Best Rocket Propelled Grenade Man we ever had

“The guy would take out bunkers with one shot” we were told. From the rest of the recollections you could practically see him taking aim, rock steady in the hell of jungle firefights. When we meet him, the calmness is still there. A fit man, on the way towards his late twenties. He is confidently independent with his white stick. Dark glasses and a beard do a good job of hiding the web of scars on his face.

The highlight of his life was being his unit’s RPG marksman. That ended as he matter-of-factly put it, somewhere near Paranthan. He was pushed backwards by a blast while running through a clearing. A distant helicopter in the Wanni sky was the last thing he saw before something struck his face and everything went black. “The doctors say there’s nothing that can be done” he adds without a change of tone. He insists he has adjusted to his new condition. Proven I suppose by producing two daughters after coming home permanently blind.

They all get by on his army pay for now. Yet he has his sights beyond survival on a pension. He wants both girls to make a living without “depending on a man”, a contact in the government or charity. It is a goal that calls for tuition classes to ensure high scholarship scores, leading to places in a “good Colombo school” and culminating in professional degrees (medicine ideally).

To make it happen he wants to start a small business. Sell snacks in town for a start. The main bus station and the two schools will ensure a steady market. Perhaps in the near distance, a shop. Further out, a willingness to be a blind Mudalali with more diversified concerns.

The investor among us is willing to put in an eye brow raising sum. There a terms and conditions of course. He is told to stay clear of anything that requires refrigeration (and the accompanying fuel costs for the generator). How to manage costs. Processes to avoid theft. A general discussion about investments, banking and loan options. His posture is of intense concentration, determined to absorb it all. The arc of the conversation gets ever wider. Yet it’s weighed down by a desire for specifics, concrete details, commitments that transform conversations over Thambili into actions.

There is no denying the commitment on his part. He wants to keep track of the accounts himself in Braille. Its surprises us all and smells of a familiar distrust of parasitic relatives. His Thambili serving wife seems more concerned about his Kassipu addicted “friends”. From the way she deftly chops the tops off, I don’t think they will have the courage to be a problem. “So many of the men here are passed out drunk by sunset because of that poison” she says. Almost as an explanation of the root of it all, she glances sideways at a fading election poster on a neighbour’s wall. There’s brief flare of contempt at the grinning pudgy face in the poster. Those of us who noticed that flicker get the message.

She’s been reading Sinhalen Business to him at night. It seems to have inspired them both with a spark of hope for making their future brighter. Her calm determined expression reminds me of another wife I’ve blogged about.

Eventually we pile into the van and bounce down the road. Out of a green Sri Lankan heartland, towards the A roads and Colombo’s madness.

In the back they are on the phones, voices raised due to the shaky signal. There’s a call about setting up a photocopy business in Kilinochchi. The guy in question was ex-LTTE. Recently released but still needs to get some documents cleared. Could you get your contacts in the army to take care of it? Meanwhile access to a distributor for a widow near Vavuniya with a new sewing machine is finalised. In Galle, somebody’s daughter will start accounting classes and the journey from a unfortunate past.

There are no organisations, titles, paperwork, grant writing, in this nameless activity. Just phone calls, and conversations among friends of several decades “someone I know wants to help this person in…”. A lot of weekends sacrificed for uncomfortable travel to see things for oneself. Money pulled out of hard earned personal savings. Disappointments shrugged off after lessons learnt. Wisdom acquired by surviving decades of this country’s history seems to keep cynicism at bay.

In the van’s rear view mirror, a blind rocket propelled grenade marksman is stroking the head of his baby daughter held by his wife. The white of his toothy smile is visible against sun blacked skin even from this distance. There is a final wave before the road (track of ruts) bends into the trees. I don’t know what writing all this was supposed to mean. The Voices can only take so much eavesdropping before they get insistent so here you are.


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