Some years ago over afternoon tea on our back porch, Mary Kay and I heard from a guest the outlines of a story set on one of the earth’s storybook islands: Sri Lanka. Its former Dutch and English masters called it ‘Ceylon’, a name that has become synonymous with delicate tea, temples with Buddhist relics and jungle elephants. Arthur C. Clarke, British dean of Sci Fi writers, once called it ‘paradise’, retiring in its hills. Imagine such a paisley island – a teardrop in the Indian Ocean – with dreamland city names like Kandy and Trincomalee. But the story told that day at tea was set in another reality entirely: atrocious, bloody ethnic strife. The story featured a train and its passengers snared in the savagery – and an exquisite act of mercy.
The story, first recorded by Valentine Daniels, a Sri Lankan anthropologist, appears in his book, Charred Lullabies. Having taken up this inquiry into ethnic conflict, I found what I was looking for on the very last page. So compelling was this narrative that I determined to learn more about it myself. The upshot was a round-the-world trip that took us to the scene of the story, the royal city of Kandy at whose heart stands the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth mirrored in a mountain lake.
Here is Daniels’ story: In 1977, as tension rose across the island between minority Tamils and their Sinhalese, largely Buddhist, neighbors, a riot broke out in the Kandy bazaar. Rage coursed the streets with fire-brands and machetes, as Sinhalese gained an edge against Tamils. Smoke filled the town as shops and homes burned, their splayed occupants left in the wake. The melee spilled down toward the colonial-era train station where the 3:15 PM south-bound train awaited departure.
Aboard the train sat a young Tamil teacher, traveling home to the town of Nawalapitiya set amongst hillside tea estates. As he waited, a Sinhalese woman dressed in a white sari entered his compartment and seated herself opposite him. They listened as the clamor neared, and then flooded, the station. The teacher began to tremble as the rioters boarded the far end of the train, dragging Tamil passengers onto the station platform belaboring them with sticks, butchering others. He grasped now his fate: that he would not reach home, his wife or family. That he would meet his end in a pool of blood at the station.
As the rioters approached their section of the train, the Sinhalese woman in the white sari rose, crossed the compartment and settled herself next to her fellow passenger, gently laying her hand on his as he gripped his thigh to restrain the shaking. Moments later, the rioters burst into their section of the train and were there confronted with the following scene: a Sinhalese sister apparently had the great misfortune of being married to a Tamil husband. They might make an end of him, but then she would be a widow, a fate no one would wish on her. After moments of indecision, they wheeled and went on their terrible way.
The whistle broke the ghastly spell, and the train at last moved slowly out of the bloody station, passing gardens, banana groves and palms as it drew away into the hills. The Tamil teacher recalls that the two strangers, supposed next of kin, rode side-by-side in silence for more than half-an-hour until the train stopped at Gampola, where the woman rose, gathered her things and descended from the train without so much as speaking her name. An hour later he reached his hometown, Nawalapitiya.
Though safe at home, for weeks his sleep was haunted by the screams and shouts in the station. He quaked at reliving the horror that had very nearly engulfed him. But, he says, his wife would rouse him from his nightmares, calling to him and laying her hand on him. Then, he says, he was comforted, as he felt again the saving hand of a stranger laid on his.
(part 2 to follow)