The untouched kiribath lay on the white-lace-clad table. The crimson juice of the accompanying kata sambol seeped in patterns on to the Dankotuwa porcelain plate, as if the pale squares of milk rice had bled to death. House flies, like vultures, were slowly circling their prey.
“Deviyane mage lokukolla!” An old woman wiping her tear stained face on her saree cried out for the gods to bring her eldest son Anuradha back from the land of the unknown. The village women gathered around her, trying to restrain her arms; her wrists were adorned with expensive gold bangles but her palms were clenched into tight fists.
(Outside in the garden, one could barely make out the figure that stood in the shade of the rustling mango tree. Every now and again, the flowers, happy to flirt with the wind, fell in a shower around it, their fragrance eloping with the adventurous breeze. A sudden cacophony of female voices erupted from the house and startled the intruder. It slowly retreated toward the fence, cloaking itself in shadows.)
The pair of fists had found their target as the old lady managed to free herself and bang her enormous chest in a display of inconsolable grief. The bangles jingled and jangled. These fists had been yearning to do this from the moment the bad news had first come in. According to their TV, LTTE militants had attacked an air force base in Anuradhapura. Scores were dead and many more wounded. Chitra’s eldest son, an airmen, was assigned to that very airbase and now it seemed certain he had become a victim of the Tiger cadres.
‘Aiyo, my eldest son! We are finished! Those damned Tigers! May lightning strike them down for harming my boy! Bring him back from any Thuththukudiya! My son, my son, I want my son back! Aney, mage loku kola!”
Next to her on an armchair lay another mourner – rather less vocal – pressing a gold-framed photograph to her breast. The colour had drained entirely from her face.
“I told him not to go. I told him not to turn back…I told him that it was a bad sign…very bad.”
The house was full of busybodies running here and there, not sure what their presence was required for and ignoring the fact that it might not be required at all. Some men were conversing in hushed voices on the portico, others on cell phones tried to contact somebody’s somebody in the hope of finding somebody who could tell them about Anuradha’s present condition. Others clustered around the TV watching a replay of the attack on the airbase, each having their own opinion on which news channel’s live telecast was the best.
“Channel five…Put Channel five! That’s the government channel. They might say something.”
“But Channel three is more clear, Lokuthatha!” a teenage boy interrupted his uncle.
“What happened Arjun?” Siyathu mama, Lokuthatha’s second cousin asked Anuradha’s younger brother, the only family member with enough of his wits about him to not be acting like the ants had, the day they had hosed down the red anthill at the edge of the garden.
“Anuradha aiya left in the morning to catch the bus to Anuradhapura military airport. He was running late. Didn’t touch his kiribath even…”
He was still on his phone listening to the redial tone as he spoke to Siyathu mama.
The number you dialled is not reachable. Please try again later. Oba amatu ankayane prathi charayak nomatha karunakara pasuwa amatanna.
“We didn’t know till Kumari nanda came shouting. We turned on the TV and they showed the place had been flattened. Ammi shouted so loudly that the little one ran like a gunshot in to the bed room.”
The number you dialled is not reachable. Please try again later. Neengal alaitha ilakkam pawaneyil illei. Daiwaseyida…
“Magul phone!” Arjun swore under his breath, tempted to dash the phone on the ground.
Drowned amidst the dissonance of loud adult voices, a tiny boy of three was wedged into a narrow gap between the cabinet and the wall, where the wire of the fixed phone line ended. Chubby hands with white knuckles clasped the receiver and whispered in to the static. His donkey fringe obscured the path of his mutinous tears. He sniffled bravely, but the snot dripping from his nose refused to retreat, running on like brave soldiers on a mission.
“Hello? Appachchi…Appachchi?” his fingers kept playing over random buttons on the keypad, as he tried to reach his father. His will power and confidence may have transcended his age, but the phone had no heart and treated all equally.
The number you dialled does not exist. Please check the number and try again later.
There was no one, not even his mother, paying attention as the boy frantically tried to make a call – with one exception.
(The dark figure is still hiding in the far end of the garden, eyes scanning the crowd, waiting for a chance. All but invisible…watching the child.)
“That musala gaeni Ramya. She is a very unlucky woman. I told my youngest son to see whether she was out. Her man died at thirty, no? Coming out whenever our Anuradha putha is stepping out of the house. Always hanging clothes by the fence in that housecoat of hers. Trying to charm my boy, no doubt. Our youngest son saw Ramya on the day of his O/Level exam and the paper was difficult. Huh…my mouth…” Chithra was back to moaning with her entourage.
“When I saw the polkichcha on the fence I knew something bad was going to happen. Unlucky omen you know…Anuradha even turned back to get his charger. His battery was dead. I stopped him and told him to go without the charger. He stood a while watching the polkichcha. He is fascinated by birds you know. Even the unlucky kind. That’s why he loves the air force. I told him not to go today and he just laughed and said ‘don’t be silly Sujatha.’ Aney, when will I hear his laugh again?” Sujatha buried her face in the photo she cradled.
beep, beep Low balance. Need a loan?
“Tsk! I ran out of credit. I’ll use the land line!” Arjun, Chithra’s youngest son went towards the cabinet.
“Where the hell is the receiver?” he shouted. He trailed the snake coil like phone cord back to the heart of its lair, behind the cabinet.
“Chuti baba, what are you doing with the phone? Go play with something else. Bappi wants to make a call.” He pulled at the receiver and it brought the boy in to a standing position.
“Appachchi…appachchi is on the phone…” The boy clung to the receiver on tip toes but his uncle kept the receiver to his ear.
Oba amatu ankaya bawithayae nomatha…
The monotonous female voice categorically informed them in Sinhalese that there was no such number.
“This is not appachchi! Will someone please take this child?”
It took Siyathu mama and Lokuthatha’s combined efforts to drag a kicking, spitting, screaming and biting three-year old boy from the telephone.
“That damn polkichcha! Had to come today. I shouldn’t have let him go…it’s all my fault! All mine!” Sujatha wept on a shoulder.
“Shush, shush Sujatha. Don’t blame yourself. That must be the number of years he brought with him to live when he was born. Don’t blame yourself dear. There is nothing you could have done.” Sopi akke patted her arm soothingly. Sopi was a prominent member of their little village, always to be found at the village well with the same group of women, all of them gossiping their hearts away. She relished being in the thick of the action. “I’ll bring you something hot to drink,” she told Sujatha.
“You fool! Turn the antenna this way. Right, right…Stop! Not that side, buffalo! My right.” Orders were issued by Lokuthatha to a brave lad on the roof holding the antenna in place so that clear pictures could be viewed with no issues.
We bring you live footage from this morning’s attack at the Anuradhapura military airport. It is suspected that near…rrrrrrr…injured and…”
“Hold it! Hold it there…Don’t shake it!”
“There! Gone! Missed the best part. Gal Musalaya! Did you have porridge for breakfast?” Lokuthatha was shouting at the boy holding on to the antenna outside.
(The dark figure scanned the crowd. Waiting for its turn. It shifted from one foot to the other. Hiding well behind the foliage… The figure saw the weedy looking woman in the kitchen…she put the kettle on the fire. It eavesdropped on her conversation.)
“Only three years of marriage. Sujatha’s horoscope had Saturn in the wrong square. No wonder no? It’s a love marriage. Aney sin, for the little one! His mother’s bad luck took away his father.” Sopi akke whispered to a woman with greasy hair that smelled slightly like a thel beheth boutique.
“Which reminds me, akke. I must check my horoscope too. In fact, must check all the family’s horoscopes. I heard that Saturn is crossing paths with Mars soon,” the woman replied.
“Yes, yes…that’s true! You should meet my astrologer. Very precise…” Sopi akke stopped in midsentence as she picked up the stale kiribath from the table. “Aparade, waste of food. This family has always been extravagant wasters of food. Trying to show class, I think,” Sopi akke mumbled as she dumped the milk rice in to the kitchen bin.
Meanwhile on the portico…
“Sha! Lucky Arjun. His big brother died early, no? The sole heir to 25 acres of coconut estate and the family home. I wish one or two of my brothers went that way. 12 in the family, no, what to do.”
‘The state has deployed extra medical personnel. Government spokesman Mr. Ranjith…’
The landline kept up its insistently ringing.
‘…stated that the LTTE is responsible for the attack…’
Chithra’s youngest son Arjun was the first to reach for the receiver.
“Hello?” A long pause as everyone held their breath.
“Oh my God lokuaiya! We thought you were dead! Aha…you got late?…saved by seven minutes? Is everything….”
The frozen bodies unfroze in that midsentence…
“My son! I thought you left me! Just like your father. You were saved because of all the pooja I did for you in the temple. Our family don’t sin, no. Didn’t I tell you to avoid seeing Ramya nanda? If you had seen her God knows in what ditch you might be lying in right now like the rest of the people whose karma has brought it on them.”
“Ammi, I did see…” He didn’t get to finish describing the chat he had had with Ramya nanda about her rheumatism before leaving that morning.
Ramya nanda had come near the fence while he was watching the supposedly ominous bird. Sujatha had just gone inside to look for the missing charger.
Ramya’s monologue had been boring, but he did not have the heart to say so. He was the only person in the whole village who had enough patience to listen to her go on about her rheumatism – something she knew and unfailingly took advantage of.
Seven minutes of sympathy for a woman considered inauspicious by the whole village had apparently saved his life.
“Anuradha! It’s Sujatha. Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you not to go? You wanted to leave me a widow didn’t you?”
“Sujatha now calm down. There is nothing to worry…”
“Nothing to worry? Nothing to worry? You are telling me that…”
“Akke ask whether all his limbs are intact,” a young man interrupted Sujatha.
“Would he call if his arms and legs were not there?” Siyathu mama barked at him.
“I am running out of coins. Is chuti baba there?” Anuradha said desperately.
It took them a while to locate Anuradha’s young son.
“Here chuti baba, Appachchi wants to speak to you.” Arjun bent down and placed the receiver on the little ear.
beep…beep There was no voice.
(The figure saw the opportunity. No one was in the kitchen. This was it! It slowly circled around the target gliding in and out of sight…The kettle’s whistle went off. It heard footsteps, as someone headed toward the kitchen. Panic! Panic! It gabbed a tiny piece of kiribath and bolted.)
In the living room, Arjun looked at the little one’s outstretched arms and expectant face. “Sorry chuti, Appachchi’s money ran out. He will call again tomorrow. Here, Lokuthathe can you turn the volume down?” he walked towards the TV. And that was it.
The traffic inside the house gradually lessened. The unwise ones left first. The experienced ones shuffled and dragged their feet in the hope of being invited to stay and drink some tea.
“Lokuthathe can I come and watch now? My arms are hurting!” the boy bravely holding the antenna on the roof pleaded.
“Then who the hell will hold the antenna? Your mother?” Lokuthatha shouted through the window.
‘We bring to you live footage from the premises of the incident. The military…’
The boy holding the antenna ran in.
CRASH!!! There was a loud noise from outside.
“You buffalo! You let go of the antenna! You little…”
“It’s ok, it’s ok, Anuradha, is safe, no? Why watch all these dead bodies anymore?” Someone voiced his opinion, drifting towards the kitchen.
The only living soul who saw the little one under the bed dialling a toy phone whispering “Appachchi” was the ominous bird, the polkichcha, perched on top of a dead branch with kiribath in its mouth.