I stepped into the main room yesterday where my friend was reading the paper. His head was bowed, but not the way a person looks when he's reading the paper. It's the way a man looks when he's deeply disappointed, worn, weathered, humbled, humiliated, scared, trampled. I don't like seeing my friend that way. He's an accomplished person and a proud one. He's made a lot of his life, a life that was led through horrendous adversity. More than thirty years of criminal war and terror, personal affront, humiliation, wanton destruction of his property, threats to his family, the tsunami. He managed to bring up a fine family, educate his children, be a true leader in his community, to build a beautiful oasis in a stricken part of Sri Lanka, to support causes charitable and spiritual. But he has seen more than enough of this country, Sri Lanka, and its horrible contemporary history. He's lived it firsthand. On a normal day you don't read this on his face or in his body language. But last night it was there, right at the surface.
By the way his newspaper time in the main room is kind of a personal time. He's in the middle of the action near the front desk but no one disturbs him and he doesn't look up from the paper. Last night with his head bowed he put his hand up on a chair next to him and motioned for me to sit down. Picture for yourself this dramatically laden moment.
He asked if I'd seen the gentleman in the dining room earlier who were carrying on business. Actually I'd seen a lot of gentleman carrying on business and only noticed "his" gentlemen out of the corner of my eye. They were busy drinking beer, and also whisky and wine, a strange combination for lunch and one I almost never see here. He told me bitterly, hotly, they ate, drank, ran up a bill of Rs 8000, and left without paying. Now I'd heard of armed forces people doing this here during the war but yesterday? What was he talking about?
These were the excise people he explained. And the lavish lunch on him was one of their unwarranted, illegal perks, taken, grabbed with arrogance and impunity. If he were to say something about it he could have a fine of Rs 10,000 levied against him. A confrontation or formal complaint could easily cost him Rs 60,000. He was beat up and broken last night. Not, I think, over the Rs 8000. He runs a good business though with rooms here averaging Rs 3000 or so, that's a real chunk of money. It was the brutality of it. The cruelty. The randomness. His powerlessness.
Kim happened by after what I know was an intense evening of interviews. I think she stopped by for a drink so I ordered us a couple of beers and three glasses. My friend joined us in a glass. I've never seen him drink before. Later, he ordered a third bottle and put it on his tab. Very unusual behavior by a person who's mostly abstinent. And a careful businessman. After all he'd just lost a thousands of rupees on an unfair government sponsored bullying ripoff. He told us more about the excise racket here in what he calls the "third world." The price of doing business is incredibly high. The opposite I think of our country where business is encouraged and you are freer to build your enterprise.
"I can remember" came to his lips many times last night. From the time the head monk of the police station ponsala here in Batticaloa ran amok right here on the grounds, shouting obscenities and insults. He's supported, encouraged by the government. And why not? He stakes a Sinhalese claim in this Tamil corner of Sri Lanka. My friend described also the riots of local Muslims against the rest of the Tamil community, fueled and encouraged by the Sri Lankan government. His young son looked up to him, he remembers, and asked "when will our house get burnt Dad?" My question is how do you bring children up in an atmosphere of hatred and violence, one that cuts so close, in a society like this. Is it any wonder that so many Sri Lankan Tamils have made their homes overseas?
Kim kept good questions going, something I'm not good at. Like Janet, she works on aiming the conversation. I listen to whatever comes. Anyway so much pours out during these times you can't take it in. I asked my friend about roundups. He made the worst face you can imagine. The cruelty of those times. Eastern University was, I guess, a kind of "camp," his words. I think not a refugee camp. I think it was an internment camp, a camp where "selections" were made, a camp where people disappeared and suffered. A place of impunity. Not exactly the place of impunity Sri Lanka is now. But a place of evil and suffering.
How long did this camp last? What were its conditions? How did people end up here and where did they go from here?
My friend (I'm afraid for him to identify who he is. The arm of the "law" is long and he is vulnerable) said that to know Singhala in those times gave you an advantage. Like knowing German in those unmentionable times and places in Europe not so long ago. The abject cruelty is evidenced only by his slight smile. By the fixed expression on his face. By the way he rattles the paper closed.
He comes back today buoyant, back in one piece. Where is the breakage? In newly erupting tides of hate? In cruelties to self and family unspoken and unmeasured? In the smile itself, cultivated, half felt, a protective shield?