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25 March 2024

Exclusive Extract: Amma by Saraid de Silva

Wasafiri is proud to publish this exclusive extract of Amma by Saraid de Silva (Weatherglass Books, 4 April 2024), a gripping novel exploring family trauma, post-colonial displacement, and queerness. Set across generations and spanning multiple countries, including Sri Lanka, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and London, it follows the aftermath of a pivotal event: a ten-year-old girl's act of self-defense in 1951 Singapore.

Josephina, 1968, Colombo  

Josephina sits under the banyan tree and unwraps the banana leaf holding her lunch. She has lamprais today, from the school canteen. A boiled egg, yellow rice, chicken curry, parippu, garlicky green beans and sambal. The leaves freckle golden light onto her face. She is still hard to look away from.

Each day, when class is over and her students have left, Josephina walks as fast as she can to the banyan tree. She is never alone here. Groups of friends eat lunch together, secretaries and curators from the museum come to smoke, groundskeepers and security guards move the tourists along. There are food stalls on the streets around and the roads are loud with drivers negotiating the intricate roads.

Compared to other banyans, this tree is young. It has not yet stretched parasite legs out to walk. It doesn’t even take up the whole courtyard, let alone reign over a forest. But Josephina visits this tree like it is a house of god.

The first time Josephina saw the banyan she stopped still, unsure if she was dreaming. It was an illustration from a storybook come to life. Roots streamed from thick boughs, searching for their next home. The leaves were plentiful but small, frivolous in contrast to the trunk, decorating the body as well as the crown.

She knows that banyans are bridges to another world. But the first time she sat under hers, she felt closer to only herself. She wondered if this banyan was not a gate to other places, but to other parts of her life, years she just hadn’t lived yet.

Josephina is twenty-seven, single, and a teacher at the Catholic girls’ college in Mount Lavinia. Her colleagues often invite her to have tea with them in the staffroom.

Once a week, or less if she can manage, she will trail after fellow English teacher Shalina orVice Principal Roshan to the open-air courtyard they refer to as the staffroom. Her workmates are cheerful and curious. They ask questions about her life and when she might get married. Josephina is stiff in comparison. She’s always felt her looks are the only reason anyone can bear her personality.

When she returns from washing her hands, her spot has been taken. It’s as though someone walked into her house uninvited. A man is quietly sitting just so, staring into the distance. His expression is serene, as though his mind is a thousand miles from his body. This man’s hair is blue-black and curly, so coiled and glossy it is cheerful. His face is all sharp points and angles. He wears a white shirt and pants that make his dark skin gleam. He is dressed for a funeral.

Josephina blots her palms on her orange sari and marches in front of him, scowling. He gives her a smile so effervescent that she stumbles.

You are sitting in my place, she says. She forces her chin into the air above his head. Your place? he says. His teeth are very small, spaced slightly apart, and painfully white. He looks like an imp. But his eyes do not chew her up like most men’s do. He has a gaze so steady it unnerves her. She sighs. Clearly, he has decided to be trouble. Josephina turns to leave.

It is your place, of course. I am sorry, he tells her. 

The banyan’s roots fall like a curtain between them. She smells lavender soap, clean and soothing. He turns and walks into the dark hallway of the museum.

Josephina tries to take her place again, but she sits left of her original spot. She cannot bring herself to share the grass he bent, that would be too intimate. The birds are louder, all the colours around her are saturated. They lend her their joy.  


Singapore wasn’t big enough to escape the ghosts who haunted her: Mr Brooks, Pātti, Madhvi. All of them visited. They came to her in the tip of a stranger’s linen collar, in the smooth pull and swash of someone spitting betel out on the street, in the angle of a pretty girl’s mouth. She learned to push them all to the back of her mind, but they are a hum that never goes away.

When she finished her schooling she stayed, working as a teaching assistant to Sister Kirby. She had some happiness still, until Kanthi Mummy and the girls were raided. Josephina was eighteen. They cracked Kanthi Mummy’s jaw, broke her hip, and everything changed. Madhvi went missing. The parlour was replaced with a shoe store.

With Pātti dead and the girls gone, Josephina had nothing. Her tongue is heavy in her mouth when she thinks of the dark flat. The days became concave, moving too fast, steepling into endless evenings alone at the apartment. She spent long nights reading in her bedroom, fantasised over ageing, over disappearing from the registry of women men try to have sex with. She dreamed about a different life, free from the curse of her youth.

Her mother met a man and moved out. Josephina talked to him once, after her mother died of a heart attack and she had to go to his flat to retrieve her things. He was weeping, far more upset than Josephina. She gathered her mother’s possessions and waited for her own grief to emerge. The only thing she felt was peace.

Josephina had her mother cremated and wrote to dozens of Catholic schools in Ceylon and India in the weeks following, explaining her situation and experience, asking for a job. When she was offered a position she didn’t hesitate.

Josephina tossed Singapore over her shoulder like a used tissue. The country she left was not the one she grew up in. The swamps and fields had become high rise apartments. The river was clean. The English had dwindled.

The slums of a foreign country held more appeal than the grandest estate in Singapore, so when she secured a job in Colombo, she sold Pātti’s remaining earring and moved to Ceylon. A boarding house attached to a nunnery was the only place Josephina knew she could stay as a single woman. Without strange looks or questions, without men. She was at the markets, buying house shoes and a knife, when an old man, Inesh Uncle, held pol roti out to her, smeared with sambal.

It was delicious. The grated coconut gave it a pleasing grit and weight, and the sambal was savoury, mouth-watering from lime and Maldive fish. Just as Josephina begged for the recipe, Suji Aunty bustled over. She cupped Josephina’s face and spoke to her with such sweet familiarity. Josephina moved into their spare room two weeks later.

Inesh and Sujiya are siblings. Inesh Uncle is blind and in his late sixties. Suji Aunty is younger by maybe fifteen years. They are busy and generous. They give Josephina her own space and a large bedroom. They never mention hearing her yell out in the night. Josephina’s nightmares have not changed much since childhood. She has learned to live with them.

The siblings are teaching her how to cook. Every after-noon when Josephina returns home, she ties her hair with a scarf, washes her hands and face, and goes to the kitchen where Inesh Uncle and his carer Ranil are waiting.

Josephina has learned how to make kottu, watalappan, maalu paan. She has learned how to gently coax appam around a pan and crack an egg right in the middle. She has started to know spices by their Sinhala names. Each morning she wakes up to a selection of fruit that Ranil has picked from the garden and arranged on a platter. Suji Aunty eats with her, rolling tiny limes under her palm and passing them across the breakfast table like precious jewels. 

Recently, Suji allowed her to make the milk rice for her son’s arrival home. He was to stay all weekend. Suji Aunty has never referred to a husband, but her son is a joy she speaks of often. Josephina feigned a last-minute trip with friends and left as soon as she finished cooking.

She slept at the school all weekend, locked herself in the classroom at night, walked the grounds and read during the day. She felt satisfied and warm each time she remembered slicing the milk rice into diamonds and hearing Suji Aunty’s approval.

She tells herself she is too busy to think about being lonely Memories of Pātti surface without warning. They come when Josephina is kneading dough, tying her sari, smoothing her heels with pumice stone. Although they make her cry, thoughts of Pātti are still a comfort. Josephina turns her face towards them like a fan on a hot afternoon.

The next day, Josephina settles herself under the banyan tree. Her sari is a dusky pink sunset. She tells herself she is not waiting for the man with the hair to return. 

Courtesy of Weatherglass Books        

Saraid de Silva (she/her) is Sri Lankan/ Pākehā and lives in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. Among other things, Saraid has been an actor, bartender, theatre-maker, fairy light installer, voiceover artist, and nanny. She currently works as a TV writer. Amma is her first novel.
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