Chapter 3  Cyclone

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

When Ilango woke up again from deep sleep, it had not yet dawned. All the others were still in bed, fast asleep. Ilango felt a little surprised to see it. “What is this, something unusual that I am not getting sleep…?’, he wondered. That noon he was to be released from the detention camp. Could it be the impact of this realization in the innermost depth of his heart that had caused the sleeplessness in him? Possibly… The ecstasy of freedom is something miraculous; indescribable. The ecstasy of breaking the shackles is something very unique. Once again, his eyes moved in all directions. The hour of the night appeared to still be immersed in the stillness before day-break. The prison warders were also more than half-asleep. Just for a short while. The dawn would soon break. Another blossom of the day would open its petals in the all too busy city. His life would be pushed into another place. In that new place, only God knows what all events and environments await him. It doesn’t matter; as long as there is the determination and enthusiasm in him to love life and welcome it with open hands, he need not have any fear.  As the soft blades of grass, which, despite the incessant stamping of numerous feet, keep on stirring afresh, he too would be forever rising. And, as the feathered species that never get tired of hailing the day-break, he too would be singing the glory of a new day. It was during the last several months that everything in his life turned upside down.

He held a prestigious post with a governmental organization, but ultimately landed himself inside the prison of a foreign land due to the twists and turns of oh so many events. In his mind, the recollections of the 1983 riot soon began to unfold. Even today, he finds it hard to believe that his friends, and his own self, managed to escape.  That day he and his friends had to go to ‘Neer Colombo’ city on an official errand. He was then dwelling in the locality called Kottaanchenai in Colombo. His friend was in the Kalkisai area. Getting up in the morning, even when he went to the Armour Street and boarded a bus, he was unaware of the fact that the riot had begun and worsening. But, on the way he came across several shops and structures that were burned and charred. Yet, the full realization of the situation escaped him. Even seeing the Sinhala woman standing nearby, pointing at the burned shops and saying something, thanks to his slight proficiency in Sinhalese, he couldn’t fully understand it.

Even in appearance, he looked like a Sinhala man. It is a common practice among the Sinhala youth to sport a beard without moustache. Hence, the girl must have mistaken him for a Sinhala youth and shared some information or viewpoint with him. After that, when he proceeded to Kalkisai and walked towards the house of his friend, a group of Sinhala youths standing on the way cast a strange look at him but even that failed to din into him the volatile situation. Then, he and his friend once again boarded a bus.  It was when they reached the Purakottai bus terminus and were awaiting the arrival of the bus that would take them to NeerColumbo where the conversation between two Sinhalese standing nearby reached their ears. His friend knew the Sinhala language very well. Only then the gravity of the situation dawned on them. His friend said: “ The problem seems to be pretty serious”.

“What? Please explain!”  Ilango hurriedly demanded. And, his friend responded, “From what they are saying, the riot and arson have already begun. And, it is turning more and more serious by every passing minute. Like a deadly tornado, so to say. We cannot go to Neer Columbo today. Let’s go to the office immediately. That is the safest thing to do. Only now everything seems crystal-clear. The charred remains of shops that you came across in Marudhaanai, the strange glance of those Sinhalese near our house. It all makes sense now.  The faster we reach our office, the better for words of these men suggest that a riot could break out right here at any time.”

Ilango could see the truth in his friend’s observation. Without delay they got into a bus and reached their office. When they went inside the people there looked at them, curiously. A Muslim worker there came over to them and informed them of the ethnic riots and that they have begun in various parts of  their land.  He cautioned them to be vigilant. He was born as a Muslim and brought up in Columbo, in the area called Grandpase. He is fluent in both Tamil and Sinhala and he would always share with them the important events taking place in and around Sri Lanka. And, despite the fact that the two of them worked in the organization in a higher cadre, they would mix with him freely. And, he too would reciprocate their warmth. That’s why he made sure to caution them. They thanked him and for a while, pondered over what they should and could do.

“I don’t think it is advisable to return to our place. Where else we can go?” asked Ilango’s friend.

“Well, during the last riot and arson, the Ramakrishna Hall had been of great help- so I have read in Newspapers. So, it would be better to go there, I feel. What do

you say?”

“What you say sounds good. But, how do we reach there?” asked his friend.

“See the parking lot, there are many company cars. Shall we go and ask our director?”

“Ilango, I wonder what the director would prefer to do in a situation like this. As it is we are fighting with him to make our job permanent. If he is to recollect all those clashes and say no to us means…?”

“Come on, nothing wrong in trying, no? If we get help, great. Otherwise, we have to think of some other way.”

Deciding this, they proceeded towards the director’s cabin. Director Simon had no smile on his face, not even then. He greeted them grimly and enquired, “ Good morning, please come. What is the matter?”.

Ilango swiftly answered, “Good Morning Sir, Hope you are aware of the present situation.”

“Of course, I do. It is indeed unfortunate. Let me see whether I can do anything to help you.”

Ilango and his friend said in one voice: “Thank You Sir”.

Ilango continued, “Thank you very much for your words of assurance Sir. We feel that it would be safe to go to Ramakrishna Hall in Wellawathai. If you can help us to go there…”

“Tell me Ilango, how can I help you in this?”

“Sir, if only you wish, you can help us by giving one of our office cars to go.”

Director Simon contemplated this for a while. Then he said, “I am sorry, but I can’t say anything in this. For, no driver will agree to this. I think it is safe for you to just remain here.”

Both of them thanked him and returned to their places.

Ilango disappointedly stated, “If he had wished, he could have helped us easily. I don’t think any harm will come over to the wagons belonging to the State Government’s Departments, especially if driven by Sinhala men.  His friend was rationalizing the Director’s behaviour, explaining, “Maybe, but he is also thinking of the olden days and that’s why he is behaving like this.”

“I expected him to behave in this manner. And, he has proven me right. At this instant, I have made my decision”.

“Oh, what is that?”

“If I somehow come out of this riot, unscathed and alive, I would never set foot inside this damned office. That is for sure. Let this be the last humiliation that we have suffered here.”

“Ahh, Ilango, this is what I call your weakness. You never consider for a moment the possibility of adjusting and compromising a little but set forth to implement your instant decisions at once. Sometimes we have to bend a little. If we have to get something done, we have to be prepared to even fall at one’s feet, you know.”

At this juncture, the Muslim official entered. He looked a little agitated.

Ilango immediately noticed, prompting him to ask, “What is wrong? Why are you looking ill at ease?”

The official anxiously replied, “The sooner you leave this place, the better.”

Ilango’s friend became a little frightened. “Why do you say so?”

And, the official replied. “They are planning to attack the Tamils working here. It is better that you leave this place before any such attempt.”

“What is this, this man is throwing a bomb like this?” Ilango’s friend was obviously frightened.

“Come now, Friend, he is just speaking the truth, isn’t he? Let us move away from here as fast as we can. Come.”

At that moment, they could hear a commotion outside and so all of them moved towards the entrance. Ilango, too, went out as one among the crowd. All those working in the Government offices and private firms in Marudhaanai St had already gathered outside, trying to catch a glimpse of the events. What was it that they were looking at with bated breath? Along the road that proceeded towards the Pillayaar temple in Kappithaavathai, there was a lorry speeding past carrying armed thugs. The goondaas wearing Longs and Shirts had wooden sticks in their hands.  In the short while since they had sped past, a thick cloud of smoke rose from the side of Pillayaar temple. Alas, we see the fate of Kappithaavathai Pillayaar himself, who had thousands of devotees, of whom the most revered prime-minister Premadasa is also one. As Ilango contemplated of what happened, a Tamil man of a heavier build came running from the place where the temple was located, with cuts and wounds on his ear.  He ran in great haste towards Vijayavardhana Maavathai road. He strove to stop some bus or some other vehicle fully loaded with people, but none of them halted. At that moment, a small crowd poured into the streets in hot pursuit, running after him with wooden sticks in their hands. Of those who came running, one man moved closer to the people watching what was happening there. And, the man eyed each and everyone of those standing there, scrutinizing them. When he reached Ilango he stopped a second. “Themiladhaa, Sinhaladhaa?” he asked with suspicion.  “Singala”, said Ilango, in a half-hearted manner, not saying anything more than that. If another word were to fall out of his mouth, the ‘Kaadaiyan’ would smell the truth that he most definitely a Tamil. Ilango realized that the situation was getting out of hand. Meanwhile, the Tamil man with the cuts and wounds had disappeared. He might have got into some bus’, thought Ilango. And, he slowly walked back into his office.

Ilango was instantly asked by his friend, “What? How is the situation outside?”

 “Looks like the situation will get out of hand, turn worse. I had a miraculous escape.”

At this time, the higher officers of the Department Kandarathnam and Balakrishnan, who were working as the Civil engineering Advisor of the United Nations Development Organization, were seen moving towards the entrance in great haste. And, Kandharathinam’s secretary, Imelda, was also hurrying along with them. Oh, where were they going in such great haste?

Ilango said to his friend, “We will also go with them. If they too leave then we will be stranded here all alone.”

Both of them followed Kandharathinam. Outside there was the official wagon waiting for them and they got into it. Without waiting for their permission, Ilango and his friend got into it hurriedly. And the driver of the wagon steered it towards Marudhaanai.

In the meanwhile, someone must have passed on the information to the goondas, who were parading, that some Tamils were escaping in a vehicle. Some of the thugs came running towards their vehicle. If they had been caught by them, they would have been gone for ever. And, the driver of their wagon could go up to Gamini Theatre in Marudhaanai Saalai and not beyond that. It was too tense. The driver hurriedly took a u-turn and proceeded along Vijayavardhana Maavathai towards Lake House.

Kandharathinam and Balakrishnan looked a little worried. But, Imelda was on the verge of tears. Worried to death that she would also be manhandled by the thugs, along with the Tamils in their vehicle, she felt suffocated and started crying. It was when they were proceeding along the roads and streets of Colombo, that Ilango came to realize the full intensity of the all-pervading riot and arson. How fast these calamities spread their vicious nets all over… along the roads there were vehicles owned by the Tamils – they were all set on fire. It was not possible to see whether there were people inside those burning vehicles. There were many shops burning in most of the streets and roads too. Ilango asked Kandharathinam in English. “Where do you plan to go?”

And, he responded saying, “Both of us are going to Hotel Oberoy. Imelda is going to her home in Thegivalai. Where are the two of you going?”

“Oh, it is fine then. The driver can leave you at the hotel and then leave us in Ramakrishnan Hall. Imelda has to be taken that way only, isn’t it so?”

Imelda was still crying.

The two officers were taken to the Oberoy Hotel; as they left, the driver started along Galle street.

A little elderly, the Sinhala driver looked at both of us and asked,“Where do you want to go?”

The friend announced that it would be better to take them to Ramakrishna Hall.

But, the driver of the wagon said, “Sorry, I can’t come as far as the hall. I will leave you at the junction where the road to Ramakrishna Hall and the Galle street meet. There you can get down and proceed on foot.”

Ilango wasn’t surprised with that, “Oh, that’s enough. Thank you very much.”

All along the passage, the scenery was unchanged. Stores and shops were burned in raging fire. There were vehicles upturned, smashed and burnt.  Tamils, men women and children running with the fear of death were written large on their faces… the tension was mounting with every passing moment. The lucky birds were happily flying up above, in the sky, blissfully ignorant of what was happening in our midst.  Of course, Ilango to envied them. Oh, how they go round and round, fluttering their wings, being so carefree!

The driver of the wagon halted at the said junction and requested them to get down. Leaving the officers at the hotel, he seemed to have left his courtesy and politeness there too, which he had earlier extended to Ilango and his friend. Ilango looked at his friend and asked, “What, shall we get down and walk?”

His friend nodded and so both of them hurriedly climbed down. It was exactly at that moment that a group of ‘Kaadaiyargal’  (thugs)  holding knives and sticks in their hands, roaring so dangerously was emerging from a slum near Dehiwele canal. They were shouting something in Sinhala and were proceeding in the direction where these two had just arrived. Oh, no time to stop and think. Ilango and his friend got into the vehicle in a flash once again. Imelda whose tears had stopped rolling down at last, began to cry again. Ilango asked the driver to leave them both in Dehiwela. Frowning, the driver started the engine. Fortunately, the fanatic group didn’t stop their vehicle and trouble them. When they drew near  Dehiwela, at the junction where the road to Colombo Zoo turned, the driver of the car stopped the vehicle once again. It was then Ilango noticed two Sinhala Police men were happily chatting with a group of Sinhalese, appeared to be real thugs. Then, he asked the driver.

“Why have you stopped? Can you leave us at Ramakrishna hall on your way back, after leaving Imelda in her place?”

For his plea, the driver of the vehicle said in a harsh, raised voice, “Who can give a guarantee to my life?”

Ilango looked askance to his friend and whispered, “This man will shout like this and may even help the thugs catch hold of us. Before that, let’s get down. That alone is the wise thing to do. It would have been better if we too had got down at the hotel itself along with Kandharathinam.”

Thanking the driver and Imelda, Ilango started walking towards the road in the opposite direction, heading towards the seashore. He told his friend this, “Don’t speak to me about anything. But, just follow me. Got it? Don’t look agitated or afraid. Sport a calm and composed exterior. We can walk like this and get into the Library Road and reach the sea-shore. From there we can go to Ramakrishna Hall. And, while we walked along the seashore, if I keep enjoying the sight of the sea and the sky, don’t be surprised. If some thugs happen to come along the railway track we will not cause any suspicion in them. Got it. So, in the climax, I might even have a bath in the sea!”

Saying this, Ilango began to walk towards the seashore and his friend walked behind him, a few steps away. [To be continued]