Every day from midnight to sunrise, the fat sergeant sits behind the sandbags, holds a pen and complains. The skinny constable stands at the barricade with a T-56, a torch and a frown.
The constable joined the police force because they had a better rugby team than the army. He played wing for three years. That was before the knee injury, the hanging up of the boots and the endless overtime to pay for failed operations.
Today he has graduated from traffic duty to national security service. While he is grateful for the two thousand extra rupees, he prefers dodging dust and curses in rush-hour traffic to listening to this bigot whine.
The sergeant is twice his age, ‘If I had put a screw at 23, you would be my son. Ha. Ha.’ He has a dictator moustache and has not been promoted since the late 70s. He voted for the current president, supports the war and is proud of being a Sinhalese Buddhist.
‘Subash. This is our country. Tamils can go to India. Where can we go?’ Some days it is gentle chauvinism; other days, unbridled barbarism.
Police Constable Subash stops the cars and searches them; the sergeant writes down numbers and asks questions. They let in residents, food delivery men and jeeps that belong to the Tamil MP at 56/19.
The Tamil MP is a turncoat; a terrorist turned collaborator. He negotiated a two-year ceasefire and then presided over its demise. This year there have been seven attempts on his life. Today, the Sri Lankan government subsidises his mansion, his fleet of jeeps and the two underpaid policemen to guard his lane.
The skinny boy listens as the fat man talks of the bribes he never took. The barricade opens and closes. Walkie-talkies instruct them to let in taxis transporting Russian girls and Toyotas filled with dark boys of Tamil surnames. Nights accumulate.
‘If we let an assassin in, it will serve the bastard right,’ declares the sergeant. ‘He is a killer. He has betrayed his people. He will betray us.’
P C Subash doesn’t care about murder or betrayal. He is miffed that jeep drivers make ninety thousand more rupees than he does.
Bodyguards and drivers to the Very Important get paid in lakhs. To guarantee their loyalty and to ease the anxiety of being a human shield. Police who are neither ambitious nor entrepreneurial get paid in fractions.
One July, an orange trishaw appears and a dark man gets down and asks how much it would cost for him to be let in. He then informs them that he is wearing a jacket of wires, and unless guns and voices are lowered he will touch his elbow.
A wet patch appears at P C Subash’s crotch as he retreats behind sandbags and begins shuddering. The fat man barks.
‘The man at 56/19 is worth dying for?’
‘Not if I was you,’ says the dark man.
‘They will jail us.’
‘I promise I will strike during someone else’s shift.’
‘We want seven lakhs,’ hisses Subash from behind the barricade.
The dark man laughs and the fat man joins him.
‘Two lakhs’, says the man backing into his trishaw.
He leaves behind a trail of exhaust fumes.
For the next week they debate. The fat man wants to report the incident and lay a trap. The boy observes that two lakhs is more than they will make in a year.
They discuss whether there is more honour in protecting a killer or in executing one.
The dark man returns a week later. Under a full moon, at arm’s length, in hushes and gasps, they begin their negotiations. The ceasefire continues until further notice. They sit in shadows sharing stale food and bad jokes.
There is to be no severing of limbs or discharging of rifles. At least, that is, until they can all agree on a fair price.
~ Shehan Karunatilaka is the author of Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, winner of the 2008 Gratiaen Prize, and chosen as one of Waterstones’ top 11 debuts of 2011.