“Excuse me! Sir! What station is this?” the traveller yelled from the half-open carriage window.
“Jaffna!” the stationmaster yelled back in a thick accent. “If you want to get off, must go now.”
“When will the train get to Thandikulam?”
“Thandikulam? Thandikulam has passed madam!”
“Then where does this train line end?”
The man’s crisp white uniform dripped with gold medallions and intricately woven trimmings – more closely resembling that of a military commander than his station master position. His dark skin under the dim warmth of the station lights sung to long days under a sweltering sun, pacing the worn cement of the platforms as trains came and went. The tightness of his lips and the straight line of his back were softened only by the gentle wrinkles that sat like whiskers at the corners of his eyes. The tender details of the harsh figure were as familiar as they were foreign, and the traveller choked on words she was scared he would not understand.
He filled the space of her pause with a dictating blow of the whistle that hung around his wide neck, and the traveller returned to the ripping leather of her seat. A few stragglers hauled heavy luggage or young family members onto the carriages, then the train pulled out of the station, leaving behind the acrid air of the hastily cleaned carriage toilets.
A once-blue nylon backpack sat between her feet, and she reached into the fraying front pocket to pull out a deeply creased pamphlet. Peeling back bent corners and folded edges, her eyes scanned the paper till they landed on a familiar word – Tellipallai. Reading across a hastily-etched line of ink, she found a short address, a phone number and a name – Nimi Mami. The traveller tapped the tips of her nails against the metal rim of the train window and sighed before folding the thin paper in half, then quarters, and cramming it back into her bag. All she had was the paper and an indistinct impression of a face that she was too young to remember, but she reminded herself that here, Family was family.
The sun had long fallen behind the pastured hill-scapes of the countryside, and the weary darkness had crept its way inside the dusty confines of the cross-country train. The clacks and hisses of the metal wheels against the rusting rail lines accompanied the sleeping passengers, rousing a few of the older commuters. The carriages had lost their crowded chatter to the odd murmur and the hushed coos of the vadai vendors pandering down the aisles to the few remaining potential customers.
The traveller let her hand hang out of the open window of the carriage to catch the cool breeze with her fingers. Though daylight was long behind her, the country retained a viscous warmth even in its coldest season and the salt-laced wind provided constant relief. Her other hand leisurely brought another slice of white guava to her lips, and graveyard-shift workers lined their autos, vans and buses patiently at the crossings as the train roared by.
She spat the hard guava seeds that lingered in her mouth out the side of the train into the long grasses that bit like vipers at the tips of her outstretched fingers.
“Ayubowan,” a cool woman’s voice sounded over an old speaker system as the train came to a stop at Kondavil Station.
A few passengers stirred from their rest – mothers gently shaking toddlers, and fathers lifting infants in one arm and suitcases with the other. The last of the passengers with cameras around their necks, shorts up to their thighs, and yellow hair to their waists had left while the traveller was sleeping. She was far north now and away from the pristine beaches and ceremonious civility of the nation’s cities. The shadows of the night merely had the remains of brick buildings and dewy paddy fields to play on here.
Only one man stepped onto the train this time. A grey shoulder bag with lingering hints of green from it’s earlier days hung heavily around him, and a book with a familiar scrawl was perched in his hand, held open by his thumb. He walked passed without lifting his eyes from his book, but shifted slightly left and right as to keep the most space between his bag and the seated passengers.
From the shallow pockets of the stranger’s loosely fit jeans, a brown leather wallet fell at the traveller’s feet with a muted thud.
“Excuse me!” she called, holding the tightly packed wallet towards him, but he continued forward.
“Excuse me! Anna!” Brother!
He turned back as if awoken from a dream, and let the book shut around his thumb as he saw the wallet in her hand. He walked down the aisle and examined the long, clean nails of the traveller, the loose skirt she’d donned for the long ride, and the foreign innocence in her face that she hid behind a pottu and a stern expression.
Out the window, on the tracks, a saram-wearing vendor paraded alongside the train and cooed at passengers.
“Vadai, vadai, vadai,” he repeated in quick succession as he sat a woven basket on his shoulder, holding fried chillies and ulunthu vadais up to the station lights.
“Thank you… thamil pésuviengala?” Can you speak Tamil?
“Oondai pasai vithyassam…” Your speech is different…
The words left his mouth without thought or malice and fell on the traveller like acid against her skin. Ignoring the sting, she motioned towards the suitcase at her feet with a crudely stuck luggage tag hanging off the handle.
“My parents are from Jaffna,” she replied in her broken mother tongue.
“And you…?” The traveller looked towards her dirt-dusted thongs.
“Ah, I heard it’s a place where no one wants to work hard. They just won’t do it. We don’t get a lot of Australians up here, mostly Canadians. Do you have family in Canada?”
The traveller caught but a few words of the swift flurry of his Tamil but hid that fact with a curt affirmative reply of “om”. Yes.
“I do as well. They left here maybe 20 years ago – wait. How old are you?”
“Yes, they left around 21 years ago! They had to leave when all the fighting got really bad. You know about the fighting don’t you?”
“Yes, well they come back every couple of years or so, and I even went there a few times. I learned a tiny bit of English there, but most people don’t speak it up north so I never get to practice. A few people in Tellipallai might but once you get into Karugampanai territory there’s just no way. That’s where most of my family is though. Have you had a chance to visit?”
“Oh don’t go, there’s not much left there but dirt. It’s a great place but foreigners don’t like it.”
“I’m not really a foreigner…”
“Anyone not from here doesn’t like it. It used to be beautiful though, back when I was young. It was so free, illavaca. Do you know that word – illavaca? This is a free country, or was a free country. Where are you going?”
“I have a bit of family in Tellipallai.”
“Ah yes, that’s coming up soon. I’m going there too. It’s very nice there. Just don’t get anything lost, the police there are useless. They’re all from Colombo, and can barely speak a word of Tamil. Last time someone stole some money from my uncle, he and his friends chased the kid down and beat him. It’s the only way to get things done here. Don’t bother with the police, but be careful, you’ll stand out and people prey on foreigners.”
“But I’m not really a foreigner…”
“Yes, yes your Tamil is quite good. But still, you stand out. You look different. Even with the pottu… you look Indian.”
“They say that in Australia too.”
“Do people know much about Sri Lanka where you are from?”
“Some people. Not many.”
“Why would they, I suppose.”
“Ayubowan,” the cool voice spoke again in Singhalese to let the passengers know Tellipallai Station stood beside them.
“Are you okay to get to your family’s house?” the man said, already packing away his bags and walking towards the doors.
“Yes, thank you.”
He nodded and left.
The traveller hauled her plastic suitcase over the deep gap, landing it heavily on the dirt swept concrete platform. She heard the waking passengers’ muttered conversations about their late drivers and what stores might still be open, and followed them down the cement ramp and onto the dirt road. Grass sparsely littered the road and sidewalk, and a few small stallholders were setting up for the long day ahead. There were no street lamps, but the dim light of the rising sun guided her path along the wire fence that lined the street.
Reaching deep into the inside pocket of her backpack she pulled out the mobile she had hidden during the train ride. Scrolling through names till she got to the one she needed, she held the phone to her ear and waited patiently through four runs of the ringtone. Finally a soft click sounded and she spoke.
“Amma? I think I’m here.”
Photo by Etienne Boulanger