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.


05

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’’.

06

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.


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