THINGS DONE: WHO ARE YOU?
“Where are you going?” I ask Sari one morning after she’s completed her puja ritual, something that still makes me uneasy, but I know it’s important to her so I don’t comment. She appears to be ready to leave somewhere, but she said nothing to me about it earlier.
“I’m going to work the rice line,” she says simply.
“Rather like a soup kitchen. It’s one of Devi’s projects. As often as possible, she has a food bank where those too poor to buy food can come and stock up on some basic provisions, and we serve a hot meal that day as well.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about this to me?” I’m annoyed that she didn’t reveal her plans, nor did she invite me. I’ve been dying to do something other than wait around for emails from Frohike or Jimmy. Still no word from Langly, but in view of his alleged location, I’m not all that surprised.
“Because you just got over being ill, and in this situation, you’re going to be meeting a lot of people who are suffering from who knows what,” she says firmly. “Tuberculosis runs rampant in the slums here. You can’t afford the exposure.”
I force myself to keep cool. “Tuberculosis is a very labile bacterium. You need repeated, continuous exposure in order to pick it up. And the latency period is long.”
“You’re not going to do this, John. You’re not going to jeopardize your health over this.”
“But it’s all right for you to do it?” I can’t keep the anger out of my voice. I’m starting to feel like a bird in a gilded cage, and it’s not working well for me. I’ve become irritable and impatient and depressed, being in the house nearly all of the time. I’ve barely ventured beyond the terrace or the swimming pool save for a few trips into the city to buy things. It doesn’t give me much of a chance to work on my Sinhalese, which I’d really like to improve. “It was fine for you to be a mendicant in the ashram, working in a leper colony, where disease was rampant?”
“I hadn’t been exposed to anything unknown or dangerous,” she replies coolly. “You need to get your strength back up.”
“Trust me, Sari, it’s back. I’ve been swimming every day.” I’ve been feeling less tired and increasing the number of laps I work in each day. The only thing that’s getting me down is feeling confined. “I’m feeling fine physically. But I’m starting to go crazy being stuck here.”
She sets down her duffel bag and sighs. “I know. But we have no idea what the long term effects of what you were infected with are going to be, and I’m worried.”
“Why don’t we cross that bridge when we come to it? I’m not going to stop living. I’ve already made that decision. I may have to be in hiding right now, and believe me, I’m more than grateful to you and your family for being so accommodating, but I need to be doing things, Sari. I need to get out!”
She studies me carefully. I know I don’t look ill anymore. I’ve grown accustomed to most of the food (there are some specialties of the area that in all likelihood, I’ll never learn to like, but Montezuma’s revenge is a thing of the past) and I’ve put weight back on. I swim daily in the beautiful, Olympic sized pool on the property. I’ve been careful with the sunscreen but I know I’m not ghastly pale anymore, and my hair’s bleached out. Due to the heat, I shaved my beard off. I haven’t been without a beard in over 16 years. I look totally different without out. I switched my contacts for glasses--my eyes are dried out from the chlorine. I’m not worried about moving about Colombo.
She shakes her head. “I don’t like it. But if you want to help, I could certainly use an extra pair of hands. Hurry up and get ready.”
Our first stop is the UNICEF contact. Sari wants to make sure that the shipments of food have arrived; apparently while Sri Lanka is a relatively stable government and disruptions are fairly minimal, shipment is often a problem.
“This is John, my lover,” she introduces me to the young woman who is her contact. She says it simply, matter of factly. I find myself blushing, anyway. It’s not that I’m not pleased to be introduced as such.
“Why did you say that?” I ask Sari as we depart. “Introduce me that way?”
“Bakha’s an old friend,” she says. “She knows the family well, and believe me, she’s probably heard more about you already than you’d be comfortable knowing.” Of that I’m sure. “Why? Is there a problem for you in being labeled for what you are to me?”
“No. I like it. I like it a lot.” I’m stammering--this is not my area of expertise. “I just--I didn’t know what your relationship to Bakha was, and it worried me a little.”
“Believe me, Bakha is not going to give you away. As I said, she’s close to the entire family, and as you know, Devi is not one to hold back on details when it comes to my love life.” She groans. “She embarrasses me sometimes, too. But it’s quite obvious what we are to the family, and believe me, once Devi and Muladharma get back into town, you can only expect the teasing to get worse.”
“When are they expected in?”
I shudder a little. No doubt this means more family celebrations, which I’m improving at, but still not acclimated to.
“How many parties will this involve?”
“About a week’s worth, or until Muladharma kicks them all out, whichever comes first.”
“I thought that wasn’t done here.”
“Muladharma is, in case you haven’t figured it out, something of a black sheep in the family. He’s not only learned to live with it, but he capitalizes on it as well. You’ll see.” She smiles a little. “All right, boy. We have lots of work to do. Let’s move.”
It’s a bit of a shock to enter into the dark underbelly of Colombo. So far, I’ve only been in the swankier neighborhoods. This is a totally different universe--full of noise and screaming and nauseating odors.
Sari reaches into her handbag and pulls out a small tube of Vicks. “It’s how I got used to working in the leper colony. Better to not let the smells overwhelm you and pass out.”
Knowing that she had to go through the same acclimation makes me less uncomfortable about admitting that I’m having a hard time with the stench. However, that’s merely an annoyance. What’s upsetting is the number of people living in the streets, naked and starving and dying. It’s as if the whole part of town is a rotting corpse. I’ve been in the slums of DC--hell, lived there--but they have nothing on this. Flies and mosquitoes do a lazy dance over everyone and everything.
“This is pretty bad,” I make an understatement to Sari.
She nods. “The only good thing I can say is that Calcutta is worse.” I’m having a rough time imagining that at the moment, and believe me, I can imagine a lot. Suddenly, as dangerous as they are to so many people, government conspiracies pale in light of the visceral human suffering right before my eyes. I feel actually ashamed.
We come upon a dilapidated structure, bolted shut with a rusty padlock. Sari pulls the key Bakha gave her and opens it. There are already at least a hundred people gathering around us, trying to hustle their way to the front so that they can get a ration of what’s probably going to be mostly rice and maybe a few vegetables. Sari tells the burgeoning mob that lunch will be ready soon, and to line up in an orderly fashion. Well, they did understand the lunch part.
Sari starts water in huge vats and instructs me to chop up vegetables when I get the chance. I hand each person who comes in a sack of rice and a package of wilted-looking vegetables. It’s not very much, but for these people, who look malnourished and in many cases very ill, it’s probably more precious than gold.
Two hours fly by and by then, we’re out of provisions, nearly inciting a riot as we close the doors. Lunch has been served to as many patrons as we could serve until we ran out.
Sari shakes her head sadly. “It feels like it’s nothing more than a raindrop in the ocean. I would love to be able to make sure every person out there was adequately fed, housed and got proper medical care. It bothers me that I can’t.”
It bothers me, too, but I take her hand and give it a squeeze. “You know, I feel that way a lot of times, working on the paper. We’re so small. But maybe it’s not the big things that count every time. I always felt like, if everyone just took one tiny step in the right direction, then the earth would tilt on its axis a little more in the direction it should spin.” And for everything we’ve been through, I absolutely believe that.
She sighs as she leans into me while we wash dishes together. I’m not sure they’re any cleaner than before we washed them, but we’re at least attempting. “I know. But it’s what we don’t see behind the scenes that’s so scary. There’s plenty of food in the world. Starvation is more about politics than supply. We both know that.”
“That’s why the guys and I do what we do.” Or used to do. “I wish we could get to Runtz, for example.”
“Muladharma warned you about that. And that goes double from me,” she adds firmly. “I’d like to see us live to a ripe old age together, John.”
“As would I.”
But there’s so much work to be done. I know what Muladharma said, and I’ve taken it to heart.
“But I’d like to go home someday, too,” I say sadly. Much as I’m beginning to like it here, I miss being in the US, and being with my friends, my brothers, my comrades in arms. “I’m not sure that just hiding out is going to get us there.”
“We can’t do it all. You just said so yourself.”
No, we can’t. But there are some tiny steps I can make. If I can just hook up with the guys...
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