by N. Ethirveerasingam, August 15, 2000…originally posted in TamilNation at http://tamilnation.co/forum/ethir/ode.htm Originally written in 1969 for a class at Cornell University.
From the mango tree I can see the people going to the St Anthony’s church.
In an hour or two I have to be ready with enough mangos to sell for that day. We have three mango trees in our yard. Their fruits are sweet enough that people are willing to pay money to eat them. Most Christians earn a lot of money from their government jobs. The Hindus are mostly farmers.
I like to be high up in the tree and look around the village. People look at the ground when they walk. It must be because of the stones in the unpaved road and the snakes in the lanes. On the gravel road it is easy to hit a stone and split the toenail or peel the skin of the sole on a sharp stone. After my cousin died from snakebite, I am afraid to walk after dark in the lanes.
Our village is at the Northern end of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). The unpaved road in front of our home is a three-mile stretch of straight road running North to South. The Northern end starts at Senthankulam seashore. The Southern end meets the road that leads to the Jaffna town ten miles away. The cremation and cemetery grounds are at the Southern end. The road passes through vegetable farms and palmyrah palm trees at the edge of the village. Vairavar’s Trident is placed in his temple at the edge of the village near the roadside. He guards the village from thieves and ghosts, especially the ghost with the fireball for a tail.
The two mile stretch to the North of our home and the St John’s church, a hundred yards away, leads to Illavalai, a mile away, where the Irish priests and Nuns started two English schools for boys and girls long ago. When cars and busses go fast on the road clouds of white dust follow them. The dust that is left behind settles on the leaves, houses and people’s hair.
“If you don’t throw down more mangos I am going away,” shouted ‘Annai’. I plucked the mangos and let them fall into his hands. He always catches them without dropping them. He attends St. Henry’s, the English school for boys started by the priests from Ireland. Ammah who was watching us making a game of plucking mangos said, “Wash all the fruits and take them to the church yard before the people come out. If you are late, people will buy from others.” Ammah looked worried, as this was my first time trying to sell mangos.
We live in a one-room house. The thatched roof extends beyond the wall to the front and sides. Cooking is done in the front open space under the roof. The three mango trees around the house provide shade from the sun during the day. The trees also protect the mud walls from the monsoon rains.
Annai helped me lift the basket of mangos and placed it on my head. Ammah came over and took the basket off my head and said,” Christian people don’t like to buy anything from naked children. Bring your shorts.” I brought the shorts that I wear to school. My aunt, whom we call Thanammah, helped me put them on and made sure that both of my legs are not in the same hole.
As I had lost all the buttons Thanammah put a string through the belt loops and tied it so that the shorts would not slip off. She usually ties the knot tightly to prevent me from taking the shorts off before I come home from school. She washed my face and combed my hair saying that people like to buy from children who are clean looking.
I was glad when Ammah told me, “If you sell all the mangoes you can spend ten cents on anything you like.”
“I would like to buy a pinwheel and a whistle.”
“Only if you sell all the mangoes.”
“Can I also play with Annai’s toy boat?”
“You can come with me to the pond after you come back,” said Annai.
With the basket of mangos I went up the street and turned right into the lane, next to the open-air market, that lead to the St Anthony’s church. The pond is next to the open-air market. I saw Kanthan coming from the lane on the other side of the road. He was carrying a basket of guavas. He also had two kinds of berries called Silanthipalam and Navalpalam. He was eating them. I like the taste and smell of all these fruits.
“We are early. People will be still in the church,” Kanthan said. It was almost noon and the sun was hot. “Let us go early and get a place near the church,” I said.
We walked down the lane towards the church. Next to the market, near the pond, Kanthan unloaded his basket, picked up a flat stone and threw it low towards the water. The stone skipped many times across the water and sank in the middle of the pond. It is beautiful to see the ripples form and spread, getting bigger and bigger and ending at the edge of the pond. He helped me take the load off my head. We threw stones and saw the ripples merge and spread through the pond racing to reach the edge.
“If you can make more ripples than I can, I will give you a guava.” said Kanthan. I accepted and offered a mango if he made more ripples than I did. Kanthan, with his strong arm, threw well and far making countless ripples. I gave him the mango he had won. He gave me a guava and helped me lift the basket onto my head. He lifted his load easily.
Kanthan is the son of the village blacksmith. I have watched him help his father shod iron shoes on the hoofs of the bulls used for pulling carts. He pumps the bellows to burn the charcoal to heat the iron. His father also let him beat the iron on the anvil with the heavy hammer to re-shape the iron. I like the sound and the rhythm of the bellows, which sound as if a giant is breathing and puffing to make the charcoal burn. The sound and rhythm of the hammer on the anvil is usually ding-dong, ding-dong. The ding is the sound of the easy stroke of the hammer on the anvil. The dong is the stroke that falls with force on the red-hot iron on the anvil. Kanthan’s father sometime lets me pump the bellows when my father was with me.
We stopped to watch the small clay kilns with limestone and clamshells and the people tending the fire under the kilns. The people who live near St Anthony’s church make lime by burning clam shells. They sell the pasty lime to rich people who build stone houses and to those who want to whitewash their houses. Some people with mud wall houses also white wash the walls. The whitewashed walls look neat like stone walls. People believed that the lime keeps insects from boring holes in the mud walls.
Beyond the edge of the pond where the kilns are, there are many palmyrah palm trees. It is a useful tree. The leaves are used to thatch roofs and fences, and to weave mats and containers. The trunk is used to make rafters for roofs. Flat and round cakes are made from the pulp of the ripe fruits. They are very tasty. From the flower stalk, toddy is tapped. Fresh toddy is sweet. Old toddy makes one drunk. From the sweet juice, sweets are also made. The trunk of the palm is black, strong and straight. My father often reminds us that we are a people like the palmyrah tree and that we should grow up to be straight, strong and useful.
“I don’t like to sell guavas near this church.” Said Kanthan.
“This is a low caste church. They allow low caste people to go inside. At St. John’s Church only high caste Christians can go inside. I don’t like to sell guavas to low caste people.”
“Who are the low caste people?” I asked. Kanthan did not answer, but looked at me strangely.
At the church there were already many vendors. We put our baskets down and sat next to each other at the edge of the lane facing the church.
The statues of Jesus, Mary, and St. Anthony were brought out in glass cases on the shoulders of men. People followed the statues around the church singing hymns. The priest walking in front of the statues shook a silver container, and sprayed water on people. They didn’t run away from the water. In fact they bowed to be sprayed. Two of the attendants were swinging silver incense burners. The Hindu temple priests also burn incense. The smell of incense is more pleasant than the smell of the sweat of people. It is past noon and the sun is burning the bare skin and the head. It is hot. The procession was ending. The statues were taken inside the church. People came out and the noise of bargaining took the place of hymns that were pleasant, calm and soothing to listen.
The Christian people looked clean. The ladies were dressed in white saris and blouses. The girls wore white dresses and embroidered veils to cover their heads. The men wore white cloth, long white shirts that came to their knees and a white shawl around the shoulder. Most men, women and children all wore shoes or slippers. There were some ladies who did not wear a blouse. They wore the sari tied above the breast instead of around the waist and over the shoulders like the others. Some of the men did not wear a shirt. Those men did not wear a shawl either.
“Kanthan, why are some people dressed differently?”
“Don’t you know?” I could not think of an answer.
“Didn’t your mother and father tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“That low caste people should not wear shirt or blouse.”
He paused for a reaction from me. I looked at him in amazement. He is as old as I am but knows so much more. I was also confused. I knew some of the people who were without shirts. They are called Pallar. I didn’t know that they were lower than some Christians. In our village there are many groups of people: Thatcher (carpenters), Vannar (clothes washers), Pariar (road cleaners and drum beaters). Kamakarar or Vellalar (farmers), and Kollar (blacksmiths).
We were busy selling. People were buying my mangoes more quickly than Kannan’s guavas. At last my mangoes were all sold. I told Kanthan, “I am thirsty. I am going to drink some water. Look after my basket,” and ran towards the well.
“You can’t drink water from that well,” he shouted at me. I was too thirsty to listen to him. I stood among the others waiting to drink. I looked inside the well and saw that it was not as well kept as the well at the roadside. Plants were growing from the inside of the well wall. There were some frogs. There were leaves on top of the water. Moss was growing in the water and on the walls near the water level.
The man called Simeon was drawing water from the well and pouring it into the cupped hands of children and adults. Simeon enjoyed giving water to people. People looked happier after drinking water. None of the men and women near the well wore shirts or blouses. They did not wear shoes either. I didn’t have shoes either. I only wear a shirt and shorts to school.
Simeon did not wear shoes or shirt. Simeon lives near the church. He is with the group called Pallar. He is a toddy tapper. In the morning and evenings he climbs the palmyrah trees to tap toddy. He is also the gravedigger at the Christian cemetery, and the cremator who tends the fire at the Hindu cremation grounds. He is tall, strong and rough looking.
When he goes to climb the palm trees, he gathers his verti up and through between his legs and tucks the ends behind. He carries a leather pouch full of knives in his waist band. In the evenings and during burials or cremations he is drunk.
Children tease him when he is drunk. We are also afraid of him. People say that if the skull does not burn to ashes, Simeon pounds the skull to ashes as the body burns. The thought of that scene always scared me. He also, I am told, kills cows and bulls and sells the meat to Christians. I have seen cow skulls and bones behind the church. Hindus don’t like cows and bulls being killed. Hindus don’t eat cow meat. We have a cow from which we get milk. Our two bulls draw our cart and plough the field. We are fond of them.
When my turn came to drink, Simeon hesitated and stared at me. Then he looked at the others near the well. Everyone looked at me strangely.
“Why don’t you go home and drink water?” Simeon asked.
“I am very thirsty.” Everyone laughed.
Simeon smiled and poured the water into my cupped hands. The water was cool and I enjoyed the drink. As I left, the people around the well scolded Simeon for giving me water. They seemed afraid. I didn’t understand. I liked Simeon.
I went to the man who was selling pinwheels. Even in the gentle breeze they were spinning fast. It was a beautiful sight to see many wheels of all colours spinning as the man walked. I always wanted one. Now I can buy my own. The vendor said one pinwheel cost ten cents. I had to forget about the whistle. I bought the pinwheel and ran with it to Kanthan. I gave it to him and saw him run with it for a while I watched his basket. When he came back I left him and ran home with my pinwheel, weaving in and out of the group of people walking in the narrow lane.
The wheel spun like the fan in front of the planes from England that flew from the nearby military airport at Palaly. My aunt always said that she can see the white driver of the plane. I never could see him. The only white person I saw were the soldiers in kakhi shorts, shirt and hats with shoes and socks coming up to their knees. They always walked in twos.
As I came to the road I saw Ammah. I ran towards her to show her my pinwheel. Aunt Mary was with my mother. Aunt Mary is my mother’s cousin. Her father changed his religion to go to the English school. In the early days, I was told that one had to be a Christian to attend English schools. My grandfather and grandmother did not want to change their religion, and they never attended the English school. They studied up to the third grade in the Tamil school. My mother and father left school after the third grade also.
“Ammah, I bought the pinwheel for ten cents,” I said showing her my pinwheel.
“You are a bad boy,” said aunt Mary.
“What did I do?” I asked, feeling hurt.
“Don’t talk back like that to your aunt. Did you drink water from the low caste well?” asked Ammah.
“Yes. I was very thirsty,” I said, remembering what Kanthan had said and the way the people at the well looked at me.
Ammah snatched the pinwheel from me and said, “Go home and wait for me.” I started crying not knowing what was going on. I ran home.
By the time Ammah came home, some of my aunts, uncles and cousins who lived in the same compound had come to see me punished for drinking water from the low caste well. Ammah asked me to sit on the ground under the mango tree. Everyone stared down at me. They all looked upset.
“Who gave you water from that well?” asked Ammah.
“Ah, we should teach him a lesson,” said someone from behind.
“Is the water from that well going to make me sick?” I asked in fear.
I remembered the nasty smell and awful taste of the medicine made of herbs which was enough to make me vomit. I had visions of my legs and hands being held by my aunt, Aachi holding the metal handle of the arecanut cutter between the teeth, and my mother holding my nose with one hand and pouring the awful smelling, foul tasting green liquid from the coconut shell container into my mouth. All sick children in the village suffer similarly from the ritual.
My grandmother looked worried and asked everyone to leave. She seemed angry. She must be on my side. She asked me to get up, put her hand around my shoulder and said, “From now on you should not drink water from that well. That well is only for low caste people.”
Later in the afternoon Annai and his friends left with his boat to the pond. When I started to follow him Ammah said,
“Today you cannot go out to play. You have to stay at home and help me clean the yard.”
I felt sad and angry. Annai let me turn the key on the boat that wound the spring inside while he held the small propeller from turning. I liked to hear the ratcheting sound when I turned the key. I enjoyed seeing the boat move through the water making waves that spread across the glasslike pond.
Appu (my father) brought the boat for Annai from Colombo. Appu bought a new bus with the money he earned from the two old busses he owned and a loan from the bus dealer from Colombo. The dealer, gave him the toy boat as a gift. Appu said it is a toy made to look like a real steamer. It has three black smoke stacks. It is made of metal. The hull is red and the top is white. All our friends wait every evening during the rainy season to play with the boat at the pond.
I heard the sound of my friends laughing and screaming. They must be running around the pond to the opposite side to turn the boat around. Even big people stop and look at the boat. It is a beautiful sight to see the boat cut through the water with the waves starting from the tip of the boat and getting bigger and bigger behind it on both sides. I wished I was there. Suddenly I wished that the boat would sink.
When Annai came home they did not have the boat. Annai said,
“When the boat reached the middle of the pond it stopped. Water started to fill in and the boat sank. I wanted to go in but the big people did not let me. They said that the pond had a lot of mud in the bottom and I would get stuck.”
He started crying before he finished telling the story.
“It is good that you didn’t go in. We will take the boat when the pond gets dry in the dry season.” said Ammah. I looked away from Ammah and Annai and began to sweep the yard. I didn’t want my mother to read my thoughts. It is known that the face shows a person’s thoughts. Now I am sad that I wished for the boat to sink. I don’t like to see Annai cry.
When Appu came home that evening Ammah told him all that had happened at the low caste well. I still couldn’t understand all the fuss. Appu looked at me for a long time, but said nothing.
“Aren’t you going to punish him?” Ammah asked. Appu grunted. That means he did not agree with Ammah. Simeon came in at this time with the fresh toddy he collects from the palms every evening. Appu buys fresh toddy from him every evening. Both of them squatted around the lantern under the mango tree in the front yard and talked in whispers. From the door of the house, in the dark, I could see only their faces lighted by the yellow light from the lantern on the ground. The shadows they cast were without end.
After Simeon left, Appu called me to sit next to him by the lantern. We had dinner together.
“Aren’t you going to scold him?” asked Ammah.
“I will, after we eat.” Ammah did not look pleased.
After we ate Appu sat on the stone next to the mango tree and smoked a cigar. I began to get the feeling that I was not going to get punished. Appu seemed disturbed. He said at the end of a deep sigh,
“That well is reserved for the low caste people. Others are to drink from the well at the roadside.”
He paused to suck at the cigar to keep it lighted. My mother’s cousins grow tobacco, cure it in smoke kilns made of red clay, and employ people to roll cigars. Looking at the smoke twirling up he continued,
“When you learn more and grow up, you will understand more, then you can do as you wish. For now, follow the rules, observe, and learn.”
Except for a group of people on the road and the sound of their discussion, there was silence.
“Is that all you are going to do?” asked Ammah in disappointment.
“Yes.” said Appu.
As the matter seems to be closed I decided not to ask Appu all the questions about the events that had been confusing me all day. The shouting and arguments by the people on the roadside took all our attention.
We heard an aunt say, “The fireball of the ghost is getting bigger and brighter. It is going to come into the village.”
“No. Vairavar will not let it come in,” said an uncle.
Appu and Ammah went to the road. Grandmother stayed with us. It was very dark except for the circle of light from the hurricane lantern, and the light from the bottle lamp with an open flame in the house. Grandmother took my two little brothers and sister into the house. I was afraid. Annai took the lantern and ran to the road. The shadows of the trees moved and I ran close behind him almost tripping him.
I began to doubt whether Vairaver is stronger than the fireball ghost that tries to pass his temple. There is only one Vairavar but many fireball Ghosts. I began to pray to Vairavar and to God Siva to give Vairavar a lot of strength. I was praying so that Vairavar would not let the fireball ghost come and get me for breaking the caste rule and for wishing that my brother’s boat should sink. I felt a shiver run through my body. I grabbed my brother’s shoulder and he screamed. The group of people standing close to each other hearing the scream and the light from the lantern coming towards them from behind screamed and ran towards the fence. Ammah came and hugged us both to comfort us. I felt safe.
My relatives gathered back together again after shouting at us for scaring them. I held on to Ammah.
“Look, the fireball is slowing down. Vairavar is stopping it.” Said another aunt. I braved myself and looked. It was a bright shinning round light that seemed like the size of a rising Sun. It seemed to burn. It appeared to stop and then move forward and then stop.
“It is the light of a car with one light, or maybe it is the light of a motorcycle.” Appu said.
“If it was a car or motorcycle we would have heard the sound of the engine,” said someone in the group.
“It is too far to hear an idling engine,” Appu said with the authority of a bus owner. Suddenly the light moved forward turned to its left and disappeared.
“The car has turned into the lane next to the Vairavar temple,” Appu said.
“If it is a car, why is it that we see the light all the time from the cemetery end of the road and not from the ocean end?” asked another aunt.
“I don’t know,” said Appu and took us home. I believed Appu. I also said to myself I should stay away from the cemetery end of the road. I wished it would rain. The fireball ghost would not come out in the rain.
“Would you like to go to the churches and temples tomorrow to light candles and camphor,” asked Appu.
“Yes,” I said.
I have been with Appu to churches to light candles and temples. At the churches, unlike Christians, he sings Hindu prayer songs and lays on the floor to pray, like when we pray in the temples.
Inside the house my younger brothers and sister were sleeping on the mat on the floor. The room is just wide enough for the five of us to sleep. Appu and Ammah slept on the mud platform next to the wall outside the door. In the corner of the room is a small raised mound where the open-flame-kerosene lamp made from a tin can is kept. I slept next to the mound. The flame from the cloth wick tapered to a point. A thin line of smoke rose half way up the room. The flame stays still at times. With the hint of a breeze it danced, and with it the line of smoke also danced like the tail of a kite. The sounds of the crickets and circades outside the house kept rhythm with the croaks of the frogs in the pond. I thought of the boat at the bottom of the pond.
“I am sorry the boat sank,” I said to Annai.
“We had fun. I wished you were there,” said Annai. He went on describing the last minutes of how the boat sank. I felt sad. He had had a bad day like me.
“Annai, Why should I not drink water from the well near St Anthony’s church? I asked with concern. “Is it bad water?”
“No. You won’t get sick from that water. Low caste people are not allowed to draw water from our wells. So they dug their own well. High caste people do not eat or drink with them.”
“How would I know a low caste person?”
“From the work they do. Farmers are high caste. We are farmers. Then come carpenters, blacksmiths, fishermen, dhobys, Pallar who tap toddy and do other menial work, and at the bottom are the Pariar, they sweep the street and beat the drums at funerals. They also beat the drums at junctions and shout-out news from the government.”
“The Hindu priest at the temple is not a farmer. Is he a low caste?”
“No you fool. He is a Brahmin. He is of the highest caste. He is the only one allowed to go near the statues of Gods inside the temple.”
“One day I wanted to go through the rooms to the last room inside and touch the bronze statue of Pillaiyar God, but the priest stopped me at the entrance to the first room. He said I have to stay in the hall and pray. He said he was going to report me to father for trying to go in. Are we lower than the Brahmins.”
“That is what I was told.”
“Does God allow that?”
“He has not stopped anyone.”
“Can anyone become a Hindu priest?”
“No. Only children of priests can become a priest.”
“Is Simeon a low caste?”
“He is kind. But he also scares me,” I said. I was getting more confused.
“Simeon’s brother is farming the land next to ours. Is he a higher caste than Simeon?” I asked.
“No. Once a person is born he remains in the caste of his father and mother.”
“Are doctors high caste?”
“Simeon’s son stitched my wound I got falling from the chair. He is a doctor. Isn’t he high caste?”
“He is a nurse. He cleans puss from wounds and dresses them.” He is Simeon’s son. He cannot be a high caste,”
“I like them better than the priest.”
“I do too.”
“Can’t we make them high caste?”
“I don’t know how to.”
“Kanthan is in my class. He is a son of the blacksmith,” I said. “He is not different from me. He is better than me in running and is very strong.” Annai didn’t say anything. Kanthan is also Annai’s friend. “Are Sarah and Agnes in my class low caste?” I asked.
“Yes. Their fathers are Pariar.”
“They go to St Anthony’s church. They are more beautiful than my cousins.”
“Do you talk to them?” asked Annah with alarm.
“Yes. I talk to them because I like them.” Annah sat up suddenly and asked me not to talk loud. He seemed alarmed again.
“If you marry them you will also become a low caste.” He warned me in earnest.
“But I am born into high caste.” I protested.
“No. It doesn’t work that way. You will be chased away and you will live with the Pariar. No one will let you in their homes or give you drink or food in their homes.” Annah was excited.
“If I come to your house will you chase me away?”
“Ammah! Tell Thambi to go to sleep. He is disturbing me.”
“Both of you go to sleep. I want to hear only snoring.” Ammah said.
I watched the insects circle the flame. Some of them fell to the ground upside down and flapped their wings. They anchored their hard wings and turned over, and flew around the flame again. In the morning most of them will lie dead around the lamp. The insects never go towards the smoke coming from the pot of rice husks in the other corner. The rice husk smoke keeps the mosquitoes away from the room. Mosquitoes like warm dark places.
“Annai.” I whispered.
“What?” He asked annoyingly.
“I see a mouse running on the rafter.”
“It is going to eat the rice grains in the sacks piled up in the corner. It won’t bite you.”
“Aachi said where there is a mouse the snake will come to eat it.”
“If it comes it will eat the mouse and go away.”
“I am afraid to see the snake.”
“Blow the lamp out and then you won’t see it.”
“I don’t want the snake to eat the mouse. It is the chariot of Pillayar. He will not like it. I am going to chase the mouse away.”
“The snake is Sivaperuman’s pet. You have seen it around his neck. Do you want it to go hungry? Sivaperuman will not like that. Sivaperuman is Pilayar’s father. Remember that.”
“Is Sivaperuman a High Caste,” I asked.
“You are stupid,” Said Annai and asked me to blow the lamp out and go to sleep.
Obeying Annai I blew the flame gently. It dodged and danced and straightened. The smoke trail wiggled and followed the flame. I blew at the flame several times and watched the flame and the trail of smoke dance. Varying the speed of the air I watched the flame dodge every wisp of air. I moved my index finger through the flame. Quickly at first and then slower and slower daring it to burn my finger.
At school, in my class there are no Brahmin children. In front of me sat Joseph. His father is a farmer and a Christian. Kanthan sat behind me. Agnes sat behind Kanthan with Sarah next to her. My cousin and other children of farmers, Hindu farmers, sat in the same row where I sat. My class followed the caste line. I could not understand why all castes sat in the same class but could not go into each other’s house. I wonder where the children of the Brahmin went to school. Our school is next to St John’s church. It has four rooms with half walls, and four teachers. The school is in the form of a cross.
“Don’t play with the flame. It will burn you. Blow it out or I will call Ammah,” said Annai getting more and more annoyed at me. Ammah hearing him came in and stood at the foot of the mat with both hands on her hips. She looked very tall. She is taller than most men in the village. Her head almost touched the rafters. To come through the door she has to bend her head. Annai had said she is five feet six inches tall.
“Blow the flame out.” Ammah said firmly.
“Can I ask one last question?” I said.
“The last. No more. We are all tired.” Ammah said more firmly. Appu looked at us from the door. He also has to bend his head to come into the room.
I asked Ammah,
“Every time Simeon’s wife passes me on the road, she tells me that for a year, from the time I was born, I drank milk from her breast because you were not well. Is that true?” Ammah said yes and started crying. Appu came in and sat on the mat next to me. Ammah went out.
Appu said, “After you were born Ammah fell sick. She was not getting any milk. No high cast women near us had milk in their breast. Simeon’s daughter, born just before you were born, died a week later. We arranged for her to come and nurse you for a year. We gave Simeon the right to tap toddy in ten of our palmyrah trees next to the Vairavar temple. He gives us one bottle of toddy every day and sold the rest. He has been doing that for the past eight years. He can do that as long as he lives. That is fair.”
“Am I a low caste now.”
“You are grateful to them for what you received,” Appu said. He blew the flame and lay next to me. I hugged his arm. I felt safe.
“When people are dead do they remain in their caste?” I asked.
“No. We are all the same before birth, during life and after life.”
“Annai said that the low caste are buried or cremated in separate places than the high caste?”
After a while Appu asked whether I have learned poems of Avvayar. I said yes and that I can’t remember all of them. He recited the one about the caste.
“Caste, there is none but two – on earth
Those with compassion are the highest
Those without are the lowest.”
Appu chanted Hindu hymns. They soothed me into sleep remembering that the same chant is going to wake me up before sunrise amidst the bells from the temples and churches.
It is now accepted that the foundation for what a person learns is laid during the first five years of life. But we seldom remember the events in the first three years of our lives. We remember a semblance of only increasingly small snippets of memory from the fourth, fifth and sixth years. Of the events we remember, one wonders whether our memory of events is that of a recounting of our actions and events by older adults from their memory, repeated many times in our later years, or a true memory.
Often we return to our childhood and our place of birth to find an explanation for the roots of our values, thoughts and actions. We are all surprised to find the place of our childhood smaller than we thought it to be. We wonder whether the events that seemed important, big and serious in our thoughts then would be diminished in intensity if those events took place in our adult life in the place we perceive now as small. We can return to the old physical place where the houses and institutions may still remain intact, but we can never return to events as events are tied to time.
Without a place to anchor events and time we can only have a virtual reality of events. The adults perceive the current civil war as large and intense because of the pain of death, rape and torture of loved ones. How intensely do the children feel the pain of the War now? Will they feel the pain to the same extent in their adult years? Or will it be worse? What will their values mould to be as a result of their painful experience? Time and distance does not diminish the pain, but it does help to cope with the loss and suffering.
I have visited my village Periyavillan from time to time since I left it first and moved to Jaffna when I was 9 years old. With time and my travels abroad the frequency of my visits to Periyavillan got longer. Someone had said that we travel the world to learn about our place of birth and to learn about our formative years. At 66, my desire to make sense of my first nine years in Periyavillan is a testimony to that. Since 1994, I have visited my village three times: once when it was a no man’s land and twice when it is under the control of the armed forces. No one lives there now. The bombs and artillery have spared a few houses. It is not easy to step back into the mind of the child.
Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem expresses it best.
TO ANY READER
As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
by knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear, he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.
While reading the Garden of Verses by Stevenson to my children, I could not help but look through that window and watch myself play. Those of you who read this story, I wish, would also look through your window into your own garden and watch the child that was you play.
William Wordsworth writing about remembering childhood said,
“To get a feel for the thoughts and actions of the child it is necessary to condense time and remembered events to encapsulate the values and lessons the child acquires and makes them part of the thought process.”
After a 12-year absence I returned to my village in April 1994. It had been a no-mans land for four years. The vegetation had taken over the village. I returned again with my son in January 1995. All the houses except for those on a hundred-yard stretch of road had been destroyed by the war. In 1992 the carpenter Sivakolunthu died as a result of a direct hit by a bomb from a Pukara jet plane on his house. Since 1996, the Sri Lanka army has occupied the houses belonging to my close relatives.
We returned again in July 1998. There is a bund, guarded by soldiers, which runs across the village and crosses the main road near the Vairavar temple. The sentries gave us permission to pass through the village and go to Ilavalai. In front of the St. John’s church is a Bo tree planted by the army. The skeletal remains of my school stand next to the church waiting for its children. My school in Jaffna suffered severe damage. St Peter’s church next to it now has only the floor.
All my relatives who lived in Periyavillan were displaced many times and some of them are in foreign lands. Some of them have been killed and wounded by shells, bombs, and fighting for the rights of the Tamil people.
In Jaffna I learnt about the “Barrel Bombs” that were rolled from the plane on civilians. The Jaffna people named the barrel-bombs “Athulathmudali Bombs” after the Minister who conducted the war then.
It is strange to think that it is the same Lalith Athulathmudali with whom I ran the hurdles race at the 1952 Public Schools Championships thirty five years before. He orchestrated the war without concern for Tamil civilian casualties.
In October 1999 I drove through Periyavillan after visiting and seeing the children learning amid the ruins of the buildings of Mahajana College in Thellipalai. The army still occupied our village. The Bo tree had grown to about 10 feet. The Bo tree, the symbol of enlightenment, has now become the symbol of occupation and oppression. Asoka, Mahinda and Sanghamitta did not intend the scion of the symbol they brought to the Island to be propagated as a symbol to stake the claim of ownership, like the western colonial empires did with their flags.
Those from the village who are living, may dream of themselves as children at play in Periyavillan wondering whether it will be a living village again during their life time. Will our villages rise again from the ashes? It is a question all Tamils must be prepared to answer in the affirmative. After all, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and now the Sinhalese have all occupied our villages in turn since 1619. They have caused us to take refuge, adjust, regroup, and retool, and rise from the ashes each time.
None of them ever conquered the hearts and minds of the Tamils. The Indian armed forces earned the wrath of the Tamils during their stay in Jaffna and the NorthEast. It is unlikely that the Sinhalese will win the hearts and minds of the Tamils after the twenty-year war, and the suffering they have visited on the Tamils, until they let us exercise our rights. The sovereign spirit of a person, a village, or a nation of people can never be conquered by the use of force by another. The enemy may hold on to the shell of a village, but not for long.