When scorpions, snakes and other venomous
creatures are said to run amok
My heart began to beat very fast. I felt as if it had been clawed and blood was just beginning to well in the long furrows, prior to exploding in a gush that would bring my death. Every hair on my body stood up as if a steel gauntlet had been drawn across a blackboard, creating a most unbearable screech. The mob was sprawled out across the road and the river side of the temple. There was no way I could drive through that, not even if I rammed them at high speed.
It had been one of those days when an ugly knot formed in your stomach simply by opening your front door in the morning and looking out. It would be deathly still, the way it was before a violent storm. The air hot and heavy, hard to breathe.
You couldn’t hear the drone and rattle of the buses on the highway. And there wouldn’t be any trains. The JVP had served notice again – “if you drive passengers today, we’ll come to your house in the night, drag you out while your wife and children watch, and burn you alive.” Sometimes the government would force bus owners and employees of the national bus service to drive. A commando would ride next to the conductor on the foot board, with the safety off on his automatic rifle. A look at his face would tell you that he couldn’t be much more than eighteen.
But today, not even that.
Under normal conditions I wouldn’t have ventured out even at gun point. But Kamala had screamed at me to go. The little one was sick. He had a fever of a hundred and four. We had the prescription – the doctor had told us to be extremely careful with the child. But how could you buy the drugs? Shops had been closed for four days now. Shop owners had gone away, otherwise the army would come and force them to open up.
And if I had gone out, taking the van would be the last thing I would have done. But what could I do? There was no public transport. And I couldn’t walk, even though it was only four miles to Kandy. The army would have picked me up.
When I got into Kandy I got the most awful feeling. There wasn’t a single person on the streets. No vehicles either. Below the clock tower, the bus halt looked huge, like a tarred field, with no buses in it. And the market building was empty – no multitude of fruit vendors, or labourers carrying blocks of sawdust covered ice on their backs. There wasn’t even the pathetic frame of a stray dog picking at the ripe heaps of refuse piled up in corners, overflowing the cement trash dump. I had never seen Kandy like this before. I felt like the last survivor of some unimaginable holocaust. And it made me feel so vulnerable. I expected gunfire at any moment from some doorway.
I drove around the streets, looking for a single open shop, or even a moving figure. Pharmacies provided essential services. If I was lucky, the army would have one of them open. After driving around for fifteen minutes, in which time I covered the whole town, I gave up.
Then the police stopped me. They drove up in a jeep, out of nowhere.
“Ado! What are you doing here?”
“Get out of the van!”
Humbly I got out, snatching my driver’s license and national ID. A man could be shot dead for not having a national ID.
“Don’t you know that the JVP is out? Why did you come?”
“Sir my child is sick. I came to get medicine.”
The Sergeant grunted roughly. “What medicine? Can’t you see the shops are closed?!” A rifle barrel jabbed me. I cringed.
“Sir he’s very sick sir. I had to come sir.”
They looked at me suspiciously.
“Take out your ID and license.” I handed them over. My hands were shaking.
They looked at them, turning them this way and that to see if they were forgeries.
“No, no. You’re coming with us.” The two constables grabbed me.
My knees gave way and I fell to the ground, the constables still supporting me under my armpits. Random memories flashed through my head. My wife, my sick child. The little shop I had in Rajawatte.
“Aney sir, the little one will die,” I wailed. “I don’t have anything to do with the JVP sir.” Tears were spilling out of my eyes. I was saying anything that was coming to my mouth. I knew they were going to take me somewhere and shoot me. “Also I gave my van to the army sir. They took it to Elephant Pass sir. I’m not lying. See the bullet holes sir–”
That stopped them.
The Sergeant looked at one of his men.
“Ratnayake, that’s right,” said one of the men reading my ID card again. “Yes, yes.”
They let me go.
“Get out of here,” the Sergeant said brusquely. “There’s no medicine here. You should know better than to come out on days like this.”
They drove off, leaving me shuddering on the ground.
The army had taken my van twice. They took off the number plates and handed them to me before they took it. It was the way government people drove these days. So that vehicles couldn’t be traced by the JVP. I never found out where they took it. People rumoured that it had been used in a raid as far north as Elephant Pass. The mileage certainly backed up that claim. Each time it came back looking a little sorrier, a little more battered. It wasn’t as if it was a brand new van when they took it – a 1983 Toyota Hiace. But it still pulled at my heart to see it.
I was not compensated for the damages. Not even for the diesel. But I wasn’t the one to complain. You don’t argue with the army. I just thanked them for bringing it back in one piece – the second time, there’d been a diagonal line of bullet holes running up the side.
I remembered that Siri lived in Lewalla. He had a small pharmacy in King’s Street. Lewalla was on the other side of Kandy. I drove past the still Kandy lake, and the Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth Relic. I put my hands together and uttered a fervent prayer to it. The way down to Lewalla was steep and winding. There were a couple of people here; a woman at one of the roadside taps, washing hurriedly, furtively and a bare-chested man in a dirty sarong rolled up over his knees. One of the JVP?
When I got to Siri’s house, nobody would answer the door. I had to walk around to the back, past the broken hedge and the pile of sand, that had been brought months ago, to make repairs on the house. His wife was in the kitchen – a small room with a wire mesh window, the walls blackened with smoke, a cement hearth with the bricks showing, a pile of firewood for cooking, black pots.
“Siri is not here.”
“I haven’t come to take him away.” Even now I was afraid to say I wasn’t from the JVP. It was like a forbidden word. People would move away from you in a bus or a crowd, simply for mentioning the word “JVP.”
“No, no,” she said backing away.
“Please. I’m Ratnayake. I have a little shop in Rajawatte.” She wasn’t convinced. “I gave him the van to bring sand and cement to this house,” I said desperately. I could tell from her face that I wasn’t getting anywhere. In JVP times old favours didn’t count.
“Please, my child is sick. I have come to get medicine.” I showed her my prescription. “He has a hundred and four fever... He’s only four years old.” I was appealing to her mother’s heart. After a moment she relented.
She led me down a flight of uneven concrete steps that led to the house below on the steep hillside. Past a clump of wild banana trees. Somebody had ravaged even them for their unripe, meager fruit. It was his cousin’s house. Siri was hiding there. At first he, too, was reluctant.
“Please,” I said again. “You don’t have to open the shop. We’ll go in the back. Please. The JVP will understand. It’s for my child. Here. Take this. It’s all the money I’ve got.”
I folded the small wad into his hands. There was a little more than eight hundred rupees there. The prescription was for seventy.
In the gloom of the shop, with the glass cabinets on either side, I got on my knees and took his hands. I cried into them. I could see he was moved. He gripped my shoulder and helped me to my feet. When I got into the van he gave my money back. All of it.
In these times, dignity was the last thing people owned, or wanted to.
The Kandy–Colombo highway bisected the Gatembe temple grounds. On one side was the Stupa, Budu ge, bo tree and bo maluwa; the traditional elements of the Buddhist temple. The bo maluwa was bordered by a waist high cement railing that overlooked the forty foot drop to the Mahaweli river.
It was known as Mahaweli – Great Sands – because of its muddy beige colour. It was the longest river in the country and originated from Samanala Kanda – the sacred mountain. It was a sacred river, selected for such rituals as the water cutting ceremony of the Kandy Perahera, our royal pageant of elephants and light. Of late the blackened lumps of several ‘headless fish’ had been spotted floating down the Mahaweli, as it flowed serene and powerful under the Peradeniya bridge.
On the other side of the road were the monks’ quarters, meditation hall and buildings of the Sunday school. Gatembe was a tremendously popular place for offering Panduru, the good luck offerings, and no passenger bus or vehicle embarking on a long journey would pass without doing so. I too, followed this custom with fervour.
The Gatembe head monk had risen due to the favour of the UNP government. People said that a sack full of money was removed from the Panduru box every day and that the monk was going to layer the maluwa in marble tiles. I didn’t know about that. I could remember when I was a boy, the head monk himself had climbed onto the roof of the sole building of the temple and placed the roof tiles on the rafters. He had built this temple with his bare hands.
Usually this place was a bottleneck for traffic – the Sarasavi Uyana school on one side, the idling buses lining the sides of the road while conductors offered Panduru, and the actual bus halt on the other side. Today it was a bottleneck for different reasons. The entire road was packed with the dark figures of the JVP. Some of them no more than bony youth of fourteen. There were also several university students I recognised. Some of them had guns, taken from their rounds of the houses. Others had swords – old ceremonial wedding swords – now sharpened for use. Others just had hate.
My fingers fumbling, I reached into the back. The white napkins from the catering job I had done for professor Wickramadasa were still there. Hurriedly I turned down my shutter and tied one to my radio aerial. It was a sign of allegiance and sympathy towards the insurgents.
In the crowd I could see a knot of concentration. A man was struggling frantically. They held his arms away from his body. His legs kicked, leaving the ground, his whole body twitching like a fish on a line. His head was twisted back by a handful of hair. Then somebody drew a sword, catching the sunlight, and the head was neatly severed, blood spurting. The body was allowed to drop, still wriggling with the last of life. The head was flung to a side like an empty king coconut after the sweet juice has been drunk.
Scarlet streaks ran down the road under their feet.
I glimpsed a ripple of saffron. One of the junior monks was standing behind the crowd. He was shouting to them. In the commotion I could not make out his words. But a syllable or two would come to me in a sudden dip in the noise. He was being by no means gentle in demanding that the mob stop its proceedings. I caught something about being damned for generations to come.
Even in my terror I couldn’t help wondering at the monk’s courage. There was nothing to stop the crowd from turning on him. It was as if he had nothing to lose and they knew it. Some last vestige of cultural and religious fear kept them from touching him.
The road was slightly inclined here, and usually when I got stuck in traffic I would balance the clutch and accelerator so the van wouldn’t slip into the vehicle behind. Today I had to use the hand break – there was an uncontrollable spasm in my leg.
Several vehicles in front and behind stopped me from backing out. The car in front revved with a squeal of tires. Between the seats I saw the dark shapes of a man and woman in front. The woman was covering her face with her hands. The car backed sideways in a rush, the engine humming earnestly. He missed my front buffer by inches. Then the man twisting the wheel in panic, the car jolted forwards. He was now sideways across the road.
There was an indignant roar from the crowd. They ran down to the car like a pack of hyenas. The man opened his door and tried to get out. They kicked the door shut on his hand. I heard his grunt as his fingers caught. The woman screamed.
The crowd was dragging the car off the road and pouring petrol onto the couple. They smashed the windscreen, the wooden batons going chuck chuck against the fiberglass that refused to shatter. The glass webbed and collapsed into the couple. Somebody struck a match and flipped it in. There was a bark, like a sheet snapping with wind, as the petrol spontaneously ignited.
The woman fell out of the car, her hair on fire and rolled down the embankment. I caught a glimpse of breasts as her blouse came away. The man was screaming and trying to release his hand from the door. It was jammed and I watched with a sick feeling as he jerked and twitched. His mouth was a round ‘o’, the flames straining around him as if they were trying to break free of their roots.
The vehicles had cleared out in front. The mob came to my window. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the charred form of a child in the back of the car, lying unresistingly like a doll.
“Brother, what brings you out on this fine day?” one asked.
“Malli, little brother, I’m running a little errand for Jinadasa of Rajawatte.” I prayed it would work. Jinadasa was one of the JVP leaders of the area. If he was here I was finished.
Their faces cleared.
“Let him through. He’s one of ours.” My van stalled twice before I could control my legs enough to get away from there. I passed the police station. There was nobody there. In the distance I heard the petrol tank of the burning car give with a flat whump, and a fireball climbed through the foliage of the roadside trees.
By the time I got home Kamala was frantic with tears. Janaki from next door had come. That was all. The others had not dared.
- Copyright © Sandaruwan Madduma Bandara
from the collection, "just another bomb blast", (1999)
~~~~~~~~~~Author’s note: 60,000 people ‘disappeared’ in this conflict. To this day they remain missing. The government murdered the rebels just as brutally as the rebels murdered civil servants and military personnel. Any youth walking on the street was suspect. Out of every three people the government killed, probably only one was guilty. The tragedy lies in the fact that perhaps there was no other solution. It was the price we paid to say ‘no’ to communism.