Clenched Souls by T. Vanthana Mahendra

The day broke humid and dreary. I stared out of the window. The sky was gravel-grey and the waterlogged clouds seemed portentous and menacing.  The wind rattled the windowpanes and the boughs of trees groaned. Lightning scratched the grey cotton wool sky with pitiless claws. Thunder rolled through the landscape. When the rain began, it battered the roof like a hail of bullets and water bled down the sides of every lane.  The bone-chilling cold air enveloped my entire body.

When I realised it would not be possible to go Sencholai Orphanage today, I started to mope. Giving up on some writing I had been doing, I went to my room and grabbed a poetry book written by Vairamuthu. I brought it close to my face and smelled the pages, which carried the scent of withered semparuthi flowers to my nostrils.

As I was flipping through the pages, a photograph fell on the floor. I bent down and picked it up. Looking at it brought on a surge of emotions and a lump in my throat. Bitter despair formed in the pit of my abdomen and my entire body tightened. Tears stung my eyes.

I tried to remember all that we had thought and spoken together. As my head began to swirl, I sank onto the couch and breathed deeply. I felt her presence surrounding me. She was close like I could almost touch her but when I reached out my hand, she disappeared.

I met her while I was a final year Economics undergraduate at Jaffna University. It was a chilly day. As usual the boys were sitting on the stone bench in front of the Parameswaran temple. The temple was the usual place to spot new girls. Clusters of boys were standing on the sidewalk, ragging freshers. They called it “mixing up.” Whatever the name they gave, it was bullying. The freshers were asked to do ridiculous, humiliating things. Ragging included assigning a strict dress code for the freshers – skirts and blouses for the girls and light-coloured shirts for the boys. They were made to sing songs, dance and say “I love you” to a stranger. They were also teased, scolded, made to do sit-ups, talk to trees, slap themselves and do dhyanam and salute the seniors.

The freshers would be picked on or punished if they failed to obey us. Just a few years ago, we were in the same position as the new batch of freshmen, yet we seldom felt pity for them.

Suddenly, I caught sight of a young girl. She was short but had a beautiful, round face. She was walking timidly towards the auditorium. “Hey you, come here!” Mathan, who was sitting next to me, beckoned authoritatively. She reluctantly walked towards us. Her hair was plaited neatly in to two sections and tied with a silk ribbon that matched her skirt and blouse. Her thin eyebrows looked down on velvety eyelashes. I was drawn strongly towards her.

“What’s your name?” he asked brusquely.

“Geethanjali,” she said, her voice quivering.

“Have you ever been in love with anyone?” he demanded.

She seemed dumbstruck for a second.

“Hey, I’m asking you,” he growled.

She wore a terrified and embarrassed expression as she trembled like a frightened pigeon.

“No,” she spilled out.

“Propose to one of us, the one whom you think is the most handsome,” he said.

She was silent and looked at me pleadingly.

“Hey, are you deaf?” he yelled.

I could see tears forming in her eyes. Her lips trembled and eyes drooped.

“Let her go,” I said to Mathan.

“Okay machan, I won’t make your sweetheart cry. Geethanjali, go to your lecture hall,” Mathan grinned ironically.

Feeling relieved, Geethanjali walked away swiftly.

My eyes followed her.  She was just what I had always wanted in a girl. I had finally met the girl of my dreams. I took a deep breath to collect myself.

As the days passed, I got to know Geethu better. A thrill of delight passed through my body whenever our groups hung out together. In the evenings, we used to go to the canteen to discuss cinema, politics and sports.  I admired the fact that she didn’t agree with others blindly. She was a young feminist, openly critical about the dowry system, and willing to challenge the conservative politics which made it difficult for women to become leaders in our community. Sometimes, we would debate an issue until we were both exhausted.

In October that year, we celebrated Vijayadasami in our university. Kailasapathy auditorium underwent a beautiful transformation as it became adorned with fragrant flowers, and was festooned with mango leaves. An intricate kolum was drawn at the entrance. The hall was jam-packed with students. The girls looked stunning, wearing embroidered sarees, bangles, earrings and necklaces. The boys wore dhotis and shirts.

The statues of the goddesses Durga (dressed in red and sitting astride her tiger), Lakshmi (wearing jewels and seated on a lotus) and Saraswathi (attired in a pure white saree and holding a veena) stood elegantly on a decorated plank. The deities were decorated with fragrant flowers and garlands. Several books, tools and musical instruments were placed in front of the idols. The kolu bommais were arranged in the padis that were made of wood and covered with a thick cloth. The kolu was adorned with various deities, dolls, figurines and toys. A small brass pot filled with water was also kept with the kolu. On the top of it mango leaves and a coconut were placed.

Kuththuvilakkus were lit up. The smell of camphor and incense reverberated throughout the auditorium. A priest was invited to perform the holy prayers. The students chanted devotional hymns. After the ceremony, neyvedhyam such as sundal, aval, pongal and vadai were offered to the goddesses and then to the students. There were many cultural programmes performed by the students.

But it was Geethu’s Shiva Thandavam dance which attracted everyone’s attention. I gazed at her unblinkingly the whole time. She was simply breath-taking.

I barely noticed anyone else until the Vijayadasami function came to a close in the evening. As the students were evacuating the auditorium, I spotted Geethu amidst the crowd and waved my hands. I drew near her, looking down on her visage which was as clear as an unblemished mirror. My heart was overwhelmed by her elegant appearance. I couldn’t help but beam at her, as I offered a compliment: “Geethu that was an amazing performance! I loved it!” Her lips curved into a smile. “Thank you, Arjun,” she said, grinning back at me as she said good bye.

Mathan joined me as Geethu walked away. Watching me watch her, he said, “Arjun, you are in love, even I can see that.”

“Yes Mathu, I love her ardently.”

“The entire university knows it, Arjun. If you really like her then go and tell her.”

Machan tomorrow is her birthday. I’m going to tell her tomorrow!” I exclaimed, suddenly filled with determination.”

“Good luck machan, hope we can have a party tomorrow,” he smiled, tapping my shoulder encouragingly.

The next day my heart was pounding with excitement, delight and fear. I wanted to reveal what my heart desired most but I was struggling to find the words to tell her what I wanted her to know. I wished her eyes would see right through to what was in my heart and spare me the effort of trying to speak. I waited for her on the same stone bench where I first saw her but it was over two hours before she arrived.

Geethu came and sat next to me. I looked at her face. Written in her exhausted eyes were the signs of a sleepless night.

“Happy Birthday, Geethu,” I wished her, wondering what was wrong. “Thank you, Arjun,” she replied, her voice downcast. I watched with concern as tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.

“Hey, what happened?” I asked with a tremor in my voice.

Her lips struggled to form a word but nothing came out. Her eyes wandered to the ground, where her tears fell.

“Arjun…Arjun…I…I…” Yet again, she burst into tears. Her face seemed to shrink. She was shaken, stuttering as she struggled to frame even one sentence.

“Hey, you can tell me anything. What is wrong?”

“I don’t know…I don’t know how to…how to tell.”

She took a tissue and wiped her tears from her face. She tried to force her tears back. Finally, she began to speak.

“Our Grama Sevaka, Mr Subramaniam undertakes a series of fundraising programmes to assist the poor people in our village. As a part of it, I performed a solo dance and a group dance in our village welfare centre last week. Raghu is the secretary of our welfare centre. He is a lecherous bastard, deceitful and repulsive. I was not interested in doing the programme because of Raghu but our Grama Sevaka came to my house and asked me to do the dance programme. So, I agreed. I had no clue that Raghu had installed a CCTV camera in the dressing room. He took a video of me while I was changing my costume. Today, when I was on the way to university he threatened me with it, and asked for sexual favours. I slapped him and escaped…” she came to an abrupt halt.

I gritted my teeth. My blood began to boil. I could feel my veins throbbing.  “Come on, Geethu. Don’t worry. We should go to the police station and report this,” I advised her.

“Arjun, it’s useless. He has strong political backing. He runs a brothel but nobody questions him. He can simply bribe the police in order to avoid prosecution.”

“Geethu, somehow we have to report this,” I persisted. Eventually, she agreed.

We were walking towards Parameswara junction to catch the bus to the Jaffna police station when a van screeched to a halt just a few feet in front of us. Before we could react, two masked men leapt out, grabbed Geethu, put a piece of duct tape over her mouth and pulled her into the van. The men covered her face with a handkerchief. As she fainted, I tried to hit them. They shoved me into the van too, and hit me on the back my head. I fell down, unconscious.

When I woke up, I was in a desolate place. The rain was lashing down, and each icy pellet felt like a dagger piercing my body. The cold wind seared my skin like fire. Rain and tears mingled on my face. “Geethu…Geethu…,” I shouted, running around like a madman. Eventually, I found her naked body a few yards away. She lay motionless in a twisted position. Blood pooled around her mutilated form. It looked like she had been assaulted severely. I tore my shirt off and covered her tenderly with it.

As I cradled her in my arms, I mumbled “Geethu, Geethu get up.” When she did not respond, I put my head in my hands and howled.

Suddenly, I sensed wetness on my toe, and it brought me sharply back to the present.

I opened my eyes. My little cat was licking me. I bent down and caressed it. The clock struck twelve. I looked outside to discover that the rain had stopped. I wished to go to Sencholai Orphanage to see my little Geethu. I got dressed and took some story books for her to read. I went outside, the sky had cleared and the sun was now shining as brightly as my little Geethu’s face.  In her eyes, I would always see the very same opalescent lilies that reminded me of Geethanjali. It was all that kept me going.

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