I am a practising criminal barrister who writes. I have had one short story published in the Bristol Anthology and I continue to write short stories along side working very slowly on my first novel.
Though it was many years ago, I can still remember the day I received the postcard from Skanda. The black and white image of a grand building, the writing etched in stone proudly announcing it as The Whiteladies Picture House. And scrawled across the back was Skanda’s almost childlike writing telling me in those few words, as if in Haiku, what he had been doing. Those words, the picture on the card and the dedication underneath told me that Skanda, my best friend was in England.
But the picture house wasn’t like anything I had seen at home in Sri Lanka. Of course I had passed the movie theatre in Colombo many times. I had also listened through the floorboards, as my cousins, having returned from a trip to see the latest movie, talked about that they had seen in excited whispers. Unaware that I was above them listening intently as they squabbled over which of them would be whisked away by the leading man. Their hushed conversation was conducted in a bizarre accent, which they obviously thought was just the thing. The combination of their Tamil lilt and the American twang synonymous with the westerns that they loved only succeeded in making their attempts at seduction even more comic. As I lay above them, one ear to the floorboards, twirling the postcard between my fingers I felt certain that The Whiteladies Picture House wouldn’t show anything as vulgar as a western. For the picture house on my postcard appeared exotic, sophisticated and seductive. At the same time the black and white image with its imposing tower portrayed a sense of gravitas not often associated with the movie theatres frequented by my cousins and their friends every Friday night. And as I looked at the card I wondered what type of people would visit such a grand building and what it was that they would see.
Each time I wrote to him, I intended to ask Skanda what type of picture (even then I knew that the word movie or even film was too bland for such a grand building) was played there. But I didn’t ever get around to it. At first I simply forgot as I had so many other things to write and tell him about. And then, as time passed I thought it would seem odd to ask about a card that he had sent so many years before. A card he had probably forgotten even writing. He wrote to me every month, like clockwork telling me all about his life in England. He wrote about the rain, the football, and his work as a teacher. As the years passed he wrote too of his family. And just as I didn’t enquire of his new homeland, he in turn didn’t once ask about home. Of course, in one sense neither of us needed to for each of us provided the other with the answers to those unasked questions in our respective correspondence.
But for me it was much more than that. I didn’t know what to ask. I had never travelled outside of Sri Lanka. In fact at that time I had travelled little within my own country and had much of my homeland still yet to be seen. So, had I rationalized it, I would have said that I could be forgiven for not asking about a country that I had never been to. A country that we had ceased to be beholden to for almost a decade. A country towards which I felt no real warmth, sense of affinity or even initially curiosity. And of course I didn’t want to show my ignorance, least of all to my best friend and someone as clever as I believed him to be. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that Skanda had every reason to ask about the country that had given him birth. After a while his silence on the subject began to rankle with me and I began to consider that what I had taken to be his natural reserve was in fact something so much more.
Sri is Sinhalese for auspicious or resplendent but there was nothing of either in what was taking place as Skanda and I corresponded. Was it guilt that he had been one of the lucky ones that prevented him from asking even the most rudimentary of questions? Was he ashamed about what was being done to and later carried out in the name of his own people? Was his life in England really so far removed from his history that for him the past had ceased to exist?
It is right that the casting off of the colonial cloak allowed us to divest ourselves of more than simply a name. Cohesion and tolerance of language, religion and culture were rapidly replaced with violence, unrest and hatred of our neighbour. The imposition of Sinhalese as the national language disenfranchised us almost overnight. We went from having good jobs, jobs in government and the professions to being the cleaners on the streets. My father, a civil servant, came home from work one night just as he always had but he did not go back to work the next morning. Nor did he go back the day after that or the day after that. He never returned to the job he loved and had been so proud of. Instead he stayed in the house. Initially it was fear that kept him prisoner in his own home, the fear of what might be taking place outside of his front door. And then as the fear was replaced by resignation, despair replaced anger turning him into an old man right before my eyes. Yet even that was not enough. We were driven from Colombo like braying dogs from a corpse only stopping to meet the Sinhalese fleeing from the opposite direction. And still not one question from Skanda.
I no longer lay on the floor listening to the excited whispers of young girls below. Just as my father had aged, I too became a man almost overnight as my home was taken away and I was forced to flee to my grandfather’s home in Jaffna. as children in Colombo we had been used to chaotic bus trips to Galle and Unawatuna, the heat making the uncomfortable journey almost unbearable. Skanda and I would look from the window, shouting down at the unsuspecting street vendors who would look up in surprise just as we ducked down, collapsing into our laps, tears streaming down our filthy faces. The holidays would be spent with various aunts and uncles, his and mine, racing from our beds to catch the crabs that crawled across the kitchen floor to be put into the pot for breakfast, chasing each other over what seemed to be mile after mile of soft white sand, knocking coconuts from the trees and taunting the fishermen as they landed their daily catch. Even then, as two ill-educated, unworldly boys we couldn’t imagine anywhere so idyllic and as the days stretched before us and we lay watching the turtles we talked of how we would always live like this.
When Skanda first left I watched him board the ship with a mixture of jealously and fear. Fear for him treading into the unknown and fear for me, left alone to face the future without him. Of course I told him that I would follow in a few years and then I believed that I would. The picture he painted of his adopted country was sophisticated in ways that I could not even dream off. But as the months rolled into years, what had once been a yearning to escape became something much more akin to a need to protect the memory of all that we had shared. And as I read the news from England and I learnt of the dismantling of the vice-like grip of the unions, of the riots, which seemed to me, as unfamiliar as I was with the geography of the country, to have taken hold of the entire country and of the uprising of new money and greed. It was then that I thought that perhaps things were no different anywhere in the world.
Yet the call of the new and the desire to shake off the old meant that many more of my friends followed the path set by Skanda. Now it was no longer necessary to have a profession to be able to travel. Most left to open restaurants, tempted by the lure of the so-called free economy or perhaps, to leave behind the collapse of an old one. Names such as the Pearl of Sri Lanka, the Teardrop of India and the Serendipity, all taken from the land of their birth to enliven the high streets of their adopted home. And who could blame them? It soon became clear that Black July had been merely a foretaste of what was to come. All of the good that had been achieved in the aftermath of independence was lost in the blink of an eye. The country was no longer a teardrop but awash with blood and the cries of those who had lost loved ones as the fighting spread from the north to the east. The hundreds and thousands of tourists who had succeeded in making the economy what it was dropped to a trickle after the attack on Anuradhapura. When a centre of religious and cultural importance has no immunity from violence and violation what hope is there for the rest of us? For a people said to have come from the most unlikely of unions, that of a lion and a princess, what was happening to a country populated in the main by the most gentle, profoundly intelligent, enquiring minds could only be characterized as a fantastical nightmare.
Yet still I stayed and still Skanda refused to mention what was happening to our wonderful country. It is true that our letters became less frequent. We had our own lives. Mine as a writer at times seemed to keep me even from myself. Locked away, day after day I got caught up in the minutiae of the mundane. When I did receive a letter in those days it felt as if it had been written more from a sense of habit than necessity or any real warmth of emotion. I had become a habit and just as in the case of the most addictive of habits, it felt as if Skanda believed it to be beyond his ability to break free. I for my part felt no desire to stop the correspondence that had united us for almost half a century. As is often the way with those left behind, I was faced daily with what had once been. I was tortured by those halcyon days at the beach walking daily past the personal shrines to our youth. Along with the memories was all that I had witnessed, a change that Skanda could not even begin to imagine.
With the return of the tourists came new hotels bringing with them a fresh energy much as that we had possessed as we shouted from the windows of the bus all those years before. Great restaurants started to spring up in place of the tin-roofed eateries we were used to. Cars rather than elephants formed the traffic jam on the streets. But as quickly as it came it was taken away from us. It was then that I realised that to pass by such pain and to witness, as I had with my father so many years before, anger replaced by an acceptance born out of the futility of hope was the reason I stayed. It was as if I was watching the aftermath of a car accident, knowing that it was in bad taste but being rooted to the spot, fixated by the devastation in front of my eyes.
And then I received the call. It was Skanda’s daughter. She was as much a stranger to me as I was to her yet from the moment I heard her voice it was as if the pages from Skanda’s letters had come to live and that she and I had known each other a lifetime. She told me that Skanda had died and that she would like me to come to the funeral and to speak about the man that I had known. So, that is how I find myself here, staring up at the building that had for me been the symbol of an England I had never known.
After the funeral I went to Skanda’s home. Sitting on the bed I looked around the room that for the last few years had been his sanctuary. Like my own father he had become comfortable with his own space and shunned the lure of the new. And as I looked around the small room, my heart began to ache in a way I had never experienced before. The walls were lined with photographs, frozen images of Skanda and me as young boys, of his family and of people we both once knew. Maps of Ceylon overlapped and lay underneath the photographs. The bookshelves were crammed with books, histories of Ceylon, novels by Sri Lankan authors, including my own, together with hundreds of newspaper cuttings detailing the atrocities carried out in the name of democracy and freedom. Moving from the bed to his desk I flicked through his address book, every page was filled with the addresses of those he had left behind. The drawers of the desk were crammed to overflowing with letters sent in reply to his own, each marked in the margin with Skanda's tiny writing, as if to etch the contents indelibly into his memory.
And in that moment it was as if the years that separated us were washed away. He had no more lost his love for his country than had I. The reason he hadn’t asked about it in his letters was because his heart had been broken by what he read. Piece by piece he had become worn down, just as my father, just as those who stayed behind but his heart though broken remained true to his first love. He didn’t have to see it to know that a grave injustice had been committed.
Leaving the house I walked to the picture house and looked again at what I had initially taken to be a sad replica of what it had once been. It is true that the splendor and grandeur so shamelessly flaunted in my postcard had gone. In fact it is no longer even a picture house but just another of the many faceless bars lining the street. And for those who keep their eyes glued to the ground or even to the nose in front of their face, they would pass by and miss it altogether. For all that remains is the tower, no longer imposing but rather sad as if it too is yearning for a bygone age. Only the lettering etched in stone remains alluding to what it once had been. But just as Skanda had his memories, I still have that postcard. I know what it once was and without a second glance I turned away and hailed a taxi to the airport with a feeling, if not exactly of hope, of a certain lightness of spirit that I had not experienced since childhood.
4 comments (click to read and post)
You don't have to sign up to Koobug - you can read all of the content on the site. However, if you'd like to comment or recommend books and posts, you'll need an account.
It's completely free to use, whether you are an author or reader.
All we need from you is your email address, which we'll use to send you an access link. You can then click on the link and choose your password and profile picture.
We will not disclose your email address to anyone else, or use it to send you spam.
Enter your email address into the box, and a password if you have one. If this is your first time here, or you can't remember your password, leave the box blank; we'll email you a temporary key.