Samuel Perera’s Big Day

bridge-on-the-river-kwai

In the river below, the Sri Lankans bathe. Their idle chatter floats up above the susurration of the river tumbling over smooth slabs of rock. It is the dry season and the river is low. A small catamaran ferry takes its full load of a dozen standing passengers across. A man punts using a paddle. The catamaran turns and glides across the slow current.

A red clothed boy carries a drum across the wide shallow river moving from slab of rock to large boulder. The water eddies and swirls as he walks, by turns, ankle and waist deep. He joins several thin boys in dark blue trunks who crowd around a large rock in the middle of the river. Now, he sits among them and beats out a rhythm on his drum. Other boys wade out to join the group waving they arms for balance as they tentatively place their bare feet on the stony river bed until there are a dozen or so assembled on or around the boulder. They sing; the drum beats. Everywhere people chat, swim or wash – their bodies turning white with soap before a final dip uncovers the brown skin.

On the sandy bank, fully clothed young children wander in small groups awaiting their rite of passage and entry into the water alone in years to come. Mothers sit by large bags of clothes and picnic rice. A snake charmer, encircled by an audience gripped by fear and curiosity, waves a straw hat over two low flat baskets made from palm leaves. From each, a cobra sinuously rises moving their heads in time with the hat. In his other hand, he plays a reedy wooden flute. Suddenly, a third snake escapes from one basket and the crowd steps back with a collective gasp of fear. The charmer puts down his whistle or flute and with the lid of a basket hits the snake forcing it back into his basket.

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