Chiranthi Rajapakse

This is how the tourist brochures describe it: “A beautiful island with blue skies.”

When you live here you don’t look for the blue in the sky every morning. You look for grey, for blue tinged with the heaviness of cloud, you look for signs that the day will not be one of unremitting, ceaseless sun, that it will not be a day perfect for sitting by the sea, but a dull, overcast day good for walking – walking and standing and waiting in a place where waiting has become a part of life. 

You wake at five. At that time the power cuts haven’t kicked in. There is tea but no milk because milk powder disappeared from the shops a while ago. You use a wood fire now because you have run out of gas and supply has been erratic for weeks. You remember how the blue flame used to emerge when you switched on the gas cooker and how you took it for granted then. 

You are at the gas depot by six. It hasn’t even opened yet, but there are already people before you. You take your place in the queue with your empty blue gas cylinder before you on the ground, and unfold your umbrella. You forgot to bring water. As the day goes on and the sun climbs higher and higher, your clothes stick to your body, you wipe the sweat away again and again. But then the sun rises at an angle so that even the umbrella cannot shield you any longer and there is no hiding from the sky. 

You can see one of your neighbours a few places ahead of you in the queue.  Standing behind you is an old man with white hair; he could be around 70 years old. He looks tired.  You wonder why he is here, doesn’t he have children to wait in the queue for him? Isn’t that what children are for. 

Yesterday an old man died after waiting several hours to get fuel. He was the third man to die that way. You don’t know his name. It was announced on the news. The same bulletin where your president said that he was grieving for the people of Ukraine. You crane your neck forward trying to get a glimpse of the shop, to see how fast or slow the queue is moving, to see whether there is gas at all. You get a glimpse of the dirty blue gas tanks, the squat ugly things that were just a necessary part of life before all this started, before life fell apart, and you feel relief.

The old man behind you sighs and shifts from one foot to another. You glance back over your shoulder, hoping he’s not going to collapse too. You don’t want anyone dying here before you get your gas. 

A few weeks ago, the prime minister said there was no fuel shortage, the public was being misled by malign forces. So, the old man died in vain then; he killed himself. Why did no one tell him he had no reason to die? 

The politician’s sons go on holiday to the seaside when they are blue, while in a queue a man dies waiting for fuel, a man who drove a three-wheeler, a man who was seventy-six years old, a man whose name we do not know.

The day wears on. Someone turns back for a moment and catches your eye. Her name is Ajantha and she lives several houses away from you. In better times, you have exchanged food and recipes and mutual worries about children. You are glad to see her even though you are too far away to talk. You don’t use a mobile phone, not like your children, so you cannot stare at a screen and scroll down endlessly as they do – looking, looking – for what? The queue shuffles forward slowly. You are still outside the depot premises, the queue snakes its way onto the road outside. You can see Ajantha entering the premises and hope blooms inside you.

A murmur runs through the waiting a crowd, turning soon into a rumble of unease and anger. Gas ivarai. Gas is over. Come tomorrow. 

You don’t want to believe it. You stand there as the queue breaks apart into fragments, into angry knots of people. Aparade. We waited so long. The old man behind you sits down on the ground, and rests his head on the empty gas tank as if he will never get up again. 

Someone takes your arm. It’s Ajantha. She is angry, you hold on to each other. It is a relief at least to have company in your anger. She slides something into your bag. A silver foil packet that crinkles, encased in a familiar blue covering. Milk powder. ‘The supermarket got milk powder today, it’s all sold out now, but the security guard there is my cousin sister’s daughter, she kept two packets for me. Take one, you have children.’ She tells you all this in a conspiratorial whisper as if she is giving you gold dust, which perhaps she is. 

You cannot divide a gas tank. But at least there is this. 

You find a three wheeler to go home, one of the few that are not in a fuel queue. As the wheeler turns onto your lane, the still empty gas tank clanking against your knee, you see the boys gathered around a sign board. The blue signboard with the President’s surname emblazed on it in white letters. The signboard was put up when the government came into power, many street names changed then, the name of the President and his family appearing as if by magic all over the country. 

The boys are pasting over the letters on the name board, replacing it with the old name for the lane. They are doing it silently but methodically, working together to erase the now unwanted name. Usually, you would shout at them. Hooligans, with whose permission are you doing that? But today you do not. You smile, just a little. 

In the city in front of the blue sea, miles away, a young girl releases a paper kite. It circles the blue sky, dips and rises in the wind, its tail of blue and white tissue trailing behind, the words written on the kite blazing out for all to see. Gedara yanna. Go home. The words that started as a whisper a few weeks ago and have grown like a tidal wave, gathering more and more people, fed by power cuts and gas queues and the impossibilities of trying to stay alive. 

If you look up, you might see the kite. But you cannot afford to look up, you have to go home, you have things to do before the power is cut today, and tomorrow you have to wake up early again and wait for the gas that might not come.  

Blue is the colour of the election posters.. A red flower emerging from a blue sky. Blue for the colour you used to mark every time elections came around. Meanwhile, the kite moves in ever widening circles, dancing and moving, drawing in more and more people like a tidal wave – a wave that will end where no one knows–the kite moves across the island – this island of beautiful blue skies. Kapuvath ley nil paatai. If you cut me my blood will be blue. 

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