Behind the Smile
jeep left the Town of Mitsubishi Pajero
carrying soldiers of the Tamil Tiger Vanni regime.
Their destination was the celebrated Vembady Girls’ College* in the City
of Kilinochchi . They
were dressed in civilian clothing as required by the Cease Fire Agreement of
2002 between the racist Jaffna government and the insurgent Tamil
Tigers. They accompanied the Minister of Political Affairs. Not a single
soldier—the Minister included—had any idea what they were walking into. Neither
could they comprehend the complete and utter turmoil that would result from the
defiance of two thousand young ladies of the Vembady Girls’ College. Sri
It was the first Wednesday in January, 2006, and all schools in the
peninsula were just beginning their
first term. Students rushed about the city of Jaffna on bicycles or on foot, winding in and
out of tall palmyra groves. School buses bounced along the unrepaired roads in
an effort to deliver students to their destinations on time. By Vembady Girls’ College was
in full swing. Jaffna
a heavyset woman with a pleasant face, had long ago reached retiring age, but
her passion for the girls under her care had kept her around like an unchanging
landmark. She sat in her office and shuffled through a stack of papers that
littered her desk. She glanced at the clock and then over at Vasantha Velautham Raman,
the gate sentry. “It’s time,” she said. “Go lock the gate.”
A short while later, the deafening sound of bad breaks, caused
nearly fall off his stool. He grabbed the bars and peered through trying to see
what was going on. Outside, a Pajero jeep full of men blatantly blocked the
The Minister of Political Affairs, the right-hand man of His Royal Highness the Tamil Tiger, glanced out of the jeep’s window at the iron worked sign that hung above the grilled gate. His famous grin was plastered on his face as he mouthed, “Jaffna Vembady Girls’ College.” He turned back and snapped, “We’re here! Get out and get that gate opened!”
“Of course not,” replied the other young bearded man. “They can’t do such dreadful things during the Cease Fire Agreement. If they break the agreement, they’ll not be allowed to step foot into the
peninsula again by the Sri Lankan forces.” Jaffna
The old man snorted at such an absurd remark. Everyone knew the Tamil Tigers were already covertly breaking the Agreement. “What? The Tigers are now scared to growl in
The young man’s tone of voice and words sent chills of warning down his aging spine. “Do you question the Tigers integrity, old man? Maybe you should. Maybe they have the ability to penetrate deep into well defended territory and successfully carry out their missions. Maybe they assassinated
the Prime Minister of India, right under the noses of their mighty army.” He
paused and turned a cold stare upon the old man. “Idiot, maybe they can get to
you anytime, anyplace they want to!” Rajeev Gandhi
Like a mouse vanishing into a hole upon spotting a stalking cat, the old man darted away, understanding that he had stupidly opened his mouth to one of the many Tamil intelligence officers that constantly infiltrated the population. Fearing for himself and his family, he threw one last apology over his shoulder as he fled, “Sorry, sir! Sorry! Thank you!”
In fact, there were two Tamil Tiger intelligence officers in the crowd that gawk
at the Smiling Minister. Neither of them was aware of the other as per strict
Tamil Tiger policy. As they didn’t know about each other, they couldn’t talk to
each other. They monitored the crowd, taking note of the group’s reactions,
silently identifying friend and foe.
The youngest of the Tamil Tigers that accompanied the Smiling Minister, wearing blue shorts and a black shirt, hopped out of the Pajero and dashed towards the crowd, waving his arms, and shouting angrily, “What are you looking at? Don’t you have work to do?” His voice, still young—he couldn’t be more than twelve years of age—squeak
ed sharply. “If you need something to do, we can put
you to work digging bunkers!”
Despite the almost comical scene of a twelve year old boy ordering adults two and three times his age around, the street cleared out in no time—including the two intelligence officers.
Another Tiger stepped out of the jeep, twenty-nine year old Lieutenant Earless—as he was known behind his back—marched up to the gate of the girls’ college and cast a penetrating glare at the still fidgeting
swallowed when he noticed that the lieutenant had lost his right ear, and as
hard as he wanted to, he couldn’t seem to tear his gaze from the scarred tissue
where the ear should have been. Earless brushed a hand through his black hair,
partially messing up his center part. “We are the Tamil Tigers,” he announced in
a harsh voice. “Open the gate.”
in an immediate quandary. If he opened the gate without permission from Principal , he
could be fired. If he didn’t open the gate right away for the Smiling Minister,
they could order him to Kilinochchi—a worse fate than being fired. He finally
hit upon a solution that he hoped would get him out of both predicaments. “Yes
sir,” he answered the lieutenant. “I will have to go get
the keys, though. They’re in the office. I’ll be back in a second.” Without
waiting for a response, Vasantha Raman sped away for the office and the principal.
He burst into her office without knocking. “Madam! Madam!” His voice reverberated in the spacious room.
Vasantha looked up, noting
Raman in concern. “ Raman,
why are you shaking? What’s happened?”
The gate sentry pointed a quivering hand towards the school gate. He swallowed hard trying to get words out past the lump in his throat.
“What the devil is wrong with you?” the aging principal demanded.
“Tamil Tigers at the gate,” he stammered.
The principal half rose out of her seat, her bulk protruding over the desk. “Tamil Tigers? Tamil Tigers!”
“Lots of Tigers,”
Raman added helpfully.
“Lots of Tigers…”
“And the Smiling Minister, too,”
His words had the same effect on the principal as a grenade would if tossed into the room. Terrified,
Principal jerked upright, her eyes wide. “O
Lord! The Smiling Minister too! Save me from this
Vasantha watched him go, her heart throbbing in her chest and her eyes blinking in fear. Sweat from her obese body began to soak her clothing. She reached blindly for her desk, thinking she needed the support or she would fall over. The Smiling Minister here! What am I going to do? she mentally asked herself. What am I going to do?
A tall pretty girl, Sendhoory—Year 12 class monitor—wearing her hair in long braids the ends of which were each tied with a black ribbon, slipped into the office and placed her class attendance roster in the proper place for the Principal to look at later. Vasantha hardly noticed her. Hardly noticed that the girl’s calculating eyes and ears had registered every word that
Raman had spoken. She
seemed to have smelled trouble in the air.
The impatient lieutenant swore at him and pointed to the gate. “Open this gate, now!”
“Where do you normally keep the keys, you idiot?”
“In my pocket,”
Raman reflexively replied, slapping his pockets.
The Tamil Tiger shoved
Raman up against a wall. “You just lied to a Tiger, you
fool. People like you must be taught a lesson. You will report to Kilinochchi
for investigation. Do you understand?”
“But…but I didn’t make a mistake! I …”
“Sentry, you will report to Kilinochchi! That is all the reason you need!”
Raman said, defeated.
Lieutenant Earless rejoined the Pajero, and as it drove past the slumping gate sentry, the Smiling Minister cast his famous smile at the distraught man, seeming to take immense pleasure in the young man’s distress.
The jeep rolled to a stop on the smooth stones and the Tamil soldiers jumped down into the courtyard one after another. The Smiling Minister, living up to his name by sporting a wide leering smile, was the last to exit the Pajero. He looked around and took notice of the gorgeous rose bushes in full bloom around the college buildings. For long moments he couldn’t take his eyes away from the mesmerizing scenery and silently determined to take a few clippings when he left.
At length he placed his silver knobbed walking stick on the ground before him and began a slow, if somewhat awkward, walk towards the Principal’s office. He hated his prosthetic leg, lost in a battle years ago, and he keenly resented anyone who took notice of his shame. But if he took things slow, he managed to keep some measure of decorum about him. Besides, his slow measured approach struck fear into the hearts of those that heard his walking stick striking the ground. For some it sounded like a death knell.
That’s exactly how
when she heard the walking stick drawing closer to her open office door. She
tried her best to remain calm, but the Smiling Minister never brought calm even
at the best of times. When at last the man entered the room, followed closely
by Lieutenant Earless, she felt as if she would faint. She stood up and felt
like a childish, immature, school girl again. Vasantha
The Minister came to a stop in the center of the office and peered around at the fairly luxurious space. To the left of the Principal’s large polished desk stood a cupboard with glass doors where the attendance records and rosters were kept. On the right side of the desk, three filing cabinets stood next to the wall containing most of the rest of the important files for the college. A costly telephone sat on the desk, and a brass bell sat near it. Other than two trays for current correspondence, the desk was suspiciously empty. The Minister wondered if the Principle had brushed everything into an empty drawer before he had arrived. A faint whiff of potpourri brushed his nostrils, giving the air a refreshing fragrance.
Sendhoory was still in the office, straightening up one of the eight plush chairs. And while the room dominated the Minister’s attention, her attractive figure dominated the lieutenant’s. Earless had a reputation as a skirt-chaser, and the story of how he lost his ear was a well known one around the region.
The story goes that one day he spotted a gorgeous young woman working in the paddy fields near a remote village somewhere between Puliyankulam and Nedunkerni in Vanni. His suggestion—more of an order—to accompany him into the privacy of the forest, met with little resistance as the woman was already aware of his reputation for molesting girls who refused him. She gave Earless a sweet smile and invited him to her house by making signals with her eyes. She never said a word. Thinking himself quite clever, Earless followed her eagerly to her home near a Primary School. The room they entered was full of paddy bags on one side, but the center of the room was clear of obstacles. Clear enough for the Lieutenant’s purposes anyway. He jumped her, forcing her to the ground smelling of cow dung. While Lieutenant Earless was lost to his passions, the intelligent girl held him tight with both her arms and bit off his ear. Unable to endure the pain, he dashed away with the piece of his missing ear and disappeared into the nearby dense forest.
The Principal noticed his leering eyes as they followed her pupil, but she feared to intervene, as the Smiling Minister was standing right before her. She swallowed and swept a hand towards the chairs. “Please, take a seat, honorable Minister of Political Affairs.”
you Principal .”
He moved towards one of the plush chairs, until he noticed that the Principal
seemed rooted in place. “Why are you still standing? Take your seat,
Principal.” Vasantha Velautham
She sat down heavily and had to wipe the sweat from her face. This served to make her bulbous nose even the more prominent. She couldn’t decide what to do. The Minister was smiling and stealthily scrutinizing her. At last she managed to stammer, “How can I help you, Honorable Minister?”
“We want to meet with your students,” the Tiger Minister said cutting right to the heart of the matter. “I want all students above year 7 to assemble in the auditorium.” He eyed her traditional golden Thaali* wrapped around her neck. He noted the thickness and estimated its weight to be more than 96 grams. The pearl laden chain and expensive pendent spoke of wealth and prestige, everything that the Tamil Tigers detested. Two pairs of bangles adorned her hands. The Minister took sadistic pleasure in the woman’s obvious discomfort. He thought it a good sign.
With some hesitation, the fat Principal answered, “It’s just a little past ten now. If you’ll wait until , you’ll have until five to address the student body.” She hoped the Minister would agree. She didn’t want to take the students away from their studies. Her fear aside, her duties to the students rose up to do battle within her. She had a saying, “Every minute is gold for the students. Don’t waste time on non-academic matters.”
The Minster stared in surprise. “
did you not understand what I said? You…you—” He broke off, his face turning
livid with anger. Vasantha
Vasantha swallowed hard, worried that she had pushed the Minister too far. Her pride gave way to fear and she bobbed her head up and down in defeat. “Okay, sorry sir. I’ll do as you have instructed. I’m sorry.” She made a stab for the bell, missed, and finally hit it on the second try. It produced a sharp tone that the office assistant—a menial worker by most standards—would hear.
Ponnamma came running into the office; she skirted the men and sidled up to the edge of the desk. “Madam?”
“Go tell the Vice Principal to come to my office immediately.”
Ponnamma gulped at the Principal’s harsh tone and dart
the room like a whipped dog, her yellow blouse puffing out in her haste. The
Vice Principal arrived in short order.
“Good morning Honorable Minister,” Piriya Shan said smoothly upon seeing the company in the Principal’s office. She understood the situation clearly and didn’t even bother to address Vasanatha. “Welcome to our institution; we are pleased to have you, and we are at your service, Your Honor.”
The Smiling Minister’s face brightened considerably. He was quite taken by her sweet tone, even though he was not familiar with the Queen’s English. He didn’t know that she was a highly honored graduate of the
with a degree in chemistry. The Minister really wouldn’t
have cared anyway. He had eyes only for the woman’s body. He found this rather
short, but slender lady with her shining forehead very alluring. Her violet
pottus*, one up and one down on her forehead, informed him that she was
married. Again, he could care less. Her reddish hued diamonds studded earrings
flickered in the light, and caught his eyes more than once. She wore an
expensive green kansipuram sari* that fired the Minister’s imagination. University
The principal’s voice interrupted the Minister’s concentration. “Piriya, the Honorable Minister wants to meet the students. Please make the necessary arrangements without delay.”
Priya nodded and turned back to the Minister, saying, “Your Honor, I should have everything ready in about ten minutes. How many seats do you require on the platform?”
“Is there anything else that you require?”
Priya nodded. “Very well, I will come to get you in about ten minutes.” She spotted Sendhoory lingering in the corner of the office under the lustful gaze of Lieutenant Earless. She motioned to her. “Come, Monitor Sendhoory, you can help inform the students.”
The pretty girl nodded and together the two departed. But they separated once they left the office. The Vice Principal went to round up the Prefects and Sendhoory rushed to inform her Liberal Arts department the news.
The girl entered a year 12 history class taught by a woman in her thirties wearing a blue sari and wearing her hair in a bun. The teacher was pointing at the white board while explaining some points regarding the Mahavasma Chronicles written by the Buddhist Therar Mahanama. In the midst of her discourse, she said, “I saw a tiger eating grass in my dream last night.
was not there to record
it.” The mockery made the class roar with laughter, knowing that Mahanama had a
reputation for recording fictional information. The students were not aware of
the prophetic or serious nature of her words. Therar
Sendhoory, holding a red record book she had retrieved from the Principal’s office, interrupted loudly with her important announcement, “The Smiling Minister and his Tiger stooges have come to our college to discharge gas. Our college is going to enjoy the noxious fumes of their nasty fart free of charge. Those who feel the need can package the smell and share it with their families at home.”
For just a second there was stunned silence as the entire group of female students stared at Monitor Sendhoory. Then the entire class roared with laughter. The teacher glared at Sendhoory, but her anger faded when the girl just shrugged innocently, letting her pigtails bounce around her neck. The teacher began to chuckle at her brightest student’s joke. She too detested the Tamil Tigers.
As soon as the laughter died down, some speculations began flying from the bold students.
“The Tigers have come to recruit students for their army,” one supposed.
“No, according to the Cease Fire Agreement they can’t recruit people,” another objected.
“The populace is not happy with the Tamil Tigers’ exorbitant taxes. They’re plundering the public!”
“Not to mention all the human rights violations,” another added.
“They even seize chickens and goats from the poor for not paying their taxes. It’s horrendous!”
“I heard that the Smiling Minister often comes back from traveling abroad with suitcases filled with electronic gadgets of all kinds.”
“That’s for His Royal Highness the Tamil Tiger’s children,” another one rejoined with a snort of disdain.
A dark girl in the middle row raised a concern that most privately held. She looked Sendhoory right in the eye as she said, “The Tigers used to recruit from our college in large numbers. More than half of them are dead now. What do we do if we are asked to join? What are you going to do, Monitor Sendhoory, if you are asked to join their army? Will you?”
“No! I’ll teach them! I’ll send them home carrying shame on their heads.” She almost spit on the wall, but held back out of respect for the teacher. “The Tamil Tigers have killed more of our own people than they have killed soldiers of the Sinhala army! No one, not even idiots, trust them anymore!”
The girls cheered and clapped, even going so far as to give her a standing ovation. The conduct of the girls revealed clearly that they no longer held to the old conservative notions of how women were to behave. Their eager desire to break the bonds of civil restrictions would jeopardize the aged old tradition of hiding the women away in small home compounds to keep them from prying eyes. After the civil war broke out in 1983, all insurgent movements began to recruit women into the military. This began a slow change in the way women saw their role in life, pecking away at the unyielding conservative culture. These girls were the product of that slow change.
In the middle of the ovation, Head Prefect Mehala—the most respected and intelligent student of the college—entered the room and told everyone to rush to the auditorium. The Smiling Minister was due to address the students shortly. Every one left, but when they got to the auditorium, Sendhoory was waved over by History Teacher to a group standing conspiratorially in a corner.
“Come here Sendhoory,” the teacher practically cooed, with a grin. “Listen carefully, for I will need your help.” The students, Head Prefect Mehala included, listened intently to her instructions. When each knew what to do, History Teacher nodded. “Now hurry, find your seats before the Minister begins his speech.” She grinned. “We don’t want to be interrupting the Honorable Minister’s speech, would we?”
The students chuckled at that and ran for their seats. Soon after, secret signals with definite instructions were passed from girl to girl.