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acts-of-faithOur hero will be called Shiva, rousing in the minds of the more sophisticated amongst our readers (yourself, for instance) an image of burnished bronze poised between action and inaction, its myriad arms flung out in several directions, pointing, gesticulating, cajoling. Standing as he does for both Creation and Destruction, the one necessarily involving the other, he will not we trust seem irresponsible or undutiful as a hero in dying at the very beginning of the book. Being Tamil, he will go up in a blaze of glory (and in a helicopter too), thus shedding the brightest possible light upon the people and the processes we need to illuminate. Besides, he will have a sort of successor, symbolically enough called Paul, the executor of his will; though whether this is adequate consolation, whether the substitute will prove suitable, must be left for you to judge.

Then there will be a married couple, but a somewhat unusual couple in that it is generally believed, in this appropriately named Democratic and Socialist Republic of Ceylon where all things are canvassed publicly (albeit in whispers) and nothing private is held sacred (except enterprise), that their marriage was never consummated. That they had no children contributed to this assumption. That her name was Diana did not, so sadly has classical learning declined in this perverse generation. His name is Indra and he was an old friend and also a partner, in a variety of businesses, of Shiva who had accompanied the couple on their honeymoon.

Indra and Diana are Sinhalese, and Buddhists too, though only after a fashion. Ironically, Diana is the more devout, although she is racially hybrid. Her father was a Kandyan Sinhalese, an aristocrat from a little village named after his family (or conceivably vice versa) and nestling in the quiet hills overlooking the Dumbara valley. Her mother Phyllis, settled at the time our novel opens in the village (as she portentously termed it), and playing there the lady of the manor with an aplomb her in-laws had never achieved, was a half-caste, the child of a union between the son of a Ceylonese entrepreneur and the daughter of an English grocer. They had met at Oxford in the twenties and, with a disregard for convention their parents deplored but their generation demanded, had romantically married. Phyllis’ own marriage had been arranged by her father as soon as she approached a suitable age.

We shall also have three brothers, called Tom and Dick and Harry, although this does not mean that they will be interchangeable. Between them they will represent three different religions. They were born and baptized as Christians, but it was only in the case of the youngest that the fervour of four generations proved sufficient to hold him to the faith. Tom had early on become a Buddhist, by conviction, it was claimed, though the conversion had certainly not hindered him in his political career. He was now the President, an executive one to boot, and a devout defender of the faith of his more distant ancestors. Dick had married, with the appropriate ceremonies, a Buddhist but, being frightened of his mother, had floated idly along in a state of lapsed Christianity; his mother’s death had released him but, since his wife wouldn’t, he had found it necessary to become a Muslim to pursue a more recent interest. Harry meanwhile had become a Bishop, although the more orthodox of his flock felt that his radicalism somewhat detracted from his religious standing. At the time our story opens he is in England, and it is believed in certain quarters that he is engaged in writing a book that proves that Christianity is identical with Buddhism and Hinduism.

Last of our principal protagonists but by no means the least in importance, for this is after all primarily a political novel, are the four ministers, evangelists all of them in their own ways, called Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. Matthew is young and rich and handsome and is in charge of food and drink and transport and training and most things affecting animate objects. He is Diana’s brother and went to the same school as Indra, naturally an exclusive one. Mark is old and poor and ugly, and toothless too. He had started at a missionary school in Galle, but had then won a scholarship to the distinguished institution that had nurtured Tom and Dick and where Harry was a contemporary of his, right in the heart of Colombo’s aristocratic breeding grounds. He is a longstanding faithful servant of the Party (and of Tom also), and is therefore in charge of policies and principles and prisons and the press, of everything in short that might involve the mind. Luke is plump and unintelligent and no one is sure to which school he went, but he is a popular and effective speaker and reaches people other politicians cannot reach, so he is in charge of bridges and buildings and other such inanimate things. John is thin and clever, though he probably never went to school at all; but he is also Tamil and therefore was put in charge of ways and means and monies and loans, so that he could be blamed if it ever had to be admitted that things had gone wrong. No one knows whom Tom wants to succeed him, least of all Tom himself.

Apart from these our main characters, there will be a large supporting cast, consisting (the categories are not necessarily exclusive) of various women, diplomats, alter egos and catamites. These last are intended to emphasize parallels with Germany in the thirties. It is for this reason too that the Secretary of the Human Rights Movement, who lives next door to Matthew and has been bombarding him and his colleagues during the period leading up to our crisis with indignant letters (all signed by herself in the absence of Harry the President of the Movement) is a German Jewess who left Germany just in time, though her family didn’t. In case any of you resent foreign interference in our affairs though, let it be pointed out here and now that she had long been married to a Ceylonese, and that her nose has peeled so thoroughly during her stay in the country that she no longer looks Jewish at all. For the same reason let it be known now that in the course of the novel, contrary to popular expectations, Paul will marry a Ceylonese—who might or might not be a Tamil, depending which view you take of ethnicity.

*

Shiva died on the first day of the violence, early in the morning, in his own house. This was unusual, for not many Tamils were actually killed on the first day, very few deliberately, and hardly any in their own houses in the heart of Colombo. That he was killed deliberately there seems no doubt. The mob swept into his house and straight to his bedroom as though they knew the way perfectly. His mother was away in England at the time, and the servants they knocked insensible, expertly it would seem for no serious consequences were felt by any of them.

Shiva they beat insensible next to his bed. They did not use the weapons they had brought, but took it in turn to beat him on the head with their bare hands. He may have been dead when they began to wrap him up in his own sheets, but this is unlikely. They carried him up then, without any hesitation, right through to the helicopter pad on the roof. They took all the bottles of alcohol that had stood on the trolley by his bed with them, and several shirts from his wardrobe. They drank the alcohol in large gulps, and soaked the shirts in the petrol they had brought with them. The body, swathed in its sheets, soaked thoroughly as well, they placed in the centre of the helicopter and the shirts they spread right through it. The empty bottles of alcohol they threw in beside him, and then they set fire to the sheets on the body. The rest took light soon enough.

Almost immediately the thought struck them that the conflagration would be more spectacular if the helicopter were thrust over the edge of the roof. Frenziedly they rushed to where there were railings and battered them down. Hurriedly they dragged the helicopter, already hot to the touch, to the edge and with a superhuman effort pushed it over. One of them went with it, clinging to it in drunken determination until on the way down it blew up, with a tremendous reverberation. One of the boys in the house was roused into consciousness by the crash, and staggered out to gaze aghast at the blazing ruins.

The mob melted away quietly, stunned almost into sensibility by the extraordinary spectacle. One of them went back later however to the morgue, to claim the body that had been flung from the side of the flaming machine in the explosion. It was his address that provided Paul with the clue that led to his marriage, and several deaths, a few months later.

Ceylon Today 20 July 2014 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-68607-news-detail-elementary.html

 

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