Icaruswept

Monologues on Sri Lanka, politics, culture and travel.

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Category: Stories (page 1 of 2)

A man died yesterday.

A man died yesterday.

Train. Walked up to the 11.30 express, apparently. Drunk. Laid his neck on the tracks. Waited.

The train screamed over him. A thousand tons of noisy steel. Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened. Squish. They never found the head.

Today they held his funeral. The wife made loud wailing noises and cried. Just like when he hit her four days ago and split her lip. Or when we had to take her in, bleeding and whimpering last month. She’d changed the TV channel too fast, or too slow. As she cried in the safety of our home he dragged out all her clothes and burned them to ashes. The crying only stopped when the police arrived.

Anyway. The dead man’s son held up the casket. He’s used to holding up his father. We’ve seen him so many times on the road, dragging his father away from yet another bottle and yet another fight. Is that relief I see?  A dead man is easier to take away.

And the whole village followed suit. They drank cheap Harischandra coffee and reminisced over the good things he’d done and wondered aloud how the family would manage. Nobody dared point out that he hadn’t had a job for the past three years and that the son worked double shifts as a security guard and the wife stuck together envelopes to buy him his drink and his cigarettes.

Nobody looked at the scars on their hands. We don’t speak ill of our dead, even at the expense of the living.

A wise man once said, do not be too hasty in dealing out death and judgement. But I don’t know, man. Some people deserve to be dead.

 

Maradana Rain

The woman runs across the street.

Tamil woman, beggar, your brain notes, and you bury that half-sensed disgust that rises, that uneasy unease that your temple-going, karma-fearing parents buried in you, years ago, one casual slur at a time. Dirty. Ugly. Beggar. You crush these thoughts with the half-formed specter of shame and watch as she recedes, a spot of color moving against the gray sky.

Maradana. A railway station and a building of indeterminate use leer at each other across four lanes of traffic. You stand halfway between them, suspended in the sky by a bridge that stretches from one part of the other. The bridge is an ugly thing – cracked, weathered and grimy, with cramped staircases for roots. Tramps hide in what little shadow these stairs provide. In the evenings there are dogs and half-eaten packets of rice in the corners; in the morning there are trampled weeds and used condoms.

The people on the bridge do not see this. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves. Lines of men in shirts and ties. Women in sarees and modestly tight skirts. Government servants in white and black. Satchels, leather cases, purses. Work Tshirts shouting meaningless messages. It’s about you! The Future, Today!

bridge

A mullah and an old woman with crutches carve their own way through the crowd, each untouchable in their own special way.

You watch. They rustle past like light, neither wave nor individual particles, but somewhere in between, a staccato river of urgency. You are pushed, not out of purpose, nor out of accident, but out of reflex. The crowd resents parting around you. Young women hurry, hamstrung by their sarees, casting quick, suspicious glances at you. Young men brush past, sweating slightly beneath the weight of gel in their hair. Behind them, ten years later and ten steps behind, come the middle-aged. The middle-waged.  Slightly slower, slightly more jaded.

You take the stairs down. Are they happy?

A Buddhist monk, his neck bent, turns a corner and meets you coming down the other way. He nods.

Are they happy?

A couple waiting at a traffic light. Tall, handsome, beautiful. Expensive hair. Gold skin, the kind of skin they say the Sinhalese have, but more the kind of skin the Sinhalese envy. They stand out among the burnished brown faces of the crowd. They do not hold hands, but it is obvious from the way they stand, the way their bodies lean towards one another, the way she smiles at him, the way he angles his body as the crowd crosses the street towards them, as if to protect.

A twinge of jealousy.

Are you  happy?

Then the rain comes. A drizzle at first. Handbags open. Umbrellas come out. The men pick up the pace. Then a shower. Slowly, but with increasing swiftness, Maradana is transformed. The grimy bustle vanishes. The wave-particle river of people breaks up in confusion. Soon the staccato patter of feet running away from the rain is replaced by the rain itself.

Not many can stand music of the raindrops. There are a special few. There is a young man in a white shirt and a red tie, soaked to the bone; you can see his vest silhouetted against his shirt, halting before a puddle. He is walking with a pair of colleagues. They have scowls on their faces. The young man drops begins to walk behind them, wading through the puddles they avoid. His smile grows with each step he takes. Soon he is grinning.

The couple stands under their umbrella. The traffic light is green, but they do not cross.  A horn honks; the girl looks up, startled, and waves them on. She has dimples. He takes her hand.

A tuk-tuk driver, his feet up on the crude dashboard, lost in thought. He is startled when you splash up to him and throws yourself in his vehicle;  he reaches for the meter with great reluctance.

tuk2

And you. Roaring down the street with your hand outstretched, feeling the rain caress your fingers. Watching it wash away the sweat, the dust, the heat, the wave of people, emptying the streets of Maradana. Bringing that peculiar happiness that comes from being alone.

It grows in you. The rain does not frown upon loneliness. The rain understands.

Later that day you go out to dinner and you sit, letting the beer and the conversation wash over you, watching them laugh and trade stories of each other’s exes. You feel like an outsider, sitting here; an alien in the dusky light, wondering what you are doing here, in this expensive place, eating this expensive food, paying for expensive company.

In your heart, you are still in Maradana, standing in the rain.

The Begging Bowl

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.

begga_small

Art by Emaad Fayaz of the PRUVE collective http://dr-carrot.deviantart.com/

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.

The Maluman

Malu-O!

The Maluman – thus I call him in my head – trudges up the lane. His panniers are balanced across a bent back. Green sarong, dirty white shirt, stalking through the neighborhood of balconies and rich mens’ conversation. Sometime curtains are closed as he passes with his panniers of fish. The laboring man is a subtle insult to many, a reminder that there exists a world outside their curtain of delights and carefully erected rings of society. People don’t walk here, they ride: cars, for preference. And nobody wears sarongs anymore.

Malu-O! he cries, breaking through the silence. He doesn’t have a degree in Marketing. What he has is a loud voice and a tireless back.

I put the paper down and watch him.

When my children were young, they used to cry back. Malu-maluu! they would sing, mimicking the Maluman’s cry. I have to point out that there were old malumen, there were young malumen, and it never made a difference to us: they were all the Maluman. And the wives would converge on the fellow, buying fish and more often than not, gossiping over the price while he cut, chopped and bagged the purchases right there on the street.mallu man yuda

Not now, though. Not these people. My children’s children grow up in a world where fish are born in cans at the food city. Nobody cries Malu, Malu anymore: they’re too busy with their iPods and iWhatnots in their ears. We used to play cricket in the fields. They play….whatever it is they play with their friends on Facebook. Occasionally they go out to parties, taking great care never to let the sunlight touch them – they hop from shade directly into cars and Pajero’s and come back roaring drunk after midnight. Theirs is an indoor world.

My children, too, are now rich, and therefore they must not step out to buy malu like one of the Common People. Instead they too, with great care, take the car out to a nearby Food City. Before they had the car they used to walk, and it took them only five minutes. Now it takes them two minutes and a hundred rupees of petrol.

And only I am left, sitting here in the evening sun like a drying husk, getting older by the day.

My way of life is ending.

Malu-O? cries the Maluman, a questioning note creeping into his voice.

There is no answer to his question. Go away, man: go away. They are too busy, too rich, too big for the likes of you.

 Art by Emaad Fayaz, who goes by the name of Dr Carrot on Deviantart.  Emaad is part of a graphical collective called PRUVE that specializes  in original art in the style of comic books and manga.  Story by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne.

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