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Monday, August 8, 2022

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THE HOROSCOPE | Don Wijewardhana – Wellington

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“I have had enough,” groaned Wimal as he crashed into bed in his room next door at the doctors’ quarters at the hospital. He had just completed an 18-hour turn of duty in the wards. I untied the laces and slipped the shoes off his feet. He turned on his side and fell asleep, instantly.

Life as an internee doctor anywhere was difficult. But in remote Sri Lanka it has been extremely so. The first appointments for both Wimal and me were to the public hospital in Badulla, a whole day’s train journey away from the capital. In a way it was exciting: first real job and a pay cheque every month.

But the thrill was short-lived. Diagnosing and prescribing medication to almost an unending queue of patients every morning from eight till mid afternoon was daunting. Duty rosters compounded our woes. Once a week, we had a twelve-hour overnight shift in the wards before starting the clinics once again in the morning. By that time we were like zombies. That elevated the risk of making a mistake. At this initial stage of the career that was the last thing we wanted. I think it was this unenviable plight that brought us together as close friends.

We used to gripe often about our predicament. I was on one of those whining sessions when Wimal interrupted.

“In spite of all these hassles Anil, do you realise we are so lucky?”

“You are the ultimate optimist Wimal. I just finished 20 hours of work without even a wink of sleep. Grabbed a sandwich on the run and that was all the food. Yes indeed, aren’t we lucky!”

“But can you remember in our university days too we went without food or drink? I know that was of course not because we didn’t have the time: we didn’t have the money. Now we get a regular income well above our needs. Isn’t that marvelous?”

“And after working our guts out!” I added the missing bit of the equation. “I agree our pay is well above our needs. But that is because we have no time or place to spend it in this god forsaken place”.

To my annoyance Wimal was persisting with his unusually positive stance. “But ignoring those temporary inconveniences, (he indicated with fingers in the air inverted commas around the last two words) do you realise we are sitting on a gold mine?”

“Have you gone nuts already man?” At the end of an awfully tiring day I could no longer hide my anger at this pathological optimist.

“Anil, you should listen to this. I had a visit from a very interesting character yesterday. He is a Kapuwa (matchmaker), who has been sent by my parents. Well, to cut a long story short, he has arranged a visit this weekend to see a possible bride for me. Do you know the dowry offered? : one hundred million in cash and double that in land and other assets”.

“Oh, what a barbaric practice” I wanted to stir him up. But inside me I was delighted. In spite of the hard work involved, being a doctor is not bad, after all. “So assuming it works, you are not choosing a lifetime partner but a heap of money and property. Is that your idea of marriage?”

“No. The point I am making is that in spite of all the pain and hard grind, with our medical degree we are on top of the pecking order when it comes to marriage. Not too many other professions can command anything near that level of dowry”.

“OK. But how do you know the girl is compatible, presentable, has no disabilities and can hold an intelligent conversation … things like that which are essential in a partner?”

“It was only after checking out all those things that my parents have suggested to the Kapuwa to visit me”.

“Now isn’t that astonishing. Without the two of you ever meeting, and indeed even without your knowledge, they have already established you two are compatible! Wimal, I thought you were an educated man not to believe in such mumbo jumbo!”

“Anil, you amaze me. I know you have a very good knowledge of medicine. But I would say you are only a child when it comes to understanding the real world” Wimal got his own back. “Do you know there is a tool that has been used for thousands of years to assess this ‘compatibility’ business that you are so obsessed with? That is the horoscope, which is cast on the basis of your time of birth. It is an extremely accurate account of your qualities and the planetary influences that shape your future”.

Wimal went on. “Now in this case our horoscopes have been compared and found to be matching 90 per cent. And that is compatibility my boy! Are you aware that there are twenty-four elements of compatibility in a marriage and the horoscope compares each one of them? So it is very detailed and covers every aspect”.

“Do you know why half the marriages fail in western countries: because they don’t have a similar device to the horoscope to determine compatibility before entering into marriage”, Wimal continued. “It is only now that a mechanism that could perhaps be used to assess some basics of compatibility is being developed. That is the human genome. Yet it is far from being operational. In the east the horoscope has done the same job for centuries”.

I was not convinced but realized the argument was now irrelevant since the visit has already been arranged.

“Anil, I would like you to join us for this visit”, Wimal blurted out.

I was pleasantly surprised. I knew this was the traditional way partners were selected but have never been this close to action before. Besides, such visits were normally reserved for family members. I was happy that Wimal thought of me as part of the family although we have known each other closely for less than a year.

On that Saturday morning the two of us drove in Wimal’s car first to his parent’s home to pick them up along with his sister and the Kapuwa. Wimal was dressed in a lounge suit. He was very smart in his light blue silk shirt and the blue and red tie. I wore a clean trouser and short-sleeved shirt making sure to keep it plain not in any way to steal his thunder. Wimal’s sister too was in a beautiful reddish silk saree with matching blouse and she looked radiant. Others were also suitably attired. Anyone seeing us could have easily guessed what our mission was. Wimal’s sister adjusted his tie, which was only slightly loose. She also pinned a red carnation on the lapel. He was indeed looking very much ‘bride-groomish’.

It was close to midday when we reached the bride’s place. Although Kapuwas are well known for making mountains out of molehills, in this case, all what he had said seemed true so far. It was not an ordinary house. It was a mansion. The intricately designed parapet wall had been recently colour-washed and so was the house. This was probably the only two-storied building in the area. The mountain of coconuts piled up at the far end of the property gave some indication of the source of their wealth. As I recalled what the Kapuwa had told, the family had inherited much of its wealth. They were fabulously rich.

As we got out of the car Wimal called me to a side and allocated my duties. “Anil, I want you to tell me your frank opinion about the girl. My parents are concerned only about the dowry and family standing and would be blind to anything else; also they don’t have the eye to see whether we match – remember ‘compatibility?’”.

As we entered the house an attractive young lady in the welcoming party stepped forward and greeted us. We all recognized her from the photo Wimal had, as Namali. She was in a light blue sari and a matching blouse with short sleeves. She was of light complexion and wearing a gold necklace with a heart shaped pendant. Her makeup was simple. Slightly nervous, she offered the traditional ‘Ayubowan’ greeting to each one of us. She was indeed beautiful. First impressions were good.

It was now well past midday. At Namali’s father’s suggestion we opted to have lunch instead of starting off with the usual cup of tea. The aroma of food coming from the kitchen made me really hungry and I was glad he made that offer. Inside of the house was also tastefully decorated. It was not over-furnished as many established homes in the country were.

The Elizabethan furniture in the lounge were well polished and in their appropriate places. What sprang to my mind was whether they had good insurance cover for such a valuable collection. Then again even if there was cover it was unlikely to be able to replace such period furniture. I was sad that in an era when there were no restrictions on export of pieces of historic art and artifacts much of the country’s heritage had already been whittled out by foreigners who saw their value or by migrants who settled in western countries.

After a sumptuous lunch the elders from the two sides got into a huddle in the lounge, probably to sort out the dowry, probe family connections and generally establish the credentials of the two sides. Wimal, his sister, Namali and I converged in the adjacent family room.

“Namali you have a nice place here”, I commented just to break the ice.

“This is our traditional family home built by my great grandfather during British times. He was the Rate’ Mahattaya (Chief Regional Administrator). But now we are just simple folks” Namali laughed. Her small white teeth were dazzling like pearls.

“I wish we were also simple people like that”, Wimal interjected. I was pleased to see him take the opportunity to gently ‘cross examine’ Namali to glean the information he wanted.

‘I don’t mind exchanging places with a doctor: everyone thinks of them as gods, ‘ Namali fired back. And we all laughed together.

I couldn’t resist leaping in. “I would gladly exchange mine with anyone prepared to work 20 hours without a break”.

“Anil, I appreciate what Wimal and you are doing in the Uva region that is not well served with health facilities. It is an enormous service” Namali commented, displaying her knowledge of the situation with remote parts of the country.

For the rest of the afternoon we were engaged in light hearted and amiable conversation, which allowed us to learn a lot more about Namali. She was a graduate teacher in a secondary school nearby. She was pleasant and charming, quick witted and had a great personality. Their riches had not changed her from being a simple, down to earth, woman. When she was not looking I winked my approval to Wimal. He raised his thumb with a broad smile on his face.

The laughter coming from the lounge showed things had gone well there too and they were ready to conclude this successful first encounter.

Inside the car going back home everyone was in high spirit. Wimal’s mother was the first to vocalise the feeling even before Wimal moved the car to second gear.

“What a charming family. In spite of their wealth these people are so humble. I couldn’t believe it”.

“Not only wealthy, they are well connected too. Do you know they are closely related to the Meegolla family owning half the properties in Kandy? They themselves own quite a few buildings and land in the area. Being the only child in the family, I am sure all that will come to Namali”, Wimal’s father noted, rolling the ends of his mustache with both hands. That was what he always did when making an important point.

“She is an ideal match for Wimal. I really like Namali” Wimal’s sister chipped in.

“What matters is what Wimal thinks. Let’s hear the groom” I suggested.

“Well, when all of you think so highly of her how can I disagree?” Wimal broke into laughter. He couldn’t hide his elation.

The next step was for the bride’s party to visit Wimal’s family and they promised to advise us of a date through the Kapuwa.

*********

Back at the hospital Wimal was on cloud nine. Work worries were forgotten for the time being with the pending bonanza, which could completely change his life. After dinner that evening Wimal walked into my room.

“Do you still hang on to your idealistic nonsense about proposed marriages?” he asked with a smirk.

I was in fact rapidly changing my thinking. I felt that finding a partner through a Kapuwa, after all, was not that bad. In fact it could provide the best of both worlds – money and love. Wimal has been right all along: the medical degree is a passport to riches as well as a good marriage. But I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to see that he had won me over.

“Yes, in this case you are right. But that was more luck than anything else. It may not happen the same way always” I said sheepishly.

“It is not luck Anil. Here you get the opportunity to carefully evaluate a proposal before saying yay or nay. If it is yes you go ahead, if not you part company without hard feelings. On the other hand, if you select a partner by falling in love you are trapped, it is too late to say no and sometimes you have to endure a whole life of misery. You get only one chance to make capital out of six long years of pain and toil. You shouldn’t throw that opportunity away Anil”.

Wimal went on. “Just see. They have been talking about 200 million worth of real estate and money. And also Namali being the only child all their wealth will eventually come to her. As you would have seen they are astoundingly rich. As a doctor, even if we grind the entire lifetime, do you think we can make that kind of money?”

Wimal was also insistent that I get the services of the same Kapuwa to look for a bride for me. He had already alerted him to that.

The following day Wimal called an investment broker to assess the potential opportunities. If invested wisely, he argued, he could retire or move to another vocation with no long queues of people waiting for attention. The math showed that prospects were limitless.

**********

It is now one week since our visit. We expected the Kapuwa to arrive with a suitable date for the return call almost immediately after. But he has not shown up yet. Wimal rang his parents: they had not heard from him either. It was a nerve-wracking wait. Wimal was pacing up and down the corridor in deep thought chewing his fingernails. It was more or less like the wait for final exam results. I tried to assure him that all will happen in good time and to be patient.

The following week I was returning to our living quarters in the evening when I noticed the Kapuwa waiting for me. I knew immediately this was set up by Wimal. I was going to be the matchmaker’s next ‘victim’.

“Sir, I was waiting for you to get your horoscope”.

“I know. Wimal was going to put you on to me” I said blushing. But first I wanted to set my own parameters for the selection of a bride. I told the Kapuwa the type of girl I was looking for. “I think you have found a good match for Wimal. But I am not interested in that much wealth. What I really want is a beautiful, well matching partner who understands me”

Kapuwa put on a cheeky smile. “Well, the reason I asked for the horoscope is that Miss Namali wanted me to tell you that she does not wish to marry Wimal. But she likes you. And her parents asked me if I could bring your horoscope”.

Don Wijewardhana.-Wellington

(A version of this story has been previously published in The Ceylon Daily News)

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