The SriLankan Airlines direct flight from London to Bandaranaike International Airport landed in the early hours of a Saturday morning. Among hundreds of passengers who were disembarking the plane was Sunil with a grown and ‘uncontrolled’ beard, dishevelled long hair and dressed in a cotton T-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. Wearing a pair of sneakers on his feet he carried a small backpack over his right shoulder as his only baggage and walked at snail’s pace towards the immigration counters at the airport along with the other passengers.
It was Sunil’s first visit to his homeland after nearly a decade, needless to say he was highly impressed having seen the modern and impressive Bandaranaike airport which had been given a facelift to bring it up to international standards.
Walking along the concourse, direct from the plane into the airport building, his thoughts went back to his first flight out of the Ratmalana airport, a few years ago. where he had to walk up to the plane and climb a flight of steps to get into an Air Ceylon plane which took him to Bombay and two more connecting flights to Switzerland before he finally reached Heathrow airport in London on a cold and dim January morning.
As he approached the immigration hall which was impressive and clean with shiny tiled floors, Sunil was taken aback for a second looking at the multiple of immigration counters in existence now.
“My goodness! What a development all round. When I used to travel out first, it was only one counter with only a single immigration officer at the desk, but now...... I can’t honestly believe I am in Sri Lanka. Well! Well!!... Who can say our airport is not up to any international standards anymore? Look at the number of people coming into the country – tourists and our own people..! Separate counters for Sri Lankan passport holders and separate ones for foreigners as well. Wow! How efficiently and smoothly everything works like clockwork,” Sunil wondered.
In the early hours of the morning at the Bandaranaike Airport Sunil could not blame the immigration officer who did not greet him with a ‘good morning’ or a pleasant smile but served him with a straight face and got on with his job.
“Can’t blame the poor chaps who have to travel long distances and sit there so early in the morning, still half asleep and doing a monotonous job,” he thought.
The array of duty-free shops and the cheap liquor fascinated him. “I say! They don’t sell cigarettes now at the arrival terminal anymore, but it’s a bit of a silly idea then to sell cigarettes to outgoing passengers duty free”! he sighed.
Sunil still expected to see old Morris Minors or Renault Dauphines as taxis in Colombo but was relieved to be able to book a vehicle to Kalutara as he came out of the Customs area. On his way, inside the taxi, Sunil wanted to break the monotony of the journey.
“Look at the number of posh cars people drive in Sri Lanka. Certainly the country has developed a lot, Who says people in Sri Lanka have no money ? ” he opened up the conversation with the driver.
“Thiyana minihata thiyanawa sir, nethi ekata kannath nehe...!” (The rich have loads sir, but the poor can’t even afford a meal these days!)
“You must be coming to the country after a long time then Sir?”
“Yes, in fact I am coming after nearly ten years.”
“Do you live in Dubai....sir?”
“No, I come from London, but originally I was in Kalutara.”
“Is your family in London as well sir?”
“Yes, I have two children and the madam is Russian.”
“Oh I see! That’s the trouble sir, when you get married to foreign women sometimes you can lose your freedom, no sir! pardon me for saying so....”
“Well, in a way you could be right to a certain extent.”
“Are you on holiday sir, and doesn’t your wife and children like to come to Sri Lanka...?”
Sunil had a thousand and one answers but he diverted the conversation by asking the driver about the country, the number of cars on the road, the three-wheelers and the indiscipline of motorists and pedestrians in Sri Lanka.
As the taxi approached the Kalutara Bo-tree and the new bridge, the old hall marks in his memory made him nostalgic. The taxi passed the Kalutara clock tower and turned into a side road and stopped in front of a house which was on a slight elevation, guarded by an army of dogs.
A young boy in a Spiderman’s suit was playing in the garden. Standing at the gate Sunil gazed at the boy for a few seconds, opened the gate and climbed the flights of steps at three different levels to reach the main glass door which was bolted. He stood there for a moment, deep in thought for a while, and rang the door bell and waited nervously.
A lady in her early forties opened the door and spoke to the stranger who was at her door step.
“Hello, can I help you?”
Sunil became speechless and kept looking at her lovingly for a moment and forced a smile.
“Oh my gosh! It is Sunil isn’t it! What on earth has happened to you Sunil? Look at you; you look quite a different man. I could not even recognize you at first, if not for your smile. Come in.... come in..... and take a seat.”
Sunil slowly entered the sitting room and sat on a comfortable arm chair by the window.
“This indeed is a surprise to me Sunil. So... so.... tell me....tell me..... When did you arrive in Sri Lanka?” asked Matilda with a smile.
“I actually landed only this morning and thought of making a beeline to Kalutara, my old haunts!
“Oh that’s good. So, what have you been up to in England all these years, and have you finished your PhD in London and what are you doing these days for a living – settled down in London...?”
“No Matilda ..... It’s a long story and I had to give up my post graduate studies half way through. It was very complicated”, he stuttered.
“Actually I am to be blamed for it and it was such a shame that I had to abandon studies after two years of hard work. Everything went a bit of out of control Matilda.”
“So have you now come to settle down in Sri Lanka after all then?”
“No... just thought of coming for a break. I have to get back actually.........”
He knew that he had nowhere to go back to in England but how could he tell her that direct....?”
“How is Katrina and the kids...?”
Sunil was flabbergasted.
“So, you knew about Katrina and the kids also.......?”
“Yes of course, in fact, Asoka was here on holiday some time back and he invited me for dinner once. I got all the information about you from him – your partner, the Russian girl Katrina and the kids. He told me you were very happy over there, and I was happy for you.”
“I am very sorry Matilda. I do not know what else to say. When I look at you I feel really ashamed of myself, and feel like committing suicide, to tell you the truth. But you look quite calm and tranquil. I am amazed how you keep your composure and speak to me like this. I did not expect even a welcome from you. ”
“Sunil, in life one has to face all kinds of trials and tribulations, you know. I am very much into spiritualism now - not the practice of communication with the dead but on the philosophical aspect emphasising spiritual nature of reality. Yes, it has helped me to calm my nerves and look at life in a more positive way rather than having to brood all the time or pondering over the past”.
“Of course I was worried when your communication became somewhat short, unusual and irregular at first Sunil, but I put it down to your busy research schedule in your studies. But I must say that I was devastated when I heard that you were cohabiting with a young Russian girl who was old enough to be your daughter. I was mad, and then came the news about you having kids also out of her. That was my limit Sunil. I had to find a way of escaping from that trauma or had to commit suicide to avoid the social stigma attached to it. You know how people talk about these things in Sri Lanka, don’t you? So it was at that juncture my friend Karon introduced me to meditation.
“I am really sorry Matilda, forgive me.”
“It’s all right now Sunil. Meditation sessions have taken me to a different world altogether. It was difficult at first but now I have learnt the art of looking at things not on a physical plane but entirely on a transcendental aspect. So I have disciplined myself to be like a lotus leaf, you know what I mean.... when a drop of water falls on a lotus leaf it does not stay on to it but drains out of it. Likewise, I mastered, through meditation to cast aside all attachments and worries that started to pin me down at first. I am fine now”.
“You are a jewel of a woman Matilda... I am truly sorry dear.”
“Sunil....., after all, what we need to realise is that we are players of a drama in this transient world and there is hardly any time to waste on insignificant trivia. I am a strong believer in Kamma. I suppose we can only have a guideline in our lives as to what we want in life. The fact remains that we are not at all in control over our lives at any time! That very understanding keeps me going Sunil. So there are no regrets now.......whatever was destined ....... happened..... and it took its toll and we don’t have to keep on looking back and sulk but move forward unaffected.”
Guilt & Shame
Sunil felt guilty and ashamed of himself. Seated on his favourite chair he looked around and saw that nothing had changed over ten years. His wedding photograph with Matilda stood proudly on a shelf. The positions where the television and his favourite arm chair were had not been changed at all. The garden was neatly maintained as before where he could see his son Rohita playing alone not realising that his father had arrived after so long.
A wave of nostalgia came over Sunil. He could visualise how on Sundays he used to lie on bed and read all the newspapers to his heart’s content; how different it was in London where he had to cramp into a two bed-roomed flat with a Russian teenage woman and two boisterous kids. He could even browse through Sunday newspapers only after the kids went to sleep in the night!
Sunil was a well established Civil Servant in Colombo doing a responsible job ten years ago. He had all the comforts in Sri Lanka from an ancestral luxury house, a loving wife and a son who was only a few months old when he decided to go to England on a government scholarship.
Suddenly the telephone rang and Matilda excused herself to attend to the telephone. Sunil, seated in his old easy chair began to think whether it was a misfortune that he received a scholarship to go to England to do a PhD. Naturally he left the family, the job and the country with lots of hopes for the future - to come back and serve the motherland and give back at least in part for the free education he received from the government, to look after his family and plan a brighter future for his son Rohita who was only a toddler at the time.
In a confused state of mind, his thoughts and counter arguments tried to find answers as to whether it was due to the biological needs of his system that demanded having to live thousands of miles away from his wife, excessive libido, fickle mindedness or the attraction towards the white skin of a Russian girl that made him cohabit and father two ruffians in London. But it was too late and the damage had been done irrevocably.
“So how long are you going to be in Sri Lanka...?” Matilda, coming out of the telephone conversation asked Sunil.
But Sunil had no proper answers to give. How could he look at his dear wife in the eye and tell her the price he had to pay for hankering after a white skin? How could he pour out to Matilda the amount of struggle he had to undergo to support the Russian girl and two young kids? How could he say to her that when he lost his job and became penniless he could not support his ‘family’ even with social service benefits?
How could he possibly say to Matilda how Katrina abandoned him, packed her bags and moved out of his life leaving the two kids with him to look after? He could not tell her that his children were taken into custody by the social services once their mother abandoned them and he could not cope with the dire situation?
Sunil thought it was far degrading to come out with things like how he suffered from depression and had to be treated in a mental hospital for months with Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT). He could not possibly disclose to Matilda that once he was discharged from the hospital he had no place to live in, except a tiny room the social services provided and he had no savings at all and all he could scrape through was his EPF money to buy an air ticket to Sri Lanka.
Sunil was drowned in a deep ocean of conflicting ideas. Perhaps, Matilda would have tolerated still and helped him out in his hour of need if Sunil were to come clean and tell her. But it became unbearable for him to sit in front of her anymore and to pretend that everything was normal with him. His conscience was pricking him to no limits.
“Sunil! You are suddenly far away in a different world.......!”
“No Matilda, I have a few more things to do in Colombo and this is a short visit in fact, and that’s why I thought of coming direct from the airport here before I got bogged down with my other work. I must take your leave now. Once again, all I can say is that I am really... really and truly sorry that I messed up your life Matlida. Forgive me... That is what I ask God in my daily prayers now.”
“But Sunil, wait for a moment. Have a cup of tea at least, now that you have come all this way. After all you have not even said hello to your son. Give me a second and I will quickly put the kettle on.” Matilda walked towards her pantry kitchen to make Sunil a cup of tea.
Sunil stretched himself in his chair and thought how he could face his son. Rohita was only a toddler when he left the country. He could visualise how he hugged his little boy and said he would come back to shape his future.
“How can I turn to this young man now and say, look here son, I am your biological father who left you when you were smiling away and burbling in your cot. This is your father who went to pursue higher education in a foreign land and got entrapped in a shameless and immoral affair with a white teenage girl who could be young enough to be your elder sister.
This is your father who produced two half brothers for you seven thousand miles away in a foreign land while your mother looked after you with love, care and hope. What will this little son of mine say to me.....? If it was in London, perhaps those ruffians would say, you stupid bastard! I do not want to see you or have anything to do with you for the pain you gave our mother all these years.....”
For a disturbed mind, once treated with anti-depressant drugs, this kind of stress was not going to help. Sunil felt as if his forehead was about to burst with a thumping headache. He could no longer sit there as if nothing has happened. It was not a moment to socialise or show parental love to his son... and the cup of tea Matilda was making could easily turn into poison, he thought, with the amount of depressive feelings he harboured at that very moment.
Finally, Sunil got up from where he was seated. Had a good look around the sitting room area again, peeped out of the window to have another good look at his son and left the house without even saying goodbye to Matilda, not knowing really where he was heading to, or what was in store for him in the future.
“Man is the only one that knows nothing, that can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither speak nor walk nor eat, and in short he can do nothing at the prompting of nature only, but only weep.” --Pliny the Elder.