By Renuka Mendis (Satchithananthan)
I remember the Beatles song “She Loves You” so well. It was the Carnival at Good Shepherd Convent (“GSC”) and I must have been twelve. The “it” girls had a girl band in those mod mini skirts, huge wide belts and of course the obligatory rubber boots. The Carnival was an annual event to celebrate the beginnings of the Convent which by now had grown into a famous Catholic girls’ school. And 1969 was full of those amazing songs on the radio from England and America.
This carnival was special. The convent was 100 years old. This is not the Carnival of the Brazilian kind but more a bazaar with pop music straight out of Popular Favourites, fun and games, a carousel, a ferris wheel, a swan wheel and my fondest game where you catch a paper fish with a magnet. That kind of Carnival. I am getting old now and may have got my numbers wrong but this was a big moment for Kotahena girls who had gone to school there. April 15, 1869 was when the convent first began according to their website. So the 100 year celebration would have been in 1969 when I was twelve-ish. That age when you really know some things just are not quite right. But you are still a wisp of a child and your hands are tied by your powerlessness.
Amma taught art and was well known for her talent in Kotahena circles. Everyone was asked to contribute something. A few weeks before the Carnival she bought a large terra cotta vase that must have been about two and a half feet high. There was always a collection of sea shells of varying sizes in our household given our fondness of the ocean and fishing. We often ended up bringing pockets full of shells from the tiniest as tiny as a fingernail. to really large ones the size of a serving spoon.
Amma painted and decorated the vase to look like an ocean full of fish. She used UHU glue to stick on some of the shells; I can still remember some of the ridged ones for texture; and they were used as the body and face for each fish and the brush and paint did the rest by way of the fishes’ beautiful tails. Amma always looked utterly complete whenever she worked on these art projects. At the time I did not realize how important this was because she was a GSC girl and it was her means of participating in the celebration. The vase was beautiful yet restrained and not flashy. Someone came round and took it away presumably to be auctioned off to raise funds for the convent. I often think of this vase though it was in my life only for a few days; and then as a child.
The Carnival went on for several days as I recall and it was open in the evening and night all lit up with rows of light bulbs and full of happy young girls and boys and families. I always felt an outsider at school. Especially a Catholic school. But my mother and father felt it was the best school they could send the girls to.
My Father who I called Thatha, was a talented angler and very good with his hands. He was pretty much addicted to fishing each and every day. Thatha had promised to take us to the Carnival after he got back from his evening fishing fix from the breakwater. Fish was a huge part of our childhood. He always caught amazing fish and thanks to Thatha we had a regular supply of fresh geela, salaya in season, paraw, parrot fish etc. Sometimes he even caught pokirissas which are langoustines – the sweetest tasting crustaceans anyone ever came across. I think I was his biggest fan; and I always felt I was his favourite. But then may be all children feel that way about their fathers. He too was a teacher and they met when they taught together in a Colombo government school.
Now you know how it is with the moon. Some days its covered in clouds and there is no moonlight; on good days the sky is bare of clouds and the moon shines as a moon should. That is how it was in our home growing up. Some days it was dark and that was how it was on most days. And on those few days when it was not dark it was full of light, brightness and sheer happiness and joy. Singing and play. But as a child I never knew which days would be dark, which ones would be bright. Had I known then I would not have woken up on those dark days and stayed in bed – eyes and ears shut and oblivious to the dark day.
The day of the carnival outing came and we were all waiting for Thatha to return from his evening fishing outing. Thatha came in through the backdoor with his fishing rods and gear and probably some fish. We were all waiting for him to get ready to go to the Carnival. About a minute or two into his arrival I knew it was a dark moonless evening in our house. I could always tell and I am sure all my brothers and sisters were also expert at it. Our invisible shields came up and we usually hovered around Amma and we all avoided Thatha on these days – which were not infrequent.
We were all in the kitchen and Amma was heating up oil to fry something. Probably some fish Thatha had caught. The kitchen was at the back of the house. And a lot of what happened in the kitchen could be heard by those who lived around us. Next door were my uncle and cousins. Behind us were my Grandma, Aunt, Uncle and more cousins separated by a backyard that we all shared when we played.
Thatha looked sullen and Amma was walking on egg shells so as not to upset him; quietly and meekly getting the dinner ready. And my head was full of the Carnival. Amma was still making sure not to upset Thatha. Us kids, we were waiting for the next bomb to go off though only metaphorically – usually by way of a violent lashing out at Amma often injuring her. It was almost a relief when it happened usually because the happening of the violence was less painful for a child than waiting for an unknown horror to happen; knowing full well that it will. Like the lancing of a huge and painful boil.
That night Thatha read from a different play book. The oil was hot. The blue flame on the kerosene stove and the oil in the wok-like thaachi bubbling hot with frying fish. Thatha was angry at Amma again for no reason known to us except that he was just angry at her; just because he could. Thatha kept demanding that Amma put her fingers in the boiling hot oil. And I was watching this, at ten or twelve years old. My stomach still sinks thinking of this although I am well over fifty now. All I could think of was my mother’s fingers in that boiling hot oil. All I could think of was that this was going to happen. Even at that age I knew I could not bear Amma’s fingers in boiling hot oil. Though twelve I know it was a horrific thing to happen. Unimaginable. May be we all started crying like a chorus of kittens meowing for their mother’s milk. Crying in terror. My Thatha, my hero — the torturer. My sweet mother, my flower, my care giver. Fried fingers. My mother’s.
Later that night Thatha took a shower. Dressed up. It was time to go to the Carnival at Good Shepherd Convent. No one wanted to go. I did not want to say no to Thatha. I did not know how. None of the other children wanted to go with us. I put on a dress and walked up Kotahena Street to the Convent. The “it“ girls were in there mod clothes and dark sunglasses because their band was going to play soon. And the Beatles were on the loudspeaker singing “She loves You! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!“ I did not know if I was coming or going. I felt a million miles away, as far away as the moon, from my Father. Thatha bought the twenty five cents ticket so I could catch fish with a magnet — but I don`t think I caught any.