…he withdraws from a rucksack a royal blue Sri-Lankan cricket shirt
The bicycle has an iron frame. It is sturdy, and typical of old-fashioned, reliable Ceylon. We will travel a few kilometres along a gentle path by the river. We are sixteen, well-heeled British seniors on a holiday excursion. After brakes have been tested, saddle heights adjusted, and the most rudimentary instruction on the gears given, we are ready to depart. Tentatively the pedals are pressed down and it all comes flooding back in waves of nostalgia from the days of cycling to and from school long ago on traffic-free roads. It is true you never forget how to ride a bicycle.
Most people selected a helmet. Most, but I hear one comment: ‘I haven’t done this in years,’ and pointing to the helmet, ‘Are these things necessary? I’m not wearing one of those.’
The group moves off. Some wobble but with their hands gripping the handle bars as if they were holding bullion boxes among a crowd of thieves, the self-conscious riders relax. The sound of happy laughter and conversation ripple among the group.
The pathway is asphalt at first but quickly turns into barren earth flattened by the tread of countless feet. It is wide and well-used. A tuk-tuk, the only permitted motor vehicle, passes through the crowd of cyclists which parts like the Red Sea to permit the vehicle’s passage.
As I become familiar with the gyroscopic forces of inertia and relax with the motion of the bicycle, a young Sri-Lankan support-rider comes alongside.
‘How are you today, sir?’ he asks with an accent that could have come from an Oxford elocution class.
We exchange the usual information. He wants to be sure that everything is OK with me and my bike. It is.
He tells his name is Ashoka and he wants to know all about England. He is 24.
‘Do you play cricket?’ I ask.
‘Yes, sir. I play every weekend at …’ He says the name but I don’t catch it. All Sri-Lankan names seem exceptionally long and difficult to catch first time. Not wishing to slow him down I nod as if I had caught the name. ‘We had a great player at our club. Have you heard of Lahiru Madushanka?’
I shake my head as we cycle along side by side.
‘I have batted with him. He has a fine drive and scored many runs at my club, when he was starting out at ….’ There’s that long poly-syllabic name again. ‘Now he plays for the Sri-Lanka A team.’
‘What about you? How good are you?’ I ask.
‘Oh not that good, sir.’ Ashoka, with all his charm, is cycling beside beaming with happiness at the conversation but possibly wistfully wondering why he never made it.
‘I loved cricket,’ I say, becoming emotional for the love of game played on sunny afternoons on school fields in my youth.
‘Were you a batsman or a bowler?’
‘A not very good batsman, but I played for many years. What about you, did you score many runs with Lahiru?’
‘On one or two occasions, we had a good stand, but he scored most of the runs.’
Ashoka is is a fine young man, clear eyes and a strong but straight nose. I could see him wielding a bat against the quickest of bowlers without fear. Nevertheless, it is clear he has not made the grade.
He is underestimates my age by several years, which is a nice fillip to my ego, and makes me like him even more. Our conversation is animated, not sad. He sees his future in tourism and meeting people. With his interest and openness, he should do well. He is learning Japanese.
At a pre-determined roadside stop, Ashoka wants to show me something from the support truck parked there. From the passenger’s seat of the cab, he withdraws from a rucksack a royal blue Sri-Lankan cricket shirt with the word LAHIRU across the back. Unexpectedly, he offers it to me. ‘Please, I give it you,’ he says.
‘I can’t take it.’ I reply. Two thoughts cross my mind. Firstly, I do not want a prized shirt from a relatively poor young man. He was asking nothing in return, he was being friendly in the only way he knew and that was to offer something of value to a senior figure, just as an ambassador offers a greeting gift to a king or queen. It means more to him than it will ever mean to me. Secondly, the Japanese say that a free gift is the most expensive.
I decline his offer, but we exchange e-mail addresses. The offer lives on with me now. I will long remember his openness and generosity and his handsome smiling face.
Ashoka Sampath, thank you for reminding me that we should love our neighbour, unconditionally.