The Way Things Work Around Here
For weeks afterward, we tuned ourselves to the television sets for news of the fat white man, but none came. We knew the airport, and indeed, our island, could not afford more of this kind of attention. Perhaps the westerner had been released and sent home with apologies. We wanted to believe this was so, to picture the fat white man boarding another plane, indignant, shaking the dust of our island from his shoes, heaving himself up the metal steps and out of our minds. We didn’t discuss this wish. We were ashamed, I think. We’d said nothing, done nothing, though we’d seen the whole thing. But arguing with the police? Stepping in to explain the actions of a perfect stranger, a foreigner? It is simply not the way things work around here.
Where is here? And who are we?
The tea is almost ready. We can start from the beginning.
In the sea that stretches from Africa to Indonesia, around the great blue belly of the world, there is an island Marco Polo once christened “the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.” It is a teardrop falling from the eye of India, a beach-lined tropical forest dripping with bananas and sapphires and virtually all the earth’s cinnamon. You may know it as Sri Lanka—or, if you are of a certain generation, as it once was: Ceylon. This is our island.
On this island, along the western coast, there is a city called Colombo. It is filled with people who walk with a bounce in their step despite the heat and humidity. It is a place flashing with ivory-white grins in coffee-brown faces: a people who have learned to accept each day as it comes, and be grateful. This is our city.
Just a few kilometers north of Colombo, up a two-lane road mobbed with buses and bicycles and tuk-tuks and cows and roosters, there is a small international airport. It bears the distinguished name of our late Prime Minister, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, who once negotiated a tenuous peace between the Sinhalese of the South and the Tamils of the North. He was assassinated at the hands of a Buddhist monk, his life as brief as the peace he brokered. The Prime Minister’s airport is small by international standards, just a handful of gates that open directly onto the tarmac. Still, it boasts the broadest spectrum of shopping on the island—all locally owned, all duty-free. This is our airport. These are our shops.
Our customers come in two varieties. Now and then, we have tourists from Germany or England or France. They stumble out of small passenger planes into the island’s heat, and blink their way toward the terminal’s dim fluorescence and air conditioning. We fix our smiles in place, and welcome these customers with a hot cup of spiced, milky chai. We tell them of our nation’s bounty: the spice plantations, the gemstones, our tangled trail of history. And, though the profits are small, we help them select a fine Ceylon tea from Gampola—guaranteed to complement their scones with clotted cream. When their women thumb through batik handbags from Pamunuwa, we drop back discreetly: smiles ready, eyes cast in another direction. We know to watch without watching, lest they feel uncomfortable under a brown man’s stare. Our hundreds of years serving white-skinned colonists—first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British—have not been in vain; the nuances of this particular kind of hospitality are bred into us.
But tourists are few. We know that newsreel images of a 27-year bloody civil war are still attached to our island’s name, and may be for some time. These days, most of our customers are the long-lost locals, the prodigals: bone-weary countrymen returning from the dusty desert compounds of the Gulf, their years spent coaxing grass to grow from the sand. (Why, we asked once, why grass? To make the Western families feel at home, they explained, so they will stay and collect the oil for the Arabs. Ah, we nodded, for this made sense: not all of the white man’s colonies are beautiful by nature).
These men, the expatriate ranks of sons and uncles and brothers, are our main customers. For them, we carry a selection of washing machines and microwaves, refrigerators and televisions. They may be starved for the green of the island and the embrace of their wives, but even the weariest ones know not to return to the village after five long years with only a handbag to show for it.
From the moment he steps through the doors of arrival gate A6, it is obvious that the fat white man in the tan tailored suit is not interested in a washing machine. One look is enough to know he does not want to hear about Marco Polo, or the health benefits of cinnamon, or how to tell a true sapphire from a blue topaz. One glance is all it takes to see that what the fat white man wants most, at this very moment, is a restroom.
His eyes skitter past our row of shops and set upon the men’s bathroom at the end of the corridor. The hems of his trousers flap about his ankles as he half-runs toward it. His silk necktie flops side to side with each step, and one arm clutches a designer carry-on against his chest. His vision is closed to everything but the doorway ahead, the promise of relief. We can’t help it: we catch each other’s eyes and grin. The cut of his suit, the watch on his wrist: he is important, certainly. A businessman on a stopover through the island, perhaps even an executive of some sort … yet here he is, weaving past the man near the bathroom door, holding the front of his pants like a schoolboy.
Locals from the fat white man’s plane stream through the gate, but almost all of them are women, their dark hair plaited neatly over slumped shoulders. They, too, are expatriates, returning from their own long years of minding other women’s children, cleaning other women’s homes. Half of us sit down, or lean back over our appliances again. We pour another cup of tea. The women do not buy like the men. This is a mystery to us, but nonetheless, an acknowledged fact. They do not buy, and they do not tip: the women’s bathroom, at the far end of our shops down by the café and the lobby, does not even require an attendant.
At length, the fat white man steps out of the men’s bathroom. He pauses for several moments, basking in obvious relief. This relief is so complete, so engrossing, that he fails to notice the small brown man who has materialized at his side.
Prasad waits, the top of his head barely to the foreigner’s elbow. After a few long moments, Prasad looks down and plucks a piece of lint, real or imagined, from his burgundy uniform (though it is little more than a jumpsuit with the airport’s logo stitched to the chest pocket). Ever patient, he resumes surveying the terminal alongside the fat white man, adding his unspoken approval to this moment of intense relief and self-satisfaction. In that instant, some of us would point out later, the two of them, side-by-side, painted the very picture of colonial life.
Then the fat white man walks off, eyes scanning the overhead signs for his connection. Prasad is taken aback, too dumbfounded to move. He does not recover quickly enough to catch up with this person, this customer, who has set off toward the terminal lobby without leaving the requisite tip for the attendant, for himself.
We grin again, this time only to ourselves. We have decided Prasad’s shocked expression is funny enough to make up for the lost tip, and the insult: the fat white man’s failure to acknowledge the way things work around here. He is still only an anecdote to our day, this pale, oversized Western businessman on his way to London, or Mumbai, or somewhere certainly more important than Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Prasad narrows his eyes at the man’s back. Slowly, he turns back to his cart of cleaning supplies.
We sip our chai and settle into the afternoon. The televisions are tuned, as always, to cricket. Players stretch their arms and jog in place on the bright grass, warming up. India is set to host England. The crowd in Delhi roars in delight and disappointment as officials lean over the coin on the field: England has won the toss.
We are surprised when the fat white man returns, a wide “V” of sweat darkening the back of his suit. It has been perhaps fifteen minutes. His face is waxen, his steps ginger. He presses the heel of one hand at the small of his back like a pregnant woman; the other plucks at the front of his trousers.
He needs the restroom. Again.
The fat white man hurries past us. His carry-on snakes left and right behind him, half-forgotten, like a tiny trailer hooked up behind a loaded truck.
In the doorway, Prasad steps in front of him, though only for a moment. A pointed moment. An almost imperceptible moment. Then he sweeps sideways, gives a gracious little nod of his head: the prince welcoming a guest onto his lands. The foreigner blows through. He is ill, we decide. A stone in the kidney, some speculate. An infection in the urine, others argue.
We watch the door as one man, bemused. It is a slow day in the shops. No tourists or returning countrymen, and—worse—the cricket match has been delayed. Instead of the beautiful stadium and the bright blue and red of the players’ uniforms, our television screens are filled with a newscaster’s solemn face. A protest, some sort of civil uprising, is sweeping through the streets of Delhi. This development, we all agree, will serve no purpose except to incense cricket fans everywhere.
At last, the fat white man emerges. He is dressed in a fresh tan suit, slightly rumpled but otherwise impressively identical to the last. Again, he pauses in front of the doorway: eyes closed, eyebrows knitted. His expression is perfectly balanced between pleasure and pain. His shoulders rise once and slowly sink, and we imagine we can hear the sigh escaping his body. The fat white man’s forehead smoothes, and his eyes flutter open.
Prasad is standing in front of him. There is half a meter between them. Prasad smiles politely. Benevolently.
A faint, quizzical smile passes over the fat white man’s face, and he steps aside to go around this small, dark ghost of a man before him.
Prasad steps sideways too, blocking the path. His smile, though still ivory-in-coffee, hardens ever so slightly. Slowly, he lifts his palm. It is regrettable, but no one watching could deny it necessary.
The fat white man glances down and, realization finally dawning on his face, snorts. He raises his eyes to the brown man’s face; Prasad’s smile has drained away. He does not lower his palm. Neither of them moves, nor breaks his gaze.
Now we catch each other’s eyes, and nod in silent approval. Each of us suddenly stands with Prasad, in our minds. Yes, the fat white man is far from home. Yes, he is in pain—we don’t deny this. But healthy or ill, he must be taught: toilets do not clean themselves. Before a man steps into a bathroom, he must run his fingers through his pocket. Touch the rupees there, waiting. Payment need not be much. A little is enough to allow a man to take pride in wiping another’s urine off the seat, cleaning another’s spit from the sink.
The fat white man decides. His face unfolds into a saccharine smile, and he slips a hand into his trousers pocket. With a little flourish, he pulls two bills from his wallet and gently places them into Prasad’s open hand, neither of them looking down at the money. Prasad’s fingers snap shut around the paper as it touches his palm. This is the sole betrayal he permits his body, the only hint of what is simmering below. The rest of him is like a pot of water lifted off the element—the rolling boil flattened instantly, the surface suddenly smooth and clear despite the latent heat beneath. Prasad turns a mild gaze back to mixing disinfectant, bends toward the bucket on the floor.
Perhaps the fat white man has never boiled water, never learned to heed the steam even after the surface stills. When he steps past, his carry-on bumps the bucket, sloshing the stinging liquid up into Prasad’s eyes. To this day, most of us maintain this was an accident: unfortunate, to be sure, but nothing more. Others argue vehemently for its calculation.
Now our countryman rises slowly, daubing a towel against his eyes. The cords of his neck ripple beneath the skin. The fat white man is halfway down the corridor; his luggage whips back and forth behind him, a little dog scrambling to keep pace with its master. He heads toward the café at the far end of our shops, near the women’s restroom.
Does he see the black-painted airport security buggy cruise past him up our corridor, hear its mechanical whine? If so, he does not show it, though we doubt he is accustomed to fatigues and automatic rifles. How pleasant to live in a world where one need not pay attention to such things, to pass through our airport unaware of the security stations jammed with gas masks and helmets and thick black vests, and the backroom kennel of sharp-nosed dogs, who wait and dream with nostrils twitching for gasoline and C-4.
Security always scans the shops, the wall of orange vinyl seats, the gates across from us; this is only standard on their loop around our corridor. But as they swung around this time, someone will insist later, an officer’s eyes rested on Prasad for several seconds, studying the rigid posture of our countryman before they flicked away. Nonsense, the rest of us will declare, you imagined this. You are mistaken; no one else saw it. There was nothing in advance, no way to foresee. How were we to know?
Until the end, he was simply another foreigner, a gift from Ganesh or Sunrta to amuse us, perhaps to make up for the cricket delay. Our rows of televisions flash the same female newscaster, pursing her dozens of lips in perfect digital synchrony. Everyone has tired of India and their tangled squabbles, and their inability to focus on what is important. We will not admit it to each other, now or later … but we are grateful for the fat white man.
Someone snickers. The fat white man has bought three bottles of water, and settles into a wicker chair at the café. His plane has been delayed, we suspect. He takes a long drink, and lifts his eyes to the television above the cash register.
The camera pans the cricket field. India has decided to carry on and begin the match despite the protests. They are elsewhere in the city, unheard and unheeded by those within the stadium walls. The fans in Delhi are wailing and chanting, and India starts off strong. The pleasing crack of bat hitting ball, multiplied through our television sets, ricochets down the corridor.
The fat white man looks down from the television and glares at the bottle of water in his hand. After a long minute, he raises it to his lips and drinks the rest down in one long, unpleasant swig. Even from several meters away, we can see sweat beginning to darken the collar of his fresh new suit.
When at last the players break for lunch, the fat white man heaves himself from the tiny café chair and abandons the table of empty water bottles. He has been in the airport terminal for several hours now. His plane was most certainly delayed.
If he wanted conversation, we could tell him that he is lucky; that his plane’s delay is a good omen for a safe flight. We could tell him that if the Icelandic Air flight in 1978 had been delayed and the crew had been more careful to check fuel levels, the plane would not have crashed into a nearby coconut plantation and killed those 184 unlucky people. We could tell him that only a decade ago, the people on the flight from Dubai would have thrown themselves at the feet of Allah, Jesus, Lord Shiva, and the Buddha himself for a delay instead of the gauge failure that caused their plane to dive on its belly into the sea, only 50 meters from the runway. Or we could tell him about the morning a suicide squad of Tamil Tigers destroyed six unlucky passenger planes—half of Sri Lankan Airways’ fleet—right here on the tarmac of this very airport, because most of us remember the explosions and the fires and the burned-flesh smell like it was yesterday.
We know ourselves to be lucky, sitting in an airport drinking tea and watching cricket, waiting to sell an automatic clothes washer to a returning countryman.
However, we can see that the fat white man does not want conversation, and certainly not about how lucky he is. He has returned to our end of the corridor, and positioned himself on one of the orange vinyl chairs directly facing the bathroom. He winces each time he changes position, which is often. His expression sways between obvious pain and something less definite, perhaps closer to anger. Perhaps even rage. He looks like a man unaccustomed to inconveniences like stones in the kidney, which is our diagnosis, reached finally by a grudging consensus.
Prasad looks down the corridor toward the lobby, his expression distant and almost sleepy. Only a countryman would recognize the stubborn set of his jaw, the simmer just beneath the surface.
The Indian cricket match has stalled.
Protestors have reached the stadium, and now the officials are debating whether to continue the game, or risk a full-scale riot by shutting the match down. The newscasters seem undecided as to the effect of India’s impending win on the mood of the protestors.
Finally, unable to deny his need any longer, the fat white man springs from his seat and rushes toward the men’s restroom, clutching the front of his trousers. He nearly collides with Prasad, who has squatted in front of the entrance, rubbing a scuff from the tile. Indeed, the foreigner’s urgency was so pronounced that were he not so large, some of us later say, he would have tried to jump over Prasad. Some shame will accompany this admission, for even then Prasad’s slow, reluctant rise from the floor appears, to us, deliberate. The fat white man, flushed and sweaty at last, stops short—and swings his arms about and begins to bellow down into Prasad’s face.
Simultaneously, the volume swells from the twenty televisions in our shops: shouts and wails and chants from their speakers blare down the corridor in both directions. The news stations have cut to scenes of the protests—young men shouting, jostling, grabbing at the lens, old women shrieking, faces ugly and twisted. The riot reverberates off the terminal walls, drowning out any curses the fat white man is most certainly heaping onto Prasad’s head.
He gestures wildly: jabs one stubby finger toward the bathroom, his pockets, the lobby, the front of his pants. He is a half-meter taller than the Sri Lankan, and must bend down to shout in his face. To finish, the fat white man shoves his hands forward, flattened and stiff with palms down, and jerks them to each side. The meaning is clear: No more. Then he pushes past Prasad and disappears into the bathroom. His carry-on, across the way next to the orange vinyl chair, faces the bathroom like a blocky stubborn sentry in miniature.
Prasad pauses for a moment, his face unreadable. Then he quietly flicks something off the shoulder of his burgundy uniform, exactly where the fat white man bumped against him. He pulls a new package of bathroom rolls from his cart, unwraps the plastic. He does the same with a package of brown paper hand towels. Our countryman tidies his cart one last time, and looks up just as a smiling young man approaches, dressed in a burgundy uniform identical to Prasad’s own. The two exchange a kiss of greeting, and then, with only the faintest smile cast toward the door of his bathroom, Prasad walks past our corridor of shops and goes home for the evening.
The television noise shifts, one fever pitch slipped deftly in place of another—the screens are filled with cricket fans now, screaming and crying in their stadium seats. The match is over: despite England’s strong start, India has indeed won. Choppy, impromptu match highlights pop up on the huge screens all around the stadium. The announcers add commentary after commentary, bloating each with live interview clips and slow motion replays. The coverage becomes excessive, obsessive.
None of us bother to ask why. Outside the stadium, military forces are cleaning up the protests, clearing the streets with tear gas and rubber bullets before the cricket fans are allowed out of the stadium. This is something the televisions don’t show, but we all know. It is so deeply known, there is no need to speak of it. It is the way things work around here.
The boy who replaced Prasad is leaning against his cart of supplies, his smooth, cheerful face turned to the televisions, when the fat white man emerges from the bathroom. In a moment, the boy will see him. We glance at each other, and raise our eyebrows. None of us moves.
The foreigner’s gaze is fixed somewhere far off, and almost serene. Sweat still beads his clammy forehead, but the look of relief is back. He’s removed his suit jacket. The cream-colored dress shirt beneath must have been crisp once but is now entirely transparent. It’s pasted to his awkward elephantine chest, the necktie a limp, pouting trunk against the rounded expanse of his belly. The fat white man stands in the bathroom doorway for another moment, shifts the suit coat to his other arm, and leans forward to take a step back toward his seat.
The boy in the burgundy jumpsuit hops in front of him, an open, friendly smile on his young face. He is ready for his first customer of the afternoon—and foreigners are often surprisingly generous. He lifts his palm so that the fat white man will not have to reach too far down to place the coins in his hand.
We have seen a lot, more than many of the locals, sitting here in the airport with newsreels of the world blaring through our television sets. Countrymen return to this island and shock us with tales of strange desert climates and stranger customs. Anyone owning a shop in the Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike International Airport is guaranteed to see and hear more than his share of odd behavior, of unusual incidents. Even so, we were taken aback the day that India won their cricket match and lost their protest—but not because of what we saw on TV.
Like the match, it began slowly and progressed over several hours . . . but when it ended, it ended quickly. That does not mean it will be easily forgotten.
When Prasad’s replacement lifted a hand for his tip, the westerner’s face bloomed from chalky white to bougainvillea pink. In an instant, he’d dropped the tan suit coat, shoved the boy aside and stormed down the corridor past all of our shops. We gaped as the fat white man stomped past the café and, without a moment’s pause, shoved open the door of the women’s bathroom and barged in.
The bathroom was not empty. Women screamed and bolted out the door, clutching at their flapping saris, howling like hens.
The Prime Minister’s airport may be small, but one cannot say it is understaffed in security. Within three seconds, uniformed men charged into the women’s bathroom. They dragged the giant foreigner out, though it took several of them to do so. He was yelling and screaming by this time, and some of us said later he was crying, too. When they demanded identification he was incoherent, blubbering and jerking his arm toward his seat, down the corridor, past all the shops.
As one, we swung our eyes to his carry-on.
Most of us later agreed that in its alone, abandoned state, it looked nothing if not suspicious. Defiant, even. It was hard to deny the prudency of security’s actions. Anyone who’d been in the Solomon Dias West Ridgeway Bandaranaike International Airport as long as we had knew you could not be too careful.
Still, we winced when they twisted handcuffs on the fat white man’s wrists. His face was disbelieving, and he had finally fallen silent—shocked numb. Terse voices buzzed and popped in Sinhalese over handheld radios. Within minutes, the fat white man was loaded into an airport buggy. They wedged him between two grim-faced boys in fatigues, their long rifles poking out the sides of the cart.
More young men arrived immediately after, in helmets and blocky vests far too large for such slight frames. They carried rolls of yellow tape, and set to work cordoning off the area around the foreigner’s little black carry-on, stretching yellow tape around the faded traffic cones. Someone had been sent to fetch the dogs.
In a few days, one of us will allow himself to chuckle, remembering Prasad’s face when the foreigner walked off that first time. After a week, another will venture to bring up the lamentable way Prasad blocked the path of a man in obvious pain. We will nod and talk softly about the unfortunate way the cricket excitement and noise may have hindered our countryman’s judgment. Eventually—yes—we will discuss much of what we’ve seen today, passing it delicately amongst ourselves like a coin no one wishes to turn over.
We will not speak of the moments before the boy saw the fat white man standing there in the doorway of the bathroom. The chance we had to demonstrate we were more than observers that day. Instead, all of us will wait, together but apart, for the day we look to the televisions for only cricket, nothing more. On that day, the fat white man will have faded in our memory, just another anecdote among many.
Ava Norling lives in Saudi Arabia and writes in airports, undergrounds, and tuktuks. With roots in northern Canada and a heart wedged in the Colorado mountains, she’s learning to embrace the gorgeous chaos of an expat life.