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A Tamil story by Vahini Sangarapillai
It was a very hot day in May and Myna’s mother wouldn’t let her play out in the sun.
‘I want to play with my friends!’ Myna protested. ‘It’s boring inside, Amma.’
‘Why don’t you help me cook today?’ her mother suggested. Myna was very surprised because this had never happened before. She was not even allowed near the gas stove.
The kitchen was always a magical place to Myna, bursting with bright reds, oranges, yellows and greens from all of the spices and vegetables. But Myna was most fascinated by the white rice. She liked how it could be both hard and sharp but then softened and became fluffy when cooked. She wanted to feel it on her fingers for once rather than being fed by her mother. She was getting to be a big girl and perhaps today was the day to ask that she feed herself.
‘Amma, can I feed myself today? I am five years old and I want to be a big girl.’
‘You can try, but don’t make a mess or I will feed you like normal.’
Myna felt the warm rice on the tips of her fingers and enjoyed feeding herself very much. But no matter how hard she tried, she could not help making a mess. After dinner she swept the fallen rice into her hand and wondered where to hide it so that her mother would not see. Then she remembered her mother often put scraps of food near the Banyan tree in the courtyard for the crows.
Myna snuck out to the Banyan and softly called out ‘caa-caa.’ Before she could stop to check if her mother was watching, a little crow came out from within the Banyan. Myna held open her hand and the crow hopped over and ate the slightly squashed rice.
‘I used to eat from my mother’s hand but now you eat from mine, Kakai.’
It took time for Myna to learn to eat by herself without making a mess, and over the next few weeks Kakai had many meals from Myna’s hand. And each time Myna fed the bird, she would tell him about her day. Sometimes Kakai disappeared into the Banyan and reappeared with gifts for Myna that he found on his travels. Once, it was a yellow ribbon. Another time it was a pink button.
At night, when Myna’s parents and uncles and aunts were all sitting on the veranda, Myna and Kakai would hide out in the garden and look up at the stars. And it was on such a night that Kakai gave the little girl a shiny silver sequin that shimmered like a star in her hand.
That was how life passed until Myna was seven. Then something changed in her village and she wasn’t allowed to play outside even when it wasn’t too hot or too rainy.
Everyone seemed uneasy, even scared, and one morning Myna and her classmates were sent home because their teacher had disappeared. The older ladies didn’t stand on the corners talking loudly about other people anymore, and lots of Myna’s aunties and uncles and cousins started to leave or talked about leaving to places like England and Canada and Germany. Soon no one really knew what was happening. The stories Myna told Kakai became sadder and sadder.
One evening, Myna’s father was on the phone for so long that she heard his low mumbles as she drifted off to sleep. The next morning he woke his daughter early and said:
‘You and Amma are going to London to stay with your uncle and cousins. You can teach them all how to speak better Tamil and you can make lots of new friends.’
‘What about you, appa?’ asked the young girl.
‘I’ll stay here for a while,’ said her father. ‘You’ll see; this will all work out for the best.’
The train to the airport was so full that people were hanging from the doors. More and more people squashed into spaces that were hardly there. Myna even saw one man asleep with his head resting on her father’s back.
Myna’s heart was filled with something she had never felt before. She was sad that she didn’t have the chance to say goodbye to Kakai, and that she was leaving Sri Lanka. She looked out of the train window and saw monkeys, mist and temples and beautiful forests in the distance. Then she fell asleep, caught up in the silken folds of her mother’s sari, swaying to the rhythm of the train.
She must have slept for ages because the next time she opened her eyes she was in an airport and her father was holding her tight and saying goodbye. There were more people there than Myna had ever seen in her life. Everyone had big bags in their hands and sadness in their eyes as though they were leaving something important behind, leaving it forever.
‘Appa, I’m scared. Can’t I stay here with you?’
‘I need you to look after Amma,’ said her father. ‘I will call as soon as you land. You must be brave, my child.’
It was the longest flight Myna had ever been on but she slept the whole time. When she eventually opened her eyes she was in the arms of her London uncle. He wrapped her in a thick blanket and carried her to his car. Myna’s mother had to wear his coat because her teeth were chattering and her eyes were watering.
That night, curled up in her London uncle’s house, Myna struggled to sleep. She thought that perhaps she wouldn’t be able to sleep ever again. She could hear her mother and auntie talking in the kitchen below. She crept out of bed and opened her window, but when she looked up at the night sky she could not see a single star. What a strange country. When she looked out into the garden she saw a little plum tree bathed in the light from the kitchen. Myna cried as she quietly called out ‘caa-caa,’ and wished for Kakai to appear as he had done from the Banyan tree for so many years. Myna wrapped herself up in her blanket and crept out of the house towards the little tree. Suddenly, the branches shook and a black bird came swooping down and landed at her feet.
‘Don’t be scared,’ said the bird in a singsong Tamil that calmed Myna’s heart. ‘I heard you calling. You are new here. You will need much thicker, fluffier feathers than those you are wearing if you are going to live here.’
Myna looked over her shoulder to check the house was still there. Yes, this was really happening. There was a Tamil talking crow in London!
‘What’s wrong?’ the crow asked, resting on a branch so that he could see her face.
Myna wasn’t able to stop her tears from falling. ‘I want to go home,’ she confessed. ‘I want to be under the sky with the stars again. I never said goodbye to a friend there, a crow like you. He will think that I abandoned him.’
‘Maybe he is worried that you will think he has abandoned you. Anyway, he will know you did not mean to leave him because friends do not abandon each other. I knew a crow once who was best friends with a deer. This wasn’t a typical sort of friend for a crow but every day the crow went with the deer to the same field in the village. They talked and laughed all day and at night they pointed out silly patterns in the stars.
One day the farmer noticed the deer eating his crops and he decided to put nets around his field so that the deer couldn’t come back in. The next time the deer and the crow went to the field, the deer got caught in the nets and let out a yelp as she fell to the floor. The crow could see that his friend’s leg was all tangled and that there was no way she would be able to stand up. The deer said, “Fly away, do not get into trouble for my sake. The farmer will come for me. I am done for!” But instead of flying away, the crow searched his brain to come up with a plan. It didn’t take long for the clever bird to work out how to save his friend. When the crow saw the farmer coming towards the field with his gun, he said to the deer, “Lie very, very still until I call out at the top of my voice. Do not move a single muscle, not a twitch of an eye, not a single breath. But the second you hear my call you have to get up and run as though you were being chased by a lion! Run and run and I will fly above you until we are both safe.”
The deer lay so still that when the farmer came closer he was sure that the creature was already dead. He put down his gun and began to remove the net. Then, just as the last piece of netting was removed, the crow screeched as loud as it could and scared the farmer half to death! The farmer fell backwards and the deer sprang to life and ran as quickly as if he were being chased by a lion!’
Myna smiled at the story and tried to assure herself that Kakai would know she never wanted to leave without saying goodbye. ‘Maybe Kakai is flying over me,’ Myna thought, ‘just like in the story.’
When Myna started school in London, lots of children asked about where she came from and she made many new friends. Very soon, with hard work and lots of help from her new teachers, she improved her English and could tell stories from home and share her adventures. But she didn’t tell anyone about her crow except a girl called Lisa who was her best friend. Lisa found it funny that Myna meant blackbird in Tamil, especially as Myna had two crows as friends.
One day, Myna’s father arrived and swept her up into his arms and said that she might look bigger but she would always be his little girl. She asked about Kakai and he said that the crow had probably left Sri Lanka too. She asked when they would go back and he said he didn’t know.
‘We have to make our home where we are now,’ he told his daughter.
That night, Myna couldn’t sleep She didn’t understand what her father meant when he said they had to make this their home. Perhaps home didn’t mean what she thought it meant. Maybe she had no home.
Her eyes filled with tears but then she heard a tap, tapping at the window. When she opened the window, the crow was sitting out on the plum tree with several objects dangling from his claws. Myna held out her hand and he flew up and dropped three things into her palm: a yellow ribbon, a pink button, and a sequin that shimmered like a star in her hand.
‘Kakai?’ Myna gasped. ‘It was you all along! You came here with me?’
‘You never forgot me, my child, and I could hear your tears falling like a monsoon.’
‘You left your home for me?’ Myna whispered.
‘No, my child, home isn’t a place. Look up, you will see that we are under the same sky as we were in our courtyard so many miles from here. We look up at the same moon.’
Myna looked up and saw the stars, not as bright as in the north of Sri Lanka, not an explosion in the sky, but they were there.
‘Home is about people and the feeling of belonging and of being loved,’ said the gentle crow. ‘You have two homes. You can be from both there and here. You have two worlds under the same sky. Everywhere you are loved, you are home.’