Fiction Fiction 2008

We Are All Businessmen

Ranil wanted a company scholarship for his son, and would do what he must to make the American executive feel well cared for.

We return to the bank and it is busy, but when the manager sees Mr. Richard, he walks up to greet us. He hopes Mr. Richard had a nice holiday and asks if he has already taken lunch. Perhaps some tea. He nods us up the stairs to the offices and asks me to wait outside. But Mr. Richard says no, for me to come in, and I remember it is that the manager’s English is not so good. I always received high marks in English because I had private tutor. But many of the younger ones, like this manager, are lazy. They want only to learn their mother tongues and only to get the job because of favor. He is Muslim, from Hambantota, so his Sinhalese is also not so good, and he is not any good. He always sends us to his brother’s money-lending business, if we need more help than bank will allow.

In the meeting, what I can get is that the bank has not given its share to the project and Mr. Richard is angry. So many times, the manager keeps interrupting to ask if Mr. Richard wants tea. He doesn’t. The manager has sweat on his head, and he avoids Mr. Richard’s eyes, too. “This is bad,” I say to him in Sinhalese. I tell him he should not be afraid, but to tell Mr. Richard the truth. He explains that he does not know what happened. They are checking the systems. It should have been a matter of time between transfers from one bank to another. He tells me to tell Mr. Richard he expects the money to arrive any day. Of course, he knows, even as I translate this, that telling any Westerner, especially an American, “any day now” is like inviting the yaka-devils from hell to your daughter’s wedding. There will be upset. And I can’t afford to have Mr. Richard get angry just when I need him to help my son. But no need to let this jackal know that. I can pretend for my sake that I care for his business. So, to smooth it over, I say to Mr. Richard, “He says that your money is in transfer. He says the bank overseas had system trouble, but here, Bank of Ceylon is working fine. He thinks in the night it will come. After closing.”

Mr. Richard listens and nods. He takes out a cigarette, thinks to himself, and relaxes. “OK, Ranil. Can’t fuckin’ do much about it, anyway.”

He looks through his small calendar book. I tell the manager how I helped to him and say that he should hurry up. He thanks me. I can see he is happy that no trouble happened with Mr. Richard. He promises to me help in any way, and I say he should go easy on my brother, whose batik business is slow. He can’t pay on his loan yet. He says he will see what he can do. But I remember he said that to me about the loans I’d taken for Vimala’s sewing business. He promised to help, but never did. For two years, I had to work at the courts while also working with Vimala at the Weligama Bay Beach Hotel, doing laundry and cleaning rooms. I tell him my brother cannot do this extra work since he was wounded in an ambush. But he knows this, too. He is not even Buddhist, and yet, because he is in money business, he makes problems for us. In Sinhalese, I warn him that if he does not help my brother, I will tell Mr. Richard the real problem.

In his broken Sinhalese, he swears by Allah that he will help. These Muslims should go back to Malaysia, I think. I follow Mr. Richard down the stairs.

Outside in the hot sun Mr. Richard says, “I’m supposed to be in Galle tomorrow afternoon, 3 p.m. sharp. Can you get me a car?”

“Of course, I can arrange a car for 1 p.m.,” I say.

“Great. Let me buy you a drink. OK—tea, then.”

We go to the verandah at the Matara Rest House, and relax. From our seats we can gaze at the ocean. Here many seabirds are flying around the small island offshore. This beach is not good for taking sea bath. Only some foreigners walk along, and the two Gunasena brothers following them to sell King coconut drinks. This season it is not so busy, because of the troubles in the north that scare away foreigners. Still, the old German who comes every year is in his corner room by the beach. A honeymoon couple from Kegalle, and other local guests, take up a few of the other rooms.

Mr. Richard lights a cigarette. At least out here the wind takes away the smoke. It is good.

“Say, Ranil. I wonder if you could hook me up with some fun tonight.”

“Ehsure. Would you like to see a movie? The Broadway is having James Bond.”

He shakes his head. “No, Ranil. I mean fun, like a woman?”

My heart, it beats against my chest. I am thinking, I cannot do this. But then he may not help my son. Of course, I can find him whatever he wants. No problem. Just a talk with Weiretunge. But then I will be no better than that fat cobra. Still, how can I deprive my son? If this man seeks impurities, then it is for him to suffer. But I promise to Vimala never to work for the gamblers and prostitutes. What to do? “Well, Mr. Richard. You are not tired?”

He finishes his cigarette and flicks the butt over the white buds of the frangipani plants. It bounces on the sand of the parking lot. “I mean later. Tonight.” Then he winks at me and says, “Your boy will be top of the list.” But in his voice I hear that same teasing sound. He motions to the waiter.

“Well …”

I feel he is about to leave me. Perhaps he is irritated. I must think quick. “Yes. I can talk with some fellow about this.” After all, it is known that he has helped the last village boy to win.

He stands and stretches his arms. He yawns. “Great. Why don’t we say after dinner, OK?”

“Ehsure, Mr. Richard. I will go now and come back then.”

At the main desk I write a note for Weiretunge. Just that I need to talk with him. I hand it to the valet with a five-rupee note and say, “I will return after dinner.”

I walk down the stairs and head toward the bus stand outside the fort. I decide to stop at the temple. It may help to make offering. Lord Buddha can help to me. I take my sandals off and walk on the cool floor. I give the attendant one rupee and he gives to me some joss sticks. I light them and close my eyes. The Buddha must hear my heart and knows why I am here. The sandalwood reminds me of my grand-father’s home up in Deniyaya. I am back in his garden with my brother, flinging rocks at the gray monkeys who swing through our mango trees.

I walk to the bus stand. It is a 30-minute ride back to my village. If Mr. Richard wants me to come back after his dinner, I must go home and tell my wife that I cannot stay for rice. Then I can see my son, Arjuna, and we can talk.

The bus bounces over the lot and onto the road. Blue smoke makes us all cough, and the driver grinds the gears as he shifts up. The town passes from view and we head into the countryside, where there are no foreigners. The ride is bumpy, and there are no scenic views. I often wonder what Mr. Richard and the others would see if they came along. Like this. My best part of the day is getting off the bus in my village and walking down the road to my house. Of village life, they never see how we may live, our families working in the spice garden. Yes, they know about the kingfishers and monkeys. They don’t know how we strive daily to make our house clean from the dust, and without electricity and running water, we live OK. But they don’t care. Of course, business is business. And of our traditions, what they do not see. My house was my father’s house. He’d moved down from Deniyaya to work for the British. He grew cinnamon, coconuts, mangoes, papayas, and jackfruits. To this day, my house is the only one in this village, even for several villages around, to still grow cinnamon. But what I like most is seeing all the palm, teak, and ebony trees surrounding my house. But I am sad, because I know the problems Sri Lanka is having may change even these country places.

I am feeling the shame since promising Mr. Richard. It is pain to me. Like this. I know the gods have blessed me with a healthy son, no daughters, and a good wife. What may happen if I do harm? Perhaps some bad thing could hurt me, or my family. Still, not everything is perfect. My wife is always unhappy. She wants to do her business in the towns. Lately she is asking me to sell the land and move to Matara, even Galle. But I don’t like to live in towns. They are impure. The people are sad. Out here the sun ripens our crops, and welcomes the spirits of our ancestors. The shade of our trees comforts us, and it is known that the water from our well is cool and clear. But for my son, I want for him to go abroad. For his age, there is only trouble. The communist JVP here want to get our youth to rebel against the government. The government wants them to join the security forces to fight Tamils in the north. They are both waiting for these boys to come of age to steal them, like robbers hiding in the dark alleys behind the tea shops at the Matara bus stand at midnight.

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