On the night his elder son went missing, V. S. Jeganathan dissected a monarch butterfly. He measured the span of the wings three times before his younger son and wife returned to his study with the same worried expressions. Outside the clothes on the laundry line inflated and danced in the breeze. “I’ll leave for the capital tonight,” he said, reaching for his blazer, the fabric squeezed between a fortress of boxes, still unpacked after all these years.
“Don’t you disappear too,” his wife said.
Near midnight he climbed onto the bus in Thirunelveli and as he held out his fare, he became aware of the weight of his hand, the conductor’s hesitation before accepting his payment. The man’s face folded in disgust. Only then did Jeganathan notice the crushed fragments of wings, insect legs sticking to his fingertips.
The main room of the police station was painted a sunny yellow. A bronze statue of the Buddha greeted him when he entered and partially hid the crack that ran down the center of the front wall, where a policeman sat at his desk hunched over an open magazine. The man was exceptionally thin except for his belly, which hung like a rice sack so even the crook of his neck seemed to bow. He was too busy grazing his fingers against an advertisement of a woman sniffing perfume to see him, and when Jeganathan first spoke, the officer looked up perturbed, his open hand lightly smacking the printed lady.
Holding out a school photograph, Jeganathan began to speak Sinhala in a slow, precise manner as if he were walking on a tightrope, his son’s life caught in the balance of enunciating a language he had not needed to speak for the past three years living up in the north. As he described Jeevan’s disappearance, the officer tapped his fingers together and stared at framed portraits of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the ex-president Chandrika Kumaratunga hanging from the wall.
The officer asked for Jeganathan’s son’s name and he knew it was a trick. He needed his name to find him and then have reason not to find him.
The officer placed his gold wire-rimmed glasses on his face. He opened a black binder, wet his thumb on the inside of his lip, and glanced over the papers. He filled in Jeevan’s information on a sheet alongside other names. “Where was he headed?” he asked.
Jeganathan paused. “He did not return home after his studies.”
“These young Tamil boys always getting into trouble. They don’t know how to be proper citizens,” the officer said and scratched something on the paper in blue ink. Jeganathan remembered his younger boy, Prem, shaking on the floor as they questioned him, his eyes flushed with tears as he cut through the bond of the womb and revealed the trip Jeevan had planned that night with Amutha to the local Shiva shrine, and before then all their meetings under the neem trees by the abandoned pharmacy, the way his brother unraveled her braid, tied her hair around his hand like a bandage.
The officer asked for a description of the missing boy beyond the photograph. Jeganathan lifted his hands and attempted to re-create Jeevan for the officer, but under the dim fluorescent light, any conjuring was hopeless. In the end, the officer wrote: 17 years old, 181 centimeters, 76 kilograms, birthmark on right arm.
“When will the search begin?”
“It has already begun,” the officer said.
“How can that be? I just got here.”
The officer waved off the question and proceeded to speak, pointing a finger at Jeganathan’s head like a pistol. “We will tell you if we find him.”
Outside the police station was a truck filled with goats. They cried out to him, and Jeganathan, with the collar of his shirt twisted and his hair uncombed, stood next to the vehicle as the creatures nibbled on the pasture of his head.
Jeganathan worked as an entomologist. He was not prone to chatting except in the lecture halls in front of his students, talking of what he loved best. He was fastidious with what he could control, his ironed suits and finely trimmed mustache, the way he recorded his work in his notebook, the column for wingspan blank until he measured the specimen three times.
He had never been militant. He joked about dueling other entomologists like William de Alwis, the Sri Lankan butterfly man, because they seemed harmless. In keeping company with insects, he had avoided addressing the war altogether, though his wife disagreed on that matter. In her eyes, he was a man so dedicated to his work that he was willing to get both his legs blown off for some dung-eating insects.
“Weren’t you almost killed by a mob in Colombo? And look, we’re still here in this country,” his wife said after hearing of his job transfer from the capital to up north. “I thought by marrying a professor we’d end up in Toronto, Sydney, London, anywhere better, and now you want to take me to Jaffna. Do you want to get us deeper into this war?”
Jeganathan had decided to transfer to Jaffna not because of politics but because of a discovery. While praying in the Murugan temple in Nallur, he saw a blue beetle skitter across the floor. The strange wings and streaks along its abdomen forced him to his knees, and he crawled after the specimen. He carried the beetle in a jar all the way back to his office in the capital. After his examinations, he suspected he had discovered a new species. He named the insect—Nicrophorus m. kumaratunga—after the president at the time, and when questioned by officials what the m stood for, he said, Madame, not the Hindu deity Lord Muruga. While officials hassled other Tamil intellectuals at the university, they did not bother with him, the professor whose blue-winged insect talisman granted him a level of immunity.
Jeganathan believed there were more new species in Jaffna. His blue-winged beetle was only the beginning. But he had no way to prove his claims. All his possible theories had holes or perhaps bullet wounds. He could not understand anything, day or night, without positioning himself in relation to the movement of the war. Over the years, he had chronicled every massacre, every fight as potential sights of discovery. He carried with him maps of Jaffna and the northeast with silver pins pricked into specific latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates. He had been widely regarded as the president’s Insect Man because his findings had brought the country modest international recognition. The government, eager for him to further his research, allowed him access to sites with ecological disturbances. Walking through a village after a fresh killing, Jeganathan couldn’t help but feel nervous as the army waited for him to finish his bug investigation before eradicating the site. He’d keep his eyes low to the ground, trying to overlook humanlike material, a necklace, a charred shoe, a three-fingered hand pointing in the direction of the sky. He had trained his eyes to look so closely for the minuscule he could obscure his vision.
Of his undisclosed theories, he kept returning to two of them, both unlikely. One dealt more with evolution, the war cutting through the landscape, creating barriers between existing species and forcing a divergence; still, a few decades was hardly enough time for such a dramatic transformation. Maybe war altered the nature of time: minutes could become years.
“They never liked the family from the capital but now their displeasure had proper reason. Misfortune spread and they needed to protect themselves. Not even beggars stopped by the house.”
The second theory was more provocative, belonging to the realm of science fiction, but still possible. The beetles might have been genetically engineered and strategically dropped around Jaffna by the military. Though not known to be aggressive to humans, some beetles, like the bombardier beetle, unleashed a gaseous cocktail that burned and blistered the skin. Jeganathan wondered if his blue-winged beetles possessed a more secretive way to release toxins, if the military had developed a slow, gradual way to kill without raising alarm. This line of thinking left him paranoid. Because if he was the president’s Insect Man, then he was being used as the smiling puppet of the project, bringing prestige to the machinery killing his own people.
When he had searched through the village of Mirusuvil soon after the massacre, he found an old man shivering in a chicken coop. “They took all my chickens, three hundred,” he said. “The soldiers.” He had lost his entire extended family, and lying in chicken shit, he held on to a handful of dirty feathers. The light from the roof flickered across the absence.
After Jeganathan’s son went missing, he would keep long hours in his study. He spoke to no one. Insects floating in glass jars stared at him from the shelves. Only his younger son visited him in the evenings with a cup of tea, which his wife sent, brimming with her bitterness. Two teaspoons of salt instead of sugar mixed in. He drank the potion, wanting this waiting to end and fearing the end. He had already visited Amutha’s house. The girl was distraught, her mother told him, vomiting everywhere. When Jeganathan saw her, she was crumpled on a cot. “I don’t think I will recover,” she said. The last time she had seen Jeevan was outside her home; he had tossed a rock into a gutted car and cracked the window.
When Jeganathan’s wife asked about Amutha, he could hear the beginnings of concern plummet into anger for this girl who seduced her son and led him out late at night where he shouldn’t have been in the first place.
Already neighbors kept their distance. They never liked the family from the capital but now their displeasure had proper reason. Misfortune spread and they needed to protect themselves. Not even beggars stopped by the house. As if surrendering to the neighbors’ vision of decay, his wife did not clean, kept everything as it was the day of their son’s absence. An empty tumbler on Jeevan’s nightstand remained though flies clung to the metal rim, still sticky with lime juice.
In the lecture hall, Jeganathan saw his son everywhere. He was falling asleep in the middle of a lesson. He was nervously flirting with a girl outside the canteen. He was reading a book under the giant neem tree in the courtyard. His students with their round, inquisitive faces looked up at him, filled with urgency to know just like his own son, reading Khalil Gibran late at night with the lantern, underlining sentences. How noble is the sad heart who would sing a joyous song with joyous hearts.
Jeevan was a popular student, friends with both boys and girls. His teachers called him a natural leader, talkative and compassionate. It thrilled Jeganathan to hear those words about his son and watch the confident way he moved through the world. Unlike his son, Jeganathan was timid, never raised his hand as a student, and preferred conversing with his insects rather than his colleagues. But he loved talking about his son, standing next to Jeevan and telling people he was his father. Though Jeevan looked more like his mother, Jeganathan’s sperm was half the beginning, and the fact excited him because somewhere deep within himself he too carried hidden talents, possibilities. And the fact also made him anxious because if he was prudent, his son was reckless, if he was soft-spoken, his son was outspoken. Jeganathan had advised his sons to stay inconspicuous as insects. Shouldn’t he have known Jeevan would be in danger?
Jeganathan had contacted the local police, lodged cases in the capital, but had heard nothing. Over the phone, one official asked him if he was sure his son existed, that maybe he just had one son. And for a brief stretch of a sound wave, he wanted to believe it—he had only one son in his happy family with his happy insects—and then he screamed at the man, calling him a donkey-fucking, ten-handed pervert.
On the fifth day of his son’s absence, Jeganathan did not return to the university. He sat in his undershirt at the table in the kitchen while his wife shredded carrots.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” she said.
Jeganathan’s hair was uncombed, his legs knotted under him. “This could have happened even in Colombo.” He covered his eyes. “We should have left long ago.”
Jeganathan’s friend Nadarajah was a journalist who worked for a small newspaper, Red Earth, in Valvettithurai. He would inform Jeganathan about any recent massacres in the area. Claymore attacks by the Deep Penetration Unit often left the earth ripped open. Maybe there are metallic insects under the surface with shrapnel exoskeletons, he wrote to Jeganathan on the day a school bus hit one of the mines. Nadarajah had wanted to become a physicist and study the laws of nature. He remembered the formula for the force of gravity when he saw a man’s head chopped and thrown into the sky like a football, and later he wrote about the incident for the local paper, knowing then there was no formula for the trajectory of his future. After Nadarajah reported on a nineteen-year-old Tamil girl who was raped by six soldiers and thrown into a well, he went missing the next afternoon. His body was found outside the police station, his skull crushed.
Nadarajah also had a daughter named Amutha.
She was two years younger than Jeevan and bold like her father in her own quiet way. Jeganathan had once seen her standing at the bus stop with a needle and thread in hand, offering to sew a boy’s torn shirt in full public display. She had returned from a wedding, and the jasmines in her hair clung to the gate behind her as if the flowers had grown from the metal, contained hints of rust. Perhaps that was what his son saw in her, after all those visits to the house, the daughter of his father’s dead friend. They’d sit side by side, and Jeevan would press his hand over hers in a small gesture of comfort. On more than one occasion Jeganathan had heard Amutha call Jeevan brother.
Jeganathan visited her in the evenings with Prem. “She is still ill,” her mother would say, serving them a tray of sweets. “She can’t keep food down.”
Prem would eat what Amutha couldn’t, as if he were helping her with this simple act. With Jeevan’s absence, Jeganathan began to see his younger son with a new alertness. He noticed the way he leaned his weight to his right side, a habit he must have picked up from his brother, just like his watchfulness for Amutha. When she touched her throat, Prem knew to bring her a tumbler of water. Seven years younger, he moved with the bearing of another life.
Before saying farewell, Jeganathanboughtperfume Amutha’s mother made in the kitchen. It was more of an herbal broth, an antidote to the cruelties of life.
“Keep the rest,” Jeganathan said and handed her enough money to buy seven bottles but only took one. She shook her head, feigned reluctance like she always did, before pocketing it. Jeganathan’s wife had a drawer full of these perfume bottles of sage and neem leaves. His wife greeted these gifts with dark laughter. At least this scent will protect me from the soldiers.
On the eighth day of his son’s disappearance, Jeganathan returned to the university, and during the lecture he abruptly went silent. He was speaking on pheromones when his voice vanished. His mouth snapping open like a fish unsure how to breathe.
“Professor,” a student called out, and Jeganathan ran for the toilet, poured water on his head, gasping.
“Monarch butterflies used the sun to navigate their journey, but on cloudy days, they became tiny compasses and could follow the earth’s magnetic field.”
The next afternoon he marched around town, calling out his son’s name and the date of his disappearance. Outside the university, he sat on the grass underneath the neem tree and called for justice. Neighbors pitied him but privately called him selfish. “How about my nephew?” an old woman with two silver-colored teeth asked. Others cried: How about my son? How about my daughter? How about my sister? How about my brother-in-law? They all loved people who were born to disappear.
After two weeks of Jeganathan’s protesting, the university board members dismissed him from his post. Only temporarily, they assured him. They were on his side. Jeganathan did not seem alarmed by the news as he sat by Prem’s bedside recalling the incident. He asked Prem to help him carry his belongings from his office at the university.
“We will not tell Amma too soon,” he said. He pushed his head closer to the window to admire the garden. “The cicadas are especially noisy tonight. No one likes that.”
At the university Prem carried a box of books and Jeganathan held a tank with his prized insects. They paused at the neem tree and Jeganathan checked his watch. He cleared his throat and pulled out a paper from his pocket. With a mechanical precision, he folded his legs, angled his head, and recited Jeevan’s name along with others: a collection of strangers.
By late afternoon three police officers approached them. “Don’t you be doing this anymore,” one of the officers said.
“It’s our job to find your son.”
The uniforms hung loosely on them like extra skin. They were young and eager, the same age as Jeganathan’s students. An officer bent to his knees and touched the glass tank with a black rod and turned his eyes to Jeganathan. He rolled the rod in his hand as he examined Jeganathan’s long, lean face. A dog barked and the officer turned away and then stared at the other two men, who wore their rifles slung to their sides like school bags. The two officers stepped a few meters back, jumped over a strip of weeds. When a group of girls passed, the officer thrust his hand back and shattered the tank. The girls pushed closer to one another and yelled. Scorpions and horned centipedes raced across the grass.
Jeganathan watched his beloved creatures and then looked at the officers. “Poisonous,” he said, and for a moment the officers looked concerned. But their faces settled, and one mouth opened for the three and said, “So be it.”
Monarch butterflies used the sun to navigate their journey, but on cloudy days, they became tiny compasses and could follow the earth’s magnetic field. Jeganathan thought of the butterflies when he imagined his son blindfolded and handcuffed in a dark room, sensing home in a pitch beyond human frequency.
Amutha began to visit the house in the evenings after her mother napped. She said she came to inquire about Jeevan, but there was never news. She simply drank tea and played card games with Prem. Jeganathan’s wife did not speak with her but watched her from a distance. Each time Amutha stayed a little longer, offering to help chop vegetables or hang the laundry or chase off mosquitoes, and by then Jeganathan’s wife could not resist the little solace of female company. After a meal, Amutha ate slivers of butter and spoons of sugar. When Jeganathan saw her licking her fingers alone in the kitchen, he asked her if she was still hungry.
“I’m pregnant,” she said and wiped her hands against her belly.
“Maybe over a month.” She paused and looked out the window. “Are you not angry?”
Jeganathan didn’t say anything, but his mouth was open. He knew he was crying because he could taste the unending sea. His sperm, his sperm, he sobbed while Amutha kept apologizing, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Everything that mattered and did not matter about his son resided in the knowledge dug deep within an invisible bean sprout created in the act of love. Unbelievable was the human body, with all its orifices and extensions. Right then he wished he could talk to his boy, tell him he was twenty-eight, practically a decade older, when he first touched a woman. Oh god, they were so remarkably different, weren’t they?
Amutha showed him a baby shirt she had sewn two years ago, as if she had always known she’d become a mother before becoming a wife.
“You are too young,” Jeganathan said.
“But we age like dogs here. I’m actually over a hundred years old.”
Jeganathan did not tell his wife about the baby. She was already too absorbed in the loss of her baby, her seventeen-year-old baby, and waking in the middle of the night, she chose to disregard time, indifferent to the numbers on a calendar or the portions of a day. Instead she chose to sit, rest, drown in a timeless moment. What would nine months mean to her? Waiting for a baby that was Jeevan’s but not Jeevan.
Over the weeks Jeganathan had become a bit of an eccentric celebrity to the Tamil community abroad. An acquaintance had written about him online on his semipopular blog, Thiru-4Life. But it was the photograph of Jeganathan with his eyes bulging from his sockets, his beard peppered with food remains as fruit flies circled near him, and then the caption, “Daily Protests of the Insect Professor,” that must have captured the moral disgust of a global audience. Disbelief that a professor who studied insects could transform into an insect or a vagabond.
Jeganathan no longer had his university job, and his wife claimed he had turned their family into first-class beggars. “We get our charity in the mail,” she said as she ripped open internationally stamped envelopes from sympathetic members of the Tamil Diaspora. “I bought this fish because of a Mr. Soundarajan from Brooklyn.”
His students remained loyal to their old professor. Though they had slept through most of his lectures, they chanted by him, followed his breathing like he was a guru. They had written the names of the missing on their bodies, and before chanting, Jeganathan would listen to the clamor of their voices:
“Do you remember when Ravichandran was jacking himself off while shelling was falling from the sky?”
“Because he wanted his end to be orgasmic.”
“But no one can maintain an erection when they think they are about to die.”
“You don’t understand, he was beyond fear. It was divine.”
“The two separate incidents are meaningless unless they overlap.”
“Like a collage of images.”
“Isn’t that a metaphor?”
War had seeped into the meaning of everything. Forty-seven students and one insect ex-professor sitting cross-legged and calling for the return of the disappeared were terrorists in training according to the reports from the central government. That week the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances also released a report ranking Sri Lanka as the country with the second-highest number of disappearances. In response, the press secretary, a petite man with white hair spraying out of his ears, raised his hands and spoke with the euphoria and confusion of a drunkard in a bar fight.
“When was the last time we were number two in the whole world,” he said. “Imagine that we beat countries like Iran and Sudan. Sooner or later, we’ll take down the number one champ. Iraq, we’re coming for you!”
“He didn’t tell her about the latest death threat he received. A note perfumed with urine and a few words about his testicles being chopped off.”
Before the press secretary’s display, public outrage in the capital over the report was minimal or nonexistent, but after such a blabbering mess, even officials called for a response, and the Office of Missing Persons was created. The sole purpose of the office was to track down the disappeared. Leaflets were dropped in Jaffna and the northeast of the country describing the role of the office, the various branches located in different towns. The cardamom-colored papers floated down and drifted past unsuspecting faces. A man riding his bicycle felt the paper cut the back of his ear and he shrieked, thinking he had been shot.
At the office, people demanded clarification. The one, nameless clerk struggled to follow their Tamil. He was only an assistant to the officials overseeing the disappearances. He just recorded information, he insisted.
“Mr. Missing Assistant, what is the difference between the police station and this office?”
“The police are going after present crimes.”
“Mr. Missing Assistant, are these disappearances past crimes?”
“We have no evidence at the moment to call them crimes. After proper investigation, we can evaluate these claims more fully.”
“Mr. Missing Assistant, doesn’t every crime become part of the past once it is committed?”
“We will review these alleged crimes, but remember fault has not been allocated. If someone falls into a hole and disappears, whose fault is that? If two hundred or three thousand people fall into the same hole, maybe it’s their own fault. They should have been more careful.”
Though mistrustful of any new or old form of bureaucracy, Jeganathan reported his son’s disappearance to the Office of Missing Persons and watched as the information was lost in dark stacks cowering in the corner of the room. He left feeling as if his son had further disappeared.
At night his wife held him for the first time in years. She tried to cradle him like an infant. “There, there, my treasure,” she cooed at him as he cried.
He didn’t tell her about the latest death threat he received. A note perfumed with urine and a few words about his testicles being chopped off. He noticed the differences in the handwritings in the notes he had received over the weeks, and at night he wondered if he would rather be executed by someone with impeccable penmanship or someone who was so sloppy that they even misspelled his name. Which death would be less painful?
Most often he did not think of his own passing because he had already accepted the fact that he would die unexpectedly without much say in the matter. He lived for that singular moment of the day, during protests with the students, when the sun struck their backsides and their shadows formed one great ink-stained creature on the lawn. Mesmerized by this circumstantial discovery, Jeganathan would wonder if all his time crawling on the earth, being bitten and stung, he had been searching for this mythic arthropod. Countless limbs and perturbing chatter. The unceasing absence of silence.
While the Office of Missing Persons stayed unabashedly quiet, people grew louder, banging on the door, throwing their voices like rocks. An artist whose father and four siblings had disappeared believed the structure functioned as a burial chamber, a place to inter memories and forget. Since the artist drank most days, lived unemployed for years with his art of molded cow dung and lilies, acting as the only corporeal onus for his single mother, who already had to lug the missing with her, people didn’t pay him much mind. But a few weeks later, as the missing accumulated, people suddenly began to forget details of their loved ones. Did he have an overbite or an underbite? Would he drool when he kissed me? Where did he have that ugly birthmark shaped like an island?
One evening right after sunset, a group trying to unforget burned down the Office of Missing Persons. Ash thickened the air and in a matter of a few hours, their memories felt safe, contained within them. Overnight officials at the capital learned that the Office of Missing Persons had disappeared or, more aptly, was cremated. In secret government cables, it was recorded that the deputy of defense, known for his religious devotion— offering alms and praise to every monk he passed—said: Look at what these fuckers do with our kindness. We’ll show them how to really disappear.
Jeganathan was unaware of the events surrounding the night. He was home in his study, not working but reviewing the inventory of his life. Dead insects, some textbooks from university, a single family photo from a trip to a tea estate in Nuwara Eliya. From the beginning, he had never settled in; most of his boxes remained packed, as if he had always anticipated his future departure.
He could hear his wife and son talking in the kitchen, their voices blending into one as an MGR song fried on someone’s radio. He walked from room to room without any intention of staying but found himself seated at Jeevan’s desk, his hands turning the pages of his sky blue notebook. Some pages had math equations, paragraphs on biology, doodles of eyes and upside-down pyramids. Hidden in the right-hand corner of the second-to-last page he found a poem:
plant a shard of shrapnel and it will
grow into our lives. a limbless boy
learned to dance by crawling.
but you cut a jackfruit not knowing
what was inside,
your father’s head, an army of ants,
you call my name
and do not tremble
like i do in wonder how
my hands do not explode when
i hold you—that life could be so sweet.
An old man filed a case at the Office of Missing Persons that his village had disappeared. He had returned from a trip to the south and nothing remained except a big hole in the earth. This was the nearest Office of Missing Persons he could find.
“Perhaps your village has been relocated?” a clerk said.
“You must wait and see.”
The old man sat outside under the noon sun. He had nowhere to go, nothing to do but to wait. When the clerk left in the evening, he locked up the office and found the old man dead, his shirt wrapped around his head, and a dog licking at his toes.
From Half Gods. Used with permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2018 by Akil Kumarasamy.