Where “B” was before …
… back then, before I’d learned to fly again, before the break up of my marriage. Before: when I took a holiday, an innocent, well deserved holiday, and became infatuated with Serendib.
This is how it happened, let me tell you, for it was insidious, the way the Island wove its magic around me.
There were the usual beachside idylls, of course, and ancient cities and history galore. There was breathtaking scenery for days – miles of manicured hillsides, with narrow bumpy roads winding up through forests and rocky mountain passes. There were trees – great trees, shady trees, sacred trees, flowering trees and coloured trees; a cornucopia of flowers and trees and gardens and paddy fields, mysterious acres of silvery rubber plantations, and spiky-topped coconut trees in serious rows or scattered haphazardly about the countryside – a “garden of Eden” it seemed, to my eyes. Remember, this was before, when the country was lurching through decades of war. Everywhere, the roads were home to a parade of characterful cars, and brightly spangled trucks; and tiny tuk-tuks zipped along with saris wafting behind, or filled to overflowing with children, or packages piled high; and ramshackle hotels and rest houses, and other living remnants of the British raj. Then there were the elephants, everywhere – even on clamorous city streets.
Slowly, the moist balm of those equatorial nights began to sooth a ragged soul. Somehow, those riotous, undisciplined, inglorious sights, sounds, and smells that at first confounded, turned to delight, and to walk down a street turned to hours of fossicking, questioning, and wonder.
Galle! It’s moated by the sea. Few museums or painstakingly restored ancient sites have so convincingly taken me back to life in times gone by. Its orderly streets are lined by crumbling 17th century Dutch colonial houses and churches; its 19th century English municipal buildings stand in the shade of majestic old trees; all are alive with a timeless, purposeful, bustle. Scene of the nightly passagiata, its mighty walls and stout-footed bastions are still guarded by the treacherous roiling sea.
I greedily absorbed it all. Dawn, dusk and dark walks along the beach, early morning swims, sunset-seeking climbs to a stark white dagoba high on a rocky headland, underwater expeditions on the reef. Here I had a sense of the rhythms of nature, and eagerly responded to my new environment.
Precious, intoxicating days, too, up in the hills. Nothing could have been finer than to gaze across Kandy Lake to the Temple of the Tooth, set off against the vast green swathe of the Udawattakele Sanctuary on the hills beyond. Enthralled, I would gaze as the last rays of each day’s sun burnished the golden roof of the Temple; and turn to catch the blinding Cimmerian disk dive behind those black-clad mountains. All the while, the sound of rhythmic drumming from the Temple and the clamorous bedtime squabbles of flocks of huge, blue-black ravens, as the birds fought for a safe night perch in favourite trees around the city.
Or was it the misty, silent, mornings that cast the spell? All grey and silver, cotton wool muted, cobwebs glistening crystal ropes from branch to branch in the cool, dew-drenched garden. Distant bell tones, as the two monasteries come to life, clear, alto voices ringing from mountain to lakeside, joined by the sterner tones of the muezzin, far in the distance. An artless aria of heavenly sound.
Everywhere I turned I was bowled over by glorious, illogical, and incongruous sights.
Kandy has another beautiful garden. A small pleasure park on the steep hills behind the Lake, planted by the Kingdom’s last ruler at the beginning of the 19th century. Here, lovers vie for secluded benches, placed to provide the view as chaperon. There they sit, the view between them, under monstrous trees, while the more sociable matrons gather with their children at the swings, squeals of delight punctuating the compost laden gloom.
What is it about the elephant? Its’ tiny particulars – eyes, mouth, trunk tip, tail – are like small punctuations on that shapeless wrinkled grey body. The things it does with that trunk! Seen from behind, on a busy city street, ambling along amid the noisy jostling traffic, wide leafy meal clenched tightly in its mouth, slowly swatting its tail from side to side, its mahout tucked firmly behind its ears, my first urban elephant was a sight to behold.
But it was the people who struck the final incendiary spark. The people: some very black, skin like dusty velvet; others glowing ebony, moisturized and highly polished; eyes alive with enquiry; smiles that can’t wait to burst upon the world. Curious, vehement, fun-loving, open-hearted, and worse, of course, but always an eye for the ridiculous, the humour to be found in everyday life.
Barely off the plane, I am already treasuring the deep contentment and heady intoxication of ever-changing seascapes and sunset skies that take the imagination far, far away. Of succumbing to the temptation to linger on the immaculately swept ocean-facing terrace of Madame’s enchanted domain, gazing, reading, dreaming, watching. Watching Madame with her deep contentment. One Eye, the manager, so proud of fatherhood. Fatso, the nurturer; the decency of Moontooth, the vacuous patience of The Silent One.
And what of Pretty Boy? Standing there on the threshold of life, arms widespread to embrace every passing experience with greedy delight, what is his story? What about sassy Madame P herself, running her flourishing little hotel perched on the rocks overlooking Unawatuna Bay? And M.H.A.G, hajji and trader; many fingered Krishna; handsome Rohanne, what about the entrepreneurial and proud diver from Dodanduwa; unreliable Raja; hopeful Lal. What ignites the carefree laughter and breath-catching sex appeal of Nishin? Or sustains the ever ebullient Abeywickrama, or the woman I met, making her way home with her daughter in the dusk. Why was it those two frail humans walked two hours each way, every day, to tend a small plot of land they had scratched out of the thorny scrub? And what about R – the young cricketer I met on the Matara train – who somehow conjured happy discourse from peevish, sweaty discomfort; what was his story?
I was privileged to share meals and conversations with the devout MHAG and his family. His friendship over the years has always given me a potent reminder of the need to be forever vigilant against prejudice and misunderstanding, for my first impression, catching him at his morning calisthenics on the walls of Galle Fort that time, was far from commendable, on my part. Yes, I took one look at the boundless machismo radiating from the vital, but ageing body of this Muslim gentleman, and immediately characterised him as a show-off. But this was the fabled isle of Serendib, and within hours of that early morning encounter, there I was, with my husband, having our first home-cooked Sri Lankan meal, in a Sri Lankan house, with a Sri Lankan Muslim family.
And so I came to delight in the piquant flavour that G and his community gave to the streets of the old city. I would relish the glimpses I caught of high school girls dashing from shady verandas to the waiting privacy of a covered cart, and the rhythmic chanting of the boys reciting the Koran at the Madrasa, down by the lighthouse. But most of all, I loved to watch as a veil was deftly, discreetly, drawn across face and shoulder, passing strangers in the street.
At the time I was disappointed not to have met more women, especially those like self-reliant and accomplished Madame P. Necessity, and vigorous doses of self-confidence and determination, had freed this dashing black-eyed woman from cultural restraint. While she would have been at home in the boardrooms of Pitt Street, here she was, joyfully replenished by the eternal peacefulness of her beloved place on earth.
Slowly, imperfectly, I began to learn the stories and before I realised, I’d been enchanted by the people of Paradise. For the first time in years – years – I was more interested in other people’s stories than my own, and it mattered to me that I didn’t know their stories, that they were made opaque by cultural difference. I wanted to know, to understand these people’s lives.
That was before, back in December, 1992.
- I must credit my Sinhala teacher, Michael Myler (www.mirisgala.net) and his friend, the artist Linda Gill, whose lovely akuru card for “B” (in this case, B as in Bodhi leaf) appears above.