He was well respected by the Tamil community in Australia and New Zealand. He was a great writer, poet and actor. He has staged several plays & dramas in Australia and New Zealand. His novel “Thopullkodi” was planned to be launched on Sunday 18th Oct, 2009. But unfortunately he passed away before the launch. )
The moulding machines are moving fast and spilling out finished plastic tubs, buckets, road safety barriers and water tanks. Workers are busy stacking the finished products on pallets. I put on my overall and safety jacket. Noises of the operating machines were in some form of rhythm, only disturbed by the tooting of fork lifts. I stopped and talked to some of the workers. Smiled at some of them and listened to complaints from others. They are always happy to talk to me. I noticed an unprotected electrical wire running close to one of the new machines that was installed last week. I looked for Raj, our electrician. He was attending to a routine check on another machine.
‘Hi Peter’, Raj smiled, brushing off his black curly hair from his forehead. His white teeth were sparkling under the bright factory light. ‘That is my next job’, he pointed to the exposed electrical wire.
Our factory is a large world under a small roof. It is multilingual, multi-religious, and multinational. There is a New Zealander who greets me in Maori tradition ‘Kia ora”. There are
Indians, Cook islanders, Africans, Greeks, Australians and many more. There are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists,
Catholics and Christians from all
denominations. Raj is a Sri Lankan Tamil, came to Samoans, Fiji as a refugee.
There is Jeyantha, a Sinhalese Sri Lankan who joined us only last week. I was
aware of the conflict between the two communities. My slightest concern was evaporated when I
saw them sharing their meals in the factory lunch room. Australia
It was ten to Five. I have to pick up my daughter Julie from her net ball practice today. I hurried back to my office. Removed my overall and put on my jacket and grabbed my car key.
At that moment, Laurie stormed in to my office bringing the full noise of the factory with him. Laurie is one of my Shift Supervisors. His wrinkled face and fully white hair gave testimonials for many years of hard work. He was breathing heavily. His face was pale.
‘What’s wrong Laurie?’ I raised my eye brows at him.
Laurie can not utter a sentence without a four letter adjective.
‘No … time to sit down mate. ... fight in the factory…Raj, broke...Jeyantha’s nose. Blood is running all over his face. May be a few broken teeth too,’ Laurie stopped for breathing.
‘Shit’, that was all I could say. I sank to the chair. One part of my brain was thinking how to handle the situation. I looked at the factory floor. It was almost standstill. Workers were gathered in small groups and talking to each other.
‘Laurie, don’t stop any machines mate. We have to meet that big order. Bring those bastards to my office. I’ll handle them. Record the incident in the log book, mate.’
Laurie quickly disappeared into the factory muttering more filthy words.
Within minutes Laurie brought them to my office. Raj avoided eye contact. There was a bruise next to his right eye. His head was down. Jeyantha’s nose was red and left eye was swollen. He must have received few punches on his face.
‘Sit down’, I said with my commanding voice. They all sat down. There was an uneasy silence for few seconds.
‘May I remind both of you that you have broken our employee code of conduct? Physical violence is not at all tolerated in our factory. The punishment is summary dismissal,’ I paused and looked at their faces.
‘Peter, It was Raj who punched me first. I had to defend myself’, Jeyantha retorted angrily.
Raj did not utter a word. ‘Is that true Raj?’ I looked at him. He was looking at the floor.
‘Yes. He called me a Tamil Terrorist’, Raj’s voice was very faint.
Jeyantha interrupted. ‘That was only a joke. With all the tools around his belt and a welding gun in his hand, he looked like a soldier. I jokingly called him ‘Hello Tamil Terrorist’.’
‘Don’t you ever say that again,’ Raj raised his voice sharply.
‘Keep your voices down. Jeyantha, your calling him ‘whatever’ is unwarranted. Raj, there is no excuse for hitting Jeyantha. Your final pay will be paid into your bank tomorrow. I will send you an official letter of dismissal. Please, hand over your locker key and tools to Laurie on your way out.’
Raj got up briskly and looked straight into my eyes. His reddish eyes penetrated through mine. Without a word, he walked out followed by Laurie.
I looked at Jeyantha.
‘Jeyantha, it is a racist remark to call Raj a Tamil terrorist.’
‘No it is not. Is it wrong to call an Irish, Irish or an English, English?’
‘But you called him a Terrorist’, I retorted.
‘That is not racism’, he snapped back.
I did not want to argue with him.
‘Jeyantha, you go home now. I need time to think over the whole situation. Come and see me at 10 O’clock tomorrow morning.’
Jeyantha walked away.
It was a winter night in
. Traffic was heavy. Car lights were on. I looked at my rear mirror and noticed a
Toyota Camry closely following me. That
was Melbourne Wellington Road
and I was driving towards Wheelers Hill. I have just passed
and was on the middle lane. The driver
can easily overtake me on the right lane.
I slowed down. The car behind me
also slowed down. I raised the accelerator and moved to the left lane. To my surprise, the other car also changed
its lane and was very close to my bumper. I was convinced that someone is following
me. We were getting closer to Springvale and Monash University Wellington Road junction. McDonald’s sign was visible. Without signalling, I made a sharp left turn
into McDonalds and parked my car. Turned
off the engine; I was sure that the other car did not follow me. Wiping off the sweat from my forehead, I took
a long deep breath.
When I was about to turn on my ignition, there was a knock on my widow. I was dumbfounded. It was Raj. He must have turned into McDonald’s through
Springvale Road. He was saying
something. I could not hear as the
shutters were up.
He was not holding anything in his hand. But, I did not want to open the door. I put the shutter down.
‘Sorry Peter, I have to talk to you.’
‘Raj, what are you after? This is not the time or place to talk.’
Raj was not listening and was not waiting for my consent. He came around the car, opened the door and sat next to me.
I was annoyed, but not scared. I could not see any weapon in his hand. I am too big for him to attack inside a car. Besides, I could not see any hatred or anger in his pleading eyes.
He started to narrate his story as he was in a different world.
“I was ten years old. It was the night train from
to Colombo in . People hanging on hand rails, sitting along
the corridors, hardly any space to move without stepping on someone’s feet I was seated near the window with my mother
next to me, followed by my father and four other people. Those seats are like
two long benches. They face each
other. Each seat was designed to
accommodate five people. Thirteen of us
were seated there like crushed sliced bread in a plastic bag. Sri Lanka
My mother was wearing a yellow saree with beautiful patterns at the hem. Like all Tamil women, she had a ‘Pottu’ a round dot in red, in the middle of her forehead. There was a young Tamil couple seated in front of me, holding each others hand, giggling and murmuring between the two, ignoring all others around them. Rest of the passengers were Sinhalese talking very loudly in their language. Train was moving with its clattering noise. I had my head slightly outside the window. The cold wind was blowing hard on my face, making my eyes watery. It was fascinating to watch trees and posts moving fast away from me in the darkness of the night. I could see some lights far away like tiny candles vanishing in the darkness and reappearing after a while. Train curled like a snake at a bend and I could see the tail end of it. There were much brighter lights now. I could gather that we were getting closer to a station as the clattering rhythm was slowing down.
As I saw the station, my heart started beating faster. I could see Sri lankan soldiers with their rifles and machine guns moving up and down the platform. I whispered to my parents. My mothers face went white. My father leaned towards me and looked through the window. His face was expressionless. As Tamils, we fear the Sri Lankan soldiers. My father murmured into mother’s ear to wipe off her ‘Pottu’ and put her saree around her head covering her face. The young couple in front of us got the message too. There faces were panic stricken. But, the young lady did not wipe off her ‘Pottu’.
The train came to a halt with a clanking noise and jostling us. There were passengers rushing to get off with theirs luggage and others trying to get in to the train. To silence all the noises around us, we heard a commanding voice on the loud speaker that chilled our blood.
“All Tamils get off the train”
It was repeated several times and was in Sinhala and broken Tamil.
Fear pierced through my body like thousands of tiny needles. My mother’s hand was trembling while her grip on me was getting tighter, stopping smooth flow of blood to the rest of my body. I heard the young lady in front of me telling a Hindu prayer. None of us got off the train. I saw the soldiers rounding off the people getting off the train and marching them to a room in the station. There were men and women of all ages. Young babies were clinging to their mothers. I saw heavily armed soldiers getting in to the train. There were two of them getting into our compartment. Sounds of boots suppressed our heart beats. We sat their silently. Their searching red eyes looked at each passenger and stopped at my mother. One of them pointed his finger at her and shouted, “Show your face. Are you a Tamil?”
My father intervened. His voice was very clear. He said in Sinhala.
‘Api Marakkala minisu’
It means, ‘We are Muslim people’.
It is traditional for Muslim women to cover their faces with the ‘Saree’. Soldiers were about to move. The second one stopped and looked at the young couple. He screamed with anger,
‘You bloody Tamil bastards. Can’t you hear the announcement?’ he moved towards them and pulled the young man by his shirt. They dragged him along the passage while the young lady with tears, followed them pleading to leave him alone. She begged my father to intervene and rescue her husband. I do not know what was going through my father’s mind. He did not move. The soldiers pushed the young man down the platform and repeatedly kicked him on his face while the lady was screaming with tears covering her face. The train started to move.
The noise of the train could not drown the wail of the young lady or the roar of the soldier. The gun shot was even louder than all of them.
“You bloody Tamil Terrorist”, Peter, Those are the last words that I heard from those soldiers. When I heard that again in the factory…”
Raj did not wait for my response. He got out of my car. I waited there until red tail light of his car fade away.
A feeling of emptiness crept through me.