In that cold night of February in 2002, Surendran Gopalakrishnan did that, that would change his life forever from then. Hours before he was due to board the Air India aircraft, flying Oman to Cochin that night at 2:30 am, he brutally stabbed two men. Murder. He is now Prisoner 302/2002. No more a name. Just a number, ceasing to exist in the free world.
I have sat to write this chapter many, many a times. I want that you understand his story like I have heard it, felt it. I am afraid I will fail. I have read his letter more than nine times by now. And heard his audio clip a few times more than that. I have felt the letters on the paper like brail, looked closer at places he has used the correction pen, listened to the laughs in his voice, the accentuations, the pauses, the tones. I have read the mercy petition Priya sent to Oman. I assume she must have gotten it prepared by somebody, with a bare knowledge of the English language, the grammatical flaws in the document. However, whatever is typed out is clear, even with the errors. It was a wife’s desperate plea to the government to release her husband from the Central Jail in Sumail in Oman.
If marriage is an institution of numbers, Priya and Gopalakrishnan have been married for 17 years now. If marriage is togetherness, they have been married for barely two months. Priya found out she was pregnant soon after Gopalakrishnan left to Oman in 2001. He hasn’t returned since. The wife and now a daughter, still await.
In the year 2016, Gopalakrishan, serving a life sentence sent Pa a nine page letter from jail. The details, cold and horrifying. He had stabbed both his room mates, stayed the knife right through. He cried, he apologized, he regretted, he fret and he broke down. After going through each word so many times over, there remained only one question, I needed the answer to. Priya?
Pa and me set out to look for this answer two months back. One evening, we took a flight to Thiruvananthapuram from Dubai. It was the first time I was traveling without the boys. I knew they would have a fun day out with the father the next day and yet I felt unsettled. On board, I realized I was more restless about meeting Priya than worried about my children.
We arrived in the capital city of Kerala at around eight in the morning.. It was a two hour drive to Kollam. Priya would be back from work only by five in the evening. We had enough time to get there. We lost our way and confused the many roads that led to the different insides of that locality. After almost a half an hour of confusion and many a phone clarifications , we reached around six. There,we met for the first time, a smiling Priya and her petite daughter. An old,bent mother, a big bellied, forlorn father. An electrician brother, his lean wife who had just delivered their second child and a six year old daughter who was the chirpiest person in that dilapidated two-room home.
Priya kept shifting between clasping her phone and the dangling ends of her dupatta with both her palms,most of the time. She was evidently, very nervous. The little girl was as excited as tensed Priya was. Both had the same reason, “Priyaami’s, Jabir sir.” The hope they kept making international phone calls to was at their doorstep.
It was the month of May. Kerala was almost boiling that time of the year. We pulled a few chairs around a table, right outside the front door. The door was left open to a sight of misery within. In a house with an electrician, the switch board was open and wires running out of it. There was a box of an age old television set. The walls were painted green, years ago, already discoloring to different shades. It was absolutely impossible to believe the warm hospitality of such woe begone people.I was awestruck at how much of cheer they brought about in their demeanor.
“Will he come soon?” Priya’s mother finally acknowledged the reason we were there, almost breaking down between the words, as she brought a plate of savory to place on the table,they had set before us.
“We have hopes he will be on the next list,” Pa was making sure it didn’t sound like a promise, at the same time, keeping her heart. Almost the whole time I was sitting there, I kept swatting at the mosquitos that wouldn’t allow me sit composed for a complete minute. The sun would set in the next few minutes and the pesky insects would not spare me.Here I was hoping to belong, awkwardly hitting and scratching at my feet,already looking foreign. I watched as Pa became a part of them, almost immediately. He sipped on the glass of Sprite, her father offered. It was absolutely shocking. Pa would never, never have a carbonated drink. The family were going out of the way for their special father-daughter guests. And Pa made sure he kept them comfortable.
A soft spoken daughter, stood close behind Priya. She was smiling all the while, only answering when spoken to. It was for her, her father had killed.
His wife had just delivered then, 17 years back. He had already resigned his job to visit his new born daughter. He was frustrated with the harassing job he had. A victim of workplace politics and abuse, he had finally decide to just leave. His daughter was his new hope. He made arrangements with a friend to come back on a new visa and start afresh. Everything was in place, until the manager he killed, provoked him and withheld a meagre 40Rial Omani, the company owed him. This bullying had been regular for quite a few years then. Gopalakrishnan had made it a habit to tolerate the psychological torture. An anticipation to see the face of his new born child, the financial helplessness as the only earning member of the family, his overpowering desperation to break away from the shackles of work place torture turned him in a matter of a few hours, murderer. He had in a fit of uncontrollable temper killed the manager and a foreman, who tried to come in the way.
As I watched his daughter smile, I wondered what she thought of her father. How would she have consoled her aching heart growing up without him. Did she love her father? Was she angry, his temper denied her a normal childhood? Did she detest him for her young mother’s tears. I saw no answer in her. She simply smiled, the most pleasing smile.
“What do you want to do now?” I asked because I had to ask something and could not stare at her so blank, any longer. Priya interrupted with an inherent pride in her tone,”Chettai had called yesterday. He didn’t call earlier this week.He was waiting for the board results to be announced.” There was an excitement that new lovers feel for each other in her voice. “He called in the evening, waiting for me to come back home, so he could talk to her.” His daughter smiled, just another smile.
“Looking for admission in a college.” his daughter broke her silence.
“Most of her friends are going to that college. A little expensive. But she insists she wants to study there,” Before Priya said any further, I was assured this single mother completed her daughter’s world in every possible way. “She will have to go by bus. It is a few kilometers from here. Don’t know, Sir. We should be able to afford it no?”
“You don’t worry about that,” Pa promised. “Put her where she wants to go. We will figure some help out.” This is how Pa has been for years. Committing to help even before a source was clear. And he would.
“Even you know sir, Mol has never seen her father” Priya’s mother was crying now.”His mother is also very sick. She only wishes to see her son. He will come no, sir?” She kept looking for answers in every hum and expression.
“What a wedding it was,sir.So grand.And she couldn’t live with him,even for two months…”She wanted to say so much more.
“Sir knows,” her father cut her off, half consoling his wife.
“Don’t worry. Even we hope he will come soon.” This time it sounded like more like promise.
Teary eyed, each of us smiled.