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Hippocrates

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For the sake of propriety, although it was far too late for propriety, when I was sent away from Jaffna to Colombo, I travelled in the company of another girl. She, unlike me, had done nothing wrong, and when the train jostled us so that our sweaty wrists touched, she jerked her body away from mine, and I thought I deserved it. We had known each other since we were very young, and for many years had touched each other in the familiar way of friends and schoolmates and neighbours, but that did not matter now. When I had returned to Jaffna, no one in our village had asked me about what I had done while I was with the Tigers. They had assumed, and rightly, I thought then, that I was apart from them, and that I could not return to the life to which I had been born. No one spoke of where I had gone, or with whom I had travelled. This was not from any code of silence, but rather a sense of futility: there was no point in discussing what had already happened. We had reached a moment at which living took so much effort that no one could spare the breath to speak to me. I understood this and was not offended. Although I was not myself a Tiger, I had been with them, and I had left them. There was nothing for me in the village now, although it was still the place I knew and loved the best.

My uncle came to receive me at Colombo Fort Station. The other girl separated from me without saying goodbye, as though we had not walked down the same dusty roads to the same primary school. I watched her walk toward the rows of three­wheelers, moving, like me, into a world of strangers. Even my uncle was a stranger. I had never met him, although he lived in the same country as me and was my mother’s brother. Still, I knew him immediately as I stepped off the train platform, because he held himself in the same way as my mother. He looked as though he never hurried, but nevertheless he moved quickly through the crowd. He had not brushed his hair and seemed not in the least embarrassed to be himself. His peculiarly large hands reached for my suitcase before he even said hello to me. His hands met mine before his eyes met mine, and this, too, was like my mother: he did not wish to speak plainly.

You look like your mother, he said to me in Tamil. If he had said this to me later, perhaps now, I might have replied: So do you. But I was a girl, and I was nineteen, and he did not expect to have a conversation with me. He did not want my opinions, and I did not want to give them to him. We were to be relatives only. He wanted to exchange facts. And I did not know that this was the beginning of my exit from that life – that he was to be one of the last people I met who knew what my mother looked like.

Did you eat? he asked.

I had something on the train, I said.

Amma will have some tea for you when we reach Wellawatte, he said. You must be tired.

He did not wait for me to confirm this, but turned and pushed his way into the crowd. I followed him through the train station and out the other side, to the street. I was not slow, but I had not yet learned to navigate the crowds and foulness of a city. The people who moved for him pushed back at me, perhaps sensing my vulnerability and strangeness. By the time I caught up with him, he was waving to the driver of a big black car a few metres away.

The driver drove from Fort to Wellawatte, my uncle’s neighbourhood, with the windows open. Even if they had been closed, I would have known that Colombo was not as clean as home, that it was not quiet like Jaffna. Breathing felt hard, and my ears were tired from hearing so much. I felt dirty. I blew my nose and lifted my handkerchief blackened with soot and exhaust.

My uncle did not talk to me, and so I looked out the window. Everything passed by – the lights and architecture of a city – and I did not see it. My eyes were still full of Jaffna. I wanted my brothers – my brothers, who were gone. And I wanted my mother and my father, even though they did not presently want me. This man, my uncle, looked like my family, but he did not know me, he did not want to know me, and the feeling of being surrounded by strangers made a pocket of pain inside my chest.

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