all towns are one, all men our kin.
|Trans State Nation
Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
A reading of 'The Destructors' by Graham Greene
28 March 2001
On April 3, ten years will elapse since Graham Greene, one of the versatile story tellers in English literature, breathed last. When I read his 1954 short story The Destructors' early this year, I was surprised by its haunting, allegorical overlap with the decline of the post-independent Sri Lankan state.
In this short story, Greene profiles the activity of a street gang named, 'Wormsley Common Gang'. It has a leader called Blackie. Then, Greene presents another member of the gang Trevor (abbreviated as T in the story) who presents a fresh approach to criminal looting. The target of T's vandalism is Mr.Thomas's dilapidated house. 'Old Misery' is the nickname of Mr.Thomas.
The metaphorical equivalents of the main characters in Greene's story to Sri Lankan scene are as follows:
1. Leader Blackie = UNP of Senanayakes,
Jayewardene and Premadasa
The gang's victims
1. Mr.Thomas (alias, Old Misery) = Sinhalese
A character as an observer
Lorry driver = International observers
The Sri Lankan political events from 1950 to 2000 as influenced by UNP and SLFP seem to have been aptly miniaturized in this allegorical story written in 1954. The story has four metaphorical sections. In brief, end of section 1 brings the SLFP to power in 1956 with Solomon Bandaranaike at the helm. By the end of section 2, one can sense that the story has advanced to 1977, where SLFP being defeated and UNP coming to power again and subtly bringing military into the forefront. The end of section 3 can be equated to the defeat of UNP in 1994, and the emergence of Chandrika-led SLFP. When the story ends in section 4, it seems one can visualize the current plight of Sinhalese voters in the garb of lamenting Mr.Thomas [funnily named 'Old Misery' in the tale] and a demolished Sri Lanka [the house of 'Old Misery'].
I have abridged the story to nearly 75 percent of its length, without any loss in coherence. All the words presented in the text are that of Greene. Here is the story to enjoy.
(1) It was on the eve of August Bank holiday that the latest recruit became the leader of the Wormsley Common Gang. No one was surprised except Mike, but Mike at the age of nine was surprised by everything.
The new recruit had been with the gang since the beginning of the summer holidays, and there were possibilities about his brooding silence that all recognized. He never wasted a word even to tell his name until that was required of him by the rules. When he said 'Trevor' it was a statement of fact, not as it would have been with the others a statement of shame or defiance.
The gang met every morning in an impromptu car-park, the site of the last bomb of the first blitz. The leader, who was known as Blackie, claimed to have heard it fall, and no one was precise enough in his dates to point out he would have been one year old and fast asleep on the down platform of Wormsley Common Underground station. On one side of the car-park leant the first occupied house, No.3. T, whose words were almost confined to voting 'Yes' or 'No' to the plan of operations proposed each day by Blackie, once startled the whole gang by saying broodingly,
'Wren built that house, father says.'
Old Misery - whose real name was Thomas - had once been a builder and decorator. He lived alone in the crippled house, doing for himself.
'Been to the loo', one of the boys said, for it was common knowledge that since the bombs fell something had gone wrong with the pipes of the house and Old Misery was too mean to spend money on the property. The loo was a wooden shed at the bottom of the narrow garden with a star-shaped hole in the door.
Next day T was late at the rendezvous, and the voting for that day's exploit took place without him. At Blackie's suggestion the gang was to disperse in pairs, take buses at random and see now many free rides could be snatched from unwary conductors (the operation was to be carried out in pairs to avoid cheating). They were drawing lots for their companions when T arrived.
'Where you been, T?' Blackie asked.
'At Old Misery's?' Blackie said. He had a sensation that T was treading on dangerous ground. He asked hopefully, 'Did you break in?'
'No. I rang the bell.'
'What do you mean, a beautiful house?' Blackie asked with scorn. He was just, he had no jealousy, he was anxious to retain T in the gang if he could. It was the word 'beautiful' that worried him - that belonged to a class world. 'If you'd broken in,' he said sadly - that indeed would have been an exploit worthy of the gang.
'This was better,' T said. 'I found out things.'
T raised eyes; 'We'll pull it down.' - 'We'll destroy it.'
Blackie gave a single hoot of laughter. 'What'd the police be doing all the time?' he said.
'They'd never know. We'd do it from inside. I've found a way in. We'd be like worms, don't you see, in an apple. When we came out again there'd be nothing there - nothing but just walls, and then we'd make the walls fall down - somehow.'
Blackie said uneasily. 'It's proposed that tomorrow and Monday we destroy Old Misery's house.'
'Who's in favour?'
T said, 'It's carried.'
'How do we start?' Summers asked.
'He'll tell you.' Blackie said. It was the end of his leadership. He went away to the back of the car-park and began to kick stone, dribbling it this way and that. He thought of going home, of never returning, of letting them all discover the hollowness of T's leadership, but suppose afterall what T proposed was possible - the fame of the Wormsley Common car-park gang would surely reach around London. There would be headlines in the papers.
T was giving his orders with decision; it was as though this plan had been with him all his life.
On Sunday morning all were punctual except Blackie. He climed the wall into Misery's garden. There was no sign of anybody anywhere. The loo stood like a tomb in a neglected graveyard. The curtains were drawn. They opened the backdoor to him and he came in. He had at once the impression of organization, very different from the old happy-go-lucky ways under his leadership. For a while he wandered up and down stairs looking for T. Nobody addressed him.
The interior of the house was being carefully demolished without touching the outer walls. 'You've really done it.' Blackie said with awe. 'What's going to happen?'
'We've only just begun.' T said. The kitchen was a shambles of broken glass and china. The dining room was stripped of parquet, the skirting was up, the door had been taken off its hinges, and the destroyers had moved up a floor.
'Did you find anything special?' Blackie asked.
T nodded. 'Come over here.' He said, 'and look.' Out of both pockets he drew bundles of pound notes. 'Old Misery's savings.' He said.
'What are you going to do? Share them?'
'We aren't thieves.' T said 'No body's going to steal anything from this house. I keep these for you and me - a celebration.'
Next morning the serious destruction started. 'We've got to hurry' T said. 'There's all the floors left and the stairs. We haven't taken out a single window. You voted like the others. We are going to destroy this house. There won't be anything left when we've finished.'
It was then they heard Mike's whistle at the back.
'Something's wrong.' Blackie said.
'Old Misery' Mike said. 'He's on his way.'
'But why?' T said. 'He told me...' He protested with the fury of the child he had never been. 'It isn't fair.'
T stood with his back to the rubble like a boxer knocked groggy against the ropes. He had no words as his dreams shook and slid. Then Blackie acted before the gand had time to laugh.
'Tell Mike to go out to the loo and hide close beside it. When he hears me whistle he's got to count ten and start to shout.'
'Oh, 'Help', anything.'
'You hear, Mike' Blackie said. He was the leader again.
'Quick, Mike. The loo. Stay here, Blackie, all of you till I yell.'
'Where are you going, T?'
'Don't worry, I'll see to this, I said, I would, didn't I?'
Old Misery came limping off the common. He had mud on his shoes and he stopped to scrape them on the pavement's edge. He didn't want to soil his house. Somewhere somebody whistled. Old Misery looked sharply round. He didn't trust whistles.
A boy ran into the road from the car-park. 'Mr.Thomas,' he called 'Mr.Thomas.'
'What is it?'
'I'm terribly sorry, Mr.Thomas. One of us got taken short, and we thought you wouldn't mind, and now he can't get out.'
'What do you mean, boy?'
'He's got stuck in your loo.'
'He'd no business....Haven't I seen you before?'
'You showed me your house.'
'So I did. So I did. That doesn't give you the right to....'
'Do hurry, Mr.Thomas. He'll suffocate.'
Somebody shouted again through the dark. 'I'm coming, I'm coming,' Mr.Thomas called. He said to the boy beside him, 'I'm not unreasonable. Been a boy myself. As long as things are done regular.'
'Do get him out, Mr.Thomas.'
'He won't come to any harm in my loo,' Mr.Thomas said, stumbling slowly down the garden. He paused at the door of the loo. 'What's the matter in there?' he called. There was no reply.
'Perhaps he's fainted.' The boy said.
'Not in my loo. Here, you, come out.' Mr.Thomas said, and giving a great jerk at the door he nearly fell on his back when it swung easily open.
A hand first supported him and then pushed him hard.
His head hit the opposite wall and he sat heavily down. His bag hit his feet. A hand whipped the key out of the lock and the door slammed. 'Let me out,' he called, and heard the key turn in the lock.
A voice spoke to him softly through the star-shaped hole in the door. 'Don't worry, Mr.Thomas' it said, 'we won't hurt you, not if you stay quiet.'
Mr.Thomas put his head between his hands and pondered. He had noticed that there was only one lorry in the car-park and he felt certain that the driver would not come for it before the morning.
Mr.Thomas let out an experimental yell, but nobody answered. The noise could not even have reached his enemies.
A voice spoke to him through the hole. 'Mr.Thomas.'
'Let me out,' Mr.Thomas said sternly.
'Here's a blanket,' the voice said, and the long grey sausage was worked through the hole and fell in swathes over Mr.Thomas's head.
'There's nothing personal,' the voice said. 'We want you to be comfortable tonight.'
'Tonight,' Mr.Thomas repeated incredulously.
'Catch' the voice said. 'Penny buns - we've buttered them, and sausage rolls. We don't want you to starve, Mr.Thomas.'
Mr.Thomas pleaded desperately. 'A joke's a joke, boy. Let me out and I won't say a thing. I've got rheumatics. I got to sleep comfortable.'
'You wouldn't be comfortable, not in your house, you wouldn't. Not now.'
'What do you mean, boy?'
But the footsteps receded. There was only the silence of night; no sound of sawing.
Mr.Thomas tried one more yell, but he was daunted and rebuked by the silence.
At seven next morning the driver came to fetch his lorry. He was vaguely aware of a voice shouting, but it didn't concern him. He backed the lorry until it touched the great wooden shore that supported Mr.Thomas's house.
The lorry moved foreward, was momentarily checked as though something were pulling it from behind, and then went on to the sound of a long rumbling crash.
There was no house beside the car-park, only a hill of rubble.
The driver again became aware of somebody shouting.
It came from the wooden erection which was the nearest thing to a house in that desolation of broken brick. The driver climed the smashed wall and unlocked the door.
Mr.Thomas came out of the loo. He gave a sobbing cry.
'My house,' he said. 'Where's my house?'
'Search me,' the driver said and began to laugh. There wasn't anything left anywhere.
'How dare you laugh,' Mr.Thomas said. 'It was my house. My house.'
'I'm sorry,' the driver said 'I can't help it, Mr.Thomas. There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny.'
[End of Story]
Now, let me illustrate a little on the allegorical links of this Greene's story to post-independent Sri Lankan history.
The leader of Wormsley Common Gang in section 1 is named Blackie. He can be equated to D.S.Senanayake. The character T is Solomon Bandaranaike. Blackie is less literate than T, as shown in the dialogue that Blackie doesn't know who is Wren, and when T replies 'The man who built St.Paul's', Blackie retorts, 'Who cares'. In Sri Lankan history also, D.S.Senanayake was less literate than Solomon Bandaranaike.
The character T proposes a new style of looting to the gang, with the words, "We'd be like worms, don't you see, in an apple. When we came out again there'd be nothing here - nothing but just walls, and then we'd make the walls fall down - somehow". This is akin to Solomon Bandaranaike's pledge of 'Sinhala Only in 24 hours'. Before that time marker, the Wormsley Common Gang was just engaged in petty crime. Greene's description was so apt for that early 1950s period of Sri Lankan history. "At Blackie's suggestion the gang was to disperse in pairs, take buses at random and see how many free rides could be snatched from unwary conductors (the operation was to be carried out in pairs to avoid cheating)."
Towards the end of section 1, the leader of the gang Blackie feels that he had lost out to T. Let me repeat how Greene has portrayed Blackie's mood. "It was the end of his leadership. He went away to the back of the car-park and began to kick stone, dribbling it this way and that. He thought of going home, of never returning, of letting them all discover the hollowness of T's leadership, but suppose afterall what T proposed was possible..."
This was the the mood of UNP's leaders (especially J.R.Jayewardene) after the drubbing received by the UNP at the 1956 general election.
UNP's turn returned in 1977. This is reflected at the beginning of section 3 of the story. At this point, Blackie has 'metamorphosed' into Jayewardene, and similarly his antagonist T has 'metamorphosed' into Mrs.Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
The character T was shocked when he heard that Mr.Thomas is returning home. In Greene's words, "T stood with his back to the rubble like a boxer knocked groggy against the ropes. He had no words as his dreams shood and slid. Then Blackie acted before the gang had time to laugh."
J.R.Jayewardene was the guy who began to use military frequently to entrench himself in power. Mike is the character which can be identified as the military. At the beginning of the story, Greene describes Mike as the youngest person in the gang with the words, "No one was surprised except Mike, but Mike at the age of nine was surprised by everything." Then in section 3, leader Blackie gives order to Mike. The two sentences, "Tell Mike to go out to the loo and hid close beside it. When he hears me whistle he's got to count ten and start to shout" are pregnant with meaning when we reminisce on the use of military by J.R.Jayewardene.
In section 4 of the story, while holding Mr.Thomas as hostage within the loo [toilet], the Wormsley Common Gang feed him with buttered penny buns and sausage rolls, telling "We don't want you to starve, Mr.Thomas'. This is a good analogy of both UNP and SLFP holding the Sinhalese voters hostage while feeding them with 'LTTE terror stories' and 'campaign against terrorism', begun in 1978 by J.R.Jayewardene and still being continued after 22 years by Chandrika Kumaratunga.
What I enjoyed most of all, was that the story climaxes on the happenings in the loo. What a funny way to depict the ultimate plight of Mr.Thomas [Sri Lankan voters] who trusted the words of Wormsley Common Gang [UNP and SLFP] and got busted in the loo, of all places.
A final tid-bit about Graham Greene and his link to Tamil scholarship. It is worth remembering that in 1935, Greene was instrumental in bringing R.K.Narayan to the international English literary audience through his contacts with the publishers in Britain. He shortened the long, tongue-twisting Tamil name Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayanaswamy into the now acclaimed R.K.Narayan.