Wednesday, 25 May 2016

His Royal Highness, The Tamil Tiger - FICTION

Kathir Balasundaram

Chapter 8 - Heinous Taxes

Principal Vasantha’s Honda rested under the shade of a large ironwood tree whose trunk was nearly six feet in circumference. The Principal herself sat not so far away on a narrow bench staring at the people going in and out of the large building not two hundred yards away. A sign on the side of the building proclaimed it to be the headquarters for the Ministry of Political Affairs.

The Tamil Tiger Freedom Fighters, some in uniform and some in civilian dress, passed busily in front of her, and she figured they were running different errands on behalf of the Ministry. Not a one of them bothered to greet or notice the prestigious principal. She felt like a stray dog suffering from some infectious disease of leprosy and still expected to be taken home. She hated the feeling.

For two and a half hours, she sat on the uncomfortable bench as the sun slowly descended beyond the horizon. Her stomach growled and she licked her parched lips, but she didn’t dare get up and look for something to eat or drink. She had been ordered to sit there until called for. Her younger brother, a retired postmaster suffering with asthma, waited in the car—the only one willing to accompany her as everyone else had abandoned her.

She saw Paari, the leader of a female squad of soldiers who had given her the original order to wait on the bench, moving her way and being flanked by four other junior female combatants of her squad. “Hello Sister, may I speak with you?” asked the hopeful Principal.

“Idiot! You will call me Madam Paari, understand?”

Vasantha blinked, startled by the harsh tone. “Madam Paari,” she tried again. “I’m hungry and thirsty. Shall I go to the bazaar to buy tea for myself?”

“Fool. I told you already that you are not to leave this place until the Honorable Minister of Political Affairs calls you.”

Tolli, one of her junior female fighters and the tallest among them, cast a wooden expression upon the Principal. She studied the principle’s jewels, her costly gold colored sari and barred her teeth at the principal in jealousy. She tugged at her long braided hair which she had fixed at the nape of her neck in a circle. “You instigated your students to disgrace the Minister of Political Affairs,” she nearly hissed.

“No,” the Principal disagreed shaking her head. “I didn’t do any such thing!”

“You address me as Madam Tolli!” She snapped viciously.

“Sorry. Madam Tolli, you must believe me. I had no idea what the students were going to do.”

“Don’t try to deceive us. We already know what happened.”

“Madam Tolli, I swear to God. It came as a complete shock to me. I had no idea!”

Tolli snorted. “You expect us to believe that? You’re the Principal. How is it that you have no idea what’s going on in your own school? What idiot appointed you as principal anyways?”

Vasantha swallowed hard and squirmed uncomfortably, tears springing to her eyes. She didn’t dare reveal that the appointment was based solely on seniority—the usual means of promotion within the Department of Education. She never dreamed the position would be as difficult as it turned out to be. She was a good zoology teacher. She wasn’t cut out for the political aspects of being a principal. Fortunately, she had gotten Mrs. Piriya appointed as the Vice Principal. After that, Piriya ran the school.

Tolli’s wild eyes grew larger as she waited for the Principal’s response which didn’t seem to be forthcoming. She, like the rest of the Tamil Tigers, felt humiliated by what had happened at the Girls’ College. Her blood boiled within her veins, and her gritted teeth projected her upper jaw sharply outward. She wanted nothing more than to beat this woman who had allowed for such disgrace to occur. She reached out and grabbed the Principal’s big hair bun and reared back to slap her soundly on the cheek.

Paari’s eyes flashing dangerously at her subordinate, and she made a subtle signal to stop. The time for beatings had not yet come…later maybe.

Vasantha’s empty stomach rolled sharply. Tears continued to flow down her cheeks and her mouth had gotten even dryer during the confrontation. She begged, “Madam Paari, please allow me to get some water from the well.”

Paari just stared at her.

“Please, Madam Paari. It’s just a little water.”


Knowing she was pushing things a bit, the Principal pointed toward her car where her brother Haran, skeletal tall old man with milk white hair, waited. “Can I get some for my brother too? He hasn’t had any since this morning.”

“Okay. You have five minutes.”

If Vasantha didn’t believe it before, she now certainly understood that the Tamil Tiger Freedom Fighters had completely abandoned any pretence of virtue. Their jealousy and fear of the elite had driven them to the only solution they understood: terror. So many of her colleagues had already fled the country seeking refuge from other nations—so many, in fact, that she wondered if she too shouldn’t have fled. The elite—which predominantly consisted of the high class—had been so diminished by the constant attrition of the Tigers and the massacre of the Sri Lankan racist forces, that Vasnatha felt completely isolated, cut off from her own home. It was as if she existed in a nightmare.

No sooner did Vasantha return from the well than Paari unleashed her own anger and jealousy upon the frightened woman. “You only allowed students to Year 6 if their parents bribed you,” she accused. “That’s how you got that car over there!”

“No. My daughter is a doctor in Australia. She sent the car to me from there.”

Paari laughed. “You’re trying to deceive us again.” Her voice dropped into a menacing whisper. “Do you really think you can take the car back with you?”

The Principal nearly panicked. She didn’t know how to react in the face of this bold attack. She could indeed guess as to what the Tigers had planned for her car. She had just hoped it would be different this time. Swallowing hard, she tried the only thing she could think of. “Madam Paari, there is a very competitive examination for selecting students to Year 6. It’s held by the Jaffna Department of Education. I have nothing to do with that test. The results are determined there and admission is granted based on scores.”

“You grade the tests and award higher scores to those who bribe you!”

The accusation hit her like a bolt of lightning. She shook her head, mouthing “No” over and over. She couldn’t imagine such a thing happening. Could it? No, she was sure it could not! The Principal had no idea that Paari had once taken the examination to gain entrance to the prestigious girls’ school, scoring a lowly 27 when a score of 172 was needed to even be considered for Vembady Girls’ College. The Principal understood then that this wild accusation was nothing more than a pretext to seize her car. Who could challenge their word? Who would dare?

Her eyes flashing in anger, Paari snapped, “Stay here. Don’t move. We’ll come get you when we are ready.”

Sometime later, the twelve year old cadet that had accompanied the Smiling Minister to the College marched up to her carrying a plate of food. Gratefully, the Principal reached out for it, but the boy snatched it away from her and shouted, “I’m standing in front of you, you idiot! Don’t you know you should stand up in respect when a Tamil Tiger approaches you? Fool! Stand up!”

Startled and clearly taken aback by the boy’s order, Vasnatha shot to her feet.

The young soldier stood there obviously waiting for more, but when the older woman just stared at him blankly, he shouted, “Show me respect, woman!”

With a small yelp, the Principal folded her arms across her chest and bowed before this angry child, her heart heavy with trepidation and shame. She murmured to herself, “Put on a label of ‘Freedom Fighter’ and you make kids into kings and fools into emperors. Woe to the Tamil people.”

“Yo! Yo! What are you whispering about? Stop that, right now!”

“Yes, sir!”

The cadet sat down on the bench while the Principal stood before him. He didn’t offer her any of the food. Instead he began to eat it himself. The smell of hot, spicy fried brinjal curry sent pangs of hunger stabbing at her stomach.

Between bites, the boy said, “You made the students ridicule the Smiling Minister.”

“No, sir,” she replied, feeling awkward about defending herself against a twelve year old boy. She feared, however, that this was some sort of test. She decided to play it carefully. “The students acted on their own. I was as shocked as the Honorable Minister was.”

The boy snorted, blowing a few chunks of food out of his mouth in the process. He didn’t seem to notice. “You don’t even know what is happening in your own school? You didn’t know that Kavitha Karunanithy was behind the riot? You’re hopeless, Principal. You don’t even know what crawls under your own feet!”

Vasnatha hardly heard those last words. She just gaped at the young man, trying to put what he said about Kavitha into perspective. She couldn’t believe it. Not even the students were aware of the History Teacher’s full name. And here this upstart child threw it out so casually. She swallowed, expecting to be told some awful news regarding the history teacher. Like everyone else in Jaffna, she knew that Tamil Tiger Intelligence was behind more than a thousand killings and assassinations.

The boy stuffed some more of the rice mixed with brinjal and dhal curry into his mouth. He began to speak before he had even swallowed the food. “You are going to hear some revealing news about your Vice Principal, Mrs. Piriya Shan.” He grinned at the Principal’s discomfort. “The news will be worthy of a party,” he exclaimed enthusiastically. “A weeping party. I doubt you’ll be allowed to participate in her funeral, however.” He puffed out his chest. “I won’t allow it.”

The reality of the situation had truly begun to sink into Vasnatha’s consciousness. She’d come here with the hope of turning away the wrath of the Smiling Minister and his diabolical leader. But the words coming from this young cadet stripped any illusion away that she may actually succeed in her aims. The Tamil Tigers were going to take their revenge upon the Vembady Girl’s College. Before, she was worried just about herself. Now, she worried for all the students and staff of the school. She prayed for God’s protection on them all. They would need it.

What was she before the might of the Tamil Tigers? She realized then that her position, her experience, and her history meant nothing to these people who had spent decades terrorizing the globe.

Still smiling, the young cadet jumped to his feet and strolled off. Vasntha wondered what she would say to her brother. She had brought him out here with the hope that she could make everything right, but more and more that hope was being stripped from her. What would become of her brother who had come here out of loyalty to her?

Before she could even move, a squad of female soldiers led by Paari cut across the lawn in front of her. They surrounded a rugged looking man who followed in their wake like a brutally whipped cur. The man turned his emaciated face in her direction, and even from that distance, Vasntha could see the man’s hopeless eyes. He wore no shirt, and his bones seemed to stick out of him from every angle. His long, stringy hair looked to be falling out in clumps, and his ragged beard had clearly not been shaved or trimmed in ages. The man watched her for as long as he could as he walked by.

Only then did the Principal recognize the man as Mr. Singam, the owner of the small textile shop, Silk Palace, located on Stanley Road in the City of Jaffna. She used to go there to buy saris. The difference in his appearance shocked her. Singam had been a rather jolly fat man with a clean face and large smile—until, that is, the Tigers had levied their heinous taxes against him.

She knew the story well. The Tamil Tigers had ordered Mr. Singam to pay twenty thousand rupees a month in taxes. He told them that he could pay four thousand a month, and if they made him pay more, he would have to close the business down. This infuriated the Tamil Tiger sent to collect the taxes, and he had ordered the businessman to Kilinochchi to discuss the matter. He knew he couldn’t refuse. If he did, he would be abducted, tortured, eventually killed, and his body thrown into the street in front of his shop as a warning to all others not to ever ignore an order to report to Kilinochchi.

That had been three months ago. Now she barely recognized the man. Rumors said that he had been thrown into prison for defying the tax order. After seeing him, she knew it to be true. If she could have followed Mr. Singam into the Ministry of Political Affairs, she would have born witness to an even more terrifying scene.

Singam, the textile shop owner, stood in front of the Minister of Political Affairs, with barely enough strength to stand upright on his own. The five female soldiers stood behind the Minister in a straight line, their gazes resting uncompromisingly on the disheveled businessman.

The Minister, however, was all smiles. “I’m prepared to offer you a deal,” he said as if the two of them had been friends for a long time. “If you pay nine million rupees in advance and will pay sixteen thousand rupees in taxes each month, I’ll let you return to your home and family. You will have two weeks to raise the nine million.”

“Sir, that is a colossal amount of money! I don’t have it!”

The Smiling Minister laughed aloud as if hearing a good joke. He wagged his walking stick at the shop owner. “Now, Mr. Sivakuru Singam, we both know that your inventory alone is worth fourteen million rupees. This is not so large an amount. And there’s more.” He continued his tally, his incredibly wide smile continuing to dominate his face. “Your eldest daughter got married in 2005, correct?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You gave a 1,620,000 cash dowry to your son-in-law. Is this correct?”

The shop owner licked his dry and cracked lips nervously. “Yes, Sir.”

“And you gave 650 grams of gold jewelry to your daughter. The blue diamond studded ring you gave to your son-in-law, Dr. Thevan Sukumar was worth at least, 40,000 rupees. For the koorai*, the wedding sari, you paid 42,000 Indian rupees. Right?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Good. You are a gentleman. Your son, Gopu, is an undergraduate at the medical university in Chennai in India. To get a seat for your son on the medical faculty, you paid 2,850,000 rupees in Sri Lankan currency just six months ago to a Minister of Tamil Nadu—a federal state in India. Must I go on? Your house is worth 9,200,000. Your shop is worth 6,800,000. You own the land 21 lacham* at Puttur by the post office you got as a dowry worth 2,100,000 rupees. You have a bank balance of 23,657 in one bank and in another 9,387. I haven’t even mentioned the value of your wife’s jewelry or the various other items in your house.” The Minister leaned forward, grinning from ear to ear. “Your wife sells eggs and milk from valuable chickens and she makes a rather nice income. Why is this paltry sum we ask in taxes so hard to come up with?”

“Sir, I have a loan from the Bank of Ceylon of 6.5 million and other from the People’s Bank worth 4 million. The mortgage on my land is still around 1.5 million. These are heavy debts and I’ve always struggled to pay them.”

The Smiling Minister shook his head and sighed, but his smile never wavered. “Mr. Singam, you must keep your priorities straight. Your other debts are meaningless to me and our cause. Your property alone is worth over 14 million rupees. We aren’t asking for all of it, just a part of it. For the cause of the Tamil People—the Tamil Kingdom!

“Now, if you don’t mind, I have another guest that has been waiting for me. Think over our deal, Mr. Singam. You can let me know tomorrow if you’ll agree to pay the 9 million rupees.”

“Sir, I—”

“Shut up. Leave.”

The man’s mouth hung open while the female soldiers collected him and half dragged him back to his dirty, stinky cell.

“Paari,” the Minister called as they were leaving. “Bring in our other guest.”

“Yes, Sir,” she replied with a salute.

The female squad leader found the Principal still sitting uncomfortably on the hard bench. Darkness had fully descended, and only a few stray street bulbs glowed in a futile attempt to chase it away. Paari could hear the Principal’s brother coughing and wheezing in the car. She grinned as she marched up to the older woman. “Yo! The Honorable Minister of Political affairs will see you now. Get up and come with me.”

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