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Anbarasi and the ribbonfish

Sharanya Manivannan | Updated on July 03, 2020 Published on July 03, 2020

A bit of heaven: “Mattakallappu often felt like it was more lagoon than land”   -  ISTOCK.COM

Based on a folk tale from eastern Sri Lanka about a little girl and her friend in the water

The first time Anbarasi met the ribbonfish, it had been such a hot day that at first she thought his scales were just coins of sunlight dancing on the water of the lagoon. Then he leapt out of the water, which caught her attention. She watched his undulations for a few moments, until he raised only his head out of the water and looked her right in the eyes, hypnotically unblinking, and that was it — from then on she crossed the lagoon with her thighs on either side of the long body of the ribbonfish. Because he was her friend, she no longer had to walk all the way down to the rickety, mossy, mushroom-sprouting timber bridge and hold her breath twice a day as she went across — first to take lunch to her brothers working in the fields, and then to go home afterwards. The ribbonfish told her to call him by any name she wanted to. He had only one request of Anbarasi: To buy her passage, she had to keep aside one ball of rice mixed with curry for him, which she would feed him as she disembarked after the day’s double crossings.

Price to pay: “He had only one request of Anbarasi - To buy her passage, she had to keep aside one ball of rice mixed with curry for him”   -  ILLUSTRATION: SHARANYA MANIVANNAN

 

Because she knew she could never tell anyone about her friend the ribbonfish, Anbarasi never named him.

Each day, after she had eaten her own lunch, her Amma or her Ammamma would pack a basket full of food for her seven older brothers, and she would head to where they would be working: Seeding, tending to or harvesting sweet potato, corn or different kinds of fruits, depending on the season. They were all at home during days of heavy rain, and on those days Anbarasi would sit with her chin in her hand by a window and wait dolefully for the sky to clear, because it would mean she could take the basket down to the water once again and ride across the lagoon on the ribbonfish’s back. Until she met the ribbonfish, she used to count her steps across that old bridge, so much farther down than the waterborne route across the lagoon. She’d give them their lunch and wait to take the empty basket home. Then she would retrace the journey, returning to where Ammamma would always be waiting for her with a cup of lime juice mixed with lots of jaggery or a little tamarind (depending on what she’d said she felt like having before she left). Anbarasi would enjoy her drink before taking a nap, while her grandmother sat beside her and gently whisked a handheld fan to help her sleep. As the only girl, and therefore the heiress of everything, she was the most precious among her grandmother’s grandchildren and her mother’s children.

Mattakallappu often felt like it was more lagoon than land; a mangrove-lined lagoon that made a little room for jak trees and bitter gourd vines and grazing cows and people. Even where there was land, there was also the knowing that the lagoon was like the underside of embroidery, and would emerge around the next corner in some form. On full moon nights, a chorus of conus shells serenaded the fish-tailed woman deep beneath the waves of the waters in Kallady. Anbarasi wasn’t allowed to go out at night, so she had never heard these watery songs, and when she asked the ribbonfish about them he snorted and said something that sounded vaguely envious, so she didn’t press. She learned how to read his moods, and this was a useful skill to have, especially when they were midway across the lagoon and she had not even a twig to hold on to other than him.

When she went out during the day, she had to wear dresses and blouses that had high collars because of the lucky mole between her shoulder blades that Ammamma said would draw the evil eye. Ammamma stitched the prettiest clothes for her, waiting for traders travelling from all over the island to bring her wax-drawn batik, handlooms woven with bird and petal motifs, shiny zari work borders and more, and lovingly measuring Anbarasi for each new raiment as she grew with each season.

Every day, the three of them — Anbarasi, her grandmother and her mother — cooked for hours to make enough food to fill the bellies of seven grown and hard-working boys. They made string hoppers and fried yams and spicy prawns that were drowned in broths of coconut milk and finely-chopped chillies. They made fish too, lots of it, which became a bit contentious for Anbarasi. She was never sure whether or not her friend was a cannibal, and was never sure how to broach the question. On days when the basket contained fish, she was sure to scoop in extra vegetables, or casually boil an egg as if it was for a snack for herself, so that the ribbonfish would have its meal too.

 

“Careful when you eat the ribbonfish,” Ammamma often said, when they all sat down together late in the evenings to eat supper. “It’s full of tiny, tiny bones.” Anbarasi used this as an excuse to stop eating ribbonfish too. Even if, she had to admit, there was a chance her friend wouldn’t mind. But then again, maybe he would.

One day, when the sun came out again after a spell of storms, Anbarasi was a little late to make her way across the lagoon because she was so caught up in conversation with the ribbonfish that she pretended not to notice that he was taking a meandering pace, zigzagging across the water. When they were nearly at the bank, she noticed that her brothers were already standing by the bridge in the distance, watching the horizon anxiously. Terrified, she leapt off the ribbonfish’s back and ran towards them. As soon as they spotted her, they ran towards her too, and tore the basket from her arms. They were so famished, and she was so flustered by all this, that she neglected to roll up and keep aside a nice ball of rice stuffed with prawns for the ribbonfish. She only remembered when her youngest older brother, the one who was the littlest one in the family until she was born, looked up suddenly and said, “Thangachi, where did you go before you came to us today? We were waiting by the bridge for you, and you came from another direction.”

“Toilet,” she stammered, and looked into the empty vessels with a sinking feeling.

After her brothers went back to work, Anbarasi used her fingers to scoop out the very last grains of dried rice, then bent down by the bank and gouged out a chunk of water-lapped clay. She rolled these together, meticulously making sure the rice was stuck on the outside.

When the ribbonfish swam up on the farther shore later, she hopped off, smoothed her skirt down, and politely extended her palm to him. The ribbonfish slurped the clay ball out of her hand, then his glassy eyes widened. He spat it out violently. “What’s this?” he growled. She started to cry. “I’m really sorry. I’ll bring you two tomorrow.”

Glowering, the ribbonfish submerged himself. When enough moments had passed for Anbarasi to believe he’d accepted her compromise, she turned around to walk back home. The afternoon had been confusing, and she couldn’t wait to go rest her head on her grandmother’s lap.

But something clapped her back so hard that she fell to the ground, and when she struggled to her knees, pain was shooting through her body. She managed to turn around to see the ribbonfish leaping in and out of the water, arcing in the air. He had slapped her with his tail. She winced as she reached back to feel that her blouse was ripped, and that she was bleeding through it exactly where her lucky mole was. She ran home, the assault she’d been through evident for all to see.

“Who did this to you? Who did this to you?!” Amma and Ammamma were besides themselves when they saw her. Anbarasi had no choice but to tell a lie, because the truth was too much for the moment. So she said her youngest older brother had beaten her, for not bringing enough food. Amma was so enraged that she went into the neem grove, caught a venomous snake and cooked a fuming, foul-smelling curry immediately.

That evening, after her brothers had come back together, docking their little boat near the old bridge and walking home, Amma made them all sit apart from one another and served them separate meals. On Anbarasi’s youngest older brother’s banana leaf, she piled that dank snake curry high and stood next to him while he ate it. That night, he fell gravely ill, and the next day, the other six brothers buried him in their backyard, crying and crying.

Anbarasi cried too, but over time she came to forget what had really happened. Ammamma no longer allowed her to take lunch to the boys, and so she never saw that mean ribbonfish again. A beautiful jasmine shrub grew in the spot where they’d buried their brother, and it was always in bloom, even when the rest of the land was in drought, as it was a few years later, when Anbarasi decided to get married. She went to the jasmine shrub to pluck flowers for her wedding. But the jasmine shrub would yield no blossoms. Not to her.

“You lied, and so I died,” the shrub sang in a voice like seashells. Anbarasi’s heart filled with shame. She turned to her family and told them the truth of what had happened that day, when she had come home with her face scraped and her hair dishevelled.

Every one of them wailed in sorrow and horror, and then the jasmine shrub sang again: “This is a sweet life, soft and scented. All in all, I’m quite contented. My dear little sister, I can forgive you. Do you feel the freedom of having told what’s true?”

And then the jasmine shrub tendered its forgiveness in a cascade of moonlight-white flowers, and Anbarasi was married, wearing her brother’s fragrant gift in her hair and a high-collared brocade blouse her grandmother had sewn, to cover up her lucky mole.

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of The Queen of Jasmine Country and The High Priestess Never Marries

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Published on July 03, 2020
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