By Koom Kankesan –
Mahinda Rajapaksa took tea with his newly appointed Secretary of Mass Media, Charitha Herath. Herath had not touched his tea yet and fiddled with a stack of dossiers, clipped articles, and e-mail printouts. Two sugar cubes still sat on his saucer, unstirred, and the man’s sleepy eyes belied a nervous cough. Rajapaksa had always been suspicious of men whose complexion was too light; he looked at the Minister’s large ears and acorn shaped head, waved him to go on.
“What other news?” he asked the secretary as he stirred his own tea with a stick of cinnamon, taking an impossibly long time to soften. He liked the cinnamon because it was so hard and tart.
“Some offers from India,” replied Herath, coughing into his right fist and riffling through the printed e-mails.
“No need to show me. Just tell me about it.”
“Well, I informed them you weren’t probably interested, but one of the larger networks proposed doing a big big Reality TV show with Gota, your brother.”
“Oh yes?” Why not me? thought Rajapaksa.
“It’s not something you’d want to do,” stated Herath boldly. He had read Rajapaksa’s mind and realizing he had been too forward, dialled backwards on himself and simpered appeasingly: “They want to make it like The Apprentice in America with Donald Trump. They would call it The Fourth Estate and journalists would compete to write a story on current events. They would compete each week, overseen by Gota, and if he didn’t like what they wrote, he’d fire them. One by one, they’re all fired and the lone winner, with Ministry approval, gets to publish his article. It’s nonsense. The catchphrase they want to use is ‘You’re censored!‘ Mark my words. Nothing will come of it.”
“Okay. What else?”
“There’s a network that wants to do another type of reality show. They want to call it Tamil Activist Babes and it’s a cross between Real Housewives and Idol. Big big ratings. They’ll interview Tamil activists that live abroad like M.I.A., Meena Kandasamy, Niromi De Soyza, people like that, and they compete against each other weekly in terms of things like: level of activism, most diverse entourage, best singing voice and last but not least, prettiest sari.”
“What do they want to do with us?” asked Rakapaksa irritably.
“They want rights to broadcast in Sri Lanka.”
“Definitely not!” stammered Rajapaksa, grinding his cinnamon stick into the bottom of his teacup and splashing the tea everywhere. The liquid flew up and sprayed across Herath’s face and shirt, got lost in the jungle of his hair. Herath excused himself and wiped his face with a satin handkerchief. “You’ve got some on your earth coloured shawl, sir,” he observed, offering Rajapaksa the handkerchief.
Rajapaksa took the piece of cloth and dabbed at his shawl. “It’s not earth, it’s kurakkan. Earth is black or brown. It’s not really red, is it?”
“It is in the North and the East,” grinned Herath with a glint in his eye, referring to all the killing that had happened there.
The two broke out in laughter and Rajapaksa had to dab his eyes with the shawl. Perhaps Herath wasn’t so bad after all…
The shawl reminded him of his uncle D. M., the Lion of Ruhuna, who had worn a similar political stole. The years before his father died, Rajapaksa had been working in a library, finishing his studies, and entertained fantasies of becoming a major film star. He had not really considered politics seriously then – it seemed like many lifetimes ago – even though his father had suffered greatly after defeat in ’65 and had to sell the car and lease the family lands. In the mid sixties, Rajapaksa believed in the power of cinema to cure all woes, it lifted the hearts of rich and poor alike, and would never have thought that one person should pick and choose to decide what the people see. If he had been asked then, he would have thought that all censorship should be prohibited forever. It was a free and innocent time. He was lucky now to have Gota take care of that dirty business for him; Gota always took the brunt of the blame and it was getting to him, Rajapaksa could tell, but better that than ruffle his own soft-spoken image. If the public had only known what Gota had been like as a teenager with the mice! They had been young once… the feelings were coming back to him now… he wanted to be this nation’s darling, rivalling the super-stardom of Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor combined.
There was a time when he had the chance. He was contracted, mostly through his father’s connections, to play a priest in a film called Dream of Dharmapala starring Gamini Fonseka, directed by L. J. Peries. The film had been doomed from the start. To save money, the film was to be shot using a small village near the Vanni. The heat was unbearable and the local Tamils came to gawk and snicker. In the story, which had already brought great local opprobrium and controversy, the cast was working on a fictional tale of Dharmapala. Rajapaksa was to play a young would-be monk torn between following Dharmapala and falling in love and marrying a local girl. The local girl was played by Maggie Fernando, a young actress who had never been in anything else. She, like Rajapaksa, had gotten the role through connections and was often demanding and belligerent on set. Wherever she came from, she already thought herself a star, and in a curious way, inflamed Rajapaksa. Most women he met through school or at the occasional party laughed at him: he was a little portly and wore his moustache awkwardly. He knew that was why he had been given the minor supporting comedic role. His film dialogue with Maggie during takes would run like this:
Rajapaksa: But I am torn, don’t you see?
Maggie: Are you a piece of paper to be torn so easily? I don’t want to be seen talking to a coward.
Rajapaksa: But I love you, and you’re never home when I call on the telephone.
Maggie: What am I? A telephone operator to sit by the phone all day?
Rajapaksa: I would die without you!
Maggie: Then you must be a ghost to be standing here: a hungry ghost come back from the dead. Looking at your gut, I would say a very very hungry ghost!
(and so on it went)
Though she was difficult, Maggie had great flashing eyes, gales of emotion pouring from her face. Her legs were short and sturdy and her breasts strained against the pallu of her sari. When they were dancing together during the musical numbers, he found it impossible not to hold her tightly, pressing his fingers against her browned hips, feeling the pulse of the pelvis under the sheer skin, knowing that the dip of her navel was only inches away.
He could remember the afternoon before the end, the jungle heat blasting like a furnace, when Maggie screamed that he was grabbing her too much and stopped the take.
“You’re supposed to indicate your love,” said Peries, gently, “not consummate it. Leave something to the audience’s imagination, dear boy.”
“And he should tighten his priest’s robe,” shrieked Maggie, “his robe is also leaving too little to the audience’s imagination!”
Everyone was used to Maggie’s tirades and humoured her. Rajapaksa had not had much experience with headstrong women and he felt awkward around them. On the first day of shooting their scenes together, Maggie had said aloud that if Rajapaksa were a monk, he should not keep his moustache. She said that his moustache looked like two large hairy caterpillars that had climbed up his face and met in the middle and were now in each other’s way, yet neither one wanted to do the gracious thing and retreat. Another time, she had said that a monkey, grabbing onto his moustache like a handlebar and sitting on his head, could act his part for him and do a better job. She told him that he should stick to crossing parliamentary floors because that’s all his family was good for.
“He’s a pervert,” she screamed now, “not even the Buddha would have compassion for him!”
Peries’ assistant called a break while somebody went over and placated Maggie. Rajapaksa retired to a corner, where they kept a cot for him, to give her some space.
He lay down, trying not to wrinkle the folds of his robe. The heat was a furnace’s flames blowing over him. Instead of a sea breeze, it was as if the island were surrounded by a sea of fire that blew gusts of heat over the land. Tired, exhausted, he dropped off to sleep and imagined himself on a cool night in a clearing in the forest. He was in his orange robe but no one else from the film crew was there. Overhead, the stars twinkled beautifully in a sky as dark and starkly negative as unexposed film. He felt the ground shake and quiver. The grasses around his bare feet and legs rustled. A breeze blew over him, ruffling the folds of his robe.
Something sat up from the ground, eased itself langurously, propped itself on a limpid elbow. It was hard to see in the dark but now the thing got up and shimmered and danced and rocked its hips, walked towards him and around him. It was a woman and she walked with the drowsy air of someone he had made love to. She was uncurling for the second round. But this was like no woman he had ever seen before. Her face was smooth and powdery as sand, the mouth, the lips formed of seashells. Her strong sturdy limbs were made of coconut wood and when she spoke, he felt drunk, as if from arrack. Her joints and sinews were rubbery and fertile, her breasts a loamy mass of tea leaves and earth. Rubies glinted in her eyes. She was covered with moss and vegetation and possessed grass instead of hair.
“Who are you?” he asked, wonderstruck.
“Why, I’m your lover,” she replied with intoxicating sighs. “Don’t you recognize me?”
He knew what she was then and came to her, grabbing the Adam’s Peak of her breasts, snuffling the cool leaves of her Hill Country, grinding his loins into the steamy humid Vanni between her thighs. He knew who she was and she would be the all the lover he needed. He would grind himself into her day and night; again and again and again. He would plunder her, leave her spent and dried.
Somewhere below them, the surf pounded beyond the forest. He could hear the spray relentlessly hitting the rock, again and again in his ears. Maggie Fernando was down there and he could just barely hear her voice whispering in the wind: not even the Buddha would forgive what you do!
Rajapaksa was awoken that day from his dream by Peries’ assistant who said “we’re filming again in ten minutes.”
As Rajapaksa sat up, they both glanced down at the folds of his robe below his belly and saw a series of stains that covered his legs. The stains were dark against the orange robe and formed an archipelago down the left thigh, the topmost blob looking like an upside down Ceylon. For a moment, Rajapaksa and the assistant were puzzled; then the distinctive, sweet, queasy smell left no doubt. “Hold on,” cried the assistant back to the film crew, “Rajapaksa’s had nocturnal emissions again. We’ll have to wait until they wash the robe!”
Everyone groaned and fanned themselves, went to fetch some soft drinks. He could just imagine what Maggie would say about all this.
They fired him the next day and he had to phone back home to Hambantota to tell the family. His brother Gota, in his late teens, answered the phone. Rajapaksa asked his brother how things had been going lately. It had been a particularly bad year since their father had lost the election and the inability to make ends meet showed up in the most curious of ways. Gota told him that mice had gotten into the house. Some people they had leased their land to had been conducting heavy digging and the mice had scurried out of the field and into the house.
“What are you going to do?” asked Rajapaksa.
“I’m going to smoke the bloody buggers out,” replied his brother with a maniacal smile he could see clearly as if he stood in front of him.
“You’re going to smoke out the mice with fire?” asked Rajapaksa forgetting his own troubles, “don’t you think that’s too drastic?”
“Listen – the mice are chewing through the cables; some especially rebellious ones are sabotaging the lights. I can’t listen to the radio.”
“What if you burn down the house?”
“I’ll use dynamite if I have to! Don’t you know me?”
“Dynamite?!!” exclaimed Rajapaksa in alarm, “what will the neighbours say?”
“We’ll just tell them they’re mistaken, they didn’t hear anything, false rumours spread by people who are sympathetic to mice, I’ll think of something…”
Rajapaksa hung up the phone in disbelief, forgetting to convey the news about his return home. It was just as well. The production near the Vanni was abandoned when some Tamils (they never found out who) sabotaged the equipment by pouring sand into the cameras. His father died the following year and Rajapaksa replaced him as SLFP candidate. His interest in films waned and he was gripped by a newfound thirst for politics that he couldn’t quite explain.
Rajapaksa leaned back now and stirred the fresh cup of tea that Herath had provided. “What are you waiting for?” he asked.
“For my handkerchief, sir, are you finished with it?”
Rajapaksa realized he was still holding the piece of cloth and gave it back. He wondered where Maggie Fernando was now. He amused himself with the thought of having Gota find her and abduct her before torturing and scaring her a little bit. But then they would let her go; it would only be in good fun. No, no, let it go, he thought to himself. Let the mice run and have their little scraps.
He fancied that he could hear a scratching beneath the baseboards now, a low whirr-whirr. Did Herath also hear the noise? He didn’t want to be suspected of hearing things and so could not ask. Herath would not say anything, would only look back at him with a cocked sleepy eyebrow, a nervous cough, waiting to tell all the others about it. Mahinda’s going the way of his brother! Little mice nibbling at each other. Let them have their scraps. Whirr-whirr. There was the noise again – surely Herath heard it now? Yet he could not say anything, waited for Herath to break the silence, imagined their rodent like incisors gnawing through the wood and cables. How funny it was where the mice could get to!
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