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acts-of-faithWhat Tom our President was doing when fires began blazing out over the city is not something that can dogmatically be declared. It depends after all to some extent on what sort of a President we want; though we must course also present reasons for the fires being allowed to flourish, for no action being taken so that the mob is permitted to cavort unrestrained through the streets until it reaches Shiva’s place and rushes in, and indeed out again and on and on and on. Let us now therefore picture the President in full control himself of a situation with which he finds nothing amiss, striding in full dress uniform up and down his operation room, leaping at intervals to various multi-coloured telephones to assert his sovereign will. At moments of great intensity he slaps his thigh with his swagger stick, barking into the instrument at anxious army and police officers who ring up for orders, ‘Do not sh-sh-sh-shoot. Everything is safely in my hands. Do not worry, gentlemen. I am in full command of the situation.’

In this situation, Matthew alone of his Ministers would be with him, dressed naturally in resplendent white. Tom would not like many people to know he enjoyed dressing up in uniform, nor indeed anything else about this exciting evening. All entrances and exits would be closely guarded, with only the Black Shadow freely darting in and out to look over and coordinate certain practical details. During the occasional moments when Tom’s resolve falters, Matthew will firmly and resolutely prove to him that he has no alternative if his authority is not to be flouted totally; the Tamils have to be taught a lesson, and even if no one else does Matthew’s shock troops will do the job if only Tom will let them.

Indeed, they will do the job even if Tom does not let them. There is in fact even the possibility that the only way Matthew keeps Tom going through the crisis is by providing him with ever more elaborate uniforms at intervals to assure him that his prestige is increasing with every building the rioters burn. The Black Shadow keeps a string of sewing girls, all ex-virgins doubtless, who labour ceaselessly in an ante-room to furnish ever more elaborate epaulettes, crowns and wheels of merit and loose-limbed houris with splendid breasts, calling to mind the imperial joys of Sigiriya. As the night wears on and the mobs grow larger and larger and the breasts swell triumphantly, Tom comes increasingly to feel that he is indeed fulfilling the national will in presiding over such intense feeling. It will only be at more and more infrequent intervals than that he will allow himself to be drawn from the commanding heights of his ecstasy to concern himself with the logistics of the business, to look upon the elaborate diagrams drawn earlier in the proceedings upon which he has used orange and green and blue markers to indicate what had and had not been burnt, what should and should not be. The occasional corpse about which he had been told was naturally marked in black; but these seemed in time to be simply excrescences upon an otherwise pretty picture and were therefore unobtrusively removed.

 *

When Shiva died, Paul was at the house by the sea that the two of them shared, a few miles north of the airport. As was his custom in the early mornings when there was someone who had not heard it before beside him, he had declared to the wide eyed little boy he had just roused that he would sing him an old sad ballad from his country far away, about a man who dearly loved a little boy but who had to leave him to journey miles away across the sea. As the flames burst up around Shiva, Paul broke into ‘Why can’t you behave?’ with the melancholy fervour that he was convinced stirred deep and tender emotions in the boys. Shiva had thought the whole exercise cynical and in bad taste, but Paul’s view was that it was no different from the strategy of the International Monetary Fund, and no one disapproved of that; and his at least brought some pleasure to the boys, even if it was inasmuch as they didn’t quite understand him.

Paul, as you may have assumed by now, was despite his official cultural responsibilities primarily a spy. He had got the assignment in Colombo as a result of his friendship with Shiva at Cambridge, through which he had also occasionally met Indra: having frolicked enthusiastically in Ceylon before in a private capacity, he had left no stone unturned in getting the posting, stressing Indra’s significance as the nephew of the President and the brother-in-law of a potential nay the likely successor. He had indeed somewhat over-elaborated his own acquaintance with Indra, which had never been especially close for Shiva had been used to compartmentalizing his life, into the sacred and the profane as he told Paul in relegating him to the latter category. Paul however did not feel he had been misleading in staking his claim, and his performance he felt amply justified the appointment. He made the most of the relationships we have indicated in gathering his material, and society was in any case small enough generally for him to know most of what was going on and to make up the rest with a fair chance of it turning out true. His reports were in fact held up as models by this stage to aspiring agents, of knowledge combined with insight and dedicated judgment.

In recognition of his achievements, his embassy did not object to the extended weekends at the beach house even though there was very little doubt that these were not for the culling of information but quite different in character. Indeed they did not object even when it became clear that his counterpart in a Big Red Embassy had found out about his exploits too and had rented out a house near to Paul’s to keep tabs on him. On the contrary they were rather amused to discover that the Red Shadow, who had hitherto been absolutely straightforward (to the irritation of Mark who had found himself having to share one of his mistresses), now began to emulate Paul; whether in desperation or as a concession to the customs of the neighbourhood or as an economy measure (an example of the triumph of market forces, the Big Red Embassy not being as generous over expense accounts as the White), or even in an extraordinary attempt at osmosis, no one was quite able to judge. Paul in fact had every reason to be pleased at the development, for he kept on very good terms with the policemen round about and now made sure that they had the Red Shadow under close observation. Being far too astute himself to allow his name to be included in any files, he was working subtly on the policemen to get the Red Shadow’s name included in the reports they sent up periodically and which had the effect of provoking Mark at regular intervals into loud lamentations about the corrupting effect the tourism over which he presided had upon the youth of his land. An added reason for annoyance, Paul felt, might rouse Mark to action which would stabilize market forces in what seemed to him increasingly to be an overheated economy.

On the day with which we are concerned, the news came in as the morning passed that the town nearby was on fire, that there was rioting in Colombo, that people were being killed; but out in his garden beneath the palms, looking out at the resonant sea, Paul could feel no urgency. Around him his boys chattered excitedly, mainly in Tamil, which had always bemused Paul since they claimed so ardently to be Sinhalese; despite this, perhaps because of the contradiction inherent in their situation, they seemed to look upon the current happenings as something political that did not really concern them. Their view—though Paul could never be sure for, not wanting to be troubled by details in this particular context, he had never let on here that he spoke Sinhalese, so that they communicated with him in more or less strained English—seemed to be that the government was perfectly understandably taking its revenge upon the Tamils for all those who had been killed by them. Identification and isolation of the guilty did not appear relevant to the boys: people suffered and others suffered in turn and there was no need for anyone to get particularly worked up if they had no particular reason to identify with the victims.

Though Paul did feel that he ought to be back in Colombo, he also knew better than to travel during times of tension. In any case, the, news soon came through that there was a curfew. It never occurred to him that Shiva might have died. Race riots in Ceylon hitherto had been things that affected other areas and other classes, never anyone or anything of much importance in the hierarchy he had so swiftly learned to recognize. He had said as much in a recent report in which he had predicted a short sharp burst of violence soon. Even though things now seemed more serious than he had anticipated, he felt no great anxiety to get to Colombo. Indeed he was more relieved than otherwise by the curfew which allowed him another day of relaxation, and by the predictable discovery that the telephone lines from the nearby hotels were out of order so that he was unable to get through to hear anything that might oblige him to stir himself.

In this Paul was less conscientious than the Red Shadow, who drove valiantly down to Colombo at the first intimation of trouble, had his car stopped and his petrol siphoned off by marauding mobs, was photographed in the thick of things by roving correspondents, staggered to a police station where he received little comfort but had his name and address and occupation taken down, and was finally taken back under escort in the late afternoon to his embassy where he received a terrific lecture for not having clung close to Paul who it was assumed had precipitated the whole business and was now doubtless directing operations through a supersensitive telecommunications system at his beach house. And worse yet was to come.

 *

Let us return now to Tom, but a very different sort of Tom from the swaggering figure we saw before. Yet there is no essential incompatibility between that and what we now present, for it is eminently possible that a period of panic intensity should have been followed by one of profound gloom. In any case it is essential to explain the imposition of a curfew at a very late stage in the proceedings.

Despite any enthusiasm he might have displayed at first towards the rioting, it is more than likely that as time passed and the mayhem increased Tom was totally overwhelmed by the destruction. He, the President of his country (and an Executive one at that), the father of his nation, as he used fondly to think of himself while contemplating his vasectomy, could not have viewed with equanimity the wholesale and retail devastation of so many of his people. He must at the very least have been prostrate with grief for a time.

We can see him then lying on the large iron four-poster bed of his ancestors, clad in the nightshirt belonging to his father that he wore on any ceremonial occasion of retirement. He does not have on the matching nightcap with the bobble on top that he uses at more intimate moments, but rather his father’s grand old full-bottomed wig which he understandably thinks is more appropriate when there is a minister in attendance albeit in a personal capacity. This, of course, is Mark who is used to being summoned at such moments of stress and who holds Tom’s hand tenderly as he lies propped up on his pillows, gazing blankly at the colourful mural on the wall ahead. Occasionally Mark bends low over the fevered brow to mop it with the Eau Sauvage Tom adores. It is at one such moment that he hears the whispered command, weak but determined, that a curfew be imposed.

Yet now we have to explain why, though a curfew was imposed, it was not enforced. The simple answer will not do, that the proclamation was issued tongue in cheek. The seething mass of humanity that flooded in and out of Colombo and all over, bearing with it at one moment an erratically bobbing Red Shadow (to be sunk for ever soon by officious authority), may have been equipped with curfew passes from high officials, but certainly not from the highest. Tom, we can emphatically declare, is not that sort of person. Rather, whether it is a question of chickens coming home to roost or not, we see him now rendered impotent in the face of new forces and unsustainable passions.

It is fear now that grips him, not simple grief. We see John at this stage rushing in hysterically, with horrifying stories of inaction by the police and encouragement from the army, covert support from the air force and a navy band marching brassily by. Tom leaps from the bed, the wig knocked askew in his haste, and cowers underneath. Mark crouches down on one side and beseeches him to emerge and take command. John bends down on the other and croaks dire warnings that the army will not obey him, that the police will baton charge him if he steps outside, that the mob will tear him limb from limb, or at least the clothes off his back, if he ventures to open his mouth. Tom begins to shake violently.

It is with difficulty, both Mark and John having crawled in after him, that they draw him out from under the bed and lay him on it again. Hot chocolate is made, and liberally laced with whiskey and with vallium, and Mark and John sit on either side of him and gently get him to sip it down. Finally, the nightcap having been brought out at his earnest request and placed on his head, he settles down to sleep, wrapped up in several sheets. Mark and John take it in turns to sit with him, the other valiantly holding off all would be intruders by pleading urgent consultations. All phones naturally have been taken off their hooks; but Matthew too has had to be informed, and he obligingly arranges for the Black Shadow to cut all the telephone wires leading in so that Tom’s sleep can be absolutely secure.

Ceylon Today 10 august 2014 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-70010-news-detail-action-stations.html

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