Colombo, Fiction / Creative Writing, Identity

The Taxi Driver’s Story: In the Name of a Father

My name is Polgahawela Aarachchige Junius Soloman Hickmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela, and I am a taxi driver in Colombo — you can call me Hick, for short. I am about to tell you my encounters with a Sri Lankan Tamil fellow, Sivapuranam Thevaram.  This man hired my taxi three times in the last couple of years, twice for airport drops and once on a weekend trip to Dambulla. Thevaram is someone best described as a “Kalu Sudda” [Black, White man] – black skin, but carries a Thatcherland passport. Often he thinks and behaves like these foreign fellows, with his priorities in stuff like individual liberty, journalistic freedom and human rights, worrying about these just the same way I do about the cost of rice, petrol and milk powder for my children.

There are many of my countrymen like Thevaram. They get themselves free education here, do not work here or pay taxes and emigrate to richer countries. A peculiar recurrent thinking in their ways, often triggered by the wine they consume, is the thought of returning home “in a couple of years”. “When I finish my Pee Etch Dee”, “After a couple of years of work experience”, “When the kid finishes college”, etc. but this “in a couple of years” is a bit like pigs flying. It never happens.

Thevaram is a hypocrite. For example, he is strongly opposed to private education and has sworn that his kids will study in state schools. But he chooses to live in expensive neighbourhoods where the state schools are known to be good – as good as Royal or Jaffna Hinthu College. He pays via the premium on house prices in catchment areas of good schools. Similarly, cowardice is also his strong attribute, as he is usually scared to speak out on issues of social and political relevance. If any of you readers score lower on these two metrics, you should teach this fellow a lesson (but “Judge not lest ye be judged”, I warn you.)

After my latest hire for Thevaram to Katunayake airport, I noticed he had left behind in my car seat a piece of A4 paper, of which I took a picture.

Apparently, the man has been doing some collaborative work at universities in my country (HillTop, UpNawth and BusyTown). I was pleased with his patriotism in coming back to work in Sri Lanka, but this modest list set me thinking: What would this work be worth? Suppose he kept up this momentum for another ten years, would he have paid back enough to offset the debt he actually owes us? Who has the moral authority to sit in judgement over his self-made contract of a repayment plan? With whom exactly is his contract anyway?

To answer the last question, we go back two years. I had to drive Thevaram family (the man, his wife Manimekalai, his three kids Sathuram, Samanthiram and Senguthu) for a weekend holiday to Dambulla. When I went to pick them up in Batharamulla, I found Thevram pacing up and down the lane, impatient to get started. “Lets go, come on, what is the delay?” he kept shouting. “Ungalukku enna visarE, ippa enna avasaram?” [Are you mad, what is the hurry] Manimekalai shouted back. That raised his temper, I could tell from the increased speed of repetitive pacing. When we eventually set off, the atmosphere in the car was tensed: Thevaram biting at his lips, Manimekalai scolding the children, and Samanthiram and Senguthu quarrelling over some chocolate.

As we passed the parliament, there were some monkeys on the road. An opportune moment to cut the tension in the car, I thought, and said “Parliament ekE tea-break, Sir.” Thevaram let out a loud burst of laughter, the kids got the joke immediately, Manimekalai missed it (“What, what?”) and I achieved my goal.

After climbing Sigiriya we visit the Dambulla rock temple, amongst the finest places of historic interest in Sri Lanka. The family, in our typical Sri Lankan style dare I note, mingled with a group of tourists who had a guide. The guide was explaining the history of the place, all about how the Sinhala Buddhists had to protect sacred items from invading Tamils. In the guide’s explanation the Tamils were demons and the Sinhalese were victims of invasions. There is truth in it, I agree, yet it was a bit of a half-story. I had wondered from the rock in Sigiriya, earlier that day, the context of Inthian invasion of those times. It was a Lankan prince who fell out with the father, treated him rather harshly, and it was the brother of the prince who went to Inthia and invited a Hanuman army to sort the sibling out. Wasn’t it?

Manimekalai was upset with the guide, but Thevaram was entirely oblivious. “Around the same time as the Romans were building roads and sewage systems,” he explained to Sathuram, “our people had an advanced civilization in these parts. You should not think that civilization originated in Europe and our ancestors were living in trees and caves.” Now I get it! This is not a holiday. This is a pilgrimage, to show off his roots to the kids. Yet I am puzzled. A Tamil fellow in a Sinhala Buddhist shrine is saying “our ancestors”? Does he not know the difference?

Last year, I drove him to Kanatte for the funeral of his father. Sivapuranam comes from a small village in the North with very basic facilities (no running water, no water-sealed toilets etc.), but post-independence social mobility in Sri Lanka was bloody good, with hard work and a bit of luck. Even Amartya Sen has written about these things. High literacy rates, reductions in infant mortality rates, and in eradicating some diseases like malaria, we made good progress. Sivapuranam could get himself educated at Jaffna Hinthu and then graduate from HillTop. He lived through difficult times of three wars, but showed no interest in emigrating like his children or other asylum seekers. Sri Lanka was home to him, he stayed on, practicing his trade, well past formal retirement.

As a little boy, Thevaram once scored high grades at school exams. Jumping up and down in joy, he had sung: “I am the most intelligentest kid in the whole school.” Old man Sivapuranam then told him a story, about a fellow he had hired to cut down a tall coconut tree. The cutter was a chap with no formal education. Sivapuranam was nervous about the tree falling on the house. Noting his anxiety, the chap drew two straight lines on the ground, at about 20 degrees to each other, radiating away from the foot of the tree. “Watch Sir,” he declared, “I can get it down between these two lines, if it falls outside these you don’t have to pay me.” The man with formal education accepted the bet and lost. The young boy learnt humility from the story.

At Sivapuranam’s funeral, Thevaram has just one image in his mind of the father. Some months after that Dambulla trip, Sivapuranam fell ill. Thevaram had come to see the old man and has made that recurrent comment: “may be I will wind up in Thatcherland and come back and work in Sri Lanka.” Sivapuranam’s face lit up at that remark. Though the old man had full knowledge of the impossibility of pigs flying, the thought of the son returning to Sri Lanka had given him momentary enormous pleasure. That pleasant calm smile on the father’s face made a permanent impression on the son, and he allocated several million synaptic connections to save that image in his long term memory.

Driving back from the funeral, he leaves his iPhone in the car and goes to buy a thambily [young coconut]. I gently peeped into the screen and saw a draft email, of which I took a photo:

The mystery of that self-imposed debt repayment plan is now clear, no?

[Author’s Note: The characters and events are fictitious. Any similarity one might note to real persons is pure coincidence.]

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    I am still befuddled as to what Niranjan wants to convey. Please enlighten me commentators.

    Is the taxi driver in awe of Niranjan and therefore a little bit envious or is he scoffing at Niranjan’s vacuous depiction of life enjoyed bereft of enslavement?

    Thevaram aka taxi driver is not at all impressed with Niranjan’s exposure to the vast world out there.

    Am I right or am I obscured in abstract meaning inside Niranjan’s allusions.

  • wijayapala

    Burning Issue: you have to admit that there is no name superior to Sivapuranam Thevaram. Whatever the character’s story or lack of connection with the island, his name is more than enough to redeem him.

    Wife also had an auspicious name “Manimekalai”- a good Tamil Buddhist name to complement the husband’s staunchly Saivite name.

  • subramaniam

    is this the best ‘sri lankan’ intellectuals have to offer. the author is obviously a very (easily?) self-satisfied man. his ‘corpus’ of groundviews work is rather patronising and pedestrian and frankly quite boring.

    found any publishers yet? i doubt it!

    the single most important improvement that can be made to any future short stories, attempt to drain them of the viscous arrogance and superiority that drips from every paragraph.

  • My name is Indrajith Reddy Uduge. My wife calls me a ‘bum’ in a sweet way. In this country’s language it means ‘a good for nothing for everyday life’. I have lot of empathy with this short story teller and I just want to find out who is more boring – him or me.

    I must confess, during teenage years, I was very dynamic, enterprising and even entrepreneurial. At school, I was bright in intellect and participated in extra-curricular activity in a big way. I also won many awards for excellence in general knowledge. Outside, I organised cultural and social events especially during New Year and Wesak.

    Most of all, I wanted to be an intellectual meaning cultivating ‘creative intelligence’.

    I was elated when I was admitted to University on a scholarship to pursue liberal arts. I was on the moon knowing I will use my creative intelligence to enlighten the world around me. Soon, I learned otherwise. I learned to do what my lectures wanted me to do and pass with honours to be appointed as a lecturer.

    I tried my luck again but to be told by the Professor to draw the line reminding me that I could be eligible for a PhD scholarship at an overseas university. I obliged but parents and friends started question my sanity.

    As an obedient and good scholar I earned the PhD scholarship as promised.

    I tried my luck for the third time hoping that the overseas university will give me the academic freedom to pursue my search for creative intelligence to be told that I must follow the traditions.

    I gained my PhD with colours, stayed overseas and work as a lecturer. I have published a few text books and amend every year for the last five years. I find it a good way to sell my books and supplement my income.

    Everyone one in Sri Lanka thinks I am so lucky to be foreign educated and live here. But I am longing to be the teenager once I was.

    Now back to why my wife called me a ‘bum’. After living with her for two years, I still do not know how use the dishwasher, washing machine or TV remote. Most embarrassingly, I found I could not work out how to use electronics in my new car and called help from a neighbour who happened be a carpenter.

    Do not completely write me off. I am still an expert on human rights, individual liberty and civil society though I refuse do cooking or cleaning at home.

  • Agnos

    Pearl,

    The point of the story is about why Niranjan, who teaches at a university in the UK, goes back to universities (Hilltop = Peradeniya, UpNawth = Jaffna, and Busytown= Moratuwa?) in Sri Lanka for a week or so to supervise a few PhD students and give seminars. And to explain that–that he does this as a debt to his father– he writes it through the eyes of his Sinhalese taxi driver. You seem to have missed that in fact Niranjan = Thevaram, though the voice is that of the taxi driver.

    I would say the rest is simply “navel-gazing,” with a bit of humor thrown in.

  • SomeOne

    Dear Agnos,

    You correctly exposed Niranjan. Remember, there are thousands of Niranjan’s out there to be exposed in our society. Believe me.

    Having said that don’t put all Tamils in the same basket.

  • Belle

    Pearl,

    I find it a very moving story. Niranjan is saying that we should get past appearances before passing judgements on people. The taxi driver is a perfect foil for this–he is a person who is quick to stereotype people and pass judgement on them. But as he reads the passenger’s private messages and personal notes, he gets to understand who he really is, and what motivates him. As the protagonist is Sinhalese, a taxi driver, and one who has not travelled, and his passenger is Tamil and a well-travelled academic, the ‘discovery’ the taxi-driver makes into the passenger’s character and psyche becomes an allegory about understanding that crosses boundaries of race, class and nations. He’s commenting especially on the way the masses rush to judgement on civil society types, and suggesting that we not overlook their good intentions, and that liberalism is not as nasty as it’s made out to be. The taxi-driver’s name “Hick” refers to his provincial judgements. There’s underlying comment here too on the difference between a much better inter-cultural Sri Lankan past and a present that is driven by ethnic chauvinisms and polarization.

    Only problem with it is that the taxi driver’s use of language is not realistic. If Niranjan could work on that so that the cab driver speaks like a Sinhalese Colombo cab driver, and maybe explain how the taxi driver was able to read and understand writing in English, it would be more believable. (Maybe he gets someone to translate the email and personal note to him, and then explains them in his own brand of English–with some Sinhalese words thrown in–that would throw light on how people cross cultural boundaries to understand each other.) The taxi-driver’s realistic use of Colombo English would spice up the story too.

    I would also love to hear the tour guide’s voice and use of language in telling his garbled and chauvinistic story of the past.

    Loved the joke about the monkeys in Parliament!

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Sorry Niranjan. Now I understand that from the point of view of many you are tryng to convey that you want to give something back to the country which gave you education and that despite your having reached achieved much you have not forgotten your country.

    Sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick.

    I must say writng poetry is not my forte although I love reading it and trying to make sense of it.

  • georgethebushpig

    Damm! I wish I had read the Yellow Pages instead!

  • longus

    Well, this is some sort of a masterpiece in political satire, I must say.It’s the hypocrite who lives in most of us, caught in an eternal conflict between our ideal self and the practical self…..

    …striving for redemption.

    It’s a “supercalifragilisespioli………”(sorry,I can’t remember the rest)..situation!

    It goes beyond the races

    Nw I remember it ‘supercalifragilisespiolidoshash…”

  • kamala

    Agnos: I don’t think the author = main character is correct; the main character, thervam, is put in a bad light. Hypocrite, coward and what he has done is described as a modest list.
    To me, the more important message hidden in the story is about a Tamil man seeking a Sri Lankan identity (Dambulla visit and description in the funeral note). That may be what the author wants to highlight — but is Sri Lanka now welcoming of that? Or do we continue to cast Tamils as demons, like the tour guide in the story?