The trip to Kataragama to see Manik off didn’t take too much time as Flowerbook is just over two hours driving – through Wellawaya and Buttala. The biggest bummer on the way was having to pass a few kilometers of decimated forest on either side of the Buttala – Sella Kataragama road – done ostensibly to prevent LTTE cadres from staging an attack under cover of the forest! And I thought the east was completely cleared!!! Anyway, there it was, in all its stark and hideous reality for all passersby to gape in disbelief – or, to be more accurate, in utter consternation – the ancient Palu (Manilkara hexandra), Burutha (Chloroxylon swietenia) and other priceless (in terms of growth and as part of the environment) trees chopped, their branches and other debris piled up and aflame – the main trunks no doubt hauled off to fill the coffers of some entity that thought up the sordid plan.

Hey maan, don it seem kinda weird to you dat now dem soldiers be like sittin ducks for snipers? Dey not bein keepin any trees roun dere bunkers even to give dem som shade from dat burnin sun! Mus be som genius behin dat plannin!

Java’s come up with another one of his ‘incisive’ observations, and he’s right, of course. The whole thing just didn’t make any sense at all.

Anyway, the rest of the journey went smoothly enough, although the road is in bad need of resurfacing. Not having been to Kataragama for a few years, I found the place to be quite changed – I preferred the older vibe. The Mandara Rosen was ‘surprising’, to say the least – and even though The Last Queen of Kandy had prepared us in advance for accommodation a bit above par for Kataragama, I wasn’t ready for the real thing. Not that it is special in comparison to the resort hotels, but for Kataragama, it was rather ‘posh’ – in a nouveau riche kinda way.

Around twenty rooms had been reserved in advance by The Last Queen – in the name of Manik Sandrasagara, as this was the hotel he frequented whenever he visited and the management knew him well. I checked in and settled in the room, making myself a cup of coffee. Java, in the meantime, found out that The Last Queen had just arrived, was busy preparing for the evening and wanted us to join him in his room upstairs. Getting there, we find The Queen quite agitated to realize that the IPL Cricket could not be accessed from the TV programmes offered by the hotel and so, after a bit of mouthing off about how primitive it all is, we ordered some sandwiches and started contacting the others who were either on their way over, or already there.

Not too much later The Queen was holding court – as the close friends all trickled in and settled down. Some had already met with Matara Swamy – a very old and dear friend of a few of us who had spent many good times with him over the years – and had sussed out the spot for the ritual by the banks of the Menik Ganga. Everything had been organized for starting off from the hotel at 5.30 am, so that it would all be done by around 9.00 am. And so the evening went on – just the sort of time that would have been right up Manik’s street, with good vibes and very high states of mind being achieved in his memory. Not much sleep was had by most, but we were all up and ready to leave for the river by 5.30 – just as the first shafts of light appeared.

Members of Manik’s family, most of who lived abroad, had made the trip to Singapore when they knew about his condition after surgery. They had taken care of the cremation and accompanied the ashes back, along with Lucy and the children. Most of his closest friends were also there and we all gathered around the selected spot to watch Matara Swamy and his acolytes prepare for the ritual. It was a perfect morning, with the fairly fast flowing river reflecting the early morning light – shifting light and shade as the shadows of the trees and glinting rocks added to the ambiance. The ritual itself was a trip – the chanting, the fire, the flowers and everything else took on a surreal quality as the celebration of Manik’s life came to its end with Matara Swamy and his assistant wading into the river with the casket and slowly releasing its contents into the water. And we all scattered the flowers that floated on downstream.

Just about then I looked across – and I could just see him there, sitting on a rock on the other side, watching it all in amusement, appreciation and eternal love.