A foreigner, as Edmond Jabès suggested, is someone who “makes you think you are at home”. If so, then migrants and refugees aren’t foreigners. They are so seemingly strange and indestructible and fecund, the majority comes to believe they, the true natives, can no longer feel at home in their own country. These people are worse than foreigners: they are usurpers, invaders, interlopers. Sarveswari’s story, however, sees things from the perspective of the boat people, the truck container people, the paperless people. Her story attempts to do what literature, at its noblest, attempts to do: build a bridge of understanding, if not empathy, with those who do make us feel at home.
Technically, the story has a number of intriguing features. The repeated use of anaphora gives it the feel of epic poetry. The chaining of one dolorous clause after another evokes a shiver of dread. And most strikingly, the “story” is narrated by “we”. Here, the subjective plural pronoun isn’t a marker of papal or royal authority, but rather, of complete identification of the individual with the group. Isn’t individuality the privilege of those who have a home? Even though the people in Sarveswari’s story cannot afford such luxury, her story will, we hope, find a home in your hearts and minds.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
We arrive in boats, in stealth, in the middle of the night. We arrive as babies, as aged, as pregnant and as their shamefully helpless men. We trickle into the neighbouring country like the inconspicuous leaks, like leaks that make our getaway boat damp and soggy under our shaking feet. In high water, we are anybody’s target. A coast guard could blow our face into shreds and no one could question them. We are no land’s men.
We tell our sniffling children, our scared wives, and ourselves that once we reach the neighbouring shores, we are safe. As safe as our wealthier friends and cousins, who have left for faraway lands, lands whose passports are safety tickets. They have money, our richer countrymen, and money can get you anywhere. But for us who are poor, who have overstayed our welcome in our land of birth, we will have to do with seeking alms from our brothers from the neighbouring country, brothers who speak the same tongue, brothers separated by a few kilometres of water, and a vast chasm of a border, a border fiercely guarded by trigger-happy men.
We arrive, with hope, with our limbs intact, with our skulls still un-cracked by rifle butts, and for that we are thankful. Many don’t. Many sleep at the seabed, torn apart by bullets, eaten by fish that will be caught by fishermen from either of the countries and sold to haggling housewives of cheating husbands, husbands who will speak of humanity with condescension, having just fed a stray dog some biscuits. Husbands who tsk tsk at our mass executions and rape, over their morning coffee and newspaper. Husbands who declare that one country should not interfere with another country’s internal affairs. Mind you, our dead might be in your tongue, swirling in your mouth, caught as a smelly irritant between your teeth. How much more internal could we be?
We flee as family, we flee as friends. We flee as strangers and then become friends. We flee as a sobbing mother, who left behind her autistic son alone in a locked-up house because he tends to get too excited and would not stay still in a raft . The mother keeps hugging her young daughter from time to time, a puny consolation for the enormous guilt she will carry all through her life. We flee as a husband who had said a hurried goodbye to his sick wife, lying breathless in a half-bombed hospital, promising her that he will return as soon as possible, and the wife replying that she knows he will, both knowing that they are lying, both not wanting their fingers to lose the warmth of their final grip. We flee with our wombs swollen, not minding that our child will be born nationless, identity-less. At least our children will be alive, we tell each other, trading dignity for life. We flee with stories of our lives, some true, some made up, but all forsaken, so that we can live to see another sunrise above the common sea shared by the two countries.
We feel happy and grateful when our feet touch the sandbar, a thin strip of land in the sea that belongs to the neighbouring country. Our rattling guilt and despair are momentarily forgotten. Some of us have sold our livelihood, our only house, our last piece of land, our organs, and our babies to be here. We have sold it with no guarantee that we will reach here alive. Now we are alive and happy. On the dunes, we squat, waiting for the sun to bleed into the horizon, waiting to be found by the authorities of the country that does not want us as much as the country we left behind. The dawn is still inky, and our boat, having abandoned us, receded into the blackness as silently as it floated in. A baby bawls, a small child weeps, an old man groans. We ignore them because we don’t know how to make them feel better. So we ignore them and talk, talk in whispers, about our plans in the new country, about how the worst is behind us.
“We may even get a job and eat three meals a day,” the woman with the daughter says.
“We may even apply for citizenship in the new country,” the student says. “The UN law has provisions for it,” he adds. We notice his forefinger on the right hand missing. We are not shocked. Many of our able-bodied men have their trigger fingers sliced off by the army, a measure to prevent them from joining the rebels.
“We may even live without fear of being raped, one man after another,” says a woman who has been quiet until now. We are shocked when she speaks, and relieved that we are spared of that trauma. The student breaks the awkward silence, “It shouldn’t be hard to blend in. After all, we speak the same tongue.” A retired teacher among us says, “Our singsong dialect, our purposeful twist of tongues will give us away. It is like trying to hide a whole pumpkin in a small mound of rice.” We nod. Our language is our rescuer and our marker. The retired teacher has spent several lakhs to get his spot in the raft He is the only one among us who holds a fake passport from another country, the one his son has managed to fabricate and send to him, from a faraway country. He will soon leave for that country, he keeps repeating, as if to reassure himself. We will learn later that he never got to see the snow.
We dream of food, we are all hungry. The last meagre meal we ate many hours ago in that war-stricken land is either digested or vomited into the seawater. Now our stomach growls, for the stomach is irreverent to logic or situation. It needs what it needs. Many agonising moments later, we spot a catamaran, a bobbing dot in the blue. Some of us, the ones who still have the energy in us, wave, wave frantically like a drowning man. The catamaran men shout back at us, but the wind takes away the words. But we are spotted and that is what matters. Soon, the authorities will rescue us and take us to the camps where we can find something to eat. Now, we just have to pray that the authorities are in good humour today.
At last, we see a white boat approach, our gliding dove, our peace. The authorities of the neighbouring country, fair men who don’t speak our tongue, dark-skinned ones who don’t want to speak to us, all look at us with spine shrivelling distaste. Our heads and shoulders slump down in submission, for their mercy, for their sympathy. We are questioned, prodded, our identities scrutinised. Are we our father’s son? Is the woman our real wife? Did we have any sympathy for extremists? for the army? We don’t know which answers will rescue us, which will get us into trouble. We don’t know to whom we should show our allegiance. Should we tell them? That our neighbour’s child, all of 13, was whisked away by the rebels to be trained for fighting? Should we tell that the army shot down a woman in our town, suspecting that she was a spy? Should we tell them we are running away, fearing not only the state army but also the rebels? The army calls us extremists, the rebels call us deserters, the authorities here call us refugees. When do we get to be humans, we wonder as we are herded into the white boat, a baton ready to keep us on track, to show us our place.
We arrive at last, at our temporary home, an asbestos shed that is to be shared by three families. By the time we are catalogued and segregated, our women leered at and our men bullied, the sun is already high in the sky. We gratefully accept the biscuits and water that the camp officers give us. We stand in line like convicts, our photos taken. Tomorrow, our sorry faces will stare at us in print. We pretend we don’t feel humiliated.
We ought to be happy, the camp managers tell us. We are given food, a roof over our heads, all for free, they say, contempt dripping from their lips. We don’t challenge them. We don’t tell them that we were mechanics, plumbers, cooks, writers, and sculptors in the life we left behind. We fixed, made food, made futures, made love, crafted and created, all that now, rendered useless. We don’t tell them that charity eats our soul, takes a big crunchy bite every time we accept one. We don’t tell them that the sheds leak during rains, that the hastily constructed toilets gurgle out waste. We don’t complain when our babies get pneumonia and wither away. We don’t complain when a woman who goes to relieve herself is ogled at. We don’t complain when our men are mocked and beaten up when they ask for better facilities. We try to remain grateful, for whatever mercy we are given by Gods, by men.
We try to conjure normalcy out of all this and seek jobs outside our high-walled barb-wired camps (we are allowed to). But we are looked upon with suspicion because internment assumes deceit as though a deceit worse than assumption is possible. We settle for whatever comes our way. The mechanic makes himself useful as a lorry cleaner, the writer sweeps the shop floors, and the sculptor hawks plastic dolls in front of the temples where Gods who are indulged are too languorous to notice us. We earn, a pittance though it might be, to soothe our festering ignominy.
We almost lead a normal life when one day we hear about the assassination of a leader. The suicide bomber is a rebel from the country we fled, the radio screeches at us. As all the accusing eyes turn towards us, we are tempted to ask, ‘Where were you when the same rebels who took away our children from us and cajoled them to die for a cause that is far beyond their comprehension? Where were you when the schools uniforms metamorphosed into fatigues?’ . We don’t ask, of course. We don’t dare. Fear swiftly permeates the camp walls, the same fear that made us flee. We are forbidden to go out of the camps. We cooped, voiceless and faceless, abandoned by one country and targeted by the other, because when you can’t avenge the guilty, you avenge the meek.
We are rounded up and prodded to reveal our opinion, our guilt, our allegiance. Many are dragged away to the police stations. Very few return, and return with horror stories, stories of baton finding its way up holes, stories of fingernails and molars pried away, stories that leave a woman too stunned to speak, stories that makes a sanguine man hang from the rafters. Many don’t return at all. A father who waves goodbye to his son never returns. An infirm wonders why her daughter hasn’t come to clean her yet. A girl who tasted love for the first time within the camp walls loses it forever. Her lover, the student who dreamt of a life in the new country, is last seen begging, as he is forced into a caged van. The police raid our cloth bundles and plastic buckets. They take away whatever little money we have for their evening booze. The retired teacher who is found in possession of a fake passport is beaten up. His son will continue to wait for him in a foreign land, never hearing from him again, never knowing that he is buried in a land that refused to let him live.
Some of us are cursed to survive, yet again, cursed to hope, hope that one day, we will return to the cool verandhas, to the kitchen laden with the fragrance of coconut milk and jaggery, to sweet streams that quenched our dark throats, to the giggles of innocence and unguarded happiness.
It will be too late, when we realise that we will live in these camps for decades to come. We will scramble for food, a roof over our head, education and dignity. Within these walls between us, we will continue to dream about impossible futures, about having a home , a place, a country where we truly belong.
Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz created this 20-foot reminder in stone of the plight of migrants and refugees everywhere. His work, Angels Unawares, takes its name from Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (King James Version). At the moment, NPR’s webpages has an informative writeup about this work and the individual stories it contains.
Sarveswari Saikrishna (author)
Sarveswari Saikrishna is a short story writer and a Kolam Writer’s Workshop Alumni. Her stories are published in several literary magazines, including Out Of Print, Gulmohur Quarterly, Meanpeppervine, TMYS . When she’s not sleeping, she says, she can be found imagining scenarios in which she’ll win awards for the book she is yet to write.