House No.20

HOUSE NO.20

    The magazine is more than a decade and a half old. Between the covers rest heavily the musty odors of time and sepia toned pages speckled, intermittently, with moldy smidgens of Kerala fish curry. I like to eat while reading! It’s a weekly newsmagazine, progressively spiraling into scrap worthless of recycling. It remains ignored in the attic. But it remains! 
    On page 32 is a headline: EPRLF men gunned down by LTTE in Madras. Below the headline is a color photograph of a row of open coffins. 
    Satish is in one of those -second from left.
                                                                   **************************                                            

          House No.19. That’s my house, on the far end of the fourth street in Zachariah colony. Nobody knows who the hell Zachariah is or was. Nobody cares. But, Zachariah colony took great pride in chronicling the history of its inhabitants. There are 30 houses in our lane and everyone knows everything about everyone living in those houses. All are acquainted with the scar on my butt –tell-tale signs of an act committed as a six year old -I sat on a bunch of hot Diwali sparklers!     

        The colony is filled with independent houses. Neem, mango and guava trees abound in most backyards. Red roses and pink bougainvilleas blossom in almost all the courtyards. Crowded apartment blocks are still in the distant future. The houses are hedged with parapets of just the right height to make easy afternoon gupshup amongst the housewives along with swapping of cups of sugar or spoonful of sour curds.

    It’s the early eighties. A hot and sticky summer made bearable and interesting only by the tittle-tattle of budding summer romances along with Mills and Boon, the teen Bible of the holiday season in the colony. I wrap mine in brown paper with Non-Detail English Text, written boldly across the cover. It is an infallible way to escape prying parents who haven’t yet developed a refined sense of appreciation for their “little baby” reading books that has on its cover busty heroines and striking hunks in a lustful embrace. I am almost 14 years old!

    Sultry summer evenings are spent sitting in the veranda, slumped over roomy, white cane chairs dressed up with baby blue cushions freckled with embroidered pink roses. From this vantage point I can see my neighbor’s bedroom window –painted a dirty green. House No.20. It sits, just a few yards away, to the left of my house. Those windows were open 24/7 in the past –the Reddys were a friendly bunch. But ever since the new neighbors moved in the windows have remained closed.

       The draft from the ceiling fan does nothing to ease the heat sheathing the air. Madras summer neither varies nor disappoints! Sitting in the verandah with the suspicious Non-Detail Text lying face down and spine up on my lap, unmindful of the still evening, my mind wanders to the world behind those closed windows, across the wall. There are no sounds of life. No footfalls. No hissing pressure cookers. No Ilayaraja’s haunting melody on the radio. Not even whispers. When the sun goes down, 100 watt bulbs come alive in all the houses on the lane. Except in House No.20. There’s not a line of light, squirting from the cracks between the window panes. The whitewashed building remains soaked in dark mystery. It does not stir. `They’ were inside living in silence.
        “They are from Ceylon,” informed Yannai kaal Kamala, yesterday.
        “It’s now called Srilanka,” I clarified.
    I call Kamala the unofficial Maid-tre-de of Zachariah colony. She is, I think around 60 years old, though she insists that she is only 45. Afflicted with elephantiasis her legs look bulbous. Her feet are puffed up with small rounded toes –just like an elephant’s. Nobody knows from where or when Kamala, an orphan, came to live in Zachariah colony. The dark box like space under the staircase leading to the terrace of House No.20 is Kamala’s quarters. It’s been her home for as long as I can remember.
     Kamala came home during dinner or whenever she was hungry. She never entered the house but would sit outside, on the red oxide floor in the verandah and ate whatever my mother gave her. I ate most of my dinners in the living room listening to Kamala spinning her yarn of stories.
   “There are 17 men,” she said.
    “How do you know? Did you count?” 
    “Mmm…yes,” she mumbled, shifting her rounded legs. 
    “But you don’t know to count beyond five.”
    “Do you want to listen to the story or not?” she snapped.
     She knew I was dying to. 
    “They are the LTTE,” she whispered.
     LTTE!  A strange sense of unexplainable exhilaration crept into my fingers stuck in the gooey curd rice –my dinner. The forbidden was in the vicinity! 
                                                                       *******************

    Back then, Marina Joseph was 15 years old to my almost 14. If she was Mary I was the little lamb. “Bad influence, that girl,” Jaya aunty would warn my mother. Marina introduced me to the LTTE –Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, also known as freedom fighters, guerilla warriors, terrorists of Srilanka –depending on whose side you were on

    Marina’s mother was a Srilankan, wedded to a Malyalee living in Madras. Mrs. Joseph was 75% Sinhalese and 25% Srilankan Tamil. One summer when Marina-with-raging-teen hormones went to the Emerald Island she fell in love with a handsome relative –from the Tamil branch of the family tree. Kevin Suresh was 18, handsome (I was privy to the photos taken in Marina’s grandma’s garden in Colombo) and extremely articulate (Marina took pride in reading her letters aloud).

    During the late seventies and early eighties there was a buzz about the LTTE in Madras. Reams of newsprint rolled out singing paeans to the valor and courage of young Tamil boys fighting for their rights. And like always, the Tamilians were deeply affected by what was happening to their ilk across the seas.  But what surprised most of my family, especially Jaya aunty, was my fervent display of solidarity with the Tamils of Srilanka. “We are Malayalees, from Kerala,” my aunt would remind me through clenched teeth around the dinner table. It is very difficult to reason with a 14 year old going on 40 –my mother knew that, aunt Jaya didn’t, her child was only 4 years old. Finally, Jaya aunty would shake her head, point a finger at me and say, “She was alright when she was born. After that it has been downhill.” My mother would smile in agreement and spoon some more fish moilee into her plate.

    My fondness for the LTTE was an off-shoot of Marina-Kevin romance. Logic does not dwell amongst 14 year olds!Every 10 days Marina would receive a letter from Kevin, who was living in Jaffna, the Tamil belt of Srilanka. The letters were read aloud during lunch break at school 
    “……In the night when I look out of the window at the starless sky, I think of you -my star….” Cheesy? Definitely, but not to 14 year olds for whom it was all,`Oh so romantic’.  Marina read the letters with a sense of supremacy –she was the only one in the group of five friends who had a boyfriend; she was also the only one who had been kissed -on the lips, by a boy! Oh my god! She was our benchmark for all affairs of the heart. Marina and Kevin were our domestic Romeo and Juliet. With time the letters became less dreamy and more distressed. The letters told agonizing tales of war back in Srilanka.

 “…….I was woken up today by Darshini’s pitiful cries. She is my neighbor. Her son disappeared yesterday. When she woke up he was gone. No note, no nothing. He just disappeared. She is inconsolable. He’s her only son and just 14. We boys know where he’s gone –he’s joined the cadre….I don’t know what’s going to become of Darshini. It was only last month that her husband was killed by the army. I wish things were different.”
“….Life is unfair. In our own country we are living like second class citizens. We are treated like dirt. I get very frustrated….”
In a couple of months, the letters became erratic and grave.
“….sorry I didn’t write to you for more than two weeks….I just couldn’t…..My friend Sugirthan was killed in a cross fire. He had gone to drop his sister off at the bus stop….his sister survived, saved by the LTTE….”
 “….the situation here is getting worse by the day. I don’t even know whether this letter will reach you. The bloodthirsty army is on a rampage. Young girls disappear only to be found raped and killed. Men are beheaded….We would be dead too if not for the LTTE…”

    We sympathized with Kevin and became closet cheerleaders for the LTTE. Marina’s love letters were tinged with romance and gilded with a sense of doom. The world’s best love stories are the tragic ones with no happily-ever-after-endings.Then came the ultimate letter.

     “I love you my dear Marina. How I wish we were living in different times. All I wish for is to spend the rest of my life with you. But, I know it is not possible. Do you remember, in the last letter, I had mentioned about my friend Murugan who disappeared? We found him yesterday. His lifeless bullet ridden body was lying on the road outside the city, with his head sitting a few feet away spotted with cigarette burns. The enemy suspected him to be an LTTE sympathizer. What did he do to justify such a ghastly death? What did my people do to warrant such an awful life? I cannot remain a mere spectator anymore. How soon it will be before the enemy comes for me?  It’s time. I have to go. I have to say goodbye to you my love… The tigers are our hope and they need us…

    My heart broke into a million pieces as Marina read the last few lines….I will always remember you. I have your photograph –the one with the two of us together in grandma’s garden in Colombo. I will carry it close to my heart. You will be with me till the end….” Marina wept inconsolably. So did I!

    Marina mourned for the loss of her first love till the next summer holidays when she went to Colombo and fell in love with another cousin –this time from the sinhala branch of the rather complicated family tree. It is cruel to expect Marina’s 15 year old heart to comprehend allegiance.

Back in the eighties there was no television in our house. It would be another five years before my folks decide to buy one. And it would be another decade before war coverage becomes daily docu-dramas consumed by millions in their living rooms. I was far removed from the epicenter of the ethnic strife in Srilanka. I was a child of post-independent India. I hadn’t experienced war. I had only heard the echoes of it from the neighboring land –carried by newspapers and magazines.

 Echoes conjure diverse images. In my almost 14 year old mind, the echoes of war crafted notions of mystery, adventure, and romance more than that of catastrophe, thanks to my friend Marina’s summer romance. In my young eyes the LTTE were martyrs, young boys with cyanide capsules around their necks, biting their way to death before the enemy caught up with them; I imagined their eyes to be radiant with a fire fueled by the million tragedies they had to suffer; and somehow all the young ones came with a very short lifespan making them seem heartbreakingly invincible. Strangely, martyrdom always comes shrouded in a romantic allure.

Every evening, during that long gone summer, as I sat in the verandah I would see the tightly secured green windows of House No.20 across the wall and wonder about the people behind it

                                                                    *************************

What are `their’ stories?  Is a girlfriend, wife, parents or siblings waiting for them back home? Why are they locked up inside? Who are they hiding from? And for what?

 “Oh, it seems they have come into the country illegally,” whispered Kamala at dinnertime.

But father was telling mother, “I am told that there are two main groups –the LTTE and the *EPRLF. It seems our neighbors are hiding from the rival group who wants to eliminate them.

    “So who are `they’?” Mama questioned, pointing towards House No.20. “LTTE or the EPRLF?”
    Dad shook his head, “I don’t know."
    “LTTE,” responded Kamala confidently. 
    Dad shrugged. “Possible.”
     “It just doesn’t make sense. Aren’t they all on the same side fighting one enemy?” Mother was naïve.
    Afternoon gossip sessions over the bulwarks and evening street corner pondering were about the residents of House No.20.
    “We don’t know what sort of men they are,” Rajbabu’s mother was suspicious of all men beginning with her husband. 
     “They are the LTTE, terrorists,” said Reena’s grandmother.
    “No, no, they are freedom fighters…” chipped in my mother. Could be my influence.
     “I heard they have guns and bombs.”
    “Who told you? Kamala?”
     “What happens if a bomb goes off by mistake?”
    “Your house will be the first to vanish.” Jayanthi mami covered her ears and ran into her house muttering, “Shiva, Shiva.”
    The sweaty evening was inching towards a stifling night. The stillness of the green windows and beyond was compelling. It was 7 pm. A quite night with just the rustling of the neem leaves in the courtyard for company. 
    Sitting in the veranda I felt it first in the tingling of the wispy hair on the back of my neck.  
    Someone was watching me –from House No.20.  
    My lungs squeeze with excitement. Breathe silly, breathe, I chide myself. The air wheezes out in short careful gasps, careful not to attract untoward attention. Unable to shift my gaze I stare into the dark shadows shrouding the green windows. The window is partially open -just a tiny stream of dark space, wide enough to hold a pair of eyes. I could feel it on me. But I could not see it. How long had he been there? Then, without warning the eyes disappear. Just like that!
                                                                                    ********************

    Three weeks after my neighbors moved in, people in the colony reported “sightings” and “meetings” with my neighbors.
 “I saw a tall, dark, curly haired man, around 25 years old, clad in a lungi and shirt come out of the house this morning.”
“I think the curly haired man is their errand boy. And the guy with a beard, around 35 years old, I think he is the leader of the group.”
“Yeah, he helped me start my bike this morning. Polite and nice. Spoke in English.”
 “Apparently, they are going to stay here only for six months.”
          One evening, I saw the green windows wide open. Men were flitting in and out of the room. I saw the bearded man and the curly haired one too. After three weeks, House No.20 was no more a mystery. It was alive once again. My neighbors were beginning to have a face, a voice and a life. Young. Polite. Freedom fighters, now refugees. Well, we could live with that. Zachariah colony breathed easy.

          Those men, who wandered into the room with the green windows, would steal a glance at my house and occasionally at me sitting in the verandah immersed in my Non-detail Text. But they wouldn’t linger for long. They moved about purposefully and deliberately not wanting to catch anybody’s eye. Then came the face that dared to stop and lock eyes across the wall.

                                                                               ****************************

The face was young. Not a day older than 18. Smooth and ebony colored cheekbones complimented a straight nose -well almost straight, it somehow seemed broken somewhere. Wavy black hair stubbornly spilling over a broad forehead. Haughty looks peppered with boyish charm. Cloaked in danger –or so I felt. It was an attractive face, but also an impatient one. Animated and never still. Sharp eyes, seeing and watching continuously. It was the face that reminded me of Marina’s long lost Kevin, though there was no resemblance whatsoever.

 My heartbeat was too loud in my ears. He stood by the window. Unmoving. A slight mischievous smile tugging the corners of his mouth. Eyes sparing and provoking.

 Then he did it – a slight quizzical lifting of the eyebrows and a wave of the hand.

 “Hello.”

I smile uncertainly.

“What’s your name?” he asks without a sound. My stomach coils tight with anticipation.

“What is your name?” I mime.

S A T….he writes the alphabets one by one in the empty space in front of his handsome face….I S H.

That’s not his real name –it’s a gut feeling. I smile again.

“What’s yours?” he asks quietly using his hands and eyebrows. Words formed without a sound.

S O N A. I punch the words in the air. I lie. Sudha suddenly seems very old fashioned.

“Very nice name.”

“Yours too!” I lie again. Satish didn’t exactly sound mmm…very `it’.

“Where are you from?” I knew where he was from but I still ask.

“J A F F N A.”

I am afraid that my mother would walk in any moment. But fear amplifies the excitement. My teen spirit thrives on it. Satish’s darting eyes watch all. He is keeping an eye  for my mother in the background. I know it. A dry cough acts as a signal. I quickly dive into the book resting on my lap.

“Where is your father?” asks mom stepping out into the veranda.

I look across the wall. Satish is gone.

                                                                            ***************************

During those hot summer days, Satish and I connected across the wall -he in his corner in House No.20 and I in mine, the veranda of House No.19. We never fixed a time, but we would generally drift into our respective corners between 7 and 8 pm. Some days Satish’s corner would be empty. I missed him on those days.  

Was I in love? If love was carrying a marshmallow-jelly like sensation in your heart around the clock, then yes I was in love. At 14 you are falling in love all the time and not necessarily with the same person. But I didn’t know that yet. I was simply filled with unadulterated delight, exchanging stolen glances, and whispering from across doors and windows in sign language. What made it more interesting was that these acts were taboo but were still executed skillfully even with the mother figure hovering nearby menacingly.

I felt like Marina Joseph, the Diva. And Satish was my Kevin. Maybe, I could do what Marina couldn’t. I could be the one that would change and save Satish’s life. At 14 you believed in the exaggerated powers of your romantic heart!

There is only that much one can communicate in sign language. So we kept it simple.

One evening, I asked Satish about his family. I don’t know how much of his story was true. But, I wanted to believe him. He was angry. He was sad. But he was more angry than sad.

“P A R E N T S?”

“D E A D.” He drew his fingers across his neck. ‘K I L L E D.”

“B R O T H E R – L O S T.”

“ S I S T E R.” He made a gun with his fore finger and middle finger against his temple.

Was she killed or did she commit suicide? I did not ask.

Is that why he was fighting, to avenge the deaths of his family? It was difficult to decipher and articulate some of my thoughts that were beyond the understanding of a teenager. I allowed myself to be engulfed in sadness. It was easier.

After two weeks I was sad again, but this time it was not easy.                                          ****************************

 “I am LEAVING.” Satish made an aero plane with his hands.

“Will you come back?”

“I don’t know.”

“Be safe.”  What else do I say?

“TAKE CARE. BE HAPPY. ALWAYS.” He air-writes in long hand.

I smile. His face is hazy. Difficult to see through the tears. My first heart break. It’s always difficult the first time.

Satish places his right hand over his heart and smiles.

He blows a kiss.

“L O V E YOU.”  Words without a sound.

Then he turns around and disappears –forever.

                                                                    ****************************

After six months, House No.20 became vacant again. After a week, the Chaco’s came to live in the big three bedroom house. With age, Satish became a distant memory. But an unforgotten memory!

 In 1990, I saw Satish again –more of a man now, but the boyish charm was intact. He was in the coffin, second from left, in a photograph under the headline: EPRLF men gunned down by LTTE in Madras.

And all along I thought Satish was a Tiger. LTTE.

 My dad was right. So was my mother.

It just doesn’t make sense.
                                                   ********************

* EPRLF- Elam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front’s leader Padmanaba and his associates were gunned down by the LTTE in an apartment in Madras in 1990.


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