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Sunday, 16 February 2014

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 Short story  

Light at the end of the journey

“'Doctor’, why do you want to attend weddings…? You come with me, I’ll take you to the university.” “Why not”, I jumped at the idea.

The day is still gleaming in my memory though it was some 60 years ago, recalling a visit to the University of Ceylon, at Thurstan Road, as a child of seven or eight years; the solitary ‘Campus’ that existed at the time. My memory is still vivid, of that Saturday morning, when my parents left for a wedding in the village, leaving me with Mary Nona.

We got off at Thurstan Road, opposite the old colonial structure at the University of Ceylon in which the main section yet remains intact.

After attending to some academic matters, he came out. “You saw the university; where else do you want to go now?”

Bulbs

“Nowhere… Let’s go back” my mind was elsewhere, preoccupied with torch bulbs among many other small gadgets that a pavement vendor was selling, at the entrance to the university premises.

“Why men, you are a fool, come I’ll show you the races.”

“What race… 50 yards?, I came fifth at the sports meet, Nihal came first, and he received a prize.”

“Not 50 yards, this is horse races”
“Ah! Yes, we’ll go then. Is it far?”

“Don’t ask questions. You just follow me.” We came out through a different gate and crossed the road, walked a few hundred yards, until we arrived at the racecourse. The races had not started yet. “I cannot see any horses, where are they?”.

“Horses are running only after 2 in the afternoon”, says a tall man, who is standing at the ‘tickets counter’ and seems to be highly engrossed with some figures in a small note book.

We walked around the huge building. The tall man left his notes aside and raised me up to show the tracks. White fences run along.

“Do the horses jump over the fences?”
“No they run between them; fences separate the lanes in the track.”

“Shall we go now?” I suggested “Why you don’t want to see them running?” The tall man inquired. “That’s it, you crazy fellow,” said my brother.

“If you stay for a while you can see the horses running, how the jockeys whip the horses and all that”, said the tall man with the note book’.

“What is a whip?”

“It’s a cane to make the animal run fast, the jockey lashes it.”

“I don’t want to see that… and the torch bulbs will be over then, I saw boys hanging around, they were all looking at them”.

“But we are not going that way again, because we can take the bus from here. I will buy you a bulb at Bambalapitiya, on our way to the Railway station, there are shops; and then you can enjoy a train ride as well.”

“But, do they have torch bulbs there? Or shall we go back to your university and buy a bulb and then go to the station?”

“No, you might miss the train”.
“We can go by bus, can't we?”

“Tell me why you are so crazy about bulbs? Do you want ice-palam” “No, let's go quickly, I want to light it and see how it glows.” The train journey was another misfortune; it stopped at four places for want of signals.

At some places the sea was so close to the rail track, it was like we were sailing in a boat.

The waves hit the big boulders near the edge of the track, splashing water in the compartment. We couldn’t buy a bulb at Bambalapitiya. He promised one at Panadura town.

The water is so violent near the shore, but calm and tranquil in the boundless distance away, I was ‘all at sea’, after observing the playful wild movements of the waves.

“But, why is that the water comes rushing in violently, hit the shore with a bang, and then go back calmly?”

“What comes in has to go back, that is nature,” he said.

The gap between steps and the platform was too wide; he carried me out of the compartment at our destination. Where does the light come from; is it inside the battery or the bulb… my mind was wandering?

Is he going to buy a bulb at a shop or on the pavement… “Oh, there.., there that man is selling torch bulbs” I screamed. I was lucky this time; “How much are those torch bulbs?” asked my brother.

“Fifteen cents only, Sir, these are good ‘Made in England’ bulbs”

I grabbed it like a precious diamond. “What did the man say; something about England?”

“Now put it in your pocket till you go home, or you will break it; the bulb is made there in England by Suddhas”.

I wrapped it in my handkerchief and pushed it into the trouser pocket.

The one-mile trek will take a lot more time.Edmond, my classmate next door will be surprised to see the bulb; let him go and tell the others in the class on Monday. But why do you need wires to connect the bulb…?

Why not a piece of thread? I will experiment it, will it work? No it’s just a silly idea. ‘The jockeys are bad; I was thinking…, why should they whip…, but take the prize after winning’.

If I break a battery can I see the light inside? They say no; then from where does the light come, and where does it go when the wires are not touching the bulb?’

Is it like the waves in the sea? He said, “What comes in has to go back’. I slowed down my pace and got behind him; pulled out the handkerchief carefully unwrapped the bulb, had a good look at it. It is there safe.

Back home Mary helped me change.
“Where did you go with Sudu aiya?”

“Mary, you know something? He bought me a torch bulb.” “But what did you see, the university, you look elated today?”

“Yes, the university and horse races. Horses can run very fast. The big one won the race; they don’t give prizes, but only money, and that ‘tall man with the note book’ said the jockey and owner take all the money and nothing for the horses….”

“Ahh.., that’s why, you are so happy, seeing horse races”

“No, no, it’.s the bulb, I’m going to light it. I will show you how it glows. Do you know how to connect wires to a battery? …Ha, ha, ha…but, you know only to cook, don't you?”

“Now I must go to the attic upstairs to pick some wires… but, don’t know if there are any rats’” ”Mary can you come with me?”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“No, wait, I’ll show you the bulb” While pulling the hanky from the trouser pocket , the bulb fell on to the floor and rolled out to the back yard. I picked it up, oh!, it is broken, only the metal part remains; I shoved it back into the pocket, hiding it from Mary.

“Where is the bulb? Show me”.
“I don’t know…”

A ‘torch bulb’, what a delightful thing it is? It gives you light…, but it’s all gone now. I inserted my hand into the pocket and felt the broken parts of the glass globe fixed to brass screw with my finger tip.

Waves

“Mary, do you know why the waves come and splash on the rocks and then return to the sea? you do not know. But do you know what Sudu Aiyya said? “That’s nature..”

Mary…, I didn’t see the horses running, I told you a lie. The owner and the jockey take prize.

No, no the money, after hitting the horses with that…, what.., that, yes, whip, ‘the tall man with the note book’ said. ‘but, I will not tell lies again’.

I can feel the remaining pieces of broken glass attached to the metal screw of the bulb touching the sensitive tip of my middle finger; I slowly pressed it, will it prick? Will it hurt me?

“Not that, now please show me the bulb”. Tell me, do you know why the bulbs glow brighter at night, than in day light? You don’t know…, perhaps, that ‘Tall man with the note book’, will he?; but what was he studying at races?’ While I was murmuring to myself, I again pressed the tip of my middle finger against a pointed piece of glass inside my pocket.

I felt the thorny glass pieces hurt the tip of my finger inside the pocket and I pulled the hand out to see, turning the other way to avoid Mary seeing it—oh, a red dot..!, I pressed the bottom of the injured finger with the other hand just below the red spot ; a red bubble appeared, just like a tiny red bulb. ‘Why is that the blood is red?’ …Mary is gone. I sucked the finger; felt it salty. ‘But why does the blood taste salty…?’, Mary will not have answers, nor do I, .. and neither the ‘tall man with the note book’.

But sixty-two years on…looking back, the Havelock Race course where they conducted the ‘Sport of the King's’ and made millions, now turning out to be the sports and shopping complex of the garden city.

What a miracle? Thanks to a former wise leader, who saved the horses from the ‘Kings’.

The waves will continue to splash on the shore and run back to the great ocean.

My brother, a teacher who shed ‘light’ on thousands, for over seven decades on how things arise and cease, will continue to do so. He turned nonagenarian a few months ago, while I, who stepped behind him, hanging on to his finger some sixty-two years before, turned a septuagenarian.

The ‘Tall man with the note book’, our Mary, the jockeys, horses, and the owners, the bulb vendor, where have they all gone? Will they ever see the ‘Light’, at the end of the journey?’

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