By: Lindsay Boyd
“What did you come here for?”
The edge in Amisha’s delivery when she recognised my voice at the end of the line and posed her baffling question was a new note when directed at me, but not by any means completely novel. She had sounded angry and frustrated much of the time that we spent together the year before. Later, when she opened up about herself, it dawned on me that she had justification for her spleen.
Now, nearly a year on, I held the phone in a tight grip, unsure how to respond, biting back on my anger.
I noticed a slight change in her physical appearance when I returned to Colombo the week before and took an expensive prepaid taxi direct from the airport to Wellawatta. She had let her hair grow, if not to the length that she wore it when younger. But deep down she seemed much the same. Worn out after the long flight from Australia, I put the feet up and relaxed. Amisha attended to some business matters after apologising for neglecting me.
“Don’t worry, Morrie. We’ll find you somewhere to stay.”
“You’ve nowhere in mind?”
Her phone rang before she could answer. She conducted the conversation with the caller in the privacy of her bedroom and didn’t reappear for ten minutes. Meanwhile, I shut my eyes and dozed. Her two little girls ran amok around the room as I did so, confounding their sitter, a young dark-skinned woman.
This Amisha, so beat, tense and run off her feet … How could I not have seen in her the woman of ten months before? Back then she had been so insistent on my returning and working with her that I believed every word when she assured me the logistics – accommodation, salary, visa, everything – would be easy to arrange.
I rued not having come back sooner, when her enthusiasm remained high. I should have returned shortly after she uttered those three magic words, a month after the end of my trip of the previous year. Once more I was at my old digs in West Rosebud. Home again but already dreaming of leaving.
I placed a call to Amisha to assure her she wasn’t forgotten. She gasped with surprise – pleasant surprise. I’ll come, I said, in response to her question. I promised to give her a precise date once my arrangements were made. I was fed up with the part-time job I had held for twenty years – I drove for a community care facility in Sorrento – and unhappy with the direction my country was taking.
Be that as it may, I held on through the summer, handing in my notice in the autumn. I nominated an arrival date in June for Amisha. I read nothing into the fact that the voluble person I’d chatted with on the phone had changed. She now responded to my written contact with one-line or one-word replies, if she acknowledged them at all.
Remembering her I love you of weeks before, I gave her the benefit of the doubt. I put down the phone after hearing her declaration, walked out the door of my flat and crossed the road to the beach. I stopped near where the waves broke on the chill, breezy August morn and said her name out loud. Over the following weeks I told her, multiple times, that I too loved her.
Around eight o’clock on the evening of my return, Amisha strode up to me at the conclusion of another call. She had hardly been off the phone since the taxi dropped me at her place. I had lost count of the number of times she had wandered back and forth between her bedroom and the dining room table, which doubled as her work space.
“I called my grandmother.”
“What did she say?”
“That you’d be welcome. But she’s afraid her place would be too hot.”
Staying at Amisha’s condominium was out of the question. She rented out a second bedroom and a French couple presently occupied the third. With nowhere else to lay his head, a young Englishman was bedding down in the evenings on the floor in her room.
“Okay. Can you recommend a guest house?”
Amisha consulted with her sitter, turning to face me again at the close of their conversation “Her brother knows of places in Bambalapitiya. He’ll find you one when he comes for her.” She took a breath. “I’m so tired, Morrie. But I have to go out. Please come. It’s better than your just sitting here.”
Galle Road northbound was chockablock with exhaust fume spewing early evening traffic. We squeezed together into the back of a tuk tuk. I sat with my long legs partly tucked under out seat, a knee splayed against Amisha.
“Why can’t people carry out a simple instruction?” she asked rhetorically at the close of a call. I made no comment when she apparently forgot the one who had let her down and dropped the matter.
“So, do you have a girlfriend?”
The question brought to mind our discussions of matters of the heart the year before. It also caught me off guard, coming less than forty hours since I had bid farewell to Phung in Bangkok. The memory of the kisses and caresses we shared were vivid.
“Sort of?” said Amisha, proposing an answer for me.
“Sort of. On my way over I met a Thai friend. Not that we’ve known each other long. We began corresponding in April.”
Amisha considered this while I stared at the gridlock to the front and sides, a facet of local colour remembered from my first visit.
“Did you have sex with her?”
She was looking elsewhere when she asked me this. But the clinical, direct inquiry begged for an equally forthright answer.
“Yeah,” I responded. “Yeah, we made love.”
She began fiddling with her phone again and asked no more about Phung. After an hour, we reached the Colombo Hilton in the Fort district. At the broad reception desk Amisha finalised the bills of some clients. I hovered in the background, admiring the efficient way she dealt with the young man on duty.
A second task at the Hilton took more time. A honeymooning couple from the United Arab Emirates had left that morning after a three-night stay and taken the train to Kandy. When they returned to the capital, they aimed to reside at a historic hotel in Pettah. The transferral of two large, heavy suitcases they had left behind was Amisha’s responsibility.
Through trial and error we managed to fit them in the tuk tuk. At the Pettah end Amisha was again at her astute, thorough best. She demanded to see the upstairs room booked for the newlyweds and would not leave until their cases were securely locked away.
“I’d be liable were anything stolen,” she explained to me at the foot of the staircase.
Deepal, the babysitter’s brother, had arrived at Amisha’s when we returned. His personality was one that obviously clicked with hers.
“I’m pleased you can still see the funny side of things,” I told her, hearing her laugh at yet another of his witticisms.
“He’s crazy!” she said.
He assured us he knew of several accommodation options in Bambalapitiya. I prepared to go on my way with him and his sister.
“Leave your big bag,” said Amisha. “I’ll sort out a place for you tomorrow.”
I seized the handle nonetheless. “I’ll take it. I’ve some things in there I need.”
How different the reality to everything I had hoped and dreamt, I thought, as we flew along Station Road. There were several guest houses on the east flank of the coast road. Opposite was the railway line that continued south to Galle. The waves of the Indian Ocean crashed hard on the breakwater below the track.
Though my return to the country had deviated from the script, I believed it would veer back on course. She wasn’t at all as I had conceived – I had seen that the year before too – but she was not to blame for that. Deepal’s sister, seated quietly beside me, her long, plaited hair untouched by the wind, was much more like her …
When was it? We were young. Ashoka and Chandra, our parents, too. Sri Lanka still went by the name Ceylon. Mum and Dad were thrilled when the eldest of his sisters in the old country informed him that a young acquaintance of hers was bound for Melbourne, one of a small group making a study related visit.
She accompanied us to mass in Beaumaris on a stifling summer Sunday. Dad took the wheel, as usual. Mum manoeuvered her way into the rear with me and my brother and sister, leaving room for our guest up front. The moment she climbed into the front passenger seat, Ashoka introduced her to us. She turned her head and bestowed a becoming, warm smile. Never had I seen a woman so refined and graceful. She exuded the faintest aroma of patchouli and wore an outfit called a sari.
“What a beautiful sari!” Mum gushed when the young woman settled.
I watched Chandra lean forward and run a hand over the silk. I didn’t know then that she wore something similar in her ‘old life’, in a land far from where her three children were born and raised.
The garment was not so much a dress as a long, broad drape our visitor had wrapped around her waist, leaving one end over her shoulder and her midriff bare. Mum would explain that the sari was usually worn over a petticoat – she called it a pavadai – together with a fitted upper garment, a blouse or ravika. The young woman’s was short-sleeved and cropped at the midriff.
No other remembrance of her survived but that singular groove. Six years later we were introduced to Dante in our literature class and I rediscovered her. She was the one in his sonnet ‘graciously clothed with humility’, the ‘creature who has come from heaven to earth to show forth a miracle.’ She became the yardstick against which I measured all others.
My country is Australia. But the blood running in my veins is Sri Lankan. We needed time to become accustomed to the different name, in effect the correct name, when it was foist on the country and the world, seemingly overnight, in 1972. Was it the same place, we wondered in the late seventies and eighties, when we began hearing the horrifying reports? Yes, it was.
When Ashoka and Chandra stepped on board a plane in Colombo in 1968 she was seven months pregnant with me. If life begins at the moment of conception, mine began on a distorted pear-shaped mass many hours flying time from the vast territory where I grew up.
The mirror in the bathroom at our Beaumaris home beat me over the head with the fact every day: I was different. Dad bore a similar dark complexion but he was an adult, a talented, confident one at that. I, on the other hand, was alone with the disparity, the joker in a deck where most everyone else was white or olive-skinned.
One day at primary school I was told my presence at a particular gathering would spoil it for everyone else simply because I was black. I wanted to hide, shut myself away, for days afterwards. In grade five or six, a mean-spirited girl made cruel spins on my surname, to the unconcealed glee of many. The bungled attempts at the triple syllables of our family name, Rathnayake, rang in my ears well into adulthood.
“Why do we have such a stupid name?” I wailed at my father once.
“You’re to wear your name with pride, son,” he said, removing his reading glasses and looking up from the newspaper cradled in his lap. “A child who doesn’t should be ashamed.”
He was a proud man, as vainglorious as any Jaffna Tamil from the Vellala caste of landlords. He lived and worked in the northern city until the age of twenty-two. Soon after he shifted to Colombo, he met and fell in love with Chandra, originally from Kandy.
He turned ten in 1948, the year his beloved nation of rainforest, rubber and tea plantations gained independence. That same year the United National Party deprived the Plantation Tamils, whom Ashoka referred to derisively as low castes, of citizenship. But worse followed when the Sri Lankan Freedom Party rose to power. One of their less fortunate moves in the cause of Sinhalese nationalism was the passing of a ‘Sinhala only’ language law.
Three years later there came a glimmer of hope. Prime Minister Bandaranaike entered into negotiations with Tamil leaders. He and his supporters dreamt of creating a federation. But a Buddhist monk turned assassin ended his life, ushering in the opposite of the envisaged golden age. What began in its stead was a period of further disenfranchisement for the country’s Hindu and Muslim Tamil speakers.
Eventful years for one who grew from the age of ten to twenty-one in the equivalent period.
The selfsame years of my life were as consequential as Ashoka’s, if in a different way. The outlandish pronunciations of my name continued at secondary school in Mentone. The only two teachers I counted on to get it right were Mr Pieris and Mr Browne. Like my parents, both had left Ceylon for the mixed blessing of life in Australia.
I studied under neither but saw Fred Pieris daily in my penultimate year. He was the form master of 5A, the subgroup of which I was a member. We gathered daily for morning assembly in our designated meeting room, the little man with brylcreem hair seated or standing up front as we listened to the day’s announcements over a speaker affixed to the wall above the blackboard.
The olive-skinned Mr Browne taught in the middle school, as forms three and four were known. But my first meaningful encounter with him occurred when I was in second form. I was minding my business in the quadrangle one late morning or early afternoon when I sighted him yards away.
I had never known fellow feeling with a teacher or, for that matter, any elder. In those first couple of years at the private college by the bay, I eschewed my classmates too, preferring to wander the grounds alone. My awareness of ‘something’ now cut against the grain. Mr Browne and I empathised with each other across the short distance until he casually made his way over.
“Which part of Sri Lanka are your mum and dad from?”
I told him. “And you, sir?”
“Me? The northeast.”
He was a Tamil then, like Ashoka. Up close, he looked darker skinned than I’d believed.
“You like cricket?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Do you play?”
“Not much. Sometimes with my brother and sister.”
A bell sounded, signalling the end of the break.
“You ought to give it a try. If you’re any good, you might represent the school.”
As to why he sometimes seemed lonely and off in the clouds, I put two and two together on learning more about the recent history of my ‘other homeland’. Chandra one day drew my attention to the upgraded national flag. This was around the time Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka. I studied the picture hard and listened to her explanation of the diverse elements.
“The lion represents the Sinhalese. The gold refers to Buddhism,” she said. “See the green and orange stripes? The green signifies Muslims, the orange Hindus.” She then brought a forefinger to each of the four bo leaves. “Metta. Karuna. Upekkha. Muditha.”
“Metta. Karuna. Upekkha. Muditha,” I parroted when she asked me to repeat the words after her.
She would be appalled years later when I yelled that I failed to see anything in the way of loving kindness, compassion, equanimity or happiness in the treatment meted out to the Tamil people since the declaration of independence. The continued precedence given to Buddhism and the Sinhalese language, the states of emergencies and unrest (Black July was the nadir) in the Tamil-majority regions, the unwillingness to grant even limited Tamil autonomy, the Tamil diaspora, and the failure of the Indian peacekeeping force contributed to an appreciable worsening of their plight.
The racial slurs at college lessened over time or bothered me less. I could do nothing about the colour of my skin. I would’ve preferred to inherit Chandra’s lighter colour tone, as my younger siblings had done. But fate decreed otherwise. My best comeback when vilified was scholastic and sporting prowess.
I gained good grades across the board and often silenced those who called me names simply by pointing to my marks. Nearly all the offenders were laggards who struggled for success. If they tasted it in a subject, they rarely gained higher than low-level passes.
What stuck in their throats more was the fact that I grew to excel as a cricketer, an opening bat no less. I had taken to heart the suggestion Browney put to me in the quadrangle. The sweetest sound of my youth became that of willow clubbing ball in a perfectly timed stroke.
The one who disdained me the most was Riccardo, ironically enough a first-generation Australian of Italian descent. These things have a way of spreading like a bug on the air and sure enough his clique, or group of mates, shared it. He was the nominal leader of that pack, the one who did the thinking. Whatever he said or felt, in matters large and small, went.
Riccardo played cricket too. But unlike me he never represented the school’s first eleven. Whenever we faced off at home against a rival college, we drew a large crowd of spectators, students and teachers, from the other forms. They would bow out of their regular sports to come and watch us compete.
The day I hit an unprecedented purple patch the front oval looked a picture beneath the warm late February sun, the grass iridescent green. Most of those spectating were clustered on the slopes lining the eastern side of the field. Shane, the other opening bat, and I began well. We didn’t score a run off every ball our opponents bowled, but our timing was on the mark.
On strike at the eastern end, I received a short pitched delivery, the kind begging to be dispatched, and cracked it through mid-on. The sound it made was wicked. I’m not sure what the bowler had in mind, but his next four deliveries pounded the pitch at more or less the same spot. I dealt with them in similar fashion to the first, belting two through the covers and two more over the head of the fieldsman at mid-on.
I raced from thirty to fifty in the space of five deliveries. Because my back was turned, I couldn’t see the crowd on the slopes. But I could hear everyone going nuts, yelling out my name. Browney said afterwards that it had to be as fast a half-century scored by a batsman at the college.
I was finally dismissed in the eighties. Rapturous applause sounded as I left the field. Acknowledging it with a raised bat, I lifted my head and locked eyes with Riccardo. He was the only one in the crowd not contributing to the plaudits. Some of his mates had pulled rank and were giving me an ovation. But not him. He radiated pure scorn.
By the time I commenced university in 1986 Australia had opened its doors to new waves of immigrants. The majority were refugees from Asian conflict zones, including Sri Lanka. I absorbed my father’s reactions to the news bulletins. Events such as the burning of the Jaffna library, the massacres, the kidnappings, the assaults and the butchery of Black July disturbed him, but he put it behind when the broadcasts ended.
We were out of it. We’d moved to ‘quiet, peaceful’ Australia. Quiet and peaceful? I might have begged to differ, but I held my tongue until the day President Premadaia was assassinated in 1993. While not the first political figure to have been cut down over there, his murder sent shock waves and set back the elusive cause of peace.
“Look at the fools killing each other!” said Ashoka in disgust one evening, looking at televised scenes of the resultant skirmishes and scuffles.
“You don’t care if they do?”
“The sooner they kill each other off the better! Sri Lanka will be the better for it!”
After making these assertions, he turned his head and gazed at me wide-eyed. The thought of how I, his eldest son, would react to such disgraceful sentiments held him in momentary terror.
“As long as your precious Jaffna Tamils are spared, right?” I said. Before he could open his mouth, I left the room. I now viewed his repeated attempts to pour cold water – he would ask ‘why would he want to go there?’ – on Chandra’s notion that I one day travel ‘home’ for what they were: lukewarm, edited versions of the opinions expressed that night.
The evening marked a watershed in our relationship. Ashoka never made a secret of the pride he felt at my achievements. Happy to carry out my first-born duty, I lapped it up. I had to do well for his sake. For Chandra’s too, though for her this was never an imperative.
I functioned with the same mindset at university, where I studied marketing and business. But that was where it ended. If Ashoka believed I would then use my qualification to go into gainful employ, he was mistaken. I kept the head above water with consultancy work but gave it up to travel in Europe, the Americas and Asia for two years. I avoided Sri Lanka on account of the war.
“You’re wasting your life.”
Odd and upsetting to hear your father say such a thing when you’re fresh off the plane after a long time away and have prayed diligently for his reconciliation to the idea that you intend to do something different. Odder still that he believes he can talk to you high-handedly when you’re an adult; my thirtieth birthday was months off. Wobbling his head from side to side for emphasis, those four words were the most significant ones he uttered on my return to the family bosom.
I didn’t deign to respond. Chandra, for her part, kissed and clung to me avidly.
She was not in any sense encroaching on another’s territory. There was no ‘significant other’ in my life. The mitigating factor of the colour of my skin had forever gotten in the way. White could, and freely did, mix with brown or olive-skinned. But between white and black there was a divide. Yet what was taboo at home raised less eyebrows abroad. On my journeys I began thinking of Australia as a place half-ripe and struggling to grow.
In our family the nation of my forebears again took centre stage. The war raged on but I balanced the news of death and destruction with forays into Sri Lanka’s culture and pre-independence history. Unfathomable news rudely interrupted my studies one afternoon in 1998. I was not long back from overseas, staying at my parents’ home in Sandringham until I finalised a flat rental.
I overheard the voice of Dr K, a longtime family friend. “They’ve bombed the temple in Kandy,” he told my father.
“Are you serious?”
“I’m afraid so.”
By they he meant the Tamil Tigers. He could only have meant the Tigers, the main separatist group, an entity Ashoka despised. I found them in the front hallway, peering at each other in disbelief.
“If anything will get the government off their backsides it’ll be that,” opined my father, thinking aloud.
His vision about reprisals and a bloody wiping out of the rebels to end the war was spot-on, but he was sadly off the mark thinking it would occur sooner rather than later. The war would continue another eleven years.
Dr K, a Kandy native and naturalised citizen of Australia, was our conduit. The most momentous events of the conflict came to our attention in the first instance courtesy him rather than Australian newscasts or newspapers. He had friends in high places across the seas, people not averse to telephoning him with the latest.
From the doctor we learnt about the Norwegian peace efforts early in the new century and their ultimate failure, the split in the ranks of the Tamil Tigers and the December 26, 2004 tsunami, which drove a greater wedge into an already bitterly divided nation.
One of the books I pored over referred to a southern Ceylonese fire dance reputed to illustrate the power of spells, or charms, over fire and twenty-seven devils capable of troubling mankind. Their absolute faith shields the fire dancers from the flames. Clearly, the charms had lost their efficacy, faith no longer existed and twenty-seven times twenty-seven would’ve been a more realistic estimate of the number of devils on the rampage in my other island.
Dr K’s spirit, notwithstanding the devastating effect on him of the bombing of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, and his chatter about the hill country abetted Chandra’s efforts to rouse my interest. If pressed, she would have admitted to an ulterior motive. She wanted to see her three children married and she wanted to become a grandmother.
“That’s not the same,” she responded, when I pointed out that my sister had married and borne two children. “I want you to marry and have my grandchild. Then I can go to my grave happy.”
She read my unstated wish perfectly. “Perhaps I”ll meet the woman of my dreams when I go.”
She beamed effusively when she heard me say that. But I wasn’t being facetious. I hadn’t relinquished my dream. Far from it. But more years of atrocities on all sides, ceasefire agreements and renegements, intervened. The end, when it came at Mullaitivu, was swift, emphatic and ugly.
Can one pine for a woman never met? I most certainly did. But in a sense I had met her years before, on that blindingly sunny Sunday. She lost focus for a while but reappeared sharply defined in the lines of a Dante poem. Journeying to her homeland how could I fail to meet the likes of her again?
I touched down at Bandaranaike Airport in the first week of August 2011, the prodigal home after forty-three years. I saw myself in the faces that looked back. Some engaged me in English. Others, operating on an incorrect assumption, addressed me in a tongue I had no understanding of.
The world had yet to awaken at 4.30 am in the morning as my prepaid taxi sped between Katunayake and Wellawatta. I absorbed what I could of my country from the front passenger seat. Beneath the street lighting I made out an enormous billboard featuring a dhoti-clad figure, a smiling, moustachioed, stout man.
“The president,” said the driver, aware of my interest.
“Very. It’s largely thanks to him the war ended.” He turned to me with a smile. “And that people such as yourself can visit. But you’re from here, no?”
I put him in the picture while thinking of other world leaders, past and present, whose popularity derived in large part from their facility in wiping out resistance. Approaching Wellawatta I gave the driver Amisha’s number. She took a long time to answer but with her help we pinned down her exact location.
We had come into contact quite by chance two months previously, through an organisation that enabled travellers to connect with locals in countries far and wide. Her listing offered scant information about herself but she quickly responded to my request.
I preferred this method of orientation to the more obvious one Chandra suggested: that I go without delay to Kandy and there meet her family. A family who would tie the cotton thread of protection, the raksha bandhana, around my left wrist as soon as we laid eyes on each other and fete me with typical food and drink. I decided that fanfare could wait.
Her black hair all fiery points and wiping sleep from her eyes, Amisha appeared before me. Following her inside, I saw two little girls asleep on a large mattress on the floor. “You’re a mum?”
She nodded. I deposited my things in a corner and joined her in the kitchen.
“How does it feel to be home?” she asked, handing me a glass of water.
I smiled. “Eerie.”
“You were born in Australia? Not here?”
“Yes. But there was always something missing. I suppose it was this place.”
“Are you Tamil?”
“On my father’s side.”
She prepared me something to eat and I told her what I knew about Ashoka’s and Chandra’s lives and upbringings in this part of the world. After a while I couldn’t suppress a yawn.
“You must be exhausted,” Amisha said. “Sleep as long as you like.”
“Do you have a busy day coming up?”
“It’s never-ending with the girls and clients.”
“Do you have help?”
I met the young man later that morning, following a nap. He was both a carer to the twin girls and also helped with Amisha’s home-based business. She rented office space in Colombo 10 but it was currently closed, in need of refurbishment. Ajith looked capable enough in his dual role but, to her annoyance, his mind would wander from the task at hand. I witnessed this for myself that afternoon and evening when I accompanied them on business errands.
That evening, a last-minute concern necessitated a drive north to a beachside resort near Negombo. We rode in an air-conditioned vehicle registered in the company’s name that Amisha used when it was more convenient than a tuk tuk. Ajith tended to the drowsy girls up front. Amisha and I occupied the back. A short distance beyond the Fort district, she dropped off to sleep. I extended my left hand and placed it on her right hand as she dozed. There it remained until she stirred and leaned forward to worry a mosquito bite.
My heart went out to her further the next day when she confided her tale of love gone off the rails. The acrimonious split with her European business partner / lover came three months after the birth of the twins.
“Why did you break up? Couldn’t he face fatherhood?”
“He said that but I never believed he meant it. I watched him with the girls when he didn’t know I was paying attention. I saw his love for them.”
We were seated at her ostensible work space, littered with computers, letters, files and cell phones. “Do you think he’ll return?”
“I think so.” I admired her faith though I feared it might be misplaced. “We fought at the end. Physically, I mean, besides the screaming and shouting. I was worse than him. I don’t recognise you, Amisha. Those were his last words he spoke to me.”
Before I set off for Unawatuna the following afternoon, she proposed that I come and work for her sometime soon. I had let her know of my interest in living in my rightful homeland. I pondered the idea, which sorely tempted, at length during the week I was away in Unawatuna and Ella.
Now and again I thought of myself as just another foreign tourist, in spite of the evidence of my colour. Other times, such as the day I rode a packed bus from Galle to Unawatuna following a two-hour visit to the old Dutch fort, I wasn’t so sure. The school girls who squeezed on board were attired in white, their long black hair double-braided. The accentuated whites of their eyes reminded me of my own.
Approaching my stop I sidled up the aisle and stared blankly in response to the words the bus driver addressed to me, in a language that would never be mine. Others, for instance most of the kids who approached me soliciting pens or sweets, intuited that I was a fraud without needing linguistic verification.
This is my country, I thought, taking in the panorama of tea plantations on the hike to Little Adam’s Peak in Ella. But regardless of how many times I affirmed the fact that morning and again in the afternoon traipsing along the single-line railway leading north to the Nine Arches Bridge, I couldn’t mouth the words with conviction. I gave up pretending.
But for parental whim I could have been one of the boys I saw walking around in all white or in white tops and blue shorts, school essentials crammed into the small bags riding on their backs. The greatest letdown was my failure to sight her anywhere among the plethora of women. Had I dreamt her all those Sundays ago?
I stayed with Amisha one more night on my return to Colombo. I waxed lyrical about Galle’s fort, Unawatuna’s beaches and Ella’s green slopes, but kept the lid on the misgivings the week highlighted. We had kept in touch through texts and calls. Amisha had expressed concern about the health of one of her girls, increasing my concern for her in her unenviable role as a single parent.
“I’d like to come and work with you,” I said in goodbye, not wishing to dash her hopes.
“You know very well why I came here. I came here to work with you.”
I had called and text her numerous times since Deepal dropped me at the Bambalapitiya guest house the week before. She assured me everything would fall into place the next day … or the next day … Now I was sick of hearing it.
“I’ll have it arranged by the middle of next week – “
“Amisha, stop! I don’t believe you. You would’ve taken care of it by now if you were serious. Let’s forget the whole idea.”
I didn’t need to see her face to sense the demoralising effect of my harangue. She was silent at her end. Deafening by comparison were the noises besieging my room at the Hotel Sea Breezes: relentless traffic on the coast road and the ocean waves crashing on the boulders beneath the railway line.
Within minutes of ringing off, I was deeming my action harsh. Perhaps she’d done her best but not been able to bring it off. And after the events of the recent past, she did not need another man summarily walking out on her. But I was too stubborn to back down. I was also in no mood to do so, having heard from Phung two days before. She had written to say she’d found a man more suited to her than me. I set up my departure.
What had I returned to Sri Lanka for? There was more to it than the answer I gave Amisha. I believe she knew that as well as I. The taxi-driver who drove me to the airport barged in on my train of thought. He had heard, he said, that the Australian government were turning back refugees attempting to arrive in the country by boat, including Tamils. Was it true?
“Yes,” I answered.
“Good? I don’t think it’s good. I think it’s shameful.”
“Excuse me. But you’re an Australian and you don’t know the situation. How would you know it? Those terrorists almost destroyed this country.”
“Who’s talking about terrorists?” I yelled. “Most of the people on the boats probably wouldn’t know what a firearm looked like.”
He shook his head but refrained from further comment. Not a word more passed between us over the last twenty-five kilometres of the ride.