Tuesday, 20 September 2016

His Royal Highness, The Tamil Tiger


Kathir Bala Sundaram

Chapter 15
Black Luck

Haran Kandiah felt worse than normal as he coughed violently on the morning of February 6. His eyes were bloodshot, and his cheeks looked sunken from lack of nourishment. He couldn’t even bring himself to drink the coffee his lovely wife set in front of him.
The deadline to deliver the money to save his sister was just a couple days away. As of yet, the maximum offer for the house and shop was just shy of three million rupees. It was nowhere near enough.
Standing shakily to his feet, he began the walk to his sister’s house in another effort to find a buyer willing to pay more. He passed a temple where he paused to pray, pressing his palms together in front of his chest. He prayed despite the fact that he had given up hope. His failure haunted him and he couldn’t shake the image of his accusing sister looking at him with sad eyes.

A short time later, he continued on his way. As he neared the house, he was surprised to see a woman in a green sari standing by the gate. Coughing all the way, he forced his legs to move faster, wondering if perhaps his prayer had been answered. He whispered another prayer and then one of thanksgiving, just in case. When he arrived, he took stock of the woman’s appearance.
Right away he could tell a difference between her and many of the other potential buyers he had seen in recent weeks. Her well manicured hands, the jasmine garland wrapped around her hair bun, and soft eyes bespoke of a different character.
“Good morning, Mr. Haran,” she greeted him as he moved closer, still coughing. “My name is Dr. Sarasu Sambasivam.”
“Good morning,” he returned, still praying to God under his breath. “Please, do come in where we can talk more comfortably.”
When they were both sitting in the chairs under the porch, she smiled and said, “I am a former student of Vembady Girls’ College. I entered the college on a Year 5 scholarship and studied there for seven years until I entered the medical faculty of Colombo. I am now practicing in Malaysia where my husband runs a rubber plantation. Anyway, I heard of Principal Vasantha Velautham’s plight and came as fast as I could” She hesitated and then smiled broadly. “I studied zoology under her.”
“Okay,” he replied, half hoping against and half wondering if this was just another swindler.
“I would like to buy the house and shop. I’ve heard that the maximum offer you have received to date has been almost three million rupees for both.”
Haran heaved a disappointed sigh and said, “Dr. Sarasu Sambasivam, please leave me in peace. I’m tired of all these games.” The lady from Malaysia didn’t move. She smiled even broader, comprehending that Haran’s constant disappointment had made him a bit slurry. Haran coughed hard for a long moment. When he regained control, the woman still sat there smiling. He pointed towards the gate. “Please go.”
“Sir, I have come all the way from Malaysia for this transaction, and so I am not leaving until it is completed.”
His teeth gritted tightly in anger. He didn’t appreciate being taken for a fool! “I’ve said all I care to say, lady. Just go away,” he pointed towards the gate where he noticed another man standing dressed in national dress—white verty* and white shirt without collar. “Besides, there is someone else waiting for me.”
“Sir, suppose that I’m prepared to pay the entire amount you need for both the house and the shop you advertised?”
Haran froze, thinking his ears had just deceived him. He slowly moved his head to look at the woman more fully.  
“So tell me, what is your asking price for both the house and the shop,” she went on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
He didn’t know how to respond. He feared if he quoted too high of a price, she would just leave, but all the pain and agony of the last few weeks overwhelmed him at that moment, and he blurted out, “Eight million!”
“Very well. That is not a problem.”
Haran Kandiah felt as if his asthma had just been miraculously cured. He wanted to jump up and shout. He wanted to hug this strange woman. He wanted to dance! Instead, he just sat there and let her talk.
“Honestly, I really don’t care much about the properties. I am doing this for my former teacher’s sake. I want her freed from that awful prison.” She took a deep breath. “I need to talk to my husband about one or two details regarding this transaction, but I’ll be back very soon. Please wait for me.”
She left quickly and Haran didn’t know what to think. His prayers had been answered, but why had she left like that? Besides, even if she did buy the properties for the eight million that would only bring his total up to eleven million with what his niece was bringing from Australia. It wasn’t enough. The thought of raising another five million set him to wheezing again.
The man who had patiently waited at the gate came in and approached him. The old man in national dress was sun wrinkled and somewhat stooped that attested to a life of hard labor under an unrelenting sun. One just couldn’t tell these days about a person’s social status.
Absorbed as he was in studying the man, he didn’t even offer the older man a seat. Whereupon the man said, “Sir, my name is Poothan Velan and I’ve come to buy your properties.”
“I’m sorry,” Haran said, “I just sold them for eight million.”
“I’ll give you nine million,” he responded instantly.
Haran nearly chocked. Two large offers in one day! But he didn’t know what to do. He could really use that extra million, but he had already agreed to sell it to the lady from Malaysia. Then he noticed Dr. Sarasu returning and he said, “Madam, I am in a dilemma. I’ve agreed to your offer, but I need thirteen million to release my sister. This man here has offered nine million. Would you allow him to purchase the properties?”
“If that is what you wish, but I’m willing to pay nine million and a half.”
A wild look surfaced in Poothan’s eyes. He angrily replied, “Nine million, six hundred thousand.”
Haran looked from Dr. Sarasu to Poothan in astonishment. What should he do?
“Nine million, seven hundred thousand,” the doctor replied evenly, fixing the old man with a firm stare.
Poothan Velen’s eyes snapped in fury. A wicked grin suddenly spread across his face as he said, “Ten million.”
“Eleven million.”
“Twelve million,” Poothan snapped.
“Twelve and a half.”
Both Haran and Dr. Sarasu stared at the man in astonishment. She said, “Look here, sir, I am a former student of Vembady Girls’ College. Vasantha Velautham was my teacher. I want to do this for her. Do you have some connection to the Principal?”
“None. I have boys who are all abroad. None of them ever finished school.”
“Then what is the point of such a high offer?”
Poothan Velan’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You high class folk hate us low class laborers. You keep everything within your own circles and you never sell outside of them. That’s the only reason you are bidding against me. You know that I am from a low class family, and you are determined to prevent me from buying it!”
“I am sorry, Mr…?”
“Poothan Velan. My name is Poothan Velan,” he snarled.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Poothan. I didn’t engage in a bidding war with you just to block the sale of this property. My only concern is that my dear friend and former teacher is freed from prison. This was to be my gift to her. It has nothing to do with you.” She held up a hand when it looked like the man wanted to say something. “However, as you have already reached the critical amount Haran needs, the house and shop are yours…for thirteen million rupees.”

On the day that Vasnatha’s properties sold, Lieutenant Kannady arrived at Haran Kandiah’s house around 10 p.m. in the evening. He marched up to the veranda of the two room house and knocked on the door. Flanking him were three other Tamil Tigers, each looking grim from the shadows cast upon them from the dim light of a hurricane lantern hanging near the door.
Haran came to the door wearing a blue sarong and brown shirt. He glanced at the men and instantly knew them to be Tamil Tigers from their authoritative behavior. He stepped outside, thinking they had come to deliver some bad news about his sister. “May I help you?” he asked politely.
“I need to speak with you on matter of some urgency,” Kannady said, moving to one of the chairs on the veranda and sitting down. The other three combatants moved off to stand under a mango tree. “I am Lieutenant Kannady and we are Tamil Tigers.”
“Very well, but why have you come to my house so late?”
“Sir, you should know. You’ve been living here for a long time.”
“I have no idea why you’re here.”
The Lieutenant grinned wickedly. “You sold your sister’s house on Waiman road and a shop today for thirteen million rupees. You have to pay a 15% tax on property sales to the Tamil Tigers.”
“Me?” Haran shook his head. “They are not my properties.”
“You were the one entrusted with them. You were the one who sold them. You are the one who will pay the tax.” Kannady’s words hit Haran like a hammer driving a nail.
Haran looked over his shoulder at his wife who had come to stand in the doorway. He knew instantly by her troubled expression that she had overhead. He moved his eyes back to the Lieutenant. “You want me to pay the taxes, personally?”
“That’s what I’ve been telling you. His Royal Highness is very clear on this, and I know my duty.”
“May I have a couple of weeks, Lieutenant? My niece is coming here from Australia. I will need her help with the taxes.”
The soldier shook his head. “You took power of attorney for your sister’s property, so by law, you must pay the taxes. It is my duty to collect it…now.”
Haran swallowed. “How much?”
“You figure it out, former postmaster.” The Lieutenant’s eyes danced with malicious intent. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.
“Is this fair? I’m going to give the money to you anyway to free my sister!”
“It’s your responsibility. Calculate the tax.” He grinned. Of course the Lieutenant had already done the calculations; he just liked to torture these uppity high class people. “I’ve no time for your hesitance. Calculate the proper tax.”
Haran knew full well about the attitude the Tamil Tigers harbored against the high class society. He stared into the darkness above him and said faintly, “One million, forty thousand.”
Kannady grinned evilly. “No, sir. It’s one million, four hundred thousand.”
Haran’s nervousness had caused him to miscalculate. Worried that his error would further cost him, he just nodded in agreement.
“I’ll come to collect the amount on the 8th—two days from now—at 6 a.m.
Haran’s wife whispered to him, “I don’t think we will be able to get out of this.” Haran began gazing at the roof, his mind turning over the possibilities.
He knew that failure to pay on the date specified would result in torture and death. He began to cough again, a wracking cough that shook his entire body. The wonderful feeling of finally selling the house and raising the money to free his sister now crumbled to dust in his heart. He thought of his relatives and friends. The tax amount was not a small one—one million four hundred thousand. It would be difficult to collect anything from them in such a short time since most of them were abroad. He rarely even spoke with them.
Almost everyone in Jaffna live hand to mouth—just barely earning enough for their daily existence so he had no money saved up. He could not use any of the money from the sale to pay the taxes since he needed every single rupee to free his sister. Had he known that he would be forced to pay a tax, he would have asked the doctor from Malaysia to help. But she was gone now and he had no means to find or reach her. The staff of Vembady Girls’ College—his sister’s colleagues—had already turned him down. He had no one else to go to, no one else he could ask.     
     Haran glanced at his wife and saw the tears streaking down her face and knew that she understood the gravity of their situation. What she didn’t know was that he found a way to escape the Lieutenant’s grasp.
He finally looked over at Kannady and said, “Lieutenant, if you want your money, I’ll have it for you on February 10th. No sooner.”
The Tamil Tiger studied the resolve in the other man’s face and nodded his acquiescence. “See that you do. I’ll be here at 5:30 a.m.—sharp.”
Haran Kandiah nodded.
The Lieutenant rejoined his men, and as he left, he called in a mocking voice, “Pleasant dreams!”
Haran couldn’t reply as he began to cough up yellowish-green phlegm. His wife darted over to his side, holding a small jar up to his mouth, her other hand stroking his back in soothing circles.

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