How to Spoil Your Daughters During a Civil War by Priya Chandrasegaram
Don’t lose your temper when your girls align their train tracks and keep crashing their trains over and over again. Learn that it’s a sign of boredom.1 Develop a tolerance for derailments, and cultivate an appreciation for He-Man and She-Ra. If they don’t appear on your TV during curfews, your house will suffer far more train wrecks than it does now.
Ignore your mother-in-law when she tells you that girls, even six- and eight-year-old girls, should learn to do housework—that’s what the servants are for. Forbid your daughters to do anything for their grandmother unless it involves reading to her.2
Teach them to read in Tamil as well as English. Bilingualism has two discrete advantages. The first is that it doubles their reading material. The more they read, the less they fight. And the second is a calmer, less contentious mother-in-law (if you enlist her help in advancing the bilingualism). It is true that Sinhalese will be more useful for them to learn than Tamil. But your husband is the only one who knows it, and he’s more of a ‘Let’s play airplane on the veranda,’ than a ‘Let’s learn the Brahmi script,’ kind of Dad.
When you have time—and let’s face it, you have plenty of time—supplement your daughters’ education from your own childhood lessons.3 Don’t be deterred if they’d rather re-watch that episode where He-Man and She-Ra are revealed to be twins. Take the chessboard into the living room and teach them to avoid premature attacks against their opponents.
Insist on taking them to India twice a year to show them where you come from. Let them see what a strifeless country looks like. Be calm when they complain about its heat, odor, and lack of Coca-Cola.4
On days when the curfew is lifted, send them to private schools with the country’s elite (or what’s left of the elite after they’ve fled to Zurich, Toronto, and Melbourne). Make sure your husband checks the background of the driver who will take your children to school. Nag him to hire a Sinhalese driver, or at least a driver who knows enough Sinhalese to talk his way out of military checkpoints. If your husband tells you you’re repeating yourself, repeat yourself twice more for good measure. When he finally hires a large, bespectacled Sinhalese man who smiles often, breathe a sigh of partial relief. Then spend your days watching the clock and the door until the driver brings your children back from school. Greet them with tea, chocolate biscuits, and sprezzatura.
If they can’t cope with their schoolwork because of all the classes they’ve missed during curfews, hire a tutor. Don’t discipline them if they hate their tutor and pretend they never hear him ring the doorbell. Dismiss him, and hire someone more entertaining, one who will teach them songs about talking shoes and arithmetic simultaneously.
Learn to love the unfinished. When your girls quit dance, music, and karate classes, know they’re preparing for life. The sooner they learn when to leave and say goodbye, the better.
Teach them not to get attached to things.5 Make them give away clothes and toys periodically whether they want to or not.
Bring a beach ball when you take your daughters to the sea. They won’t notice the military personnel patrolling the beach roads with machine guns if they’re chasing a giant plastic orb across the sand. But don’t neglect the possibility that they might. So remember to buy them ice cream at the beach. Then whenever they see camouflaged men with guns, they’ll remember the flavor of vanilla, and feel safety instead of fear.
Pet the dog every day, even if his mangy coat disgusts you. When the police show up for a random I.D. check, he will growl with so much viciousness that they’ll leave without looking at the passports, or the five thousand rupees of emergency bribery money you hold in your hand. So make the great, grey Alsatian your ally. He’s all that stands between your family and a sudden invasion.
Listen only to music stations on the radio. Don’t, under any circumstances, tune in to the news. Change the station during emergency news bulletins. You don’t need to listen to them. Your husband will call if there’s been an explosion anywhere in the city. If it’s in the neighborhood where he works, someone else will call.
Most importantly, don’t correct your daughters when they act as if bombs are God’s gifts to schoolchildren. Know that they think this because, to them, blasts are always followed by days spent watching their favorite superheroes battle unnameable villains. So let them think it; divided minds, like divided islands, cannot function.
1. Thirteen bombs plus seven riots plus innumerable bomb scares means that Colombo averages around fifty-five curfews per year, resulting in countless hours of sameness.↩
2. Her waning eyesight and their nascent reading skills are naturally complementary.↩
3. Chess, multiplication tables, and the history of Britain, to name a few.↩
4. But feel free to snap at your husband when he voices the same complaints.↩
5. In your lifetime, you will acquire ten refrigerators, twelve stoves, and nineteen television sets, all in three different countries. For their turn, your daughters will give up the trains, the jump ropes, and the seemingly random penguin that goes up an escalator and comes down a slide.↩
“How to Spoil Your Daughters During a Civil War” first appeared in apt‘s fourth print annual, which you can buy here.
Priya Chandrasegaram has an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from the University of Toronto. Her work has appeared in The Dubliner.