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On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel

On Sal Mal Lane: A Novel

by Ru Freeman


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In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war

* A Library Journal Best Indie Fiction of 2013 * A Largehearted Boy Best Book of the Year *

On the day the Herath family moves in, Sal Mal Lane is still a quiet street, disturbed only by the cries of the children whose triumphs and tragedies sustain the families that live there. As the neighbors adapt to the newcomers in different ways, the children fill their days with cricket matches, romantic crushes, and small rivalries. But the tremors of civil war are mounting, and the conflict threatens to engulf them all.

In a heartrending novel poised between the past and the future, the innocence of the children—a beloved sister and her overprotective siblings, a rejected son and his twin sisters, two very different brothers—contrasts sharply with the petty prejudices of the adults charged with their care. In Ru Freeman's masterful hands, On Sal Mal Lane, a story of what was lost to a country and her people, becomes a resounding cry for reconciliation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555976767
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 05/20/2014
Pages: 424
Sales rank: 947,226
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Ru Freeman is the author of A Disobedient Girl, a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature that has been translated into seven languages. An activist and journalist whose work appears internationally, she calls both Sri Lanka and America home.

Read an Excerpt

On Sal Mal Lane

A Novel

By Ru Freeman

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2013 Ru Freeman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-072-7



The Listeners

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

The Herath children were different from all the others who had come and stayed for a while on Sal Mal Lane. It was not simply the neatness of their clothes, washed, sun-dried, and ironed for them by the live-in servant, or their clean fingernails, or the middle parting on their heads for the girls, on the side for the boys, or their broad foreheads and wise eyes, or even the fact that they didn't smile very often, some inner disquiet keeping their features still. It wasn't their music-making or their devout following of deities of all faiths who came and went through their house with the predictability of monsoon rains. It was the way they stood together even when they were apart. There was never a single Herath child in a conversation, there were four; every word uttered, every challenge made, every secret kept, together.

These things, discovered as the months wore on, came to bear upon a day of loss, a day crystallized into a moment that the whole neighborhood, yes, even those who had encouraged such a day, would have done anything to take back, a day that defined and sundered all of their lives. But let us return to the beginning, to the year when, in a pillared parliamentary building that had been constructed overlooking a wind-nudged blue ocean, a measure was passed under the title the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It was an act that built upon a previous one, an act declaring a State of Emergency, the kind of declaration that made adults skittish, elevated small quarrels into full-blown hatreds, and scuttled the best of intentions, for how could goodwill exist under such preparedness for chaos, such expectations of anarchy? The only goodwill to be had was among children unaware of such declarations, children like the ones on Sal Mal Lane, children moving into a new home that brought with it the possibility of new friends. Let us return then to the first days of that year, the days that filled so many people with hope for what the new family would bring to them. Let us pay attention to their words, to the way they enter this house, alone and together, close or from a distance, intent and wish inseparable. Let us return to observe the very first day that foretold all the days that followed.

On the day that the Heraths moved in to the last empty house on Sal Mal Lane, the one located exactly at the center where the broad road angled, slightly, to continue uphill, the Herath children happened to be learning hymns and hallelujahs from their mother. The children's mother, Mrs. Herath, herself a staunch Buddhist, was given to taking on other faiths based solely on the musicality of their songs, faiths of which she partook like others tasted of side dishes, little plates piled high with crispy fish cutlets and vegetable patties. Right now she was going through a Jesus phase, having not yet discovered the chants of the modern Hindu sage Sathya Sai Baba. On the very first afternoon, even before she tended to her anthuriums and pride of Japans and other potted plants that had been brought over in an old borrowed Citroën, she sat at their piano and played while her sons and daughters, two of each, belted out "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," in perfect harmony.

In the house across the street, an old man, Mr. Niles, long confined to spending his days reclining in his armchair in languorous apathy, stirred. With some degree of exertion he pulled himself up to a sitting position and listened. Although he was, himself, raised in the Catholic tradition, it was not the familiar hymns that moved him, but the voices. He tilted his face this way and that, trying to untangle them, one from the other. He picked out four distinct voices: one imbued with refinement, the word endings clear and elegant, the notes held to beat; another sensitive and rich, the melody heroic; and a third that did not seem to care for timing and so was lifted with a too-soon, too-late delight that was refreshing. The last, a boy's voice, he could not place. It seemed both dogged and resigned. Earnest, as though he wanted to please, yet not entirely committed to this particular form of pleasing, it wavered between ardent expression and the mere articulation of melancholy words set to music. Mr. Niles listened more intently to that voice, which spoke of a spirit that required soothing, curious as to what could trouble a boy so young. Unseen by anybody, not even his wife and daughter, each busy with her own weekend preoccupations, he listened through that afternoon, piecing together the unuttered feelings that lay beneath those angelic voices, conjuring up an image of each child and imagining a life for them in the house into which they had moved.

This house was very much like every other house down Sal Mal Lane, rudimentary if with a little style added by the verandas at the front and the back, both shaded by crisscross wooden half trellises, and the bordering hedges that rimmed all but two of the front gardens. At its heart was a large open space that Mrs. Herath had turned into a sitting room and whose focus was the upright piano. At the back of the house, Mrs. Herath had chosen to install her dining room, which, therefore, sat right next to the kitchen in defiance of the centuries-long tradition that dictated a dining table never to recall the kitchen in which food is prepared. The children shared two rooms, she and Mr. Herath shared a third, and the live-in servant, Kamala, was given the store room tucked next to a garage for which Mrs. Herath had found no good use since they did not own a car. Nobody down Sal Mal Lane, a dead end traversed almost exclusively by people on foot, owned a car except for Mr. Niles, who could no longer drive it, but this did not matter since all the neighbors felt able to ask for its use when necessary, and all the neighbors glanced with distant possessiveness at their empty garages and contemplated a future date on which they might convert them into fee-charging flats.

The real reason that Mrs. Herath had wanted this particular house, however, was the potential for a real garden that would meander wide on three sides around her home, the fourth side dedicated to a shared driveway. Unlike her neighbors' properties, which were graced by plumes of dancing hibiscus, bunches of creamy gardenias, and bold thrusts of anthuriums, her own, untended for many years by a previous owner, seemed barren. In little more than a year Mrs. Herath's garden would become a showpiece, decked with ferns, flowering bushes, and fragrant varieties of orchids that many of her neighbors had not heard of, she would become an authority on landscaping, and all the little flower thieves who lived down other lanes would flock to her garden in the early-morning hours and reach for her flowers like large butterflies. Today, however, her garden was depleted and the one person staring at it as he stood, hatless and scorched in the still, noon day heat, wondered why the children who had come to inhabit it, smartly dressed as they were, did not seem less pleased with their surroundings.

Sonna, the Bollings' son, fourteen years of age, had spent the day leaning against his uncle's gate, watching the activity across the street. He had arrived that morning dressed in his Sunday church going clothes, though if someone had pointed out that he was trying to present himself at his best, he would have denied it. Sonna had come to assess potential, which, in his mind, meant one of two things: the ability to bully others or being susceptible to bullying. He had watched the children all day, his face arranged in an expression between scorn and disinterest, trying to gauge to which category they belonged. So far he had not been able to tell, and not even his uncle, Raju, who peered over the gate with him, had a definite opinion.

"Can't tell if they are good or not till we talk to them," his uncle said at last, hitching up his loose trousers as he went inside.

Sonna continued to watch. The boys were not muscular, they were lanky and long-fingered, their mouths full and at ease, which augured well for classifying them as victims. Yet there had been a steadfastness to their gaze when they had first seen him that confused Sonna. They had nodded, their arms full of bags and boxes filled with books, but had not smiled, which he took to mean that they, too, were able to judge character and had him pegged as a neighbor but not one they were likely to befriend. He spat into the ground. They were adversaries, those boys, though the source of their strength was not one that he could identify. The girls, too, had resisted the title of victim that he yearned to pin on them, they with their matching dresses and their laughter. They resisted it by not noticing him at all, though how was that possible? He was tall, good-looking, and strong — and standing right across the street from them! He had been standing there for hours. How could they not have noticed?

"Fuckin' snobs," he said to his uncle, who had come back out to ask him if he wanted some tea. "Think they're too good for us. Probably only wan' to talk to the Silva boys. Probably jus' like them. We'll see about that. We'll see how they manage to live here without talkin' to us Bollings. Think they can jus' talk to themselves?"

"Maybe they are busy today, moving and all," Raju told his nephew. To be proximate to Sonna when he was not happy was not something that Raju ever enjoyed; in the end he always wound up being clobbered for nothing he had said or done. "Youngest looks sweet," he added, watching the little girl, who had abandoned her siblings and was skipping in the veranda, the rope smacking rhythmically both on the floor and on the ceiling above her. After a while she called out to someone they could not see, dropped the rope, and ran inside. Raju craned his neck toward the front doors of the house through which the children had disappeared, one by one. From inside came the strains of a piano being played.

"Din' even smile once," Sonna muttered.

Raju lowered his head, anticipating trouble. He tried to think of something soothing to say, knowing, as he had known on every other such occasion, that words would fail him.

Sonna had accumulated a list of unhappy accomplishments: bullying his twin sisters, riding the buses without paying his fare, cutting the clotheslines in his neighbors' backyards and rejoicing in the way everything clean turned instantly muddy, things he did without a second thought. But what he enjoyed the most was tormenting his uncle. In truth Raju, who hid the ropey muscles of a bodybuilder underneath layers of flesh, could have felled Sonna to the ground with a single swipe, but he lacked two things. He lacked what Sonna had, the idea that he deserved to be top dog, and, though this would change, to Raju's dismay and shame, he lacked, for now, a good enough reason to fight Sonna.

"Don' go an' try to suck up," Sonna said, as Raju hung his head and listened. Sonna smacked him on the side of his head. "You're fuckin' retarded anyway. They won' wan' to talk to you, an' I don' wan' to see you runnin' after them, you hear me?" He shoved his uncle with a fist and Raju staggered back. "You hear me? If I catch you ..."

"No, no, what to talk, I won't talk. Too much for me to be doing," Raju said, unbuttoning the top of his shirt and trying to get some air down the front of his body. "I have too much to do."

"Too much to do," Sonna scoffed. "You got nothin' to do, you fool. Thirty-five years old an' still livin' with Mummy. Don' even have a job."

It was at that moment that the Herath household erupted into "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," which proved too much for Sonna, who shoved Raju once more, spat again for good measure, and strode down the street, his hands in his pockets as he contemplated his next move. He stumbled over a stone as he went, turned back to make sure that nobody had seen, then kicked the stone into the bushes, wincing as a sharp edge caught the end of his toe.

Raju listened absentmindedly to the music from the house across the street as he watched Sonna walk away. The voices and the piano were equally balanced and the singing was different from anything he had heard before. His immediate neighbors, the Niles family, owned a piano, and their daughter, Kala Niles, was a piano teacher, but there had never been any singing next door, just the strains of scales in quick tempo and difficult pieces of music. He wondered if the children took lessons and, if they did not, whether they would go to Kala Niles to learn. He hoped that if they did, they would not end up simply playing the same pieces over but would continue to sing as they were doing now. He turned his face toward the Nileses' house, wondering if they, too, were listening to the new children. He shaded his eyes and took stock of Kala Niles's rose bushes, which had just begun to show over the top of the wall that separated the two houses. At this time of day, the flowers scented the afternoon air; he tipped his head back and flared his nostrils, inhaling deeply as he listened a while longer to the voices from across the street. He felt his spirits lift. Whatever Sonna had to say about these new people, they could hardly be ignored when they sang so beautifully.

Listening to the hymn, the Heraths' immediate next-door neighbors, the Silvas, exchanged looks. The Herath house had been abandoned due to the joint suicide of its previous owner and Raju's father, the tragic culmination of a found-out affair. That, and the resulting insanity of the left-behind spouse, was a hair-raising tale meant to dissuade hasty purchase and one that the Silvas themselves had told Mrs. Herath the day she came house-hunting. It was a tale that Mrs. Herath had, to their consternation, taken in her stride. Now Mr. Silva sighed audibly as he pulsed his knees together in agitation, irritated by the fervorful notes flowing out through the Heraths' open veranda and in through theirs; the determination and flamboyance of his neighbor threatened, even on this first day, a life buttressed by a few good prejudices and much keeping-to-ourselves.

The Silvas' sons came into the veranda where the couple were seated. Mohan, the older of the two boys, frowned as he peered through the climbing jasmine plant that shaded one side. A bunch of flowers caught in his hair as he did so, and he pushed the vine away aggressively. A few crushed flowers fell to the floor and the veranda was filled with the sudden sweet smell of jasmine, a fragrance that instantly made all four of them think of Poya days at temple, of mounds of flowers and incense and oil lamps flickering in the dark.

"Catholics?" he asked.

"No, not Catholics, Buddhists," Jith, the younger one, said. "The older boy, Suren, is in my class at school." Jith picked up the broken flowers and arranged them in a row on the low ledge that circled the veranda; they were already beginning to turn brown. He flopped down in a chair and tapped the sides of his armrests. He and his brother had been on their way to buy some marbles, but he sensed that this, this singing, was going to delay that trip.

"Then why are they singing hymns?" Mohan made a face that signaled that he was disturbed not merely by the fact that a Buddhist family was singing Christian hymns but that the hymns existed in the first place. He glanced at his father as he said this, searching for his approval.

"Anyway, nice voices," Mrs. Silva said, though she couldn't keep the begrudging note out of her own. She could be excused, having two sons like these, neither of whom had yet revealed much artistic talent and, this being their twelfth and thirteenth years, a revelation of genius in that regard was hardly to be expected. "If there is going to be singing, then it is best that the singing is good," she added and chuckled a little, stretching out a section of the white tablecloth that she was embroidering with pale yellow and lilac blooms that bore no resemblance to any flower grown in soil, tropical or otherwise; she cocked her head this way and that in approval of her own considerable imagination and skill.


Excerpted from On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman. Copyright © 2013 Ru Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


· 1979 ·,
The Listeners,
Sonna's Sisters Pay a Visit,
Telling Secrets,
The Keeper of Sal Mal Lane,
Good Cigarettes,
Piano Lessons,
Speaking the Truth,
· 1980 ·,
The Musician,
Not Only the Piano,
Nihil's Secret,
The Magic of the Stolen Guitar,
A Visit to the Accident Service,
Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows,
Devi's Report Card,
Raju Refuses to Be Demoted,
Sonna Remembers Everything and Nothing,
· 1981 ·,
Blue and Gold,
Raju's Gift,
An Odd Alliance and a Little Romance,
Old Mrs. Joseph's Triumph,
Kite Season,
A Night of Rain and Talk,
Ramazan: Before and After,
Sonna's Birthday Party,
· 1982 ·,
The Cricketer and the Old Man Talk of War,
Out of the Blue, a Variety Show,
An Election,
Devi's Secret,
Mohan and Jith Are Punished,
· 1983 ·,
The Last Perfect Day,
The People Who Stayed Home,
May Day,
Where Sonna Went,
The Day That Followed,
If Only,
The Composer,
An Embroidered Shirt,
A Small Boy, an Old Man,

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