Duranka Perera is a junior doctor based in the East of England. After binge-watching Avatar: The Last Airbender in secondary school, he became bewitched by writing's capacity to create worlds, worlds rich in life and emotion, be they fantastic or otherwise. This sparked him on a journey that culminated in founding a writing society at his University, where he could and continues to bring like-minded souls together to encourage each other through their craft. His writing, enriched by his Sri Lankan heritage and strongly-held belief in diversity, seeks to embody life's great variety. To him, the world is a writing sandbox: one where no story deserves to be left untold. His aspiration is to become a surgeon and author in the vein of Henry Marsh and Atul Gawande, though he is well aware that he has a long way to go before being as cool as either.
She curls her trunk around a tuft of grass. It’s fresh, green, soft against her skin, the results of rains that have since moved on to pastures new. Noticing some dirt still clinging to the shoots, she swings the grass against the ground, listening to the satisfying scatter of dried mud as it patters out of sight. As she moves the morsel to her lips and starts to chew, a white egret – ankle height – surveys the ground beneath her, looking for insects stirred up as she feeds. Lancing one, missing another, it flaps its way up onto her broad, grey shoulders to survey the meadows that spread out all around them.
There are fifteen in her herd. She can’t see them all from where she is, but from the individual scents tickling her nose as she feeds, she knows they are all there. Her mother, the matriarch, recently gave birth to a tiny sister. Wiry hairs covering her small body, the baby scurries from bushes into the open, cracking small branches, disturbing some of the other egrets who seem to follow the herd wherever they go. Taking a sharp turn, she trips and tumbles, a pile of flailing legs. Our elephant watches on, unconcerned. Baby has known only three moons. She’s learning. An older male, a small-tusked cousin who should know better, decides to play with her, picking her up from the ground with his trunk before pulling vigorously at her tail. Mother is having none of it. Having realised the situation, she thunders out of the brush, shaking the earth so much that our elephant takes three steps back. The bones of Mother’s skull are more prominent now, the pink skin on her forehead pocked with freckles, but the grip of her rule has not weakened with age. She strides up to the male and knees him in the face, sending him off with his tail between his legs. None the wiser for what’s just happened, baby starts to suckle. Milk dribbles from her little lips. Her aunts and sisters will play with her properly after she’s done.
As the day goes on, the sun weakens and the air cools. The herd stops spraying mud over their backs to shield themselves, a couple of them heading off towards the nearby lake for an afternoon drink. From a nearby dead tree, a roller crows. A breeze ruffles its feathers, prompting it to dart off into the cloudless sky. Our elephant chews on another trunkful of grass, her eyes following the bird into the distance. She is in no hurry.
As we come out of the airport into the Sri Lankan air, the humidity hits me like a muggy punch. For a moment it’s hard to breathe. I can feel the sweat starting to rise and drip down from my forehead. My mother’s eyes are behind sunglasses as the glare peeps from under the concrete overhang, but her concrete cheeks say far more. I try to straighten myself up as we walk along the pavement in search of a cab to our hotel.
This is the first time I’ve been to Sri Lanka for eleven years, back when I was six. That time, when we came to attend my grandmother’s funeral, I contracted dengue, and though I can barely remember it through the haze of whirring fans, white sheets and chirping geckos, my parents were so scared that they stayed away till they were sure my immune system was strong enough. Unfortunately, as time went on and I grew into my teens, that fear never left them. It just transmuted itself to everything else.
“Putha,” Dad would say, “don’t stay out past 9 or I’ll text Michelle.”
“Putha,” Mum would say, “why are you dressed like that?! Do you want somebody to attack you?”
I always told them not to worry but they never listened. My friends are responsible, I would say. They weren’t the kind to leave me at the train station just because they were in a hurry, they weren’t the kind to go out on corners and let the boys chat us up. My parents, however, have their ways. As for me, I have the ways of the white man – the suddha – as they so disdainfully put it.
Sometimes in this house, I feel like I’m the immigrant, not them.
As we drive through the Colombo streets, the air-con a welcome relief even though I have to cough as I adjust, I’m struck. We weave through herds of vast Leyland coaches; drivers here don’t follow road etiquette at all.
There are Buddha statues and shrines of all shapes and sizes lining the road, some illuminated by neon lights, others attached to a city-wide system of wires and microphones for religious announcements. We drive past colourful stores, international chains and local stands, stacked like toyboxes as the owners no doubt clamour for space.
“I’m so glad we didn’t arrive at midday,” Dad says. “We would have cooked like roast chickens in this oven.”
I wonder whether he says this because of his own culture shock. After all, eleven years is a long time when all the other Sri Lankans we know go back every two.
We are staying at an old friend of my Mum’s, a family who used to live nearby in the UK. As we turn into their side-road, I have to ask, “Mum, is all this theirs?”
I look up from the marbled floors of the foyer, past the spindly tree in the middle housing a bird’s nest, all the way up to the high ceilings rising five floors up. This place is a small castle. For the same price in London, I soon learn we could barely afford our existing three-bedroom matchbox.
Aunty greets us with hugs and a meal already prepared. She is small, sharp-eyed, with a relaxed expression that belies her industry. She’s barely in the house – most of the time she’s on the road, at work or hosting guests – and even when she’s there, she’s helping the servants and feeding the extended family populating the house.
“You look just like your Amma,” she says, with much the same accent as my parents. I smile – a little tightly – as I do to everyone who tells me that, wondering how twenty years in the UK didn’t change their voices. As we sit down at the table under a perpetually spinning fan, Aunty uncovers the food and we start serving from plates of creamy cashew curry, aubergine mix in banana leaves, chilli-laden pol sambol and pink mountains of string hoppers and sultana rice. As the richness of coconut oil, spice and chef’s love melds on my tongue, a photograph by the table catches my eye.
“Thilini’s on a trip to Mirissa,” Aunty says. “She’ll be back tomorrow. Ashan’s here though. Ashaaaaaaaan!”
As she stands up and calls his name, I look down at my plate, wondering if she’d noticed my eyes lingering. I barely remember what he looked like as a child, but the young man in that photo is dark and beautiful. He has skin as smooth as clay, an expression at peace, the slightest underbite. As he lopes down the stairs, I forget where I am, shutting my mouth just in time as he sits opposite me. He smiles. I smile back. As he serves himself and we dress our hands in this beautiful food, I wonder to myself if my silence would have been the same if we were back home.
With the rising heat, it is becoming more difficult to sleep. While the forest’s darkness is a relief during the day, when she goes out at night onto the pastures to feed, the desiccated grass grits against her teeth. She barely fills her stomach. None of the herd can. She can smell the rain to the south, a lingering sensation, a temptation that makes her lift her trunk to the sky in a half-heart against her forehead. She knows it is better there than near to the earth, where winds stir up dust into small storms that lodge in and irritate her tender nostrils.
The baby crosses her mind.
A few nights later, the matriarch decides it is time to leave. Keeping together with her new daughter, she marches in the middle of the herd, a forest of legs and thickset bodies protecting her. The tusked cousin has long since left. He is either with a bachelor herd making the same journey, or he is dead. Our elephant has noticed most of the bulls she meets on her travels have no tusks, but doesn’t think anything of it. She hasn’t lived long enough to know the opposite.
During the day, they find shelter wherever they can. The elephants have carved paths through the foliage over the years, so much so that ours notes how soft the forest floor feels compared to last year. These new red and yellow flowers have appeared close to the ground, shrouded by sharp-edged leaves, yellowing the grass beneath. These plants are new here. They clutter the landscape with the wrong colours, the smell of poison she knows not to go near. That is not all that has changed.
While some old forest trails are intact, rivers of hot, black tarmac have replaced the others, stretching through newly naked land and out beyond the heat haze. The elephants can’t always travel at night. The need for water can’t always be sated by a single night-time sip. As such, they have no choice but to cross the baking black strips, trying to keep to the forested roadside as much as they can so they keep their soles from peeling off.
One waterhole is particularly small. It is barely a pond, caged by rotting logs and choked with leaves, lined at the edge by a troupe of red-faced macaques, cautiously sipping. They have been here a while; their faeces have dried around the pond’s edge to form a brown bank that they lean over to reach the water. As the elephants’ rumbling reaches their ears, they scatter, the elephants ignoring the acid taste of urine as they slurp water into their trunks and down their parched throats. The macaques chatter in protest like mosquitoes, but quickly relent. They disappear into the trees.
The baby rests on her knees in the shade, tiny mouth hanging open. If she tried to swim or spray any more water over her back, she would likely deplete the waterhole. Our elephant drinks what she can, nudging up to an aunt nearby who then holds her trunk in hers.
In a few weeks, she and the baby will be able to drink and swim to their hearts content. Where they’re going, for a few golden months at least, they should have no worries.
After dinner, we leave the old people to reminisce about their childhoods and head upstairs.
“Are you going to the wedding as well?” Ashan asks me. His voice is deep, his accent clear, fluid, indistinguishable.
“That’s why we came here,” I say. “Dad says he’s known the groom’s father since Uni.”
“Batchmates, loyal to the end.”
The way he pronounces ‘mate’ gives it away. Ashan is in his third year at the University of Melbourne, studying computer science.
“It’s more expensive over there,” he says, very matter-of-factly. “You’ve got to work for your money, but that’s not a bad thing. I’m a driver-for-hire.”
“Oh my God, but studying takes up so much time! How do you do it?”
He smiles with his teeth, looking away a second, as if he’s running the picture of me slaving away at a table in his head like a movie.
“You get used to it,” he says. “If you know you have to do something, especially if you like it, you learn to prioritise what’s important.”
The heat of the day dissipates, melting into cool darkness as we sit in his room by the open window. The conversation starts slowly. School, TV shows, the usual. I am careful to say anything more. Sri Lankans put family first. Back home, it’s a distilled relic of the motherland. Blood makes you, blood remembers, blood needs to flow as it’s always done, especially when you’re in a foreign land. I know too many people who have been ruined when a nosy relative couldn’t shut their mouth.
Meanwhile, Ashan – bless him – tries. All young people know what I know, but he loves to talk. Not just about himself – though his stories of debauchery from Australia’s student halls are very funny – but for the sake of the other person. Conversations are dances of words. You need partners who can work together, understand each other’s ebbs and flows. Eventually, something comes to Ashan that relaxes his shoulders. He changes the steps.
“You remember that car?” he asks. His brown eyes light up.
His smile sinks.
“The one you broke, silly.”
At first, I’m incredulous. I sift through memories like dead leaves, old identities winking and disappearing like a nomad over sand dunes, till the image of a gap-toothed boy, struggling with me on the floor as Pinky and the Brain plots in the background, rises like spring water.
“That wasn’t…that wasn’t my fault!” I splutter, but now he’s laughing at me, putting his hand on my shoulder to stop himself from falling over.
“I hope that you’re not so mean now, you know?”
His chest rises and falls, the gap between his pecs looking as if it’s about to burst from his unbuttoned polo. It doesn’t take long for that laugh to spread to me. Soon I’m cursing him for making me lose my cool.
He’s not like the boys I’ve spoken to at school. They knew me as someone to desire and nothing beyond, someone hardened and guarded. Ashan knew me from before, from when I was small and vulnerable, yet bullishly innocent in the way children often are. All my friends from that era have gone. All my beliefs of myself from that era have gone. Seeing him brings all of that back, as if no time has passed at all.
“Ashan, Heshani!” Aunty calls, a clarion out of nowhere. The room’s postered blue walls seem just a little clearer. “Dinner time!”
I look Ashan in the eyes, feeling more at home than I have in years.
We also notice Aunty’s mother in her room nearby, watching TV in her wheelchair, neck craning around for someone to talk to. Her eyebrows are kind. As she sees me she smiles a little, but then, looking up at Ashan a moment, I shuffle a few centimetres back. We don’t have many relatives at home. If I did anything my parents found untoward, it would remain between my friends. I think to myself, there’s a certain way to behave here. I keep my urge to wrap myself in his arms to myself.
It isn’t just her family that is making this journey. She hasn’t quite kept count, but something like 400 different elephants converge on this one small area at the same time each year. While the water in the tanks has receded in the heat, it has left new growth in its wake, the same new growth she could smell from so far away. She can smell it getting closer, and in doing so, she remembers. She remembers old friends from far away, the feel of their dusty foreheads and leathery trunks. She remembers brothers that left the family long ago. She remembers new babies chasing and squirting each other with fresh water she will soon immerse herself in. She remembers the giant that swaggered towards her, sweeping the younger ones aside like birds. She remembers his roar coursing through her body when she let him onto her back.
But then, she remembers the upright monkeys, whistling to themselves in small groups as they line up in strange, green constructions. She has seen many in her lifetime. Some of them, when she was out by the grass, would flash bright lights and gesture with pale limbs. Others, darker, leading the way, she sees more often. They point less, but here, at least, they keep their distance.
She knows the fields won’t feed her forever. With so many mouths gathering together, fresh grass will soon run out, and eventually, her family will leave. Out on their travels, passing through areas they know, following the clean, clear smells of food and water, her family would find a rice field at the edge of the forest. The promise of fresh shoots lies within sight. All that stands in the way is a border, wood and wire. A baby would stroll over to push at them, but as they grow older, elephants learn that the border’s crackling isn’t a trick of the ear. One touch of the wire and a pain like nothing they have ever felt wracks their body. Rarely, it is possible to slip a trunk underneath the wire, pull a single shoot from the water and place it between yearning lips, but most of the time they have to wait. Sometimes, on a quiet night when the whistling ends and the frogs begin to croak, the crackling suddenly stops. Then, the elephants can push down the border and have the whole field to themselves.
She remembers one night more than most. That night is why, when her family moves through these fields to feed, she is the last to join them.
She remembers the sloshing of her legs in the darkness, submerged up to her knees, the chews, scuffs and rumbles of her happy family echoing through the air as they grazed around her. She remembers rice grains spilling onto her tongue, how her baby huddled beneath her because he was afraid of how they would land like tiny pebbles against his head. She remembers how her mother’s tail brushed her head as it rose towards the starlit sky. She remembers hulking shapes turning to flee as whistling starts out of nowhere, turning to barks, then grunts, then shouts. She remembers the sticks of fire, the deafening cracks, like thunder, tearing through the air. Her family was almost through. Most of the others had charged into the jungle, out of sight. Then she remembers the ping beneath her body, the slumping of a small, warm body against her legs. She keeps fleeing, but amidst the primal fear, she knows what has happened. She does not sleep. When the sun rises, and with the fence still unrepaired, she returns to the paddy field and cradles her baby. She doesn’t leave the area for days.
We spend the week before the wedding frenziedly shopping. Mum and Aunty are in continual motion, driving around visiting hairdressers and sari places, buying food or trying to find the best deals on mobile phones. Thilini – a skinny ball of energy with chirpy laughs and obsessed with perfect photographs, comes back, and with her in tow, Ashan uses his holiday time to show me around the city. We sample the overpriced cashews at the Odel mall, the reclining seats of the Liberty Cinema, watch hermit crabs that could fit on the tip of my thumb as they scurry towards the sea. Every moment we spend together is its own movie. Every moment is one I’m sure I’ll remember forever.
On the night of the wedding, I obsess over my hair and makeup, putting extra pins in my sari, wanting to cover every blemish in case he looks. It’s a venue by the beach, a white relic of Colonialism with helmeted guards and a fountain where turtles plop into the water. When I see the scale of the hall that’s been rented out, the pristine cream of the tables and the flowers leading to the poruwa where the couple will be married, I’m in awe. My Desi friends have been to hundreds thanks to their extended families. This is only my second or third. Through the blizzard of the buffet, Uncle-dancing and confetti that follows, I wonder how many Ashan, laughing with his family, has been to. I daydream of the few moments we can share afterwards, on the balcony overlooking the sea.
When we finally sneak away from the party, it’s dark. The sea laps against the sand in a constant, hypnotic motion, a touch of salt in the air. As we look past the palms, Ashan and I can see the Indian Ocean spread beyond the horizon. By now we are comfortable talking about anything, but still, as he stares into the distance, questions swirl in my throat.
“Do you ever get told off for being too…much like a suddha?” I ask in fragmented Sinhala. He laughs.
“I would if I spoke like one.”
“Shut up! At least I’ve tried to learn.”
“I know, I know, that’s good. I know people who were brought up in Aussie who always talk about their parents being Sri Lankan, but they don’t speak Sinhalese. You’ve got to live here to get fluent.”
I push his shoulder for the earlier tease.
“I’m surprised you’re asking that though,” he says. “If you know the language, that’s great.”
“It’s not just that though,” I say. I look out across the water and I breathe. “I think…you know, sometimes, my parents have a point. I go to the temple and everything, and that’s fine, I enjoy it, but sometimes I’m at a party drinking with my friends and having fun, I come home, and I just feel so…indecent. I never hear my parents stop talking about how things…how I should be.”
I look up at him, his lips, then his eyes.
“I feel like I’m being cut in two. I hate it, Ashan. I hate it. My friends are Asian, but they get to do what they want, their parents don’t seem to mind, but mine? It was hard enough getting these moments with you.”
He looks at me for a long, silent moment, almost as if he’s looking through me. His eyebrows shift, calm turning to almost wistful sadness.
“You’re like how I was with my girlfriend back in Aussie,” he says. The words, slow and measured as they are, don’t click, not just yet. “So often, we’re travelling between identities like we have no choice. She dances Kandyan to help her feel more connected, but she was born there, everyone else she knows was born there. Her heritage puts everything in sharper focus.”
“What about you?” I ask. He pauses.
“Sometimes I feel Sri Lankan,” he says, “it’s the biggest part of me, the one that’s shaped me the most. Other times, I think about everything I did in the UK, primary school, woodchips and cold winters, and then Aussie where I am now with my job. Other days…I’m just Ashan.”
“My parents have thought that I’ve been getting soft as well. Not often, but they say it sometimes when they disagree with me. They’re worried, but it’s okay. I just had to realise that, ultimately, you’re not two halves of one whole, you’re two whole people living and working together in sync. There’s no reason to sacrifice one for the other, not when you have the choice. Your parents and relatives aren’t the ones living your life. One day, you will end up in a situation where you’re old and opportunities will have come and gone, and you’ll think to yourself, what could I have done? Why do you think I drive? My parents never wanted me to, but I felt like I needed it, the independence, and I’ve had so much fun with it! Now, they barely question things.”
He smiles now and puts a hand on my shoulder.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is…ask yourself. If you had some control over who you were, Heshani, who would you choose to be?”
I smile to myself, a little wistfully, as I thank him and give him a hug. As we walk back to the congregation, thinning as the wedding empties of guests, our silence is peaceful, necessary. Of course, this magical man wasn’t single, I can’t help but think. How could he be? Of course, there was someone else before me. But, for the first time in my life, it is not these reflexive questions that stand at the forefront of my mind.
Our car home arrives on the cobblestones within half an hour. We get in, the young people squeezing up together in the back. As the engine starts up and the air-con whirrs as we drive away into the night, for the first time, I feel lighter than I’ve ever been.
Luckily for Heshani, her parents have gotten her dual citizenship. With this, she doesn’t need to worry about her lack of command of the Sinhala language. She can merely flash her passport and get the local fees, 10% of that of a tourist, in this case a safari for £5.
They have driven up with Ashan and his family to a palm-lined hotel in Dambulla, her mother determined to revisit the cultural triangle that defined her childhood – Sigiriya, the mountain temples, the elephants. Heshani was with Ashan and Thilini the other night by the pool at the hotel, watching his seashell nails between turns spent playing cards. She is still hurting from his revelation a few nights back, but at the same time, she’s glad she didn’t have to ask. It will take time, but she knows that disappointment heals faster than betrayal.
The next day, they drive up to Kaudulla National Park, where they have heard they will get the best possible views of the migrating herds.
“The best time to go is between 12 to 2,” her mother says, “that way we can miss the crowds.”
The roads, however, are busier than they expect. Traffic clogs the dusty brown streets. The truck they have hired is old with chipped metal bars and worn leather seating like a church pew. Heshani’s mother complains about the lack of individual seating; the truck company owners must know that without individual seats, they can pack in more than the ten or fifteen recommended. Heshani loses count of how many reddened, sweaty tourists there are alongside their group.
As the crowded truck runs along, the man they thought would drive jumps off at the nearest store, leaving only Heshani’s father as the one who has seen the actual driver. There is a thick plastic sheet between the passengers and the driver’s cabin; barely a whisper travels in either direction. She wonders to herself whether all tour companies cut corners like this, whether she can really trust the real driver. The other tourists don’t mind. They’re too busy sticking their heads out to catch a breeze.
She is facing away from the front when the truck starts to slow. Turning her head to the left, she notices a small bank by the roadside, glassy, guarded by a man in a brown uniform, shotgun in hand, the barrels lying against the ground like the head of a shovel. She feels the brakes as they judder and jar, the truck suddenly pulling over to the side of the road. For a moment she looks around to find the reason. It does not take long.
A tuskless elephant stands alone on a track leading out from the forest. Dark and grey, with freckles on her forehead, she is close enough that if Heshani reached out, the two could touch. From this distance, they can see the black stripes in each other’s brown eyes.
The other tourists in the truck start to coo, bunching between the metal gating to get a close-up. Heshani’s mother stays back, whispering to herself and Aunty. Thilini is even trying to get a selfie with Ashan amidst the bodies. Heshani is tempted, but she can sense something is off. Her fist starts to bunch.
The elephant sways. She can smell her family, just beyond the trees on the other side having crossed when the traffic stood still. She was late out of the brush, having been browsing on some dry leaves, but after running through to the road, now this vast truck is in the way and she cannot get around it. The whistles of the tourists get louder and louder, the flashes like tiny flames. She tilts her head and steps forward, trumpeting back so her family can hear. Hearing an echo, thinking they have heard her, she trumpets again.
The tourists flinch.
Heshani has known the story of these animals since she was a child. She knows that their annual migration is something they’re held captive by, a never-ending cycle dictated by forces beyond their control. She knows that the reserve with its vast tank is a sanctuary. She also knows that all too often, situations like these will arise, conflicts between opposing parties that only know one way.
She sees Ashan, his Amma’s head buried against his shoulder, unable to look at the elephant as it swings its head. His eyes don’t look up, they’re focused, his arms wrapped tight around his family and even one of the tourist girls as she struggles for breath. She sees the elephant step back, curl her trunk into a grey cannonball. A whisper ripples through the passengers, turning into shouts. She sees the guard turning, his shotgun hanging a little less lazily in his hands.
And then, as if catapulted through a tunnel, her memories and identities and desires and regrets like cinematic screens along the walls, she thinks.
If you had some control over who you were, who would you choose to be?
She gathers herself and unravels her fist.
“Go!” she yells, slapping the plastic barrier harder and harder. “She’s getting upset, let’s go!”
The moment that follows, for the elephant and the girl, will feel like a tiny infinity.