I feel the pull
I feel the glimmer
It surrounds me, it’s all around me
I freeze as it coaxes me
Out of the grip of my sanity
I stop struggling
And let it pull me in
In the tsunami gushing
Inside my mind
But only for a breath.
I resurface then
In my other world
My secret one
Where I have no anxiety
Where I don’t want to run
A swing in the garden
And a rocking chair. I smile.
They both hold the comfort
And the softness of old friends
They rest there quietly.
I sit in the swing
I push with my feet
And peek through the leaves
At the golden-red sky
I can’t see them
But I can hear the birds
I think it is dusk
A velvety glow wraps my world
Golden paisleys and whorls
Dance around my feet
As I sway gently in my seat
Dappled sunlight cloaks
My shoulders like angels wings
As I weave to and fro on the swing
I breathe out, my muscles untense
I’m far away from cause and consequence
No memories, no sorrows
No yesterdays, no tomorrows
It is Now and Now is everything
I lean back
In the swing
She holds me softly
In her cushioning
I close my eyes.
I hear something
Someone is calling me
Voices from far away
But my lids are so heavy
I can’t keep awake
In the tranquil buzz
Of the honey bees
And the gentle murmur
Of the almond trees
Like wraiths the voices fade away
I’m finally home, unbound, pain-free
I lay my head back and sleep.
She’s not here anymore. She’s gone
Adrift in the tangle of her dreams.
There was once an orchid
With beautiful white flowers
She loved lots of sunshine
And gentle rain showers
Her petals looked like little moths
Fluttering in the breeze
She lived between two branches
Of the great banyan tree
The bigger plants were kind to her
And let her play with them
She’d sway her snowy flowers about
And shake her leafy stem
One day it rained so very hard
Moth orchid was quite drenched
Her head of flowers hung down low
Touching the wooden bench
The plants around her tried to help
But could not pick her up
She drooped towards the bench some more
And there her stem got stuck
When the rain finally stopped
The gardener ambled out
He saw poor Mothy on the bench
And took her in the house
He put her in some coconut husk
And kept her indoors for a day
Then put her back on the banyan tree
Where she still lives, grows and plays.
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
Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/24/serendib-lodge-part-two/
The green of the earth
And the blue of the sky;
The cool, mellow breeze
That caressingly passes by.
The trilling of the birds
The humming of the bees;
The rustling of the leaves
In their verdant canopies.
The well-loved paths
Fringed with emerald grass;
The spring-born butterflies
Delicately flitting past.
That one beloved companion
Who matches steps with mine,
Our hearts and minds in harmony
In this precious time.
This surely is my heaven
My earthly paradise,
Where Nature gently embraces me
And I kiss her with my eyes.