As the train was reducing speed and approaching the Gampaha railway
station, most of the passengers in our carriage, majority of them being
schoolchildren, rushed closer to the exist and formed into an impatient
crush. Everybody seemed to get off the train as quickly as possible.
Some young boys jumped onto the platform before the train stopped at the
risk of hurting themselves severely. I was among the last few passengers
who got off the carriage when the train had already started moving
slowly out of the station.
The platform and the railway station was swarming with people; most
of them were young school boys and girls. Clad in white uniform, the
girls with their lanky legs looked like a flock of egrets. In the
hubbub, I noticed a young lady in a very pale pink saree standing on the
platform with a puzzled look on her face.
"Would you mind doing a small favour for me?"
She requested me in an appealing tone of voice.
dropped my umbrella into the railway track accidentally. Will you please
pick it for me." She elaborated her request in a very soft and clear
I looked down into the track and saw her brolly lying between two
sleepers like a dead crow. Jumping down into the deep track, I picked it
up and threw up towards her who caught the umbrella deftly with a broad
smile on her face. With much difficulty, I managed to scramble on to the
platform helped by the young lady by dragging me exerting her whole
"Thanks a lot. If not for you, I would have lost my umbrella. This is
a new one. I bought it very recently."
While walking along the platform, with me she told me that she was a
teacher and where she taught. In reply, I told her that I worked at the
education office. On coming out of the station, I waited for a bus and
she walked towards her school holding her umbrella over her head
slantwise. The morning sun turned the opened brolly golden. She was not
an absolute knockout, but she looked spruce and elegant in her
One morning, I was sitting at my desk attending to some urgent work
and studying a file. I saw vaguely two shadowy figures approach my desk
and stand close to it. They stood there few minutes silently until I
looked up at them with a little vexation. My tired eyes met a flowerlike
smile on a serene feminine face that dramatically changed my annoyance
into a pleasant excitement. One of the two young ladies who was standing
in front of me was none other than the lady teacher who dropped her
brolly accidentally into the railway track at the Gampaha railway
"Good morning." It was her soft clear voice.
"What brought you here, Miss?"
She said that the other young woman was also a teacher on the staff
of her school and she had not got her salary increment for the current
year for no fault of her own. I asked them to wait in the lobby till I
come back after speaking to the subject clerk.
The subject clerk informed me that her personal file had been
misplaced and that was the reason for non-payment of her increment. On
returning to the lobby, I told them what the subject clerk revealed to
me and I undertook to help the fellow clerical officer trace the missing
file. They showed their satisfaction smiling broadly.
I invited them to go to the office canteen for some cool drinks. The
new teacher vehemently refused while the other one remained silent,
looking away. Repeatedly I urged them and walked towards the canteen;
hesitatingly and still refusing they followed me into the tuckshop.
Sponge cakes and cool drinks were ordered. No sooner had we sat at a
table then the canteen boy brought the cakes and the drinks. Without
standing on ceremony, the lady teacher who was already known to me
started nibbling a cake; as she ate, she talked continually.
The other one simply waited just looking at her friend and me
alternately without touching either the cakes or the drinks.
It appeared the former was not in a hurry, she went on prattling. She
gave a description of her family, her whereabouts, the school she
attended and so on.
Having remained silent for more than fifteen minutes, the other
teacher picked up the cake that lay on the plate, ate it and drank the
glass of fruit juice as if she realized something hitherto she had not
been able to do. They spent about half an hour with me in the canteen
chatting. Before leaving they thanked me profusely for my undertaking to
search the file and for the refreshments.
Before passing fifteen minutes after returning to my desk, the
canteen boy came running and gave a ladies' umbrella to me telling the
ladies had left behind it in the canteen. It was the umbrella which I
retrieved from the railway track the other day. Taking it in my hand,
turning this way and that way, I looked at the brolly as if it were an
inscrutable black flower.
The next morning, I waited at the Gampaha railway station to return
the article to its owner. She emerged from the crowd of people that
streamed onto the platform from the train. With an impish smile on her
face she hurried towards me.
"My umbrella is giving lot of trouble to you!"
"The owner is giving me trouble, not the umbrella!"
She erupted into a loud laughter.
"By the way, have you traced Sujatha's personal file?"
"Yes, with much difficulty."
She stayed with me for some time chatting until my bus arrived and
she told me that she travelled daily by the earlier train and the
particular carriage she habitually got into.
The following day I also took the earlier train and got into the
carriage she usually travelled in the morning. That train was not so
crowded and found Nirmala (She told me her name earlier) seated in a
corner reading a book with rapt concentration. Her face lit up and eyes
elated the moment she saw me. Nirmala started conversing with me with
great enthusiasm. It was very clear to me that she had no end of
happiness travelling in the train in the company of me, so much so that
she wanted me to take the earlier train every day.
That day onwards, we travelled together every morning and after
school she went home earlier than me. Within a matter of few weeks, we
became very intimate with each other.
After two three months, to my great surprise, I discovered that she
was very much in love with me. It also appeared that she was waiting
till I declared my love for her. But unfortunately, I was not able to
reciprocate her love with a clear conscience as I genuinely thought I
was not a suitable person for a girl like her.
Afterwards, I found that Nirmala came from a very respectable and
well-connected family in the area with a social standing and they were
During this period of time, I got registered as an external student
at a university to study for an arts degree. Since I wanted to do my
studies very seriously, took a room on rent within the town limits of
Gampaha. Nirmala was highly pleased and encouraged me in every possible
way to pursue my studies. As we did not travel together any longer by
train, I used to meet her at the station and walk with her upto a
certain point close to her school which came about two three times a
About a month after shifting to the rented room, I got chickenpox and
I was not able to attend office continuously for three weeks. My
landlord and his wife were a genial old couple who kept a young servant
girl to attend to domestic chores. In the duration of my illness the
whole household treated me as if I were one of the members of the
One morning, about 10 O'clock, I was lying in the bed reading a
newspaper in my room for want of doing something. Saroja, the
maidservant rushed all of a sudden and whispered to me:" Mahaththaya,
nonala dekak evith." Before I got out of the bed Sujatha and Nirmala
peeped into the room smiling mischievously.
"Are you alright now?" Sujatha spoke first.
"Mine was a very mild attack of smallpox, not at all serious. I am
going to work next Monday."
Sujatha sat in the chair close to the window, uninvited. Nirmala sat
at the foot of the bed closer to her friend and cast a look at my table
which looked like a huge mouse-nest cluttered with books, magazines,
loose papers containing notes taken at my class, ballpoint pens,
alarm-clock, newspaper sheets hanging down over the edges of the
table-top and a plate containing left-overs from my breakfast, over
which crawled a few house flies.
As the room was congested with many things and stuffy, I invited them
to go out into the garden which was very large and full of trees. We
went into the garden and all three sat on the concrete bench under the
rambutan tree whose branches came downdropping and almost touched the
ground. The morning sunshine creeping through the foliage created
lattice work like patterns beneath the leafy tree.
Sujatha who was a happy-go-lucky type of character, made fun of
Nirmala and me telling she had been supporting us since the very
beginning. Meanwhile, Saroja appeared in the verandah holding a tray
with cups of tea on it and Mrs. Dissanayake, house owner's wife also
stood behind her. We returned to the house and had tea. I introduced the
youthful ladies as two teachers very well known to me. The old lady
spoke few words with them in a very friendly way. All the time, Saroja
waited holding the empty tray in her hands, leaning against a pillar and
scrutinizing the hair styles, dresses and ornaments of the two ladies.
After tea, Nirmala went into my room and started arranging the things
on the table in an orderly way and having put the higgledy-piggledy
table to right, she borrowed a broom from Saroja and swept the floor
which had not been cleaned by the servant girl for the whole period of
my illness for fear of contracting the infectious disease. During the
whole time, what Sujatha did was to tease her friend and me and made us
laugh. She laughed more than we did at her own banter! When she laughed
her whole person shook vigorously as if who were in the middle of a
One morning, when Nirmala and I were walking together towards her
school, she asked me in a very serious tone of voice:
"Asanga, I have noticed very often you have some sort of weighty
problem or something that troubles your mind. Why don't you come out
"How can you say I have a big problem?"
"If it is financial - I can help you ...."
"No, no - don't worry."
"Why not? you are trying to keep back something from me." Melting
under her penetrating probe, I reluctantly confessed.
"What you guessed is correct. I have a serious problem and I wanted
to discuss it with you but keep on postponing."
"Why don't you come out with it now itself?"
"We are walking on a public road; this is not a place to discuss
Both of us fell silent suddenly and continued to walk a considerable
distance like two dumb persons.
"At the weekend, I am going to my sister's at Ratmalana; we can
discuss your problem leisurely if you also come with me."
I have been brought up not by parents but by my relations. My parents
had died when I was a small child. Their loss jettisoned me into a state
where I found my childhood very very unpleasant. As a child I always
felt that I was an unwanted member of a family. This disagreeable
feeling even now haunts me as a ghost plagues an abandoned old house. I
had been cruelly deprived of the reassuring warmth in the bosom of a
family consisting of mother, father and other members. The shaky and
fractured foundation of my life caved in and all went into pieces when
the girl I first fell in love with, jilted me. The blow was too heavy
for me to bear and I ended up in a mental hospital.
So, I did not want to keep Nirmala in the dark who was in love with
me head over heels. Of course, I wanted her to face the bitter facts,
sooner rather than later. My conscience revolted against me because the
innocent girl was being led by me along a path with a dead end of
disillusionment and frustration. I wanted to make a clean breast of what
happened to me. However, I do not want to beg love going down on my
knees under whatever circumstance. Besides, I don't want to take her as
a shoulder to cry on, either.
As arranged Nirmala met me at Gampaha after school and we travelled
upto Colombo Fort by train and got off there since she wanted to change
from her saree to skirt and blouse. I waited outside the ladies' waiting
room till she came out. She emerged from the waiting room looking
girlish and fresh in a white blouse and flared skirt with a simple
tartan design. She had not changed her coiffure. Though I noticed a
slight difference in her usual gay frame of mind; she looked alright.
The train we travelled upto Colombo and the one we got into at the
Fort station were not too crowded but both trains were full of people as
we were not able to discuss private affairs. So, we travelled upto
Kollupitiya; alighted from the train and walked back about half a mile
along the railway track that runs parallel to the seashore. As the
stretch of beach was lonely at the time, we sat on a boulder facing the
"We are already late; now come out with your tale of woe!" Nirmala
spoke first after an agonizing and long silence. I felt as if I were a
person who was before his confessor and about to reveal his sins in
anticipation of absolution. Actually, it was a crucial juncture for both
of us. We looked at each other, with our hearts full of misgiving and
mistrust as though we were sworn enemies, ready to pounce on each other.
"Sometimes, you may not believe me, but I tell you in all
seriousness...." I blurted out and I was not able to complete what I
wanted to say because I could hardly recognize my own voice as it
sounded as if somebody else were speaking on behalf of me.
"....I ... I... went off my head and had been under psychiatric
treatment for about two months."
My mouth went dry and I felt the words burn my lips.
Her hands gripped the holdall that lay on the boulder beside her and
lifted it into her lap. She pressed the bag against her breast like a
mother huggs her infant enclosing it with both hands.
"So, how all this happened?" I heard Nirmala's voice as if the sound
emanated not from her but from the unfathomable sea itself.
I related my life story in detail, especially my odious childhood
describing certain incidents that humiliated me to the very quick of my
soul when I was an innocent child. She listened to me with utmost
attention, sitting on her haunches, her face propped on one hand and her
soulful countenance stuck out towards me. Whilst Nirmala listened to me,
she kept her index finger between her teeth, sometimes stroked her
forehead with her fingers. Number of times, she interrupted in order to
get more details like a psychiatrist probes the deep recesses of the
mind of a mental patient.
Both of us fell silent when I finished talking. The sea continuously
churned, heaved and sobbed restlessly sending waves which lashed against
the bulwark of rubble built to resist the sea eating into the coast.
"Asanga, do you think our relationship should come to an end because
you have had an unpleasant experience through no fault of yours?"
She spoke with a smile on her visage and the melting gleam in her
eyes, which had been missing for the last few days, immediately
"Can you face the social stigma attached to it? It was my voice.
"All that matters is not what others say or think, but our attitude
to each other."
"I don't think your people expect you to marry a 'nobody' like me. If
we got married, they would desert you treating you as an outcast."
She stood tall and firm.
"Why you should make a martyr of yourself because of me?"
"This is not martyrdom."
"Or else, what?"
"You should know what it is!"
She smiled mischievously and spoke again.
"First of all, take our degree, do a better job. You will be
All at once, a powerful roller crashed into the bulwark sending up
confetti of sea water droplets and sprinkling both of us.
It was getting dark. We crossed the railway track and walked along a
cross lane towards the Galle road. While walking side by side with her,
I listened to the soft rustle of her skirt that rubbed against her legs
and the sweet sound of her rhythmic breathing. There was a faint smell
of perfume hovering about her.
"Asanga, I have told my sister about you. She is like a very close
friend to me. She is dying to see you and she knows you are coming with
Nirmala got closer to me and took hold of my hand. The moment she
touched my hand I experienced an ecstatic feeling of reassurance and I
lifted her hand, kissed it as if her hand were a fresh, fragrant flower
with long petals. The hands I kissed reverently, I thought, would offer
me the savour of life and the warmth of a close human relationship which
I have been deprived of since childhood.
Nirmala's grasp on my hand tightened softly and firmly. I am no
longer an unwanted child!