I was third in line. In exactly four minutes, my life was going to change. Since Chandrasekharan had already gotten through, our plan seemed to be working. Sri Lanka’s Katunayake International Airport was bustling. Now Padmanabhan was in line ahead of me and behind me was Sudhakaran. The immigration officer’s face seemed friendly. I tried to control the butterflies in my stomach and look casual. Of the four of us, Sudhakaran was the one who might give the game away. From the corner of my eye, I could see his fingers trembling.
After Operation Ellalan at Anuradhapuram Air Force Base in October 2007, security at the airport had been tightened. There were no such issues during the first overseas trip I took in 2005. Two years later, I was now at the airport trying to make a similar journey. I told the officer that I was going to Brazil to join the crew onboard a ship, exactly as the agent had coached me. The officer believed me. He raised the stamp in his hand high in the air and brought it down on the eighth page of my passport and pushed it toward me. Taking my passport, I said softly, “Thank you,” and moved on. Now, three of us were inside. Sudhakaran was the only one on the other side. If he too made it, Canada would be graced by my arrival.
When he stood in front of the officer, Sudhakaran was no longer a whole body. Instead he became an assortment of body parts, each of them trembling with a life of its own. Even his forehead was quivering. As he handed over his passport to the officer, it slipped from his hands and fell on the floor. He bent down and picked it up, and without even straightening his body, he stretched out his hand to offer the passport. Flipping through the pages of the passport, without looking at the person standing in front of him, the officer asked a few indifferent questions. Sudhakaran started answering questions that the officer didn’t ask. The officer asked, “What are you taking with you to join the crew onboard the ship?” Sudhakaran should have simply shown him the sailor training certificate. Instead, he said, “6,000 Canadian dollars.” When the officer asked, “Who else is with you?” he sang our names loudly and clearly. They called us back and searched us and seized a total of 24,000 dollars.
First, we were taken to a private room and stripped and searched. Then they checked our suitcases, carefully examining every nook and corner of them, section by section. In the end, they decided that we were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and that we were going abroad with 24,000 dollars to buy a ship. They didn’t tell us in which country one could buy a whole ship for 24,000 dollars. We were handcuffed and forced into a jeep. Above us, the plane we were supposed to have boarded took off for Canada.
Because I worked in a bank, I could speak a little Sinhala. I asked the guard where they were taking us. He said, “Third floor.” Our pulses dropped. The third floor was a torture chamber.
“What will happen then?” I asked.
“After interrogating you, they’ll send you to Boosa prison,” he replied.
Boosa was where they locked up Tamil militants. No one had ever known anyone who returned from there.
“What will happen after that?” I asked.
The guard’s dark upper lip curled to one side. Then he laughed. “They will decide whether to bury or burn the body.”
I did not say anything after that.
* * *
It started with a phone call. After taking my A-level high school exams, I was working in a bank. My classmates had either joined the Tamil separatist movement or gone abroad, after selling whatever they could—goats, cattle, jewelry—to pay the airfare. I didn’t even consider it. Appa was not well, and Amma’s eyesight was fading. I was their only son. How could I leave them? Every evening after I came home, I would serve them the food the maid had cooked. We would sit down and eat together. Thus our life passed from one day to another, each day the same as the day before it and the day after it.
I had a good reputation at the bank. Customers trusted me easily because I talked to them politely. The owner of a video store used to visit the bank often. He took a liking to me. After learning about my family, he came up with a marriage proposal. He had a female relative in Thampalakamam. I lived in Trincomalee, an hour’s bus ride away. As soon as I saw the potential bride, I liked her. Her complexion reminded me of blood mixed with water. Though her body looked a bit puffy, her eyes flitted about playfully without focusing on anything in particular. When she moved, her beauty increased. My parents also agreed to the proposal, and the wedding took place soon after. Once we were married, there was just one problem. My wife, Malathi, had to get ready by seven o’clock in the morning every day and take the bus to her workplace at Thampalakamam. She would come home in the evening exhausted after work. Looking at her, I would feel sorry.
One night at seven o’clock, the phone rang. Amma picked up.
The caller said, in a rude voice, “I need to speak to Kanakarajan.”
“He hasn’t come home from the office yet. I will tell him when he comes back. Who is this? What’s the matter?” Amma asked.
After scolding her, the caller gave her a number and said, “When your son comes home, tell him to talk to me.”
Amma immediately understood that this meant big trouble. When I came home from the office, Amma and Malathi told me what had happened. I called that number.
“Kanakaraja, I am from the Tamil separatist movement. We need ten lakh rupees tomorrow morning. Bring that amount to the location I give you.”
I would have fainted and collapsed, but Amma and Malathi were standing by my side.
“Ten lakhs? I’m just an ordinary bank clerk. I’m looking after my aging parents. I just got married. You’re mistaking me for someone else.”
“I know all that. For the last two years, you have been begging your manager for a promotion. He won’t give it to you. Take ten lakhs from your bank and give it to us,” said the voice.
“Stealing? I will lose my job.”
“Your job? Is your job more important than your life? I’ll give you twenty-four hours to come up with the money. If you go to the police, you will return home, but your wife will not return from Thambalakamam. I’ll give you the details tomorrow.” Before I could start pleading, he hung up.
My hands trembled. But Malathi was a courageous person. She had encountered similar incidents in Thambalakamam. She also had connections with the Tamil separatist movement. Many of her friends had died as martyrs.
“Why are you scared? What am I here for?” she said. Malathi herself phoned the separatist movement office and inquired; they were surprised. “We never ask the general public for money in this manner. This is the work of some gangster group looking to extort money. We must somehow outsmart them,” they said, and gave her a detailed plan. Malathi said, “Yes, yes,” and nodded her head.
The next phone call came the following night. “It is not possible for me to smuggle ten lakh rupees. I will bring five lakhs. After that, you must leave me alone,” I pleaded convincingly. They agreed. When I got ready to leave the next morning with a bag filled with paper, Malathi insisted on coming with me. It was getting late. I had to be at the Dockyard telephone center at ten o’clock. Without giving me a chance to talk her out of it, Malathi got into the auto rickshaw with me. When we arrived, no one was there. I called and told them I had come with the money. “Okay, wait there. Someone will arrive in an auto. Give him the money,” they said. The plan was that when I handed over the money, the people from the movement would come out of hiding and catch the culprit. But the auto hadn’t arrived yet, and there was no sign of the people from the movement either.
After a while, a young man arrived in an auto. He was talking on his cell phone casually as he stepped out, an eighteen-year-old with a thin frame that looked like a bent sugarcane stalk. He appeared pale and anemic. One push and he would have fallen down. There was a bald spot in one of his eyebrows. He looked like he’d just woken up and hadn’t eaten in days. Still holding the phone to his ear, he asked for the bag. The people from the movement were nowhere to be seen. If I gave him the bag, he would leave. To pass the time, I said, “Give me the phone. I need to talk to your boss.” He reluctantly gave me the phone. The person at the other end of the line asked me to hurry. “That’s him. Give him the bag. Give him the bag.” Fortunately, just then, two armed men from the separatist movement arrived in an auto and jumped out of it one after the other. Scooping up the fellow with the half-eyebrow, they threw him inside the vehicle and told us to follow them. All of this was over and done in the time it takes to strike a match.
My work was done and I was eager to return home, but this adventure had brought great joy to my wife. Her eyes had widened; she looked thrilled. She was ready to follow them another hundred miles. When we took a turn on Customs Road, we could see a militant with a gun standing in the guard tower. A large signboard in red and yellow hung at the entrance. They took the boy to the back of the building and started thrashing him as if they were beating dust off a sack. He started screaming. We were afraid the emaciated fellow would die. Someone who looked like the leader of the group rushed over with a thick rope and interrogated him.
“What is your name?”
“Did your father not have any other names available? Did he name you Chendhan Amudhan because Vandhiyadhevan, Arulmozhivarman, and Sundarasozhan were already taken?”
“Please don’t beat me, Ayya. I did it out of hunger.”
“Instead of selling flowers, you are selling people?”
“Ayya, please believe me. I don’t know anything,” he bawled.
It had been two days since he had eaten, he told us. His family consisted of his three younger sisters and his mother. Unable to bear their hunger, he accepted this job. He was told that someone would give him a bag, and if he brought it to them, they would give him 5,000 rupees. He did not know their name or address. He had only the cell phone number. “Don’t kill me. I’m telling the truth,” he wailed. We sensed that he was being honest.
The problems began after that.
From எங்கேயோ இப்ப மூன்று மணி. © by Appadurai Muttulingam. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2023 by Thila Varghese. Published in partnership with the Armory Square Prize for South Asian Literature in Translation. All rights reserved.