Capt Elmo Jayawardena
A short essay in fiction that is an act of consciousness-raising: MR
The one unforgettable memory that Selva always carried within himself was the colour of the vast Jaffna sky, spotless and shimmering in brilliant blue. It appeared as if the Gods decided to spread a sheet and tucked it taut to the corners of the horizon as if to show-off how perfectly they could do things. Off and on there would be fluffy white clouds, being sheep-dogged by winds aloft, harmless cartoons scattered in the sky, men and dogs, trees and castles or whatever a child wanted to imagine them to be. The clouds were seldom grey and laden with rain. That’s how the dry climate came about to roast the soil where Selva’s family toiled under the merciless sun for generations to grow chilli on. The kochika as they called it, were the thin and long kind, blood red, extremely hot and mouth burning. Selva’s people sold the chilli harvest at the week-end market in the closest town. That was Vaddukodai located an hour’s distance away by bullock cart from their nameless village of nowhere and no one; just blood red kochika and blue skies.
Tamil fans in Jaffna mob Murali
Murali at Kilinochchi for World Food Programme
The place they called home wasn’t even a dot in a map, just a collection of huts with cow dung floors, mud walls and dried Palmyra leaf roofs. Palmyra leaf fences demarcated who owned what.
It was a peaceful little community of twenty or more houses; all chilli growers making their best attempts to look after their kith and kin and retain their mundane place in this planet. The monsoon winds blew and the sun and the moon took their turns to mark the passage of time and the chillies grew red in well watered plants that sprouted lush green on neatly laid beds.
Muniyandi, Selva’s father only knew how to cultivate chillies and make kitesf or his children. He was good at both, used to tug the string and make the kite nod and laugh, all in the clear blue sky.
He knew stories too, ones he had heard from Selva’s grandfather who in turn had been narrating what his father told him about how their people came from South India. It was a story he recited often and the one that the children loved.
“Our people were of the Varnakula clan,” he would start from the very beginning. “We escaped from the King of Maravas.” “He wanted to marry our beautiful princess Kamalakani, but her father didn’t want that. So they made all
the arrangements for the impending celebration and stole out in boats the night before the wedding.”
“The entire village Appa” The children knew the sub-punch lines.
“Yes, yes, everyone left,” confirmed Muniyandi.
“Our people came to Lanka and landed in Mannar and some walked south and a few like your great great grandfather’s father and his father walked north and came to this area.”
“That’s how our people settled along the coast, mainly fishermen to this date and some of us like your Appa and Thaththa and his Appa went inland and started growing kochika.”
“Tell us Appa, tell us what happened to the Princess.”
“That was the sad part… our people knew that the Maravas King would come with his soldiers by boat looking for his promised bride and kill our people and take her away.” “So she agreed to make the supreme sacrifice, to give her life for her people, to die so that the Maravas King would not come with his men and our people would be saved.”
“Everyone was very sad, she was a beautiful princess, but they killed her by drowning her and made her a Kula Devata to protect our people.”
Muniyandi’s children knew the words by heart, even the tones and his animations which they could imitate. “One day when you grow up I will take you to a village called Udappu. That’s where most of our people
settled and where all this happened,” he promised.
Then the government soldiers came. The war for a separate homeland had been ignited and the fighting had begun. They came in big army vehicles wearing big boots and carrying big guns and rounded up some of the men from Selva’s village. The soldiers loaded them into trucks and drove away. “Suspected
terrorists,” was maliciously mentioned. They took Muniyandi too.
Selva was too young to understand, but Yoga did, he was the eldest. They all cried as the trucks moved away. Their mother Lechchimi, heavy with child, pleaded to deaf ears telling the soldiers that Muniyandi was just a chilli grower.
The war went on and the old who remained grew their kochika with the women. The world was playing cricket, countries against each other and Selva wanted to be like Muralitharan. Twice he had seen him when Selva went by bullock cart to Vaddukodai to sell chillies with his grandfather. Murali was bowling
on the TV in the co-operative store and people were crowding around to watch. They cheered every time the batting man missed the ball. They hooted and shouted when the wickets broke. Everyone said Murali was the best in the world and he was one of them.
Selva wanted nothing but to be like Murali, to be a great bowler and bowl on TV and shout at the judge when the ball hit the leg or jump up when the wicket broke. That was some monsoons ago. Then they came for him too, to go and fight for a separate homeland. That’s what they told Lechchimi, they needed everyone.
“He is not so small,” the man said, “we have many like him who fight like grown men, he will be a good soldier.” They gave him gun made of wood to learn how to march, carry and aim. It was as tall as him. Selva and his young brigade were being trained to battle the brutal realities of the war of separation.
“They are ready to kill,” the sergeant shouted at them. “But we are willing to die, if the need be,” he growled as he looked them in the eye. They all nodded, they had to nod at everything. That was the first lesson in training. The boy soldiers in over-sized camouflage learnt to obey. No stubble on the chin and none above the lip, not even a trace, they were that young, eyes of children, little minds making attempts to cope with adult battles.
Then it was running and creeping under barbed wire and jumping into ditches and crawling in mud. They leapt out of fox holes and tossed rocks pretending they were grenades.
Selva did think of Muralitharan, how he dived and fielded and threw the ball at the wicket. It was time then for real guns and real grenades.
“From across the oceans, our people have sent, just for you, so that you could fight the soldiers and liberate the land of our people,” the sergeant always growled. That’s how they learnt to shoot, standing, running; falling and rolling with real guns and real bullets, the sergeant taught them well to kill.
The sand dunes were sparse, scrub bushes and the ever present Palmyra trees. Desolated and empty of life, the silence carried the gunfire far, some boomed like muffled drums and some like distant crackers, the kind that Selva heard when the village celebrated a wedding.
But this time the sounds were real and it killed. That’s how the numbers dwindled. That’s why they buried the dead, in shallow graves, whenever they could. Little boys doing grown men’s work and fighting and dying for something they knew nothing about.
“When will this end Selva?” Potthu asked. It wasn’t his name, he was Potthuseelan. Too long a name for such a small one. He was the youngest of the lot.
“You want to bowl on the TV, but I want to go to sea like my father, catch fish and become rich.” Potthu never lasted long enough to go to sea, he wasn’t even buried, there was nothing much left to bury.
Selva recalled in sadness the story his Appa told them about Princess Kamalakani. The young dying for their people was not something new.
The monsoons changed and the war went on. No more rocks to throw or drains to jump over. This was real and brutal. Theirs was a group that moved swift and hid in the jungles. Only the leader knew what was happening and what they had to do and the boys simply obeyed him. It was now a guerrilla type operation; inflict what damage they could to the enemy. Small convoys were what they were after, trucks carrying soldiers who fought back even while dying. There were dead bodies from both sides when they moved on again to hide in the jungle and await the next order.
“Pick up your packs and let’s move out,” the harsh command from the leader brought Selva back to life and he is ready in seconds to go. That’s the way they had been trained, to move as fast and as stealthily as vipers. The numbers were now small, the few dozens that once proudly marched had now dwindled as the
injured counted down and the dead were buried. The roaming trucks were everywhere, filled with booted soldiers searching for the likes of Selva and his kutaligal. The sky was the bigger curse, screaming jets that fired rockets, drawing white trails in the clear blue as if to boastfully say where they came from and where they were going. The choppers were the worst; they could hound you and hunt you down, barrels blazing as they emptied round after round of machine gun fire which could cut a man in two.
Now the soldiers and their aeroplanes were brave. Kilinochchi had fallen and the main body of the northern people had retreated to the coast and the Supreme Leader they heard was making a stand somewhere around the Nandikadal lagoon near Vellamulli Vaikal.
“He is planning to bring them in to a trap and kill them,” says the Sergeant. “He knows what he is doing, like a tiger, he waits.”
Others nod, Selva too, but they all think a little different.
It was the same when Yoga went away to fight for a separate homeland. They thought they were winning. But Yoga wasn’t, that’s what they came and told Lechchimi, that her son had become a hero.
That was then, it all changed in a few months. Too many got injured and too many died, from both sides. The soil that gave life to the chilli plants got soaked in blood and the Palmyra tree watched it all, a solitary witness. The dead were no more paraded as heroes in the northern towns and displayed on posters
for everyone to see. There was no time for that. Mothers hardly knew what happened to their sons or wives where their husbands were fighting. Children prayed for fathers to return. The battle went on, the dying continued.
They were now coming from all sides and there wasn’t a day that Selva did not hear the jets screaming above or the murderous “dug dug” noise of helicopters that moved like monsters and spat fire at anything that moved.
The news that used to be of victories wasn’t coming anymore; the news must be bad, that they all knew. The sergeant led and they moved in a spread line, thinly scattered, ramshackle in total, carrying heavy guns starved of ammunition, stomachs heaving in hunger, eyes peeling the horizon to spot danger.
He heard the distant “dug dug” noise. Somewhere the choppers were searching for someone to spit fire at. Selva scanned the sky trying to spot the monster while running for scant cover in the scrub bush.
That’s when the machine guns started. He saw them fall before he fell, the sergeant first and then some others, then him.
Selva couldn’t move, the waist downward was numb. He only felt a thick wetness that soaked his torso as he lay sprawled on the ground.
Then he looked up, not a cloud in sight, it was a clear sky in brilliant blue. Selva wished he could go back to softer times when his Appa split thin bamboo reeds and made a snake kite with a very long tail and how they released it to the wind and watched it dance and laugh.
That he remembered, and it crossed his mind that he may not be able to bowl now on the TV like Muralitharan.
Capt Elmo Jayawardena