Darkness was descending over the village. Jinadasa sat on the parapet wall of his house. His banian was soaked. He took it off and wiped the drops of perspiration on his forehead. The cool breeze coming from the jungle was a balm to his weary limbs. He tried to suppress the pain in the shoulders and the knees. The weight of the mammoty, which he carried on the shoulder to and from the field and the distance he had to walk to reach the paddy field had been too much for him. He took a small bottle from a shelf in the verandah, poured some oil into his palm and applied it on the two joints alternatively. As he rubbed the oil in slow circular motion, he felt a burning sensation under the skin.
The oil as it penetrated the skin was beginning to have its healing effect. He knew that he had to go soon to an Ayurvedic doctor for treatment. ‘But he lives on the other side. It’s too far to walk.’ The mere thought had been a stumbling block. On his palms were several boils at places where the skin had constantly brushed against the handle of the mammoty. He put drops of the same oil on the boils.
“Drink this. You’ll feel better.” His wife’s voice awakened him. Through the steam that wafted upward from the mug of boiled coriander, she saw the pale face of her husband. “Why? What happened?” It was not often that she had seen him on the verge of tears. “I am very tired. I did not feel so exhausted before this.” “I can see. Now you have to walk so much to go there and then come back in the evening after working in the field.” “All these years, whatever the type of work I did whether ploughing or harvesting, when I had a bath in the cool water of the well, I felt refreshed with all the tiredness gone. Can you remember Soma?” “I remember very well. It’s not the work that is making you so weary.”
Soma would have asked the question “Why did this happen to us?” a hundred times during the past few months in sheer helplessness. Their house was on a hillock. Jinadasa’s paddy field was now on the other side of the Expressway. Earlier, a few minutes’ walk along the bunds of paddy fields which belonged to other families brought them to theirs.
“You should be happy that the first Expressway to be built in the country is running through your village.” The officer had said when he came with a team of surveyors and engineers. “We have been living in this village from birth. Our fathers and grandfathers too lived here. This is our ancestral property,” Jinadasa said. “Yes. We know that. But all those officers have shown that the road is constructed best along the lines marked,” he added, pointing to the row of poles positioned over hillocks and lowlands. “You can forward your claims for compensation, if the road runs over your fields or if your houses are going to be demolished. You can even request to be given land somewhere else.”
Since that day, life in the village began to change. Day and night, machines cutting down trees, scraping soil on the hill slopes, demolishing houses that would be too close to the road, were operating. The sound of explosions at the sites where rocks protruded disturbed the quietness of the village. The smell of dynamite spread even to the far corners.
“How are we going to live here?” the elders asked each other. It had been a small, sleepy village all this time. Located in the South-western part of the country, the undulating topography and a fertile soil enabled the inhabitants to grow their staple food crop, paddy and also subsidiary crops like vegetables and fruits. The South-West Monsoon rains supplied the water needed. The soil which absorbed part of the rain water kept the water table intact, so that water could be obtained even during the dry season. There were no intrusions from the outside world. The kingship bonds were preserved, though occasional conflicts over boundaries and fences disturbed the communal harmony. With the intervention of the priest and the village headman, most of the conflicts were resolved; very few went up to law Courts.
Nihal, Jinadasa’s son replied,” In a few months it will be over. We feel it’s going to bring our village many benefits,” His friends agreed. “What benefits will it bring? It’s going to cause us many hardships,” Jinadasa explained. “The Expressway is to run through our village right in the middle. We won’t be able even to cross it to go to the other side. At times of ploughing and transplanting or gathering and threshing the harvest, we will not be able to help each other.” Another Village Elder posed the question. “And the buffaloes? How do we get them to the fields?” He looked at the young men expecting an answer. “That of course, will be a question, for which we will have to find an answer,” one of them said. “How many families use buffaloes now for ploughing or threshing? They are using those small machines.” Some elders too agreed with Nihal. “What he says is true. Even those who can’t afford to buy, pay a small sum and hire a machine.” “Nihal works in an office now. He cannot help in the farming. He sees his father toiling away in the field and returning home exhausted. Jinadasa Mama wants to follow the old way of doing things,” said Jinadasa’s nephew.
“Also, we won’t be able to continue helping each other, the way we used to when somebody falls ill or dies. Families will find themselves on this side or the other side of the road, cut off from the rest. The Expressway will divide our village into two isolated units.” The words fell like a death knell on the gathering.
Jinadasa’s brother-in-law was able to convince the young men about the transformation that loomed ahead. “We might get jobs when they start work,” said a young man who was out of school and looking for a job. “Yes. You might get a job,” the elder continued with a sarcastic smile “to mix concrete. That’s all.”
Whenever people gathered in the fields or at the Cooperative Store, their discussions centered on the consequences they would face when the Expressway was built. The elders could not visualize their lives without each others’ help. Decades of practice had molded them into a uniform lifestyle. Jinadasa thought of the day’s work. It had been a busy day. Amidst every effort, only half the field had been ploughed. They had to work hard to replenish their stocks of rice. He had got up with the cocks’ loud crowing in the backyard. His wife had got up earlier to prepare the breakfast of boiled rice, pol sambol and dhal curry, and wrap it in a banana leaf. He set off taking the mammoty, flask of hot tea and a sarong. The footpath was still dark. He walked as fast as he could through the misty haze. Work in the paddy field had to be started before sun rise. To reach the field he had to walk several kilometers along the footpath, and then walk a similar distance along a gravel road, on the other side of the Expressway. The mammoty was getting heavier with the passing of each day. It was given to him by his father as a gift. Every day that Jinadasa went to work in the field, he remembered his father’s words. “This mammotty had been used by my father, and before that, by my grandfather. Now you take it. Use it carefully.”
When he reached his paddy field, Sarath, his son-in-law- to- be and a neighbor had started work. Their movements synchronized with perfect regularity. They lifted one leg from the mud, raised their mammoties, put them down into the mud, lifted the top soil, and set them down again. Then they took a step forward and repeated the process. It was a slow rhythmical forward march, mixing the clay soil and getting the field ready for transplanting paddy saplings. He had ploughed the field in the traditional way using the pair of buffaloes he owned; but now the animals could not be used for the purpose.
Jinadasa took his sarong off. Already, he had his loin cloth on. He joined the two men. They worked briskly. He fell behind as he could not keep pace with them. Yet he continued. The Expressway formed a barrier between Jinadasa and his paddy field. The long trek in the morning sapped his energy. He could not come to his field crossing the newly-constructed road. No man, woman or beast was permitted to walk on the road or cross it. Only fast-driven vehicles could use it; for the inhabitants of the village it was an impenetrable barrier.
The sun’s rays were beginning to be fierce. His throat was parched. He extricated his feet from the mud with difficulty and walked up to the shade of a Kumbuk tree, shouted at the other two.
“Come over here. Rice is enough for all of us.” They felt reluctant to stop. Ploughing as large an extent as possible was their target. They knew the difficulty of working with the noon sun’s rays falling on their backs. Sarath shouted back. “You eat. We’ll come.” Jinadasa opened the parcel and started to eat. He enjoyed the combination of dhal curry and pol sambol. This was like old times, he thought.
As he was sitting on the parapet wall of the verandah, at the end of the day, the electric lights on either side of the Expressway got switched on as if by a magic wand. The powerful head lights of the vehicles illuminated the wayside as they sped away at hundred kilometers an hour. “There is no difference between day and night for the people travelling in those vehicles. For what purpose are they rushing?” Jinadasa was puzzled. From childhood he liked to watch the way darkness fell over the entire village at dusk casting an aura of beauty. His thoughts turned to the simple life they led before the expressway was constructed. Sipping hot tea with a piece of juggery, to ward off the chill, he used to watch twilight fading away and the mantle of darkness settling down over the village, casting an aura of beauty. The darkness gradually became so intense that he felt he was the only soul living for miles around. Then the stars began to appear one by one and twinkle faintly. The ringing of the temple bells enveloped the village and added to its serenity.
Oil lamps came to be lit in all the houses shedding their mellow light. A thin veil of smoke spread around the houses. And with it came the smell of freshly-harvested rice being cooked over open hearths. From a far floated the melody of a folk song or on some nights the sound of drums. A group of boys was learning to play traditional drums, so that they could take over the role of elders who did the drumming at the temple or performed at other village functions or play at processions. On nights when the moon was up, he sat for a longer time on the parapet wall, till the lamps were extinguished, looking at the silver painted tops of trees and patches of darkness in between. When he felt drowsy, he unfurled a mat and lay down. A soft, cool wind blowing across the paddy fields fanned him into a deep sleep.
Now the sound of the fast-moving vehicles pierced the serenity that had prevailed over the village from times unknown and the glare of man-made lights totally expelled the soothing mellow moonlight to the depths of the jungle. A petition complaining about the hardships that the villagers would have to undergo, when the Expressway was constructed, circulated among the people. A committee was appointed to collect signatures. Young men played a major role in the task explaining to the families. Some of the elders placed their thumb marks on the document. There were some dissidents among the young. They said, “The country has to develop. One of the first steps is constructing Expressways, to link various parts of the country. If we object, how can the country go ahead?”
A chorus of voices of the other group raised their opinions. “Can’t you realize the difficulties our parents would undergo with no help from relations and friends? Even going to the fields on the other side of the Expressway and getting back home would be an unbearable strain.” “It’s obvious we are getting into two factions. Are we going to lose our unity because of this issue?” a spokesman of a third group asked.
The next day the temple hall was packed to capacity with elders and youth. As the Chief Priest walked in, and sat down in the high chair kept on a platform, gathering of men and women found themselves places on the mats. After religious observances were over, the aftermath of the construction of the Expressway was presented by spokesmen of the three groups. Amidst the silence that fell on the gathering, the Chief Priest spoke. “We have to see what we could do to face the situation. We will not be able to stop the decision the authorities have taken. But we can present our difficulties to them and request them to help us to preserve the unity and the lifestyle of the people in the village.”
Jinadasa recollected how the village was when the people realized there was nothing they could initiate in the reversal of the process. When time permitted, the young gathered at vantage points and watched every step in the construction work. They were fascinated by the gigantic machinery cutting the precipices, collecting the soil and pieces of rock lying at the foot of the boulders of granite, using massive forklifts. As the wide road way got ahead they explained to their parents and grand-parents that the Expressway would bring speedier communication between the Capital and the Deep South.
They were of opinion that such expressways should be built in other parts of the country too. They agreed that it was quite a strain walking a long distance to reach an exit and getting onto a road where there were bus-halting places. “We will write to the Provincial Council to build a road on either side of the Expressway and get us a bus service,” one of them said. “Yes. That is a good idea. Then our village will again be one.” This suggestion was accepted. Seated on the parapet wall, Jinadasa thought how the past few months had been. He had visualized he would be able to spend his old age in simple tranquility. His life had taken a new turn. The changes had been revolutionary. His strength to carry on life as a farmer was waning fast. Yet he wanted to continue the old way of life, for there were no alternatives. The first step he took was to leave the mammoty in a relative’s place. He could not carry it on his shoulder any more. His son was not interested in farming. Sarath, his son-in-law, would continue to till the land, he was definite. But he, like other young farmers preferred to use machinery. Sarath’s house being on the other side of the Expressway was a relief. He started to work in the fields before Jinadasa reached there. Also Jinadasa stopped work for the day quite early, so that he could come home before nightfall.
One day, he felt unusually tired. Walking back home he had to sit at several places. He felt as if his chest was heavier than before; a sudden pain at the neck was travelling down his left arm. His wife and daughter were waiting for him in the gathering dusk. “You look so pale today. Did you work alone in the field?” “No. Sarath is still working. I said I wanted to go home early.” “He should have asked you to stay the night there.” Rani felt that Sarath, should not have let her father walk the long distance in the evening. They held Jinadasa on either side when he climbed the steps and made him lie down in an easy chair. Soma went in to get him a hot cup of coriander. Rani massaged her father’s legs. She noticed the fatigue on her father’s face.
“Why didn’t you stay at Sarath’s place? Didn’t he ask you?” “He wanted me to stay there. But I said I have to go since both of you are alone here.” “Amma and I would have managed.” “Duwa think of your condition. It’s the parent’s duty to look after a daughter when she is expecting a baby. That is why girls in our village stay in their parental home till the baby is born. If there is an emergency we have to be ready.” “There’s some more time for that.” “Anyway I couldn’t be away when you are in such a delicate condition. Give me the mug. I’ll be alright when I drink some coriander.” He inhaled the aroma of boiled coriander as he emptied the mug. “I don’t want to eat anything. I want to sleep early today.”
Soma and Rani cleared the kitchen. Nihal’s plate of rice was kept on a table. They did not know whether he would get late. “Hope Aiya took the torch with him. It’s very dark,” Rani said closing the window. “Yes. It’s Poya day. We could not even go to the temple.” “We’ll go tomorrow. Can you walk so far?” Soma was getting anxious. Rani’s abdomen was unusually big and protruding down. Childbirth, they believed coincided with a day of the full moon or a day that is totally dark. Disturbing the quietness, they heard a flap of wings above the roof and a rustle somewhere in the Jack tree close to the kitchen. And then it started. The mournful cry of an owl! Was it an omen foreboding a tragedy. What exactly is it heralding?
“We are undergoing enough at the moment. What more is in store for us?” Soma thought. But she concealed her thoughts and said “Duwa go and sleep now. I’ll wait till Aiya comes.” Soma noticed that the girl was listening to the intermittent cry of the owl. With fear written in her eyes she looked at her mother and said, “Ok.” The cry of the owl continued. Soma could identify cries of two owls as she lay on a mat where Jinadasa seemed to have fallen asleep.
Nihal came home late. His parents were up; his mother was rubbing oil on his father’s chest. “What’s wrong?” “He is having a chest pain.” “We’ll have to take him to hospital” “How can we, at this time? We’ll have to wait till morning, isn’t it?” “No. I’ll go and inform Sarath. We shouldn’t delay.” Nihal set off on his bike. He did not find it hard traversing the rough, narrow road in the dark. He managed this bumpy ride twice a day to go to office and come back. He explained to Sarath the urgency of getting the patient to the hospital. On the way they discussed how they could do it.
The two young men set to work as soon as they came. After alerting a few neighbors, they tied two poles to the arms of a chair, carried the patient and placed him in the chair. Then four men, two in front and two behind lifted the chair by shouldering the poles. The men had to walk with care and as fast as possible. The patient was now leaning against a pillow. It was obvious to the others that he was experiencing excruciating pain at intervals. When the group reached one of the exits of the Expressway a van stopped by. “Get in with the patient. I’ll take you to hospital,” said the driver.
Nihal and Sarath walked behind the stretcher which carried the patient to the Accident Ward. Their eyes were on the patient. He seemed now to have fallen asleep. “You can’t come in,” said a nurse, as the patient was taken in. The two brothers-in-law, confused and dumbfounded waited at the door of the ward, thinking about the trek they had to undertake to reach an ordinary road in spite of there being a sophisticated Expressway running through their village. Their thoughts turned to the two females at home.
A nurse appeared at the door. She said, “One of you come in please.” Sarath looked at Nihal and signaled that he should go. Several doctors were in the ward. One of them came to Nihal. “Are you Nihal, the son of the patient?” “Yes doctor.” “Your father has had two heart attacks the last 24 hours. And he got a third attack just as he was admitted.” Nihal waited for what the doctor was about to say. “We tried our best…I’m sorry.” “Is he dead?” Nihal’s voice was almost a whisper. “Yes,” said the doctor. “Nihal you should have brought your father to hospital a bit earlier. Then he would have stood a chance. “I did that. But it took so many hours. We carried him all the way from our village to the road. We are isolated from the rest of the world because of the Expressway.” “I have heard about your village, the hardships the villagers are facing.”
The sound of fire crackers spread over the village. The white streamers swayed in the afternoon breeze. Drums accompanied by played a funeral dirge. The relatives and friends from the other side of the Expressway had come to bid farewell to the dead. The funeral pyre was lit by two nephews.