The year is 1989,
A young man squats by the Mahaveli River.
Memories playing on loop;
Lifting his three year old son to the sky,
Running around the yard chasing chickens with his daughter,
Enjoying the shade of the Bodhi tree with his young wife,
Riding his Lumala bicycle through the tea fields.
The orange billed babbler shrieks in the distance
He hears rustles in the dense undergrowth behind him.
His time is up.
He knows it.
Down-turned bodies float in the distance
Like rafts drifting on a sanguineous river.
Tackled from behind.
He will remain hand-cuffed for the next two years,
Withering away in prison.
Each day, not knowing whether he would live or die,
Becoming a face amongst many,
a mere number.
With his faith in God,
And his longing to see his children and wife again,
keeping him alive.
Fast forward to 2017
The same man,
Bumbles up the driveway with his signature green hat.
His brown skin, leathered by the years of working in the fields,
His hands roughened from decades of hard labour,
Yet,still striding with a slight spring to his step.
‘Morning Durai’ as he flashes a wide grin revealing his two remaining yellowed teeth.
‘Vimalasena Kohmade’ (Sinhala: Vimalasena how are you?)
‘Sohuma irrikirain durai’ (Tamil: I am well, boss)
This is Vimalasena
My right hand man
The best way to describe our relationship is:
Alfred Pennyworth and Bruce Wayne
Loyal and tireless caretaker, aide-de-camp, lingual tutor, surrogate local paternal figure and above all friend.
I point to his hat embossed with a 5-pointed star and ask him why he wears it:
He responds swelling with passion,
‘This is Che Guevera’s hat’,
His heart opening up.
‘I’ve read everything from Che Guevara, Lenin, Trotsky and Karl Marx
These men were all good men.’
He then recites his favourite quote from an old Sri Lankan communist rebel from a by-gone era.
‘Everyone is the same
If you cut me and I cut you
Our blood is both red, is it not?
We both have two eyes, two hands and two feet
There is no difference between us,
Everyone is the same.’
He rolls some tobacco and areca nut into a betel leaf,
I ask him if I could try some.
His eyes instantaneously light up
He gets excited and he quickly twirls one up,
Giving me no time to change my mind.
I take my first chew,
And the world suddenly feels increasingly dizzy.
I get a bit nauseous,
I hold onto the table.
He looks over at me,
Watching me intently,
A big smirk developing under his thick moustache,
‘Is your head spinning?’
I nod my head slightly,
Afraid that anymore movement would exacerbate the nausea.
He laughs ,
This is the good stuff,
This is Sri Lanka’s best.
What happened in 1989? I ask him after recovering from my vertiginous episode.
‘This country only knows bloodshed,
But we had to fight for our country and our people.
We had to stand up for what we believed in.
The rich get richer in this country,
And exploit the common man.
We took up arms against the government and the bourgeoisie
To give power back to the people.
To make sure our children would not get exploited like us.
But the harder we fought,
the more our soil became bloody,
even our rivers turned red.’
We take a trip to Gelioya markets,
Crossing the foot-bridge of the Mahaveli Ganga,
An ancient river coursing and bisecting the town of Kandy.
He points to a prominontry jutting out to the left,
‘That’s where they killed my little brother and thirty-seven other youth from our village’
He casually remarks as he looks over to the right and sees the encroaching heavy clouds
‘Peradeniya malai’ (Tamil: Looks likes its raining in Peradeniya).
I remember the first time I met him.
I walked through the front door of my house for the first time.
He started speaking in Sinhala (his native language)
I looked at him blankly and responded ‘Sinhala, no’
After a day of exasperated ad hoc sign language,
He looked at me in desperation,
And started to speak Tamil.
A language at the time I could understand but could not speak.
I was forced to speak my broken Tamil with him to communicate,
And through his tutoring over the next few weeks we were conversing in my long lost mother tongue.
And then after teaching me conversational Tamil he started teaching me his language, Sinhala.
I recently met the local chicken farmer,
Thygaraj who on occasion makes a mean moonshine.
Coming from the estate Tamil population,
He is only one of a few Tamil families left in the village.
He had nothing but high words for Vimalasena.
He told me, ‘We call him Mama (uncle)’
He sees no difference between race, religion, wealth or status.
He then told me a dark story of the horrors inflicted on his family in this quiet village.
The year was 1983
Race tensions had reached its zenith in the month of July.
A race riot ensued and over ran the country.
A group of men had come to Thygaraj’s family house and set it on fire.
The assailants then placed a rubber tyre around his father and doused him in petrol,
The mob were about to set him alight,
When Vimalasena and his younger brother came running,
armed with a pistol,
threatening to kill anyone who attempted to cause further damage and harm the Tamil families in the area.
The aggressors backed off.
He never told me that story.
Behind those charcoal eyes,
there are events that he witnessed,
that we cannot even begin to imagine.
Yet, if you were driving through this sleepy village,
find him squatting on the side of the road,
a cigarette in his left hand,
wearing his ‘Che Guevera’ hat;
you would not think twice,
as you pass by unassumingly.
As I see him play affectionately with his grandchildren,
Share a betel nut cigarette with his friend Jayasena,
Get excited when he tells me what he wants to cook for dinner tonight,
Bilingual joking with the shopkeepers in Gelioya,
Laugh about fattening me up and making me more attractive so I can be set up with the village girls.
I see a contentedness,
that I cannot describe,
Nor can understand.
This is not just a story about a man that I owe so much to,
But this is also about a man,
Whose values and beliefs,
Against all odds,
Has survived the onslaught of time.
Vimalasena ‘Why should I ever wear a trouser, only sarongs for me.’
*Cover photo courtesy of Reddy