A Good Citizen
This short story won second place in the English Language Short Story competition at The National Literary Competition in Sri Lanka
he bird sitting on the eggs in her nest was disturbed on seeing the stealthily approaching boy. She recognized him as the one who comes regularly to peep into her nest. She knew that he visited most of the nests in this marshy strip of land. He has been harmless, but yet she felt alarmed as he drew closer.
Sunil, creeping towards the nest, interested in the eggs and even more in the tiny helpless chicks that will eventually emerge from them. Yes, he has his catapult in his hip pocket. But it was only to knock down a Mango, a Kaju, a bunch of Rambutang or any other fruit from a tree, and sometimes to take a shot at some far-away target. Never has he aimed his catapult at a living thing. As he reaches the nest, the mother bird unable to bear it any longer, flies away with the speed of an arrow, and Sunil peeps into the nest through the foliage. He is disappointed. The eggs are not hatched yet. His desire to see the tiny, helpless chicks has grown each day. Now he could only take his hopes to the next nest.
The marsh by the river, stretching behind the shanty dwellings, was an undeclared sanctuary for birds, especially for migratory species. And there was no scarcity of nests for Sunil, who was a shanty dweller. He had named the marshes BIRDY LAND, after DISNEY LAND. When he withdrew from the bush, the bird perched on a mango branch, chirping in alarm, flew down to her nest. Going along the familiar path to the next nest Sunil thought about his classroom that day. The teacher wrote the heading for an essay on the blackboard, which said,
''Listen children, write a nice essay under this heading, and bring it tomorrow. Sunil please read the heading of the essay.”
Sunil promptly stood up and read the heading. ''A GOOD CITIZEN."
But yet, he could not seriously think about the essay. He should think up some material to compose it before he goes home in the evening.
Who, in fact is a good citizen? He wondered as he went to the next nest.
All this was happening on the marshy side of the river. On the far side, an engine in a factory, owned by a company was making a terrible noise. A stream of polluted, bubbling and odorous liquid poured from an outlet into the lazily flowing water. The piercing putrid smell of rotting organisms were spreading around the area. A kingfisher perched on a branch bent down towards the river was watching, unmoving. Some fish were floating with discarded polyethylene bags, plastic bottles, packaging, and other waste. The kingfisher knew that they were carcasses of fish, dead by poisoning. Disappointed, it made a beeline to some other tree down the river.
On his side of the marshes, Sunil heard the sound of a car. It came not from the garbage-dumping site of the municipality, but from the road leading to the main road. He knew the car was a Datsun or a Toyota, and not an old car. Intrigued and alert, Sunil went towards the unusual happening. A black car was moving to a covered spot. He watched the car come to a stop. Several minutes passed, but nobody emerged from it. Evidently, whoever was in the car, wanted to stay hidden. Sunil moved closer, and he could see an elderly gentleman in the driver's seat, wearing a black coat, unbuttoned and a white shirt underneath could be seen. A dark tie was hanging, the knot loosened. Sunil crept closer to have a better look at him.
Close up, the man had a tough, crafty look. Sunil strongly felt that he had seen him before. Then he saw the wound in the man's left arm. A handkerchief was tied over the wound, and that too was soaked in blood. The man pulled out a bundle of currency notes from a coat pocket. He threw it on the seat beside him and from the other pocket he pulled out a pistol. Sunil knew it was a real weapon. When he took a bottle of liquor, Sunil knew that he was witnessing something serious. After gulping a drink of the liquor, the man took out a notebook and started writing. Sunil felt for his catapult. It was there, in his hip pocket and he felt secure. He wanted to comprehend what he was witnessing. A man, injured and in a desperate mood, consuming liquor, a bundle of currency being thrown about, a revolver, foreign liquor - Sunil knew that it was VIOLENCE, CORRUPTION and the UNDERWORLD. All of them do not promote but destroy the Peace, Nature, Beauty and Life of Birdy Land.
The man stopped writing, took up the gun, had a long look at it and continued writing - what could it be - Sunil wondered. In a flash he knew. It would be a suicide attempt. If so, it is the moral duty of a good citizen to prevent it. But what could he do? The man seemed injured and drunk. Again, Sunil remembered his classroom.
The teacher had asked him another question.
''Well Sunil, tell us, are you a good citizen?"
With a smile to his friends, he had replied, ‘‘Yes teacher, I am a very good citizen.''
As Sunil watched the man in the car, finish writing before taking another big gulp of liquor. He reached for the gun. It was Sunil's moment of decision. Here was the challenge to be a good citizen. He liked to imagine the joy of success and he had faith in his simple weapon, the catapult.
He must stop this suicide.
The man looked almost lovingly at the pistol and slowly pointed it at his temple. Sunil grabbed the catapult at the crucial moment. As he took out the catapult he picked up a pebble - a suitable missile for his mission. Like a bowman loading the bow by pulling back the bowstring, he pulled the rubber bands of the catapult and released the missile at the pistol. At the burst of the shot, the missile hit the barrel of the pistol making it fly from the man's hand. The bullet went astray, shattering a glass in the car. Uttering a common obscenity, the man looked around to understand what had happened. Finally he saw the missile that had failed his suicide attempt. Picking up the missile and the fallen gun, he stepped out of the car and looked around for the culprit.
Who had done it?
Sunil, crouching behind a bush, still and silent as a rock, was afraid that the man would start shooting into the jungle all around. Yet he felt the pleasure of taking part in a thrilling scene that could have been out of a jungle movie. He was elated. As the man understood the intention of the person who had prevented his suicide, his anger subsided. He went back to the car and sat in the driver's seat keeping the gun out of sight, and leaving the door invitingly open. Sunil understood that they stood on common ground and he accepted the invitation. With the catapult in hand, he stepped out of his hiding place and walked up to the car. The man reclining in the seat carefully examined the youth coming towards him and then smiled.
''What are you doing here? ''His voice was rough.
"Bird watching, sir."
"Then why do you interfere in my affairs? Do you know who I am?"
"Well, who do you think I am?"
For a while, Sunil was thoughtful. "Sir, you look like someone from the Law courts.
"Oh.” The man paused. “And how did you know that?"
"It was a gentleman like you who asked the judge to send my father to prison."
''You are correct. I am Jayaweera, the famous lawyer of the underworld [gangsters] I appear in the courts for the underworld to get them go free. All these years I worked for them. I know all their secrets, now they want to kill me."
Lawyer Jayaweera showed Sunil his wounded arm.
''See, the first time they missed. Next time they won't but before that I will do it myself."
"Then Sir, why destroy such a valuable life? "
"Boy, that is the way with life. There is no turning back. You are born, you live your life, and then you die. That is the way of life. But you will die only as you had lived. That is the law of life. So you get on to the correct track then it will be fine. So, leave this place AT ONCE… GO AWAY NOW."
But Sunil stood up for his principles.
''Sir, it is not right. As a good citizen I can not leave you like this."
"The decision is yours, my boy. You choose your limits, and you should stick to it and also bear the consequences. Don’t hold me responsible for your life or death. The underworld is trying to kill me. As you can see, the first attempt failed but they always succeed. No one can change my decision. You make yours."
Then the lawyer patted Sunil's head affectionately and turned back again to his bottle. Sunil realized his limits and made his decision. With the last look at the man he had saved from sure death, he turned away to creep back into the bush.
A motorcycle carrying two men came along the dirt road and entered the jungle. They concealed the vehicle in a bush and pulling out guns from their black jackets. They disappeared into the jungle. Quickly, they tracked down Jayaweera's car. Sunil crouching behind a tree saw them separating to close in on Jayaweera from two directions - moving from tree to tree like ghosts. At shooting distance, one of them made a call on his mobile phone to someone he addressed as ''Boss'' while keeping his prey in sight. It was a scene directly from a crime film. But this time, Sunil was not an actor, but a lone spectator. The predator came close to the prey. Gripping his weapon, he aimed it with both hands. Sunil covered his mouth suppressing a cry. The gun fired, and Jayaweera's body fell out of the car. Sunil stood up petrified, the catapult gripped in his hand. The killers crept back into the jungle.
Gradually it began to dawn on Sunil that there are other priorities and criteria of behavior and values on human life, other than what he has come to know, learn, and understand. And that you yourself alone, have to decide which, when, where and how to apply them.
Tomorrow the newspapers will report the killing of the well-known lawyer. Jayaweera. But, he had prevented a dead body of a 12-year-old boy from lying there with him. A man who hated his own life had a bit of love for a shanty dwelling boy. Only Sunil and the inhabitants of Birdy Land would know that. Maybe the birds could decide who was the good citizen the dead man or the living boy. But maybe, the birds have their own code of ethics and priorities on life.
The birds who had flown away at the gunshots, came back to settle on the trees and their nests. To finish Sunil's duty as a good citizen, he counted the coins in his pockets. He found it was just sufficient to make a telephone call to complete his mission. Sunil felt happy with himself and the essay he will be writing tonight by the light of an oil lamp. Pocketing the few coins, he thought of the shortest path to the public telephone on the main road. Some day when his father comes home from the prison, Sunil will ask him the name of the lawyer who had condemned him to the prison.
The shanty dwellers that had gone to work were coming home. The factory across the river had stopped its pollution for the day. The mother bird settled on her eggs for the night. She was happy. She hoped the young man with the kind face and silent feet would come again tomorrow because she felt the most wonderful event in the whole world was happening under her soft warm plumage. She knows he would like to witness the birth of life too. BW
A group of writer-publishers have got together to form and register as an "Author Publishing Co-operative Society”.
The first such Limited Liability Co Operative Society in our district in Sri Lanka. This is a very important and fruitful venture for us.
My entering Banana Writers is appreciated and valued by my associates- so THANKS to all of you people.