About two month’s back, in the course of duty I was instructed to visit Ampara which since I hardly get the chance to travel was a thrill to even contemplate. Ive seen many photographs of this dusty outback territory and these always seem to give the impression of stubborn survival amongst rather desperate odds and a desolate environment. I have sat and painted the barren landscapes and dusty ruins I saw in some photos and I really wanted to see those places for myself. Names like Ninthavur and Sainthamaruthu have, to my thinking, a wonderfully exotic ring to them, and I had practiced rolling them off my tongue while writing (admittedly arm chair based) progress reports from Colombo : so I really wanted to experience the dust, heat and live action of awesome Ampara, first hand.
First came the usual administrative hurdles of sanctioning a decent set of wheels, a cool laptop (with wireless mind you!), an old Canon digital camera, and last but not least a willing driver ** and then my hurdles of packing phone charger, biscuits, cotton clothes, extra cotton undies, and all the other luxuries that must accompany a fastidious Colombo lady on her way out to stark barren wilderness, as I thought… I had also put a stop to any interference from my own relations into where I go, with the blunt reminder that traffic in Colombo is statistically more dangerous than anything that could happen to me in Kalmunaikudy…
So there ahead of me was a trip of about 7 or 8 hours (in a excellent vehicle I must admit, one of those large off road things with humongous antennas, in case we need to radio for help from Headquarters) with nothing much to do except gossip, which fortunately I’m very good at and it turned out my capable driver cum guide cum entertainer was quite good at it too.
He was a bright cheerful character of, I estimate, around his mid to late thirties, with an attractive smile and a very honest and inquisitive personality. About an hour into the trip he knew all about my family, my educational qualifications, my general philosophies in life and thanks to how much of a dedicated gossip I am, my marital status( viz happily divorced) . This is not information I give out easily because it sometimes brings out the worst in people – but here I was trusting this cheeky pint sized guy and leaving myself open to analysis and judgment and not really feeling too worried about this…I have no idea why.
There was something about this guy, a perpetual smile of tranquility and contentment that made me relax around him, something that I don’t find in many of my acquaintances…a chippy cheerful bounce to his step and a jolly chuckle to his laugh that is not easy to find.
He had, he said, been married for a dozen years or thereabouts. He had two children a girl and a baby boy. The salary paid monthly was not enough for himself, the wife and two kids, so honestly financing life was difficult. But they had discussed things and agreed that he should not work too much overtime, because being with the family was more important.
“We have a law in our family – on Sundays we go out. We don’t spend much, but bike to the park or to the beach and sit around eating ice cones and talking, all of us. I don’t let anything interfere with that.”
Not buddies, not work , not relations?
“Its our family time, its important.” He nodded. “and I have a trick where I make money keep us together too,” he said carefully. “you see, all my income goes direct to the bank and can only be taken by me through the ATM and my wife keeps track of this,”
I asked for a further explanation on how that helped in the relationship.
“You see, then she knows what I’m up to. You see, I’m a Normal Guy,” he shrugged as though it was an incurable affliction he was referring to - “ as such I can easily be tempted to get up to any kind of mischief just like any guy. We are just humans! But too much straying is not possible if my cash flow is monitored. And I welcome that kind of monitoring. It helps me keep to the path that Ive decided to take, which is to be a good husband and a proper dad.”
“ So she controls your expenditure.”
“I have insisted she do so. I appreciate it when she tries to economise for the sake of our family and I love it when she involves herself in the day I have spent. We were talking about this in the drivers mess, and the guys were laughing at me saying I was a real kandeya for allowing my wife to control my money…but I asked them if they thought they were the Real Cool, getting themselves sozzled with liquor and wasting money they could give their kids on dissolute women….”he chuckled. “.Well- .I don’t think so,”
Neither, by gum did I ,to be honest.
“But come on, what’s wrong with a little fun once in a way?” I asked him.
“Yes, once a week or so after a lot of hard work, I go out for a beer with the boys, and she knows about it and she just smiles and says ‘enjoy yourself” ”he smiled cheerfully….
I was honestly impressed. So here was a barely literate local chap from the village who had figured out what even double degree holders in the modern day and age didn’t know: the meaning of family and how to make it work for you! I felt a small pang of regret too, that among all the educated, sophisticated johnnies I knew there didn’t seem to be even one with this basic down to earth EQ that this guy had…!I needed to think and to play my Enigma CDs to really get out of that mood I was in, and this is how we traveled up to Kandy where we were supposed to have lunch and pick up another officer..
At this point , as is usual in life , the unexpected happened and we were radioed news that a bomb had gone off in a bus in Ampara and it just may be insecure to go in right then. We were advised very seriously to turn back the mission, and I remember we picked up my other colleague and went for a very mediocre lunch in a tiny road side kiosk, before turning back to Colombo.
This was a sizeable disappointment to me after all the planning Id done. But that wasn’t the end to the day’s adventure. On the way back we just had to stop at one of those colorful roadside clay pot joints which sold vases, water pots, door chimes and all manner of lovely fired clay items. I had the idea that I might as well buy something to remember this trip with and I had always wanted a gurulettuwa *** so that’s what I got, (after considerable haggling with the clay store owner who wanted to charge international rates based on the size of our borrowed land-cruiser !).
Our driver smiled sheepishly and bought a small clay vase which he said he knew his wife would like. It may have cost about 100 rupees, but then I knew that it would mean a lot to this lucky woman- it meant he had thought of her…
Well, alak and alas I never did get to see Ampara!
But the trip was certainly not a waste of time and will not fade from my memory easily: I had a laid back Sunday cruising our beautiful country and I spoke to a wonderful and cheerful character who somehow gave me back some faith in an institution I had totally given up on.- that of marriage!
And so while there are sunny types like that around, I guess we womenfolk still have hope!
* Her real name. Not to be confused with the powerful, serious stateswoman of the same name, this one is a little younger and generally more giggly.
**Not all of them think the possibility of being caught in cross fire and shelling out there, is exciting and bloggable,– they have families to feed and so on
*** traditional clay water cooler.