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.
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.
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.
HOTEL: CALAMANSI COVE VILLAS BY JETWING
AT: Wijerama Road, Balapitiya 80550
TYPE: LUXURY BOUTIQUE HOTEL (with 12 villas in total)
DISTANCE FROM COLOMBO: ABOUT 2 HOURS DOOR TO DOOR
So back we went a-tripping to Balapitiya; the second time in a month – that seafront is quite fabulous! (Read about the first visit here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/02/11/trippinggoals/ )
I have to spend some time waxing eloquent on the sublime quality of the beach at the Calamansi Cove Villas. The soft, powdery sand is only the beginning. If you’re a sea-splashing adventurer, nicely ensconced between the swashbuckling surfers and the comatose horizon watchers, then this place is perfect! We treaded the satiny sand into the sea at around 5.15pm on both days that we were there.
The sun was hanging at a pendulous 70 degree angle to the horizon, its daytime energy already transformed into eventide warmth. The sea, at that time, was calm and lovely, like a sheet of shimmering glass. We floated along on gentle swells watching a strawberry pink sunset putting itself to bed. And then suddenly there were clouds overhead and the breeze whipped up the waves into a lively frenzy. The benign undulations became cresting and crashing waves that would have been perfect for a bit of body boarding. Not having access to any boards, we just expended our energy standing our ground (or turning an inadvertent somersault) in the rushing undercurrents. Throughout, the water was almost tepid, warmed by the tropical sun; it was like being in a giant jacuzzi (with the heat setting at its lowest!)
The rest of the trip kind of unfurled around our sea experience. The only difference from our last trip being that this time we stayed at the Calamansi suite situated on the first floor as opposed to the villas that are all at ground level. It was a beautifully appointed apartment, and was spacious and bright. The only thing that detracted from the ultimate experience of seaside luxury was the lack of a tub or a jacuzzi. That would have been the superlative frill in the sumptuous resort experience. But like I said, the sun-warmed waters of the Indian Ocean made up quite nicely for the lack of any man made tributes to the same. The view of the ocean from the airy balcony was somewhat impaired due to the regulatory fringe of tsunami-ready palms waving their green fronds at eye level.
I’d be doing a disservice to discerning resort goers and the establishment if I didn’t add on some Opportunites for Improvement.
-The set menu was fabulous at breakfast but became increasingly lacklustre by dinner. The Calamansi kitchen produces excellent local fare but struggles with continental cuisine. A little more effort/ finesse on that front would make a big difference to the overall food experience.
-The electric kettles (we experienced 2 in quick succession!) are a boiling water disaster waiting to happen. They don’t go off on their own and by the time I switched ours off from the mains, the whole kettle was scalding hot, including the on/off button. Got a first degree burn on my hand to show for it. The resort also ran out of regular black/ English breakfast tea bags ... while the ginger, green and earl grey sachets danced around in unmitigated abundance!
-The duvets continue to be made for the tundra freeze; I was obliged to play a seemingly endless game of hide n seek with mine all night. I suppose some like it hot!
The service team was exceptional as always. From graciously obliging us with culinary favours, to arranging a taxi post haste when our car refused to start (yes, karmically gentle misadventure to balance out the happy times!), the Calamansi crew are quite the hospitality champions. Thank you again, to the whole team for another memorable getaway.
HOTEL: CALAMANSI COVE VILLAS BY JETWING
AT: Wijerama Road, Balapitiya 80550
TYPE: LUXURY BOUTIQUE HOTEL (with 12 villas in total)
DISTANCE FROM COLOMBO: ABOUT 2 HOURS DOOR TO DOOR
In the spirit of getting away from the urban milieu for a bit and taking advantage of the south western coastal season, the Calamansi Cove Villas visit came about. This was our first time at this little gem of a place in Balapitiya and it was serendipitously refreshing.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT:
-We were served our meals in the alfresco dining area overlooking the coastal side of the property. While the other meals were delightful, dinner was fraught with a militant army of mosquitoes that were bent on vanquishing the enemy! There were no coils or other repellants in place. Thankfully, the much travelled, much beset duo that we are, we’d come prepared with our own cream repellant and citronella incense sticks. Once we lit the sticks and slathered ourselves, the meal became lovely. Would be a good idea for the hotel staff to light a few mosquito coils or the Lanka Sumeda citronella/ cinnamon/ lemongrass incense sticks (priced at ~Lkr 250/- for a 100 sticks). They are very effective and make all the difference between having a memorable outdoor meal or becoming an aperitif and an entree for the entire resident vampire-insect population.
-There was a body wash and a shampoo (which felt eerily the same) but there was no little tube of hand lotion. And so, the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet remained in uncomfortable arid limbo post our splash in the briny sea.
-The Calamansi is a small, contained little place with 12 villas in total. As such, there is not too much ambient lighting from any surrounding hotel recesses/ areas, and so towards the evening, the place had taken on a dark, deserted look. We had to request the staff to switch on the lights in the garden/ pool area which the dining hall overlooks. It completely changed the atmosphere, making it more welcoming/ lived in.
-The check-out area was also outdoors. There was not even a pedestal fan, and in the heat of the afternoon (the usual check-out time), by the time we were done paying our bills, we were drenched. Settling the bills somewhere inside or at least having a fan outside would make for a fitting end to the entire experience.
THE GOOD STUFF!
-The entire property is beautiful. Small and contained, the Calamansi is perfect for getaways in our current Pandemic-stricken times where big places with teeming dining areas and pools pose a hazard all their own.
-The villas are reminiscent of lovely, airy little apartments, each with its own little garden and the structural amenities that come with an outdoor area: a beautiful veranda opening out into a private little garden. The beds are made for hours of beauty sleep and then some! The pillows were perfect too. (Having, on a number of occasions, lost many hours of sleep in the dubious intimacy of a hard/ lumpy bolster, I appreciate the head-hug of a plump, downy pillow).
-The Calamansi definitely has one of the better ocean views/ feels. The beach is absolutely gorgeous with its powdery fine sand and gentle undulation into the water. The February waves were perfect for body boarding or, for the more gentle of demeanour, a walk along the lapping, foamy edges of the water.
-The food was quite palatable and was part of a set menu with 3 or so main choices to select from at every meal. There was a combination of local and continental cuisine to choose from. Because of the set menu, we also had the flexibility of having our breakfast quite a lot later than the usual 10.30am meal time limit.
-The piece de resistance at any of the resorts is really its people and their expertise and service. On that front, I have to commend the Calamansi for having a lovely set of people on its staff. From the life guard, Sujith, who had more than a few palpitations as my partner and I gambolled in the sea, turning inadvertent somersaults in the cresting and waning waves; to our main server, Chandana and the chef who obliged us on more than one occasion with fulfilling the little culinary requests that we made that were not a part of the set menu.
-The villas are perfect for an intimate getaway or a little holiday with the entire family. Suffice to say that the Calamansi Cove Villas has already become a favourite and we’re already planning a subsequent trip in the next couple of months.
When I thought of travel 5 years ago, images of copious, laborious intercity bank visits always came to mind. Job related travels to metropolises, townships and little rural outposts were the sum total of all my hours logged on the road.
Then I embarked on my sabbatical and the whole meaning of the word Travel changed for me. It embodied everything from a leisure trip to Europe or the Middle East, to amiable walks along my own city’s tree-lined, sun dappled walkways. My journeys, big and small, slowly but surely morphed into trips of not only the body but the mind and the soul too as I roamed around and smelled the gardenias, the araliya and the roses. The mind-numbing fumes of business travel were a distant memory in my newly acquired state of finally being free enough to follow my own heart rather than the terse instructions on my work day scheduler. And so it came to pass, that yours truly went from being a reluctant traveller at best, to feeling a rush of endorphins at the very idea of a trip away from the (not entirely unloved!) sweltering bustle of the city. I had become the quintessential Leisure Traveller and I basked in the glorious serendipity of the role.
I also came to realise that Leisure Travel does not have to be limited to trips taken during time away from work. The astute traveller with a love of roaming, can quite successfully combine business and leisure travel with some strategic pre-planning.
-Do a little homework on your destination. If you’re visiting the place for the first time, it’s always a good idea to take in the top 3-5 tourist attractions. Take a guided tour for the maximum bang for the buck. If you’re the intrepid, adventurous type, pick a couple of the places that interest you the most and go it alone. Some pre-planning on the most optimal modes of transport will be helpful to ensure you don’t find yourself woefully light of pocket post your very first taxi ride.
-Consult your hotel/ motel concierge. These personages are surprisingly wonderful founts of knowledge on the best, most budget-friendly local sights, sounds and tastes. I have visited some of the nicest little local hot spots and had some of the choicest local cuisine at the behest of their friendly bidding!
-Come prepared with sturdy walking shoes (preferably waterproof), a lightweight umbrella and a light jacket. Whether you’re in the sultry tropics or the cool alpine heights, you’ll be prepared for that unexpected monsoon or seasonal shower.
-Carry a basic medical kit with bandaids, pain killers, anti allergies, mosquito repellant and oral rehydration salts (foreign cuisine can be dicey!)
So what does Leisure Travel look like in 2021?
In our current lives, buffeted as they are with uncertainty on so many fronts, I would define leisure travel as any trip that allows you to relax and/ or rejoice; to realign body, mind and soul to attain some semblance of inner peace and quiet. Whether it takes a solitary retreat in the middle of a forest, or a full moon party at a crowded beach, the purpose of leisure travel is to rejuvenate the traveller. To revitalise the trip-maker to get back into the fray of life, feeling less burdened and more prepared to take each day as it comes.
Given the pandemic and the far reaching limits on travel generally, leisure trips need to become increasingly more creative and out of the box. After a year of enduring pandemic-fuelled lockdowns and curfews, people are more than ready to get away from it all.
Leisure travel can be as simple as a day trip to a spa or a hotel a little way away from home. Little bubbles of rest and relaxation that allow one to get away from the milieu of every day life while also keeping within pandemic defined geographies.
Another increasingly popular avenue of holidaying is to rent a bungalow or a villa somewhere. This is a fortuitous remedy for larger families allowing for both, a change of scenery as well as ensuring pandemic health protocols are observed. There are no busy hotel lobbies or crowded pools or overflowing dining areas to contend with. It’s a pandemic leisure traveller’s dream come true; a kind of “home away from home” holiday.
For the intrepid travellers with dogged wanderlust, there are still places around the world where life goes on undisrupted. With the addition of certain basic health obligations like a negative PCR test, wearing masks in all public places and observing state postulated social distancing rules, these places continue to welcome visitors and indeed have much to offer in the way of travel experience. Some tropical destinations fall into this sphere of venturesome travel.
I, in the meantime, vaccinated and boosted, am content with traveling to my neighbourhood cafe and escaping into the world of abundant imagination across vast spaces through the keys of my iPad. And for the occasional temerarious shock to the system, I and my partner in all crimes of high adventure, pack our overnighters and get away to a nearby beachy or green locale, all the while basking in the simple pleasure of the journey itself.
Leisure travel during the pandemic really is akin to living by the compass and not by the clock, as we tend to our bodies and our spirits in the overwhelming tenuousness of our current lives.
RESTAURANT: CAPITAL BAR AND GRILL AT THE SHANGRI-LA HOTEL
ADDRESS: ONE GALLE FACE MALL, COLOMBO 3
CUISINE: MODERN, INTERNATIONAL, CONTINENTAL
Ensconced in the modern, luxurious environs of the Shangrila Hotel, this venue is almost a nostalgic throwback to the bars of the 40s and 50s, with a lovely modern twist. From the repertoire of live music to the atmosphere, it is warm, retro and relaxing.
I’ve been a number of times to the bar and admit, i have had a varied gamut of experiences.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT:
-The Parking area is dismally inadequate over the weekend as wedding parties, mall goers and hotel patrons all vie for a spot.
-Patrons are not allowed to make reservations at the bar. So if one happens to walk in later than 8.30pm, there may not be a seat/ table available. If there are a significant number of no-shows, put in a process whereby reserving patrons are called 20 mins before their scheduled arrival time to re-confirm their reservation. If they don’t arrive despite the re-confirmation, give the table to someone else.
THE GOOD STUFF!
-The atmosphere definitely. It is luxurious yet comfortable - one can sit back and bask in the lap of old world charm at quite its best in Colombo.
-The food is quite good for the most part.
-The service is good (I do go on about service because it really makes up half the food and hospitality experience. Having been in the Financial Institutions Customer Experience realm for almost a decade, it is almost instinctive now to gauge every aspect of service delivered, from the front-desk manner of the usher to the culinary/ spirits knowledge of the serving staff).
-The live music sessions have always been fabulous. The last time it was a lovely myriad of jazz, folk and country delivered beautifully.
RESTAURANT: “RARE” AT UGA RESIDENCE
ADDRESS: PARK STREET, COLOMBO 7
CUISINE: MODERN, INTERNATIONAL, WITH A QUINTESSENTIAL SRI LANKAN TWIST
This was my first time for dinner at the Uga.
OPPORTUNITY FOR IMPROVEMENT:
There was really only one aspect that got to me. Only because it is so simple to get right... or wrong:
-The bread basket was sadly full of old, crusty pieces of bread which set a somewhat dire tone for the rest of the meal. The staff was quick to respond and they did bring out a fresh bread basket. That was a faux pas that is so easily/ cost effectively avoided.
THE GOOD STUFF!
-The atmosphere was absolutely scintillating. It was just post a monsoon shower and everything was clean and gleaming. The restaurant overlooks a courtyard that is especially beautiful. We requested them to put a table outside for us so we ate al fresco. It was quite surreal.
-The appetisers were quite fabulous, especially the baked cauliflower. The Waldorf salad was not bad second.
-The main courses were quite good. I had the chicken in lemon grass and my partner had the pork belly.
-The service was quite impeccable given that the restaurant was full and the establishment was short-staffed that evening.
-They had a good/ wide selection of wines available (which is a bit of a rarity even at the better bars around town). And they served it beautifully with a decanter and the works. I’m a bit persnickety about how the wine is stored and how it is served since it makes all the difference in flavour preservation. Good storage ensures the sulphites in the wine don’t ferment and “vinegarize” the wine. Good pouring service, with a decanter or an aerater ensures that the wine breathes as much as possible from a newly opened bottle, for the flavours to really come to the fore.
I have now been using these four-stroke creatures to transport me around the island for the last 5 years, and I have to say that we’ve developed quite a lovely (e)motional symbiosis. They take me where I have to go, and I help them log a part of their daily distance while we both also get in a bit of a quaint conversation. The tuk tuk chatter ranges from Imran Khan’s political likability (he’s at least universally loved by the SL 3-wheeler brigade), to expertly compressed 6 minute summaries of their lives delivered amidst unexpected swerves, dodges and lurches, as my driver looks back during the choicest parts of his particular narration. I react congenially enough until imminent death threatens our largely blindly-pitching carnival of drama. Then I don my mother superior mantle, cut my voluble driver short and tell him if he doesn’t focus on getting me to my destination still in possession of my earthly form, that I will disembark right there, right then. That works, because losing a “hire” is almost as bad as having an animated conversation killed at its apex – this tuk tuk double whammy is a thing to be avoided at all costs. So the rest of the journey continues in inhaling the toxic and nauseating but thankfully silent, and undramatic fumes of over-taking vehicles.
Tuk Tuk drivers come in all manner of forms, from the road runners to the pavement huggers and a whole colorful gamut in between. There are the staid, honest types who drive in sedate silence (a perrenial favourite and an increasing rarity); the sly, intrepid ones who will take you on wildly circuitous routes to your destination; the meter cheaters who with undisguised enthusiasm will punch in 10 extra buttons on the instrument to awaken the tuk tuk Beast of Deceit; the MI6 Hall of Famers who will glance suspiciously at every other vehicle they pass, with special x-ray vision scans reserved for when they stop at traffic lights. The ones that are big fans of external trappings, their carriages outfitted with WiFi, a DVD player, a 15 inch monitor, sanitizer, a tissue box and, wait for it…. seatbelts! The nervous, anxious ones driving barely intact tuk tuks that groan and whine in anguished protest – (I tend to tip them the most generously. My sentimental, rooting-for-the-underdog knee jerk reactions continue to be alive and well). The Goodwill Ambassador who will, over the 10 minute ride, deliver a heart warming speech on the goodness of his countrymen and the many wonderful bounties of his paradise isle. Then there are the tenacious shopping mall 3-wheeler brigades with ethics that are as dubious as they themselves are territorial – one has to spew some quantities of brimstone and hellfire to get out of their clutches; also probably the only contingent that all the other tuk tuk drivers hesitate to lock their … headlights with!
This endearingly sensationalist lot also believes in pithy, public declarations of the meaning and gist of their lives, emblazoned as they are on their autos. There’s a sweet, almost nostalgic obsession with certain historical personages and quaint adaptations of favored English idioms: Like Che Guevara who always wants the tuk tuk contingent to rebel; Bob Marley who would like them to forget their woes in most likely, a moonshine-steeped, reggae-rocked weekend. Then there is the tuk tuk driver throwing out a barefaced challenge asserting “if you’re bad, I’m your dad“; or the one who’s had it with arrogance saying “fly not high so you fall not low“; or the myriad others who loudly declare that their hearts are up (on their tuk tuk behinds) for the taking, and as many more who have publicly closed themselves to love… certain lady passengers always being an exception!
On wet days, of which there are many on this tropical island, the rickshaw drivers will race home largely oblivious to the desperate hails of rain-soaked pedestrians. The ones with a flair for a bit of perverse drama, will even pretend to slow down and then rev up almost immediately, leaving momentarily buoyed spirits crashing into the puddles forming all around; revelling in the reversal of the supply/ demand structure for the course of the monsoon torrent. I have tended to see the comic relief in this too as I have been lured and then abandoned by the fickle advance and departure of an unoccupied tuk tuk. Like they say, everyone needs their own particular form of catharsis!
As colourful and varied as the character spectrum is on these public carriers, they, one and all, manage to go where no other/ bulkier vehicles can. Through nooks and crannies, brushing, with millimetres to spare, past a lumbering bus, racing down paths barely wide enough for 2 people to walk abreast. There is something of a mild urban censure of these contorting asphalt plyers – many say, a menace on Colombo’s narrow roads that are already burgeoning with their automotive burdens. But for us, the carless, environment-preserving lot (inadvertent as this reduced CO2 footprint state of being may be!) they are our reasons for remaining happily mobile across our neighbourhood geographies.
And so, as I spend my days roaming the city in between bouts of reading, writing and grocery shopping, I have formed an almost affectionate bond with the tuk tuk posse of the metropolis. Despite the ravages wrought by the pandemic of 2020, they remain optimistic, enterprising, courageous and cheerfully defiant on the roads. I still call them out for over-charging, they still respond with outlandish excuses but together we go pitching and careening across the city in a haze of mutual appreciation.
Getting around the island by Tuk or by Crook!
As the pandemic marches on, this is more true than ever. I have felt impelled to write this piece mostly because we have all now, as a planet, lived through a year of the Covid-19 blight. All 7 billion lives have, in some measure, been affected, afflicted or completely upended. And the sobering truth is that there is no real end in sight yet. These past 8 months have also seen families not only devastated by the virus in many parts of the world, but crippled also by the general economic slowdown/ shutdown.
We in the South Asian belt have been relatively more fortunate with regard to our pandemic mortality rates. The conjectures and theories on how the delevloping world is coping so peculiarly well with the disease are varied and many. Call it providential or karmic or the universe finally lining up all the fortuitous constellations in our Asian skies – that is how it is and for that we are grateful. Grateful while still being aware of the economic ravages wrought on the healthy but the vulnerable; the uninfected but the reduced; the vigorous but the poor. Which brings me to the mission of this piece – the importance of being kind. Of engaging in little everyday gestures of generosity to alleviate in some part the struggles of the less fortunate members of our communities.
Start with your neighbourhoods.
⁃Give just a little bit extra to the tuk tuk driver who’s been whisking you about town (or running errands for you) through blazing hot days and even the errant tropical storm. Even if you don’t get into his carriage much or at all these days, tip him for all his gracious service and for persevering still, to earn a decent living despite bleak business.
⁃Patronise your local fruit and vegetable sellers and your standalone neighbourhood grocery stores rather than the larger franchised establishments. The balance sheets of the latter will survive a year or so of beleagured business; the former, however, will be forced to shut down their doors permanently, changing the fortunes of entire nuclear and extended families forever.
⁃ Even if you’re of the genteel old school of thought, for whom the hawkers of malodorous incenses, oddball children’s story books and car cleaning paraphernalia are persona non grata in the general milieu of roadside traffic, be kind. At the traffic lights, despite yourself, roll down and buy some incense, buy a book or buy a cleaning product. Be gracious with your privilege.
⁃ With restaurants and bars in operational flux, if you do go out, tip generously. For most of the kitchen and serving staff, your service gratuity makes all the difference between being able to send a child to school or not.
⁃ For those that are now enjoying, in the safety of their homes, the gastronomic pleasures of Italy, Pakistan or the entire junk food spectrum of the Americas, tip the delivery staff openheartedly. For many of them, their endless google mapped excursions around the city are second and third jobs taken on to supplement incomes made ever more meagre by the pandemic.
⁃Be kinder to your domestic staff, those consummate companions one can’t do without in keeping the household engine well-oiled and chugging along immaculately, peaceably. It’s also no secret that a lot of domestic bliss is owed to their inimitable roles in our daily lives!
⁃ And last but not least, our usually bustling towns and cities are also home to a multitude of scavenging animals. These urban-bred packs of stray felines, canines and even a sizeable number of the avian population depend on the scraps and oddments of the teeming human millions going about their usual day. That food source has become unreliable at best. Do your bit by putting out some water for our creature cohabitants, and food if you’re blessed with an outdoors.
These neigbbouhood civics, in my mind, are fundamental and therefore incumbent on all of us. They are the very basic protocols of social decency and community living, but have over time, and as i look around me, lost their place in our intuitive DNA. And hence, as with so many other virtuous but faded/ lapsed communal interactions in our lives, the need to recall, restore and revitalise is important.
And so, this petition is meant as just a little scratching of the surface to that human part that is intrinsic to all of us bad eggs, good eggs, tough eggs, quirky eggs and all.
I’ll leave you with a cheeky little refrain as a gentle reminder of the compassionate beings we really are, and for when we lose that thread now and then in the frenzied rush of life.
I was a hard boiled egg
Less sugar, more spice
It’s taken a pandemic
To remind me to be nice!
I sit here, encircled in my routine,
My safety net spread around me like a bright yellow blanket.
The sameness, the everydayness keeping it close, gently embracing.
I’ve gulped down the first half of my mug of coffee
So now I’m surrounded also, by a warm cloak of caffeine.
I stretch inwardly with the languidness of a just-fed, just-loved cat.
I look outside at the recently blue sky
Where the clouds have now gathered in heavy eskers of grey
The suddenness of the assailment, the eclipsing of the sun,
Breaking the spell of my Constancy Ritual.
I sip on the second half of my mug of coffee, rhythmically bolstering my caffeine haze
Even as the sudden coolness of the breeze loosens my other subliminal layers of warmth.
Then the rain begins to fall.
Free, fluid, gleaming,
Skipping down the sidewalk; dancing in eddying pools on the street below.
And i stand up and stretch with the lustiness of the Alive and the Kicking.
I reach out and catch the falling raindrops in the trough of my open palm;
I reach out and seize the day.
De Khudai pe aman.
Some background to this piece is essential I feel, to give it that bit of relatable relevance. Felicia’s character is based on an old family friend in Sri Lanka who is as lovely as she is absolutely, delightfully eccentric. Donald Rajapakse is a more sinister inspiration, based on the character of a man whom i know nothing of but who has been in my coffee shop writing space for the last 6 months – loud, obnoxious and a bit of a hassler. (I had to have the cafe management intervene to have him back off). Ruwani is a happy figment of my imagination, introduced to bring life and depth to the madcap machinations of my 2 main characters.
Felicia looked around her with the air of the resident matriarch, her gaze more acicular than that of a quality control inspector at a pharmaceutical manufactory. She noticed everything; from the brand of shoes on a toddler’s little feet to the caliber and concentration per square inch of a counterpart’s cosmetic applications. She sniffed delicately, her scan of the Cinnamon Grand lobby complete, and picked up her mug of double chocolate drizzled mochaccino.
She turned to Ruwani, her friend of 60 years and a bulwark of a woman in bearing and bulk.
“I’ve had a new salwar* stitched for the next meeting of the International Ladies’ Club. It’s from Pakistan. That Shihani thought she looked like a beauty queen with her Janpath market purchase. Did you see the cheap gold lace on her shawl?” She rolled her eyes as she spoke disparagingly of her social arch-nemesis.
Ruwani laughed her high tinkling laugh, delicately belying her ponderous mien. Her eyes twinkled as she said, “imitation is the purest form of flattery darling. She’s always looked up to you as her role model”. She laughed again at the mental image of Shihani looking up to Felicia as a role model of any sort. The two women could barely coexist in a social environment, and when they did somehow manage to come within six feet of each other, there was almost always a thrilling finale to the affair. The stuff of Page 3 high adventure.
Felicia frowned and took a slurpy swig of her saccharinus coffee, letting the heady brew course through her body, giving her the mental vigor to “drop it for now”. She had recently been diagnosed as a prediabetic and on the behest of her Ayurveda* guru, she had begun meditating to “will away the extra sugar” as she called it. She had also realised more recently that her willpower increased dramatically when her blood was fortified with caffeine or spirits. Still, she gave a last withering look to Ruwani before allowing the sugary caffeine to whisk away the wisecrack into some not so obscure recesses of her mind; the memory to be retrieved later, brazen and embellished, when she needed stirring reinforcements of lividity in the wake of an especially karmic day.
Ruwani watched Felicia’s face as expressions of resentment, detachment, reanimation and a final ferocity played out in the fond encore of an oft repeated act. Despite the bluff and bluster, Felicia was a good sort. The kind that needed copious scratching of the surface before any glimmers of goodness shone through though; a diamond in the consummate rough. Felicia Pelpola and Ruwani Edirisinghe had been friends for 50 years now and had had their fair share of fall-outs and run-ins. But time and grace (mostly on Ruwani’s side) had brought a bristly tenderness to their equation and their friendship had triumphantly weathered multitudinous storms in teacups and the occasional tsunami.
Felicia had, in her heydays, been quite the social starlet. She was the debutante that had changed the norms of the party circuit with her boisterous manner and her delicate anatomy. Her demeanour and her countenance were at such odds with each other that the resulting befuddlement of the senses became her piece de resistance. She provoked a serendipiptius sensation of attraction and discomfuture that pulled at all the male heart strings and incensed, in equal measure, the traditional ladies of leisure. Ruwani looked at her now robustly girthed friend and chuckled. Time had diminished her beauty yes, but had also compensated her unsparingly with a persona that strode into most rooms before her person did. She was absolutely, delightfully formidable!
“Oh look who’s here!” Ruwani, still grinning, looked towards where her friend was gesturing. Donald Rajapakse had just walked in, behatted and bellicose, loudly berating someone on his way into the coffee shop.
“Donnie! Donnie! Aney!* He’s getting deaf as a door nail!” crowed Felicia.
There was startled hush in the cafe which neither Felicia nor Donald noticed as the one shrieked back a “Hellooo!” and the other cackled in what was meant to be a guileful titter. Donnie came towards them, swaying from side to side in his quintessential rheumatic lurch.
“Hello my beauties! How are my favourite ladies?”
Felicia smiled affectedly and in the high pitched, adenoidal voice reserved only for eligible men and her hair dresser, she quipped, “We are fiiiine! Having cappuccino. You want? Come sit aney!”
Donnie sat in the chair that afforded him the best view of his surroundings and looked around. Felicia continued to smile like a loon and shifted her bulk at a precipitous right angle towards Donnie’s chair, her hand delicately supporting her chin. But Donnie was already distracted by a solitary woman sitting two tables away, engrossed in a book. He stared hard, only half hearing what Felicia was chirping into his ear. When his hypnotic stare didn’t get the creature to look his way, he devolved in his trademark manner into Neanderthal mode and then there was a bustle and a frenzy as he guffawed, bellowed and produced all manner of primitive-man noises to hassle the object of his current coffee shop infatuation into acknowledging his presence. She did finally, by calling for the bill, casting a disdainful look towards the voluble, senior party of three and sauntering out into the sunshine. Donnie was woebegone as his buoyant hat came off and he sat there with an inadvertent twinkle on his bald head. But not for long; you can’t keep a socially catastrophic but tirelessly optimistic man down for long. And so the next couple of hours were spent sipping coffee and annihilating plates of mutton pies and smoked salmon wraps over boisterous conversation.
At 3pm, Donnie left the group to join another party at the 70s Club. Felicia took back command of her person and her surroundings and the next thirty minutes were spent in a focused wardrobe and character breakdown of the other coffee shop patrons. All in all, it had been a charming afternoon!
On the way home, both women were thoughtful mostly because of the stupor of all the food consumed and partly because of the waning day…. Life. Ruwani glanced at her friend who had leaned her head against the seat and closed her eyes, blocking out the world perhaps, after spending an afternoon in its fervid embrace. Ruwani looked outside her window. They had stopped at a traffic light. A young man on a motorbike was arguing with his female pillion as she pushed away from him clutching a Beverly Street bag to her chest. A snot-nosed boy ran across the road with a dripping ice cream cone in his hand, following a hassled mother. A tuk tuk driver looked at his phone in distressed anticipation while glancing every so often at the red traffic light. The only quietude in the scene outside surrounded a duo of mynahs promenading along the sidewalk in perfect creature harmony.
Back home and post a shower, Felicia sat at her dressing table looking at her reflection. She brushed her hair slowly, the once lustrous strands now feeling meagre and inadequate in her grasp. She looked at the lines in her face; each had become a more avid companion as the years had gone by. She looked away and out of her bedroom window. In the waning twilight she saw a pair of mynahs, frolicsome and songful, performing a last little dance before being blanketed by the stillness of the night.
*Salwar: local colloquialism for the Shalwar Kameez, the long shirt and loose pants indigenous to the northern subcontinent
*Ayurveda: An alternative medicine system with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent.
*Aney: a colloquial Singhalese expression meant to show mild irritation/ concern.