But it was nothing less than hangover albeit this one- induced by the spirit of youth more than anything else. My head felt heavy, my already heavy body felt numb and dead and hauling it out of bed to the hall was quite a task. I lay there trying to flush open my choked nostrils- huffing and puffing and generating "pneumatic" gusty spells and taking breaks in between while letting my head rest on the sofa- my eyes closed all along. I was sick. The fever was steadily getting complete control of me, the aches getting wilder and steeper and this tossed me into a sickness I dreaded the most- homesickness! I ached for company of some known faces for the only one I had by me then was almost ill himself. I did a quick mental calculation of how long it could take if I left that town at that very moment and headed home to Hyderabad. The hours I arrived at seemed a sum big enough for me to stop entertaining such thoughts any further. I told myself that I had to grow up and stop being so soft, it was my choice that I had chosen to go to that place and I had to come to terms with what it offered. That's when I decided to venture out of my austere place of stay and into the wild open of which I got to see tiny bits the previous night.
And then Batticaloa happened to me!
I was living a dream and popping myself to places I only heard on radio and TV. While the first part of the trip was fairly commonplace and gave Mukunda and me a sense of security, the next phases of the trip were only going to take us into "hermit mode". The journey from the hills to the coast was as good as a tumble. The bus lay at a desolate corner of Kandy's private bus stand and we got to her after asking at least half a dozen people for directions. The locals were friendly- possibly more so that we gave ourselves up as travellers- carrying heavy backpacks and I gesturing fervently to make up the lack of anyskill related to Sinhala. We got to the bus and found comfortable seats for ourselves and our luggage. Then I began looking around to see who our fellow travellers would be. There was a family- overflowing with children, right next to my seat- just across the aisle and I was certain they would be a source of complete irritation once the bus made its way out of town. Then there was a frail young boy, perhaps 10 or 12 and he sat in one of the seats by the window. He was peculiarly silent for a creature that young!
Then I saw a young couple- giggling and smiling and constantly at each other's ear. I was curious to see how they would go on and told myself that I had to observe them. The girl was beautiful. She was dusky and of sandalwood shade, having cheek bones that stood out merrily as if they did so to enhance her beauty. She had a lovely smile and an even better grin. It showed off all her near-perfect teeth and brought a sort of an emboss to her trim jaw-line- all this added to a bob cut- the spiky sort- hair long enough to give her a sense of femininity and short enough to give her a chic, urbane look. She wore a gown with floral prints- white on blue if I remember well- She caught my eye when I hopped off the bus to get some biscuits and she remained in it throughout the journey-whenever I was awake.
The bus purred to a start after a wheezing itself to life, gingerly crisscrossing the most crowded part of Kandy city and we settled down into our most comfortable postures- my mind playing back all that we had seen and experienced in that beautiful city and in between observing the girl that I just described in great detail. From what the bus and the journey were at that point- like light hearted teenagers enjoying a walk at night-nobody could have guessed what they were to become. I was somewhat lost, in my first trip outside India and was busy watching everything new that came my way with great curiosity. I had forgotten to check on Mukunda who was supposed to be sitting in the seat behind mine- I was like a yacht in a spectacular ocean. It was an anaesthesia of sorts I would like to believe- for when the bus had gotten so crowded and sweaty- I never realised until once when the brakes were slammed really hard.
That jolt threw me back to reality. I could see that the bus was full, no, in fact teeming with people. The roads were empty- a very unusual sight for an Indian and the drive was a ferocious sprint of sorts. The Lanka Leyland was grunting like a hungry predator and it appeared that the driver drew immense pleasure in pushing the grunts to harsher reaches of the spectrum or perhaps he had lost the ability to shift to the next gear!
But slowly I moved out of my seat by the window to one by the aisle and then ended up standing- offering a seat to a mother who was trying her best to keep her daughter away from the menfolk that seemed to hound that part of the bus. The ride was hard and swinging and it gave me a great deal of physical exercise while trying to maintain a decent posture. I saw that Mukunda struck conversation with a man who seemed exotic and alien to this part of country. A keener observation made me realise that they were conversing in Hindi. Oh! Vow! I had to somehow get into it too! When I got to sit after Mukunda offered to stand for a while, I got to talk to the man. He was middle aged and worked at a spinning mill as a mechanic. It was surprising to see how he chose to live in Kandy after he told me that he hailed from UP. It was a conversation that never went into too much detail even though we had much more in common with each other than I or him had with the others on board.
Meanwhile, the bus was whipping past curves and corners of this particularly flawless expressway. There was a continuous stream of buses along with ours and each seemed to be in a race with the ones immediately ahead and behind it. This game of cat and mouse went on incessantly- but excepting the grunt of the engine, everything else was playing along that mood setup by that eerie night. I don’t remember how the bus that was so full got empty, neither do I remember how I fell asleep. I slouched in my seat, grabbing much needed sleep and rest. Every now and then, my head would tilt away, almost taking my entire torso sliding to the horizontal and that was when I would be slapped back to life, when I took glances of my surroundings through my smudged vision, hoping and trying to see if we had reached anywhere near Pollonaruwa- our intended destination.
We were well into the journey- munching miles at great speed, most of the crowd had hopped off.
There were hardly a dozen people in the bus then. No one barring the duo that drove the bus and guided it were conscious continuously. After about an hour of indulging in the sleeping ritual, I woke up and walked up to the front of the bus- to enquire about Pollonaruwa. The last thing we would have wanted was to waste our train tickets which we had booked from Pollonaruwa to Batticaloa. Though that very bus was headed to Batti, I argued with Mukunda that we had to alight at Pollonaruwa and hop onto the train. As usual, he was saying quite the opposite. I didn’t want to miss the chance of travelling on a Lankan train while also not wanting to waste tickets that we had bought after a great ordeal at Colombo. He didn’t want to miss out on sleep! My word prevailed. We hopped off at Pollonaruwa- right at the entrance of the railway station to find something remarkable and absurd.
For the first time in our
lives, we had seen a railway station having a gate and one that was locked! “Heavens must be crazy!”, I thought and why wouldn’t I?
Upon investigation, we found out to our amusement that train stations in Lanka opened only an hour before the train was to arrive- somewhat like centres where public examinations are held in India. But soon, our amusement turned into bewilderment and resentment. There were at least a couple of hours for the train to arrive and we were told by local tuk-tuk wallahs that the train couldn’t be counted on for it came not so regularly. Add all that to the fact that the bus we got dropped off from had grunted its way out of our sight. We were left in a godforsaken part of a little town not knowing what to do and where to go! We looked at each other- visibly aghast but terribly sleepy- each hoping for the other to take charge and perform some magic. Then we saw something almost so, a bus that sped past us, screeched to a halt a few hundred metres ahead. We ran towards it like it was our saviour!
It looked like it was the designated point for bus drivers. All of them had assembled to ease off or to grab a bite of a snack or sip some chai in unison. It was quite a gathering- a myriad mix of drivers, passengers and buses catching their breath, embellished by grunting engines zooming past and by notoriously cacophonic horns that bobbed out into the silence of east-central Lankan night. Guess what?
We found our bus! We did, we did! There was so much relief upon seeing the bus, the beautiful girl who by now looked nowhere in earthly clutches seemed so asleep that nothing could to wake her up, the other passengers who by now were old enough in memory to recognise and our driver! They were all there. This puny sense of familiarity gave me a lot of relief. The driver grinned sheepishly at us mocking at our stupidity in his language, but we couldn’t be interested in anything other than a couple of seats.
We paid the extra fare and hauled ourselves to the rear of the bus. Each of our backpacks served as pillows- though they were too bloated to be of any help, I lay on the last seat, sprawling my entirety on the narrow strip of sponge and rexine like it were a bed of roses.
Mukunda chose to explore comfort in the seat before mine. In our grotesque postures, I am sure we didn’t make a pleasing image on the eye, but who cared and who actually came to have a look at us? Barely a thousand kilometres away from home, were we experiencing life, people, culture and travelserved on a completely different platter? I think yes! Meanwhile, the bus hobbled on, the driver by now, emboldened by the lack of any other presence around the road, began to toy with her. She grunted like her life depended on how pitch-perfect her grunts were, groaned periodically and thudded whenever presented with hurdles. Her suspensions quite dutifully transferred all their jarring to her body and more so to the lonely rear seats.
That night will remain in memory forever. The sleep was anything but continuous with the body beaten by excessive physical strain and a mind that was by then tired and wanted no more. At around half past three, the conductor came to us, lugged us out of sleep and gesticulated feverishly while saying “Batticaloa! Batticaloa!” No! It couldn’t happen so soon. I wanted to say “Give us 15 minutes and we’ll hop off” but did I have a choice? I took upon myself the toughest task I had known in Lanka- to get Mukunda to wake up and pack up. We managed to get him up and standing. He seemed to be completely gutted for having lost out on precious sleep- from what I knew- the best way to know how he was doing was to look at his face and observe his eyes. If they were wide and curious- it was good for everybody around. He would be such a joy to be with, but if his eyelids started to half-close on his iris while he spoke to you, you could be sure that he wasn’t doing well, which meant you wouldn’t be doing so well either. He moaned and complained- quite an expressive chap. At such times I am sure he thought he could shoo away his troubles by moaning and complaining and by shrill and shriller yet “Aiyoooooooo”s. I called it “Christ mode”. The boy looked and sounded like he was carrying the burden of all of humanity’s sins and pain. And he would be relentless. By then I had mastered this process of reading his face and looking at his eyes and I tempered my behaviour accordingly. I am sure he had his own thesis on how he dealt with me, but you can expect to read it in his writings- not here!
At Batti, we were terribly out of patience, energy and most importantly- the traveller spirit. We were thrown off one final time at a place called Dutch Bar Kallady in Batticaloa. The bus did its usual thing. It just sped off along the road and out of sight in a jiffy. We waded to the side of the road to assess our situation and to decide on further course of action. Our phones were not of much help. One was perennially dead, while the other had no international roaming active. So terrible! Around us, as we discussed and argued impatiently, a small gathering had prospered. Seeing two strange looking creatures carrying grotesque luggage- the unpaid sentinels of colonies and towns turned up. “Ah! Come on now” I thought, couldn’t these stray dogs find a better time for a duel? The barking began in full gusto and they were waiting for us to bust a move to jump at our calves, but we were so tired that we barely walked. They barked for a few minutes and then left us to explore the place.
The hotel we booked was somewhere in Dutch Bar Kallady, our phones were near-useless and it was just about 3.30 am. God forbid anybody from being in such a situation. Having left ourselves no option, we ventured into the by-lanes of the locality, trying to see if we had any luck that we could exploit. The streets seemed very familiar. They looked like the ones we find in Tamil Nadu, the lighting- or the lack of it, the architecture of the construction and the general feel of the place was not exotic, but who cared if the place was exotic or romantic , we needed to find our hotel or otherwise we needed to find some place to rest! It was becoming tougher by the minute to stay sane and patient in our search and tempers were beginning to flare up. The direction in which we were to head would never come out of consensus.
All the while, we had been seeing signboards reading “The Riviera Resort”. Suddenly and almost at the same time, we suggested to the other- that we should try heading to the Riviera instead of spending time until dawn in search of the accommodation that we had booked online. Sense finally seemed to prevail and we now headed for “The Riviera Resort”. At the gate (which was locked more out of desperation than an honest attempt to secure the entrance it seemed) we saw the resort open out to us. It was a vast piece of land really- carrying dense vegetation.The huge trees that were interspersed made an effective canopy. While I was doing all this, I made him call the number mentioned at the gate. He managed to convey to a “somebody” that we desperately needed a room for the night and that we had no hideous intentions to be arriving in town at that lonely hour.
Like they say poetically “From Yonder” appeared a figure, we couldn’t get more detail in such low light, but as it moved in our direction, what we saw was frightening. It was man on his bicycle with a torch in his hand. No that was not frightening. But he must have been at least six feet and two inches- that imposing frame in a bland khakhi uniform and the deathly silence in his demeanour meant that we treated him more unreal that we ever did anybody. The periodic screech that his bicycle gave out- perhaps to blow away the pain of having to carry his very heavy body- added to this very scary set. That surely was frightening!
After having explained our situation, we were able to convince him that we were benign. He offered us a non AC room and asked us to worry about finances the next morning- we could only be glad. Once in the room, there was nothing to do but to lighten up as fast as one could and hit the bed. My health began to take a turn for the worse and how the night passed by I do not know.
In the bright hour of the day, we ventured into the resort in search of the office. We wanted to finalise the financials, but most importantly get something sizeable to eat. The resort was fantastic. Yes it seemed to be right out of imagination. What we couldn’t see in the dark was that the place was jutting a lagoon. The shade and the sun joined by the lagoon made for a fantastic combination on a lazy day. Even though I was being killed by a terrible bout of fever, I couldn’t help feeling “wow”ed by the sight and thanking our stars for bringing us to such a glorious place.
We had a lot of food to break our fast. I stuck to bread and marmalade. I must have eaten at least 8 slices. It was nothing like the jams that get flung at us in supermarkets. Fresh and sweet, the marmalade seemed to be the medicine to my illness. It caressed my inners, soothed my tongue and lifted my spirits and despite my fever and his fatigue, we decided that we were heading to the beach where the Indian Ocean waited for us. We walked through the by-lanes of Kallady. They were laid out remarkably well. The homes were small and had a lot of thatch in their construction. People looked at us curiously as wewalked by. I thought until then that we wouldn’t appear as outsiders but our attires did us in. We were roaming around in shorts and T-shirts accompanied by the one pair of goggles that we used occasionally, shared decently in a spirit of brotherly love. The local men generally wore white and swung by the locality on their loud mopeds, the women- hardly any of them were obese- wore night gowns in the ambit of their yards and surrounding their homes. There wasn’t much of an effort to look resplendent.
They all seemed to be living in some fear- not that they looked so, but the atmosphere seemed to be perturbed and silence in their lives was most palpable. The beach was like nothing we had known or seen. It was a forlorn stretch of white sand. Just that. There was not another soul anywhere close by. We tried having a good time at the beach but honestly, the sun was making it terribly hot and unlivable. Having tried desperately for an hour, we packed up and began walking back to the Riviera. On our way, I suggested that he speak to a few ladies in Tamil and ask them about the war and the tsunami. Their descriptions were tragic, their tone- cold and resigned, perhaps by re-living the horror that man and nature chose to smother this place with.
Most of the ladies around had lost near and dear. It was a very uncomfortable time. Were we to thank them because they had spoken patiently? Were we to apologise for having had them recollect the tragedy? I had wanted to speak to such people and learn about how it was to face the tsunami or the ire of war- to experience such a tragedy as closely as I could. Mukunda helped me do that. He played the perfect translator forming a seamless bridge between them and me whenever and wherever such a situation wove itself to life!
The afternoon passed by in the hammocks by the side of the lagoon. From where we were hanging, we could see Lanka’s longest bridge and a constant flow of traffic on it. The sky changed shades as if it was demonstrating how much more beautiful that sight could get. As if it said “See this in blue. You like it, don’t you? Now try it in a tinge of orange.”
The day at Batti was not what we had planned. We could never have planned such a beautiful assortment of experiences- from the humbling ocean to the cozy hammock- mingling with the locals, striking a conversation, playing beach cricket and having some great food. It stroked us back to life, fuelled our spirits to look forward to the next phases of the trip.
After the customary sightseeing that evening, we headed to the bus stop to catch another bus to Jaffna.
But not before we got a few photos of a statue- a memorial. It showed a young mother, draped loosely from head to toe and hurrying away with her young one at her shoulder- perhaps she was running away from a calamity- how hurried she was cannot be stated in words. One has to see that statue to understand the intent of the sculptor.
I look back at Batti and liken her to a young widow. Like we went to her kiosk where she was diligently warm and comforting. She was extremely beautiful- the kind of face that one would want to look at for a long time, but she scared us with her pensiveness. I would never make eye- contact, while the temptation to look at her more keenly would remain forever.
Yes Batti happened to me.