Karuna Parera, a well-known Sri Lankan writer, was an instant success with her first volume of short stories, Andurata Eliyak, published in 1971. She deals with the urban working class in her works, which has not figured much in literature before.


A Light in the Darkness


I’ve put the dal on the stove and am watching the road from the garden. One can see a long way down the road. No sign of mother yet. Granny is pounding away at her chew of betel leaves and arecanut on the verandah. The iron pestle strikes the wooden mortar with a hollow sound. Granny’s bottom touches the mud floor as she squats on her haunches.

“Come inside,” she says. “Mother won’t be much longer.”

“She’s never been so late.”

I am sitting beside granny, staring at the garden. She is still bent over the mortar, making that hollow sound with her pounding. Slowly the darkness comes, flooding in our very feet. A desolate moment this, when the dead sound of the iron on the wooden mortar rouses feelings of inexpressible sadness.

“I’ve cooked some dal. I don’t know what else to give you granny, since you can’t eat chillies.”

“Wait awhile, your mother’s sure to bring something.”

“She had no money. I had to give her five cents for the bus.”

“I dare say she will borrow from somebody.”

I continue gazing at the road. If mother got into debt this week as well… She’d use her wages to settle it and then be at a loss. Whenever I bend down, my dress splits with a ripping sound. Sweat and hair oil has rotted the cloth through. Yesterday mother asked me to wear my best dress about the house. If I wear it at home, what will I wear to the temple? When the next door family has its turn to give alms there, they take me along to do the washing up. From the time I get there, I do nothing but wash dishes till my back’s nearly broken. Still I like going to the temple. I never get a chance to go anywhere else. How can mother make me a new dress so soon as she says she would?
I suddenly remember the dal. I go to the fire to stir the pot.
‘Are you off to the temple then, Hamine?’ I hear granny say to the old woman next door.
‘Yes… take this temple offering, will you… where’s the girl?”
I come up running.
“Pick me those two flowers as well, my dear.”
I pick the flowers and put them in her basket but not with a good grace. They were the first flowers on my rose bush, two little red blossoms. She had drained my hendirikka bush of all its flowers in the morning. I must tell granny what the pious old hag had done.
It’s such a waste of flowers, giving them to that stingy old crone. This morning, when mother had asked if she could lend her fifty cents to go to work, she had croaked a naw, almost before mother had finished. But she’s got plenty of money to buy offerings for the monks.
“It’s your fault, granny, giving her my flowers. As soon as mother gets her wages, where does she go but to give alms? But they give alms like a loan, expecting it back with interest in the next life. We’ll get nirvana before these fine madams, granny.”

“Just listen to her! You’ve certainly grown much too soon, my girl. Let’s keep to ourselves and not meddle in other people’s affairs.”

I sit on the verandah again looking out at the road. Granny has stopped pounding. The betel leaves are now in her gaping mouth. I recall what a fine fellow our bread man is. He comes from a long way but never hesitates to give credit. He knows that mother will settle as soon as she is paid. I’ve had enough of eating bread soaked in strong dark tea. But no other person would give us credit.

The old woman next door once did my mother a fine turn. It makes my blood boil when I think about it. But I’m not firm enough to say no to going to the temple with her. That day, mother had gone round the next-door kitchen to pay off a debt as soon as she returned from work. She did that every time she got paid. The old woman offered mother tea with milk and coaxed her into grinding her chillies. Mother’s poor hands, sore from handling sand and cement, began to smart from the chillies and her eyes filled with tears. I cried as I put coconut oil on her palms. How I hate the old hag! That’s what she’s like. Whenever her serving woman is away, the cunning old crone manages to get someone else to do all the work.

Mother’s exhausted by the time she gets ho