Thursday, 28 July 2016

His Royal Highness,The Tamil Tiger - FICTION

Kathir Balasundaram

Chapter 12

Money Talks

Haran Kandiah returned to Jaffna by Thursday night—the same night of Raman’s suicide. His stay at the Kilinochchi Base Hospital had at least allowed him to breathe again and get his asthma back under some measure of control. He returned determined to raise the sixteen million rupees and rescue his sister from the clutches of the wretched Tamil Tigers.
First, he called his niece, Dr. Maithily Rooban in Australia. To his surprise, she was already aware of the situation regarding her mother. Her nervous voice spoke volumes about the tension the younger woman was under. “Mama,” she said using the familiar Tamil term for ‘uncle.’ “My husband and I just bought a rather large house. We don’t have a dime right now. Our mortgage and utilities are taking everything we make.” Haran heard her swallow hard. “My husband recently took out a loan of 18,000 US dollars to help pay for a dowry for his sister…Mama, I don’t know what to do!”

This set Haran, a retired postmaster back on his heels. He had truly expected that his niece and her husband, both doctors in Sydney, would bear a portion of the fine. But any notion he had of quickly collecting the fine was shattered under the weight of his niece’s words. His heart heavy, he listened as his niece outlined more of her money woes.
“I’ll do my best, Mama, to help. I’ve applied for two loans from two different banks. I think I can scrape enough for at least three million Sri Lankan rupees—that’s about 25,000 US dollars. I’m hoping some of my friends will help…and Mama? I’ll come there personally with what I collect. You’ll have to sell the house and the shop on Stanley Road. Hopefully you can at least get thirteen million rupees from them.”
Haran was shaking his large head even though his niece couldn’t see it. “It won’t get much more than eight million,” he corrected. “But I’ll put them up for sale the first thing tomorrow.”
“What about the car? Can’t we sell that?”
“The Tamil Tigers took her car.”
“Oh! My God!” Haran could hear her heavy breathing. “Well, what about her jewelry?”
“She was wearing half of it when she went there, and the last I saw her, she wasn’t wearing it anymore. I don’t think we’ll ever see any of it again.”
A long painful pause followed that. “Well, sell everything that’s left,” she instructed. “What about auntie’s jewelry? Can you pawn that? I promise to redeem them as soon as possible.”
“I’ll ask her, Maithily. I think she’ll agree. You know how much she loves your mother.”
“Thank you. Please try hard,” she whispered.
“I’ll take up a collection at Vembady Girls’ College” he added. “I’ll call you next week to give you an update. We’ll do this. We’ll get her out of there very soon.
“When is the deadline?”
“February 9th.”
Maithily paused to digest that information and to do some mental calculations in her head. “Thank you, Mama. God bless you.”
He returned the compliment and they hung up.
The next day, he arrived at the Uthayn Newspaper Press headquarters by noon. He requested them to print an advertisement for Vasantha Velautham’s house on Waiman Road, Nallur—a northern suburb of the City of Jaffna. He also included one for her shop on Stanley Road in downtown.
Thus, by Saturday, a long line of people had arrived to view and possibly purchase the Principal’s house. Haran Kandiah stood dumbfounded at the number of people that waited for him. The crowd was large enough to create congestion in the road that ran past his sister’s house. Cars, motorcycles, and a plethora of bikes lined the street.
His heart rejoiced to see it. If there was enough competition, then he might be able to raise all the money he needed to free his sister quickly.
He tried to organize the crowd into a line, but the people held a deep seated aversion to waiting in lines, so as soon as the gate opened, the entire crowd tried to push through at the same time. He stood his ground just inside and shouted, “Get out! Form a line! Come in one at a time!”
They grumbled, shoved one another, and shouted some, but eventually they all crowded back out the gate. Haran went to the large porch—big enough to park two cars underneath—and turned to see the first man approaching. He carried a soiled jute sack over one shoulder and his clothing look disheveled.
As Haran watched him approach, he pulled out a Jaffna cigar and stuck it in his mouth, his hands patting pockets for the lighter. “Take a seat,” he said to the man, pointing to one of the two lawn chairs underneath the porch.
They both took their seats and immediately sized each other up before the serious bargaining took place. Haran lit his cigar and took a couple of puffs while watching the other man. The potential buyer’s face was lathered in sweat, and his clothing looked drenched as well. Haran turned slightly to spit a long arc of tobacco juice into a bed of flowers. He grinned. “Are you interested in the house then?”
The potential buyer’s eyes trailed from Haran’s large head to the house itself. He nodded. “Sir, I’m from the village of Alaveddy. I rode my bicycle twelve kilometers to get here.” That explained the sweat, anyway, Haran thought to himself. The man continued, “I am prepared to buy the house without the furniture. What is your price?”
Haran had his doubts that this man could possibly pay such a large amount. He nearly sent the man away until a thought struck him. What if the man had relatives or children who lived abroad as refugees? They might have sent him some money. Settling more firmly into his chair, he proclaimed, “Nine million.”
“Nine million! Are you insane? For this old house?”
“Hey, the house was built only about ten years ago!” Haran pointed to the house. “It has two stories, five bedrooms and two sitting rooms—one up and one down. It has two full bathrooms. Look at this porch,” he declared, stomping on the cement. “You could park two cars here. The house itself sits on a half acre of land and has privacy walls all the way around. There are twelve coconut trees, five mango trees, two jack-fruit trees, and one gooseberry tree on the property.”
The buyer shook his head. “Since the civil war, property values have plummeted drastically. My cousin bought a house in the town of Sivathalam Avarankal as large as this one for only sixty thousand rupees. In fact,” he said excitedly, leaning forward, “the house is famous. His Royal Highness hid in the basement for some weeks.”  
Sivathalam Avarankal is a small town of farmers far away from the city,” Haran retorted dismissively. “This house is on the border of the Northern Province capital city. There is no comparison.”
“Sure, sure,” the man said, backing away a bit.
“Look—what’s your name?”
“Call me Mr. Alaveddy.”
Mr. Alaveddy, you are the first one to look at the house. What is your offer?”
“You do know that as long as the civil war goes on and the Tamil Tigers exist, no one will pour a lot of money into any house in Jaffna.”
“You’re stalling. What’s your offer?”
“We can do this easy,” Alaveddy said. “No one has to know. We can do it privately without anyone knowing the selling price.”
“You still haven’t made an offer,” Haran said, exasperated.
“Okay, but keep it secret. I’m offering one million and one hundred thousand rupees for this old house. I’ve got the money here in this sack. Shall we go to a lawyer and get the deed finalized?”
Haran stared at the filthy sack over the man’s shoulder. He wondered if the man had actually brought that much cash with him. The sack looked like the only thing it had ever carried was onions or potatoes. “You’re just the first bidder,” he pointed out. “You’re just trying to get it at a bargain price. You just want to swindle me knowing that I am desperate to get my sister out of prison!”
“Calm down, sir!” He licked his lips, thinking. “You seem to have a medical condition of some sort,” he said, observing the tale-tale signs of an asthma patient. “Asthma, isn’t it? Getting all bent out of shape is not good for you. Look, I’ll throw in an additional two hundred thousand rupees, and I’ll give you five thousand in advance.”
“This isn’t a barn shed you’re buying, mister!”
“Sir, you come from a great family, one that is known all over Jaffna. Your sister is famous. Please have a bit of sympathy on me. I’m prepared to pay you one million and four hundred thousand rupees. Please, accept this advance—”
“Get out of here,” Haran stormed. “You’re just trying to cheat me. There are a lot of other bidders. Go away!”
The man looked nervously around and stood up slowly. “Sure thing,” he muttered taking a few steps away. He stopped and turned back. “What about one and a half million?”
“Go!” Haran barked.
The man jumped and darted away. Haran sighed and rubbed his chin. He hoped the other customers would offer something better. He couldn’t bear the thought that one and a half million was all he could get for his sister’s house.
Yelling and curses drew his attention to the front gate. He puffed on his cigar and squinted his eyes to see better. It looked like a riot had broken out. Then, like a conquering hero, a middle aged woman broke through the gate, chattering angrily at those trying to squeeze in behind her. She slammed the gate closed and marched over to Haran who watched it all with something akin to wonder.
When the woman saw Haran, a large smile blossomed on her lips. Haran nodded to himself as he looked at her. This woman was obviously well-to-do. Her rich clothing confirmed it, and her violet pottus between and above her eyebrows proclaimed her married status. Things were beginning to look up, he believed.
“Take a seat, Madam,” he said, standing up politely as she neared. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Kudathanai.”
“How far away is that?”
“About thirty eight kilometers. My five children are abroad because of the civil war. Two are in Canada, another in France, one in the States, and the last in Italy. I want to buy this house for them. When they come to visit, it would be good for them to stay in a house like this one.”
Excited now, he tossed his cigar away and sat up straighter in his chair. His eyes lit with anticipation and hope. Maybe he could pull this off after all! He already envisioned getting his sister out of prison and returning her to her former position as the Principal of Vembady Girls’ College. Then he frowned as a thought struck him. “Why can’t they stay in Kudathanai with you?”
“Their children aren’t used to our way of life. They require modern facilities like those found in western countries. Being near the city is an added bonus for them.”
“Well then, did you have an offer in mind?”
She nodded happily. “I’m also interested in the shop. Tell me, how much do you want for the house, first?”
Haran mentally calculated the woman’s expensive gold jewelry and her assets abroad—in the form of her children, and said, “Ten million.”
The lady from Kudathanani sputtered in shock, “Ten million! Too much. That’s too much.”
Haran frowned. “Do you have an offer then?”
“I’ll entertain it,” he assured her. “What is your offer?”
“One million, four hundred thousand.”
Haran gaped at the woman in astonishment. He couldn’t believe it! First a disheveled, obviously poor man and now this just as obviously rich woman offers him the exact same amounts!
“Sir,” she said in a soft voice. “I have the money in my car. Shall I go get it?”
“No. Just go away,” he said waving his hand at her and passing his other hand over his eyes.
“Get out of here.” It all started to make sense to him now.
“What about one million, six hundred thousand?” she tossed out.
He snapped a finger at the woman. “You must be in league with the last fellow! You put on some fancy makeup and jewels—that probably isn’t even yours—and you come here trying to pull a fast one on me! The land itself is worth more than a million! Just go away!”
The lady from Kudthanani stood up from her chair, a playful smile crossing her lips. “Sure, but sir, what about one million, eight hundred thousand?”
He swore at her and pointed to the gate. “Get out!”
She sighed and shrugged. “Okay, what about that piece of fallen jack-fruit there. Can I buy that?”
Again, he felt a ripple of surprise. They never sold fruit from the compound to acquire wealth. They always allowed people to take it away freely. “Just take it.”
“How much?”
“It’s yours for free. Take it and leave, please.”
After the woman left, his third potential buyer turned out to be a young man who had ridden a motorcycle to the residence. He looked more like a tourist in his denim jeans, red t-shirt, and green cap. He removed his sun glasses as he neared, and said loudly, “Sir, the lady that just left said she offered you one million and eight hundred thousand rupees. I’ll give you one million, nine hundred thousand for it. Do we have a deal?”
“Don’t even bother sitting down,” Haran growled as the other moved towards the chair. The young man frowned in confusion, obviously thinking Haran had lost his senses. Haran grew even more irritable. “Get out, please.”
“I’m going,” he said snapping his sunglasses back on. “But a piece of advice, sir. No one who comes in here is going to dig you out of the hole your sister dug for you.”
“I didn’t ask for your advice!” he shouted.
Shrugging, the young man turned and left.
By the time the sun went down that night, Haran Kandiah had interviewed sixty-two potential buyers. Looking up at the darkening sky, he lost himself to the cawing noises of giant flocks of crows returning to their nesting grounds.
His heart lay heavy inside him. The outcome had been dismal. Even though four weeks remained before he had to come up with the sixteen million rupees, his confidence had been utterly shattered. He laid back on the lawn chair wheezing and coughing up thick yellow phlegm. This is how his wife, Malar, found him sometime later. Her large sympathetic eyes fell over him. They had married twenty nine years ago just after she left   Vembady Girls’ College. She had put on some weight in the years since, and wore gold framed spectacles to help her failing eyesight, but he loved her with all his heart.
One glance and Malar knew that things hadn’t gone well. “What happened?” she asked softly, setting a tray of food beside him.
“I didn’t even get an offer of two million for the house,” he complained. He shook his head. “No one was even willing to pay more than a million for the shop.”
“I never thought you’d get a lot,” she reminded him.
“I know. I just never thought people would be so stingy. Almost all of them were aware of my desperation. Each tried to take advantage of it too. Mankind has sunk to new lows, my darling! They’re like animals fighting over table scraps, not caring that those scraps are the dreams and hopes of an innocent woman unjustly imprisoned!”
“Down deep, you expected this,” she replied. “Many people talk that dumping a lot of money into Jaffna is like burning it instead. No one is willing to commit money to something that has such a high risk. The Tamil Tigers have made this entire peninsula a high risk investment.” She sat down on the edge of the other chair. “No one knows when war will break out again. Few believe that the Cease Fire Agreement will actually last, and everyone is expecting bombs to fall on the city again.” She reached over and patted his hand. “Did you really believe you could raise enough money from the sale of these properties to free your sister?”
He shook his head in defeat.
“Darling, there is a proverb that says that the customer is always right.”

He didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Tears sprang to his eyes and his dear, precious wife moved over and lovingly wiped them away with the edge of her sari. They had no children, just each other, and so they sat in the darkened porch for a long time, each trying to take comfort in the other’s presence.  Hopes and fears intermingled and wrestled for dominance in their hearts. Neither knew what the future would hold, but at the moment, their family stood on a precipice of destruction. His dear sister was caught in a web of deceit and vengeance—a power struggle that would eventually determine the fate of all the Tamil but more importantly, for Haran anyway, the fate of his family.

No comments:

Post a Comment