Updated: Feb 4
He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, remembering the first time he had come to Galle Face. It had been in those heady years soon after independence, when, as a young child he had been awed more by the vendors selling peanuts and windmills than at the sight of the mighty Indian Ocean blending seamlessly with the vast blue sky.
The sea had been calm with gentle waves rolling unhurriedly ashore, while the wind had carried along the scent of parippu vade and sliced pineapple sprinkled with salt, pepper and chilli powder…
BANG! BANG! BANG!
He jumped, nearly out of his skin, his trip down memory lane rudely interrupted.
Deiyyane!’ he shouted, ‘What the hell was that?’
‘Relax, it’s just some firecrackers,’ a lanky youth who suddenly materialised next to him said, smiling reassuringly and patting him on the back. ‘People want to celebrate this historic occasion, okay?’
‘Don’t touch me,’ he growled, backing away angrily, only to bump into something and almost topple over. He looked down confused. There was an almost waist-high fence around him. What was it? It took him a few moments to realize that he was standing in a little wooden dock on a large stage. He felt a surge of panic. The set up was like a courtroom. Only this was not Hulsdorf. This was Galle Face. This was Gate Zero. The old parliament building which housed the Presidential Secretariat stood sagely in the background oblivious to his distress.
He looked around for his bodyguards. They were nowhere to be seen. Missing also, was his driver Karu and private secretary Chathura who usually went where he went. Where were the bloody fools? He never left home without his entourage and now here he was, alone on a stage surrounded by thousands of people. Was this some kind of street play that he had agreed to star in? Was he hallucinating? He should never have touched that paniya his wife gave him last night when he complained of heartburn.
Once more he looked around. This time, for the comforting sight of yellow barricades, water cannons and armed policemen. Maybe even the STF or Army would be around somewhere. There was no one.
Instead, the sea appeared anxious and there were clouds chasing each other in the sky. Gone were the peanuts, cheap plastic toys and pineapple. No one was selling anything, anywhere, as far as the eye could see. Nihal and his popsicle cart, Sellamma with her basket of vade and Ahmed with his crate of toys had all merged in with the throng of people milling around below him. Replacing the colourful kites that usually danced in the wind at Galle Face, were thousands of flags. Golden lions, a haze of maroon, orange and green, bo leaves and swords merged into a kaleidoscope of jubilation. There was a decidedly joyful atmosphere around.
He stood unmoving in the dock. On the opposite side of the stage, seated at two cheap plastic tables joined together, looking very much like a jury, were twelve people. A cloth banner pinned to the front of the tables simply said, ‘People’s Council.’
He studied them. They were a mixture of youth and experience. It had to be some union leaders and meddling activists. He recognized a few of them from the papers and social media. One of them, he had even seen up close when he had got stuck in traffic that his security detail had been unable to clear. She had been perched on top of a barricade, megaphone in hand, surely inciting the crowds and baiting the police. He asked Chathura who the woman was.
‘Oh, just some Tamil woman, Sir,’ he had replied going by the pottu on the woman’s forehead and not really knowing who she was. ‘Must be some NGO karaya for sure.’
‘Looks like the PTA didn’t do a good enough job then,’ he had said sarcastically. ‘She should be locked up with that student leader and Muslim poet, no?’
‘Oh, I think the poet is out on bail Sir,’ Chathura quickly added.
‘Ha! Let’s see for how long,’ he said. ‘The President is coming down hard on these so-called activists. Serve them right. They should just shut up and live. What is this new world they are all dreaming about? This system change they are shouting about? What’s wrong with the way things are?’
‘Dear citizens, thank you for your patience. We are about to start proceedings,’ a young woman with a light pink headscarf, picked up a microphone connected to a long wire. As she began to speak, a hush fell over the crowd. He noticed that there were large TV screens and speakers rigged all around Galle Face. No one, it seems, would miss out on the action.
‘On this historic occasion, we humbly request your silence. We are here to listen and learn, Isthuthi. Nandri.’
The crowd cheered loudly in acknowledgement. A few more firecrackers went off in the distance. Then silence.
She passed the microphone over to a middle-aged woman who looked like a village extra from Kopi Kade. Her greying hair had escaped the knot at the back of her neck and was threatening to fly away in the wind that had suddenly picked up. She was dressed in a simple cotton lungi and her blouse was of indeterminate colour, faded after too many washes. On her feet were a pair of rubber slippers.
He had had enough. It was time to assert himself and show them Who He Was. He puffed out his chest, feeling it strain against the starchy white shirt he was wearing. What was all this nonsense? He opened his mouth to speak, but the woman held up her hand, asking for his silence. He closed his mouth and pursed his lips tightly.
‘Thank you, sister,’ she said, smiling at the girl and with the microphone in hand, walked to the centre of the stage. She cleared her throat. The sun shone brightly.
‘We thank you all for gathering here today to witness the very first sitting of the People’s Court. On trial today is the Minister of…’
Thousands of pairs of eyes were trained on him. The red shawl that he usually wore, draped around his shoulders, suddenly felt like a noose.
‘Here, look here. This is all a misunderstanding,’ he spluttered, looking to the heavens. He hoped the various gods he covered in gold from time to time, would come to his rescue. He hoped that the President would send a helicopter to rescue him. Maybe it would land on the stage itself and President would step out and embrace him, whisking him away to safety.
But nothing happened. The skies were empty. Even the crows that noisily flew around seemed to have disappeared. He was well and truly on his own now.
‘We are non-violent. There is nothing to fear,’ the thin youth was back. His eyes were bloodshot. Must be smoking ganja for sure. ‘No one is going to hurt you.’
‘Why are your eyes red like a devil?’ he snapped back, ‘And why am I here?’
‘My eyes are still burning from expired tear gas and You are here because we the people need some answers,’ replied the boy firmly.
‘To what?’ he asked, genuinely surprised.
‘To this whole sorry mess,’ said the boy somewhat harshly.
The kopi kade woman turned to him. She shook her head, her brown eyes fierce.
‘You were all getting ready to spend 200 million rupees that we don’t have, on a grand celebration just to unfurl a flag and massage your leader’s ego. Well, we, the people of this country are not celebrating Independence Day this year, because there is nothing to celebrate,’ she said to him and then turned her attention to the crowd.
'Dear brothers and sisters, there has never been anything to celebrate because the British just gave us back what was ours to begin with.’
Again there was clapping and cheering from the crowd.
‘We should have taken a country that was not indebted to anyone and made it into a paradise for you and me. But instead, those who took over after the British, have left us with nothing but debt and disaster. Violence and hate. For 75 years, they have taken turns to bleed us dry. Their greed has been our only inheritance. Every single one of them has grown fat off our sweat, blood and tears. Here, before you, dear brothers and sisters is one example of such a parasite.’
He felt himself sweat.
Credit: FB -shamindrini sivananthan