As Sunil stood in his backyard staring at the carcass of the small unidentifiable animal—a cross between a rat and a Chihuahua—he realized he was missing something important. Tall concrete walls protected his compound from the surroundings, but every morning he still found empty arrack bottles, plastic bags filled with rotten smelling mud, decaying king coconut husks, and, now, a dead rodent.
Sunil tried to ask the man he’d hired to guard his compound if a storm had dropped these things. Sunil had heard about such events: objects and animals caught in the eye of the storm and dumped somewhere far from origin. The catcher stared at him, his broad face even more puckered and contorted than usual. Sunil used his best broken Sinhala to explain again, but the man’s eyes grew wider. Finally, Sunil gave up.
Was it the monsoons that sent that stuff over the compound wall, Sunil demanded from his thirteen-year-old daughter, Emily.
“Monsoon? Monsoon is months away.” Emily replied with that look of scorn, far too common these days.
“Then what’s doing that? Leaving those things there.”
“Boys from the village. They come at dawn.” Of course she was right. He’d seen the boys loitering on the beach but had thought that they were only beachcombing.
“Because we have a swimming pool and they don’t,” Emily answered matter-of-factly.
Sunil rose very early the next morning and waited near the wall. The first bottle came over, silhouetted against the rising sun. “Stop,” Sunil cried out. Nothing happened for a few seconds then he heard giggling. A boy called out something in Sinhala, that Sunil did not understand but somehow knew was a taunt. Sunil peered over the metal gate that separated his yard from the beach just in time to see five boys running across the sand.
Sunil was a thirty-five year old Sri-Lankan born, American engineer. He had returned to the home country a year before to work for an American engineering firm based in the capital. So far, the one thing he loved about Sri Lanka was the house his company had placed him in. After eight months in a cramped company apartment in the middle of Colombo, they’d offered him this split-level in a quiet fishing village a half-hour from the capital city. Located on a dirt road far from the village and close to the beach, with its air-conditioned office and private swimming pool, the house had felt a haven, the only haven he had in a country that seemed to assault him every day with things the meaning of which he could only barely comprehend. Then the boys started coming.
Sunil decided to ignore them, but they didn’t go away. Instead, they became angrier. They stood on the beach early morning, demanding to use the pool. They taunted the catcher, an elderly Tamil man Sunil had hired to clean the grounds and guard the compound gate. The catcher left soon after. The Scotsman who owned the house next to his told Sunil to go to the stationhouse. The chief inspector was a capable man.
Sunil did as the Scotsman suggested. The chief inspector barely acknowledged Sunil as long as he thought Sunil was Sri Lankan, but when Sunil explained he was a supervisor at a foreign engineering firm the inspector’s demeanor changed. Still nothing was done, and when Sunil returned a week later, the chief inspector frowned. “What to do men? This is the way here. They will get bored and go away, sooner or later.”
It was a passing conversation that solved the problem. Sunil had complained about what was happening to the cook Amara for no other reason than that he had no one else to talk to. Amara had listened carefully and solemnly and had not said a word when Sunil finished. Sunil was sure that once again he had not made himself clear.
Early the next morning, Sunil woke to see Amara standing in his backyard. As the first arrack bottle went sailing through the air, Amara made her way to the back gate, and called to the boys. She whispered something to them, and they listened. Whatever Amara said worked. After that, the boys did not come back.
Sunil’s parents had immigrated to a small town in North Carolina when he was only four. When Sunil was old enough to make such choices, he’d thrown himself into fitting in. For most of his life, he’d referred to himself as a Southerner. He spoke in ‘y’alls and qualified every other word with ‘real’. Y’all have a real good day now. Growing up, he’d listened to Cheap Trick, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin and hid his parents’ baila records. His parents had struggled when they arrived in the States and had put all their energy into keeping the family from poverty; they threw what little resources they had into giving Sunil the chance to become a good American. They never visited the home country so he never felt any strong ties.
Two years ago, his parents decided to sell the family business. They packed up their entire life, and retired to Boca Raton. The moment they did, Sunil realized he did not have a single connection to the small town in which he’d spent his childhood and young adulthood. He had no friends left there. He had no deep attachment or interest in Southern history and culture. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if he wasn’t already divorced, if he and Emily hadn’t spent their lives moving from one city to the next because of his work. Sunil felt suddenly placeless and rootless, bereft. When the position at engineering firm came along, it seemed a sign: the homeland calling Sunil back, providing an answer to his loss. It would be an adventure for Sunil and his daughter, an opportunity for both of them to discover a part of themselves.
But things hadn’t quite worked out the way Sunil expected. Since arriving, he’d become isolated in a way he never predicted. Sunil’s coworkers were mostly Europeans or Sri Lankans. Even if they had shared a culture, Sunil felt as their boss a distance that precluded friendship. The Sri Lankans he met outside of work thought him odd; maybe if he hadn’t looked like them they would have tolerated the difference. Instead, there was a period of discomfited friendship before they would drop away. He was close only to Sheila, the other American working at his company. He had started seeing her in part because she reminded him of North Carolina.
Sunil’s daughter, on the other hand, woke up one morning, a few months after arriving and was able to speak Sinhala fluently. Sunil still tripped over words, so it was Emily who negotiated for him at the kadés and the fishermen’s market. Emily explained things to Sunil about the country and its culture. She coached him about the mores and values. He appreciated Emily’s intelligence and her willingness to help him, but at times it seemed to him, the country had grossly upended his role in Emily’s life. He was supposed to be the one who cared for her, protected her, sheltered her. Now it was the other way around. She was the parent and he was her child.