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.
Mahela looked out of the dust encrusted window. The bus journey, even for Sri Lanka, seemed to be tortuously slow, the bus limping like an injured animal from one stop to the next. Young boys ran along the side of the road, shouting as the bus passed. Fruit and drink vendors looked hopefully towards the windows, while others sitting on the kerbside smoked beedis, the lines on their faces tracing a lifetime of stories. Amongst the faces of the men and boys he also saw those of travellers; foreigners carelessly laughing and waving their guidebooks around, exchanging tales of their hairiest moments alongside tips for the best places to stay.
Foreigners; the word jarred in his mind because he too felt like a foreigner. The scenes unfolding before him as the bus made its slow journey south were all too familiar. They didn’t hold for him the charm of the casual visitor or the novelty of the new. Yet nor did they invoke the warmth of habit and memory. It had been many years since he had taken this route. Even then he had not felt a sense of belonging to the country that had given him life. It wasn’t an apathy born out of distance or disinterest but a dislocation from his homeland, as painful as if it were a rift within his own family. And because of that chasm, this trip just as the last six years earlier, was not one he had chosen to make.
As the bus slowly edged towards Colombo, Mahela felt the veil of the suffocating heat; its oppressive fingers making him yearn for the fresher air of the North. Yet even as he registered it he dismissed the thought; that air though cool, was unclean, contaminated by all that it had witnessed.
Six years ago, this journey had been almost impossible. Restrictions imposed by Government forces and the LTTE meant that the route from the South to the North consisted to all intents and purposes of dead roads, navigable with only the greatest difficulty. Most people, unless they were forced to, stopped moving about the country at all as a consequence of the checks carried out by both sides. The road to the East alone, contained army fortifications, roadblocks and lookout towers every 500 metres. Identity documents, a tangible sign of, if not control then the desire for control, were issued by both the Government and the LTTE and for those who did not have the necessary documents, life became intolerable. Many were prevented from passing through the checkpoints; others who did were subjected to harassment and bullying. Those travelling by car or bus had not only to submit to identity checks but also to body and baggage searches. He and Jeevitha, the Tamil student who had accompanied him on his last trip, had been separated during such a search; the men forced into one queue and the women into another on the pretext of allowing them the dignity of being searched by female officers. But despite that apparent nod to decency, there was nothing private or discreet about the frisking he and Jeevitha had been subjected to. Physically pulled from the bus into the middle of the road, they stood in their segregated lines before being ordered to the front and searched in full view of not only the other passengers but of all those who passed by.
It hadn’t occurred to him then but remembering the indignity of it now, he found himself thinking of an obituary he had read about a hard line, white, American judge who was so moved by watching the segregation of blind, black students that he changed his right wing views to become one of the most liberal judges of all time. It wasn’t anything as simple as the fact of their colour or the unfairness of what he was watching that had wrought about the change but their blindness; they were unable to see the colour of their own skin and so were unable to segregate themselves.
Mahela looked mechanically from the grime on the window to the haunted landscape beyond; the ground still clearly bearing the scars from years of burning scrubland and trees. In their futile attempt to prevent nature from providing hiding places for those hell bent on causing death and destruction, the authorities had succeeded only in killing the very soul of the land. And even though new growth was starting to appear, it would take many, many years to disguise the disfigurement to the land. So many times before this country of his had recovered both from the natural and unnatural disasters to which it had been subjected. Hotels would open only to close and then reopen, welcoming, perhaps over graciously, the first brave tourists to venture back in search of a Shangri-La. Shops and businesses staged lavish events in an attempt to show that they had overcome adversity and that theirs was a good and safe place to invest. Even the cricket team, once derided as no more than the equivalent of a school team, began to thrive and later, to conquer the world. But looking at the scene from his window, Mahela wondered whether that skill of reinvention was infinite or whether this time, the country itself, even more than the people who populated it, was simply too tired to go through it all again.
The bus stuttered to a halt and as it did so he became aware of every muscle in his body involuntarily tensing up; of every nerve ending becoming alive. He knew without looking up that this wasn’t an authorised stop; Negombo was still some miles away and they had only made their last stop a short time ago.
Instinctively, he looked down at the papers he was holding. He knew that he should have sent them on ahead as he had originally planned. Now his stupidity meant that it was too late to do anything with them. If he moved towards his bag he would attract attention to himself. If he dropped them to the floor, in the event of their being found, any pretence of innocuousness or unimportance would be lost.
At the front of the bus he saw two soldiers talking to the driver. He had heard from friends who remained in the country that the stops were over. On the trip north, only a few days before, he had not experienced a single one. The older soldier, the one who appeared to be in charge was laughing and joking with the driver. Perhaps they were acting alone; two soldiers out to make some money for themselves by affecting a false checkpoint. If so, he had nothing to worry about. But it wasn’t the older but the younger man Mahela knew he had to fear. And as that knowledge crystallised, he watched the young soldier making his careful way along the bus. It looked as if he was only counting the passengers but Mahela watched as he stopped at every other seat, questioning the occupant.
The young English couple Mahela had noticed earlier were now also looking up at the soldier; fear clearly etched on their faces. Ironically, of any of the passengers, though they were clearly unaware of it, they were probably the safest. A government brave enough to face out International opprobrium would nonetheless not sanction atrocities committed against tourists.
The soldier rummaged through their bags making small talk with the male. Handing them back, he turned his attention from the male, winking and smiling at his wife. What was that; the arrogance of youth or of power? When Mahela had been that age he would never have had the courage to look at a woman he didn’t know let alone to smile at her. Those journeys that marked the start of the summer, all packed together on the bus, the searing heat made bearable only by the excitement at the knowledge of their destination. School forgotten as he and the other children played on the floor of the bus, the adults drinking and singing above them; the receding rains giving them all an overwhelming sense of freedom. Sutharshini was the sister of his best friend Skanda and she and her family accompanied Mahela and his family on many of those trips. As a child, watching her play on the beach, joining her brothers as they ran to catch her before hiding from her when it was his turn, Mahela was already aware of his clumsiness around her. Perhaps because of that, the thought of her as a young girl had remained etched in his memory and he had never learnt that easy casualness around women of most of his peers.
Mahela counted; six more rows of seats before his. The soldier stopped by an old man travelling alone. The man had what appeared to be his life’s possessions scattered on the floor and the seat beside him; a luxury in itself and another symbol of the reluctance of people to return to travel by bus. The young soldier was taking great delight in exaggeratingly lifting the man’s belongings from his bags. Holding them aloft, he commented upon each before throwing it back and seizing on the next item. Now everyone had turned, watching the scene unfold before them as if in slow motion; no one wanting to be seen to be looking but at the same time unable to tear their eyes away. The soldier picked up a Durian; one of the largest Mahela had ever seen and he held the thorny husk by its tail, swinging it in the air as if he had just caught a rat. The fruit Mahela knew must have been one of the first of the season and was being taken to Colombo to be sold. If the soldier damaged it, it would be worthless and the man’s trip, which may have cost him all he had, would have been for nothing. Yet unlike the young couple before him, the old man refused to meet the eyes of his young tormentor. Instead he looked straight ahead, staring at the worn pattern on the headrest in front of him. The soldier began to taunt him, telling him that in some countries people were banned from taking the foul smelling fruit into public buildings; that the same law should be imposed in Colombo and that he should confiscate the fruit as an act of kindness. Still the old man did not move and Mahela could see that his failure to engage was causing the soldier to become angry. Power is worthless if it isn’t respected or feared but assumed, illusory power that is flouted so brazenly, holds even less currency.
The older soldier at the front of the bus must have sensed that the atmosphere aboard the bus had changed because he stopped his conversation with the driver and started to walk towards his colleague, telling him to just leave it, that it was time to go. But as he and everyone on the bus was all too well aware; retreat was the one thing the young soldier could not do.
Mahela felt the physical pressure of the papers in his hand. The papers that did not officially exist and would never exist unless he was able to get them to somewhere where they could be published; that much at least he owed to Mahinda. As a journalist Mahinda had been all too well aware of the risks involved in telling the truth. In one of their many conversations which always seemed to end in disagreement, he had told Mahela that he couldn’t deny his duty; that it was his responsibility to record what was being done in the name of their country. He had continued to write of the disillusionment of the people with a Government that acted with impunity and of a terrorist force that no longer had the mandate of its disenfranchised people. That in itself was bad enough but Mahela had gone further. He had written of the disappeared and the detained; doctors who had provided evidence of the military attacks on civilians detained until they publically recanted their accounts, human rights workers abducted and held without charge and of course, the journalists like him. Journalists had it worst of all. Truth is the enemy of war but in that war it had been the enemy of both sides. Falling foul of both the government and the LTTE, Mahinda wrote of those shot, beaten and tortured for daring to speak out about what they had seen. In doing so he knew he was at risk of being killed and that if he was no one would even investigate his death let alone be brought to justice for it. The death of a journalist was almost as much a trophy of the war as that of a soldier to the other side.
Yet knowing all of that, he had continued to write both in the Sri Lankan press and increasingly, abroad. Always the first to embrace new technology and ideas, Mahinda had started a blog long before Mahela had any idea what a blog was. But as he became aware of what his brother was doing, Mahela knew that he had signed his own death warrant. That was why he had made that trip six years ago to try and get his brother to leave. That was why he was here now, to get the evidence of how and why Mahinda had died. The world had to know what had been done in the name of democracy; that was what Mahinda had been doing and Mahela felt it was his duty to ensure, in the case of his own brother, that that was done.
But it was only now, for the first time, watching the look of defiance and dignity on the face of the old man that Mahela fully comprehended what it was that Mahinda had been trying to tell him in those circular telephone calls. Mahinda knew that he owed a duty, but that duty was to the living more than the dead. Yes the dead were without a voice and at times someone had to provide a voice for them. But he did that only in order to save the living. The dignity and majesty of life, of every life, was what Mahinda was working for and what he had always worked for. If this country was ever to mean anything that was it. And as that realisation came to him, Mahela leapt up from his seat, letting the papers fall to floor and with a cry of anger he ran towards the soldier.
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