They couldn’t sleep, their senses attuned and on edge as they were. Their ears were constantly listening for any hoots or cries piercing the darkness of the curfew. The roar of the army vehicles did not seem to disturb them; they would wake and sit upright wondering if the vehicles belonged to thugs ravaging the area. The very thought made them perspire with fear and anxiety. Lying in pitch darkness, they huddled together like two helpless children. The bedroom lamp was always turned off. Even that zero-watt light might betray them by diffusing through the glass windows or the slats above.... The slightest suspicion that there were occupants in the building was enough for the hooligans to break open the door.
The distant hum of the sea reached them occasionally. Even the rustling of leaves or the footsteps of the dog climbing up the staircase made them perspire profusely, despite the chill of the night. Entry to their annexe was by way of a spiral staircase in the backyard. The door separating their annexe from the main house was kept locked from the day they moved in, but since the troubles started it had been unlocked and merely kept closed in case of an emergency.
All their valuables, certificates, cash, jewellery, tape recorder, and clothes were packed carefully in a carton and stacked in the kitchen along with other odds and ends. The suitcases in the bedroom were piled with old clothes and the like.
Fear and a sense of uncertainty prevailed everywhere. Unable to bear the agony and anxiety of the times, Satha and Samban decided to try and flee to Jaffna with their wives by the morning Yal Devi, provided it ran on schedule.
...It was time. Satha sat up at the edge of the bed and tapped his wife gently. Verni woke with a shudder.
Satha looked towards the balcony and caught sight of the fish tank and two potted plants next to it. In one of the pots stood two balsam plants. They were ready to bloom, the reward of long days of having nurtured them. But when the plants were about to flower they were not going to be here!
A very beautiful variety of balsam, Mr. Fonseka had said, when he had given him the seeds the previous month. The flowers were pinkish with a double row of petals and had borne a strong resemblance to roses when Satha had seen them at Mr Fonseka’s place. Verni who had always longed for some flower plants in their house, had been waiting eagerly all these days to see the flowers, the like of which she hadn’t seen before. “When we return, these plants will be mere sticks,” he observed. The thought made him laugh at himself. “How optimistic am I to think of returning! What a foolish thought....” With a bitter smile on his lips he went up to the pots and bent over them with a sigh....
The other plant. One day while returning home for lunch, he had found a piece of that rhizome with an almost wilted bud, thrown by the side of the road. The thought of an extra flower pot lying in the balcony made him pick it up. Once planted, it flourished and soon outgrew the pot. Its thick foliage grew luxuriantly with white patches on broad velvety green leaves.
Satha had set the flower pots at the outer edge of the balcony, away from the eaves, at a place which he thought would catch the water when it rained. At the same time he had to see that the plants were protected from direct sunlight. If it rained the plants would survive. If it didn’t...
The fish tank, too, would dry up, he realised. A solitary guppy and two pairs of platies were the occupants of the tank. They had lived peacefully in this little world for the last several months. The guppy, the sole survivor of a shoal of fifteen or twenty young ones, had been born in this very tank itself. It was a joy to watch it growing. The guppy managed to outlive the others and it would grow with its tailfin widening into a fan full of shiny bright colours like the feathers of a peacock. Platies were different. The entire body was as red as the erythrina flower and almost half the length of a finger. He had bought five pairs at the weekend market but only these four creatures had survived. If and when we return, how would we find them? Dead or alive, he mused.
“...How crazy am I to worry about the flower pots and fish tank at a time like this, when we hear of human beings being killed in hundreds...”
He raised the fish tank, set it just below the water tap and adjusted it to a drip at long intervals. The regulated drops of water should balance the rate of evaporation. Given the situation, it was ridiculous to request the Selvaratnams to take care of these fishes. If they remembered, let them take care if they wished.
The street lamps were still burning when Satha and Samban went out in search of a taxi. The road was deserted. There were two soldiers standing guard at the top of the lane. They must have heard the approaching footsteps because they turned towards them to have a closer look. They knew they were innocent Tamils. While they were passing them, the tall soldier, sporting a moustache, smiled at Satha. Satha recognised him as the same person who had been on duty at this same place the previous afternoon. He had seen their soldier twice, when he happened to pass that way. Satha in turn acknowledged the smile with a slight nod and smile.
“He too must be a Sinhalese!” thought Satha, “...Trying to protect us from his fellow men!”
“A friend, eh?” Samban smiled.
About fifty yards away, near the post office, stood two other sentries on duty. Tamils lived in most of the houses at this place. No cabs were to be seen near the post office.
“Let’s try near the bus stop and...”
They walked, but could see no vehicles on the road. Most of the shops which were usually open at this time remained closed. Only the newspaper kiosk and the milk booth were open. A few people now appeared on the scene, some carrying papers and others milk bottles. They looked at the pair searchingly.
“Look, how they are staring at us,” said Samban.
There was only one taxi at the stand. From afar, the driver appeared to be middle aged and a ruffian. He was not quite old as they had wished. They went up to him.
When the taxi emerged at Galle road it was already dawn. But the ever busy back bone of Colombo city had a very strange look. As on their road, no shops were open except for a few kiosks here and there. Not many vehicles either. A good number of the ones that plied the road belonged to the security forces. Velmurugan Cafe, the popular eating place of the Tamils living in the boarding houses in Colombo South, was secured with planks and padlocked.
It was at this shop the previous Tuesday that Satha had first heard news of the troubles. Just then he had spotted Rangan in conversation with someone in front of Velmurugan Cafe. When he saw Satha, Rangan came running towards him and gasped: “Have you heard of the terrible news in Jaffna? Something like a clash between the police and the public at a carnival...”
“Who gave you the news?” Satha was worried. “Are you sure it’s true? When did it happen? Weren’t they able to quell it?” Streams of questions flowed.
“I hope it doesn’t take a communal turn, at least...”
“They set fire to the market and shot two or three people...”
“When did all this happen?”
“Yesterday and today... I booked a trunk call to Jaffna this afternoon regarding some business of my brother’s. It was he who told me the news.”
“Where’s your family?”
“They’re in Jaffna. Yours?”
“Here. That’s what I’m worried about.” Satha was thoughtful. Putting on a brave face, he said: “Ah, what’s there to worry? How many thousands of Tamils are here! Children, women and old people... why should we worry?”
Satha knew pretty well he was deluding himself.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan
Reproduced courtesy of Godage International Publishers, Colombo
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta