An old wives’ tale returns, revealing post-war Sri Lanka.
Photo courtesy of Indi Samarajiva
During my first two days on Sri Lanka’s Jaffna Peninsula, I heard about the Grease Man from everyone who spoke English. He smeared his naked body in oil to evade capture, the villagers told me, and then snuck into homes to commit random acts of violence. Most people said he sexually assaulted women, or bit their necks and breasts. One boy told me he had knives for fingers, which he used to cut out people’s organs while they were sleeping. He hid in trees, the villagers believed, waiting for the right moment to pounce upon his victims—women drawing well water or children using the outhouse. One man thought Grease Men were just common thieves, profiting from the rumors to take advantage of a cowed populace. But most people spoke of him in the singular, as if he were a mythical demon. What everyone agreed on was that the Grease Man was either protected by government soldiers or was a soldier himself.
During Sri Lanka’s thirty-year civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil minority, Jaffna was the unofficial capital of the separatist Tamil Tigers. The LTTE, as the Tigers are known in Sri Lanka, was vanquished in 2009 in a no-holds-barred offensive that killed tens of thousands of civilians in five months. Since then, the Sri Lankan Army has occupied the Tamil-dominated areas of the North and East. Shortly before I arrived in Sri Lanka last August, the government had lifted restrictions on travel to the formerly contested Northern Province. I had backpacked throughout Sri Lanka before and was eager to see a new part of the country I loved.
A few days after I got to Jaffna, I spent an afternoon in an Internet café, trying to make sense of these Grease Man rumors. “Grease Devils” had been sighted in Muslim and Tamil areas throughout Sri Lanka. Several women claimed they’d been followed or attacked. Facing police apathy, villagers had armed themselves with clubs and machetes. At least two suspected Grease Men were hacked to death. Police had arrested dozens of men for vigilante attacks. The defense secretary issued a warning that vigilantism was “akin to terrorism” and would receive “the maximum punishment.” But even as authorities denied the existence of a Grease Devil threat, Sri Lankan TV was continually airing a terrifying photo of a teenager vaguely identified as a “suspect.” Covered in white face paint, he bared his reddened teeth and flared his nostrils; fake blood poured from his mouth. Absurdly, the terrifying photo accompanied the message: “The Grease Devil is not real.”
A young man interrupted my Internet reading to welcome me to his city. Wide-faced with thick black curls, he spoke the best English I’d heard anywhere in Sri Lanka. Kumar (names have been changed) used to be a translator for NGOs and now worked as an English teacher. His pudgy cheeks and flawless skin made him look much younger than twenty-eight. He asked me what I thought of Jaffna.
I had spent the morning wandering the city center, thick with noise and motion. Autorickshaws swerved around women carrying baskets of chilies and mangoes on their heads. Trucks blared their horns at bicyclists. A soldier stood on the edge of a field where boys played cricket. He would be there all day, sweating in his leather boots, shifting his rifle from one shoulder to the other. I turned down a narrow road that led to the sea, and the landscape shifted so dramatically that I found myself standing still, one hand over my open mouth. The fruit stands and tea shops and brick houses gave way to a warscape of bullet riddled walls with no roofs, the ruins of former homes. Babies’ cries rang out from behind old sheets that covered holes in the walls.
Kumar looked at me expectantly. “I’m very happy to be in your city,” I said.
He invited me to his home for dinner, and I hopped on the back of his motorbike. “Thank you for trusting me,” he said. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was a matter of trust.
While their mother prepared rice and curry, I asked Rajesh and Kumar for their theories on the Grease Man. “How could he enter the village with a sentry point on every corner? He operates through the blessing of the soldiers,” Rajesh said.
His parents’ two-room brick house was shuttered and locked, but the curtains were backlit by the green glow of the TV. Kumar banged on the door, calling out his name. “My mother is afraid of the Grease Man,” he said. He grinned, but he sounded apologetic. Kumar’s mother opened the door. Kumar introduced me in Tamil. His mother took my hands and beamed. We effused in our respective languages. Kumar’s brother clapped his hands and pronounced his joy to meet an American lady. Rajesh was twenty. He had large, attentive eyes and a sudden, raucous laugh, and he wanted to be a famous singer. In the meantime, he worked as a public health inspector. While their mother prepared rice and curry, I asked Rajesh and Kumar for their theories on the Grease Man.
“How could he enter the village with a sentry point on every corner? He operates through the blessing of the soldiers,” Rajesh said in his elegant but imperfect English. Kumar glanced through the open door to the alley outside their house. It had only taken me a few hours in Jaffna to become familiar with the habitual furtiveness of discussions about the war and the current occupation.
“Do you think it’s possible the Grease Man is just a rumor the government started?” I asked. “A way to keep Tamils under control since the emergency laws ended?”
A few days before I got to Jaffna, President Rajapaksha had acquiesced to international pressure to end emergency laws, which had allowed the government to displace residents, detain people without trial, and operate secret prisons. The government stood to benefit from the Grease Man rumor. People who are afraid are less likely to organize or to make demands. Most of Jaffna stayed home after dark, locking themselves in their sweltering brick houses, each family separate and afraid.
“They want to scare us, yes,” Rajesh said. “But the Grease Man is real.” Outside, a stray dog lay in the rectangle of smoky light cast by the doorway. He sat in the empty road, picking at fleas.
This was during the annual Nallur festival, honoring the god Murugan, protector of the Tamil people. Every morning and evening, nearly all of Jaffna crowded into the sandy grounds around the Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil, a garish temple surrounding a holy pool that has cleansed Hindu pilgrims for centuries.
One evening, I joined Kumar among the throngs of worshippers. Women wore heavy gold jewelry and brilliant silk saris. Men in red dhotis clashed cymbals and beat handheld drums as they belted out devotional songs, so enrapt that their faces registered grief. Toddlers on their fathers’ shoulders stared wide-eyed at the statue that had been erected for the festival, a three-story-high replica of a temple, affixed with hundreds of light bulbs. The huge triangle of white light began to move, seeming to float through the crowd. It took me a moment to realize that it was attached to a rope, pulled by dozens of laughing, groaning boys. I was carried by the tide of the crowd as the tower of fluorescent light bore down on us. Somehow being packed inside a mass of quickly moving strangers was freeing rather than claustrophobic. With perfect, mysterious synchronization, the crowd would occasionally raise their hands and cry out, “Haro Hara!”
“When everyone looks at the god together, it gives him power,” Kumar said. “And then that power comes back to us.”
The next morning, I walked into town for breakfast. A squat man with slick salt-and-pepper hair fell in step beside me. “With whom did you travel to Jaffna?” he asked in stilted English. He was an engineer and had lived in Jaffna since riots, in 1983, forced him out of Colombo. In reprisal for the Tamil Tigers’ first attack—an ambush that killed thirteen Sinhalese soldiers—Sinhalese mobs rampaged through the capital, beating, crucifying, and burning Tamils alive. “The mobs were not average people,” the engineer said. “They were antisocial elements. The government used them for its own ends.” He escaped Colombo with the help of Sinhalese friends.
I asked the engineer if he believed the government was using the Grease Man for its own ends. “Of course!” he said. “About a year ago, it was the white vans. Black windows, no identity plates… But to the people it is no mystery.”
I asked the engineer if he believed the government was using the Grease Man for its own ends. “Of course!” he said. “About a year ago, it was the white vans. Black windows, no identity plates. They abducted people. Sometimes hurt them and let them go. Sometimes gone. The authorities say it is a mystery. But to the people it is no mystery.” He glanced around and lowered his voice. “The people are missing the LTTE. They had their minus points, but at least we had some bargaining power. But we have much hope the Americans will save us. We love Hillary Clinton.” He hoped she would pressure the government to house internally displaced Tamils and abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which authorizes indefinite detention.
“Do you know that we have the same law in our country?” I explained that several laws passed since 9/11 empower the president to arrest and jail non-U.S. citizens without charging them with a crime. The engineer was shocked. He had never heard of Guantanamo.
On our way to the temple one morning, Kumar and I passed a lorry with a makeshift wooden crane attached to the roof. A man in a loincloth hung from the crane, suspended from four thick hooks that pierced the skin of his calves and upper back. Another man, also clad in a loincloth, stood atop the crane, pulling up on a rope attached to the hooks. The hooked man waved palm fronds—slowly, methodically—as he bounced. His face was utterly impassive, as if he were withstanding the experience by willfully vacating it. “He is in a trance,” Kumar said admiringly.
We took off our shoes and left them beneath the carved arches at the entrance. Women prostrated themselves before the statues, touching their heads to the cold stone floor and gazing at the gaudy wooden deities. I sat on the limestone steps that led down to the holy pool. Shadows of clouds moved across the surface of the water. Slow drumbeats sounded outside the temple.
“Can we sit here for a little while?” I asked.
“Why not?” Kumar said. “It is our temple.”
On my way out of my guesthouse to meet Kumar one day, I passed four teenage boys standing in the shade of a tamarind tree. They called after me in Tamil, jeering tones followed by hollow laughter. Kumar was across the street, straddling his bike with the motor running. He handed me my helmet before he even said hello. “Those boys are gangsters,” he said after we’d begun moving. “Do not talk to them, okay?”
He was taking me to the Dutch fort, which was a battleground during the war, oscillating between LTTE and army control. The government was now reconstructing the star-shaped, colonial relic as a tourist attraction. Inside the arched gateway, jagged hunks of limestone were piled nearly two stories high. “You see how strong the bombs were,” Kumar said. At the upper level of the fort, an upturned tree grew parallel to the earth, its roots gripping the remains of a stone wall.
“With LTTE, we had no gangsters,” Kumar said. “It was so safe. But it was also too strict.” Thieves and gangsters were beaten or shot. Women had to keep their legs covered and mostly stay at home. American movies and music were forbidden. “Because if you enjoy the life, you don’t want to fight. But I listened anyway. With the computer, you can get everything. You like Michael Jackson?”
“I could not live without Michael. He taught me English. You know ‘Man in the Mirror’?”
We sang the chorus together. Kumar lifted his fist into the air at the climax. I felt a brief, stupid pride in my country.
I asked if it was worse when the LTTE was in control.
“I’d say fifty-fifty badness. The worst is when there’s fighting. As long as one group is in control, it’s okay.”
Kumar said that his uncles had been repairmen, so the LTTE ordered them to build barracks. Not wanting to get mixed up with the Tigers, they paid a fisherman to row them the fifty miles to India. They worked odd jobs for years, until they had enough money to get to Europe. Now they are in Germany. One is an engineer, the other a businessman. When I told my Sinhalese friend that I was going to Jaffna, she said, “You can meet all the Tamils who are mistreated by the Sinhalese.” She rolled her eyes. When I started to argue, she said, “Don’t feel sorry for them. They are all rich. So many Tamils living abroad are sending money.”
The far end of the fort was grassy and empty. A bird landed on the parapet and cawed at us. “We should go back,” Kumar said. “There are no people here.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“It’s just—we try always not to be in an empty place. This is army land, right? They have control. So if it’s me against four or five guys—we don’t want to find out.” He laughed and started walking back toward the entrance.
While Kumar’s mother taught me to make pittu—a steamed mash of roasted flour and coconut—Rajesh climbed up and down trees in their backyard, gathering fruit for me to taste. It was early morning. Kumar had offered to take me to the beach after breakfast.
I was stupidly happy on the back of his motorbike, hurtling toward a place I could never find on my own. We rode over a flat, paved bridge that led to one of the tiny, inhabited islands off Jaffna’s coast. Fishnets tied to wooden stakes jutted out of the shallow sea. Silver fish jumped out of the water and hurled themselves against the netting, so pretty as their breath drained away. On the island, Kumar’s bike was the only vehicle in sight, flying through a field of tall, dry sea grass interrupted by piles of colorful rubbish and the concrete foundations of former homes.
“There’s so much land out here,” I shouted over the bike’s rattling engine. “It’s awful to think of all those people living in refugee camps when they could be building houses here.” Hundreds of thousands of civilians displaced by the war had yet to be returned home. And most of the people who had been “resettled” were given no government assistance; they lived with family or in one of the bombed-out houses.
“There is land here, yes,” Kumar said. “But the army is here. So if they want, they will take.” He spoke just loudly enough to be heard over the wind. There was no anger in his voice.
We passed two checkpoints as we approached the beach. Kumar showed his I.D. I stared at the ground while the soldiers stared at me. The beach had white sand, tall palm trees, emerald water. It was easy to imagine planting a resort there, Europeans in tanning oil drinking rum out of coconuts. A resort would mean that Sri Lanka was okay at last; Jaffna had gone through hell and come out on the other side. For now, a couple of families splashed in the glassy water, the women in cotton saris and the men in jeans. It wasn’t as weird to swim in my clothes as I imagined it would be. My beige skirt clung to my legs when we left the ocean. Sand burning my feet, I ran on tiptoe to a palm tree and bought a mango from a boy who looked about seven. As he sliced it into neat strips, three more boys flocked to my side, shaking bags of palmyrah bark and oranges. I bought one bag from each boy, even though I hated thinking of their parents sending them to hawk fruits on the beach.
“Boyfriend?” the boys asked, grinning and pointing to Kumar.
“No, no. We are friends.”
I’d never been friends with a man in Sri Lanka before. There was no reason to speak to them, no good that could come from it. Heterosexual friendships did not exist here. Men and women were either relatives or suitors. But Kumar was a one-way glass panel, allowing me to glimpse Sri Lanka’s violent history.
We sat at the base of the tree, taking bites of bright orange flesh. “You know, in the U.S.,” I said, “it’s totally normal for men and women to be just friends. Like we are.”
“I know. Here it is so strict.” Kumar’s index finger traced circles in the sand near my foot. I finished the mango and suggested we head back to town.
At Kumar’s house that night, Rajesh was irate about an attack in a village called Navanthurai. “Some Grease Devils try to get a woman and she calls for help,” he told me. “The villagers chase the Grease Devils, and the Devils run inside the army camp. So the Grease Men are hiding in the army camp and the villagers are saying, ‘Let us catch them,’ and they throw rocks toward the camp. And then that night the soldiers go into the homes and they take all the men out from the beds and beat the men and take them to the jail.” He was nearly shouting. “They must pass the night in jail with these brutal injuries. In the morning, the magistrate sees the men and orders they go to hospital.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked. It was hard to have faith in someone so indignant, no matter how inclined I was to trust. Rajesh fetched a newspaper and turned to a spread of photos of men with bandaged heads and limbs, some of them in wheelchairs. “After I read this, I go to the hospital. I see this with my eyes.” He jabbed the air with his finger.
Kumar opened a large bottle of lager. “Do you want beer?” I never drank in Sri Lanka, out of respect for the gendered cultural prohibitions. I nodded.
“I know there are some good Sinhalese,” Rajesh said, sitting back down. He sounded magnanimous, the same tone my Sinhalese friend took when she spoke of Tamils. She would not hate a whole race, even if her only association with them was bomb scares, just as the only Sinhalese people Rajesh knew were soldiers. The ethnic rivalry seemed to become more entrenched with each generation.
“Do you have any Sinhalese friends?” I asked Kumar.
He lived in Colombo for a little while after he finished his studies, working at KFC. He had Sinhalese friends there. He liked living in the capital, but every time there was a bomb scare, the police arrested Tamils indiscriminately. So he moved back to Jaffna, like almost all Tamils. Or they went abroad if they could. “One time, I was going to a restaurant with my friend,” he said, “but then I decided I was tired and went home. My friend went to the restaurant and the police were there and they got him. So I was saved by not eating.” He took a sip of beer and patted the mound of his lower stomach. “Maybe if I stayed in Colombo, I wouldn’t have this rice belly.”
His laugh was interrupted by the eerie whistle of ammunition arcing through the air and exploding nearby. I looked at Kumar, my eyes wide. “Shelling,” he said.
“You still hear that? Why?”
“Probably soldiers training. They must train, right?” He shrugged.
When he dropped me off at my guesthouse, Kumar told me about some videos he saw on the Internet. “It must have been soldiers who took the videos. Some soldiers who felt bad. Because even someone who would participate in these things, he must have some humanity. The principal of my school told me to watch them. He said, ‘Before I was not pro-LTTE. But since I watched these videos, I support LTTE.’” Kumar’s whisper was barely audible. “I thought, this is what happened to my people. So I watched. It is more horrible than you can imagine. It took me two hours to come back to normal after watching. The most brutal thing one human being can do to another.” Wind rustled the thick banana leaves.
“Please don’t tell me.” My voice was too loud.
“These videos should not exist,” Kumar continued. “It just makes Tamils hate. We must forget. Because we cannot fight. We will not win.” I opened my mouth to argue that the victims of war crimes deserve for the truth to be known. Kumar spoke first. “Of course,” he said, “if it was my brother in those videos, I would have to revenge. I would have no choice.” I shut my mouth.
The next day, after breakfast in town, I walked two dusty miles to the newspaper office. In a neighborhood of jewelry and liquor stores, the office was down a narrow alleyway and up a dark flight of stairs. A life-size cardboard cutout of Gandhi marked the entrance. A lanky man with a pockmarked face walked up to me and stared intently. I asked if he could tell me about the attack in Navanthurai. He motioned to an empty chair at a table, and sat down opposite me. He wore a plaid shirt missing a button and smelled faintly of women’s perfume. His name was Sanjeev and he was the editor in chief. All of the imprisoned men from Navanthurai had been released on bail, he said. No one knew what happened to the suspected Grease Devils.
“How did you get here?” he asked. His eye contact was steady.
“I walked. From town.”
“They know you’re here.”
“The security forces?”
“They will notice an American woman here. You should know. Be a little careful.”
“Do they constantly watch your office?”
“Of course. We have the harassment, the abductions. Last month, one of my colleagues was beaten. Right outside his home. He is getting better day by day but he will not write again. He has a family. When are you leaving Sri Lanka?”
“In a week.”
“Good.” He nodded once. I thought of the red-eyed men outside the liquor stores who would stare at me as I walked out of the office.
“The people are missing the LTTE,” the editor said tonelessly.
“But weren’t they really strict—shooting people in the street and torturing—”
“With the LTTE, there was no theft, no rape. Immediate punishment for such crimes. Rape has increased much since the war ended. Widows are not safe.”
“Didn’t they recruit children? Didn’t they force people to fight?”
“That was the only mistake they made, in the last months of the war. Because they didn’t have help. We should have helped. We were enjoying the life while our brothers were sacrificing.” Turning away from Sanjeev’s small, intense eyes, I said that I was hoping to write an article about the Grease Man. Could he connect me with people who had been attacked?
“Of course I will help you. The international media is our only hope.” He told me to call him in the morning. He would take me to Navanthurai.
But the next day Sanjeev never answered his mobile phone. When I showed up at his office, a nervous, well-dressed young man told me Sanjeev was busy today; please could I return tomorrow? I walked to another newspaper. The rotund editor in chief invited me in to his office. His secretary served us tea and chili doughnuts. The editor clapped his hands in joy when he learned that an American lady was writing about the Grease Devil. I asked him to tell me everything he knew about the army raid in Navanthurai. He repeated the story I’d heard from Rajesh, adding that one of his reporters believed two girls had been raped. I asked if he could connect me with some of the villagers. “Oh no. The people will not give a statement. Because if they give a statement, tomorrow they will be nowhere.” He reached into his desk and retrieved a camera. With no warning, he snapped two photos of me. “To remember my American colleague,” he said, beaming. He walked me to the door. I asked if he knew of anyone in Jaffna who’d seen a Grease Devil, if any of the journalists on his staff had ever been beaten or disappeared. “I have much work,” he said, and left me standing alone in his gravel yard.
I found a pay phone and called Kumar. “Would it be dumb of me to go to the Security Forces office?” I asked, referring to the public relations unit of the Sri Lankan Army. “I just wonder what they would tell a foreigner about the Grease Man.”
“Do not go to the Security Forces, Hannah,” he said slowly and evenly, as if explaining the obvious to a child. “Your plane leaves soon and I think you want to be on it.”
I spent the next five mornings fruitlessly harassing the staff of Jaffna’s four newspapers. I spent the next five afternoons waiting for hours to meet with local government officials (all Tamil), each of whom directed me to another official who would be sure to answer my basic questions about security zones and landmines and displaced people. No one, including Kumar, would help me meet someone who had witnessed a Grease Devil attack. The day before I was to leave Jaffna, I returned yet again to Sanjeev’s office and begged his young employee to let me speak with him; I needed some basic facts if I was to have a story at all. The young man listened, nodded, and disappeared into the office’s only room with a door. He returned several minutes later. “I am sorry, but our editor cannot see you,” he said. “He is sleeping.”
It seemed that even the man with the most rebellious job in town believed Jaffna’s only hope for normalcy was to pretend that everything was normal.
On my last night in Jaffna, I went to the Kovil with Kumar. We got jostled among well-groomed women making coconut offerings and shirtless men rolling in the sand around the perimeter, moving so fast Kumar promised they would vomit when they stood up. A baby girl with holy ash smeared on her forehead giggled atop her father’s shoulders. The Grease Man felt like a stupid horror movie playing in the background of a party.
This is when it happens, I thought. I felt the helmet on my head, the hot space between its hard dome and my scalp. We were less than ten yards from the entrance to my guesthouse. The soldiers followed me home from the newspaper. They would punish Kumar for my interest in the Grease Man attack, my compulsion to carry a war story back home.
The silence of the thick, black air was unsettling on the ride back. I gripped the seatback as Kumar leaned into sharp turns and swerved around a stray dog curled in the middle of the road. Kumar picked up speed as we passed the neighborhood of bombed-out houses. Through a doorless doorway, a woman’s legs jutted out beside a flickering oil lamp. Her face was in darkness. Kumar started to slow down. Slivers of silvered light in the center of the road resolved themselves into stop signs, held aloft by soldiers. As Kumar eased off the gas, five soldiers fanned out across the street, blocking our way. One shined a flashlight in our faces. His gun was wider than his thigh. This is when it happens, I thought. I felt the helmet on my head, the hot space between its hard dome and my scalp. The bike stopped. Kumar touched his feet down to steady us. We were less than ten yards from the entrance to my guesthouse. They followed me home from the newspaper. They would punish Kumar for my interest in the Grease Man attack, my compulsion to carry a war story back home.
The soldiers formed a semi-circle around the bike. The man with the flashlight walked up to us. He planted his feet in an awkwardly wide stance and crossed his arms over his chest. Kumar reached into his back pocket and handed the soldier a small plastic rectangle. The soldier glanced at the I.D., handed it back. He stepped away from the bike and waved us through. The soldiers gathered on the side of the road to let us pass. Kumar thanked them in English, their common language. I looked at the lead soldier’s face as we drove away. He looked sheepish, almost deferential.
My heart was still pounding as I stood at the gate to my guesthouse. “Are you okay?” I asked Kumar.
“Fine. No problem.” He waved his hand through the air, unconsciously imitating the soldier’s gesture of release. A porch light flicked on. My guesthouse owner walked out and stared menacingly at the source of our voices. Kumar said he would miss me. His eyes were huge and teary. “I’ll miss you, too,” I said with false cheeriness. “Please tell your family thank you and goodbye.” I walked up to my rented room, taking the steps two at a time.
A few weeks after I returned home, Kumar sent an email to tell me about his brother’s new job and the play he was directing in his English class. There was a postscript saying that the police had taken two Grease Men into custody; the threat was over, for now. A few months later, Sri Lankan media mentioned the incident for probably the last time. Forensic experts, funded partly by the state, had pronounced the Grease Devil phenomenon nothing more than mass hysteria. After interviewing six supposed victims of Grease Man attacks, the doctors concluded that their injuries were either self-inflicted or caused by “a friendly hand.”
Hannah Tennant-Moore writes regularly for The New Republic and n+1 book reviews. Her work also appears in such places as Los Angeles Review of Books, The Paris Review Daily,, and Tin House, and received an honorable mention in The Best American Travel Writing 2011.