The crow crowed, perched sinisterly on top of the fence. It was dusk and the setting sun cast myriad colours in the eastern skies. The old lady’s heart sunk when she looked at Shruthi. She thought of what a spirited little girl her only daughter was. Shruthi was and had always been her parents’ whole world. What if something happened to her? The woman looked around the room and found nothing to distract her. It was almost bare.
Shruthi had just come home from school a few minutes ago. Her mother had sent her to change out of her uniform right away – it was soaked through from a monsoon shower. Shruthi had been late again. Despite the rain, the girl had taken the longer route home, but unknown to her mother, it was no ordinary jaunt. Shruthi’s best friend Latha had taken her to see a secret LTTE army base. Latha made Shruthi promise she would not breathe a word about it to anyone.
Though Latha knew that joining the LTTE meant almost certain death at an early age, she still found something sensational, something almost appealing about the thought of becoming a martyr. She yearned to lay down her very life to uphold truth and justice. Latha had so much conviction that now Shruthi too felt intrigued by this view.
“Sit down, Shruthi. Tell me about your day,” Amma said. Shruthi obediently took her place beside her mother, cupping her own mug of tea between her hands. Shruthi began to tell her mother about her day, and how Latha had played a prank on Sindhuja, another girl in their class. While she jabbered on, Amma watched Shruthi.
Ever since her husband died, Shruthi’s safety had been Amma’s biggest concern. Amma’s worry had only grown when Shruthi turned sixteen two weeks ago. She knew that her daughter was now in danger of being forcibly conscripted by the militants. Shruthi was an exceptionally bright student, topping her class at every exam. But that only made her more likely to catch their eye – the LTTE knew who the bright ones were, and made sure they recruited as many as they could for their fight against the Sri Lankan state.
“Shruthi, since papa passed away, you have been my sole responsibility. I think it might be wise if you stopped going to school,” Amma said as gently as she could. Amma thought if she could only persuade Shruthi to give up going to school, then her daughter could also be coaxed in to accepting the proposition she had in mind. She remembered the time when her husband had been alive, and how adamant he was in ensuring their only child got the best education possible. He had even wanted to send Shruthi to Australia, where many of their relatives lived.
“Ma! How can I stop going to school? What will my future be, if I don’t study? Papa would never have asked me to leave school!” It was clear Shruthi was prepared to be mulish about this. Amma flashed her a stern look of warning. Shruthi didn’t realise it, but her mother was actually scared for her life. Amma remembered the time she was herself a teenager, stubborn and defiant. How could she make Shruthi understand? How could she make Shruthi realize the danger that she was now facing? Amma was particularly worried about the walk home from school – LTTE cadres were notorious for abducting children while they were still in their school uniforms, their hands full of textbooks.
“You have to stop going to school, Shruthi. Listen to me. It is important. What would happen if somebody spotted you on the road? Don’t you know that LTTE cadres are everywhere?” Amma was so afraid that she said all this in a whisper, as if the very walls could hear, and would carry the tale.
“Ma, you know Latha was telling me about how unjustly we are treated by the Sinhalese people… treating us like second class citizens on the very soil we are born! The only difference is we set foot on this land later. She was saying that, we should support the cause of Eelam, and that we should fight for our dignity!” blurted out Shruthi. Amma’s face shrank, but Shruthi did not notice. Aghast at her passionate outburst, Amma retreated, deciding that she would talk to Shruthi later. Amma had already come up with a plan. It was the only solution she could think of to escape the predicament they were in. She told herself it was the only viable option left – only marriage would carry Shruthi beyond the LTTE’s grasp.
It was late evening. Amma paced around the room, clearly agitated. Her forehead was wrinkled in deep concentration. A stray cat had stepped in to the house, and was busy trying to catch a gecko. Amma circled the two hand carved, old oak armchairs that stood in the hall, the only pieces of fine furniture they still possessed. There was an old television set, right next to an old rusty gramophone that she had inherited from her grandfather. Crimson curtains hung from the windows, swishing in the soft breeze.
Amma knew her neighbours were as powerless as she was. The town people and the Tamil community in general had become increasingly disoriented over the course of the war. The community grapevine was rife with tales of forced Tiger abductions, but none were willing to speak out publicly against the LTTE. They feared that to do so would be to put their own children in danger.
It used to be better before, Amma thought. In the early years, even though teenagers as young as sixteen were made to undergo some physical training, only those who were willing were given further training and taken to the frontlines.
Now, the situation had worsened. The intensity of forcible recruitment had increased to a point where every family was forced to sacrifice at least one member to furnish the rebel force. Before, if the mother resisted, the LTTE could do nothing. But not anymore! However, married women were not considered suitable for recruitment, and that loophole offered Amma a way to protect her child. Yes, Shruthi was young; but her mother believed it was either the marriage mandap, or resigning herself to her daughter becoming human fodder in a meaningless war that looked like it would never end.
Amma heaved a loud, audible sigh.
She remembered, how young she was, just eighteen years old when she married Shruthi’s father. A tear trickled down her cheek. She wiped it away with the back of her hand. It was time to tell Shruthi what her future held in store.
“Shruthi, come here,” Amma said.
Shruthi had known something was coming but she couldn’t think of anything that could be so important that it would make her mother fight back tears and sound so grave at the same time. It was past eight o’clock, and already dark outside. They sat there on the veranda, looking up at the cloudless sky. The bats have already come out of hiding, and were making screeching noises through the darkness. “Ma. What’s wrong? Why do you sound so sad?” Shruthi knew that Amma had hardly been herself these past few days. Shruthi thought that her mother could only be upset about her continued attendance at school. What else could it be, after all?
Amma looked tenderly at Shruthi’s cherubic face. Trying not to sound too forceful, Amma took hold of her daughter’s right hand, and held it gently. Then she said softly, “Shruthi, I have something to ask you…would you like to get married?” The girl was so surprised that for a minute she could not find her voice. She was not sure if her mother was serious but she could see no trace of humour on Amma’s face.
Shruthi felt dread bloom in her gut. Not the kind you feel when your life is in danger, but the kind you feel when faced with uncertainty. But fear was rapidly replaced by disappointment. Disappointment that she would never be able to finish school. Finally she was angry. Angry that her mother would do this to her.
‘Maybe she doesn’t want me to join the force,’ Shruthi thought to herself. But when she paused, she realised another emotion had appeared. She was curious now, curious about who Amma had in mind as her prospective husband. “Who is he, Amma?” Shruthi asked softly.
“Do you remember papa’s cousin, Jegadheeswaran uncle? Do you remember his son Ramanan? Both of you played together when you were little.” Shruthi wrinkled her face, trying to remember Ramanan, but she had no memory of him.
Soon after Shruthi’s father had passed away, Ramanan and a few other relatives had migrated to Australia. “Would you like to marry him Shruthi?” Amma pressed again. “Why Ma?” Shruthi pouted, uncertain. “I can’t marry like this, I am too young.” But in spite of her denial, a strange feeling was stirring in her breast, a sense of wanting to belong to someone. A desire to love, and the need for security had been awakened within her.
She remembered her dear papa, who had been their rock and strength. She could recall how dearly he loved her mother, with such tenderness, love and respect. Then Shruthi imagined herself dressed as a bride in a scarlet saree, with mehendi intricately tattooed on her hands, the floral design trailing up her arms. Her thick raven hair would be braided and woven with jasmine flowers.
Shruthi’s face glowed. Suddenly self-conscious, she glanced at her mother and blushed, embarrassed at the thought of being read like an open book. She was grateful that the light was quite dim on the veranda. Amma, seeing Shruthi’s feelings clearly visible on her face, like a reflection in still water, was glad, for she felt sure now that Shruthi would consent. Amma embraced her daughter, feeling like a load of heaviness had been lifted from her heart.
It was hours later, when Shruthi had already fallen asleep that the headlights swept into the compound, each a dancing spotlight trained on their home. Inside, Shruthi was asleep, but Amma was still up, watching television with the volume turned down.
Amma sat up startled when she heard the noise of a vehicle, not so much surprised as immediately terrified because she knew what this meant. Quickly she went to the bedroom, and shook Shruthi’s sleeping form awake. The girl woke up annoyed; but when she saw the terror clearly etched on Amma’s face, she did not have to ask what was wrong. Getting up, she rushed to the hiding place they had decided on, in between the curtains in the kitchen.
A series of loud knocks broke the silence. Amma’s heart began to beat faster. So great was her fear, that she started to sweat from her temples. Trembling within and with shaking hands, she opened the front door. Sure enough, there were three LTTE cadres, making a nocturnal raid.
“Who else is in this house?” A big burly man, clearly the leader, bellowed. “It’s only m-me, my husband passed away three years b-b-back,” stammered Amma. “Go and search the place,” the man ordered a fellow cadre. It took them less than a minute to find Shruthi and drag her howling and screaming out of her hiding place. Her wild struggles were easily subdued. “Amma, Amma! Save me! Help me, Amma, help me!” she screamed.
Amma quickly ran in to the bedroom. She gathered whatever gold jewellery she had left, and rushed back to throw it all at the man’s feet. “Take these, leave my girl, please, please leave her alone,” she begged. But her pleas only enraged them further.
His face mottled with rage, the leader slapped the kneeling woman. “You lied to us. How dare you?” he yelled. Still screaming, Shruthi was dragged to their jeep, and thrown inside like a rag doll. Helpless, Amma could only watch, her breast heaving with sobs.
As the jeep roared out and down the road, she was forced to accept she had been unable to protect her daughter. She had been unable to keep the promise she had made to her husband. Her grief felt absolute. She flung herself on the sofa, and cried for what felt like hours, until she had no more tears in her. Finally sitting up, she was enveloped by a despair like she had never known.
Sitting up, Amma looked at the bottle of kerosene oil carefully stored on the shelf above the stove, in the kitchen. A crow crowed ominously, perched atop the lamp post, while the dark night subsided into oblivion.