1970 - Sriharikota Island
“Guna, come quick, I found some,” Jayamma said to her brother.
Five-year-old Jayamma knelt in the salty lagoon, her fingers searching for pointed snails.
“Hurry.” She squealed in delight. The water felt good where it lapped against her brown skin, hot from the South-Indian sunshine.
Guna folded his undershirt then laid it atop a bush. Jayamma knew why he was so careful. Mama would scold him if he got another hole in his only shirt. Finally, he waded out.
“See, lots.” A half-dozen tiny shells lay on her palm.
Guna smiled. Jayamma liked to see the dimples that popped out next to his mouth.
“Jay, you stay away from those nets. Understand?”
Last time, a fisherman yelled at mama, and Guna got spanked because he was in charge. She would behave.
As Guna splashed water over his shoulders, Jayamma lay on her belly, pulled herself forward, and touched each lump in the sand. A children’s song filled her heart and she sang it for Guna. He said he liked her songs.
Jayamma felt protected. Her brother was two years older than her. She loved exploring together. They called this Snail Island, but it was just a sandbar with bushes. Guna could throw a rock from one beach to the other. It was far enough from their hut that they were alone, yet if Mama needed them she blew a shell horn from the big island.
Guna was like a grown-up. That’s why Papa let them use his bark canoe. Papa said he knew the islands of Pulicat Lake as well as he knew his own voice. He learned them when he was a boy, and Guna should do the same. Papa’s father, and his father, for as long as anyone could remember, lived on the big island of Sriharikota. They were called the Yanadi tribe.
“Guna, are you Yanadi tribe, like Papa?”
“Yes, silly, of course.”
“Am I Yanadi tribe, too?”
“Yes, our whole family is from the same tribe. Everybody on Sriharikota.”
“Everybody? What about Adah?”
Guna laughed, his dimples showing. “Dogs can’t be Yanadi. It’s only for people.”
Jayamma was silent. “But my eyes? Maybe I’m not Yanadi tribe.” No one else had blue eyes like hers.
“Mama says your eyes are a blessing from the gods, but you’re still Yanadi.”
Jayamma shivered. Guna was the only person she let stare at her eyes. She floated herself to him and dumped shells into his hands. Maybe Mama would cook them.
“Remember when we went to sell fish with Papa?”
“Yeah, what of it?” Guna threw a handful of sand that splashed like jumping minnows.
“Those people look . . . different. They’re so big and their hair is all black.”
“That’s the mainland.”
Jayamma pretended to understand what that meant. “Are they Yanadi tribe?”
“No, baby sister, the Yanadis are on Sriharikota.”
Jayamma continued her search, walking her hands on the seafloor while the sun warmed her back. The song bounced into her heart again. She licked the salt on her lips and hummed.
Guna watched her and smiled. He stayed close today, maybe Mama told him to because of the nets. No mater, she was happy he was near and she smiled back. A giggle leaked from inside her.
A breeze made ripples on the water. Jayamma sunk to her neck to stay warm.
Loud pelican squawks made her jump. Nearby, the large birds struggled to fly out of the sea.
Guna rose and stared toward the village. He froze. “Jay, be quiet. I hear something.”
One look at her brother’s face and Jayamma stood also.
“Boats,” he whispered.
Her big brother could always see and hear things before Jayamma. A far off buzzing carried on the breeze.
“I hear them too.”
Guna waived her quiet and leaned toward Sriharikota.
“There.” He pointed at a line of white boats headed from the mainland toward their home.
“What is it?” She slipped behind him.
Guna didn’t answer. He watched as more and more boats came into view. They’d never seen anything like this.
“Come, Jay.” He headed for his shirt.
The water slowed her legs as Jayamma tried to run.
“I’m scared, Guna.”
Guna untied the canoe and they pushed off toward their family.
Guna shoved a bamboo pole down and the canoe lurched forward. Jayamma watched his wrinkled forehead and wished his dimples would come back.
The motorboats crossed the lake, then landed at the village. So many men, and it looked like they had guns.
“Who are they?” Her voice cracked. Tears ran down her cheeks and she pulled in a sob.
“Soldiers.” He worked at the pole.
About half way to the village, Guna stopped pushing. “Get down.” He let the bamboo drag. “Hide, Jayamma.”
Jayamma lay on the rough wood and whimpered. “I want to go to Mama.”
“Be still. I’m thinking.” He squatted next to her, but kept his sights on the village.
Small waives smacked the side of the canoe and rocked them, but too fast to be a comfort. Guna watched the soldiers.
Jayamma tried to stop crying. What about Mama and Papa? And Adah?
“They’re putting them into the boats.”
Jayamma peaked over the side of the canoe. Men in uniforms made villagers get into the boats. The cries of women and children were soft compared to the men yelling orders. Jayamma trembled and melted to the bottom.
“We have to go away. Your eyes, Jay. We have to hide.” Guna turned the canoe back toward Snail Island.
“Why do they want my eyes?”
He didn’t answer.
“The soldiers might want to sell you because you have beautiful eyes.” Guna’s breath came in gasps.
Jayamma let out a wail. “I want Mama. Papa.” She couldn’t hold in her crying, but covered her eyes as if the light would snatch them away.
Guna pushed at the bamboo and panted.
He stopped again and the tiny boat drifted. Jayamma dared to open her eyes.
“Yes, Jay, maybe your’e right. We can’t live out here by ourselves. We have to find out where they’re taking them.”
His shoulders slumped, then he worked the canoe back toward the shouting at the village.
Jayamma gained control of her crying, but not the shaking. Her heart pounded like a Hindu’s drum as she sat up and watched the terrible things get closer. Everybody ran about or climbed into the boats. Some tried to carry baskets and live chickens.
An argument on the beach. A woman ran toward their canoe.
How can it be, that’s Mama!
A soldier caught her mother by the waist and threw her into the closest boat.
“My children, my babies,” Mama shrieked at the top her lungs, her arms reaching wildly.
Jayamma had never been so scared. She needed Mama, but the army men and the screaming made her want to run away.
Guna continued poling and tears carved a path through the salt on his cheeks.
The soldier shouted at Mama, waived his rifle, and marched to the place where Guna landed the canoe.
With his gun pointed at Mama’s boat, the soldier shouted orders. He caught Jayamma in one of his arms and carried her toward Mama. She kicked and screamed, and covered her eyes.
Is he going to sell me and Mama too, because of my eyes?
Fear took over her body. She was too scared to listen as he passed her into the arms of her crying mother.
“Thank you, thank you. May the gods bless you.” Mama said between sobs. “Oh, my baby.” She squeezed Jayamma hard and wouldn’t let go. Mama’s head was bleeding.
Guna climbed into the boat and wrapped his arms around them.
A man yelled orders and the motorboats pushed into deeper water. The village was empty except for barking dogs and smashed huts. One by one, the engines jumped to life and left long trails behind the boats.
The roar of the motor was the loudest, scariest sound Jayamma had ever heard. A soldier with a long mustache pressed his dark-red hat against his head as he drove in the wind. She hid her blue eyes in Mama’s faded sari, and sobbed.
Where is Papa? Does he have Adah?
When the sobs finally left her empty, Jayamma shouted through her flying hair, “Where are we going?”
It seemed Mama couldn’t hear over the motor and her own crying. She only pulled Jayamma’s head against her lap.
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