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acts-of-faithThe various ministerial pronouncements made Dick intensely nervous. He loathed communists, in fact much more than Dulcie did, for he had been one in his youth and had since had to deal with them on business affairs; he knew that they were motivated primarily by envy and would have no scruples about depriving him of his hard-won pleasures. Then the purported plot to stir up animosity against Muslims disturbed him even more, for most of his business associates now were Muslims and, though he did not use the name socially, it was under his Muslim name that all his various business concerns were registered. Finally, Matthew’s scarcely veiled suggestion that there was something radically wrong with all those not in the mainstream made him acutely conscious that he and his possessions could soon fall prey to a whipped up frenzy.

In some way therefore his own loyalty to the nation, and that of the community to which he now belonged, had to be conclusively established. After much thought and some discussion with his friends, Dick determined to establish a Muslim Association that would make crystal clear the adherence of the Muslims to the interests of the wider nation, and their forceful opposition to whatever it was, apart from Muslims of course, that the wider nation feared. After Matthew’s performance, it was clear that, apart from the desire of the Tamils to divide the nation that had precipitated the holocaust, what was most abhorred was the perversity propagated by Marxists and Catholics. The Muslim Association against Separatism and Homosexuality was accordingly established, with Dick as its founding President.

From its very inception, MASH proved a tremendous success. The inaugural meeting was attended by a massive crowd, many of whom Dick had not known to be Muslims, and some of whom he had thought long since dead. It was these last in particular, politicians of a bygone age, who were the most vociferous at the meeting, affirming with what seemed an intimate knowledge of the rewards awaiting all those who laid down their lives in a struggle for the true faith, heaps of dark eyed houris in paradise and so forth, the need for MASH to do all it could to preserve the unity of the nation and to provide ready supplies of nubile young ladies for all those who required them. The resolutions passed at the meeting proved so inviting that over the next few days the Association was flooded with applications for membership. All these were promptly accepted, subject of course to the essentials being observed, and mass circumcision ceremonies were held all over the island with great pomp and circumstance.

It was thus with a tremendous sense of confidence that Dick and the rest of his Executive Committee went to their first meeting with Tom. They had indeed a great deal to be importunate about. An influential proportion of the membership of MASH had suffered considerably in the recent disturbances, particularly those involved in the tourist and gemming industries, for the market had collapsed at the first signs of violence with almost all foreigners winging their way home in trepidation and without souvenirs. The restrictions Matthew had announced on foreign entry into Negombo would now put paid even to those few who were brave or motivated enough to face the situation. It was clear that emergency measures had to be taken.

The proposals with regard to arrack renting and other such activities that were held to be the traditional preserves of the Sinhalese provided Dick with the basis for his suggestions. If others were to be restrained from participating in these activities, then surely it was only just that the traditional occupations of the Muslims should be reserved for them. Dick and his Executive, therefore, proposed that tourism and gemming and perhaps one or two other things as well such as the spice trade be reserved exclusively for Muslims, or rather for members of MASH since they would be in a fit position to ensure that nothing immoral would occur. Indeed perhaps honorary membership of MASH could be offered to all foreigners as an incentive, so that they would be able to adopt liberal Muslim marriage customs and thus be in a better position to resist the perverse temptations proferred by Catholics and Marxists.

Tom did not give his consent at once. But he promised sincerely to give the matter his most careful consideration. He was in any case enormously touched by the display of solidarity that had been put forth on his behalf, several posters having appeared all over Colombo as if by magic that declared that MASH backed Tom to the hilt. Moreover, the proposal MASH had advanced appealed to his sense of order. He believed in a society in which there was order, and patterns and compartments for everything and everyone, so that you were not suddenly surprised by someone stepping out of line. What was happening all around him now seemed to him, at first sight at any rate, a step in the right direction. He was even sanguine enough, after the delegation from MASH had left, to don his uniform once more and look at himself in the mirror with satisfaction.

*

We move now to London, for the last time, to join Harry as he calls on Lily to offer her his condolences. He has asked her before whether it would be convenient for him to call, and she has told him to come, not only because they have known each other in the past, but also because she is grateful to him for what he had to say; but she warns him that she is going back to Ceylon only because she wants some sort of a revenge.

They talk in the flat in Kensington, over tea that has been set out in the bay window that looks out over the Gardens. Memories rise up before them as they speak, not always shared ones, memories sanctified not necessarily by death, but by an aching sense of loss. Harry begins with a prayer, to which Lily politely inclines her head, not only for Shiva, but also for his father. Behind Harry’s shut eyes there rises up an image of the old man, then young and the assistant to his own father as a civil servant in a distant province; Harry still remembers vividly being taken for a ride on a horse across wide flats beside a sparkling sea.

He opens his eyes to the bright blue of the summer outside. Lily talks about the last time there had been trouble and her husband had died on that distant coast with only her beside him, and she had left after that and come to London with Shiva. Then there had been something to look forward to. Now there is nothing, except an awareness of destruction, and the need to respond.

Harry tells her that she is being negative. He feels painfully the irony of him saying this, when never before in his life has he felt so negative himself as now. He feels that there is nothing that he can do. There is no one who will listen, for they are all busy constructing or perverting a future in which he will not be able to partake. Many years before, after his ordination, he had gone back to Ceylon full of hope about the new nation that was being built. Now he feels that he might as well just not have bothered.

It is easy for him to talk, she tells him. He has lost nothing. Looking out upon the Gardens, she remembers bringing Shiva there during their first summer in England to look at the statue of Peter Pan. It had been a summer such is this, redolent with heat and sunshine. Walking along the Serpentine, she had hoped then that he would not miss so much the beaches they had left behind.

Harry grants that she has lost a lot. He does not think it worthwhile to mention all that he himself had lost. He had given it all up voluntarily, going home thirty years before full of enthusiasm for the future of his country. He had not thought it too much of a loss then, the girl beside whom he too had walked along the Serpentine. She had her children now, including his godson who might have been his son, who had chained himself to the railings outside parliament to protest about nuclear weapons. Harry himself had nothing, no son, no country. Just like Lily. It is almost to stop himself too becoming bitter that he tells her that, despite her loss, she must learn to love and to hope.

She claims that though there is no hope left for her and no one to love, it is not that she does not believe in something better. But those who encouraged and looked on at wrong must suffer first so that they can understand the sufferings of those like herself. It is only when those who were strong but did nothing suffered in their turn that steps would be taken to ensure that everyone could live together in peace and harmony.

Harry finds it difficult to rebuke her absolutely. He thinks of the scourging in the temple in the week before Calvary. Yet there should be no bitterness, he tells her. If she is bitter, she can do nothing positive.

She is not a saint, she tells him. She can only do what she is capable of. Greater deeds must be left to people like himself. And she remembers him coming to visit her and her husband, long ago when hardly anyone else did, and playing with Shiva on the beach. He had taken him deep into the sea on his shoulders, pretending to be a horse, and the little boy had talked about him for days after he had gone. She asks him what he is going to do, for she has heard that his speech had not been well received at home and that he might be incarcerated when he returned.

Harry assures her that he will go back. His heart is not too good in any case, he tells her with a flash of the old humour that she remembered from long ago, and he might as well die in harness as well as otherwise.

*

For obvious reasons, John did not make an appearance on television in the first few days after the troubles. Yet as things subsided he too felt that here was an opportunity to take a stand with regard to one of the more serious of the problems that had been dogging him since he assumed office, namely the acute shortage of funds with which to conduct the business of government. The robber barons who had been let in, as he had once memorably put it, to enlarge the size of the cake, had not only made off with the plums but had also scraped the bottom of the barrel bare and then taken it away, so that the nation had nothing left with which to clothe its nakedness. Desperate situations required desperate measures, he told Tom in outlining his plans, since it was the cracked pitcher that went most often to the well. Accordingly he got permission to put his plans into operation by means of a gazette notification on the morning before he himself appeared on television to explain them to the nation.

There were two basic propositions. The first was that all property that had been damaged in the riots, or all property that was so deemed to have been damaged, was henceforth to be vested in the government. This was because it was incumbent upon the strong to succour the weak, since it was from the lion that there would come forth sweetness such as would attract the flies, by whom he meant the foreign investors who had flown off at the first signs of trouble, once more into the spider’s web. Secondly, inasmuch as grave questions had arisen during the riots concerning looting and theft, and it was in any case well known that bad money drove out the good just as happened with people unless suitable precautions were periodically taken, there would be an exercise in demonetisation: all notes over the value of fifty rupees would have to be handed in to government banks, to be replaced by new notes that had pretty pictures of Lions on one side, and of Tom in various poses and costumes, depending on the value of the note, on the other. Anyone wanting to exchange more than a thousand rupees would have to furnish a written statement, witnessed by two members of parliament, as to how the money had been obtained. This would be carefully checked before new notes were issued in replacement.

*

Matthew visits his sister and her husband soon after their return to Colombo. In a sense, it is a visit of condolence, though of course it would not be proper to refer to the emotional consequences of Shiva’s death. It does however seem proper to refer to the future state of the business Shiva has left behind, and in any case this accords more with Matthew’s predilections for he sees himself as someone who always looks forward and does not allow himself to be entrapped by past sentiment.

‘You must be careful about your newspaper,’ he says, after it has been established that Indra will continue in control, in consultation with the sole trustee. ‘Mark wants to try to take it over. He thinks that, with Shiva’s death, you’ve been made weaker.’

Indra finds it difficult to talk about the future. His mind goes back constantly to the past. He does not fight against this, for he does not want to seem to himself to betray that past. It is a past in which Matthew does not figure, though Indra had known him long before he knew Shiva. Matthew senses this as Indra remains silent, and he stares more fixedly at Indra while his lip curls in something that might almost be a sneer.

Diana notices this. She too knows that she does not figure largely in the past that now holds Indra. She remembers another past, a time when Matthew had been very anxious that she marry Indra, especially in the period just after he had gone away to Cambridge. She has no regrets about the marriage. Yet she feels no sense of gratitude to Matthew. It is the weak after all who need support. It is this that prompts her to reply firmly to Matthew, ‘I don’t think we are weak at all. It’s the government now that is weak. I don’t think Mark is in a position to take us over at all.’

Matthew decides to ignore this remark. Though he would deny that he was sentimental, he has never been able to feel vindictive towards Diana, or even towards Indra. He is aware that it was primarily because of him that the marriage took place. To turn against them now would be an admission that he had been wrong, and that is not the sort of admission that Matthew makes.

He changes the subject by referring to Radha who has just left the room after serving him with the ginger cake and the ginger beer that Diana makes so well. ‘That girl’s rather attractive,’ he says, and drinks deep from his glass. He likes ginger beer strong and sighs appreciatively as the liquid burns in his throat. ‘She doesn’t look Tamil at all. Very different from her brother. You couldn’t make any mistake about him.’

‘I can’t say I’ve noticed,’ Diana says shortly.

‘Of course, strange things happen in villages. Particularly in villages like ours. But tell me, how is mother coping with everything?’

‘She’s determined to do something,’ Indra breaks in at last, ‘She thinks, all of you will just talk about it, and then forget about it all until it happens again. She thinks people like herself who are really involved have an obligation to act. But she’s not quite sure yet what the most effective thing to do would be.’

‘She’s so idealistic.’ Matthew bites off a large chunk of his cake and continues to talk while he chews. ‘I remember when we were young, she was always trying to make us pretend that we were just like everyone else. It was all so artificial. But talking of abnormalities, tell me what this person Paul is like. I would have thought it was against the law, handing everything over to a foreigner.’

‘It’s only in trust,’ says Indra.

‘You can be sure that Shiva would have checked things out carefully before doing anything,’ Diana adds.

‘In any case, it seems strange that he should have wanted to involve a foreigner,’ Matthew says softly.

‘Perhaps, like you, he anticipated that the government might try to take us over,’ Indra replies. ‘Perhaps he thought it would be frightened off if a big white power were involved.’

Matthew finishes his cake. ‘That may be right as far as Mark is concerned,’ he says, and stretches himself out in his chair. ‘But still, be careful. There are strange things happening, and you never know who might make a bid for power, or how.’

Ceylon Today 14 Sept 2014 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-72985-news-detail-marginal-utilities.html

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