Cinnamon Gardens

By: Shyam Selvadurai
Book One


However great the hardship,

Pursue with firmness the happy end.

– The Tirukkural, verse 669

Annalukshmi Kandiah often felt that the verse from that great work of Tamil philosophy, the Tirukkural – “I see the sea of love, but not the raft on which to cross it” – could be applied to her own life, if “desire” was substituted for “love.” For she saw clearly the sea of her desires, but the raft fate had given her was so burdened with the mores of the world that she felt it would sink even in the shallowest of waters.

Like most visionaries, Annalukshmi somewhat exaggerated her constraints. For a young woman of twenty-two from a good Tamil family, living in the year 1927, her achievements were remarkable – or, depending on your conviction, appalling. She had completed her Senior Cambridge, an accomplishment fairly rare in that time for a girl; she had stood first islandwide in English literature, much to the discomfiture of every boys’ school. Then she had gone on to teachers college and qualified as a teacher.

Annalukshmi’s qualification as a teacher was held to be her greatest crime by her mother’s relatives, the Barnetts. A career as a teacher was reserved for those girls who were too poor or too ugly to ever catch a husband. They saw it as a deliberate thumbing of her nose at the prospect of marriage. She might as well have joined a convent. They blamed her wilful, careless nature on both parents. Her father, Murugasu, had gained notoriety in his village in Jaffna for beheading the Gods in the household shrine during a quarrel with his father, running away to Malaya, and converting to Christianity. Louisa, her mother, had defied family dictates and married Murugasu. The Barnetts were one of the oldest Christian Tamil families of Ceylon. Murugasu was too recent a convert to have, like them, generations of the civilizing influence of Christianity behind him.

Louisa placed the blame for her eldest daughter’s nature squarely on her husband’s shoulders. In the absence of a son – there were three daughters in the family – he had raised Annalukshmi as if she were a boy. He was responsible for her reckless nature, a disposition that would have been admissible, even charming, in a boy, but in a girl was surely a catastrophe. Louisa had tried to warn him of his mistake. She had tried to curtail Annalukshmi’s freedom, to inspire in her an understanding of the necessary restrictions that must be placed on a girl to protect her reputation and that of her family. Yet her attempts were useless, with her husband taking Annalukshmi off to the family rubber estate on inspections, teaching her tennis and swimming.

Louisa would have liked to feel satisfied that the entire blame rested on her husband, but she had to admit that the estrangement between Murugasu and her, which had finally forced her to return to Ceylon from Malaya, had sundered the close bond between father and daughter as well. It had left Annalukshmi with a deep hurt. Louisa had, indeed, agreed to let Annalukshmi go to teachers college in the hope that the responsibility of teaching would finally settle her down.

If Annalukshmi had been asked the reason for her nature – which she considered not wilful but that of the “new woman” who was not ashamed or afraid to ask for her share of the world – she would have pointed to two people: Miss Amelia Lawton, the missionary headmistress at the school she had attended and where she now taught, and her adopted daughter, Nancy (whose parents, impoverished villagers, had died of cholera when Nancy was thirteen years old). Annalukshmi felt that it was Miss Lawton and Nancy who had provided the cheer and pleasure in her life after her parents’ marriage failed and she and her sisters had returned to Colombo with their mother. Their bungalow had become her second home, and she spent most of her spare time with them, going for sea baths and occasionally taking holidays in the hill country. It was through Miss Lawton that she learnt about the struggles for women’s rights in England and Miss Lawton’s own small part in them during her college days. It was Miss Lawton who had encouraged her reading habit, which, she knew, had led to her standing first in English literature. It was the headmistress who had truly supported her in the decision to be a teacher.

When Miss Blake, the assistant headmistress, presented Annalukshmi with a gift of her bicycle on the day Miss Blake returned to England, Annalukshmi was spurred on to accept because of the smiling faces of Miss Lawton and Nancy, standing on the verandah steps above Miss Blake, nodding their approval.

That afternoon, Louisa was kneeling at one end of the back verandah. The heavy wooden box in which she stored her dry rations and spices was open before her as she measured out the ulundu to be soaked overnight for the morning’s thosais. She was disturbed from her task by the exclamations of her two younger daughters, Kumudini and Manohari. She dropped the lid shut and, not even waiting to padlock the box, picked up her bunch of keys and hurried through the drawing room. She came out onto the front verandah to find Annalukshmi standing by the bottom step with a bicycle.

Louisa drew in her breath in astonishment. “What on earth is this?”

“A bicycle,” Annalukshmi said, trying to sound as if it were the most normal thing in the world for her to turn up with one.

“I can see it is a bicycle. But what is it doing here?”

“It’s Miss Blake’s. She gave it to me as a going-away present.”

Annalukshmi pushed aside some hairs that had strayed from her plait, which she wore in a knot at the nape of her neck. In her mind, she went over the arguments she had rehearsed with Nancy to combat her family’s resistance.

Louisa clicked her tongue against her teeth in annoyance. “Don’t talk rubbish, Annalukshmi. You know you can’t go around on a bicycle.”

“And why not?”

Louisa’s face flushed at Annalukshmi’s impertinent tone.

Before she could proceed further, her middle daughter, Kumudini, laid a warning hand on Louisa’s arm. Arguments between her mother and older sister were often overheated, and Kumudini frequently had to step in as peacemaker. “Akka, be reasonable,” she said to Annalukshmi. “You can’t. People will say all sorts of things.”

Though Kumudini was twenty-one, and a year younger than Annalukshmi, she was regarded by everyone as the eldest because she was such a model of propriety.

“And look at the state of your sari,” Kumudini continued. “It’s ruined.” She shook her head. Though only a five-rupee Japanese Georgette sari, it was lovely, with a clover-leaf design on an off-white background. Now there was a grease stain along the bottom of it. Kumudini had, with great care, stitched this sari onto a length of belting because, at that time, a sari was sewn onto belting that hooked around the waist very much like a skirt, the only dressing required being the pleats and the fall draped once about the body and over the shoulder. Her efforts had been in vain. The sari was probably ruined. Further, the white sari blouse had two very unladylike sweat stains under the arms.

“We should put a chain around her neck and take her from door to door,” Manohari, the youngest, put in sarcastically. “She looks just like a monkey on a bicycle, and I’m sure people will pay us a lot of money to see her do tricks.”

Manohari, who was sixteen, actually thought the whole thing a bit of a lark. The situation merely presented her with an opportunity to exercise the wit she was famous for and lord it over her eldest sister.