Friday, August 31st, 2018
I was born and raised there in that small place called Thirunelvely. It is neither a town nor a village. It is somewhere in between. Lying 2 Km away from the city, always buzzing with university and Poly Technical college students, the place had both the buzz of the town and at the same time the quietness of a small village.
Once I was so used to it. The early morning bell from the Parameswara Temple; Crows, cuckoos , seven sisters and sparrows; the buzz of the bees around the mango tree and other flower plants; the fragrance of Gardinias; The breeze through the coconut leaves making a indescribable whoosh; The hundreds of baby pink roses boasting their pride and the thorns and leaves disappearing in the beauty of them; The bell ring of the milkman; the honk of the school vans rushing the kids to get ready; The cycle rims making cranky sound on the roads with potholes; The familiar faces all around : Asaiyamma, Mani acca, Thathappaa, Banu acca, Pillai acca, Baby, Seelan, Maaran, Bavani aunty, Karainagar aunty, the twin babies Niro and Nira , and all the kind faces with smile; My tightly knit family ,or so I thought , with Grandma, Aunts , Uncles, and Cousins made the life wonderful and memorable.
It was kind of instilled. I never stopped a moment to think of the beauty of it.
When I came back in 2003 after the 8 years of exile, It felt strange. Mani acca, Thathappaa died in exile, Asaiyamma aged, Niro and Nira grown into young boys; Unfamiliar neighbours. The roads seemed small. There was more buzz. Strangers on the road. The military vehicle on the roads and the green uniform, which I had not seen for eight years scared me to death. It felt different. The place has lost its tranquility of the village. I could not identify the sounds any more. I was a stranger there. I felt like a visitor. I could not feel the belonging. Never understanding how I felt, my family who visited from abroad complained that I did not host them. In fact I needed a host there. Someone who could be there for me. Guiding me to adapt into that new world.
Eight years in exile, I did not have any contact with the outside world. Once in a year phone calls from my brother because it is lot of work to connect with people at this side of the world and it is expensive, once in a while letter from my sister because the letter takes few months to reach you. All the communication with the outside world blocked, the changing world outside never reached me. I never knew how the technology developed. I never knew changing fashion trends. I never knew that the society changed with time. New rich people developed new classes. A place like Jaffna where education spoke volumes where people were scaled by education, now the money spoke. I was penniless. I did not have any jewelry which was a status quo in the society. I could not mingle with the crowd because I was different. Committed to living a simple life doing community services, we never accumulated wealth. The feeling and pride that I lived for a cause was replaced with a weariness. I felt out of place.
There was this strange, scary stillness I could not identify. People just nodded their heads. There is hesitance in smiles. Even if you scream for help nobody would come out of their houses. Nobody wanted to witness any horrible thing that could happen in the darkness of the night. Robbery, sexual assault, murder, arrests anything and everything, you name it.
Coming from a place where you can ride a motorbike at 12 midnight, walk the moon walk on the street, I could not sense the underlying horror this place held. I could not see that it was not the place I was bred up any more. I could not sense that people have changed. I could not sense that fear and survival instinct had developed selfishness in people. When my family made the decision to move my grandma, who lived at my house all those years, to my uncle’s house without even stopping a moment to think “she is coming with two young kids without her husband , would she live here alone”, I was lost. I never could understand why my close knit family would think differently. It took me only three weeks, to bring me down to earth from the dreamland I was living. The enthusiasm that I was coming home, the enthusiasm that I was going to meet my family and friends, the enthusiasm that after eight years of determination not to go to any temple other than my amman temple, I was going to go to my amman temple, was gone. Only one night and it is all gone.
I met Valanadan at the Evelyn Ratnam library. Only two weeks after coming home I made friend with Latha the librarian. Both of us connected very quickly. She became a good friend of mine. And also she ran the net cafe where I made calls abroad. I was coming down the stairs and Valanadan was there.
We chatted. When he found that I am living alone with my kids, he said to not live alone and to have someone with me. And also he told me to keep some curry powder under my pillow. Why I never stopped to think of what he said, I don’t know. Every day for the next week, lying on the bed I would think tomorrow morning I should keep some curry powder under my pillow, which I never did. Partly because I never understood why he told so, and partly because my daytime was consumed with repairing the house , cutting the overgrown trees, cleaning the front and back yard, replacing the dead plants with new plants, figuring out the school for kids, taking a driving license to ride the motorbike, shopping, stocking the shelves and the family drama of new found relatives both mine and husband’s side which I have not experienced so far. I was consumed by the daily chores to organize my life, I did not stop to study the environment, the news, the politics of the people and the government. For four years I was functioning in a role of security focal point updating the security issues so the field staff can make decisions if they can travel or not. But I missed to use the skill to my personal life once I quit the job to come home.
It might have been around 2 am. I was fast asleep. My senses which were so used to being alert to the sounds of the night woke up. Did I hear a sound on the roof? Or is it a dream? There another sound. It was not a dream then. It is a scratching sound on the asbestos sheet. It could be wind. It could be some one on the roof.
I was not scared. Why would I? I came from a land where the elephants roam your front yard at night. I came from a land where my housekeeper showed some marks on the sand and said it was python’s. I came from a land where I learnt to kill scorpions. I came from a land where cobras live on your fence and under your hen. I came from a land where the military infiltrate at night for recce and ambush. I came from a land where I had to go through a cemetery every day and night witnessing fresh burials. I came from a land witnessing shredded bodies by aerial attacks.
I was not scared. I just laid there listening to the sound and thinking, ok if it is a thief for the two bunches of bananas lying on the roof, that is fine. A thief with hunger ? Let him have it. After all it is Banana.
Because I was not scared I was fast asleep. Next time I woke up, the light outside the bedroom shone on a dark figure going out of my room carrying my hand bag. Darkness from the room prevented the man from seeing me. I just pulled my sheet up to my nose and peered through. There were another two men in the hall walking here and there. I decided to keep quiet. Let them take whatever they want and leave. Thank god. My kids were fast asleep too.
Another 5 minutes. I was lying there witnessing the man putting everything from the hand bag on the dining table and picking things, My mobile,my money. My heart beat gradually increased. The if questions crowded my mind. What if they get other ideas after they have looted the house? What if they try to kill me, what if they try to sexually assault me? The possibility of that happening increased my heart rate.
Could I scream? Could I call any one? I wanted to go to the window and call the next door neighbour. Rasam aunty’s son Kannan is living in the room which was just opposite to mine. His window is just 10 to 12 feet away from my window separated by a fence on the middle. But fear paralyzed me. I could not get up. Lying down I screamed ‘kallan’ (thieve). Instead of Kannan, the all three ‘kallar’ (thieves) came running into my room. The one who seemed like a team lead sat on my bed and kept his knife to my throat. “shhh. No noise.”
The other two crowded the space, trying to come closer to me. They both reeked with alcohol. But the leader looked decent and smelled clean. He was that close to me. With the knife still on my throat, he asked me where I kept my jewels and money. I kept saying whatever I had in my hand bag was what I got. He tried to put his hand on me to grab the gold necklace I was wearing. A simple necklace a farewell gift from my colleagues at MSF. I stopped him saying “take your hand away, I will get it for you”. He took his hand away. I just pulled the necklace with force and it came in two pieces hurting my neck. He looked at the bracelet I was wearing. I just pulled it off and it broke into pieces. I thought by speeding up the process he would just move away from me. He just sat there looking at me and chasing his two colleagues away who tried to take advantage of me. They were trying to talk to me using some words I never heard before. Of course it is in Tamil, but where would I have heard those ugly sexual slurs.
The lead chased them away telling them to look into the other rooms. I could clearly see that he is trying to get rid of them. To protect me? Or to abuse me himself? His attitude seemed like he pitied me. Even before I could process my thinking he was on top of me. I froze to the core with fear. The whole body paralyzed except my teary eyes. He did not try to do anything. He just laid there. Him not doing anything unfroze me. I began to plan an escape route. My children, sleeping in the next bed should not be awaken. If they wake up and scream thieves might do anything to silence them. What could I do without waking them up? I could not believe myself when I told myself if you could not do anything to escape, just reduce the damage by not fighting him and thinking of London. I got the courage to ask ‘don’t you have any sisters’. He looked at me as if deciding what to do. Then kissed me on my cheek and got off me. Stunned I just laid there. The knife is gone from my throat, as if he had a connection with me and a mutual understanding that he would not hurt me and I would not hurt him. He turned into an interviewer asking, where did I move from, why am I alone, why don’t I have any money and jewelries. He turned into compassionate listener while I narrated my story. He suddenly developed some respect for me. His language turned from singular to plural respecting me. He suddenly went out of the room and told the colleagues to hurry. One of the other two robbers tried to enter the room with malicious thought coming closer to me.
I called out to the lead,” anna! Brother! Come and see him”. My Lord Krishna, My Xavier came to the door and scolded the other guy to get away. Is this what called a Stockholm Syndrome?
While he was chasing him away, I suddenly got shortness of breath. My asthma suddenly hit me. I get asthma attack by stress. If I did not get it now with the utmost stress when would I get it? I started to heave and cough. My Xavier came to the door and asked what is wrong? When I said I am having my asthma attack, he disappeared. I heard noises from the kitchen. Pots and pans banking. The knob of the gas cooker turning. He appeared with a cup of warm water in his hand. Not stepping in to the room, he stretched his hand asked me to come and get the cup. I was so scared that he might have mixed something in it, I refused shaking my head. He shrugged, kept the cup on the dining table, went and collected his colleagues, came to my door raised his hand in salute and told me that he was going to go through the front door and told me to lock the door.
A robber who broke into my house through the roof was concerned about my safety and telling me to lock the door. Such a humanity in short time.
Was I his Xavier?