Three Men – Three Funerals
Borella Kanatta. Cemetery of the dead, wielder of ghosts of the past and guilt of the present. Today there were three funerals taking place. One in each section. Buddhist, Catholic and Christian. Each with a black hearse and a parade of cars behind. Mercs, BMs, Prados, Marutis and tuk tuks. There was also those walking in white with black umbrellas and prayer books, rosaries, hymn sheets and purses clutched in their hands. Each parade snaked through each of the three gateways. Meandering along the pathways, accompanying the ones departed to the nether lands they deserved. Or so they believed. Refrains of ‘Nearer my God’ and ‘Old Rugged Cross’ were heard near two of the snakes whereas the third had sobs and wails. Two of the snakes paused at pits of earth whereas the third paused before a raging fire.
“Karma, after life, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, pin, sin and pau” swirled in tongues spoken at these three destinations. Each one trying to comfort themselves in comforting those around and taking refuge in another coffin to spew forth one’s own grief and pain. There were coveted gazes and surreptitious looks all around.
There was something about death that was bittersweet in many ways…it gave birth to life in some while tearing out a chasm in their souls. And not everyone realized this…
Anya ran to the car because her mother was waiting for her outside. Aunty Kusum was always on time. She was a busy bee but managed to pack in so much despite that. She cooked, took care of all their household things, helped with her husband’s business and was always well groomed in wedge heels, tailored pants or on the rare occasion, dresses which showed her graceful legs. Aunty Kusum was everyone’s favourite coz she lavished the kids with lots of goodies in the food and nice things department. Gifts were shower gels and soaps for the girls and cologne and leather accessories for the boys. Anya and her brother Shelan were very lucky. Coz Aunty Kusum never left them in want. And so they had this enviable life. Aunty Kusum would drive their Sonata around town and you could see her shoulder length hair gleaming through the windshield sheltered with her Prado sun glasses.
Anya and Shelan were both math geniuses who were very apt at numbers but somehow Shelan being the elder one seemed to garner more attention. He was smooth, confident and at 20 years was well on his way to graduating with honours from his university. Aunty Kusum was very protective of her son and proud at the same time. She took pride in the fact that he would attract the prettiest girls in town and somehow was making a name for himself as a gentleman. Or so she thought.
Shelan would spend time with his school friends but there were the ‘other friends’ too. They were never invited home. They helped Shelan enter the world of sex, drugs and other such vices that entice most young men. Shelan loved it. He would say he is going out and from the age of about 17 would entertain sex workers in the backseat of his friend Ryan’s pick up. Ryan was an oddball. He was eccentric and smoked heavily. But Ryan was not into sex workers. Shelan was the one who wanted to gain some experience with them before he made a move on his girlfriends. So they would head out at night to Ward Place and Horton Place to pick these women up. Ryan had to drive around Colombo while Shelan lost what virginity he had in this manner. Shelan would then get Ryan to drop him home late.
Aunty Kusum heard through the neighbourhood grapevine that Shelan was hanging out with Ryan and voiced her concern to another friend’s mother that Shelan would be ‘influenced’ by the likes of Ryan. Yet when she broached the subject with Shelan he would just brush her off.
“Leave me alone Amma. I am just hanging out with Ryan. That’s all”
“But he’s not a good type no Ayya. Why are you spending time with him? He’s a bad influence”
“Just forget it ok? Let me be!”
Aunty Kusum could only pray that her son would be spared from the clutches of whatever evil she imagined Ryan would be upto.
Asela was just getting his golf bag ready to take to the club. He was going to practice with Uncle Sam to get some tips.
“Putha, you better be on time. Uncle Sam is an old friend and I don’t want you to keep him waiting”.
“Yes Thaththa. I know. I am driving so I will get there soon”.
Asela grabbed his breakfast – two pol roti sandwiched with some lunu miris and went to their garage. He got into his Prado, revved the engine and set off for Model Farm Road. It was only a 15 minute drive so he got there well ahead of his golf lesson.
“Ah good morning Sir.” Greeted the old guard at the club.
Asela just nodded and ran in to meet Uncle Sam who was decked in all white and waiting at the club house. They had a good lesson and Asela quickly showered and headed back home.
He had to get to work. Work was the family business. Construction. Built by Asela’s grandfather many years ago – an old colonial guard of distinction.
Asela was passing the Lionel Wendt as he was driving home and thought of his days as a teenager – in awe on that big empty stage reciting lines from Shakespeare. He never understood that old English but he understood the love of performing. Of being a part of something that was bigger than himself. Of art, passion and soul.
And yet he was now a director at Thaththa’s company at 25 years. Fresh out of university and after a few years of ‘training’ at the family company, he was now expected to tell his father’s old guard how to run the business. They who had watched him pee behind bushes and carried him when he cried. He was now teaching them a job that they had over 30 years experience in doing.
Asela passed the many pictures that lined the family hallway before heading upstairs. The pictures seem to frown down on him, pressing a weight he had felt ever since he returned to Sri Lanka from Durham. He had loved the life there. He had been with a bunch of fellow Sri Lankans and they redefined ‘freedom of the wild ass’. Asela was just thankful that his parents were nowhere about England to hear nor see some of the things they got upto. But England was fun. He was free. For the first time in his life. He felt free. No one knew nor cared about who he was. He could melt into the crowd and just be.
“Putha, will you be taking lunch darling?” his mother asked as he headed to his room. She was just finishing up a call and was headed downstairs. Decked in a lungi and top, she wore the Barefoot handloom with pride with her hair neatly combed back into a bun and her golden bangles clinking as she moved.
“No Amma. I might go out for lunch.”
“Ok Putha. But don’t get used to eating things from out. Nothing like a good healthy rice and curry from home” she said with a smile.
She gave her son the usual Sri Lankan kiss (inhaling air next to his cheek) and sent him on his way.
Alex was walking to the bus halt after his Biology class. He had to take the bus back to Borella from Dematagoda where his classes were. He stopped at the saivara kadey at the junction and got himself an ulundu wadey with sambal. He chomped on it greedily as he went to the bus halt.
When he reached home, he was greeted by his mother.
“Ah you’re back darling. How was the class?”
“It was good Mama. We learned a lot. I wish I had more time to study” he answered.
“That’s ok darling, you have inherited your father’s talent. You will ace the exam and get into medical school just like Dada” she said while taking his bag from him and ushering him in to the dining room.
“I made your favourite – butter cake and a nice ginger tea”.
Alex greedily enjoyed his evening snack and then dragged himself off to his room. He had to study his Chemistry notes if he was to keep up with the others in the class. Alex was smart. But doing Science for your A/L in Sri Lanka required a special kind of smart.
Alex’s desk was near the window through which he would look at the garden from time to time. There were flowers that his mother grew and fruit trees that were planted many years ago and now just grew in gay abandon. He would often let his mind wander to the garden and then he would pull himself back to his notes.
“Alex! Son, how was today?” His father’s voice boomed up the stairway. Alex ran downstairs to speak to his father.
“It was good Dada. We learned a lot”
“Ah did you’ll cover the respiratory system? That was always my favourite. Part of the reason I became a Chest specialist” he said with a beaming smile.
“Not yet Dada. Today was the heart.”
But his father, Dr. Pereira was already seated at the table and having a cup of tea. His hair was still neatly combed and his clothes were impeccable.
Alex slowly went back upstairs and closed his room door. He stared above his bead at the poster of Guns N Roses he had put up in his early teens. He wanted to play guitar like Slash. Or sing like Axl. Neither of those dreams ever materialized. He had bought a guitar which was gathering dust in its case behind his cupboard.
He looked at himself in the cupboard mirror. His room was dark and all he could see was a shadow across his face.
Shelan stood at the mouth of the pit of earth and heard the ringing of his sister Anya’s voice
“Ayya! Ayya! Ammi Ammi!” with hysterical sobs explain that their mother had got a sudden stroke and was dead at 55. His world had fallen apart. He had been abroad and in zombie mode had returned to Sri Lanka and now was here to bid farewell to the woman who gave him life and so much more.
He picked up a clump of soil and scattered it on top of the casket now nestled in the depths of the earth. There were red roses – her favourite – at the head of the coffin and the soil spewing down from all the family members peppered the red with brown and slowly covered it.
Asela walked slowly with a ringing in his ears. He was told to walk upto the control panel and press the red button. Without turning his back he had to walk away as the casket bearing his beloved Thaththa was slowly fed into the waiting flames. He did not cry, he could not.
His mother was next to him, clutching him and heaving in pain while the staff wailed and wept their loss – the Sir who had given so many of them so much. Beloved Master. Much admired boss. Dear friend. Collapsed on the golf course at his usual morning round. Heart attack. Dead at 60.
“We are gathered together to bid farewell to our brother Dr. Pereira. A man of enormous kindness and generosity. A man who dedicated his life to others…”
Alex stood in numbed silence as the priest droned on about his Dada. Dada who was so impeccable in all he did – the way he conducted himself, the way he handled his patients and his profession , the way he dressed. Everything was as it should be. Except his health. Cancer. The curse of many had stolen Dada even before Dada had known. A silent killer. Too late to cure. Too late to trace. He should have known being a doctor, but…
Alex stood at the side of the pit now swallowing his father’s mortal body. There was a black cross on the head of the coffin. His mother was sobbing next to him and holding onto her sister. Alex just stared at the angel tombstone in from of him that seemed to be opening his arms in welcome, until someone pressed a bottle of holy water into his hand which he sprinkled on the coffin and then slowly stepped back as they started shoveling the earth onto the coffin while the people sang “Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather, no storms will threaten, no fears annoy…”
The evening light was slowly settling in and the shadows of the trees of Borella Kanatta were peeping from their hiding places. The crows were cawing and the people were dispersing. There were tears, laughter, gossip and pretence. There was also peace.
It was time to go home.