OUR VAN FLOATED on the river of mid-morning Kandy traffic. As though we had dropped anchor, we drifted forward sometimes, or a little to the left or right. Around us, the polished chrome sedans and rusted buses were smothered in smog that resembled the mist that sometimes cloaked a river in the morning or after sunset.
On the side of the road, sweat had already stained the armpits of men in business shirts. Women in saris walked with their long plaited hair swinging like pendulums. Children in blue shorts and white, freshly ironed shirts screeched like cymbal-banging monkeys, oblivious to the heat, dust and smog. The stray dogs though knew better. They shuffled out of the sun and into the shade, congregating in lazy packs.
In the front of the van sat the driver and the guide we had hired to take us to the river. In the back sat my family. The air conditioning kept us cool like the underground crypt of some European church. The tinted windows dulled the vibrancy of the world beyond. Directly beside me was my sister – white iPod earphones in her ears, Ray-Bans over her eyes. Her hair, usually straightened in the morning, was frizzy and unkempt in the humidity. In front of her sat my mother, her breathing slow and rhythmic. Her skin was oily from the sunscreen she’d applied before we departed. Beside her was my father. He sat with both feet flat on the floor. His hands were palm down on his thighs. Around his neck hung his camera. On his black T-shirt was the white silhouette of an elephant and in the bottom corner, written in white, were the words ‘Sri Lanka’. His head was turned toward the window.
It was my father’s voice, in Sinhalese, that broke our sepulchral silence.
‘And this also has been one of the dark places of the Earth.’
He spoke without the expectation of a reply. He addressed no one in particular. My sister continued to listen to her music and my mother’s breathing remained as rhythmic as a river lapping its bank.
‘Of course I mean years ago, before you were born, when I must have been around your age, younger even. When I first made my trip to this river.’
He didn’t look back but I felt he was addressing me. It had been my father’s idea to travel to the river. Indeed, it had been his idea to visit Sri Lanka again, as a family, after so many years. My sister and I had protested: we were too old for family trips – my sister twenty-one and me almost eighteen – and we had too much to leave behind in Australia, even for a couple of weeks. My father listened then simply asked us again to please accompany him to Sri Lanka.
There had been a time when he pretended not to understand us if we addressed him in English. He’d put on a bemused air, shrug his shoulders and reply in Sinhalese that he couldn’t speak English. But he’d given that up a long time ago and when he asked us the second time to come with him to Sri Lanka, though he had asked in Sinhalese, at the end of the request he’d asked in English, ‘please?’
‘Of course, all of this was different back then,’ he waved towards the buildings and construction sites on both sides of the road. ‘Thirty years ago I never could have predicted any of this. How could I? I knew at the time if I ever returned it wouldn’t be in the same way. Hindsight’s a funny thing.’
His voice was deeper than usual. He spoke as though he didn’t care if no one heard him.
I didn’t realise at the time that he was about to begin a story that I’d heard a truncated version of countless times. Whenever I went near the water my father would mention how his friend Ravi had drowned in water ‘just like this’. Ravi, my father would say, was the best swimmer he knew, the best friend he’d ever had. He’d tell me to be careful: if Ravi could drown, then anyone could drown.
I had always assumed he made up that story to frighten me. He’d change the story to fit the scenario: if we were at the ocean, Ravi had been dragged down by a rip-tide; if we were at a river, Ravi had been caught in some rocks. My father had never told me the details, so I assumed that it wasn’t true.
Perhaps the only reason he wanted to travel to the river where his friend had drowned was so he could tell the full story. But I think it had something to do with being back in Sri Lanka. My father was different in Sri Lanka. I sensed that he could be himself there. I would see him sitting on my grandfather’s chair for hours – his legs spread over the arm rests, his sarong tied up around his bare stomach. I remember the last time we visited he found my grandfather’s bike and with my cousin’s help he got it working. He would go for long rides around town and come back with bags of fresh fruit and delight at how juicy they were – always adamant that we’d never find fruit so good back in Australia.
But I think my presence had a lot to do with why he told the story again now. The story was directed at me.
‘WE STARTED EARLY that morning,’ he began. ‘Me, Samir and Ravi met one another at the bus depot where we ordinarily took the local bus to school. In Sri Lanka everything begins early. The sun hadn’t risen but we had to shout over the honking of three-wheelers and the exhausts of car engines as we watched our school bus depart.
‘The regional bus was bigger but it was rapidly filling up, not only with passengers but boxes and packages. The storage area at the bottom was full, so two bare-footed boys stood on the roof yelling instructions at people to pass their packages up. They must have been our age,’ he said. Then he added, without turning around, ‘About your age now.’
I pretended not to be paying attention and he went on.
‘When we boarded, the bus driver greeted us with a yawn that smelled of cigarettes and chewing gum. He rubbed his bloodshot eyes with the back of his hand then gave us a once over: taking in our white school-shirts and navy blue pants with perfect creases ironed in by our mothers. We waited, certain that he’d figure out we were wagging school and kick us off the bus. But he simply waved us on, scratched his balls then stretched his legs out over the steering wheel and on to the dashboard. We slipped past him, mischievous smiles on our faces, proud of our deception.’
I caught a glimpse of my father’s reflection in the window. He had a smile I’d never seen before: the mischievous smile of his youth, perhaps.
I recalled the last time I took a bus with my father in Sri Lanka. I remembered paying the conductor – a boy only a few years older than me – and waiting for my change. He had organised all the notes in the webbing of his fingers – his hands were his cash register. I stood toward the back, gripping the railings. More and more people got on and the bus darted violently through the traffic. The fumes from downtown Colombo oozed in through the open windows along with the dense, humid heat. My back was wet with sweat. Every time the bus hurled toward the stop, breaking through from the far right lane to the left, I could feel my stomach turn. We got off two stops earlier than we were meant to and I rushed for the closest gutter. When I had finished, my father handed me a bottle of soft drink he had bought from a street vendor.
I tuned in to my father’s story again. ‘At each stop more and more people squeezed on. You’d move your hand to grab a rail and accidentally touch someone’s moist back. That old bus vomited fumes. Its rusted gears made a grinding noise each time the driver changed up or down. But we’d grown up with those buses. We didn’t know any different. We stared out the windows as the city disappeared and the buzz of three-wheelers was replaced by the bellow of oxen dragging carts full of barebacked farmers, smoking cigarettes, staring intently at us inside the bus.
‘We’d been travelling for an hour-and-a-half when Ravi said we were at our stop. We pushed past people who gave us dirty looks, as if they knew we had no real business getting off there.
‘After the bus had driven off and the smoke from the exhaust had cleared, we were left in the blinding sunlight. It was like opening your eyes for the first time; no, like opening all your senses. I remember the smell of paddy fields, of manure, of rice, of vegetation and of mountains – green-blue silhouettes on the horizon. The squawking of a distant bird was the only sound to break the silence. A cool, soft breeze blew through our damp hair, entered our nostrils and permeated our lungs – purging the reek of the rusty bus and the city.
‘There were no construction sites back then, only a few clay huts among the paddy fields where generations of farming families lived – grandparents to grandchildren who would sit together eating and talking. Men with bare, black chests, sarongs hitched up above their knees. Women with long, oily hair curled into buns, blouses stained orange from dhal curry, fingers mashing down handfuls of rice, feeding plump children sitting near naked on tiny stools.
‘And no one saw the beauty of it all,’ my father said, louder now. ‘The simplicity. Those people then shared a kinship with their neighbours and the land – with their rice crops and oxen, with their chickens, with the sky and trees and their country. All of it, everything, unified.’
HOW MY FATHER romanticised his past! He spoke with such ferocity – barely pausing between sentences – but he was talking about families he didn’t know and memories he couldn’t have shared. He had grown up in the city. His father was a police officer. But he spoke with authority, and no one interrupted him with the facts.
‘Across the road was a bakery where three men sat outside drinking tea. They all wore sarongs hitched up above their knees. One was shirtless while the others wore grubby singlets. We could feel their eyes on us as we walked by, staring at the ground.
‘“No school today boys?”
‘We felt ourselves imposters in their morning ritual of sitting with a cup of tea and watching the bus go past. I wondered how often they saw anyone get off.
‘“Not today,” Ravi lied.
‘The one without the shirt ejected a wad of spit onto the clay beside him. He chewed his betel like a cow chews its cud. He slurped back some red drool, wiped the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and pulled his pouch of betel leaves closer toward him.
‘“Where is it that you’re off to then?” he asked.
‘Ravi pointed vaguely toward the mountains, saying we were going to the river. The man grunted then spat another red glob.
‘“You boys from the city?”
‘“City boys,” his friend said. “You city boys should be in school.”
‘“You even know how to get to the river?” the shirtless man asked.
‘Ravi nodded. “There’s a road, a few hundred metres that way before a path.”
‘The shirtless man shook his head. “No, no. The best way is through the paddy fields. Go straight through until you reach a well, then turn left into the bush; that’s the way you want to go.”
‘We hurriedly thanked him and walked away.
‘“You city boys be careful,” a voice called from behind us.’
OUR VAN WAS off the highway now and had turned into a smaller road ridden with potholes. The vehicle sank into potholes and with great effort rose back out, the engine screaming and the tyres searching for a solid footing.
On my right were paddy fields that belonged to the nearby houses. Most of them were outgrown and abandoned. From somewhere a buffalo produced a great lamenting bellow. My father looked toward the direction of the sound. I stared at the back of his head: at the grey hairs that he had stopped colouring and at his neck, the skin folded and loose, a few shades darker than my own.
‘I remember how these paddy fields used to smell,’ he said.
‘They smelled of moisture. Everything did. We three were soaked with sweat from walking and the wind that blew from the mountains made us shiver. I remember almost photographically all that went on that day. I remember Samir asked Ravi about the last time he had been to the river, but Ravi was cryptic in his answer.
‘Ravi’s father was from this area. He had lived in one of those paddy field huts before he joined the police force and moved into the city. He’d retired and Ravi and the rest of his family lived on his pension. There was only Ravi and his mother and father left – before his middle brother, Gayan, came back from the war. Ravi was the youngest. His sister was already married with children and his eldest brother was in the army too. Gayan had been discharged after losing his left arm. Rumour had it that he’d lost a few fingers operating some faulty equipment. The wound became infected and the doctors were forced to amputate his arm from the elbow down. But I never knew for certain. No one talked to me about it. My parents took food for Ravi’s family and sweets for Gayan but they never discussed what happened.
‘I never talked to Ravi about it either, even though he was my closest friend. I never thought to talk to him. Ravi was mature for his age. He joked around with us, but sometimes he could be very serious. When he got like that we all just left him alone.’
It was strange to hear him describe Ravi in that way. If I were to describe my father, it wouldn’t be too different: quiet, serious, brooding. He rarely showed emotion – neither anger nor affection. When we argued, he’d stand without responding. If I wanted something he’d simply say no, as though he didn’t need to give a reason. His lack of engagement always antagonised me and he’d win the argument by staying detached.
One time though he did react. I wanted to skip Sinhalese school one Saturday morning. He refused to let me. We argued, and for once he lost his cool. He slapped me across the face. I was fifteen at the time, far too old to be slapped. I can’t remember what I said to him. I know I told him I hated him; I probably said much worse.
The next morning at breakfast – after I’d spent all evening and night in my room refusing to talk to anyone – he acted as though nothing had happened. He never apologised. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him apologise to me for anything.
I’d hear stories or read things about father-and-son relationships and wonder about my own. I knew he loved me, yet I’d always felt I didn’t know him. I figured it would change when I was older. When I was a man – when I had my own family and my own kids – then we’d be closer. So it was strange to hear him be so candid as we travelled towards the river.
‘Ravi didn’t say too much about the last time he’d come to the river. What he did say was that the river was beautiful: it was fast flowing on one side, while on the other there were calmer rivulets. He said the foliage on the bank was almost impenetrable in some places, and he told us there were waterfalls with deep, dark pools of water into which you could leap if you wanted to.
‘I’ve always wondered if he came with the intention of diving where he did. His dive I’ve rehashed in my head countless times. The horror of standing above the brown pool, waiting for his head to resurface.’
The driver parked the van in the shade. We’d reached as far as we could go by car and the rest of the journey was a short walk away. We walked in single file, I behind my father, watching the back of his head. We could hear the river. I pictured its little nooks and rivulets that formed waterfalls under which you could rest your back and feel the water, like firm fingertips, massage your spine. Somewhere downstream elephants bathed in it and somewhere upstream women washed their clothes, washed themselves and washed their children in it.
When I saw a clearing I knew we had reached our destination. A gust of wind blew through the leaves and the rustling branches above momentarily drowned out the sound of the rushing water. My father took a deep breath.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by rivers,’ he said. ‘By their power, by the way they can cut through the Earth and carve it up over centuries and millennia. The tiniest and seemingly most insignificant trickle has such an immense, invisible power. And I’ve always imagined the stories a river could tell. Imagine all the creatures that would have relied on the river for survival and all the lives that the river must’ve taken away. Ravi wouldn’t have been the first or the last. He’d just be another story as far as the river was concerned.
‘I remember looking down at the spot where Ravi would soon jump. The river was magnificent then. It was just like Ravi had described. I can see it perfectly: our brown, wet chests with new hairs stuck flat, stretch marks on our shoulders from growing up too fast. We were only boys. We stood on the edge of a waterfall and looked down at our reflection in the pool below.
‘“What do you think?” Ravi asked. He was standing a little further toward the edge than Samir or I. Perhaps half a metre away, certainly within arm’s reach.
‘We remained staring at the pool. But we looked beyond our reflection on the surface of the water. We looked into the river and we saw something, or at least I’ve always believed we did. It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always thought that what we saw, what I saw, was the heart of that river.
‘Ravi broke eye contact with the river and took a few steps backwards – and they were very cautious steps. His knees were bent, his arms were spread and the palms of his hands leant on the surface of the river as though for support. With every step forward his feet searched among the rocks and pebbles for a solid footing. He was looking for something, and after a few steps he plunged his arms down and pulled out a large stone. It was polished smooth like a giant oval egg. He carried it against his chest, like a baby, and brought it back, a few centimetres closer to the edge of the waterfall than where he had been standing before.
‘He looked down over the edge. Then, he took a step back, braced himself, and with a twist of his hips hurled the stone high into the air over the edge. The three of us watched it initially float against the blue sky before it dropped; we heard the splash before we could look down and see where the river swallowed it.
‘The ripples floated toward the edge of the pool and eventually disappeared. No one spoke. We didn’t look at one another. We didn’t ask Ravi why he had thrown the rock in.
‘“What do you think?” he asked again.
‘I can’t remember what we said. We probably told him not to be stupid: that it was too far to jump, too risky, too dangerous. Samir and I weren’t great swimmers; Ravi was the best out of the three of us, and if anything happened to him we weren’t in any position to help. I’m sure we told him that. And anyway, he wasn’t really asking us.
‘Everyone, after the fact, said that we were just naive and stupid – kids looking for an adventure. Ravi jumped because he was trying to impress us, they all said. But it wasn’t true. Ravi wasn’t half as naive as everyone thought, and he certainly didn’t need to impress us. I don’t know what made him jump, but for a long time I blamed the river. I saw something down in that river and I know Ravi looked down and saw something too. Or maybe he saw what I saw and reacted differently. I saw life and death down there in the river. That is to say, for a moment I swear I saw a tiny glimpse of what the river had seen; I heard the stories the river had heard. I’m not ashamed to say I blinked. But Ravi didn’t. I saw him being hypnotised by the river. There was something in his eyes as he stared into that incomprehensible heart.
‘I wanted Ravi to jump. I can admit it now, to all of you. I’m not proud of it but it’s true. I’m not going to blame anything or anyone else – not my youth, not the way I looked up to Ravi, not even the river that in some small, though not insignificant way, conquered and corrupted all three of us. But I did want him to jump, and though I told him not to, and though I warned him against what could happen, I wanted to see him try. Maybe Ravi saw that in my eyes as we told him not to do it. I can analyse these things for the rest of my life, I suppose. Either way, Samir and I stepped back as Ravi took maybe three or four steps and then leapt over the edge and into the air, into the sky.
‘We heard the splash. Samir held onto my shoulder as we watched and we listened and we waited. We saw the white, frothing water at the mouth of the waterfall churning. The ripples spread over the surface and the perfect reflection of the sky reassembled itself on the dark, beautiful water in the pool. We listened to the river and to the millions of sounds all perfectly arranged, all details perfectly masked, so that all we could hear was the one sound of rushing water, the sound of life-giving, life-taking rushing water.
‘I can’t remember who spoke first after that. But we waited for a long time.’
My father took a deep breath, as though having resurfaced for air. He sat looking into the distance, into the green valley where the river disappeared.
I followed his gaze toward the horizon and the spindly tops of palm trees and the dense olive green of jackfruit trees. I imagined my father standing above the pool, and I imagined myself with him, standing with Samir and Ravi. I wondered if I’d have had the courage to jump as Ravi did. And, I wondered, if I had somehow resurfaced, would I break the skin of the water as the same boy who jumped in.