Although Yoga had been hired as a helping hand, she had to do all the housework, work that would normally be done by older servants. The master and mistress of the house went out to work everyday. The man was a senior government official. They had two daughters, both older than Yoga, who were studying in St Cecilia’s Convent School. Whenever she saw them leave for school, the thought of her unfulfilled dreams of an education would open the floodgates of her sorrow.

She missed the poorly-equipped classrooms and the loudly chirping baby-birds within – her friends at school – and her anger towards her present situation, where she was totally unloved, would increase. The deep recesses of her mind were filled with dark thoughts and she rued the day that she was born to lead a life bereft of opportunity and good fortune. Each morning, she was up by five o’clock to help the lady of the house with the cooking. She would then do the dishes, the laundry and then scour, scrub, wipe and mop to ensure that the house was spotlessly clean.

Macabre ghosts haunted her dreams when her insomnia gave way to sheer exhaustion. Whatever problems her parents may have had, was it fair on their part to abandon her like this? Such questions battered her and her young heart grew hard with bitterness. Her rancour towards her parents increased with each passing day.

Amma took Vathsala to Chitti’s house in Batticaloa.

“How can we take a girl who has attained puberty from place to place? My stomach just churns at the sight of a Sri Lankan soldier. None of the news we hear these days is good. Please let Vathsala stay here...When the conditions are better, I will come and fetch her.”

With the satisfaction that Vathsala was now in a safe place, Pathma sought some arrangement for Yoga’s safekeeping.

Her parents alighted on a plan to send her to a house in Batticaloa as a maid. This decision shocked Yoga, but Pathma felt that her decision was justified considering both the family’s indigence and the necessity of ensuring the safety of the girls.

“Why can’t I stay in Chitti’s house with Vathsala?”

“There are already four or five children there, how many mouths can they possibly feed? They are financially tight because Chitti’s husband is ill, and can’t go to work. Your Akka has attained puberty, so I can’t send her to work in a stranger’s home. The times are dangerous. Don’t worry. They won’t ask you to cook or anything. Just some simple tasks. Eat properly and stay safe, alright?”

Although the decision to send Yoga for domestic work upset Subramaniyam, there wasn’t any other way out for the poor family. All their relatives were also evacuating and seeking shelter almost like refugees.

Pathma consoled Subramaniyam saying, “Have we sent her to work so that we can get the money she earns? We have to struggle and move to a different place every week. We are hungry, starving. Let her stay there, doing some little jobs and eat well...”

As Kala was a mere child at that time, she would stay on with Amma. Though her younger brothers were also little, they were still able to run errands and were able to bring in ten to fifty rupees as income. One worked in a cycle-repair shop. Another sold ice-lollies. The third, the sixth in the family, was only six years old. In Yoga’s reckoning, he and Kala were lucky. Whatever the circumstances, she found it most desirable to stay in one’s own hut, with one’s own family. In those unfamiliar times, she constantly longed for this journey to be over soon. She wanted to be back under the cool shelter of their thatched hut; to check every morning to see if the ginger she had planted in the wet ground under the banana tree had sprouted; to count the little green fruits of the mango tree and stake her claim on the branch with the most number of fruits, to pick the ripe mangoes that the squirrels had nibbled on and discarded, to eat cashew fruits roasted on an open fire. She began to worry that those times were never going to return...ever!

“What’s happening? Why can’t I stay in our own home? Why do we have to keep moving here and there? I know they say there is fighting going on, but why should they fight? What are they fighting for?”

She couldn’t understand it at all and was unable to get answers to the questions that plagued her. She gradually grew numb with adapting to the rapid changes.

It was a month since she started work. She had lost weight. The disappointment that her parents did not come to see her weighed her down. Even Akka, who was living in the same town, had not bothered to visit her.

Outside Yoga’s little world, catastrophes were unfolding. The war was spreading like wildfire. In Batticaloa District, the areas that had a Tamil majority were under the control of the Tamil Tigers. Bomb attacks were daily events; there were planned assassinations, and the people were in the grip of panic. Beautiful towns and ancient monuments that had been the pride and joy of the denizens became the objects of attack. Villages were split according to ethnicity. Land- mines filled the bowels of the earth. Many roads were blocked and travel was nigh impossible or inordinately delayed. Army check-posts mushroomed everywhere and normal life was wholly disrupted. The culture of violence and terrorism was now the order of the day leaving destruction, devastation and heavy loss of life in its wake.

The struggle for power turned into a war and damaged not only lives and property, it also depleted the nation’s ethical and cultural values.

On the news Yoga saw that the hapless Muslim communities that had lived and thrived in the districts of Mannar and Musali from time immemorial had been forcibly evacuated at gun-point without any kind of camp being set up for them. This peaceful community owned large farmlands and orchards. Mannar was flanked by the wide expanse of the sea on one side and a river on the other. The Muslims and Tamils had co-existed in peace until then. Like evil spirits doing the bidding of sorcerers, the Eelam Movement drove the Muslims out perceiving them as a disparate group, instead of another minority community with a separate identity. Violence was perpetrated against them with the full approval of the Eelam authorities. Uprooted Muslims had no place to flee to, no camps were set up for them. The news channels deplored this act. The roads from the north to Anuradhapura and Puttalam were filled with thousands of Muslim refugees. This had become a most distressing and unforgettable episode in Sri Lankan history.

Excerpted with permission from Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict, Sharmila Seyyid, translated from the Tamil by Gita Subramanian, HarperCollins India.