Once , we all had long hair. And upon a shelf in Sunil’s kitchen sits evidence of the time when Sunil had long dark hair, almost down to his shoulders. As he picked the photograph up, an official portrait of him and his wife from their wedding day, he laughed as if to express how much things had changed. He and his wife hardly looked any older, yet nowadays all wedding photos were in colour and recorded as sparkly be-bop-de-boom music videos.
“So long ago.” He smiled, still clean-shaven, yet a little less hair and a few tiny creases around his eyes. “And we were very young.”
Earlier, Sunil’s daughter-in-law had shown us her wedding video, an all singing, dancing contrast to Sunil’s more static black and white wedding photo. To the tune of a popular crooner, a steady rhythm, and lush orchestral strings, she and Sunil’s son had smiled at each other, rehearsed in line formation, then danced full South American in front of the stylish Grand Oriental Hotel in Colombo. It was a similar style of video to the one we’d witnessed being filmed in Galle, apparently now the vogue for all premier Indian and Sri Lankan weddings.
“We were married in Venice,” said Kate. “And we only had six guests, my parents, Andy’s parents, and my godparents, Ginny and Les, who took all our photos.”
I could remember the people, but not how much hair I had when we were married – or if there was dancing. In retrospect, I don’t think there was much of either. I was already going bald, and neither of us was bold enough to tango, or stupid enough to cha-cha. Plus many of our photos were taken on a narrow ledge, with Les balancing precariously on the balustrade trying to get the best angle.
Sunil had kindly invited us to his home for dinner. His wife had prepared us a feast: rice with fish balls, prawns, chicken, pork, potatoes, dhal and poppadums. Plus a selection of sweets and cakes that she’d offered soon after we’d arrived. All the food was tasty and delicious, yet after a big lunch of samosas and kiribath, we couldn’t manage it all.
“When will you eat?” asked Kate. The table was laid out for only the two of us, not Sunil and his wife.
“Later.” Sunil grinned, noticeably more relaxed now he was at home. “I will drive you to the airport first. Then drink a small glass of your Bacardi.”
I had given Sunil the remains of my emergency cocktail kit – a third of a bottle of rum and an almost full one of wine. Despite all the warnings about alcohol not being available on Poya days, there had been Lion beer for sale at the hotels, and Tiger beer on Christmas Day.
“How long will it take to get to the airport?” I asked.
“Around half-an-hour,” said Sunil. “We can go after seven o’clock.”
Sunil’s home was located in the Catholic part of Negombo, not far from his church. We’d passed the church on the way in, and Sunil had told us how it had seated thousands of worshippers at mass on New Year’s Eve. Similarly, Sunil had entertained around sixty people at his house on Christmas Day.
“It rained heavily Christmas Day evening,” he told us, reminding me of the same downpour that we’d sheltered from in Unawatuna. “But then it cleared up, leaving the air cool for the guests to sit in the garden.” He gestured at the ample courtyard between his house and the unit in which his son and daughter-in-law lived. Now this space was occupied by his trusty car, the comfortable Toyota Premio that had been our conveyance for the last six days.
“And did each guest have a piece of Christmas cake?” Kate asked, remembering the brightly wrapped little parcels his wife had sent down for us, eaten in his car shortly after meeting him.
“Yes, yes.” He smiled recalling our first day, only last Friday yet how long ago it now seemed.
He didn’t encourage eating in his car, though his wife’s Christmas cake was a permitted exception. Indeed he kept the interior clean and tidy, the cream leather upholstery as good as new.
Later one of his sons arrived home and shook hands with us. Then another son did the same, his smile so wonderful and kind. Only one son was absent. He lives in Canada and would be visiting Negombo later in 2020.
We finished dinner and finally it was time to say goodbye. First to Sunil’s friendly family, then half-an-hour later to Sunil himself as he dropped us outside departures at the airport. He had certainly looked after us, always punctual, reliable, trustworthy and, in this land of kamikaze buses and freewheeling tuk-tuks, driving us safely. Along the way, he‘d shown us many interesting things, from simple sights such as unmade paddy fields, to beautiful viewpoints and the secret rock carvings of Buduvuwajata. He’d told us so many stories of his country too, imbuing everything with local knowledge. He’d bought us train tickets, arranged our Udawalawe safari, and manhandled my heavy suitcase, no small feat. Oh, and he’d put up with Kate’s jokes, understanding her sense of humour. Hopefully we will see him again one day, when we return to Sri Lanka next.
Sunil is available for tours and can be contacted at email@example.com