I glance up from my newspaper one beautiful summer afternoon, only to hear “breaking news” on the local TV channel in Colombo.
“PN has been found in his car, two blocks from his house, in a side alley, shot through the head. It is believed a known person would have been the assailant at such close quarters.” PN lived just behind our residence. I walk in those alleys. My son plays cricket with his friends in those alleys. What is to be done? I shift my glance towards the window on the first floor of the residence, as the sunlight plays on my face in spidery lines. There is an eerie chill in the air! He was a descendant of the Hill Country or ‘Up Country Tamils’, as they were called. Labourers had been brought to Ceylon in 1827. Many died a few months after their arrival, although they had all been quarantined and vaccinated, prior to their dispatch from India to the Ceylon estates by the colonial British. Those who survived either cleared the infested jungles or helped in turning the estates into abundant plantations of tea, coffee, coconut and rubber. Their hard labour bore rich fruit for their owners and contributed to the country’s economic growth. Traders from India had first come ashore Ceylon in the second century BC, as evident in the writings of the era. Indian soldiers too, had been brought to consolidate the local rulers’ kingdoms, from the seventh to the tenth centuries, AD.
PN was a staunch supporter of the workers’ causes and a lawyer by profession. But this incident was strange. Shot at close quarters, a bullet through the side of his head, could only have been by someone he knew, and knew well. But why? Assassinations, sadly, defy logic. Random suicide bombings had begun creating destruction and havoc for the common man in this beautiful exotic land, once called Serendipity. The TV channels carried the news for a few days and then it faded away. The topic also did the rounds of the cocktail parties in Colombo, with some not-so-nice gossip whispered behind crystal champagne stems and amused crimson lips. These very same lips also sang the praises of the ‘saviours’ of the land – the cricket heroes! Matches with India drew full crowds of spectators, as did those with the neighbours. All one could talk of in the cricket season was cricket, cricket and more cricket! Youngsters painted flags on their cheeks, young girls dressed fashionably in their earnest desire for a moment of fame, as the TV cameras spun around the stadium. Their elders, not to be outdone, dressed as if for Ascot! There were ‘Hat’ parties galore! And coffee sessions were organised at Tittle Tattle, one of the 5-star Hotels, at odds with the on-going strife of seventeen years. Days passed. It was time to plan for the Annual Diwali Ball! A spectacular event, this was where just about everyone showed up in the nicest of clothes and in the best of spirits. The table settings were important for you could tell who-was-who by where they sat and with whom!
The socialites in Colombo are witty and fun loving. They dress elegantly in western attire or their sarees, which are tied differently from their Indian sisters, with not a pleat out of place. The pallu hangs below the knees, held in place with an heirloom brooch, studded with rubies, pearls and sapphires, shimmering hues of splendour. Serendipity is renowned for its precious and semiprecious stones. The jet-set women include the PIOs, but they are mostly third generation overseas Indians from other lands, the daughters-in-law, the Bahus of Serendipity! Their children were once sent to Indian boarding schools, St. Paul’s in Darjeeling or Doon School, but the recent trend is Eton or Harrow, even Boston. One just wants to hear them talk and talk! What anecdotes, what history! I am transported into realms that I often miss in some other far-flung Diaspora-places I have lived in, where the only intellectual conversation was imaginary or what I gleaned from books that I read and re-read! These beautiful ladies are all conscious of their status yet retain personable relationships and do more than their share for the community and “just causes”. So, one morning I was in despair having heard that the husband of one of my acquaintances had been gunned down in front of his office! He was such a gentle man, so passionate about resolving the strife in his homeland. Now he’s gone. The battle, as it is termed locally, has continued for many years, with so many lives lost. This palpable fear of assassination is a cancer. It has been over a year now since there has been some semblance of calm. People have begun rebuilding their lives but now, once again, an assassination. And another, and yet another attempt which failed….
The phone rings shrilly and cuts across my desperate thoughts. “J, have you heard the news?” It is NS who lives in the neighbourhood. She lived even closer to PN. “I interviewed him just two days ago!” I don’t know what to say and wonder who may be listening to us, a common trend everywhere in the world, so I just ‘hmm’ into the mouthpiece and ask her to come over for a cup of tea. The last time she had called me, it was to ask me to turn on the TV. I had watched in absolute disbelief as the twin towers came crashing down. How panic-stricken I had been, as I just couldn’t get through to our daughter who lived in New York. I shiver slightly, though the sun is shining through the glass panes, creating a mosaic of colour for me to admire. Such intertwined events constantly flit through my mind, with visions from other lands in the Diaspora and other untimely deaths and events I have witnessed. I often wonder at how our lives criss-cross with others we meet, in the strangest of ways. An acquaintance of a friend of a friend’s life may interrupt yours, for even the briefest of moments. This brief encounter may also precipitate a series of events. Ten minutes later, NS is at the door. She is a very brave journalist and writes sharp, in-depth analytical despatches to send home. She is in deep thought. I ring the bell for a pot of tea and short-eats (the quaint local term for snacks!). We settle down in the comfortable planters’ chairs on the verandah. The garden is in full bloom and such a pleasant sight that one can banish the blues, just by looking at the riot of colour around the pristine green lawns. We talk about this and that, and every odd thing but do not mention PN. I can understand how the enormity of the incident has affected her. I also know she will regain her composure and write an excellent article within a few hours that will make tonight’s issue for tomorrow’s headlines. “Madam, Mrs. K on the line”. Saraswati has come outside and smiles shyly. I am fortunate to have her as a helper here. “Please tell her I am with a guest and I’ll call her back in the evening”, I nod. NS bid her farewell. She will be all right. I reach for the landline to call K. Her family had been in politics and there are streets named after her grandfather. Silver-framed photographs in her drawing room reveal her family with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Her adult children have turned away from politics and are successful corporate players. K and I have literature in common and it’s always interesting to discuss books with her. I wonder what she will say today. She does not approve of a mutual acquaintance coming to see me and makes her displeasure quite evident, with all sorts of tales, but strangely, both had been inseparable friends till a month ago! The jet-set say it must have had to do with one suddenly becoming a successful businesswoman, with her photos splashed in every weekend newspaper in the land! Or is it something deeper? I did not enquire.
I invite K over at 6 pm. “J, there is a friend of mine who needs your help!” She whispers into the phone. “Can we come over?” I do not have any function to attend on that particular evening, as my son has gone for a sleepover and DC is away on tour (going where angels have feared to tread….) “It was time someone from India went,” he had stated emphatically! I had no option but to agree. I ask them to have dinner with me. Saraswati is asked to stay on and help our erstwhile cook cum desi Jeeves. I go upstairs to change. The air seems suddenly cooler, but perhaps it was my vivid imagination. They arrive at 7 pm sharp, as requested. I am there to greet them and usher them into the drawing room. I sense K’s friend is a bit awestruck by the opulence of the setting, so I direct them onto the verandah, where they settle down with ease. The margharitas arrive, in well-chilled goblets, rimmed with salt and taste better than usual. The short-eats are then brought out and I ask the cook to serve dinner at 8pm. He gets the hint-do not disturb for an hour!
There is a nip in the air. K whispers as if the neighbours may hear us. Her friend is from a wealthy family, PIOs, but he had suddenly disappeared. They had gone from police station to police station but to no avail. He had inadvertently left his identity card behind, so she feared for his life. I am saddened by the news, but what can I do? “Can the mission make enquiries?” Oh dear! Here we go again! I do not do visas or consular work or any such work. I am just a diplomatic spouse! I may just have these words tattooed on my forehead one of these days. “I have no idea. You would need to go directly to the mission and request a meeting”, I say. I cannot and should not comment on this or even convey the message. It is just not done. “I do hope you understand my position.” The lady is crestfallen but K nods, knowingly. Dinner is a pleasant affair. Perhaps the lady just felt good coming home with K to see me and be seen. She smiles as she departs and I say a silent prayer, hoping her husband would return soon, safe and sound.
I do mention it to DC on his return. “Stay out of it,” he admonishes. I have, I always have. A fortnight later K calls and says, with a hesitant giggle, “J, the lady’s husband was in Dubai! Apparently, he has a ‘friend’ there and he’s left for good! He just called her and asked for a divorce. She’ll take him to the cleaners!” Images of global prisons and torture chambers disappear instantly from my head! Thank goodness! Life has a way of laughing in our faces. A few days later, Saraswati disappears. She does not show up for work for three days. She did not call either, so I sent Terence, our driver, to find out if all was well at her home. He comes back with the news that Saraswati’s husband had gone out without his identity card and had not returned home at night. Saraswati had spent three days searching for him at all the police stations near her house and in the city. I am filled with a sense of deja-vu? The other story was but a few weeks old. Luckily, she did find him, handed over his papers for inspection and took him home. He had not been ill-treated, just locked up as he had no papers on him. He and others like him had to carry papers on them, 24x7. Saraswati reported to work but looked exhausted, so I send her home to rest. I can only barely imagine the trauma she and her children would have gone through. To always live in fear of being hauled over and imprisoned.
Suddenly, the words someone had once said to my sister, about an incident in his life overseas, comes to mind, “Nothing prepares you for the shock and humiliation in being taken away by the police. I had just landed in a new country, checked in at the hotel on the side of the sea and couldn’t help going out for a walk. The biggest mistake in my life! I noticed that two policemen were trailing me. Then they came up to me and asked for my papers. I didn’t have my passport on me. They wouldn’t let me go back to the hotel for it or even make a phone call. I was just taken away to the police station. Nothing happened, I wasn’t beaten up or anything, but I was locked up for three days. Chilling! He had added, “I am five foot nothing and dark skinned.” I climb the stairs wearily as our desi-Jeeves, Viru, appears with a mug of steaming coffee. He radiates warmth and I smile as he bids me goodnight, jumping down the flight of stairs, two at a time. He is all of twenty-two and raring with ambition, dreaming of becoming a millionaire! Was this a premonition of things to come? The next day as I enter DC’s office room from the garden, Viru hurriedly puts down the telephone receiver and says no-one answered when he picked it up, as I was in the garden. I shrug my shoulders. He has suddenly begun looking much older than his years and haggard. “Are you well? Do you want to rest?” I ask him. He shakes his head, but his eyes do not meet mine. He starts to mutter something, then decides against it. I wait awhile but he doesn’t continue, so I begin to walk away, but I do notice a local silver bracelet on his wrist. “New? He nods, with a mysterious smile. I should have guessed this was the beginning of something, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on it.
It was barely a fortnight later that DC called from the office to say he was on his way home and that Viru was to remain at the residence. I was not to say anything… unusual for DC to be quite so terse. The sirens and screeching tyres outside the compound, rushing some patient to a hospital, were at odds with the quiet calm with which Viru was escorted out of the residence to his quarters. Our security personnel watched as he packed his belongings, stood outside the washroom with the door slightly ajar, as he changed. He looked back just once towards the house with his usual smile and waved at me. DC had not said a word since his arrival an hour earlier and I wasn’t allowed inside the Study Room while Viru was being interrogated. Later, everything fell in place. The man had fallen in love with a local girl who kept demanding expensive gifts and cash. His elderly father had called DC at work and pleaded with him to have him sent home before anything unpleasant occurred. Unpleasant? No, it was before Viru stopped sending his salary home every month and gave it to his girlfriend instead. He had written home that he was in love! We gave him spending money and looked after his food, clothing and bills, so he could save his entire salary. But his father and elder brother kept asking him for money, every month, without fail. Viru was a good helper, with an easy smile and our son liked him. They played cricket together. I was sad at his plight. How would he overcome the circumstance of his birth? He had been working since the age of twelve, doing all sorts of odd jobs and had supported his family for fifteen years now. His elder brother had no job but farmed a little and now had two daughters. Viru was expected to provide for them. His romance was cut short, but it would have been short-lived in an alien land, where he did not speak the local language, just a smattering of English, but she didn’t. Their romance was doomed from the start. Star-crossed lovers!
Another Day in the Diaspora for me!
Another unfinished tale!
(DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)
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