Beast of Burden (Chekku Madu)


After Rajah arrived in Norway as a refugee, his situation deteriorated. At the same time, back home, his family grew stronger and stronger. With a new vanity, Nagalingam paid homage to the altar of wealth. Nagalingam had not been able to find even a schoolteacher as a groom for Kunthavai, so he began to search among the ranks of the professionals: engineers and doctors and the like. At last, a university lecturer by the name of Perinpam was proposed to Kunthavai. Soon, Rajah got a letter from Nagalingam stating that Kunthavai’s bridegroom was demanding three-hundred-thousand for a dowry. Rajah replied that he would send the money immediately.

During the negotiations, Perinpam’s mother bluffed that many rich families were proposing brides for her son. Nagalingam seethed with anger upon repeatedly hearing the empty claims. Finally, when Perinpam’s mother boasted ‘‘We only accept this wedding because Kunthavai’s and Perinpam’s horoscope match so well, but really we are the losers in this match because we could get a much larger dowry!’’ Nagalingam boiled-over and retorted ‘‘Do you think that we are less rich than those people? My son Rajah is a multi millionaire in Norway. He is also a graduate . . . an academic. Even the Norway government doesn’t want to send him back.

They provide him with a house, job and everything just to keep him in their country! Within a small period of time, he will be granted citizenship. So you see, we are also rich people. We can also give five-hundred-thousand as dowry’’. So in that way, while shouting in anger, Nagalingam gave his promise. Not unexpectedly, when he returned home to declare anew his promise, Kanakamma, Selvi and Kunthavai were stunned.When news of the promise reached Rajah, he could not do anything for four or five days. For one entire day he locked the door and cried. So taken aback was he that he sent a letter scolding his father in tough terms. Normally he closed the letter ‘‘your loving son Rajah’’, but this letter was closed starkly with ‘‘Rajah’’. This did not touch Nagalingam, however. He immediately sent a terse reply: ‘‘I said so only to keep your pride, but that lecturer bridegroom is actually worth ten lacks, not just five. You should work as hard as Nanthan, who is now in Germany. You too can work two or three jobs. Stop worrying and do what you have to do and send the dowry as soon as possible’’.

In this way, Rajah became the Beast of Burden. He forgot to sleep and rest. His life revolved around an endless spiral of plate washing and hustling from restaurant to restaurant. He finally sent the five-hundred thousand.

Kanakamma went to Colombo with Kunthavai. She cried hysterically over the telephone. Rajah tried to pacify his mother as she told him that Kunthavai was pregnant. ‘‘That worst sinner Rajan has cheated and spoiled her!’’ Rajah told her to calm down. Then he delivered his judgment. He told his mother to secretly abort the baby and to marry Kunthavai to Perinpan, as had been arranged. His sister tried to protest. ‘‘You loved Kamili, what is wrong with me loving Rajan?’’ But Rajah silenced her by saying ‘‘Shut up bitch!’’ and refused to speak to her again until she had had the abortion. His mother came back on the line and revealed that Rajan had told her that he wouldn’t even request a copper coin for Kunthavai. ‘‘Shall I give Selvi to Perinpam and Kunthavai to Rajan?’’ his mother asked Rajah. To this, Rajah vomited hatred toward his mother. The only reason he, Rajah, and Nagalingam rejected Rajan in the first place was due to the small tea boutique owner’s lower social status; they had, after all, come from the same caste.

Two years passed since Kunthavai’s marriage to Perinpam took place. She was now preparing to go to London with her new husband. In her happiness, Kunthavai posted a letter to Rajah stating: ‘‘Athan is coming to London for a higher study scholarship around next June. I am going to be a mother. You should come and see me. Our child will be born in London’’.


Rajah could not sleep that night and the demon continued to accuse him of being a child killer. His brain pounded and his head seemed to cave in on itself as he remembered over and over that he was the one responsible for Kunthavai’s abortion. The demon kept repeating that abortion was the murder of a child. Rajah did not necessarily agree with the demon’s assessment, of course.

In the early morning, Rajah woke up and went straight to the kitchen. There were no utensils on the floor, but the demon kept piles of dirty plates in the sink and an assortment of burned pots on the hotplate. Because of the demon’s mischief, Rajah had become very thin. His eyes were now permanently bloodshot due to sleeplessness.

The headache lingered day after day, night after night. Finally, he could not stand the headache any longer so he went to see a doctor. The doctor cautioned him that because of sorrow and sleeplessness, his mind had become affected.

Of course, the doctor was not privy to the truth behind Rajah’s affliction. So Rajah tried to educate the doctor on the existence of the demon in his house. But try as he might, his inadequate use of Norwegian failed to persuade the doctor that, in fact, the demon was responsible for his sleeplessness. Rajah stopped short of requesting a translator, for he did not want his problem to become public knowledge. The doctor asked him, ‘‘Why are you not able to go to India in the last two years and see your mother and marry Kamili’’. Rajah promptly replied, ‘‘I had obtained an Indian visa, but during that time I had work to earn the dowry for my sister.

Now, Indian visas are not given to Sri Lankan Tamils’’. He explained all this the best he could, all the while crying inside with a broken heart. ‘‘You cannot get a visa only because you are a Sri Lankan Tamil?’’ asked the doctor surprisingly. ‘‘No. And they won’t give me a Norwegian visa so that I might be able to invite my mother and Kamili here’’. The doctor gave him two sheets of paper: one was a prescription, and the other was a letter written to the Indian Embassy. In neat handwriting uncharacteristic for a doctor, the following words were scribed: ‘‘This is a short letter requesting the Indian Ambassador consider Rajah’s mental health and immediately issue a visa. Thank you’’.

The doctor appeared to be a good man. It also appeared that the pills he prescribed had the capacity to chase away the demon. Nonetheless, Rajah began to worry whether the demon had become accustomed to the medicine, like it had earlier with the holy ash and enchanted thread. The hope that an Indian visa might be issued, as instructed by the doctor’s letter, resurrected him. The night after meeting doctor, Rajah slept soundly, snoring aloud and dreaming again after a long spell of dreamless and restless sleep. When he awoke the next morning, one dream remained in his mind with some clarity. Throughout the dream, the sun was shining a brilliant warm red and yellow. Its warm glow melted the snow that had covered the world, and formed a river. The world was beating with a pulse that was green. Rajah was rooted in this green pulse as a large tree. His hands were outstretched as branches and his fingers spread as twigs. Throughout, the branches were dotted with little buds, flowers and small unripe fruits and leaves. The creepers that held the tree was no one other than Kamili. An old cow that had wandered under the shadow of the tree resembled Kanakamma.

‘‘This cow and I are friends’’, the flower creepers declared happily. ‘‘This cow never ate us’’. The tree embraced the creepers and gave fruits to the cow.

As he took on more jobs to collect even more money, Rajah was forced to abandon the drugs the doctor prescribed because they made him sleep longer. Rajah began to view the doctor with suspicion and wondered whether the doctor was not also collaborating with the demon.

In the morning, on the way to work, the demon’s mischievousness was evident. Rajah had the violent urge to jump into the path of the motor cars and crush the demon beneath the wheels of passing vehicles. Further along the way, he stopped at the bridge over the river. He wanted to jump, but he could not decide whether it was possible to drown the demon, and then escape and swim to the shore himself. It was near closing time at the restaurant. Through the window, Rajah could see the midnight appearing as midday. Behind the street and beyond the buildings, over the mountains where the pine trees stood erect, Rajah witnessed the same sun that had been glowing in his dreams. Rajah who had deteriorated over the past two years while toiling as an unskilled restaurant worker, was immensely consoled by this vision. The twinkling sun spoke to him, ‘‘It is still possible to blossom like an apple tree and provide space for the creepers to embrace you and for the cow to sleep in your shade’’. But, of course, it was not possible for him to stay at the window any longer and meditate. With each passing minute, the pile of dirty plates grew and the dishwashing machine was ordering him to come. . . come.

Before Rajah arrived in Norway, he lived in a world free of dirty plates. Whether it was during his studies, or his internship as a graduate teacher, there were no dirty plates or kitchen utensils. Sometimes in the early morning when he urinated, he would see the lamp light in the back yard under the banana trees. Kanakamma and Kunthavai would be having a discussion as they piled the dirty plates and burned utensils for washing.

One day, in this manner, Kanakamma was giving lectures to Kunthavai about the secret of Creation. Both were shy when they noticed Rajah urinating. Kanakamma managed the situation by asking, ‘‘Aren’t you sleepy, my son?’’

Rajah took the clean utensils out of the machine and filed them in their proper places. He then shoved the new dirty plates into the mouth of the machine. Then he went back to the window. The dream-like sun was still smiling over the mountains. Beneath the sun, he could see a new Hindu temple on the mountain. Rajah became alarmed, ‘‘Aiiooo, the day of judgment has come to me!’’

On the way to the restaurant, there was a Christian church. One time he went inside and even spoke with the God of this temple. He knelt down and prayed. ‘‘Investigate me and give me punishment’’. But all those times, Jesus, the God of the church, only requested of him to, ‘‘Please get me down from the cross’’. Once when he tried to help Jesus, he was caught by the watchman. Rajah worried that if he took Jesus down from the cross, the income of the church might be affected. But even as the watchman escorted him away, he was shouting, ‘‘Oh, God, please chase demon!’’

Rajah’s stand was ‘‘if you save me, I will save you’’. Jesus told him, ‘‘the demon possessing you is Kunthavai’s aborted fetus and your father’s greed . . .’’, but before the God had finished, the watcher of the church pulled him away from the courtyard.

The Hindu temple still appeared on the mountain. Rajah felt that the Hindu Gods might have the ability to chase away the demon that possessed him. But when he came back to the window after serving the dishwashing machine, the sun and the Hindu temple had already disappeared. The customers had waned and the noise inside the restaurant had decreased.


Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.