Jane Russell … presenting “a fictional short story in warm testimony fo Nathan Sivasambu who was a one-off: a convinced Trotskyist, his greatest gift was in bringing people together to celebrate the era of ‘British Ceylon’ of which he was a true patriot.”
It was October 23rd, two days before the Centenary of the Revolution. The black and white photo of Leon Davidov Trotsky looked down from his ebony frame on the sitting room cum study wall. This version of Trotsky was unsmiling: stern – very much Creator of the Red Army, Hero of the Revolution. The photo had been taken in the early 1920’s, in St. Petersburg, when it was still called Petrograd.
Narendarajah Ramanathan, known as Ramu, looked up at the photo with reverence as he did several times a day when at home. Today he was at home. He had done his shopping yesterday in the Sainsbury’s opposite Russell Square tube station. He had come home with two heavy orange plastic bags and slowly climbed the four flights of stairs, stopping now and then to get his breath, or re-adjust his hearing aid which tended to rub against the back of his ear, passing doors leading to rooms belonging to the foreign students’ hostel, up to his London university grace and favour attic flat. The last flight was always the trickiest. Ramu slowly negotiated the narrow channel left between piles of books he’d placed on both sides of each carpeted step. But he was well satisfied with his expedition: carrots, leeks, cabbage, beetroot, baby potatoes, gingelly oil, ladies’ fingers, yellow and red dahl, some cardamon, root ginger and garlic, red and green chillies, basmati rice – enough food for almost eight days’ cooking.
Ramu’s antecedents had come from the port of Point Pedro, on the north-east coast of Jaffna peninsula. But his father, married in 1925 and now the father of a seven-month-old son had come to Colombo, the colonial capital of Ceylon, in 1926 to take the Ceylon Civil Service clerical examination. He had been successful, and the family had joined him and stayed.
Pious Hindus on both sides of his family had engrained in Ramu the habit of vegetarianism. Therefore, despite joining the Trotskyist Revolutionary Party of Ceylon aged fourteen and in consequence disavowing all gods, including God, and all concomitant superstitious beliefs, and then in spite of migrating aged twenty-seven to study for his Masters in Mathematical Philosophy in London where all manner of succulent meats and seafood was available, Ramu had never eaten a portion of bacon, a sausage roll, curried goat, a prawn cocktail, lamb bhoona, or gods forbid, a beef steak, in his life.
Ramu turned back to the computer. His title fizzed in green letters on the black screen: Trotsky’s Pivotal Role in the October Revolution. That was all he had managed to write yesterday. He sighed. ” So old, so bulky,” he stared accusingly at the screen. He banged harder on the raised oblong lumps of grey plastic: nothing. He tried typing QWERTY in caps but only QRY came up faintly on the screen. He had a sudden unwanted thought: “Have I been struck down by a physical feebleness that I cannot recognise? Multiple sclerosis perhaps ..that affects the fingertips, does it not?”.
Abruptly he stopped further consideration of potential disabilities. He forced his mind to turn away from thoughts of disability or death. “Impossible: I’m barely 91. My maternal grandfather Vaidyanathan lived to one hundred and five……why he only died in ’84. He paused, calmed himself and reflected on last week’s events. He remembered now. “Ah, the flu’ jab. That must be it. A delayed reaction: perhaps it’s causing some weakness in the fingertips…”
There was a small buzzing sound at a window. He ignored it, addressing the keys. “Now to get on…”. His fingers seemed more coordinated: he typed slowly:” In the last days of Tsar Nicholas Second ‘s sclerotic imperial Russia…”
Ping. An email. He minimised the document and opened his email account. He peered at the sender’s address…
“Ha!” he snorted. “S.D. Saparamadu..what does that old CP card-carrying, unruly fool have to say ?.” Sapu was a long-standing old antagonist that he met weekly in the café at the British Library where they both went to read the works of Marx, Trotsky and Lenin.
He scrolled through the email.
“So, so, so. Ah! So he agrees with me now, does he?”
He nodded vigorously at a phrase, then suddenly blinked with fury.
” What??” Ramu almost choked with indignation.
He read aloud.” Stalin, the acknowledged saviour of the October Revolution.”
“What on earth is the meaning of that? Lies, lies and damnable lies, sirrah! Not so! Not so in any or every language; not in Tamil, Sinhala, Portuguese, Dutch or Malay but most especially never in the precise and beautiful language of Shakespeare……”
He rubbed his hands together hoping the friction would loosen his fingers. This deserved immediate rebuttal….indeed, a rejoinder of some length.
The buzzing sound was louder. He lifted his head.
“Whatever is that sound?” he asked himself. Was it coming from the window?
Ramu remembered .. yes, the day before yesterday there had been a fly that had come banging at the sitting room cum study window.
“Some harbinger of Saparamadu, perhaps?” he thought wryly.
But this was much louder, weightier……certainly not a fly. Could it be a bumble-bee? So high up, in London, in late October? Yesterday evening had been very warm, and several mosquitos had come in through the open sash windows: he’d had to take a rolled-up Times to waft them back into the city night….
All thoughts of responding to Saparamadu left his head. He closed the email without thinking and re-opened his document. “Must get on,” he told himself, “Time is ticking.”
He typed: ” Leon Davidov Davidovich Trotsky, founder member of the Bolshevik Party of Russia…” There was a further tap, tap sound.
‘Is that me?” he asked himself. “No there it is again”. Tap, tap, tap …
He listened again. “That’s not me…I’m not tapping”.
Ramu waited and listened more intently, turning his head to orient the sound to his better ear.
“It must be at the window…or is it? Damnation to this deafness. Can’t be wearing a hearing aid indoors as well as out!”
He looked around: ” Where are my slippers?” he asked the air. He found the soft black worn leather pumps by the armchair.
“Right,” he spoke aloud. ” First this room.” Ramu walked purposefully to the window. He pushed up the sash window, poked his shiny bald head out and looked across the narrow street. Beyond, in the orange smoky dusk, he could see the lights from double-decker London buses, sailing like red galley-frigates down the Euston Road.
“Nothing!” he harrumphed and marched across to the other window.
“Let’s see in this one. So..right side sash window…open.”
He slid up the bottom half. He poked out his head again.
He marched through the small sitting room cum study, where almost all available space had been given over to piles of books that could no longer be accommodated on sagging shelves, to the tiny kitchen beyond.
“Let’s see if it’s here. ” He threw up the bottom half of the kitchen sash window and popped out his head, looking to the right, the left and down. “So, nothing here either. Mmmm”.
He marched back through the sitting room to the box-like bedroom on the other side. The small window there was fully open at the top. Ramu firmly believed one should always sleep with circulating fresh air, even on the coldest nights. There, banging against the inside of the bottom half-open glass in its wooden frame, was an enormous and wondrously beautiful moth.
Ramu was no lepidopterist. In fact, he found any kind of nature worship infuriating. “It takes away revolutionary fervour. How can we ever change society to a classless, non-racialised model if we’re dreaming of trees, lakes, rabbits and butterflies?” he would retort to enthusiastic young poetic types and eco-warriors he met at the Quaker house debates he sometimes attended.
“But this is a beauteous creature….this moth.” He was awed.
Yes, it must be a moth” he affirmed to himself. “Why it’s huge, huge!”
It was indeed all of ten or eleven inches across its wings span. The wings were a dusky ash colour with splashes of shimmering green and lemon. As he watched, they changed colour to pink, dusted grey with outlines of gold, purple, silver, apricot and crimson.
“But this is remarkable, quite remarkable”. His voice sounded strange, almost as if someone else was talking.
The moth started changing colour again – this time to a translucent sheen of the palest turquoise, the colour of the Indian ocean he had known as a boy in Point Pedro in the pre-dawn light, and there – splotches of magenta and creamy white with patches, half spots, half stripes of midnight blue were now appearing on the shimmering wings.
“Am I dreaming?” he thought. He held out his hand to the wondrous creature, fluttering at the window. It crawled across the glass and walked with soft feet onto his outstretched palm, shivering there. He stroked the giant velvety wings.
“O but you are beautiful” he crooned. He watched it with great affection.
“Can you not speak, my lovely or do you speak but I cannot hear…I am deaf in one ear you know, ” he nodded solemnly at the moth.
Suddenly with a dreadful clang and an explosion as if several suns had dropped from the sky, Ramu felt a vice close across his heart. A steel band tightened round his brain. It squeezed, further tightening its grip. His left hand fell to his chest and the moth slid away. He collapsed to the floor, his other hand clutching at his temple which threatened to burst. His breath had disappeared in a maelstrom of pain. Then it eased for a moment.
“O, am I dying?” he gasped.
“Yes” replied the moth from somewhere near him. “You are”.
It had a clear voice, like a child in elocution class, or was it the sound of a bell of a buoy out at sea? Through the open doorway, he saw the photo of Trotsky sternly gazing down at him.
“Trotsky, I may be dying,” Ramu gasped again.
“Yahwohl!” Trotsky replied.
“That’s German: that’s not right,” Ramu thought. He was losing consciousness.
“It’s fine, ” the moth clearly spoke again. “You’re just confused…”
That evening, a tornado smashed into the sea at Point Pedro, terrifying a lone fisherman in his outrigger canoe. It was such an unusual occurrence that several Point Pedro residents took photos of the event and posted them on Twitter.
“Just Ramu Uncle, passing through his childhood,” thought his great-nephew, Sai, when he saw the posts…
In appreciative Memory of Nathan ….. Jane Russell seconded by Michael Roberts, who once had the privilege of meeting Nathan at his flat and accompanying him across Russell Square to a Sri Lankan discussion group that met at the Great Court Circle in the British Museum Cafe
A POSTSCRIPT from Jane Russell … with the colour of green compounding the purple to mark a person extraordinary, a person who will be even more restless about the state of the world in his present abode of rest.