Nageswaran is the most unusual cobbler in Galle Fort. Firstly, he is Tamil; secondly, he is unusually quiet, not saying much even to his most regular customers. He was not always like this, but nowadays he is preoccupied with what is happening back home, where his youngest daughter is fighting for her life. He wants to stay with her, but she needs dialysis treatment every week. Each session costs him some Rs. 8,000 at a private hospital. As a cobbler, he cannot hope to earn so much money, even in his wildest dreams. So every day, Nageswaran goes more into debt.
It does not help that he works harder than ever before. He mends shoes under a large, dilapidated umbrella in Galle Fort, in a crowded space full of noise and heat, made comfortable only by fresh and forceful winds from the sea.
One day, a young man steps up to stand in front of Nageswaran. In his hand is a broken shoe that needs mending. It is a simple job, and easily fixed by running a needle and thread through the torn section. When he is done, Nageswaran hands the shoe back to its owner. He is startled when, instead of walking away, the young man asks, “How’s your daughter now? Is she well?”
Nageswaran is so shocked that he cannot speak for a moment. It is like the man has seen into his head and can read the thoughts that occupy him constantly.
“Mahaththaya, how do you know about my small one?”
“I know more about you than you know about yourself. Would you like to earn some extra money?”
Nageswaran is rendered speechless again but something about this man rubs him the wrong way. The stranger is too confident, too aggressive.
But when the man holds out a note, Nageswaran finds himself reaching for it, despite all his misgivings. “I am from the army,” the man says, “And here, this Rs.2000 is for you.”
Nageswaran looks at the note in amazement. No one has ever given him such a lot of money for such simple work before. He finds himself nodding when the man tells him that he needs some help and will return the next day.
As promised, the man returns. He tells Nageswaran that he wants the cobbler to report any unusual happenings in the Fort and that he will be richly rewarded if he does. For Nageswaran, this does not seem like a lot to ask. This is easy money – all he needs to do is be a bit more vigilant and so he agrees readily.
Nageswaran begins to pay attention to everything around him.
For the first time, he realizes that Galle Fort is the centre of a lot of unusual activity. Of course, there are the familiar pickpockets and drug peddlers hovering around and there are the pimps and the call girls in their most tempting attire. But Nageswaran also notices other unusual things – for instance, the red car that is so often parked near the big bank but as far as he can tell, does not belong to any employee. He notes that shady characters walk in and out of that building all the time. They do not look like ordinary customers. He is not sure what these people are up to. But he reports everything he sees to the young man who identifies himself only as Rohan.
Nageswaran is comfortably off since he met Rohan. He has enough money to pay his family’s bills. His daughter’s condition does not improve, but at least it does not get worse. Nageswaran, now able to afford the best medical care, no longer feels so helpless.
One day, the cobbler receives a strange request from the man: to surreptitiously place a heavy package under a particular three-wheeler. It was Nageswaran himself who had first drawn Rohan’s attention to the vehicle. The red Bajaj always comes into the Fort at the oddest times, and its occupants often vanish for long stretches, only to return and zoom off. The empty three-wheeler is usually left unattended for hours before the passengers and the driver come back. Nageswaran knows there are always three of them – all men, dark-skinned and unmemorable.
Nageswaran is nervous about his new assignment and struggles to find a moment to slip the box under the vehicle. People are constantly milling about, it seems. The last thing he wants is for someone to see him. A Tamil man keeping a box under a three-wheeler will never be a neutral act in this country. Somehow, he manages the impossible.
That evening as he walks home, he knows there is ten thousand rupees in his pocket – enough to pay for his daughter’s bills, give some money to his wife for food and water, and yes, even enough left over for a bit of arrack in the evening.
He is still on his way when he hears a deafening noise. It comes from the Fort, and his heart sinks. Some people run toward the explosion to see what is happening. Shops put down their shutters. Mothers drag their scared children in the opposite direction, trying to get home faster. Nageswaran knows now that the parcel he kept under the vehicle was a bomb. He does not dwell on the thought. It is a scary one.
Later, while sipping a cup of plain tea in his little hut, he listens as his wife tells him all about the bomb. She has heard about it on their little pocket radio. The blast turned a red three-wheeler into an unidentifiable, black wreck. Three men were said to be the targets – men believed to be LTTE spies, gathering information for their next attack. Nageswaran does not tell his wife that he has seen these men and is responsible for their fate.
Nageswaran does not eat dinner that night, even though he is hungry. Lying on his mat, he is deep in thought. He never liked the war. He believes the Tamils deserve as much respect as the Sinhalese. They may be a minority in this country, but Sri Lanka was theirs too. He knows the politics are complicated in ways he doesn’t fully understand, but he is also forced to admit killing has no place in his personal philosophy of live and let live. His thoughts are restless and violent. His sense of guilt is overwhelming, and his conscience all muddled up.
Unable to sleep, Nageswaran wrestles with the knowledge that he is a murderer. However much he tells himself it is not his fault, that he was just following orders, he cannot forgive himself. As he finally drifts off to sleep early the next morning, Nageswaran decides that being human is the most important thing. Humane individuals make a nation, he thinks, rather than the other way round.
So the next day, he does not return to the Fort. Instead, he chooses another spot, far away from his usual haunts. It is closer to the hospital where his daughter goes for treatment. There are fewer customers here, and his regulars will have no idea where to find him. But Nageswaran is only interested in avoiding Rohan. He keeps an eye out for well-built figures – and every time he sees someone who looks like the army man he ducks away from his stand. None of this is good for business and Nageswaran only takes home a few coins that day.
He keeps this up for months. Nageswaran never sees his young benefactor again, and as a consequence, he never earns the kind of money he made before the bomb.
His daughter does not survive the life-conquering illness. Kidney failure is an ugly, painful way to die and no money or medical attention can alter that reality. Nageswaran watches it all with horror and resignation. He knows he could make this easier, but grapples with what it means for his soul.
As he holds his daughter’s hand during her last moments on Earth, as he sees her life ebbing away, he tells her he loves her, and that he hopes she is proud her father did what he could to find money for her treatment with dignity…most of the time.
She does not respond.