Sathya was on the run. For the second time in her short life.
The day had the usual melding between the last dark and first light, also known as ‘the time devils climb trees’. Sathya was wide-awake. The colonial house of her great grandfather was woefully quiet, even the wooden boards of the upper floor lay still. She should have guessed. It signalled what would be an unusual day.
Her morning itinerary included meeting up with a friend at the newly opened brunch spot. A round of ‘good boy, good girl’ to the twenty three mongrels gracing their sprawling city home was the expected ritual from the verandah leading up to the garage. She stopped at Appa’s blue metallic Mercedes Benz, her own white and less obvious Toyota Vitz parked beside it. Appa deemed it necessary every home should be graced by the two. One signifying wealth, the other for when the rest of their five vehicles broke down. Sathya chose the Mercedes Benz.
“Hey Mercedes, take me to DELO,” she commanded.
The Mercedes AI flared up the control panel, “You’ll arrive at your destination in 18 minutes.”
“Hey Mercedes, turn on the radio.” The AI dutifully tuned on Gold FM. The morning bulletin was wrapping up.
The import ban to continue with turmeric prices reaching an all-time high.
Sathya drove along their graceful tree-lined driveway as the security uncle opened the large wrought-iron gates. She floored the accelerator, only to be greeted by the first set of traffic lights. Cruising to a halt, she was about to command the car’s AI, when a man fumbled with the passenger door. Double-checking the lock, she accidentally unlocked the door. The tall, lean man’s reflexes were quick, connecting with the split second release. He struggled to get in mistiming his entrance and the low ground clearance of the vehicle. There was something paralyzing, yet soothing about the situation.
“Drive!” the man commanded.
Sathya did not ask where or why. Obeying, she hit the pedal as the traffic light turned amber.
“Take the next right. Rerouting. Make a U-Turn,” the AI’s prompt response.
“Crap! How do you turn this thing off!” Sathya waved her arms in front of the touchscreen, then attacked the dashboard.
“Aye, where’s your car?” the man spat out.
“How was I to know today would be the day we’d have to run?” Sathya testily retorted.
“Tch, every day is a good day to think it would be the day to run! Aiyo, you and your fancy cars!” he smirked and kept a steady gaze on the side mirror.
If she lost her calm, things would spiral into chaos. She fixed her eyes firmly ahead. There was only the present and the future. The phone ringtone filled the car with Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’.
Eyes. On. The. Road.
A distracted fraction of a second was all it took as she averted her eyes from the road and onto the dashboard screen to check the caller ID. Dread seeped into her veins and the pit of her stomach churned – Appa was calling. The man whose loins failed to produce a male firstborn. His disappointment became her punishment; he relinquished the name he cherished for a son upon her. Relatives consoled – there would always be another. Appa was blessed abundantly; other subsequent attempts produced more vaginas.
He could be calling to yell at her for taking his favourite car.
He could be calling to ask if she’ll be home for lunch.
He could be calling to ask if she knew why the police were at their gate.
Sathya subconsciously touched the thick bangle on her right wrist. The one Appa placed there when she became a big girl. A party he so proudly threw to let the community know his daughter had come of age. The puberty party with zero shame. The most extravagant announcement besides a woman’s wedding, signaling to the community that ‘Sathya henceforth can bear children, infertility be damned!’ Wildly embarrassed, she begged her parents not to throw the party. Appa retorted she was their eldest, therefore it was something they awaited with grand expectation.
Appa was the richest gold jeweler on Sea Street. Her parents were eternally ashamed when she turned up at social functions with the single gold bangle.
The gold bangle now weighed heavily on her slim wrist.
“Tch, they know,” the man said. Sathya felt the stab deep in her heart. Tears held up by a wall of black kajal.
Racking up kilometres, they soon left Colombo behind, precariously on the outskirts of the city, territory Sathya was unfamiliar with. The man hand signalled the course, and she dutifully followed every gesticulation. The area was populated with warehouses and crater filled concrete roads, not meant for a Mercedes. At an opening that bordered a canal, he gestured to stop.
“Vishan, is it safe to stop here?”
Vishan was halfway out the door, hitting his head as he clambered out. Slamming the door shut with venom. She gently lowered her head to rest on the steering wheel, and contemplated many things.
“Sathya!” Vishan shouted. “Aiyo! These number plates were for your car. Doesn’t fit!”
“I’m sorry!” she spat out, “Is it too late to go back? Appa can get the best lawyer!”
“Tch, are you mad? You will go to jail! At least until your father begs, pleads, and pays the real crooks. Miss. Gucci, do you even know what jail looks like? Dumbass!”
In the past, there had been two instances where an act of violence was administered. When Sathya’s father struck her on the face for having a boyfriend, and the other for failing a class. Vishan’s bitter words twisted in her bowels. Despite her father being the most respected businessman in upper echelons, he still has to grovel at the majority’s feet.
The air was laced with dust, was it cement? Sathya felt a familiar sense of panic. Her inhaler. Was it in her bag? Frantically fumbling into her handbag, she dumped the clutter onto the seat. The thought struck – of course, it was in her car! The only thing close to a punching bag was Vishan. He was blessed with a punchable face. The scars etched into his face and arms told the story of a brazen young man in and out of prison proving his worth with a million fights. She dumped her rage by feebly kicking the Pirelli tyres. Prison might not be such a grand idea after all.
The long-abandoned phone kept on vibrating. It hadn’t stopped once. The only option was taking it apart. Sathya hurled it to the ground, hoping for a satisfying end. The phone bounced back.
“Tch, the cover. Take off the cover,” Vishan said with his cigarette loosely hanging off his lips.
“Argh! Should have thrown it into the lagoon!”
Again in the driver’s seat.
Sathya did not possess fear; as a result, she hadn’t considered the probability of getting caught. She’d only been doing it for two years, ever since coming back from university.
“Did you know they once kidnapped me!” Sathya proudly proclaimed.
Vishan squared his shoulders and sunk deeper into the seat.
The day she got her exam results. The men grabbed her and bundled her into a van. If there was fear to be experienced, there wasn’t time. The first thought her brain could faintly manage; she wasn’t properly attired – short skirt, tight tank and heels was not ideal. Even in the event of a bomb attack. The situation in the country was escalating; Sathya had spent a lot of her time considering her young life ending ‘death by bomb attack’. Her only deal with God – she shouldn’t be found barely alive and dismembered in a mess of severed bodies.
The men were not from the city. Their dialect had a distinct Northern drawl, punctured with lower jowl movements as if they were chewing betel. Thangachi was how they referred to her in fake brotherly affection and dropping it too frequently. They informed that they would not hurt her. Sathya used brute force and propelled her short legs towards them, soon realising how ineffective that was. Undoubtedly tired of her valiant efforts, they handcuffed her hands behind her back. And tied her legs together for good measure. Going about it rather carefully by not exposing too much, for which she was grateful. Mercilessly, she used her jaws to clamp down on some flesh, prompting the man on her right to yelp in pain. Having none of it, they gagged her and pulled a pillowcase over her head.
The mental time stamp was somewhere around the 3:30 pm mark at the time of her capture. With schools closed, there would be no traffic until the 5 pm work commute began. The roads in the city were dotted with military checkpoints. Surely they would get stopped. Instead, the van came to a halt after an eternal passage of potholes. The two men lifted her out of the van.
“Ey, what is that?” A man asked in the distance.
They propped her on a metal chair. An older man appeared and began yelling at the men in filth. The litany of apologies, comic. The dialect was too pronounced, and they were speaking too fast for Sathya to make sense.
She felt his hand on her shoulder. He levelled his face over hers, the pillowcase serving as the only barrier. Maybe this was it. They were about to torture her.
“There has been a misunderstanding. These bastards shouldn’t have taken you. We are going to take you back. Don’t worry, no harm will come of it,” he said.
The men silently cursed and lifted her up and back into the van. The entire journey had them contemplating on where they should dump her. The word dump making her shudder. The van came to a jarring halt. The two men lifted her out and set her down.
“Take off the rope on her legs, idiot,” the driver yelled. Sathya stood rooted to the ground, mostly because her heels had sunk into the mire. She waited until the air was still. Removing the pillowcase from her head wasn’t of much use. The place was dark as an abyss. Giving up the attempt to take off the handcuffs, she concentrated on taking off the wretched shoes. There was a house in the distance. This is probably what people mean when they say ‘God knows where’. The middle-aged woman of the house stood petrified. Screaming out the names of her entire brethren to point out the spectacle in front of her eyes; the short girl in a short skirt and handcuffed hands.
The household was still gaping when she conversed in their language. They could tell she was of the other kind. The woman empathetic enough let her use their land phone, diligently inputting the number she provided and helped her to a glass of water.
Appa answered the phone on the first ring. He howled hauntingly.
Sathya had to wait over an hour. During the elapsed time, the village had gathered. She repeated her story as a new one took the other’s place. Them marvelling at her broken vocabulary. She wondered how they seemed rather comfortable in her presence, still in handcuffs with no check for any concealed weapons. If this happened in the city, the prompt response would have been running inside, locking all doors and calling every single police unit in the country. Sathya thanked her outfit.
Appa arrived with the police, along with her uncles and cousins. She expected no less. Sathya was the recipient of a gracious hug from Appa, counting it as her eleventh.
Back in the safety of their mansion, Appa was still an inconsolable mess. He later revealed that a faction of the terrorist organization had repeatedly asked him for funding. Appa wasn’t politically motivated. Keeping a low profile, he politely declined. The ploy for funding was the kidnapping. He elaborated, the group were goons and acted on their own to gain favour with one of their leaders. As soon as Appa was alerted about the kidnapping, he pleaded with a few prominent figures in government. They located Sathya, the goons, the boss, and came to an amicable settlement.
They had gone almost ten kilometres when Vishan ventured, “Ah, that’s why you were sent to America!” Sathya was ordered not to return. No one expected the end of the war. Sathya returned with an Arts degree and a drug habit.
Sathya and Vishan covered the West Coast in silence. Vishan on his eighteenth cigarette. The window on his side was down and flecks of ash settled into her curly hair. He casually directed her with hand gesturing, though the gestures became infrequent. The road was long and dusty, with occasional stops for buffalo crossings. They had become too comfortable.
“Vishan! Is that a checkpoint?”
He crouched low for a better look, a military checkpoint. Sathya checked the dashboard, she was driving at 100km/h when the speed limit was 60km/h.
Vishan let out a low whistle and relaxed, his eyes on the side mirror watching the checkpoint disappear behind a cloud of dust. Of course, they wouldn’t dare stop a Mercedes. She thanked Appa’s car.
Appa would have called every high-profile lawyer in town. Her mother would have contemplated the questions of the nosy neighbours and composed her answers. Her sisters probably updated their social media handles in a desperate bid with #missing to elicit the sympathy of their followers.
They know. Sathya Ramalingam is a dealer.
The country was a different place when Sathya returned. Everyone seemed to have a false sense of freedom and an empty volume of happiness. Piety had set in amongst the returnees to prepare for marriage into the next wealth index and spawn a generation ready to be inculcated into life on a complex island.
Sathya’s relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend was based on drugs and sex. If that was love, she embraced it. Her mother tried palming Sathya off to a wealthy heir of a garment manufacturing business. As each day blurred into the next, her drug experimentation gained momentum. One night her boyfriend picked up a man called Vishan from Hulftsdorp. Smoking up they made their way to Club Voodoo, an establishment Sathya on any other day would avoid. Vishan remained quiet throughout the journey. As soon as they entered the place, Vishan pointed her towards the bar. Before she could clarify, they disappeared into the haze, leaving her behind in a dimly lit, smoke-filled environment. Fifteen minutes had elapsed before they reappeared with happier moods and flowing wallets. Vishan and Sathya had nothing in common. Vishan had a strange candour that she soon appreciated. Vishan’s father a drug lord in a neighbourhood bordering the prison, Kalu Pol as he was affectionately called was a charming man, always ready to spare a dangerous story. It drew Sathya into their world. Where in hers there were closed doors, hushed voices and outward impeccable records; the ghetto was open about their illegitimate children, affairs and misdemeanors. Even the advice was wholesome – Never Do Drugs!
Vishan occasionally had a joint or two. His vice- gin and tonic and two packs a day. Having studied in a prominent city school, he pursued higher studies in India. Vishan’s foray into drug dealing was purely accidental. His father’s friend roped him into delivering a package. Caught with 1kg of marijuana, a crime so insignificant yet he served the same sentence as a hardened criminal. Even after all these years, you could tell the bitterness still churned in his mouth.
The journey to the north was uneventful. They didn’t risk it by stopping to eat. Besides, there was no desire to. They stopped to top up the tank, and empty their bladders. More Vishan’s than hers.
“Ok, stop!” Vishan commanded. This time the silence was different, unsettling. Vishan seemed at war with his thoughts. Sathya watched him intently, his sharp jawline set, his brows furrowed. His curly locks framing his face.
“Are you going to kill me?” she asked, penetrating her brown irises with his black murky ones.
“Dumbass! Aiyo, I want to ask you. Is this what you want?”
“What choice do I have?”
Sathya had never heard him laugh. He had a laugh deep in the soul that bubbled forth to the surface with childlike innocence.
“This is funny, no?”
Sathya didn’t see the humour.
“Give me the keys,” he said.
She tossed it over to him. “I’m sorry, Appa,” praying the words would linger in the air long enough until the police returned the car back to him.
Sathya slung her handbag over her shoulder and walked to the edge of the makeshift dock. The evening faded. She watched the southern coast of India turn on their lights. The dock was enveloped in a brilliant beam. Sathya cleared her eyes in quick succession to rid herself of the circles in her vision. A trawler edged close. Vishan and Sathya waited in silence. The men clambered onto the barely there dock and unloaded the goods.
First, large amounts of fish. Second, huge chunks of ice blocks.
Laughing at their crude jokes while hacking at the ice chunks and harvesting an assortment of drugs and Turmeric. Sathya was fascinated, having never seen it happen before.
Vishan threw Sathya a packet. She sneaked a look at the dull yellow powder.
“Splendid stuff. Worth a lot,” Vishan said jovially.
Sathya hurled the packet at him. She remembered the day its quality impressed her mother and aunts, and the rich golden hue it cast on the curries. The men had finished unloading. Nodding in her direction. Sathya gingerly placed her right leg onto the unsteady trawler. As her leg left the ground that bore her, she chose never to return.
Shyala Smith hails from Sri Lanka. Transitioning from her 17-year career in advertising, she is now pursuing screenwriting in London. She also works for an orchestra producing content for digital platforms. Shyala writes young adult, picture books, and adult novels. Her debut picture book, published by Tate Publishing, UK, will be out in 2023.