Juliet of our times

A short story 

The sealed coffin containing my father's mutilated body lay in the middle of our drawing room. By the side of the coffin, where his head should have ordinarily lain in full view, two large oil lamps threw an eerie glow on my mother's swollen tear-streaked face resting at the other end where my father's feet should have been duly encased in new white socks; she gave a watcher the wrong impression that she was quite at peace with herself. No one would quite know the fire of sorrow that must've been burning within her; my parents had been extremely close to one another, in spite of, or perhaps because of, being married to each other for 26 years. The whine of the table fan, running constantly to keep the flies away from the sealed coffin, took up the grieving from where my mother left off, exhausted.

My sister, having no more tears, sits two feet away from the coffin that is supposed to contain her father's mortal remains, staring into thin air, as if trying to comprehend what really happened, while her husband, his arm around her, fights hard to fend off the sleep, heavy on his eyelids. In all, my father's funeral did not lack anything from the point of view of a traditional funeral rightly due to his generation, except in the manner in which he died and the unusual way his coffin was sealed.

Unable to bear the gloom within any longer, I walked outside to see whether I could keep myself occupied. The depths of despair into which my happy family had plunged, suddenly became too much for me and I felt a couple of tears streaking down my cheeks on the way out. Outside, the scene was entirely different. People were playing cards and caroms to while away the time, while others were busy preparing the obligatory decorations for the road to the cemetery. I noted immediately a couple of persons, quite drunk, pretending valiantly to be sober when they saw me. Someone pressed a cup of coffee into my hands and I suddenly realised that it was 5.00 am: my father will go out of our lives forever. I decided to walk to the nearby junction to see the morning newspapers to check the death notice.

In 1974 my father, an Assistant Stationmaster until then, got his first posting as a full-fledged Stationmaster to the Medawachchiya Railway Station in the heart of dry zone, about 30 miles north from Anuradhapura. Being the eldest in a family of two brothers and a sister, I had to do a lot of the work, packing up our stuff, though I was only 10 years old at the time. When we got off the train at Medawachchiya, there was a group, mainly Railway employees and their families, gathered on the platform and my father was welcomed with a traditional garland by his deputy-to-be Mr. Nadarajah—later my favourite Uncle Nada. In the gathering, I noticed a little girl clad in a traditional Tamil dress: a long skirt and blouse made of shiny material, her hair woven with lovely white flowers, staring at us with wide black eyes, hiding behind the folds of her mother's sari.

That was my first glimpse of Rewathie. Rewathie was the eldest daughter to Uncle Nadarajah and Aunty Kamala; she had an older brother called Balendran and a little sister called Shashikala. Amongst all of them I always found Rewathie to be outstanding, though we always fought with one another over the pettiest of things. I found the massive black birthmark right on the tip of her nose rather ugly and tormented her endlessly about it; she fought back hard being the spirited soul that she was. However, she became Ranil's best friend: my younger brother worshipped the very ground she walked on. The moment both of us returned home from Medawachchiya Central School, the first thing he'd do was to see whether Rewathie had returned from the Tamil Girls School to get her to come and feed him his lunch. My mother too simply adored Rewathie and all of them were furious with me for being the only one who fought with her.

Who is that ugly skinny boy with the new Stationmaster? Is he his son and is he going to be my neighbour? His nose is too long and his body too scraggy. How could any one ever like him ?

That is how I felt about Sunil when I saw him for the first time, from behind my mother at the Medawachchiya station, unconsciously trying to cover the ugly birth mark on my nose with her sari. Uncle Dinga, as I began to fondly call Sunil's father—derived from his name Dingiri Banda—looked every inch the sweet man he was from day one and so was Aunt Seela. But the best in the family was little Ranil, who looked like a little Lord Krishna with his curly hair falling over his shiny little curious eyes with their drooping lids. I immediately latched on to him and we became friends right away.

Time flew by with Uncle Dinga teaching us English, when he had the time, and my father, being the devoted Hindu that he was, telling us a whole heap of mythological stories. However, little Ranil was a poor listener and for the first time Sunil and I found something in common listening to my father's narratives. He always made fun of the mole on the tip of my nose and called me a mongoose when our parents were out of earshot. But Ranil, he was a real darling and couldn't spend a moment without his Rewathie Akki.

1976, the Sinhala New Year: my father asked Uncle Nada if he could take Rewathie and little Shashikala along with us to our village in Matara; Uncle Nada consented without a moment's hesitation. Both the families having a very good rapport with one another, and being the best of friends, it never occurred to us then that we belonged to different communities. But I was in my adolescence and at a stage where girls were an anathema; I did not relish the prospect of a member of this hated species spending a whole month with us—and in our village at that. Fortunately both the girls spoke very good Sinhala, with a slight accent though, and they could converse easily with everybody back at home. Gradually I learnt to accept them and even volunteered to take them on beach expeditions, where we gleefully went to collect seashells. On Sundays when my father came home on weekends, he took us for sea baths and I still recall him carrying Rewathie on his shoulder into deep water, while she cried in mortal fear. I also recall my mother desperately shouting how she would not be able to face Uncle Nada if the unspeakable happened to his daughter just because of my father's antics.

One day Rewathie, who was 10 years—at that time I was 12—was playing marbles with some of the village boys when she had a streak of luck and started winning continuously. I considered myself above marbles and was watching the game with amusement when one of the boys who'd lost all his precious marbles to Rewathie, hit her on the hand, causing all marbles to spill. In anger, Rewathie caught the little boy by his hair and hit him with her other hand. Suddenly all the others around her ganged up on her, calling out, "Demalichchi, demalichchi!" All of a sudden, she lost the spirit to fight back, covered her face with her hands and started crying. At this, something snapped inside me; I started whipping all the boys ignoring the fact they'd been my friends since childhood. They disappeared, leaving us alone. How can I ever explain what passed between us at that time? There was a glow in her face and a strange light in her eyes; neither of us spoke a word, but kept on staring at one another for a long time. Finally I could not bear it any longer and turned homewards.

Lord Shiva, why do 1 feel this way? I can't sleep, I can't eat and I can't concentrate on my studies. There does not seem to be any room in my heart for anything but Sunil. I tried to convince myself he is ugly, too tall and thin to be handsome, but he still manages to emerge above it all. Is this what they call love? Is this how my mother felt towards my father? But Lord Shiva, he belongs to a different community and a different religion, so how can we ever get married? I must try to forget him. No I can't do that. Life without him will be so empty and I cannot even think about it. Forgive me, for right now I love him even more than my parents.

Things have changed at home: it is not my younger brother who looks for Rewathie now but me, the great Rama. I will never let any harm come to my beautiful queen. There were times I felt uneasy casting the ancient Sri Lankan King Ravana as a villainous figure and it also must have then been crossing my yet-undeveloped mind that Rewathie was a Tamil, but all these misgivings disappeared whenever I saw her smiling face. There were days I found half-eaten toffees on my windowsill—at times covered with ants.

One day after coming from school, she was not to be seen. Even Ranil was dismayed that his Rewathie Akki did not come to see him that day. In the afternoon, when I could not bear it any longer, I asked my mother offhandedly where Rewathie was and she only said that Rewathie would henceforth be considered to be a grown up; I knew what she meant.

Lord Shiva, this confinement is killing me. I am dying to see Sunil but my mother says I have to stay like this for three days more. How can I ever explain to her the anguish 1 am going through? All I have is this stupid book of his with his name written on the first page and now I have read it more than a hundred times.

I will never forget the day her attainment ceremony was held. Dressed in the finery of a Hindu bride, on a dais which resembled the stage used for Sinhala weddings called a poruwa, Rewathie really looked the image of Princess Sita. Even the mole at the tip of her nose, which I had found so repulsive, looked like a diamond placed there by the gods, increasing her beauty a thousandfold. My father, usually sensitive to my moods, noted the change in me but being the wise old man he was, never spoke about it.

When I asked Uncle Nada why they had to dress her like a bride, he told me that it was an old custom among his people, which permits the parents to see their daughter as a bride and store it in their memory in case she happens to pass away before she actually gets betrothed. When it was time for her to pay her respects, immediately after greeting her parents in the traditional Hindu style by touching their feet, Rewathie came directly to my father and my mother and much to their pleasure and to the surprise of everyone else, took a bunch of betel leaves lying on the table and offered to them with joined palms in the Sinhala way. Without knowing it, Rewathie walked in to our hearts as an adult, just as easily and effortlessly as she did as a child.

My Sunil looks smart in his new long pants, but I just can't look into his eyes for a long time any longer, because they seem to burn into mine. Goddess Parwathie, did you feel the same way when you looked at Lord Shiva in your youth?

1976 April: my father accepted an invitation from Uncle Nada to join them for a three-day visit to Jaffna. We all boarded Yal Devi Express from Medawachchiya and since my father was the Stationmaster and Uncle Nada his Deputy, we managed to get a large 2nd class compartment all to ourselves. Within half-an-hour every adult in the family was fast asleep, whilst the younger children were gathered at the two windows. Her left hand was resting on the windowsill below the open shutter and was not visible to those within the compartment; suddenly my hand, generating a motion of its own, touched her fingers and bound them in one solid lock. How can I ever explain, or relive, those few moments we had together?

I will never ever let go of this hand, even if the whole world rises against me. My love for Sunil will never wither away and by Lord Shiva I will look after him in his sickness, in his sorrow and in everything else. I don't know about him, but all the persistent and nagging doubts in my mind about our different communities, are no more. I may be just 12, but I know how much I love him and will never ever leave him. My only problem will be to make him learn to like thosai and uppuma; but if he does not like them, I will get used to his food; I will learn how to prepare poloss from jackfruit and ambul thial from tune, just the way his folks made them back in Matara, so that he will never eat anywhere else. Lord Shiva will understand if I go to a Buddhist shrine with him. After all isn't Lord Buddha supposed to be a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu? My brother and sister will laugh when I chant "Buddham Saranam Gachchami"', but if it brings a lot of happiness to my Sunil, that is enough for me. Sunil will also not find our temples a strange place, because there is a temple for Hindu gods in every Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka.

July 1977: the nightmare. On an early morning of this accursed month, we hear the newspaper vendor shouting at the top of his voice that Five Sinhalese Policemen Killed by Tamils in Jaffna during Festival. My father was on duty at that time expecting a train to pass through while I was getting ready for school. When I read the incendiary lead story, I felt my young blood boil and wanted to rush to Jaffna and kill every Tamil there. That moment, my Rewathie and the unspoken dreams we'd shared together were quite forgotten. My father came home looking quite alarmed and told us that communal riots had broken out in Colombo and adjacent areas where innocent Tamils living among the Sinhala were being killed by angry mobs. In my rage I praised the Sinhala patriots and then, for the only time in my adult life, my father slapped me with all the strength he could bring to bear. Though it brought tears to my eyes, the slap taught me the only lesson I ever needed to know. Suddenly I realised that venting one's anger on people like Uncle Nada and Rewathie for something done by a handful of unknown people of their community was an unpardonable crime. Unfortunately, not many of my contemporaries had a father like mine.

Medawachchiya was on fire. Tamil shops in the city were looted and owners beaten up mercilessly by gangsters pretending to be patriots and the citizens had no option but to stand by and watch the outrage. But my father was different: he immediately went next door, brought Uncle Nada's family home and locked them up in his own bedroom. Also the family of another Tamil subordinate who worked under him, a man considered to be of low caste. Then my brave father sat on the doorstep in his undershirt, standing guard

What is happening? Why is every one trying to kill us? We have done nothing wrong to them. Andawane, please help us. Don't let them kill us.

Nothing happened that day, because the looters had enough places to exploit; but next morning, when they had finished with the Tamil shops, they turned their attention to Tamil residences and swarmed to the Railway Dept compound like a bunch of hungry jackals. I knew most of them, but on this particular day, their faces were unrecognisable. Some of them had blood smeared on their clothes, and for the first time my little mind tasted fear. But one look at the defiant face of my father, who at that time looked to me like the great warrior Bheema from one of Uncle Nada's stories, washed all my fear away and I stood right next to him trying to look as tall as possible.

Andawane, will they kill my Sunil and Uncle Dinga to get to us? Please Lord Shiva, save them for they are trying to protect us. Aunt Seela will be a widow and I will also be without my life if anything happens to my Sunil.

The leader of the gang, a vagabond called Ukkuwa, approached my father and asked defiantly whether we were harbouring any Tamils in our house. My father informed him very quietly that if he wanted to find out he would have to go inside, but over his dead body. A man of few words, my father did not say anything else, but Uncle Nada shouted from the locked room that he was there and that the gangsters could come and have him without killing anyone.

What happened next was the most unforgettable incident of my life. My mother, carrying a bawling Ranil on her hip, walked out with the massive chopper she used to split firewood. Handing it over to my father, she said deeply and without emotion: "Kill them if you have to, but don't let them get at Nada and his family." The tide shifted in our favour. Unable to face the stupendous amount of energy generated by my parents, the mob melted away. Two days later, a police jeep drove up to our house and took away my Rewathie and her family to a refugee centre.

Today my mother shouted at me for talking only about Sunil, Ranil and uncle Dinga, simply because other women staying with us at the refugee centre had their dear ones killed or wounded by the Sinhalas and all their life's savings stolen and did not want to hear anything about them. But how can I think of anything else? My father is terribly distraught and he is always brooding as if he still can't believe what is going on; but being the practical person she is, my mother is trying hard to pep up our spirits. She has already persuaded my father to get a transfer to Jaffna. And if he can not, she wants him to leave the job and she swears that she will never again go anywhere else. I can not blame her because she only cares for our well-being; but I know I will not last very long without seeing Sunil, or hearing his voice. Already 1 have written so many letters to him, but so far he has not replied to any of them.

I got Rewathie's first letter at a very bad time. My father was at home and the postman handed it over to him directly which he opened and read while I watched helplessly. In the end he signalled for me to come for a walk with him outside and I joined him, shaking like a leaf.

My father was not angry. But he explained to me the practical difficulties of getting married to Rewathie under the present circumstances, when the void between us had suddenly become unbridgeable. He advised me to lay off Rewathie not for myself, but for her own good. "If you bring Rewathie here as your wife and come home one day to find she has been cut to pieces by your own people, will you ever be able to forgive yourself?"

I had no answer.

More than fifty people sharing one toilet in this stinking refugee centre. And even the food is always under-prepared. When do I get to go home? My mother thinks of Jaffna as her home, but my home is next to my Rama at Medawachchiya. Will I ever be able to go there?

September 1997:1 saw Rewathie for the last time when they came to collect their belongings and say goodbye to us. My mother and Aunty Kamala could not speak a word during the hour they were together. Our fathers shook hands warmly, but ended up hugging one another, both of them battling their tears. But their agony was nothing in comparison to what Rewathie and I went through

Andawane, why don't you just burst my heart and let the blood flow out instead of forcing me to bear this agony? How can I ever leave Sunil and go to Jaffna? Andawane I might never ever see him again and how can I bear that thought? If wait for him, will he ever come for me one day?

With the passage of time, Rewathie went backstage in my mind as I pursued my studies remorselessly. When communal violence broke out again in 1983 July with a greater intensity, I was in the Peradeniya University pursuing my B.Sc engineering, and its ravages are still embedded in my mind.

Unlike the school in Medawachchiya, I am beginning to enjoy my studies in Jaffna because there are better facilities and more dedicated teachers. But what 1 do not like about most of them is, they are talking of some Tamil Liberation all the time, which I am unable to comprehend. May be it is because they have never met or seen people like Sunil and Uncle Dinga. Every living moment I think of him and his family. My little Ranil baby also must have grown up by now and l am sure he is better looking than Sunil. My hair is very long now and when Sunil sees it I am sure he will be very happy. Will he see me again? I don't know, but no one can take away my right to dream about him.

In 1986 I passed out as a Civil Engineer and got a posting immediately in London, where I could study while working. The same year, I met Susan, an Anglo-Indian girl living in London and we got married in 1988.

I still did not get a job, though I have a degree in Economics. It is a shame my mother did not allow me to study science; else I could have been a doctor very easily. Now I am 22 and my mother is constantly pestering me to get married, but the only other person I have really liked apart from Sunil, Kutti, has gone and joined the LTTE. The last time we met, he asked me to join them too, but how can I ever fight against Sunil's people? No way. I still love them as dearly as I did then. 

My father had never been the same since that fateful day in 1977 and he died last year. Yesterday my brother also left us and went to Canada and now it is only Shashikala, who has turned into a real beauty, my mother and I, left in this dreary place. I wish my Rama would come now and take me away. O, these childish dreams still haunt me.

There are many LTTE activists in London and the British have lent a sympathetic ear towards their struggle. If the atrocities that are said to be committed by our Armed forces are true, the Tigers will not find it difficult to find enough cadres to fight for them. Where can Rewathie be now? Did she join them? She must be married and having a couple of children, because she would be a little too advanced in age to go running to join the Tigers.

The broken pieces of my sister's abused body is in my arms. She was arrested by these animals in Army uniforms, who say that their war is only against the LTTE and not the Tamil nation, gang-raped by them and beaten to death. How can they do this to an innocent girl, who wanted nothing from life but some education and fun?

Every little drop of blood my sister shed, will be avenged. Thousands of families of these Sinhala barbarians will lament for their loved ones just as I lament for my sister now. The only regret I will have is that I will not be able to make their deaths as painful as hers.

I came back to Sri Lanka with my wife and my son in 1994 and started my own consultancy firm. By now my mother was in slightly poor health, though my father was very healthy and strong and helped me in setting up an impressive business. Thanks to him, I am a very rich man today. One day, going through the family photo album with my family, I came across a photograph of Rewathie with her pigtails and the big mole at the tip of her nose. It was not difficult for me to visualise her as a grown up, because even I was surprised at the very clear and precise picture I still had in my mind of her: every tiny detail of her sweet face, including a small strand of hair that always turned upwards on her neck stubbornly escaping the pig tails…

This is the train. There he is. The slow stroke of his open palm across his moustache is the signal. 1 must enter his compartment now and the bomb must go off at Dehiwala. There are hundreds of Sinhala pigs surrounding me, who will be reduced in a few minutes to mincemeat when I am through with them. Yes. I can feel the detonator inside my long frock and I only hope our explosives expert did not make a hash of it. I am happy to die for my people, avenging the death of my poor sister. Let the sons of bitches rot in hell. I will get my vengeance. Push Sunil and Uncle Dinga out of my mind now. They are from another world. A world of dreams. Now that old man sitting in that corner. Do I know him? Lord Shiva, he looks very familiar and it seems he has recognised me too. This damned mole on my nose makes me stand out anywhere. Sorry dear, time's up. Here I come my little Shashikala, bringing with me a heap of the bastards who destroyed you….

The Sinhala newspaper I bought at the Junction had some details of the Dehiwala bomb blast that happened a week ago, but it was too dark to read it there. On that fateful day, my father had gone to see a friend and feeling a little tired, decided to take the train to Dehiwala. I walked under a streetlight to search for the personal columns to check the death notice, but I was stopped by the front page. They had blown up a grisly picture of the severed head of the Dehiwala train Suicide Bomber on the front page: it was still intact, having been blown to the roof of the Railway platform. Even in death, the big mole at the tip of her nose was just as attractive as ever and the naughty strands of hair just above her neck, were still turned impishly upwards, despite the blood.

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Himal Southasian