the cow in the cybercafe
daya dissanayake (2004)
‘If I stay here for one more day, I’ll have to kill myself’ said the girl in khaki shorts and white t-shirt.
‘Why?’ asked the girl in the flowered cotton frock, without taking her eyes off the book she was reading.
‘Because I don’t want to end up in a loony house’
Micky, the girl in khaki shorts, was walking up and down on the grass lawn. Ruvanthi was seated on a wooden bench under an avocado tree. Ruwanthi continued reading. Micky walked non stop, a dozen steps to the edge of the lawn, then back to where Ruwanthi was seated. Every few minutes she looked at her wrist-watch. Then she would look up at the sky through the thick foliage and heave a sigh.
Sometimes she unclipped her mobile phone from her waist. She would hold it up, stare at it for a while, walk around holding the phone up to the sky, and then close the flap in disgust.
‘Why couldn’t you build your house where you could get a good phone signal?’ she would ask her friend, not expecting an answer.
When she got tired of walking, Micky came and sat beside Ruwanthi.
‘I have to find a cyber café’ she said after a while.
Ruwanthi did not take her eyes off her book.
‘I thought you were my best friend’ Mickey said after another long silence.
Ruwanthi took Micky’s hand and squeezed it, without a word. She closed her book. The continuous chatter of the squirrels and the birds was occasionally interrupted by the mooing of a cow grazing in the grassland below the house.
‘Try this’ Ruwanthi’s younger brother ran up to them, offering a ripe guava to Micky.
‘No. Thanks’ Micky said.
‘Take a bite first, then throw it away, if you don’t like it’ Ravi appealed. Reluctantly Micky accepted the fruit. Ruwanthi grabbed the other one.
‘Have you washed it?’ Micky asked.
‘Why should i?’ Ravi asked. ‘We are not offering it to the Buddha’ he added.
‘It is direct from the tree. It has been washed by the rain’ Ruwanthi told her friend.
‘But still’ Micky hesitated.
‘It is cleaner than all the junk you get in the city’ Ruwanthi assured her, taking a big bite off her fruit. Micky began to nibble at the fruit slowly, but once she got the taste of it, she smiled her thanks to Ravi.
‘Malli, do you know any house in this village, which has a telephone’ Micky asked.
‘The only telephone is at the post office’
‘Can you show me the place?’
‘Sure. But I don’t know if the phone is working’
‘Let’s go’ she jumped out of the bench, dragging Ruwanthi along with her.
As they walked down the gravel road Ruwanthi noticed that all eyes were on Micky. She noticed the look of disapproval on the faces of the elderly women, and the smiles on the faces of the young men, as Micky passed them in her tight fitting shorts. Ruwanthi tried to avoid their eyes. She knew the women would comment about it to her mother.
When she saw the small red sign board of the sub-post office, Micky looked around and had to ask Ruwanthi where the post office was. Ruwanthi pointed at the open window to one side of the entrance to the small house. They looked into the room through the window. Micky saw the table and two chairs and an old fashioned telephone on the table. There was no one inside.
‘Are they closed?’ she asked Ruwanthi.
‘No. They close it only if the whole family has to leave the house for anything. I will call her’ Ruwanthi said and walked into the house. Micky watched her friend walking straight in and go towards the kitchen calling someone by name. A young woman came out, wiping her hands on the cloth she had wrapped around her waist, over her frock.
‘We want to make a phone call’ Ruwanthi told the woman.
The woman noticed Micky, when she came out of the house, and she invited them to come in and be seated. Micky was too impatient.
‘I just want to make a phone call’ she said.
‘I don’t know if it’s working today’ the woman said, leaning against the door-post. Micky looked at Ruwanthi, in desperation.
‘She has to make an urgent call. Shall we try if it is working’ Ruwanthi appealed. The woman went in to the post office room to check the phone. They followed her in to the room. She was rattling the cradle.
‘When will they repair it?’ Micky asked.
‘I don’t know. It works on and off. May be if we try in another hour, it would be working, or it may not work for another week’
‘Then how do you communicate with the outside world’
‘Why, the postman comes every day. He brings the letters and any telegrams or messages from the Main Post Office’
‘How can you wait for several days to get a reply for any message?’ Micky wanted to know.
‘If it is urgent we can send a telegram’ the woman said.
‘How can you send a telegram if your phone is not working?’
‘I can send it through our postman, he will be here sometime today’
‘This is the 21st century’
‘So what?’ Ruwanthi asked.
‘There is some ripe jack fruit, would you like to have some?’ the woman asked, ‘we plucked a really sweet fruit today’
Ruwanthi looked at Micky. She shook her head.
‘We are going to the tank for a bath’ Ruwanthi told the woman.
‘Then you shouldn’t eat jak fruit right now’ the woman said, walking up to the road with them.
‘I’ll send a message if the phone starts working’
‘Are we going for a bath?’ Ravi asked.
‘I just told her that, to avoid having the jack fruit. Micky didn’t want to stay’
‘But shall we go to the tank?’ Ravi asked again. Ruwanthi once again looked at Micky.
‘I didn’t bring my bathing suit’
‘You don’t need it, I’ll give you a cloth. Come on, enjoy your visit to our village, don’t look so glum’ Ruwanthi pulled her friend towards home. Ravi was already running towards the village tank.
Micky did not want to wear a cloth and she refused to wear a sarong either.
‘That’s what we all wear, when we bath in the tank or at the well’ Ruwanthi told her.
‘Can I get into the water like this, in my t-shirt?’ Micky asked.
‘Yes, if you want to. This is not a hotel pool, there is no one to ban t-shirts’
The tank was not far away, the gravel road lined on either side by neem and tamarind trees, led to the tank bund.
In ancient times it would have been a huge tank, but due to poor maintenance more than half of the tank was now a grassland, and there were even a few trees growing in the old tank bed. Micky was amazed at the beauty of the distant hills and the glistening water beckoning them to come in.
‘Are you sure this water is clean?’ Micky asked.
‘We have been bathing in this from the time I can remember, so I don’t know why you should worry’
‘But people wash clothes, they bathe their cattle and all those germs would be in the water’
‘I have never thought about it, but there must be some kind of natural disinfection. We don’t have to Chlorinate this water’
Micky hesitated for a long time before she got into the water.
‘Eeek. Something bit me’ Micky almost jumped out of the water. Ravi began to laugh.
‘Why are you laughing?’
‘They won’t bite you, they are harmless fish’ Ruwanthi said with a smile. ‘don’t worry about them’
Micky had watched in amazement the ease with which her friend wrapped the cloth around above her breasts her and got out of her clothes.
‘What if the cloth gets untied?’ she had asked Ruwanthi.
Then Micky noticed that elderly ladies wrapped their clothes around their waist leaving the upper body bare as they bathed.
Ruwanthi was glad that Micky could forget her electronic world and enjoy the luxuries offered to her in the little village. Micky was swimming about, playing with the young boy. She tried to pluck a water lily and got entangled in them. She had got used to the mud and silt by then.
Micky wanted to go back home to change into dry clothes and threw the towel across her shoulders covering her wet shirt. As she picked up her mobile her face darkened again. She asked Ravi if he could go to the post office again to find out if the phone was working again. Ravi could not understand why this girl was so obsessed with the telephone, but he took off at a run, still in his wet clothes.
‘Don’t you feel more refreshed than if you had been in a hotel pool?’ Ruwanthi asked.
‘I don’t know. My whole body smells of mud, tell me how I can get connected’ Micky said in the same breath.
‘I told you before we left the city, that we are going to a remote village, which is not a part of your global village. I told you not to expect all the things you enjoy in the city’
‘Yeah, but how would I know that my mobile would not work here. When you told me you didn’t have a telephone at home, I was not worried because I expected to connect through EDGE from my phone. As long as I had my notebook and phone I hoped to be connected to all my friends and Sundeep Dougal and all the music and all the news of the outside world’
‘Who is Sundeep Dougal?’ Ruwanthi wanted to know.
‘If I can get connected, I will show you’ said Micky in exasperation. ‘Please Ruwi, tell me where I can find a phone that works or a place where I could receive mobile signals’
‘I don’t know. There is no one in our village who would know where a phone would work’
At lunch, Ruwanthi watched as her mother kept on filling her friend’s plate. It seemed that the tasty delicacies on her plate had momentarily pushed aside her e-world. Micky kept on asking about each dish. She could not identify most of them.
‘They are all either from our own garden or plucked from the fields’ Ruwanthi’s mother told their visitor.
‘You will never get cancer by eating this, like from the food you have to eat in the city’ Ruwanthi added.
‘Here we don’t use any food poisons on what we grow, like chemical fertilizer and pesticides’
‘You mean we eat only poisonous food in the city?’
‘Yes. That’s why I come home whenever I can, to breath fresh air, eat fresh healthy food and relax’
‘But I can’t relax. I feel suffocated, when I cam cut off from the rest of the world’
‘Forget the rest of the world and enjoy your stay’ Ruwanthi’s father told her.
‘I can’t. There must be several hundred messages piled up on my e-mail server’ said Micky.
‘Most of it would be junk mail, why should you worry about junk’
‘That’s what is worrying me. When my mail quota gets filled up, I will miss all my important mail’
‘It depends on what you mean by important’ Ruwanthi said.
‘Importance is a very relative term’ Ruwanthi’s father added, but Miky ignored him, probably thinking what would this old village farmer know about what was happening out side his village.
After lunch Ruwanthi wanted to go back to her book. Micky came to sit beside her, with her notebook. She started writing. Ruwanthi glanced at the screen, to see that Micky was composing e-messages. It would keep her quite for sometime, thought Ruwanthi going back to her book.
Mickys fingers flew over the key board. Ruwanthi’s eyes skimmed over the pages of the novel. A lone squirrell chirped nibbling at a guava. A few cows grazed lazily under coconut trees below the garden.
The quiet tranquility did not last very long.
Micky closed the notebook with a snap.
‘Because you told me you did not have electricity in your village I came prepared with two extra batteries for my notebook and one for the phone’ Mickey said in an accusing tone.
Ruwanthi went on reading.
‘Why didn’t you tell me mobile signals did not cover this village?’ Micky asked again
‘I didn’t know’ Ruwanthi said, without taking her eyes off the page.
‘How can you say that? You live in the city with me, you use a mobile phone and use the internet and e-mail just as much as I do’
‘I have never used my mobile here, so I did not know it wouldn’t work. I can wait till we go back to the city, to get into the internet’
‘May be you can. But I can’t’
‘Try reading a book’
‘I don’t read books. Who reads books anyway?’
Micky walked up to the window.
‘You don’t have a TV. You don’t have DVD to watch a good movie. You don’t even have a good music set up’
‘Listen to the birds, it is much more relaxing than the wild noises you call music’
‘But your bird song is often supported by farting cows’
‘Don’t be so vulgar’
‘I don’t know why I ever thought you were my best friend’ Micky stormed out of the room. She went in search of Ravi.
‘Ravi, have you ever climbed that hill?’ she asked, pointing at the range of hills on one edge of the village.
‘Many times. Would you like to go? The view is wonderful from the top’
‘Is it difficult?’
‘There is only a foot path, but it is not very difficult’
Micky went back into the house. She wanted Ruwanthi to go with her. Ruwanthi was reluctant to leave her book, but Micky was her guest. She tried to tell Micky that climbing the hill was not easy, but Micky insisted.
‘Let’s take the camera, we can get a few good shots from the summit’ Ruwanthi said.
‘I have my phone camera’ Micky patted her belt.
Ruwanthi persuaded Micky to change into her long denims, warning her about thorny shrubs on the path they had to climb. She was more concerned about the disapproving looks of the women they would pass on the way.
They climbed over fallen trees, crept under creepers, and paused for breath whenever they reached a flat stretch of the foot path. Ruwanthi tried to point out to the city girl various plants, flowers and the birds. Micky looked dutifully at what ever was shown to her, but her eyes came back to the screen of her mobile phone. She had it switched from the moment they began their climb.
Suddenly she would stop, turn around in a circle, holding the phone high, walk back a few steps, and then forward. Ravi watched in amusement, and Ruwanthi sighed. Micky would give up in disgust and continue the climb. The stop once more, the moment she saw even a faint trace of a signal.
They reached the summit. Ruwanthi spread her hands to show the breathtaking beauty of the valley beyond.
‘It’s working’ Micky jumped up in delight. Ravi had to hold her by the shoulder to pull her away from the edge of the rock.
Micky sat down to play with the keypad on the phone. She did not see the slowly flowing river across the valley, or the mountain range on the other side. She did not see the towering cones of the giant cane clinging on to the trees. She did not see the temple, in the middle of the vast green rice fields. She did not feel the cool breeze soothing her tired limbs.
Her eyes were on the screen, reading and then replying to all the messages she had received. Ruwanthi and Ravi sat on the rock, enjoying the beauty spread below them. They knew every hill top, all the big trees and every rice field, below them. Yet they would never get tired of this view. It was worth the climb.
After replying all the messages, Micky began to talk on the phone. The other two walked away a little distance, to give her a little more privacy.
‘My battery went dead. I forgot to put the spare battery in my pocket, when I changed into slacks.’
‘We can come again tomorrow, if you like’ Ravi said.
‘Yes. I have to. I’ll bring my notebook so I could check my mail too’ Micky said.