Acts of Faith - Rajiva Wijesinha

This is an extract from Acts of Faith, the novel about July 1983 that was published in 1985 by Navrang in New Delhi. It was reissued recently, along with Days of Despair (1989, about the Indo-Lankan Accord of 187 and its aftermath) and The Limits of Love (2005, about the life and killing of Richard de Zoysa) in The Terrorist Trilogy. This was published by International Book House, and is available from newpet@sltnet.lk or 151A Dharmapala Mawata, Colombo 7.

 

CHAPTER 2 – Action Stations

What Tom our President was doing when fires began blazing out over the city is not something that can dogmatically be declared. It depends after all to some extent on what sort of a President we want; though we must course also present reasons for the fires being allowed to flourish, for no action being taken so that the mob is permitted to cavort unrestrained through the streets until it reaches Shiva’s place and rushes in, and indeed out again and on and on and on. Let us now therefore picture the President in full control himself of a situation with which he finds nothing amiss, striding in full dress uniform up and down his operation room, leaping at intervals to various multi-coloured telephones to assert his sovereign will. At moments of great intensity he slaps his thigh with his swagger stick, barking into the instrument at anxious army and police officers who ring up for orders, ‘Do not sh-sh-sh-shoot. Everything is safely in my hands. Do not worry, gentlemen. I am in full command of the situation.’

In this situation, Matthew alone of his Ministers would be with him, dressed naturally in resplendent white. Tom would not like many people to know he enjoyed dressing up in uniform, nor indeed anything else about this exciting evening. All entrances and exits would be closely guarded, with only the Black Shadow freely darting in and out to look over and coordinate certain practical details. During the occasional moments when Tom’s resolve falters, Matthew will firmly and resolutely prove to him that he has no alternative if his authority is not to be flouted totally; the Tamils have to be taught a lesson, and even if no one else does Matthew’s shock troops will do the job if only Tom will let them.

Indeed, they will do the job even if Tom does not let them. There is in fact even the possibility that the only way Matthew keeps Tom going through the crisis is by providing him with ever more elaborate uniforms at intervals to assure him that his prestige is increasing with every building the rioters burn. The Black Shadow keeps a string of sewing girls, all ex-virgins doubtless, who labour ceaselessly in an ante-room to furnish ever more elaborate epaulettes, crowns and wheels of merit and loose-limbed houris with splendid breasts, calling to mind the imperial joys of Sigiriya. As the night wears on and the mobs grow larger and larger and the breasts swell triumphantly, Tom comes increasingly to feel that he is indeed fulfilling the national will in presiding over such intense feeling. It will only be at more and more infrequent intervals than that he will allow himself to be drawn from the commanding heights of his ecstasy to concern himself with the logistics of the business, to look upon the elaborate diagrams drawn earlier in the proceedings upon which he has used orange and green and blue markers to indicate what had and had not been burnt, what should and should not be. The occasional corpse about which he had been told was naturally marked in black; but these seemed in time to be simply excrescences upon an otherwise pretty picture and were therefore unobtrusively removed.

 *

When Shiva died, Paul was at the house by the sea that the two of them shared, a few miles north of the airport. As was his custom in the early mornings when there was someone who had not heard it before beside him, he had declared to the wide eyed little boy he had just roused that he would sing him an old sad ballad from his country far away, about a man who dearly loved a little boy but who had to leave him to journey miles away across the sea. As the flames burst up around Shiva, Paul broke into ‘Why can’t you behave?’ with the melancholy fervour that he was convinced stirred deep and tender emotions in the boys. Shiva had thought the whole exercise cynical and in bad taste, but Paul’s view was that it was no different from the strategy of the International Monetary Fund, and no one disapproved of that; and his at least brought some pleasure to the boys, even if it was inasmuch as they didn’t quite understand him.

Paul, as you may have assumed by now, was despite his official cultural responsibilities primarily a spy. He had got the assignment in Colombo as a result of his friendship with Shiva at Cambridge, through which he had also occasionally met Indra: having frolicked enthusiastically in Ceylon before in a private capacity, he had left no stone unturned in getting the posting, stressing Indra’s significance as the nephew of the President and the brother-in-law of a potential nay the likely successor. He had indeed somewhat over-elaborated his own acquaintance with Indra, which had never been especially close for Shiva had been used to compartmentalizing his life, into the sacred and the profane as he told Paul in relegating him to the latter category. Paul however did not feel he had been misleading in staking his claim, and his performance he felt amply justified the appointment. He made the most of the relationships we have indicated in gathering his material, and society was in any case small enough generally for him to know most of what was going on and to make up the rest with a fair chance of it turning out true. His reports were in fact held up as models by this stage to aspiring agents, of knowledge combined with insight and dedicated judgment.

In recognition of his achievements, his embassy did not object to the extended weekends at the beach house even though there was very little doubt that these were not for the culling of information but quite different in character. Indeed they did not object even when it became clear that his counterpart in a Big Red Embassy had found out about his exploits too and had rented out a house near to Paul’s to keep tabs on him. On the contrary they were rather amused to discover that the Red Shadow, who had hitherto been absolutely straightforward (to the irritation of Mark who had found himself having to share one of his mistresses), now began to emulate Paul; whether in desperation or as a concession to the customs of the neighbourhood or as an economy measure (an example of the triumph of market forces, the Big Red Embassy not being as generous over expense accounts as the White), or even in an extraordinary attempt at osmosis, no one was quite able to judge. Paul in fact had every reason to be pleased at the development, for he kept on very good terms with the policemen round about and now made sure that they had the Red Shadow under close observation. Being far too astute himself to allow his name to be included in any files, he was working subtly on the policemen to get the Red Shadow’s name included in the reports they sent up periodically and which had the effect of provoking Mark at regular intervals into loud lamentations about the corrupting effect the tourism over which he presided had upon the youth of his land. An added reason for annoyance, Paul felt, might rouse Mark to action which would stabilize market forces in what seemed to him increasingly to be an overheated economy.

On the day with which we are concerned, the news came in as the morning passed that the town nearby was on fire, that there was rioting in Colombo, that people were being killed; but out in his garden beneath the palms, looking out at the resonant sea, Paul could feel no urgency. Around him his boys chattered excitedly, mainly in Tamil, which had always bemused Paul since they claimed so ardently to be Sinhalese; despite this, perhaps because of the contradiction inherent in their situation, they seemed to look upon the current happenings as something political that did not really concern them. Their view—though Paul could never be sure for, not wanting to be troubled by details in this particular context, he had never let on here that he spoke Sinhalese, so that they communicated with him in more or less strained English—seemed to be that the government was perfectly understandably taking its revenge upon the Tamils for all those who had been killed by them. Identification and isolation of the guilty did not appear relevant to the boys: people suffered and others suffered in turn and there was no need for anyone to get particularly worked up if they had no particular reason to identify with the victims.

Though Paul did feel that he ought to be back in Colombo, he also knew better than to travel during times of tension. In any case, the, news soon came through that there was a curfew. It never occurred to him that Shiva might have died. Race riots in Ceylon hitherto had been things that affected other areas and other classes, never anyone or anything of much importance in the hierarchy he had so swiftly learned to recognize. He had said as much in a recent report in which he had predicted a short sharp burst of violence soon. Even though things now seemed more serious than he had anticipated, he felt no great anxiety to get to Colombo. Indeed he was more relieved than otherwise by the curfew which allowed him another day of relaxation, and by the predictable discovery that the telephone lines from the nearby hotels were out of order so that he was unable to get through to hear anything that might oblige him to stir himself.

In this Paul was less conscientious than the Red Shadow, who drove valiantly down to Colombo at the first intimation of trouble, had his car stopped and his petrol siphoned off by marauding mobs, was photographed in the thick of things by roving correspondents, staggered to a police station where he received little comfort but had his name and address and occupation taken down, and was finally taken back under escort in the late afternoon to his embassy where he received a terrific lecture for not having clung close to Paul who it was assumed had precipitated the whole business and was now doubtless directing operations through a supersensitive telecommunications system at his beach house. And worse yet was to come.

 *

Let us return now to Tom, but a very different sort of Tom from the swaggering figure we saw before. Yet there is no essential incompatibility between that and what we now present, for it is eminently possible that a period of panic intensity should have been followed by one of profound gloom. In any case it is essential to explain the imposition of a curfew at a very late stage in the proceedings.

Despite any enthusiasm he might have displayed at first towards the rioting, it is more than likely that as time passed and the mayhem increased Tom was totally overwhelmed by the destruction. He, the President of his country (and an Executive one at that), the father of his nation, as he used fondly to think of himself while contemplating his vasectomy, could not have viewed with equanimity the wholesale and retail devastation of so many of his people. He must at the very least have been prostrate with grief for a time.

We can see him then lying on the large iron four-poster bed of his ancestors, clad in the nightshirt belonging to his father that he wore on any ceremonial occasion of retirement. He does not have on the matching nightcap with the bobble on top that he uses at more intimate moments, but rather his father’s grand old full-bottomed wig which he understandably thinks is more appropriate when there is a minister in attendance albeit in a personal capacity. This, of course, is Mark who is used to being summoned at such moments of stress and who holds Tom’s hand tenderly as he lies propped up on his pillows, gazing blankly at the colourful mural on the wall ahead. Occasionally Mark bends low over the fevered brow to mop it with the Eau Sauvage Tom adores. It is at one such moment that he hears the whispered command, weak but determined, that a curfew be imposed.

Yet now we have to explain why, though a curfew was imposed, it was not enforced. The simple answer will not do, that the proclamation was issued tongue in cheek. The seething mass of humanity that flooded in and out of Colombo and all over, bearing with it at one moment an erratically bobbing Red Shadow (to be sunk for ever soon by officious authority), may have been equipped with curfew passes from high officials, but certainly not from the highest. Tom, we can emphatically declare, is not that sort of person. Rather, whether it is a question of chickens coming home to roost or not, we see him now rendered impotent in the face of new forces and unsustainable passions.

It is fear now that grips him, not simple grief. We see John at this stage rushing in hysterically, with horrifying stories of inaction by the police and encouragement from the army, covert support from the air force and a navy band marching brassily by. Tom leaps from the bed, the wig knocked askew in his haste, and cowers underneath. Mark crouches down on one side and beseeches him to emerge and take command. John bends down on the other and croaks dire warnings that the army will not obey him, that the police will baton charge him if he steps outside, that the mob will tear him limb from limb, or at least the clothes off his back, if he ventures to open his mouth. Tom begins to shake violently.

It is with difficulty, both Mark and John having crawled in after him, that they draw him out from under the bed and lay him on it again. Hot chocolate is made, and liberally laced with whiskey and with vallium, and Mark and John sit on either side of him and gently get him to sip it down. Finally, the nightcap having been brought out at his earnest request and placed on his head, he settles down to sleep, wrapped up in several sheets. Mark and John take it in turns to sit with him, the other valiantly holding off all would be intruders by pleading urgent consultations. All phones naturally have been taken off their hooks; but Matthew too has had to be informed, and he obligingly arranges for the Black Shadow to cut all the telephone wires leading in so that Tom’s sleep can be absolutely secure.

 *

Indra and Diana were trapped—if that is the right word for what could well be described as the safest and most peaceful spot in the country—in a wild life reserve during the troubles. They had been on one of their regular visits to Phyllis who, though she adored her massive house and her little village, grew quite bored with it at times and whenever she could bundled any house guests available into her land rover to make an Expedition. These were often to the sanctuaries, but as often as not they were simpler meanderings towards and not towards some distant and not very vital goal, designed primarily for the enjoyment of the countryside, and the birds and the trees and the flowers. At the back of the vehicle, amidst pots and pans and provisions, were two village belles (usually chosen by lot since demand for places on these trips was intense) to do any wayside cooking and serving required, and either with them or on the roof-rack, depending upon the claims of modesty and their ages and his, was a boy of all work to set up deckchairs and build fires and do any other odd jobs necessary. Though Phyllis could do without a great many things, there were certain comforts she thought basic; and, even if Diana occasionally worried about the almost feudal character of these expeditions, to Indra they were blissful.

The troubles rocking the rest of the country indeed scarcely impinged upon them in their rural retreat, hearing about them as they did only from isolated trackers met on the paths or fitfully over the carefully censored and furiously crackling radio. They did however have a cause for worry in that the boy they had brought with them was Tamil. This was largely Indra’s responsibility and, if ever Diana came near to criticizing Indra’s initiatives, it was on this occasion.

Krishna was the son of Phyllis’ ancient gardener and had grown up within the grounds of the House; but a few months before he had gone off for ever along with his older sister and her husband to the new colonies that were being established in Vavuniya, in the bare and derelict lands between the Tamil north and the Sinhalese to the south. He had however found the life there dull and the work heavy, and had complained bitterly to Phyllis in several letters. His father nevertheless said firmly that the boy ought to settle down to being a landed proprietor, on however small a scale, and though Phyllis had been told that his views were governed by the fact that he had been given quite a large sum of money when the boy was taken away by the people setting up the colony, she felt that she ought not to interfere. But Indra had been very determined on hearing of the situation during his last visit, and had even suggested a trip to the area so that the boy could be rescued. So here he was with them now, deep down in the farthest south of the island, with many miles to travel through hostile country before they reached refuge in the Village; and, though he could speak Sinhalese, his accent was bound to give him away, if he were subjected to any rigorous and aggressive test.

About Krishna, as it turned out, they need not have worried. Their driver had a profound distaste for Tamils in general, but also a tremendous loyalty to Phyllis’ whole household, so he was convinced that Krishna did not really count; he swore violently accordingly at anyone who tried to stop them en route to see if there were any Tamils in the vehicle, and he carried such conviction that they got through unscathed. This was in spite of the fact that the day on which they set out, thinking that things had now calmed down, was that on which the troubles spread to the hills and erupted in the towns through which they had to pass.

The Village was still smouldering in places as they drove through, Phyllis’ cherished Village which she had held out constantly to outsiders as an example of communal harmony. Perhaps she was not far wrong. It was outsiders, they were told, who had swept in and burned and looted and killed. They had left Phyllis’ house untouched; but, drawn there by what seemed to be foreknowledge, they had set fire to the gardener’s hut at the bottom of the grounds. In it, they burned Krishna’s parents, his father deliberately, his mother because she had flung herself into the flames.

It is then a bleak picture we have before us this evening, in Phyllis’ drawing room as they sit hollowly before the television in anticipation of Tom’s long awaited address to the nation. Radha, Krishna’s younger sister, who has been spared the flames and had not sought them, feels guilt pervading her grief and buries her head in Phyllis’ lap without looking up. Krishna crouches beside her, his face blank and uncomprehending. Yet he has had earlier the relief of tears. Indra’s face beyond is similar, but rigid too. They have rung through to Colombo, and he has been told that Shiva also has died. It is not likely in such a situation that anything Tom would say could furnish much comfort. Still, it is something to cling to, imminent pronouncements of authority on the events, and they wait in hopeful expectation, for something that might divert their anguished minds.

It is with a horror akin to that they have already experienced, and which they never thought to have renewed, that they hear Tom declare that there is nothing surprising about the violence that has occurred. It was provoked, he says; and grieved as he is, particularly because of the damage done to the government’s development programme, he will take steps to ensure that the Tamils never provoke such violence again from anyone, least of all the Sinhalese, who are after all the most mild and peaceful of people in general.

 *

Tom has altered considerably once again, and it is a very different character from the prostrate figure of a few pages back that we have now before us. Protracted solitude and heavy drugging had worked wonders with a spirit in any case adaptable. After his recovery, washed and dressed and powdered and scented, he has been closeted for many hours with Luke, the most pragmatic of his ministers, the most adept at sensing the pulse of the nation, or rather of that part of it that is throbbing most energetically at any particular time. It is his influence that we can trace most clearly in Tom’s indulgent approach to the nation.

Luke’s attitude was a very simple one. He would deny vehemently that he was a racist. After all, some of his best friends were Tamil. He had had nothing whatsoever to do with the violence. Nor had any of his associates, at any rate at its inception. As it mounted, however, their natural passions could not be restrained. There was blood to be shed, and goods to be looted. Luke would have thought it naive to attempt to contain ordinary human aspirations at such a point.

Yet at some stage the carnival had to stop. The time was now more propitious to call a halt, for now greed was increasingly dominant while more abstract emotions such as hatred and resentment were dying down. All good men now, their passions exhausted, would rally round the government. Yet they should not be rebuked for what they had done, for this might only inflame them further. Something must be done to assure them that the authorities understood how deeply they had been moved.

Luke brought Tom thus far. It was Tom’s own fertile mind that worked out the precise form the sop to the masses would take. He had after all to assert his own primacy too at this point. He decided accordingly that everyone would have to swear an oath of allegiance to The President, to love and to cherish, to honour and obey, forever and ever, his language and his religion and his race. Of course it would be too troublesome to make absolutely everyone take the oath. But those who did not would not be able henceforth to function as members of parliament or ship chandlers or arrack renters or newspaper publishers or plumbago miners or insurance brokers or anything vital to the running of the nation or the economy.

It was, Tom pointed out to the nation, the unrestrained activities of the Tamils in such functions that had roused the Sinhalese to such violent resentment. It was his duty, as the father of his nation, and an Executive one at that, to don the mantle of his illustrious forebears, Devanampiyatissa and Dhutugemunu and Parakramabahu (both the First and the Fourth, though not necessarily the others) and Rajasingha and Vimaladharmasuriya and Sardiel, and bring all aliens politically and economically under his gracious control. This, he could confidently assert, from his knowledge of history—and he had won many prizes for history while he was at school—was the only way in which the country would prosper. He had an obligation to ensure that the country prospered. Whatever anyone might say, he had always fulfilled his obligations, and he would continue to do so while there was breath in his body.

It was, Matthew and Mark and Luke and Dick all assured him as the light dimmed and his face faded from the screen, the performance of a lifetime. There was no doubt after that that peace would be restored and businesses would flourish as never before. Matthew indeed went out promptly and bought up as many shares as he could in ship chandling, arrack renting, plumbago mining and insurance broking. He had competition in this from Gerry, who was beginning to be disillusioned with politics, and in whose mind the image of her father burned brighter as the years passed. They were both disappointed to discover that there were no shares available in newspapers, but this they felt was something that would be remedied in time.

 *

A few hours after Tom appeared on television in Ceylon, his brother Harry the Bishop did the same in England. Just before him, there had been an interview with a Sinhalese and a Tamil, both meant to be leaders of their respective communities in London, and they had shouted at each other excitedly for ten minutes. Harry had refused to be interviewed. As a churchman, he was used to making pronouncements, and it was as a churchman that he insisted on appearing. We can do no better than to quote from his statement, widely disseminated as it later was.

‘The facts cannot be denied. Thousands of Tamils, old and young and even little children, were assaulted, robbed, killed, bereaved, and made refugees. They saw their homes, possessions, vehicles, shops and factories plundered, burnt or destroyed. These people were humiliated, made to live in fear and rendered helpless.’

‘There are those who say that this massive Sinhalese outburst against Tamils in the south was retaliation for various wrongs, and was therefore justified. This is to advocate tribal vengeance. The conscience of those who make such a claim is distorted. We must rise above such tribal morality. What happened cannot be justified on moral grounds. We must admit this and acknowledge our shame. And it is not enough to be ashamed, because inhuman passions inflamed some Sinhalese for a short period. We must be ashamed as Sinhalese for the moral crime other Sinhalese committed.

‘We must also make our apology to those Tamils who were unjustified victims of the violence. We do this because we share in the total life of our people. Good and great aspects of our Sinhala heritage were due to the lives and achievements of only a section of the Sinhala people, but we claim what one section did as belonging to all. Similarly, when a section of the Sinhalese do what is morally wrong or bad, we share in it. We share in the evil they have done. Also, it is a mark of moral maturity to acknowledge a moral crime on behalf of those closely knit to us who do not realise what they have done. And an apology is made on their behalf. Parents do so on behalf of children. It is only by such an apology that we too will recover our proper moral and religious values.’

‘And we must act. There is need, not simply of relief work, but of rehabilitation. Most importantly, there is the public aspect of rehabilitation. This involves guaranteeing Tamils residing in or returning to Sinhala areas, genuine security of life and property. It includes regular payment of wages, and assistance to rebuild homes and restart business enterprises. We must hope that those in power will act conscientiously.’

‘We must also realise that if there is no sustained dialogue and negotiation, the situation will get worse. The deadlock amongst our leaders at present is disheartening. The urgent demands of our national crisis must overcome personal, party and petty interests. There must be a real determination to reach a settlement. Otherwise, there will be increasing disorder along with increasing dictatorship.’

Harry had prepared his statement before, and he saw no reason to change it though he gathered from the news that preceded his own appearance what Tom had said in Ceylon. He was not entirely surprised the next day when Dick rang him up to tell him that he had better not return in a month as planned. A recording of the broadcast from London had been played to Tom early that morning and he had remarked drily at its conclusion that it would be safer for Harry not to come back, since his safety could not be guaranteed.

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