Names are important. ‘Dumbara’ literally means ‘Heavy with smoke’ or rather ‘mist’. This is true. The landscapes are mist-laden. Secretive. The stories however are not place-specific, at least the ones I heard on a wet, slow Sunday. And yet, they are not told perhaps out of choice or because not all epic lives are lived by people who write or are given to recounting.
At the back of a modest house, neat and replete with simple comforts, a mason was at work. Late fifties, probably. The owner of the house introduced him, with shining eyes that spoke of affection, pride and, as I later understood, immense gratitude.
‘This is our baas-unnehe. He is my also my older brother. His name is Sumanaratne. He spent four years in prison in place of me.’
What does ‘In place of me’ mean? Well, that is not a question which would be asked by those who lived through the worst period of terror this nation has known post-independence. That was not just a time of random abductions, routine torture and summary execution, but a general unleashing of terror that included among other things ‘proxy arrests’. Pro-government vigilante groups would routinely arrest family members of those they came to capture. They were also tortured and sometimes killed. They came for Dayaratne, my friend, and took his brother. Sumanaratne was lucky, one might say, for he’s still alive and smiling too.
Yes, Sumanaratne smiled. He continued with his work, mixing cement, sand and water. He was building a kitchen. The family was preparing for an almsgiving in the name of their mother, who had passed away three months previously.
Dayaratne, was the youngest in a family of 11. According to custom, he inherited the maha-gedara or the family house. The truth is that before he inherited the house it was razed to the ground by pro-government vigilante groups.
Dayaratne was a year senior to us at the University of Peradeniya. He opted to do a General Degree and as such was ‘stuck’ with his junior batch, ours, at Dumbara. Everyone remembers him as ‘Podi Daya’ because he had to be distinguished from others referred to as ‘Daya’. Daya was small made but had a big heart. He had none of the ‘senior airs’ of his batchmates and quickly became friends with us. This is why one day the freshers who largely made up the Dumbara Campus cricket team asked Karu to join them at practices. Karu had never played hard ball cricket. In fact he had never held a cricket ball. He was talented but didn’t know that. He ended up opening batting and bowling both.
Daya had an impish smile. He was fun to be around. But the weight of a batch that for reasons that are boring became estranged with our batch thrust this young man in no man’s land, so to speak. Everything collapsed not soon after and that was when Daya went missing.
What brought three former Peradeniya students, all one year junior to Daya, on that Sunday afternoon in early December 2015 to the dreamscape called Oruthota was the fact that regardless of differences including major political and ideological clashes, he was dear to all of us. I hadn’t seen him in almost 20 years. I had often wondered where he was and had made inquiries every now and again. I didn’t know that Daya was a teacher and that some of my batchmates who too were teachers met him quite frequently. Daya, unfortunately for me, didn’t come up in any of our many conversations over the years. But a few weeks ago, I got his number and called. It was a short call which ended with me promising to visit the next time I came anywhere near Kandy. That’s what happened that Sunday. We went.
The beautiful surroundings with all their apparent and hidden mysteries intrigued me. The house, small but comfortable, was a reflection of the residents of whom I knew only Daya. It was so like him to introduce his brother as baas-unnehe. It was so like him to trivialize his trials over the years. It was so like him to offer food and drink and regale with countless anecdotes from that time that everyone seems to have forgotten, those tragedies which do not make into rights-violation narratives.
‘Look at that window,’ Dayaratne pointing to what appeared to be an out-of-place piece in a relatively new house. ‘That was all that was left after they brought down this house,’ he continued.
Naturally, he didn’t want to say too much about all that. Not the whole story any way. However, the bits and pieces he did let out in the midst of talk about family, work and the state of the country sketched out a tough life but one that was well lived. Some of it was known. For example, that Dayaratne joined the JVP sometime in the late eighties. It was known that he worked hard and sacrificed a lot. Forced to hide, when he reappeared Dayaratne had to sit his exams with his junior batch. Why he joined the JVP, no one really knew. Neither did he explain.
He put it this way.
“Remember Samare? He was from a wealthy family. Gems. Even at that time he was someone who could have come to campus in a car. He had no reason to join the JVP. And yet he did. All I know is that only a handful of those who joined would have understood even the basics of historical materialism.’
This is true. People ‘rebel’ for a multiplicity of reasons. Daya didn’t tell us what his reasons were. He did not come from a wealthy family in a conventional sense, but they lived well. He hadn’t held a cricket ball before he came to campus and likewise knew very little about the JVP.
“One day my mother told me that the Police had come looking for me. This was before I entered university. I wasn’t home. I had gone to the river with my friends. She told me about the police visit when I came back and I duly reported to the Police Station to find out what it was all about. They asked me ‘panthi paha karala thiyenavada?’ (‘Have you followed the five classes?’ The reference was to the well-known educational camps conducted by the JVP before inducting a recruit formally into the party). I didn’t know what they were talking about. I actually thought they were asking about tuition classes. So I said ‘mahaththayo, mama tuition karanne naha’ (‘I don’t give tuition’)!
Thirty years after I first met him at Dumbara Campus, Polgolla, he had greyed but not much. Recognizable. He spoke fondly of his wife, daughter and son. He also spoke about a girl he had loved. At times he was quite animated. At times his voice dropped and his inimitable softness surfaced. He had no regrets. He was as much alive as he had been on the cricket ground at Polgolla.
“Why do you think I do what I do the way I do it?” he asked, and answered, “Nelli.”
Now Nelli is a Sinhala and Tamil name for what botanists in the West call ‘Indian Gooseberry’. It is considered by some to be the No 1 Health Food in the world. This would open eyes: it is the richest source of natural Vitamin C! But that was not what Daya was thinking of.
The nelli has six different flavors: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, astringent and pungent. This was what he meant. That was his deshapremaya. That was how he survived and flourished, triumphing over all the bludgeoning he had received physically and otherwise.
“Mama nelavenneth naha, naaganneth naha,” Daya said but didn’t have to. He was never one to be coaxed into doing what was against his conscience and he had always maintained his dignity.
He counts victory in strange ways but which to a teacher would be ‘normal’.
“One of my students got into the Arts Faculty. He didn’t have parents. Well, he did, but that’s a different story. He wanted to enter Law Faculty, but due to some error he was selected to the Arts Faculty, Peradeniya. I took him to campus. Showed him around. But I told him to write an appeal to the University Grants Commission. He didn’t know what ‘UGC’ was. I explained. He did write. And he did get in. He still calls me. It makes me happy.”
The window was closed. There were raindrops on the windowpane. It was around 4 pm. We had been talking for several hours. It was time for lunch. There was a slight drizzle when we left Daya’s house. He came with us to the main road.
“This is a beautiful country,” he said softly.
“And that’s because there are people who will not throw away old windows and who leave rafts behind once they cross turbulent rivers,” I told myself as we drove into rain and mist.
Note: Names have been deliberately changed to preserve preferred anonymity