By Sanjeewa Karunaratne
When I was growing up, I adored motorbikes. As youngsters, our dream was to own one. Many of the friends were lucky enough that their parents managed to buy them one. I was lucky too—my brothers and I shared the CD-125 motorbike my parents bought for their printing press. At a time of substantial turmoil in the country, the bike gave us quick access to places and events that many people did not have or dared to have. For example, I had a quick peek at the Hokandara mass grave thanks to the bike. It helped me observe many dead bodies dumped by the roadside. As much as we liked our bikes, there was a downside—motorbike was a popular tool in the arsenal of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), whose fighters engaged in a civil uprising against the government. They used motorbikes for drive-by shootings and assassinations. Therefore, the police, military, and the para-military were closely monitoring the bikes and its riders.
My friend Gagan saved money to buy a motorbike for some time. Once in every full moon, he would tell me how much money he saved. Even though he could have saved more to buy a better bike, Gagan settled on a used Honda MB-8 motorbike for Rs. 8000. Recently, this bike was introduced to Sri Lanka by the Honda Motor Company. It was an attractive bike that had a distinctive and somewhat irritating exhaust noise. The exhaust noise made it easily distinguishable from another motorbike. Unfortunately, it was so high pitched that when it accelerated over 60 kilometers per hour, the rider could not hear any other noise but the exhaust. As a result, it earned a nickname, takaran kata (metallic mouth), among the motorbike fans.
Gagan was three years older to me. His name Gagan means sky. It was where he was aspiring to be. The only son of four children, he was the gem of his mother and sisters. They were proud of him: tall and handsome with elegant long curly hair. I can still recall the manner he readjusted his front bump once every few minutes. He was talented in another unique way—one of the top break-dancers in the area.
It was the eighties—Michael Jackson, baggy trousers, and breakdance fever hit Sri Lanka. In front of mirrors, we mastered waves and moonwalks. On the weekends, friends gathered to practice. We rarely missed any musical show in the area where we performed burns. The literary meaning of burn is burning the opponent so that one can smoke him out. The trick in winning a burn is that one must have a unique break that the opponent is unable to duplicate. It was where Gagan came in handy. Not only, his breakdance was top-class but also, he had an exceptional electric break that no one else could do. He combined the electric break with a robot break and executed the routine eloquently. When we went to musical shows, it was a reward to have Gagan among us. That was the reason we visited my high school friends in Gampaha.
My friends in Gampaha were looking for a good dancer. They were beaten in dance by another group. Since I could not stop talking about Gagan and his skills at school, they invited us to a musical show on a weekend. There was a burn during this musical show between these two groups. I could not say my friends won the burn outright that night—the asphalt road was so dirty and uneven to do a duet in a floor dance. I remember looking around for a spot to perform a floor dance to break the tie. Despite this situation, Gagan captivated everyone with his skills in breakdance. His performance was so impressive that it established friendships between two distant towns that could not have happened otherwise.
The motorbike group traveled to many places. It was fun to ride when the Colombo city was illuminated at night by the lights during festivals. People from all around the country flocked there. In the snarled-up traffic, only the motorbikes seemed to be moving between the vehicles. When Thorana (free-standing ornamental or arched gateway) was on display during the Vesak celebrations in Colombo, only the motorbikers could go near it without waiting in line. Almost every December 31st, we rode to Galle Face Green to enjoy the celebrations happening there.
I remember when Gagan was brandishing his new ride. He was excited and eager to race. It looked like the best thing that happened to him. In the first few months, I found it difficult to catch him at his home. I have waited for hours while fielding complaints from his mother about the motorbike. Some of those complaints were aimed at me. Since I already had a motorbike, she must have thought I inspired him to buy one. When I said otherwise, she countered that I could have dissuaded him from buying a motorbike. I kept assuring her that it was safe; I never had an accident, and Gagan was a responsible rider. His father had taken a few rides with him, but his mother never did. She was so scared of this bike. In fact, she hated it.
During the civil uprising, the military set up checkpoints for stop and search functions. They randomly stopped motor vehicles. If a motor vehicle was unable to stop, the standing order seemed to be firing at it. There was no second chance. It might be a reasonable response, given how dangerous the civil uprising was. Nihal Silva, an actor, who acted as Sergeant Nallathambi in a popular comedy, was gunned down by the military when he ignored warnings and ran a checkpoint.
In the same December, Nihal Silva got killed, Gagan and a group of friends were preparing for a bike ride to Gall Face Green to celebrate the 31st and the dawn of a new decade. Usually, my father would allow me to take the bike out on the 31st. On this night, he did not like the group I was traveling with; therefore, he did not let me go out.
As usual, the group raced their bikes in the Gall Face Road. It was a joy to ride in the Gall Face Road at night. The cold sea breeze from the Indian Ocean rushes through your lungs and clothes. The hair runs straight back. You feel like flying. The fresh, salty water droplets embrace your face as the waves break off from the nearby rocks. In a warm night, it is natural air conditioning surrounded by the music of the breaking waves. It invites you to go faster and faster. Unfortunately, there was an army checkpoint at the far end of the Galle Face Road near the Beire Lake that day. No one could proceed beyond this checkpoint as they would otherwise do. The riders who were at the front heeded the warning and stopped. Gagan was coming from behind to catch up with them in his loud motorbike.
The subsequent warnings got diluted in the eerie and high-pitched noise of the MB-8.
In the wee hours of January 1st, the phone kept ringing.
I picked it up. It was Ajith.
“They killed him machan, they killed him, Gagan is dead.”
“Go to his house in the morning.”