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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 110

"The Strangers"

By Rajes Bala

Chandran slammed the door. He was angry-very angry.
There were no usual farewell signs at the doorstep –no usual 'good byes' from his wife or kids. She always walks up to the doorstep with their little son … whose kiddy hands wave at him with "Bye bye, Papa…"

They were not at the doorstep today.

Chandran did not stay, he quickly got down to the street.

The November chill was blowing cold on both his ears. The wind was terrible. The cosmic dance of autumn had enveloped the road with leaves and debris.. Some tree leaves were also showered on the shops in the area.

The ripe leaves spread before him like a yellow colored carpet -when he stepped on the rain soaked leaves from previous night's shower, a slouching noise sprung from the ground-continuously….His mind raged like the November weather---Who is to be blamed?

He shouldn't have slapped his wife Devaki. And, it was definitely wrong to beat his eldest son Kumaran.

Chandran did it in a fit of anger; as the cold froze his body, the heat of his anger mellowed and pity descended on his wife and son.

He felt he should skip work, go home and apologize-tell them how much he loves them, and explain reasons behind this 'drama'.

A passing car splashed water on him from the pavement.

It is a typical 7 o'clock London-morning.. But the city looked to be still with last night's darkness…He cries out aloud: "How many people like me are in the darkness of sorrow?

For the last two months, Devaki has been crying, upset, and evades any serious conversation.

She has lost another brother in Sri Lanka.

Her favorite little brother's life was simply taken away by the ethnic war in her homeland.

Devaki was born into a family of nine children in a small village in the East coast of Sri Lanka. A beautiful village.

The village had a mountain in the West, river 'Thillai' in the East, a paddy field in the north and a main road leading to the nearby city 'Akkaraippattu'. And the villagers never went hungry. Devaki had three elder brothers and an elder sister, two younger brothers and two sisters.

Once the local village had said that Devaki's mother had given birth to nine good children is 'something like the navagraga in Hindu mythology; these navagraga are responsible for one's good health and wealth.

Her parents slaved to bring up the nine kids, working on the small piece of land they possessed. They set up a small shop on the side too. But today, how many are left in the family …even in their own home?

Chandran has reached the tube station. He has to take the Piccadilly Line and go to Central London for work. Instead of running to the daily grind with these soulless humans every day in this cold, damp and wet weather, when will he be able to go to his mother in-in-law's cassava yam garden in Sri Lanka and relax with the local newspaper and a glass of king-coconut water in his hand..? …and to watch the red sun sinking behind those mountain peaks?

The tube plunges in to a tunnel cutting in to the darkness. It will stop at the next station. But where will a Tamil refugee running from one place to another for survival, peace, freedom and their future should stop?

The Western Governments are trying to send those refugees back to their countries. Switzerland is taking harsh measurements. If they do so, the British government might follow suit. Where can they go?Many families such as Devaki's, have lost many young women and men in the name of a 'civil war' in Sri Lanka that flamed since 1983.

Ten years later, the killing game is still on...Out of nine children from Devaki's family; three elder brothers have already lost their lives. The government forces, known by the people as the 'Sinhala army' had hunted them similar to hunting a wild animal. Then they shot them, burnt them in a pile of bodies in the same way someone burns an unwanted piece of dirty cloth.

Her elder sister and her family had meanwhile fallen prey to a conflict between local Moslems and Tamils.

"If the English government asks me to leave the country I rather die than go back to that barbaric place" Devaki repeatedly told Chandran.

Then, her little brother was killed, which is why she has been crying for the last few weeks.

Chandran was thinking "I shouldn't have beaten her…"

As a male he didn't like hitting a woman.

He was in love with her since they were children, got married at the right time. He loves and adores her. The way she takes care of him and the kids is simply flawless.

But he hurt her today.

Simply due to an argument with her last night.

The train halts at a stop, sleepy faces with sunken-eyes from last night's work-shift, emerges from the platform. And the hurried faces running to morning work exit the train. The cold faces board the train and to drift along with the world.

"How many are like me, a refugee with no home, no land, no nation and no identity?"

Most people belong to a nation and are proud of it, a language which they can use without persecution, a culture which they share and enjoy enriching their lives….and principles and a way of life which they can openly practice with no fear. Except Chandran. And many other similar Tamils…

Chandran will be late for work by half an hour today. He is working in an Indian shop as a cashier. He has to work straight at the till for eight hours from morning. He is now worn out continuously looking at the vegetables such as drumsticks, long beans, and pumpkins daily.

When he returns from his shift and falls asleep tired, the long beans appear as snakes, and the pumpkins appear as fat demons in his dreams. What kind of a life is this? A Life that would never see the light of the day.

After roughing it up with his boss from the morning eight to evening eight in the night, he reaches home, but the restless face of Devaki irritates him--what can he do stop the atrocities in Sri Lanka?

It's a six days work week. Of those earnings (peanuts!) how much one can buy? The rent, looking after the family, the bills, sends money back home for the near and dear……

The lunch pack Devaki has prepared and given to him is still in his hands. She would have prepared Pittu (rice flour mixed with shredded coconut, steamed in a narrow cylindrical mould, served with coconut milk and a hot curry) and an omelette. She doesn't like him eating out, is very concerned about his health.

She will wake up early in the morning to prepare something for him every day.

She makes sure that he gets some food first when he gets back home -tired and looking irritable. She would not let the kids to bother him until he is ready and fresh. She is a mother to kids as well as to him, tolerates all the chaos in the household but manages to keep 'things in order'.

But how did he treat her last evening?

In the London life of intermittently emerging racism, his source of comfort and love is his family.

His son Kumaran triggered Chandran's anger this morning. Kumaran is nine years. When Kumaran was about four years, Chandran had to leave the family in Sri Lanka ….escaping from the brutal "Sinhala Army". Where is peace? How many Tamil refugees are wandering around the world like nomads? After all, aren't they all mere identity papers-cum-ID cards or statistical numbers?

And where is his peace of mind? A loving wife, precious three children , a job with some money but only for survival.

Devaki was pregnant, with their second child. Now he has another little boy who is cooing away and would be saying 'pa and ma'soon…

About two years ago, when Devaki arrived in London with the two children, the eldest son looked at his father as if he is a total stranger. And the second daughter who was in Devaki's womb when Chandran left Sri Lanka asked her mother "Amma, who is this man? Is he my father whom you talked about so often?"

Chandran was in tears.

The trials Devaki went through to care for her children while he was away, and the inescapable sadness of losing her brothers (who helped her when she was alone in the civil war) was plainly written on her face.

Was there any relationship between him and his son Kumaran for the last four years? Can the birthday greetings and gifts from London compensate for a father's real affection?

The elder son Kumar still keeps aloof.

The Daughter appears to be somewhat sensible -she loses herself in his reading –or his story telling. The sorrow of losing her uncles might have dented her little heart, but Chandran tries his best to alleviate and bring a smile to her face.

At times, he is unable to bear the ordeal of his life…the ordeal of having been a Tamil.

Chandran thought: "How many ethnicities are there in India? In India too, racism and racial killings take place, but in which part of the world can such atrocities as are committed on the Sri Lankan Tamils be seen..?"

The tube is at another station. School children travelling to distant schools and colleges scramble in. They chattered without giving any heed towards the outside world. An Asian boy sits opposite to Chandran and his face reminds Chandran of his lost brother-in-law……..that was Senthil.

Senthil showed talent at an early age. He wrote poems. Gave life to the encounters on the village streets that stretched like in snakes, the ragged hair of their grand mother, the toothless smile of their grand father…all had attained eternity in his poems. He wrote funny, witty amusing poems.

Later he began composing music. Devaki was s good singer. Chandran was enthralled by Devaki's singing –albeit high pitched. During the days when Chandran doted on Devaki, he would bi-cycle down their street frequently and simply 'hang around'.. Senthil would provide 'the beat', Devaki would sing …

But they have killed Senthil now.

Chandran heaved a sigh. The sorrow of Senthil's death was indeed unbearable for Devaki. But can one forget one's family duties….and neglect the children? This is what led to last night's fight and ended damningly in his beating the wife and his son.

Chandran enters the shop. Mr Ranjit Patel –the owner of the super market, looks at his watch..Chandran knows that he is late for work. Should Mr. Patel still imply it with such a gesture?

'Good morning' Chandran wished his boss. But Patel pretended that he is arranging the shelf, and not to hear him. The shop began to fill up with women buying milk and bread, school kids buying sweets, and men buying newspapers. Chandran immersed in his work.

"Daddy…!"

It's Meena, Patel's daughter, calling Patel in her sweet, sophisticated voice. Mr Patel's family lives upstairs. The Patels have two boys and two girls. Meena is the eldest of them all.

Without even a glance at Chandran, she went up to her father and muttered something in her mother tongue-Gujarati. She is twenty years old and studying at the University.

Mr. Patel is very proud of her – as he mentioned to Chandran, "Although she in born in the UK, she still speaks her mother tongue Gujarati and have an Indian life style."

"Children should know their roots" Mr Patel insists. She says good bye to her father and leaves the shop.

The Indian and Pakistani kids speak in their mother tongue and have no problems in mixing with the British culture. But how many Tamil kids in the UK speak fluent Tamil? Once they are dropped at the school by their parents they appear to forget Tamil---Is it that Tamil kids are cut away from their homeland?

Indian and Pakistani kids have no problems going back to their native country for holidays and to visit their relatives, but can the Tamil kids do the same? Can they return and continue their lifestyle as they wish?

What a difference…

Mr Patel's wife is a strict disciplinarian. The children were brought up mainly under her supervision -"If the mother is good the kids will be good."

Chandran mumbles to himself. Now his anger turns on Devaki. Wasn't it Devaki who is responsible for him getting angry at his son in the morning?

Mr.Patel is looked at Chandran sharply as he aimlessly puts things down.

"Society, politics, national struggles, individual sorrows, family problems…how many issues to deal with?"

Chandran is an ordinary man. But his son is stubborn and rebellious. He is only nine years, yet he stands at a distance from his father. Why?

"It is of course a mistake that I was separated from him for four years. But, did I run away on my own whim? Didn't I run away for dear life only when every Tamil male was being hunted down? If I had not run, could there be a father for Kumaran today?"

Chandran worked, deep in thought. His mind wandered all over, from place to place, from time to time. As some psychiatrists say -does his son defy him for some deep –rooted reason?

"Does he think that I had been away abroad, leaving his mother alone, back in the village, to be surrounded by the sex hungry and murderous army? Does he think that his father was living in London happily while his mother suffered for the children day and night? Why this distance?"

Chandran couldn't think straight…for the whole day.

When he took the underground train for home, he was tired in his body and mind -altogether. What happened yesterday came to his mind. Chandran asked his son about his school lessons. His son answered in English.

But it is only two years since he arrived in London. How can one forget Tamil Language so soon?

Chandran asked him to reply in Tamil.

"Oh just leave him, you can get a grasp of the language if you speak it, he must improve his English to better in school. What is the point of sending your child to school unless you help him to study well.."

Devaki's muttering annoyed him.

Now what is the matter with her?

Why can't she encourage their son to speak in Tamil at home? He was angered by her remarks, and the way she was supporting her son. "Hey you" he yelled at her and continued "The kids who came to London will pick up the language in no time but they will forget their own mother tongue unless at least you use it at home.."

It was then that the shouting match began and heated words exchanged. Finally it was a slap on Devaki's face and a quick parental beating for Kumaran from Chandran!

His anger returned as he mulled of the event. But then he began to feel shame—for harassing the very people he loves. Very much ashamed to show his male muscle-power to a helpless woman who came in search of sanctuary and the child who should have been doted upon.

"I could have talked and settled it. Instead, I have beaten them recklessly" He muttered to himself.

Their little son's cry was reverberating when Chandran opened the door to enter his home. Devaki was shouting at the little fellow to stop, the daughter Karthiga looked at her father fearfully and cuddled herself up in the edge of the sofa, fresh memories of the morning drama still lingering in her..

Chandran hung his coat and sat on the sofa.

Devaki brought tea within five minutes, gave to him in silence. Her cheek was still red and swollen.

"Where is Kumaran?" He looked at her as he popped the question. Her swollen cheek touched him deeply.

He got up, put his cup away, embraced her. "I am so sorry Devaki…..really sorry.. I was annoyed –annoyed because Kumaran refused to speak in Tamil."

He tenderly kissed on her swollen cheek, she began to cry.

Karthiga now looked at her parents with utter confusion! ..

"Mother cries when father hits her, she also cries when he kisses her.."

Devaki sobbed: "Why did you hit him instead of talking to him to make him understand about the issue" she sobbed.

"Sinhalese are treating us bad.. are you going to be like them because your son is saying something which you don't approve of ?" Devaki was asking a simple question, but it was philosophy to be understood, and interpreted.

Tears welled up in his eyes. He was disturbed, thought he wouldn't rest and have peace, unless he apologized to his son.

He ran up the stairs. His nine years old, upon suddenly seeing his once threatening father, quickly cuddled up in the corner of his bed. The figure of the lonesome boy cuddled in bed tore the man's heart. He walked slowly towards the bed, and quietly cuddled the boy.

The son too, embraced him but was sobbing…both were entwined in each other's arms. Has the sorrow of being separated from his father further alienated him?

"It's OK …my son … forgive me" .. Suddenly, the grown up now begged for forgiveness from the 'growing up'.

"We are Tamil people, we are refugees, we have no home to go to but we have a language to preserve….forgetting our language is forgetting our roots.. I was annoyed in the morning when you refused to talk to me in Tamil".

The father was trying to explain.

Then the eleven years old looked at his father with fear. "Dad …" his son was trying to say something.

"What is the matter son?"

" Appa..was not my uncle killed in Sri lanka….. ? Was not because he is a Tamil and spoke Tamil?"

The father stood rigid as a statue.

Then the son asked him: "Father, if say I am a Tamil and I speak in Tamil, won't I meet the same consequence like that of my uncle…..”

Chandran --- gaped at his son. Remained transfixed.

- Asian Tribune -

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