Colombo Telegraph

Short Story: Celluloid Visions

By Koom Kankesan

Koom Kankesan

Rajapaksa was mad and he wasn’t going to take it any more. He was sick of all the people, his people, who questioned his government’s decisions. He was sick of the journalists who wagged their censorious fingers at him. He was sick of his own family who embarrassed him. Didn’t they know what he was trying to do out here? You try to do something great and nobody appreciates it. He was staying near the port in Hambantota for the weekend. The traffic in the port functioned beautifully and on a clear day, you could almost see straight to Madagascar.

He sat up in bed now, late at night, with the brand new 10G laptop and mobile internet stick, a small gift from the powers that be in China. He was looking for Youtube clips of the Sri Lankan team at the London Olympics. What he found was footage of British Tamils protesting, waving their cursed red flag with the stupid face of their tiger on it. What, are the doughnut shops closed? Don’t you have anywhere to go? Rajapaksa thought irritably to himself. ‘What do we want? Justice! What do we want? Justice!’ chanted the Tamils again and again, reminding Rajapaksa of his futile time at the hotel in London. “This isn’t a Sai Baba bajan, you fools!” he muttered aloud, “think of something original to say!”

The large frame of his wife turned slowly and spoke with a croaking voice, “Go to sleep Mahinda, it’s late… put that thing away.”

Don’t tell me what to do, Miss Lanka ’73” muttered Rajapaksa and shook off her cloying arm.

It was true. Since the Chinese had given him this laptop with the extremely fast Intel Core processor, 10G memory, and dozens of applications unavailable in Sri Lanka, he and the laptop had been inseparable. It was amazing what the Chinese could do. He only wished that they had listened and given him one in kurukkan, the same colour as his shawl (he believed in matching accessories). Instead, they had given him one with a red skin, the stars of the Chinese flag flying in the corner; even the internet stick was red. It bothered him that a few years after defeating the threat of one red flag, another should attach itself to him so easily. Ruhunu Magampura International Port, paid for by the Chinese, would be the most beautiful port in the world. There was even a separate dock for secret arms shipments. But what did the future hold? He imagined every building flying a red flag and a harbour full of Chinese junks. The Orientals with their dragon festivals and ping pong champions and opium dens would be running the place. He saw the population of Sri Lanka slaving in sweatshops for pennies, fabricating cheap cellphones and dollar store items. And exactly how did he feel about Chinese food – wasn’t that the real question?

He had to master his use of laptop time. Technology had pitfalls too; at various times, he had become addicted to internet gambling, eBay India, illegal downloading, and World of Warcraft. Sometimes, he would log onto, posing as a Tamil woman, and then flirt with Tamil men so that he could then break their hearts. On other nights, when he couldn’t sleep, he needed to watch a little porn before he could doze off. Once, he had started out looking for the fabled Aishwarya Rai sex tape but ended up with all kinds of articles and outrage at his brother Gotabaya’s comments regarding the woman in the Channel 4 documentary. He and Shiranthi tried to deal with his brother’s indiscretions by talking to him the next day but he should have known better. They had Gota over to lunch and Gota could barely restrain himself.

“What? Whenever I see a pretty girl, I wonder whether she’s been raped or not. Isn’t that normal?” asked Gota, as if innocent.

“Idiot!” hissed Rajapaksa, and smacked his brother against the ear. Probably, if left to his own devices, Gota would be like some brown Benny Hill, chasing Air Lanka stewardesses up and down the country. “Women are there to be married, not to be raped,” added Rajapaksa.

His wife had gotten up in disgust, snorting as she fussed around in the background.

“What’s your problem?” he had asked her later.

“Sometimes I don’t know why I married into this family. I’d gather the boys and leave if I didn’t know that you’d have me killed.”

“You have a firm grasp on our relationship,” he chuckled dryly.

Now, before going to sleep, he checked in with the LTTE rehabilitation camp through Skype. Being able to video conference for free meant that they could save on the telecommunication bills. After being tortured for information, the captured Tiger cadres were subjected to a technique of aversion therapy. The boys were strapped into a chair with their eyelids pried open (the idea had come from a Kubrick film of the 70’s) and forced to watch Tamil movies. Thus, their association with anything remotely Tamil was broken down and came to provoke disgust and nausea if they encountered any reminders.

The sleepy eyed lieutenant on the other end of the video conference saluted him and told him that everything proceeded smoothly. Always, in Sri Lanka, everything was proceeding smoothly. Rajapaksa could hear the jangle of a Tamil movie’s musical number in the background and the throaty, strident complicated vowels always made his eardrums grind. He closed down the video chat as soon as possible. Was this the best way to proceed? Could they effect the same changes without using Tamil movies? Psychological studies showed that positive reinforcement was always stronger than negative reinforcement techniques. Could there be another way? He finally turned off the laptop and went to sleep, ruminating.


. . .

Rajapaksa came up with a brilliant solution once he was back in the capital. The Turkish film industry, in the eighties, had produced a number of rip-offs of American films. Big in Turkey at the time, they appropriated the larger than life stories of films like E.T. and Star Wars, and India had followed suit with re-workings of blockbusters as diverse as Mrs. Doubtfire and Terminator. Why not do that in Sri Lanka? The American Empire, during its height, had been propelled by the jingoism and boosterism of its film industry. He would take its mightiest classics and make Sinhalese adaptations using unprecedented production levels. They would be tested on the deprogrammed Tamils first and then released to wider audiences later.

So he started a film club. He forced Herath and other ministers to sit with him and they watched great American films presented to them by a lecturer from the Peredeniya University Film Society. Regardless of the movies they watched, the classic films would begin to jog Rajapaksa’s feelings and  memories of wanting to be a major film star. His long abandoned dreams brought a fresh poignant sting to the viewings that he had not anticipated. He couldn’t help but imagine himself in the lead roles.

They began with the early talkies. The first film was The Wizard of Oz. Rajapaksa imagined himself as Dorothy in a gingham dress and cute pigtails. Toto, trustingly and lovingly held in his arms, was the Sri Lankan electorate and they were trying to get back home, to a country before the shrill troublemakers and dissidents had pulled it apart. They followed the yellow brick road, which he surmised would represent Chinese and oriental influences, to the Emerald City, a time of prosperity and wealth making Sri Lanka the jewel of the Indian Ocean. By that analogy, the Wicked Witch of the North and East was Prabhakaran. The Good Witches were probably Iran and Libya. The ministers listened patiently to his analogies. The Lion represented the Sinhalese of course, the Scarecrow represented the Muslims because they were always running scared, and the Tin Man was the Christians because they had no heart. Who were the Tamils? Why, they could be the flying monkeys, ruled over by the green witch. At this point, his metaphors became mixed. What were the sparkly red shoes? They were a pair of glittering long range neutron bombs from China that could be deployed on the North and the East.

‘But the lion is cowardly,’ objected one of the ministers.

‘The truth is that the Sinhalese are a little cowardly,’ rebuffed Rajapaksa with an offhand air. That quickly shut them up.

He stroked an imaginary Cairn terrier while he remembered the Central Bank bombing in Colombo of ’96. Few people knew this but Rajapaksa had been there at a catered lunch on the premises. There had been a second suicide bomber, besides the initial one who had driven the lorry through the main gate. This second bomber wore a plastics explosive belt and burst into the central manager’s office where Rajapaksa and others had been enjoying a three course meal of confit ocean trout and crab curry with vegetables and dessert. When the suicide bomber burst in, disguised as an SLA regular, Rajapaksa had immediately known what the intruder was. The lean and bony frame, the emaciated face, told him everything. For a moment, the bomber dawdled, staring at the heaps of food in front of him. Rajapaksa saw the hungry look in his eyes, could see the bomber pause to reflect, thinking that having lived on a spoonful of rice a day, Rajapaksa’s plate alone could feed an entire platoon.

Rajapaksa had sprung into action then. “Don’t worry, leave it to me sir!” he cried and while the bomber still stood there, shocked, Rajapaksa grabbed as much food onto his plate as he could and ran out. He had been courageous and done the right thing. He had not let the terrorists take away his food. Seconds later, a lorry and three wheeler had crashed through the gate and the bomber ignited his load in the manager’s office. Rajapaksa had heroically escaped with second degree burns and most of the food.

“Well, food for thought,” mused Rajapaksa hungrily, “what else do we have?”

They watched that great milestone of the seventies, The Godfather. Once again, Rajapaksa could not but help think of himself as Michael, Al Pacino with his nasal voice and intent gaze. He thought of his father, D. A., as the elder godfather, holding the dynasty together with force of character and aplomb, dying of ill health, fatigue, and sadness. Gota was like Sonny then with his wild temper and manic outbursts. By that reckoning, Basil was Fredo with his round face and lecherous eyes. Rajapaksa was Michael through and through, not wanting to get into the family business and then forced by circumstances to intervene; only he had the will and mental acuity to rescue their faltering hopes and save the family honour.

Rajapaksa re-imagined the scene at the restaurant which would play out like one of the many failed peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. The oblivious cop bodyguard, ostensibly there for protection and moderation, was the Norwegian government. If Rajapaksa had been there, he would have asked to go to the bathroom immediately, having endured Prabhakaran frisking his crotch, and then retrieved the pistol and blown the heads off the LTTE and foreign interference. Absolutely correct. He was going to make the Tamils an offer they couldn’t refuse. Tonight, the Rajapaksa family would settle all its accounts. Only, he would have packed up the leftovers on the table before leaving. He didn’t believe in wasting food.

He wondered if he could hire Al Pacino to fly over and teach Rajapaksa to act like him. It was a masterful performance. Some of Michael’s wisdom might even have rubbed off permanently onto Pacino and he could ask the great actor what he should do in the current situation with Gota. It wasn’t Gota’s fault really. Rajapaksa knew that some of the blame for the way Gota was rested on him and the other brothers. When they were children, Rajapaksa had always sought to embarrass and quash Gota’s enthusiasm by humiliating him. The other brothers rallied around and took no end to teasing and mocking their short brother. Flighty and excitable, Gota was always the last to be selected for soccer tournaments. A brother might shake a soft drink vigorously and then offer it to the unsuspecting Gota, and then laugh when the drink exploded all over his face and shirt. Then their father would beat Gota. Once, Basil and the others held Gota down in the dust whilst Rajapaksa squatted over Gota and farted onto his face. Wave after wave of Rajapaksa flatus assailed the unfortunate Gota’s nostrils but Gota could not turn away. His head had been held in place like the deprogrammed LTTE cadres. It had made his younger brother sullen, despondent, and enraged. Rajapaksa had offered him the Secretary of Defense position years later partly out of guilt.

The third film they watched that day was considered to be the greatest American film of the eighties and it disturbed Rajapaksa greatly. Raging Bull was not like the others. With its unabashed swearing forming a gritty taste and texture throughout the script, the black and white film presented its characters in unglamourous terms. Robert De Niro played real life boxer Jake La Motta and Joe Pesci his brother, Joey. Jake was a ferocious uncouth animal and the film was set both inside and outside the ring. With his strange tics and rugged face, De Niro brooded an intensity like no other actor; he was unattractive but mesmerizing. Joe Pesci was like Gota, short and stubby and excitable, but was Rajapaksa like De Niro? Did he want to be? Prabhakaran was like Sugar Ray Robinson in the film, dark and inhuman and demonized, in the key sequences that framed their matches.

That image of De Niro at the end… having pushed away his family and friends, squandered his fortune… De Niro had actually put on a mass of weight for those scenes; it was not a fat suit. He sat there, bloated, wasted, and aged, smoking a cigar while reciting bad lines for a nightclub set, ruminating on all the mistakes he had made. The sad old La Motta stared at himself in the mirror and pummelled the air, repeating the mantra “I’m the boss… I’m the boss.”

It was not a role that Rajapaksa wanted but it haunted him, the performances and the melancholy unrelenting film. The next day, Rajapaksa had Gota come into his office and he presented his younger brother with a copy of the script. Without much in the way of preparation, Rajapaksa had Gota read a scene from the script with himself reading De Niro’s lines while Gota read Pesci’s. They turned to page 138 at random.

Rajapaksa: Did you fuck my wife?

Gota: What?

Rajapaksa: (quietly) did you fuck my wife?

Gota: How could you ask me a question like that? How could you ask me? I’m your brother. You ask me that? Where do you get your balls big enough to ask me that?

Rajapaksa: Just tell me.

Gota: I’m not answering. I’m not gonna answer that. It’s stupid.

Rajapaksa: You’re very smart, Gota (he improvised that part). You’re givin’ me all these answers but you ain’t given me the right answer. I’m gonna ask you again. Did you or did you not?

Gota: I’m not gonna answer. It’s a sick question. You’re a sick fuck, and I’m not that sick that I’m gonna answer it. I’m not telling ya anything. I’m gonna leave so if Lenore calls, tell her I went home. I’m not staying in this nuthouse cause you’re a sick bastard. I feel sorry for you, I really do. You know what you should do? Try a little more fucking and a little less eating. You won’t have troubles upstairs in your bedroom and you won’t take it out on me and everybody else… you understand, you fucking wacko? You’re cracking up!

At this point, Gota broke character and said “what’s the meaning of this filth? What is this?”

Rajapaksa then, without planning to, slapped his brother. His brother looked back at him, stunned.

“Why did you do that?” Gota raised a hand to his cheek and broke into tears, sobbing. He threw the script onto the desk and ran out of Rajapaksa’s office. Whomever was due to meet with his brother for the rest of the day would probably be subject to the extent of Gota’s rancour and wrath. It couldn’t be helped. The script, the film, had done something to Rajapaksa. It seized him. He was alive! He felt more powerful, more sensitive, more vulnerable than ever before. It was as if each pore was bursting with emotion, as if pain and intensity were oozing out of his skin.

That night, while his wife slept, Rajapaksa stayed up with the red laptop. He read all the articles and the rants and the objections and the complaints against him from places as far flung as the UK, Canada, Australia, the States. They were relentless and unflinching and Rajapaksa felt as if he were being pummelled by a thousand boxers, simultaneously, in the ring. Unforgivingly, they dished it out and he took it to prove that he could. He even welcomed it.

Towards the end, at the point of despair when he felt he might crack and not be able to take it anymore, he saw a Google ad in the corner for something called The Kids Helpline. The helpline promised twenty-four hour online counselling to poor victims who had been bullied through a variety of means, including something called online bullying where a bunch of anonymous perpetrators picked on and harassed a single victim. This was the first time Rajapaksa heard the term. An operator was standing by to IM with him in real time.

Rajapaksa logged on with a fake name just to be safe and talked to the operator:

Operator: Hello?

Singha956: Hi

Operator: Hello, thank you for being brave enough to reach out and talk to someone. Now, the first thing I have to ask you is: have you been inappropriately touched by someone?

Singha956: No… I don’t think so

Operator: What’s happened then? Tell me about it

Singha956: There are all these people on the internet making fun of me and calling me names

Operator: You mean on Facebook and Tumblr and things like that? What are they saying?

Singha956: They’re saying that I’m guilty of genocide and war crimes, that I curtail media freedom, and that I oversee a corrupt regime that controls over 70% of the country’s finances

Operator: Wait… what? How old are you?

At this point, Rajapaksa slammed the laptop shut. Beads of perspiration rained down his face and he wondered for a moment whether they could trace the IM call. Another scandal was all he really needed right now. Wouldn’t it be better to just hack into all the sites that printed declamatory articles and erase them? How long would it take? Did they  even have anybody who was smart enough to do that? The internet stick, stuck in the side of the laptop, continued to glow. A red light flashed, sending out a wireless signal to Beijing. Could it be, could it be they were aware of everything he was doing, everything he was thinking? Or was that too paranoid?

He sat up, unable to get to sleep, and whispered to himself softly, “I’m the boss… I’m the boss.”

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