2017 Barthelme Prize Honorable Mention: The Things We Could Not Say

Lishani Ramanayake

In Sinhala we say baaldiya. It is a quiet, banal word. Not one that I have ever thought twice about. Still, one afternoon in July 1983, when Colombo was burning, they say they heard the word cried out a thousand times, flung into the night like a prayer. They say the soot choked the air, that men with kitchen knives and cricket bats and flaming torches stood in their sarongs on the road and stopped cars coming in, to Maradana, to Wellawatte, to Fort. They say they made them say baaldiya. They say that if you were Tamil, your tongue would trip on the diya. That this was the quickest way to tell apart the Sinhalese from the rest—the others. They say 400 Tamils were killed that night. Others say the number is closer to 3,000. All on the back of this one word. Baaldiya.

Where I come from, language is more than just words. We say baaldiya but the word was drilled into me in English. Baaldiya, which is to say bucket. Or buck-it, the way I imagined the little white girls in my Enid Blyton books said it. Not buck-cat which is how Amma says it. English never fit comfortably in her mouth. She calls it broken, her English, and so she enrolled me in elocution class where they made buck-it out of baaldiya. No more the soft exhale, the unassuming release of baaldiya. Only the crisp, hard edge of the English word, sharp enough to cut. Still, when my mother says buck-cat, I find myself correcting her.

This summer, three decades after 1983, Amma tells me her uncle was killed by the Tigers. He was a conductor on the night bus to Jaffna. The Tiger cadres made the whole bus dismount and sing a Tamil song. Her uncle did not speak Tamil. Only knew to say theriyada. I don't understand. They let him go, told him to run. Halfway down the road, they gunned him down. Amma is not angry, is not crying. Just quiet. I do not know how to respond, how to tell her I could never understand loss like that but I will be there for her anyway. I do not know what to make of my mother opening up to me, the space between us heavy with promise. The only words that come to me are in English. When I grieve, it is in English. It is one of the many things about me my mother does not understand. So instead, I tell her, I'm sorry. Only, there is no word for that in Sinhala. Instead we say samavenne. Which is to say, Amma, forgive me.

Baaldiya. Buck-it. Buck-cat. A neighbor's betrayal. The smell of smoke across a city on fire. Daughter correcting mother in a language that is alien to us both. This making a buck-it out of baaldiya. And the shame in every syllable, still.