advent of the King
The forgotten city suddenly stirred out of its slumber. A royal decree proclaimed that the King would soon visit to inaugurate the restoration of the temple destroyed during the war. Animals bearing placards and town criers armed with tom-toms carried the message to every nook and corner of the city.
The city stood on the banks of the Red River, lined by groves of bamboo, quick to catch fire from the smallest spark borne by the slightest breeze. Though the war had ended three years ago, the sound of trumpeting elephants, neighing horses, the clash of steel and the piteous cries of people could be heard even to this day. The stench of burning bodies still hung suspended in the air. Vultures had abandoned their eyries in the jungles nearby and flocked to the city in the wake of the army and roosted among the giant trees, anticipating another conflict. Blackened walls and houses with their roofs caved in revealed how this once beautiful city was ravaged by war. The silence of the night was disturbed by the constant hooting of birds of evil omen and the howling of dogs. The moon dared not shine for fear; children did not pester their mothers for milk. The sound of hoofbeats and the raucous laughter of soldiers filled the nights. Uumayan slept as if anaesthetised, ears pricked up and eyes fixed on the ceiling.
Uumayan and a few others had stayed behind in the city. Those who escaped death and those desirous of saving their skins crossed the river and moved on to safer places. Uumayan did not want to abandon his mother, so he stayed.
Many had forgotten Uumayan’s real name. They called him ‘Uumayan’ (dumb) because he never spoke much. Only his mother knew how her son had lost his voice.
The King ordered his army into the city to put down the rebellion. Hoodlums and gangs of criminals tagged along with the soldiers. Ruthlessly, they went about torching buildings, destroying idols, mutilating women and hacking at children. When they finally left, the city was like a cane-field trampled by hordes of wild elephants.
Uumayan was once arrested for possessing a safety razor. Barefoot, with his hands bound behind his back, he was marched along the hot sandy lanes and forced to kneel in the road and perform Suryanamaskar. The soldiers then stuffed a stone into his mouth and kicked him repeatedly in the stomach. “A…mm…a…!” he cried in pain, but the word stuck in his throat.
In the evening, Uumayan and a few others staggered into the city, weary and hungry. Not a soul was in sight. The streets were deserted. They dared not look back for fear of being summoned by the Angel of Death, but continued on their way, their lengthening shadows beside them. When they turned the corner, women rushed towards them, peering into their faces, looking for their men. They wailed when they did not find their loved ones, tearing their hair, beating their heads and breasts. “What happened? What happened?” they asked. A child dangling from his mother’s hip laughed innocently, his tiny fingers in his mouth, unaware that his dear father was dead. Another woman shook Uumayan by his shoulders and moaned. Even today, the lamentation of the widows and orphans can be heard among the rustling casuarinas in the convent compound.
Uumayan had once thought that he was lucky and destined to live happily. He was now ashamed of his childishness. He realised that life was harsh, insecure, that death was hovering over him like the sword of Damocles. Disenchanted with life, he stayed indoors and spent his days in silence. He grew pale, frustrated and bewildered like a trapped animal.
Unable to sleep, he spent his days and nights dreaming. He had visions — of people, some with their eyes gouged out, others with their fingernails and toenails plucked off, tottering up to him, demanding justice. Half-burnt bodies sprang up from funeral pyres asking, “What did we do?” He saw a headless fowl thrashing about in its death throes, a pregnant nanny goat being run over by a carriage and stray mongrels attacking passers-by.
The King had even appeared in Uumayan’s dreams, an embodiment of compassion with an angelic smile spread across his Buddha-like face. But it was said that this was deceptive, a mere facade — that in truth he was cunning, cruel, malicious, vindictive, a man devoid of pity or compunction, the devil incarnate. There were other stories too — that he was fond of rearing white doves and had a passion for wearing garlands of human skulls. Numerous stories, often contradictory. It was rumoured that he had unearthed a crown of his forefathers and had crowned himself, that he was in the habit of taking his throne with him wherever he went.
The King had even appeared in Uumayan’s dream, exactly as he had been affectionately portrayed by the court artists, a person with an endearing smile. It was early in the morning. The fog had not lifted. Temple bells pealed out, birds circled in the sky and holy men chanted the Vedas. The King, dressed in white, was walking along the riverbank, caressing a white dove. Behind him was Uumayan. The sun, bewitched by the King’s splendour, rose rather reluctantly.
The King raised his eyes and looked at the sky. “The sky is clearing. Soon, there will be light.”
Encouraged by the King’s cheerful mood, Uumayan boldly observed: “Your Majesty, don’t you think we’ll all be dead before daybreak? Why, aren’t we walking corpses already?”
Turning, the King looked at Uumayan and chuckled: “If it is war, it is war! If it is peace, it is peace!”
Measuring his words with care, Uumayan addressed the King hesitantly: “Don’t you think war has its morals too? What crimes have the people committed? Is it right to kill babies, women, the sick and the infirm, the holy men?”
The King smiled. “When a chariot moves, it is bound to flatten the grass and crush lives. It cannot be helped. Why are you whining about such petty things? I know… I know everything…”
“Yes, everything is possible for you…” said Uumayan. The King stopped in his tracks.
“Yes, everything is possible if I deem it so… Behold!” said the King. The white dove in his hand vanished mysteriously and in its place was the bleeding head of a rabbit!
As the day of the King’s visit drew near, the city was in a flurry of activity. New checkpoints sprouted all over like mushrooms after the rains. Men worked hard to make the city pleasing to the eye. Graves were screened off with colourful shrubs and sweet-scented flowering plants. Trees, uprooted from the neighbourhood, were transplanted along the routes leading to the gates of the city. The King’s portraits appeared everywhere.
Long lines of bullock-carts queued up at checkpoints. People drenched in the pouring rain inched their way forward, bundles on their heads. Men were forced to stick out their tongues while soldiers searched diligently for anti-government propaganda material. A cow that had strayed into the city had its bowels ripped open and probed for hidden arms.
Topers, the froth of toddy still fresh on their moustaches, danced and frolicked in the streets, singing:
He gave us a temple
Our King gave us a temple,
He’ll give us more
He’ll give us everything we ask
p. 1 p. 2
A Sri Lankan Tamil short story writer, Uma Varatharajan’s work explores the dehumanising effect of civil war in his country. This story is a parable that recalls the last 18 months of the Presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa, which ended with his assassination by an LTTE suicide bomber at a May Day rally in 1993