Jegadeesh Kumar is a student of Eastern Philosophy, Mathematics teacher, writer, and translator, raised in Southern India, now living in South Carolina, USA. He writes, both in English and Tamil, short stories, poems, and Eastern Philosophy. His work has appeared in The Impspired Magazine,The Prometheus Dreaming, Indian Periodical, The Academy of Heart and Mind, Spillwords Press, The Piker Press, Defunct magazine, and elsewhere.
Appadurai Muttulingam was born in Sri Lanka and has published numerous books in Tamil, including novels, short story collections, and essays. Stories translated into English have appeared in the anthologies Many Roads Through Paradise and Uprooting the Pumpkin. His works in translation have appeared in the Narrative magazine, Defunct magazine and Spillwords Press.Among his honors are the Sahitya Akademi award and the S.R.M. University of India literary award. Muttulingam is the founder and director of Tamil Literary Garden, a charitable organization in Canada that promotes literary excellence. He lives with his wife in Toronto.
A Primal Quality
Translated by Jegadeesh Kumar
The man who walked from the bedroom to the living room sofa, stopping at least four times to catch his breath, was my friend’s father, Charlie Abhayasinghe. The man who killed a wild elephant when he was twelve. His son Rohan, who studied with me at the university, had told me about it. Charlie had shot the elephant in the Nikaweratiya jungle. A place I knew really well since it was in the Nikarawetiya hospital where the government had posted me in my first job as a doctor after I earned my medical degree in Colombo. It was not hard to believe my friend’s story about his father. At the hospital more patients came to see me due to elephant attacks than they did for common illnesses. I had treated people who had killed wild elephants, and I had autopsied the bodies of those who had been killed by them.
It was an incident in Nikarawetiya that drove me out of the country to pursue my studies. There were reports of a body lying in the jungle, and I received an order from Colombo to go in and examine the corpse. Accompanied by a policeman, I went into the jungle in search of it. My job was only to examine the body, and I had come prepared to write “Cause of death: elephant attack” in the report, as I did every time. But on examination, I found a cut on the neck of the body. The policeman explained that it was undoubtedly a murder, but the body had been dumped in the jungle to trick the police into determining the cause of death as an elephant attack. He said, “Sir, please, just write in your report that an elephant killed this fellow. We would never catch the killer anyway. If you write otherwise, we both have to run back and forth to the court. I have to stand guard over this corpse all night in this terrible forest.”
That is how I made my decision to go to England to further my studies in obstetrics. The letters MRCOG were added after my name. But I did not want to go back to Colombo. I went to Canada when I received a letter from a recently built Canadian hospital, saying they needed a doctor right away. I did not realize then that Canada was the second-largest country in the world. I failed to ask the simple question of where exactly I would be working in this large country. The hospital was in one of the most backward areas of Newfoundland, an island and the tenth-largest province in Canada. Newfoundland was six times larger than Sri Lanka, and its winter temperatures dropped to -20° to -30° C, and since the Arctic Circle is only eight hundred kilometers away, the temperatures can go as low as -40° when the winds blow from there. It was only later that I learned all this.
Rohan worked as an engineer in Newfoundland’s capital St. John’s. I cannot express in words the joy I felt when I bumped into him there. What are the chances of meeting your friend, with whom you studied at the university ten years earlier, in this godforsaken, snow-covered land? When I visited him at his home, I asked his father the question I had been meaning to ask him for years: “How did you manage to shoot an elephant at the age of twelve?” He said, “My father’s advice was this. ‘Nothing can take your life away without your consent. You shouldn’t be tense nor should you lose hope. Patience is the key.’ One day when we went hunting, an elephant suddenly appeared in front of us. My father asked me to shoot, and I shot. There is a strange thing about the skull of an elephant. Below the forehead and above the tusks is a small hole in its skull. It was my providence that the bullet went through the hole and pierced the brain. The elephant stood for a minute, stunned, and collapsed to its side. The picture comes into my dreams even today.”
It had been almost two years since I came to Newfoundland. I had a very different hospital experience here than I did in Nikaweratiya, a place I could not help comparing with my current one. Here people traveled one whole day to visit the hospital. Bodies often arrived frozen, such as those killed by elephants in Nikaweratiya, to be sent for a postmortem. Sometimes there would be half-frozen bodies with little life left in them. Initially, the cold would attack and freeze the limbs, rendering them incapacitated. You would have to amputate them immediately to save lives. A few poor souls lost their legs completely.
I was used to the superstitions of my country, but I did not expect Westerners to entertain similar beliefs. Mrs. Jason, a middle-aged woman, had conceived twice and had gotten an abortion on both occasions. She visited me when she was pregnant for the third time. She wanted to keep this child and told me she was extremely worried. I examined her thoroughly and found the baby to be too large in her womb, which was extremely dangerous. I scheduled a cesarean for the next day. As I was talking to her, one of her gloves slipped and fell from her hand. She immediately threw down the other glove. “This is a bad omen. Can you give me a different date?” she said. I gave her another date. When I performed the cesarean on the given day, the baby was delivered dead. She was heartbroken and cried bitterly, regretting her stupidity. I tried to comfort her. After hesitating, she retreated slowly like a wave, not taking her eyes off of me as she left.
A few months later, Mrs. Jason was pregnant again and visited the hospital. I started examining her every month. The baby had grown too big again. I scheduled her for a cesarean in two days’ time. She immediately agreed to the date. Nothing untoward happened this time, since her gloves were tightly gripped in her hands.
The next day I was in the capital on business and met Rohan there. He asked, “When is Ramya coming?” He knew we were in love. I needed to return to Colombo to bring her over here. “My plan is to go when winter is over,” I said.
When I finished lunch and got ready to leave for the hospital, Rohan asked, “Are you leaving today?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Are you an idiot? There’s going to be a huge blizzard today. Didn’t you hear the weatherman talking about it on the TV?”
“How can I stay? I have to be at Mrs. Jason’s cesarean at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”
“Idiot! What would happen if you didn’t go?”
“If I don’t go, not only the baby but the mother might also die. I have to go, it’s my duty.”
“All right. But please be careful. Call me when you get there,” said Rohan.
Thus started the night I would never forget. I remembered what Mrs. Jason had told me. “You got your education in Colombo, London, and Canada. You’ve got the wisdom of three countries. You are the best man for the job.” I told myself that I should somehow reach the hospital in time for the operation. The hospital was in Marystown, three hundred kilometers from St. John’s. On a normal day when traffic is light, you can drive comfortably on the straight road and reach the hospital in five hours. I presumed I would reach there by six in the evening. The first two-hour leg of the journey passed without incident. Then the snowstorm began.
It was December 1992. The sky was gray all day long. There was no sign of the sun. I was driving on winter tires in my new Ford Crown Victoria I had bought just six months earlier. I was driving more slowly now. By 4 p.m. I was halfway there and, as I could not turn back, I decided to cautiously drive forward. By 7 p.m. the remaining distance was a hundred kilometers. There were no lights along the road, and it was snowing in thick clusters in the dark. Every bit of land was covered by snow, and I felt as if I was driving through a snow desert. It was a total whiteout. There were no houses, no trees, no other vehicles; there was only loneliness. The windshield wipers were working furiously to fend off the endlessly falling snow. I had no idea where the road was leading, whether in my direction or in the opposite one. The beams of the car’s headlights did not go beyond ten feet.
A song was playing in the car. A song from the Tamil movie Karagattakkaran, composed and sung by Ilayaraaja, along with Chitra. “Indaman, undan sondaman, pakkam vanduthan sindu padum.” Listening to the song, I cheered up a bit. This was one of Ramya’s favorite songs. How nice would it be if she was by my side right now? I imagined that she was hugging me, like water encircling me on all sides. I envisioned her changing into a sari, which she did in less than half a minute. Rolling up the sari and holding it in one hand, she would stand as if not knowing what to do with the extra length of cloth. Then she would throw it over her shoulder, as little girls do in their righto games. With the radio playing Ramya’s favorite song, I felt as if the three of them, Ramya, Ilayaraaja, and Chitra were traveling with me in the car.
The yellow and white lines that divided the road were buried under the falling snow. Along the path was a mile-long pond, which looked completely frozen. For a moment I thought perhaps my car was heading into the opposite lane. The next moment the car started rolling into a ditch. It flipped over ten, twenty times, fell fifty feet, and came to rest upside down on the frozen pond. Despite all this tumbling, I did not lose consciousness. I continued to listen to the song, until it stopped abruptly. The snow continued to fall, slowly covering my Crown Victoria.
The first thing that came to mind was the scene in which people carried dead bodies to the morgue. How long before someone would find my body, lying on the frozen pond? How many hours would it take for the snow to completely cover the car? Perhaps Rohan would call the hospital to inquire. Do phones work in snowstorms? Mrs. Jason would be waiting for me. Who would perform her C-section? Would Ramya be informed? How long would it take for the message to reach her? Having been born in Analitivu, studied in London, and practiced maternity treatment at Marystown’s Burin Hospital, should my life end this way? The blizzard was destroying the tracks of my car, and my history, at demonic speed.
It was impossible to break open the door, which was bent and skewed. I felt over my whole body to see if there was any injury. There was none. In my attempt to right the upside-down car, it slipped even further. Getting out of the car would only worsen the situation. It was safest to remain inside. I attempted to calculate the number of hours before my inevitable death. I had on four layers of clothing, a hat, gloves, thick socks, and shoes. Plus a wool scarf around my neck. It was -30° outside, and the same inside the car as well. With the Arctic winds blowing, it would soon be -4o°.
The temperature inside the car was going down one degree per minute. The fingers would stiffen first, then the nose, and finally the entire body would be numb. My lips had gone dry and started to twitch. I sang “Indaman, undan sondaman, pakkam vandudan sindu padum,” which came out sounding like gibberish. This might be the last song of my life. . . . What came to my mind at this moment were the stories I had heard of those who had frozen to death in the snow. One man had torn open his pet dog’s stomach to place his frostbitten fingers inside. The location where the Titanic sank was discovered seven years ago. It was just 560 km from St. John’s. I remembered that several people who traveled on the Titanic had frozen to death on that fateful day.
I remembered what Charlie had told me. “Nothing can take your life away without your consent. You shouldn’t be tense nor should you lose hope.” Your brain could go haywire any moment now. You’ve got to think and act before that happens. You are a doctor. Think like a doctor. I noticed a square area in the rearview mirror. Your body is going to hang like this forever. Slowly the stiffness will get to you, and the blood will freeze. You will slip into a deep slumber, the most amazing sleep the human body can experience.
I heard a knock on the car window. At first I was scared at the sound and cocked my ear to listen intently. The same sound came again. In my hanging position, I twisted my body and looked out the window. An image was moving. A beam of light swayed back and forth from the flashlight held in its hand. It had a pale human face. The man was dressed in black, with reflective garb over his clothes. I knocked faintly on the glass three times.
With one finger over his mouth, he signaled me not to speak. He rotated his arm, another signal. My car windows were not electric. I found the crank handle and started rotating it. A cold wind gusted in, accompanied by a flurry of blowing snow. The man grabbed me with his strong hands and pulled me out. He dragged me about fifty feet high, pulling me again as I started to slip down in some places, to the area where his car, a heavy vehicle suited for winters, stood running. I got into the car and was surrounded by its warmth. He poured me some coffee from a flask. I looked at him like a calf looking at its mother. He put one finger over his mouth again and signaled me not to speak. The vehicle started moving.
A few minutes later I was able to talk. I thanked him, but he did not respond.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“I saw the light from your vehicle coming from below as I was driving past. The light came upward because your car was upside down. I immediately realized it was an accident.”
“What made you come down to that dangerous pit to save me?”
He thought for a long time before giving me an answer, the one I would never forget.
“Many still think that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Leif Erikson, a Norwegian, not only discovered it but immigrated there five hundred years before Columbus arrived. We are the remnants of a thousand-year-old descendant chain that started with that immigration. The reason we continue to survive is that we help each other in demanding situations. We consider that our duty. It is as if two ships in the middle of the sea are helping each other in difficult times. That is how one can survive in this world. I cannot simply pass by, watching someone lying in a pit. I have got to help him. This is our primal duty.”
‘‘Why did the early settlers choose this region of terrible snow?”
“Newfoundland is very close to Europe, only 3,200 kilometers away. It was here that the underwater telegraph cable connecting Ireland and North America was laid. Do you know when Abraham Lincoln was shot dead in 1865, it took ten days for the news to reach Europe? But in the following year, any news from here reached Europe in just under ten seconds. Because the underwater cable had been laid by then.”
We arrived at the hospital. I thanked him again and said goodbye. In the dim light, I could not see his face clearly.
“Can you at least tell me your name? I want to remember it.”
“Just keep remembering the primordial nature of this island. That is enough,” he said and left me. I had a good night’s sleep. In the morning I called Ramya and Rohan to let them know I had arrived safely, but I did not mention the accident. Mrs. Jason was ready for the cesarean, and I took out a baby boy, weighing 11.8 pounds.
That evening I did hospital rounds as usual. When I stopped at Mrs. Jason’s bed, I saw her smiling at the baby being held in a man’s arms. She appeared to be filled with uncontrollable joy and, in her excited state, opened her mouth and started blabbering some unintelligible words. The man put a finger over his lips, signaling her not to speak, comforting her.