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Friday, 11 March 2011






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Government Gazette

A short story about route 167 and parallel lives

Way back in the seventies, according to P K S Wijeratne, classmate in Grade Eight and Nine, there was no school bus plying between Royal College and Kotahena. Those who went in that direction would have to wait for the Dehiwala-Kotahena bus, route no 167. More than 20 years later, when I was working at the Sunday Island, I would take this same bus, getting in from Town Hall. Waiting for that bus, sometimes for more than half an hour, I have often told myself that certain things don’t change. All I remembered about the 167 from that 70s was that there were very few buses and therefore long waits for the commuters.

PKS confirmed all this when I met him five years ago. This was a few days after I had met him at one of our group-gatherings. I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years and he was for a few minutes unrecognizable. He was bearded.

Engine driver

When he spoke, though, his voice, smile and eyes turned him into a 14-year-old schoolboy who once whacked several sixes off me in a home-and-home class match. No one knew he could bat until he came in at the fall of the fifth or sixth wicket and took the game away from my team. He never played leather-ball cricket. He was a presence in class but not a giant. Not a dwarf either.

Time takes us in various directions on various vehicles, some of our choosing and some not. His life rolled on those parallel lines made for movement, poetry, romance and of course death. PKS is an engine driver. No one claims unhappiness in public and he didn’t either. We all live with the choices we make, the circumstances we create for ourselves or which are created for us and convince ourselves and others that this was how it was all planned.

Old times

PKS told me that his father wanted him to work in the public sector and that an opening in the Railways brought him to where he was. No complaints. Contentment was written all over his face. I remember being happy for my friend and I remember this happiness being stained by a tinge of envy.

PKS remembered old times and recollection made him want to reconnect with people who had gone far away on different wheels, endowed or acquired. Among them was someone whose life path was invisible. He is a big name now in the mobile phone service industry. Let’s call him Nishad Thambimuttu.

Laksiri Chandana Kurukulasuriya, who sat next to PKS in our Grade Eight class and earned his ire once for scribbling the word ‘Caribbean’ (in Sinhala) on PKS’ desk (PKS didn’t know that the word was a proper noun and referred to a region; he thought that ‘Kurukulaya’ had deliberately written filth), used to call him Nishad ‘Bikki’.

This was forced evolution: Thambimuttu to Thambi to Thambikki to Bikki. I am not sure if it was Kurukulaya’s coinage or something that Buvendra Kumar Ketagoda Gamage (‘Boovalla’) had come up with.

Anyway, PKS wanted to talk to Bikki. I had his number, but warned that Bikki was a busy man and that on the one occasion when I had called him to seek sponsorship for a chess tournament he had been brusque. He did remember my name but said, ‘We don’t do indoor sports.’ ‘Why not?’I asked. ‘I don’t have to tell you that.’ ‘Oh dear!’ I thought to myself and told him that if there is a policy change to kindly think of chess as a possible beneficiary of his corporate largesse. I didn’t call him ‘Bikki’. I told all this to PKS and also mentioned that Bikki was now ‘Perera’.

A few days later PKS called me. He was in shock. He had called ‘Perera’. This is what he told me (in translation): ‘I didn’t call him to ask any favour. I don’t need any favours. I called him only because he was the only one in our class who lived in Kotahena. For two years. We would sit on our suitcases and wait for the 167 bus. We talked. Everyday. For two years. He might have thought I was in need of help or something.

He did not remember me or pretended he did not. He said mata mathaka nehe, mata mathaka nehe and hung up. How could he not remember?

I didn’t have an answer. I remember saying that we have not been privy to his life, that he might have his reasons and that in the end these things matter very little. We laughed about it. We talked of other things and he insisted that I bring my two little girls for a ride in the train so they could enjoy the rare ‘driver’s view’.

Demand friendship

A few days ago I ran into ‘Perera’ at the launch of a new sports television channel. Someone introduced us (!). I said ‘we were in the same class.’ ‘Perera’ said ‘Yes I know him’ and turned 180 degrees. He must have had his reasons.

I wondered, driving home that night after the function, about what was important in life and what kind of value one ought to attach to human being and why. We cannot demand friendship or acquaintance.

We cannot request or plead for remembrance. I won’t pretend that I was affected by what happened, after all it made me remember a lot of things, especially a conversation that had taken place five years previously.

I remembered our school song and a particular line in it: ‘we will learn of books and men and learn to play the game’. PKS taught me. ‘Perera’ too. About playing the game.

I don’t know when I’ll see PKS again but one thing is certain. I am going to take my girls on his train. I must thank ‘Perera’ for reminding me about that invitation that has gathered a lot of time-dust.

There are lives that run on parallel lines but they do not forbid togetherness. There are also lives that are about connectivity but are so tragically disparate. It’s a wonderful world isn’t it?

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