Cumin powder scattered on the kitchen counter, camouflaging with the black speckles in the faux marble slab. Lalitha carefully swept the ashy grains of dust on to the hand she held cupped under the counter’s ledge. She brushed her hands in the sink, and turned the tap on watching drops of water transform the powder into a muddy river that wafted a spicy scent before spinning down the drain. The counter was lit with bright yellow turmeric, orange curry, and fire red chilli powder, spices she filled in jars that lit like bulbs. She closed the lid on the jar of cumin, and placed each spice in the cupboard. She had julienned some ginger, and diced tomatoes and onions, while a pot of potatoes finished boiling on the stove. She took a cup of red lentils from a bag, and placed them in a plastic bowl.
She looked over at the clock. She had 45 minutes before she would meet Sajeev at the bus stop on Neilson road, to help carry some boxes they left at her mother in law’s basement, where they were living for a couple years. Along with the last few boxes of their belongings, he was going to bring some groceries, drumsticks and king fish, and extra fish eyes Sajeev’s butcher friend kept aside for them. Lalitha would make chicken curry tonight, and fish colombu for tomorrow’s main meal. She carefully cut some lemon, and squeezed the juice in a plastic bag she had already spooned chilli powder into. She tied the bag to make a little ball filled with air and her potent red mixture, an Essential. She kept the rest of the lemons in the fridge for tomorrow’s fish.
Lalitha quickly brushed her thick black hair, tying it in a bun. She put on her coat, grabbed her essentials, and walked near the front door. She could hear the sounds of men arguing, and cars quickly driving through the rain. Every sound was apparent. She bent over to tie the laces on her boots, weaving each string over the other. The motions were nostalgic; she remembered tying her first pair.
Her father had fallen in love with her mother after eating the hot uppum she prepared in her trolley every morning. She was known throughout the town for the perfectly fluffy uppum she made, topped with its perfectly cooked egg, or its perfectly sweetened coconut milk, that was the perfect consistency for scooping the crispy sides into. She was young and beautiful, and carried her business well, known for her cookery and service, as she only cooked with a passion for what she made.
Lalitha’s father would visit frequently captivated by her mother’s beauty and poise. It was soon after they would marry, and buy a home, and give birth to a beautiful little girl. Lalitha never grew to know her father. She only lived with the story of him, of which her mother so frequently told. She wasn’t afraid to talk about their love and their struggle. She had told a Little Lalitha, that the politics of the region shaped the people’s lives. That she would wake up at five every morning, to make uppum for the town’s people; those who worked and those who didn’t, and those who could afford to eat, and those who couldn’t.
“In those days it didn’t matter to me how much money I was making”, she would tell Lalitha. “It wasn’t that the uppums were so delicious or nutritious, it was that I was young and did my job for the people. I would try to make an uppum for every other person I saw. It was all I could offer.” She thought for a few seconds. “To see how people carry on with their lives in the midst of war is astonishing to see. Resilience Lalitha, this is how the bloody war has refined us.”
Lalitha’s father had just finished his studies and began practicing as an optometrist. Lalitha was only seven months, and staying at home with her mother, while he was in the Vanni tending to the wounds of tigers in the fields and guerillas resting in camps. Lalitha’s mother had promised him plates and plates of uppum, served with sambar and sambol. She had carefully set the table, knowing he was on his way after weeks of being apart. It was ten minutes, then twenty, then the sound of multiple shots fired cutting through the silence in their home. She ran out the door frantically, and onto the road, watching a truck drive off in the distance. She saw his car, and saw the drips of blood oozing from the cracks of the car door. She ran towards the pooling stream of blood. She never made uppum again.
“Lalitha, like this” she pulled the strings on a pair of combat boots, showing Lalitha how to tie the laces. It took much adjusting, from Bata slippers to heavy black combat boots.
“This is not about politics, this is about survival” her mother had told her. “In war it is women who suffer the most. Women must bury their fathers and husbands, and watch their sons be tortured and set alight and then tend to their daughters who come home raped by the men sent by the government! I cannot even think about how it could be to bury my own child in the ground!” she cried. “Lali please, I rather you run dangerously than run with your fear. Run with a gun.” Her mother often thought between everything she said, worried someone was listening or something had happened. Sometimes it was to absorb the moment. “The people are suffering and the world is doing nothing. Now, we have no choice. We are resilient, because we are dangerous.”
Lalitha missed the hot weather, and the feeling of sand on her toes, and the sight of sand on her boots. The wind was brisk on the nape of her neck, and the rain fell on her faux leather brown boots, seeping through the cheap material and dampening her socks. Her toes felt numb, but she wasn’t bothered. Her toes had been number before. Near the last days, when they had dug bunkers, the ground was cold in the night. Something about everything was icy than, until hot blood trickled onto the skin, or splashed on a cheek.
One night she was watching a camp, ensuring children weren’t wandering from their families in fear. An elderly man left his bunker and began stumbling towards a bush. He pulled his saaram up and squatted. Lalitha studied the area around him. Crickets chirped and the moonlight shone tenderly over the land. A shot was fired from afar. Chunks of flesh and tissue scattered. The eldery man’s body fell onto a pile of his own feces. More shots could be heard from the distance. Lalitha stayed guarding the camp, hiding in the shrubs with other guerillas in her unit dispersed, watching post, waiting for commands. She couldn’t fall asleep, she wouldn’t let them kill her. Tigers weren’t to be killed, they died with honour. Lalitha held the little bottle-like jar of cyanide that hung from a leather string on her neck. The days dragged on bitterly as children laid on the ground in pools of hot blood. The screams of mothers sang in horror. Limbs were severed and bodies were brutally entered and ravaged, and killed. Human parts, morsels and heads, scattered in the fields. The north was inundated with casualties. Photos of the dead were trophies for the wicked; prized and coveted kills. The blood of innocent civilians was smeared on the hands of all those walking in boots and suits, creating sanguine waves of tears that were engulfed by the Indian Ocean, taking bodies with names, to hide in the seas.
“Lalitha we need to leave” Sajeev had said approaching her as she held her AK-47 fiercely in the air, signaling a group of people to pass. “There is still time. This will not end.”
Lalitha carried on attending to civilians, looking over her shoulders obsessively.
“The fight will never be over Lalitha, people are going to die whether you are here or not” he shouted.
She continued to help them cross.
“Lali listen to me! They’re firing the no fire zones! Even if you send these people there, you are sending them to their death! Can’t you see? We are fighting monsters not men. Just run Lalitha!” He grabbed her hand, and pulled the leather string from her neck. The cyanide capsule fell in the mud.
Lalitha loved her husband. They survived the war, and moved to Colombo where they married, and were sponsored to Canada by Sajeev’s family. But some days she resented him, some days she was curious. Did she lose hope too soon? Did she give in for love? Could she have died a hero? Did she run with fear? Or did she still run dangerously?
She waited at the bus stop on Neilson road. The street light flickered above her and the night was still. Rain pattered on the glass roof and the wind rustled through the leaves of the trees that canopied over. The corner was dark. She could hear footsteps splashing slowly in puddles, gradually lurking closer. She kept her hands in her pockets tracing her keys, feeling coins, and loosely gripping an Essential, feeling the solution turning in the bag. Seconds lingered unhurried. A shadow approached the glass shelter, magnifying in size, sprawling the tiny space with darkness.
“Hello,” she could feel his gleaming eyes studying her. “You got a cell phone?” his voice was deep. He smacked his lips with his foul tongue, slurping the crusts around his hanging skin.
She didn’t flinch.
“Ok, you don’t speak English.” The shadow paced, leaving a slime on the pavement, tracing trail upon trail. “Empty. Out. Your pockets. And turn. Around. So I can. See. Your. Pretty. Face.” The voice was rounded, licking and slobbering over itself. She could hear every sound amplified from his corpulent stature. The rain spat, and the wind howled, and a rustling from the leaves and bushes etched in the air. He reached to touch her shoulder. Lalitha didn’t move externally, but she felt the rush and held her fingers tight. Prowling a step at a time, creeping behind the darkness, standing at easy and ready for rearguard action, a growl could be heard. Rain pattered on, and ran droplets over whiskers and black stripes. The teeth of a beast clenched, and deep ferocious eyes reflected the light, glimmering with madness.
The shadow held Lalitha’s shoulder, his hand weighed her body down, the darkness was growing, but the growls were nearer. She could feel the shadow reaching for her pockets, so close she could smell the stench from his mouth. Then abrupt and in time, there was a charge. A reach for his ghoulish face, and a claw to his eyes, ripping flesh that was born to rage war on the innocent, flesh that was nothing but rotting meat, flesh that wanted to take from her. The shadow howled, gripping onto his drooping eyes. Drips of citric acid trickled into his pores and over the open sores of the claws that would leave scars. Capsicum sizzled on his skin.
Lalitha loved the smell of chilli powder and lemon juice on dark rainy evenings.
Sajeev’s bus came shortly, and Lalitha got on to help him unload the few boxes. Atop one of the boxes was a plastic bag full of drumsticks, king fish and extra fish eyes, tied tightly and double bagged. She was eager to make a tasty curry. Sajeev kissed his wife’s forehead, sniffing the lemon and pepper that whiffed from her right paw. He scrunched his face, and then smiled.
“Lali, you didn’t have to wait. It’s dangerous around here” he said holding onto her arm. “Let’s call a taxi” he said, and Lalitha smiled, feeling the growl inside.