Friends from Home by Aparna Surendra
By Wasafiri Editor on May 17, 2021 in
Dimuth’s father had lost his job. He was an accountant, CIMA-qualified, still a few years from retirement; the family had outstanding medical bills and loan repayments on the land in Ragama. Dimuth didn’t know what to do.
Dimuth told Meena this in the middle of the quad. She had just bought them iced coffees. A hot breeze blew and undergraduates cycled lazily past. Meena said she would call her own father, who ran a business that included pharmaceuticals and supermarkets. Within a week, Dimuth’s father was employed again, and earning more than he ever had before.
Dimuth walked to Meena’s apartment to thank her. His father wanted to thank her, too; his voice cracked as he wished Meena and her family all the blessings of the triple gem. Meena said ‘please, uncle’ and ‘thank you, uncle’, but when she hung up she said, ‘You really shouldn’t thank me.’
She shook her head and said, ‘You should be furious.’
Dimuth hugged her anyway and repeated: thank you, thank you.
Meena and Dimuth first met at the American embassy, in a waiting room with consular counters in the front and rows of seats in the middle. Everyone clutched bulging plastic folders: bank statements, birth certificates, undergraduate transcripts, laminated diplomas. Dimuth was wearing a suit, just in case. It was too hot for a jacket but it was too late to take it off because he’d sweated through his shirt.
‘Congratulations,’ the consular officer said, as he examined Dimuth’s documents. ‘You’re going to the best university in the world!’ Dimuth relaxed and smiled. He believed this, too.
‘Two in one day!’ the same officer said to Meena soon after. ‘The best university in the world!’ Meena smiled because she had to. She subscribed to American exceptionalism, but still found it frightful.
Meena lived in a small graduate student apartment identical to Dimuth’s own, with a scratchy sofa and scratched-up chairs. She’d found Dimuth through the campus directory and invited him to dinner, it would be fun, he could meet some of her law-school friends. Dimuth thought there would be cutlets and fish patties but instead there was melon wrapped in Parma ham.
‘Do you eat meat?’ Meena asked, and when Dimuth shook his head Meena pointed to a cheese board that had little flags with ‘brie’, ‘comté’, and ‘stilton’ written on them.
Meena said the advantage of living on the West Coast, not the East, and of being twenty-four, not twenty-two, was that all her classmates found this quite sophisticated.
‘No one knows what they’re doing,’ she said.
She told him to try the brie, it was very good.
Meena called Dimuth a friend from home, even though Dimuth’s friends from home had parents who worked in sales or accounts or marketing. They would take the bus until they saved enough for a motorbike, or were promoted to management positions with a company car. Dimuth didn’t have friends like Meena, who went to a school where students could smoke and drink and have sex (Meena rolled her eyes; no one was having sex). Dimuth would see them at sports meets and debate competitions.They wore their uniforms untucked and low-slung or hiked-up, and their drivers waited outside with warm lunchboxes and soft drinks.
At one of Meena’s dinners, a law school friend (twenty-two, a giddy drunk) pointed suggestively at Meena, then Dimuth, and asked, ‘Why not?’ Meena smiled easily and said that Dimuth would marry a good Sinhalese Buddhist who wore her hair in two fat plaits.
Dimuth didn’t think there was anything wrong with this but afterwards, Meena apologised.
‘That was unnecessary,’ Meena said.
‘That’s my Ammi,’ Dimuth replied, and Meena looked uncomfortable.
Meena and Dimuth were just friends. It was true enough to say there was no chemistry, although Dimuth didn’t use words like ‘chemistry’; at least, not like that.
‘You think you’re too good for us,’ Charith once told Meena. The three of them were in Meena’s apartment; she was trying to make cutlets.
Meena and Charith had gone to school together. They had been friendly without being friends, but could still share stories from when they were seven and twelve and fifteen. When Charith’s mother died, Meena went for the funeral; their whole class did.
Charith’s father owned a firm that kept winning big government contracts. As a hobby, he collected classic cars. He bid on them at international auctions and requested air freight to Sri Lanka.
‘I’m definitely too good for you,’ Meena said lightly. With Charith this was true and uncomplicated because of the Porsches and the profiteering, which everyone knew about but only some people thought was wrong.
At home, Charith ordered table service at the clubs and all the waitstaff knew his name. He dated thin women with pouty lips, and he would almost certainly marry a Sinhalese Buddhist (if he did, she would definitely be Govigama), one whose hair fell straight down her back. Charith enjoyed business school for the parties and, if pushed for another reason, the networking.
‘I have a question,’ Dimuth asked later that night. They were drunk, and the living room smelled like tinned fish and fried oil. ‘Have you ever taken a bus?’
Meena said, ‘I take the Muni all the time,’ but she knew that wasn’t the question.
‘Why would I take the bus?’ Charith asked.
‘I’ve taken tuk tuks,’ Meena said.
‘Oh, just give up,’ Charith said, and he passed around his flask.
Dimuth’s research group studied cancer; their findings were published in big-name journals and featured in news segments. Dimuth loved going into lab. He loved the meetings and roundtables and shaking hands with academics whose names he knew from papers. And there was another feeling, too, a growing confidence about the future. He would almost certainly earn enough for his parents to retire. He could build them a house in Ragama.
‘Definitely,’ Meena said. She was applying for summer positions at human rights organisations. These were prestigious and competitive but paid very little.
Charith didn’t like to talk about Meena’s law school events or her summer plans, which Dimuth didn’t notice until one evening, Meena refused to speak about anything else. She didn’t let Charith interrupt with stories about a trip to Vegas, or the second-year he was texting (she used to model; catalogues, mostly).
‘Shut up, Charith,’ Meena said.
Meena had just attended a reception for a prominent barrister who prosecuted human rights violations at international tribunals. She and Meena spoke at length about a fact-finding mission in Sri Lanka; the barrister said that students like Meena were a bright spot in a bleak world, and had passed along her business card.
‘Time to bounce,’ Charith said, picking up his wallet. ‘I’m triggered.’
Dimuth wanted to leave as well, but he didn’t know how.
‘And I have a dinner to get to,’ Charith said.
‘Wait, why can’t we have this conv—’ Meena began.
‘I’m not talking about this,’ Charith said, and he walked out.
Meena ran to her screen door and slid it open. Charith was already striding through the parking lot.
‘Forty thousand people dead, Charith,’ Meena shouted from the balcony. Dimuth hovered behind her, uncertain.
‘That’s not true,’ Charith shouted back. He didn’t turn around.
‘Forty thousand people slaughtered,’ Meena yelled. ‘You’re intelligent, you’re educated!’ She waved her glass, spilling wine two floors to the concrete below. ‘How can you not believe the facts?’
‘Those aren’t facts,’ Charith yelled back, reaching his car. ‘For fuck’s sake.’
And then, while struggling with the door: ‘Fucking hell.’
And then, before slamming it shut: ‘Fucking Tamil bitch.’
Meena stumbled backwards, stunned. She turned towards Dimuth, who stammered that he didn’t know, he just didn’t know, and quickly left.
It was around this time that Dimuth’s mother started to talk about proposals. Dimuth had called to ask for a butter cake recipe, it would be a surprise for Meena. He’d also found her favourite snack at the Indian store, a sugary peanut brittle.
‘Tamils love that,’ his mother said, knowingly.
Dimuth’s father asked for the phone, he was so glad that Dimuth and Meena were friends. Everyone in the office adored Meena’s father, who was the kind of boss who remembered birthdays and asked about the children. He would stop by the hospital when a baby was born or an elderly parent was sick; before he left, he would pull out an envelope stiff with crisp notes (a gift for the baby, to help with your mother).
That community knew how to make money. They kept their heads down and did good work. They took care of their own, and now Dimuth’s father felt taken care of, too.
‘A top class man,’ Dimuth’s father said.
‘Butter, sugar, eggs, flour, milk,’ Dimuth’s mother said. ‘Baking powder, vanilla.’
Also, before she forgot, her colleague had passed along details of a lovely girl. A trainee at a small accounting firm.
‘She’s very pretty,’ Dimuth’s mother continued. She sounded relieved when Dimuth asked to see a picture.
‘Govigama?’ he asked.
‘Of course,’ his mother replied, surprised by the question.
Dimuth and Meena met on the lawn halfway between the lab and the law school. They didn’t invite Charith.
‘I know you’re a Tamil, yes,’ Dimuth said. He’d brought the snacks and cake, carefully wrapped in foil.
‘I wouldn’t use the article, just say Tamil. You know I’m Tamil,’ Meena said.
‘At first, I thought you might be Indian.’
‘Is that supposed to be a compliment?’
‘Because you don’t speak Sinhala.’
‘Kohomada, keeyada, palayang bung.’
‘Be careful with the last one,’ Dimuth said.
Meena unwrapped a piece of brittle. ‘Do you think all Tamils are Indians?’ she asked. A breeze blew the film wrapper along the grass, but Meena didn’t notice. ‘Go back where you came from, you Indians. Palayang bung.’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘What if I said I felt Eelam?’ she asked.
The sun was too bright. Dimuth began to feel dizzy.
‘I don’t,’ Meena said, ‘But sometimes I wish I did.’ The brittle cracked as she chewed. ‘It would make for a clearer type of politics.’
‘Terrorism as a clearer type of politics?’ Dimuth asked, weakly. He often repeated Meena’s statements as a question; it gave him time to think.
‘A clearer sense of belonging.’
Dimuth said they should change the subject.
Charith sent Meena a crate of wine, which she returned. Then he sent her flowers, which she returned. Finally, he buzzed her apartment and said, ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have called you that.’
At least he was honest, Meena thought. Some things you were only allowed to think, not say out loud.
‘Which part are you apologising for, exactly?’ Meena asked.
Charith sighed, but stayed on the intercom.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
Finally, Meena pressed the button to let him in. It can be hard to shake affection for people you knew at seven and twelve and fifteen.
‘She’s pretty,’ Meena said, when Dimuth showed her the picture. Charith agreed, but he said that wasn’t the point.
‘You’re in America,’ Charith said, ‘You have to go on one real date.’
‘You don’t have to do anything,’ Meena said.
When Dimuth had imagined California, there’d been open-top cars and smiling blonde women, with the sound of waves crashing in the distance.
‘What are you, a sixty-year-old uncle?’ Meena asked.
‘If you go on a date, you can take the Tesla,’ Charith said.
Dimuth told his mother that he liked the photo, and she told her colleague (and so on), and they sent back Sashikala’s number. In her chat profile, Sashikala’s face was partly hidden behind a single rose. Dimuth liked texting her.
‘I don’t want to go on a date,’ Dimuth said a few days later. ‘But can I still take the car?’
He drove it to the Indian grocery store.
Soon, Sashikala’s mother realized they’d gotten ahead of themselves. They still had to compare the horoscopes. Dimuth wasn’t worried until Sashikala called him, crying. The astrologer had said they were incompatible. He predicted grief, disaster, maybe even death.
‘What the fuck,’ Meena said.
‘You need a new astrologer,’ Charith said.
‘That’s right,’ Meena said.
Charith’s father knew an excellent Sinhalese astrologer, who was consulted before elections and mergers and nearly every acquisition. This astrologer was fond of young love and very fond of Charith’s father, so he ignored his waitlist to read Dimuth and Sashikala’s charts. He told Sashikala’s mother not to worry, and wrote down a list of auspicious dates and times. He called the other astrologer a fraud. On his walls were photos with actors and presidents and members of parliament, and Sashikala’s mother felt reassured.
Sashikala’s mother felt even more reassured when Dimuth was approached by a company flush with new funding. They needed a computational biologist. Dimuth explained that he was just a biologist, but the company described all the ways he was computational, too. Then they told him what they could pay.
Dimuth said he wanted to finish graduate school, but yes, he could definitely work over the summer.
‘See!’ Meena said, ‘I told you so.’ Meena would spend her summer with a human rights organisation in D.C. Before accepting, she asked her parents if she could go home instead. She could do something grassroots in Jaffna. There was still a family house in Kopai, although it was shuttered and empty and, at one point, the army used it to store munitions. Meena told her parents that this was real work, important work, the reason she’d applied to law school in the first place. Her parents said: absolutely not, was she crazy? Her brother told her to drop this romantic bullshit (he worked in finance in New York; he liked to yell). Her father said that in America, Meena could work on civil rights, human rights, whatever she wanted. Meena said that was very arbitrary but her father said no, it wasn’t. In America, a woman called Kamala could run for president.
A second conversation on the lawn went like this:
‘Do you think I could be president?’
‘That’s a weird question.’
Meena had come straight from the library, with a stack of books balanced under her arm. She arranged them on the grass in front of her, neatly aligning their spines.
‘People at the law school ask it all the time. Or think it, anyway,’ she said.
‘Yeah, sure. But you weren’t born here,’ Dimuth said.
‘No, I mean at home. Could I be a Sri Lankan president?’ Meena paused. ‘You can say no.’
‘No,’ Dimuth said. To soften this, he said, ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What about my kids, could they be president?’
‘Would they speak Sinhala?’ Dimuth asked.
‘Yup, beautiful Sinhala.’ She adjusted her sunglasses. ‘But they’d be Tamil.’
‘I don’t know,’ Dimuth said. ‘Probably not.’ He wished Charith were here. He didn’t want to talk about this.
A tour group walked by, pausing every few steps to take photos of the lawn.
‘You know, not everyone can be everything,’ Dimuth continued; he felt annoyed.
‘And doesn’t that make you angry?’ Meena asked.
‘No, not really,’ Dimuth said. A man with a visor swapped out his camera lens. ‘I think that’s normal.’
Dimuth began to skip Meena’s dinners. The end of the year was busy with problem sets and finals and undergraduates to teach. And then, suddenly, the crush lifted; relief rushed in. It was the beginning of the summer.
Dimuth was flying home for a short holiday. He called Meena because he had a suitcase full of gifts, but still didn’t know what to get Sashikala.
‘She’ll just be happy to see you,’ Meena said. ‘In the flesh!’
They were at the campus store. Dimuth was flicking through clothing stamped with the university mascot.
‘What about a hoodie? Or a sweatshirt? Maybe the pink one.’
‘That’s hideous,’ Meena said. ‘And she can’t wear that at home, she’ll melt.’
‘She could wear it here,’ Dimuth said, looking for a price tag.
‘What?’ Meena asked, slowly.
‘When she comes here.’
‘You’re getting married?’
‘No, not married, we’ll have the poruwa later. But a registration.’
‘You’ll be legally married.’
‘So she can get her visa.’ Dimuth felt tired. ‘Why do you sound like that? The astrologer gave us dates, you knew that.’
‘It’s just — you could go slow.’ Meena paused. ‘Get to know her a bit, plan a little. There’s no rush.’
Dimuth didn’t say anything.
‘Fine, OK. You know what you’re doing,’ Meena said.
She rifled through the rack noisily.
‘So when Sashikala moves here, what will she do?’ she asked.
‘Whatever she wants,’ Dimuth said. ‘She could work.’
‘She can’t work on a spousal.’
Dimuth hadn’t known that. ‘Well, she could study. She could apply for a programme here.’
Meena looked at him.
‘What?’ Dimuth raised his voice. ‘You think she won’t get in?’
‘No,’ Meena said, gently. ‘I just don’t think that’s a fair expectation.’
‘And if she did,’ Meena asked, ‘how would you pay her fees?’
Dimuth snapped, ‘Why are you making this complicated?’
Meena said, ‘That’s not what I’m doing,’ but Dimuth cut in and said, ‘That’s all you do, you take everything normal and make it sad and complicated.’
A few weeks later, Dimuth and Sashikala registered at an event hall in Kollupitiya. Dimuth’s father asked Meena’s father to be a witness. Meena’s father was often asked to be a witness; he liked to say he had an excellent track record, by which he meant none of these couples had divorced.
Dimuth shook Meena’s father’s hand and called him ‘sir’ but Meena’s father said that was too formal so Dimuth said, ‘OK, uncle.’ Meena’s father smiled and said, ‘Good man,’ and pressed an envelope into Dimuth’s hand.
Meena’s mother (who was too fair to be a Tamil, said Dimuth’s mother; must be Indian, said Dimuth’s aunt) gave the couple a package from Meena. It had arrived that morning. Inside, nestled in beautiful crepe paper, was a bright pink sweatshirt.
Sashikala said she loved it.
Aparna Surendra is a Sri Lankan writer based in London.
‘Friends from Home’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Fiction.
Enter the prize here. Entries close 31 May 2021.