“The usual, Dr Rumenegge?” inquires the tomboy hair dressing assistant, by the way, and she knows I will nod. She begins to spray my hair with sweet smelling stuff and I settle into the comfort of being pampered and petted. I ask her about her degree, her mother, her latest companion.
This is my favorite place when it comes to getting my hair done and they know exactly how I like it – half way between lady Diana’s and Demi Moore, in the 80s, it’s a style that never becomes outdated : short, crisp and chic.
Business like hair, no nonsense hair because I am a modern woman in a world I have in the palm of my hand.
I studied, suceeded, met and married a brilliant Austrian professor and settled down with him in Stuttgart. I’m working in one of the city’s fore-most law firms, lecturing in Criminal Psychology, and I continue my dancing ; I have come where I never even dreamed I could and it has been an eventful journey but it began long ago in Sri Lanka. I wasn’t always Dr Rumenegge, I was a student of dance and my hair was longer then.
In dusty beautiful Jaffna a dozen years ago , my first name is Leelawathi, named after the brave Goddess Durga, and my hair then fell like a waterfall to my ankles; when the wind blew it would spread out behind me “like the tail of a peacock,” he would say , and I know that was what enchanted him most.
Jaffna 1995, one of those specially tense times in this war story-the Army had re-taken Jaffna, the Tigers were out for revenge, the streets were desperate and dangerous, we, my family and I, were refugees in an a large decrepit school building near the lagoon.
There had been a incident a few weeks back where in the thick of the war, the Army had started firing on this refugee camp too, tricked by teasing rebel strategy, an incident that may have resulted in a terrible tragedy had not one woman run out desperately with a white flag, into the line of fire.
Miraculously nothing had happened to her, and the shooting had ceased- her act had saved the lives of the refugees in the camp at the time. The woman was my mother and the act was typical of her recklessly daring spirit, she had given us all another chance to live, but we were on the edge of death and we desperately wanted to get away from this town of war.
I remember a numb state of panic, thinking this could not be happening, but it was.
My father, was a retired engineer and a man who had worked hard all his life to bring us to where we were. He could barely come to terms with the horror of having to live in a refugee camp in such basic conditions, we were not rich but we had middle class standards and as a family this was the lowest we had ever been. We were not beggars, we had our pride, we understood the state of the town but we were sinking with it and this was something we would do anything to get away from.
And I know he was worried out of his mind about the lack of safety for me and my little sister, in a city under siege. I was nineteen and I was worried about my puppies. Strange to have pets in a refugee camp where even people hardly got the bare necessities but by some strange concession we had been allowed to keep them , and they were tied up in corners howling and shivering and beaten when they made too much of a fuss, as puppies do, since they are not the priority in a time of siege. In retrospect I realise this was an absurd concession to be granted in such desperate times, but then I was too distracted to realise this. I remember standing on the second story hallways looking down into the school parade ground and crying, quietly, when I first noticed ..him.
Preoccupied as I was with my own grief, I took some time to realise then that this tall, handsome soldier seemed to be looking my way often and seemed to be around more than the rest, seemed to be more involved in the decisions shaping my life and my family’s destiny, for whatever reason, although he never spoke to me.
Perhaps in the circumstances this was wise because in the state we were in, I would have been heartily suspicious and terrified of any man, let alone an army captain, making conversation with me.
It is however an age old prerogative of the female to know when a man is tenderly interested in her and before too long I knew from his quiet smiles and from catching him looking my way ever so often, that he must definitely be enamoured with me. Yet, and perhaps thankfully in the circumstances, there was no communication, no advance, merely a kind, distant concern that followed my situation.
Within a couple of weeks then, arrangements had been made to transport our family out to Colombo. We would be escorted safely away from the war zone, an absurd concession in the circumstances and I knew that he had organized this, using whatever means he could, to obtain a safe getaway for me- my family and our possessions, down to the pet cocker spaniels were loaded onto an airforce airplane and we left one Sunday morning on a flight which would mark a bright new beginning for us all.
On my reaching Colombo and with a safe distance between us, the Captain decided it would be safe to talk to me, he called me from Jaffna one evening and put into words what I had suspected all along.
He was in love with me. He had been from the day he saw me on the stone balcony in the old school, and he had thought about me to distraction. But his life was ruled by a strict code of principles which he would not as a leader allow his subordinates to violate and neither would he bend them for himself. Firstly, he was a soldier with a mission and he could not afford to be in love.
He had, he said, thought about things carefully and he could not possibly take the risk that I would mistakenly reciprocate his feelings based on the power dynamics at play in a dangerous situation of siege, between a protector and a very vulnerable young refugee. So he had used his influence to send me safely away from him, given me wings so that I could escape from him and from the love that might perhaps be a mistake – without considering for a moment that I may feel for him too.
And that was when I knew that I truly had, but then it was sadly too late.
So in Colombo, that evening, in a moment of calm resolve, I took scissors to that hair and let it fall away from me, taking with it my innocence, my hopes and childlike dreams, to give way to new strength and determination. And so it has been since then.