The lie is like a story as the story is like a lie. You tell it as though "fine now, are you satisfied?" But without that ironic look on your face and with your eyes straight forward shining rather suddenly as you find your breath and you find your pace and you string the words and you repeat the words, some of them more than once, some of them many times like subunits in a polymer of pain or prayer because this truth cannot be borne as a truth but as a story or a fable firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing firebombing do you understand? It was firebombing. It was firebombing a family home. It was firebombing a room that was assumed to be occupied because the light had been left on there. It was firebombing of a home that a family was living in. It was firebombing aimed at children and your wife. It was firebombing done at night. It was firebombing aimed at you and your children and your wife, your wife and children. Who were they to be firebombed? Who were they to deserve the "wrath of a mob" or the anger of even one person? What? Your family was firebombed? You are smiling slightly and sweating slightly as you tell me this and I am thankful for your lovely long gray hair not dyed ugly black on your brown skin so I don't have to see black streaks falling from your sweat as the words grow hot. I can just shrink down and listen.
It was this firebombing, the telling of it, that opened the clamped shut maws of silence and hiddenness and it was this firebombing, the actuality, the time, the night, the fuel that furled on the floor in flame ("gasoline?" "No. Diesel.") that clamped shut your soul that was full of laughter, healthy laughter before. The firebombing done at night by unknowns "you see," you tell me, "You know. I was (unspoken: "young" "foolish" "brave" "quick to respond" "angry" "out for justice" "terrified" "defending my family" "stronger" "faster" "more sure of myself" "appalled" "focused") in those days and I just ran after them, for awhile, in the dark that night." So. Facts I know: there was a "them" and it was "night." Early morning actually. You told me it was three AM.
More facts you let go:
"We knew it was coming."
"This was August 13, 1981." This was fully two years before the pogroms came.
"This was my place in Bandarawela."
"We knew it was coming so we had buckets of water standing around the house."
We knew it was coming. In Bandarawela. In 1981. "Next door lived an MP." It was coming in 1981. We knew already then. I can remember.
"After this, Grace said, 'we can't bring up children here.'"
This was 1981. The three children were very young.
Let's count. Darshan is, like, 42 now. I think. It's 2016. How do you like that? Year seven since the "war ended." Year thirty-three since the pogroms happened. Year thirty-five since 1981. Would have made Darshan seven! What did this seven year old experience that night? What purchase did that night make on his young life's progress, process, proceedence? You, Silence, well former silence, you've kicked up the kickstand, revved the engine, started "remembering," started telling, started narrating, started recalling, started retelling, started recollecting, started your descent into memory fasten your seatbelt! And please remember to smile! Us grayhairs look so much nicer when we smile and we use nice words and we say whole sentences and we try to communicate sanely and not with spit and spittle and spite and lectures and tears and terror. Stay nice please as you smile and you tell us. Because let's say you're 75 now, I could have sworn you told me 73 but that was months of silence ago so who can remember but if Darshan is 42 now and you're let's say thirty one years older than him then maybe in 1981 you were seven plus thirty one equals 38 or if you're 75 now let's say you were just 40 or just shy of it or just older than it. Thirty eight or forty was old enough to feel your beans and be braver, swifter, more after justice, more focused, a lot more pissed off as you ran into the night after them. But Grace said, "we cannot bring children up here." Here in this climate, this climate of hate? Here in Bandarawela in this enclave of hate? Here in Sri Lanka in this society of hate? Where did this bristling hate come from? If this wasn't the government sponsored hatepogroms of 1983 but a whole twenty three months before who set off this hate button? Who came in the dark and aimed for the room you weren't in but had left the light on in because they were sure you were in there and tell me tell me please tell me if you would and forgive my dead heat of inquisitiveness emboldened by your beginning to remember and embedded in delusional run on sentences, why did you leave that light on?
What did you know?
How did you know?
Who let you know?
Really? You got up at three to do some work?
Really? You couldn't sleep because you had some work to do?
Work on your mind?
The putting of Darshan and the other two kids into bed in another room, the unlit room? The usually uninhabited room where now the lights were off? And your vigil? Nightly or just this night? How long had you had the buckets out? What did you suppose buckets of water might accomplish? How many buckets and yes they did, as you recount, push back the diesel that spilled out of the bottle that flew in the window of the unlit unlighted room that was thrown by a hand attached to an arm the brain of which had instructed in the throwing, this firebombing. Sorry I can't remember if Darshan is the oldest or the youngest or the one in the middle I think you've told me twice or maybe between you and Darshan I've heard it twelve times but the detail I'm after is how you knew this was coming.
Oh yes and who knew which rooms of yours were used for sleeping. Like. Was this someone you knew? Someone who had been to your house?
The detail I'm after is how you knew this would be a firebombing I think but I'm not certain I'm not an arms specialist we might call that crude device a "Molotov cocktail," but I can't be sure and I'm sure well fairly sure you yourself didn't take time to take it apart later and decide its source and its most likely trajectory because there was Grace all grave I'm sure and probably you too were thinking even if you didn't say it out loud because truly I think in all our cultures and silences and cultures of silence and quivering tension we leave it to the women to state the obvious "we can't be bringing up children here."
You told me something about your next door neighbor the MP. What did he do again? Did he put an end to something? Did he run down the terrorists? Did he hide your family? Did he arrange for you to get out safely? The MP. How could they firebomb so close to his house? What cheek was that? What gall was that? What tude was that? That was an MP how dare they? You, or you alone, or your family alone I guess would have been OK. You were a family of Tamils. Isn't that a sort of rodent? So maybe this was a kind of attempt to exterminate? To get rid of a family of pests. After all, you were working for the milk board. You were helping to build the rural economy. You were helping to feed people. You were making commerce possible and you were making living in the countryside possible instead of promoting rural flight and setting up a world where people were just too poor to stay in the country and had to get to the cities to starve. And this was in 1981 when this wasn't even the "developing world" this was truly and solidly the, you know, "third world" and your world had just come out of a long drought of five years or more where rice was unhaveable, coconut sambol a rarity (the coconuts had stopped producing) and people were subsisting on manioc tubers starchy and slightly poisonous, so milk! You were helping to realize the dream of independence and self-determination. You were making the country run, not being a parasite, not amassing millions, and not for heaven's sake plying a trade in young women going abroad to work for the oil rich satraps and bring back their horrid hate. As if there wasn't hate enough already. Or am I being romantic?
Were you stronger and faster in those days but not as imbued with idealism about country and countryside but just doing your day to day job? Don't know. But I know you now and it doesn't seem just doing your day to day job was ever something you just "did."
I don't know. These things you did not attest.
You did not attest or even report, which day did Grace say this? That night? The next day? Which day did you leave? How much did you pack to bring back to Batticaloa? How fast did you get out of town and on which conveyance? How many friends did you (or more probably Grace) hug and cry with and say we will come back or how many people did you skip saying goodbye to because what had these folks delivered to you in words in previous days? In previous weeks? How. Did. You. Know. What. Was. Coming?
Did Grace know?
Had someone looked at her strange-like a day or two before? Had the children heard something in school or on the main road or on the bus?
Did the children wake up that night, the night of the, you know, firebombing? Was there crying? Was there a smell? How did the crying mix with the smell and the uncanny uncomfortable light? Can I call it uncomfortable? Was more glass broken than just the window the firebomb flew through?
Did the MP wake up or did you have to call to him? To pound on his door? Was a light on in his house too? Was he wearing his sarama when he came to his door or did his wife come to the door or did a servant, the houseboy say, come to the door? What were the words he said to you and in which language? In which language did Grace express her anguish and in any more words than just, "we can't bring children up here."? What else did she say, clear-eyed or crying? Whispering or screaming? Horrified or knowing?
Did you know you were marked. Had you felt you were marked? Did you feel you were marked or did you feel this was something random? Just some random hate done to you?
What did you talk about in the following days? What had you talked about in the days leading up to this? Did Grace think your buckets idea was stupid or did she come up with it? How many buckets? Buckets? The best choice? Had she said some days before let's get outta here? Had you been working on a plan? Plan B for Batticaloa?
Had she fed the kids that night or was there tension? Did the kids pick up on the tension? Were the kids obedient when you said let's get out? Where did they spend the rest of that night? Who said what to you after it happened and how hollow did their words ring? How hollow did the words ring to Grace? How much did you hope you'd be able to stay or was it you too who wanted to leave?
What did this spell for you? The end of anything? The beginning of anything? A wildness you never really expected even though you knew it was coming? A betrayal you never really expected even though you already knew you'd been betrayed? What did you vow that night? Only to go forward? Never to speak of this again? Just to lock this up like you locked up the door (was there a door left?) and kind of throw away the key?
Why did you come to my table, open your mouth and say, "I can remember." Was it that you couldn't remember before? Was it the 41st day feast commemorating a Hindu funeral you had attended that afternoon? Was it the presence of yet another Fulbrighter the Sri Lankan American Ken, another Sinhalese (kind of, I mean he is American and was born in America) person hot on the heels of Sukhee and her mother just last week? Something Grace told you? Something Darshan said? Something you thought of in the car? A promise you felt you had to keep? My meeting your months of silence with a frenzy of patience? What could I be doing here now that I finished studying tanks, now that the study of tanks of all things had taken me right to your doorstep in Bandarawela like a bad dream or Molotov cocktail?