Michael walked, eyes glued to his smartphone, towards a destination he neither knew nor cared very much about.
Sunglasses. Check. Earphones. Check. Big backpack. Check. Google Maps. Check. Confused look. Check. Tourist. Check.
He could feel the humidity of Colombo turn into sweat pellets on and above his brows. He wiped incessantly to achieve comfort, but he couldn’t shake off the discomfort of his now-wet t-shirt. Thankfully, he thought, he chose to wear black. But then again, that’s all he ever wore.
While Michael’s struggles with perspiration could easily fill a book, he was very aware of the benefits of movement. And so, he chose to walk today.
Left to his own devices in the room which felt all too quiet in the absence of his travel companion, Michael was eating into himself mentally. He could feel darkness creep up on him as the day rolled on without a clock to push him to do something or be anywhere.
Copious amounts of black coffee. Concerned stares from kind-hearted waiters. A soothing King Coconut to alleviate the effects of the anxiety caused by aforementioned coffees. An angry sea on the horizon.
He showered and stared out the window of his rather-luxurious accommodation in the heart of Colombo. He looked at the sea for a while, but his hands reached for the phone every so often. Phantom vibrations would trigger the movement too.
Each time he picked up his phone, he consumed an obnoxious amount of inane content in the guise of ‘learning’.
Truth is, his conscious mind was about as pixelated as the screen in front of him.
What reality? What sea? What Colombo? Who Michael? Ah, an existential crisis in paradise, aka first-world woes of a privileged, make-believe philosopher.
Three minutes into ‘Who built the pyramids, and how, and why?’, something snapped in the momentary nerd, and the resultant emotion was about as agitated as the seas that afternoon.
Michael did as many push-ups as he could to avoid reaching for the phone. It didn’t help.
A while later he was reminded of a place he had seen not so long ago when on a tuk-tuk ride.
It was a row of shacks on the beach, and they were stationed across an un-barricaded railway track.
Boards read: ‘Don’t cross the tracks when there is a train on it’. Ummm, yeah. Not redundant at all!
This was a fairly ordinary ‘reverie’ by Michael’s impossible standards, but such was the day. He would now walk towards his new destination.
With the arrow and the blue line of the Maps hogging his retina, he moved as if running away from himself.
To the sound of his favourite band ‘Oasis’, and the occasional phone call, floating between his ears, he moved to align himself with what could well have been a dream: those shacks.
It was farther than he anticipated, but isn’t freedom achieved on long walks?
The hubris of the thought did inspire a chuckle. Michael was delusional enough to invoke Nelson Mandela’s journey while casually strolling down a road with a beach on the right and quaint cafes on the left.
But here’s the thing, he was so wrapped up in his purpose, the gadget in his hand, and the thoughts it inspired, that he barely noticed the sea or its salty deposits on those carefree enough to bathe in it. He barely paid attention to the beautiful colours of people standing at open railway stations.
He missed the yellow-red of a peculiarly clean pavement, a coffee shop called Central Perk (yes, one designed to look like the cafe in ‘Friends’), sleepy faces of tuk-tuk riders mid-siesta, larger-than-life cars with machine-gun toting policemen, couples holding hands and stealing glances unabashedly, colourful skirts, ankles, eyes, humans…
The blue line on Google Maps was his totem, his refuge, his prison.
All that ceased when the shack was arrived upon.
After having ‘carefully’ avoided the train (thanks to the boards of course), Michael was offered lunch by the spindly, Tamil-speaking Hasan. It was more than he could ever finish, but then again, it’s nearly impossible for most people to go through Sri Lankan food portions. They’re about as generous with their food as they are with kindness.
Tales of Hasan’s wondrous life. The sea within touching distance. Water looking like mercury with the evening sun upon it. Trawlers on the horizon like ants on a telephone wire. Chairs crafted out of driftwood and time.
Earphones were removed. The phone was tucked into the bag. Paradise was real. Michael would finally see it. The digital cloak was shed.
He walked back without any assistance. He finally saw people as they were. He even took a moment or two to stop dead in his tracks to digest the unimaginable beauty that was Colombo in peace.
Only months ago, a financial crisis crippled them. Only years ago, a civil war broke their spine, their identity. And yet, here they were, smiling, moving, living, laughing.
Magic isn’t always in the sleight of hands. Sometimes, magic is when you open your eyes to the world. Michael smiled for he felt human again, connected, even if only for a moment.
The phone then rang. Perspiration.
(Published 29 September 2023, 23:20 IST)