“THE ROUND UP”


BY RAJESWARY SUBRAMANIAM

April 1985 at the village of Batticaloa in the East of Sri Lanka

The ferocity of the simmering heat of the April sun was evident even as early as 9 o’clock in the morning. Our bitch Daisy, with its pups, was searching for shade in the banana garden. The white hen, which had hatched last week, was dutifully searching for food, with its multicoloured chickens. Our cat, tired with searching for fried fish in neighbouring kitchens, was curled up in a corner of the cement veranda.

The cuckoo was cooing from our mango tree. My younger brothers were imitating the cooing sound of the cuckoo, irritating my grandmother in the process. Father was bathing. Mother was making pittu in the kitchen. What a beautiful morning this was. That day was the turning point in my life.

My elder brother was reading something in the front hall.

He is always reading something.

Under the shade of the guava tree, my two little sisters were playing the mango-seed game on the squares drawn on the ground. They were ten and eight years of age, worldly innocent.

Grandfather was praying in the prayer room. Words from religious hymns were coming out with feeling from his toothless mouth. The familiar religious Suprabatham, blending with the breeze that came past our jasmine plants from next door Parvathi aunty’s house, soothed my ears. I was grinding chilli sambol for the pittu, on the grinding-stone.

Through the gaps in our barbed wire fences, the river Thillai (Thillai Aru) could be seen winding like a snake. The golden rays of the morning sun glittered in the water. Thillai was dry and looked like a canal. The beauty of the sun rays clinging onto the body of that river like a dress, always enthrals me.

The howling of dogs in the distance disrupted my thoughts that were engrossed in the serenity of the morning. The dogs were showing opposition by their ferocious barking. A sickening feeling was beginning to grip my stomach from its very bottom.

In those days, if there was the howling of the fox on the outskirts of the village, it was the belief of the villagers that a death was impending. Today, if there is a barking of dogs on the outskirts, it means that there is a Round-Up by the military.

Mother came running out, leaving the cooking in the midst. Father, with the unwashed soap on his body, was looking in the direction of the road. Grandfather, who had been so feelingly reciting religious hymns, appeared on the veranda with a distraught face.

The howling of the military tanks could be heard from the distance. Hundreds of soldiers in military vehicles and on foot were surrounding the village with menacing machine guns and emotionless eyes, like messengers of death. With the burning sensation from grinding the chilli sambol, by soul stirred. Helplessly, everybody in the house anxiously looked at each other.

Thambi , run away somewhere”, our mother begged my elder brother. In neighbouring compounds, some youths were running through the fences. The hunt has began. They are clearing the forest. They are hunting the ‘terrorists’!

When the Sri Lankan army staged the last Round-Up, they had destroyed all the fences and also cut down all the big trees. Because the Tamil militants would attack them hiding behind them, it seems. Not only that, they also did not want these fences and gates to deter them from moving about freely as they went into Tamil homes.

The enemy’s gun has dented the swollen pride of the Tamil community, torn asunder by its own divisions of caste and creed and petty bickering.

While the young were running, the old hiding, mothers wailing, forlorn and helpless grandmothers screaming and young girls disappearing, the dogs and the fowl were making a hue and cry. The Suprabatham from neighbouring Parvathy aunty’s could be heard, its music missing its beat and interrupted by bursts of gunfire.

The army was closing in. Dust rose up from the lanes unused to large vehicles. Bullets riddled the bodies of those who ran. They fell like trees cut down by winds of cyclonic velocity and power.

Mother Earth shook unable to bear the wounded wailing of mothers. The army was advancing all around the village.

There was perspiration on our mother’s face and rivulets of tears pouring down from her eyes.

Father’s face was pale and livid.

I could visualise Yama (the Demon of Death) and his legendary rope of death in the eyes of my little sisters. My elder brother found himself trapped in our own home. He can’t run anywhere.

The soldiers have surrounded the house. My younger brothers both have lowered themselves into our well, fortunately the water level remaining just below their nose, in the hope the soldiers would not be intelligent enough to look down into the well.

My two little sisters his in a corner, along with the hen, hiding its chicken in its wings.

Our grandmother beat herself on her head and mouth, looking at me.

Though I have not become a ‘big girl’ yet, the men in uniform casting their eyes on me are not going to bother about it.

That my elder brother and I would become preys to the advancing military vultures could be fathomed in the unspoken apprehension of my grandmother.

I closed my eyes tightly.

I wanted to imagine that all that was happening around me was just imagination, a frightening dream.

Will imagination become true? Will dreams turn real? Mother dragged me and pushed me behind the sacks of paddy.

Only God could save me, who was incapable of saving himself, I thought.

The soldiers thundered in our lane. Our gateways became the platforms for their big boots. Death and destruction was staged in the name of imposing the authority of State.

In the streets, youths caught by the army were being bundled into trucks. Those youths who had been shot were being dragged along, their blood painting our streets red.

Is this the generation heir to the heroic heritage of the Tamilian who had hoisted his flag from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas?

Hidden behind the paddy sacks, I surveyed the world through the window.

Oh! Why shouldn’t the earth split asunder and swallow us all up? What sin have the Tamils committed to undergo such terrible suffering? Is this the punishment for them demanding to maintain Tamil as their own language which they have spoken for ages and the land in which they had crawled as children?

Mother was begging with folded hands.

The soldiers were beating up my elder brother.

My dearest mother was crying, with spasms convulsing her abdomen which had conceived and brought forth my brother into this world. “You look young, the same age as my son. How will your mother feel if you are beaten up in front of her eyes in the way you and your friends are doing to my son?” My mother would have wanted to ask the soldier who was beating up my brother, but she didn’t out of fear.

My father who went to the rescue of my brother was hit on the head.

Blood gushed forth.

My little sisters screamed.

When grandmother tried to intervene, she was stamped upon like a worm by a booted soldier.

The screams of my brother pierced my heart.

My brother’s body was now the property of the soldiers who had come down our lane.

They beat up my elder brother and kicked him.

Accusing him of being a terrorist, they pierced his chest and stomach with their bayonets.

The cries of my brother, who had taught me in his lap, deafened my ears. Nothing came out of his mouth except the words ‘Ammah, Ammah’ (Mother, Mother). His screaming was growing less and less audible.

Where has Lord Shiva (the head of Hindu pantheon of Gods), whose feet our grandfather has been holding onto tightly with his earnest prayer fled? To a strange and distant place where some of his so called human creations do not commit such acts of barbarity upon his other creations!

Mother had fainted.

She was not able to see the half dead body of my brother being dragged along the street. Father’s face looked horrible with the blood dripping down from his head.

One soldier dragged me out from my hiding place.

Grandmother held me tight. There was fire in her eyes.

Wouldn’t the world explode in flames? What a tight hold hers was, even in this withering age!

Grandfather, who only a little while ago had been holding on tightly to the feet of sacred Shiva, was now holding tightly the dusty booted-feet of the soldier, imploring him, “Leave my granddaughter alone”.

Tamil womanhood was being bargained for in a frenzy of communal hatred.

The army Captain looked at me from head to foot.

Did the budding beauty, only fourteen years old, mesmerise his jaundiced eyes? His gaze was going far beyond my body. Such a look it was. I did not cry.

My senses have become benumbed.

In one such previous Round-Up, many Tamil women became prey to their lustful hunger. Whether the age of us Tamil women is eight or ten or twelve is not a problem.

If they thought that they could satisfy their depravity, it was all right.

They are animals.

Theirs is a cannibalistic hunger. They search for Tamil militants; but we are the sacrificial lambs.

One soldier was moving his hand slowly down on my long hair.

Grandmother spat at him. Grandfather banked his head on the soldier’s feet he had been holding.

Father with drying blood on his head and face, brother lying half dead, senseless mother, wailing grandmother, pityingly imploring grandfather – what can Tamil womanhood do?

Won’t you, Lord Shiva, whose feet my grandfather had held onto with his tearful prayers , perform the cosmic dance of destruction?

Kannan for Thraupathy in Maha-baratham, Hanuman for Sita in Ramayana,

but who is there to help the Sri Lankan Tamil woman in the Sinhala-Tamil war?

Closing my eyes and biting my lips, I prayed.

The army Captain stared at me. May be, there was a daughter of his like me. Or a sister? Or, even a niece? God knows what went through his mind.

At his signal, the soldier holding me slackened his hold.

Mother Goddess Kali, who destroys the men of evil, why have you run away from Sri Lanka?

Come running…come running…..come running back and save us! I thought like a mad woman.

In the guise of the Sinhalese Army, the asuras (devils) have started moving to Round-Up our village. Wouldn’t Kannan take a rebirth to destroy them? Should the destruction of the Kali yuga descend only on the Sri Lankan Tamils?

That day, in our village and adjoining villages, more than two hundred Tamils were arrested. Countless numbers were attacked in their own houses. While hawks and ravens were flying in ht sky, innocent Tamils were being shot down like birds on earth.

Our green land, spread like a green saree, was dotted red with the blood of the Tamils. The wailing of the mothers shamed the soft winds.

The River Thillai flows between the sea and our village.

When you pass the sandy plateau of the Thillai, there is the belly of the Bay of Bengal, from where ships travel to all parts of the globe.

On that sandy plateau constructed by God, dividing river and sea, we played as children, catching crabs. We had imprinted out little footsteps, touching and running along with the oncoming waves.

The sandy plateau has today become a crematorium. There, our village youths were taken. Would the soldiers have said with scorn, “The Tamils are good at mathematics?” or “ Hey! Tamil dog! Dig a hole six feet long and three feet deep!”

On that crisp order, our youths dug their own graves. Forty-four of our youngsters, many of them still alive, were buried that day. The half dead bodies of my elder brother and another forty three persons were heaped together.

That evening hour, when the sky was painted bloody red, the black smoke rising from the bodies burnt with tyres heaped on them, signaled to the world the cruelty of humanity.

On that day alone, one hundred and twenty five Tamil women were made widows in our village, past the river, our mothers were crying out for their son’s lives dissolving into black smoke.

My aging father and my grandfather who were arrested returned home in a few days after being tortured.

So much has happened in our village since the Round-Up. How many widows in the span of ten years! Is there any account of the women who had metaphorically or literally died of horrible rape?

Nowadays, round-ups are of different types. Not only would the enemy come. Along with the truthess military wing of the security forces, named the Special Task Force, some extremist Muslim fanatics too, would besiege our village.

Then came the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF). It was and earthquake surpassing the thunder.

Today, in our village, yesterday’s relatives inform the militant groups known to them, of their present day’s squabbles and incite internecine killings. Private scores are settled today with the might of the AK 47.

Women like us are desperate about our future, not knowing what it would be. My grandmother would hug me and cry. It pains me to hear her say in anguish, “there is no elder brother to do good to you”. There are lots of sisters without their elder brothers, widows without their husbands.

Thousands of Tamils have escaped and gone to distant lands on the pretext of the Tamil problem in Sri Lanka. What can we say of the Batticaloa Tamils?

It is said that the much acclaimed Sinhalese King of ancient days, Dutugemunu, who killed the Tamil king Ellala, when he was a young Prince had lamented that he could not sleep when he was besieged on the one side by Tamils and on the other by the Indian Ocean. Surrounded on all sides – with the Sinhalese on one side, the sea on the other, the Muslims on the north, the Thillai River on the south – where would by villagers of Batticaloa escape for their lives?

Small boys, who had just given up the habit of drinking their mother’s milk, have joined the armed struggle, vowing to fight for their mother tongue and motherland rather than die at the hands of the enemy. The lads and lasses of my village are dying in the seas and on the battle ground for the freedom of Tamils of Eelam

Enough are the sufferings we have gone through. We need peace. Even now I stare at the sandy mound on which my elder brother was buried and burnt.

Those like us search for peace in our dreams of our future. Have we forgotten humanness? I heave a long sigh. Would anybody feel my pain?

Based on actual events in 1985 in the eastern province of Sri Lanka (Translated with a few amendments form the original in Tamil by Manohara Mylvaganam)

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