Exerpt from ‘The Arrack Diary’
The district central police station could have been the setting for a Spaghetti Western. Through the throngs of locals outside I was led into the central reception area. It was dark and hot, with the single rusting ceiling fan unable to stop the perspiration bubbling up on my skin and leaving the employees sweaty and irritable.
The few people at work were hunched over files of dog-eared papers and behind old desks curiously absent of any modern office fare. Iron grilled cells lined the right hand wall, temporarily housing drunks, beggars, and others who were less identifiable in the darkness. A white man here was something of a novelty, and boy did my entrance cause uproar. I took a seat against a volley of jeers and eyeballing.
A lifetime before, the Colonel, who had been stationed in this dusty outpost for over a year, had had his camera stolen. The event caused a sensation at the time, making headlines in the national press and involving everyone from the Government Agent to the Chief of Police. The manhunt had been huge and eventually the culprit and the camera were found, during which time the Colonel had returned to Europe.
And so it came to be that I was here, in this airless hell hole, to collect the camera on the Colonel’s behalf. An hour passed until I was summoned by the Chief of Police, a large man squeezed behind a very large desk. My attention was caught by a photo of him with an arm around the President of Sri Lanka himself, framed on the cabinet behind.
He gestured that I sit while he continued to deal with a line of locals that wound out through the door and into the reception area beyond. The guy was a serious powerhouse whose presence affected everyone like the demon headmaster in children’s folklore. I had now experienced institutional hierarchy first hand, and it wasn’t comfortable. The average exchange lasted less than a minute: a low ranking officer presented the person and the case; the person presented a crumpled document; the Chief glanced at it, scribbled a sentence in a ledger book, declared something in Sinhala, and dismissed them both. At one stage he looked at me and mumbled something about land rights issues.
The line ended, the door shut, and his attention turned to me. For a while he just stared. He was checking me out, eying me up. Had I committed some offence? Or was I faced by a nationalist xenophobe, gleeful at the prospect of detaining a Westerner? He started questioning me: why was I here, why was I in Sri Lanka, what work was I doing, was I married? My mind raced; a combination of heat and nerves. Split-second decisions were made on the right answers, based on the blurred boundaries between true and false, diplomatic and tactless.
But I had the Colonel’s legacy with me, of course. The higher ranking Government Agent had agreed to my collection of the camera. I was a legitimate presence in the same line of business as my predecessor. The Chief seemed satisfied with my answers, and we agreed that I would return at a later date with a pocket digital camera, a ‘present’ for him and the force.