When my husband disappeared, my closest neighbor, Sarojini, hurried over from her house across our Batticaloa lane to tell me she had seen him being picked up and taken away. That is how we Tamil women talk about disappearing in my village, which is still my village after all this time, even though it has been stripped to its bones: we say disappearing when we mean kidnapped, and being picked up and taken away when we mean probably on the way to be killed. Sarojini had always liked to feel important, and although Ranjan was not standing next to me, smiling in the quiet way he had of letting me know he shared the joke of considering her a gossip, I saw no reason to stop her from telling me her version of the story. I didn’t listen to her; I thought about Ranjan. Where was he? I was at the very beginning of a kind of wondering that would later become like breathing to me, if my own breathing could be not only necessary but also intolerable.
When Sarojini came in, shouting for me and shaking a rag in her fist, I was burning some things of his that he had left behind. She didn’t say anything about the rubbish fire I had made in the courtyard behind my kitchen. Perhaps she didn’t notice what was melting there, the acrid smell filling the air.
“I saw them!” she exclaimed. “The STF boys came and took him.”
The army, which was not the Special Task Force, had come three times before taking Ranjan. I did not correct her.
“What did you see?” I asked her, because she wanted to be included in my loss.
“The one who likes to drink was the one who came to take Ranjan,” Sarojini said.
That was true. The soldier who had come to take Ranjan had visited our house regularly, and my husband, who had once been with Karuna, who had once been with the Tigers, did drink now. Because he had been well liked and trusted in our neighborhood, after his return, our neighbors had kept him well supplied. The soldiers knew this and liked to invite themselves in to talk to Ranjan, who also spoke perfect Sinhala.
Hearing Sarojini but not listening to her, I went to the cupboard and poured myself a drink. The man who had taken my husband might come back, but I would no longer serve him whiskey. I had always known where Ranjan kept the liquor, so now that he was gone, what remained belonged to me.
To account for the gap of thirty days between the actual and official dates of disappearance, I can only tell you that even though I had seen Ranjan being taken away, even though Sarojini, too, had come to verify it, it took me a week to believe. And then I did not officially report that he was gone for another three weeks, because I could not bring myself to leave the house. My husband had left the house, and he had not come back. I wanted to plant my feet firmly in front of my household shrine and stay there. Later, the people on the lane asked how Ranjan could have been taken, why I had waited that long to tell anyone. The gossips whispered to each other, asking what was wrong with me. I heard them, and wondered too, which was what they wanted.
When at last I managed to file a claim, to walk out my own door without falling to my knees, the first person I told was Thushara, who had been at the Army sentry point set off from the corner of the lane for as long as Ranjan and I had been married. Thushara frowned when I told him, as though he were going through a mental phone book to see if he could guess who was responsible. But he didn’t say anything; even when I cried a little bit, he pretended, kindly, not to notice, except for handing me the handkerchief he kept in his uniform pocket. After that, when he passed my house, he let his chin fall to his chest respectfully. A short while later he brought a colonel to my house to hear the details of the case. I invited them into our musty parlor and gave them tea as I related my story. The colonel took notes while Thushara stood behind him, looking both young and stern. Krishan was only a baby then, and cried behind me, and when the colonel heard his gulps and hiccups, he got up and went over and lifted him up, and Krishan was immediately quiet, as though Ranjan were there too, as though my child didn’t know the difference between being held by one man or another.
And then, when I was done talking, when he was done listening, the colonel told me the rule. They had, he said, no record of my husband being taken in, so he was missing. He might turn up again at any moment. Three years would have to elapse before they would give me anything for losing him. I can only imagine that I looked stricken. Krishan was small and I hadn’t worked outside my home since my confinement. I didn’t have any money. What will you do? the colonel asked me, too solicitously, and then Thushara said, Sir, perhaps we can ask at the school if they have work for her.
That was how I began cleaning at the school where I had once been a student. There were so few other jobs in our town—nothing that I was qualified for, really, and I liked the walk to the building because it took me past the beautiful resort the soldiers were constructing on land that had once belonged to some of us. I could see where my father’s old house had stood, and the well at which my grandmother had bathed. The well had not yet been completely destroyed and at first, if I went right up to the barrier wire, I could see the circle of broken cement. Thushara always waved to me as I went up the road with Krishan in my arms, and then later still, when he was old enough to walk himself, holding my hand. Hello, little man, the soldiers said, smiling at my fatherless boy, and I felt a little sick at the easy sweetness in their eyes, which reminded me of my husband. Of course I thought of their mothers, too, and held Krishan closer.
Three years seemed a long time to me, a woman without a husband, a mother without any money. I rubbed the floor in circles with a rag and washed the chalkboards. I reshelved the books that the students left on the desk; I wiped the tables where they ate their lunch, and remembered studying there myself. The students were kind to me, and the teachers ignored me, which was also a kindness; I think they knew that I was humiliated, working there, when I had once been good at maths, and even better at English, so good at English that some people thought I might go abroad, to the Middle East or even Europe. Now when there was a concert or special event at the school, I stood in the back with my broom, and everyone acted as though I were not there, so that I could also watch and feel that I was a part of the world, although I was less than a wife and less than a widow, and had never even been a Tiger. Even then, I imagined Ranjan next to me, his width and breadth, the space his body would have taken up. His untidy mustache, his smile. Your son will study here someday, someone said to me generously, and I hated that I was supposed to be grateful.
During the first year, I went to talk to Thushara and the colonel once a week, to ask them what they had heard, if there was any news of Ranjan. I began in earnest. You know me, I said helplessly; you see me every day and you know me. I just want him back; if the army took him I won’t tell anyone, I don’t have to tell anyone, but he is not with the Tigers. He is just Krishan’s father, and please, please, won’t you tell me where he is? The colonel, who I think was not a bad man, and who was even farther from his village than Thushara was from his, stared at me and was silent. In the second year, when I had more work for less money than I could have dreamed possible, I went only once a month, even though every morning I woke up thinking Ranjan was next to me. Every once in a while Sarojini would wander across the road and tell me that she had heard a rumour about where he was being held. Your husband. I would have talked to her for any length of time to hear that phrase. But after some time even she stopped coming; perhaps my loneliness embarrassed her. Other neighbors who had visited me when my husband was home ignored me, averting their eyes when they saw me on the street. And then, at last, in the third year, my exchanges with the colonel became a formality. I asked him if there had been any progress, and showed him copies of letters I had written to various authorities, but when he nodded absently, I understood that there might never be any news. The only people who smiled at me, who could stand to smile at me, were Thushara and his friends, their faces bright with sweat as they poured concrete for the new military hotel, which rose like a growing child behind the barrier wire, in the place where some of our homes had been.
Every month on the seventh day I looked at the calendar and ticked the time away. I have told you that I was poor. By the end of the first year Krishan had no shoes; by the end of the second, his clothes no longer fit him; by the last days of the third year, my boy resembled Ranjan at the worst moments of his life, or at least his life as I had seen it, when his time with the Tigers had worn him thin and impatient. Krishan was still my sweet Ranjan-faced baby, still quiet, but every day he seemed to get smaller instead of bigger. He was only four.
Around that time, the new headmaster who had come to the school began asking me to stay late. He was also friends with the soldiers and knew how I had come to work there. You understand what I’m saying—he had his own things he needed cleaned and done and taken care of. Mending, sewing, filing, odd tasks—chores that other people wouldn’t have been willing to do. What he wanted was a young and efficient woman who wouldn’t complain, who wouldn’t say anything, who needed the money. During the day Krishan went to a nursery run by the nuns, but in the evenings they had their own services and did not take care of children. I had no one to watch my child then, perhaps because the only people who visited my house now were the soldiers, checking on me. Could I take Krishan with me? He was unobtrusive; surely the headmaster wouldn’t mind, and if he needed me to come somewhere that Krishan couldn’t follow, my baby could wait quietly. He knew how to do that.
I had just decided to bring Krishan along when Thushara stopped by for a cup of tea, as he sometimes did. I could never refuse him, either. He, too, was starting to look older—his neck thicker, like a man’s neck, his arms and shoulders filled out by the hard construction work the army did. I gave him the last biscuits I had, and told him that I would have to leave soon to go back to work. He had just come to see my son, he said, gazing at Krishan, who was playing with the dog that lived on our lane. You’re going to work again? Thushara asked, confused. It’s evening time, isn’t it? I’ll watch him.
I looked at Thushara, who even being a soldier was still a boy, and at my son, who would never be a Tiger like Ranjan, and I didn’t wish that either of those facts were different. I left Krishan with Thushara, who, unlike some of the other soldiers I had met, thought he was my friend, and walked to work, where the headmaster was waiting for me in his office.
One month before my time—Ranjan’s time—was up, a government man came to speak at the school where I worked. They hired more people to help clean the school for the special occasion, and the schoolchildren practiced singing the national anthem. I was given a new work uniform; as usual, I would be permitted to stand in the back. I was not too troubled about the visit, although I knew Thushara and the other soldiers in Batticaloa were excited to see this man, who was new and also old, having been in several earlier governments also. The soldiers came and stood near the front to receive him, as part of the military honor they usually performed for such visitors.
I watched the speech and thought of Ranjan, who had loved politics. I held my broom tight, my back against the wall at the back of the lecture hall. Even from that distance I could see the government man. He had a weak face, his jaw lost in the fleshy peace he had enjoyed for years while the husbands of my village left or were taken away, while the Thusharas and their colonel left their villages to occupy ours. The government man spoke in Sinhala, and I, who for so long had had no energy for anger, only sadness, tried to listen. I don’t speak Sinhala well, even now. When he said the line that made people begin to murmur, I thought I hadn’t heard properly. I didn’t understand. I said, what? I wasn’t sure. First I said it to myself and then again to the temporary worker next to me, but she also did not speak Sinhala, or had not heard properly, and the two of us craned our necks and stared at the government man as though he were going to repeat himself, as so many of the most important men do to emphasize how important they are.
But he did not.
I’ll ask Thushara later, I told myself. Three years earlier, I would have asked Ranjan. The soldiers had liked to visit my husband in part because they could make him uncomfortable without translation.
What the government man said was that now, all the people who are missing are considered dead, Thushara said softly, and that we all know this. You could see from the fact that he was nearly crying—and that I was not—what a gentle young man he was. He had Krishan on his lap as he told me. I had given him whiskey instead of tea, and to hide his hurt from my son he turned Krishan around and made a horse of his knee. He let his own forelock fall over his forehead and into his eyes.
Amma, horse! Krishan said in Tamil. Horse, I said in English. And then, to Thushara: say it again. Say that sentence again in Sinhala.
On Thushara’s lap, Krishan looked like a smaller version of him, and a smaller version of my husband, and a smaller version of the headmaster for whom I worked, and I couldn’t tell any more which of the men I had known were real—whether I wanted time to pass, or rewind, or simply stop.
Three years after they take your husband they will pay you for him. They will give you a certificate that says you are entitled to certain monies. I waited for Ranjan, and one week before the third anniversary of my husband’s disappearance they brought me another man.
He was in handcuffs, that man, his face so swollen that I didn’t know what to do or how to talk to him. I could have fit his face into my palm, the way I had held Ranjan when it was just the two of us, and not known where his bones were under all that bruising. Thushara, beside him, turned his own eyes toward me with a hopeful look. I thought I heard the bound man mutter, Tell them it’s me, darling, tell them, sweetheart, in the Tamil word we use for that endearment, but his mouth was not the mouth I had known, and the tongue was clumsy and fat with dehydration, the cheek ripe like old fruit. I thought of giving him a drink of water and whiskey and tea, and I didn’t know if I was allowed to speak to him in Tamil, or if I should say to him in Sinhala the one sentence I had learned from the government man: The missing are considered dead.
This man is saying that he is your husband, the colonel said. You have been to see us every month. We wanted to bring him to you, so you would know that we are fair. If this is your husband, you should take him far from here. There is some land in the next village, which we can give you in exchange for yours.
Should. Have to. Can. These words translate differently. The missing should be considered dead. You have to consider them dead. You can consider them dead, the government man had meant. Had he thought he was freeing us? Should, have to, can—these words live everywhere. But no matter which words they used, I didn’t want to leave my home with this stranger. I wished I could tell Ranjan about the burned LTTE ID card in its melted puddle in the courtyard. The plastic had hardened now into a different shape. I wished I could ask the stranger where he had been, what had been done to him, what would happen to him if I said no, what would happen if I took him in. If I walked out of my house with this beaten man, even to save him, my husband would never walk back in. The door would close behind me. But this strange man, too, was a man, and belonged to someone, and if I did not claim him now, it was possible that no one ever would, and that I would send him back only into the darkest kind of dark.
I don’t know how long I stood there, wondering who I was and how much I had, before I heard Krishan’s voice behind me. He put his little hand into mine.
Amma, is that my father? he asked.
The missing are considered dead, the government man had said, but he had forgotten to say: except by those who love them.
Is it? Krishan said. My father?
No, baby, I said. No. No, it’s not, I said to the colonel, who nodded, slowly at first and then more firmly, as I said again, it’s not him. Are you sure? Yes, I’m sure, I said, and although by then nothing could have made me change my mind, I also knew that I would never be sure that what I had done was right. I would have been afraid of looking at the stranger again, but he seemed just then to have no face, and they took him away.
When they were gone, I went once more to the calendar and thought not of rupees, but of the feeling around my chest someday loosening. They had told me the number of days left until the government would call me a widow, but no one could measure the many years stretching ahead of me still, the whole long life I could wait.