall at my mum’s feet. Mum stopped her from doing that.
“Ayah, bring Anjali over, we must give our blessings to the young bride.”
“Yes Amma, I’ll bring her tomorrow…….” The door flung wide open, Gita came barging in, threw herself at mum.
“Oh I hate that house; I wish I was back home.”
Melodramatic, that’s my sister. Perfectly made up, only the best for her. Her designer jeans, diamond solitaire earrings glinting in the morning sun, the lovely leather Italian sandals reeked of style. No one could refuse her anything; people were enslaved by her beauty.