The Fragrance of Freedom
by Padma Prasad
When Small saw Arul standing in the doorway of the first interview shack, he felt as if all that he had missed out on or lost in life was standing there in human form. Arul was a twenty-year-old six footer, slender framed, completely untouched by the civil war crisis that had brought him to the interview hut. Of an ebony complexion, he had a well-nourished appearance, the soft gaze of an uncomplicated existence. He glowed like a bridegroom. Small saw all this and was careful not to be taken in by what he saw. He had had enough trouble already with his boss, Shiv Kali, for accepting a man who was above forty. Shiv Kali was particular about keeping his clients young and single.
Small shook his head again and said, “Ask me a hundred times, the answer is the same. Only one answer. No parents. Final.”
Shiv Kali’s refugee operation, now in its fifth year, was quite successful. It was dangerous but he made it work mostly because he oversaw everything. Also, he moved his headquarters frequently, enough to escape the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the Sri Lankan Army and the Tamil Tigers. Young men were becoming scarce and army recruiters wandered around the small towns and villages ruthlessly looking out for them.
Shiv Kali’s rules were clear: payment, a week before boarding date; 60,000 rupees per head, no accountability after they boarded the ship; one trip every month and he used two cargo liners interchangeably; the average age of each one was between twenty and thirty, below twenty would be considered, maximum thirty five; preference for men, occasional women on a case by case basis; no more than ten per consignment, no parents, no sick people, definitely, no parents.
Arul responded to Small with, “My father said no if you don’t take all three of us.”
Later in the day, Arul’s father came to the shack. He looked much older than his fifty -four years. He told Small that Shiv Kali was related on his mother’s side and that he should consider them as a special case. Small wasted no time and by evening Shiv Kali met Arul and his father, in a different place.
The building they were in had been bombed at least three times. It used to be the Saint Aloysius Elementary School. In the remains of the room where they met, there were illustrated letters of the alphabet along the wall. Shiv Kali sat in the teacher’s chair with a partially missing blackboard behind him. Arul sat on a table propped against the wall under the letter “G” illustrated by a mournful looking giraffe.
Just like Small earlier in the day, Shiv Kali now looked at Arul and wondered, where had the kid been all these years? He looked so innocent and unscathed. The war had left no trace on him. Maybe he was born into it and thought that gunshots, bombs, sirens and military personnel was the normal way of life. In contrast, Arul’s father, Murugan looked skeletal, with bloodshot eyes, the folds of his forehead collapsing over his brow. Both son and father were the same ebony color, but on Murugan, the skin had a dry unhealthy sheen to it, like it had been packed in a layer of cling film.
Arul had a detached but polite look on his face, as if the ongoing negotiations were interesting but not of any particular seriousness to him. He was aware that Shiv Kali kept glancing at him often. Each time he did so, Arul looked even more polite and inclined his head graciously towards Shiv Kali.
Shiv Kali even wondered if something was wrong with the boy. In all the years that he had run the refugee business, he had never seen an individual who did not grovel. People came to him, their faces lined with the fear of death, their bodies held together by misery; they were all just like Murugan, whining, pleading, bargaining. In the midst of the dust and darkness and distant sound of gunfire, Arul sat like a God, his limbs extended effortlessly, his face open and neutral; he looked breezy as if he was fragrant with freedom. Shiv Kali mulled over this peculiarity and became conscious of a longing to own it, that breeziness which the young man represented. He felt he should somehow copyright that nonchalance, that wonderful aura of detachment.
As Murugan went on pleading for himself and his wife to be included on the next trip, an idea took hold in Shiv Kali’s mind. This was an idea that he had been cultivating for quite a while. It might even have become a reality with the previous batch of refugees, but he had held back. It seemed like now was the perfect context.
While Murugan revealed his family history and stressed how they were related to each other, and where they had disconnected, Shiv Kali gazed expressionlessly through the broken window at the broken wall outside. When Murugan paused, Shiv Kali raised his hand, nodded vigorously and spilled out his idea. “Yes, yes, Murugan, enough. We will take all three of you. One condition. I don’t have much to ask, just one condition. I have one daughter. Only one. Four months ago, they shot her. The bullet hit her face, very slightly, just that much. That was all. God was kind, He did not take her from me. All this time, I have been asking for an answer, how to keep her safe. It is all God’s plan. Otherwise why should you come here to me, just now, not in all these years, see? So this is what I am asking, Murugan, my brother. Take my daughter with you. Marry my daughter to your son and let them live in peace in the new world.”
Murugan trembled. He regretted at once that he had come to Shiv Kali, that he had actually imagined he could escape from the war. Then angered, he accused Shiv Kali of the obvious, that he was taking advantage of their situation, that this was not what he had expected or asked for.
Shiv Kali raised his hand again. “Look, see here Murugan, in the very last batch, just before you , there was another young man. I was about to ask him this favor, but he was not of our caste. I just could not take the risk. But she is like your own. If we cannot do this for each other, what is the point of how we are related? If the situation had been reversed, I would have done the same for you, you cannot doubt it.”
Shiv Kali looked stealthily at Arul to see how he was taking it. The boy was slowly dissipating into something familiar to Shiv Kali: a look of defeat and hopelessness. As if in symbolic sympathy, the giraffe picture came down over his shoulders, covering him with dust.
Shiv Kali forced himself not to be disturbed. He pressed onward with more tempting offers. “No payment needed. Only this condition. I cannot trust her with anyone. I have been thinking and thinking how to keep her safe. Think, if you had a daughter, what would you do for her? You will not regret this, Murugan, I can say only that.”
When they told the news to Arul’s mother, Saroja Devi, she lamented and said they should rather die than let such a thing happen to her beloved Arul. You could not find such a beautiful boy on all of the island. How they had nurtured him and protected him, how they had shielded him from all the pain, the suffering, the horrors that went on around them, mouthful by mouthful, they had made him grow without a blemish; this villain Shiv Kali was a hawk, a vulture, no, a plague infested rodent; her Arul was a fruit, just at perfect ripeness, no, she would not allow him to be destroyed so recklessly. It was too much to ask, no one could ask for such a sacrifice. He was so tender, so young and to put this burden of a wife and marital responsibilities on his head, it was unthinkable. She pleaded with Murugan that they should all commit suicide or … or what, there were not really that many options. Arul watched his parents helplessly and felt the future implode into a ruin of dreams.
However, the matter was decided for them. Murugan learnt from a neighbor that four boys who lived on the neighboring street, one as young as fifteen had gone missing in the last two days. It’s a wonder that your son has managed to escape for as long as he has, the neighbor commented, much to Murugan’s anguish.
The marriage was a civil ceremony. Though Shiv Kali did arrange a small feast afterwards. There was chicken curry, fish fry, puttu and a very nice cake, something they had all known a long time ago, when the island was a normal, lovely place.
Arul’s mother hated everything that was happening. She hated the day, the time, the bride, the boat at Kokkilai Lagoon that would take them to the ship that was already stationed at Trincomalee Harbor; she hated their helplessness, most of all.
The bride, her name was Aarani, was very thin and still showed the facial injury of the gunshot; there was a scar on her left cheek and her left eye was half closed. She had not once looked at Arul or his parents.
Arul could care less about what his new wife did. His face looked more careworn and weary than the seven other refugees, all young men, who were going on this trip with them. He was half-tempted to run away, into the forests near the lagoon; miserably, he pictured the plight of his parents if he did that. His mother might really commit the suicide she had been threatening for so long.
The journey to Trincomalee happened as planned. They reached the harbor at 2 am. Shiv Kali who would normally take leave of his consignment at Kokkilai Lagoon, accompanied them to Trincomalee. Now that the actual moment of separation had come, the change in Arul disturbed him. Shiv Kali suffered now from doubt and fear: he had given Arul a chance to be free, but snatched away his spirit. He had made a complete miscalculation about the boy. The peace that he had felt when he made the arrangements for the marriage was gone now. He began to worry about his daughter. That Arul’s mother too, she was not helping at all, he wondered if she would ill-treat his child. For the first time since he started his business, Shiv Kali cursed the war and cursed his part in it. If only he had not come across Arul. He was tempted to stop the whole thing, to hold back his daughter. But she was already on the steps of the boat. He felt a little relief, when she saw that she was carrying her mother-in-law’s bag and Murugan was behind her. Arul was the last in line, he looked shorter and smaller than how Shiv Kali remembered him.
Shiv Kali stopped Arul and pulled him away to one side and tried to restore him to his former self. “What happened, what happened to you, son?” he whispered urgently. “Are you worried that the face is damaged? The doctor told me, she will recover fully, let me tell you that. It is nothing to be unhappy about.”
Arul shook his head. “Then what is it, the new life, the new country, you are worried about the journey? Let me tell you, we have done this countless times, only two times, we had a problem. But that was not our fault. That was because of pirates. But even that problem is not there now.”
Arul continued to shake his head. Finally Shiv Kali said what he remembered his elders had told him when he was young. That everything they did was for his own good, that he would not know it now, but later, when he was having a comfortable, fulfilled life, he would remember and be thankful.
Shiv Kali patted Arul several times. He took out a rectangular package from his bag and pressed it into Arul’s hands. “Meant to give you this earlier” and when Arul would not take it, he said in an angry voice, “Keep it with you. It will be useful, something you will need. Now, go, go, go soon.”
Shiv Kali’s daughter and Arul’s parents were already standing at the railing. With one quick look at them, Shiv Kali walked away.
As Arul walked up the steps, he became aware of how large the ship was. A little ocean breeze passed by his face and a tiny excitement stirred somewhere within him.
The ship had once been a cruise vessel, it had an aura of luxury. They were given a small cabin with three berths. Aarani slept on the floor. It was not possible to know whether she was happy or sad. It was also not possible for Arul’s mother to continue with her anger. After all the days of uncertainty and fear, being on the ship gave them a slight feeling of hope. As Murugan said, they could have done so much worse; he was about to tell the story of someone he knew who had drowned in a refugee boat, but looking at his wife’s face, he stopped.
Obviously, Shiv Kali was a respected man. The captain came to check on Aarani and to make sure she was comfortable.
When they had settled down somewhat, Arul opened the package which Shiv Kali had given him. It was cash, fifty thousand dollars of it. His mother touched a hundred dollar bill and started to cry.
Murugan whispered, “Dollars, he has given dollars, American money.”
Arul stared at the money, feeling a strange mixture of aversion and humility. He looked at Aarani. Her face was filled with pride. Her left eye trembled to open.
One day when they were well into the Indian Ocean, Arul woke up at about 5 am and looked down to see that Aarani was no longer there. He waited a while for her to return and when she did not after ten minutes, he went in search of her. He found her on the deck, near the bow of the ship.
She turned and smiled at him for the first time. “I just wanted to see the sun rise,” she explained. “If it’s as beautiful as the pictures.”
Arul looked at the horizon, at the clouds in the first rays of sunlight, the ocean quivering in a magic of light. The light wrapped around them, gentler than warmth, softer than kindness.
Padma Prasad is a writer and painter. Her fiction has appeared in several magazines, most recently, in Your Impossible Voice. Her poem, A Mangrove Element, received Honorable Mention in the Palm Beach Ekphrastic Poetry competition, 2016. She blogs at padhma.wordpress.com; her art is mostly figurative and can be viewed here. Padma lives and works in Fairfax, Virginia.