In the South

Morning starts early in the dark, pre-pre-dawn.The noises begin first, in a set pattern of succession. First the occaisional truck.Then bicycles.Then cars and buses. Gradually, all are driving, riding frantically. This is 5am.


I wake up automatically. I was once a morning person.The morning was lit by dim electric lights and a small portable kerosene lamp: a wick in a bottle. “We used to study by those,” Dad would say.


Crisp white uniforms were pressed.The van would come by on its epic route to school. It was still dark. We were farewelled and sent off.The van maximised the trip to Galle, going through rural back roads.There was a pink house with a large tree in front against rice fields.There were houses with baskets for sale out the front.There were rice fields, we watched the sun rise over them.Sometimes there was a mist.


The traffic had gotten busier. We arrived at school, dropped off along with other girls who came from families so traditional they came by bullock cart, driven by a very, very old man.There was s till a trek to school.The boys went to Aloysius. Some of us girls went to the Convent. The rest went to Mahinda and Sanghamitta. Sanghamitta was my mother’s school.


Galle Convent was a grand old school: parquetry, a black and white tiled entrance hall, pass though to the main courtyard which was surrounded on three sides by four and five story buildings. The tuck shop nestled against them.  Detached classrooms lay on the other sides. Ours were in a pink building even further away. I went to school for a term before all the schools shut down for months and the country went in and out of martial law.When I returned some months later, having been promoted to high school proper, we got a classroom in the multistory building, up several flights of stairs with a proper glass window instead ofe concrete vents. We could see the nearby men’s prison from the window, and the house of the very elderly lady who lived next door to it, who, it was reputed, was very fond of the palm sugar we someimtes used a a sugar substitute. The morning assemblies had prayers after the singing of the anthem, and in this Catholic convent, the majority of students were Buddhist and would remain in the courtyard while the rest of the relgisions – hindu, muslim, christian – went off to their separate prayers. 


The building was full of nooks and crannies which delighted the Enid Blyton reader in me. We would walk over to a gorgeous science lab built many decades before: dark woodgrain benches, wood panelling. Our teacher burnt a bit of copper in a bunsen burner, turned a concoction of hibiscus juice dark blue with acid. We walked back, slightly startled by a tableau; five students kneeling, sitting on chairs, praying on a landing, with two nuns. Eyes closed. Light from the window on them.


I only went to that lab once but I have never forgotten it.


After school we gathered at the meeting place: someone’s front garden, loaned out to the van drivers so that the kids they delivered could have somewhere to wait. Once, the lady and daughter of the house spoke to me and i fumbled, no t knowing what Sinhalese to respond in. They switched in English and asked me to feel free to sit in the antechamber any time I was waiting. I was nearly fed at that point.


We drove back through a slightly different route.I don’t recall it now. Home by 1.30pm, for lunch.White uniforms were hung outside. The heat of the day was intense. We stayed indoors. The cooking of dinner began, women grinding the spices on a flat stone with water.  Day crawls to a close as dusk settles in.That’s when you really feel like studying. If the lights went out, we studied by lamplight. It was rare for that to happen but somehow, fun when it did. We tumbled into bed early. The road’s cacophony continued late into the night, but we didn’t hear it.

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