Poetry & Prose

Beast of Burden (Chekku Madu)

07

Rajah remembered that spring arrived on the heels of his university examinations. Those were the days when the male and female fairies were in full flight about him. He worried about the possible results of his examinations. He also realized that his departure from Kamili, and his going away to a foreign country, were two things that could not be avoided.

Kamili also resigned to the inevitability of separation. Rajah’s mind shook and broke into tiny fibers. Kamili mustered the courage to cooperate with Rajah’s advances. Both were flying straight into the shining pleasure of the clouds of sorrows. Time set its own pace.

One of Rajah’s university colleagues was shot dead by the military. Within one week of this happening, a boy from his street*/who had vanished after leaving a letter in a rice pot*/was found dead at the electric pole. People gossiped that there was an internal fight taking place within the movement. The youngsters and their parents were gripped with fear because of these events. Kanakamma adamantly insisted that the only option for Rajah was to leave the country. Nagalingam, for his part, was busy bringing down two mangoes with one stone: his security and the economic security of the house. The latter could now only be rescued if Rajah went abroad and became a refugee in North America or Europe.

Rajah suffered from so many emotional abrasions. Besides the usual problem of worrying about exam results, Rajah had the sorrow of not joining up with Kamili in a manner befitting lovers. When he realized that Kamili was not prepared to buy his suggestion of staying in some friend’s house, not even for one night, not even after tearful begging or angry threatening, Rajah became extremely desperate. But just when all seemed lost, one of his university colleagues, who was preparing to go to Canada, came looking for him. The friend, Sivalingam asked, ‘‘Machan6, all the people in my house are coming to send me off at the airport, would you please look after the dog and our house’’. Rajah took Kamili to Sivalingam’s house in the darkness of the new moon night. It was easy since she was staying at the women’s university hospital nearby. Along the way, Kamili sweat profusely. The fear of the mind, and the pleasure and pain of the body, burned her. Above her head, in the dreamy consciousness, were the yellow June flowers.

When street dogs barked at them, Rajah walked as though he were an armor for Kamili. He looked like an old style Hollywood hero as he strutted along beside her. Kamili was not a prideful person, but the fear of losing herself in the pleasures to come, or perhaps the fear of becoming pregnant, forced her to abandon her dream walk and walk on solid ground. At the same time, she was melting inside knowing that she would soon be separated from her lover. As they neared the house, Rajah poured out promise after promise, ‘‘Kamili, please believe me, I will not marry any other than you’’.

Entering Sivalingam’s house, Kamili felt as though she were surrounded by yellow June flowers. She thought Rajah looked a bit like Sugan and this thought gave her pleasure. Sugan, an urchin, once perched on Kamili, like a songbird, then flew away. Kamili had known Sugan in her childhood. He disappeared for a while and then, later, came back to the village to declare that he was studying in Colombo. Like a good boy, he made a courtesy visit to Kamili’s house. Kamili’s mother did not allow Sugan and Kamili to speak together that day. She welcomed him warmly with tea and short eats, and as quickly, ushered him out with equal cordiality and hospitality. The next evening, when Kamili’s mother went out to the meadow to fetch the cow for milking, Kamili was alone in the backyard staring at a sea of June flowers dancing in the wind. Sugan came up to her abruptly, and wordlessly, and held Kamili’s hand. Frightened, Kamili shoved Sugan’s hand aside and tried to run away. But Sugan fell to the ground and clutched her feet. His innocent eyes entreated Kamili. Before she grasped what was happening/ in the blink of a puppydog eye/Sugan had bedded her in the sea of June flowers. The urge to protect herself and the fear of becoming pregnant submerged in an ocean of pleasure. The sky and earth came together, becoming a sea of yellow fluttering flowers as Sugan tattooed unknown pleasures upon her body. After the incident, Sugan’s family moved to Colombo. And Kamili? She moved to another awareness. She had found and enjoyed the caresses of a man. She basked in the embraces of Rajah. With the break of dawn, Rajah‘s springtime ended. The two lovers awoke to the melancholy melody of the ‘‘Sagana’’ in Shanai that cut through their young hearts.

Rajah uttered, ‘‘Some of the boys in the movement have died’’. He then stood up and left for the bathroom. When he returned, Kamili embraced Rajah and nestled her head into his chest whispering ‘‘poor chaps’’.

Shortly afterwards, they heard the gates open and the sound of dogs barking. They sensed by the menacing tone of the barks that uniformed men had gathered outside. Startled, Rajah hastily put on his sarong and walked to the door.

In the courtyard, Rajah saw some militant youths standing, with guns on their hips. One of them approached Rajah and handed him a pamphlet. Other youths emerged from the back of the yard carrying a banana tree loaded with ripe bananas. ‘‘We are decorating the streets’’, they told Rajah. He became a little angry because the boys had taken the fruit without asking him first. But he did not make a big deal about it. Back in the house again, he spread open the pamphlet. Kamili pressed her breast to Rajah’s back and he was reminded of her warmth. Suddenly, without warning, Rajah screamed out ‘‘Aiioo!’’ Startled, Kamili began to cry out loud. In the pamphlet, Rajah’s brother was standing in militant dress and beside the photograph was inscribed: ‘‘Major Bahut Singh (Suresh) Tinavelli Bloomed 5/6/1968 Heroic Death 6/5/1986’’.

In this fashion, their spring days abruptly ended. Rajah went to Norway, a refugee with broken roots. Alienated and bogged in the greedy quagmire created by his relatives, his heart and body wilted. He was a decaying frame of a man when the demon took possession of him.

08

After the restaurant closed, Rajah rushed downstairs and headed for the bus stop. Colorful lights illuminated both sides of the street. Teenagers frolicking along the sidewalks of the streets seemed to revel in the warm spring evening. As for Rajah, he had lost the human capacity to enjoy these things. But he was not alone. This capacity was the first casualty in the average Jaffna youth crushed by the demands of their sister’s dowry, their parents’ insatiable greed, and the lack of love and sex in their youth.

The bus stop was empty when Rajah arrived. The thin darkness and cold reared its head. Four girls and three boys passed by him holding beer bottles. He shivered and his skin crawled when he noticed that one of the girls had brown skin like himself. He later consoled himself thinking, ‘‘she must be a Tamil girl’’.

The sky grew darker. ‘‘Why had the bus not arrived?’’ he wondered to himself. This gave him time once again to fall into the memory cesspool of his pathetic life. Nagalingam agreed for Rajah to wed Kamili after Rajah had sent the five-hundred-thousand in dowry for Kunthavai. But later, he began to insist that Rajah marry one of the several women whose families offered a good dowry and then give that money to Selvi for her dowry. That was the first time that Rajah rejected his father’s proposal in a letter. ‘‘You don’t know anything about love. If you block our love anymore, I will completely cut off contact with you and the family’’, he wrote sternly. His anger gave him the courage to seal the envelope and send the letter off to his father.

After that, Nagalingam shut up and kept his distance from Rajah. Kanakamma took Kamili to Madras for the wedding.

Everything became dreamlike and sweet for Rajah. In one dream he was flying through parks and flower gardens. But his life would not be true if it did not get caught up in another nightmare. This time, the letter written by Selvi injured his heart and shook his hope for humanity down to its foundation.

‘‘Brother, you can marry Kamili after depositing five-hundredthousand rupees in my bank account’’, the letter instructed. Breaking his long silence, Nagalingam, himself, scribbled a small note at the bottom of the page. He wrote, ‘‘She is enraged. I am afraid. She might do anything’’.

The meaning of ‘‘she might do anything’’, translated into many things: suicide, joining the movement or perhaps marrying a low caste man to shame the family. Rajah quivered as he pondered the many different meanings that emanated from this statement.

Rajah remembered that Selvi had already corresponded with a lower caste boy, got caught by her parents and then was closely monitored after that. Later, she tried to run away and join the militant movement. She viewed Rajah as a person who had no sympathy or love towards her. She even took the liberty of advising Kamili. ‘‘Don’t gamble with your life. Don’t waste your time daydreaming about a life with Rajah that you will never have’’.

Selvi’s letter broke the hearts of Rajah, Kamili and Kanakamma. But Kanakamma wrote to Rajah saying that the letter was not Selvi’s work, but the plot of a selfish old man. She cursed Nagalingam. She also wrote and underlined in red ink: ‘‘I will not leave Madras without giving you Kamili’s hand in marriage’’. But Rajah knew that the red ink was Kamili’s work. Rajah did not receive a reply to his letter in which he stated that he would first marry Kamili, and then, together, both of them would work and collect the dowry for Selvi.

The grind of working day and night blighted Rajah’s existence. It made him a pathetic shell of his former self. In his diary, he scribbled: ‘‘The only thing that exists in the world for me is my mother and Kamili. In my previous life, all the others had lent me money with high interest, like Shylock, and have been born again as my relatives’’.

We are blessed when we can identify with other human beings like ourselves. Human existence becomes imbued with life and meaning in this way. But the day he came to Norway, Rajah lost this ability to identify. And that is the mystery. Not only Rajah, but most of the Jaffna Tamils are like butterflies. Butterflies, which have lost their wings after having flown to other countries as refugees, in hopes of earning good money. Only through utterly distorting himself was he able to send the five-hundred- thousand rupees back home, and then, only to be hit by lightning again.

The shocking news from Madras and the consequence of prohibiting Jaffna Tamils from visiting India colluded to snuff out his dreams.

‘‘Aiiyoo, what crime have I committed?’’

Just then the bus came. Even at midnight, there were women in the streets. This was the one beauty of Oslo. He decided to go to the Indian Embassy the next day.

He made a pact with God that if God would help him obtain a visa to visit India, he would give ten-thousand rupees to the Chidambaram Temple and thousand to Kataragamma Temple. Two months earlier, he had promised God that he would give five-thousand and five-hundred rupees, respectively, to these temples. This was the only thing Rajah could think to do since he had lost all human capacities except the capacity to earn money.

Rajah had a strong conviction that his sorrows would all wash away if he could only bring Kamili to Norway. When he finished working each day, Kamili would be at home. All the dirty plates and utensils would be washed and arranged in their proper place. He would sit down at the dining table just like the Norwegians did at his restaurant. Kamili would lovingly serve him food and flirt with him.

‘‘I don’t like women sitting around and gossiping!’’ The youths who were in the bus with him, turned around and laughed after they heard Rajah shouting these words.

He took a firm decision to buy a good TV and VCR immediately, so they would be ready for Kamili’s arrival. Films released in Madras arrived in Europe as faded, low grade pirated copies. After Kamili arrives, Rajah thought happily, ‘‘We will be able to see all the new films. Every day I will tease and play with Kamili, and after we make love, I will murmur words of love to her and we will caress and hold each other through the night’’.

As Rajah drowned in this sea of heavenly visions he felt Kamili’s breasts pressing against his back. Then suddenly, without warning, he was jerked out of his dream world. Rajah cursed his father and younger sister for forcing him to postpone his wedding.

The teenagers kept careful watch of Rajah as they sat nearby. Since this was the same bus he took every night, the bus driver stopped at his stop. This time, however, he had to shout to remind Rajah to get off. Rajah was still a bit hazy from his dreams as he descended slowly from the bus. The days of the midnight sun were upon them. But for Rajah, the light he saw was the crack of dawn. It had been five years since his breath was taken away by the sight of the sky. That was the time he had first arrived in Norway. He’d been enrolled in a Norwegian language program. For Rajah, those were the last years of his human existence. Soon after, in that first year, Nagalingam had written to him: ‘‘There they will give sixty thousand kroner so that you can study. Don’t spend that money uselessly. Send me an account of your expenditures, and send the balance to me’’. Rajah had sent most of that loan money home. But even the lack of money and his missing Kamili had not detracted from his enjoyment of the spring that year. He relaxed and let his eyes bathe in the light.

09

As Rajah walked along the little path toward his room he became aware of the presence of the demon behind him. Without turning he guessed that the demon was female. The fragrance in the air reminded him of the ‘‘Mokani’’ demon stories he’d been told in youth.

The apple orchard in bloom was covered in a blanket of darkness.

V.I.S.Jayapalan is an acclaimed Tamil poet and a writer. His political involvements forced him into exile in late 1980s. His poetry books are used in Tamil Nadu universities and colleges and since 2006 he has been spending more time in Chennai, writing and acting in films. In 2011 he won the Indian National Award for his Acting in Tamil movie 'Aadukalam.' He currently lives in Norway. | Dr. Robin Oakley works as an undergraduate coordinator at Sociology and Social Anthropology, Dalhousie University, Canada. She has worked with scholars on projects involving classical social theory, socio-linguistics and the promotion and preservation of indigenous North American and Dravidian languages.

© JDS

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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