For over a week I've known that I'll be writing this post. I've thought about it a lot and some have heard the story directly. It's one of those tales that, in all likeliness, won't survive the translation, mostly because it's me that's doing the translating.
I'm sure Ashok Ferrey or JK Rowling would be able to tell you this story and make it sound as fascinating in words as it was in real life. Mind you, if I was JK Rowling I'd probably have far better things to write about, like wizards and how much money I've made. If I was Ashok Ferrey I'd be writing about that bloke with the squinty eyes who was looking at me strangely at the airport on Sunday, the chap with the little Odel bag full of model tri shaws and some drum sticks poking out of his bag.
Those proper writers would give you a big build up and then hit you with the twist at the end.
I won't though. The fact is that I was conned and here's how it happened.
Friday before last saw me and C heading down to Hikkaduwa for the weekend. We were doing the slumming it thing, two rucksack type bags, not a laptop in sight, the most basic of clothes and we were off. I was travelling so light that I contemplated going without my L'Oreal mens' moisturiser, but a chap has limits.
At the appointed time we arrived at Fort railway station. This was particularly handy as we'd decided to go by train, I wouldn't want you to think we'd just gone there randomly. We headed for the ticket booth thing, fending off a couple of those touty type chaps who hang around, and bought our tickets.
I like to think of myself as a bit of a wise Sri Lankan Kalu Suddha fellow. I know that these chaps, the ones who hang around places like stations, rock fortresses and hotels with "International" buffets can smell tourists with the all the keenness and skill of T being blindfolded and put in a room and told to find a member of Thriloka. So I try to bat them off like flies, as if I had one of those tennis racket insect swatting devices these blokes are selling at the roadsides everywhere.
You, who probably live in Sri Lanka, probably don't notice the fads with the roadside sellers as it's just part of your day to day existence. I see the changes everytime I come there. I recall when the inflatable things became trendy and for the life of me can't figure out why Lanka is litterred with roadside stalls selling the things. In recent weeks I've seen these chaps with their fake tennis rackets. It took me a few days to realise what they actually are as at first I thought they really were tennis rackets, which to be frank with you, confused the hell out of me.
There we were, at the Fort station. After purrchaysing the tickets we realised we had quite a long wait ahead of us. The train wasn't due for about an hour and a half and, for once, it wasn't my fault we were so early. The time we had been initially given for the train was wrong and the train we were going to catch was running late. C so wanted to be angry with me but she couldn't, how cool was that?
We hung around, took photographs, drank Elephant House cream soda and had a cool but hot time. At one point a bloke materialised next to us and made some signs. I looked at him in a clueless, gormless and helpless way. C, being the highly intelligent and developed person that I'm not, said that he was talking in sign language. She tried to answer him and told me that he was one of the chaps at the ticket booth earlier. He was smartly dressed and seemed intent on helping us by showing us where to stand on the platform and how to get the train and all.
He was deaf and dumb.
We chatted for a bit. Sign language isn't one of my skill sets and talky soundy language wasn't one of his, but we managed. We used a pen to write my name and C's name on his hand, though I must stress that he offerred said hand, I hadn't just grabbed it and started writing on it. To tell us his name he pulled out an ID card of sorts. It told us that his name was PK Priyantha and that he was registered deaf and unemployed.
He seemed nice enough and once we'd got our spot I slightly reluctantly offerred him a couple of hundred rupees, as a thank you and I'm sorry you're deaf, dumb and unemployed kind of gesture. He steadfastly refused the money and then disappeared. I felt bad and warm. Here was a chap trying to help us for no reward, just pure and genuine kindness I thought and he'd even appeared insulted at my offer of money.
He had gone off empty handed with only the satisfaction of helping us. If there had been a nun around I would have kissed her and skipped a bit. There wasn't and, for some reason I had the Who's Pinball Wizard running through my head all the time. I'm not sure if nuns like the Who.
We continued our wait and PK was nowhere to be seen. Then he materialised, like he'd been beamed there from the USS Enterprise. He started up a conversation again, asking where we were from, whether we were married, where we live and all that. And then he was gone again.
About five minutes before the train was due PK was beamed down again. He showed us exactly where to stand on the platform. As the train pulled in I was amazed at the way in which the inoffensive looking other passengers on the platform were transformed into hustling, bustling and rather violent stampeding cattle. We Brits like a good queue and rarely is a day complete for me without a queue or two, often with only me in it.
I wrestled with my rucksack (with L'Oreal moisturiser inside), my girlfriend and my British "sorry, no really, after you, I'm sorry" attitude. Whilst I was busy doing all this wrestling other chaps were pushing their way past me to get in the train and get a seat. In my peripheral vision I saw my old mate PK Priyantha shoot passed me, with the speed and agility of a leopard chasing a pack of Sri Lankans coated in a meat flavoured paste onto a train.
I did the gallant thing and let C fend for herself as I got on the train. All the seats were taken, except the two that were being guarded and shielded by PK. I grabbed one and C followed some minutes later with the bags and things. It was apparent that PK had jumped aboard and saved a double seat for us. Kind no?
We made ourselves as comfortable as poss and again I tried to give the saintly fellow some money. Again he refused. My God I thought, kindness reigns supreme yet there still wasn't a nun in sight.
Just as the train was leaving we said bye to PK. He wanted nothing, he was just happy to help.
Then, he pulled out a newspaper cutting and showed it to me. It was one of those sports pages from a newspaper, the type with out of focus pictures of school sports teams when they've won something, where you can't actually make out the faces but mothers all around the country carry round in their purses with pride.
He showed me a picture. There was some sort of caption that said the name of a deaf school. He pointed to one of the faces, indicating that it was him. I smiled, thinking that he was proud and wanted to show me this before he left.
He pulled out another bit of paper, an A4 sheet this time. It had a handwritten list of names on it. They were white names. They were in blue though, not white. By each name there was an amount and a country. These were the people who'd "donated" to his school. I peered at the list.
The last line said that Eric Larsen from Sweden had donated Rs 4000. The line before said that Mark Weston had given Rs 2000. Well I was too smart for this sort of thing. A deaf school maybe, a deaf and dumb bloke maybe, but I wasn't falling for all this.
I wrote down my name in my worst handwriting. I put "UK" as my address and, in the "amount" column, I rather scrappily wrote Rs 200. I'm a local I thought, and we don't get done like this do we?
I sheepishly handed over my Rs 200 with the list, feeling embarrased but brave, small but big.
Then C said, in that way.
"I think you should give him a thousand bucks".
So I did, but not without making sure I'd changed the figure on his sheet to reflect it and also making my writing a bit neater so that the next person would see my name properly. PK took the money and the list then cheekily gave it to C to see if she'd give some too. Then he was gone.
As the journey progressed we both thought about PK. Over the next few days we realised something that is now so obvious; we'd been totally and beautifully conned. Every step, every bit of the episode was a part of it and I didn't know whether to feel lucky to have witnessed it or foolish to have been done.
Let's go back.
He wasn't even deaf. The way in which he had known we were going to Hikks can only have been from hearing it when we bought the ticket. He never asked where we were going but knew anyway.
In order to show his name he showed his ID card. Nope, this was an excuse to show that he was deaf and unemployed, to gain sympathy. Otherwise he would have written his name on his or my hand, like I had done to him.
His sign language wasn't real. It was a pidgin version of sign language, using symbols to make us understand, more like charades than sign language. And he added sound effects. I'm no expert but I don't think dumb people can make plane noises.
His turning down of previous offers of cash and frequent vanishing acts made us think he was the real thing. Then, the piece de resistance was his timing as he got off the train. He made us think he was in a rush to go, so we had to think quickly and deal with the guilt. He didn't even say that we were giving a donation to his school, he just implied it.
So that's what happened.
If you're at Fort station and a deaf fellow comes and helps you beware, it may be him.
Deaf and dumb?
He wasn't deaf, he wasn't dumb.
But he sure played a mean pinball...
Aerial Photos: Sri Lanka Floods
2 days ago