Yasawathi was struggling with her private demons! This was something she had been doing everyday ever since she realized her destiny, no sooner she reached toddler-hood. It was a nightmare. An inferno beyond comprehension of normal human beings. A mental trap that shackled her and tightened its hold day by day as she grew up. It was no purgatory that would ease up with expiation. An abyss that dragged her child mind through to adulthood and now the present. A private noose that held her captive most of her waking moments. Today was not different. She had no idea for how long she lay sprawled on the mat laid on the knee-high ledge of the verandah of what was her home. It was a constant struggle for her to suppress memories of the unsavory happenings of the past and it was now her nature to hiss in anger like a female cobra when any one dared to question her present circumstances.
Day by day her only daughter was beginning to show signs of turning into a young attractive teenager. The young girl was more than inquisitive to know the identity of her father and nagged her mother ever so often to reveal his identity. This was the one subject that Yasawathi wished to to stay clear of and which the young daughter would not let go. Today no sooner the lass - Nandana Menike - returned from school she spied the dejected, depressed mother battling her demons and shot the familiar question about her paternity. Yasawathi responded by grabbing the enamel mug lying close by and aimed it at her daughter with all the venom she could muster at a moment's notice. The young child fled from her enraged mother and ran down the steep slope on which the house was perched and absconded for several hours hiding in the shrubbery that grew abundantly below her house all the way down to the bubbling stream at the bottom of the hill.
The sky behind the Bambaragala kanda range was glowing red as the day was coming to a close. The western slope of the range was seeped in a yellow tinge of varying shades as the sun kissed goodnight to the mountain massif signaling the end of activities or the day to thousands of nature's creatures both domesticated and wild. Nandana Menike was in no mood to enjoy the graphic display of nature as the sun kissed Lanka a fond goodbye. The creatures of the daylight hours were hastening to safe niches to wait the next day. Flocks of egrets were in formation just below the yellow tinge of the sky heading westwards to their favorite roosting spots. Below them the loner herons flew in the same direction but at a slower pace. Odd early rising flying foxes were beginning to head to their feeding grounds as their smaller cousins were foraging the already lower darker nooks and corners for smaller insects caught napping.
Under the giant kumbuk tree (Botanical Name: Terminalia arjuna - Combretaceae) the darkness was more intense as the girl stepped from root outcrop one after the other to keep her feet dry. She peeped from behind the safety of the shrubbery to see what was going on above her where she had left her distraught mother earlier in the afternoon. Though she could not discern any activity out there her belly had begun to rumble from hunger as she yawned deeply from the tiredness of a long day. She headed further down below the kumbuk tree and approached the stream proper, bent down to collect a draught of water in her cupped hands to quench her thirst. She did so with utmost caution as the vicinity of the giant tree was known to be infested with snakes of every kind. The descending darkness she now saw as a menace as indeed it was. A monitor lizard made a hasty retreat as she approached with a rustle of dry leaves which frightened the girl out of her wits. She hastened her pace to reach the makeshift tree felled across the stream that served as a cat-walk across the stream at its narrowest spot.
"Menike... What on earth are you doing here at this ungodly hour?"
She was greatly relieved when she heard the voice of her grandmother call out from behind her. She kept staring at her feet as she had no plausible excuse to give her but to find her grandma coming home earlier than usual today after her work in the bungalow was a great solace to the now frightened girl. When she noticed that the child was still in her school uniform she understood the perennial problem of the home.
"So…! Needless to say you have had your usual problem with your mother."
She noticed the tears' streaming down the cheeks of her beautiful god-daughter no reply was necessary.
"Little wonder the way things are as is... Your mother seems to have no brain... This is not an hour for a young distressed girl to be roaming around by herself." As she said this the old woman hugged the child close to her chest.
No sooner the grandmother's hand touched her tension in the child eased off.
"It is alright now my child... Let us go home now... The slightest thing is enough to get your hackles up too." Her granny's conciliatory tone was music to the child's ears.
"What happened to you dear child…?" The elderly woman inquired from her granddaughter.
It did not take long for her to realize that the tired hungry child after a whole day at school was not in the mood to respond. She relented and comforted the forlorn child with her silence and made their way up the hill back to the house.
Koinmenika is Yasawathi's mother. Her husband Justin was the person who looked after Raja Weerasekara's personal properties in the past. When Justin died ten years ago the wattle and daub house constructed at the end of the property was their home. All was well as could be expected by a worker family in a plantation until Yasawathi was born. The infant was endowed with a well formed body except that she had one terrible mal-formation and tragically it happened to be on her face. Between mouth and nose fate had decided to deny her an upper lip which resulted in a grotesquely hideous face. A face that was beyond repair! At that point of time neither the skill of plastic surgery nor the wherewithal for private treatment was within reach of the unfortunate family that had to raise this child condemned by a cruel fate.
Cultivation of tobacco was the main source of income for Raja Weerasekera. The income from the vast extent of land he owned was immense. He cultivated minor export crops such as nutmeg, cardamom and pepper to name a few. This was in addition to Paddy coconut and other plantation crops he dabbled in. He was a rich man by any standard. Because his only son Bernard was being educated in a foreign land he enlisted Victor Ranaraja, his sister's son, to help him manage his plantation. Victor happened to be a handsome young man given to fun and frolic!
The kithul palm (Botanical Name: Caryota urens) grove below the stream at the lower end of Nilgala estate was tapped exclusively to keep the owners supplied in palm sugar. Tapping duties of these high yielding palms was Justin's responsibility. In due course Victor managed to persuade his subordinate to allocate a number of palms for the production of the local beer – toddy. A product that could be turned out to the strength one desired. Naturally this was an activity Justin was forced to undertake unknown to his boss Raja Weerasekera. The two lesser men connived to hide pots full of this portent brew in a hut behind Justin's House.
Victor was in the habit of supervising the fieldwork in the forenoon after which he would go down to the spout near Justin's House. It was a matter of time before he would be drunk almost on a daily basis before he proceeded to have his ablutions at the spout. Justin made it a point to have a well matured pot ready by noon before the young master arrived for his bath. On occasions when he could not attend to him due to other engagements he would conceal a pot amongst the shrubs near the spout. A gin clear stream of water spouting out and dropping off a naturally heaved gully between two granite boulders from a height of less than ten feet to form a pool of water lined with highly polished pebbles was indeed a gift of nature to the folk living in the vicinity. Men and women both in the village below and working on Raja Weerasekera's plantation took great care to keep this spout unspoiled and in good order.
The surrounding area was kept clean and well covered in natural vegetation to afford as much privacy as was needed for the women folk who bathed here regularly. Cooled by the salubrious Kandyan climate the water was the soothing balm for the peasantry after a hard day's work. However as the day draws to a close the trek to the spout eases off as the chilly mountain air and the damp mists begin to creep in to shroud the surrounding hillocks and the spout.
It was this extra privacy that nature provided that made the unfortunate Yasawathi's ablutions safe from prying eyes as she was free to bathe and wash without having to hide her deformity from all and sundry by having the use of the spout almost exclusively for at that time of the day. It was on one of these days when his man Friday was otherwise engaged that made Victor consume a whole pot all by himself and fall into a drunken slumber in his favorite hiding place amongst the bushes until the day was well advanced. When he did wake up he noticed the woman with a Venus like torso clad only in a wraparound bathing cloth carelessly scrubbing herself as she was confident that her privacy was assured at that late hour of the day.
His desire for that body silhouetted against the backdrop of the silver cascade of water was more than he could handle. Whatever it was, whether a carnal or animal instinct that surfaced at the moment in Victor's mind it was enhanced by the fact that Yasawathi in her own way had over many years fantasied about her sexual urges and the situation lent its might for ignition. The inevitable happened and from then the trysting continued. No sooner the belly bulge along with other indications of pregnancy started to manifest the cat was out of the bag. As the gossip reached Weerasekara, he banished his nephew from his Nilgala plantation to dilute the shame hoping that eventually the matter would be forgotten.
Neither Koinmenika nor Justin had the wherewithal or capability to appeal on behalf of their daughter and had no option but to eat humble pie. Koinmenika fought like a ferocious cat when her employer tried to get her daughter to abort the fetus. When the master realized that his employee was unwilling to go down that track he suggested that the woman should be married off to some one of their choice. That became impossibility in view of her disfigurement and the plan was abandoned. Justin carried the guilt of having brought this shame upon his daughter by his indiscreet association with his master's nephew and never after that did he blame or shame his unfortunate daughter. Her child eventually saw the light of day giving the village folk of the vicinity a never ending subject for tittle-tattle. When Raja Weerasekara did see the beautiful infant he had not the slightest doubt as to who had sired her and informed his sister Victor should not step into his property ever again to prevent further disgrace to the family reputation. Not long afterwards Victor was on a flight to a foreign land at his mother's insistence. In the meantime Raja Weerasekara was hard at work to tie the loose ends up with the intention of burying the family debacle by whatever means that seemed plausible. He schemed to have Yasawathi married off to his faithful Tamil domestic help - Periyavar – by offering him a large cash reward and a block of land as a reward.
Even though Justin and Koinmenika were agreeable Yasawathi flatly rejected the proposal and stated that she would bring up the beautiful infant by herself. She felt that one day Victor would come in search of his child and remained adamant to the end. As a final settlement to the problem, Weerasekara agreed to allow Justin who had served him loyally over a long period of time, to occupy the watcher's quarters on the condition that he would cooperate to hush up Victor's indiscretion from going public from then on.
No sooner she saw her mother and daughter approach the house Yasawathi walked into the kitchen and lit the crude bottle lamp as dusk had almost turned to night.
"I found Menike way down at the bottom of the vale... Has it not occurred to you this young girl would soon be beyond that... Just because you had quarreled with her should you not have taken the trouble to find out where she had fled to…? What if in a moment of weakness she did something to herself… We would have had to summon the devil dancers in."
She did not make a hum in response to her mother's tirade. Instead she grabbed half coconut that was on the table, sat down on the coconut-scraper and scuffed at the kernel with more than necessary force to announce her annoyance. It was then the granny noticed the untouched bowl of rice covered with an enamel plate still lying on the table.
"Have you not had your lunch yet child…? It must be on the verge of going sour... Have your lunch before it gets stale."
Nandana Menike tilted the earthenware pot of water filled a large enamel mug and drank the water in one gulp exhibiting a slight show of annoyance bordering on rebellion. She then retreated to the only room available in the house and proceeded to unhook the safety pins on her school uniform.
"Your stubbornness is no second to that of your mother... Starving yourself is not going to right a wrong... Come here and have your food late as it is."
The Grandmother was in a mollifying mood as she uttered this. She emptied her bag of its contents picked up the bottle of kerosene and moved to the kitchen. From the light emitting from the dim crude bottle lamp she noticed her daughter's swollen eyes and realized she had been crying for some time. Her heart melted for her deformed unfortunate daughter and decided to comfort her.
"What happened today to make you cry like that?" She placed the bottle of fuel under the rack and turned to her.
"It is not unusual... The quarrels between the two of you... What was the bone of contention today?"
Yasawathi released a deep sigh and relaxed her chest and made no comment. Grandmother was in no mood to stay silent.
"The girl has had nothing to eat... As she stepped into the house she said she was not going to school from tomorrow... It seems to me she is being bullied by the kids in school... "
Grandmother was aware that the child, who was approaching her fifteenth year, was yet to reach puberty and she was often at the butt-end of jokes on account of her late maturity.
"Even in your case… You were quite late to reach the stage of wearing your monthly - rags... She is probably going the same way."
Yasawathi got up having finished her task, put aside the scraper and picked up the earthen vessel containing the scrapings without comment.
Nevertheless the wise old grandma continued in a somewhat proud tone.
"You mark my words my dear daughter... The day will soon dawn when we will have to confine her to the house for a few days until the ceremony is over when she turns into a woman... That Yasawathi will be the day when all of them will burst asunder with envy... My grandchild will be a beauty."
"That Mother... Is not the problem the wretched people are pestering her about?" Yasawathi's tone was menacing.
"What is it then?"
"It is about her paternity... They all want to know who it is..."
Koinmenika said nothing but looked eagerly around to make sure her grand-kid was out of earshot. She was greatly agitated by her daughter's revelation and sat down on the kitchen bench heavy at heart.
"She is pestering me day in day out wanting to know who her father is and no more can I take it."
"They will start making up stories and accuse innocent people in the process... You are patient my child... I will sort this out with the little girl... Leave it to me."
She understood the pain of mind her daughter has to endure and the thought of the fact brought tears to her own eyes.