Picture a dark alley. Then picture something smaller, but with the same atmosphere, for it would be an exaggeration to call this this place an alley. On one side is a town’s largest junction. Three roads meet and dissolve into one another with snakelike ease.
The sides are lined by the fruits of Sri Lankan small enterprise: bookshops, fish stalls, groceries line the sides, along with a Chinese restaurant that actually sells Sri Lankan food and doubles as a discreet, third-rate bar. Men go there to drown their sorrows and return to their homes to create more sorrow. The cycle goes on: the place never changes, save for the election posters that come and go like the tide.
“Un-na bus eka! Ikmanta!” (There’s the bus! Hurry)
Footsteps, polished school shoes pounding the cobbles. White uniforms rush by. His old eyes can no longer pick out the details: the faces, the tiny school badges sewn on their pockets, they are all one to him. He knows them as a simply as blur of dark faces and young voices. Every day they sprint past: today is no different. They are inevitably followed by schoolteachers in their sarees and the office crowd, who are either unhurried or can no longer muster the energy to make a dash for the bus.
Very few notice the old man squatting the darkest, grimiest spot in the little passage, clutching a stick and muttering to himself. There is a crude black begging bowl by his feet. It is empty.
It started to rain, and the beggar went away. Rain was good.
He was there when the bus bomb went off.
Screams, blood, shrapnel. Gouts of flame and smoke drifted past his little alley, and he hobbled to investigate, his splintered stick propping up his twisted, scrawny figure. The begging bowl, now full of rainwater, he left in the alley.
Moans, gasps and shouts filled the air, disorienting him. The flaming wreck of the bus dominated his vision. His old eyes could not see very well: perhaps it was for the best. Once or twice he trod on a red-hot chunk of tar or metal, and once he stepped in something liquid and sticky: his callused feet, desensitized by a lifetime of walking barefoot, did not sense much. Bits and pieces, metal and flesh mingled beyond recognition, littered the road, flung out from the explosion in all directions. Some of them had buried themselves in the houses and shops that lined the road. Many people were on the ground, screaming. A few were standing, dazed, their ears bleeding. He saw little of these. His blurry eyes drifted from the smoke and fire, to the road – something seemed different there – to a flash of white by his feet.
He bent down. It was not too hard: his spine was already bent. His yellowish, bloodshot eyes looked at this thing on the ground. Details. White, turning red. A little badge on the shirt pocket, one of those trivial things schoolboys obsessed over. Arms. Legs. A face, one side dark, the other burned red and black. Even this close, the details was blurred. Mumbling ceaselessly, the beggar leant closer. The eyes were closed. A hole opened in the face, and a hoarse, cracked voice issued from it.
“Amme….thibahai (Mother…I’m thirsty),” pleaded the boy, who had run so gleefully past the beggar just this morning. “Thibahai.”
The beggar considered this. Digging his stick into the ground, he hobbled back to his place in the alley, took up the begging bowl full of rainwater. He hobbled back. It took him a long time.
On the road, the burned schoolboy opened his eyes. Sunlight flared into them.
Agony. His head side throbbed. His ears rang. His throat burned. He could not feel his legs. He shut his eyes and ran a parched tongue over his lips, and shrieked when it touched the burned flesh of his face. He tried moving his arms. His right worked: his left did not.
He did not hear the footsteps, but sensed someone at his side. A stick bumped into him and went away. A bowl touched his lips. It stank even through the fumes in his lungs, but there was water. Water. He held the bowl with his one working hand and sipped greedily, like an animal, and opened his eyes. The mad beggar was standing above him, his clothes filthy and matted, his greasy hair hanging down, the scabby face grinning down at him with bloodshot and nearly blind eyes. A mixture of hate and revulsion rose inside him, so fierce and sudden it momentarily eclipsed his thirst and the pain. Now he could smell the bowl clearly. Bile rose in his throat.
The beggar watched, dismayed, as the boy used his remaining strength to throw the bowl away. It shattered on the road, the water spilling out and mingling with the dust and blood and ash.
“Palayang, hinganna (Get lost, beggar),” the boy rasped, and coughed. “Mang gaawa adha salli nae (I have no money to spare today).”
And so saying, he died.
The beggar, muttering to himself, picked up the remains of the bowl. Some of them still held droplets of water. With his bent back and broken fingers he spilled these over the boy’s face. Waste not, want not.
Mourning the loss of the bowl, he went away.