I had been dragging my feet for months, and the voice inside me was rising to a crescendo about the jobs around the house that needed to be done. On “Me Time” life is serendipitous and often its pretty easy to ignore this inner scratchy voice. But the grass on the lawn was getting longer and visuals of more slithering reptile friends joining the garden party with my “thalagoya” were getting frequent. Short of getting a herd of goats like Google, the job had to be done by none other but yours truly.
First step — get the lawn mower blades sharpened. So, finally, finally, off I went to the only repair shop I knew in Colombo — its one advertisement being the open shop with a lawn mower outside at a busy traffic intersection. And that’s how I ended up talking to Kingsley Premachandra.
Few minutes into meeting him, I realised here was a man who loved what he was doing, a skilled man, a forthright speaker. Someone out of old “Ceylon.”
The machine he touched, as lovingly as one would do an adoring child that has been ill-treated!. “Nona, whoever used this has not used it properly.’ He addressed me still as Nona ( lady) in an old fashioned way but there was no mistake in the tone — I was getting a rap on my knuckles for not looking after a friend of his. “These days they import Chinese machines that are sold at exorbitant prices though they are not a patch on these German ones. … See here the wheels are worn because you didn’t use it properly and the blades have not been oiled and have rusted. … there are no parts for this machine but I will fix it for you so you can get some more wear out of it …”
So it was lecture 101 in lawn mower upkeep and usage!
“ I learned my trade from my father NPG Francis, while working with him. I wasn’t a good student and often cut school but I loved anything to do with Yakada (iron). I always remember what my father told me ‘Never be in a hurry to finish a job. You must do the repairs, keep it for awhile and test it again and do a proper job, so the customer doesn’t have to come back to you with complaints.”
I quickly dismissed any chirpy Pollyanna thoughts I had of collecting the machine in a couple of days. Nevertheless, I didn’t miss the tinge of sadness in his voice. He remembered the exact time and place of this conversation with his father as being 6:30 am at the Kalubowila Hospital. “My father passed away at 5 minutes to 1 pm that same day and that memory is carved in my mind.” Something I could very well relate too.
He couldn’t give me a receipt as his wife who handled all these transactions was out but I was told to write my name and address and phone number on a blue card which got hung on the handle of the machine. They would contact me once it was repaired, which would take about 4 weeks he said. A simple process of doing business!
Sure enough, the call came almost to the day 4 weeks after the machine was handed in.
It was a cloudy, drizzly day, and it took a few minutes for him to recognise me when I arrived to collect the repaired machine. I was meeting his wife Sunita, the voice on the phone for the first time.
The business part of the repair done, it was time to catch up on our unfinished conversation. I learned he was also a plumber who had worked on many important buildings. All the money he had earned had been earned honestly with these hands, he said. I watched them black with grease, as he spread them out and recalled the words of his mother on her death bed: “Nothing will go wrong in your life as you have worked hard with your hands and looked after me.”
The past silently keeps watch of the present in his shop. There are the wall clocks with static pendulums, old lamps, a faded pink Gramophone and numerous bits and pieces in “yakada.” He had once picked up three second-hand broaches the shop of his next door friend. Asked how much he had to pay for them, his friend had said “Just give me something for a cup of tea.” So Kingsley paid him Rs. 100– enough for much much more than a cup of tea. Many years later, a chance comment about one of these broaches his sister wore on a saree for a wedding, got him washing it in shampoo and taking it to a jeweller for checking. That’s when he discovered the stone on the broach was a “Diyamanthi” (diamond).
At 63, the future looms uncertainly for him. His sight is failing and has to undergo an operation to remove cataracts. He has no sons to hand over his business. A relative he trained under him for 9 years played him out. He doesn’t own a house, but one thing he and Sunita are both proud of is their daughter. With shining eyes, and pride in their eyes, they told me she is a graduate and following a Human Resource Management course and is also working as an intern. “All our efforts were to give her the best education we could afford.”
Underlying theme of many of Kingsley’s stories was his grouse about the lack of integrity, and ethics in the business sector as everyone is hell bent on the accumulation of wealth. “Today even religion is distorted in the pursuit of wealth.”
We had talked till closing time of disappearing values and lifestyles. As I got up to leave both Kingsley and Sunita said “You must come again and meet our daughter.” I didn’t have to ask but Lionel his assistant who had been playing with Tiny, offered to carry the repaired machine to my car.
Although not a labourer, I thought of Khalil Gibran’s statement ‘Of life’s two chief prizes, beauty and truth, I found the first in a loving heart and the second in a labourer’s hand.’