- I have already written a novella , AMERICA , in Tamil, based on my life at the detention camp. The journal, 'Thaayagam' was published from Canada while this novella was serialized. Then, adding some more short-stories, a short-story collection of mine was published under the title America by Tamil Nadu based publishing house Sneha. In short, if my short-novel describes life at the detention camp, this novel , AN IMMIGRANT , describes the struggles and setbacks a Tamil migrant to America faces for the sake of his survival – outside the walls of the detention camp. - V.N.GIRITHARAN -
CHAPTER 1 I AM BORN ANEW TODAY
From the fifth floor of the wartime naval force office building, which also functioned as the Correctional Facility, Ilango looked out to the streets of great, grand New York City. Situated on Flushing Street, the place had doubled as a detention camp for illegal immigrants and had been his only home for the past two months. Darkness from the night continued to seep through with all kinds of thoughts swirling Ilango’s mind. At last, the dream of escaping this detention camp would soon become a reality.From tomorrow onwards, he would be a real free bird. The Court of Justice has allowed him, who hitherto, has been detained in prison as an illegal immigrant waiting to be released on bail. Now, he could hope for the solution of demanding refugee status. He can go out without any constraint and face the challenges that life has in store for him. But before we continue, it would now be helpful to the readers to learn some details about this man.
Ilango: He is a Tamil citizen of Sri Lanka. A young man. One of the thousands of Tamils who fled from their Mother Land following the 1983 ethnic riots. The conflict, wrath, and hostility between the two main social groups – The Sinhalese and the Tamils – are known to have a long-fought socio-political feud of over two thousand years. However, since 1948, when the foreigners who had last ruled the island (e.g. the British) left Sri Lanka, the ethnic clashes resumed. The past historical events of the island greatly contributed to the current situation. Beginning from Thuttakamini/Ellaalan, continuing through Rajarajan I/Rajendran, then Singai Paraasaran, and ending with the king of Kandi Sri Vikrama Rajasinhan – such a lengthy history cannot be brushed aside with one stroke. The enmity and distrust between these two ethnic groups gradually intensified to the present stage of treacherously raging fire. Further deliberate, strategic settlements on the basis of ethnicity, the method of grading in Education, political priorities on the basis of religion have just added fuel to the fire, so to say. But, these are all superficial reasons. The deep-rooted causes are really the distinctly different traits, problems and conflicts on both the socio-political and economic fronts.
A grand procession all over the sky. Near the Moon, a few sparkles lay. The sky of the city; the sparkles of the city; the Moon of the city; the flash and glitter of the city. Its pomp and colossal extravaganza are not just affecting the Earth but have a miserable impact on the sky too. That is the reason why the innocent and gullible villagers are migrating from villages to cities and from the poor soil to the rich foreign lands. Migration takes place everywhere in numerous ways and due to numerous reasons. There have been migrations in search of treasure; migrations for the sake of women; migrations for the sake of very survival, fleeing from one’s own bomb- ridden nation… and for those forced to exit their land and enter another for fear of their lives, this sky and the moon and the glow and the sparkles therein would always give solace. Oh, how many poets have turned towards the Moon in times of gloom, within and without- to get some peace and hope!
Once again, Ilango’s mind turned towards his future. There were many compelling reasons for his migration. Many political and economic compulsions. His very survival demanded that but the additional responsibility of bringing up his family made him adhere to this course. Once he left, there are so many problems awaiting to confront him. New place, new set of people, new culture; the incessant struggle to keep going in a new habitat. He has to keep his body and mind intact to keep his struggle for survival fresh. He had not more than a mere 200 American dollars in hand. Keeping this meagre sum as some sort of investment, he continues his struggle.
“What is it that you are so deeply contemplating?” asked Arulrasa, standing in front of him. He is another Sri Lankan Tamil who migrated as a refugee. Out of all the refugees who had come to stay with them, and later going away one by one, these two remained alone. They didn’t have any familiar people here. So, both of them resolved to face life in New York, together. The others had someone or other known kin living in New jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and in several other places.
But, sadly, these two didn’t have any. Therefore, they resolved to face life with a connected front.
Back home, Arulrasa had worked as an accountant in a reputed firm.
“Well, tomorrow, after going out where do you plan to stay?”, asked Ilango.
Arulrasa showed him the India Abroad advertisement and said: “Here you can have a room for 30 dollars weekly rent, the ad said. First let us go and stay there for some days. And, from there let us try for some job. I have three hundred to four hundred dollars. You have some two hundred dollars. This is enough for a beginning.
I tried to contact them over the phone, in the afternoon. It is a Marathi family. There are a lot of people staying in those rentals, it seems. First, let us go there. What do you say?”.
“Ok, sounds good. We can also seek some suggestions from those living there. So, let’s go there first. Then, we can discuss any further plans. First and foremost, we should step out of this cursed prison”.
After that both of them sat along with the others detained there and watched old movies being shown in the T.V., placed in the hall, for some time. When that became tiresome, they ticked the time away playing ‘table tennis’. Feeling tired with that too, they came over to the dormitory and stretched themselves on their respective ‘bunk-beds’. It was nearing the hour of midnight. Along the corridors that linked the halls, there were guards of African-American origin, half-asleep. The official-in- charge for counting the prisoners had also come and gone. Prisoners belonging to all nationalities… from Afghanistan, those from Central America, from the Caribbean Islands – so many prisoners, prisoners of all kinds - illegal immigrants, those imprisoned for petty crimes, those awaiting the day of their deportation – almost all of them were sleeping. Arulrasa soon plunged into sleep. But, Ilango couldn’t. At such times, he would generally write in his diary. As usual, he took out his diary from under the pillow and read several pages of it for a while. His heart could experience small ripples and bubbles of joy once again! He wrote further: “INDRU PUDHIDHAAI PIRANDHAEN” – Today I am born anew. His heart became lighter. He viewed those humans sleeping there. ”YAANEDHARKKUM ANJUGILAEN MAANUDARE!” – I Will Fear Nothing, My Dear Fellows!”. With new dreams and fresh hopes, bubbling with joy, Ilango fell fast asleep.
CHAPTER 2 In the middle of the night
Ilango, who was in deep sleep, suddenly woke up with a jerk. All those nearby, except one, were fast asleep. What are all those dreams and imaginations overflowing in those minds of those who had been plunged into gloom and desperation? All wondering what the future held for them, feeling terribly low and fatigued.
Next to him lay Ranjith Singh, wide awake. He had arrived from Germany a few days ago. There, he had legally proper immigration documents. Here, he had arrived illegally and had applied for refugee status. They caught him and put him behind bars. He now understands the rules and regulations prevalent in America regarding the application for for refugee status. “My friend, what is it you are thinking?” asked Ilango in English.
Ilango’s question created some ripples in Ranjith Singh’s deep contemplation. “Come on, you are blessed. Tomorrow morn you would have gone away. But, see my state? Because I landed here without an ounce of knowledge of these people’s laws and strictures, I have gotten myself into trouble”.
“What does your lawyer suggest?”
“As if you don’t know what it could be. He coolly said that I have to be confined here till the case pertaining to the request for refugee status comes to a close.”
“What is your plan?”
“Oh, who will consent to spend his days inside this cursed cell? Even if they are to send me, they will send me back to Germany only. And returning to Germany seems to be the only way out. The right choice, so to say. Unnecessarily, I listened to that agent’s empty words and paid him all my savings for nothing. Nothing at all. All because of my greed to make some quick bucks.”
“At least things look a bit better in your case. You can go back to Germany. You actually have proper citizenship documents there. But, see the pitiable condition of those here. Till there litigations are over they are cursed to remain here, languishing. Even after that, the requisition of many would still be an uncertain fate. They would be deported. Till that time, we should get along, with our dreams and future plans, hoping for a better tomorrow. Sometimes I feel like laughing my heart out when I think of their queer rules and laws, you know”.
“If we succeed in illegally entering the country, then we can at least hope to come out with bail. But, if we are to be caught while getting inside the country through the air or the sea, that is all. Such people are treated worse under the law of this land. They are not allowed bail till their cases end. If I had an inkling of this before, I would have entered in guise of a tourist and then we could apply for refugee status, no? If I happen to see that agent again, I wouldn’t hesitate to strangle him. Ahh, my seething anger”.
"Must be a budding agent, who has yet to learn the peculiar laws of this land. Just like other lands, when you sought refugee status and applied for it, he must have overlooked it or didn’t care. In Canada, the moment you ask for refugee status they would let you out and, he must have thought that it would have been the same here. If only we had set off to Canada - as planned - we would have saved ourselves from all these entanglements. Anyhow, we are saved somewhat. Otherwise, we would have been languishing right here…”
Ranjith became a little contemplative and admitted, “What you say is true. In one way, I am better off, when compared to this lot. I realize that now.”
“A song from a film comes to my mind right now. It is the song of a famous film songwriter who was reigning supreme in his time. He was a Tamil scholar, and his knowledge helped him in writing good songs for films. The particular song I am referring to is a very nice song about life as a whole. It says, ‘Of course, there will be so many things in life. Each and every household will have its own sorrows and sufferings. Whatever the sorrows and sufferings, if we are to stand still, cursing our fate, they wouldn’t go, disappearing.’ “
“Indeed, a very poignant song. Must be the words of a person bruised and battered in life. Like us. And that experience is the basis for this song.” Ranjith laughed softly. Then, he continued. “Well, what about you? What is your story? I have so many Sri Lankan friends in Germany. And, they would tell me many tales.”
“Oh, please don’t remind me of that again. Before this, when I was a little boy I had seen people escaping such riots. I have heard tales about them. There was a riot in 1977. For the first time, the main Tamil Political Front had achieved their demand for a Separate State for Tamils. But, the resulting riot was worse than ever before. It was a riot that took place with the Government’s support. The struggle of the Eelam Tamils, oh, it is a very long history.”
“A tiny existence, a small planet. But what a beautiful planet it is! This blue sky, night, moon and its shine – oh how beautiful they are!”
Ranjith’s words surprised Ilango. “ Hey, how come you are speaking like a poet?”
For that the other replied. “Writing and Reading are my two eyes. They are my very lungs. They are the two rooms of my heart. I cannot live without them. Yes, what you say is correct. I am a writer. And I am always enamoured by this universe, its immaculate design and structure. And, believe me, I have never been struck by anything with so much wonder and awe as this night sky! This is so splendid that it would always stir my imagination. The war and the resulting bloodshed and all such malice cruelly destroy this beautiful world. If we can go on trying to grasp its meaning and enjoy the sight and sound of it, that itself is a boon unparalleled.”
That particular moment made Ilango feel like laughing, just a little. Being born in one corner of the globe and being in a cell situated in another, faraway corner, at the hour of night when the whole world would be sleeping, this conversation is taking place with another human born in another end of the world who had dwelt in yet another corner!
"Why do you laugh, my friend! Do I look like a madman? But, remember, it is such men who would have appeared so, insane and impractical, who had eventually
changed history and created history! This is what life is all about.”
“You are thinking just like me. If I had not stirred out of sleep at this particular moment, if you too hadn’t been so wide awake, we would have lost the chance for such a rare conversation. Thousands of years ago, a poet belonging to our race had sung so poignantly: ‘YAADHU OORAE-YAAVARUM KELIR,’ this small little planet should be owned by one and all, the human beings inhabiting this place”.
"If only we could have remained the same, you, or I, or they who lie there sleeping, and not have reached this sad state, isn’t it so?’ – observing this left Ranjith Singh with a thin smile. Then he continued, “If only these Americans had known the words of your poet…”
Illango acknowledged this and quickly replied, “Who said that the Americans do not know? As far as they are concerned, every land is their place and everyone is their kith and kin. Can you think of any place in the world where they have not set foot? And, do they have any hurdle common to us? It is only for people like us, belonging to the third world, that all such problems pile up.”
Meanwhile, seeing them engaged in a conversation, the prison warden, of African-American origin, abruptly asked, “When everyone else is sleeping where is the need for you to keep chatting? If you can’t sleep, just go to the recreation hall and talk.” In doing his duty, he left the place.
“My friend! Just don’t worry. Let tomorrow be good to us. Good Night,” with that, Ilango stretched himself onto his cot once again. Ranjith Singh too responded with a “Good Night”, and climbed into his bed.
However, that night, sleep seemed to elude Ilango. He kept looking at the night sky through the window. He keenly observed those glittering, starry beauties. The words of Ranjith still echoed in his ears. . “Writing and Reading are my two eyes. They are my very lungs. They are the two rooms of my heart. I cannot live without them. Yes, what you say is correct. I am a writer. And I am always enamoured by this universe, its immaculate design and structure. And, believe me, I have never been struck by anything with so much wonder and awe as this night sky! This is so splendid that it would always stir my imagination. The war and the resulting bloodshed and all such malice cruelly destroy this beautiful world. If we can go on trying to grasp its meaning and enjoy the sight and sound of it, that itself is a boon unparalleled.”
The sense of surprise became overwhelming. Ranjith thinks exactly like him. Just like him, Ranjith, too, is a writer. For Ilango, books remained an integral part of his life. He cannot imagine an existence without writing and reading. The joy that he experienced while writing is something unique and unparalleled. The way the books widen his knowledge and wisdom and the way writing broadens the depth of his thinking capacity and the potential of creativity. They sharpen our eagerness and curiosity to unravel the riddles and mysteries of our life. Generally, all the natural events make the writers’ stallions of creative imagination gallop all too energetically and joyously, speeding through all possible directions. He picks up his diary and leafs through the pages. His eyes scan the earlier pages. -“Through the window, in that well of the night, the whole world is fast asleep causing the sky to tremble, the globe shivering uncontrollably, the thunder piercing through the stillness and the rain pouring down. The unleashing of the wind as the wolf howls – on such a night, in the sky, the momentary shine of a ray of lightning, resembling a lamp showing the way and its splendid beauty as that of an ace danseuse with steps so perfectly attuned to the beats of the thunder. All this stirs the imagination of a poet, without fail. As a result, a poignant poem is born!
he wonders. Oh, what a profound thing this lightning is! Just a moment, no, just a fraction of a second it lives. It shines and dies almost the same moment but within that hairline gap how beautifully it lightens the sky! The way the poor lightning dies the very moment it comes into being is no news. But, the message I get from it is this: within the fraction of the second that it lives, it lights up the sky and the earth and so does service to humanity! This is the message we should derive from lightning. Our life is brief, but, within that short span of life we should serve our society and humanity in the best possible manner. We should have service as our purpose of life.
Saying so, the poet goes on to wonder whether the world would benefit a little from his thought-process.
Another poet revels so much at the sight of the little sparrow flying happily on all directions across the sky, happily drinking the wine of daylight spilled over everywhere and mating its pair, chatting and singing and merrymaking, hatching its little ones and feeding them and waking up well before dawn while remaining active throughout the day. All this he hails in his song that asks his fellow-beings to be like the sparrow, free and liberated.
Yet another poet, a bard, who has written so many things to tell even after his death, mistakes an insect as a full-stop in his writings and pushes it away by the back of his hand. Then, realizing that it was not a dot but an insect he writes, “Oh, you are no more. My heart experienced a pricking pain. You must have opened your mouth and screamed in pain. I didn’t hear. In that split-second when I caused your death killed in broad daylight you lay there like a thin line. Even that was hardly an inch long. As the tender shoot crushed under the feet of wild buffalo, as the ant crushed under the long train, as the valuables of our house not locked, lost forever, you disappeared without a trace. Thus your absolute ‘real’ turned into absolute illusion. Oh, yoru death is not just, it happened by mistake, oh, don’t you curse me, my tiny little friend, oh, can you forgive me, my little friend?” – thus he laments in deep anguish.
As he read those lines Ilango could feel a kind of pleasure pervading his heart, and for the second time he caught up with sleep that night.
[To be continued]