Romesh, born in London to Sri Lankan parents, grew up in the absence of any cousins or Sri Lankan friends of his age to spend his childhood. Realising this very fact, his parents devoted extra time with him with lots of love and care. Against this backdrop Romesh was taken to Sri Lanka on holiday often.
He was only six years old when he first visited his grandparents’ house in Negombo. The sunshine, beaches and especially playing ‘koom pittu’ (sand cakes) and sand castles were what he enjoyed with a poor village boy of his age, who visited his grandmother’s house with his mother who was a daily domestic help.
New Found Friend
The servant’s little son gave him half a smile while wiggling his body and biting his nails with shyness or being nervous. Body language indicated that the young lad was keen to communicate and play with Romesh. Naturally the poor child was bored to tears having had to spend all day while his mother laboured in the kitchen cooking and fighting a survival game in the absence of his father at his grandmother’s house. During school holidays Nandawathie had to bring the boy with her to her work place. Her husband had died of a lung cancer which had left her helpless.
Romesh started to play himself with a tennis ball, running up and down the spacious lawn while the boy eagerly and enthusiastically watched being shy to come forward. Obviously there was a language barrier, the boy could not understand English and Romesh could not converse in Sinhala although he understood a few words.
“Come...! Come..!!. You want to play.....?” Romesh invited the little fellow signalling him to come.
Hesitatingly, the boy started to take one step at a time forward.
“Come..!. Come....!! Don’t be shy.”
Romesh threw the ball to the garden and the boy ran after it and brought it back in similar fashion as a pet dog would play with his master!
Seemingly as Romesh’s holiday came to an end, the two had become best of friends. The different languages they spoke did not hinder their communication or playing together, nor did any class distinction enter their innocent hearts. They became close to each other like iron filings to a magnet. At the end of the holiday Romesh sat inside the car with a drawn, sad face waiting to leave for the airport. Two tear drops rolled down the boy’s eyes expressing his inner feelings which millions of words could not express! Finally it was time to bid good bye to his new-found friend for ever, Romesh thought. Perhaps that very temporary bond between Romesh and the poor boy made him think about Sri Lanka quite often than ever.
When children in the UK reach the age of sixteen they consider themselves as adults and try to be independent and do whatever they wish, most of the time disregarding their parents’ asvices. Romesh’s attitude to life was different. He was brought up with a lot of care and love by his parents which he reciprocated with respect. Romesh preferred to confine himself to his room and keep busy with serious reading at home.
Once a friend showed Romesh a fountain pen and asked a critical question.
“Romesh, do you think this pen was made by someone?”
“Of course yes Anton, how can it be otherwise?”
“Then do you think Romesh that a complex world that we live in was made by someone or it emerged automatically?” Anton questioned.
That threw Romesh into an orbit of serious thinking to try and understand the complexity of the Universe. He started reading books on science and religion looking for evidence of a Creator or to understand the Big Bang theory. So much so, that he automatically stepped into a rapid spiritual path which could otherwise be regarded as an ‘internal spiritual revolution’.
Re-visiting Sri Lanka
One day he sounded to his parents his wish to go to Sri Lanka on his own. His parents most willingly arranged everything at his uncle’s star class tourist hotel in Anuradhapura where he would be looked after and receive VIP treatment.
The hotel building was a mixture of oriental and Spanish architecture which had fifty air conditioned rooms and a large swimming pool in the centre of a delightfully landscaped garden, full of plants and conspicuous flowers that attracted a variety of Sri Lankan birds.
“Thilina, make sure that our London sir is comfortable..... And don’t let him pay for anything that he orders...... bring every bill to me so that I can cancel and initial it.... ok...?” It was the order to the Manager of the hotel from Romesh’s uncle, the Chairman.
For Romesh it was very unusual to see the excitement written on the faces of all the hotel staff, just because he happened to be the nephew of the chairman. He had never seen such treatment, care or hospitality before.
Seated on the open veranda and sipping a Papaya drink he watched how a young white girl seated on the lawn near the swimming pool was surrounded by a group of local youths. She was obviously a foreign tourist, petite and had long straight hair cascading to her shoulders. With layers of make-up and creams, her face shone like a mirror even during late hours in the afternoon. She wore blood red lipstick. The local youths were certainly entertaining her and Romesh could hear rows of laughter from time to time.
Walking towards the pool for a swim, Romesh heard the overpowering voice of the girl clearly which was full of coarse language such as ‘Jesus Christ’, ‘Jesus wept’, ‘What the bloody hell’, ‘ for God’s sake’ etc which seemed to tickle the boys but entered Romesh’s ears as painful frequencies. Romesh walked pass the girl quickly and dived into the pool as if to ease off his pain from the girl’s language.
On Friday evenings, the tourist hotel had its weekly entertainment in the form of a dance with a live band performing. Inspired by the country and western music emanating from the dance hall Romesh walked towards it to take a glimpse. Unintentionally he found himself standing adjacent to the table where the tourist girl was seated and sipping a Vodka and Coke. Romesh greeted her with a “Good evening.”
“Hi, good evening.... come... come and sit here..... No one is sitting here....,” the girl responded. He sat down with a ‘thank you’ and a smile her.
“I saw you once or twice in the garden area and in the pool. You don’t look local to me.”The girl said.
“Yes, you are correct to a certain extent. I live in London but my parents are from Sri Lanka.”
“Glad to meet you. I am Helen, Helen Volkenstein,” she chucked her paw with a greeting smile.
“I am Romesh Merennage.”
“Are you British then?”
“Well, in a way, technically I suppose, because my birth certificate says I was born in Paddington.”
“How come you have a funny surname such as Merennage? All my young friends have Portuguese names like Perera, De Silva, Mendis.....Salgado...Coorey etc..”
“Actually I also have a Portuguese name but I am using part of my family name as the surname.”
“Jesus... you are clever...!”
“You don’t sound English to me Helen!”
“I am half German and half Austrian. My father is Austrian and mother German. What do you do here Romesh, I suppose on holiday ....?”
“ Yes, I like Sri Lanka, have read quite a lot about the country and have been here several times with my parents in the past and this time I thought of adventuring it solo. Have you been to Sri Lanka before, Helen?”
“No, this is my first trip. My father arranges holidays for me right round the world, most of the time I do not want even to go but I do not want to make him unhappy.”
“Good for you...!”
“He is very rich and I am the only child and they want to spoil me I suppose. And how old are you Romesh..?”
“Jesus wept! You say you live in London and have never been out on your own! I just cannot believe it!”
“It might surprise you Helen, although I was born in London I have been brought up to appreciate Sinhala traditions and culture. Do you know that we have a recorded civilised history of over 2000 years?”
“Good God! You really sound like an old man, Romesh! What do you do in London, still studying...?”
“Yes, I just sat for my A Levels, but as a hobby I read a lot on spiritualism. It is my pet subject. Helen, I do not know what you think about it, but in my case I strongly believe in a higher source, whatever the labels people attach to it, as otherwise how do you think everything can exist harmoniously in what we call nature? And what is ‘nature’ after all?”
“For God’s sake, don’t give me that crap Romesh. I don’t believe in a God at all. I’ll tell you something Romesh, and if there is a God why did he make people like me suffer? What’s the use of my father having money and willing to spend a fortune on me just to please me? Even this holiday is part of his work. I am bloody fed up with my life and money does not make me happy Romesh. Just have a look at my leg? Everyone is staring at me when I start to walk. That is why I always try to sit on the lawn and pretend to be sun bathing and everything is fine with me. Come on ... come on, bloody well, you also have a good look at it and go and have a good laugh behind my back.”
Romesh gave her a kind look. A puff of perfume she wore engulfed Romesh with the cool breeze that blew from the lake, passing the swimming pool. Her perfume was strong and captivating and Romesh kept on looking at her sympathetically for a moment and noticed for the first time her Polio affected leg, but did not want to be unkind.
“Well! To tell you the truth, I never noticed your leg Helen. In fact I thought you were quite a pretty girl”.
“For God’s sake man, don’t give me that bull. Don’t try to be a hypocrite just to please me and then like all of them go and have a good laugh behind my back at my expense.”
“Helen my dear, I do not have to lie or pretend to be a hypocrite as you very unkindly suggest. What do I gain from it? As I told you before, I find you very pretty and attractive, but a bit disappointed about yourself. Physical deficiencies do not affect me Helen. If you are inclined towards spiritualism I am sure you will at least get some understanding about our journey on this planet.”
“Good God! Don’t tell me that you are a spiritual guru then. Bloody hell!!”
“No Helen, I have read a lot on spiritualism and have some knowledge about various things and aspects of life. Maybe just because I am only nineteen you might think I am talking a lot of nonsense. But if you want to experience the reality of life Helen, the first thing you need to do is to get rid of your ego - the ‘I’ and ‘my’ feelings”
“What the bloody hell is that, for God’s sake?”
“Why do we get angry or sad? It is when our ego is hurt. So don’t be negative all the time but start thinking positively; be thankful for what you have already got Helen - a wealthy father, lavish lifestyle, don’t have to work for a living and everything is at your finger tips and you are free like a bird to travel the world any time and the only delay is the time needed for you to decide! So, life can’t be that bad for you Helen. Think about it for a moment.”
“Jesus O Lord! You are certainly different from the boys I met here. For goodness sake, you can’t behave like a hermit at a young age of nineteen Romesh? Tell me something, will it affect your ego if I ask you to dance with me? Or will your spiritual halo rupture if I ask you to take me out, right now, in this moonlight and show me around the old city of Anuradhapura?”
“Not necessarily Helen, but can I ask a personal question from you..?”
“Go on then, for God’s sake, come out with it and make it quick”.
“Helen, why do you keep on swearing all the time? From the day I saw you first, seated on that lawn with a group of boys, the one thing I noticed was your excessive swearing in your speech. Is it because your English vocabulary is limited that every other word in a sentence comes up with a swear word like bloody hell, or for God’s sake.....? To me it is a total disrespect to God, Helen, and in my mind God’s name should be sweet on your lips and not let your tongue act like a razor blade!”
“Who bloody cares, Romesh? I told you that I do not believe in a God and I don’t give a damn about him! If he is there why did he make me lame?”
“My dear Helen, may I repeat, should you make your tongue a razor blade all the time?”
There was a sudden silence and Helen Volkenstein looked at Romesh in a most curious manner.
“Oh boy! I have never come across a young fellow like you Romesh, and never for a moment have I looked at things the way look at. Thank you for opening my intelligence and I am sorry my dear. I am so bitter about my physical condition and I get the feeling that the whole world is watching me. What have I done Romesh to be born like this? I did not want to come to this world in the first place and it was not out of my choice and especially in this condition, and why should I suffer for it, and what is the purpose of this life? I am really confused. Explain to me if you can so that I can understand this jig saw Romesh.”
Romesh felt so sorry for this young girl who was so perplexed. His mind suddenly flashed back to one of the quotations he had read in a spiritual book:
“A bird may fly high up and up, thinking it is his own world and it will never get tired of flying. But there comes a time it will feel tired and go searching for a tree top to perch to rest for a while. Likewise, those who deny God and say there is no God and they do not believe in a higher power, will one day have to cry and say, Oh God, help me!”
In Romesh’s mind it was crystal clear why Helen had to suffer from Polio in this life which was nothing but she was paying for a karmic force that had followed her from her past birth; she was gracefully paying for it in this life.
If she was in the same spiritual wavelength with Romesh he thought he could have explained to Helen that she was metaphorically
‘under a surgeon’s knife in life’s operating theatre, undergoing a major surgery where cutting is painful, yet unknown to her, the Skilful Surgeon ( Creator) has given her a strong ‘anaesthetic injection’ in terms of worldly comforts not to make her pain of the operation too excruciating.