[Translated into English by
Sachi Sri Kantha. This short story first appeared in the 37th anniversary
issue of Mallikai magazine in 2002, and included in the anthology of
Nandhi’s short stories, entitled ‘Tharisanam’, published by Kumaran Book
House, Colombo-Chennai, 2002, pp.98-111. The story is told in two parts, 1
Our air-conditioned car had just passed a long bridge. Underneath, one of
the rivers of Bangladesh, which separated the villages, was flowing
Youngsters, both boys and girls, played in the river, competing with jumping
fishes. When they approached the river bank, their nakedness was clearly
visible. On another section, mothers and elderly women were also present.
They were also spaced in the river and in the river bank. One could read
poverty in segments of their bodies. Adjacently, buffaloes blended with the
nature. It gave the feel of watching a Satyajit Ray movie from the balcony
of an air-conditioned theater.
My thoughts spread their wings. When I return to my land, I’ve to go to
Kathirgamam temple, and spread my legs and waddle in the Manikka Ganga
river, with the fishes.
“Brother, these are the owners of this land. They don’t have a visa
problem”, pouted Mr.Haroon Rashid who was driving. His words in English were
delivered sarcastically. I didn’t elicit even a smile.
For me, to stay in Bangladesh for an additional week, they have refused to
give a visa. Haroon Rashid had tried his best to get that visa for me. Since
that rejection letter was received from a higher echelon of power, this was
the third time Haroon Rashid expressed his anger sarcastically.
“These are the citizens of this country”.
I could read his thoughts. “…These simple folks fill this land.
Intellectuals, literati and those with some social status are not eligible
to stay.” This is the new meaning for ownership of this land.
Haroon Rashid is a Bangladeshi. He had become my dear friend. He calls me a
‘brother’. Not even two weeks of acquaintance. In an hour, I’ll be at Dacca
International airport, on my way to my native land.
Two weeks would elapse after I arrived in Dacca, from Jaffna, via Colombo,
Delhi and Colcutta. Within such a short duration, I’ve turned to be a
Bangladeshi, for folks like Rashid.
To participate in a seminar on ‘Human Reproduction’ for young doctors, I’ve
come here. From five nations, fifteen doctors have been invited and we were
hosted in a five star hotel.
Mr.Rashid didn’t participate in this seminar. He was not even a doctor. But,
I was introduced to him on my first day in Dacca. Following the first day’s
session of the seminar, while I was relaxing at the reception hall of the
hotel, a notice for a meeting attracted my eyes. The message said, ‘Tonight
at 7 pm, the monthly meeting of International Birds Club will be held in the
1st floor of the hotel.”
‘The Birds International’ has many branches in different nations around the
world. I’m a member of Nallur branch of Sri Lanka. I’m a Bird. The head
office is in Geneva. The motto of the club is ‘We fly to serve’.
Internationally speaking, the Birds are a tribe.
A guy wearing the badge of a stork representing the Bird International in
his coat, approached me. A smiling woman accompanied him. I just rose from
the chair, attracted by the stork badge.
With a smile, he asked me something in Bengali language. I responded with a
one word ‘Sri Lanka’, to convey him that I’m not fluent in Bengali.
“Oh! I’m sorry” he replied. Before he was about to move away, I interrupted
his track by responding “I’m a Bird there.”
“O’ Hello”, he hugged me.
“Welcome”, cooed the lady who accompanied him.
He introduced himself as Haroon Rashid, and his companion as Lady Bird-Madam
Rashid. I introduced myself, “Dr.Shanmugam”. I’m here to participate in a
“Come along with us”, he called me.
We moved to the hotel’s upper floor.
Mr.Rashid is the President of the Central Dacca branch of the Birds Club.
“I’m a Bird from Nallur branch of Sri Lanka. Only for the past year.”
“O’ – you are a new member in our family”, quipped the Lady Bird Rashid. In
speech, she is not a stork, but seems like a parrot.
“When your late prime minister Premadasa visited, he stayed in this same
Sheraton Hotel. He read his speech in Bengali”, she had chocolate in her
mouth. She offered me a piece as well.
“Thanks. In our language, we can write and read the Bengali with proper
accent”, I said.
“Oh I see”, responded Haroon Rashid.
What I referred to as ‘our language’ was Sinhala. But, I’m a Tamilian. He
could grasp that my native tongue is Dravidian Tamil. Rashid was in textile
business, with his father. However, he had graduated in political science
from Dacca University.
“Dr.Shanmugam, you should help me”, blurted Rashid unexpectedly.
I was shocked. “How could I help these two?” My mind panicked in the
thoughts of drugs, gems, smuggling.
Rashid smiled assuringly to calm my fears. “Just a small request”, added the
red lipstick-anointed lips of Madam Rashid.This seemed to be his tactical
“Dr.Shan. Hope you won’t mind us calling you like this. In a week, we’ll
have our annual meeting. You’ll be the Chief Guest, and you are also our
plenary lecturer. We’ll introduce you today that you have arrived here
especially for this. Isn’t it OK?”, she handed an impromptu invitation.
Rashid was expecting how I’d respond.
Though bordering on a truth-bending drama, who is going to be hurt by this?
After all, it also honors me.
Rashid then noted in his diary, details of my name, designation and degrees.
“Let your talk be related to Sri Lanka”, he said.
“Just invite”, his wife was winking at her husband.
“Yes, doctor. Tomorrow we invite you to our house for a dinner. We’ll bring
our car for you”, Rashid said.
That night, my sleep was far from smooth. About to be a chief guest. Plenary
speech. There would be beautiful Lady Birds like Madam Rashid, in the
audience. Memories brimmed in my dream;two lessons learnt in the 5th grade
Tamil text book.
‘Ilankai is our motherland; the citizens of Ilankai’. Then, grandma taught
me Tamil at home. I could listen to her voice, heard long time ago.
‘Our country is a small island. It is the pearl of the Indian Ocean. Its
historical symbols, its natural beauty, Holy mountain, Sacred tooth,
Kathirgamam, Sigiriya frescoes, multiethnic groups, multi-religious
festivals, cooperation, O’ the blessed land. Looks like a tour book guide.
Can talk about many themes.’
The dinner at Rashid’s house, was in fact a birthday celebration. Their only
daughter’s third birthday party. Quite a number of Birds and Lady Birds were
present. Many belonged to the textile business. That child was a doll, a
mini-model of her mother. With a springing gait, she came to me and offered
“Apni gaan”, she said. I took the sweet and munched it.
“Oh! You know Bengali”, retorted and giggled the mother. What else one has
to do with a sweet?
“Uncle, Apna Naam?” – Oh’ – about the name.
“Uncle Shanmugam” I said.
“Uncle Dr.Shan”, corrected the mother.
The birthday doll climbed on my knees and softly massaged my chin.
“Uncle, Apnaar desh goththe?”
I responded only with a smile. Isn’t that the answer for an unknown or
un-answerable question? “Just reply, Amar desh Sri Lanka”, prompted Madam
Rashid. Then only, those surrounding us focused on me, and I came to be
Before the dinner, there was fun and frolics. Musical chairs, song-for-song
etc. The gathering picked up tempo.
“Uncle, how about a song?”, prodded a little girl. Until then she was calmly
seated in a corner. Now what had prompted her to request a song from me? I’m
basically a bathroom singer, or better a mumbler. And why I need to exhibit
this dubious skill in front of others.
“Uncle, come on!”, another one also pushed me for a song.
“Chinna Chinna Aasai [Little little wishes]
Sirahadikum Aasai” [Wing-laden wishes]
Those who prodded me, as well as a few teenagers joined me along. They
hummed the song in Bengali. Lady Birds discussed about A.R.Rahman, amongst
Cricket occupied the TV screen. Many asked questions about Jayasooriya. I’m
also a fan of him. I scored too. When foreigners praise ‘our guy’, isn’t it
The next morning. Along with the awake alarm, the telephone also rang. It
was from Madam Rashid.
“Brother, didn’t I introduce one of my uncles last night?….”
Mr.Rashid came on line. “After he returned home from the party, he had
passed away unexpectedly. Heart attack.”
Because of this, the annual meeting of The Birds Club was postponed. Only by
a week. But I had a dilemma. My visa would expire before that.
“Don’t mind about it”, assured Rashid with confidence.
“I’ll arrange for a visa extension”, said him.
For three or four days, on behalf of the Birds Internationals, Rashid moved
here and there with my passport – the Immigration, to the Police
Commissioner and to the other bureaucratic mazes. My visa extension was
refused. Their (un)practical suggestion was ‘Let Dr.Shanmugam return to Sri
Lanka first, and return with a new visa.’
Rashid was rather put off by the hurdles. ‘What a country? What citizenship?
What crazy laws?’
One day, at the end of the medical seminar, our car moved along the old
Dacca town. The traffic was heavy. One pedestrian bumped into our car. His
both eyes were missing, and only the eye sockets glared at me.
“There’s usually a story for this type of cases”, said Rashid. “His eyes
have been gouged”. I looked at Rashid.
“See, the story is this. By some plotting, this guy had married someone
else’s lover or one betrothed to another person. How dare he could enjoy her
beauty for the rest of his life? One day, he had been caught and subjected
to ‘instant surgery’. There is a special instrument for this. You see the
accompanying woman. She is that person – the protagonist in the story.”
H’m. I saw. She did have some tempting attraction.
“Dr.Shanmugam. These are this country’s citizens.”
“These types of cruel insults do occur in all countries. In the nearby land,
acid throwing is an art to destroy beauty”. My thoughts rather refused to
come out of my mouth.
Yesterday, like a medical professor teaching his young charges in a hospital
ward from bed to bed, Rashid showed me many locations in Dacca – disease,
poverty, physical deformity…and last, prostitute corner! As if prostitutes
are national monuments of Bangladesh, he commented harshly.
Even then, I kept my silence.
While he bade farewell to me at the airport, he asked for ‘another request’.
I wasn’t shocked like the first day experience. He didn’t even have a parcel
in his hand.
“I’d like to meet you again. Can you invite me as the chief guest of your
town’s Birds Club function?”
When the plane gained altitude, my mind rose even above. I tried to dispose
the few days I spent with Rashid and his friends like an undigested dream.
They didn’t do any harm to me. Their friendship also entertained me like
But, his observations of his own country folks! I couldn’t defend that. My
soul debates for them. Whenever he analyzed them, I was intentionally
silent. Now my soul makes calling sounds for me. Only I could listen to the
lines of those sounds.
These ordinary folks appear in front of me. Those who played in the river –
Those street vendors at Madhupur village, selling jack fruit and pine apple
– Those who engraved my name in the sea shells in Koch’s bazaar – The
autodrivers of Dacca – Those women, yes those women.
That country is theirs. Because of some karmic bond, they have been born
there. Though their language I cannot comprehend, it has attractive
features. Their music has devotional delight. They are the owners of these
gifts. Just trying to critically analyze these features is akin to reject
the primal link between the mother and child.
“In a few minutes, we are preparing to land at Colombo Bandaranaike
International airport”, the announcement of woman steward in three languages
prompted me to fasten my seat belt. I’m descending to the ground.
There is of course a good reason for Mr.Rashid’s anger at bureaucracy. By
extending my visa for a week, what loss that country would have incurred?
What a population burden in that country?
I remembered an American’s view delivered at the ‘Human Reproduction’
seminar. “Quite a percentage of those born in poor countries were the
outcome of ignoring the family planning protocols.”
Visa rejection for me was a challenge to my mind too. That’s why again I
wished to join those youngsters playing in the river.
In Colombo, I stayed at the Wellawatte – Ramakrishna Mission. The nearby
ocean invited me. The sounds of waves were the messengers. I crossed the
railway track and rushed to wet my feet in the ocean’s waves.
A few youngsters, with pants folded upto knee levels,were happily engaged in
their intercourse with the ocean – chasing the waves and being chased by the
waves, at the shore.
“Aren’t you Dr.Shanmugam”, one of them inquired about me.
“Thambi, you seems to know.”
“Of course, I accompany my mom to the Jaffna hospital frequently.”
It seems they have arrived in Colombo from Jaffna only yesterday. They were
students; having completed the Advanced Level exam, they were on a week’s
excursion to Kathirgamam, Kandy, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa…
I smiled. I remembered the undelivered speech at the Birds Club meeting.
Like them, I also folded my pants to knee level, and washed my feet in the
One whale-like wave splashed across and dispersed in the rocks. My body was
completely showered. My wish seems fulfilled.
I heard a whistle.
A police jeep appeared and stopped near the railway track. A constable got
off and signalled those youngsters nearby. He checked their Sri Lankan
National ID cards. He asked something. They answered something. He signalled
to all those to get into the jeep. When one of the youngsters was about to
respond, he was pushed towards the jeep by an aggressive grabbing of that
youngster’s shirt collar.
“What is happening here? Why?…” I moved towards the police guy.
Before I talked, I was asked the ‘Identity Card’. I showed it.
“Birth place Jaffna”.
“Have you got registered at the Police?” he inquired.
He signalled me towards the jeep.
I had with me the ID card of Sri Lanka Medical Association. I was about to
show that too.
“I’m a doctor”, I stated.
“Come to the police station and tell that”, he said.
One who was seated in the front seat of the jeep then approached us. He was
a police inspector. When the higher ranked guy showed up, the lower ranked
inquisitor retreated a little. The Inspector checked my national ID card.
“You haven’t reported and registered at the police station yet.”
“Should I register?”, I asked.
That question should have sounded as irrelevant or as a challenge to his
ears. “Mister”, he scowled. Until hten his words were dignified. But
suddenly, I could sense toughness. Nevertheless, he continued compellingly.
“Mister, anyone who comes here from the North-East of Sri Lanka has to
register themselves with the police. Before they return, they have to have
their names cleared.”
“Inspector, I’m a doctor. On Sri Lankan government’s expense, I’ve traveled
and returned from Bangladesh.”
“Eka kamak nahe” [It’s not the issue here.] Tomorrow morning you go to the
Wellawatte police station to register yourself. No need for excess details.”
Then he recorded to himself my National ID card number.
“If so, then won’t you release those youngsters too? I’ll go to the police
station tomorrow with them…” He didn’t wait for me to complete. Like
mounting a horse, he jumped into the jeep, and it had accelerated.
Those youngsters peeped at me from the jeep, until I saw them no more.
Thouse mournful peeps! Those meanings!
I felt as if my blood had turned into water and an emptiness engulfed my
body. Even my mind had turned empty. I sat on a nearby rock and looked at
the National ID card with melancholy. Does it have any meaning at all?