“Their bodies were stacked and burnt like fire wood”. It was about first JVP Insurrection in 1971. The old solider had said it in quiet matter-a-fact Sinhala, looking at something invisible and far away. The words and the moment are among the fragments I can remember. The details of the story, like most childhood memories, have been swallowed by the encroaching fog of time. Whenever I see a young solider on sentry duty on a Colombo Street, the veteran’s story occasionally wafts through my mind. His expression of resigned acceptance and hopeless disgust springs into clear focus. It is a universally recognisable face if you watch lots of documentaries. I’m just no good at painting it with words.
I first heard the stories as a pre-teen hanging around my father’s workplace after school. Virtually all the company drivers were ex army men. Years later I pieced together that they were trained as drivers in the latter part of their army careers. One off them graduated to the role of VIP driver hauling dignitaries for the 5th non aligned summit in 1976. They had all served in together in the Ceylon Light Infantry (now called the Sri Lanka Light Infantry) — though not in the same unit. They always referred to their regiment “CLI” the same way an Oxford grad might the name of their College to signal their pedigree.
CLI training seems to have given them temperament for work that meant lots of sitting around deep in news papers with occasional glances at a watch. Or snooze whenever the opportunity arose. Yet they always turned up on time. Alert with vehicle cleaned and tanked up to go. At the end of long trips they safely guided the van load of snoring passengers along the tiring unlit third world roads back to Colombo.
The company trusted them with an unusual level authority and freedom. Their estimates of travel times to often obscure places were accepted without question by the English speaking telephone users behind desks in air conditioned rooms.
My father trusted they’re driving enough to take me on his outstation work trips during school holidays — so I could “see the country”. From my usual seat between the driver and my father I watched the ragged dust fringed Sri Lankan roads unroll before the windscreen of many vans. Kataragama, Anuradapura, Maho, Nuwara Elieya, Polonaruwa, Yala, Kurunagala, and Hanbantota. Obscure places all around Kandy. We went deep into the winding roads of tea, coconut, and rubber estates. Visited hopeful new towns in dry zone Mahawali schemes.
Overnight stays meant rest houses or circuit bungalows with pink or blue walls, creaky fans and mosquito nets. Where my father insisted everyone, executive and driver a like eat at the same table. For some this took some time to get used to. Along with the family trips, these journeys cemented my familiarity with the world of Sri Lanka’s rest houses.
An inevitable part of these travels were the hours sitting in the van judiciously parked in these shade, doors open to invite the breeze. While my farther went through his mind numbingly incomprehensible meetings and inspections of what ever factory/farm/installation we came to see. I was entrusted in the care of the driver who was generally nonplussed about baby sitting the “Mahathaya’s baba” (literarily: the “boss’s” kid). I was well armed with a stash of Sinhala children’s novels and Biggles books so I suppose I wasn’t a handful.
In between silent readings of our respective books and newspapers the stories trickled out. Mostly odd anecdotes of army life in the late 60s, early 70s when getting into the CLI (let alone the army) was an achievement. Many years later, these stories made Carl Muller’s Spit and Polish seem familiar. Though the stories I heard were more about bumbling Sergeants and the dullness of late night peace time sentry duty than the wild antics in Muller’s novel.
Grimmer accounts of the 1971 JVP uprising were not a major feature. Something about severed heads left by road sides and pathetic home made grenades built out of condensed milk cans would occasionally slip in. I was too young at the time to grasp the significance of the imagery. Specifically how human bodies might burn. Or how it might smell. I never asked what it was like to be shot at. I suppose it must have been similar to what Biggles felt when the windscreen disintegrated in a hale of German bullets — you yelled “oh gosh” and pulled an Immelmann turn.
I listened without pronouncing judgement and the stories kept coming. I doubt if they told me these stories to spook an ignorant child. Telling the stories seemed make them more relaxed. They never mentioned these stories when there were other adults around. I guess I must have been a tolerable audience. Years later, when I was “abroad” my father use to pass on their regards over the phone. Or casually mention that driver X or Y recalled one of our journeys. Most of which I could barely remember. They have long since left the company and moved on to I think better things with grown up children of their own.
I wonder what horrors the stories veterans on both sides of the Eelam wars carry in them. Chances are you won’t be reading them in books. They will trickle out unexpected in casual conversation. A veritable gold mine for someone with a first world publisher and a knack for spinning novels from “oral” histories.