Translated from Tamil to English by Somasuntharampillai Pathmanathan Translator’s note The story was written, in 1994, at a time when the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka had escalated into a civil war and an armed struggle had embroiled young people. Militants were operating underground. The poem which ends the piece sums up the spirit of the times. The story also has to be read against a cultural backdrop where love and courtship were frowned upon and had to be communicated through signals, hints and glances. See glossary below.
Translated from Tamil to English by Somasuntharampillai Pathmanathan
The story was written, in 1994, at a time when the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka had escalated into a civil war and an armed struggle had embroiled young people. Militants were operating underground. The poem which ends the piece sums up the spirit of the times. The story also has to be read against a cultural backdrop where love and courtship were frowned upon and had to be communicated through signals, hints and glances.
See glossary below.
What Living Means …
Something snapped inside me when I saw my older brother after five years. He was totally transformed, having lost the radiant smile on his face.
He looked very much like his dog in its last days, emaciated, lean and stricken by scabies. There was no sparkle in his eyes. Unable to control myself, I sobbed.
‘Don’t be silly, crying like a child. Aren’t you ashamed, an A level student—a poet—making a fuss about this…’
When he lifted my head from his shoulders, I noticed tears in his eyes. He patted me saying, ‘Finally, I am here. Don’t cry.’
He spoke with deliberation—choosing his words carefully and stringing them together with effort. It was quite unlike him. He used to speak non-stop. He would argue at length with our oldest brother.
‘Did they beat you severely?’ I asked, sobbing.
‘Fool. Who said so? I was never beaten!’
Instinctively, his fingers felt the line of bruises on his chest. I took a closer look. There were scars all over his body like the one on my thigh, which had been inflicted by him with the root of a banyan tree long ago. He had lost his temper and thrashed me.
‘Annachi, why do you lie? The wounds are still fresh…’
‘These are not due to beating. I once stumbled and fell, while working…’
I knew he was lying. I closed the subject. I gazed at him, grief-stricken. A dark bluish-brown bruise covered his left eye. I had learnt only a few days ago that he was blind in his left eye. Earlier, when he either scolded me or punished me, I used to inwardly call him names (‘one-eyed, one-eyed’) in retaliation. Whenever I gave a wrong answer in math, he used to knock me on my head, and I would run away cursing him loudly. It pains me to remember even now how his face turned gloomy at my abuse.
Had I known that he was blind in the left eye, I wouldn’t have hurt him like that. Although I treated him as my foe and addressed him as I would a younger brother, I loved him more than anyone else. Appa would chide me for calling him names. He would advise me to call him ‘Annachi.’ But Anna never proclaimed, ‘I am older; call me such.’ I now wonder whether he would have been happier had I called him ‘Annachi’ even once.
Each time he punished me, he would take me with my runny nose to the well, bathe me (all the while advising me), towel me, powder me and take me on the bar of his bicycle. He had a beautiful blue Asia bike then—I don’t know what happened to it—to the temple or to the football match or—if it was the rainy season—to the estuary to watch the rainwater spattering on the sea. My older brother was jealous. He would complain to Appa that he was being ignored, that no one gave him a ride.
Annachi turned a deaf ear to these pleadings. I don’t know why. He didn’t like taking anybody else on his bicycle. He took me with him but on one condition: I should be clean! He was very careful about cleanliness. He was the cleanest person in our family. He used to wear dark glasses to hide his blind eye. They looked nice on his sharp-pointed nose! There was always a scent of perfume about him.
My two older brothers used to tease him, calling him ‘the young cupid.’ ‘You were worse when you were his age.’ Appa chided them, making their faces darken. He was always conscious of his looks. If he happened to pass girls on the way, his bike would zigzag. The bicycle bell would go off. He would ring the bell unnecessarily. Jesudas or S.P.B.’s songs would be mauled by his singing voice. Mutilated. If Suji machchal happened to be on the road, his bike would take on wings. He would start whistling a tune. Suji, holding her books close to her chest, would steal a sidelong glance at him. Her lips would part. She would start talking loudly with her friends. Then Annachi’s bike would fly off, forcing me to grip the handlebars tightly. That was his life, till the day his face became hard.
Besides Appa, nobody could tolerate Anna’s behaviour. He rarely stayed at home. His notebooks started to gather dust.
Whenever he came home, mother started grumbling. Amma and Appa frequently quarrelled on his account. Both the older brothers took her side. They blamed Anna for neglecting his studies. The younger of the two older brothers was upset that the notes bought with the money he had remitted to Jaffna were being devoured by termites. ‘We shouldn’t have sent him there. It’s there that he got spoilt,’ they frequently said. I didn’t understand. I wondered how Anna had become so profligate with his money. I could see the changes in him. He no longer paid any attention to me. Even when I missed school, he didn’t pull me up. No punishment. Occasionally he would have a meal at home when he felt like it. Amma would take him to the kitchen, grumbling. Appa, reclining in his easy chair, would clear his throat to silence her. All of us would stand by the kitchen door and watch him eat. I would also watch, holding Sinnakka’s frock. Her eyes would be moist.
‘Why are you clinging to Akka’s frock like a toddler?’ he would say and pull me onto his lap. That was a new practice. I would shrink back at the strange odour emanating from him and touch my nose. His face would cloud over.
While Anna ate, strange sounds from the lane would disturb him. He would get up abruptly and wash his hands. Amma would curse those moving about outside. Anna would respond with a stare.
He then stepped out and stood in front of Appa, as if hesitating to say something. Appa lowered the newspaper and with his eyes bade him goodbye. Anna left and merged with the darkness outside. Within him, there would be a secret conference.
‘Appa is spoiling him.’
‘Why should a special interest be taken in him alone?’
‘Why can’t he be like the others?’
‘Damn it, we might lose our jobs.’
I’d catch small bits of their conversation.
Amma threw the leftover meal into the bin and hurled the plate into the washbasin. The older brother’s children yawned. Sister-in-law whispered something into her husband’s ear.
‘Stop it Amma. Let him go to hell!’ My oldest brother rose, followed by Anni and her daughter. The second brother heard his wife calling him from their room, and he left too. Finally, Amma and I were left alone in the kitchen. Appa folded the newspaper, put it aside and started his dinner. Amma broached the subject while serving him rice. Seeing me hanging around she would say.
‘Are you not feeling sleepy, Sinnava?’
‘Then what are you doing here?’
‘I’m afraid to sleep alone.’
‘Go and join your Sinnannan.’
‘He tosses and rolls while sleeping.’
‘Then, you should have made your Annachi stay at home,’ Amma would snarl. Appa’s stare would restore silence.
‘Here, I want you to consider this seriously.’ Amma brought up the subject again.
‘What is it?’
‘My brother’s daughter is good-looking. She has good qualities too.’
‘What of it, now?’
‘Shouldn’t we consider her a good match for our Ganesh?’
‘Did he ask you to initiate matters?’
‘Not that. If he is bound, he won’t go astray. The girl appears interested…’
‘He knows what to do. Better mind your business.’
Appa would finish his dinner abruptly and get up. He started coughing. I held the spittoon up for him.
‘Sinnava, aren’t you a big boy? Go, go and sleep alone… Don’t talk of fear!’
I needed a lot of time to understand the meaning of Appa’s censure.
‘How long are you brothers going to stand there crying? The visitors are all waiting outside.’ Akka’’s voice brought me back to the present. I looked at Anna. He was staring at the ruins of our house and the ravaged garden. Adampan creepers had encroached into the compound. There were a few cows grazing on the grass growing in the patches spared by the adampan. The cow with a white spot on its forehead is ours; no, it was ours—the last of our possessions to be devoured by Appa’s illness.
‘Sinnava, to whom did you sell the compound?’
‘To the vidane’
‘Were Appa’s last rites performed in this hut?’
‘No, Annachi, we moved in here after Appa’s death. The older brother left to settle down elsewhere. I went to live with the oldest brother to follow my studies.’
‘When did Sinnakka marry?’
‘After Appa’s death.’
‘Couldn’t you find someone other than a drunkard?’
‘For the fat dowry that we offered, did you expect a government officer?’ Akka vented her frustration.
‘Son, you are talking here… People are waiting to see you!’ Amma changed the direction of our conversation. We got up. The crowd outside stared at Anna as if he were returning from the land of the dead. Anna felt shy going closer. Suji machal too stood there, holding a baby. Anna’s discomfort on seeing her was apparent.
‘Machaan, I never dreamt I would see you again!’ Anna’s childhood friend was choked with emotion. He too held a child. All eyes were moist.
‘How are you all keep…?’ Anna started coughing before he could finish. Every bout of coughing was accompanied by a rapid rise and fall of his chest. Clutching his chest, he fell to the ground. The foam at his mouth had streaks of blood. I stood transfixed looking at him. Coming to my senses, I held him and laid him on my lap. The coughing continued. When it subsided, he opened his eyes.
‘The damned rascals! May their corpses rot! How they have battered him!’ Akka came running, cursing the unknown assailants. Amma followed. Whispers among the visitors.
‘No! The boy has been assaulted.’
‘It is a curious malady. He won’t survive.’
‘It’s the poison of a viper. It manifests only now.’
This is how Anna became a topic to be discussed by village idlers.
Hot sun. I was under the shady mango tree, studying. The exam was five months away. It was six months since Anna returned. On the table, Anna’s Jaffna notes were strewn about. Something stirred behind me. ‘Come Annachi. You said you’d come to study. I was expecting you these two, three days to solve this projectile problem. No idea…’
He took the notebook. He solved the problem within minutes. I was ashamed.
‘See, you haven’t lost your touch. Why not sit A levels this time?’
‘We’ll see, if I hang on!’ he said, indifferently.
‘Ok. I shouldn’t be disturbing your studies. I’ll call again in the evening. We’ll go out. Wait for me.’
He slammed the gate as he left.
He came at dusk, as promised. He had borrowed a Lumala bike. His favourite blue colour. I hopped onto its bar. He didn’t say anything. He pedalled, panting. I could have relieved him.
I felt happy, riding on Annachi’s bar. I was reminded of my childhood. Of Appa, of the moonlit assembly of the family now scattered. Of Grandma’s storytelling, of the puppy that lay curled up on Anna’s lap.
I told myself that riding on the bar of the bicycle was not that strenuous for Anna. When we reached the beach, the breeze blowing from the opposite direction ruffled my hair. Anna was panting. He smelled of arrack. His right eye had turned red. The left one was dark and brown—with a sagging layer of skin underneath.
We leaned our bike against a culvert near the fish vaadi and sat on it. Four or five boys were piling coconut shells on the sand. A newly-wed couple was walking on the fringe, the waves washing their feet.
Anna was silent.
He picked up a few pebbles and started tossing them into the pool below. From behind us came the sound of falling coconut fronds. He turned to look and smiled. At a distance, the sound of outboard motors. Fishing boats venturing out.
‘Look over there, in the direction of the cemetery; there goes Brother’s boat!’
He appeared not to have heard.
‘Sinnava, are you studying regularly?’
‘You should work hard and get admission to the campus. Everybody thinks that I‘ve messed up my studies. You, at least, should make up for it.’
‘Why do you think so? You can sit the exam this time.’
‘No Sinnava. My days are numbered.’
‘Everybody falls sick. You’ll be all right!’
‘No. I have no desire to live. If only my sight hadn’t betrayed me, I could have died that day itself. I didn’t see them coming. Had I died that day, there would have been no cause for regret.
‘I wonder whether you can understand, Sinnava. Everyone is disappointed in me. On top of the money spent on my education, now the medical bill…older brother thinks I’m a burden. His people look at me as if I am a leper—the children come near me, Sister-in-law calls them back. Even Sister is tired of me. Poor Amma, what could she do, herself dependent on Akka, but to put up with Athan’s innuendoes.’
‘So, how could death solve these problems? Sit the exam. Then, if a job comes your way, things will be ok.’
‘My illness may not spare me till then. Even yesterday I had fallen on the road near the market square it seems. Mama had carried me home. I vomited blood. Suji wailed… Why think of all that?… Take good care to study hard; let’s go…’
The beach was deserted. The boats were specks on the horizon. The coconut shells, with which the boys had played, were strewn on the sand. A raven on a withered tree was cawing non-stop.
For the first and the last time, I took Annachi on the cycle. He seemed heavy. Heavier was my heart, with the blow that fell the following day.
Later on, when someone dies or on sleepless nights or while reading a disturbing poem, Anna’s memory would surface. So it was last night, when I was walking, my beautiful girl on my shoulders. Anna came in the form of a poem.
forgive my inability, Anna
to overstep, like you,
and burn out
the burden of life
and blow it in the wind
I never had the guts
to look at the gale
till the palm fronds rustled
in my garden
from the day your face hardened
every movement of yours
Even your lips
parted amidst streaks of blood
wrote a chronicle!
yet there isn’t
even a gravestone for you!
I feel ashamed
to narrow down life
like birds in the rainy season
flying close to land
What can I do
I have a wife, a child
and a home
I feel ashamed!
I read the poem several times. And I was more than satisfied.
Suji machchal: Cross-cousin; hence likely to be a match.
Sinnannan: Younger of the older brothers
Adampan: Ipomoea biloba (bot.), a creeper
Vidane: The village headman
Vaadi: Shed used by fishermen
Athan: Brother – in- law
Illustration by Madhri Samaranayake
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