In On Sal Mal Lane, Ru Freeman explores a long and difficult civil war in Sri Lanka through the families inhabiting Sal Mal Lane, a normally quiet street. Focusing on the innocence of children – their love of games, their little rivalries, and their young romances – On Sal Mal Lane elegantly shows the years leading up the Sri Lankan war threatening to swallow the country’s people.
Nobody could begrudge Nihil his moment. Hadn’t he once given up the one thing that delighted him on account of something as unglamorous as looking after his younger sister? Hadn’t he been the one, of all the Herath children, to change Mr. Niles’s state of mind for the better, a change that, nobody would dispute this fact, had prolonged his life? Tall for his age, with talent that surpassed even Mr. Niles’s lofty expectations, Nihil became the youngest player to be selected not for the first eleven but, not far behind, for the second eleven, the A team, as the last in the batting lineup in the upcoming Mini Battle of the Blues.
“Good, good, congratulations!” Mr. Niles said, when Nihil burst into the veranda with the news. Mr. Niles half rose out of his reclining position in excitement, then fell back against his pillows.
“On Friday we are going to play against St. Thomas’s A. You’ll be there?”
“Yes, of course I will be there,” Mr. Niles said, marveling at the fact that he could utter such certainties. Although the initial prognosis regarding his life had been amended in light of the health he had regained during the past years, he knew he had begun to lose the fight. He had kept this knowledge from his wife and daughter by enlisting Lucas to go to the pharmacy at the top of the main road and fill a prescription for a painkiller that he had wrangled out of an old friend, and that he administered himself. This moment, however, called for such utterances.
“We will all have to go then, Papa,” Kala Niles said. “Can’t send you alone, no?”
“Who will drive?” Mrs. Niles asked, her brow furrowed.
“Kala will drive,” Mr. Niles said, surprising his daughter, who wreathed her face in smiles; though she had passed the driving test eight years ago, the occasions on which she had been allowed to take the wheel had been rare.
It was decided. The Niles family would travel together, and the Bolling girls were being allowed to accompany the Heraths, who had hired a van to transport themselves as well as Lucas and Raju, both of whom wanted to witness this magnificent event. Of course all the girls would have to skip school.
The first day of the match dawned long after Nihil had woken up, unable to sleep, gone to the bathroom, drunk water, lain back down, and returned to the bathroom at last to give up on sleep altogether and take his body-wash so he could don the whites that had been laundered and waited for him on the edge of the ironing board. Because he was up that early and dressed that early, he was the first one of all those who lived on Sal Mal Lane to read the news about unrest at the University of Peradeniya, on the main campus tucked into the hills of Kandy. And because he was about to play the most important cricket match of his life, this news was read swiftly and discarded equally swiftly as he turned to the last page of the paper, the sports page, to read what might have been written about him.
“Is there anything about you in the paper?” Devi asked, yawning and stretching as she came out onto the veranda, still dressed in her red pajama shorts and top.
“No,” Nihil replied cheerfully, “today they have just mentioned that the match is taking place, but tomorrow there will be for sure.”
“You’ll have to play really well to get into the paper,” Devi said.
“I will,” he replied.
“You look like you will,” she said, taking in the determined face and neat lines before her. She grinned at him. If ever there was going to be a star batsman, surely this was he. “I’m going to get ready then,” she said, fully awake, and went back inside. She returned a few moments later, removing the brush from her mouth long enough to mumble through a mouthful of toothpaste-laced spit, “Bettuh go an’ wake Mitter Nilesh!”
“I’m sure they are already up,” Nihil said, but went out anyway, practicing one stroke then another with an imaginary bat as he walked, careful not to let any part of either gate, his own or the Nileses’, brush his crisp clothing. He listened to the chirping of the early-morning birds and hesitated a moment before he knocked softly on their door. He hoped he hadn’t woken them up.
“We’re up! We’re up!” Kala Niles said, throwing open the door. “Papa has been up since five o’clock!”
Mr. Niles was not in his seat. Kala Niles told Nihil that he was in his room getting dressed in the clothing he wore to weddings and funerals. Nihil could hear Mrs. Niles trying to dissuade him from putting on a tie, too, reminding him of the heat of these March months and other discomforts he might experience were he to be buttoned up quite so tightly.
“All right, Uncle, I’ll go and wake up my family,” Nihil called out so Mr. Niles might hear him. “Only Devi is up there.”
On his way back he met both Raju and Lucas, who were also already dressed for a game that was not going to start for another several hours.
“I’ll take Lucas and give him a cup of tea then, that way you can go and wake up the others,” Raju offered magnanimously.
Lucas grinned, exposing his mostly toothless gums. He had never been in a private wheeled vehicle before and he could not tell if the excitement he felt had to do with that or the match itself. “Okay Sir Mr. Raju, Lucas will come with you,” he said, as he hurried behind Raju, feeling a little uncomfortable in his wedding trousers, though they miraculously still fit him.
Whatever came afterward, Nihil would remember that day exactly as it was, perfect from start to finish.
First, there was that morning of readiness, of what seemed like an entire neighborhood up early and excited for him, and then the drive to the match, the Morris Minor in front, the van behind. There was the arrival at the school gates, and Kadalai himself, the old man who was the undisputed lead fan of the team, his toothless mouth grinning with delight, bowing low as he waved the security guard away and swung the gate wide open for Ado! This is one of our cricketers! then shutting it behind them. There was Mr. Niles, who had decided that he could not simply sit in a parked car, no, he had to walk, no matter how long it took him, up to the single set of stands, Mr. Herath holding him up on one side, Suren on the other, he wanted to sit with the group. And when they had walked under the arches, around the basketball courts, past the pool, and onto the open field, there were the perfectly trimmed green oval grounds lined with its white boundary and, best of all, the small crowd that had shown up for the game. Boys from both schools lingered in groups and singles, and here and there Nihil could see the flashes of color that told him that a few girls, too, had come to the game, and that made him feel instantly both nervous and exhilarated.
Later, at the nets, he bowled to a few other cricketers, batted balls bowled to him, and then it was time for the coin toss. Nihil sat for a long time, present but not playing, ready but not called out to play. He watched the game unfold, his spectators, his family, even his heroes forgotten. For now there were just thirteen cricketers on the field, two bats and a single red leather ball flying. The question of whether he would be brought in to play did not cross his mind; there was no other eventuality but that he would find himself at the crease, bat in hand, taking his stance, waiting. He remembered Mr. Niles’s faith in him and it made him smile.
As the day wore on Devi came by, bright as a canary in a yellow puff-sleeved dress with a blue sash around her waist that she had borrowed from Rashmi and that therefore hung a little long on her. “Amma sent me with a sandwich for you,” she said.
Nihil shooed her away, embarrassed as the other players grinned and imitated her singsong voice. “I don’t need a sandwich! The team gets their own lunch.”
“Yes, but she said to give it,” Devi said, unperturbed. “We have all had lunch. Here, take it.”
“Nangi, will your Amma send him icy chocs too?” the batsman sitting next to Nihil asked Devi. He was already wearing batting pads and balanced his bat between his legs.
“No,” she said, realizing at last that they were making fun of her. She hopped down from the railing where she had been standing and returned to her parents. “Those boys are bullying Nihil,” she said.
“Bullying? Why bullying?” Raju asked. He was lifting each arm and fanning himself with a folded paper bag, and he looked like he might be felled by the heat at any moment, but his voice was full of power; he was available and ready to rescue Nihil from his tormenters.
“Not bullying, I’m sure,” Mr. Niles said, “probably just teasing because the little one went over. Boys are like that.”
Mr. Herath, who had looked up when Devi returned, went back to reading over a stack of reports he had brought with him. “Tell me when he’s up to bat,” he murmured to Suren, who was sitting next to him.
“I would never go down there,” Rashmi declared, though she sounded as though she wished she had been asked to carry the sandwich, which had been returned, to Nihil.
“My god, I would definitely go,” Rose said. “Aunty, nex’ time send me!” And she playfully squeezed Mrs. Herath’s upper arm.
Mrs. Herath laughed and smacked Rose’s knee, saying, “Stop it, child, you must behave.”
“The game is starting again!” Suren said. “Nihil has still not come off the bench.”
“There’s time,” Mr. Niles said, looking sanguine and cool despite the extra clothing he was wearing; Mrs. Niles had lost the fight over his tie as well as his suit jacket. He tipped the brim of the straw hat he had on, lifted his voice, and artfully coaxed Mr. Herath away from his reports and engaged him in a conversation about work, the work he, Mr. Niles, had once done as a government agent as well as the work that Mr. Herath now did with the Ministry of Education.
While his band of fans waited for him to emerge, Nihil continued to observe the game. On a difficult pitch where the ball had little swing and bounced unevenly, the batsmen were not scoring. That is, his side was not scoring. The afternoon wound on with far too many forward defenses, the bat planted on the pitch, rendering the ball impotent but neither scoring nor getting a player out, and single runs, until another young player took the field. In an innings that included three boundaries and several showy cuts past point, the scoreboard began to sparkle. Looking back, the game was, in many ways, and despite the day yet remaining, already decided by the time Nihil was called up to bat. Yet in equally as many ways, there were chances to lose it, and he rested on his laurels, having avoided doing that.
“Herath! You’re up!” the captain called, finally, though there was no need for the reminder, he was the last batsman left, and transformed Nihil from being a boy like every other boy into being a boy who had played for college. If he never played another game, if he sat on the bench for the rest of his school career, he would still be that, still remembered by the cricket-mad score-keepers and coaches and prefects and Kadalai and, most of all, most of all, by the mismatched group watching from the stands: Mr. Niles, Mrs. Niles, Kala Niles, Lucas, Raju, his sisters, his brother, his parents, and, sandwiched between them and beside themselves with giggly excitement, Rose and Dolly.
Nihil made his first walk from the pavilion to the sidelines, and from there he strolled casually, as if he had all the time in the world, to the crease, savoring each second. It was exactly as he had imagined it would be. The glance over his shoulder to the right and then the left, taking in the placements, the boys on the field at silly mid on, third slip, and deep mid wicket, the run up of the bowler, who was taking his mark again as he waited, and the sound of the crowd, not a crowd like the one at the big match, but a crowd nonetheless and one that was cheering for him. For him!
The pitch when he reached it was hard. There was a high but even bounce and although he had practiced before on just such a pitch with just such a bounce, he was cautious. He tried to concentrate, seeing not only the bowler but the ball, picturing its polished side angled one way and not the other, picturing the seam side catching the airflow, making it spin this way and not that. Still, the ball came at him much more quickly than he expected, the bat felt heavy in his hands, and suddenly every boy around him seemed to have turned into a giant. No matter, they cheered, out there in the stands, every time he met the ball and hit it, though he was yet to score and though even his hits were few thanks to the consideration of the senior player across from him who ensured that he, not Nihil, remained on strike as often as possible, artfully hitting a single with every last ball of an over so he could cross the pitch and bat, again, until Nihil became comfortable.
Around him the field changed and changed again as the captain of the opposing team tried first a fast bowler then a medium pacer. Each time Nihil and his teammate stood firm. Each time the ball was hit, Nihil did not miss a beat, running when a run was safe, running again if two runs were possible, but staying close, his bat inside the crease as soon as he crossed the pitch. And as the game went on, as the bowlers crossed from side to side and the field rearranged itself and he and his partner met in the middle and exchanged tips and cautions and returned to their wickets, something wonderful happened to Nihil: the game became a game again. He relaxed. His shoulders lost their tightness, his gloved hands their anxiety, and his mind its worry.
Mr. Niles’s words rang in his ears: Long ago, he was just a boy like you.
He had dreamed of hitting sixers or driving boundaries and he had imagined that such moments would come once he had the power to hit the ball hard enough, but standing there that day, Nihil realized that strength had far less to do with playing the game well than mind did. Did he have the necessary inner quiet that would help him separate the tricky delivery from the easy one, that would give him the ability to time, not force, the shot, to know that at exactly the right time with exactly the right delivery, grace could take a ball farther and faster than brute force?
He did. And he did again and twice more before play was called off for the day. He took his time walking over to his partner and then set off at a slow jog back to the pavilion as the spectators poured out of the stands and he did not mind, not one bit, that the fan running first and fastest was none other than his sister, a streak of golden yellow, the small but significant comet in his life, the one who had stayed safe so he could play cricket.
© Ru Freeman. Excerpt from On Sal Mal Lane. Copyright © 2013 by Ru Freeman. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org <http://www.graywolfpress.org> .