The Boy and the Sapphire

Much depends on how we manage globalization: Peace, ecology and economy; basically everything.

Politicians meet in Doha and Kyoto, but the difference is made, or not, on the ground; and it is never simple.

Here is a story from the rough edges of globalization:

I had just finished my daily bone-crush-ride from a new mine in the jungle when the dogs alarmed at the gate. A small boy was standing there, staring at me. Watching foreigners is a common past-time in Sri Lanka but this boy was more than just curious. He had something to sell.

I chased the dogs away and asked what he had. He looked around; making sure nobody was watching, stepped closer and opened his hand: On the dirty palm lay a huge blue sapphire crystal. I was still holding my breath when the little fist snapped closed again.

He had little trust in grown-ups and took several more steps backwards when I came out; ready to run at any time. I stepped closer and he stepped back, keeping out of my personal grabbing distance. He had the wary eyes of a man but the body of a Western pre-school-boy. Scrappy black hair thick as wire, naked feet and hands showing scars of hard work and little care. He wore a blue sarong and a fresh yellow shirt. Very poor, he looked strangely dressed up. He also carried a brand-new plastic bag.

I asked him to give me the crystal but he nodded his head, which means NO in Sri Lanka. He let me have another look at his treasure, from a safe distance. It was big; and blue, filling his little hand.

Meanwhile my wife had locked away the dogs, opened the gate and, when she came out, we got a first shy smile out of the boy. The presence of a woman and the locked-away dogs seemed to sooth his fear.

He gave the crystal to my wife, his hands shaking. My wife, keeping an eye on the boy, passed it on to me.

Behold! It was a fully grown, undamaged sapphire pyramid, perhaps over fifty grams. Most rough sapphires are found as unshapely water-worn pebbles. Intact crystals are a rarity. This one was highly symmetric with orderly and smooth flanks. In parts it showed a silky blue, the color of a foggy morning sky, in other parts the blue deepened to a cornflower blue, one of the famous colors in sapphire.

I got the laser torch from the car, wetted the crystal in the pond and beamed light through it. There were few fractures, some inclusions flaws but nothing bad, and some dirt that could be steel-brushed off. It was a beautiful piece.

Personally, I think such symmetry in nature is proof of God’s existence. Apart from that, it would be good business. We could sell it as it was, uncut, a rare collector’s item.

While I was examining the stone, the boy searched my face for emotions. I didn’t hide it: I wanted this crystal. But there were many problems to solve, so we invited him in for tea.

We formally introduced ourselves and he blushed. His name was Sunil and he thought that he was fourteen or so. They never know exactly how old they are.

We sat down with some tea to discuss the circumstances of the sale, as we would have done with any seller. Slowly he warmed up and shared his situation.

He skipped school regularly to search the riverbeds for gems and sold what he found at the “Pola”, the weekly gemstone market. Whatever he got he invested directly into food, sweets or ice cream, before anybody caught him with the money. His father, he said, was drinking too much arrack and took everything from him. He wasn’t allowed any property. However, once stuff was eaten it was his, so he usually made quick process of any cash. His father regularly searched him for money. Common practice.

Having found this treasure had turned into a problem. After the first euphoria he had realized that from such a sale he could eat all sweets and ice-cream in a 100 mile radius and still have too much left to go home. If his father heard of it, all he would get was a terrible whacking.

Anyways, such a gem he could not simply sell at the Pola. The news would spread to his family in no time so he had kept the crystal hidden, in a tree-trunk, he said. Nobody knew. He was a clever little fellow, jungle-wise and tough.

He had decided to take a radical step and had started from home before dawn, walking all day to find the foreigners running a mine in the jungle. It was common knowledge that foreigners buy crystals and he figured we would make him the best price; also were least likely to rat him out. The sale had to be closed without anybody from his family in the know.

His grand plan: Sell the thing and run; escape into the city where nobody knew him and then “start a new life”, as he expressed it. The brand-new plastic bag contained his personal belongings and he was planning to take the night bus to Colombo, never to return. That’s why he was all dressed up.

This deal was going to be even more difficult than I thought.

We quizzed him about the rest of his family. Was there nobody to help? No, his mother died long ago, and his uncles and aunts couldn’t be trusted. They all would have to go to his father, even if they disliked it, but they would not dare interfere between father and son especially with money involved. I knew it was true. The boy had no rights what so ever and nobody would, or could, protect him.

While we talked I re-examined the sapphire. It was worth serious money for these parts. I was thinking of “one lakh”, one hundred thousand rupees, approximately $1200 those days, more than a laborer made in a year, enough to start a small business, or to go to hell on local booze. People got killed for much less every day, here or in the city.

It was time to negotiate the deal. I pushed Sunil for his price. He squirmed on his chair. Calling the first number was always tricky. He risked to be laughed at or, worse, sell too cheap. Any price, once named, had to be honored. Rule of the trade. I knew he wouldn’t come out first. Big crystals are uncommon and he had no idea were to start, except higher than ever.

I pretended to calculate a bit and then said “One lakh!”

He spilled his tea, choked a bit, stammered and then pretended to carefully consider my offer, just to keep up the form, but his eyes were already shining like two sunsets. We shock hands and he got ready to fill his plastic bag with cash and to disappear into the children-eating hell called Colombo. Not so fast, I said.

The sunset faded from his eyes when I told him that first, uh-uh, we had to see his father. He screamed in fear and anger, jumped up and, like a cornered animal, tried to go for the window. My wife stopped him. He started to cry, bitter tears of disappointment dropping quickly. I waited until he was ready to listen again.

It was dark when we were finished. Sunil ate chicken curry, bread with butter, lentil soup, chocolate-cake, and finished off all our sweets. Then he slept in the maid’s quarter.

In the morning we went to search for his father. I was worried he would bolt in fright during the day so I wanted to keep his sapphire hostage; but he wouldn’t give it to me. We settled on keeping the stone with my wife at the house.

Those days I had a rough 4-wheel Toyota pick-up truck with double cab and gangster-style mirror windows. Sunil went into hiding on the back-seat. I would have gone alone but in the jungle there are no street addresses and I needed him as a guide.

We drove for about an hour, first through tea plantations and then deep into the jungle. In Sri Lanka, people live everywhere. When we arrived in his “neighborhood” Sunil showed me his home and then crawled to hide on the floor. I wanted to keep the car window open but he begged me not to, so afraid was he of being discovered.

I left the car standing on the track (there would be no traffic) and walked up to the miserable mud hut he called home. Mind, not all huts are miserable, some are tidy comfortable places, kept with as much pride as a mansion in Monaco, but this one was a lousy place littered with garbage and in desperate need of repair. Plastic bags fluttered on the patched-up roof.

By the time I arrived at the hut, a throng of kids followed me, screaming “Hello-Hello” and “Schoolpen-Schoolpen”, tucking at my cloth. Probably all friends and relatives of Sunil.

Startled by the racket Sunil’s father came out; obviously he had been sleeping. My sudden appearance confused him even more and at the moment he seemed mad. Extensively scratching his crouch, he asked me what I wanted. The man looked just like his hut.

I loathed to go into this hole and probably he didn’t want to ask me in either but it was the only way to get rid of the ever growing crowd of curious neighbors. Not that such a hut offers much privacy (without a door) but at least we could whisper inside. Normally I would have asked him to come into my car, a safe heaven, but there was poor Sunil shivering in the heat.

He murmured some curse about foreigners as we dove into his dark room. Several neighbors tried to follow us but he yelled at them and they rushed out laughing and screaming. Some kids climbed up to peek through a whole in the wall, a sort of window, but they got yelled away too. Inside it was smelly, stuffy and hot and chair-less.

We sat on the floor and I explained why I came and what I wanted. His mouth opened and closed as he ran through a series of emotions, first greed, hoping for one lahk, then anger, wanting to throw me out and trash his son, and finally desperate thirst. I gave the boys lingering outside ten rupees to run and get some arrack.

In the meanwhile I made my preposition: Firstly, there would be no Sunil-trashing, ever. Secondly, he would get ten thousand rupees the very same day and, finally, ninety thousand rupees would be kept for his son, at the little bank in the next town, until he finished his school.

He was about to throw a serious fit when, thank God, the arrack arrived and he got busy downing quick shots from a plastic cup. He didn’t mind drinking alone.

Against my plan, he had a thousand objections. He railed at getting only 10% of what was legally his. The boy was no good, he said, he wouldn’t go to school. They couldn’t have bank account because he had no ID. He didn’t want to pay for opening an account. The bank manager would steal the money and more nonsense of that kind.

I promised to solve all those problems and made clear that the only alternative was Sunil disappearing on his own with the full lakh. He accused me of kidnapping his son (partly true), blackmail (true), theft (not true) and threatened me with the police. I dropped the name of my friend the local police-chief and he dropped the idea of calling him.

In the end, the bottle was empty and he wanted the ten thousand. We shook hands (yuk) and I gave him ten crisp big notes.

When I came back to the car, Sunil was half dead – heat and nerves. He had puked and the smell in the baked car was terrible. It was nearly dark when we arrived home. A full day of hard work had passed and more to come. Business takes time in the jungle.

I gave Sunil a small job at our mine, under the condition that he went to school daily, which he did. When Sunil’s father had finished his share (six weeks), he tried tricks and threats to get the remaining 90k but he didn’t succeed. I had my friend the police-chief visit him for beating Sunil. I don’t know the details (and I don’t want to) but after that he kept well out of sight.

Two years later the crystal was commissioned to be set into a massive shark-tooth-style pendant and sold to America. Bless the internet!

The same year Sunil finished his school, took his money plus interest from the bank and disappeared, probably to Colombo.

I do not know what happened to him, nor his father. We left the country as the civil war rekindled. I can’t offer a happier ending.

These are the realities of fair trade. It ain’t simple.

Edward Bristol


3 Comments on “The Boy and the Sapphire”

  1. Nimueh says:

    Ed,
    I appreciate your writing and I appreciate your goodness.

    Thank you for the moral being that you are and for what you do, in your mining practices for the earth, and in your business practices among others.

    Sincerely,
    Nimueh

  2. Sherman Pike says:

    Edward, your writing is full of rich imagery that places Sunil and the sapphire right before the minds eye. Brilliant, and thank you for sharing your story with us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.