Friday, December 2, 2011

28. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN ONE'S LIFE

This is a  story from the country I'm currently working as a teacher. Here the student prepare for the Cambridge IGCSE. They have a Reading and Writing paper and also a Listening paper.

One day I was doing a writing task with them.   The task was to write on, the topic, 'If your house is on fire what item would you rescue.' 

So I repeated the question to orientate them.

"My underwear, sir" a joker said. These dudes were really obsessed with underwear. And he managed to get some laughter.

"Okay, it's the most important item to you." I let it ride. Everybody won't be risking their lives to save the underwear I hope. Okay, now Adams, Remember you can't rescue many things. The fire is spreading rapidly and it's out of control. You can't make many trips into the burning house. And your family is also safely outside, by this time. What would you rescue Adams?" I narrowed down the task.

"The gas cylinder, sir."

"Oh, damn!" I muttered under my breath in exasperation.

"Why, the gas cylinder out of all the other things? Is that the most important thing to you in the whole house?"

"No sir, it could explode."

"Okay Adams, there you gotta point there.  There is some sense to it. Still that's not what the person who composed this task had in mind..." 

now I'm telling the whole class.

"When you get a writing task, just try to guess what the person who wrote that question really expects. Here he created a situation..a house on fire..what is the thing you would rescue? What do you think you are expected to write?"

I didn't get many responses. 
Finally I said, "Think about the things you can't recover, even if you get the insurance money. Will you rescue your TV?"

Some said yes.

"No dudes, TV is something you can buy again. Yes. it costs money, but you can earn money.
Will You try to rescue the fridge?"

"No" many voices in unison.

"Why not?"

"Because you can buy it again."

"Good. and also it's too heavy."

"So , what is it you would rescue?"

"Sir you tell."

"Okay dudes, Can you get your certificates, medals and such things you have won even if you have money? 
Can you replace that love letter or a present you got from your loves one? 
Think along those lines. Things that are irreplaceable, no matter how much money you have."
Now the faces began to show understanding at last.

Okay. I turned to the bespectacled geek in the class.

"Sheriff, what would you rescue?"

"Sir, my spectacles."

I wanted to scream.

"Sheriff, Weren't you listening to anything I was saying all this time?"

"I was. Sir, to find all those certificates and love letters and things you said,I need my glasses. I'm blind like a bat without them."

OH MAN!!!!


Saturday, November 26, 2011

27. OUR ENGLISH TEACHER

The students in that Dehiattakandiya school, in Ampara District of the Eastern Sri Lanka, which I had mentioned in Teasing Tomato Dudes, were not very much motivated to learn. Absenteeism was common and those who showed up didn't show much enthusiasm to learn. 

I think this was a result of being an agricultural community. Before the harvesting time they had to guard the farmland and paddy fields from wild animals which meant sleepless nights. During the day time they had to chase birds from the paddy fields. So no wonder they were drowsy in the class. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

26. HOME SWEET HOME, HERE WE COME!! PART1

By the time you read this post, we 'll be on the final leg of the transit, on our way home to Sri Lanka. This passage consists of travel by land, sea and air. Though this is supposed to be an eagerly awaited  joyful event, the airline ticketing agencies or a bank or some other body makes sure to take the joy away and make it as stressful and traumatic as possible.
We've been so disappointed in these airline ticketing systems, I personally don't believe that we're going to make this flight, even when we board the aircraft, even when we taxi to the end of the runway and turn around, even when the big Rolls Royce Engines on the Airbus rev up sitting at the end of the runway, even when it hurtles down the runway faster than a F1 racing car, even when the we take off into the November skies. I only believe when we bank right and head east.

Every year they make some mess with the booking ans we are wait listed and I've lost count how many times we had to run through the airport terminals after FINAL CALL. It was only last year we had to spend the night at the airport waiting for the airport branch of the airline to verify my son's booking. Even though they make a very big fuss about overbooking, once you get into the plane there are so many vacant seats.

I don't like night flights, because I miss seeing Sri Lanka from the sky for the first time of the year. And when we go home in the midnight we become helpless in out own home. The strong point is you can get home without ben seen by the prying eyes.


37000 feet from the mean sea level. Outside temperature, minus thirty five or forty degrees Celsius. The engine note changes when you swallow. Why not have another Heineken?

The PA system crackles that we are going to land in Colombo in a few minutes, so return to your seat and buckle up. And no smoking goes without saying.
The most ecstatic  moment of the whole flight is touching down on the tarmac of our own airport. Even though the landing procedure is the same on the return journey, the feeling is entirely different.


The aircraft is losing height. The wind starts to howl against the open wing spoilers. If you pay close attention you feel rather than hear the hum of the powerful motors opening the wheel bay, the landing gear lowering and locks into place with a gentle thud. My on and I both remember the 'Microsoft Flight Simulator' we play at home. The wind howling against the open wing spoilers and  the powerful jet engines screaming in reverse thrust  raise into a crescendo.

We are on the glide path with the nose slightly raise to enable the huge rear landing gear to hit the tarmac first. Finally when the rubber meets the asphalt at high speed, leaving a new black rubber skid mark on the runway we feel the thud throughout the cabin .Then the nose wheel  settles down, with the hiss of hydraulics, the weight of the aircraft is transferred to the powerful suspension system. The wheel brakes, reverse thrust and wing spoilers all work in unison, and plane slows down.



I feel a lump in  my throat and my eyes moisten, momentarily forgetting the grease devils, undisciplined drivers, the crime rate. I get a bit carried away anyway, like some others.


The aircraft now taxis to the gate. Though we can't get off till the the jet bridges are connected to the doors, almost everybody stand up and spill into the aisles, blocking them. Only few wise dudes stay seated.  It's a good idea to check if you are leaving anything behind. Better peep into the overhead bin to check anything from your cabin luggage had spilled out, because the ride was so rough closer to Colombo, due to turbulence.



 We go through the jet bridge, take several turns and we are in the lobby, filling out the mandatory forms. It's amazing to see how many people travel from country to country without a pen. They bug you for your pen. Why the hell can't these dudes remember to bring a pen?
 The first queue in the motherland, the immigration and emigration. They stare into the computer screen, then at your passport photo, study your face and stamp your passport, that you have landed. On second thoughts, sometimes they give you a brief smile also. "Welcome back. Have a pleasant Stay!" These are only in Hollywood movies.

The Duty Free Shops on the Arrivals Lounge always remind me of  the cross streets of Pettah,  vendors trying to lure you in. Why do they always have home appliances? And why not laptops, computer accessories and digital cameras for a change?

Dudes cast stray glances at your Duty Free Wine. You can't spend too much time here as your luggage is now taking free rides on the baggage carousel. If you get fashionably late, the security dude who has an eye over them is a bit pissed off. If you get very late, and forgot you had to collect them, then your luggage could go missing, too. Who knows?


Sri Lanka customs let us through without much fuss, may be because they feel sorry for us. The ATMs in the airport refuse to spit out the cash with the kind of card you have,  no matter what.
It's safer to get a taxi from that reputed taxi service, housed in the airport. 


Some dudes fall over each other trying to help to load our luggage into the van expecting a tip in dollars. Dude we pushed them ourselves through the worst parts of the journey. They won't back down.


I replace the foreign SIMS sith local SIMS that I've prerved in my wallet for one whole year. Then reset the time on my wrist watch and the phone. I hear Sinhala around me giving a feeling of nostalgia and our people are everywhere.But oh, dudes the way they drive! And the first thing I notice is how much they honk! I had forgotten about these three wheel driver and private bus drivers.


We pass Minuwangoda and Gampaha. I start a small talk  with the van driver. "How much is petrol? How much is diesel? There were grease devils here, right? They are opening the new expressway on 27th, aren't they?" Mostly updates.


At the beginning mu dudes used to come to pick me up. The novelty wore off when we continued to go away for the last ten years. Now the drop us off on our way back.
At last here we are. HOME SWEET HOME! THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME!!


PART TWO when we really get home. If you can't wait, you can read the rest in Sinhala by visiting my Sinhala Blog 
මට හිතෙන හැටි


Thursday, November 17, 2011

25. Narrow Escapes 7: The Day I Nearly Lost An Eye.

I've written 6 Narrow Escapes Stories. With this it becomes seven. Looking back I can't help but wonder that four out of seven of those incidents involved vehicles.  Saved by the shoestring, Faulty Starter Motor, Stuck In The Rail Crossing and The Erratic Driver all involved vehicles. One was actually a bomb blast and the other a train. Then I escaped drowning and from a wild elephant. This next story, which I plan to be the last in this season is non vehicular. This is a home accident where I nearly lost an eye, when I was just a kid of four.

Though I was just four, I used to climb small trees like any other boy my age. The shady neem tree (this one is actually a variety called mal kohomba in Sinhala) in the front yard of my father's ancestral home was one of my hideouts. I loved to sit on a branch of that leafy, evergreen tree, hiding in the cool, shady foliage. Maybe it was too shady, explaining  why my uncle had chopped off some limbs leaving just stubs with jagged edges.

While I was sitting in the shady tree enjoying the view from my favorite vantage point, I saw my father coming home. It was my childish habit to dip into his pockets for a sweet, when he returned from work. But now he was returning from the stream that flowed down through the village. He had had a swim and a bath like many people in the village enjoyed. And he usually had a handful of sweet purple berries which grew on the banks of the stream, as well as in the hedge that bordered the paddy fields. I was waiting for this sweet which made your mouth purple with its sweet stain. 

I was so excited I didn't waste time climbing down. I simply leaped from the tree which wasn't very tall. Something went wrong.  I crashed through the lower branches and a jagged edge of a chopped off branch pricked left eye. I landed on my feet but with serious injuries to my left  eye.  A jagged splinter which had pierced my eye was still sticking out of it. 

Father dropped everything and came screaming. Everybody gathered and I was rushed to the nearest doctor where he did what he could and made me rush to the emergency room of the eye hospital. Our village was closer to Colombo. They had removed pieces of leaves in addition to the splinter of wood several centimeters long. Luckily it had pierced the white of the eye missing the pupil by a few millimeters. Anyway I was sent home after a few days face swathed in bandages, but had to keep visiting the Eye Hospital for many more years to come.  My sister was also born when I was blindfolded. When we were returning home in a car with her couldn't see her. I simply touched her gentle skin and got to know her for the first time. I remember asking my mother if she was fair.

This accident left a brownish scar on the white of my eye, but now it's totally faded with time. Even now when I think about this, or when I describe this to someone which is not very often, it gives me goosebumps.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

24. Narrow Escapes 6: Erratic Driver on the Highway.

My wife and I were returning home along the Kandy Road in our Toyota Townace Van. Only two of us were there that day because our two kids had preferred to play with their cousins as they rarely get that chance. And we had left for Dambulla around 5.00 am and it was 155 km trip one way. So on our way back on that November afternoon I was driving just under the speed limit behind a metallic green Nissan Vanette. We were passing the famous Wewaldeniya (Actually Nelundeniya) where wickerwork products were on on sale on both sides of the highway.

As we were driving towards Colombo, the road was downhill on this mountainous Kandy Colombo Highway. An unbroken  stream of vehicles were coming on the opposite lane heading for Kandy. As this stretch of roads had a lot of bends I was checking my rear-view mirror at regular intervals and following the other safety procedures like having both hands on the wheel and eyes glued to the road. 

We were negotiating a slight smooth curve to the right when a huge concrete mixer  truck suddenly swung out of the oncoming opposite lane, on to our lane and started overtaking the whole row of vehicles.   What made him to do so beats me, even now.  Somehow he was totally and squarely on the wrong side of the white double lines and speeding towards us, honking at us to get out of the way. 

The driver of the green Vanette and I acted on the same impulse. Both of us swung left off the road, on  to the narrow front yards of some wickerwork shops, which also suddenly ended up into an abyss. Luckily the strip was empty of shoppers or parked vehicles.  Green Vanette braked to a halt sparing about one meter from the edge. and I managed the stunt by stopping about the same distance from his rear bumper. The cement truck roared by and and disappeared round the bend.

This is the same place on  another day but we are going on the opposite direction now. See how narrow the strip is.
People had come out of the shops to see the miraculous escape. I got out of the vehicle and walked over to the Vanette. The driver was as shocked as I was.  Both of us had escaped a very fatal head on collision and that had formed a sudden bond between us. We shared what we thought about the stupid truck driver.

That day and several times after that, I scanned the area and learned that the place we ran off the road was one of the very few places where such escape bays existed. A few meters before of after would have left us with no option other than driving into a shop or abyss that is if we preferred not to hit the truck head on. See in the picture where the bus is passing. There is no front yard. 

Every time we pass that areas after that day, we never failed to look out for the spot and remark, "This is that place where that moronic cement truck driver nearly killed us!"

Friday, November 4, 2011

23. Narrow Escapes 5: THE RAMPAGE

I was stunned to see the 'stranger' standing in the doorway.  Gamini, one of my best friends, standing right here in front of me at the bachelors' quarters of the school in Ampara where I was doing my first year of teaching, on the other side of Sri Lanka! This dude, now a Wildlife Ranger for the Department of Wildlife, has also been a fellow Nalandian who was a few years senior to me.

"What're you doing here dude?"' I asked, "How did you find me?"
"Well," Gamini explained in his usual calm voice,"We came to Ampara to get one of our jeeps repaired. We left it at the repair shop and then I remembered that  you're also here in Ampara." 

I knew Gamini as a cartoonist, a true lover and a cool dude with a gentle manner and a big sense of humor. Still his passion for the Wildlife was novel to me. 

"Dude,now that it's the weekend, why don't you come with me? We can have a good time." 

I had no idea that actually this was going to be the time of my life. He worked at the Kumana Bird Sanctuary or Yala East National Park as a Wildlife Ranger.

I didn't need any more persuasion. I 'd been homesick and  missing the Western Province where I belonged with all my friends and the family. So to be with one of my best friends was a windfall I hadn't bargained for.

I didn't bother to know how far this Kumana  National Park was from Ampara. Come to think of it, I actually didn't know where on the map it was. Remember, no 'Google Earth' Those days. I didn't ask how I was supposed to return to the school or when. I was ready to leave under 10 minutes.

"I can drop you back when we come to collect our vehicle in a few days." Gamini said not because I asked. I was all set except for the flip flops I had left at the doorway. It was nowhere to be found. Then I remembered the milkman dude  pulled such pranks on us every now and then. This was certainly the wrong time for any stupid practical joke!!
"Hey Wimal", I called one of the dudes who were sharing the quarters with me.

"It seems that asshole has hidden my flip flops. Can I borrow yours?

"Okay, you can. But make sure you return them as they are." This statement which he made jokingly had etched deep into my subconscious mind which I was to find out later, the hard way.

So finally we walked to the jeep that was parked on the back road, with several other people who worked in the Wildlife Department. So we got in. Introductions were made as the jeep started to move and  a journey to an unknown destination to me began.

The  driver was Norbert. Some were guides.
The rugged American built Jeep was powered by a Japanese ISUZU engine and had a British Air Condition System, all mounted on US made chassis and bodywork. So it was a real international product I thought amused. 

  We were cruising  southbound down the Eastern Coastal Highway of Sri Lanka. We passed Siyambalanduwa, Lahugala, the famous Arugambay known for the blue water and white sandy beaches, Panama, and then Okanda, the gateway to Kumana. It was an unforgettable journey for me. Anyways I enjoy the journey as much as or sometimes even more than the destination.

It was after the dusk we passed the barrier at Okanda  and arrived at the Wild life offices and quarters in Okanda.

I was so amused to meet the pet mongoose who comes running when the vehicle comes and scurries about the undercarriage inspecting the wheels gearbox, propeller shaft and finally has a nap on the differential. Norbert was very careful about this pet that every time he starts the vehicle he checks underneath for the mongoose.
Even the meals we had at the quarters were special. Served simple and plain. No multiple dishes. You don’t expect gastronomical miracles in the middle of the jungle. What you cook, you cook in bulk. That day it was rice, beef curry and some hot fresh chilies, called ‘kochchi’. And beef curry dominated the plate, not rice. This beef was what we had bought on our way here. Shopping for anything means a jeep ride to one of those faraway towns that we passed on our way there.

It sinks my heart to realize, that some of those staff members I had meal with that day were massacred later by the LTTE terrorists. According to Gamini, this National park was later closed for 18 years in those nightmare years.

Generally one isn’t allowed to get out of the vehicle in a National Park. But I had this rare and valuable opportunity to track in the dense jungle with team of trackers, for hours a day, for several days. I’m forever in debt to Gamini for that.

On our way we saw a ‘villu’ covered with Painted Storks. And I was amazed at the vast knowledge of the wild life  that even the members in the lowest ranks had. They swapped knowledge right on the job. One night when Gamini and I were returning to the bungalow after dinner, there was the largest herd of deer I had ever seen grazing peacefully. Gamini drove the jeep in a tight circle to show them to me in the powerful beam of the headlight.

One morning we were tracking through the jungle in single file. A guide was in front of me with a long bladed slashing knife to hack through the impenetrable thorny bushes.Suddenly he froze in his tracks and I'd have slammed into him, had Gamini who was right behind me not grabbed my shoulder and stopped me. Oh boy. when I looked up I saw the hugest wild tusker I had ever seen in my whole life standing a few feet ahead on the other side of the thorny bush. His tusks reached the ground. It was a menacing sight!!
 

We'd have rammed into his side if the walked a few more feet!
 

His vegetarian breakfast  consisting some bushes had been interrupted when he heard our arrival. He had paused and were waiting motionlessly for us, standing there like a dark wall. The leading tracker started to chant an elephant mantra rapidly, which didn't work this time. 

The elephant turned to us in slow motion, crunching more bushes in its progress. and launched at us like an armored tank. One thing that saved us was human's acceleration is much better than that of an elephant. By the time the elephant picks up that speed we can cover some ground, yet  it's difficult to outrun an elephant on a straight track.

Gamini grabbed my hand and started to run for our dear lives when this totally unexpected thing happened. One of my borrowed flip flops came off. God knows why I did what I did! I shook Gamini's hand off jumped back a few feet into the path of the onrushing elephant and picked up the flip flop. Maybe Wimal's remark had sunk so deep into my sub conscious mind.  Gamini grabbed me again and ran for it. He didn't run in a straight line. he ran zig zag a bit then crept under a bush nearby, out of sight. The tusker somehow missed the two of us. It bulldozed past us like a destroyer in full throttle, crashing through the jungle leaving a wide trail. He was chasing behind the others in our team.



This illustration on this incident is done by Gamini himself on my special request.

The elephant failed to catch any of us as we later found out. We called each others names and finally regrouped.
after a little while these dudes decided to track the elephant we just escaped, because this has been a very special encounter with a very special elephant. Now while we were tracking the wild elephant armed with high tech camera equipment and binoculars, I started to feel the full blow of the encounter as a delayed reaction. I felt the same way the day we were stuck on the rail crossing

My knees started to wobble because suddenly they felt so weak. My throat felt parched. I was drenched in cold sweat. I heard my heart beating in my skull. I suddenly realized how much life mattered to me. I was a bit pissed off at the group for being so crazy enough to track the elephant we just saved our lives from, by mere luck. The long tusks could have pierced my torso  and I could have been stomped to pulp.

We didn't find the elephant but we saw steaming elephant dung on a rock. We explored a cave inhabited by bears, which was empty at that time of course.

This elephant is a special one even to Yala, Gamini said. He has described this in his book "Lost Trails in Yala East" the translation of the original Sinhala version  "යාල නැගෙනහිර අහිම වනමං”.   
Gamini also gave me some valuable advice. When an elephant is chasing you, it's best to run zig zag and hide just close by. This is because it's difficult to outrun and elephant on the straight stretch. And his eye sight is weak. And his maneuverability in changing direction is poor due to his size.
We visited the Kumana village situated in the middle of the National Park. These people have to cross the jungle and the Okanda check point every time they go out of their village. Gamini showed a number of  bicycles that belonged to the villagers attacked and  wrecked by elephants while crossing the jungle.  This little village in the middle of nowhere, had its own post office and school. It's a crying shame that we are grumbling about our facilities. You gotta see them dudes. 

After a few days armed with a lot of memories that would last forever, I had to return. Gamini dropped me off at Ampara school quarters when he came to collect the jeep that was repaird, as promised. Wimale asked where his flip flops were as soon as he saw me.
 
I took them off and threw them at his feet and said,
 

"Here are your damned flip flops. I nearly killed myself to protect them!"
 

Wimal stared at me with a frown. When I explained to him, he listened with an amused expression on his face and said.
 

"You're one hell of a dude."

Today, Gamini is the author of the two blogs "Wildlife - Sri Lanka"  and  "ගාමිණීගෙ විජිතය"



Wednesday, November 2, 2011

22. DON'T DRINK AND D r I v E. THE SOUL TOUCHING POEM

DON'T DRINK AND D r I v E.     

Dudes, I interrupt my Narrow Escapes Series to make way to this important message which I received through email.  I think it deserves at least that much. I gave it a new heading. Author unknown.

I went to a party Mom,
I remembered what you said.
You told me not to drink, Mom,
So I drank soda instead.

I really felt proud inside, Mom,
The way you said I would.
I didn't drink and drive, Mom,
Even though the others said I should.

I know I did the right thing, Mom,
I know you are always right.
Now the party is finally ending, Mom,
As everyone is driving out of sight.

As I got into my car, Mom,
I knew I'd get home in one piece..
Because of the way you raised me,
So responsible and sweet.

I started to drive away, Mom,
But as I pulled out into the road,
The other car didn't see me, Mom,
And hit me like a load.

As I lay there on the pavement, Mom,
I hear the policeman say,
"The other guy is drunk," Mom,
And now I'm the one who will pay.

I'm lying here dying, Mom.....
I wish you'd get here soon.
How could this happen to me, Mom?
My life just burst like a balloon..

There is blood all around me, Mom,
And most of it is mine.
I hear the medic say, Mom,
I'll die in a short time.

I just wanted to tell you, Mom,
I swear I didn't drink.
It was the others, Mom.
The others didn't think.

He was probably at the same party as I..
The only difference is, he drank
And I will die.

Why do people drink, Mom?
It can ruin your whole life.
I'm feeling sharp pains now.
Pains just like a knife.

The guy who hit me is walking, Mom,
And I don't think it's fair.
I'm lying here dying
And all he can do is stare.

Tell my brother not to cry, Mom.
Tell Daddy to be brave.
And when I go to heaven, Mom,

Put "GOOD BOY " on my grave.

Someone should have told him, Mom,
Not to drink and drive.
If only they had told him, Mom,
I would still be alive.

My breath is getting shorter, Mom.
I'm becoming very scared.
Please don't cry for me, Mom.
When I needed you, you were always there.

I have one last question, Mom.
Before I say good bye.
I didn't drink and drive,
So why am I the one to die?


Someone took the effort to write this poem. So please, forward this
to as many people as you can. And see if we can get a chain going
around the world that will make people understand that don't mix drinking
and driving.


PLEASE DO THE FAVOR

Monday, October 24, 2011

21. NARROW ESCAPES 4: Stuck In The Rail Crossing!

Seevali had migrated to UK when he was 9. After about 12 years he returned to Sri Lanka with his dad. Mom stayed behind in England.
We became buddies while both of us were motor engineering apprentices in a company which imported a luxury German automobile. We found him to be a cool dude.
It was his birthday and he threw a huge party. It was held at one of the beach front restaurants that dotted the west coast from Colombo southwards. So the gang drove there in the evening in Seevali’s car.
So we were drinking and dancing and having a blast. Lights were low and the music was high. And all of us were high and some were becoming unruly too. Even a joint passed around making it an all time high. We were partying away into the small hours of the morning.
I remember the hotel security guards were trying their best to stop some of our dudes who were too high from grass, from getting into the sea to have a night dip. I also had downed so much liquor and the vigorous dancing kept me somewhat sober.
Finally the party was over and who had their own transports left with engines screaming reminding me of Mad Max.  Seevali had already asked some of us to stay the night at his place in Nugegoda. And I also had informed my parents that I won’t be coming home that night. Then we were looking for the dude most sober to drive the car. Actually we had one dude appointed to stay sober only drinking Soda, but somehow he too had had a few drinks. Somehow he slid behind the wheel. All of us, believe me eight of us, piled into the small two door Volkswagen Derby that Seevali’s dad had brought with them from UK. Six of us got into the back after tilting the front passenger seat and three dudes were perched on our knees. So the car was jam packed.
So finally we set off into the night.
You might know that to get to the southbound Galle road that runs parallel to the sea, from any of the beach front guest houses or restaurants, you have to cross the Southern Coastal Railway. Most of these level crossings are unguarded and actually in a very bad state of repair especially where rails run through asphalt. So it was full of pot holes and you were supposed to be cautious. Sometimes the rails jut out of the washed off asphalt creating hazardous barriers in the middle of the road. So the ride was bumpy. We were crossing this mine field in our overloaded VW when right in the middle of the crossing the engine stalled.
The dude behind the wheel turned the ignition key. The starter motor was running vigorously but engine wouldn’t fire.
Then someone yelled, “Hey Dude, the train is coming!”
The driver dude turned the key furiously again, but with the same result. Only the driver and Seevali at the front had the chance to get the hell out and run but they didn’t do so. Us trapped at the back with no doors as this was a two door, were blocked by the front seats and dudes sitting on our knees. We were just sitting ducks for the southbound train that was now racing towards us menacingly.
Suddenly all of us were sober.
Dude at the wheel attempted to restart the engine. We listened with sinking hearts to the whine of the starter motor.
I couldn’t see much of the outside as the dudes perched on our knees were blocking the view, but the powerful headlights of the train engine lit up the inside of the car revealing terrified sweaty faces. Over the vibration of our started motor we felt rather than heard the vibration of the gigantic, menacing train engine, transmitted into the car through the steel rails. And the train’s horn blasted menacingly. I gritted my teeth expecting the inevitable crash, where there would hardly be any survivors. I visualized the front page of the next day’s newspapers with color pictures of mangled bodies in crumpled steel.
None of us know how it happened. Suddenly we felt the car lurch forward. The train with the horn blasting continuously rumbled just behind us, a few feet from Volkswagen’s rear bumper. The lighted train windows whizzing past us, lit up the inside of the car. The rattling of the rails added spice to the situation.
For some time nobody spoke. Then everybody started talking and swearing at the same time. And the car was in motion again.
It wasn’t clear whether the car engine changed its mind and started at the last moment. Or whether the dude behind the wheel, as a last ditch effort, rammed the gearshift into first and turned the ignition making the starter motor propel the car off the track. Everybody wanted to hug him and high five, he swore at us furiously because the car was swerving on the narrow beach road.
I don’t know which action saved us. Because everything said was contradictory.
Somehow we were saved. That was what really mattered.
Now if you’d ask me if I was scared, actually not really. Not because I was particularly brave. It was because there wasn’t enough time to get scared. My mind was numb and I felt rather detached.
And while we were speeding along the Highlevel Road, suddenly my knees turned into jelly and I heard my heart pounding a double beat in my head. My mouth turned dry and sweat tricked down my back. It’s a kind of delayed reaction – a slow release capsule of fear. Maybe some inbuilt safety mechanism had kicked in at the time of crisis.
Well the story should now end because I made my point and the climax of the story is reached.
That’s in fiction. And this is no fiction.
We arrived at Seevali’s rented house. The dude behind the wheel pulled up under the car porch. We all piled out. Would you believe the birthday boy was still passed out? He didn’t know anything that happened at the rail crossing. He would sleep through an earthquake in his drunken stupor. Some just helped him out because he was in the front passenger seat and blocking our exit.
The porch light came on. And the door burst open. Seevali’s Dad was standing there hands on his hips, and oh boy, wasn’t he furious!
“Everyone is pretty drunk, huh? I’m surprised you aren’t in Police lockup”
He went on saying more and more about, police, DUI, anti social behavior and so on. We were feeling pretty embarrassed under all the liquor, Feeling guiltier by the minute. The worst thing was the birthday boy was not there for our rescue. He just groaned and mumbled something incoherent.
Dad stepped back and we dragged Seevali in and dumped him in his bed. He instantly fell asleep again.
We were just standing in his room wondering what to do, when a bundle of rolled up bedding flew into the room and landed at our feet. More pillows and sheets followed and the location of the toilet was informed in a rough,formal tone.
We unrolled the bedding on the floor and gratefully stretched out in a row, hoping the dude next to you won’t throw up on you in the night.
Next morning when I woke up several dudes had already left. I was studying Seevali’s exotic, flat radio with Elvis Presley’s statuette on it when, dad walked in with steaming cups of coffee.
“Good Morning Mr.W….!”, I said
“Good Morning!” Grumpy but still good morning.
The silence that followed was embarrassing. The ice was still too thick. I risked some small talk.
“Nice statue, isn’t it?” I meant Elvis the King.
He looked at the statue with a disgusted look and said.
“Huh, that’s another dude who drank to his death.”
And to make his point he glanced disapprovingly at Seevali who was still sleeping like a baby most probably nursing a massive hangover.
I understood it was too early for peace talks.
At least he didn’t throw us out. And I just wondered how he would have reacted if he knew what happened the night before at that rail crossing. I can’t even imagine. I made a mental note never to tell this to my home folks and I never did.

WORD OF ADVICE:
IF YOU EVER GET STUCK IN A RAILWAY CROSSING IN A SIMILAR MANNER, AND IF THE ENGINE WON’T FIRE BUT THE STARTER MOTOR IS TURNING TRY ENGAGING THE FIRST GEAR AND TURNING THE STARTER MOTOR. PROBABLY THE STARTER MOTOR WILL MOVE YOU OFF THE TRACKS. IN CASE YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH PEOPLE TO PUSH THE CAR ALSO, THIS MIGHT HELP. BETTER RESULTS IF ONE AT THE WHEEL ATTEMPTING IT, WHILE OTHER IS PUSHING THE CAR. (This is with manual gearbox. With automatic gearbox I think trying in D will do the trick. I'm not sure. Someone please try this and comment.)
IF THE CRASH IS INEVITABLE, GET OUT OF THE CAR AND RUN. BUT NEVER RUN AWAY FROM THE TRAIN. RUN TOWARDS THE TRAIN ON THE SIDE OF THE TRACK. THIS MAY SOUND CRAZY, BUT WHEN THE TRAIN HITS THE CAR THE CAR WILL TURN INTO A PROJECTILE WHICH COULD HIT YOU IF YOU ARE ON THAT SIDE. AND FLYING DEBRIS IS FATAL.
AND I PRAY AND HOPE YOU WILL NEVER BE IN A SITUATION LIKE THAT.

Monday, October 17, 2011

20. Narrow Escapes 3: SAVED BY THE FAULTY STARTER MOTOR.


Mine was  four door version of this.
My small red Fiat hatchback had begun to irritate me. The starter motor had grown a mind of its own. It had developed this nasty habit of sticking and wouldn’t turn when I most wanted it to do so. It let me down when my wife wanted to be rushed to the hospital for her second child birth and when I wanted to bring both of them home. I had really wanted to bring the boy home in my own car for obvious reasons. Finally he came home in my best friend’s car. I was so pissed off at it for letting me down.
Later when  on my daughter’s sports meet day, which was held at the SSC grounds Colombo 7, all four of us were driving to Colombo. By this time I had got an auto electrician to see the started motor but still it performed poorly.
When we entered Colombo through the New Kelani Bridge we had a choice of routes, either through Maradana or Baseline Road. Just because of the unreliable starter motor, I decided to avoid the traffic congested Maradana as I didn’t want to take the chance of engine stalling and having to push it in the heavy midday traffic. I told my intention to Deepa and she readily agreed, and scolded the electrician a bit more.
I switched lanes and drove through the Baseline Road. As I swung left at Punchi Boralla towards Boralla I noted some difference in the behavior of traffic and the people too. I lowered the window and asked the dude who was crossing the road by my window if anything was wrong.
“Don’t you know dude.” He said, “The tigers just bombed Maradana, and so many are dead. Look at the cloud of smoke.”
 


I felt cold sweat run down my face as I turned the head and saw the grey sky above Maradana which I just avoided crossing a few minutes ago, just because of my faulty starter motor. I’d have arrived on the scene at the precise moment the bomb went off which would have blown us all sky high ending everything, if I didn't make that vital decision.  I shuddered to think about those who didn’t have the choice of taking the other route just like I did when I did.
For the first time all of us thanked the faulty starter motor which saved our lives.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

19. Narrow Escapes 2: SAVED JUST BECAUSE I WAS BROKE


I was a Motor Engineering Student at the Technical College those days. We were given a monthly allowance which didn’t last much long but something which we waited eagerly for. Somehow the long weekend grew closer and closer and  still there was no sign of the allowance, though it was due before the last working day.
Nalath, one of my best friends, lived in Dehiwela, though the dude was originally from Weligama, in Southern Sri Lanka. We had planned to go to Weligama for some religious ceremony (an alms-giving) which was a cover for a fun filled weekend. I had agreed to go with him and even had got permission from my parents and I had brought my overnight bag stuffed with my things to go with him after the classes were over. The only drawback was I was flat broke like everybody else and was hoping to get the allowance before the departure.
Unfortunately due to the steaming dog pile of bureaucracy we weren’t paid that day. It was already 4.00pm and all of us dudes had abandoned all hope. So I had to change my mind which disappointed Nalath immensely. He was still saying the money was no objection and he had enough even for me. I didn’t want to depend on him even for cigarettes and wished him good luck. My pride didn’t allow me to be a parasite no matter how much he grumbled.
So on the grand steps of the Technical College,  I said goodbye to him and watched him walking away. He crossed the road to catch a bus to go to Pettah, which was in the opposite direction I was going. I never thought this was our last meeting. After watching him get into a bus I walked to my bus stop, my mind filled with bitter thoughts.
In the weekend our mutual friend Priyantha broke the shocking news that Nalath and all the three other dudes who had gone on that fatal trip met their end tragically drowning in a rock pool in Weligama. They had gone to swim there and when one dude was drowning the all the others who had tried to rescue him had met the same fate.

All three of them who had gone there from Colombo had died - and there were no survivors.
Later at the group funeral which was held at the local cemetery in one gloomy afternoon with a heavy heart  I just wondered, if the government had been more efficient and had paid the allowance on due date, I also would have ended up in that cold rock pool. I was no great swimmer myself. For the first time the inefficiency paid. And I was spared just because I was flat broke.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

18. Narrow Escapes 1 : Saved by the Shoestrings.

This happened when I was about 6 or 7. We were living in Balangoda, Sri Lanka. My father and I had gone on a trip to see the Galoya Project. I can't recall why only two us of went on that trip. We were returning home in the bus we had chartered.

I remember passing miles and miles of  sugarcane fields. We stopped at one place to have tea and some dudes broke into the fields through the perimeter fence and cut sugar cane. The more responsible ones protested saying that the vehicle would be searched at the check point yet to pass and everybody would get into trouble, still the rampage went on, because it seemed like a cool thing to do.

Then I remember a tractor pulling a trailer loaded with sugarcane passing and our dudes stopped it and talked the driver into allowing us to take some sugar cane from the trailer. So several bundles of sugarcane were loaded into the bus.

My father and I were sitting on the right hand side of the bus, me given the window seat as usual. It started to rain making us to shut the windows. And inside the bus it was becoming more and  more humid. My father was holding the rail running the length of the front seat as he always did as a seasoned traveler. I was chewing on my sugarcane when I felt that my shoes were loose.

I lifted my feet off the floor and jammed them against the back of the front seat. Yes the shoestrings were undone. I had only recently learned the art of tying them on my own and they had a habit of coming off frequently giving me a chance to practice. I braced the feet against the hard surface of the back of the front seat and started doing the knot again when the bus crashed.

First I felt the thud reverberating up my legs. then then the skidding of the bus. Then Then the tearing metal. And then the screams.

I watched in horror the overhead bins spill on the passengers. One canvas bag fell on me and father.

Then there was silence.

I stood up stepping on a bundle of sugar cane that has suddenly appeared under my feet and I peeped out of the window to see a car had rammed into the side of the bus. And another jeep had hit the car head on.
As I later realized the car had tried to overtake the bus and seen the oncoming jeep too late. As a last ditch effort he had chosen to swing in to the bus which was traveling in the same direction rather than hitting the jeep head on. Somehow he had ended up hitting the bus and being hit by the jeep simultaneously.

A lot of people in the bus were injured. Other than the bruised shoulder from the fallen traveling bag, Father and I were unscathed. There were bleeding heads, cut faces, broken teeth, bleeding mouths and lot of injury.

My father had escaped because he always held the front seat rail and had braced himself. I just escaped being thrown against the front seat because I was in the best crash position bracing my feet tight against the back of the front seat as I was tying my shoestrings.

So somehow I escaped serious injury thanks to my shoelaces.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

17. THE WONDER YEARS WITH MY KIDS - 2


Did you read "The Wonder Years With My Kids 1"?

Ten years later the boy wonder arrived. Click here if you didn't read Part 1. He was so special and we wanted him to be that way. So I experimented by like, playing the guitar and singing for him when he was still in mom's womb. He loved my music pre-natal and knew me so well.

Even after he was born he was a great music lover. He needed Jimmy Cliff or Beatles to sleep. He listened to them till the audio cassettes shredded.

I think the experiments were a success. Now we find him to be special as expected. He is so good at multi-tasking, he can watch TV while sketching or painting a picture or while working on a toy boat. He would dismantle a toy or anything unattended. Still he absorbs everything said on TV without missing anything.
We didn't restrict TV again, because he had to know the good and bad both. The bad words were named "Van Damme Words"by him, because he discovered Jean Claude Van Damme says them so often on movies. For a long time to come they were referred to as “Van Damme”, words.

One day I took him to my school (In Sri Lanka, Colombo) on a holiday as we had planned a staff trip to Muthurajawela wetlands along the Dutch canal and  mangrove swamp. As we entered the school premises he saw the security watch hut and asked' "Whose kennel is that?".   It says a lot about the naiive  view of a kid about the working conditions of a security guard, doesn’t it?

He started reading at a very young age, just like his sister and…. hmm the whole family. While the others in his age were reading Nursery books with big color pictures he was reading "Goose Bumps" and "Shivers".  At school here they were given a supplementary reader which he had finished reading several times over in the first few weeks. The class teacher had given him “N” grade which meant "Needs Improvement". Flabbergasted we met the teacher to know how come she makes such a stupid and poor judgment. "He can't read this", the teacher said. We suppressed out laughter and looked at the boy enquiringly, who blurted out, “I know this stuff by heart. I don't want to do any parrot reading."

When he was in grade one, he was getting ready to go to school. The dude and I used the same cologne. Usually mom is the one who sprays it on his collar. As usual she sprayed a bit on one side of his collar. He said “Spray on the other side, too, ‘cos the class teacher approaches from both the sides."

Do you know there is a little scoop like tool to clean the earwax? It's actually taboo as it can cause ear damage and ENT dudes frown upon even at the mere idea of it.
Well I used one anyway, but  very secretly. I never allowed the young one to see me using it nor ever have access to its location for very obvious reasons.
So I was 100% sure that I had never used it in his presence nor he had ever seen this incriminating gadget, until one day we visited this friend of mine in  Nittambuwa, Sri Lanka, who had no babies. My son surprised me by picking up a ear scooper from my friend’s coffee table and saying, “Thaththa, here look, he also uses a ear scoop just like you do.”  I was stunned.

When we shop in the cities whether  in Sri Lanka or even here we walk a lot. The boy never complained or asked to be carried. We realized how difficult this should have been for him when one day he sat on a shop stool and rested his feet. We wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable or guilty if he harassed us as any other boy.
The year we left for overseas jobs, Sri Lanka has a severe drought and there were scheduled power cuts. Full uninterrupted power was given only on Poya Days. We arrived in this country in the night flight and were waiting at the airport lobby ablaze with lights till morning to be picked up, the little one asked, “Is it Poya Day here today?” Several other Sri Lankans who heard this and saw the irony were so amused at this they became instant friends.

This story is not funny at all. We hadn’t brought much cash with us when we arrived here. And everything was unexpectedly, artificially and ridiculously expensive. What we had we had to spend so carefully till we got our first month’s salaries.  The little one who had a roomful of toys at home (both his and his sister’s) was fingering the toys in the shops here and but never asked for them. We gritted our teeth and prayed for the salary.

This actually sank our hearts. Specially this unusual attitude from a four year old.He must have heard our discussions about money.

The final blow came when we got out first salaries. He asked in his baby voice, “Now do you have money to show my tooth to the dentist? This was hurting for days.”
Actually he never told us and I felt the lump in my throat and turned my face away to hide the tears welled up in y eyes and streamed down my face. It didn’t work and I ran to the bathroom and cried in the shower.

Go to "The Wonder Years With My Kids 1

Sunday, September 4, 2011

16. The Wonder Years With My Kids -1

Our elder kid Hiruni, a girl, had to grow up alone for 10 years because both of us are employed. Being a nuclear family, we didn’t have much help bringing her up.  So the first kid almost cost my wife her job.

She was five. We were moving back home after completing difficult area service. We were in the front of the truck. We stopped somewhere in Kandy and bought take away fried rice from a Chinese restaurant. She’s been sleeping all the time. When we parked and gave her the pack of fried rice she stared at mixed up fried rice sleepily and asked,
“What’s this? Cat food?”
We used to mix up all the left over rice and feed the stray cats.

We didn’t have many restrictions on watching TV, so she watched a lot of TV. It gave a lot of exposure and also acted as an effective babysitter under supervision. Even otherwise we didn’t have much choice. There were a lot of commercials she liked, too. Actually she enjoyed some commercials as much as or perhaps even more than the regular programs

One morning we woke her up to go to school. She mumbled sleepily,
 “Wait a minute till this commercial break is over…okay?”
Then we realized even her dreams had commercial breaks.

I still remember the day she rode wobbling when I removed both the guide wheels off her little mountain bike. She used to add accessories to this bike from time to time. She once bought a ta-ta hand, a yellow plastic hand fitted at the end of a metal rod that swung from side to side as the bike moved.  After practicing in the front yard she was eventually promoted to ride on the country road while my wife and I were riding ahead on the motor bike. And we had made the crash helmet mandatory for her. Once, while riding downhill mom yelled  
“Wait wait she’s not there.”

I stopped to see that she was not there to be seen actually. Then from the ditch appeared a blue helmet, followed by a small figure slightly scratched but generally unharmed. Then we pulled both child and the bike out of the ditch. She was fuming with rage. Later we found out the reason.  
“It’s okay falling down. That’s not the problem. This stupid ta-ta hand was saying ta-ta ta-ta all the time while I was fallen in the ditch.”

When she was a first grader I had to meet her class teacher one day to listen to her complaint that my kid had walked on the piano keyboard playing with feet creating a new genre of music.

She also had trouble with bullies. When all the complains fell into deaf ears and she was bullied behind the teachers’ backs, as a last resort I taught her some karate in self defense. (This had worked for me when I was bullied at school- a mixed type of street fighting) A few weeks later I was called again because she had assaulted the bullies not only with kicks and punches but also with her motorcycle crash helmet.

I just wondered how lonely she must be when one day I heard her bursting into the living room and blurting out,
“You are under arrest. Put your hand in the air!”
I whirled around to find her dressed in her commando kit pointing a toy revolver at her own chest with one hand, with the other hand in the air raised in surrender. She has been playing army and the rebels both.

Finally she played her trump card. The Principal who was a very kind lady and a well renowned author, had left a message for me to see her in her office. I tapped on her door expecting more trouble

“Hiruni came to meet me today Mr. Blogwalker,” she said, “… and she wants me to tell you as her principal that she needs a brother to play with.” 
I felt a lump in my throat.

Next: The Wonder Years With My Kids 2