I was wrong and I apologise

To my amazement the Sri Lanka Police arrested (or as they say cutely in these parts ‘nabbed’) the miscreants who stole our goods from Mulberry Cottage as related in the previous post, and retrieved everything. Being Sri Lanka, the process from then on was anything but straightforward but I must start with heartfelt thanks to our local police and a public apology for doubting them.

Martin came in one morning, a few days after the last post here: “Good news, sir. Police catch the people who steal.” He went on to narrate, with evident delight, the story he’d been told of a police raid on the village where sound beatings were administered to the four guys arrested. These, he explained gleefully, were exemplary beatings reserved for people who steal from foreigners. One of the other two houses they robbed belonged to an elderly Swiss lady we have met, though it’s her second home and she doesn’t visit often. Martin’s devout Christianity doesn’t extend to questioning police brutality; I just about managed to resist the temptation to ask “What would Jesus have said, Martin?”

Later that day three police officers including the Laughing Policeman turned up at the house to claim bragging rights and see if we had any goodies to offer them. We didn’t, but were suitably grateful and offered a free lunch to them if they let Rani know a day in advance. Then Martin and I had to make another visit to Talatuoya Police Station to identify the retrieved goods, show them proofs of purchase and make and sign another interminable statement. I’m not usually good at keeping receipts for stuff I buy, but running a business one has to do that for the auditors so, other than the TV which was an old model we shipped from England in 2015, I had the relevant documents. I even had the manual for the TV. All of which impressed the police, as well as the Swiss lady whose losses appeared to be mainly crockery. We were taken to inspect the fridge/freezer, the TV, the gas hob, and the kettle and I pronounced myself very satisfied with the police work, though our language difficulties meant that I could only convey that through grins, body language and saying “Sri Lanka Police One, England Police Nil” which caused loud laughter. Martin explained to them that I had told him that in the UK one would be lucky to get a crime number, let alone four arrests and your goods back.

I’d been told that I would need to appear in court. What I hadn’t been told was that the four stolen items would also have to appear in court. Visions of m’learned friends trying to cross-examine a fridge/freezer came unbidden into my mind. This process is apparently called ‘Production’, making it sound like one of the stages of alchemy. So early on the morning of the court proceedings Martin hired the lorry from the chicken farm next door, with driver, and we set off to Talatuoya by an even shorter shortcut only passable by serious 4x4s and trucks. Once we reached the proper roads down the mountain we even had time for some sightseeing, the driver pointing out a rather lovely waterfall I hadn’t seen before, and his rice paddy, banana and coconut grove.

After another long wait at the police station, during which I was offered breakfast which I politely declined, the goods were loaded onto our little truck along with the things belonging to the other two properties and a police motorcycle with a broken headlamp. The Laughing Policeman had to accompany us to the court in case we did a runner with our own belongings, it seemed, and needed the bike to get himself back again. He and I rode in the cab with the driver; Martin rode on the back of the truck with all the strapped-down goods.

The courts complex is almost in Peradeniya, some ten km from Talatuoya via the centre of Kandy. When we arrived, the goods were loaded onto a display stand with the fridge/freezer proudly standing guard at one end. A procession of suits tramped past on their way into court but paid no attention. All the signage was in Sinhala save for one notice on the door opposite which read ‘Happy New Year 2012’. Martin said “Wait here, sir” and as is his wont disappeared. I waited. And waited, until the Laughing Policeman rushed up: “We are late! Come! Come!” Up three flights of stairs I puffed and into the capacious courtroom, entering just before the judge – to enter after the judge is, quite possibly, a capital offence. The judge was seated on a dais, as judges tend to be. In front of him was the person I presume was the Clerk of the Court, a young woman in a fetching lilac sari. In front of her a table full of black-suited legal types, almost half of whom, I was pleased to note, were women. Off to one side about twenty policemen were gathered around another table, all busily shuffling immense ledgers and reams of paper. At the back were the public, who seemed to include both criminals and victims and perhaps just curious onlookers. I originally joined the throng but, being white, was soon motioned to a vacated chair. Bad form to refuse. Opposite was the dock, and at the back of the courtroom a barred and locked cell door.

Proceedings were rapid. The Clerk called out a name or names and usually someone appeared. Sometimes they went into the dock, sometimes not. The clerk spoke briefly (the judge seemed to be largely superfluous) and some of them then simply left. Others left with a piece of paper, others were taken into the cell. One group was led out by the fire escape door and not seen again – perhaps to a yard reserved for especially naughty prisoners who needed a second beating. Everything was in Sinhala but eventually I caught the word ‘Talatuoya’ and knew we were getting close. Then I heard ‘Jungle Tide’ and my name was called. “In English?” asked the judge, in one of his rare interventions. “Yes please”. The Gang of Four was now occupying the dock. The judge asked if I had identified my possessions. Affirmative. And did I realise I could take them home but would not be allowed to sell them? Now I cannot for the life of me see why I am not allowed to sell stuff I own, but it’s best not to argue with judges so I said “Understood”. The Gang of Four were led into the cells and I assumed I was free to go and so, following the procedure I’d been observing, I bowed to the judge and walked backwards into a cast-iron pillar. Then was motioned by the Laughing Policeman to return. Then someone else said “Go”. So I went.

Outside the courtroom I met the third victim, a Colombo travel agent who also had a Hanthana holiday home near to us and had been meaning to visit Jungle Tide. Potentially useful contact, then. Back to the display stands where I naively assumed we could load our stuff back on the lorry and head home. No, said Martin: “Wait, sir” and, as is his wont, disappeared for another hour, returning with printouts of photos he’d taken on his phone of the stolen and retrieved goods. All of which had to be lodged and recorded on long forms with the jobsworths who inhabit the back end of the courts complex where it’s still New Year 2012. I managed to get into trouble twice. First, for laughing at the travel agent’s comment: “England rules. Sri Lanka people. Bad mix.” I was quickly shushed (I admit I do have an embarrassingly loud laugh, but we were several corridors and three flights of stairs away from where any legal proceedings were taking place). Second, for wandering off into the adjacent yard to gaze at their collection of ruined vehicles. I was called back. “You cannot go, sir. This is courtyard”. Yes, I could see it was a courtyard, then it dawned on me that they meant a Court Yard – a yard that only people employed in the court could enter. The Swiss lady and her Singhalese husband invited me to join them in the ‘cafeteria’ which served only chai tea. No coffee, no cold drinks of any kind. No food save for stale sweets. So I came back out.

We were eventually allowed to load the lorry, unload the motorbike and go home. When we got back to Jungle Tide Martin’s final observation on the matter was: “One minute working, five minutes talking. One person working, five people watching. This Sri Lanka.” Exactly.