Kathir Bala Sundaram
Reign of Mockery
Vice Principal Priya appeared cheerful enough as she led the Smiling Minister into the large auditorium. As soon as the Minister entered, the students stood and began clapping enthusiastically. It became a constant drone as the Minister and his five Tamil soldiers climbed onto the three foot high platform and sat down in their respective seats. Large yellow and black striped curtains covered the entire rear section of the platform depicting the school colors.
Principal Vasantha joined the rest of her colleagues at the back of the auditorium, her wide smile revealed her ignorance of the chaos about to descend upon her.
The Smiling Minister looked over the crowd and guessed that there must be around two thousand students in attendance, sitting in long, brown polished pews. Each student wore a typical school uniform that sported a white frock, white shoes and socks, and a yellow and black striped tie that nicely offset all the white. The girls’ hair was uniformly braided into two long strands, each braid tied off with a black ribbon. Having bowed to the notorious Minister, the girls all sat in unison, quietly portraying unyielding determination.
The Honorable Minister was taken aback by the demonstrative welcome. His face displaying his legendary smile, showed his pleasure as he allowed his gaze to roam around the auditorium, thinking things were going quite well. The air was circulated by twenty ceiling fans that produced a steady drone, pulling in fresh air from the open windows. Despite the fresh air, the Minister detected a peculiar smell he could not quite place. The girls gave nothing away, just looked at him innocently, fanning their faces with their handkerchiefs and began talking to each other. The noise sounded like a swarm of bees, but did little to distract the Smiling Minister from his satisfaction at the welcome they had given him.
While the Minister took his time to study the crowd, Principal Vasantha stood by the wall quietly talking to Pandit Manka, a Tamil trained language teacher with a Pandit degree from the Annamalai University. Pandit Manka and Vasantha had gotten along well together and it had become quite known around the college that Pandit Manka was the Principal’s most trusted advisor. Pandit Manka was perhaps the shortest teacher present, but compensated by wearing the biggest black kondai*—bun like hairstyle. The rest of the teaching and administration staff feared her and didn’t dare speak ill of the Principal in Pandit Manka’s presence.
“Madam, did you see the Smiling Minister’s reaction to our student’s welcome?” Pandit Manka asked. “What an incredible tribute and welcome! This is a very good start!”
“This is the Vembady Girls’ College’s remarkable tradition!” Vasantha replied proudly. “We are not like the other girls’ colleges. This is a prestigious school. We only admit scholarship holders—not any of the riffraff!” She showed her teeth in a broad smile, glad that the girls were not embarrassing her. “I’m proud to be the principal of the Vembady Institute.”
Pandit Manka returned the smile. “Yes, it is something to be proud of.”
Vasantha’s agreeing nod, stopped as she considered the current situation. “Do you know why the Tamil Tigers have come here?”
“Madam, the Tigers are not like the other petty insurgent groups. No one can predict what they’ll do next. Not even God knows!”
The Principal bit her lower lip, suddenly worried. “I don’t like that man’s perpetual smile. He treats me like I’m a principal of some small school.”
Pandit Manka hushed her friend with a small wave of a hand. “Be careful! It wouldn’t be good if others overheard you say that. He’s the right-hand man to His Royal Highness the Tamil Tiger. If he finds out…if he gets annoyed, he’ll order you to report to Kilinochchi. He’ll toss you into some dungeon and that will be the end of you.”
“Alright, stop scaring me. Pandit Manka, why are the students talking like that? It sounds horrible!” She eyed the Minister apprehensively, thinking about what her friend had said about annoying the man.
Pandit Manka waved it off. “Don’t worry, madam. They will be struck speechless when he begins to talk. He’s an incredible speaker, gifted with a silver tongue.” She smiled, unconcerned. “You have nothing to worry about.”
But the Principal did indeed have something to worry about. She just didn’t know it yet.
The Smiling Minister, waiting still for the girls to quiet down, looked around for Vice Principal Priya. He finally spotted her at the rear of the auditorium, leaning casually against the wall awaiting his speech. All the teachers, nearly one hundred of them, waited along the back wall.
His eyes unexpectedly fell on a teacher in her thirties—the history teacher. He noted she was purposely avoiding his eyes. He couldn’t place her, but something about her irritated him profoundly. His eyes narrowed dangerously as he thought about the enjoyment he would get from torturing her. He so loved to watch the eyes of his victims. Their tortured looks always brought delight to his heart. He reflected on the irony that he had not always been that way, but upon joining the Tamil Tigers he had been given control over the torture chambers. The experience had changed him. He chuckled to himself.
Vasantha probably thought the students’ warm welcome had put her on his good side. The future, no doubt, looked good in her eyes.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Earless was lost to his own fantasies, hardly registering anything but his visions of a beautiful Year 12 student. He had picked Sendhoory out from the crowd, and he could hardly wait for this meeting to be over with. He was planning something awful.
Finally, tiring of waiting, the Minister stood up and strode to the lectern and tapped the microphone to make sure it was on. He held his walking cane tightly against his body as he stood. His giant smile took in the entire crowd, his pearl white teeth gleaming for all to see.
The girls kept talking, taking no notice.
Three minutes passed, and the Minister kept smiling; the girls kept talking.
Sendhoory’s own conversation was interrupted by a note passed to her by the Head Prefect, Mehala. She read it and looked over at the Head Prefect and nodded. Subtly, she signaled those around her. Like a flash, the signal quickly traveled through the crowd of girls. Each knew what to do. The girls’ whispered conversation suddenly grew rapidly in volume. The thunderous noise reverberated throughout the auditorium.
The Minister suddenly lost his smile, not understanding why the students were making such an awful racket. He tried to get the Vice Principal’s attention, hoping she would do something about the unruly students. But the woman was lost in her own conversation with the history teacher.
Frowning even deeper, he struck the platform heavily with his cane. No one seemed to notice. Realizing he might have to be a bit more forthcoming, he started waving the cane in the air. The first row of girls shrank back, thinking he was about to attack them. The rest of the girls began clapping loudly just to ridicule him. The roaring sound continued for nearly two minutes.
Confused, unsure as to what this unanticipated clapping and noise meant, the Minister just stared at the crowd.
Then, all at once, the noise just stopped.
Relieved, the Minister allowed his smile to blossom across his face. “Students of Vembady College, it warms my heart to report to His Royal Highness about your kind welcome to us, the most faithful representatives of His Royal Highness. On behalf of His Royal Highness, I thank you and wish you good luck and a happy life.”
He stopped to allow the students to clap for what he supposed was a generous beginning to his speech. Any mention of His Royal Highness was due an ovation. After all, even Osama Bin Laden took his cue from His Royal Highness when he attacked the American World Trade Center and Pentagon. The great Tamil Tiger’s fame deserved the ovation, and he was proud to serve such a renowned leader.
Most of the students merely glanced Sendhoory’s way, but not a sound did they make.
Clearing his throat, the Smiling Minister mistook the silence for respect and continued on with his speech. “I have brought an important message from His Royal Highness, the Tamil Tiger,” he began, his voice booming through the auditorium. He sucked in his breath to continue when a young feminine voice piped up, interrupting his train of thought.
“By whose right does such a blood thirsty man call himself by such a royal title?” someone shouted from the back.
“Eh?” the minister queried, not hearing the voice well. “Thank you for your support,” he added thinking the girl was cheering him on. That just incited wild laughter from the entire student body.
Unsure if the laughter was meant to be agreement, the Minister plowed on, “I have brought an important message from His Royal Highness, the Tamil Tiger.”
“Bah…aaa…aa…a…!” Sendhoory bleated like a sheep. From her position in the center of the auditorium, nearly everyone heard her, and girl after girl echoed her until the entire student body was bleating raucously like sheep.
Two thousand voices bleated in chorus, the sound echoing off the walls and encouraging the students on.
The scorn of this sound was unmistakable. The minister and his entourage felt the blood draining from their faces at the obvious insult. As a group, they looked pale, almost as if they had been swallowed by a whale and then regurgitated only after the gastric juices had a chance to eat away at their faces.
The principal and Pandit Manka froze in sheer terror at the sound. “Idiots! Fools!” Vasantha cried in horror. “What are these stupid girls bleating like sheep for?”
Pandit Manka stammered a reply, her face equally pale. “Don’t worry. Don’t worry,” she whispered unconvincingly. “The Cease Fire Agreement is still in force. They can’t do anything violent in Jaffna. It’ll be okay…”
The Principal hardly heard her. “Pandit Manka, do you think the Sri Lankan military is behind this?” She clutched Pandit Manka’s arm. “Their soldiers have been very friendly with the students since they’ve set up all of their outposts around here. Could they be instigating the students?”
Pandit Manka shook her head. “I don’t see how that’s possible. No one knew the Tamil Tigers were coming to our college today. We certainly didn’t.”
“Someone had to set it up,” the Principal insisted. “Two thousand students don’t bleat in chorus like that without it being premeditated.”
While the Principle and her closest adviser languished in indecision, the Smiling Minister was trying to determine the best way to teach the insolent students a lesson. The Tamil Tigers sitting behind the Minister blinked like owls, their expressions dark and thoughts of abduction, rape, and torture were clearly being entertained. One of the soldiers even went so far as to stand up and take a threatening step towards the girls, but a slight gesture from the Minister sent him back to his seat to sulk.
Many of the teachers waited in terror for the Minister to order them to Kilinochchi for investigation. With the complete and utter rudeness emanating from the students, many of the teachers couldn’t imagine the Minister not issuing such a command. They shifted in fear and terror.
The bleating became even louder and sudden movements among the students caught the Minister’s eyes. He scrutinized the crowd wondering what new mischief was planned. Taking his cane, he waved it menacingly at the crowd as if he would thrash them with it.
“Ah! Do it again!” A Year 9 student shouted from within the crowd, mocking the Minister’s attempt to control them.
The students picked up the refrain. “Do it again! Do it again!”
The girls sneered at the Minister whose face darkened with each passing second. Three minutes had passed and the Smiling Minister gripped the lectern tightly, his knuckles showing white, so hard did he grip it. He wished for the old days when walking into this auditorium had inspired respect and fear. He recalled when many girls would join the insurgency after a meeting such as this. He had reveled in the fact that the girls had even come from well-to-do families, all with scholarships and bright futures. They had willingly joined in the cause and fought for the freedom of the Tamils. Their zeal had been such that they had gone right off for training or even battle without ever again seeing their family or friends. Many had died…particularly in the battles of Elephant Pass in 1991, Pooneryn in 1993, Mullaitivu in 1996 and even as recently as 2000 during the second battle of Elephant Pass. The Minister tried to contrast the students before him to those brave girls who had died those years ago. Such was the contribution of this school to the Tamil fight for freedom. It was this tradition that had brought him here.
He wondered how things could have been turned so upside down.
Principal Vasantha Velautham was at a complete loss. She envisioned the utter wrath that would soon descend upon her, the students, and the teachers. She imagined the complete destruction of her school, and knew that if the Cease Fire Agreement had not been in place, its destruction would be assured. She turned and scrambled towards her Vice Principal. “Mrs. Priya, do something,” she begged. “You must stop the students from disrupting the Minister before all hell breaks loose!”
Priya took one look at her terror stricken superior and ran over to the Head Prefect, Mehala. They whispered together for a bit and then she made her way over to Monitor Sendhoory. They exchanged a few words, words lost amid the continual noises the other students hurled at the Minister and his men. Sendhoory put her head down, and as if on cue the entire student body fell silent.
The silence was almost palpable.
“What a wonder!” the Minister quipped sarcastically, though he gazed gratefully at Priya as she made her way back to her place. He looked back over the students and was amazed at the change. They were all smiling at him, sitting still, and looking very attentive. Emboldened by this, he took up his speech once again. “I have brought an important message from His Royal Highness, the Tamil Tiger. He has sent me to this honorable institution to convey his warm wishes to the teachers and to the brightest students in all of Sri Lanka! His Royal Highness wishes you all a peaceful and prosperous life. Again, I repeat, His Royal Highness wishes you all a peaceful and prosperous life!”
He paused to await the expected applause. Silence ruled in the auditorium. Puzzled and a bit alarmed that he was being mocked again, he steeled his eyes and allowed them to roam over the crowd showing his displeasure. No one moved. They all appeared like mannequins. Had they been in Vanni, all two thousand girls would have been tossed into the deepest darkest dungeons they had, tortured and left naked, chained to the walls and pillars.
He silently cursed the Cease Fire Agreement that would prevent him from carrying out his wishes. He hated the fact that Jaffna was overridden by Sri Lankan military, overrunning his beautiful country like a rat infestation. He could abduct a couple, he knew—and he probably would—but there was no way to take his revenge on the entire student body.
These young women—teenagers mostly—were embarrassing him, bringing shame and mockery to His Royal Highness to whom the rest of the world trembled in fear upon hearing his name!
Plowing stubbornly on, the Minister continued his prepared speech, hoping silently that things would turn around. He did not want to have to report to His Royal Highness that he had failed, that the young students of Vembay had mocked and scorned His Royal Highness. “I am here,” he said slowly, loudly, determinedly, “at your distinguished college for a very specific and honorable purpose. Your college boasts of a long and prestigious history. Established by British Methodist Missionaries in 1834 with a motto of ‘Dare to do Right’ the past principals of this college succeeded in making this the leading educational institution in all of the North and the East of Sri Lanka. Since 1960, this school has been under the direction and control of the government. Indeed, it is a worthy gift to the Jaffna society.”
The Minister paused again, expecting the applause, and when it became clear that none was forthcoming, he scowled and commenced with his speech. “Seven days ago, M.P. Joseph of the Batticalao electorate, was assassinated during Christmas mass at St. Mary’s church in Batticaloa. To express our condemnation of this heinous crime, His Royal Highness has directed me to stage a hartal—a protest march—this Friday, the day after tomorrow, in Jaffna.”
No one reacted. No one said or did a thing. Everyone was like spiritless palmyra palms on a calm day. He chose to believe that this meant he now had their attention, that they were intent on his speech and the message from His Royal Highness. He allowed himself to smile again. His Royal Highness’ fame and achievements had long struck awe into the masses. Many believed the man to be an incarnation of Hindu God Murukan. No doubt many of these girls were recalling these legends. He smiled broader as he thought how easy it had been to deceive the Tamil people. He felt more comfortable now, more in his element. He knew that if the students acted up again, the Vice Principal, Priya, would put a stop to it. The students feared her more than they did the Principal.
The only person who hadn’t noticed the tension in the room was Lieutenant Earless. He had eyes only for Sendhoory, and he was madly enjoying her beauty and his awful fantasies. He never realized that while she appeared properly humbled by looking constantly at her lap, she was secretly transmitting instructions via carefully crafted body language to her fellow students. Earless just wished she would raise her head so he could get a fuller look at her face.
The Smiling Minister continued, “We, the Tamil Tigers, are going to have the hartal beginning from Kalliyankadu Sankiliyan statue to the Jaffna esplanade to denounce the murder of Mr. Joseph. You all know that Sankiliyan was the last king of Jaffna. His Royal Highness’s desires are for all the students of Vembady above Year 7 to partake in this important demonstration. We will begin at 9:00 a.m. As there are over three hundred soldiers from Vembady College currently serving in our freedom movement, His Royal Highness desired to extend this honor to you in tribute to this great college’s contributions to the war. This is an honor not given to other girls’ colleges. This is an honor given only to you.”
Once again, the Minister looked up to gauge the crowd’s reaction to his speech. Not a black ribbon moved. It seemed everyone was fully engrossed in his speech. Grateful that he had their attention at last and that it looked like they would no longer be a problem for him, he continued, “My dearest Vembady scholars, you must present yourselves at the rendezvous point at 9:00 a.m. sharp. We’ll arrange forty buses to transport you from the college to the statue of Sankiliyan. Buses will leave here promptly at 8:30 in the morning. You must dress in your full school uniform—white frocks, white shoes and socks and the yellow and black striped school tie. You’ll each be given a placard displaying a large picture of His Royal Highness to carry during the protest procession. While marching, you will hold high your placards and when you hear the cue ‘Long live!’ you will immediately shout three times as loudly as you can ‘His Royal Highness the Tamil Tiger! His Royal Highness the Tamil Tiger! His Royal Highness the Tamil Tiger!” He looked up and assumed his most authoritative gaze. “Your voices must thunder forth!”
Having finished his rousing speech, the Minister stepped back to soak in the expected adulation from the students. At first, no one moved and this baffled him. He had just delivered the words of His Royal Highness! Why were they not clapping? His eyes wide, he awaited their reaction.
“Bah…aaa…aa…a…!” two thousand voices bleated in unison. The sound rolled off the concrete walls, echoing back upon the Minister’s ears like hammers pounding away at his eardrums.