Postcolonial Text / Author

Excerpt from Tsunami

Chapter Seven: Travelling First

All the way to Peradeniya, Latha thought about her good luck. If it wasn’t for the trunk on the swaying luggage-rack above the seat in front of her, stamped with her name and labelled ‘Sanghamitta Hall, University of Ceylon, Peradeniya’, in her father’s neat black lettering, she would not have believed she was actually on her way to the place she had dreamed about for so long.  

Three other students had entered the University from Latha’s school, and at the class farewell party (to which Rajan Phillips had accompanied his wife, so that they could say goodbye to her star pupil together), the girls had arranged to look out for each other at the Fort Railway Station. Latha had duly scanned the platform for her class-mates when she arrived there with her father. She was distressed when they did not appear. Where were they? If they got any later, they’d miss the train altogether. Until the moment at which a bell rang and the uniformed guard signalled the imminent departure of the 8.15 to Peradeniya and Kandy, Latha continued to gaze hopefully up and down the station platform. At last the train gave its first lurch preparatory to leaving, and she abandoned her hope. She guessed that her former class mates, together with most of the young people she had glimpsed at the station and identified as her future fellow-students because they had trunks and luggage like her own, were crowded happily into the third-class carriages. Herbert had insisted on Latha’s travelling first-class – ‘for safety, since your mother and I cannot come with you ourselves’.

So here she was, travelling in state and comfort, her companions a few matrons in sari, two with families of small children. Seated between a mother of three and her teenage daughter (who had clearly decided that reading her copy of Pictureshow Magazine was more important than helping her mother cope with a crying sibling), Latha didn’t mind too much. She had a great deal to think about. Outside the carriage windows the landscape changed dramatically as the train began its long climb into the hill country, but Latha hardly noticed.

“You are travelling alone, child?”

That was patently obvious, Latha thought, She did not say so, however, and instead nodded pleasantly.

“Going to Kandy?”


“Oh, you must be one of this year’s new students. I thought you looked too young to be married ...?”

To the question implicit in the statement, Latha returned no answer. She wished she had a magazine in her hand, like her teenage neighbour. Her father, she recalled, was accustomed to make a joke of the national habit of asking personal questions out of idle curiosity. (“It’s not a case of ‘Who are you?’ on our trains,” Herbert liked to say. “It’s a case of ‘Who’s who are you?’”) Latha was not sure she could survive three hours of cross-examination without being extremely rude.

Fortunately for Latha, she was spared any further questioning. The ladies in the carriage and their children, all of whom had presumably made a very early start in order to catch the 8.15, had a three-hour journey  before them. The sway of the train had a soporific effect that was hard to resist, and soon Latha was the only person awake in the carriage (except for the student of Pictureshow).  

She wondered how her classmates were getting on in their Third Class carriage. As the train rounded the curve of a hill, she saw handkerchiefs waved from some of the carriage windows, which were answered by waves from carriages further along the train’s long body. She wished she had a window seat, so that she could wave back too, but to get to the window she would have to stumble over the feet of several snoring ladies, and Latha decided against it.

Just as the train, having made a brief halt at Polgahawela Station, set off on the second stage of its journey, two persons burst into the carriage. They were arguing vehemently. One of them, the conductor of the train, seemed to be requesting the other to hand over his train ticket, and the other was refusing to do so. The passenger’s movements seemed unco-ordinated and so agitated that Latha wished yet again that she was travelling Third: the carriage she was in seemed to have shrunk suddenly in size (or else there seemed suddenly to be too many people in it). She felt very uneasy, not least because both powerfully built men were towering above her and obstructing any chance she might have had of changing her seat.  

Asked yet again by the conductor for his ticket, the passenger announced that he had just been discharged from the Mental Hospital at Angoda. Everyone in the carriage promptly woke up. The children fixed their wide-eyed gaze on the speaker, and all the adults gave him their full attention. Encouraged, he began to talk without pause, his theme the injustice of the world.  

Some people (like the conductor) had Government jobs, he said, others were lawyers, doctors, priests and ministers, while he, who was better than any of them, was out of a job. He had been on a pilgrimage to Sri Pada, the sacred Peak -

(“Good, good,” interjected one of the ladies in the carriage. “Did you make a vow?”


“That is very good”.) -

and he had told all this to the priest in the temple there, who had said “Gat out, gat out from here, you’re mad,” and he had kept his temper and controlled himself in time, or he would have hurled the priest down the Peak -

(Sharp intake of breath on the part of an aged lady seated next to him.)

- he was about to commit suicide, for as everyone knew, you could do it quite easily if you just stopped breathing -

(Everyone in the carriage tactfully averted their eyes while the passenger held his nose for a few seconds, but eventually seemed to think better of killing himself and resumed his diatribe.)

- The whole world was crazy, it needed reform. The Judges on the Bench, the Ministers in their grand houses - (is this a Government? he asked his fellow-passengers) - should all be lined up and shot - and he would be delighted, personally, to do the shooting. As for the doctors, what need had they to meddle with things they did not understand? The whole world knew that the medicine given out in hospitals was intended to weaken the body, so that when electricity was injected into you, you died, and then they did not need to look after you any more. We had our ancient Sinhala systems of medicine, we had our powders and our ointments and our herbal remedies for every illness under the sun - what need had we for this ‘science’? There were medicines distributed in the hospitals that thickened, blackened, and burned up the blood in the body, and the whole world should know it -  

(“Apoi, sin,” said the aged lady sympathetically. “Quite right”.)

- for the world needed reform - look at that Buddhist temple outside the train window, look at that Hindu devale next to it, look at that church and the mosque over there, where did all that money they made there go? Not into his pocket, no fear - and did this conductor have the nerve, the impudence, to ask him for a train ticket? Why did he not ask the people who had taken work from him , who had injected electricity into his blood, he was not going to travel with any bloody ticket -

(At this point the conductor departed in despair, and a small boy with a laden wicker basket on his shoulder passed through the carriage, which instantly filled with the delicious scent of hot masalavadai)

- Here, kolla, how much are those vadai?  

(“Fi’ cents for one,” replied the boy. The passenger took two and ate them.)

- it was only a fool who gave a cent to any of these rascals on the Ceylon Government Railways, in the train or out of it -

(“You owe me ten cents, mahattaya, please,” the small boy said. Latha found ten cents in her purse, and gave them to the boy, who grinned knowingly at her and left)

- for the whole world needed reforming, and he would surprise it with the deeds he would perform one day ...

When the train arrived at New Peradeniya Station, the passenger was still talking. But by this time, sensing that they were being harangued by a con-man rather than a lunatic, his fellow-travellers had relaxed. Some of them had even gone back to sleep. Latha herself had begun to feel a good deal better. She wondered briefly whether the passenger would go on talking to the end of the line, but had no time to speculate further, for she knew that her own journey had reached its end, and she must make sure she left none of her luggage behind her on the train.

The platform at New Peradeniya Station was crowded. The tiny station, built before Independence and the establishment of the University, had not been intended by the British to do anything more than serve the small, select staff working in the Botanic Gardens nearby. Now, every train was bringing students in from the outstations, young men and women with trunks and bags and boxes of books, who were deposited on the platform looking rather doubtful about what they were going to do next. Everyone asked everyone else in their immediate vicinity if they knew. In the resultant hubbub, Latha looked around again for her three school-mates, but could see them nowhere on the platform.  

A tall, soldierly-looking individual in khaki uniform marched up through the groups of chattering students, called firmly for silence, and introduced himself as the University of Ceylon’s Chief Marshal. Transport, he said, had been arranged by the University in the form of coaches that would take the students to their respective Halls of Residence. He and his fellow marshals would help them get themselves and their luggage into the right coaches. He knew, he said, that most of the young people on the platform were first-year students. The University of Ceylon, the country’s premier institution of learning, welcomed them. He and his colleagues wished them all a happy and rewarding time at Peradeniya.  

Once in the coach marked “Sanghamitta Hall”, with her trunk safely stowed with others on the top, Latha had time to look around again for her class-mates. She could see no one she knew. It seemed that they had decided to come up to Peradeniya by later trains, or else had opted for other Halls of Residence. Latha had not expected this, and for the first time she felt lonely and insecure. A young woman seated next to her had her hair plaited in two stiff braids, and Latha tried not to notice that she smelled strongly of coconut oil. Glancing sideways, she observed that her neighbour was wearing a brightly flowered skirt and a cotton blouse. A printed cloth bag with a thermos flask in it and a paper parcel with oil stains on it that smelt of stale masalavadai lay in her lap. Looking down, Latha perceived that she was wearing rubber slippers, the cheap kind one bought on the Pettah pavements. Could this young woman possibly be a university undergraduate?  

It appeared that she was, for it was not long before Latha heard her neighbour chattering gaily in Sinhala to students in the seats in front of her and behind her, quite as if she had known them all her life. Perhaps she had, Latha thought. Perhaps they had all gone through school together. Nobody spoke to Latha. She decided she didn’t care.

As the coach moved away from the station and began its journey to the Halls of Residence, Latha turned around in her seat, and looked out of the open window. It was eight years since she had last travelled out of Colombo and the south to spend a holiday at Hamilton Falls. She had forgotten the enchantment of the hill country. The landscape of Peradeniya opened before her, lush and green with the freshness of springtime, an undulating valley in the lap of wooded mountains which stretched away before her eyes, folded in line after line of subtly shaded blue, until they merged with the sky.

Latha thought she had never seen anything so beautiful. Massive old mara trees rose on either side of the road, spreading their great branches in an arch of welcome, and as the coach took a sharp turn to the right she caught her breath with excitement and wonder. From the branches of the trees swung strands of golden flowers, cascades of ehela, which spilled their bounty on the green grass beneath. A heady fragrance drifted in through the windows of the coach, and the chattering ceased beside her.

Deiyange pihitai!” breathed Latha’s neighbour.

Latha glanced at her with new respect. It’s true, she thought. We are moving together, this stranger and I, and all of us in this coach, through a shower of gold. It’s like a miracle out of the old poetry books, a promise, a blessing, a gift from the gods.

Yasmine Gooneratne