Poetry & Prose

Beast of Burden (Chekku Madu)

01

Rajah could not find the place where the troublesome demon was hiding. He searched and searched. He vowed to discover and destroy the demon before sunset. Of course, that was easier said than done. In arctic countries like Norway, the sun never sets in the summer.

Rajah had not yet figured out who might have unleashed the demon on him. In the hope of finding out, he wrote letters to his mother, Kanakamma, and his girlfriend, Kamili. Filled with trepidation, the two women sent back holy ash from the Madras Vadapalanai Temple, along with a blessed sacred thread for his wrist. These temporary remedies were used while the women sought out more elaborate ceremonies during their visit to Tamil Nadu’s temples to pray for Rajah. To fund their trip, the mother and girlfriend used up their own savings. They decided not to add to Raja’s troubles by asking for money for such elaborate travel. Later, Kanakamma discovered that Rajan had used black magic to invoke and send the demon to Rajah. She immediately informed Rajah of this knowledge. She also informed that Rajan had visited the place of magicians: Batticalao.

Rajah’s heart of stone softened a little with the knowledge that even in this distant place, people back home loved him dearly. Upon receiving his mother’s letter, Rajah cried for a long time and kept kissing the letter.

Rajah was an average Sri Lankan Tamil. Such average Sri Lankan Tamils consider themselves to be superior to Indian Tamils in most respects. At the heart of this perception, however, lay a curious paradox. Sri Lankan Tamils preferred the art and religion in Tamil Nadu over their own local brands. Feelings of personal superiority aside, Sri Lankan Tamils often flocked to South India for metaphysical aid.

Rajah tied the sacred string around his wrist with reverence and challenged the demon: ‘‘Now try and shake me!’’ he shouted. For several days the demon did not appear.

Then, on the night of the very day he wrote to his mother and Kamili informing them about his triumph over the demon, the mischief of the demon returned. Along with the usual rumbling of utensils, the demon now started talking in a low voice. Rajah’s body trembled as he wondered whether the demon had not become accustomed to the sacred thread on his wrist, in the way that mosquitoes eventually adapt to insecticide.

02

For more than two years, Rajah had toiled for a dishwashing machine at a restaurant in the center of Oslo. His task was to feed the unyielding parade of dirty plates that marched in from the dining room, into the mouth of the steel giant, and at the other end, to put the plates back in their proper place after they had been licked clean by the machine. Lately, however, the thought that a monkey could be trained to do such work, kept interrupting his mind at every opportunity. Rajah began to despise his life.

To Rajah, it seemed that these Norweigans only dined in sunshine.

Sure enough, during rainy days, the dirty plates diminished their incessant onslaught on the dishwashing machine. The machine and Rajah both relaxed on these days. In their quite moments together, Rajah tried to make the machine understand that he was a university graduate. However, just like the other Norwegians he knew, the landlady Barith and the restaurant manager Arild, the machine, too, showed little interest in his personal attributes and achievements. For all the hardship the machine put him through, this was the sole reason for his dispute with the machine.

Rajah had been admitted to the prestigious Peradiniya University at a time when Tamils had a difficult time being accepted into university at all. During the preparation for university, he lost much of his youth. His studies at Peradeniya and his life were soon overturned by communal race riots and he ended up running back to Jaffna. After that, the disenchanted young man agitated and engaged in hunger strikes in an effort to get transferred to Jaffna University. Upon securing his transfer, he managed to complete his studies and graduate. Wouldn’t you consider all these things achievements?

Don’t you think that others should recognize this? When the restaurant manager discovered that the well-groomed boy who had come in looking for a job was a Sri Lankan, he saw immediately that Rajah would make a suitable partner for the dishwashing machine. And a good fit it was, too. Having had much collaboration with Tamils over the years, the machine had become quite fluent in Tamil. For his part, Rajah served the machine loyally. Ever the virtuous one, he understood its every need and unspoken demand. Each day, after the work had ended, he would bathe it thoroughly with soap water, and afterwards, he would use a soft cloth to wipe it gently dry. In this way, Rajah satisfied the machine totally and utterly.

But all good things eventually come to an end. Sure enough, one day when the manager was nearby, the machine teased Rajah in the middle of its rumbling. It reverberated the words, ‘‘Child killer! Child killer!’’, over and over again. Up until that point, only the demon had made such accusations against him. Could it be that the machine had joined with the demon in the demon’s plot against him? Rajah’s mind collapsed under the weight of that possibility. He felt betrayed. With rage, he kicked the machine and shouted aloud: ‘‘Et tu Brute?!’’ Having seen this, the manager quickly hurried over. Rajah feared the worst but it must have been his lucky day, for the manager stopped short of severing the tense relationship.

03

There were several reasons for Rajah’s resolution to seek out and destroy the demon. Whenever Rajah went to his room, the demon deposited stinking and putrid smelling plates inside his cupboards. Through several successive nights, it rolled and threw filthy plates all over the floor and disturbed his sleep. Yet when he would wake up the next morning, all would be silent and the room as neat as the night before.

One time, unexpectedly, a guest came to visit him in his room. The visitor, who was a campus mate from back home, found himself on the wrong side of Rajah’s anger as soon as the latter discovered that the former had collaborated with the demon. The visitor’s argument was that people who kept dirty plates in the kitchen were not demons at all but Rajah himself. Rajah shouted back, ‘‘I have cleaned all the dirty plates in Oslo City. Who are you to accuse that I am unable to clean the very plates upon which I have eaten?!’’ And with this, Rajah chased the visitor away.

That night the demon was again breaking the vile and stinking dirty plates in Rajah’s room. Rajah was unable to control his anger: ‘‘What sin have I committed and to whom?’’ Just behind the hot plate, the demon’s laughter pealed like church bells at midnight. Rajah trembled when the demon murmured, ‘‘If killing the child of your elder sister Kunthavai is not a sin, then what is?’’ His face grew a whiter shade of pale and his body shivered with electricity. ‘‘Did I kill the child of Kunthavai Akka?’’, he tearfully whispered to himself.

He had three siblings altogether. The eldest was his older sister Kunthavai. He also had a younger sister, Selvi. Finally, there was his brother Suresh, who had died in the battlefield under the alias, Major Bahut Singh. Many of those born in the decade of his eldest sister’s birth were given the name Kunthavai. In those days, some of the Jaffna Tamils who had read Kalky’s historical novel Ponniyian Selvan, viewed themselves as King Chola and his princes, parading on horses and carrying tiger flags.

They gave their children the names of the demi-god kings and queens of the kingdoms of Chola. In this way, his older sister had obtained the name of the Chola princess Kunthavai.

04

Whatever royal connections existed behind her name, Kunthavai was an average Jaffna girl. She showed little interest in studies during her childhood. Instead, she busied herself with household duties, such as sending servants here and there to collect flowers and seedlings from the surrounding villages, which she would then use to turn the family courtyard into a beautiful flower garden. But she also liked to send poems and stories to a woman’s magazine program on the commercial Sri Lankan radio service. When she heard her poem songs broadcast on the radio, her body warmed with pride. In these ways, Kunthavai was typical of other Jaffna women of her age.

Rajan became Kunthavai’s friend by writing to her under an assumed woman’s name, with flattering praise of her very ordinary poems. But Kunthavai’s mother, Kanakamma, sniffed out Rajan’s stealthy deed. After investigating his background, collecting information on his caste, his village and other family tidbits, she warned Rajan to stop. She did her mother’s  duty within the secrecy of the four household walls. When Kanakamma confronted Kunthavai about Rajan, Kunthavai protested that there was no love between the two of them, just Rajan’s appreciation of her  poetry. But Kanakamma showed her some letters she had found and made Kunthavai swear an oath of secrecy never to tell anyone about this issue.

Four years later, Kanakamma discovered that Rajan and Kunthavai had been secretly maintaining their relationship. Kanakamma disclosed this information to Rajah with the condition that he not tell anyone else, ‘‘not even Papa’’. So Rajah took on the role of Papa and slapped Kunthavai on the face to humiliate her. ‘‘Don’t you know our social standing?! Do you want to marry a dog running a small tea boutique?’’ Rajah shouted at her.

Stunned, Kunthavai retorted ‘‘Is this the communism that you are always preaching around here?!’’. But upon a moment’s reflection, Kunthavai retreated and promised Rajah that she would break off her relationship with Rajan. This time, however, her mother refused to believe the girl’s word. She began to solicit marriage proposals for Kunthavai. But it was an uphill battle, for Mars stood in her seventh house, defeating all her marriage efforts. That was the first of a series of incidents that occurred that had the consequences of turning their lives inside out. Next came the disappearance of Suresh, who left behind a note in the rice pot stating ‘‘Don’t search for me. I am leaving home to serve my nation’’. After that, his younger sister Selvi attained puberty. Soon afterwards, their father Nagalingam retired, took his pension and became an armchair philosopher. Finally, the untimely death and martyrdom of Suresh brought great sorrow to the family. Suresh became a martyr, and Rajah went to Norway as a refugee and became the main breadwinner of the family. These incidents took place in succession.

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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