Saturday, 1 August 2009

Short Story: Just A Little Boy

The news passed quickly through the entire front line that stretched, at places three deep, sturdy and strong and at places, stretched and thin with breaches in between, from Kilaly to Muhamalai to Nagar Kovil. Subhash heard two of his men, or rather boys, talk about it and shook his head. It was as if a bucket of cold water had been dumped on all of them! Kilinochchi had fallen to the enemy! They had let Annai down! If only they all had done their jobs well, this wouldn’t have happened. Annai would be ashamed of them. Well, it was not such a big surprise, was it? Ever since Paranthan had fallen on New Year’s eve, they knew that Kilinochchi didn’t stand a chance. Now Elephant Pass was bound to be taken as well. Of course they would bounce back. They had done that so many times before, hadn’t they? They would struggle even harder, make even more sacrifices and ultimately win! Subhash believed as much as any one else in the Movement that their struggle would be successful.

The firing had ceased for the moment, but Subhash knew that the next attack could start anytime. They never stopped, did they? It had been like this for many months now. There was a time when it was the other way around, when they were on the offensive and the army sat cowering in its bunkers, something many of the young lads fighting with him had never known. Ah! What wouldn’t he do to get back the feeling he had experienced when they captured Elephant Pass! No, it didn’t matter. So long as Annai led them, they couldn’t lose. Their peerless National Leader was better than every other military leader in the world. Provided they all lived up to his expectations, Eelam was bound to be a reality, sooner than later. Right now, it was obvious that they weren’t doing so.

‘I’ll be back in a while,’ Subhash told the three lads who were with him in his bunker, which was more like a tunnel through the bund, ran down to the base of the bund and walked over to where Amuthan was likely to be. He took care to crouch and keep his head low. The other day, one of the boys had been killed by a sniper’s bullet during such a lull when he stood up to take a leak. There was a small hillock just over a kilometre away, dotted with tall trees. If there were snipers targeting them, they would be on those trees. If only he could, he would have lobbed a few shells at that hillock and knocked down those trees. However he could only dream of lobbing shells right now. Most of the lads from the Kutti Sri Mortar Unit and Kittu Artillery Unit who had been with them for so many months had gone off to defend Kilinochchi a few weeks ago. God knew if they were still alive, now that Kilinochchi had fallen. They still had a few mortars and artillery pieces left, but Colonel Bhanu was saving them for an actual attack.

If Leo were still alive, he would have got Leo to fire a few RPGs at the hillock. Leo was a genius, an artist, a man who could fire an RPG at a target that was at the outer limit of the RPG’s range and cause the shell to explode on top of the target, rather than hit it. It was such a pity that Leo had left this world before they could realise their homeland. He did have a few RPGs, but in the absence of Leo there was little sense in firing them from such a distance. The retaliatory fire that the flash of the RPG usually invited tilted the cost-benefit analysis against its use.

Amuthan was lying on the ground, his eyes closed and mouth open. For a second, Subhash thought that Amuthan was dead. But no, he was only sleeping. Amuthan was number two in the pecking order within the unit

‘Amutha, wake up!’ Subhash lightly tapped Amuthan’s leg with his shoe.

When Amuthan opened his eyes, he said, ‘did you hear the news? They have captured Kilinochchi.’

It took Amuthan a few seconds to register the information. He then said ‘bastards.’ He sat up, his eyes darting widely before he calmed down and said ‘it was bound to happen wasn’t it? Once Paranthan fell ……’

Amuthan sat up and said, ‘at this rate, it will be a while before we realise our homeland!’

It was tine for a serious pep talk, Subhash realised.

‘Amutha, do you remember your first fight? When was it?’

‘Oh, I crossed the Verugal river and … there wasn’t much fighting. They gave up without a fight.’

Subhash cursed himself for having asked such a question. He knew that Amuthan had joined the Movement just after the ceasefire. He ought to have guessed that Amuthan’s baptism of fire would have been when that traitor from the East back-stabbed the Cause.

‘No, your first real fight. With the army. That stuff in the East wasn’t fighting.’

‘We attacked Jaffna. Just after the cease fire officially ended.’

Subhash almost stomped his foot in frustration. That attack on Jaffna which was held by the army since 1995 had not been successful, though the army’s subsequent counter-attack on the LTTE’s defence lines had been repulsed with enormous casualties to the Sinhalese. This was the problem. People like Amuthan had never participated in a serious victory. They were too young, though Amuthan was quite old by the LTTE’s standards.

‘You are almost twenty, aren’t you?’

‘I have crossed twenty,’ Amuthan said with a tilt of his shoulders. Though he wore a tattered Tiger uniform, Amuthan wore no shoes and his slipper-clad feet were encased in mud. The scattered stubble on his cheeks and jaws did not help much and the army hat he had on, added to the general impression of a scarecrow.

‘You must remember how every one celebrated after we captured Elephant Pass, don’t you?’

‘Of course I do. I even remember how it felt when we took Mullaitivu. I was eight years old then.’

‘And I was thirteen. Yes, Mullativu was the best of them all. We had just lost Jaffna and we were all feeling horrible about it.’

Subhash paused for a moment and continued. ‘My first battle was at Oddusudan. I had just finished my training at that time. I had joined up immediately after I was sixteen. I wasn’t forced to join. I did it on my own. The rains had stopped and it was quite hot and dry. I think it was in October. We took over a month to take Oddusudan. This was the beginning of the third of the Ceaseless Waves. In those days Annai would spend a lot of time with us.’

Subhash sensed that a few people were standing behind him. He turned around. The four teenage boys, three of them with wisps of hair on their upper mandibles and the fourth one with cheeks that wouldn’t need a razor for many years, smiled at him with embarrassment. Well, it wouldn’t do them any harm to listen to what he had to say. They were at the base of the bund and were relatively safe.

‘And just a day after we captured Oddusudan, we took Nedunkerni. It was Ampakamam next. Karupaddamurippu fell to us shortly after that. The big army garrison at Mankulam couldn’t stand up to us. Nainamadu and Puliyankulam came next. The army base at Thallady fell to us like a ripe fruit. Seththukkulam was a cake walk. So many villages in Vadamarachi, they came under our control one by one.’

‘So you took part in Unceasing Waves III from the Oddusudan fight itself?’ one of the boys asked.

‘Yes, I did. Right from the start. And then before I realised what was happening, I was placed under Brigadier Balraj, he was only a colonel then, and we were fighting for the Elephant pass! And what a fight that was. It was truly the mother of all battles! Brigadier Balraj took over a thousand of us on boats to land at a place where the Sinhalese didn’t expect us. Soosai Annai said he couldn’t bring us back if things didn’t work out. We only had a one-way ticket. After landing from the boats, Balraj Annai and all of us walked from Thalaiyadi to Puthukkaattu Santhi on the highway. On the highway we held an area called the Vaththirayan Box and prevented the army sending supplies to the Elephant Pass camp from Jaffna.

‘You held it for 34 days, didn’t you?’ Amuthan asked.

‘Yes, 34 days.’ The battle of Elephant Pass was now LTTE folklore and almost everyone knew all the details. However, at a time like this, Subhash felt that he had to give his version of it to the boys around him. ‘We only had small arms and the army attacked us with helicopters and fighter planes and artillery and everything else they had. But we held on to the Vaththirayan Box.’

There was respectful silence from Amuthan and the boys. ‘During the fighting, I doubt if I slept more than two hours a day or ate more than one meal a day,’ Subhash added. These days they did not average more than two meals a day and so a reminder of how much more grim things could get was always useful.

The youngest of the teenage boys looked really young, not really a teenager. He was just a little boy, at a stretch twelve years old, almost the same age as Manikantan. Was he forcibly recruited? No, only those born in the year 1994 had so far been recruited forcibly, though in some areas, those born in 1995 were now being forced to join up. The boy in front of him couldn’t have joined voluntarily, he was sure of that. He wanted to ask that boy’s age, but daren’t. Are you 1996 born? he wanted to ask that youngster, but he desisted since Amuthan might report him. Manikantan’s birthday was the tenth of April 1996. He would be thirteen in three months’ time. Would they force him to join? Subhash was willing to make any sacrifice for the Movement, but Manikantan was just a little boy and was out of bounds for everybody. He, Subhash would sacrifice his life if needed, but they had no right to make Manikantan fight until he was old enough. Once Manikantan was fourteen, they could ask him to sign up. Ideally sixteen was the right age for a young man to join the Movement. He was sixteen when he had joined. But now that they were in dire straits he could understand fourteen year olds being drafted. However, a twelve year old should under no circumstances be forced to join.

Subhash forced himself to focus on the present and to ignore the young boy in front of him. They were waiting for him to say something.

‘They had two complexes, at Elephant Pass. One called Iyakachchi and the other called Elephant Pass itself. We took them both. The army ran away is disarray. If only we had more men, we could have chased and killed all those soldiers who were running away and we could have got Eelam right then and there!’

‘Annai, did you capture a lot of weapons?’

‘Oh yes we did. We got quite a few tanks, bulldozers, artillery, machine guns, RPGs, rifles, grenades. So many things we got.

The boys held on to each of his words. Now there were five of them. And Amuthan.

‘So what I want to tell you is that a defeat means nothing. Even a victory or two …..’ Subhash wasn’t sure how to complete that sentence. It wasn’t leading to the point he wanted to make, which was that a few defeats did not mean the end of the Movement which had seen so many glorious victories and that they would and should fight till Eelam was realised. It didn’t matter that they had lost their first line of defence or that their hold on their second line was tenuous.

Subhash took a deep breath and was about to rephrase what he had said when the artillery shells started to fall once more.

‘Back to your positions,’ he shouted and set an example himself. ‘Ask them to use ammunition sparingly,’ he shouted to Amuthan.

Would the army send in its infantry once more? Subhash wondered as he ran up the bund in a crouch. He had no doubt that they would be beaten back. The bund had a trench in front of it and the dry land in front of the trench was heavily mined. The army’s usual tactic was to intensively shell the bunds and bomb them from the air, after which the infantry would, under cover of machine gun fire, advance into the minefields carrying Bangalore torpedo tubes which they would drop on the minefields and retreat. After the Bangalores had exploded, the infantry would dash through the path cleared by the Bangalores and charge the bunds, at which stage, the Tiger machineguns, until then largely silent, would open up and cut down most of the attackers. A few survivors would, under cover of the smoke and dust and confusion, turn around and run back to the army’s lines.

The attack turned out to be no different from the previous ones. The shells fell quickly and fast. Only a few of them caused any real damage. One of the bunkers close to Subhash took a direct hit and two of the three boys inside it died instantly. A third one must have been badly hurt for he screamed a few times and stopped after that. He too must have died, Subhash thought.

An aircraft appeared overhead and dropped a few bombs one after the other. Subhash was pretty sure that not more than one bomb hit its target. The lucky bomb fell in an area where the line was held by the Jeyanthan boys. There was a dark plume of smoke and some secondary explosions. The rest of the bombs fell harmlessly on unoccupied terrain. The aircraft was followed by four Mi24 helicopter gunships which fired indiscriminately at the bunds.

Subhash hated the helicopters more than the bomber plane that flew at a great height, dropped its bombs and disappeared. His hatred for helicopters was a carryover from his boyhood days in Jaffna where both the IPKF and the army used the gunships indiscriminately. The Mi24s completed a sortie and turned around. Subhash knew that they would be back.

The lads with him in the bunker were itching to fire their machine gun, which was primed and ready. ‘Steady lads. Wait till the soldiers appear,’ Subhash told them more than once. The lads looked afraid. . Of the three, one was seventeen or so. The other two were around fifteen. How would Manikantan look in a Tiger uniform? That young boy who had listen to his pep talk, he had worn a uniform that fitted him well, didn’t he? Subhash cursed the tailors who stitched those kid size uniforms. Manikantan was safe for another year at least. The Movement never forced anyone below the age of fourteen to join. Or, was he? How then, did that youngster beside him end up in uniform? They both were just little boys.

Soon a number of tanks appeared, crunching their way slowly through the cacti and mangroves that dotted Muhamalai’s dry terrain. There would be soldiers crouching behind the tanks, Subhash knew. A few armoured personnel carriers also made an appearance. The officers would be in the APCs. If they could take some of them out, it would be grand. The trenches and bunds that formed their first line of defence, which the LTTE had vacated (voluntarily, of course) a month ago, were filled up or removed at a few sections to enable the tanks, APCs and soldiers to get through to the second line which they were holding. The third line of defence, yet another series of trenches and bunds, lay just a couple of kilometres behind them. Would they have to fall back to the third line?

‘Hold fire lads,’ Subhash repeated yet again. The bunker smelt of cordite, which effortlessly overpowered the other smells in that confined area. The tanks, APCs and soldiers were spread out in a line wide line that stretched as far out on both sides as his eyes could make out.

A loud explosion was heard. One of the tanks had been hit by a monster mine planted by the Victor Unit. This was a signal for the LTTE to open up. The Muhamalai forward defence line was held by a mix of men from the Charles Anthony brigade to which Subhash belonged, the Jeyanthan brigade, the Imran-Pandiyan brigade, women, or rather girls, from the Malathi and Sothiya brigades, with support from the Victor Anti-Tank and Mining Unit and Col. Bhanu’s boys from Kittu Artillery and Kutti Sri Mortars. They all fired at once. The mines too went off, seemingly all at once. How did they manage to get it right every time? Two APCs were ablaze. A number of soldiers who were trailing the tanks and APCs were cut down as they ran forward. The helicopter gunships re-appeared and they took a heavy toll on the lads. Anyone who was exposed was raked with heavy fire from the helicopters. The tanks which survived the monster mines fired at the bunkers at almost point blank range.

All of a sudden the fighting was over. For the moment, that is. The soldiers from the 53rd and 55th divisions which were fighting them must have laid down their Bangalore torpedo tubes and retreated to the trenches of the LTTE’s former first line, Subhash knew. He looked around him. The lads looked exhilarated; especially the thirteen year old whose eyes had a wild look in them. No sooner had the soldiers disappeared, the Bangalores exploded. And with them exploded so many mines and booby traps that the Victor Unit had planted just after they vacated the first line of defence.

‘There, there is a path there, let’s focus on that,’ Subhash told the lads. This time they knew that there would be many more soldiers, but they would all tread the paths cleared by the Bangalores. They didn’t have to wait for long. The Sinhala infantry charged out of their trenches and raced forward through the cleared paths, their helicopters and artillery providing covering fire. Must be at least a thousand men involved in the attack, Subhash thought. Two of the lads operated the heavy machine gun. Subhash and another boy fired their rifles. From time to time, Subhash would turn around to see that the machine gun was firing where he wanted it to fire and that it hadn’t jammed.

The soldiers came closer. Subhash could see their sweaty faces now. There was one particularly ugly looking man who seemed to have difficulty running. He had a moustache and a dirty stubble. Was that a big and nasty mole on his jaw? Subhash could imagine the two black hairs that would be sprouting out of that mole. He took careful aim and shot at that man who fell down. Was he dead? He would never know. Suddenly Subhash wanted that ugly soldier to survive. No, he shouldn’t have shot at him. However, he kept firing. Take this Colonel Kamal Gunaratne. This is for you Brigadier Prasanna de Silva. Kamal Gunaratne and Prasanna de Silva might be safe in their command centres behind the frontlines, but he, Subhash, would mow their men down like rats.

Then there was a loud explosion above them and Subhash’s world went blank.

Subhash was a little boy and the Indians were coming over to help them. They had been starving until a few Indian Air Force planes came over Jaffna and dropped them food supplies. The Sinhalese were scared out of their wits by Operation Poomaalai, weren’t they? The army knew that it couldn’t fight the mighty Indians. No, the Indians were the real enemies. Bigger enemies than even the Sinhalese. Thalaivar had always said that at some point they would have to fight the Indians. The Indians would never let them have Eelam. Since the Indians had come to Jaffna, they might as well fight them there. Subhash’s father didn’t agree. His mother was silent. One of his cousins went off to fight the Indians. I too want to fight the Indians, Subhash had said after they brought back his cousin’s body. You aren’t going anywhere Chellakannaa,’ his mother told him tearfully. That was his name. Chellakannan. Subhash was a fake name, one given to him by the Movement. They had no right to change a man’s name. How did it help to destroy a man’s identity? Wasn’t that what they were fighting for? Their own identity?

He was on a tractor which was making slow progress along a dirt road. ‘Where are we?’ he asked the man sitting next to him.

‘Annai, we are going to Kandawalai. From there, we are to go to Ooriyaan.’

Amuthan’s face appeared in front of him. ‘Look at him. Not a single scratch on him.’

‘What happened?’ Subhash asked.

A shell landed on top of your bunker. You have concussion. Nothing more, you lucky bastard.

Subhash faded out of consciousness yet again.

‘We have paid back for your son’s death,’ a man was telling his uncle, who had a long, grey beard. ‘The Indians came to the University and we were waiting for them. They thought we were idiots, that we would never listen to their radio communications. We killed so many of them like pigeons.’

‘Will my son be coming back?’ his uncle asked the man, who looked embarrassed.

‘I’ll fight the Indians,’ Subhash promised the world at large. But the Indians sailed away on their big ships.

The Sinhalese were not the real enemies. There was a ceasefire on and they were likely to freeze the forward defence lines as permanent boundaries. So many men and women got married. Subhash would also get married one day, with Thalaivar’s blessings. Karuna Amman was the real enemy, trying to create a split between the North and the East. What right did he have to say that the East was discriminated against? Didn’t Thailaivar make Karuna Amman his main deputy? How could Karuna Amman say that the easterners had made so many sacrifices and got nothing in return? Wasn’t Bala Annai from Batticaloa? Where was Karuna Amman now? Somewhere in Colombo?

There was that beautiful girl in the Malathi brigade. He never got to ask her name though for a time they had been sitting next to each other. She had smelt so good, unlike the men he was usually surrounded by. Colonel Vidusha was chasing him with a broom. ‘How dare you look at one of my girls like that? Don’t you know that the Malathi brigade is out of bounds for you? If you want a girl, go find one from the Sothiya Brigade. Colonel Durga won’t mind.’

At that point Colonel Theepan who was responsible for their region’s overall defences came up and solemnly warned him, ‘if I catch you even thinking of a woman, you’ll be out of the Movement. I will make you learn Sinhalese and force you to join the army. And we will take away your name. You will henceforth be called Chellakannan.’

Oh no! On no! His change of name to Subhash had given him a new lease of life. A new identity! They were all born again when they joined the Movement. In any event, he had never liked his original name.

‘I have two sons. Chellakannan and Manikantan. They will look after me when I am old,’ his father always said. He said the same thing when he packed up and took his new and young wife and new and young son to Puthukudiyiruppu.

But Manikantan was so young. He was just a little boy. How would he look after anyone? What would happen to his parents if he were to die for the Movement?

Manikantan would always be a baby. He could never be made to wear a uniform. Would they force Manikantan to choose another name when he joined the Movement? It was Subhash who had chosen the name Manikantan for his kid brother. He was almost thirteen when Manikantan was born, his animosity towards his father for having remarried two years ago and his sorrow over his mother’s demise four years ago, had all been forgotten in the joy of Manikantan’s birth.

Someone should tell Kamal not to take on too many roles in the same movie. He had done four roles in Michael Madhana Kama Rajan. Four was the limit, though it would be safer to stick to just two as in Apoorva Sahothararhal. Taking on ten roles in Dasavathaaram was ludicrous. However, nothing could compare with Vikram. Why could Kamal stick to action roles like that? Except for Pirapa-Annai, no one was as good as Kamal.

‘Here, try and drink something.’ He was awake and someone was trying to pour some water down his throat. It was Amuthan. They were on a small dinghy which was so crowded, it appeared it might sink into the water any moment. ‘How old is that little boy? Is he alright?’ he asked Amuthan.

‘Which little boy?’

‘The one who was listening in when we were talking. He was the youngest of the four. Not more than twelve. They shouldn’t have forced him to join.’

‘You lie down Annai,’ Amuthan said firmly.

‘Please tell me Amutha,’ Subhash pleaded. ‘Is that little boy alright?’

‘I think so,’ Amuthan said with hesitation. He then added, ‘we are all evacuating to Mullativu. We have been ordered to give up Muhamalai. Soon all our boys will be taken out from there.’

‘Are you sure that little boy is alright?’ Subhash asked again clutching Amuthan’s sleeve. Somehow he felt that Manikantan’s fate was tied to that of the boy he had met earlier in the day. How could he make sure that Manikantan was not going to be forcibly recruited from his father’s new house at Puthukudiyiruppu? When Col. Theepan made an appearance, Subhash would speak to him and request that Manikantan be kept out of the fracas. Manikantan was just a little boy. His father wouldn’t survive if Manikantan were to be taken away. Theepan Annai might slap him for making such a request, but he would nevertheless make it. What did he have to lose? No, what if they forced Manikantan to join solely because of Subhash’s impertinence. No, he would keep quiet.

Their dinghy had stopped. Why did it stop? What was that man doing, getting out of the boat? Was he going to swim instead of travelling on the dinghy? May be swimming would be more comfortable than sitting in the crowded dinghy. Ha! Ha! The water was not deep at all. The man who got out was wading through waist deep water. Now he was pushing the dinghy. Now another man had got off the dinghy and he was helping the first man push the dinghy. Why were they doing that? Ah! the dinghy was stuck on a sand bank.

May be he should get out of the dinghy and go to Manikantan and make sure no one forced him to join the wonderful Movement till he was fourteen. He could walk through the water to where Manikantan was, couldn’t he? If he didn’t get to Manikantan, they might take him away and put him in one of those miserable uniforms and make him fight. Could he make it to Puthukudiyiruppu on his own? He would have to try, else he would lose Manikantan. Subhash stood up, tottered and nearly fell, but Amuthan caught him in time. ‘Annai, what are you doing?’ They made him sit down. As he sat down, he noticed that the man sitting next to him had his rifle propped up by his side. Subhash picked up the rifle. ‘I’ll get off here,’ he told Amuthan. ‘I won’t let the National Leader take Manikantan. If he touches Manikantan, I will kill him. If he goes near Manikantan, I’ll shoot him like a dog’

‘Annai, shut up,’ Amuthan hissed. ‘He is not himself,’ Amuthan explained at large to the men on the dinghy.

‘What’s wrong with him?’ someone asked angrily.

Subhash waved his rifle at that voice and said, ‘don’t you dare touch Manikantan. I am going to kill Pirapa-Annai.’ He might as well kill Pirapa-Annai, just to make sure Manikantan was safe.

He brought his finger to the trigger, but before he could do any damage, someone on the dinghy shot him dead.

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