I refuse, push it back, and she offers it to me again. We go through the ritual a few times before I smile and accept her gift with great gratitude. I unfold it and admire the white cotton fabric, the lace edging, the bow at the back. It looks like the kind of dress a mother would have asked a tailor to make for a daughter. I used to have dresses like that too, as a child. My mother used to walk along the railway tracks with me to reach Simeon Appu, the tailor who made all the clothes for our family. I remember it well, the walk, the weight of cloth in a brown paper bag, the frayed old Butterick pattern books, with drawings of English girls, arranged in a rack, and the smell of the tailor's shop, like machine oil and ironing. His hands, too, pinpricked and arthritic, yet oddly soothing as he measured me for this year's new dress. But all that ended when she died. My father didn't know much about little girls. After the nuns took over, it was school uniforms most of the day, and the nuns taught me how to make those myself. I never did like sewing, though another reason for my husband's wrath. It made him furious that I would take our children to the tailor for their clothes, saving my patience only for darning or lengthening a hem. My mother's sewing machine with its wooden wings served as an end table most of the year, and as a magical toy the children liked to open and shut, my son doing the difficult job of reaching into its cave to bring up the heavy, curved black inside, with all its bobbing and sliding moving parts. Now, with this dress in my hands, I am reminded of all that. I feel the soft cotton between my fingers.
"It's probably a little big for her still, but by next year it'll fit," the girl says. "That's the dress I wore when I felt the convent. The madam told me it was a new dress they had made for me to wear when I accompanied them home, not like the ones I had. I wore it only for special occasions and only for that first year in Colombo, to temple, or when the madam and sir had family visiting. It's still like new." She touches it fondly.
"You should keep it, to remember. Or maybe for your new baby?" I rub her stomach with the edge of the dress, but she is quiet.
"They won't let me keep the baby," she says, after a while. "The convent is for the girls, not for their babies."
"What will they do with the baby?" I ask. I am shocked, and she sees it. I look down at her belly and then at the dress that I have rolled into a ball in my lap.
"No, it's okay, don't feel bad. They treat the babies well. They take them to the sister house down the hill so we don't have to hear our babies crying, and they look after them there until they are given away."
"How do you know all this?"
"Madam told me. She said that's what happened to the children of people like me who forget their place. I know she meant to be hurtful, but it made me happy to hear that there would be a place for my child."
"Don't you want to keep your baby and look after her yourself?"
"How do you know it's a girl?" she asks and smiles at me as though this would be a good thing. How could she think that? A daughter growing up without a mother? What would happen to a girl like that?
"I'm just guessing by the way you look," I say. "It is how I looked when I had my daughters." And then I ask the question again, unable to imagine this life she seems to have chosen. "Don't you want to keep your baby?"
"What would I do with a child?" she asks, and I wish I hadn't brought up that possibility with her; something in her quiet voice blames me for asking her to think about an option she does not have, motherless as she is herself. What would she do with a child? I straighten the dress out and fold it carefully. I thank her again, then bend down and find space for it in one of the side pockets of our big bag. Yes, what would she do with a child? I say to myself, and yet I cannot reconcile myself to her attitude. It seems unnatural to be that resigned, even for someone who has no knowledge of the pain of labour and delivery or the mad love that is birthed along with a baby.
Once more I take her hand, this time in both of mine. "Maybe you could come with us," I say at last. What else is there to offer than a chance to keep what belongs to her? At least I could try; try to help.
"Where are you going?" she asks, and there is a small note of hope in her words.
"I'm taking my children to my aunt's house. She lives with her daughter and son-in-law and their children, and I'm sure she will be more than happy to make space for you." I say that, but the uncertainty in my own mind must have seeped through because she asks me the one thing I do not want to think about: do they know I am coming?
"No. I don't have time to tell them."
I say these words even though I did have time. I could have sent them a telegram, done what is usual in such cases. I know that the cryptic, expensive words typed up with full stops, the carrier ringing his bicycle bell at some odd hour, would have told them that this was urgent, and they would have understood that they could not refuse me the shelter of their home no matter what. But I had chosen to trust that they were not that different from me, even if they were from the hill country. Surely they, too, believe that only pleasant visits for several days by older relatives, grandparents, or in-laws need to be announced. Surely they do as we do in the South, surprising people by showing up unannounced, the surprise itself the only way to erase any doubt that we are welcome, a trick we play with one another, constantly unsure of our own worth. Isn't that how they, too, deprive one another of the time that could be spent anticipating? Anticipation rewinds time and plays back the bad, the small slights, the little neglects that have turned into deeply buried hurts. No, I could not risk giving them that time, any time at all. Most of all, I could not risk them sending a return telegram, alerting my husband that I was leaving or, if I had left, where it was I was going. Better that he thinks me drowned, the children too. He can wait for the sea to bring us back, one by one.
"She is my mother's sister," I add. "She will help me."
The girl squeezes my hand, and I am ashamed of what I have kept from her, of my dismissal of her because of her youth. "I'm sure they will be happy to see you," she says, and this time it is she reflecting my doubts back to me, for I can heart it somewhere behind her calm voice.
Outside, the darkness has finally lost and daybreak reaches us through the trees. Everything is visible again. The mountains and plantations still dominating the landscape, but more than that, the smaller, more intimate details of life closer at hand; the rhythms of people who live with the roar of trains with which to mark time. It reminds me of the house I have left behind, these flyby pictures of women tending small fires, half-naked children brushing teeth and waving to metal cars with blurred faces. Spaces where men are entirely absent or are only now stumbling out of thatched homes, waking to a clear day in an already-swept dirt yard, the ekel marks still visible in the back-and-forth patterns women make each dawn, which are swept away by other feet before they have cooked breakfast, these mandalas that nobody notices unless they are created by monks in saffron robes. I feel free as I am carried away, and I want to call out to them to join me; as if this compartment, which now contains only me and my children, and a young mother to be, is travelling toward a true heaven. As if there is room there for all the others like us.
"You can come with us, duwa," I say again, turning to the girl, and this time I am certain of my offer.
"The nuns will be waiting for me at the station," she says. "What will they do if I am not there?"
"What can they do? They won't know where you went, and they probably won't care. Won't they be glad not to have to tend to yet another one like you?" I don't mean it unkindly; I say it to be practical, but it has upset her. Of course she feels special. She must want to believe that the nuns would miss her if she does not get off the train at her station. That, when her baby is born, she will be unlike any other child that ever grace the world.
"They will call madam and she will be angry," she says. "She could not have children, and she would not want me to keep a child who should have been hers."
I understand now. We are both quiet. The sun has risen higher, and the scenery outside has lost its magical quality. It is just an ordinary day, dry to the touch, and we are in a passenger train going only so far. Two more stations and we will be in Hatton, where she and I will part. I feel responsible for her, and sad. I want to give her something, my first friend in our new life, a friendship restricted a single journey. I want to ensure that the gods will look favourably upon me, too, for my kindness toward this girl. But I have nothing to give her, not even food. I fiddle with the two bangles on my wrist, but they are gold and I have two daughters…
"The next station will be mine," she says, disturbing my thoughts. She is regretful.
"I will get down and hand you over to the nuns," I say, "and I will give you my aunt's address, so if you need to, you can come and find us."
"You will be blessed. I was worried about getting down alone." How grateful she is for such a simple gesture. I feel tears in my eyes, and I distract myself with the task of easing myself out from under my sleeping children. I gesture wordlessly to the girl, and she opens the bag at my feet and takes out one of my saris. Chooti Duwa stirs in her sleep but does not wake up when I lift her slowly off my lap and slide the folded cloth under her head. I open my handbag and pull out a stray scrap of paper, some receipt for a once essential purchase, and write down my aunt's name and the road on which she lives. The girl takes it from me and looks at it.
"I can't read, nende," she tells me, not ashamed, just stating the fact.
"That's okay. Keep it. If you need to find me, you can ask someone to write a letter for you."
I watch her fold the paper and tuck it. The place where we put our most precious things: love notes and money and handkerchiefs for when we cry. It makes me smile. My legs are stiff from sitting, and I sway unsteadily on my feet when I stand up. The girl holds my shoulder to balance me. She seems happier now, forward looking. She has not lost hope in the bright light of the sun, when everything is only as it is. She is still travelling toward a sanctuary.
When the train stops, I step down first with her bag, then turn and help the girl. The conductor walks by us and takes a leather purse looped on a stiff handle from a man who must be an official though he doesn't look like one in his maroon cardigan and white wool cap pulled down close to his head. A couple, one child, and an old man appear before us, one behind the other, and just as quickly pass us by. They must have got down from other carriages. Nobody climbs in.
I must have expected the station to be special, somehow, for I feel worse now than I did when the train first came into the station, the announcement still ringing in the air. It is not that it is any more desolate than the other stations we have passed, and I can imagine this very platform bustling with the pilgrims who visit Sri Pada when it is the season for such things. It is just that the black and white board, with "Hatton" written in three languages, seems to offer so little to a newcomer. "4143 feet above mean sea level," I read at the very bottom of the sign, also in all three languages. Then I notice a smaller sign pasted on the glass window of the ticket booth, which appears to be closed. The names of three schools, a hospital, and The Convent of St. Bernardine. That at least is hopeful.
"The convent is named for a saint," I say to her, then. "What's the matter?"
"There's nobody here," she says, and now she is crying.
I look up and down the platform. She is right. We are the only two standing in the cold air; we and the train, which belches almost gently, wheezing as if it needs to catch its breath after the long climb. I remember an odd bit of information that the nuns had told me in grade school: Hatton is predominantly Tamil if one counts the plantations. I hear this fact again now, uttered in their cautionary voices. I don't want to leave this girl alone. The train toots and shudders, but half heartedly.
A man comes out of the main building carrying a green flag and walks toward the edge of the platform. He is wearing an old black coat that is short at the sleeves, and white trousers. He must be the stationmaster. The girl begins to sob audibly. I turn away from her and grab his sleeve.
To be continued...