Last night it rained. And I stood under my parents’ porch and smoked. The deluge of water on the tin sheeting drowned out everything — traffic, the neighbours, the sound of the TV. Just me and the rain and the dark, like it had been on that first night in December 1990. I stepped out from the porch, and the rain put out my cigarette in an instant. I spat away the shreds of tobacco and let the rain soak me. Remembering them, as I have done a hundred thousand times in the last eighteen years.
I can remember the ridged steel flooring of the Y-8’s cargo bay like it was yesterday, digging into my arse as I sit packed in with my platoon, flying to Palay.
I remember the smell of wet sandbags on that first night on the FDL at Elephant Pass. Looking out into the black ink beyond the perimeter. Here be Tigers.
And the ten-man patrols through knee-deep water, trying to be quiet. “Kata vahapang, huththo,”
The hot, dusty days and wet, rainy nights. Mosquitoes. And being tired. So tired. Every day. All the time.
Sharing cigarettes and melted Edna chocolate on Christmas Day. Tang instant orange mixed with warm, brackish Jaffna Peninsula water.
And contact. Finally. What we’d lived for, longed for, suffered for. What we’d watched in movies and read about in books. Contact. Sex for virgins. With red tracers. And the elephant sitting on my back, squeezing the breath out of my lungs as I tried to hold my rifle steady. The hammer roar of 7.62-mm fire, gunflashes blurring the distant, running figures.
None of us were over twenty, most eighteen or nineteen. Ariyaratne, the section commander, and Dias, the machine-gunner; our parents, old men of twenty-four. Combat veterans of the Sinha Rifles. The hard core.
And the killing. I remember every single one. The blood, the eyes. The smell. I remember Rohantha getting hit by the .50. I remember the sixteen-year-old bayoneted girl with the long plaited hair come loose. I remember kneeling at a tube well and washing the crusted blood out from under my finger nails.
Down time. Sitting in abandoned tin buildings in the Saltern Siding. We’d strip down to OG shorts and slippers and our Death By Bullets T-shirts. We never talked about victory, about killing Prabha, or defeating the Tigers. Our personal goals were to survive, to do well, to not let each other or our regiment down. Sura talking about the XT-250 he wanted to buy. Husni and Sanjeeva talking about girls. Dias and I cleaning guns and talking about optics.
I thought I knew them all very well, but now I realize I didn’t really. And now, sadly, I can’t recall their faces in detail. And sometimes I have to think hard to remember all nine names.
Well, it looks like it’s over now. And I wish those guys were here to see it. I wish we could all go out for a drink and talk about EPS and catch up on our lives. But it’s too late for all that. It all took too long. I wish they were all in their thirties, like me. Maybe they’d have wives, and children, or not. I wish they could walk down the road and be offered kiri bath by the trishaw drivers. I wish they were alive.
For Section 2, Recce Group Charlie, 6th Sinha Rifles.
KIA, July 1991, Elephant Pass.
It eats at him all the time. Every minute, every moment. Is this all there is? Is this all there ever will be? A history of betrayal like a history of violence that can’t be shaken. Coffee and endless cigarettes. Alcohol that dulls the pain for awhile. And he walks. He’s always walked. And always away. Hiding, walking, pretending. Why’s there no medicine for this — a happy pill that’ll take it all away? He wants to sleep, to sleep for years, to wake up in five in a different world. But he can barely sleep five hours a night. And the fear’s back, like a nasty animal nestled at the base of his neck, biting, scratching, whispering “failure”. Is there no redemption, no forgiveness, no last chance at happiness? His hindsight’s so perfect, crystal clear, but his steps stumble like those of a blind man, walking backwards.
Another chance, please, oh God, another chance at happiness, but the fear’s there again, whispering “never again,” and he fears she’s right.