In Warakapola we stop for the first time, at the Bhadrakali-Hanuman kovil by a hill on the A1 highway, the first of many roads on this journey. We climb the few stairs to the temple to see its strangely companionable deities, but our grandfather gets out of the vehicle only for the Pillaiyar at its base. He holds a dried coconut with both hands, and circles it in the air, making his entreaties to the god of beginnings. And then he breaks it open on the ground, using his better arm. On the second try, it cracks open.
We bought the coconuts as we left Wellawatte and divided them into two bags. One is in the backseat, the other lodged between the driver and my grandfather, in the front. They must not be stepped on. We stretch our limbs out and try to sleep.
Nobody tells us — although there are those in the van who know — that it will be 10 hours to Batticaloa, in all.
It will be years later, looking at a map, that I will remember that by the time the second coconut was broken, we were already two-thirds of the way deep into the island. I will realise this at the same moment I realise why: the closer we get to Tamil country, the more kovils there still are.
This is the first time in our lives we will visit our grandfather’s oor. Which is also, in ways the places we were raised in and have lived in never will be, also ours. It’s complicated knowledge to carry, rough-husked, hollow and heavy at once.
At Habarana, we did not even take the turning to ancient Anuradhapura, and so we don’t stop the car as we drive by the ruins at Polonnaruwa. Maybe one day we will be tourists.
We stop to let elephants cross, led shackled. We stop for sightings of peacocks. We stop to pee, desperately, in a squatting latrine behind a mechanic shop, and miss the Perera & Sons we passed somewhere so long ago, with its semi-clean toilets and freshly-baked meringue kisses. We stop so our grandfather can break the third coconut, outside the compound of a Sivan kovil.
We stop twice. Two Pillaiyars, a hundred yards apart. Two curved trunks. Two unbroken tusks. Two coconuts lighter, the van door trundles noisily shut.
In April 1992, 61 Muslim villagers in Alanchipothana were hacked to death in their sleep by the LTTE. In an act of retaliation, police personnel visited the same upon the newly awake villagers of nearby Muthugal and Karapola, early the following morning.
I don’t know what our grandfather prays for, most deeply, and I will never ask. It is rare, is it not, to know? So we say litanies of that which we think we want. Whilst our truest desires lurk far beneath, unspoken, unopened. I don’t believe we pray for the things we most want. They are almost always the things we never had, never can have again.
Migrated. Fled. Sought asylum. Abandoned. Were exiled from. Escaped.
We left the country in 1990. One year before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, three years before Ranasinghe Premadasa’s. The deaths of heads of state are few. The others are uncountable.
We will arrive on amavasai, a dark moon night, and so we will not be able to go into the lagoon in a boat and dip an oar into the water and listen to the mermaid’s pulsar song. She only sings under perfect circles, undivided moons.
Some of the women in the van are wearing kungumam, all the men have vibhuti on their foreheads. There was a time when we would have had to smear them off with our palms, suddenly. In an intruded classroom. On public transport. While leaving belongings behind and entering a neighbour’s home through a gap in the backyard fence while our own front gates shook with blood-drunk, obliterative ardour.
In Kiran, a young priest is cleaning the idol lightly as we arrive. He offers us flowers, more holy dusts to adorn our foreign faces, to slake our refugee hearts.
Certain things sit on the heart the way a nevus dramatises a face. Other things, the heart is not big enough to fathom. The deeper we travel into the country, the quieter we become.
Through the many miles of these new highways, these old crossroads, we have watched our grandfather break coconuts to roadside shrines to Pillaiyar until it, too, is one more thing we do not question.
In Sittandikudi, the van stops for the Pillaiyar who is in the temple to his younger brother, the valiant Subramanya. When we were small children in Colombo, there was a young girl from Sittandikudi who came to work at our home. She could not have been more than five years older than I was. She had no front teeth. I cannot remember her name.
This was not uncommon at the time: to send one’s girl children to work for another family, in another city, as a form of protection. Boys and men were being recruited, being kidnapped, being killed. War created a generation of matriarchs.
That toothless child, our babysitter, came to us after the death of her father. One day after he disappeared, his mother took her and her siblings to a well just outside their village. She pointed into the well and told them that this was where their father’s corpse had been found, cut into pieces. They were too little to look over into what lay within.
They are one way to measure distance, after all — these coconuts. This deep into the day, fatigue is high, almost feverish. The van is full of the sleeping. Our grandfather, like the driver, keeps his eyes on the road. After the door slams shut at Vandarumulai, I watch the last of the coconuts knock about between them.
Much later, seeking maps, I find that we entered Batticaloa through a northern approach, although on paper it lies parallel to Colombo — a straight line from west to east, bisecting Sri Lanka by half.
Batticaloa town is on the far east of Sri Lanka, a sweet little lordotic curve on a close-to-forgotten coast. It is where we did not get to grow up, or even visit as we did. But to those whose ears and eyes can discern it, there are things in our accents and the shapes of the bones of our faces that claim us as belonging to it. To claim it as belonging to us would only be one more ruthless annexation.
The eastern province and the ravaged north were almost inaccessible — absolutely inaccessible, if one could not take the leap between longing and reckoning, with or without the necessary papers — for decades. The driver knows best. And our grandfather, who himself returned — alone and for the first time — only two years ago, knows each Pillaiyar he stops at, by heart.
In her final days, our grandmother wanted only one thing, to be in her house — the house she had not seen in 20 years. To see its porch. Veetu vaasal.
Someone told our grandfather, when he finally went back, that it was just as well she had not been able to come. Her heart would have broken to have seen what became of her house. So he fixed it. Nobody lives in it, but one day someone might be able to. Might be able to stand by the back door of a kitchen that opens out onto papaya trees and feel something other than the grief of not being able to name a place home.
The Pillaiyar of Pillaiyaradi is the very last one on this journey. Evening indigo spills rapidly, and a light drizzle falls. It is auspicious, says the driver. He opens an umbrella for our grandfather. All of us step out of the van and touch the last coconut. Our grandfather is too tired to break it. One of us does it for him.
The mermaid arch is one entrance to the town of Batticaloa. Atop it, three curve-tailed women press their palms together. In Tamil, the sign reads, ‘The honey-sweet city where the fish sings welcomes you with affection’. Below it, in English: ‘Welcome To City Of Singingfish’.
It is just before this, almost on the border point, that our ancestral temple to Muthumariamman stands. The van stops. In the contemplative darkness, we see a silhouette of a single tree facing the kovil, and beyond it a slim ribbon of water, the tapering lagoon by which, as a boy, our grandfather and his grandmother would arrive from Kotamunai by boat to pray.
Then our grandfather tells the driver to start the engine, to enter the town and take us to the guesthouse by the lagoon. We will come back to the goddess by day, he says, now that we’re here.
Sharanya Manivannan’s book of short stories The High Priestess Never Marries will be published by HarperCollins India in August 2016
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