Chapter 4:  A Courageous Priest

I have already written a novella , AMERICA (Within The Walls), in Tamil, based on my life at the detention camp. The journal, 'Thaayagam' was published from Canada while this novella was serialized. Then, adding some more short-stories, a short-story collection of mine was published under the title America by Tamil Nadu based publishing house Sneha. In short, if my short-novel describes life at the detention camp, this novel ,AMERICA (Beyond The Walls) , describes the struggles and setbacks a Tamil migrant to America faces for the sake of his survival –  outside the walls of the detention camp.   - V.N.GIRITHARAN – I have already written a novella , AMERICA, in Tamil, based on my life at the detention camp. The journal, ‘Thaayagam’ was published from Canada while this novella was serialized. Then, adding some more short-stories, a short-story collection of mine was published under the title America by Tamil Nadu based publishing house Sneha. In short, if my short-novel describes life at the detention camp, this novel , AN IMMIGRANT , describes the struggles and setbacks a Tamil migrant to America faces for the sake of his survival –  outside the walls of the detention camp.   – V.N.GIRITHARAN –

Even in those early hours of the morning, there were some European tourists happily taking a bath in the sea. “Foreigners are happily enjoying a bath in the sea, but myself, who is a son of the soil keeps running to escape death. I don’t have even the freedom and rights that these foreigners have.” Thus a thought invariably came to prevail upon Ilango that very moment, creating a chasm in his mind. Observing that the movements of the thugs going along the metro train routes from Colombo to Kaali was increasing, he got down into the sea-shore sands and began to walk in the direction of Ramakrishna Hall, watching the sea and its beauty and the people bathing there. Every now and then he looked back to make sure that his friend was following him. As for his friend, he looked like a rural Sinhala youth with curly hair and slightly fair skinned. Also, he can talk Sinhalese fluently. So, he could easily escape the wrath and the consequences. But, Ilango’s situation was different. Armed with only a few Sinhalese phrases, such as ‘Oeyaage nama mokkadha?” or “dikkath dikkath thennavaa,” he is completely at a loss when it comes to speaking in Sinhalese. An incident that took place in his university life would be enough to highlight his proficiency in the Sinhala tongue. Once, the senior students who ragged him, ordered him to go buy half a ‘rathal’ of sugar. He went to the grocery store near campus, which was owned by a Sinhala man.  He uttered the phrase ‘Ekka Maaraa” which is used in Sinhala to mean one-and-a-hal ‘raathal paan’ and asked for “seeni maaraa”( the correct usage is ‘seeni baagayaa”).  It is easy to see how he became the object of ridicule to those there.

Another incident is also worth remembering. It took place while he was traveling in a train. Once, when he was traveling in ‘Yaazhdevi’, the Jaffna to Colombo train, he was going from Colombo fort to Yaazh Nagar and felt like buying a mutton role from the restaurant there. But, that particular restaurant was run by a Sinhalese man. So, he asked him, using what little he knew of the Sinhala tongue, “roll keeyadha?” For that the shopkeeper responded saying, “Ekka Visippagaa.” Hearing that he felt very happy while wondering how this shopkeeper was selling a roll so cheap, only twenty-five satham (Cents) per piece when in their place it was being sold for one rupee and a ‘satham’ per piece. And, he happily bought two rolls and relished them and then gave fifty sathams (Cents) as their cost, to the shopkeeper. And, the way the shopkeeper glared at him unsettled him greatly and only then he found out that the actual price of one roll was not just twenty-five satham but one rupee and twentyfive satham (Cents). Due to such situations, along with the prevailing climate of turmoil and hostility, he lost all interest to learn Sinhala tongue. And if some Sinhala ‘Kaadaiyan’ (Thug) were to test his skill and expertise in using Sinhala language at this juncture, he would be doomed. The one and only thought that occupied his mind then was to somehow seek entry into Ramakrishna Hall. Somehow, his mind believed in that tumultuous moment, that just like in the previous turmoil, this time also the thugs would spare him.

Somehow he and his friend reached the gates of Ramakrishna Hall. It was a ‘so near yet so far’ scenario. The front gates of the Hall were locked. And, right in front of the front gates, there stood a group of thugs, watching the Hall keenly with a look of amusement and curiosity.

He and his friend stood along with them and pretended as bystanders, watching the events happening. Every now and then, a handful of Colombo Tamils were coming in wagons and alighting in front of the Hall. And, the security guard of the Hall was cautiously opening the gates to let them in and closing them in. It was during one such moment that he and his friend joined a group of affected Tamils seeking shelter and entered inside. Inside the Hall, there were many Tamils, terror-stricken as to what would happen next. Outside the gates, the group of thugs, remained fixed to the ground, watching keenly. And, the group  kept growing larger with the passing of every minute. Among those Tamils who had sought shelter in the Hall, there was a honeymooning couple that had come there to celebrate their unity. They looked miserable.

Here, a Tamil youth, slightly taller than the rest, and of sturdy stature looked at the Tamil youths gathered there and said, “In a little while, those thugs watching us from outside would barge in. We shouldn’t be afraid. We should stand up against them with courage.”

Hearing that speech, Ilango couldn’t help feeling that it was a kind of unwise and impractical bravery. In such situations it would be good to approach and handle the problem at hand tactfully, without getting emotional and enraged but remaining calm and composed. One shouldn’t be hasty, which makes everything all the more complicated. While he was thinking on these lines the young man who spoke earlier went inside and brought, from out of the blue, long iron rods, in the size of ‘alavaangu’ and handed them to the other Tamil youths.

Outside, the delirium and the frenzy of the thugs were gaining momentum, every second. Every now and then the Sri Lankan armymen came in Jeeps shouting “Jayaveevaa” too enthusiastically, which made these thugs more arrogant and atrocious. Standing in front of the Ramakrishna Hall, some Sinhala Policemen were having a good fun watching the events unfolding. This emboldened the thugs, who tried to barge into the Hall. Realizing that the situation was turning out of control, they took to their heels. Seeing that the thugs were pushing their way in, the Tamils inside the Hall were scared to death and began to run helter-skelter inside the Hall.

It was the very same guy, who was giving advice to the Tamil youths that they should not be cowed down by the Sinhala thugs but to face them bravely, who disappeared from the spot, running away. The others too dropped their belongings and ran off, in all directions, seeking a safe corner. As they had to run for their lives, Ilango and his friend got separated. The Tamil women went to the terrace, climbing the stairs.

And there, not even having a place to hide, they crowded and huddled in the spot between the water-tank and the floor of the terrace, terror -stricken.

When Ilango reached the terrace, there was no place left for him to hide except for behind the pillars protruding into the terrace. The plight of the women huddled under the water-tank was miserable. An elderly Tamil man, as if he had made up his mind to face whatever happened, leaned against a pillar and kept on watching the sky. The clouds wandering there masqueraded as refugees. It was then that he, by chance, saw the same young man, who had initially offered them weapons, lying on the water-tank and staring at the sky. Those beneath couldn’t see that he was lying up above.

At this juncture there was a thick ball of smoke and fire rising above from the direction of Wellavathai, indicating that the ethnic arson and riot were wreaking further havoc. Ilango could now see the Tamils running along the railway tracks, towards the direction where Dehiwela stood.

Elderly women ran, struggling to keep their sarees up to their knees, so as not to topple and tumble down. Some of the tourists staying in Hotel Brighton on the opposite side were having fun watching all these. Some others were taking photographs. And, at this juncture the Sinhalese thugs set ablaze a bus that stood in the campus of Ramakrishna Hall, which belonged to Pillayar vilas of Yaazhpaanam. And, they banged another Jeep against the glass wall of the first floor. Now, the thugs gained entry. One of them came up to the terrace and peeped.

Looking around he shouted, “Uthaa Innavaa” and went away. Returning within minutes, he stood near the stairs and gestured to those huddled there to climb down. And those who did so were dispossessed of all their belongings and only then they were allowed to move on. Many of them had to let go even those few jewels, cash and such valuables, which they had managed to take with them while escaping in dire urgency.

When there is no guarantee even for the safety one’s life, who at all needs money and belongings?

Those who had now climbed down were once again driven to the terrace by the menacing shouts and screams from the thugs gathered downstairs. Again the hapless Tamils ran helter-skelter, in all directions, frightened to death. Many of them hid themselves inside the toilets or elsewhere in the bathrooms. The honeymooning couple was huddled inside a toilet for some time. The couple was shocked and terrorized.

Among the thugs, some even tried to set the Ramakrishna Hall on fire. The police-men, who had up till then been watching everything as passive bystanders, stirred and stepped in. Seeing them, the thugs didn’t proceed but went outside and began to watch the resulting events unfold again. At that juncture, there were men women and children breaking open the houses of Tamil people and taking away all the valuables inside those houses. The army-men were encouraging the thugs, speeding past us in their Jeeps and shouting “Jeya Veevaa.”

After that the policemen who entered inside ordered that everyone there should leave. But, when thugs are wreaking havocs, where do they go? Hence, all of them got into the house of the chief monk of Ramakrishna Hall. At the same time, while fleeing away from the Hall, many of the Tamils clung to the coconut tree there and jumped outside as their escape. His friend must have been one among them, for, he was not to be found among those who sought shelter in the monk’s house.

The problem was not over with that. Some of those thugs, who somehow found out that the Tamils were inside the chief monk’s house, made it a point to circle the house. Among those who had been trapped inside, some were affluent Tamils of Colombo. They tried with all their might to use their influence and contact the higher powers of the land, but all their efforts proved in vain and they became fatigued. Anything might happen at any moment… the situation proved to be so volatile and dangerous. Any moment, at any moment, the thugs would get inside and ransack the place… everyone there seemed to be lifeless.. helpless, having no future at all…  a handful of thugs tried to barge inside the chief monk’s house with weapons in their hands. Those inside were watching all the events outside, with bated breath and terror-filled eyes.

It was then that the incident took place. Only then, Ilango observed that the chief monk was a strong and sturdy man, looking firm and majestic and also endowed with great courage and mental strength. He pulled a lengthy easy-chair and placed it in front of the door, thus blocking the way for anybody to step in and sat on it, all too casually. The manner in which he did it all, as if telling the thugs that they could enter inside only after killing him sort of paralyzed the thugs in some way. If that chief monk had not resorted to such a move, I wonder what would have taken place… The situation persisted into the evening. Meanwhile, those who had been trapped inside the Ramakrishna Hall came forward once the situation began to improve.  They began to prepare tea with the available resources and  brought it to the monk’s house, offering it to those sheltered inside. It was only then that he met his friend again.

“What happened Ilango?”

“Oh, that is a long story. It is a miracle that we managed to escape. I will tell you all in detail afterwards.”  After that, they all joined hands and prepared food for all those remaining there, sharing it all among themselves. That night, the lorries came in.  They gratefully stepped in and were soon all huddled together in the lorries, just as cattle and sheep. and brought to ‘Saraswathi’ Hall in Pambalapitia and were left there.  [To be continued]