Shobasakthi (translation by Anushiya Ramaswamy)

Click here for Shobasakthi in conversation with Warscapes on Sri Lanka, the situation of Tamils and being a refugee writer...

From the centre of Colombo city, about seven or eight kilometres away, after passing the suburbs of Dematagoda and Maradana, on the road going left from Punchi Borella junction sits Welikada Prison, mysterious and sombre in the unrelieved darkness.

The British (who had for three centuries dealt with their prisoners by cutting off heads, splitting and quartering them, opening up stomachs and stuffing mouths with dugout entrails, and lynching prisoners on every available tree), in the nineteenth century when they came to Sri Lanka, introduced the civilized way of putting people to death -- by hanging. The British built a gallows at Bogampora prison and another European style gallows at Welikade prison. Even after the white men left, the prisons have been expanded periodically. 

I have not been to every part of this prison. In the morning, they take me out for fifteen minutes under heavy guard, to either exercise or walk. The rest of the twenty-three and three quarter hours are spent all alone in the cage. I have sometimes been taken to the visitor’s section. A seventeen-foot high wall surrounds the main prison where we were kept. On top of this wall, there were twenty-foot high watchtowers. Beyond the wall were the women’s prison and medical centre.  Most of the days I spent in prison, I lived with open sores and itching rashes. I had also spent two days in the Y. O. Building. 

Those of us who were brought in on 1 July from Panagoda prison camp and the other Tamil and Muslim political prisoners who came in from various army interrogation centres situated in different parts of the country on 2 July, were all thrown into single cells in the ground floor of the Chapel building, in blocks C3 and B3. The Chapel building was in the shape of a cross. I was pushed into the first cell on C3. The gallows were in A3. In D 3,  six Tamil political prisoners -- three who were awaiting death sentence and three who had drawn a life sentence – were kept under maximum security. This cross-shaped building had two floors above ours, where the Sinhala prisoners were housed. In the centre of the building, there was a common hall where the main doorway was located. When we entered the building or went out, we were able to see the prisoners in B3 and D3, who would thrust their hands out through the cell bars and create a ruckus by banging on the walls and bars with their aluminium plates and cups, shouting. To the guards, these noises might have seemed like meaningless blabbering of a hopeless people. But for us, they were news, stories, secrets, hopes and plans.

Twenty-four days had passed since we were brought to Welikade prison. It was around four in the afternoon. My fellow  C3 inmates were shouting,  and at times conversing with each other in lowered voices.  I was clutching the bars in my cell, throwing all my bodily weight on my hands, as I spoke with China in my opposite cell. China, as usual was ‘taking training’ by flinging himself around the cell, crawling, jumping on the bars and punching the walls with closed fists. Sweat sprayed off his body. As usual, I was discussing ways to escape. 

[...] It was during this time that the Sinhala and English newspapers were continuously carrying news articles, editorials and letters to the editor filled with racist vitriol about political prisoners. A well-known journalist, Dylon Weerakon had written an editorial in the Sinhala paper, Divayina, ‘The government is going bankrupt buying food and soap for political prisoners. So start hanging these Tamil political prisoners in the near future!’  We were heard  news that the Sri Lankan army had been attacking the Tamils living in the border regions of Trincomalee and Vavuniya. In all, the whole nation was awaiting another whole-scale ethnic violence to burst forth at any moment.

I was counting the days in terror. We knew that the first victims to fall into the gaping mouth of Death when race riots broke out would be the seventy-two of us. When China commented that the two floors of Sinhala prisoners living above us might be the ones to actually kill us, Pakkiri argued against it vociferously. ‘If an attempt like that takes place, let me tell you now. If you want to, you can write this down. It will be these Sinhala souls who will save us from the ethnic conflagration. I will tell you something else. If ethnic riots breaks out again, and the Sinhala people take up arms again, it won’t be like in 1977 or 1981 where they stopped with burning the shops and businesses of Tamils and attacked Tamil capital sources. This riot will turn against its own capitalist class.’ In answer, China quipped, ‘You know that in the past, the rioters sniffed heads to identify Tamils who were trying to pass as Sinhalese. Those who had put coconut oil in their hair escaped as definitely Sinhalese and the ones with sesame oil were killed.’ Pakkiri dealt with this argument very cleverly. ‘Comrade, the working class never fails to learn from its mistakes.’ China banged his head against the cell bars in frustration. 

The sound from outside, of unearthly howls, rose in waves and seemed to drown the prison. As we listened, the indistinguishable roar became shouts of ‘Jayaveva!’ victory, till we could hear nothing else but this word in a thousand registers and tones. We looked at each other in silence. China put on his clothes. Pakkiri rubbed his belly, and nodded his head.  Soon  the ‘jayaveva’ sounded like it was going to bring down the walls of the prison. Then there was a spate of gunfire. The roar retreated.

[…]The next morning, as every other,  we were as taken outside in groups of five by the guards for exercise. When my turn came, it must have been about eight o’clock. As the five of us crossed the common hall, we passed Short Teacher’s group. Their faces were dead. ‘Everything is lost,’ they signalled to us. When I came out, I could see the smoke in the distance. My brain froze. The muscles in my stomach cleaved to my bones. Colombo was burning. 

[…] When we entered the common hall, we saw Kuttimani being brought out of D3 for his turn, accompanied by four guards and a dog. They would usually bring out the prisoners on death row alone for their exercise, and that too, only in the late morning, in bright light. An iron mesh on top covered the spot where Kuttimani, Jegan and Thangathurai exercised. We were told that this was to stop the convicts from escaping by helicopter. When Kuttimani caught sight of us, he stretched his arms wide, straightened his chest, and lifting up his face, gave us a thumb’s up. Then he shouted, ‘In Thinavelli, thirteen army soldiers have been killed!’ He completely ignored the guards who tried to make him stop speaking. Kuttimani had been convicted of the Neerveli bank robbery, the killing of two policemen in Thondamanaaru, and other cases and was awaiting his execution. Those who had received court-ordered punishment were allowed newspapers.


*   *   *   *

I sat in the corner of my cell and shuddered with terror thinking of the many thousands of lives that will be taken in exchange for the thirteen soldiers killed. I cursed the circumstances that had uprooted me from my diesel-smelling island. I imagined myself kneeling on one side of the confessional barrier and telling everything.  At the least, seventy-one lives would be sacrificed, I wrote on the dust floor with my index finger, and even when my finger burned, I kept writing on the floor.  I listed myself as one among the seventy-one.  Death is dancing. All of us locked up in the C3 section tried to speak in more optimistic terms. We tried to cheer each other up. All of us were waiting, our brains shaken with trepidation and terror, for the arrival of Siridharan.

Born in the village of Poonagari, everyone agreed that Siridharan was a natural-born scientist. He had been the technician in charge of the cable ferry between Sangupiddy and Karai Theevu. Siridharan had been ingeniously patching up and nursing that rusted ferry,  minding his own business, when the Boys from the movement approached him and asked him to come up with a plan to build a submarine. Siridharan had been caught by the army with the blueprints of a model submarine in hand, and has been locked up for the past eleven months. As the first accused in the case of the submarine conspiracy, he had been taken out of the prison early that morning to appear in court in Colombo. 

Siridharan came back at noon. His face had shrivelled like dried fish. He stood in his cell and told us  his story. The route Siridharan had been driven along from the courthouse back to Welikada – Puthukadai, Armour Street, Panchikawatte, Maradana, Punchi Borella (Siridharan knew the layout of Colombo very well) -- was burning, with Tamil homes and businesses set alight. Siridharan had seen a car in Puthukadai, right in front of the courthouse, burning with four bodies inside it. A pregnant woman’s body had been killed and left to lie on the road. The streets had been filled with young men and boys roaming around in high spirits. The rioters had waved to the police convoy transporting Siridharan, and Siridharan had watched the policemen waving back in a friendly way.  The only reason he came back alive, Siridharan believed, was because Nisthar, the officer who took him to court, was a Muslim.  All of us kept asking Siridharan questions, our thoughts confused and terrified. We were not ashamed to ask even illogical questions as our hearts were ruling our mouths. The mangled bodies of the thirteen soldiers who had died in a mine explosion set by the Liberation Tigers had been brought to Colombo from Jaffna, not in coffins but wrapped in polythene bags. Their bodies were cremated only last night at the Kanatte cemetery. The Sri Lankan cabinet ministers had made speeches, in the midst of the burning fires, about revenge. The spark that flew out from Kanatte cemetery last night was burning as an inferno all over Sri Lanka.

At mid-day, when the aluminium plate was pushed in through the cell bars, I couldn’t eat. I lay curled against the wall. A guard called out in passing that at two o’clock that afternoon, the whole country was coming under a curfew. It must have been about two thirty then. There was a loud racket on the floors above us. At the same time, the cross-shaped building was being buffeted by howls of ‘Jayaveva’ from outside. As mine was the first cell in C3, I could see a part of the common hall through the window set high in my cell wall. In one jump, I leapt up and clung to the window bars. My feet dangled in the air. As I watched, hundreds of Sinhala convicts in the white clothing worn by all prisoners, armed with sticks and knives entered the prison floor and spread themselves out. They looked wild shouting ‘Jayaveva’ to a common rhythm. 

I fell like a lizard off the window. The guards in C3 rushed in and checked on the locks of our cells. They yelled at us not to stand near the doors but lie against the far walls. A young guard named Nissanka told me, ‘Don’t be frightened. They have to step over my dead body to get to you.’ I had no hope. ‘Thank you, mahathaya,’ I said listlessly. The guards checked the locked door leading from the common hall into C3 too. Then ran to  hide the keys inside the bathroom, and came back to stand at attention near the locked gates.

When I looked out through my cell window again, I saw the jailors Rogers, Samitharatne and Palitha lead the Sinhala prisoners, who were leaping down the stairs like elephants jumping into rain-filled pools. Death was descending. Rogers opened a cloth bundle and flung out weapons, and the prisoners grabbed at them, howling  ‘Jayaveva.’ Now Jailor Samitharatne opened the main door leading into the D3 block and the prisoners shouting  ‘jayaveva’ streamed into the  section. From my window, I couldn’t see what was going on inside.  Then I saw the jailors open the door leading to B3. After that Rogers and Palitha began arguing with Nissanka for the keys to our cells. I jumped down from my window and tried to catch a glimpse of the main doorway from my cell door. Nissanka looked ill with terror. Someone was shouting at him, ‘Son of an illicit relationship with a Tamil.’ The whole cross-shaped building was filled with screams of pain, howls of ‘Jayaveva,’ and the crowing of victory. 25, July 1983 was death day. 

Panic-stricken, I called out the names of the other prisoners in my section. No one was in a state to think about his actions. China was rubbing his forehead with his fingers and standing with his legs apart in a fighting stance. Pakkiri was staring off into space. When I climbed up to the window and looked out again, I saw the prisoners in B3 being dragged out into the common hall and cut to pieces. An axe falls on Suresh master’s head. Udayaseelan and Sudhakaran have already been killed, and their dead bodies are dragged out. I can see Columbanai struggling as he is pulled out and thrown atop the corpse of Avuda. Sinhala prisoners run out of D3 bleeding. Then they run back inside again. Are the prisoners in D3 fighting back and attacking the Sinhala prisoners? Finally, with shouts of jayaveva, six bodies, barely alive are dragged out to the common room. I thought of God. I thought of Satan. I thought of Maria and Martha. There were images running through my head in rapid succession. Boat, gun, nipples, dog, Srikanthamalar, rice, airplane, Aval Appadithaan, water, sea, bible, dream. There was blood gathering against the beige walls of the common room. Eyes, fingers, hands, penises, heads. My mind refuses to let me write anything more. Each time I went to bed with Premini and got up, I woke with the corpses. I fell back from the window. 

*   *   *   *

When you start reading what I am going to write next, you might become disgusted. You will feel this disgust because you are reading about death. But don’t for a moment think that by flinging away this book or skipping the next few pages, you can avoid a whole period of time. In that time period, the calls of ‘jayaveva’ rose up around us again and again. Wild howls in Sinhala spread all over Welikade. Death rang in those long whistles. Prisoners in white poplin cotton made knee-high shorts and shirts began to break down the main gate to the Y.O Building with iron bars. Leading the mob was Sepala Ekanayake, who stuck at the door with an axe. The Sinhala convicts leaped upon the walls surrounding the building. They carried in their hands the massive iron cooking spoons from the prison kitchen and items from the prison carpentry shop like chisels, wood saws and axes. Our prison cells began to shake with the reverberations of ‘Jayaveva!’

[…] The whole floor of the prison is muddied with blood matter.  Can you believe that the murderers, unable to run or walk in the bloody mud kept slipping and falling? I saw this with my own eyes. They slip and fall over each other. 

That was when they succeeded in breaking the cell door across from ours. This was the cell where Douglas Devananda, Panagoda Maheswaran, and TELO Thamba were kept. All three were holding the cell doors from being pulled open, and the men outside kept trying to hit with their axes at the six hands holding the cell doors shut.  The six hands moved in the blink of an eye, up and down, right and left, and still, an axe slashed at Thamba’s hand. Thamba held the wounded hand behind his back, and caught onto the door with his other. Until the end, they did not let the murderers open the door.

In the next cell, Manikadasan and Azhagiri stood by the door and fought with the killers. Manikadasan had a long stick in his hands, which he must have grabbed from the killers themselves. With that stick in hand he was like a martial arts expert, chasing away anyone who tried to get in. He broke the head of a killer who ran off with blood pouring down his face. Azhagiri had taken one of his bed sheets -- we had been give thick sheets in the prison -- wound it around the cell bar, and held the two ends together. When the lock of our cell door fell down, Azhagiri yelled out to me, ‘Swami, get the sheets and use them to hold the door closed.’

I gathered the sheets and flung them at China and Pakkiri who roped the doors closed. The three of us pulled the sheets and stood against the corners of the wall. They were cutting at the sheets with their axes. When the last string of the sheet was cut, death opened the door and came in. Pakkiri ran to the back of the cell and grabbed whatever his hands fell on --our aluminium plates, change of clothing, tooth brushes, combs -- and threw it at the killers. His eyes were focussed solely on the killers while his hands scrabbled all over the floor for things to fling. When the first murderer entered the cell, China chased him out with one blow. They still insisted in trying to push their way in, shouting ‘jayaveva.’ First there were two. Then four. Then six. China kicked and punched them with his hands, feet, head, chest and his piece of iron. Eight men, then sixteen. I knelt on the floor, raised my hands up and weeping, said in Sinhalese, ‘I am not a Tiger. I am not a terrorist. I am a Christian priest … My brothers, show me some mercy.’ 

The murderers couldn’t pass China to get to Pakkiri or me. China covered the small entryway of the prison cell and was attacked viciously. Axes fell on every inch of his body.  He collapsed, falling backwards onto me. It was then that Mendis hit my shoulder with his axe.  Death licked at my body with its tongue. Jayaveva! My eyes burnt and shut themselves. Smoke covered me and the stench of bloody death filled my nostrils and hit the top of my head. Suddenly the murderers stop everything and take off running. ‘Everyone!  Come out!’ I heard the order. Surrounded by the tear gas smoke, I covered my bleeding shoulder with my hand and lay on the floor.

When the smoke cleared, Pakkiri lifted me up and made me stand. I ran to the hallway and looked out. At the entrance to the Y.O building, there were soldiers with masks on their faces, shouting, ‘Everyone, come out at once!’ In the last prison cell, Paranthan Rajan, Sri and Arundavarasan had been safe from the attacks. As Rajan had an old gun shot injury to his hips, he could walk only with the help of a walking stick. He had used this stick in his struggle with the killers. When the tear gas attack came and the killing mob ran off, they had thrown their weapons on the floor. Manickadasan, Douglas Devananda, Pakkiri and Panagoda Maheswaran, each took up an axe in hand and went and checked every cell. Pakkiri lifted China up with great difficulty and took him out. I followed them. At one point, Pakkiri placed China on the ground and dragged him by his feet. The soldiers were shouting for everyone to throw down their axes and come out.

[…] We pleaded with the military personnel and the prison administrators to take the wounded to the hospital. But the army and prison officers kept delaying with one excuse or another, until in the next half hour, except for China, all the other wounded died. At about eight o’clock at night, the prison officers made China and me lie down in a jeep and handcuffed our hands together. China was moaning softly, ‘Take me to the hospital.’  The prison officers had told me that the jeep was going to the hospital. The air had a burnt smell as the jeep went along. When the jeep stopped at the hospital door, I stood up to get down. That is when I found that China (nee Chinnavan Ponkaimaran) had died.

None of the doctors in the hospital bothered to check me. A scowling young nurse put in four stitches on my shoulder. I introduced myself to her as a Catholic priest. She turned her face away quickly in disgust. She placed a needle attached to a bottle of glucose in my arm and made me hold the bottle in my other hand. She instructed me to hold the bottle above my head. I was put back in the jeep with the saline and driven back to Welikade prison. They had handcuffed my hand that held the saline bottle above my head to the seat. Back at Welikade prison all the prisoners were made to stand in line and checked over carefully for hidden weapons. The soldiers then handcuffed and leg shackled us in pairs and laid us out, one couple on top of the other, in the back of a long army truck. After the truck travelled for a little while it stopped. Why did it stop? Where were they taking us? There was no point in wondering about anything.  We had to even relieve ourselves in a corner of the truck. After a very long time, the truck started moving again. When morning dawned, the truck arrived at the regional airport at Ratmalana.  We were once again searched by the air force before being packed into a plane. There were no seats on that plane; we were made to sit on the floor. I think the air force men treated us with some kindness. They passed out hot black tea and pieces of bread to us. The plane was flying towards the east.