Book excerpt: Read the New World from Half Gods by Akil Kumarasamy
On the eve of Independence, Sir William drove away from the estate in his cream-coloured Morris and left his fortunes in the hands of Mr. Balakumar, the Tamil manager, who promptly brought his milch cows to Sir William’s private garden to feed on the roses. We had the day off, but still we woke early and stood at the edge of the tea field, watching through the morning fog. For days, weeks, when we tried to remember Sir William’s face, his light blue eyes, we could picture only his car winding down the hillside of Nuwara Eliya and vanishing like a cloud.
Above the tea fields, rows of houses stretched across the horizon like a string of baby teeth, small and overcrowded. Our grandparents had lived in these houses, one-room caves with tin roofs, and if they were alive, they would still recognize their homes, everything as they left it, only the coat of whitewash brighter. They didn’t own these houses, and our inheritance was what they could fit inside: a wooden chair, a teakettle, maybe a chessboard. “We live as we die, owning nothing,” our parents had been told, and they reminded us of it each day until even our own shit was more of an offering than a possession.
Our grandparents had crossed the waters between India and Ceylon, and our parents spoke to us about death simply as both a certainty and a choice. Either stay and die of hunger, drown in the dark waters, or languish in an unknown land. Following each possibility to the end, we let ourselves turn into dried carcasses, our hair shed, blood soured, and then in the open sea, bodies bloated into plump blue women, until we reached the final death up here in the pungent, cool hillside that still awaited us.
Standing idle in the field, we pictured Sir William sailing off from our warm island to a colder one, men and women with buttery faces greeting him on his arrival. Unrecognizable perhaps after all these years, crushing cardamom and ginger in his tea, rinsing his mouth with sesame oil for salubrity, he’d return home and wake to the smell of wet wood and lichen, pink-scaled fish with horns for breakfast, giant eels sliding through the sky on his morning stroll as he searched for the hillside, the wisp of paradise. All week, a voice on the radio assured us everything would be reborn in the coming day. Even the trees would look different, because they would be our trees. Each breath you took would be your breath. As if all these years, we had been borrowing our lives.
We collected newspapers with pictures of the new prime minister. He was broad-shouldered and wore trousers, dress shirts, and jackets in the fashion of Sir William and Mr. Balakumar. When he first spoke on the radio, he talked in English and we didn’t understand a word of what he said. Then he switched to Sinhala, and we still didn’t understand. We only caught the word Ceylon and it felt foreign, faraway. Another country.
HarperCollins India, Rs 499