Where should INDRAN AMIRTHANAYAGAM locate himself to give you a bird's eye view of his beloved city?
Colombo... centrepiece of Sri Lanka's set jewel
I WOULD prefer to invent an imaginary city, with just the right magnetised mix of hot and cold, ice and spice, familiar and the strange. I can dip my pen in existing models: London, New York, centres that have drawn family and the unfamiliar from the far-flung corners of this varied world. I can gaze at Mexico City which has pulled in the riches of Mexico's interior, both in people and customs. But I find the sustenance of these great gathering places insufficient and the task beyond my imagination. In short, I cannot perfect my dreams.
So how shall I address this urban theme? My first impulse, of course, is to chisel a poem from the rough, and inchoate, mass of impressions generated by some real, flesh and blood city. I have known several, teeming with images, hard to pick one or one hundred from the backpack consigned to each of us wandering the planet away from paradise. But I shall choose, at least to satisfy the purpose of this essay. Essays, after all, are dictated by a third eye, that seeks order in disorder, and tries to win the argument that the base Indian may become richer than all his tribe if he sees and learns the lesson of the Moor's tragic flaw.
Let me try and rise again at the end of the five-act tragedy turned farce and with cut lip speak of the sweet pomegranate that bled in personal and national, even in international memory. Sri Lanka is known now as the origin of the fierce and feared Tiger replete with his awful suicide bombs as well as the pristine island that gave the world Ceylon tea. The centrepiece of the set jewel is Colombo white-walled and dutch-red sloped and roofed. In the centre of the centre, Cinnamon Gardens, or Colombo 7, spreads its capacious lawns and bungalows. Here I would run along Rosmead Place between my parents' house on Kynsey Road at the border, and my grandfather's house just yards from the Bandaranaike family home. In that mansion, the patriarch and Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike received a bullet from a Sinhala nationalist Buddhist priest in 1959.
I have written all my life about that street, the frangipani, giant baobabs, lush and long gardens. I have reflected upon my uncle George who brought us ice cream from Fountain Café in his swank Volkswagen Beetle. I feel compelled still to dredge up old memories, the few that remain of my first encounter with sun and moon, streets and fruit, beggars and fancy cars.
Write what you know, the guidebooks say. Shall I reflect then on the beach at Wellawatta where Pablo Neruda lived afraid for three days and nights, barricaded in a wooden house entertained by a pet mongoose, while his jealous lover Josie Bliss circled the property threatening murder? I certainly did not live in 1920. Wellawatta in Sri Lankan memory is a Tamil neighbourhood, an incensed place full of Hindus and kovils (or temples,) thosai kaddais (or eating houses). In political memory, it remains a place of burning homes and businesses and a week of terror that contributed in 1983 to the conflagration of a more than 20-year-old civil war.
Shall I set out from the house on Rosmead Place in 2002 and walk past the felled trees and apartments buildings and the odd yellowed survivor of the Golden Age in breezy and unpeopled construction ... towards the mansion now turned into the swank department store Odelle's? Shall I fight the belly with disciplined jogs through the streets of the cities where I have taken refuge away from the cloying and sweet heat of the first intimations of mortality, in a world that still remained whole, Colombo, where I formed part of the last generation that kept the blood line relatively free of immigrant corruptions?
I place the qualifier in the last sentence because the biggest trick, or illusion, or the tallest story fed to the human is the one of ancestry and pedigree. The idea that you are born to a good family, that you must keep up its traditions and fight its wars and marry its cousins is the principal curse outside of paradise. Why do the human mother and father scheme to make sure that son or daughter brings home a familiar mate, one schooled in arts of the Tea Ceremony if Japanese, or cricket if Sri Lankan, or literature, if a minority of everybody? Why scheme at all? Why not allow for a free coupling as in the best of New York parties or on beaches of some Caribbean island, perhaps, Trinidad? But I digress from my theme, or perhaps not. Colombo, after all, suggests the name of an explorer, a visitor, and is home to a multiplicity of descendents of explorers and visitors, from Chinese to Malay traders to South Indians come to pick tea.
Most cities are multiple, variegated, diffuse than concentrated, like a view in which one first sees the morning mist and then the hard light of noon. I want to give you some of that hard light, as seen in the Southern city of Colombo, a day's drive from Dondra Head, which looks South across the Indian Ocean to Australia and the South Pole. Where shall I locate myself to give you a bird's eye view of dearest Colombo? Shall I say that it is far away and I loved her once and she loved me? Shall I say that wherever we find ourselves on the planet, we stand on the Earth's edge, scrambling to keep our footing while holding on our backs a thousands shards of fractured glass, memories from the cities we have fled? Shall I write a poem, a puzzle in images, a koan that I can then unravel with long explanations at public readings? Be off with your head, man! Or at least drop the unanswerable questions. I wonder, however, if wisdom is a kind of bliss, beyond words and cities, human, animal and plant life, an extinction and embodiment at the same time. Obviously, impossible, right, to become fatter than the fattest, encompass all of human experience, then vanish without saying a single word? Unfortunately, the mark of Cain, or Adam's price for eating the forbidden fruit, is the need to explain constantly and try to recover, whether through exercise or poetry, some of the physical or linguistic fitness that marked you while yet in paradise.
Colombo is soot, exhaust, horns a tuck shop, cricket bat and a crow, thousands of crows. Colombo hosts Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslims, Burghers. It is a port city with a resplendent colonial lighthouse now sandbagged away. Colombo wakes up to warm bread, news opinions and mangoes crushed on the pavement. Colombo flies its kites high above Galle Face Green near ponies, boys and hot cadju nuts.
Colombo sorts out its childhood recollection and projects the images on a wall, bloody from the remains of 50,000 civil war dead. Yet, the phrase "civil war" conveys glory. There is no heroism in butchery, no heroism in suicide, no heroism in writing that invokes, and profits from, the war you have left behind.
Survival, however, is an instinct opposed absolutely to suicide. Feeding the stomach and building a home are basic to human society. So indulge yourself, Man! Allow yourself to dream. Speak to the beautiful girl at the party. Discuss literature, wine, the Enlightenment. Go home and twirl some flesh and bone. Then slap an egg on the stove, toast bread, brew a cup of coffee and serve your friend in bed. Let there be mirrors everywhere.
This would take place during the first minutes of the first day in the dreamed city. Yet one can imagine a metropolis that does not require coitus, that delivers single beds for the solitary and the sick, and fills the streets and parks with soot and bruised fruit. Surely, the city is larger than any single human mind. Surely, the roundabout or traffic circle will direct automobiles in the city of the mind.
Indran Amrithanayagam is a poet who writes in English and Spanish. His latest book, Ceylon R.I.P, was recently published in Sri Lanka.
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