Celebration of a ‘Death’

by S. Rameswaran; published December 29, 2003

Celebration of a ‘Death’; a war-theme short story by S.Rameswaran

Introduction by Sachi Sri Kantha

War-theme fiction in Tamil language is a new genre which arose in Sri Lanka, since the Black July 1983 holocaust. This particular genre could not have been generated in other lands (Tamil Nadu, Malaysia and Singapore) where ethnic Tamils are traditionally concentrated for more than a century. One writer who excelled in contributing to war-theme fiction is Somasundaram Rameswaran (born 1950), a dear friend of mine from school days. A native of Point Pedro, he lives and works in Colombo. Ramesh is an award winning writer in Tamil and has quite a number of publications (novels and short stories) to his credit. Of the hundreds of short stories he had contributed to the Tamil press in Sri Lanka since 1970s, one story which originally appeared in the Virakesari weekly journal on December 15, 1985 was a notable one. It later appeared in English translation in Sunday Island (June 22, 1986) as well. Only those who experience the travails and societal disorganization of war first hand and that too from the victim’s corner [a fact that is relevant] could pen the irony as Ramesh had depicted.

In 1996, when Ramesh approached me to edit a thin anthology of his eleven short stories in English translation, I willingly obliged. Among the eleven stories which appeared in this thin anthology, I particularly liked the following story entitled ‘Celebration of Death’. Within the boundaries of a short story, Ramesh had incorporated humorously quite a few focal themes of Eelam’s war period; mistaken identity, ever dangling sudden deaths to civilians due to crossfire, rumor mongering, job displacement and/or premature retirement and last but not the least, family anxiety and stress. Thus, I present this gem of a short story on the 18th anniversary of its first appearance.

Celebration of a ‘Death’; the text

Suddenly I appeared before my wife Mangalam like an apparition. She was residing in Jaffna with our children. I presumed she would glance at me with a blush adding love to her face. But, my expectations faded away like water bubbles. She gave me a ghosty look as if a corpse had risen from the grave and stood before her.

‘Are you…you…my hubby?,’ she stammered for words, her eyes bulging.

‘Yeah, yeah, I’m the ignoramus who tied the thaali around your neck seventeen years ago,’ I said with much sarcasm.

She stared at me in amazement for a while; ‘You didn’t die?’, she quipped.

I nearly swooned in astonishment. ‘Die? What are you talking about? Do you want to kill me and re-marry a lad?’ I threw questions without deep thought.

For a while there was dead silence. She didn’t utter a word. Again the ghosty look appeared on her face. Then her eyes began to x-ray my whole body. Her horrified look irritated me. I felt like punching her face.

‘Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not a ghost. I’m your hubby,’ I shouted impatiently.

Suddenly her eyes gleamed with confidence. She grinned suddenly; ‘Aiyo, you didn’t die no?’

Before I could close my eyes and open it, she was hugging me in a crazy way. My nerves trembled in excitement. I couldn’t resist my feelings. My hands too stretched out in reciprocation.

‘Hey! Hey! Appa is hugging Amma,’ chuckled my youngest child, aged 3 years.

In no time Mangalam released herself from me. Her face was red and expressionless.

‘Appa, you didn’t die?’ My seventh daughter, aged 7, stormed into the hall, where we were. Her lips held a cynical smile.

‘Appa won’t die. He carries a lot of sins. So, he has to suffer in this world and die,’so saying my fifth son, aged 11, laughed. He began to dance.

‘The Yaman (God of Death) would have thought it is a sin to take Appa’s life away so soon,’ my third daughter, aged 13, said in a scornful voice with a shrill laugh.

When I heard what Mangalam and children had to say, irritation gripped my nerves. I lost my balance and was mad at their insensitivity. I stared at Mangalam in a belligerent way. ‘What nonsense are you talking? Why are these fellows shouting like barbarians?’ I yelled at the top of my voice.

‘In that Vavuniya shooting incident one Balasubramanium had died it seems, and our neighbor Thamber said that this person must have been you…’, Mangalam explained hurriedly. I could observe her body was still shivering.

‘O,’ My God!’ I closed my eyes and sat on the floor. When I did so, all my children – except one or two – laughed in excitement. I lost my temper completely.

‘You people are laughing. But somehow or other nothing happened to me. Did anyone of you go to Vavuniya and verify whether I was dead or not,’ I asked hotly.

‘Siva (my eldest son, aged 16) had left for Vavuniya only a few hours ago and now he would be in Puliyankulam,’ Mangalam enlightened me.

‘I don’t know how he is going to suffer there,’ I said disgustedly.

‘He will inquire from somebody and would come here tomorrow. He is a bright fellow.’

‘Yeah, yeah, he would come. He has a brain of a mule,’ I told her viciously.

‘Appa, they didn’t shoot you?’ Once again my last child inquired.

I lost control of my temper again. ‘Get out, you fool, from here’, I slapped his back. He moaned for a few seconds and disappeared.

Meanwhile, the neighbors who came to know that I had returned home mobbed the premises and began to pour out a barrage of questions, most of them irrelevant to what had happened in Vavuniya. Among the crowd was Thamber, a haughty, cynical type of person in his seventies. When I saw Thamber, anger stiffened my bones.

‘Hey Thamber, don’t you have any other work? Why the hell did you spread such a false rumor?’, I inquired hotly.

He smiled wolfishly; ‘Balasubramanium, don’t get angry with me. There was a news item in the paper that a sixty year old man named Balasubramanium of Point Pedro had died in Vavuniya. So I thought this person must be you.’

I stared at Thamber. ‘Hey, Thamber, are you mad? What do you mean? You think I’m sixty years old,’ I retorted.

‘I celebrated my fortieth birthday only last month. My wife used to say I act like a thirty year old guy in the night,’ saying this I hurriedly flashed a humorous smile at Mangalam and winked at her. She went suddenly pale with anger.

That night Mangalam whispered in my ear. ‘Are you sleeping?’

‘No’, I replied coyly. ‘How can I sleep so early? Only after the children sleep, my eyes will close.’

About six of my children were sleeping in that room.

‘Are you angry with me?’

‘Not now. Tomorrow morning I may be angry with you’; Frankly I didn’t want to waste the night, by upsetting her mood.

‘If you had died….?’

‘Would you kill two goats, have a feast and celebrate my death?’ I inquired scornfully.

‘You are joking. But, you should know how I was upset and restless the whole of this morning.’

‘All lies,’ a soft voice came from the dark.

‘You fool, better you sleep first’, I aimed a shot on somebody’s back. That ‘somebody’ cried for a moment. That’s all.

I spent a week in my native town, enjoying my days with toddy. During this week Mangalam was behaving better than usual. She was always with me and did not allow me to sleep in the nights for more than a few hours.

My eldest son Siva, who went to Vavuniya in search of my ‘body’ returned home the next day after my arrival, when I was in the kitchen.

As soon as he entered the house he wept enormously. ‘Amma, they cremated Appa before I went to Vavuniya. They found this parcel in his trouser pocket and gave it to me’; saying this, Siva gave a small parcel to his mother.

I came out of the kitchen, with my blood boiling. ‘You fool, where the hell did you go and search for me? Who told you that I was dead?’ I screamed in loud tone.

Siva was flabbergasted. He must have seen stars. ‘Appa, you didn’t die?’, he asked me bluntly.

Anger gripped my whole body. ‘You fools would know my worth only when I die,’ I shouted.

I was now ready to make my journey back to Colombo.

‘Aiyo, do you want to go to Colombo? Please don’t leave me and the children. We can’t die daily in anxiety,’ Mangalam pleaded. Her voice was weary.

‘Why the hell are you obstructing me like Satan?’ I was trying not to lose my temper.

‘You mustn’t go to Colombo. I don’t want to leave you. If something happens to you…I can’t imagine anything…From here itself you better write to your boss that you intend to retire from the services.’

My self-control snapped. ‘Hey, what nonsense are you talking? My full month’s salary is not enough to feed the children for even two weeks. If I retire…’

Mangalam interrupted. ‘Doesn’t matter. We can manage. Please don’t go to Colombo.’

‘Appa, appa, don’t go.’ My children from number 1 to number 11 pleaded with me.

Like a lawyer I defended my ‘case.’ But, it was of no avail. Finally Mangalam and the children won the ‘case.’ I had no option, but to retire from the services. I wrote to my boss explaining my situation.

From the next day onwards, there was a ‘cut’ in the breakfast. Bread and pol sambol were served without butter. A ‘cut’ in the lunch too – no fish or meat. Plain tea was served instead of milk tea. A scrappy ‘left over’ dinner was served, which could fill only half my stomach.

Two months lapsed. I had lost about 6-7 kilos. Mangalam vomited in the mornings. She had a headache too.

I guessed the reason. Anyway I took her to our family doctor. After examining her, the doctor shook my hand, ‘Congrats Mr.Balasubramanium. First reserve is on the way.’

When we returned home Mangalam started to weep like a child. ‘I wanted to reduce the expenses. But, now it has worsened the situation.’

I smirked, ‘If you had allowed me to go to Colombo, this wouldn’t have happened’, I told her. [End]

End Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

As cricket fans can grasp easily, this sporting idiom ‘first reserve’ is a reference to the 12th individual in the team, who isn’t included for play in the original roster, but makes appearance infrequently in regular play time as a substitute for injury. Ramesh’s use of this cricket lingo in the end of the story, as delivered by the family doctor, is very apt literally and figuratively for the story. The ‘injury’ suffered by the protagonist Balasubramanium was ‘unconfirmed death’ from a shooting incident in Vavuniya, which led him to overstay his intended leave in Jaffna, following special pleading by his wife Mangalam. This ‘injury’ in turn resulted in the ‘appearance’ of the ‘first reserve’!

In 1998, Ramesh also published a lucid novel, Sivapurathu Saivarkal [Saivaites of Sivapuram, 135 pp.], set in Kilinochchi district, which tells the tribulations of Tamils living amidst war in the 1980s and 1990s. In it, he focused on the sub-theme of existing religious rivalry, and the under-currents of covert religious conversion, between Hinduism and Christianity. At my urging, in 2000, Ramesh published a sequel to this novel with the title Sivapurathu Kanavugal [Dreams of Sivapuram, 123 pp.]. I have been pushing Ramesh to continue his world of Sivapuram into a trilogy, which he has consented to in spirit. But he complains that the daily grind of Colombo living makes it rather inconvenient for him to concentrate on this theme. Still, I have strong faith that he will keep his word in the not so distant future.

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