Trembling through a narrow, dug-up and pebble-strewn alley, the rickety tuk-tuk stops in front of a giant Javanese fig tree, covered in roots that resemble writhing snakes. Past the unfenced garden specked with overgrown orchids in a bewildering array of colours — red, white and purple with polka dots — is a nondescript single-storey house, painted in mellow yellow.
There are no name plates, or gates, as is common in villages — Rathgama is a town, but in the guise of a village. No calling bells either. A loud thud and the wooden door reluctantly creaks open. Swarna, Lasith Malinga’s mother, greets you with a warm smile. She was sewing, her post-lunch ritual. The sewing machine blocks you like a barricade as you step into the house. Splayed around it is a jumble of unstitched polyester. “I stitch my own clothes and my husband’s too. It’s a habit,” she reveals in stuttering English. The tuk-tuk driver volunteers to translate. Several years in the Middle East has him well honed with the language.
The putrid scent of varnish and paint hits the nose. A few empty tins of paint lie scattered in the room. From a corner stares a framed photograph of Malinga in Sri Lanka’s practice kits, his curls not yet tinted. It’s a poster, she rectifies. “He was touring somewhere and one night I suddenly felt like seeing him. I searched the entire house for a photo but couldn’t find one, but there was an old magazine which had his poster and I tore it and put it there,” she says. Next to it is an unframed black and white picture of Swarna and Lasith’s father, “taken on their wedding day.”
It’s four months since she last saw her son. But she’s used to it. “He hasn’t come here for nearly 10 years. Maybe, he’s busy and prefers the Colombo life. Wherever he’s happy, I’m also happy. Once in a while, we visit Colombo, where my third son also lives. But I like staying here, looking after my garden. Colombo is full of vehicles. I can’t stand the honking of cars,” she quips.
She excitedly shows you around the garden, which has a sample of every tree and flower common to the tropics – papaya, jackfruit, belli, lilies, hibiscus and bougainvillea. There is a bamboo hive, adjoining a cluster of plantains. “This was Lasith’s favourite place to hide. Whenever I called him to do his homework, he used to hide somewhere here. I had to run behind him and sometimes had to threaten him with a cane,” she recalls.
Lasith, though, was a bright student and good at maths. She enrolled him in a fairly reputed college, the Mahinda College (some 30km from Rathgama), and wanted him to work in a bank, like her. But little did the unsuspecting mother know that the college also encouraged cricket and he was sketching a different career plan. “He will go to college fresh and come back really tired. When I asked him, he used to come up with some excuse, like the tyre of the bus got punctured or something like that.”
Swarna knew he was lying, but as long as he fetched good marks, it didn’t matter to her why he came home late. He even hid from her that he had begun playing for the Galle Cricket Club.
But he couldn’t keep lying. “One day, I had gone to Matara for a wedding. As I passed through a ground, I saw someone like him,” she recollects. That evening she scolded him, but seeing Lasith’s defiance, she let him be. A few days later, a neighbour showed her a picture of Lasith in a newspaper. It made her really happy, though she was still sceptical of his choice. “No one from our village or our relatives has ever been a cricketer. We’d just seen them on the TV,” she says.
It was at Mahinda College that Lasith first picked a leather ball. Two years later, he played his first First-Class game and picked up eight wickets. “He came home happy with all his friends and brought us sweets,” she remembers. Inwardly, her scepticism slightly dissipated.
The wickets, thereafter, came in a flurry. A decade-and-a-half later, he is a global cricketing icon, doing maths with his wickets and rich enough to buy banks himself. Swarna is a proud mother. But when there is a sudden urge to see her son, she wishes he were working in a bank, in Galle or the suburbs, where he’d return home every night and “I could see him everyday,” she says. And she wouldn’t need to raid shelves for his pictures in the dead of the night.
“Lasith, my good friend Lasith, do you know him? Is he here?” asks Gamini, his voice choking. The wiry Gamini, an ex-Navy man, was Lasith’s childhood buddy, and claims to have captained him in local matches played with a soft ball. It’s nearly 12 years since they’ve seen each other or conversed. It’s not that the trappings of stardom have made Malinga pricey and forget his roots and friends. They were regularly in contact over phone even after he became a star. But once they quarrelled and drifted apart just like that.
Gamini knows it can be resolved over a few swigs of arrack and salmon, but it’s too late, he feels. “He will certainly recognise me and will take me home. But what do we talk? Why do you need to dig up the past. Both of us will feel uncomfortable. He’s living his life and I mine,” he sighs.
The details of their fight are sketchy. Gamini doesn’t want to divulge anything. All he says is that they fell apart after Lasith got married. “Nobody in the village was invited. We felt heartbroken. For, we have always supported and encouraged him. At least, he should have remembered that he first practised those yorkers against us,” he says.
There was a period when Lasith was so disenchanted that he mulled even quitting the game. Gamini, claims, he was his soulmate. “Despite bowling so well, he was not getting picked. You need push to get into the team. Colombo boys get it. For someone from Rathgama, it’s difficult,” he says.
One evening, he came to Gamini’s house and hired a neighbour’s bike and both went for a long ride on the coastal highway. “His mind was like the sea. Turbulent. He said he wanted to quit the game and sobbed on my shoulders. But I assured him that one day you’ll be a star,” he says. They almost rode up to Hikkaduwa, a surfing hub.
Gamini takes us to the ground where they spent much of their childhood and teens. It’s a shapeless space fenced by jackfruit trees. A few young men are in the middle of an intense game, in the searing afternoon sun. No quintessential side-arm slung-missiles. No fuzzy curls. No jerseys. Gamini then breaks into the slingshot of a bowling action, cutting a decent impersonation. “But no one does it here these days. He is no role model,” he laments.
The last time Gamini saw his friend was during an international match at the Premadasa Stadium. “I purchased my own ticket. I just wanted to see him playing with great stars. He took wickets and celebrated a lot. I returned happy. That’s all I want him to be, happy, wherever he is. But he was such a close friend that I miss him a lot,” he says.
Gamini has little time to pine over long lost friends. He has an ailing mother and a young family to look after. But somewhere in his heart, he still yearns for his friend returning to his village and burying their differences, perhaps over arrack and salmon.
Lasith’s friends routinely sent him invitations for the grand Buddha Pournami festival at the ancient Ghananandaramaya temple, famous for its murals, located on the edge of the Colombo-Galle Express Highway. “We don’t expect any donation or financial aid. His presence would suffice. Once upon a time, he used to visit the temple every day. We just want to see him and relive those days,” says Abeysekara, who, like Gamini, was his friend. Likewise, a town, in the guise of a village, awaits uncertainly for their hero’s return.