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
to think of peace and its aftermath
names like Killinochi, Anuradhapura
and of course the wartip
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 me...in the only way possible.