The main events took place in Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar) on 7–8thJuly 1962. On 7thJuly 1962, the military regime violently suppressed a student demonstration at Rangoon University attended by some 5,000 students. This resulted in more than one hundred deaths, and the arrest of around 6,000 students according to unofficial sources. He was one amongst them. As if this was the place to be in prime youth, he had surrendered.
His favourite colour was grey. Not the bright grey (if at all, there can be anything bright about it), but banal, shabby, worn-out shades. This was colour he had first opened his sight to. The colour of the umbilical blood too appeared grey to him. They say babies have a monochromatic vision. He felt he was a baby all his life. An abandoned one.
Never could he see the whites or the blacks, blues or the reds, forget about the magentas or quamarines to the world. To him, only the colour grey obliged.
Swine, they called him. Hera, he called himself. Hera, the prisoner of the Burmese jail, a Rangoon university student who was arrested on charges of revolting against the colonial rule. The cause wasn’t important to Hera. The urge to rebel had to be satisfied. An inert tranquillity that was deep-rooted in his DNA kept him coming back to these grey walls, and its stingy corners. In the five by five feet enclosure that housed fifteen other students like him, he felt at home. Once in fifteen days, he could lie on the floor, damp with urine and faecal matter. Other days, he leaned on the grey walls, and appreciated the art forms made on it with the blood of previous and some current, prisoners. Scarlet, crimson, madder to burnt umber, wenge and smokey topaz; the shades changed colours.
But the grey remained as grey. Like a faithful servant, it stayed obedient to its master. Hera believed he was the master of this palette of grey. For he was born here, and inevitably, going to die here, too. But before that, he had to see her.
Maria fished a large turtle out from the clasp of voracious waves. With squinted vision, she watched the drowning sun. The sea leapt out at her feet like a famished monster. Little crabs pinching her callous feet were dragged out with her receding from the shores. Marine water dripped from the folds of her saggy skin. Maria was a halophile. She loved every sodium ion of the sea. It was all she had. It was all that she carried, oceans of animosity and reticence. Despite harbouring a sea of turmoil, Maria could never shed a tear of grief, a tear of longing for the sole survivor of her womb, the beat of her heart, the thump of her pulse.
The turtle was a big catch for her petite figure. On her hunched back, she carried it with pride and pomp. For the next fifteen days, she would slowly and patiently savour each of its parts. Hunger would be at bay till the next full moon. Back in her mud hut, she placed her treasure in a large trough. The turtle’s large, grey eyes watched her in anticipation. She would cut its feet one by one, and yet attend to its amputated limbs like a diligent nurse. To preserve it for a whole fortnight, she had to keep it alive. The eyes haunted her so she took care to cover them with a damp longyi.
Hunger was a horrendous monster, more so for a tribal woman who was convicted of her husband’s murder. Having served her term, she was smuggled back into her country. The country she knew.The islands of Andamans, nothing more patriotic, nothing less personal. Like crustaceans flanked on the shore, many like her were thrown on the islands after life was sucked out of them in the Burma prisons.
On the islands, Maria was the firstborn of the Teetop hamlet when tsunamis and earthquakes had forced the Riang tribe to migrate to this isolated island. The Christian Missionaries had named her after the Virgin Mary. Who knew her fate would also turn out to be the same? At the ripe age of fifteen, she fell in love with a Burman and fled her country via a dinghy that battled the Kalbaisakhi storms of the Bay of Bengal to touch the oilfields of Burma.
The grey skies were heavy with its inhibitions. It won’t be long enough when they would give away. The waters would break with the turtle being caught in the net. Trapped! The turtle beat its feet fervently. The fibrous net choked its breath. Yet, it didn’t stop marvelling at the grey skies. Grey was after all its treasured colour. With a flip, it was pulled out of blue waters. Still, cold water was splash on its face. Though the water was its home, this splash hurt him.
“YOU SWINE! How dare you sleep without the jailor’s permission?!”
One more bucket of icy cold water was splashed on Hera’s face. Opening his eyelids where the lashes had been scalded with hot water, Hera smiled a toothless smile. There was nothing that deterred him from smiling. His grandparents told stories of how he was born smiling in the prison. Maybe, the grey made him happy. Having a little known mercy on him, the junta had handed him over to his paternal grandparents. After all his mother was serving a term for killing his father, a Burman who worked on the oilfields.
“I want to write a letter.”
With a squint, he dared to look in the eyes of the jailor. The pink tissue from the territory of flesh deprived of its skin shone like an island. Rodents or cockroaches, Hera doesn’t recall who had titled this patch. On one of the nights when he had the luxury of kissing the bare floor, the offended arthropods must have taught him a lesson. Wasn’t he, too, protesting against the colonial rule? Right over his land. Right over his education. By his father’s grace, he was a native, a native imprisoned for asking for his right over his land. His sturdy shoulders slopped yet his ambitions stood tall.
Burma, the land of Mon kingdoms, was seized control by the British East India Company after three Anglo-Burmese wars. In Rangoon, student protesters, after successfully picketing the Secretariat, the seat of the colonial government, were charged by the British mounted police wielding batons and killing the Rangoon University students. Hera was not killed; not allowed to die, but left suspended between life and death to serve the karma of his weed-addicted father and traitor mother. He was told his mother killed his father to elope with a Christian missionary from the Andamans, her hometown and indeed she did after, she was released on account of good conduct. Good or bad, she was deported back to her part of the country, the Andamans.
After years of bitter hatred, today Hera wanted to write her a letter. He wanted to immerse her in guilt if she had any inkling of his condition.
“So, Marco Polo here, wishes to write a letter. Won’t be taking any of your piss!”
The sarcasm along with the whip lashed across his arm. A deep gnash split crimson profanities. But the lisped tongue couldn’t even wince. It obeyed like the grey walls, which never lost their identity even amidst the jets of red and brown.
Maria chopped off one appendage of the turtle. The minced meat in a gruel would pacify her growling stomach for two sane days. Before cooking it on the stove, the single symbol of her riches, she bandaged the bleeding stump. Christianity had infused some humanity in her. Had she experienced this magic of religion and faith, she would have bandaged the slit throat of her husband before he was declared dead by the junta! Had this faith bestowed its bearing on her when in Burma, Maria would have sought refuge at her husband’s feet, believing he would not kick her eight-month swollen baby! When the Burman kicked from outside, the baby kicked from within. Why was she subjected to this dual torture? Was this the reason she had never desired to see the kicking offenders face? Who knows what boiled on the stove and in her heart every day? Only grey wisps of smoke emanated from the shanty.
Was grey her favourite colour too?
Inside the net, the turtle found a place of quietude with its entanglements. It rode on the proud back of its benefactor. The grey skies had cleared yet it could see specks of grey floating on the whites. Little muddled cotton balls traversed the expanse of clear skies. Constricted by the fibrous mesh, the turtle enjoyed the glory of grey streaks left after a wash of rain and thunder. Suddenly all went dark. A blackout prevailed.
A dagger chopped its feet within the blink of an eye. Deep agony of betrayal cried. The stump could feel its companion being minced into fine pieces. It realized it was made of million breathing pieces and each piece would further be chopped into a million others.
Hera got up, perspiring from his dreams. Ironically, these weren’t wet dreams. He laughed to himself. Today, he was granted permission to write a letter after he had threatened to kill himself in a hunger strike. The strike had left his muscles craving for water and meat. The turtle in the dream seemed a good option. How would it feel to chew his feet? His flesh cooked on a stove in Teetop. Yes, he remembered he had to send the letter to Teetop village in Andamans. That was the legacy his grandparents had left. The legacy was an address where he could find his mother. Maybe after running away she had the money to fight his case. Maybe, she didn’t have to think of eating turtle flesh for survival. The letter would end the procrastination.
Knackered, his hand trembled. What would he write troubled him over how would he write with a chop in his arm? Yet, he wrote to remind her of his existence. He wrote to her to remind her that the flesh was overcooked and needed to be off the stove.
The letter after scrutiny checks travelled across the Bay of Bengal.
Maria turned off the stove she had killed the dead meat. With no options left she stirred a ladle and poured herself some charred gravy. The grey colour of the gravy haunted her. With no condiments and spices to flavour it, the meat was a discoloured ball of dissatisfaction and annoyance. She was annoyed with her life. The Burman had long ago killed her desire to live. Then why on these islands she struggled for a mass of food? For whom was she waiting, every day on the shores? As the sun washed itself in the brine waters, she wished a hooting ship with him would come. He must have grown up now, with sturdy shoulders and lanky legs. Very disproportionate, just like his father’s. Twenty-five that must be his age, if they had fed him and kept him alive.
Nudging the sand and gravel on the shore to carry her longing across the sea, Maria stared at the grey skies. The sun had immersed itself in the incognito pool of turbulence. As the sea swallowed the solar mass, it fell silent. On the shores with her grey bowl of minced meat, Maria slurped the gravy in one go. Her turmoil felt at peace. He would come searching for her, the calm self told her.
The grey skies offered hope.
Hope was the tinge of grey that was diminishing from the wall. It was now more of crimson progressing to burnt brown. Hera ran his fingers through the streaks of grey that were dying a slow death. The jailor, with much disgust, had agreed to send his letter. The scrutiny had declared it to be safe to reach his mother. It was a dying man’s wish to see the channel of his birth. What would she look like now? Did the lanky legs find their strength from her or was the squint her ounce?How was she? Who was she?
Or only a woman sharing the grey skies with him?
The last suspicion brought him an inch closer to waiting for her arrival.
The turtle swam in the little waters of the trough. The amputee was giving it less pain over the anticipation of looking into the eyes of its caregiver. Thankfully, its vision was veiled by the longyi. SLASH!
A whip landed on Hera’s other arm. Insein prison was a human slaughterhouse. Pigs were murdered with humanity, but not men. They were left hanging between life and death.
Carefully, she twisted the other broken limb and dismembered it from the turtle. Her hut was a slaughterhouse of human and amphibian emotions. Like her, the turtle, too, was suspended between life and death, yearning for the latter. But to both, it won’t come so soon. Today she had to cook it slowly.
A loud knock thundered her tin door.
“You have mail.”
The postman left as quintessentially as he had come. No signs of excitement. Who on earth was alive to write a letter to her? Had the setting sun heard her clamorous prayers? Maria read the letter andknew had to go. He was dying and it was her first and last chance to meet him. She immediately rushed to the church. She sold her little hut and the sooty stove. Packing her meagre belongings she headed towards the coast. The ship waited or that’s what she perceived. The final lock and another shore waited for her arrival. Just when she was about to cross the threshold, Maria heard the trough move. It was still alive. Hopefully, he was too. She had no appetite to pursue it further. On her back, the crippled turtle traversed its journey to the sea. On the shores, she alighted the animal and then boarded the ship.
Waiting for the sail for the first time their eyes met. She was sorry for his state. It craved her torture.
The Colonial Lands
Hera was given a bath. His hair was trimmed and brushed. Today he would be having a visitor. Three years, none apart from the jailor, centipedes and cockroaches had cared to visit him. All in the ascending order of importance. The junta cared to present their guest in the best possible manner. With crippled arms, Hera trotted towards the courtyard where he would see her. As always he wasn’t alone, a centipede tugged at his new but tattered trouser while a guard dragged him along.
The bright sunlight squinted his vision further. In the spotlight, under the tree, he knew it was her. The petite figure was a concoction of guilt, longing, remorse and trapped conscience. She recognised the squint, the sturdy shoulders and lanky legs. He stopped midway. He had no energy to continue.
She broke down on seeing his scalded face and crippled arm, his congealed blood and the dead scar. He just stared back and smiled. The broken teeth and cut tongue refused to make a show. For full three minutes, they stood transfixed. None could take a step further. Her labour pains came gushing to her. His umbilical wound pricked him. The word ‘mother’ surfaced to his mind but the lousy throat swallowed it. It was too much of an effort to call her mother. In the moment of solitude, he suddenly turned back and proceeded to the comfort of grey. The bright shades weren’t meant for him. His purpose of seeing her was achieved. He couldn’t spend the rest of his life in a longing to live with her. He was meant to die.
The centipede rolled onto his skin. There was no dearth of blood for it now.
Dazed, she wept in denial of his denial. It was her turn to now die in hankering for him.
On the Islands, the turtle slipped under a grey rock. The bright sun scorched its skin. It waited for Maria to return and make a stew out of him. This time not sparing a single part of it. Anyways, it was meant to die.
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