Published: July 10th 2011March 5th 2011
Delft is the north most point of Sri Lanka closest to India. A ferry operates between Delft and mainland once a day. You can go into the in the morning and catch the ferry back at 3pm or stay in the Island overnight. There are no hotels in Delft but arrangements can be made amongst the locals to hire a room. Those with foreign passports need Sri Lanka Ministry of Defence approval to visit Jaffna and an additional clause inserted to get permission to go to the Islands. This is offered on request so please remember to ask, if not you will only be visiting the town of Jaffna as Peter nearly did. His letter did not include the Islands but on this occasion he was lucky. A crew from the Sri Lanka Rupavahini television corporation was there to film people travelling with ease to the Island. What better opportunity than to show the world a white face amongst them? So Peter got through.
Whilst we were waiting for the ferry I observed another foreigner, a stocky Australian with whom was a very tall and much younger girl; she seemed to be his partner. They were being taken by a Navy official right up to the ferry port where we were not yet allowed to go. The old man and his young partner moved with such confidence and authority, they lead me to believe that they were perhaps with the television company. What was striking about the couple was the girl, looked an identical lookalike to my daughter. So much so that when I first spotted her I thought, Hello! What on earth is Savannah (My daughter) doing here with an old man? Savannah is just entering her teens whilst this girl looked in her twenties but that apart the similarities were uncanny. I have this habit of observing people closely and therefore sometimes judgment sets in. I thought she was far too young to be his partner.
There were about hundred people in the ferry all travelling to the Island getting about their daily chores. The Australian and his partner appeared to be there as part of the film crew and hence leaving us feeling like the only visitors. Almost one hour later we reached the shores of the Island and there were Navy officials ready to greet us when we docked. The Captain came right up to Peter and the Australian and shook hands with them, “Welcome to Delft Island! You are most welcome here. Please feel free to ask for any assistance from us.” He vomited it all out in one heave but with the broadest smile the Navy could flaunt. By this time I had concluded that the Australian must be of great importance to receive such a reception. The cameras circled Peter and the Australian making the girl self-conscious. The other travellers in the ferry simply went about their own lives allowing us foreigners to absorb the attention. We were left at the docks to introduce ourselves to each other.
Peter was probably glad to see another lighter shade amongst us dark skins and held out his hand and greeted the Ausi. I followed suit. “Howdy Cobba!” was the returning gesture of the blue eyed sixty year old James, as we got to know him. He was in fact not part of the film crew. He had brought his daughter to introduce her to her roots. He behaved with such confidence that he led everyone to believe that he was of importance. And of course the television people took his presence for granted as he could contribute towards making a good news film. ‘Freedom,’ who was his daughter and was not glad to be there for some obscure reason, “What an exceptionally beautiful name,” I commented thereby forcing the first smile of the day on her face as she went on to explain the meaning in Sinhala, “ni-de-ha-se,” she said in total approval of my compliment.
The cab that Fr. Dixon had hired to see the Island was in fact a sand tipper which had ample room for more than the four of us. It turned out that James and his daughter, Freedom had visited the Island without any prior plans and therefore quite naturally Fr, Dixon offered them to join us on our expeditions and later on the offer was also extended for them to have lunch with us. James most gratefully accepted the invitation looking up to thank God for such small blessings and Freedom simply followed with shyness. To have two foreigners at the back of the sand tipper was ample subject matter for Rupavahini to change its course and itinerary, so they instructed the film crew to follow us around. If you get hold of a Rupavahini film introducing Delft Island, you will find us all as the main stars of that event.
You will remember that in my introduction to this blog I mentioned that to write about the people I meet is as important as introducing the beauty of this land. My experience of Delft Island is not so much seeing natural beauty, of course there were some great places that we visited which will be evident from the photographs. However what I am about to tell you about James and his story is probably the most amazing tale I have ever come across and I would like to remember this Island thus. You meet people in your life and make judgments. But now that I have got to know James, I firmly believe that he is an angel sent down into a mortal body to save this world of this ignorance.
Some eighteen years ago James who was in Australia suddenly got a vision to travel. James was a well-to-do salesman who had enough money to throw and that he did. One day he was reading a novel and this picture of himself and another woman on a bike landed in his memory like seeing a motion picture. He says that he didn’t at the time know where it took place or when. But this vision changed his life. He was so fixated with this vision that nothing could stop him. This Australian, then perhaps in his early forties made his way to Sri Lanka for no apparent reason but on holiday, then to the North to Jaffna and to the Island Delft without further ado. He had not been to this country or to Jaffna and as to how he was directed to Delft I have no idea. But this vision brought him here with no explanations whatsoever. I have never been able to, comprehend how this happened.
James, who might have been a frivolous young man at the time, came all the way to Delft and met this young girl. James always travels by motorbike as he had done this time round with his daughter. So no doubt he impressed this young waitress with his money, looks, the bike and his ability to take her abroad. It is not known whether Freedom was conceived from this brief liaison, but the name Freedom and her age has forced another judgment on my part. However a proposal was made for marriage. Not by James, but by the young girl. James, whom I referred to as an angel, certainly knew what was right and what was wrong. He must have felt at that time that leaving the girl behind was wrong. He said, ‘yes’ looked up to that same God and said again, ‘Oh God! Help please help,’ and God did help as he always does—not in the way you anticipate help.
In these parts just as in India and of course now to some minor extent in Sri Lanka, there is a caste system. According to James, the young girl, now his good wife was of the lowest of the low castes in Delft. To give you examples of how life in old days became hard to such communities please allow me to recite the story of the wells. In such communities there were three wells to draw water from any vicinity. One of them for the lowest caste and had they dared use any water from the others, the penalty was death. The well that is available to them is muddy and shallow and plagued with disease and infested with parasites. They have to wake up at 4am or thereabouts to steal themselves to a better well for drinking water. Such are the deprivation of basic human rights conditioned by society itself that would have prompted the young girl to have begged for James’s hand in marriage. For she knew that was the one chance like a lottery that she could not afford to miss in life. It was her one chance to live a life of dignity.
Her problems weren’t over with a simple ‘Yes’ from James. Wherever in Jaffna, James took her on his bike the authorities stopped them and instructed James to leave the local woman behind. Eventually James had to marry her then & there and produce the marriage certificate whenever they were stopped. On his return to Colombo there was one last obstacle where the Army had retained the girl into confinement and instructed James to carryon. James looked up at his God and said once again, “Thank you God! For getting me out of that mess, now she is in your hands not mine!” and rode off into the sunset for the next two hours thinking he was well rid of her. Only to find the girl catch up with him on the pillion of an Army soldier’s bike shouting, “James, James, got through, I got through!”
James and his good wife live in England and have three children. Freedom has moved back to Australia for further education and also fallen in love with a young man. “I’ll kill the bastard when I meet him,” says angel James. I bet when he meets him he will sob like a child and put his arms round him and then go on to quoting the St. James’s Bible as he always did in our conversations. Later in the eighteen brief years of Freedom’s life, James has returned to Delft many times to save his wife’s family from their cast predicament. His Mother-in-law and his Brothers-in-law and many others are all abroad now. All these attempts at rescue were made during the thickest times of war not considering the iminent risk to his life. His last attempt was to bring his Father-in-law back to Australia. He was old, weak and suffered with elephantitis in one leg. It was the size of ten legs. He managed to get him to a point from where he was told that the man can only be transported by ambulance from there on. So James arranged and paid for the ambulance and left on his bike to the other end to await him. He never arrived; the army had concluded that it was a waste of a seat in the ambulance to allow this man to get to Colombo during this period of war when many injured people who were younger could be given that lifeline. They had calculated that the man would not have lasted another month. James’s Father-in-law died soon after in the Island of Delft.
That evening when we got back from the Island, James decided to stay on and Freedom would not have it. She was heading back to Colombo. All James said was, “Do you have enough money?” to which her reply was, “Yes”. I couldn’t help wondering how this young girl was going to make it to Colombo on her own. Delft is what I refer to as the ends of the earth of Sri Lanka and Colombo is a long way away. Not seeing this as a good move, Peter and I inadvertently made some suggestions to James saying that perhaps we should meet up in Jaffna for a drink in the evening. This prompted James to change his mind and so invited us for a drink and a chat at his motel. It appears that James never did apply for an MOD certificate to take his daughter to Jaffna. He just got on his bike with her and headed north. At the Elephant Pass sentry point he was stopped by the military and sent back as he did not have the MOD approval. James simply manoeuvred his way out of the main road and headed west into the jungle and then made his way up north through the thick jungle on his bike and with his daughter. This amazed me about the bloke. This jungle is infested with undiscovered landmines. I have heard one go off and it gives an eerie feeling of death. A sound so hollow, that it echoes the ending of life. Such a mine can lift a motorbike with two people thirty feet up in the air and blow them to smithereens and this man decides to take his young daughter into the very thick of it. At one point, in the thick jungle the bike fell into a rut and threw both of them off it. There were no injuries to Freedom although James insists that we should not make him laugh as it hurts too much; this minor inconvenience of breaking a rib is dismissed by James.
To have known James was a privilege. The very next day towards the evening James had made an attempt to travel back to Colombo on the main road to Elephant Pass when the security asked him how the hell he got into Jaffna without a pass in the first place. He said to them that he had got through from the Mannar rout where the security was lenient. “Well then go back the same way you came! Because we are not letting you through from here,” they said. Two hours later my phone rang, “Howdy Cobba!” was the greeting. He went on to explain what had happened and wondered whether I could help. Since I knew the Brigadier in charge of Jaffna who had already helped Peter with his MOD application, I thought I could use this point of contact to help James out, but I was reluctant to ask for a second favour unless I absolutely needed to. Therefore I asked James to follow us on the Mannar rout and should there be any great problem I would have called the good Brigadier.
But what happened that day made me laugh no end. James and his plucky nature was the best passport through any security point. He would ride his bike up to a sentry point and go, “Howdy Cobba! how’s the weather treating you today. Are you good?” put his thumbs up at the man then point in the direction of my jeep which was now approaching the security point and ride off. The poor Army chap wouldn’t have understood a word he said, as they only speak Sinhala. By the time he came to his senses, looked back and forth between James and my jeep, James and his daughter would be a mere speck in the dusty horizon of that long and straight road. Then I would say, “Don’t worry he is with us,” to which he would reply, “Can I have the MOD certificate for him please?” “He has it, didn’t you ask from him?” The poor chap didn’t know how to solve this problem and released us as soon as possible. This incident was repeated at least four times and once we got close to Mannar James thanked us and headed back down south whilst we went to the Island of Mannar.
I have met very few people like James. In fact there is only one James. He lived with a certain sureness of his state of consciousness that he seldom relied on judgment. I call him a truly spiritual man for he is so in tuned with this Universe that nothing could stop his intentions—not even landmines. Later he wrote me a letter in which he mentioned some predictions about me. They were all true.
Later I discussed the subject of James with others and how he came to Sri Lanka to singlehandedly save so many people from social depravity. And one particular friend, a staunch Buddhist put this interesting theory to me.
He said, “Imagine there is rebirth after death. Then James might have escaped the cast system from Delft in a previous life. It would make sense then that he came back to save his kith & kin from this hell. It could be that even his children are such escapees.”
Hmm... I thought; such is the search for the Sound of Salé Wöd.