The day after the war ends
The day after the war ends I drive through Colombo.
It may not be the wisest thing to do but I’m curious. I’ve been at home all day and it’s been strangely quiet. I’m tired of watching the news bulletins and I haven’t heard many vehicles on the road outside, which is unusual. Once or twice I hear the sound of a jeep driving past and the sound of men shouting slogans.
In the morning I speak to my parents on the phone. I want to find out what’s happening in Kandy and what they think about it. My father is in an irascible mood. “We Sri Lankans are mad, no? Everyone running around on the roads shouting and eating kiribath. Madness!” he says.
I am intrigued by his take on the events. I know he is relieved that it is over. What disturbs him is not the event but the reaction to it.
“Is everything all right over there?” I ask him. Now I am reminded of the many instances over the years we have had to ask each other that question. ‘All right’ has come to imply many things. It has become a way of asking- ‘have there been any bombs, curfew, riots, any pressing reason to stay indoors, keep your head down and hope that whatever crisis is occurring will pass, at least for now.’
Everything’s good, I’m told. Just maybe better be a bit careful today, no? Keep out of sight. Best not to go out. After which advice, of course I have to go out. I’m not sure where I’m going so I take the most familiar route. I turn into Kirullapone town and have to slow down because there is a crowd of men waving flags, standing around the bus stand. The mood seems festive, everyone’s smiling. Even the motorists who stop to make way for the crowds don’t seem too irritable, and considering the usual low patience threshold of Colombo motorists, this is nothing short of a miracle. Most of the vehicles carry a Sri Lankan flag — I’ve never seen so many flags before. Several enterprising mudalalis are doing brisk business selling flags.
A convoy of three wheelers passes. Men waving flags and shouting ‘Jaya wewa!’ lean out of the three wheelers. Large posters of the President have been pasted on the back of several of the vehicles. The three wheelers are followed by an open jeep crowded with people, including several women. They wave at the bystanders, some of whom wave back while some just stare with frank curiosity. It feels a bit like Vesak. A holiday atmosphere. Or an election campaign.
People on the road. Posters. Slogans. Shouting. I turn onto Galle road. It’s quieter now. Everything is closed, every shop, every business, every doorway is shut. The only other time I can remember everything shutting down like this is for New Year. There are fewer vehicles, no traffic jams. Colombo is not itself today.
In Wellawatte things get lively again. The three lanes of traffic suddenly merge into one. There’s some impromptu traffic directing going on. A crowd of men are lighting firecrackers in the middle of Galle road. Some of the men are directing all the vehicles in single file along the side of the road, to avoid the fire crackers. I am glad my father is not here to see this, I can almost him muttering ‘madness’ under his breath. I inch forward hoping that a stray fire cracker doesn’t blow up my tires and am relieved when I’m past them.
I’m thinking of heading home, when I’m flagged down at a checkpoint. Today, of all days. I pull over by the barrier. A couple of armed soldiers are manning the checkpoint. I give my identity card to one of the soldiers, who looks bored. He flips it over, looks at the address. Not from here? He asks. I shake my head. Kandy. I assume he’s going to ask me where I’m going but instead he says his sister is getting married in Kandy. At a hotel — do I know where it is? Yes, I say. It seems a very strange sort of conversation to have at a checkpoint but then, this is a very strange day and it has been an even stranger war. He doesn’t look older than twenty five — the same age perhaps, as the war whose end we are celebrating. It strikes me that he is just bored, perhaps he is tired of stopping people. He hands me back my identity card and as I drive away I can see him stopping the next vehicle. And I wonder what the driver is thinking. The war ended yesterday soldier. How long will you be there?
Published as part of the short story collection ‘Names and Numbers’