Friday, March 23, 2012

Galle Face

When you visit a place that has occupied your imagination in different ways, your experience is continually overlaid by the made-up pictures that you hold in your head, and you can't get away from a feeling of second sight. Shyam Selvadurai's Cinnamon Garden introduced me to Colombo through an evocative and heart-breaking story, its events and people set in a lovingly described landscape that took me through the streets of the city and the roads of the countryside in ways my physical travels will perhaps never surpass. So my all-too-brief visit to this city was spent looking around the corner for places I had already been to in the novel.

Other stories of course have also contributed to my imagined geography in less pleasant ways: news reports of the 26 years of conflict, the Channel 4 documentary that gave the term Killing Fields a different temporal and spatial setting, the UNHRC petition against Sri Lanka, Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and so much else.

And then of course there are the "normalizing" accounts from my doctoral student Chamila who tells me in more prosaic and everyday terms of life in the country, the academic politics, and other details that render Sri Lanka in more familiar ways.


I had a lovely room facing the sea, and on my first (and only) morning in Colombo I took a walk, and this is what I wrote:

Walking along the beach
thoughts that wash over
my bouncy jagged steps
seem to take their cue
from the ululating rhythm
of the Indian Ocean.

It seems an unlikely moment
and place;
to think of peace and its aftermath
names like Killinochi, Anuradhapura
and of course the wartip
of Jaffna

Places that have existed
only in stories
by embedded journalists
and in war cries
of contesting politicians
take on a shape.

They dot themselves
in my map of meaning
in the faces of the soldiers who still stand guard
in the headlines of the paper left at my door, and
in the voice of the trishaw driver
who asks me if I speak Tamil.

I am just a working tourist
with no claim to knowledge or empathy
faced with this opaque history
lit by fiction and newsfact.
So answering in the affirmative
implicates the only way possible.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

In-between books

There's a half read book in the seat pocket in my car: Andra Levy's "Long Song". There's a volume by Tehmina Aman gathering dust next to the bed. And there's a third, dust-jacket-covered, few-times-opened copy of Philip Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" on my desk. All this quite apart from the many bought-and-waiting-to-be-read books on the shelves, pushed further back each time I go to the bookstore and emerge defeated, two more under my arm.

I'm sure many of us have experienced this space between stories, the hiatus between books. You finish one, are overwhelmed by the craft of the writer and the sweep of the story, and wallow in the imagination of a brilliant writer, wondering if it will be surpassed, and knowing full well it will. There are many others awaiting your attention but you feel reluctant to break this spell, to enter into yet another world that has been painstakingly built for your occupation. Weeks go by and you realise suddenly that you haven't been reading. That you have let a month go by without picking up a book. For someone who simply MUST read in moments between doing such everyday things as cooking and eating and working and whatnot, this awareness is akin to being hit by a thunderbolt and a long rope of guilt extracted from the very depths on one's being (okay, I apologise for the rather convoluted yet graphic metaphor). So you quickly move to assuage the guilt, to fill with printed words the void created by non-reading. You devour magazines (of the decently long-form journalism variety), collections of short stories, Sunday supplements, and such...but the book still eludes your grasp. Somehow nothing seems to fit the bill. The hangover continues and you are unable to re-enter another imaginative world until the previous one has been completely exorcised from your consciousness.

All the three books I've mentioned above are extremely promising. I am close to finishing "Long Song" but the last verse refuses to recall me with sufficient energy. I need a little more time.

But I now know what I need to get through this in-between phase. Some good basic crime stories. Maybe I'll pick up another Inspector Wallander story. Now, that's more like it. I can enter the Swedish countryside without the kind of mental preparation required to immerse myself in Bangladeshi society or the post-human post-digital landscape of Dick's vision.

I know what I'm reading this weekend.