Listen to author Mark Fabiano read this story
"Hallo, my chum!” I say to Mr. Richard as he comes down from the first-class carriage of the noon train from Colombo to Matara. But I think maybe he is not remembering to me, or even his promise to help my son go to American university, until he says, “You’re Ranil?” Americans. Always forgetting and always rushing somewhere. Afraid that the demons may inhabit them if they stay so still for a moment. They rush to the nice beaches we have here in Sri Lanka. But then they just lie there in hot sun, sometimes not even taking a sea bath. As a schoolboy, to them I used to sell King coconuts from my father’s garden, or, sometimes, ropes the old ladies twined together in the shade of the jackfruit and palm trees. But Mr. Richard is good. He gave help to a village boy last year for the company scholarship to go study engineering in America.
“Yes,” I say to Mr. Richard. “I am to take you to the Bank of Ceylon and then the fort.” But the bank clarks will be having afternoon tea, I think. What to do? Still, he is rushing, so I must keep up. “They will bring bags to your room, no problem.”
The Galle-Matara road is busy, and the dust sticks and burns to my eyes. Mr. Richard doesn’t seem to be bothered. I am glad for this job with Koopman Bouwer. It is a big project to build a university. Even though they are Dutch company, I was picked since my English is better than other touts. And also, I don’t tout for the evil things like that jackal Weiretunge does. Even if a foreigner wants no drugs, or prostitutes, like that, he is still trying to match them.
Mr. Richard and I go along the road, passing the shops and little hotels, where, in the cool shade, a wind of spicy rice and curry comes. Then I see my friend Sunil, standing outside his Hotel Impala, next to the roti man. My stomach burns for lunch, but I think Mr. Richard is in too much hurry.
“Ah, you’ve got your job now, eh, Ranil?” my friend says, and I nod, looking at the egg rotis. Then Mr. Richard stops and decides to eat. My friend says, “Why not take lunch? Come! Bring your friend in.”
“Yes, Mr. Richard. Here they make very good curry—the best in all Matara.” We sit just inside the entrance. It is a small hotel, maybe only six tables. And it is always full, because Sunil is running a good business. “You like roti? And we can have some tea.”
Mr. Richard interrupts me. “I’ll take a beer.”
“Ehsure.” I don’t like to take any alcohol, so I say, “Sunil, beer for Mr. Richard, and I shall take tea.”
Mr. Richard takes off his hat and wipes his brow with his handkerchief. We dip our fingers in the water bowls. We drink, and then he leans back and shakes his head. He tells me, “Damn, that was a long, stuffy ride. Four fucking hours.”
I wonder if he remembers our talk of last month, when we talked about the engineer scholarship they give to one local boy every year. I told him how it is impossible without money, without knowing a UNP minister, for a village boy to go to university. Our country is always poor. And corrupt. “You remember,” I begin to say, but the food arrives and he stuffs a few fingers full of rice and curry into his mouth. Then he takes a long drink from his Lion Lager. Do they have pol sambol? he asks me to ask them. He likes to take chilies.
“Sunil, chilies having? Please bring.” Sunil brings a plate of red chili peppers and onions. I nod to Mr. Richard and he smiles. Then I say, “You remember we talked once about how your company may take students?”
Mr. Richard spoons much pol sambol on his rice and curry, mixes it in, and devours many bites. He nods his head.
I continue, “My son, Arjuna, is good student in maths. Of course, like me, he is learning English better than the others. He plays football—you say ‘soccer’—for his school, Rahula. You can still help to him?”
Mr. Richard holds up a hand as he drinks the rest of his beer, as if to ask me to wait. “I’ll see what I can do, but …” His voice rises in the way that I sound when I am teasing my son or my wife, Vimala. He places his bottle on the table. He looks around, then back at me. “Several others have applied.”
I am feeling a hardness grow inside my belly. It is good that he is saying this to me. If he didn’t, then perhaps it would mean he wouldn’t care. But still I wonder what I must do. Mr. Richard finishes eating, then tells me about his trip to Thailand, and a smile comes to his face. I think he is remembering some girl. I nod, but do not listen. I am thinking about how I promised Arjuna to get this chance. He is excited for it. But Vimala wants only for him to stay here with a traditional life. She does not like for me to promise him if I can’t be sure. Mr. Richard says the project is behind, and then he looks at me as if remembering something, but he asks me only if his boss, Mr. Squire, has come back from London. I tell him yes and then ask, “Do you have family?”
“She’s 15 next month.”
I want to ask about his wife, but with Americans, who knows. We like to ask many questions about family, wife, children … like that. But it can bother Westerners, so I ask no more.
We finish eating and I tell Sunil I will make him a good price for batik from my brother’s shop, Village Batik, if he gives lunch for free. Mr. Richard puts his wallet back into his trouser pocket. “Thanks, Ranil,” he says.
We go out into a sun that hurts like the flames Jayawardena, the devil dancer, breathes out in one of his midnight village exorcisms. Then we make it over to the bank. It is closed still, and Mr. Richard swears. He says some bad things about the bank and my country: “Damned Lankans. Only good for fucking coconuts and bananas.”
But what about our tea? I think. Our beaches? Our mountains? The gems? But I know it is the anger. He is from Christian and doesn’t know about the Buddha and how to calm himself. When my boy has gone and become a rich engineer, and then sends for his parents, I will say, “What was listening to a few bad words then, for my son is now an important man?” “Yes, Mr. Richard, we can come back after we go to the fort,” I answer to him. I quickly call over a trishaw; its motor sounds like it has mongoose and cobra fighting inside its green hood. Then we go.
The Matara Fort is not as big as the Galle Fort or Colombo Fort, but it is from the days of the Dutch. I am not as proud as that about the fort, but he likes it, so I tell him about the history. The teak trees, so old and tall. They break up the sun. We drive under their protection. We pass the Matara Rest House, built by the British. Then there is the bakery, and then the temple. I get out first when we come to the front of the fort office, to pay the driver. Him, I don’t recognize. Maybe he comes from Colombo or the hill country. His accent is poor, anyway. Mr. Richard walks through the old door and I follow. De Silva, the guard, salutes him but makes an angry face to me. Mr. Richard tells to him that it’s OK, I am with him. I don’t smile back, though. We Sinhalese should not treat each other as if we hate one another. But there is jealousy. Ignorance. It is bad enough to be fighting with these Tamils in the north, isn’t it?
In the commandant’s office, I am asked to wait in the hall. Mr. Richard goes in and he does not sit down. I can see his silhouette through the smoky glass. He is waving his arms and swearing. The commandant is puffing his bidi. I don’t know why a man of such power and wealth would insist on still smoking local tobacco. He could get American cigarettes. That is our commandant. He must be driving Mr. Richard mad. Then silence.
The commandant speaks, and he tells to him something almost in a whisper.
I wish I could hear.
Mr. Richard says loudly, “Deniyaya?”
I wonder what business they have in the tea estates. Our project is down here. Perhaps they will build something there also.
There is laughter, so at least I’m happy about that. I don’t like the shouting. If the commandant shouts, it is not good for anyone in Matara. He can be like a bully to break up some businesses if he is not happy. Not when he’s drunk, though. Then he is happy. I am thinking, Maybe I should ask Uncle to prepare another bottle of toddy, so I can bring next time.
The door opens and Mr. Richard says “So long” to the commandant. I peer in and say my respects.
“And how is business, Ranil?” he asks me, and shuffles some folders on his desk.
“We are doing fine, sir. Is there anything that I can do for you?”
He looks at me as if trying to remember something he wanted to ask. “How’s your son … What’s his name?”
I look at Mr. Richard, then back at the commandant. “Arjuna, sir. Yes, he is fine. Very bright. He plays football and—”
The commandant doesn’t seem interested but raises a hand and says, “Will he join? He might even get a commission if his grades are high.”
I look at Mr. Richard and he turns for the door. I look back at the commandant. “I think he may go to university, sir.”
The commandant grunts, and then waves me off. I follow Mr. Richard, who comes to one of the lavatories and goes in. I wait in the hall. Americans use a lot of paper and I try to imagine Mr. Richard using a water bowl instead, but I laugh. We return to the entrance and the guard is talking with another so we don’t make any talk with him, but leave. I’m thinking maybe two bottles of toddy; one for the commandant, one for this guard, since it is better always to be on the good side of everyone.