I think about the allegory in my dead grandmother’s tales as the flight captain announces departure. I have spent the last seven years of my professional life planning for this journey. The idea surfaced soon after Paati’s funeral. My parents think that I am away at a remote mountain region involved in a social work camp while I am boarding my first international flight to Sri Lanka- the land of my ancestors.
I assume that Paati had predicted this journey of mine in her story, ‘The Girl in Search of a Gem’. She had a peculiar way of telling stories. She did not narrate. She read it from a diary where she wrote ferociously. There was a steel trunk box in her bureau that contained many such journals.
The Girl in Search of a Gem is the story of a girl who goes looking for a magnificent stone that fell from her grandmother’s chain. To her grandmother, the jewel was like the monumental tower of the Tanjore Big Temple; millenniums will pass and yet there can never be another like it. The woman lost a part of herself along with the gem. The map to the ornament was concealed in codes inside a steel trunk box.
‘Will the girl find the gem, Paati?’ I used to ask bemused as a ten-year-old every time this story was read.
‘I don’t know. You have to finish this story when you grow up,’ she would smile, as her tiny red bindi glittered in the amber shaded night light.
Deep within, I know that this is a futile attempt, looking for an ostentatious stone that Paati left behind when a treaty between the nations brought her to India. Nevertheless, I want to find the remnants.
The captain announces the landing in a few minutes. The duration of this journey turns out to be shorter than a domestic flight. My drive to Nuwara Eliya from the Colombo airport is a scenic one. This is a surprisingly tiny nation bearing the burden of conflicts, wounds and scars many times its weight.
My grandmother’s life began here in the gut of this island nation, the central hilly region that bore the brunt of all things toxic that the country’s mouth ingested. She spent her early life within these endless plantations. It is here that she found her gem, whose name she disclosed only to me. He was Devadathan, meaning gifted by God. The same name appeared in many of Paati’s stories. The one I most vividly remember is The Girl Who Lives in the Fortress.
At my hotel in Nuwara Eliya, there are leaflets that speak grandly of the plantations and their history that I am due to visit tomorrow. None of the visitors coming here for a stroll through the tea gardens will ever know the travails faced by a group of Indians and their descendants in creating and maintaining these estates. In bed, I think of Paati and her words, ‘The world beats to the tunes of the supremacists. Our lives are already tuned.’
The next day, my driver, a young boy, talks about the history of the plantations and gives me a list of English names- those who initiated, those who took pains to establish, those reformists who helped sustain until Independence and those who still have them.
Only some people know the submerged truth that is camouflaged in Paati’s story, The Men who Sucked Dirty Blood. Many centuries ago, royalty and nobles in the West were in search of a perfect cup of tea. This exploration led to many lapses in their colonies in the east. Thousands of people were rendered stateless, landless, homeless. Our ancestors were among the unfortunate labourers taken across the sea to toil in tea plantations in Sri Lanka.
As we drive through the plantations, the familiar sights and sounds hound me from inside. An ocean separates the estates where I grew up from where Paati spent her childhood and youth. Yet, the contours, the shades and the bewitching portrait are similar. The mildly floral, borderline acidic scent of the tea leaves takes me to the days of tree hopping as a child. Paati would wince every time I skid between the bushes. Hand-in-hand we would explore hidden corners to relieve ourselves, and she would send peals of laughter to echo around the hills as I marked my name on the soil once done.
‘Please, can you take me to the worker’s colonies?’ I ask the driver.
‘Madam, we did not discuss it this morning,’ he responds.
‘Please drive by one. I can pay extra.’
The winding roads take me to the settlements of the men and women whose bones gave these plantations its skeletal framework, around which the world’s most famous brew was built.
We drive by the row houses with asbestos roof and shabby walls. Within this vastness of tea shrubs, it was destined that Paati’s life becomes entwined with Deva’s. The estates had then changed hands from the colonial state to private holders and there was some freedom that came with this change. I quickly scroll through my phone to find the scanned page from Paati’s journal. The story is titled The Girl Who Tripped On Her Skirt. I have memorised the following lines:
She was a naive country girl who could not determine the apt height of her long skirt. She either folded it at her waist to expose the lower part of her calf muscles or tied it below her navel and had the skirt sweep after her. For this, she was often mocked. Deva taught her to adjust the position of the skirt above her navel or on it, depending on the length of the attire. He taught her that the hem should rest on her ankle.
He also taught her to move her digits swift enough for the game of five-stones. He showed her how to balance on the trunk while climbing the silver oak tree. He made her laugh endlessly. He filled her life with the brightest colours of the evening sky, invigorating her vision which was accustomed to the greens in her vicinity.
This is what Paati read to me. But within the pages are concealed parts of the story that she did not narrate:
He was the first to spot the bloodstain on her skirt. He told her that she smelled and soothed her worry. He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and walked with her as she wept her way home.
One day, he taught to how to fold her half-saree in five neat pleats.
‘You see, five is for young girls and four is for older women. I have seen Akka do it,’ he smiled as he pinned the folded pleats of her saree to her blouse.
He read to her excerpts from Das Kapital even as adolescents. ‘Do you know what real liberty is?’ he would smile; the humble glint in his eyes knew that he belonged here at the lowermost rung of the ladder. However, there was a deep hunger within him to break free from the chains that the world order has tied around him.
‘There is a beautiful land away from these hills. When we grow up, I will cross oceans and build castles by the lagoon, for us. We will be free souls. Your hands will not be stained with the juice of tea leaves like your mother’s. When we go to bed, we will not smell of tea. Would you like to come with me?’ This he said under the gracious shade of monkey pod tree as the air smelled of petrichor.
There is a familiar lump in my throat as I reread these lines. I think about the lines from Paati’s other story, The Girl Who Protested With Her Silence.
She curled up on a flimsy blanket spread on the icy cold cement floor, bent like a worm, on those days of the month. The man she was married to picked her blankets with a stick as he handed them to her.
How much must it have hurt her to live with a man who insisted she sleep on the floor while she menstruated, while the love of her life held her close when she smelled of blood? What a huge burden her marriage must have been?
After a day of aimless loitering around the largest plantations in the country, I have a glimpse of Paati’s childhood across time through the canopies of silver oak and monkey pod that have survived the change.
Batticaloa is everything I expected it to be with its magical lagoons. As planned earlier, I meet Mr Valentine Joseph, Deva’s friend from college, at a cafe. He fills me up with stories of few years when Paati thought she lost Deva forever.
‘He was a calm student and the most intelligent in our class,’ Joseph smiles. He narrates the discrimination the Tamil students faced in the university, despite the campus being in Jaffna, a Tamil region. He speaks about how Deva was confident even when certain members of the faculty tried to demean him.
‘In the evenings, he wrote in his notebook almost every day. Most of his works were about Meena,’ he pauses for a moment looking at the painting of cherry blossoms framed on the wall.
‘Did he ever mention Paati in any of his conversations about home?’
‘Mention? He breathed Meena all day, every day. Your Paati was a part of him.’
‘I assume they did not meet after he came away for his higher studies.’
‘No. Many families contributed towards his education, your Paati’s included. His relatives did not want to see him turn into another labourer, like them. He was far away from his home and he communicated only through letters. From what I can recollect, he never went back.’
‘What did he tell you all about Paati?’
‘He often spoke about the light in her eyes and her innocence. I still remember that her smile was the metaphor for all things ecstatic in his poems.’
I gulp a large glass of water.
‘When the letter arrived about your Paati’s marriage, he was heartbroken, but there was nothing much he could do. He said he will have her on a pedestal and worship her all his life. He wrote a short verse then that many of us on the campus used, to woo girls. I don’t remember it clearly, but it was something like:
Some kinds of love transcend man’s imagination of time and space,
I was, I am and I will always be in love with you.
I call for my third cup of tea.
‘He worked here in Batticaloa for a few years before he moved further north for the cause. I think it was here that he met a relative who gave him Meena’s address. I remember meeting him a few years after our university when he mentioned Meena in our conversation.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He was elated with Meena’s response to his letters. She had mentioned in one of them that she collected discarded books and read them on most nights after her husband fell asleep, and she thought about him at those times.’
I pause for some air. ‘Did you get any information about the paintings I described in my email?’
‘Deva regularly painted while he lived here in Batticaloa and sold them to visitors and the affluent. He even took commissioned orders sometimes. I remember some of them. His subjects were always the lagoons, water bodies and trees. Many of his works had castles by the lagoon and sometimes they were suspended in the air,’ he smiles.
‘Did he have any favourites?’
‘Yes. There was one of a lone Raintree on a hill, its branches spread wide. He explored and melded five different shades of green to portray the hill and tree. Under the tree were two faint figurines- a boy and a girl, engrossed in conversation. The girl’s ribbon from her hair flowed all the way to the ground.’
‘Do you know what happened to that work?’
‘I have no clue. But for as long as Deva lived here, it was framed on his wall.’
‘Did you have a chance to see the painting of the beach? Remember I mentioned in my email?’ ‘Yes. Where did you hear about that one?’
‘Deva had mentioned in one of his letters to Paati. This was sometime after my aunt’s birth.’ ‘What exactly was written there?’
I show him a scanned copy of the A4 sheet, worn out at the folds.
I sat by the shore a few days ago and thought of you for two hours. I went home and stayed up several nights painting. In my canvas, there is a huge crowd on the beach. A man and a woman seated with different groups have their eyes on each other. They are dressed in green, strangers on a shore, in a colour that does not complement the waves. Their interlocked eyes speak of stories of bygone times and the desires they hold. At the far end of the beach, they are children climbing on a rock. Closer to the waves, they are adolescents holding hands, excited about the lashing waters. At a further corner, they are building sandcastles with their children. At the edge of the water, they are an old couple hand in hand gazing at the sunrise. How can this be Meena when they are a part of different entities with different people?
‘There is so much depth here in this letter,’ Joseph stops to drink water. ‘I don’t know about the painting. He had never mentioned it to me. You should know something. I don’t intend to break your heart, but Deva once mentioned another woman who had Meena’s eyes. This was shortly before he joined the organisation. I don’t know if their relationship survived.’
‘There is no heartbreak.’
‘Alright, I have to go. Call me if you need anything while you are here and as planned, go northwards. You may find something about him. Please be careful. You may be watched.’
I spend the rest of the evening at the cafe trying to read essays by Alain de Botton. One particular line catches my attention. In the end, it does not matter who you marry. He speaks about intimacy or the lack of it and its transition over the course of a marriage. I think about Paati’s marriage to Thatha.
It is probably the turmoil she faced in her marital life that made her write The King Who Loved a Peasant’s Wife:
The King said her smile lit his world, the peasant said she had big breasts The King said she carried the North Star in her eyes, the peasant said her hips were voluptuous The King said she was his child; the peasant said she was his whore. Despite the buzz of a touristy city, I find Trincomalee a bruised place, wounds too large to be concealed. I meet Vasanthan, a former Tiger, at a beach restaurant. ‘I don’t remember the year, but he joined the organisation in the late 80s, shortly before I left,’ he answers my query as I place the order. ‘In what ways was he involved?’ ‘He was with the Economic Development Department. I met him because we were told he was a cadet smart enough for the Intelligence. However, he did not seem interested,’ he fiddles with the fork. ‘So, did he stay with the Tigers for 20 years?’ ‘I have no idea. I heard someone say that he was with Voice of the Tigers, the official radio station of the organisation after its launch in the 90s,’ he taps the fork on the table in swift moves.
‘Radio? Like a presenter?’
‘No. He was with planning and production or something like that. I know that he wrote a column for one of the organisation’s publications. It was called Meenavin Kan Paarvayil.’
‘Through Meena’s Eyes! Wow! What was it about?’
‘It was more of a satire. A little girl named Meena comments on the exploitation of the minorities here. It was humorous and poignant at once. The column was a huge success,’ the rhythm from the fork gets louder.
‘Can you recollect anything else? It will help me immensely.’
‘Look, child, he is not the only missing person in this country. I told James that I couldn’t meet you when he got in touch. But he pleaded, telling me that you had spent years planning this travel and you were young.’
‘No, you don’t. Nobody ever will unless they have lived through genocide. I think you should go back. It is not safe to enquire about a former Commander. The state police will be after you. So, leave,’ he walks out, without having touched his drink.
I spend my evening gazing at the ocean that separated Paati and Deva. Vasanthan let ‘Commander’ slip out of his mouth. He probably knew something he did not want to disclose.
Would Deva be among the skeletal remains that they find piled in pits, waking up to an alternate version of freedom they fought for? Would he be among the few who fled and have taken shelter in other countries? Would he be lodged in one of the camps? Or would he have been brutally mutilated?
He might have had busy days at the organisation. Would he have thought about Paati? Or would the other woman have filled his thoughts? I wish he knew that The Girl Who Lives in the Fortress locked the gates of her abode and threw the keys into the sea. She hoped that someday her Deva would come and fish the keys from the ocean bed. In her fort, there was no place for any other man. She hoped until the end.