I first wrote this about five years ago; I knew and understood a lot less then than I do now, the intricacies of the events that happened that day that made me realise just how much this story actually means.
This is a true story based on the telling of another true story.
“Your father saved my life” the man told me.
When my father refused to explain to me what he meant, my mother provided me with an answer that, although very brief, instantly sent my already-inquiring mind positively rampant with curiosity.
It was a good three days before my father finally came about. Calling me to sit next to him at the table, he found a ratty piece of scrap paper and began to draw, the streets of old Colombo bursting forth from the tip of his pen.
July was a warm month and no one expected – much less, wanted – the fire to get any hotter. But it had and now the days burned with flames of heat, anger and bitter sadness. My father watched all this from his verandah, silently observing the murder of khaki-clad crows who circled the top of his lane. Slowly trickling into join them were others, everyday people overcome by an extraordinary demon. One could almost call them scavengers, the way they hunted for their prey and made do with them in a matter of minutes. My father shuddered and turned to walk inside when he heard the puttering of a motorcycle engine. He froze.
Approaching on the motorcycle he knew was his neighbour. They were honest and good people, their son employed in an office close to his, they’d take the same bus back home after work sometimes. He was, unfortunately, exactly the kind of innocent human that the mob hunted and devoured. The men in khaki could sense their presence and the puttering of the engine quietly died down as the vehicle was ordered to stop. The man was petrified – his full faced helmet concealing his identity for now.
He could hear them from afar, snatches of a language that he only partially understood, but he could tell he wouldn’t be able to stay hidden for longer.
‘You, on the bike – helmet off!’
My father slowly turned around. One word and he change the entire picture being painted in front of him. One word and he could make it uglier than it already was. One word and he could be dead. It seemed best to say nothing.
My father was never one to remain silent.
“Machang, let them through – they’re friends of mine” my father called, in a language the men understood. Recognizing the familiar words, the bicycle was allowed to proceed , albeit with a few suspicious glances and my father motioned for it to enter their front garden. Hurriedly, he led the man into a room deep within the house and there he stayed.
Four days and three nights the flames raged outside – more than physical fire, setting ablaze metal structures and concrete edifices but something that raged within, a misdirected and misinformed passion.
Repeatedly, people would come to the door and ask ‘Are there Tamils here?’
My father and grandparents would calmly assure them that no, there weren’t, they needn’t worry.
The fire drove people to insanity – to kill, torture and plunder. It made devils out of the best people and the community at whom the heat was directed slowly crumbled to ashes.
He survived, the man, and returned to his home when the flames finally receded. What was left of his home, at least. The city was almost a stranger now, transformed so much by the chaos that he almost had trouble finding his way back. Tears streaming down his face, the young man thanked my father, fervently expressing his gratitude in a language that was alien to him ye by now, they understood each other by something beyond vocabulary – trust.
My father has come to the end of his story. Nervous scratches and scribbles mar the face of the map he had drawn to illustrate it. His eyes were clouded over, a maelstrom of emotions that I couldn’t decipher. Now, he was silent.
I thought about every word he had said, that life he had touched and changed. How it had broken him to talk about what happened, even though he had in fact saved someone’s life. He was a hero, and he didn’t even know it.
2014; for the first time, I had a conversation with the other man.
Tell me your story, I had asked him.
I can’t, it’s still too difficult for me to talk about. He says this with trembling hands and as he continues, his eyes glossing over with tears.
I can’t, but I can write it down.
His email arrives, a frenzy of words that tell of his frustration and fear – the thoughts rushing in his head, the blood pumping in his veins.
Familiar locations, streets we tread in abandon today; Bristol building on York Street, Sarathas Textiles, Town Hall, Maradana, Pettah, Dickman’s Road – burning.
How he couldn’t make sense of his world that was clamping down around him, of the way people had snapped into monsters in a heartbeat.
How he’d ridden home waiting any moment to be struck down himself, how he passed mobs looking for petrol to keep the fires going.
How and why he’s still alive today.
The narrative closes;
‘The Sinhalese boy at whose home I was staying at is none other than your dad. I would never have gone back on history but I can’t refuse [your father].’
2015; in conversation with people and colleagues who have direct memories of the time that I don’t.
They tell of burning hate that manifested in all too real fires – every Tamil was to be killed, and every Sinhalese helping them hide was to be killed too, because they were traitors.
That was a terrifying realisation – what if, by some stroke of fate or bad timing, the rioters had decided to force through and search my father’s home? What if they’d forced the man to remove his helmet, paying no heed to my father’s request?
Things would have been a lot different today.