Curfew. An adult word. Floats across the power cut dark to the veranda. To us kids sitting around the carom board. Lit by a candle on an upturned Milo tin. Curfew. A thrilling word. It means no school. Waking late. Street cricket. Assorted fun with the gang along the lane.
My ears pick up other words. Kotti. JVP. Hartal. Eelam. Army. STF. 1971. Strikes. Pajero. T56. A familiar mix of mystifying terms in three languages. What’s worrying is the sound of the talking. Not the usual relaxed sounds of adults after dinner. On out station trips laugher would punctuate their easy voices. Cutting through the waves thumping in the dark beyond the visible world of some circuit bungalow. The voices a reassuring hand reaching us kids around the kerosene lamp lit carom.
The memory sharpens the contrast to the current voices across the room. Which lower when the growl of an occasional jeep prowls by outside the high white wall. The wall glows in the moonlight. Commanding the trimmed lawn. Reflecting our host uncle’s no nonsense precision. His deep mellow amiable voice personifying authority. Yet even he is subdued. Refusing to show admission of an unnamed defeat.
He’s old Police. Years in remote districts. Their landscapes and wildlife turned to poetry with an ancient SLR. Some are scattered around the house in modest frames. Yet the monument to those years are the black and white group photos. They cover a wall in the study. Constables standing in ram rod rows wearing shorts and chin strap hats. Uncle always seated centre front. Large, young, and blacked haired. Relaxed and confident in the long trousers and Sam Browne of his office. Flanked by fresh faced underlings privileged to wear the same. Land Rovers somewhere in each photo. Every foreground is a prim Police station lawn. Even if the background is jungle.
Those photos, like the garden wall, are assurances. Of order and certainty, and the security such stability brings. A just world that rewards “hard” work. Marked by the immutable calendar of religious events: Vesak, exams, Christmas, alms givings, big matches. The future adults and school promise. While blotting out the terrible world from us carom playing innocents. How were we kids to see past such illusions?
We the fortunate. With hard toiling parents holding up the curtains to cover the horrible truths about the world. The facade didn’t always hold. But we were too young to grasp the bigger picture. Even when we over heard stories about bomb blasts. Perhaps the felt dull window rattling thump of a far away explosion. May be saw it’s dirty brown smoke pillar boiling up into the afternoon sky. Later, on the way to something, the adults slow the chariot a bit to whisper “this is where…”
By then the daily cricket score drone of death tolls is the normal. Along with the check points and meaningless bag checks at school. Where someone talks about the ambulances. Screaming in and out of Ratmalana airbase all day and all night. “Something” is happening “up north”. Again. The news will give it’s sanitised lies. But it’s the cricket people wanted to talk about.
Less fortunate kids got bodies floating in the river. Or walked by somebody chained to a lamp post. Half barbecued with a tire. Had loved ones taken by the waring sides. For being a traitor, a Deshpremi. The required offering for the “cause”. Or just gone in night and fog of abduction politics. An evil harder to grasp than bomb blasts, land mines or artillery. I wonder how their parents explained such hell.
The shit I think about staring at a spreadsheet. Moonlight, curfews, power-cuts. The adults whispering in the other room. Powerful ingredients in the cocktail of crumbling childhood memories. Fading mental snap shots. Sound bites with lots of forgotten gaps. Age blurring them all in a strange continuous perception. Is that what the elders told us to worship as “experience”?
I see it as one child’s eye view of history. As it unfolded in his particular sheltered patch. We all know there are far more powerful terrible experiences. Stories locked inside those less fortunate kids. Locked by the need to move on. A fear of annoying people with power to make you disappear. The here and now needs of survival. Just as the more fortunate polish their LinkedIn profiles. All reaching for the better tomorrow in their own way.
Never occurred to me that this might seem a Black July anniversary post. If it does, it’s unintentional. There is no sermonising flourish to end this post. Neither I nor the voice in my head are that smart. Or wise. Or both. Instead I leave you to your wisdom. My only call to action is the hope you will share some of your wisdom via the comment box.
Is that asking too much?