The shock of Kumar’s words, the stifling atmosphere in that little room, the pounding of his heart and his dry burning vision seemed to crystallize and explode somewhere in his brain. Towards morning, from his crouching position on the floor, Senaka shut his mind to Kumar’s words…..but however much he tried, he could not take his eyes off Kumar. A short story by Vijita Fernando.
Senaka stood under the margosa tree, the soft breeze rustling its tender leaves, caressing his hair.
‘It’s called Neem,’ Kumar had told him once, ‘ not margosa, Neem.’
‘Yes, Neem, that’s what it’s called in India.’
Senaka seemed to hear Kumar’s voice, now in this instant over a distance of ten years.
And the memories washed over him, torturing him, in a seemingly endless stream ….ten years, ten long years it had been…
Afterward, his life seemed meaningless. There was a vacant spot somewhere inside him that he did not know how to fill.Sleep seemed impossible, night after night. The same old ghosts haunted him…all of this against the smooth waters of the Mahaweli.
In the deep stillness of the pre-dawn hours, half awake, he felt that he was still on the bus, shoved against the cold iron bar in the centre, trying to keep his balance and punch tickets at the same time…In his waking hours, he hated that punching machine,.A symbol of the drudgery, of his job. When he did fall asleep, it became a fearful giant….he tried to shut it away.
Sleepy and tired, in the early morning hours he felt that overpowering smell, not one, but a medley of human smells, making him want to retch, engulfing him in an overwhelming desire to lie down on some cool spot and die.
However, as dawn broke he got up, put on his khaki tunic, walked to the main bus depot, collected his gear and boarded his bus.
The drivers and the other conductors gathered there waiting, drinking plain tea and smoking the occasional cigarette, were always kind to him. Genial Wilmon, one of the senior drivers, passed him a cigarette, which he smoked self-consciously.
‘Don’t look so glum, Putha, life is not all that bad,’ he said and ruffled Senaka’s hair.
The affectionate gesture brought a pained smile to Senaka’s lips.
There were the occasional quiet days when he was even able to sit for a moment, keep that hated machine away. He stretched his cramped arms, smiled at some giggling school girls in the rear of the bus and slept better…
He lay on the grass and gazed, through a haze of cigarette smoke, at the clouds gathering over the Mahaweli. Tonight it will rain, he thought, tightening his fingers on the warm, soft hand that lay in his own. Sumudu’s eyes were half closed, their lashes curled on her cheeks and there was a half smile over her lips.
‘ I love you,’ he whispered, more to himself, wondering if she had heard…
He was sure of his love for her. And she, playful, fun loving and intelligent, loved his company.
The sporadic buildings of the campus lay sprawled around them, in every direction. The river lazed its way through the verdant green, the bougainvillea spilled over the secluded pathways and the jacaranda blooms splattered the winding drive, like purple rain.
He remembered all that colour so vividly……a scene etched in his mind. Was he exaggerating all that beauty now, ten years later? Perhaps he was. Just a little? No, it had been real, as real as the sun that shone through the delicate morning mist, and set in a vibrant haze of colour every evening, as real as the love that he shared with Sumudu, even as real as that other love he had savoured for a while with such disastrous results….
That was a sunny morning in December with a cold wind, he remembered, as he walked to the campus library for some real cramming for the first exam in April. As he walked he dreamed a little…maybe he would do well enough to be selected for a special degree course?
A hand fell on his shoulder, as he was building these near impossible castles in the air. He looked up to see a handsome face, a pair of keen appraising eyes.
Kumar was not the typical ’rebel’ well known at the campus. He had no beard untidily covering half his face and chin. He was not dressed in those long of white khaddar tunics – which often looked unwashed – and shabby rubber slippers. He wore a neatly pressed shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and grey pants.
Later, waiting for him a thousand times, his heart would miss a beat when he spotted those grey pants, a little scruffy at the cuffs, in the distance. It did not take Senaka long to respond to Kumar’s invitations. Nor did it take long for him to start visiting Kumar at his rooms in Kandy town. What about my exam looming ahead….he occasionally wondered. But resisting Kumar’s invitations soon broke down. He felt so strange, sitting on that bare floor in Kumar’s room, talking, mostly listening… He felt puzzled at the way Kumar remained aloof despite his initial advances. Yet going to him became almost compulsory after a while, drinking tea in a haze of smoke,… and not much later, sharing the same cup, the same bed.
These were days of fierce uncertainty for Senaka, battling with unidentified feelings of envy at the thoughts Kumar kept away from him. How could he be so aloof in spite of their physical closeness…..in his turmoil at times he felt like a little child, stamping his feet and crying for something he could not have.
And then later, eons later it seemed, Kumar spoke. Sitting on the bare floor of his room in a haze of cigarette smoke and sweat, Kumar talked. Senaka listened, numb with shock at what he was hearing. The shock of Kumar’s words, the stifling atmosphere in that little room, the pounding of his heart and his dry burning vision seemed to crystallize and explode somewhere in his brain. Towards morning, from his crouching position on the floor, Senaka shut his mind to Kumar’s words…..but however much he tried, he could not take his eyes off Kumar. Seated on the floor in the pre-dawn half-light, he stared at the outline of every curve and line of Kumar’s body till suddenly he could see the lines and contours form into a familiar profile. It was one that he knew, sometime in his life, or was it a face he had seen through a millennium of years, in some past existence..a hauntingly familiar face……
A serene, gentle face, eyes lowered. Was it the face of Christ? Or the face of the Buddha who looked down benignly with lowered eyes from the niche in the village temple?
Everything confused him.
Sumudu’s eyes were hard and vicious as words tumbled from those sweet lips as he listened, sad and guilty.
Angry tears trembled on her dark lashes.
‘You are a fool, Sena. A fool !’ She almost spat the words at him.
‘If you really believe in what that fellow and his cronies are planning, it would have been different. If you want to be a part of this terrible thing, this mission or whatever noble words he spouts, I would have warned you. But I would not have called you a fool. You are his pawn, that is what you are. And that is what I can’t understand, how you could have let that fraud make a pawn of you!’
The tears spilled down her cheeks; bitter tears.
‘He will make use of you, and use you, and then he will drop you like a.. like a…’ she choked on her words.
His sadness at her anger was mixed with several emotions. He knew that he will never be able to make this lovely, innocent girl understand what it was that he was destined to do, like so many of his colleagues.
To her, life in campus was just a carefree stroll on those beautiful grounds after some cramming, a few lectures, a bit of hand holding, a stolen kiss under the jacaranda trees. He couldn’t even begin to tell her of the mission Kumar and his friends had – in which he now wholeheartedly believed – their will to achieve something.
‘…all right, with guns and bombs, if necessary,’ Kumar had said.
‘The time for words is past, long gone,’ Kumar had said that night.
‘For decades young men, like us in this country had the same vision as we do and they have fought ideological wars…things are different now. Now we have to fight with weapons…ideologies are fine, but not anymore…’
Could he ever make this lovely creature understand, or make her comprehend the haste, the desperate haste of the moment? Even at this very moment plans were being drawn, and a network of manoeuvres was spreading across the country.
April exams were almost here, but all thoughts of exams and his dreams and plans for the future had vanished from Senaka’s mind.
As he watched Sumudu go away, her head held high, her shoulders straight and the glitter in her eyes harder than before, a nameless longing stirred somewhere within him. …
He could harden his heart against her when he thought of the urgency of the mission of which he was now an integral part. It could be even tonight when the signal would come..or tomorrow. He was ready, ready for whatever the day would bring…his faith in the movement, in Kumar and his mission, was total…he waited, eager and expectant, as April 5 dawned.
Now, ten years later he knew that once again he was living through the mayhem of that day in April. How could he forget the blood, the screaming, the terrible fear and, more than all that, the heartbreaking disappointment, all packed into that one day, into a terrible twenty-four hours…..
Tonight it is going to be another sleepless night, he told himself. When his thoughts went back to those dreadful events of ten years ago, the ache in his shoulders caused by the ticket punching machine got unbearable. His eyes burned more and a hard little knot tightened in his chest. His thoughts lurched back to the days after the April mayhem when he had gone looking for Kumar.Was he among those shot on the banks of the Mahaweli and dumped into that flowing waters of that beautiful river?
When he heard that Kumar had escaped during that dreadful night when the Army forced its way into the University halls, he had gone looking for him. He remembered Kumar’s village in the South, near Elpitiya.
His face burned with the embarrassed when he had got off that bus and was startled to by the sight of an armed sentry he had immediately turned back, but there was no cause for fear. The sentry looked old and weary and Senaka started walking down the road to Kumar’s house.
‘There is no one there, son,’ the sentry said, wearily shifting his gun from one hand to the other.
‘There is…. a friend of mine lives here…’.
‘Not anymore…not what happened after Apri. Those army fellows came and bundled them all into a van and took them away…must have killed the whole lot…the wretches.’
‘The road is closed now.’
Tonight he felt it would be better if he didn’t sleep. He didn’t want to be in that fearful dream world where Sumudu’s eyes taunted him and the gentle godlike eyes of Kumar beckoned him over a mass of dead bodies floating down the gentle waters of the river on the banks of which he had known peace and beauty.
And love too, so many different kinds of love.
He felt safer in the bus. The punching machine was a load he could cheerfully bear. The passengers did not taunt him with their eyes, nor beckon him with inexorable love. No closed roads and sentries barred his way here. He balanced himself on one foot and swayed to the rhythm of the bus, smelt so many human smells and punched a hundred tickets.
The road ahead of him was free and open.
His dreams never leave him. The voice from the past haunts as he stands under the spreading margosa tree, of a windy morning.
‘It’s called Neem in India…not Margosa. The Indian name is Neem…’ Kumar’s voice whispers in his ear.
[Vijita Fernando is a Sri Lankan journalist, translator and fiction writer. She was a winner of the Gratiaen Prize and the recipient of six State Literary Awards, and the prestigious ‘Sahitya Ratna’ (Gem of Literature) annually awarded for proficiency and advancement of both Sinhala and English creative writing.]
Artwork: Shamya Dasgupta