The Boy Who Was Born under a Comet
For a few moments, the shop is empty and the street outside falls silent – uncharacteristically so for this hot and hectic, moiling corner of the city. There is no traffic. No parked cars reverberating with the sound of bass from oversized customised speakers. No snatched excerpts of a passing argument or sirens howling their songs of warning and discontent. Not even birdsong. For once, silence, pure in its totality.
The man leaves his place behind the counter. He opens the door and feels the breeze on his face. It is spring and his eyes are sore and dry.
He closes them and lets the first real sun of the year warm his face. He has been here for too many winters.
He tilts his head back and feels his neck ache. He rolls it from side to side and hears tiny bones grinding against one another. Winter here offers little but short days and long, lonely nights of dank darkness. A time of wet coats and steamed-up windows. Long shadows. Lights in the distant tower blocks. Strangers coughing as they rush by.
He is glad it is spring. If nothing else, he is relieved to remember that it is the same sun under which he was raised. He thinks now of all the other people he once knew, and whether they too are looking at the sun at this moment.
An empty can disturbs the silence as it rolls off the curb and into the gutter and he opens his eyes and sees two boys walk around the corner of the flats.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran was exceptionally underweight when he was born. Like a tiny bird, some said. His father held him in one hand and declared to his wife: This boy will either be a genius destined for great things or he won’t last the week. His fate is with the gods now.
His father would repeat this story many times over the years, adding and embellishing new details with each re-telling, such as how his son had been born during a violent storm, or how the midwife had once delivered royalty, or how exactly one a minute after his arrival, a glorious comet streaked a phosphorescent trail of purple across the sky.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran made it through the week, the month and the year. Proof, his father reasoned, that this son of his was destined for greatness. What a special child, to be born under a comet, he remarked. This boy will impact upon people’s lives. You’ll see.
He grew up in the south-east corner of Ceylon under the rule of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first female prime minister. It was an era of hope when hope was scarce, yet its existence was as vital as rice and fresh water. Stability was the main aspiration of many like Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s parents, who ran a small neighbourhood canteen that had wooden tables bolted to the ground and benches that seated twenty. It had a good reputation amongst the workers who frequented it, many of them choosing Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s parents’ canteen as the place to eat their sole meal of the day.
His mother and father worked sixteen-hour shifts cooking, serving and cleaning and though profits were modest, they were stable. Consequently, Raj was well dressed and well fed, though many remarked that you couldn’t tell that to look at him. His friends joked that he had the legs of a plucked bantam.
The stability would not last. A devastating socio-political storm was incoming, and it would not pass for many years. When Raj was in his second year at school, the Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – or the People’s Liberation Front – instigated insurrection.
The JVP were young and poor and lacking arms, but they were spirited and organised and had a strong following within the armed forces and amongst a handful of sympathetic and influential individuals within the government itself.
Reasoning that the heart of the power structure was not the government, but those hired to enforce the laws that penalised the poor, the JVP embarked upon a co-ordinated, if somewhat shambolic, attack on the nation’s police stations. These attacks enabled the JVP to temporarily succeed in gaining control of several remote central and southern provinces. Such changes did not occur peacefully. There was much fighting on the street. Blood was spilt. It was a period of great unease. Violence tainted the air. Violence tainted everything.
The two boys follow him back into the shop. They are mean, cold-eyed youths of an indeterminate age. One is very dark skinned and the other light. He recognises them. He knows them to live close by.
He recalls seeing the mother of the light-skinned one often. She wears see-through tops stretched over intimidating breasts and can often be heard shouting in the street. Once perhaps, she was beautiful, but now she does not seem normal in the head. Often she is drunk in daylight.
The boys stalk the shop. He watches them and glances at the chair leg that Pig-Face keeps beneath the counter. For once, he wishes Pig-Face were here, for he is unafraid of anyone, including the youngsters who terrorise the neighbourhood.
But Pig-Face is rarely around these days. He pretends to drive to the Cash & Carry but really, he is off drinking somewhere or sleeping it off, or beating his wife, or impregnating his wife, or eating or smoking.
Recently whenever his boss came to the shop to lift the takings from the till it was with a face of thunder, bad breath and body odour so strong it was sickening. He has learnt that it is best not to speak to Pig-Face when he appears in such a foul mood.
The once glorious country of Ceylon was thrust into turmoil. For several chaotic years, life stood still for those who were neither revolutionaries nor in power. Roads were closed, general movement restricted and supply lines blocked. With many of the workers forced to stay at home rather than risk arrest or being caught up in the squalls of violence that flared up, Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s parents lost their customer base and were forced to close the canteen.
Several schools in the province closed, too, as gangs of young JVP men paraded in the streets, waving machetes, flying their colours and chanting songs of protest and liberation. There was much talk of secret bomb factories and government-sponsored torture chambers awaiting those revolutionaries who they were able to capture and contain. There were rumours of beheadings of ‘the old guard’, too – those who were considered to be living in opposition to the new doctrines.
Though the original intentions of the JVP were centred on social improvement, such was their collective state of revolutionary excitement that they posed a threat to anyone who crossed their path.
Ceylon was no place to be an inquisitive child with an advanced grasp of vocabulary, so Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s parents decided to keep him indoors, where he read books and practised his penmanship. From the age of five, he was well advanced in calligraphy and literacy. He could also identify birds and insects and dinosaurs, and was adept at building elaborate constructions out of the old wooden blocks whose coloured paint had chipped away over generations of use.
Though unprepared for the waves of attacks, the beleaguered Ceylonese security forces fought back against the revolutionaries. The government opened up its secret cache of weapons, re-armed the military and sent them out into the provinces to crush the young insurrectionists.
For two weeks helicopters hovered overhead, dropping supplies and back-up forces to Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s local police station. At night, the screams and sirens and snatches of revolutionary songs kept him awake. None of it made any sense to him. Adults, it seemed, were inherently stupid. Birds and insects and dinosaurs never did this.
Soon, the government gained control of these remote areas and many of the JVP members were arrested, while those who evaded capture went underground. The country was placed under emergency rule and a stability of sorts returned. In a gesture intended to help restore harmony, Prime Minister Bandaranaike decided to imprison only the top leaders of the Marxist rebels.
Ceylon became a republic and was renamed Sri Lanka. In time, the workers began to return to the fields and factories and Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s parents opened the canteen to once again serve koththu roti and mutton mixed rice and pork kalu pol curry and eggplant pahi and potato toffee to their regular customers, many of whom said they had missed their cooking, while enquiring as to the welfare of Ponnambalam Rajasekaran, the bright young boy who was born under a purple comet and destined for great things. His parents replied that he was very well, thank you, and that he had recently started doing their accounts for them.
The boys are at the far corner of the shop, by the stock cupboard that he calls a home. It is a space just large enough to unfurl his sleeping bag in, with a small shelf for his change of clothes, his cooking spices and his books.
London is different. England is different. It is not as green as he was lead to believe and he will never get used to the weather. Even in the season that they call summer he wears a shirt and jumper. The takeaway food is bad and he cannot find anywhere that sells Sri Lankan dishes, nor does he have any money for such luxury, so he slow cooks mutton stews and vegetable curries in a single pot out the back. A large batch can last him days. He scoops up his meals with the stale pitta breads that Pig-Face lets him have free. He eats a lot of apples. He eats a lot of bananas. He reads the magazines and newspapers that they take off the shelves when they are out of date. He sleeps badly and makes journeys in his mind to all the places he once knew.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran continued to excel at school. At six, he had the reading age of a twelve-year-old; at eight, he grew restless with geometry and trigonometry and was investigating applied mathematics; at ten, he was one of the few in the village able to speak passable English and could name the capital cities of all 196 countries in the world. Every single one, alphabetically. People would come by the canteen just to test him.
Nepal, they would say.
Kathmandu, he would beam.
Constitutional capital or administrative capital?
Sucre. But everyone knows that La Paz is the administrative seat of the government.
Santiago. Too easy. Please give me another.
One man even brought an atlas.
OK little one, he said. How about the Polynesian island of Tuvalu?
Here Ponnambalam Rajasekaran would pause, close one eye for a moment, and then say: Oh – that would be Funafuti.
And what of the small Pacific island of Nuaru?
Please, you try to fool me with a trick question! The smallest republic in the world also has the distinction of being the only country not to have a capital city. So the answer is, there is no answer.
Tell us the Js.
Jakarta. Jamestown. Jerusalem.
A genius, declared the man.
I’m not finished, said Ponnambalam Rajasekaran. There’s one more: Juba.
At this, the diners who had put down their forks to hear the boy would applaud and shake their heads in wonder. Some would even give him sweets or coins, for this impromptu show was done without the precociousness normally associated with such behaviour. In fact, Ponnambalam Rajasekaran was impeccably mannered and graceful in accepting praise.
He was also good at cricket. Despite being skinny, he was still one of the best bowlers in his class, which meant he was well liked by his peers, many of whom conceded that he was different – ‘the special one’, they called him – and, as his father predicted once more to his wife, and as had been noted by several of the canteen’s diners, too, was certainly destined for greatness of some variety. The coming of the comet on the day of his birth had indicated as much.
At thirteen, he passed every examination with ease and was soon sharing classrooms with much older boys. His parents put his educational excellence down to the fact that he was an only child, and he had a good diet of fresh fish and an abundance of fruit. They were very proud of Ponnambalam Rajasekaran.
At fifteen, it was decided that he was ready for higher education – much higher. Accompanied by one of his teachers, he travelled to the capital city of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte, where he was seen by the dean of the university himself.
That morning, many villagers had come out to wish Ponnambalam Rajasekaran good luck and when he left again three months later to begin his studies, even more turned out to bestow upon him small gifts such as sugared almonds and single flowers.
Do your parents proud, Ponnambalam Rajasekaran, they said. Study hard and achieve greatness. Never forget us.
At this he smiled and bowed, then closed the train window and left, never to return.
The boys huddle together and confer. This makes him nervous. It is tense, as if the air has been sucked out of the room.
They’ve done this before and they’ve got away with it, and perhaps they’ve done this before and they’ve been caught, too, he thinks, but all that matters is that they are free to be doing it again, right now, here in this shop in south London, where he now lives in a cupboard and where, in the quieter moments of the long and lonely night, he thinks of his parents and his chest aches with a pain like none he has ever endured.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran enjoyed everything that university had to offer. He was given his own room and received a generous grant from the government, and though he found the food lacking, he soon excelled despite, being nearly a half decade younger than most of his contemporaries. His chosen electives were physics, mathematics and advanced engineering, plus he also took modules in philosophy and statistics “for fun”. He played chess and was a lively member of the debating team. He joined a club devoted to the BBC radio show Just A Minute, where they met weekly to listen to it on the World Service.
After his first year, it was decided that he would specialise in engineering. A number of government officials had already been to visit the young prodigy, who they hoped might be able to help shape the future of their country. They took him out for lunch and asked him a lot of questions.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran spent his first summer holiday staying in the affluent suburbs at the home of one his lecturers, a renowned writer and architect of a number of Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte’s most innovative and original new buildings. The lecturer gave him his own room and a key and encouraged him to see the city that was changing around them, so Ponnambalam Rajasekaran took to spending his days taking walks, swimming in the neighbourhood’s municipal pool and utilising his lecturer’s extensive home library.
Occasionally, he was invited to play a round of golf at the famous Royal Colombo Golf Club with his lecturer and a number of his fellow academic friends from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and the nearby University of Colombo. He felt at ease amongst the older men, who treated Ponnambalam Rajasekaran more or less as an equal, and he was able to converse with them on a variety of subjects, though sometimes at night he thought about his parents and the village and the canteen and the workers who gave him coins and bracelets and sugared almonds.
The one topic Ponnambalam Rajasekaran was not particularly interested in was politics; compared to the irrefutable cold truths of maths and physics, politics seemed so futile. One side was in charge, another was forced to live in subjugation; after a few years the balance would shift, roles would be reversed and another party would temporarily rise to power. Then the balance would shift back again. It was cyclical and though he believed that people were at heart essentially well intentioned, they were also slightly stupid, but that was acceptable, because most just wanted a quiet, comfortable life. It was only the power-hungry few on both sides that spoilt it for everyone else.
No. Politics was too reliant on the emotional whims and desires of men. Politics was not scientific or numerical. Politics was not fact-based, so it could never be taken seriously. Politics destroyed societies.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran was in his second year when a number of Sri Lankan soldiers were attacked and killed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the LTTE, and internationally recognised as the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers wanted to create a separate state in the north and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka. Ponnambalam Rajasekaran saw that their plans were flawed from the outset, that the Tamil Tigers were destined to fail.
He also recognised that it would be a long, messy failure punctuated by just enough pyrrhic victories to make the continued struggle feel worthwhile for all concerned. Their assassination of high-profile figures had done little to endear them to the international community beyond some in the growing Tamil diaspora, who saw their struggle as one against the power structure that had once again assumed dominance over those at the very bottom. The reputation and membership of the Tigers grew, and support was discreetly evident amongst many on campus.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran had other things on his mind – his studies and his affection for the daughter of his lecturer, a beautiful and enigmatic young lady of his own age called Kiribaba. She too was something of a genius, who, under her father’s watchful eye, had prematurely enrolled at the university in the year below him. The two began to spend time together, first studying and then informally engaged in courtship.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran had grown into a tall young man. He remained as skinny as ever but now had a full head of hair, bright, sparkling eyes and slightly protruding teeth. Kiribaba was petite and had flawless skin and Ponnambalam Rajasekaran considered her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen – the only female he had truly noticed, in fact. He vowed to marry her at the first available opportunity. He told her this. She smiled and threw her arms around him and said that she wanted to have three children by him. Why stop at three? he replied.
Many times these boys and their associates have been in the shop. They are nothing but trouble. The police have been called on several occasions. There have been broken windows, thefts, fights. His predecessor, Pig-Face’s brother-in-law, was badly beaten up and chose to instead work in a fried chicken shop several miles away.
He wishes other customers would enter the shop to disturb them, but no one comes.
One day on campus there was a commotion outside. Ponnambalam Rajasekaran looked out of the window and saw streams of men surging along the walkways and into the courtyard. They were armed and dressed in the clothes of a militia.
The door to the classroom opened and three of them ran into the room. They fired their guns into the ceiling and Ponnambalam Rajasekaran, did not think the guns were real. None of it seemed real. The men were shouting about intellectuals and traitors and the bourgeoisie, and then they were pushing desks out the way and grabbing students by their collars and their shirt fronts and their hair. Their lecturer was punched in the face and his glasses went spinning across his desk, as if in slow motion. One of the militants grabbed Ponnambalam Rajasekaran and pulled him from his seat and onto the floor and kicked him hard, and then lifted him up and pushed him out into the corridor.
He looked up to see his fellow students being ejected from their rooms, too. Gunshots rang around the building, across the campus.
In time, the students were pushed and harried onto buses and those who protested were punched and kicked or hit with the butt of the guns by men who seemed possessed by an inner force. Ponnambalam Rajasekaran was scared, but said nothing.
He watched the suburbs give way to the arid countryside and no one spoke for fear of being beaten by the men. He thought of Kiribaba and his three or more unborn children and he thought of his parents, too, and they all seemed so far away.
The students were taken far away to a building and put in small rooms. They were chained to radiators and beds and given water, but little else. Men patrolled the rooms kicking and punching anyone who spoke. Some students sobbed and others urinated where they sat. The militants never identified themselves, nor specified for what cause they were fighting.
Day turned into night and then into day again. Early in the morning, they were put back onto buses and were driven for two hours or more until they came to a prison and then the students, lecturers and university staff were put into cells. They were given rice and crackers and water and then left again.
Only then did people speak amongst themselves. Still they did not know who their captors were or why they had been imprisoned. Everyone was scared.
They were held for many weeks. In time, the academics found out a little information. Their captors were an extremist political group who blamed intellectuals for colluding with the government. None of the students had even heard of them. They did not want a ransom. They intended to keep the academics for a long time in order to convert them to their way of thinking. They said their families would be tortured and killed if they did not join them.
Those students who tried to tell the guards that they were solely studying for a better life for themselves and their families, and that some of them were peasants, humble people of the soil just like them, were badly beaten. They lost teeth and had limbs broken. There were deaths.
More weeks passed and each day, they were allowed to walk in the courtyard in the afternoon sun. One day, Ponnambalam Rajasekaran’s lecturer fell into step with him.
The lecturer said: You must get out of here.
We all must.
I know a way for a person to escape. It must be you.
Because you must go out and tell the world. Because you were born under a comet. Because you are the chosen one.
There is a guard. He has been bribed. He can arrange the escape of just one person. That person is you.
Three days later, Ponnambalam Rajasekaran was taken from his cell under the cover of darkness by the guard and lead down a corridor, through a door and out into the night.
There was a lorry waiting, with a large water tank on the back. The guard gestured for him to climb up. Ponnambalam Rajasekaran just stared back, but the guard said in, in, and then he understood.
He clambered into the water tank and the lid was closed over him. The water came up to his neck. It was warm and dark in there. To keep upright, he had to stretch his arms out so that his fingertips touched the sides of the tank. The water sloshed about. The van pulled away.
Later, there was another van, and then a bus. There was little food or sleep. At each stop there were men. Fixers. One gave him money, another took it away.
He was put on a small boat and did not see land for many days. He crossed borders. He was exhausted and confused when he went on an aeroplane for the first time. In a country that he believed to be Greece he was put in the back of a freight lorry with other men, all of them young, and they drove for days.
The lack of light and fresh air and the cigarette smoke made panic rise in his chest. They drank warm milk and urinated in bottles. They ate chocolate bars from a cardboard box.
Ponnambalam Rajasekaran reached England. He was given a small amount of money and a telephone number in London.
He was told that the voice at the end of the line would help him. He called it.
For a few days he slept on a floor in a room in a house in which there lived a transient population of men, sometimes twenty or more at any given time. One day, a fat man with a nose like a pig came and took him across the city to a shop beneath a towering block of flats. When the fat man spoke, it sounded like a gurgle and he looked at Ponnambalam Rajasekaran with contempt. He had a wife who never spoke and always looked fearful. The shop was small and sold dried goods, stale bread, alcohol, cigarettes and pornographic magazines.
The fat man took him to a cupboard at the back and said: This is where you stay. You work for me from now and if you give me grief I hand you into the bloody police. They’ll see you have no passport or papers and then that’s it. They lock you up. Then you never get out.
How much do I get paid? asked Ponnambalam Rajasekaran, but the fat man just sneered and said now you are living in England. That is your payment.
Then he pointed to a slow cooker and said you can cook your peasant food in that and use the toilet out the back, and then the fat man lit a cigarette and left.
Several years have passed and he speaks to his parents once or twice a year now. Pig-Face does not let him make calls, only receive them, and the cost is very high to his parents, who have to use a neighbour’s phone. Last time he spoke to them, they sounded so old and frail. Both his father and his mother cried. They told him it was no good back home for a special boy who was born under a comet, and that he should stay in England. He cried, too. He did not tell them that it was no good here, either – comet or no comet.
He has been in the cupboard a long time.
Now, in the moments when the shop is empty and the shelves are stacked, or in the middle of the night, when sirens and fireworks and drunks and screaming foxes keep him awake, he thinks again of Kiribaba. He wonders what became of her.
He dreams of one day earning enough money to return, so that they might be reunited. He dreams of a house and children and a life together. He has not been able to find out what happened to Kiribaba or her father. He dreams of good weather and laughter and sugared almonds.
It is as if he can see events unfolding ten seconds in the future as the boys turn and come at him together, one striding around behind the counter with purpose and the other appearing in front of him, blocking the sun’s warming rays. One has a knife in his hand.
The one behind the counter reaches for bottles of spirits and cigarettes and the one in front is waving the knife, and it’s a big knife, and Ponnambalam Rajasekaran is reaching for the chair leg, and then it is in his hand, but he feels little bravery, only self-preservation, and the weapon feels useless without intent as he swings it half-heartedly, catching the one with the knife on the shoulder, and this angers the boy, so he thrusts his blade and it rips at Ponnambalam Rajasekaran‘s chest. It cuts his jumper, cuts his shirt, cuts his skin, which opens up in an instant.
The boys are shouting something and he swings the chair leg again and it connects with the one with the knife again. It hits him hard on the side of the head this time, and he is surprised to see the boy crumple sideways, like a tree being felled. The other boy, the darker of the two, is dropping bottles and one smashes and he can smell something sharp – it is whiskey – and as he turns to the boy his chest screams in pain and he can feel his shirt wet with blood, but he steps forward, swinging the chair leg.
He misses and knocks another bottle off the shelf. He bustles the dark boy backwards and then Ponnambalam Rajasekaran is in front of the counter and he is bending down and scooping up the dropped knife from where there is blood and glass and whisky on the floor.
When the police arrive he is out the back, washing his hands at the sink by his stew pot. He hears their feet crunch across the glass and then the crackle of their radios and two voices, a man and a woman. They sound alarmed. Shocked.
He dries his hands and returns to the shop, where two folded shadows are slumped in a widening slick of liquid so red that he thinks it is quite beautiful, with the afternoon sun reflecting on its glistening surface.
Hello, he says. My name is Ponnambalam Rajasekaran. They used to call me the boy who was born under a comet.
Benjamin Myers is an award-winning novelist. His works include Beastings, Pig Iron and Richard. His new novel Turning Blue was published August 2016 by Moth/Mayfly.
Illustration by Christi du Toit