This story is dedicated to those of our generation who could not reconcile themselves with life.
Rows of rivets, struck home a century ago and grimy with a hundred years of soot, stood out like ebony blisters on the gigantic iron spars that criss crossed my plane of vision. The moon swam beneath the dark flowing ripples far below, perceptible between the oil blackened sleepers of the railway bridge. Dark green shadows shifted on either looming bank as the wind washed through bamboos trailing skeletal fingers in the water. A bat flapped overhead. A solitary clanking in the distant darkness carried clearly through the rarefied night air.
The world was at peace with itself.
My thoughts, like twisted snakes, thresh in my skull, succeeding only in entangling themselves further, finding no release from their ossified prison. My eyes function like a pair of camera shutters, sometimes seeing and sometimes not, although I never close them. My mind returns again and again to hopeless memories, like a sated predator returning to worry at a rotting carcass.
I’ve had these thoughts before. Many times. And when they recur, each time they feel more familiar... more justified. It makes me want to accept the undeniable fact. And it scares me. Yet there is a nasty satisfaction in it. Knowing that I am in the grip of doom.
I rattled my head in frustration as an amalgamation of small tragedies attacked me. I wanted to grip my head and scream across the metallic air. I did not. I would not. Perhaps that was part of the problem. There was no release for the tensions within me. Or I would not release them - in the conviction that I could ‘take it’. Take anything life could throw at me.
The seminar. What a disaster that had been. After I had spent four nights with no sleep and two days without a proper meal in preparing for it. So much effort, and there had been pride in knowing I could summon that much strength when I wanted to. To do so much, to put everything I had into it, to be one with what I was doing... to come to a stage where there is nothing else, but the objective and then to fail so dismally. Not just fail, but to leave things in total shambles - reputations, inter-relations, all gone.
There had been times when my instincts had screamed at me to walk away. I had threatened people that I would, if things were not done my way. And things had not been done my way, but I had stayed on. There had been so many opportunities in which I could have averted the disaster. Always I had hesitated, made the wrong move. Somewhere along the line, ultimately, the blame lay with me. I know.
They had not liked me from the start. I was the outsider, and it didn’t make things better when the outsider is appointed to lead. They had conspired to steal close to twenty thousand rupees. And they’d planned the humiliating incident at the seminar. They hadn’t cared what would happen to the reputation of the institution, so long as I was degraded before all those people. People who had respected me once.
And then finally when I had reported the incident, and made my recommendations, no action had been taken. The one person technically with more authority than me had not the courage to back me up. I had threatened to resign and still nothing had been done. And I had discovered that I could not resign.
But the problem had not started there. Perhaps it had existed for months, or years like some cancer discovered only now because it was turning malignant.
The exam hung on the not too distant horizon like some eternal curse. Endless private tuition classes. No heavenly moment of leisure, no respite. Students didn’t live any more. They existed. They went to school. They came home and went to tuition classes. Then they went home and studied. That was their life for all of five years. They had no childhood, no teen years. There was no pleasure in anything any more. I had done nothing productive in the past seven months. I could not. Nothing was going right, everything I touched fell to pieces.
To what end all this struggle? Where do you go from here? There was nothing to look forward to in University, but a decade of pointless conflict. The damned students always caused some disturbance or other. Campus was closed most of the time. And when one closed, they all closed. It took eight years to complete a four year bachelor’s degree in this damned country. The best part of life. Doomed either way.
No, no, dammit! None of these things matter. There was no reason. Cancer does not need a reason. It was no use. There was no future, no point in going on.
I was almost shivering with energy. I gripped the metal in claws of desperation and stared down into the silent river. The sight made my heart contract and my eyes glazed as a wave of dizziness passed over me. I gritted my teeth and stared almost with a physical effort, daring the river to beat me. There was a grim fascination in watching the moving water, and the endlessly changing patterns half perceived on the surface... The skin was stretched taut over the tendons in my neck and feet, and arms. I was a creature frozen before the vision of death. I only had to let go. That was all.
Instinct and reason strained against each other like deadlocked combatants. For untold moments my life hung from the bare filament that divided the two.
“Life is not something you can give away. It is something for which you must fight, every inch of the way.” The fateful words of the great man, Lalith Athulathmudali, when he’d had half of him blown away in the bombing of the parliament. It was what he had believed in, it was what he had done. What a man he had been. There had been nothing he could not do, or had not done. His curriculum vitae read from championship to championship; track, field, debating. He had done it all, and excelled. The man had a degree from the University of Oxford. How many people had known that? What kind of tragedies must he have survived to achieve what he had, what kind of frustrations. To have to face the insults of every dog on the street and bear it with fortitude.
So what the hell was wrong with me? What had I achieved? What was my problem? Nothing. That was my problem - the lack of problems. There was no overwhelming tragedy that I could blame. Yet the despair was very real. There was no denying the depression, no coming out of it.
There were things I was good at. I could be useful. I could make something of my life. When you put me next to my peers, I was ahead of most of them. I had no economic problems, I had no girl problems. My parents were as liberal as you get them. For god’s sake, I’d walked up to my father and asked for 11,000 rupees (we had needed the money suddenly in organising the seminar). He’d just said, “Let me get my cheque book.” He hadn’t even blinked. And it wasn’t as if he could afford to give that kind of money away like that.
I could talk to them. I always discussed my problems with them. The ideas that hid in me like hunted creatures in a dank cave, and which I could only tell them. About sex and racism and caste conflicts. Even when I was going to do something dangerous, which they would not approve, I told them. But not this time-
And the thought chilled me.
I thought of Isuru. It had been so sudden. And it had made people wonder why he did it. At 24 what possible reason had he got for doing it? They could not understand it.
It’s no great mystery to me. I know the reasons. I know the feeling. It can be so easy. Not only to do it but for the wrong reasons - and when you really don’t want to. One moment of madness is all it takes.
Angeli had related the fateful story. “He tried to talk to me. But I wouldn’t listen. I had other things to discuss. About the future, other people’s future’s - things they were looking forward to... And what did he have to look forward to? Damn!
“And you know what he said to me just before he left? He said, ‘There were a lot of things I wanted to talk to you about, but somehow it doesn’t seem important. As if they shouldn’t be said anymore.’” Then she had broken down and cried... again.
He made a lot of phone calls that day... to all his friends. Promised to visit them in a couple of days. He was in the middle of a phone call - just put down the phone and drank it. His mother heard the chair falling. His eyes had come out and his veins had burst. Still, they kept him alive for over fifteen minutes - with half a glass of cyanide in him.
What a fragile thing life is.
There had been dignity about what he had done. I could remember the procession of cars as we followed the hearse to the cemetery in Mahayawa. It stretched all the way from the intersection at the Gannoruwa bridge to Kandy. Four kilometers. And all along the way, people just came out of their houses, or stopped what they were doing and watched. Just watched... in amazement. All those brand new 64–dash cars. A tribute paid more to the father than to the son. Nevertheless, one moment of glory. It took courage to do what he had done. How many people would see it that way?
Yet he was gone now. From the hearts of people, and soon he would hold only a small impersonal slot in their memories.
What was it my father had said about those people in Polonnaruwa? “They do it for the most trivial reasons. These children are not steady any more. The slightest thing is enough to tip the balance. This sudden wave is merely a creation of the newspapers. The problem was always there. These farmers, they keep all the poisons in their homes. I blame the government more than any other agent, for keeping the rice prices down. The cost of production is higher than the price. These youth are under tremendous pressures. It’s no wonder they join the JVP.”
Somewhere in the distance a rumble started and faintly registered upon my subconscious.
A lot of people don’t perceive many of the problems they themselves face. Unaware, apathetic. Maybe it was the more sensitive who fall prey to the subtle tensions we are subject to every day. At least the Catholics have confession to keep them alive. The Buddhists have no such release from sin. No mediation between the sinner and God... no God. I guess some of us are too human to survive in this world: the best of us.
The rumbling grew in volume, gaining character. It was joined by an echoing whooshing like the sound in a wind tunnel. Like a jet aircraft. Then came the unmistakable rhythmic rattle and jolting of metal.
The track began to vibrate.
My senses came alive, alert to every nuance of the atmosphere about me. I could taste and smell the very essence of the air. My heart began to fling itself against my ribcage, a trapped little creature, each beat transmitting like a hammer blow to my head.
Black trees snapped into focus and rotated insanely as a beam of light pointed through them to the stars. It grew, swung around a final curve in the track a couple of hundred yards away and came into sight. It was like watching a massive bullet coming straight for me in slow motion. Like an athlete on the final stretch. The engine kept coming, adjusting slightly this way and that to the minute deviations in the track.
The light grew larger and larger until it flared across my entire periphery of vision and filled my head. The metal screeching went on and on and on, interspersed with the sharp clangs and jolts as if it were the very sound of my mind going stark raving mad.
My whole clinging being was quivering, the wind freezing the sweat on my face. It was almost unreal as the behemoth rushed up and then past in a deafening drone, my teeth vibrating with the bridge. It was only inches from my unflinching eyes. Any chance projection from the side of the train would have decapitated me and spread a streak of red along the metal as my living corpse flipped over the side.
I strained this way and that. Either direction would do. Events, images, raw emotion were ravaging me. It was now or never. Some part of me was screaming “Coward!” at me for not doing it. There was no future, no past - no reconciliation. Only this moment and the objective. The metal tonnage rocketing past me was merely more excuse. It would be so easy to convince myself that I had lost my balance because of it, in the few seconds I would have - to regret.
An image of my own funeral flashed before my eyes. Everything and everybody in white, my frail lifeless body lying in the white frills of the open casket. The tears on the faces of my mother and sister. The line of friends, disbelieving, their faces reflecting the loss of something irrevocable. Eternal guilt, of having failed to keep one of their own alive.
I leaped forward.
But what if nobody cared–
The end of the last carriage whipped past. A gasp of agony burst from my lungs as my chest smashed into a solid slab of wood... a sleeper. I lay there dragging in my breath, eyes squeezed shut to counter the pain spreading through me.
The train receded into the distance, gone as suddenly as it had come.
As my numbed body began to slip between two sleepers, instinctively I clutched them and stopped myself from falling.
Then I stopped short. Something had changed. The river was turning grey and opaque.
On the horizon, first light was touching the sky, a pale stain.
I turned away and crawled carefully to solid ground. I would be home and in bed before my parents woke up.
Somehow the time for that was past.
Until next time...
The major cause of death for persons between the ages of 14 and 29 in Sri Lanka is suicide.
The 3rd highest suicide rates worldwide are in Sri Lanka
- Copyright © Sandaruwan Madduma Bandara
from the collection, "just another bomb blast" (1999)
 Mr. Athulathmudali (former Minister of Defense) survived a first attempt on his life when the Parliament was bombed in 1987. A second attempt, believed to be by different perpetrators, was successful soon after he broke away from the government party (UNP) in 1993.
 JVP - Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front). A Maoist terrorist movement that swept the island in a civil uprising that left the country in total chaos and bloodshed.