[Gauribalan is a Sri Lankan Tamil writer. The story is about the anti-Tamil pogrom in July 1983 that began the civil war. It was translated from the Tamil Talarvu/ தளர்வு / by Ashik Kumar.]
Squatting in the juice-stained verandah of his banana shop, sarong hitched up and tucked, he looked out at the street thinking that the day, yet to die, ought, for his sake, to go down soon. Stroking the twisted, bulging veins along his legs, varicose from standing, standing in the banana shop, he squatted in the verandah. The market bustle had gone quiet. Some, it seemed to him, still snailed dully through the market to meet needs they themselves weren’t sure of. He turned to look hearing behind him whimpers, hands and legs clattering over the ground, the chicken whose throat they’d slashed behind his back and tossed into a tin vessel beating its wings, raising a sound like dying. Only the empty wall stained with banana juice was there. He bemoaned his habit, for many years, of turn-ing to look pointlessly at it at least once a day.
Through the pillars that held up the linked roofs of the market, he honed his gaze on the cycle park beneath the banyan tree dreadlocked and fattened. He noticed a green auto kicking up dust on a cross street. Only his iron carrier cycle, he thought, stood, like him-self, quiet and separated.
Thinking how with this dying day the market’s and his relationship would grow strange, he felt his hands, without his volition, fondly stroke the shop verandah bench. His face bloomed into a smile thinking how through many administrative changes, having to mortgage the shop, even having to change its location, there had been, for over forty years, a space in the market for his banana shop.
Because his legs — in which varicose disease from standing, standing, doing business, stirred a sharp, needling pain — begged for rest, he had decided this time to let the shop for rent. He imagined the relentless pain if his blood pressure should rise while he was working, puffing out his veins. He thought how every time he had let the shop for rent, it had been his competitor Paraman who took it in addition to his own shop.
“What’ll you do for money leaving your job, brother?”
When he imagined Paraman asking, he could only see his own eyes: pale, dazed, and crossed.
“I’m thinking I’ll stay at home and do business. I’ve already started.”
He tried saying it to himself once. It saddened him that the woman with whom he ran their family didn’t share his affection.
Late Sunday afternoon, back leaned leisurely against the house verandah wall, vein-bulged legs stretched out over the floor laid with red cement, nostrils filled with the sa-vour of a spiced cigar, he imagined calmly telling his wife about letting the shop for rent.
“Look here, my legs can’t take the pain from the varicose. My ankles go stiff sometimes, I can’t pedal the cycle all over the place looking for banana branches to take to market. Sometimes it burns, the pain. I’m thinking I’ll stay home and do business.”
He pictured her done with lunch, letting her belly rest on the floor laid with red cement, folding her hands to pillow her head, lying stretched out like she didn’t want to hear a sound. The image came to him, of her not opening her eyes, only parting her lips to spit out the words as he tried to ask her again.
“Right…And didn’t you leave us to go hide in the well as soon as you heard the bomb go off?”
Her answer jolted him today just as had on that day. Today too he was confused, he didn’t understand why she kept in her memory and brought up now the incident, desiccated and gone from his memory, that had forced him to change his shop’s location.
It was that darkness in which you couldn’t see the well bucket he remembered, that night blanketed in darkness. It was the July night when JR Jeyawardene stoked the riots, point-ing on the news to the thirteen military dead in Tirunelveli and the regions where there were no riots. He remembered the distant sounds of killing as he unloaded from his cycle carrier the banana branches he had cut that day. He tried to remember the sound of the bomb going off come closer as he dipped his head with haste into the well. He recalled that it was as he reeled the bucket down into the well that the bomb went off in the corner of his house nearest the street, and the ground quaked and settled. He pictured himself slipping and falling headfirst into the well. He tried to picture the wounds as they changed over many days, the sores and marks, as though his palm had been scorched and the back of it boiled, from gripping the rope that had caught fire. It came dark to his memory, trembling, flailing his legs in the cold as it got brighter and brighter, unable to shout for help, unable to climb out of the well.
Stroking his aching varicose legs, he tried to grasp what connected this memory and him letting the shop go today.
He heard the sound of the lane master outside. Pressing one hand against his knee, he lift-ed himself up. Just as he was thinking that it wasn’t the Anandarasa Lane Master, he noticed a different lane master in the street by the market entrance. He noticed the dried be-tel leaves and the Swiss knife he had tucked into his sarong fall onto the ground away from him as he got up hurriedly. He bent his long, strengthless legs and squatted again in the shop verandah.
Soothing the swollen veins of his legs with one hand, he picked up the betel leaves with the other and tucked them back into his sarong, dusting them off on his knee. He took the switchblade lying like a stick bit that always reminded him of Chandrasiri and tapped it against the floor to get the sand off. The knife, which flopped out and dangled without him pulling it, was as exhausted as he was, he thought. Beneath the blade were crenellations like Chandrasiri’s blackstained teeth. It seemed to him he could see Chandrasiri’s curly hair and lively face in the deer antler handle.
He tried to recall the friendship that Chandrasiri, a cleaner in a Colombo lorry, maintained with him, close enough to walk him beyond the market and up to his house. He tried to remember him saying he would buy him a German-made Swiss knife with a deer antler handle.
“Not just for work macchan, it’s no fear if you’re travelling isn’t it?”
He had a vivid memory of searching with the other sellers in the market, scouring many places, when he learned that Chandrasiri had been kidnapped along with the lorry’s sup-plies and his fellow workers. He recalled that many southern lorries like that yellow one went missing from the market environs.
He struggled to load a bundle the Payment Readymade Clothing owner had stuffed into a large cardboard box and tied up with green nylon rope into the back carrier of his cycle. He believed that the scar, as though from a great flame, along the street, along his right el-bow, would show clearly at the market’s inner edge. He tried to remember the strange, drawn-out panic that came over the entire market on the days southern lorries were snatched. He tried to remind himself how after the lorries were snatched, faces that moved irritated about the market, as though inconvenienced by their coming, turned terrified. He reminded himself how the market withdrew as a turtle withdraws its head and legs. It was on the afternoon of the market’s anniversary, with the fear gone and a festive atmosphere, that the terrible event took place.
No one gave it a second thought when two lorries, without names, without any marks of identification, parked on the street at both ends of the market. He tried to recall the bustle of the market when it was peak business. It was on the corner of the street with the shop selling earthen vessels, where a banyan tree grew surrounded by palms, that the first bomb went off. He thought of the smoke and the dust and the shock all rising. The next moment a pursed graveyard silence set in throughout the market.
Even now he felt the moment cries and shouts apprehending disaster rose, the second bomb going off by a lamp post at the other end of the market where the womens’ clothing was, rattling his eardrums. The market commotion turned into a riot. He tried to remind himself how people shoved those in their way to the ground, fell down themselves and rolled in the dust and ran. He reminded himself how with sticks, with knives and swords and iron rods, barking slurs and curses, men with black cloth over their faces began blindly attacking everyone in the market, and how he stood at the inner edge of the market, watching like he was watching some English movie. Apparently the first slash as they rushed from the lorry fell on the Payment shopkeeper. He tried to recall coming to know later how they had kicked him — who was slashed offering his hand — to his feet so he could run away.
He panicked again thinking of the panic that day, when he brought his daughter to buy clothes for her birthday. Panicking, he lost sense of himself, and his mind filled with only his daughter and the Swiss knife. Today he thought to himself that it had been foolish to duck into the chicken stall, dragging his daughter along, just because it was open. The stench of blood attacked his nostrils as he entered the bloodstained chicken shop with his daughter.
He pictured himself putting his daughter without a second thought into the tin vessel for fresh slaughtered chickens and covering it with a sack, then, drawing his Swiss knife and gripping it firmly, standing hidden against the wall behind the open door. With that same panic he brought to memory how the panic outside, the commotion, the racial slurs, the moans and cries, lodged in his ribcage and made him tremble. The memory returned of hearing them kick in the tin shutter of the mutton stall next to him, shouting slurs, and him thinking that his time was up. A gang went passed with swords, iron rods, and sticks, observing the chicken stall that stood open. He remembered noticing days later, one or two of the faces not covered with black cloth in uniform absorbed in police work. As though he’d seen them somewhere.
Just as he anticipated another gang behind them, one went past, very close to the chicken stall. He remembered holding in his shaking body, feeling like all his blood had frozen stiff when one from the gang, wearing a black cloth, hung back looking keenly at the chicken stall. Letting the others go ahead, he turned suddenly into the stall. He saw him go up hastily to the register, pull the latch, and stuff all the notes and change into his pocket. He remembered thinking that if he straightened up where stood he could definitely be seen. As he rushed out, he turned around suddenly and pulled the sack off the tin vessel. He bent down to look at it closer. The memory of his daughter’s face, stained with chicken blood, shooting up to take in the good air jolted him. Before he could panic and shout for help, he ran up to the man from behind and sunk the switchblade into the dip between his neck and right shoulder blade. He tried to picture him choking, beating his arms and legs, like a slashed chicken tossed into a tin vessel.
He ran behind the fish stall dragging his daughter by the hand. He tried to remember rejoicing as he saw that the chute in the wall, through which garbage and fish parts passed into a drain, was large enough for his daughter. In his mind’s eye he saw it as if it had happened yesterday, guiding his daughter out through the chute gated with a wooden crossbar, jumping over the wall and running off.
Thinking how, when all this happened, a year ago must be, or even less, he was separated from his Swiss knife, he stroked it fondly. He remembered putting it in a chili powder tin and burying it, then digging it up one night when his fear had calmed. When he drew the blade in a half circle back into the deer antler handle, it seemed to him like Chandrasiri’s thick, black moustache. He tucked it in at his waist and patted it down.
“Right…And didn’t you leave us to go hide in the well as soon as you heard the sound of the bomb going off?”
Again he felt his brain searching for an answer to his wife’s question.
If he came to the market tomorrow he would be given the respect due to an old seller. As days passed and passed, all would be swept aside like an old memory. Then, he thought, even the market and his friends would grow strange.
As he thought, squatting in the verandah of his banana shop, stroking the swollen veins of his legs gone varicose, that the day, yet to die, ought, for his sake, to go down soon, he saw Anandarasa’s lane master turning into the market entrance, heading to take whatever remained in the banana shop.
[Translator’s Note: Gauribalan was born on March 20, 1970 in Trincomalee on the east coast of Sri Lanka. He dropped out of school after six years because of the riots in 1983 that marked what most consider the beginning of the civil war and became involved with the movement for Tamil independence. In 1989 he moved to the northern port city of Jaffna where he earned a diploma from a local polytechnic. After his diploma in 1992 he returned to Trincomalee. Between 1992 and 2000 he worked as a draftsman for the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resource Management. In 2000 he was transferred to Batticaloa, where he currently lives and most of his fiction is set. Since 2003 he has worked as a management assistant for a local divisional council.
Gauribalan’s first dozen or so stories came out in small magazines in the nineties and were published in book form in 2003. A roughly decade long silence ensued in which although he tried, he could neither write nor read with much intent. He credits the Mexican writer Juan Rolfo’s novel Pedro Paramo and his short story collection The Burning Plain with renewing his inspiration. His collected stories, edited by M Kannan and V Natraj, were published in 2016. The volume was titled shadow of a scar up in the air, a line from Paul Celan’s poem “To Stand”:
The reference to Celan is apropos because unlike most of the writing to emerge from the civil war (and there is a lot), which seeks to reflect external violence with more and more accuracy, Gauribalan’s fiction goes inward. His prose traces the contours of his characters’ half thoughts and sensations with a dogged precision that at times verges on impenetrability. Exhaustion was first published in 2014.