The triplet sisters are famous on Coal Island and yet, most people can count the number of times they have seen the sisters with their own eyes. There is island-talk, obviously. About their snobbery, their possibly-most-definitely disabilities, their witchery, their suffering, their strange abnormal lives of domestic incarceration. For thirty years, the Pillai sisters have lived in the cosy clutches of their formidable father, a man the island knows as a mysterious shadow rather than as a full person, who keeps himself and every element associated with it—his house, his wife, his daughters, and the things they have collected and built as one unit of life—out of reach. A half-real man. Harry Pillai holds the world of the island at bay with his dark unseen fingers. “No.” He will not permit the island to see him or his daughters, to know them in any way that could bring the family out of the mists of speculation, worry and doubt.
Are they real? Mere suggestions of people? To some extent, Harry Pillai’s daughters hear the questions and the tireless ponderings, in the way people who are talked about hear utterances from spaces they have never visited. The discussions about their lives takes place always in their personal vicinities, and they walk about as people who have been invaded by public opinion, sometimes with faces hardened by exaggerated defensiveness, sometimes with stagnant looks of defeat. Once a week, two of the Pillai daughters are permitted to leave the house and walk to the market to buy vegetables, fish and mutton, but no attempts are made to ask them questions—the girls are too deep in the world of their father’s making for ordinary people to access with commonplace greetings like “Hello” and “Are you in trouble?” Only the market sellers speak to them “How many kilograms?” “Thank you” and “That’s five ringgit.”
When, much to Harry Pillai’s disgust, his daughters arrived at schooling age, he softened his hold for a brief year and indulged himself in the possibility that the school’s promises of education were believable and that it would be an institution of benefit to his daughters at least in their mathematical skills and in their knowledge that they were, indeed, superior to the rest of the corrupt social world. The triplets, then seven years of age, created a group out of their own company and, for the last few months of their odd sojourn in the public world, they welcomed a fourth member who was not devastated when the girls were pulled out of school before the new schooling year could begin. “Enough is enough,” Harry told himself since he had long ago decided that his wife was too stupid to have proper conversations with. Staring at his old medical books, not missing the esteemed job he’d been asked to leave, not regretting the fact that he didn’t earn a living according to his magnificent talents after the dumb world rejected them, he said to himself, boldly, for he knew he had raised his daughters well enough not to judge him, “I’ve been liberal and kind, and now enough is enough. No one can say I didn’t try to put the girls in the so-called proper world. I’m only proven right, once again. The fools are trying to get the girls to memorise moral values?Memorise moral values? What shit. I won’t have my precious blood distorted by the evil outside. I, of all people, know what brainwashing can do.” Harry would never tell anyone, not even his daughters, about the insidiousness of what Harry would brand as his father’s brainwashing, a brainwashing that filled Harry with a hatred so immense that he knew it could only be transformed through prayer. “Please don’t let,” Harry had prayed as a boy of twelve, “any person to take over what Lord my God has given me. The man who calls himself my father beats me with puttu and parappu pots and tells me I can’t do anything, I’ll never do anything? Henry Pillai is a failure, this is what he says, Henry is a failure. Lord my God, that man is worse than the shit that comes out of Lakshmi the cow.”
But Harry’s hatred could not contend with his mother’s hatred of her husband which eventually turned into something so large and poisonous that it found its way onto her husband’s dinner plate one evening. The day before the incident, Harry’s mother, disillusioned with the rest of her ten children (branded the village criminals by her neighbours), had chosen to enlighten the only son she could stand. “Henry Pillai,” she said, fanning herself with the tail of her sari as she sat with her twelve-year old son on the steps of their tiny wooden shack in Urumpurai, Jaffna, “listen to me, Henry Pillai. Your brothers and sisters are rotten like your father so you are my only hope. Your father won’t stop drinking and he won’t stop beating us. What does he do and tell you every day?”
Harry replied, “He bangs my head against the parappu pot and tells me the devil has cursed me, Ma. Then he says I cannot do anything because I will always fail. That he will kill me if I don’t go out and bring him money.”
“You see, son? He will get us soon. You haven’t seen how his beating is getting harder? Any time now, Henry, your father is going to kill us.” She shook her head and glared at the muddy slime on the ground. “Tomorrow,” she whispered, “go to Muthu Mama’s house and collect a small bottle from him. Don’t ask any questions. Do as I’m telling you, understand? That bottle is going to make us free. You want that, son?”
Harry didn’t nod but he knew he had no choice. When the time came, it did not surprise him to find himself obeying his mother’s instructions to mix the contents of the bottle with his father’s evening curry, and later, when his father returned from his nightly drinks with the village ruffian, Mad Anil, he again was not surprised to find himself surreptitiously standing by the entrance of the kitchen with his mother, studying every movement of his father as he ate his last meal.
When his father’s life was over before the end of the meal, his mother clapped her hands and exclaimed, “Congratulations, son. We have done it. We are free now.”
But the freedom his mother promised turned into a more frightening trap than when his father was alive for now, Harry lived in fear of his mother’s desires and intentions. Would she take a trip to Muthu Mama’s house if she discovered something in Harry she didn’t like? When she shouted at him for not grinding the spices the way she wanted them, would she squeeze his arms until they bled? In her days of freedom after her husband’s death, she had grown strong and bold, and Harry was the primary testing ground for her newfound power. She never beat him with pots the way his father had, but she did other things: pinching, scalding, biting. She didn’t tell him he was a failure but she repeated, when he didn’t bring home the correct chicken or the plumpest pumpkin, or when she just found him unsatisfactory for an assortment of reasons, “Your father may be dead, but his stupidity can never die because it continues living in his children”, “You’re not far away from your father, actually. He also was dirty. Look how filthy your nails are. Dirty body means dirty mind”, “Sending you to the English school, and still you talk in such a stupid way? But who can blame you? Look who your father was.” Each insult she threw at her son’s face created fresh realizations for Harry which he played with in secret, in the privacy of his own head: women cannot be given too much power because they don’t know what to do with it; women cannot be given too much power because they will make life worse when they touch even a bit of power; families must be guarded by their own members and cared for; when I create my own family, I will do everything I can to show them that home is the safest place.
For three years, Harry lived in fear of his mother, and of the possibility that he too would be poisoned one fine day, but at last, when his own mother decided that she was too poor to keep all of her children, the youngest of them, including Harry who was the youngest, were sent off to live with wealthier relatives in other parts of Jaffna. As if he’d not had enough of women whose power was overblown by absent or useless men, the relative who took him in, a spineless uncle who suitably looked like a worm, came packaged with a tyrannical wife. The woman was predictably fat and used slurs similar to Harry’s mother, as though the two had exchanged notes. “Dumb-dumb boy”, the fat Mrs. Mahendran called him until the day they had had enough of him and sent him away on a wobbly plane to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where another pair of relatives—a rich second cousin of Harry’s mother, and his loud-mouthed wife—carried on the tradition of meek husband and overbearing wife but at least, Harry would say to himself later in life as he reflected on his circumstances, “At least the last pair of imbeciles was able to educate the peasant out of my system. At least I could study English like an Englishman, and at least the imbeciles could send me to India so I could come back with the title of ‘Doctor.’”