That’s “good evening,” in Sinhalese. Malani Weerawickrama welcomes me into her dress shop, The House of Fashion, at 1103 Coney Island Avenue, between Glenwood and Avenue H. Next door is the Gourmet pastry shop, where just inhaling as you pass makes you fat and happy. The sun hasn’t quite dipped below the roof line of the Russian pharmacy across the street.
Disney-esque princess gowns line the walls. The magic light of dusk plays on the beaded necklines, conjuring Aladdin, Arabian Nights and Scheherazade, spinning tales, night after night, to save her life…
“My last name is very long, I can spell you,” Malani tells me.
There’s a slight gap between her front teeth, reminding me of Lauren Hutton, that bra-less,‘70s Vogue cover girl who refused to cap her teeth for the camera. Green-eyed Malani, skin clear and golden, like a cup of fresh-brewed Ceylon tea.
“Does your name have a meaning?” I ask.
“Yes, Malani. Just a flower name.” She’s dismissive.
“And your daughter’s?” I continue.
“Priyanga. It’s meaning beautiful figure. Beautiful shape.” Now she’s boasting.
“It’s true,” I say. “You do have a lovely figure Priyanga.”
“Sthuthi,” or thank you, Priyanga says.
They notice me taking it all in, the bolts of fabric, rolls of embroidered ribbon, costume jewelry.
“We mostly sell fabrics,” Malani says.
“We sell a lot of fabrics,” Priyanga emphasizes.
A Lahori woman saunters in and starts fingering cotton/poly blends in as many patterns as there are Snapple flavors in a Coney Island Avenue deli case.
Let the haggling begin:
“How much for one yard?” the customer asks.
“Five dollar a yard,” Malani says.
“Oh My God! Too much!” the customer exclaims. “Okay, give me for four dollar a yard.”
How did Malani, married at 17, living in Colombo, the main city in Sri Lanka, wind up here? Indirectly.
“When and why did you come to the United States?” I ask.
“This is my decision,” Malani says. “I had a friend of mine. I came not from Sri Lanka direct to here. I was in Yemen. In Yemen I was employed in the American Embassy. “
“What were you doing in the Yemeni Embassy?” I inquire.
“In Yemen I was… how I explain? Whoever comes from here as guests, I was the guest relationship (coordinator),” she says.
“So the Americans who came to the embassy in Yemen, you welcomed them?”
“Yes,” Malani says. “My boss and his family asked me, ‘You want to visit United States?’ So first thing I didn’t think to come because I have no idea how to do this, but then they explained to me many things about United States. So I decided to come. I came with them to Florida. Then I came to visit here. When I visited New York, I saw we have all kinds of people in here. So that’s what made me come to New York. When I came, over 25 years ago. I am 54 now.”
“You look wonderful!” I exclaim.
“Thank you,” Malani giggles. Her laugh is feminine, shy, lightly coy, harkening back to a modest age.
“I went to Central Park… I walked around, I went into Dean & Deluca store,” she says of her first experiences with New York City. “I saw many people around there – different color, different people. So I love it. My first job, Dean & Deluca.” The giggle again. The bashful titter of a proper, Ceylon schoolgirl.
“Did the whole family come?” I ask.
“No, nobody moved, only I,” Malani says. “I left my children back home, with my parents.”
“So did you already speak English?”
“I speak English and I speak Arabic well,” she says. I detect a bit of swagger.
“Wow. So you speak how many languages? You speak English and Arabic…”
“Sinhalese and Urdu,” Malani adds.
“You speak Urdu?”
“So that’s four languages so far,” I say.
“I speak little bit French,” she adds.
“Mais oui! Moi aussi!” Another Francophile.
“When you moved to New York from Florida, is that when you asked your family to come?”
“A couple of years later. In 1993,” Malani tells me.
“How old were your children when you came here?”
“I was 16,” Priyanga chimes in.
“So when you came here in 1993, where did you live and what were you doing?” I ask.
“When I came here I lived on East 9th Street, just right there,” Malani says.
“East 9th Street? That’s where I live. I live on East 9th. Between Foster and H.” I say.
“Yes. There I lived.”
“You were in that block?”
“Yes,” Malani confirms.
“Wonderful! My neighbor.” I say.
“A year later I get a job in their warehouse in New Jersey. I get the job as manager,” Malani tells me.
“You traveled from Brooklyn to New Jersey, every day, to be the manager of a Dean & Deluca warehouse?”
“What kind of things did you manage?”
“The food. All the food and the spices,” Malani says.
“Do you know a lot about spices?”
Malani responds, simply, “yes.”
“Do they use a lot of spices in Sri Lanka?” (Duh.)
The answer? “We use!”
“Right. Dean & Deluca sells a lot of spices. So it was important for you to understand spices.”
“Hmm.. Not really,” she contradicts. “But people have common sense to understand whatever it is, you know? That’s the way it is.”
“So when you were working at the store in Manhattan they saw something in you to make you a warehouse manager.”
“Yes… my boss, he trained me in everything shipping.”
The dress is starting to take shape on the form. Here’s a young mom of three, barely brushing five feet tall, who left her children under her parents’ care and set off to better herself and her family with nothing more than courage, confidence, and common sense. But really, that’s a lot, isn’t it? So what’s the next chapter in this immigrant story?
“They moved the warehouse to Chicago, Illinois,” Malani says. “They started shipping to that place. So I decided not to go. I live here. So I opened a business right across the street. In 1994.”
“This business? What business?” I ask.
“Not this business. A grocery store I opened in 1994.”
Just like that. Malani opened a business.
“On Coney Island Avenue?”
“I stayed about two years, then I bought another one on Fort Hamilton Parkway,” Malani says. “I stayed there eight years.”
“You bought these businesses?” I inquire.
“Yes. Then I had two stores on Parkville Avenue and Coney Island. Then I had one on Westminster Road, on the corner. Then I had this one. So I had many stores.”
“Yes, I remember the grocery across from PS 217, where Milk & Honey is now,” I tell her.
“Yes. I had that store eight years.”
“My sons are at 217,” I say.
“I love her, your principal!” Malani says. “She’s firm. I like that she stands by the door in the morning. Watching the children go in. Telling them to hurry up. She’s strong. That’s the way it should be. Woman should be strong.”
“And how did you get the capital, if I may ask, to get your first store?”
“Because my father is a business man.”
“Aha! And so his daughter is a businesswoman. And your father said it’s important to own a store. And so, each time you would sell your store, before you’d buy a new one, right?”
Again, a simple, “yes.”
“And each time you would make a little profit?” I ask.
“Yes. Yes I do.”
Again the giggle. I’m onto her now. This is no shy schoolgirl. Beneath that padded dress form, draped in floral chiffon, is a cage of steel.
“And House of Fashion, how long have you owned it?”
“This is five years now,” she says.
“Five years. Because you said, ‘I’m tired of selling mangoes?’”
“Because the last store I opened at 7 o’clock. And closing 10 or 10:30. I worked so hard, sooo long time,” she laments.
“Yes. And how many days a week was the grocery store open?”
“And you were in the store how many of those days?”
“Seven days. For eight years.”
Seven days. 7am to 10pm. Hmm… and here’s my fifth-generation immigrant story: a string of jobs where I clock out at five and whine that weekends are too short.
“And House of Fashion opens when?” I ask.
“This is open at 11.”
“And closes at?”
“Eight, eight-thirty,” she says.
Selling dresses is a holiday compared to the grocery business.
“I took the job for the shorter hours,” Malani continues. “That’s the only reason I took this store. I don’t speak Urdu at that time. Everybody say, ‘How you going to deal because Pakistani women mostly don’t speak English?’ So I just worried about that. I think it took me about six months?”
“You learned Urdu in six months?”
Yes. Six months.
“And how long did it take you to learn to make saris?”
Giggles start rolling off her tongue like fallen spools of thread.
“I don’t know! That’s what I say, people just have their own common sense. They can make it,” Malani explains.
With that attitude, apparently they can.
“The style of dress is different in Pakistan than in Sri Lanka, true?”
“Yes it is. We wear like you,” Priyanga says and giggles. Apparently laughs, along with looks, can be inherited.
“The Pakistani women wear the salwar suit,” Malani says. “The pantaloons, the long shirt and the scarf.”
“So what do they wear in Sri Lanka. Blue jeans?”
“A lot of people in jeans and skirts, or skirt and blouse, mostly,” Priyanga says.
I inquire about the traditional clothing of Sri Lanka.
“We wear the sari, but in a different way, not the Indian way,” Priyanga says.
“But it’s still called a sari?”
“Sari or kandyn,” Priyanga says.
“So the kandyn is the traditional dress of Sri Lanka. Is that a one-piece? A two-piece?…”
“That’s a blouse and the sari. Two pieces,” Malani says.
“Actually three,” Priyanga says. “Underneath you have a small shirt.”
“Underneath doesn’t count because underneath everybody wears something,” Malani adds.
“What I want to know is, which style is it where you show a little stomach? Is that from Sri Lanka?” I ask.
“Oh see now you’re talking, that’s what I want,” I tell them.
We all giggle. Spools of giggles, flowing freely, tangled together on the floor.
“We show a little bit here,” Priyanga points to her mini midriff.
“And we have small puffs here,” pointing to her shoulders, suggesting puffy, cap sleeves.
“And then pleats around here,” pointing to hipbones well below her belly button.
“Very nice…” Malani says.
“Does anybody ask for that? The kandyn? Besides me?” I want to know.
“No, because there are no Sri Lankan people around,” Malani tells me.
“Okay, I’ll be the first. “
“Even when Sri Lankan people come here (to this store), they don’t wear,” Priyanga says. “Special occasion they wear that. For independence day, or something like that.”
“Independence Day for Sri Lanka or United States?” I ask.
“Sri Lanka. Which we celebrate here on July 4. No, sorry! February 4.”
Unfortunately, I won’t get to shiver in my flirty kandyn and celebrate Sri Lankan Freedom from British rule next February 4. Malani has a Pakistani tailor and a Bengali tailor, but not a Sri Lankan seamstress. I’m out of luck getting my custom kandyn. Malani promises to bring me back one from Colombo. Can’t wait.
“Give me a typical situation,” I say. “A customer comes in. You have things ready made for her?”
“Some of them I buy, as it is,” Malani says. “Some of them I make.”
“Okay. So you work with a woman. She tells you what she wants. You help her choose the fabric and the trim.”
“Yes,” Malani says. “I take the size measurements. If the woman has any new design, I can sketch sometimes, just a simple one.”
“You make the outfit yourself on a sewing machine?”
“No, I don’t. I’m not a tailor. I have tailors.”
“Then you have the salwar suit sewed for her. Custom. Tell me what it’s like to work with Pakistani women? How has that been to learn the language, to learn the culture?”
“I think when people come to a problem they will get up to it anyhow. That’s the way it is, no?” Malani says.
Right on, Malani. Way to rise to the occasion.
We’ve sketched the immigrant story of this successful businesswoman. We’ve cut into the fabric of Malani’s process for outfitting the matrons of “Little Pakistan.” There’s something I need to raise now. But how does one ever approach tragedy?
I dive in, as Malani surely would.
“Do you want to tell me about your children?” I ask.
“Yes, I had three children but now I have two,” she says.
One has passed, two years ago,” Priyanga tells me.
M: “Yes, my son.”
“Would it be okay to include that in the story?” I ask.
Above the counter, accented by fresh orchids and a teddy bear, is a portrait of a young man with Bollywood good looks.
“If it’s not too painful, tell me the story of how a beautiful young man has passed away.”
There’s a long pause. I dig into my purse and pull out a sheet of paper toweling. Clean and serviceable, but I’m ashamed of it’s roughness against her tender cheek.
“My son passed away about two years before,” she says. “He was an engineer and he was accountant, CPA accountant. He worked for the Board of Education. And still I don’t know how he died. He just came home from the office. It was Monday, March 5, and he went home. When I left the store and went home, he already passed. And he don’t have any sickness. He vegetarian. Sometime he eat fish or boneless chicken. And when he home, he’s mommy’s boy. He never drink. He never smoke. In his life he never had a can of beer. That’s guaranteed. My life changed. I’m so hardworking woman. I feel I’ve done nothing after he left. Because that is what I made.”
Pointing to her son’s picture, she says, “that’s my masterpiece.”
“What a beautiful young man,” I tell her. “How often do you change the flowers?”
“Once a week. Beautiful, handsome. Down to earth. You can say that in your story: down to earth. I’m so proud of him. Even though he gone, I’m still proud of him. He’s a genius! He’s a very intelligent boy.”
I wonder, is her use of the present tense intentional? Or just an imperfect command of impossible English?
“How old was he when he died?”
“He was 32.”
“Did he have a girlfriend?”
“He want to get married and, in our culture, he told me ‘You find a girl: I marry.’ So I went to visit back home. I found somebody. I tried to find a girl for six years. But he don’t want to marry a woman who work.”
“And he don’t want to marry a woman who does the make-up. He have so many conditions,” Malani says.
“Yes. Your son was picky. Typical New Yorker!” I say.
“It was very difficult, but we found some girl who was well-educated but not worked, a single girl and two brothers, that family,” Malani says. “So he went for the four days to visit her and he came back and he accept. I did everything possible to get his wedding ready. I don’t know if you heard of the hotel Galleface? It’s the best hotel in Sri Lanka. And Mount Lavinia. That’s the two hotels where his wedding gonna be. We paid his clothes… everything ready… Then two months before the marriage he passed away.”
“And the doctor said what? Heart attack?” I ask.
“I could not talk about the things that happened, at first,” Malani says. “So six months ago maybe I called the doctor. I asked, ‘I need to know, what happened to my son? Did he have a heart attack? And she told me, ‘He’s too young to have a heart attack.’ And I asked her, ‘Tell me, what happened to him. Did somebody do something? Did something happen to my son?’ She said ‘No, that’s his natural death.’ But I think he had a brain hemorrhage because so much his job. So much for him. Because he’s technician in the Board of Education with computers. In his school, I went to see where he work, he had 100 computers and 40 laptops in one place. He’s only one coordinator. And he studied to be a CPA at that time.”
“So he was studying at night to be a CPA and in the daytime he was working for the Board of Ed.”
“Full time,” the mother says.
“Was he your oldest child?”
“No, my youngest.”
“He was the baby?”
“He was the baby. After he die, I talk to many people. We all have different ideas about God. Then I’m lost in my mind. Which one to believe? When I cook, I remember him. When I see his car, I remember him. He drove a black SUV. I have to be strong. I have to take care of my other children.”
Priyanga deftly turns her mother’s attention to her own accomplishments.
“I went to College Katharine Gibbs,” Priyanga says.
“Katharine Gibbs School for fashion design?” I ask.
“Yes. She’s a designer!” the proud mother says.
It occurs to me that a devoted daughter, working alongside her mother, day after day, must be a comfort to Malani now.
“It’s not a coincidence you chose this store. It’s not just for the hours. You wanted to give an opportunity to your daughter as well,” I say.
“I told her to take this store but she cannot. She says she don’t want to handle it,” Malani says.
“Well you do it together,” I say.
“Tell me about your third child,” I continue.
“My oldest son don’t feel well. He had accident back home. He has a brain problem. He’s not functioning properly. He’s living with me, upstairs.”
“He’s a very kind and a very nice person,” Priyanga interjects.
“Nobody can tell when they look at him,” Malani says. “But I know. I have a handful. The life, that’s what it is, you know? I am very hardworking woman. I don’t know how I explain to you who I am? My family is everything to me, and I work so hard for them. And my son left, just like that. And the other one don’t feel well. And you know, this is a handful. This lifetime pain. And I’m a very good mother.”
“You are a very good mother. And you did nothing wrong.”
“These Pakistani people they eat the halal. And it’s a good way to give the food for the children. And I did that so long. I give my children 100% cooked-home food. 365 days I cook for them. 6 o’clock I get up cook. And I don’t do here and there food. The water I ordered. The salt I don’t have at home. I use 100% olive oil. And vegetables I cook. So why???”
The paper towel was just right after all. It’s standing up to a mother’s grief.
“Life is not fair, is it?” I say.
“Not fair! Life is not fair. It’s not easy to be seven days at work, with a sick child. ”
“You are amazing and look at everything you have: a beautiful daughter and a good son, but the challenges…” I say.
“Challenges, yes. I never give up in my life. Never! Never give anything up. If I want to do, I do anything. That’s who I am.”
The Bounty has finally met its saturation point. I dig deep and pull up another.
“This is clean, I promise,” I say, handing her the swatch of paper towel.
“You know, there are many medical issues that have nothing to do with how well we eat,” I continue.
“Yes,” she says, and her green eyes, luminescent through tears, are hopeful.
“You can have a little weakness, a weak blood vessel. You can do a head scan. A doctor can see it as a child and say: ‘You know you have this weak little blood vessel, watch this your whole life.’ You know, a doctor can see that.” I say.
“Yes, yes,” Malani agrees.
“Do you have a religion?” I ask.
“I am a Buddhist and a Christian. My mother is a Christian, my father is a Buddhist. So I believe in one God. Whatever.”
“Tell me a little about Buddhism. I’m curious about how that has affected you and what you believe, from your Buddhist faith,” I say.
“Buddhist faith we believe the karma. So that’s what I was thinking always. I didn’t do anything wrong in this earth, since childhood. I am a giving person. And why took my child? You know? But what I did in my past life, I don’t know… Maybe this is testimony? In this earth we have to go next life. I don’t know. After my son left, everything is so complicated to me. I don’t know what to believe, where to go, what to do. I don’t know. This only wish I have; I want to see him again or he will be born with me again. That’s my only wish I have now.”
Malani’s Christian and Buddhist influences, coming together here to console her.
“Well I know it’s not your fault. You have no control over your past life. You have this current life. And you were a wonderful mother to him and look at your beautiful daughter,” I tell her.
Towel number two approaches satiety.
“And the other son is doing as well as he’s doing, because of you,” I say.
Enter Pessie, a welcome distraction.
“Hi Malani! What do you have that’s short? I need a short skirt,” Pessie informs her.
I am staring. I can’t help it. She’s gorgeous. That stature, helped by boots bought in
the East Village, those earrings, the size and shape of cocktail napkins, those ethereal, frosted lips, and that hand held fan. (Genius! A motorized, personal fan to combat sticky Brooklyn summers.)
Malani moves quickly, pulling things off the rack for Pessie.
Pessie: “No, no!! That’s too long! Life is short! That’s why I need a short skirt. “
“How about this?” Malani asks.
She holds up a sheer leopard-print tunic. I’m nodding “Yes! Yes!!”
“Too long! Too long!!” Priyanga exclaims.
No doubt Malani will come up with just the right micro mini salwar for Pessie, but for now, the Amazon of Avenue O gives up the hunt and opens her photo stream to me, a stranger, to share pictures of her son, “Angel.”
We can’t get away from the subject of sons tonight—or their doting mothers…
Fast forward to two weeks later:
I get an evite to an end-of-Eid party at the Chabba catering hall, a few blocks north on Coney Island Avenue. It’s the perfect excuse to visit Malani and be measured for my salwar suit. The store is crowded. We’re in Ramadan.
Girls are trying on bangles. Moms are feeling fabrics and choosing trim.
“Do the Pakistani women shop differently during Ramadan?” I ask.
“Yes,” Malani says. “They want to wear the top! The best they can afford it! I like it! At the end of the month, they see the moon. Then they wear new clothes, new jewelry, new sheets. Everything new!”
The frenzied atmosphere is infectious. I stride the aisles, fingering fabric like I know what I’m doing. I don’t. I like orange and green, and I want all-cotton, but I’m not finding anything quite right…
Malani, the skillful shopkeeper, beckons and pulls a bolt out from under the counter. It’s perfect. Orange and green cotton with accents of magenta. Yes, that color combo works.
She measures me expertly.
“I want sleeveless,” I say.
She shakes her head.
“No, no. You need little sleeve. This is classier.”
“How long?” Malani wants to know.
I notice that Malani’s tunic reaches mid-calf.
“I want mine shorter, American style. Like Pessie.”
We giggle. I am learning Malani’s giggle.
Priyanga has brewed us tea and she sets the pot on the counter between her yardstick and sketch pad.
“Ceylon tea is the best, you know,” Malani says.
Boiled with ginger and lightly sweetened, I drain my cup and refill it twice.
At the height of the holiday season, store packed with customers, these ladies remember teatime for the DPC reporter. Classy.
The suit is finished Friday evening, just in time for my party. The tailor worked overtime to finish it, and Malani stayed open late, waiting for the delivery.
It’s breathtaking. Orange and green, with a lizard-like pattern down the back. The scarf, matching in color and design, is made not of cotton, but a gauzy chiffon. It drapes my shoulders elegantly. I can totally rock the Chabba tonight.
DPC: “I LOVE it, Malani!”
She beams and takes pleasure in pleasing me. This is the key to Malani’s success: her deep enjoyment in serving others, be it samosas or saris. It’s also what makes her a successful woman and mother. This gift of taking pleasure in giving pleasure.
Even though she’s got customers standing by with bolts of cloth to be cut, I can’t resist one more question:
“What’s the most important thing in life for you Malani?”
She doesn’t hesitate, and flashes me that enduring smile with the slight gap.
“My mother said, ‘The hand that pushes the swing will lead the world.’ The mother’s hand. That’s what it is.”
I’m digging for the Bounty towel now—for myself.
She walks me out.
“Navatha Hamuwe!,” she says. In other words: See you soon.
As I leave I notice a “STORE FOR RENT” sign on Fashion and Fabric, the shuttered storefront next door.
“What happened Malani? You put them out of business?” I say.