advent of the King 2
Uumayan’s grandfather was in the veranda, pounding arecanut. He paused and turned his gaze in the direction from which the sound of drums and singing had come. He was blind, but his hearing was sharp. He must have been annoyed by the discordant notes, for he started pounding his arecanut and betel leaves vigorously.
“How long would it take a man to destroy a temple he had gifted?” mused the old man. Dismissing the thought, he put the mixture of areca and betel into his mouth and began chewing.
Just one day left. The old man, who was dozing, suddenly woke up with a start, hearing the neighing of horses. Women peeped out and quickly disappeared indoors. Uumayan stared hard at his distraught mother who stood before him. Her lips were dry, her eyes filled with fear. She raised her hands skywards and prayed.
It was the usual cordon and search operation. Armed men entered every house and searched methodically. When they left, they took Uumayan with them, despite his mother’s pleas. Uumayan’s faithful dog snarled at the soldiers and tugged at his master’s clothes. The men kicked and chased the animal away. Women whose men had been arrested and led away followed them, wailing. The soldiers brandished their swords and drove them away. They stood there, helpless, until the men disappeared in a whirlpool of dust.
The old man comforted them and assured them that nothing would happen to them. “You know the King is coming tomorrow and the army needs a large crowd to receive him. And so this round-up,” he said. A gecko clucked, as if in confirmation.
The men were locked up in the city’s rest houses, which were full to overflowing. No one spoke. They squatted on the floor, cursing their luck. The laughter of the guards rankled them.
Uumayan leaned against the cold wall and closed his eyes. In the pervasive darkness, he saw a flashing sword on a sacrificed altar. Then, a hangman’s noose oscillating in the howling wind. He imagined that he was buried in the earth up to his neck and a rogue elephant was rushing towards him. He saw fresh weals on his naked body.
He saw his home. It was unswept. Withered petals and dried leaves lay scattered all over. His emaciated dog lay across the doorway. Beside the unlit hearth lay the lazy cat. In the kitchen were unwashed pots and pans. His sleepless grandfather knocked about the house like a black beetle, stumbling and falling. His weeping mother lay on the mat, without food or sleep.
Time lay like a huge boulder on his head. He waited eagerly for dawn and a whiff of fresh air.
Day broke. An army captain opened the door and ordered the men out. Unwashed, unkempt and hungry, they were herded into bullock carts and driven away along the streets of the city. Hearing the sound of bells, traders opened their shops and stood staring at the spectacle. Uumayan was ashamed at being carted away like an unclean animal. The men were dumped on the banks of a tank beside a derelict temple and ordered to sit in rows.
The sky was overcast. “The King has brought the rains with him,” murmured the soldiers.
“Long live the King!” proclaimed a voice. Immediately, bands began playing and children danced. Toddy drinkers and gesticulating pugilists preceded the King, dancing, reeling and singing. Then the King appeared, walking majestically in measured steps. People showered him with flowers and holy men blessed him.
The King was escorted to a specially constructed stage. He surveyed the large crowd with great approval and waved to them. Praise-singers at his side fanned him though it was a cool day, while behind him were his brash henchmen, ready to attend to his every need, even to scratch his back, if necessary.
Uumayan looked up at the darkening sky. There were signs of imminent rain. A single drop the size of a small bird’s dropping fell on his face. More drops followed in quick succession. And then the heavens opened up. The tempest broke, lightning rent the skies, thunder crashed as though the deities were gritting their teeth at what the King had done to the people.
The King rose to speak. The crowd remained unmoved, impassive despite the downpour. Was the King amused?
“My beloved people…”
The King, safe in the covered stage, raised his voice above the din of the roaring rain. Uumayan stood shivering while the wind assailed him on all sides like a woman possessed.
“I’ve come to restore this temple. What else do you need? Speak!”
Only the wind and rain responded to the King. The crowd remained silent, fearing the savage looks and sharp pikes of the soldiers.
“I am honoured and flattered to see you here in your thousands to welcome me in spite of the heavy rains. What do you need from me? Speak up!” said the King.
Uumayan once again raised his eyes heavenwards. There was no sign of the rain abating. Rather, forks of lightning flashed and snaked across the sky, followed by loud thunderclaps. The waters swirled and eddied and surged along the earth, creating new watercourses.
“I’ll build you mansions. I’ll order the immediate repair of roads, the restoration of tanks… Do you need stadiums, grain, silk? Ask, I am prepared to give you all these and more, but never…”
Before the King could complete his sentence, a blinding flash of lightning linked earth and sky. Uumayan closed his eyes in fear. When he opened them again and looked at the stage, the King was not there any more. He had vanished mysteriously.
Translated from the Tamil story ‘Arasanin Vaukai’ by S. Rajasingam and Pratik Kanjilal
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