You realised you liked boys very early on. When your Dada told you that all poofs should be tied up and raped with knives, you looked down at your slippers and never looked him in the face again.
There may come a time when homosexuals can kiss on the street, get mortgages together and die in each other’s arms. Not in your lifetime. In your lifetime, you meet a stranger in a dark place and never see them again. Or you have secret affairs that end with no time for heartache. Or you do something radical, like have a girlfriend, live with her, and sleep in the spare room with the landlord’s son.
“You came to a JVP rally. You asked me to pose with a banner. Then, you tried to smooch me. A week later, the first batch of my comrades were disappeared. A month later, they disappeared me.”
The details come to you in itches and aches. In the Sri Lanka of the ’80s, “disappeared” was a passive verb, something the government or JVP anarchists or Tiger separatists or Indian Peace Keepers could do to you depending on which province you were in and who you looked like.
“Let’s follow these bhutayas.”
Sena leads you to the roof of the white van. You notice his hood and his cape are made from black garbage bags. You cannot say for sure what made the marks on his ankles, but you can guess. You look down and see you are wearing one shoe, a chappal imported from Madras and sold in Jaffna.
The van starts to move. In the backseat are Kottu and Balal, who have hosed off and changed into baniyans. At the back of the van are boxes of meat that have started to smell. Steaks, chops, ribs and off-cuts that once belonged to you and three others. Some seem to have come out of the freezer.
The driver is a young soldier who hunches over the wheel and mutters to himself. He has a prosthetic leg that he keeps on the passenger seat while he drives. Sena whispers into the boy’s ear and turns towards you.
“Let me tell how sir died,” he says putting his hood on and leaning back.
“Sir was picked up from the Arts Centre Club or wherever rich ponnayas go. Sir was put in the van, beaten with a pipe. Chained in a room filled with dead people’s shit.”
He holds up his hand and you see bloody scabs where fingernails once were. “Maybe you woke to a man in a mask asking you questions. ‘Are you JVP?’ or ‘Are you Tiger?’ Maybe, ‘Are you foreign NGO?’ or ‘Are you Indian spy?’ They’d ask why you were taking photos and who you were selling them to. And if they knew you’re a ponnaya, they’d shove things into you.”
The driver calls out to his passengers.
“These extra bodies, from where, ah?”
“Drivermalli! Shut your gob and drive.”
Balal’s hands have been scrubbed clean of blood.
“Mr Balal, I don’t like this disgusting work.”
“Thank you for feedback. I will put in my report. Now kindly drive.”
Meanwhile, Kottu taps Balal on the shoulder and lowers his voice. He combs his handlebar moustache with his finger.
“Balal malli, I’m going to complain to boss.”
“The big, big boss?”
“I’ll tell even him. I’m not scared. Very unprofessional how we are asked to work.”
Sena is now floating before you and shouting at your face. You hold your broken camera to your eye and line him against the moving trees.
“Maybe you wanted to spit in their faces and curse their children. But all you did was cry and shiver and plead. Maybe, they used nails on your fingernails. Maybe, you told them what they wanted to hear. Maybe, they made you eat a gun.”
He has tears in his eyes that he does not bother wiping. “That’s how they took you?”
“That’s how they took us all. 20,000 in the last year. Innocent fools, mainly. There weren’t even that many in the whole JVP.”
“I wasn’t JVP.”
“Minister Cyril Wijeratne said, ‘Twelve of yours for one of ours.’ He wasn’t joking. Bugger just got the sums wrong.”
“20,000 disappeared? You got the sums wrong.”
“I’ve seen the bodies.”
“Five maybe, max.”
“The JVP killed less than 300. To crush us, the government killed more than 20,000. Maybe twice that. These are facts, sir.”
“The government has killed over 20,000,” says Drivermalli, as if overhearing a conversation beyond his ears. “Why? The JVP is crushed. The LTTE are silent. Why all this killing?”
“Shut up and drive,” says Balal.
“If there is an afterlife, we will all pay for this,” says Drivermalli.
“Fool. There is no afterlife,” says Kottu. “Only this shit life.”
“Where are we going?” asks Drivermalli.
“Turn left at that junction,” says Balal. “And stop talking.”
“So what are the rules, Comrade Pathirana?” you ask Sena from the rooftop of the white van.
“No rules, sir. Like Down There. You have to make your own.”
“I mean with travel. Can I go wherever the wind blows?”
“Not exactly, hamu. You can travel wherever your body has been.”
“You can go where your name is spoken. But you can’t fly to Paris or Maldives. Unless your corpse is taken there.”
“Why go to Maldives?”
“Every ghost wants to. There are more spirits than stingrays in those shallows.”
“But you can ride winds?”
“Like public transport for dead people, sir. I will show.”
With that he disappears through the roof of the van. He calls out to you and you look around. The dawn is breaking and the buses fill with office slaves and schoolkids training to become them. Each vehicle has a creature like you hanging off it. You look down the line of traffic and see a ghoul on every car roof.
“Maali sir. Come. Dive in.”
You pinch yourself and feel nothing. Which could mean you’re dreaming. Or that you no longer have a body. Or that you’re dreaming of no longer having a body.
It may also mean that you could safely attempt diving into a metal roof of a moving white van. In you go. It is like jumping into a swimming pool, if the water tasted like rust and wasn’t wet.
“How can we travel in a van and not fall through the bottom.”
“Sir is not listening. We’re attached to our bodies. Can ride any wind that passes where our corpse has been.”
“If you kick the bucket in Kandana and are driven to Kadugannawa for burial, you can get off anywhere on the Kandy Road?”
“Who wants to be buried in Kadugannawa?”
“But if stabbed in a kitchen in Kurunegala and buried in the garden, options are limited.”
He pushes you back to where the meat is and where the stench is. He stands between Balal and Kottu and waits. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that you tried it on with this skinny lad. In the last decade, you screwed anything that moved and a few things that wouldn’t. That’s a quote from your roommate DD, shared over a martini. A poison dart, disguised as a joke.
The van hits a bump near Bishop’s College. Sena inhales something that isn’t air and slaps both Balal and Kottu at the same time. The momentum of the van makes their heads bang together. Sena lets out a laugh and you do, too. Even the dead enjoy a bit of slapstick.
“What the hell, malli?” shouts Kottu holding his scalp.
“Sorry, boss,” monotones Drivermalli. “Just a small bump.”
“I’ll give you a small bump.”
Drivermalli wears the uniform of a corporal but has the befuddled expression of an agitating student.
“These roads are shit. Time for this government to go.”
“No one cares about your politics, Drivermalli,” says Kottu rubbing the bump on his head.
You ask Sena how he did this and he says there are skills that disembodied spirits have access to. But only once you have decided.
Decided what, you ask.
“Whether you’re joining us.”
“Ones like you and me.”
“Who wear garbage bags?”
“Who will give justice for all those unfairly killed. To allow those without graves to rest in peace.”
“By destroying these fuckers. Their bosses. And their bosses’ bosses. The scum who killed us. We will get them all, hamu. Sir doesn’t believe me and that is your first mistake.”
“Dear boy, I have made more mistakes than you have had screws.”
“My body was kept in freeze with seventeen others. None of us got graves,” says Sena, wrapping the bags around him.
The van jerks and the goons grumble. Drivermalli seems to have clamped on the brakes while dozing. It is then you notice the lines on Drivermalli’s face and the shadows that fall on his ears. His eyes hold a despair not unusual in one who navigates Colombo’s traffic while transporting human meat. Sena whispers in his ear and the van starts moving again.
“I will help you find it,” he says. “I will help you find it.”
There is no indication that Drivermalli can hear him, other than a twitch in his brow.
“Can he hear you?”
“He will one day.”
“We can talk to the living?”
“Only to those who can listen.”
The van comes unstuck at a Mirihana roundabout and makes its way past the suburbs into factory lands.
“Where we going, Sena?”
“You’re not curious about who those two bodies belong to?” You look at the flies circling the meat in the bags at the back of the van. You wonder if flies get reborn as us.
“Who are they?”
“You’ll find out soon.”
“Where are we going, Comrade Pathirana?”
“I don’t know, boss. But looks like we might be getting graves.”
Excerpted with permission from Chats With The Dead, Shehan Karunatilaka, Hamish Hamilton.