The story of Devakumar David (Dev)
When Malini and I went to attend our thirtieth wedding anniversary event that was organised by our children, I never expected to meet Emily, who was my ex for a couple years about twenty years ago.
All those that I had buried as the past seemed to sprout into plants. After all, life is all about a collection of unexpected incidents.
It was winter in July in Sydney. The rain that had started in the afternoon was light but continuous. The grey sky had spread like an umbrella over the city. A little lightning predicted the upcoming heavy rains at night and that put off the enthusiasm of the feast. When our daughter said the event was organised at a Vietnamese restaurant that faced the Pacific Ocean opposite the Opera House near the Sydney harbour, about thirty kilometers from our house, the distance did not bring any satisfaction. As for me, a Sri Lankan or Indian restaurant near our house in the western part of Sydney would have sufficed.
The days when we longed for different tastes were no more. Fatigue had set in from the migrations in three countries at the age of sixty. Lately, I have started thinking that life is all about friendships with the known familiar food since childhood. But, the feast was organised by daughter Vani and son Jeyanthan. They were born and brought here. Vani was married to Mark, an Irish descendent and Jeyanthan to Samantha Le who had reached here with her parents in a boat during her childhood. Not only had they married interracially but their outlook towards life was singular. They belonged to a generation that looks at things beyond colour, religion, borders. To them those were unimportant. We have joined in the second generation of Sri Lankan Tamil families that have adapted to multicultural Sydney.
Though belonging to different races Mark and Samantha impressed us. They had mingled with our family even before their marriage. Beyond the white, yellow skin colours they resembled us not only their flesh and blood but also thoughts, feelings, and knowledge.
Although Malini and I have always been naturally refraining from interfering in the affairs of the children after they grew up, we accepted defeat in having failed to find faults with them. As we interacted more and more it was clear that our relationships and bonding strengthened further.
That Vietnamese restaurant and the delicacies were Samantha’s choices. She knows that we love seafood. Her father used to run a Vietnamese restaurant and so none of us had any objection in appointing her as our consultant. She is a lawyer by profession and hence we place her in front for any kind of bargaining.
All the cuisines she had chosen for that day were born out of the ocean. As a starter, a quail was cut into two and mildly deep-fried in oil, was placed in two plates. Biting them while sipping the white wine brewed from the grapes produced in cold regions of the Southern island of New Zealand was indeed an excellent experience. It was impossible to differentiate if the wine complemented the quail or the quail enhanced the experience from the wine. After we were finished with the quail, the bones accumulated in the cups, Shark’s fin soup was served. Like tiny long worms, the flesh of the shark floated in the soup. The steam from the hot soup carried the aroma through our noses to increase hunger.
“Isn’t this Australian Shark?” asked Vani.
“Yes, it is not an imported one,” said Samantha.
The question was based on the news that those imported from China were made from the cut-off wings of the sharks that are left back into the ocean. Vani supports Australia’s ‘Green’ party.
“This wine is unique. It’s hot the moment it touches the tongue,” I said.
“Yes, uncle. It is made on the Southern Island of New Zealand. It has a slight tinge of chilies that does not linger in the mouth. We feel the hotness in our throat while it glides into the stomach. This wine is available at a lower price. This goes well with seafood. Most of the restaurants serve this. This has the quality of French wine at a low cost.”
“Not bad, I learned a lot from you. I think my son is lucky.”
“Dad, you will be disappointed if you think it’s like this even at home just because she knows cooking,” said Jeyanthan.
“It’s true uncle. Cholesterol is bound to shoot up if I cook every day in this fashion. How to live longer?” explained Samantha.
“That is also true. I owe a thank you to your mother for having cooked to control cholesterol and helped me stay healthy all these sixty years of my life.”
“You can’t get sleep well if you don’t pull my legs,” Malini sulked proudly.
“Where are the quails from?” Vani asked curiously.
“These are bred in farms now,” Samantha replied.
“So my friend is hunting to bring them?” Mark tried to joke.
“Originally, they were wild birds. Later, I think they were reared in Japan. And now they are bred like chickens in farms. There are lots of protein and less fat in this, Aunty.”
The first main course served on a big platter looked like a whole fried fish of about one kilo. It is snapper fish from our country. It was seasoned decoratively with finely chopped onions, dry chilies, garlic, and ginger. It looked attractive. The fragrance of fish causes salivation. While we were relishing the fish, noodles were brought to the table. Pieces of mud crabs mixed in it.
“After coking the mud crabs, tossing the noodles in the same wok gives a fantastic taste, just like your biryani. But there is no oil in this.”
“Is there any more dishes, Samantha?” I asked.
“There is just one course left, uncle,” she said.
“And what will that be?”
“Is there no vegetarian item?”
“Prawn cooked with all vegetables.”
Just as Samatha said with all types of vegetables including carrots and spring onions the red prawn arrived at the table. It didn’t look cooked.
“I am used to eating vegetables raw but not prawns. Is the prawn cooked?”
“You don’t have to worry about that uncle. It was mildly fried. The prawn was cooked in steam from the water content within. Therefore, the nutrients of the prawn are not wasted.
When everyone was getting ready to eat, Vani said, “Wait a minute.”
“There is cake.”
A Vietnamese girl came like an angel holding at her chest level a chocolate cake with white icing, a candlelit on top. Not only was I married for thirty years, but I had also turned sixty. My instinct knew the celebration was for both.
Okay, we lit one candle for the first birthday. Then, at the sixtieth?
I was of the thought that at sixty we started the marathon towards our end and since I did not have any suitable words, I didn’t express anything.
“You married aunty only once and so there is only one candle,” Mark commented.
“Shut up Mark,” hissed Vani.
When the cake was placed, there was someone coming near. Lifting my bent face from the cake I looked up upon smelling a familiar sweet smell amidst the aroma of the delicacies.
Emily stood there smiling. She had a camera in her hand.
My wife Malini stood up saying, “How long it’s been long since we saw each other!”
“I take photographs of those who visit here, especially those who celebrate their birthday. When I saw familiar faces, I thought of saying hello. Isn’t it David’s birthday? Congratulations,” she said and when she bent down to kiss me on my cheek, I got up to say, “No, I am only sixty. But it’s also our thirtieth anniversary.”
Before she neared her shadow had reached. My heart throbbed as if it was ready to pop out, beat so fast as if I was watching the final rounds of soccer. The intoxication I had derived from the wine had vanished.
After having had a sumptuous meal, I felt the quail resurrect in my stomach. Emily’s unexpected kiss created within me a big volcanic eruption. It took me a while to balance myself.
She turned to Malini, “Congratulations!”
Turning again to me, “How is it David?” asked Emily, “You don’t look sixty.”
She calls me, Devakumaran as David.
“I was dum stuck upon seeing you all of a sudden, Emily. Thank you. Some good luck has brought you over here. This is my son. That is my daughter,” I introduced.
She had no make-up on and hence she has wrinkles around her eyes and neck. The lips that used to be full and shiny looked dry.
“I know Jeyanthan. He was a year old then.”
Not only Jeyanthan but everyone blinked.
“It was Emily who came home for two years to take care of me when I was ill. She was working at the council back then. One person who we are indebted to in this country is Emily,” said Malini.
“No Malini, it is a duty. I was paid for that, from you as well as the council.”
“But Emily it was your care only cured me. I could give birth to Vani and also start work. We can never forget your help,” Malini said.
“Please dine with us, Aunty,” said Jeyanthan.
“I need to go. Please cut the cake, David,” said Emily.
“Thanks, Emily,” I said as I looked at her face. Her expressive eyes reminded me of the past. About a quarter of a century back she used to be attractive if not beautiful.
She used to come in the morning to take care of Malini and later the infant Jeyanthan. Her care continued for two years.
I was employed in the hydro irrigation site. She wouldn’t come on my weekly off days. So, I did not get to interact much with her.
That day was unexpected. When I went to the living room to listen to the news at six in the evening, Emily had not left. She was folding the clothes from the dried laundry. Thinking that she would leave after that chore, I watched television, ate dinner, and went to my study. At nine when I went back to the living room I saw Emily watching TV.
“Aren’t you going home?” I asked.
“I don’t have a home.”
She said, “My husband took our children along with him when he left me.” He eyes welled up when she asked, “How to return to an empty house?”
I could not console her in her personal affairs when I did not know anything about her or her family. Thinking that it was not a suitable time to know about her personal life I said to her, “Emily you may want to sleep in that room and go home tomorrow.” I showed her the guest room.
I entered my wife’s room and informed her before I went back to my study. Emily stayed in our house that night.
Around midnight when my wife said, weeping sounds were heard in that room, I went there to check. Emily looked like a shadow seated on the bed in the darkness of the room. She was weeping with her face on her knees. I could not turn away after taking a peek. Neither could I enter the room to say a few consoling words, but words wouldn’t leave my mouth.
I managed to say, “Emily, gather yourself.”
There was no answer from her.
I switched on the light and sat beside her.
She said, “I am sorry,” and continued to bury her face.
After about half an hour, when she buried her face in the pillow, I switched off the light and left the room.
Questions like why did Emily’s husband do like that?, what did she do? swirled in my mind. She had been coming to help for more than six months and I seemed to have been too occupied to have overlooked her issues. She would be about forty and I was thirty then. She was not the kind to attract a second glance of mine.
Emily had some kind of a European accent. I observed that she wore heavy makeup, she was (chubby) and below-average height. I also watched her washing off the lipstick marks on her cup. And I felt guilty for having not cared more than that.
The next day morning, I asked for her address when she left. I went to her place in the evening. I engaged a solicitor to help her in many ways. She got back to the custody of her children. I lost myself to her who had redeemed herself from all her woes. Although she was one in a hundred when watched from afar, when I went close to her I could feel a difference. Her beauty seemed to increase and attract me.
I started returning home late after spending a couple of hours at her place. That unconditional relationship was convenient for both of us. It continued even after her children started living with her.
At one stage when my wife recovered and improved Emily stopped coming to our house. As usual, one day I went to her house with some Indian food. After eating when I went near her she placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “David, this relationship should not continue. Let’s be friends.”
That rejection was bitter.
“I understand your wife has recovered and yearns for you. I don’t want to betray her.”
“What has happened to you?”
“All these days I was playing with a toy that was not used by a child. It’s true that I played with it secretly and stealthily. Although I was guilty about that at least you were away from your wife. And past two years you were such solace to my difficult times. But now, I can’t justify my consciousness. An angel younger than me is waiting for you at home. Please go to her.”
I could not dispute her words. What could I say when she thought for me?
“I get your point.”
After that, I sent Emily a bouquet of flowers every year of her birthday.
Malini conceived again after she got a job.
The intimate memories of Emily pushed me forward and guilt born out of the short relationship pulled me backward but our lives went forward only.
After cutting and serving the cake, Emily started to leave. Everyone stood up. Only Malini went out to talk a few words with her. Emily and Malini hugging each other were visible dimly through the rear-view mirror stained with rainwater. My eyes were filled with tears.
The rain continued after the feast.
On our return journey, children talked about their mother’s illness and Emily’s. Jeyanthan was angry for not having told him about those things. Vani asked why Emily was not invited to the banquet. They were unhappy that there were things that they did not know.
Malini said, “We had many ups and downs, bringing you up. We did not want to worry you telling about those things.”
As soon as we reached home, I went to sleep.
The story of Malini
I was constantly in touch with Emily and I don’t know if my hiding it from my husband is a sin. There is some sense in hiding certain things. I had loved Arul, the Dev’s younger brother who studied with me. He had joined the liberation front and died. I was fully into mourning. Dev’s mother came asking for my hand for him and my mother agreed. No one asked my consent after an England Engineer groom came from). When I refused to marry I could not give a reason. My memories were buried when my mother threatened to give up her life if I refused to marry. There was no choice. The wedding took place hurriedly and we boarded the flight to England soon after that. Six months later, we landed in Sydney. Whenever I touch Dev, I get reminded of Arul. It was hell swallowing his memories.
When Jeyanthan was born with Arul’s resemblance, with a mole in his back, I could not contain my anxiety. I failed to be able to focus and dipped into depression. The doctors diagnosed it as having some mood swings. Two years rolled off. Emily’s help during that phase is undeniable.
After I recovered, I was concerned about Dev coming late. I happened to express to Emily my doubts. She confessed. Both of us cried for two hours. In the end, Emily said, “Forgive me.”
“No Emily. You took care not only of me but also of my husband for the past two years. If he had gone elsewhere, I would have lost my life. More than that, you have taken off me the stress I had carried all along.”
“I had loved Dev’s brother but ended up marrying Dev. The confusion that I carried, pushed me into depression. Your relationship with Dev has removed my guilt that I was betraying Dev.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes, I am very serious. I don’t want to look at everything in black or white. Dev is a good man. He has never hurt me even with words. He treated me kindly during my days of recovery. I am fortunate to have gotten him as my husband.”
“True. David’s childlike nature attracted me.”
After reaching home, Malini finished her chores and still in her sari came near Dev’s bed and looked at him keenly. She never expected a few drops of tears would fall on his face. He was in deep sleep.
“Let everything that Emily and I know remain buried in us,” she whispered as she opened the window curtains.
The steady rain was visible through the glass window. The Dev’s snoring sound filled the bedroom.
Translated by Jayanthi Sankar