Jehan ‘What the hell do you want to go to the Vanni for?’ Ayesha yells. ‘If war breaks out, you’ll be stuck there forever.’
The ceasefire is still holding, although there are an increasing number of violent confrontations between the LTTE cadres and government forces. Just last evening, the Sea Tigers had used a fishing boat packed with explosives to ram and sink a navy patrol boat in the sea off Mullaittivu. The navy had, to the fury of local fishermen, retaliated by banning all fishing in the area.
But Ayesha is right, for both sides are arming themselves at frantic speed; war could break out at any time.
‘I have to go,’ I say. ‘I promised a friend I’d take her.’
‘I knew there was a woman at the bottom of this,’ she says gruffly. ‘It amazes me, the extent you buggers will go for a s----.’
‘This girl is not like that …’
‘Bullshit! You fellows are all alike … brains full of semen.’
‘I need two days off.’
‘All right, all right,’ she growls, ‘but if they hold you for ransom, don’t call me.’
I plan to spend Sunday night in Anuradhapura. This will allow us to leave early morning for Omantai. This last checkpoint, controlled by government forces, is sixty kilometres further along the A9 highway. Thereafter, for a distance of some one hundred kilometres, the territory is under the control of the rebel LTTE.
I sense that Arathi, despite her outward calm, is not entirely at ease: her hands are clasped together on her lap and her eyes are on the road ahead as I weave my way through the afternoon traffic.
‘We can save some money by taking a double room,’ I say, ‘instead of the two singles I booked.’
She gives me the look.
‘Luckily for me, the NGO is paying my expenses,’ she replies. ‘Since that covers you as well, you can even book yourself into a better place.’
‘No, I’ll stay with the plan; otherwise, how will I look after you?’
‘And who gave you that job?’
‘It was predestined. You have no choice.’
She mutters something under her breath but I can’t get the words.
‘Tell me about the money.’
‘Is that what all this protection stuff is about?’
‘I think you know that is not true,’ I say. ‘I’m just curious.’
‘Esvi had supplied some body armour to the army. After delivery was made, and the goods were accepted, a Brigadier found out that the product was defective. He wanted money from Esvi to keep it quiet.’
‘How much money?’
‘He must have already paid his bribes to get the order I suppose. This was an extra demand?’
‘I think so. I heard Esvi cursing and swearing about it.’
‘If the army had already accepted the goods, surely he could have just refused?’
‘I think they were bidding for another project, a much bigger one. They couldn’t afford to get blacklisted.’
‘Saliya was to hand the money over?’
‘Yes, he was to give it to Janaka, our neighbour.’
‘Uncle held on to the money. We found out later that he wanted to run away with it to Australia; then he fell ill.’
‘Was the money found?’
We stop at a wayside café on the Dambulla Road for a cup of tea. Arathi has her head bent over the steaming mug; she seems to be troubled.
‘I feel bad about this,’ she says finally, looking directly at me.
‘Too much sugar in the tea?’ I ask facetiously.
‘Please don’t make jokes.’
‘I was relieved when you offered to take me; I can’t tell you how much,’ she says, looking down again. ‘But it was wrong. I should have managed on my own, somehow.’
‘I’m happy to take you, so what’s the problem?’
‘You seem to have some … interest in me,’ she goes on. ‘By accepting your offer, I have given you the impression that there is some … hope.’
‘There’s always hope,’ I answer lightly. ‘Don’t you know that?’
‘Not in my case.’
‘You’ve seen the files. You know my background,’ she says bitterly. ‘You should look for someone from your own … class.’
‘And if I choose you?’
‘For the prince, it might be an amusing little adventure,’ she says harshly, as she gets to her feet. ‘No one asked the beggar maid how she felt.’
When I pay for the tea and walk out, I find her standing by the door of the vehicle, shoulders stiff and face turned away. No talk for a while.
The Shalika Inn at Anuradhapura turns out to be a dump, but, at least, the fans worked and the sheets were clean. I shower and change and then tap on her door at the end of the corridor.
‘Who is it?’
‘Room boy, madam.’
She’s not amused when she opens the door.
‘What do you want?’
‘It’s not dark yet,’ I say. ‘Let’s go for a walk.’
She hesitates but can’t think of an excuse fast enough.
She shrugs and walks ahead of me, down the stairs and on to the road; simple skirt and blouse, rubber slippers.
Anuradhapura dates back to a period before the birth of Christ. I knew it well enough to walk towards some of the ancient monuments. The beggar maid maintains her stony silence.
‘Have you been here before?’
‘Didn’t Manoj take you around?’ I ask. ‘Out of Colombo, I mean.’
‘To Galle, once; that is all.’
‘He must have been an idiot,’ I say mildly. ‘I’d have wanted to take you everywhere.’
‘And why would you want to do that?’
‘To please you, of course,’ I answer, ‘and to show you off to everyone.’
‘He wasn’t interested in that.’
‘Mm. When he … died, did the police arrest you?’
‘They took me in for questioning,’ she answers. ‘I was detained for five days.’
‘Was it rough?’ I ask gently.
I walk on quietly in the twilight, not knowing what to say next. Arathi stops suddenly and turns towards me.
‘Why are you waiting?’ she demands, her voice hoarse with emotion. ‘Why don’t you ask me the question?’
‘Whether I killed him.’
I put my hands on her shoulders and look into her eyes.
‘There’s no need,’ I say evenly. ‘I know you didn’t.’
‘How would you know that? You’re talking like a fool.’
‘I wondered about it, while reading the files,’ I say. ‘But when I met you, I was sure.’
She jerks herself away and walks on, but when she turns I see that her cheeks are wet.
We leave just before dawn, hoping to reach the military outpost at Omantai before the queue got too long. The hotel had given us a pack of sandwiches to take along, for it is some ninety kilometres to the checkpoint.
Arathi had refused to be drawn into conversation during dinner and had retired to her room soon afterwards. Her mood doesn’t seem to have improved by morning.
‘Why are you mad at me because I believe you’re innocent?’ I ask.
‘Because you’re an idiot to be taken in by a pretty face.’
‘Who said you’re pretty?’
‘Oh shut up.’
‘Saliya wrote that you left the room that night,’ I say, not wanting to upset her, but curious just the same. ‘Where did you go?’
‘I knew that Manoj smokes in bed; he had set the mattress on fire once before, when he was drunk,’ she answers quietly. ‘When I thought he was asleep, I went to his room and took away his cigarettes and matches. I left them on the dining table and went back to uncle’s room.’
‘You mean the fire wasn’t an accident?’
She is quiet for a while.
‘No. He couldn’t have woken up and lit a cigarette.’
‘Then someone else did. He was murdered. Is that what you’re saying?’
‘Were the cigarettes still on the table? After the fire, I mean.’
‘No. They had disappeared.’
‘Did you tell the police all this?’
‘No. I told them that I didn’t leave uncle’s room that night.’
‘Wasn’t Jini the only other person in the house? It had to be her.’
‘Chitra, next door, also had a key to the house; so it might have been Janaka.’
‘Why would either of them want to kill Manoj?’
‘Uncle left the house to them, equal shares,’ she speaks slowly, as if measuring her words. ‘But if Manoj died before uncle, Jini would get it all.’
‘So it was for the house?’
‘No-o. Jini was convinced the money was hidden in the house. She wanted Manoj, and me of course, out of the way so she could really look for it.’
‘Did she need money so badly she’d kill her brother for it?’
‘She loved Janaka. He had promised to divorce Chitra, and marry her … if they could only find the money.’
There are at least fifteen vehicles ahead of us in the queue at Omantai. That’s not too bad, really, for by the time we got near the head of the queue there are at least fifty vehicles, trucks with produce, tankers with fuel, vans, buses and cars parked patiently behind us.
Arathi has to get off and join a queue of passengers. The vehicles have to be driven up a ramp where a soldier checks the undercarriage of the vehicle; another grumpy fellow checks the interior. I’d be grumpy too, if my job was to peep under seats all day. Next we take turns to have our personal luggage examined, just as they do at any airport. The play-kits give me more trouble and I have to get three other travellers to help me unload the tea chests.
It takes some time for the officer to satisfy himself that there are no bazookas hidden inside the polythene wrapped packages. Arathi, who’s had an easy time in the passenger queue, is standing by the exit when I, irritated and perspiring, am finally cleared to leave.
‘What took you so long?’ she asks, as she climbs in.
‘You should have been there,’ I snarl, ‘to answer stupid questions about your damned play-kits.’
‘It would have been perfectly simple if I’d been there,’ she says. ‘You must have said the wrong thing and annoyed them.’
‘It’s no wonder your husband beat you,’ I say nastily. ‘You will drive any man to drink.’
I want to bite my tongue. I turn to apologize and find her eyes dancing.
‘But I never annoyed him,’ she says sweetly. ‘I was always kind and obedient.’
‘So you’re only exasperating with me?’
There’s no answer to that.
Two kilometres of no-man’s-land and we come to the LTTE checkpoint. A diminutive girl in a blue uniform directs traffic: passenger vehicles to one car park, commercial vehicles to another. Once on foot, a second girl allows us to enter a compound with row upon row of sheds, each clearly marked with a number.
‘Go to number ten,’ the girl said.
I find that this section serves local residents. There is another shed for foreign passport holders. The application form, printed in green ink on cheap brown paper, is in Tamil and Sinhala. The filled applications are handed over at another counter and then we are directed to drive the vehicle to the customs shed.
The customs officer is determined that Arathi pays import duty on her kits. It takes some vehement arguments, production of several documents and a reference to a hidden customs chief before the items are permitted ‘duty free’.
Not so my partly consumed bottle of whiskey. A duty of three hundred rupees is applied and I am given a receipt from the ‘BANK OF TAMIL EELAM’. The final counter is where I begin to sweat. They demand the original registration document of the Vitara and file it away. In exchange, they give me a yellow slip of paper.
We are in a foreign country … and entirely in the hands of the forces that rule it.
The A9, built by the government, is the best highway in the country. Running dead straight through scrub jungle, you can see an approaching vehicle miles ahead.
‘I’m hungry,’ I say. ‘Let’s stop somewhere and eat.’
‘Have you seen the signs?’ Arathi asks, pointing.
I had seen boards planted along the side of the road but had not stopped to check them. The text is in Tamil but the picture is universal, drawings of landmines, shells and grenades, with a red X across the centre.
Whatever it is we want to do, we have to stay on the road. Happily I spot a tree on the right hand side of the road, offering some shade from the morning sun. I pull up under it and get down to stretch my legs.
Egg sandwiches and a banana: a lot better than I had expected.
‘What’s next?’ I ask with my mouth full. ‘Can we drive straight to this orphanage place of yours?’
‘Oh no, Sencholai Orphanage is on the Mullaitivu Road. We need a special permit to go there.’
‘And where do we get that?’
‘At Kilinochchi; I have a letter to Daya Master.’
Kilinochchi, some seventy kilometres further down the A9, is the capital of the LTTE; Daya Master is their media chief. That much, at least, I know from reading newspapers.
‘How far is this place, from Kilinochchi, I mean?’
‘How are we to find our way then?’
‘I speak Tamil,’ she answers calmly. ‘Didn’t I tell you?’
‘You didn’t,’ I say, turning to her in surprise. ‘How did that happen?’
‘They taught me both languages,’ she says with a smile. ‘They didn’t know my ancestry, you see, so they played safe.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘They found a baby in the garbage dump,’ she says. ‘There’s no blood test to tell if she was Sinhala or Tamil.’
‘Does it bother you that I might be one of them?’
I look at her standing there in the dappled sunlight. Slim and tallish, plainly dressed in jeans and a man’s shirt with rolled up sleeves. Rubber slippers.
She is looking intently at me, I know. There is something about her …
‘No,’ I say firmly. ‘No, it doesn’t bother me at all.’
The road is a dream, dead straight and rut-free. I put the shutters down and feel the desert-dry air wash over me. I look at Arathi to see how she is taking it. She has stuck her head out of the window, much the way that a puppy would. I notice that she’s pulled the convent-issue black clip off and allowed her hair to catch the wind. The loose strands toss and swish above her head, heavy and lustrous, like the girl in a shampoo advertisement.
She’s not addicted to air conditioning.
I enjoy the ride till a charcoal-skinned bastard in police uniform steps out from behind a tree with a radar speed-gun. He turns the gun around and shows it to me: I’d been doing ninety in a sixty-kilometre zone.
At first we pretend we don’t know the language, then we say we’re going to Jaffna because we love the Tamils, finally we even say we’ve just been married. Time wasted; cops all over the world are the same. At the aptitude test during recruitment, I bet the most morose bastards get selected.
When I see the ticket this fellow hands over to me, I shut up immediately. There are thirteen cages, all written in Tamil, but the fines vary from one hundred to one thousand five hundred. The tick on my ticket is for an offence costing two hundred and fifty.
I pay up and get the vehicle moving again.
We pass through miles and miles of scrub jungle, interspersed with tired looking villages and small towns. The sun is nearly overhead now and the air coming in is furnace hot. I give up and turn the air conditioning on again.
I see a name-board that rings a bell.
‘Isn’t this where the Tigers built an airstrip?’ I ask, more to jog my own memory than in expectation of information.
I snap a glance at her.
‘You know about this?’
‘Esvi was always going on about LTTE having aircraft at Iranamadu; some strange name, Zin or Zen.’
‘Could be,’ she says. ‘He said that the government had to go ahead with an air defence system immediately.’
‘These were small trainers, aren’t they? Our air force will knock them off easily.’
‘Uh, Esvi said they’d fly in very low,’ she says, hesitating as if recalling a half forgotten conversation. ‘Something about avoiding the … radar.’
‘But what can a small plane do? What was he worried about?’
‘He said they’d pack it with explosives and crash it onto the President’s house or a place like that.’
‘So what did Esvi want to do about it?’
‘His principals had this, how do you say … air protection system?’
‘Air defence system.’
‘He said it would recognize the LTTE planes, and shoot them down with missiles before they reach the city.’
‘He wanted to sell the system to the government?’
‘Did he say how much it cost?’
‘Does one hundred millions make one billion?’
‘No. A one thousand million.’
‘Well, two or three of those,’ she says. ‘That’s why he was so angry with Uncle Saliya about the money.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘That Brigadier was going to expose him, you know, about the … body armour,’ she goes on. ‘If he did, Esvi and his supplier would have been blacklisted; they would miss the big one.’