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Storytime: The Old Man and the Tea

By Keerthenan Raveendra
Published 2018-11-14

Based on a true story

Kandy, Sri Lanka, December 1988

I could feel the crisp collar of my one dress shirt digging into my neck. Just eight hours and then home. In the shimmering sun, all I really wanted was a tea. Tea was plentiful in Kandy; in its cool humidity, it was one large tea plantation.

In 1988, a tea from a stall cost a rupee. For me, that is. For everyone else, it was less. But for a kid heading home, did the troubles of 1988 really matter?

The shrill screech of the train pierced the serenity of the mid-morning sky. I grabbed a seat opposite an old man. A curt nod from me, another from him. I looked outside, as the time started winding down.

Three-hundred kilometres – six hours – felt like an eternity. The lumbering train snaking through tunnels, around rolling hills, eventually descending to flatter terrain near my homeland. Which is when I awoke to what seemed to be a faint scream. A boyish one, not so different than one I would make. Must have had too much tea.

And then there was another one. This one was loud, louder than the clackity-clacks the train made, louder than the gush of wind against my face. And then another, from behind the carriage door.

That’s when the soldiers burst in. I say soldiers, but I should say boys not so different than me, except that while I wore my one fine shirt, they wore smeared green uniforms, caramel skin interrupted by black paint. At the other end of the car, they grabbed a classmate. Velu, we called him. A kid from a farm far away from the city. He had four younger sisters. His parents used to say he would take care of them all after college. Used to say, because in the next thirty seconds, Velu’s face would go from confusion, to fear, to resignation. From seeing the soldiers, to not knowing what came next, to putting it altogether.

He put it together, and they left him in pieces. They pushed him off the train. Right into a stone slab. Then, they saw me.

I don’t remember what I thought in that moment. We all have those: when we see a calamity approaching in slow motion, yet we are so transfixed that evading the impending catastrophe just isn’t in the cards.

As the soldiers started shouting at me, words failed to form at my mouth. The most senior grabbed my collar, my once-pristine white shirt now stained with dirt. And then the hands relaxed, because the old man had started talking.

My Sinhala was passable, but I only picked up one sentence in the old man’s monologue, when he pointed at me, and called me his son. “Ohu mage puta.” Ironic that the word “puta,” one that defines a tier of expletives in Spanish, would be the one to save me. Because in Sinhala, it meant I was just another boy, one that the army had no reason to jostle or haul away or throw out of a moving train.

With that, the soldiers just grunted and passed onto the next car. Onto the next scream.

Turns out, the old man, Mahendra, was heading to my hometown. His Sinhala daughter with a Tamil boy, he said. Not something he approved of.

When we arrived, I made a point of buying Mahendra a tea. Because tea in my culture is a special beverage, one we drink when we see old friends, when girls meet prospective grooms, and when words cannot effectively encapsulate our gratitude. The old man caught on.

I paid, of course. A rupee in total, for the both of us.