An excerpt from ‘Where God Began,’ by Appadurai Muttulingam, translated from the Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan.
I did not see the sunrise in Ukraine on my first day and woke up only after the sun had captured the sky. The very sound and smell of the air was different – I could tell even with my eyes closed. By the time I awoke, the rest had washed up by turns and were waiting. I could see that everyone had something to worry about. Master was reading something and Mami was uttering a prayer. I remembered how agent Vijayanayagam had once remarked that being a refugee meant “waiting”. We were waiting as if something important was bound to happen that day. We didn’t know that for a whole month nothing would happen, that soon we would start thinking that jail might have been better than this uncertain waiting.
On a night when six of us were in the apartment, the Russian-speaking agent called and asked us to sit down on the floor. He said that Chandra mami, Master and I were to stay back and be taken care of by another agent. The rest had to prepare to leave the next morning. I was shocked. I looked at Chandra mami. She was looking away, through the window, at birds on a tree, as though completely disconnected from current events. Master was not so shocked.
“Master, this is not fair. We paid the same amount of money. Amma raised it by selling our land. We cannot be treated like this … Is there nobody who can protest against this injustice?” I ranted.
That night, Master comforted me.
“We have no clue how they operate. But they will certainly take us to a new country somehow. Don’t worry.”
“No, Master, they are selling us off like they would damaged goods. If a new agent doesn’t show tomorrow, we will end up begging on the streets.”
“That won’t happen to you. Those who are leaving aren’t going to achieve anything by going a day earlier. Everything happens according to some pre-written destiny. You won’t understand it today, but maybe someday you will.”
The next day, three people left with the agent. “A new agent will reach here this evening. He is more experienced than I am. Not to worry,” said the agent as he left. I was furious that we were being abandoned in an unfamiliar country, in a language environment that we did not understand. But I drew comfort from Master’s words.
When the doorbell rang at night, my heart leapt in excitement. I hadn’t the slightest idea about the shock that was waiting on the other side of the door. The new agent had brought five more people. It was difficult to identify him in an overcoat and hat, which he removed when he stepped inside. The shock I got on recognising him was indescribable. I remembered my mother’s cries pleading for me to not go after the dog-bite, which she had seen as a bad omen. My head spun, thinking in how many more ways God would test me again and again.
Because the agent who arrived was none other than Jumper! The man who had told me in the restaurant back in Colombo that he had had no time on that day to kill me. How he had turned into an agent was a mystery. Seeing him, I thought my life was over. But Jumper looked like he had forgotten everything. He issued orders to those who had accompanied him. His appearance and manner inspired some hope.
The five people he had brought were somewhat unique. There was a powerfully built man who could be around forty. They said he was a dentist. The others included a young Sinhalese called Kaluwella, a sixty-year-old man named Mohan, a teenager, and a young woman who lit up the room. The agent addressed her as Lavanya. She was the first to smile at me. Unaware of the cold climate in Ukraine until then, she wore a sleeveless dress. In no time, she began to shiver and covered her shoulders with her hands. Her eyes were shaded by locks of hair, which she was constantly pushing aside. Educated at Vembadi school, she was now preparing to go to Paris.
One day I asked her what she intended to do in Paris. When she said “fashion design”, I wondered if there were educational courses for such things.
Later that day, when Jumper rushed in, she murmured that trouble was coming. But he had brought good news. He had found a way out for Master. They wouldn’t let refugees live together for long, fearing that they would bond and hesitate to leave each other. For me, it was devastating news, yet I was happy for Master.
“How will I survive without you?” I asked Master.
“Have you grown dependent on me? This friendship is temporary. You need to trust yourself.”
It had been a month since we had arrived in Ukraine. We had to plan every exit. Patience was the most important trait a refugee had to cultivate. Boiling water would eventually cool down. However high it flew, a bird had to make a landing. It was important to practise patience.
Excerpted with permission from Where God Began, Appadurai Muttulingam, translated from the Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan, Eka/Westland.