Located in the mountains of Central Sri Lanka, and about 30 kms from the city of Anuradhapura, lies the ancient Ritigala Buddhist monastery. Dating back two millennia, the monastic complex is an epic work of mindful architecture connected via a continuous, forest-hemmed stone walkway.
The 1.2 km hike begins at the office of the on-site branch of Department of Archeology of Sri Lanka close to the foot of the Banda Pokuna, an ancient man-made reservoir with a circumference of almost 400 metres. Erected right down to the base are stone steps that circle the entirety of the reservoir. Here visitors to the monastery possibly completed their ablutions before heading on towards one of the many Padhanaghara – double platform structures made from massive pieces of granite linked together by a stone bridge; these served as meditation spaces. There are over 60 such double platforms over 120 acres at Ritigala. Among these structures are also the vestiges of what was once a “hospital” complete with root grinding stones and Ayurvedic oil baths with sophisticated drainage systems; the foundations of “floating air conditioned” rooms; and ornately decorated urinals to remind one of the fickleness of power and glory.
We began our journey at the Banda Pokuna into this ancient realm held as it was in the benevolent arms of nature herself. As soon as we started walking up the granite pathway, we felt the aura around us shift; take on an ethereal feel. The place manifests a melancholic trance in which one becomes completely cloaked, experiencing each of its elements in vivid sensory detail: The murmuring forest, the life force of its roots underfoot, the iridescent salamanders flicking between the stones and the continuous pathway like a silver beacon to venues of meditation and peace.
Trees, some old as age itself, their serpentine roots traversing the forest floor as far as the eye can see, shade the path with their green verdancy. As we hiked uphill, the atmosphere continued to thrum with their primal energy as one ancient one whispered and its murmur was carried like an undulating wave through the rest of the grove. Then all would be quiet except for the chirr of the crickets and the chorus of a songbird. It felt like we were witnesses to the sharing of a sage old secret; the trees of Ritigala retelling it among themselves and then quieting down as 21st century humans hiked up its ancient trails. Then whispering it again, until one stops to listen; and then the pulse slows down as the heart beats to the gentle rhythm of the humming trees. If ever there was a place where one can SEE one’s feelings, this mystical pathway held in the embrace of the ancients is that place.
Serenity is everywhere. The scene is mesmeric. The trees continue to tell their tales in the sun dappled patterns that shimmer on the path and on our skins; like golden runes that speak of the most profound quietude and peace.
To stand there and to take all this in is like absorbing the quiet energy of all that the monsastery once embodied; the tread of thousands of devotees; their quiet meditation, their rhythmic chants and even the ascendency of their consciousness. One can almost see the ascetics of old and the seekers of calm walk up the steps, their spirit energy conjured up again by the gentle cantillation of the trees. The experience rouses in turn, awe and an overwhelming humility; an acute awareness of the smallness of the individual and the profoundness of the collective.
We came away from Ritigala cloaked in the magic of nature that has continued to keep its erstwhile history vibrating through its quadrangles, pillars and its meandering walkway. The Ritigala monastery is truly a mystical portal through time.
Written amidst the mind-numbing perils of never ending curfew lockdowns. Read at your own mental risk 🤓
Tak taka tak - Tak Tak Kaun hai bhai bata ab tak
CHAI NA girana babu Bari tarpay tarpay tarpay Meri leg not so halkay halkay
Knock knockity! Knock Knock Who’s there, before I click back the lock
ZE BRA in France is black or white Practical and just hugging one right And if you feel the added zeal Add some colour, like lilac and teal.
Tap ti tap tap - Tap Tap Who is it? That was a fine rap
LIZ ‘EARD you call her “mighty stout” You really put your foot in your mouth! She may be big but she’s got style She’ll make you eat your words for a mile
Ding da ding ding- Ding Dong Who is it? Come sing us a song
RHINO! O-O! O…OOOO!
Mr. RAI, NO we will not do this Mrs Rai yes it’s all the craze Rainbow coloured hair for you And I will go for baby blue
Clap de clap clap - Clap Clap Who goes there? Who gives my door a thwack?
‘Tis me MAYNA!
MAY NA bhoolonga MAIN NA bhoolongi My nemesis is bharta de cauliflower And mine is garbanzo beans!
Open the door for salvation Open the door for your soul Who … who’s there? ‘Tis me your moral sense, Call me your conscience No punning, rhyming words here No weighty equations. Just you and me and clarity That’s been lost too long at sea
I’m deaf! I’m deaf! I can’t hear you Ps. I’ve not seen any clarinet either! (Hehe!) So the door stays closed, barred and locked Not opening any windows neither! Go elsewhere, go where you can be heard The (h)earless are quite rampant here Don’t come knockity knocking upon my door Amd I’ll pretend as if you were never here - dear!
The name refers to the “Garden of Lakes”, surrounding the property as the lakes are. The forest wetland around the hotel is man made and has grown to its current lush proportions over the last 15 years.
Surrounded by humming bamboo and the majestic banyan and Maara trees, the whole experience is truly like being ensconced in the arms of a tropical wilderness.
The hotel itself sprawls across 28 acres of reclaimed agricultural land and is outfitted with four types of villas: Garden, Paddy, Water and Forest with the latter being the top of the range.
The premises around the hotel are also the natural habitat of the extremely shy, retiring and endangered Slender Grey Loris. Visitors can go on a late evening safari led by the Hotel’s naturalist, to spy these tiny primates.
Definitely a worthwhile trip to get away from it all and to reconnect with the wonderful, wild side of nature.
Angela had planned their final exit from Mall Square with dignified efficiency, helped as she would be with the gracious support of her long time friends. But sometimes, the best laid plans can get washed down rutted roads that one has not seen nor ever imagined. And so it was that one after another, her carefully constructed relocation schemes crumbled shapelessly in the mire of undisguised faces and unfeigned intentions that had suddenly, unexpectedly surfaced. The sisterhood of Faith had gone careening down the hill, crashing into the emptiness below.
Of the four friends she had appealed to for help, only one had come through – partially. Rashmi’s guest house was occupied by a foreign friend of her daughter’s (that was a bald faced lie!); Sandali had three warehouses in Nugegoda but they were all also suddenly occupied with overflowing inventory (just last week that factory cupboard was bare!); Sarah had no help at home and her sister in law was laid up with a chronic condition (that hale and hearty woman who had never been sick a day in the last 15 years that she’d known her!); and Thilini had offered to have Dilshan and Angela over for a fortnight. After that they were going to finally begin the renovation on their house which they had been postponing for the last five years and which the Covid lockdown had somehow given the much needed impetus for.
It had been a week of revelations, teetering friendships, somber musings and a clarity about her world that had momentarily blinded her. Despite it all, she had taken each disclaimer, coated as it was in pots of sacchrinous sweetness, with calmness and poise.
She had just come back from the hospital where they had moved Dilshan from Intensive Care to a General Ward. It would be another few days before he would be able to come home. “Home” … the word now agitated her; made her nervous, clutching at her throat and stinging her eyes. She was not generally given to sentimentality or self pity and had gone through much in life, stoic and dry-eyed. But this was not like any other curve ball that the universe had thrown at her in the past. This was her entire world toppling down around her. Her sacred world made up of special hand picked individuals who shared the same ethos and the same moral high ground. It was like the ultimately twisted confession where the priest was found to be the greatest sinner. All those sophisticated, benevolent people – her friends – showing up, personifying everything that they had hated about the rest. It was a heartbreaking reality check and it took a lot of Angela’s self possession and control to not just sit down and cry.
Even if she was made of sterner stuff that allowed her to push the pieces of her recently fragmented world into some steely hollow of her mind, she still had the vacating of the premises to deal with.
On a whim, she spoke to the long time security guard of the condomninium. Did he by chance know of any apartment that was available for rent above the 8th floor? Mr. Surdheen did in fact: it was one of Bilal Rahuman’s apartments on the 10th floor. Angela frowned and then swallowed hard – controlling both, her anxiety at the mention of the Muslim name, as well as the long nurtured prejudices that now automatically sprang along with the nomenclature. When Angela didn’t say anything, Surdheen volunteered to speak to the apartment owner – if she wished. He had known the lady long enough to have gauged her jaundiced eye towards everyone really, except Mr. Augustine who managed the mini mart on the premises; he was Catholic. Surdheen himself was Muslim but like so many in his melting pot of a homeland, he lived peacably enough with his Buddhist, Hindu and Christian countrymen. This lady was different. The Mall Square staff had occasionally discussed Angela’s undisguised faith biases and had decided in their combined goodwill that she must have had a bad experience sometime in life to have made her like this.
These days, in the wake of all the recent events, Angela had seemed less and less devoted to her preferences of faith and community; and while she would not normally single out Surdheen to speak to of anything really, she had instinctively gone to him. She knew that he had been at the apartment complex the longest and usually had the most reliable information on tenants, landlords and even the shenanigans of the real estate agents. Usually she would tap into Surdheen’s fount of information via Augustine or one of the other Mall Square staff.
She accepted his offer, thanked him and went back inside. Bilal Rahuman … the name was vaguely familiar, flitting around the edges of her memory. No, she couldn’t recall where she might have heard it. Maybe it was just another Muslim name that she’d heard and while earlier she would have caught it through one ear and ushered it roundly out the other, sometimes these names did tend to stick. This must be one of those sticky Muslim names. That evening Surdheen came to her apartment to give her Bilal Rahuman’s number. She could call him whenever she liked, Mr. Rahuman had informed Surdheen.
Angela had a restless night. Random thoughts that had before evoked simple irritation or plain out ire, now went plodding through her mind like a herd of unhurried elephants – each large, clear and washed clean of the dust that had blurred its tremendous form: She recalled the unremitting distaste with which she’d always regarded bearded men in their “wahabi maxis” as she and her group had called them … thawbs* was the term wasn’t it …..; and the Muslim call to prayer that had always grated on her ears – she had even railed about its primitive, cacophonous quality in the condominium WhatsApp group; and Surdheen and the other two Muslim security guards at Mall Square that she somehow always managed to omit when she was giving the annual gratuity to the rest of the staff. And now she was going to call on one of them and ask for help because there was no one else to turn to. She cringed inwardly, not because of any vestigial aversion as she usually did, but because of a distinct throb of conscience. For the first time, she felt guilty. And wretched. And tired. At some point amid this moral onslaught of her senses, Angela finally fell asleep.
She woke up late the next morning, but feeling rested; surer of herself and what she had to do next. There were no more expectations left to crash and burn and therefore no more emotional turmoil to deal with. She’d experienced it in all its duplicitous ferocity with her inner circle and was already on the other side of it.
She sat up in the chair, fortifying herself with her purposeful stance, picked up the phone and dialled Bilal Rahuman’s number.
He answered on the third ring and greeted her cordially after she had introduced herself.
“How is Dilshan aiya* feeling? Surdheen was telling me he had got the virus”. Angela murmured something about her husband having thankfully turned the corner.
“He is a good man. My duas* for his speedy recovery. I remember meeting him seven years ago when he came to look at my 10th floor apartment at Mall Square. It wasnt quite the right choice for you folks at that time from what I understood. I haven’t changed very much in it but if it suits your requirements now, you’re welcome to rent it”
It so happened that Angela and Dilshan had liked Bilal Rahuman’s apartment seven years ago too; but the owner’s persuasions of faith had not sat well with Angela then. And so they’d gone for their second choice – the more appropriately denominated Mrs. D’Souza’s flat on the 9th floor.
By the fifth day of her telephone conversation with Bilal Rahuman, Angela had shifted to her new home. Her new landlord had instructed Surdheen and his team to help Mrs. Dias with the move.
It was 6 O’ clock in the evening. Angela and Dilshan’s entire 9th floor apartment now lay packed in suitcases and cartons in the two bedrooms of their new 10th floor home. When the last suitcase had been wheeled in, she thanked Surdheen and his helpers and tipped them somewhat self consciously; there was no familiar precedence of grace or gratuity there to take comfort from.
She sat down in the lounge and looked around her. The combination display cabinet and book case that both she and Dilshan had loved as soon as they’d seen it seven years ago, was still sitting there, in all its teak burnished stateliness. The setting sun filtering in through the balcony doors lit up the single item that lay on the third shelf of the cabinet – a Taj Mahal snow globe. A slow smile spread across her face as she picked up the new yet familiar weight in her hands and turned it over. The little pieces of silver flitter foil fell around the iconic landmark like crumbs from a pie … humble pie she thought unconsciously and reddened ever so slightly. She turned it over in her hands a few more times and then set it down gently.
Dilshan was coming home tomorrow. She would unpack her own snow globes and add them to the shelf. She would liven up the room a little to welcome her husband to their new home.
* Thawb: An ankle-length garment, usually with long sleeves. It is commonly worn by men in the Arabian Peninsula.
* Aiya: term for older brother/ older man in Singhalese.
* Dua: In Islamic terminology, duʿāʾ literally means invocation, an act of supplication. The term is derived from an Arabic word meaning to 'call out' or to 'summon', and Muslims regard this as a profound act of worship.
Angela was married to Dilshan, and one was hard pressed to find a more incongruent union that had somehow also withstood the test of time. So at odds was Angela’s marital partnership with everything that defined her now that she herself sat back in puzzlement over it sometimes. It was not so much that their personalities were so entirely different; for her it was the unassailable fact that he was a Buddhist and she a Christian. She had fallen in love and as things of the heart tend to do, they had led her down the one and only rabbit hole in the otherwise satisfyingly flat, burrow-free fields of her life. She was not exactly a devout catholic; she was just a formidable believer that her kind had got it as right as imperfect humans could get an ideology of faith, and that everyone else was paddling in karmically rough seas. The Dharmachakra* from her husband’s side was bad enough; but the Crescent and Star* that was always bursting into flames on the local and the global horizons was the very limit of her endurance: no she was not particularly fond of her Muslim fellow citizens and had made assiduous efforts throughout her life to stay as culturally and socially faithful to her Sri Lankan Christian roots as she could. That included giving a studiously wide berth to grocery stores, restaurants and neighbours that had even vaguely Muslim sounding names.
The most amazing part of this covert, no frills prejudiced way of life was the fact that Angela had embraced it in absolute good faith, asssured of the blessings of the universe. For she was, she believed, a straight talking good woman with a guaranteed one way ticket to whatever version of “heaven” there was atop the tropical rain clouds that floated perennially over their blessed island.
Dilshan was an old school gentleman and a good husband. Despite a regular stream of ample and compelling reasons to have nulled and voided the misadventure that was his marriage to Angela, he had persevered. Indeed, to anyone who knew them, it was stupefyingly clear that he had made it his life’s sole purpose to survive the partnership into old age or kick the bucket trying. He was a romantic at heart and time had also endowed him with an extreme myopia of mercifully both, his outer and his inner visions. He saw only enough of his wife’s lunatic biases that allowed him to smile indulgently followed immediately by a happy vacuousness. The haze in his mind had conspired with the love in his heart, keeping him true, enamoured and forgiving.
Life had been generally good to Angela and Dilshan.
They had two sons who were both living abroad and doing well. Angela and Dilshan had sold most of their assets to educate their progeny and now lived in comfortable rented spaces in the heart of Colombo. They had been at Mall Square now for seven years and with time the 9th floor apartment had become a haven for the couple, and a sanctuary for Angela’s formidable collection of orchids and snow globes and Dilshan’s more modest ammassment of mostly Nora Roberts and Stephen King novels. With time, Dilshan had lost the temerity for both genres and the books had glanced back from their glass cabinets like dowager lovers, sometimes giving him a wrinkly old glad eye and at others scaring him into the furthest recesses of his fuzziest thoughts.
It was June of 2020 – the Covid 19 pandemic was raging around the world with a virulence and a savagery that had shaken the planet. The little tear drop island was no exception and the city was just about emerging, beset and shaken from the first wave and a six week lockdown. It was at the tail end June in fact, when Dilshan had at first begun to feel listless and then been gripped in the throes of an unrelenting fever. He had tested negative for the virus, but he was nevertheless hospitalised and isolated. The virus was too new as were the diagnostics to test it. False negatives were far more dangerous than false positives, and so patients presenting with severe flu-like symptoms were administered the same quarantine protocols as were the Covid-positive cases.
Dilshan had been in hospital for a week when the call from Mrs. D’Souza came. Their landlady who lived in the UK was heading home to ride out the infectious wave that had brought her adopted country to its knees. She was in her 80s and the matriarch of her townhouse in Kent as well as the two properties she rented out on home shores. One of them was the Dias’s apartment. Mrs. D’Souza was coming home to roost and her nest of choice was going to be her Mall Square apartment. She duly invoked clause number 7 in their tenancy agreement and summarily served a two month notice to her tenants. Angela at first, indignant and outraged, was soon persuaded mainly by impassable legal obligations and to no small extent, by the christinanness of her landlady, to be mollified and to plead for a change of heart. Where were they to go at such short notice and under these horrendous Covid conditions? Mrs. D’Souza was polite but unyielding. Her other apartment was in a swanky new high rise and her Kuwaiti tenants there paid a premium which she was in no mind to sacrifice on the basis of a “shared faith”. She had been mildly amused at this last somewhat religio-phobic petition made by her tenant. Mrs. Dias had always been somewhat eccentric and time had obviously not been kind to her on that front. Mrs. D’Souza had always preferred to deal with the husband who was an upright, sensible man.
Angela sat in her verdantly riotous balcony that overlooked the park. It was just past 5 O’clock in the evening and her maid had brought her tea and Marie biscuits. She touched the head of one of her prized Foxtail orchids gently, distractedly while her mind was busy calculating, planning, fire fighting. She would have to enlist the help of some of her long time friends to help her pack up their apartment and to warehouse their belongings until they found another place. She and Dilshan would then have to move in with one of them. Staying with extended family on either side was out of the question since relationships on both sides had suffered the rigours of neglect and more than a few clashes of opinions over the last couple of decades. She picked up her phone to call Rashmi.
“Hello darling! Has that mean old crone allowed you to stay on?” chirped Rashmi as soon as she picked up the phone.
“No, we have to move. So much to do. I was wondering if you could help”, said Angela frowning into the distance, scanning the mental list she had prepared of the exact nature of assistance that she would be requesting from four of her closest friends.
“Of course darling. I can come by day after for a chat”, responded Rashmi.
“Can you come tomorrow?” asked Angela, “I don’t have too much time, and with Dilshan in the hospital, there is a lot to do”.
Rashmi had promised to come by the next day and help in whatever way she could. Angela had decided to ask her friend if she and Dilshan could stay for a few weeks in the guest quarters of their spacious Colombo 7 home.
Angela had actually begun to look forward to this little adventure: everyone would pitch in and get the laborious packing and storing work out of the way; and it might even be a vacation of sorts for her and Dilshan to stay at one of their friends’ homes in the city.
* DharmaChakra: Sanskrit for the dharma wheel, it is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a Cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism.
* Crescent and Star: The five pointed star reflects the Five Pillars of Islam which are central to the faith, and the crescent moon and stars are symbols relating to the greatness of the creator.
Following from “Creatures of the Park” (link attached below), this piece is inspired by my varied experiences at the 2 or 3 cafes I frequent in Colombo city. As with my regular evening walk, I am also a devout tea and latte aficionado. And as a creature of habit, I do tend to absorb the full gamut of gastronomic, service and atmospheric experiences at the handful of places I go to. So here is my affable ode to the characters who, like me, are also found at the oft-frequented coffee places around town.
Angst, amusement and even downright vexation Are some sentiments that have inspired this particular narration. Because when my adrenaline is not racing haphazardly around, Yours truly can’t weave verse or prose that is suitably profound. So here’s a bit of a congenial ramble About coffee shop folks and their queer, quirky angles.
The first of this set that I chanced to espy, Was the gaggle of ladies who meet over coffee and pie. They are genteel and smiling and conversing lightly Of Ruwani’s boyfriend and Andrew’s new-found sobriety. Of weddings and parties and stand-out memorial services; Of yoga class affairs and other sexagenarian caprices.
Following sharply on the last set’s heels, Is the would-be Romeo who’s eternally spinning his wheels. While on his regular tarriance through the cafe, He’ll go through the motions, happily epitomising the cliche-Sauntering gait, wandering eyes, and obnoxiously loud! Because how else would this Adonis be noticed by the crowd? This one engenders both frustration and pity, Deluded sense of self; diddly squat in the mental kitty.
This next one (my favourite) is quite off the charts, The 93 year old with tremendous love in his heart! He’s delicate and fragile and yet undauntingly sure Of his libidinous vigor and marvellous allure. He speaks in faint tones, each gossamer vein outlined; “I want to make love to you”, he solemnly opines. [True story!]
There is also the resident troop of servers, With personas as varied as their gelato flavours. There’s the hero who averts a gastronomic disaster; And the shrinking violet who couldn’t have disappeared faster. You’ll also see “Lurch” on his tropical vacation Waiting tables, no doubt, for some fiscal augmentation. (Who’d have believed the fiendish frugality Of the profusely gilded Addams Family!) There’s also Happy and Dopey and Sneezy and Bashful- Each cafe with its own quirky take on the fairytale.
The likes of me, of course, continue to be, The nose-in-the-book kind, with the-tail-on-the-seat. Looking up only to rest remonstrating muscles, Perennially ensnared in the Introvert’s social tussle: Latte on standby, with napkins and spoon, I’m in a world of my own in the bustling tea room.
The rest of the coffee shop throng is assorted The foodies, the guzzlers, the loners, the courted. The suited and booted, the flip-flopped, the Collared* A theatrical cycle of life streaming onward. This gamut of movement, that with spirit is rife Is what makes modest coffee shops larger than life. And so I continue to frequent the tea rooms and cafes To reclusively delight in the milieu and lacteous lattes.
* Collared: priests, monks and other caffeine-relishing clergymen.
Two weeks after Dharshini’s fall on the dance floor, the pain was gone along with any memory of it and all the wise resolutions made around preserving and safeguarding fragile body parts. Tuesday evening’s dance class was full of kinetic energy and impressive manoeuvres. Everyone had now been in the class for at least a month and even the most ungainly ones were showing glimmerings of talent; the improvements motivated by instructor infatuation and cheerful sociability were vast and pervasive. Dharshini had missed a fortnight of classes but she made up for lost time with her innate sense of rhythm, a natural vigor and the impetus of new love in her heart. So she danced and pranced and leaped around with wild abandon, taking many of her contemporaries by surprise; so much so that a number of times, the floor was left entirely to the explosive gymnastics of Dharshini and her gratified partner of the moment.
After class, while she was still wrapped in the warm glow of her recent exercise, Daniel approached her. He was happily surprised at her performance, he said. She was gifted. Dharshini smiled coyly and looked at him from deep, chocolate brown eyes surrounded by their fringe of thick lashes. Her undeniably superlative feature, her eyes were less windows to her soul and more her covert Weapon of Rapture. She blinked them, looking down and then up and then to one side, interspersing her optical guiles with little smiles and other enchanting expressions that left the object of her visual assault weak in the knees and short of breath. Daniel too capitulated under that focused bewitchery.
They went out to lunch twice and then finally to dinner. Dharshini had early on analysed the situation in minute detail and had decided that she would take this fabulous chance at romance. She had protected her tender heart for just such a once… twice … in a lifetime occasion. So for her, these meals and meet-ups were the steady, respectable progression to an ever lasting union. She was already feeling like a new woman; her old marriage now increasingly morphing into a burden that was best laid to rest at the earliest. She had thought about that aspect too. She would go about it civilly. There was no love lost in that equation as things stood right now; they were both in it because it was convenient and because they were partners in a shared business. She’d break off the marital ties but keep the business partnership going. She was shrewd enough to realize that while she would couple up with the new love of her life, it would be wise to remain the mistress of her own fortunes and the bills that came with it. Her husband was a practical man and wasn’t given to the egoistic bouts of anger and retribution that came so naturally to so many men concerning their women and their finances. After all, they’d been physically estranged for the last ten years and separated for the last eight. He would understand. She had invited Daniel over for dinner to her house the following evening. She had also asked her husband to come earlier that day to have a chat. She hadn’t explained any specifics; just that she wanted to run something by him. Both men had accepted their respective invitations.
Daniel was on the rebound. He had realized that when he began to respond to the advances of his most vivacious student – 57 year old Dharshini. The age difference notwithstanding, there was an almost predictable old-world doggedness with which this romance was progressing. He enjoyed her company immensely and felt the physical pull of her loveliness, but he was also acutely aware of his prevalent state of mind: He was loathe to commit to anything traditional or long term at the current time. He was footloose after years of being shackled in a loveless marriage and knew that he wanted to remain fancy free for a while. She was a good sort; a convent bred girl of conventional values. She was definitely not the sort you conscripted for your rebound shenanigans. And now she’d invited him over to her house – the ultimate gesture of commitment to a promising potential mate. Daniel sighed resignedly. He had to back off.
The next day, Dharshini got the text message an hour before her husband was due to arrive. It was simple and to the point. Daniel couldn’t make it for dinner; he was tied up somewhere. Also, he wanted to assure her that he was committed to their friendship but nothing more. He was sure that she already knew this but as a rule he liked to keep things above board and crystal clear for the benefit of all concerned. He hoped she had a good evening and that he looked forward to seeing her at the next dance class.
She looked at her phone for a long while, the screen darkening and then lighting up when she pressed on it, the words misting over and then reappearing alternately. At first she felt only numb; then injured and somewhat misled and betrayed. There was no anger however; just a strange sense of dejavu. Like she’d seen this pattern before; knew it from somewhere. In a disconnected, detached way, she’d visualized it play out numerous times before as she’d walked away from each one of her ardent entourage of devotees; only this time, she was at the receiving end. She blinked in disbelief and amazement and even managed to smile ruefully in a momentary pang of realisation and mortification.
She finally put the phone away and looked at her watch. Her husband would be here any minute now. They’d have some coffee and she would ask him if he was selling his grey Toyota Aqua. He had spoken of putting it on the market and it was time that she acquired a new carriage for herself.
The advances, hesitant at first, became more tenacious and vigorous as Sherry Kumar began to actively pursue Manel. She, for her part, was first puzzled, then agitated and finally began to perform a series of vanishing acts which left her breathless and her pursuer more ardent than ever before. This relentless cat and mouse chase continued for a month before a mentally exhausted Manel finally allowed herself to be cornered by her beaming, zealous stalker. She faced him shaking with unspent fury – How dare he! How dare he make her want to run away from her own home!
‘How dare you! How dare you chase me like I’m some leyna*! This is my home! Stop hassling me or I’ll – I’ll hit you!’ she raged, her racing heart threatening to break through her rib cage.
‘I just want to talk to you …’ Sherry Kumar responded placatingly. He hadn’t realized how deplorably his earnest efforts to just have a chat with her had been perceived. He was a little stunned, but mostly exhilirated at finally having the chance to lay his heart bare. For Sherry Kumar was in love; he had been, in fact, since his first fortnight at Serendib Lodge. Usually he’d beam and blink in blue-green tones at his object of affection and that sealed the deal, or not, with both probabilities playing out in equal measure. This was a first where he’d had to so passionately chase after someone for over a month and then be called a stalker for it.
‘What do you want?’ asked Manel, her face set in a frown that, by its sheer comical ferocity, indicated that it was far from being a regular visitor on that usually peaceful countenance. Even while she showed her unmitigated displeasure on the outside, she was more in control on the inside, seeing the man in front of her for the unexceptional mortal he was and not the fire-breathing dragon who’d been chasing her right into her nightmares for the past month.
‘I like you and I want to take you out to dinner’, said Sherry Kumar also back in control of the situation, and continuing down the oft-beaten path of his love lusts.
Manel looked at him as if she had just been handed a bag of rotten eggs.
‘I don’t want to go out to dinner with you. Stop coming after me or I’ll tell Melba’ she said in what was supposed to be the ultimate threat.
It has to be said that her complete and utter disdain and repulsion was borne more from her complete naïveté regarding relationships and their tortuous, sometimes awkward beginnings, than any real distaste for the man. She, however, wasn’t able to tell the difference – not yet.
And so Sherry Kumar retreated – for now.
After their first tumultuous meeting at the foot of the stairs, life had gone back to being ordinary and unremarkable. Manel remained wary but kept herself prepared for any recurrence of the earlier embarrassing episode, with regular doses of fortifying self talk. She went about her day, studiously avoiding her pursuer’s eyes but steadfastly fighting the urge to flee whenever he was around.
It was in February, three months after Sherry Kumar arrived at Serendib Lodge that he came down with dengue fever, the mosquito borne tropical disease that reduced brawny men to waifs of their former selves while in the throes of the fever. Sherry Kumar was no exception as the fever ravaged him for the next fortnight. He lay listlessly, sometimes appearing half dead and at others, quite completely corpse-like. His ruddy face was wan and the healthful glow of his bald head had reduced to a feverish, clammy glisten.
Manel became his inadvertent nurse and caregiver. Through those two weeks of delirium and exhaustion, she was at his side, feeding him, cleaning after him, helping him to the toilet, sponge bathing him and medicating him. As with most situations which show up the vulnerability and frailty of creatures, this too inspired sympathy, kindness and in Manel’s case, a softening of the heart. She now looked at the man lying lifelessly before her, willing him to heal and be whole again; to smile again; to talk to her again … to say some things to her again …. She looked away, blushing with the brazenness of her own thoughts; and then regained her composure with that censorious self deprecation that is such a hallmark of both, actual women of the cloth and those that avidly and truly imagine themselves to be nun-like: you’re 60 years old – love is for the young and carefree. Stop behaving like a giggly teenager!
With that, she went back to her nursing responsibilities with the chill of abstinence in her eyes and the armour of prohibition around her heart.
On the tenth day, Sherry Kumar woke up to Manel’s strained, serious countenance. She was reading a copy of the Pirith Potha*. He looked at her, instinctively wary of reigniting the fuse; and yet, there she was, so close, so reachable.
‘Hello Manel, nice to see you in my bedroom’ he said rustling up his characteristically optimistic spirit even as he lay there physically weak and spent.
Manel smiled in spite of herself. She allowed herself to look into the depths of those green eyes, mustering up the courage to briefly speak the language of the heart with this strange man; this oddly endearing man.
Sherry Kumar got well and back on his feet over the next ten days. He was gentle and subdued in his interactions with Manel – he had realized the discordance of his customary romantic ways with this extraordinary woman. Manel, in turn realized that she enjoyed his company; and more importantly, that she permitted herself to enjoy his attention. There was no trace of his earlier brutish, overbearing attitude. She was convinced that the sickness had changed him in some mysterious but blessed manner.
Mel saw the burgeoning friendship of the two with some foreboding. She wasn’t sure whether it was her own sense of self preservation or her concern for her friend of four decades that stoked her apprehension. She didn’t dwell on the motives for too long; those were irrelevant. What was important was that she talk to Manel; drum some sense into her. She had lost her head nursing that idiot.
So she sat Manel down and delivered a sermon full of horror, fire and brimstone. Manel listened with awe and then misgiving and finally, shame.
Sherry Kumar approached Manel once more, hesitantly but earnestly: Would she marry him he asked. Manel was adamantly clear – she would not.
It was November again and Sherry Kumar had left Serendib Lodge six months ago. He had remained in touch with Mel through text messages and FaceBook posts. He had no connection with Manel.
‘Manel look at this photo, aney*!’, said Mel one afternoon while they were both sitting in the veranda while billowing grey sheets of rain fell outside. It was a photo of Sherry Kumar with Shilpa, a girl who had frequented their home for years until she had moved to Kandy as, first a caregiver and then a companion to a recently widowed elderly woman. The caption read, “Just married! With my dream girl”
‘Aney ara pissa*, he’s finally got married!’ chortled Mel.
Manel looked at the image for a while, a crowd of emotions ricocheting through her head – sadness, regret, relief, disappointment and finally, defeat. She knew she had made the right decision and yet her heart fluttered brokenly. In her mind, even though she had rejected her suitor, he would remain devoted to her; even in the sea of people around him; amidst his cresting and waning relationships, he would continue to hold a candle for her. She smiled and then without warning even to herself, she cried, the tears falling like a river down her face while her heart shrivelled into a ball.
Mel looked at her incredulously, bewildered by her behaviour, ‘what’s wrong? God knows how long this will last. Thank God you escaped his clutches’.
Manel wept silently for a while and then nodded in acquiescence … resignation. She looked outside at the garden, trying to let go, to reach ahead; to reach beyond herself and her inexplicable grief.
The rain had stopped and turgid drops of water fell from the leaves on the trees as they stirred almost in sympathy and understanding for the lonely woman who walked among them.
* Leyna: Squirrel, in Sinhalese * Aney: colloquial Sinhalese for “Aww, bless!” * Pirith Potha: Book of Buddhist religious verses that are recited for protection. “Pirith” is the Sinhalese word for “Paritta” (in Pali) which means Protection. * Aney ara pissa: colloquial Sinhalese for “oh that crazy lovable idiot”
‘Chhip! Yanna!’(1), Manel scolded a cheerfully departing squirrel as it scampered off with a big chunk of foam from one of the sofa cushions in the veranda. She had a love-hate relationship with these feisty little denizens of the garden: she screamed and hollered at their fervent pillaging of everything that could be bitten or gnawed off, while she tut-tutted in sympathy when she found one of them dead in the flower beds; the victim of either a rodent-hunting garandia* or of the easeful burden of old age such as it tended to come upon them in their bountiful lives at 75, High Level Road.
She picked up the maimed cushion and dusted it down as if re-settling it diligently into its comfortable nook would somehow repair the damage. With Manel, a lot was symbolic and much was left to the quite often, fickle good graces of the universe.
Manel lived with Melba aka Mel, her companion and friend of 42 years and the matriarch and grande dame of their house in Nugegoda. She had brought Manel to her home from the Evelyn Nurseries orphanage in Kandy when Manel was 18 years old. Recently divorced and on her own for the first time in her 28 years, Mel had embarked on this enterprise of companionship with much deliberation and reflection. She was the product of missionary school education and the Colombo elite, a combination that, while breeding the well-heeled socialites of the city, also begot dozens of cultured, articulate but professionally unqualified widows and divorcees . These inhabitants of the now fringes of privilege – since the elite bell curve was usurped quite entirely by the debutantes and the still-married – were not only summarily launched into solitary independent lives but also into a world where they had to learn to fend for themselves. And Mel had gone at it with the tenacity of a bull dog: unlearning, relearning, challenging and changing the day to day norms and expectations that had bound her life so fully in her maiden days and even during her short wedded life. After four decades of dealing with the petulant, cantankerous universe of her existence, she had ripened Into a woman of many words and a somewhat short fuse that quite persuasively masked a still tender heart.
Manel was the antithesis of everything Mel was. Where Mel was loud and commanding, Manel was soft and placating; where one bull-dozed into situations, the other treaded with caution. It would be unjust to imagine that Manel’s reticence of nature and restraint were borne of Mel’s draconian demeanour; the matriarch was especially gentle with her beloved shrinking violet and protected her fiercely from the waywardness of the world. It was quite logical to imagine then that Manel was most likely bestowed with her acute sensitivity by the frivolous hands of nature itself. Physically too, the two were in serene discordance with each other: Mel was tall and willowy, while her companion was short and plump. One fiddled with the food on her plate, preferring instead to have a cigarette dangling from a mouth that was simultaneously engaged in an epic telling or retelling; the other made short, efficient shrift of every fulsome meal in front of her. And so the two women had lived together in almost improbable but perfect harmony and neither could imagine being without the companionship of the other.
Over the last twenty years, the two women had made such basic arrangements in their home that had allowed them to let out the three rooms upstairs to paying guests. Staying at the Serendib Lodge was just a little less than checking into a bed and breakfast and a tad more than residing in a friendly stranger’s home, where there was no expectation of guests at all. The set up, despite its informality and simplicity, did quite well, supplementing the meagre income that Mel received from her other modest assets. Their guests were multi cultural and for the most part, gracious and undemanding. Some even put down semi-permanent roots staying six months or a year in the hospitable lodgings of the two women. Mel revelled in the new company while Manel’s associations were mostly limited to the quiet sharing of meals and the simple exchange of pleasantries when she passed them on the stairs or at the main door. She liked it that way – the house alive with energy she could feel but activity she could, for the most part, not see or be a part of.
It was the festive season, a day in November in fact, when Chirkoot Kumar first came to stay at Serendib Lodge. Better know as Sherry Kumar, he tended to hide the hapless burden of his first name, a dubious gem bestowed on him by his paternal grandfather, away from the judging eyes of the world. He was a short, stout man with a gleaming bald head and a perennial smile on his round face. Looking at the world dead on from the otherwise unremarkable face was a pair of striking green eyes. They were large and chameleon-like, changing colours in congruence with their surroundings. He swept into the two women’s lives like a ship into harbour – grandly, triumphantly and with the resounding drop of an anchor. To all intents and purposes, it appeared that he had come to stay. At 65 years old, he was still in love with life and went about it with the zeal of a teenager. Mel immediately took to him, spending every hour that he had free and in the house, at his side. They talked about politics, cricket, the sorry state of the world, the even sorrier state of their social peers and the best koththu in town. She had in her earlier gusto for the scintillating company, tried a bit of flirtation too which was met with smiling equanimity by Sherry and a soon-to-follow chiding, deriding note to herself. She wasn’t the “falling in love” type! She was the chatty, smart-alecky sort who liked nothing better than to regale and be regaled; to banter endlessly until the sun came up or went down depending on what defined the tail end of a 4 hour session of gab and gossip.
Through this reverberating environment of ceaseless chatter, Manel continued to be quiet and retiring. She had yet again seen the entire sequence of a relationship, such as it occasionally tended to assail Mel, unfold in quick time and then settle into an easy camaraderie. She had at its various junctures, felt amusement, anxiety and finally a peaceful acclimatisation to its newest flame, who was now a friend in Mel’s life. She didn’t resent the fact that Mel spent less and less time with Manel these days. She had her hands full doing the laundry and the cooking for the three and sometimes four and five residents of Serendib Lodge; and of course, she loved her time in the garden. It was a little patch of emerald green surrounded by a wondrous array of colours and chaos that looked like it had dropped right off a nature painter’s canvas. She had a flair for creating life that revelled in the joy of wild abandon. Cats claws and Thunbergia climbed curving and looping around Araliya, Mango and Indian almond trees, leaving bright splashes of yellow, purple and white in their meandering wake. For the time that she was in the garden, Manel was one with the burgeoning, budding world around her.
(1) Chhip! Yanna!: Colloquial Sinhalese for “Shoo! Go away!”
* Garandia: Sri Lankan Rat snake that feeds on rodents
A little background to the below piece. My evening walk is as integral a part of my day as my first copiously caffeinated cup of tea. I venture out 6 days a week, inclement weather notwithstanding, and no matter where I am (I have an uncanny resourcefulness for finding workout venues, even if the source of my next meal disquietingly eludes me). And having followed this body and mind discipline for close to 20 years now, i have had ample opportunity to observe, experience and expertly categorise my fellow park-goers. What follows is the somewhat meandering result. If some of it resonates with other fellow walking track creatures, the bleary-eyed hours writing it, were not for naught!
It all started in those very early days Social media was limited, it was the digital Stone Age. Post a relationship, solo-winging it again, No other pastime seemed to make sense. So jiggity jog, I began doing the laps And that’s when I discovered the creatures of the track.
This funny set is the first that I came by: The posse of old gents who give you the glad eye. And if they’re feeling especially brave, They will ardently stalk you around the enclave. The dignified gait transforms into a stampede Which an imminent coronary doesn’t seem to impede! The breath is ragged, the pupils dilated If I wasn’t The Stalked, I’d have slowed down and waited!
The next of the regular crowd in the park Is the muscle bound ‘Lone Ranger’ who’s out for a lark. Acutely aware of his tittering fans Like a peacock he’ll do his trademark dance; (Read: do a slow jog looking totally focused But we know his nonchalance is quite entirely bogus!)
Then there’s the most entertaining stream: The ladies who’re out there to see and be seen. They glow and they glitter and shine in their gear Quite confident they’ve outdone all of their peers. Most have come from vast distances off Because Wednesday is ‘event day’ at the Racecourse! They walk and they talk and they scan their environs Hoping to catch a gander of the super fine ‘uns. (Please note that I feel abundant affection For this vibrant, spirited ladies’ faction).
Then there’re the crowds of parents and children Of bicycles and tricycles and scootie action; Of badminton, football and even cricket Right in the midst of the walking thicket. Of aimless ambling and head-on collisions; Guardians and wards on their own park missions. Of flash mob type coordinated collectives Sweating it out over their synched acrobatics. This crowd doth teach uncommonly well The precision art of duck, dive and repel.
But I’d be amiss if this septet ignored The likes of myself in the regular park hoard. Yes, I’m the one that’s outrunning demons Not one or two, but prodigious legions! Eyes straight ahead, “baton” in hand, I march to the sound of my own brass band! I may even come across as a tad bit demented But a bracing, tearing traipse is so well worth it!
And so in closing, It’s quite essential to mention That in building satire into this narration, I mean to soften the blow of my words Because haranguing I definitely am still, by God! A little more farce? To the whole park crowd: You’re the molasses in my tea, there isn’t a doubt!
The beautiful tropical monsoon sky That changes colours in the blink of an eye. Inspiring awe in its kaleidoscopic wake It shifts and shimmers; now translucent, now opaque.
From the deepest depths of a cornflower blue To the delicate flush of a just ripe peach, It drifts and glimmers in rainbow hues An iridescent paradise just out of reach.
Then there’s the never ending mesmeric motion Of the cresting and falling Indian Ocean; It’s white laced edges hugging the shore In a primal dance telling tales of yore. This is the magic of the Lighthouse* promontory Where the heavens lustily encircle the sea.
This piece is inspired by the dramatic elements of surprise that are innate to tropical weather. An ethereal tribute to Sri Lanka. Title inspiration from Mark Medoff’s 1979 play titled “Children of a Lesser God”. Screen-adapted in 1986 by the same title. Indra: Hindu storm god Yu Shi: Chinese rain god Zeus: Greek storm god Calandra: Greek goddess of rain Olympus: Abode of the gods and site of the throne of Zeus
Having lived in the golden arms of a tropical island in the Indian Ocean for over 5 years now, I have had ample opportunity to experience its whimsical flirtations with the weather gods. From a spirited lightsaber play with Indra*, to a blitheful dance in the rain with Yu Shi* to a gladiatorial display of stormy rage and thunder with Zeus*, the tear drop island of Sri Lanka has perfected a celestial theatre all its own. The spectators, all its creature denizens, are left sometimes daunted, sometimes dazzled but mostly awed.
Here’s my attempt at describing a not so unusual day in the equatorial climes of Serendib.
Act 1 - Scene 1: I wake up to a pale amber light filling the space above the curtain rails in my bedroom. The usually glad-eyed sun is in a somber mood today as I draw back the drapes on an overcast day. I can feel the fickle aura of the atmosphere seep into my bones and I know it’s going to be one of those weather-wise dramatic days. I arm myself with an umbrella as I step out into the late morning torpor. For while the heavens prepare to unleash their elemental surprises for the day, the moisture laden warmth of the tropics continues to caress all and sundry with sticky-wet fingers. The clouds continue to gather in thick-bodied eskers along the horizon while the sky above shifts between a myriad shades of grey. The trees sway to the side favoured by the wind, rustling prophetically of things to come. Then suddenly they are still, silent. A storm is brewing.
Act 1 - Scene 2: As far away as the rain bearing clouds appeared 20 minutes ago, they have magically, mysteriously traversed the curvature of our atmosphere and are now directly overhead. The grey of the sky becomes opaque like thick wedges of granite. Even though you’ve witnessed this drum roll of a scene a million times, it stops you in your tracks, makes you look up, sends the smallest of cold shivers down your spine. If you’re indoors, you look on from the safety of your enclosed space. If you’re in your car, you hurry home; if you’re walking, you quicken your steps to the nearest shelter. And then the weather gods begin their ethereal orchestra as big fat drops of rain begin to pelt the earth in an opening prelude.
Act 1 - Scene 3: Lightning forks through the sky in an ever widening mesh across the city, its jagged ends tearing into the clouds overhead. Jeering, threatening, laughing Thunder strides along with its booming megaphone. The stuporously falling rain has now transformed into sinewy sheets that cut diagonally into the stinging, singing earth. The usually bustling streets are almost empty; when the gods are at play, the mortals look on from safe distances. Maternal Calandra* cloaks the city in a gentle haze, blurring out the most riotous parts of the explosive crescendo. And the rain continues to come down.
Act 2 - Scene 1: The glistening leaves on the rain-washed trees rustle in the evening breeze, shaking off their watery burdens drop by drop. The Earth rises from her lotus position, stretching out her arms, a sweet petrichor exuding from every pore. Flying, crawling, creeping creatures poke out wary heads, blinking at their shimmering world. The more intrepid venture out for a last meal before their day is finally done. Fledglings raise a stridently petulant clamour, instinctively aware that the beast has moved on and their world is once more safe and bounteous. People hurry on with their lives, still guarded, still weather-anxious but impelled by that unceasing urge to get up and go on. There is a final roll of distant thunder as Zeus laughs one last time. The clouds clear and a rosy orange sunset appears on the horizon as the rest of the deific thespians head back to Olympus*, their cosmic romping done for the day.
Act 2 - Carpe Momentum: The late evening breeze is cool and crisp as it darts nimbly into gardens and homes, nipping gently at sun-browned skin. The sky is clearer, brighter as Orion and Taurus blink in nocturnal wakefulness. The smaller creatures are abed, while the bigger ones slow down in the gentle luminescence of a clear, fragrant night. Tomorrow will be another day with its own atmospheric act and aura, for that is the way of the lusty tropics. And the children of the weather gods will awaken to a new day, fresh beginnings and another chance to get it right.