Sunday, 10 July 2016

His Royal Highness,The Tamil Tiger - FICTION


Kathir Balasundaram

Chapter 11

One Day Principal

The previous Wednesday, Watcher Raman left Vembady Girls’ College to return to his home village of Puttur, thirteen kilometers north of the City of Jaffna. He had his own ideas of what to do about Lieutenant Earless’ order to report to Kilinochchi for investigation. Most people, when receiving such an order, obeyed reluctantly, knowing full well the likelihood of ever returning. Still they clung to a measure of hope, so they went. Not Raman. He had no intention of going to Kilinochchi.
The twenty-three year old primary school dropout analyzed his problem like a scholar researching for his thesis. He imagined the torture and cruelty he would suffer at the Tamil Tigers’ hands. His mind conquered up images of burning flesh, bloody knives, and broken bones. He didn’t want to die, but being tortured to death seemed a worse fate by far. If he had to die, better to go quick. He had no desire for a slow, lingering, painful death.

A bottle of alcohol helped sooth his fears—temporarily.
The sun dipped towards the western horizon to mingle with the palmyra palms as he neared his home. His pretty wife, Ganga, saw him coming and rushed into their miniature kitchen to prepare some tea for him.
Raman staggered towards the house, his drunken steps weaving a roundabout approach through the front lawn of his small hut. He nearly stumbled into one of the mud walls before realizing he had missed the door. The tin roof of the single room dwelling reflected the yellow light of setting sun into his eyes as he stumbled in the wrong direction from the wall.
He was home. He knew how poor he was. He knew that they lacked even the privacy fence found around all the other affluent houses. He had only a black goat with two kids tied to a portia tree out back, the one room hut, and a few hens and a single cock that roamed the premises. Even the area he lived in proclaimed his lowly social status. But it was his, and he would miss it.
Giving up on finding the door, he sat down on an outcropping of limestone about three inches high. Ganga eventually came out with the steaming tea, without milk, in an old tin cup. Her light green dress complimented her beautiful face that often reminded Raman of a blooming lotus flower. “Why are you sitting out here? Come inside and have some tea.”
Raman winced at the sound of her voice, not because he found it offensive—on the contrary, he loved her sweet honey like voice—but because he couldn’t bear to tell her the truth. “No, I—you, me…” he faltered.
“You’re drunk. Come inside.” She sniffed. “You smell of arrack.”
Raman shook his head and settled more firmly on the limestone. He started to mumble to himself, disjointed words and sentences that only brought confusion to his wife’s face. Frustrated she flung her ponytail over her shoulder and stared at him for some time. Only then did she notice that he did not have any alva cake. He always brought some of the sweet, black cake home. But not this time. She frowned, disappointed in her husband. This wasn’t how married life was supposed to be! The cup of tea slipped from her fingers and smashed to pieces on the hard, reddish soil.
“This isn’t fair!” she cried softly, just under her breath. “Bless me God! Must I endure life like this?” She had expectations of her husband, and he had failed her!
She grabbed her husband by the arm and pulled him to his feet. When he stood, Ganga towered over him by several inches. Leading him into the hut, she guided him over to where their sleeping mat lay rolled up against the wall. The mat was made of palmyra leaves and emitted the typical palmyra smells. She spread it out on the cow dung polished floor.
“Please sit.”
Raman did, and landed with a loud bang. He began to shake his head, his eyes staring vacantly into nothing. “I won’t go. I won’t go.”
“Go where?” his exasperated wife demanded. “What is going on? What’s wrong?”
“I can’t tell you,” he whispered. “My sweet, sweet Ganga, we have only been married three months…”
The girl, for she still was in her late teens, put her hands on her head. “What can’t you tell me? We promised never to have any secrets, remember?”
“Nothing.” He waved a hand. “It’s nothing.”
“Then why are you carrying on like this?”
It finally penetrated his drunken stupor that he needed to give something to his wife and assure her in some way. “It’s the Principal. She’s going to Kilinochchi.”
“So? Lots of high class Jaffna people own paddy fields there.”
He smiled at her young innocence. “She isn’t going for that reason.” He sighed deeply and slumped against the mud wall. “Evil has found me,” he said, looking away.
Ganga regarded her husband in confusion. She studied his swollen and red eyes, his unshaven chin, and his rumpled clothing. All her youthful passions dissolved then as she began to realize that something terrible had happen. Hot salty tears formed in her eyes.
“Why is the Principal going, then?”
“To see the Tamil Tigers.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. All I know is that she has been ordered to meet with high officials in the Tamil Tigers. I don’t want to be a problem to her.”
“What problem?”
He stared at her for a long moment and felt his resolve to keep her in the dark crumbling around him. “I had a run in with the Tamil Tigers.”
She gasped. “What are you saying?”
“It’s my fate. The Tamil Tigers came to the school this morning. When they appeared at the gate and demanded that I open it, I lied and told them I had to go fetch the keys. I just wanted to forewarn the Principal! I didn’t think they would find out.” He bowed his head. “They did and ordered me to report to Kilinochchi for an investigation into my actions.”
To Ganga’s credit, she firmed her lower lip and looked determinedly at her husband. “Then let’s go tomorrow…the two of us.”
“No, Ganga. They’ll dump me in some remote prison and torture me.”
“No, not you,” she insisted. “The Tamil Tigers don’t bother with us labour class,   
 low class, people. You know that.”
“They killed my brother, Kanakan,” he reminded her.
“What? You never said you had a brother!”
“I used to. He was my older brother. His death still haunts me.”
“How did he die?”
“He belonged to the EPRLF, another rival insurgent group. The Tamil Tigers outlawed the EPRLF, confiscated their arms and rounded them all up into an internment camp, Kanthan Karunai. I remember the exact date even though I was only a boy. It was March 31st, 1987 when an unidentified assailant tried to kill the Regional Commander of the Tamil Tigers, Kittu, by lobbing a grenade at the Mitsubishi Lancer carrying him. He survived although he lost his leg below the knee. When Major Aruna found out, he went crazy, killing thirty two of the innocent captives at Kanthan Karuani. One of them was my brother.” He shook his head. “Kanakan was like us! He was of the low class. They all were!”
“That was then,” Ganga tried to assure her husband. “They don’t do things like that now.”
“Then why did Lieutenant Earless order me to Kilinochchi?”
“It’s just a misunderstanding. I’ll come with you, and we’ll explain the circumstances to them. They’ll know that we are of low class…that we’re poor. You had a right to be confused! You feared that the Principal would fire you if you didn’t tell her first! They will understand. I mean His Royal Highness and the Minister of Political Affairs did not belonged to the high class either. They will understand!” She paused, wringing her hands when Raman didn’t respond to her hopeful suggestions. “Things will be better after you eat. Come eat, please.”
Raman just shook his head. He couldn’t eat. Stories of the atrocities perpetuated upon people ordered to Kilinochchi assailed his mind constantly. He couldn’t shake them. They kept going over and over in his mind.
His little wife watched it all with growing dread. The more she thought about it, the more worried she became too. If they did something to Raman, she would be left alone without anyone to provide for her. The pressure built until she began to sob, crying harshly. Raman never even noticed. She sobbed herself to sleep while her husband continued to stare into the darkness, his mind seeing only the stories of torture.
Raman didn’t go to work the next day. He remained in his small hut, feeling ill. He brooded the entire day, which set Ganga on edge. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how to help him.
“If I go to Kilinochchi,” he said at one point, “they’ll torture me. If I don’t go, they will kidnap me and torture me worse…they may even kill me.” Those words terrified Ganga. “What can I do? There is no escape.” He took a deep breath. “I’ll be my own judge,” he said, his voice hardening with resolve. “I’ll judge my own case and pronounce a reasonable sentence upon myself.” His words revealed a bit of the philosopher in the man who dropped out of primary school at a young age.
Raman, please,” Ganga pleaded. “We must go to Kilinochchi! My father will take us. Please come. We’ll go tomorrow morning.”
He stared at his wife long and hard, his eyes filled with regret. “Okay,” he agreed.
Relieved, she continued to do her chores and went to bed later that night. The last thing she saw before falling asleep was her husband sitting by the mud wall, staring into darkness. She felt confident, however, that tomorrow would sort itself out.
She awoke the next morning to the cries of alarm from an old man pounding on their thin wooden door. Scared, she ran towards the door calling for her husband in case the Tamil Tigers had already come to collect her husband. She threw the door open and saw the horrible expression on the face of the old man. “What’s wrong?” she demanded.
“It’s Raman, Ganga. He’s dead.” The old man turned to look across the way to a tree where a body swayed gently in the breeze. “He hanged himself.”

*          *          *          *          *
The following Friday—the day after Raman’s suicide, and three days before the scheduled protest rally by the students—students, teachers, and minor staff arrived at Vembady Girls’ school to find out that neither the Principal or the Vice Principal had arrived. Watchman Raman still hadn’t arrived and a very tired relief Watcher, Manian, remained on duty at the front gate.
Miss Sumathy Jathav noted the chaos around the school and decided to take matters into her own hand. She strode into the Principal’s office and took a seat behind the desk. She had once been a rival of Mrs. Piriya Shan for the position of Vice Principal, but had lost to Vasantha Velautham’s high recommendation of Shan for the position. Her own academic accomplishments were impressive. She was a geography major and an honors graduate, who passed her examination in the first class from the University of Jaffna with another degree in education from the University of Colombo. Still, she knew, it hadn’t been enough to win her the position since she didn’t know much English. Mrs. Priya Shan had studied English, and that was the reason for her promotion to Vice Principal.
But now, neither of the women was here. So it was left to her to fill the position of Principal of Vembady Girls’ College. She smiled broadly, happy that circumstances had dropped this opportunity into her lap. Yes, it was a good day!
She took out the logbook and made an entry: 06.01.2006 – Since both the Principal and Vice Principal are absent, I, Sumathy Jathav, will assume the duties of acting principal for the duration, beginning this day. She silently vowed to run the college efficiently.
She slid the logbook away and raised her head to see an old man standing before her, wringing his hands plaintively. She blinked, surprised that he had entered without her hearing him. He looked tired and was clearly from the low class. He wore a dirty blue sarong and brown shirt. The clinging dust, testified of the distance he had traveled. Jathav hesitated, not wanting to invite her dirty guest to sit down.
In turn, the bony old man felt somewhat intimated by the immaculately dressed Acting Principal. Her glittering jewels around her short neck, her bright orange sari, and her hair, just turning white, in perfect place atop her head made him uncomfortable. Even the woman’s nose ring was adorned with a sparkling red jewel, and the three lines of holy ash marked along her broad forehead filled his eyes to the point where he could hardly blink.
They just stared at each other for a long uncomfortable moment.
Finally, the old man said, “Madam, I’m from Puttur. I am a close relative of Watcher Raman.”
“From Puttur, you say?”
“Yes, the west side, Vembirai.”
“Ah. Did you bring a letter of absence from Raman?”
“No, Madam.”
She frowned, and clicked her tongue in exasperation. Her first day and already she had to deal with petty problems. “Then why are you here?”
Raman has committed suicide,” the old man said bluntly.
The Acting Principal’s eyes widened. “What!” she screeched.
The old man took a step back at the power of that cry. He twisted his head from side to side, but continued his story. “He committed suicide last night. I’ve come to inform you of his loss since he worked here and knew most of the teachers, staff, and students. His funeral will be tomorrow around ten o’clock.” He hesitated. “I was hoping someone from here could deliver a brief eulogy.”
“Why did he commit suicide? Did he have problems at home? He never said anything to us about any.”
The man shook his head. “Not at home. His problems were here, Madam, at this college.”
The Acting Principal’s eyes narrowed. “Be careful of your words, old man.”
The aging man cocked his head curiously, and then understanding flooded his eyes. “He didn’t tell anyone here that the Tamil Tigers had ordered him to report to Kilinochchi, did he?”
“Kilinochchi? We know nothing of this!”
“He told his young wife, Ganga. It seems that the Tamil Tigers visited your school recently, and he lied about having the keys to open the gate to them. He only wanted to talk to the Principal first. He didn’t want to get fired.” He sighed. “The Tigers caught him in his lie and ordered him to Kilinochchi.”
“Who gave the order?”
“The Political Head here in Jaffna, Lieutenant Earless.”
“Hmmm…” she muttered, glancing at the clock and wondering how to cut the conversation short. She had work to do. She continued to stare at the clock, trying to figure out the proper thing to say, but when she glanced back at the old man, he was gone.
She blinked. How had he disappeared like that?
Pragmatic Jathav couldn’t help but wonder if the entire incident hadn’t been a bad omen—particularly since this was her first day as Acting Principal. The old saying went, “Omens are nature’s gift, experience teaches us to heed them well.” She pursed her lips and tried to wade through the possible portents in her head.
A thin tall man dressed all in black rushed into the office disrupting her musings. He tossed a copy of the Uthayan Newspaper onto the Principal’s desk, turned and ran out. She hadn’t requested a copy, so the fact that they would make a special delivery to her meant that Vembady Girl’s College had made the headlines.
She snatched the paper up and eagerly searched the bold titles. It wasn’t hard to find. Right in front, in giant bold print an article…but not about Vasantha Velautham as she had supposed. This article was about Priya Shan!

Vice Principal of Vembady Girls’ College Abducted

Mrs. Priya Shan, Vice Principal of Vembady Girls’ College, has been missing since Thursday night. Her husband claims that his wife had gone to bed peacefully enough, but had disappeared by morning. His search and inquires into her disappearance has so far gained no new information.
Mr. Shan is the head of the Jaffna Election Department. The police have been notified and it is rumored that the ICRC office will get involved.
Mrs. Shan’s children, ages 4 months, 3 and 5, have been inconsolable since the morning. It is assumed that she had been abducted during the night.

Jathav put the paper down and sighed. She knew, as did everyone else, that the Tamil Tigers had been behind the abduction. Of course, the newspapers dared not make such an outright accusation by saying as much, else they too come under the vengeful attention of the Tamil Tigers. Neither was she surprised. She doubted anyone was terribly surprised. Three decades of fighting and brutality had given almost every Tamil a sixth sense regarding stories like this. She glanced at the newspaper and sighed again. The news of Shan’s abduction had been allowed into print as a subtle warning to everyone else.
That too, came as no surprise to anyone.
Almost as if on cue, the new gate sentry rushed into the office wide eyed and announced, “Madam, people in the streets are talking about a woman’s body that the police retrieved from the lagoon. They think it is our Vice Principal, Priya! They are just waiting for confirmation of her identity!”
“That’s the third evil omen in one day,” she muttered aloud. Being a principal of a prestigious college was her lifelong ambition. To be the principal of this college—the Vembady Girl’s college—was a dream come true. But she dared not ignore these three omens. The signs were there. If she continued down this course she would lose everything. She began to rub her cheeks in worried thought. Should she stay and tough it out? It was her dream, after all. Then she thought of what the Tigers would be doing to Mrs. Shan and a shudder coursed through her body. She seriously pondered over these omens. A shiver shook her body at the thought of them.   
“It’s not worth it!” she decided.

Springing from her chair she started from the room, only to hesitate briefly to call a taxi. She had the taxi take her straightway to the Department of Education to meet the Director of Education to whom she promptly gave her resignation. Just like that, she said goodbye to her entire lifelong dream.

No comments:

Post a Comment