Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

"Smell of Death" Book Review

And translations

by Thuraiyooran, Monsoon Journal, Ontario, Canada, March 12-March 16, 2011

We are seeing a budding writer emerging out of a tragic situation in this collection. I venture to write this review in English so as to bring a global perspective to this collection.

But here is my friend, who lost five of his flesh and blood and is unable to see them for the last time. He is only 100 km away from his place. Still he can’t travel because the only accessible road, highway nine is closed for public. He does not have neither the chance of seeing their dead bodies for the last time nor to attend their funeral. What a country? You call this your own, where you are not free to attend your own relatives funeral. This affected him more than the sadness of losing his dear ones. He was feeling his inability and hopelessness.

 

Smell of Death by T. Agilan front cover 2011 in Tamil

“Smell of Death” by T. Agilan - Book Review
By Thuraiyooran 

I had the opportunity of reading this collection of short stories in Tamil and found most of the incidents referred in the stories, were real and they reveal the pathetic situations that prevailed during the ethnic war in Sri Lanka. The author who was born and bred in Vanni and lived there during that period, reveals his emotional feelings, very vividly in these stories. A person who experienced the troubles, hardships, torture and death of his kith and kin is the appropriate one to describe those incidents in the form of short stories. Actually we are getting the details from the horse’s mouth. His style and the choice of words to describe his feelings, are really touching and in some places bring out tears in the eyes of the reader.

We are seeing a budding writer emerging out of a tragic situation in this collection. I venture to write this review in English so as to bring a global perspective to this collection.

During the war the local media coverage was distorted and foreign media personnel were not granted permission to enter this area. Local newspapers published the censored news supplied by the government authority.

This book was published in 2009 and the author moved to India before the final days of the war. So the incidents depicted in the stories were prewar situations. Accounts of incidents during the war are now oozing out in the media .These are important documents that will reveal the human tragedy and crimes against humanity.

In order to give a sample of his work and the power it has on the reader, I decided to translate some of the stories, which captivated my attention and feelings.

Life is a precious gift given by God to all living things and no one has the right to take away that gift unreasonably, by any means. When an individual is killed by another, the laws of the land punish him or her suitably. But during a war the breach of international norms of war is punishable in the court of law. What happened in Sri Lankan ethnic strife may amount to genocide and if proven the perpetrators may be prosecuted. During the war India, Pakistan and China have been aiding and abetting and even the world body United Nations, set up to analyze atrocities of war turned a blind eye and kept mum. But lately things have slightly taken a different turn and we hope that something will come out of it soon.


Politics, News and Death - Short Story - 1
Original in Tamil by T. Agilan
English version by Thuraiyooran 

He and I are the only ones in that room. I was thinking of ways to stop him from speaking about it. I started speaking about a lot of other unwanted matters, to distract him from thinking about it. While doing so I was also searching for new matters to speak about. He attempted to say something. Even though I noticed the contortion of his face, I never gave a chance for him to speak, by continuing my speech nonstop like a mad fellow. I felt guilty in not giving a chance to vent his feelings by shouting out and crying.

When I think of it, I too felt like shouting. But realized that I will not be able to console him, as I was also in that mourning mood. He was a representative of unwanted and unreasonable deaths.

Death always leaves something behind to remember it. Grief, crying and shouting are some of the symbols of death. Everyone is very keen to live. Even after enjoying the virtues and vices of life, everyone wants to live beyond hundred years like the Japanese .We dream of better things to come.

Death and it’s fear are the unknowns lingering with everyone. No one likes to go over the wall of death.

His feelings were of a murderous situation than that of a natural or suicidal death. Tears were flowing down from his eyes as he remained silent. I realized that the moment, which I tried my level best to stop, has arrived. He suddenly burst out crying with intermittent babbling and sobbing. They pierced my heart like arrows. I silently listened and felt his hopelessness and anguish.

He lost his aunt, two cousins and two uncles in a second. He had no enmity with the Sri Lankan Airforce or with the 18 bombs they dropped down on his family. They dictated death to them. The smell of death rose high from Thiruvai yaru property in Kilinochchi.

He lost his Aunt, two Cousins and two Uncles. 

After a few hours of this unfortunate incident the smell of their deaths spread around the world as a news, information, politics and grief. Their death was told all over the world over the telephone.

In a customary way this news was passed on to him,
“ Your aunty got injured”
“What happened?“
“Airforce Planes bombed your area” 
“As result what happened ? “
“ Your aunty died“ 
“Aiyo“ 

From Thiruvaiyaru the smell of death oozed to France, Germany, London and Canada over the phone.

The impact of those 18 bombs created big craters on the land and a thick cloud of smoke arose from it. As the cloud subsided these five deaths were announced in succession. 

The phones rang in all their relation’s houses around the world and informed their deaths. Deaths were announced like cricket scores. 

As they were lamenting over one death the next one was announced. They started to cry for both, when the next one was told. Likewise five deaths were told in succession. They were perplexed as to whom they should lament for and whom they should pacify. They were all wondering as to what to do. They were all in a state of shock.

He was crying and speaking simultaneously. I tried to redirect his attention to some other matters. His grief over flawed and engulfed me too. I never saw him so depressed, since I came to know him. I have seen him cry once or twice before but this time it was unbearable. 

I knew all his dead relatives. I came to know them very intimately through the stories he had been telling me. 

I still remember the day we visited his aunt in her house. It was a small 10x8 feet room. Cooking and sleeping were all in it. There were lots of pooja articles in her room. When we went in she was praying, so we sat on the bed. The room was filled with incense smoke. I tolerated with much difficulty. Later aunty prepared a delicious cup of Nescafe and it made me to feel, that it was worth the trouble of waiting in that smoke filled room.

He used to talk to me about his aunty more than about his mother. Aunty was the only controller for him. So I was trying to form an image of his aunty by trying to recollect two or three times, I met her in Vavuniya. Finally I came to the conclusion that she was the controller for his entire family. Now when I heard that she is no more, I couldn’t help feeling the pain of her death.

I felt more sad when I heard the unfortunate fate of his Siththy (Mom’s sister). When I was roaming around in Killinochchi in my bicycle, even in the dead of night, she prepared dinner with fried eggs and pittu. I could smell the scent of it even now. Her husband’s words “Don’t feel shy, my boy. Eat well” is still ringing in my ears. He is no more. 

Sithhty lost her husband and her two sons at the same time. I wonder how she is coping with that tragic and unbearable situation. I could still remember the tragic situation of my mom when my father passed away, when we were all young. My mom was devastated by the loss of my father. Our society treated widows with contempt and kept them away from family celebrations. At my Dad’s funeral our relations and neighbors comforted her by saying “Don’t worry you have your children to help you. It is only a matter of ten years”. But Siththty’s situation is really grave. She has no one to help or support her. I could remember all of them very well. I went to Jaffna to study on a lame excuse and spent most of my time in movie theatres and in the Science Hall tuition house, where I met them and became friends.

They are Saji and Viji .They are neither brothers nor friends. They were a mixture of both. I can still remember the times we had tea and short eats at the cafes in Jaffna. I felt a chocking sensation in my throat now.

We shared a room in a house near Perumal Temple .The very thought of this news brought tears in my eyes. Is 18yrs the correct time to die? We use to call Sasi by the nick name of BBC. He had detailed information of who is loving whom, where the lovers use to meet secretly and which teacher is conducting special classes to whom etc. The irony is, his own brother gave him that nickname. The sad part is their deaths were announced over the BBC that day. This made me to realize how life is going in circles.

Now I looked at my friend. He was tired and silent.

We pacify ourselves by having a last look at the dead body. We take an everlasting picture of that person in our mind by that look. We remember him or her by the complexion, appearance and height. All their activities are remembered by the picture of their body. So the only representation of them is their body. That is why we make it a point to travel long distances to have a last look at the dead body.

But here is my friend, who lost five of his flesh and blood and is unable to see them for the last time. He is only 100 km away from his place. Still he can’t travel because the only accessible road, highway nine is closed for public. He does not have neither the chance of seeing their dead bodies for the last time nor to attend their funeral. What a country? You call this your own, where you are not free to attend your own relatives funeral. This affected him more than the sadness of losing his dear ones. He was feeling his inability and hopelessness. He was devastated and desperate. He started to vent out his feelings in monosyllables among sobs. I could not help, but waited silently staring at him. His grief was gradually turning to anger.

 

A Woman - Short Story - 2
Original in Tamil by T. Agilan
English version by Thuraiyooran 

How death is told to a person? Early in the morning phone rings and the conversation starts casually and the death is announced after the second or third line. It depends on the person’s relationship to the deceased .Further it depends on the closeness of the person to the deceased. Also it depends on the state of the body and mind of the person receiving the message.

I was informed of a death. The news was taken from a website, cut and pasted and was sent by email in two lines. Is she the one? This question arose in my mind as I read it. 

Yes, she is the one. The village and surname are the same .Hence she is the one. She is no more, but she is the one. Nowadays, when you read news in any media you have to be prepared for unexpected shocks. In any part of the news, there will be death strewn casually. Sometimes I feel like avoiding them .But they are the ones which connect me to past memories. 

This news did not cause any shock to me. But I could not bypass it. I was forced to donate a few tears to the paper tissue. We all have become immune to deaths and treat them as news and numbers, because of the present circumstances. 

She was the loving grand daughter of my expired Grandma. Eldest of five sisters. She was the eldest of twin girls, born to an angry father and an obedient mother, to her husband. Her father used to frequently say that she is like a boy .She worked like a bull. She was liked by every one in the village. She will be doing something, always. Her past time was work, work and nothing but work. She was a foolish girl, who hated studies. 

It is usual to admire one, after their death. This is not because we admire them or praise them after death. It is only after their death, that we realize how they were helpful and beneficial to us.

I still remember the cone ice cream she bought me, when I went to watch the sports meet at the village grounds. Even now I could feel the coldness of the rose color ice cream, flowing down my hand. Those days money was given to us, when we went to temple festivals or sports meet and football games. The money was never in notes, only a five rupee coin. One popsicle was five rupees then. We have to end our dreams of eating not more than that, with that popsicle. We usually buy it as soon as we reach the place and finish it in a hurry and watch others relishing it, with a hungry look.

At that moment, how you will feel, when some one buys you an ice cream, instead of a popsicle. She used to do such happy shocking acts frequently. Like a responsible adult she used to give me money and told me to buy cone ice creams. I never asked the question “How about you?” .I got the money and went looking for the ice cream vendor.

I now feel that I should have asked that question. Now no point in repenting over it. Instead of watching the game or the car festival in progress, we were eagerly looking for her, to get a cone ice cream.

She was in the habit of taking their cattle to the grazing grounds near the forest. We used to accompany her since we didn’t have any. She had a pet cow named Lakshmi. She used to speak to that cow always. Lakshmi allowed others to milk her, only when “she “is by the side. My periyamma (mom's eldest sister) also had cows. So during the weekends my sister, older brother and me went with her with our cows. When I am not paying attention to my studies and playing around ,my mom used to say that I am fit for only to be a shepherd .But on Saturdays when I wanted to accompany her ,my mom wouldn’t allow me. “She “is the one to plead for me and got permission from my mother. Whenever I am in trouble and got beaten by a stick, there were two people who came to my rescue, one is my sister and the other one is “she”.

To go with the cattle was like playing a game for me. I never cared for them. I was interested in the fields, the calves running around, small canals with running water, grasslands, butterflies, grasshoppers and more than that the “ no school ‘ freedom. She knew the nook and corners of the area. She knew where the wild berries were. While walking on the bunds of the fields, she will be talking to the frogs lying in shallow waters. When I am on the run, she used to grab my hand and stop me from treading into spots, where snakes used to hide.

When telling secrets to others, you get a kind of pleasure, which is difficult to describe in words. The trees there were her friends. She used to climb them easily. When returning home with the cows, she used to climb a Jamun plum tree and grab a few branches quickly and gets down before the owner Murugesu Teacher, comes chasing her. I used to demand for the biggest fruit from the bunch. No doubt she is being called as a boy because of her skill in climbing trees. My grand mother used to yell at her by saying “you are climbing trees like boys”. She never cared for anything .If she feels like climbing a tree, without any hesitation, she will be up on any tree big or small. She used to enjoy watching us, eating those wild berries, she plucked for us.

One day while the cows were grazing, we went wandering in the fields. When we returned we saw two cows fighting fiercely with their horns. One of them was bleeding .This was the first time I saw a cow fight. I have heard people talking that these cows won’t stop the fight until one is killed. If anyone tries to stop them, they will attack that person. But that day she was determined to stop them from fighting .She took a long stick and started beating them and then placed the stick in between their locked horns and separated them after much struggle. We, out of fear ran and hid behind a tree and watched her struggling with those cows. She came back like Jansi Rani (former Queen of India) returning victoriously from a battle. I went home and told her mother about her bravery, which ended up in her being beaten by her mother for a dangerous act, which may have coasted her life.

Next day she did not come out of her house .I thought she must have been mad with me for reporting the incident. I went to their house and found her seated inside a room. I was surprised to see this .Then my aunty told me that she is on the onset of puberty. She grinned at me and I made sure that she never had any ill will towards me.

These puberty ceremonies are enjoyable events for us. We used to have lots of sweets, cookies and photo shoots. She gave me lots of sweets and cookies stealthily the day previous to her ceremony. We never cared for the ceremony, other than eating and posing for photographs. 

I had fallen out with her many times and stopped talking to her. But she came the next day and made peace with me by talking and consoling me. I used to be adamant in speaking to her, but she never took anything serious. We used to have our own circle of friends and stuck to them. But she was friendly with everyone and was liked by every one young and old. She was foolish and outspoken. 

After sometime I started writing poems and wrote one for her.

“Plucking a flower caused 
Pain in your mind 
Who gave you the courage 
To cut the trees down“

She was not the same person after the ceremony. She had changed a lot. Her speech was more clearer and to the point. She approached all matters with caution. Even though she loved guns, she never forgot the flowers .Whenever she came home on leave, she used to make garlands for grandma. She stopped talking to us a lot .We were also busy with our work .One day she told me “You have also grown tall “.

I learnt cycling the hard way, by falling down many times. Now I have learnt to ride a motor-cycle. I can remember well how I learnt to ride a bicycle. First you learn to push it and then put your legs under the crossbar and learn to ride, while someone is holding it behind. She taught me to ride the bicycle. I used to shout at her,”please hold the bicycle, hold it properly”.

‘” Don’t worry you look in front and keep going, I am holding “she used to say. 

After riding some distance easily, when I looked back she won’t be there. She will be coming running when I fall down. I used to hold her hair and shout at her for not holding the bicycle. But she grinned apologetically .I left the bicycle on that spot and walked home .She brought it home and after explaining to my mom as to what happened and left home. After learning to ride the bicycle well, I used to take her as a pillion rider and fell down purposely to take revenge. She never got angry and got up smiling. 

After some time I met her very rarely .One day when I went to meet her, she was chatting with her friends in a small hut next to their house. I also joined in their chatting. A popsicle vendor was passing by and I stopped him and bought popsicle for all. Later I asked him for an ice-cream. Suddenly she started laughing. I asked her the reason for that laughter and she said “nothing”. I was reminded of the past when she bought ice-cream for me.

Now I am earning so I bought popsicle for all of them. More than the money the satisfaction you get is more gratifying. I felt that the ice-cream she bought for me then was more tastier than one you get from the cafes and restaurants. 

One day she told me that she is going to get married. It was a shock to me because, even though she was carrying a gun, she was under the control of her strict father. But she always thought that even though her father was strict, he was very affectionate. There was always an eerie calmness in their house. May be because all of them were girls and their father had control on all of them. She told me that she is going to get married, without the knowledge of her father. I asked her whether it is a love marriage. After a short pause she said “yes”. 

“Good, you have taken a good decision. When is the wedding? “

“I am waiting for Soba to get married “ 

“Why?” 

“You know we are twins. So I would like her to get married before me “.

This showed how she loved others more than herself.

After some months Soba got married to someone and went to a foreign country.
I also move out of my place. One day I asked my Periyamma about her marriage. She told me next August. 

But in June, I got this email from my friend – Captain Eelaverny alias Sabaratnam Barathy of Thondaiman Town, Kilinochchi attained martyrdom in the last battle.

 

My Granma and her village - Short Story - 3
Original in Tamil by T. Agilan
English version by Thuraiyooran

 

North Sri Lanka at end of war Tamil area


Her one grand daughter got married in London and she couldn’t remember the name of the wedding Hall. On the sixth day after that wedding another grand daughter attained womanhood. But Grandmother died about a week before these events. I was held responsible for her death.

She was over sixty and that was the age for dying in our villages. She carried many pills for her ailments. But she was fortunate to die in her own village. This was not possible to others of her age. This village was very close to her. When her husband ran away with the neighbour, she came to this village with her seven children.

Those days there were only a few people living there. There were no roads then. She had the rare chance of boasting to every one, that she knew the origin of all roads in the village. 

In 1996 when the whole village moved to a far away places for safety, she refused to budge from there. But she was forcefully placed in a tractor box by her oldest son. Most of those of her age who moved, died and was cremated there. Some of them chose places, which they thought was safe from war and settled down there permanently. 

But Grandma was very firm in returning to this village. May be she was holding her life to come back here. I knew for sure that she madly loved two things. One is my Siththi (Mom’s sister) and the other is the Amman temple, she established with help of others. She used to say that the Amman deity was the one, who looked after her children, got them married and was always helpful to the entire family.

When her husband eloped with another woman, she was in a desperate mood to kill her children and herself. But with determination she came here, cleared the forest and built a small house, constructed a temple, educated her children and got them married. She claimed that Amman was responsible for her activities. After her husband deserted, her she never went to any temple. That is why she put up a temple for her deity in her own land. She claimed the temple is her’s to pray and worship. 

After Selliah (her husband) left her, she came to Thirunagar and earned her livelihood by making hoppers and string hoppers and selling to the tea shops around the village. Also sent her older son to work in the paddy fields and started her life from scratch.

She loved her temple very much .There are many reasons for that. She was called “hopper achchi “by people in the village. But after the temple was established she was called ‘temple achchi ‘, which she liked very much.

Her love to the temple and the village was special .The village was like one of her daughters. She started her life when the whole village was watching her, as she watched the growth of the village.

The day her husband left her she regarded herself as a widow and abstained from wearing flowers and “pottu”. She cut off all her connections with him. She remained like that till her death.

She wrote new chapters of her life story as a single woman .Sometimes she was feeling anger and frustration in struggling alone in life. She became a respected woman in the village because of her temple. Many villagers became devotees of the temple. Many came there and cooked sweet rice and distributed to all who were there. Many sought the Grace of Amman to tide over their difficulties. Hence the temple and “temple achchi” became well known in the village. 

When I was a small boy and when Grandma was conducting “pooja”, I used to stand by her side ringing the bell. My brother and I had many fights over this. Grandma used to talk to the deity, laughed at her and sometimes was mad at her. 

She was forced to leave her temple because of the war. A shell fell at the far end of her land. The war drove her away from the temple and the village, she liked so dearly. Even though she was shouting and crying to leave the village, her eldest son forcibly took her in a tractor and kept her in a safe place. She couldn’t bear the separation and after that she stopped talking to anyone. The sound of shells and gunshots drove her to a far away place .We took refuge in the outskirts of a house in Akkarayan and kept awake the whole night. No one spoke. Even the insects and frogs were silent .Darkness spread over every one and held us tight. Shells were falling and exploding at a distance. After that no one was able to return to Kilinochchi. We were accustomed to a refugee life on someone else’s land, after putting up a shed.

Fourth day after leaving Thirunagar, Grandma suddenly woke up from sleep and started shouting and crying. At a distance an explosion of a bomb was heard. She shouted that, they have destroyed her temple and stopped talking to anyone except Siththi at times. Siththi whose love was a failure stayed with Grandma as a spinster. We were surprised when Grandma spoke to us sometimes. One day after that, Siththi was bitten by a snake and due to unavailability of antidote in the hospital, she died. This was a big blow to Grandma and she was moving around as a dead woman .She never cried so much at Siththi’s death as she did, when she left Thirunagar. She was staring at her body and kept mum. After Siththi’s death she started talking to me in short sentences. “Did you eat?”. “Did you buy betel leaves?”. I was surprised at this as she started talking to me after Siththi and this is a clear indication that she loved me after her.

War started again. Shells, jets, blood, injuries, death and martyrdom. This time the sounds were far off. This went on for days. One day when the people heard that the “boys” have captured Elephant Pass, they started celebrating. This gave us a ray of hope to return to our village. 

We were asked to wait till the land mines were removed. People who went in search of their children lost their legs or even their lives. People who were missing were found as skeletons. Women who expected the return of their husbands lost their pottus. Funerals were conducted after four or five days. Children lost their fathers. Mother’s lost their sons .Many skeletons were kept in the police station to be identified. 

“This is his shirt”
“This is his silver ring.”
“This is my son’s chain.” 

The belief that they are alive was shattered, tears and believes were destroyed and new sadness took over.

Some skeletons remained unidentified. These never had any identifying marks. Some were reluctant to accept the fact their loved ones, who were missing were dead and refused to attend the identification.

At this sad situation, one day Grandma was found missing. She was chewing betel sitting at the front of our shed. I took my bicycle and went searching for her lane by lane. At last I saw her walking briskly on the road to Kilinochchi. I tried to stop her and asked where she was going. She never replied and went on walking. I dropped the bicycle in front of her and held her hand. 

She said “Leave me alone .I am going to my mother, my Amman”

“Why are you walking? I could have taken you on Kumar anna’s motorcycle, had you told me.”

I promised to take her next Friday and brought her back. 

From that day onwards she was sitting outside, so as to drive the sun away .We started on Friday. I was happy that I had a chance to ride a motor cycle. Grandma was very bright that day than usual. I thought the Amman at Thirunagar must have felt happy.

On the way she asked me to buy matchbox and camphor. She was speaking a lot on the way .She also told that “You must perform puja today and I will pass the ownership of that land to you”. Along the way she was speaking a lot and I answered in monosyllables. This was unusual.

I returned to the village I was running around as a small boy .Every thing looked foreign to me. All the identification marks in my memory were all destroyed. After getting the lost article I was unable to identify it. I was lost in the childhood days streets, which were now appeared as bunds and hiding pits. We arrived through streets full of shrubs and herbs. My Grandma was silent now. The motorcycle was struggling through the pits. I was unable to identify grandma’s land or the temple. Nothing was there, all the houses were destroyed. Grandma suddenly alighted from the motorcycle and started shouting.

“Oh my Amma. Where are you? I never expected to see you in this stage.”

She was fumbling for words. Shouted what ever words came to her mind. Came out with full emotions and cried like a small girl. She was unable to identify the temple and finally lit the camphor on the street.

Suddenly she was overcome with anger and started abusing Amman in foul language. “You allowed me to live to see you in this state. You whore?” 

I was dumfounded at her behaviour. There was not even a crow to watch all these crying and shouting.

While crying she jumped in front of the shelled remains of the temple. I held from doing so. She shouted at me to allow her to go. I held her tight .Suddenly she collapsed on my hands. That was her last speech and breathe. All was over. In front of the temple she loved and on the soil she loved and grew, my Grandma lay dead on my hands. She was unable to bear the pain of her temple being destroyed.