A hilarious laugh broke the silence. Darshan turned his head and saw a well groomed man emerging from the corner of the corridor laughing, his torso rocking to the rhythm of his laughter. As he stepped closer Darshan saw his face clearly. After a few seconds Darshan recognised his childhood friend’s suntanned face. Anuradha!
“He must be in the interview board,” The man sitting next to Darshan whispered.
The interviewer walked through the two rows of chairs occupied by the nervous job applicants wearing shirts and ties. Darshan noticed all their heads rotated in the direction of the interviewer’s footsteps just like a bunch of sun flowers tilting along with the sun. Darshan was already employed but he wasn’t satisfied with the salary. He got a half day leave to come for the interview.
Darshan hadn’t heard from Anuradha for about twenty five years. That man’s curly hair, shaved oval face and the broad shoulders resembled Anuradha’s father, Nelson.
One after another, the applicants were ushered to a room by a good looking woman in a tight skirt. Darshan loosen his tie knot. After about ten minutes it was Darshan’s turn for the job interview. Darshan walked into the room with his hands tightly hugging his file full of certificates. The sharp edges of the file pressed his skin mercilessly.
Darshan was invited to sit. While the interviewer was busy reading a file, Darshan carefully analysed his face. Yes, it’s him. He had small eyes and thick eyebrows. The blue and white gingham shirt he wore contrasted with his tanned skin. Darshan was now certain that this man sitting in front of him was his childhood friend in Negambo. After a span of twenty five years here they were, sitting close to each other.
“So you have been working for five years?”
“Yes, Anuradha, you are Anuradha, right?” Darshan replied hesitantly. He felt watery sweat on his palms.
“Yes! Glad you still remember me, Darshan. I realised it’s you after going through your CV just now,” Anuradha’s thick eyebrows quickly rose up and lowered. Darshan recalled that expression, Anuradha used to raise his eyebrows in joyful moments when he was a kid.
Anuradha questioned again and Darshan replied instantly. For a moment he felt there were two people inside him, one observing Anuradha and the other one answering Anuradha. Anuradha tested Darshan with a series of questions about computer programming.
“Can you brief about your strengths and weaknesses?”
“Strengths, I am hard working and so far I have handled all my tasks efficiently. I seldom get mood shifts, but it has never affected my work,” Darshan replied combing his sideburns with his fingers.
“Do you enjoy playing computer games?”
“Yes, I love playing games,” Darshan smirked.
“Cool,” Anuradha’s wood scented cologne caressed Darshan’s nostrils.
“Interview is over. Can you wait in the lobby for few minutes?”
Anuradha’s hand reached for Darshan’s hand and they shook hands. He must have realised my hands were sweaty and cold. Darshan walked out of the room discreetly sweeping his hands on his trousers. He sat among other applicants until Anuradha came with a warm smile spread on his face.
“You are selected. Congratulations, Darshan.”
“Thanks,” Darshan knew it. The sky was sunny in the morning, a good omen. The day was favourable for him.
“How are your parents, Darshan?” Anuradha patted Darshan on the shoulder.
“They are fine Anuradha. They remember the kindness of your father. Appa often says we managed to go to Jaffna safely thanks to your parents. My aunt’s family didn’t make it to Jaffna before Sinhalese attacked Tamils in Colombo. They suffered in a refugee camp arranged by the government though they were not harmed.”
“Thaththa will be happy once I tell him that I met you. Give my regards to your parents, okay? Can you report for work on the first Monday of July?”
The month of July! July has always been a controversial period in Darshan’s life.
The orange colour calendar hanging on the wall contrasted with the pale white wall. The calendar had the month printed in bold letters. July.
Darshan has been working in Anuradha’s office for the last two weeks. But Anuradha didn’t mingle with him, probably because they were working in two projects. Anuradha didn’t tell others about their friendship. Perhaps because Anuradha wanted to prevent others thinking he favoured Darshan in the job interview, Darshan assumed.
The office room had four rows of desks with computers on them. Darshan was sitting in the row behind Anuradha’s one. Darshan can clearly see Anuradha’s computer screen while working. He frequently raised his head and stared at Anuradha, but Anuradha’s gaze was always fixed on the computer screen.
Twenty five years ago Nelson uncle and Darshan’s Appa worked in the Fisheries department of Negambo. In 1983 Darshan’s family was advised by Anuradha’s father, Nelson, to leave Negambo before the racial conflicts get worse. Nelson got to know about the brutal plans of racists that were silently growing.
Darshan wasn’t sure how to break ice. He was longing to hear Anuradha’s voice but the sound of fingers hitting computer keyboards was all he heard. A few drops of sweat emerged on his forehead and they quickly disappeared because of the chill atmosphere in the air-conditioned room.
Darshan got up from his seat and walked towards Anuradha.
“Hi machan,” Anuradha greeted, his eyes fixed on the computer screen.
“How’s work? Are you busy?” Darshan peeped into Anuradha’s computer screen.
“Yes. My project’s first release is on next week.”
“By the way, how is your sister? Is she working?” Darshan asked trying not to sound anxious.
“Shehani is doing her masters,” Anuradha replied, his eyes were still on the computer screen.
“We’ll have a chat when you are free. Give my regards to your family, Anuradha,” Anuradha nodded his head.
Anuradha used to have lunch with his friends in the same project. The members in Darshan’s project team invited him to have lunch with them, thus Darshan didn’t get many chances to speak with Anuradha. The grown up Anuradha perhaps is not as friendly as the ten years old Anuradha. Darshan looked around and realised all the computer geeks were focused in their work. They wouldn’t care if Darshan and Anuradha used to be friends. Darshan went to his desk.
The bright sunlight seeping through the window was landing on Anuradha’s face. Anuradha stretched his arm to reach the window. He dragged the beige colour curtain with tassel lace to cover the gliding window.
Darshan recalled how Anuradha’s mother drew the curtains tightly so that nobody could see the inside of their house through windows. It was the last night Darshan and his family stayed in Negambo. Appa and Amma were tired after packing and they had decided to stay in Nelson’s house that night, hoping to leave next day before the sunrise. Darshan’s uncle, who had come to help, left for Jaffna with a lorry full of their goods that evening. Darshan remembered Appa’s tired face and him faking a smile to ease the situation for little Darshan.
“I am happy! Happy! Happy!” Little Anuradha’s voice echoed in Darshan’s mind. “We can play as much as we want, because tonight you are staying in our house.” Anuradha’s eyebrows quickly rose up and lowered.
“I want to play with your train,” Darshan eyed to the coal black train set kept on a table.
“Sure. My uncle brought it from abroad, so make sure you don’t break it,” Anuradha said in a thoughtful tone that didn’t match his playful nature. May be he repeated what his mother had told him.
Darshan felt surprised by his clear memory of the events took place that night. Darshan’s recalled the touch of the silk dress on Shehani’s doll which she gave him. Darshan was in tears that night. The reasons for the sudden shift to Jaffna were not comprehensible to Darshan.
“Amma said we will not come back to Negambo.”
“Really?” Shehani was shocked. Her eyes were gleaming with tears.
“I will never get a chance to visit St. Sebastian’s church,” Darshan cried, crawling into the bed. Shehani used to describe and admire that church in Sea Street.
“I bet you will find nicer places to visit in Jaffna,” Shehani tried to smile, but her face was gloomy. Her doll was not able to console Darshan.
Darshan was asleep when his family started the journey to Jaffna the next day morning. Darshan’s parents didn’t take Shehani’s doll with them. When they reached Jaffna they saw the railway station filled with Sinhalese eager to leave Jaffna. There were Sinhalese families and students of the Jaffna University struggling to get into trains. Darshan’s family went to their native house and Darshan grew up there till he joined a private university in Colombo.
Darshan had been looking at the computer screen for long, now his eyes were itchy and dry. Darshan saw Anuradha entering the lunch room carrying his coffee mug. Darshan also grabbed his mug and went to the lunch room.
“Is your sister still in love with that soldier?” Darshan overheard Manusha’s voice emerging from the lunch room. Manusha, the HR manager was a close friend of Anuradha. Manusha had a set of chosen friends in office and Anuradha was a part of it. Every Happy Friday they went out for a drink.
“He is a captain in the army. She said he doesn’t have to take part in the frontline combat. But my parents will never approve. My parents don’t wish to see her becoming a widow in her young age.”
Darshan stood still in the doorway to the lunch room. Anuradha and Manusha were in the middle of a casual conversation.
“One of my cousins in the military was killed by those Tamil buggers. The war will not end soon,” Manusha’s hawk nose animated as he spoke. He looked like a raptor, Darshan thought.
“Shehani is cursing Tamils, because of them she is not allowed to marry the man she chose. We can never trust Tamils, Manusha. I recently met a Tamil guy who was a childhood friend. His father had worked with Thaththa in Negambo. When I told Thaththa that I met this guy, Thaththa told me all the Tamils support LTTE.”
Darshan felt sudden dizziness, his vision was getting blurred. That’s why he was avoiding me! Did Shehani also considered Darshan a LTTE supporter? Darshan slowly leaned back to the wall and took a deep breath. He held tight his mug, fearing it will fall.
Many months after the riots Darshan’s Appa read aloud the newspaper articles about killings. He wanted Darshan to know how Tamils were killed in Negambo, how their houses were burnt and shops were robbed. Darshan was surprised to learn that Catholic-Tamils were also attacked because Catholic-Sinhalese were bonded with Catholic-Tamils through the church. In Negambo the majority of Sinhalese were Catholics.
“Hey Darshan, look at Anuradha,” Manusha who was passing by, stood next to Darshan’s seat, he pointed Anuradha. Anuradha was biting his lips tightly. His eyes were bigger than usual and had a sulking look.
It was their COD time. The office had initiated a new project, a mobile game that simulates combat fields. Software developers were given permission to play a fighter game, Call of Duty after work, hoping to gain ideas to improve the project that was still in the designing stage.
“Shit!” Anuradha cursed himself for losing a kill. His avatar, Soul Eater was shot by an enemy. Seeing Anuradha’s reaction, Darshan laughed and Manusha joined him.
“Fucked!” Darshan heard Anuradha’s voice, just after Darshan’s avatar, Mahasona stabbed Soul Eater. Darshan observed Anuradha, he was aggressively engaged in the game. The sound of bullets hitting metal and walls penetrated into Darshan’s eardrums through the headset he was wearing. The fifteen people working in that room played COD, but Anuradha particularly liked to attack Mahasona.
“Come on Darshan! Shoot him!” Darshan heard Manusha’s voice from behind and he was surprised to see that Manusha was still standing there enthusiastically watching the blood-spattered game on his computer screen.
“Machan, today we are going for a drink. Why don’t you join us?” Manusha proposed. It was an invitation to join Manusha’s circle of friends, Darshan realised. Manusha and his clique of office friends had a passion for drinking but they organised charities and other employees looked up to them.
“Sure. I will join,” Darshan’s lips curved upward. By experience, Darshan knew how important it is to have resourceful friends of all ethnic groups. Today Darshan defeated Anuradha in COD. Anuradha, Manusha and Darshan will laugh about it while sipping a beer in the evening.
Darshan switched off his computer and stepped out of the room, whistling the cheerful melody of his favourite Tamil song.
Darshan runs with all his strength, the muscles on his legs trembles but he cannot stop. The faint sound of enemy’s footsteps grows closer. Darshan grabs a grenade from his jacket and throws it behind him and increases his pace.
The flares and the detonation sound of the grenade makes him blind and deaf for a while. Darshan runs through a dust cloud. He feels a sudden pain in his back that spreads up his spine. He tries to run faster but the unbearable pain weakens his legs. The fluctuating sound of a panting laugh rings in the air. Darshan turns his head and sees a mouth showing teeth and pink gums veiled inside a camouflage helmet.
Darshan gasped and opened his eyes. Timid beams of sunlight were piercing the lace curtains. He touched his pillow and was certain he was on his bed. He lay still on bed, his skin was moistured by sweat. He wiped sweat from his face recollecting the nightmare. The smile that shows teeth and pink gums. That smile felt familiar, but Darshan wasn’t sure where he had seen it before.
Darshan wiped his eyes that had dark circles around them. Lately he had lost the quality of sleep, because he was awakened by strange dreams. The previous night, the Catholic churches and other symmetric old gothic buildings in Negambo appeared like a little Rome in his dizzy-vision. Shehani was standing in front of the St. Sebastian’s church firmly holding her doll. Her foot length dress and long hair were swaying in the sea breeze. When Darshan stepped towards her she ran away crying aloud.
Still lying on the bed Darshan smiled to the statue of Lord Ganesha kept on a wooden frame in his bed room by Amma to help him succeed in his education and career. A cloud of aromatic smoke of the incense sticks covered the statue.
Once Shehani was frightened when she saw a statue of the goddess of destruction, Kali. By now she must has seen more furious looking people.
When Darshan was living in Negambo his family used to visit Munneswaram kovil in Puttalam district for its celebrations of Navaratri and Sivarathri pujas and once Anuradha’s family joined them. The walls of kovil had murals showing goddess Kali punishing the sinners.
Darshan recalled how Shehani was fascinated by the multi-colour adornments in the kovil. Her eye balls were wondering up and down focusing on colourful flags, garlands, oil lamps and statues.
Shehani stopped in front of a mural of goddess Kali. Her mouth opened as she saw the teeth, huge red eyes, and the frowning look on the goddess’s face. She screamed and ran out of the kovil. Anuradha and Darshan rushed after her. They found her on the premises of the kovil frightened and crying. Anuradha was surprised to see Shehani’s reaction because they have seen many paintings of scary daemons in Buddhist temples before.
“She was furious. She was looking at me,” Shehani’s timid face was red with fear.
After witnessing the ethnic conflicts, Darshan considered Sinhalese praying in kovils as a facade. Kali is a Hindu goddess. Sinhalese assumes they are nobler than Tamils and want to drive them away from their land. Then why do they pray to Hindu gods?
Darshan wiped his eyes with his hands. He had been continuously watching military documentary films. He was allowed to use office hours for that, because he had to collect details for the development of their combat game. The sound of bullets, explosions and painful screams coming through his headset filled his ears most of the time.
Darshan yesterday spent two hours after work in the office to play COD. He guided his game avatar, Mahasona to kill more, to score more. He was often victorious in COD games but Mahasona still didn’t beat the highest score of Soul Eater.
Darshan lately had been awakening at the midnight hour because of the nightmares. He gathered that he was seeing illusions of playing COD in his sleep. Darshan looked at his thin hands and imagined how Amma would sigh over Darshan’s weight loss and the dark circles around his eyes.
Darshan slanted his torso and moved his eyes in Anuradha’s direction. Anuradha’s computer screen was displaying a picture of Anuradha with a young woman. Was it Shehani?
“Let’s go. I’m hungry.”
Darshan heard the voices of Manusha and his friends. It was another Happy Friday where they will go to their favourite pub in Mount Lavinia and get drunk. Darshan joined the set of friends saying how good the food was last Friday. They took Manusha’s car to the pub. The pub was crowded and noisy. The smoky smell of barbecue increased Darshan’s hunger. They ordered beer and barbecued chicken as usual.
The sound of soda mixing with beer reminded Darshan of little Shehani’s feet running through sea waves of Negambo beach. The smell of her baby cologne blended with the salty breeze.
“Anuradha, how is Nelson uncle?” Darshan gulped beer from his glass to wet his throat.
“How do you know Anuradha’s father?” Manusha raised his voice before Anuradha did.
“We both lived in Negambo when we were kids,” Darshan replied and Anuradha pressed his lips together.
“Oh! Anuradha never told us that you both knew each other before joining the office,” Manusha made a comical face gesturing surprise. Other friends also looked surprised.
“We lost contact after they left Negambo,” Anuradha held his glass in front of his lips. The glass made a distorted image of his mouth.
“Why didn’t you keep in touch?” Manusha asked bending front to look at Anuradha’s face closely. He was interested in the new direction of their conversation.
“My father thought Darshan’s father must have paid tax for LTTE,” Anuradha replied with a stern voice, a loathing expression was printed on his face.
“Machan, my parents don’t support LTTE. My dad is educated. Educated Tamils don’t encourage violence,” Darshan felt the warmth generated by beer flowing through his veins.
“I’ve also heard LTTE collects money from wealthy Tamil families. Your father is educated. Therefore your father must have earned well. He sent you to Colombo for higher education, which proves your father is rich,” Manusha continued the topic.
Darshan didn’t reply. He stared at Manusha’s hawk nose with a blank expression. He saw several guns with their muzzles pointed at him about a meter away from him on his right side. Darshan didn’t move, he was scared to move. If he moved, wouldn’t the hands holding guns pull their triggers?
A waiter came near Darshan and put more bottles of beer on the table. Darshan turned right and looked. There wasn’t a single gun, only few bottles slantwise placed on a rack had their rims pointed at Darshan.
Darshan took a deep breath. He laughed at himself. So there wasn’t a gun!
“Is it true that Tamils get a sms warning before a bomb blast takes place in Colombo?”
“I…. don’t know. I’ve never received such sms,” Darshan gathered words with effort, “Guys, shall we talk about something else please?”
All were silent for a moment.
“I still don’t understand why your family didn’t mingle with other Tamils in Negambo,” Anuradha said. He is not done with me yet.
“Anuradha, do you mean those fishermen shouting filthy words all the time? Haven’t you noticed they have thick pouting lips? They are Negambo Tamils. We are from Jaffna,” Darshan recognised bitterness in his own voice.
“So you mean Jaffna Tamils are superior to Negambo Tamils,” Manusha’s hawk nose slightly twisted as he laughed. Anuradha also laughed showing his teeth and pink gums. Those pink gums. The face hidden in camouflage helmet was clear now. It was Anuradha, the Soul Eater that tortured him every night.
“Do you think I’m a Tamil tiger?” Darshan cried and grabbed Anuradha by his collar.
“Machan,” Anuradha tried to free his collar from Darshan’s hand. His eyes were wide with astonishment.
“How could you?” Darshan stepped over a chair and punched Anuradha in the face. Darshan felt his knuckles hit something hard with a soft outer layer.
“Machan, you are drunk!” Manusha and other friends got up and held Darshan by force. Manusha dragged Darshan out of the pub, he forced Darshan to sit on the front seat of his car.
“Darshan, calm down. I think you had too much beer today.”
Darshan looked at his hands. They were stained with blood. A soldier was forcefully taking him away in a military tank.
“Let me go,” Darshan cried and crawled over the seat.
“Darshan, calm down,” Manusha pushed Darshan back to his seat.
Manusha wiped sweat on Darshan’s forehead. Darshan saw Soul Eater aiming an AK47 to his head. The aim point was right in front of Darshan’s forehead.
“Don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me,” Darshan didn’t move. He closed his eyes and pleaded mercy.
Manusha took Darshan to his rented annex. Manusha took the door key from Darshan’s trouser pocket and opened the door. Manusha pulled Darshan inside and made him sit on the bed.
“Darshan, you feel better now. Don’t you?”
“Yes,” Darshan nodded his head. He was calm, his face was pale.
“Then I’ll leave machan. Sleep well. See you tomorrow,” Manusha left the annex closing the door.
Darshan ran to the door and locked it. His heart was rapidly pounding while the room was engulfed in silence. Few muddy footprints were on the floor. Darshan’s eyes moved along with the footprints and stopped on a pair of muddy boots. Soul Eater was standing there covered in mud, smiling.
“What did I do? I hit Anuradha!” Darshan tried to move his legs, but they were frozen. He helplessly looked at Soul Eater. Tears sparkled in Darshan’s eyes.
“I punched my friend.”
The room was filled with the ringing sound of Soul Eater’s triumphant laugh. Thick drops of tears fell on the collar of Darshan’s shirt.