11 February 2012

Try flipping direction, road and memory

About a week ago I wondered if people see the trees that stood on the roads that tke them from here to there, to somewhere and nowhere.  Renton de Alwis had a thought-provoking response.

‘Have you walked the same road in the opposite direction? You will be surprised how different it feels and looks. I mean what is around and how we perceive it. It is a pity that in life, most of us do not get that opportunity.’


Take ‘road’ as metaphor and it offers us all kinds of maps to pour over.  Take it literally and it still makes for fascinating journeys.  It made me think of a little trick we used to do now and then as children.  Bend down with legs slightly apart and look at the world from other side, i.e. from between the legs.  It is an upside down world we get, but it is not exactly like what you get when you turn a photograph 180 degrees.  I tried this after a long time and was, as always, amazed.  I took a lesson: change point of viewing, lens or frame and the same place yields a different universe. 


Human beings like predictability. They do like to play the odds now and then, being creatures of hope, but by and large they operate best in known circumstances even if the known-picture is not to their liking.  Fracture the picture a little and it jars the senses but we all do our best to adapt to changed circumstances. 


Practically speaking this is not such a bad thing, i.e. this inherently conservative strain in the human genetic make-up. On the other hand, it is because some people chose to fracture frame and continue to play with edge and line that we moved from one technological age to another, one philosophical era to another.  Someone, somewhere, must have at some time seen a circular form and been inspired to invent the wheel, for example.  It doesn’t harm to flip things around now and then. 


Leonardo DiCaprio, about ten years ago, did a number on the paparazzi that made me laugh my guts out when I read about it. He turned around and gave chase.  I am not sure if he was carrying a camera himself, but if he did it would have been really funny.  He observed that the paparazzi were taken aback and were totally confused: ‘I flipped the script on them!’ 


‘The grape is made of wine,’ Eduardo Galeano tells us.  Years after reading that line, in an apartment in New York City, I was questioning the mother of an old friend, Ayca Cubukcu about the ‘Turkish breakfast’ she had fixed for us.  ‘What are these leaves?’ I asked, pointing to some delicacy whose name I cannot remember.  She thought for a while.  She was not fluent in English. She said after a moment, ‘wine leaves’.  Meaning, ‘grape’.  The grape is made of wine, she was essentially reiterating.  And orange made of Fanta, I should add, for one day I saw an orange seller in Kandy doing the rounds on the buses parked in the main stand, ‘fanta wage, fanta wage’ (like Fanta).  Disturbing, yes, but still so very true.


I walked back, as Renton suggested.  On real roads, i.e. roads that are marked on one-inch maps.  On other avenues. Those of recollection for example.  Books and continents that reside within me, some happily and some against their better judgment.  People too. Those who walked through me, those I walked through and those who were travel mates for a few kilometers, a few dreams and songs.  I walked with and without them, back to a different time, a time no less innocent, no less vile but which the dictates of nostalgia require us to describe as being somehow more quaint. 


1973.  Grade 3.  The morning trek from gate to class took me on a particular route, for an entire year.  The route took me past the Milk Bar and then to building beyond which was the tennis court.  I had two options.  Skirt the building on the left or the right. I always took the left because it felt shorter.  Then there was the post 1.30 pm walk/run back to the gate.  I had to get past the aforementioned building. I always took the other route, from that end again the left. Felt ‘shorter’.  I never could figure out why things happened this way. 


Walking back gives us trees in new shape and colour, even if the time of return is the same as time of departure. It is like standing on one’s head under a tree and looking at the leaves of a tree, I like to think. Or simply rolling out a mat, stretching out on it and looking at the sky.  It gives a 360 degree span that standing or sitting will not deliver.  I walked to Horton Plains, December 1987.  Tents by a stream.  Good friends.  Determined not to sight-see, we just lazed around.  Lying on the grass, the sky seemed huge.  Bigger than before.  At dawn, mid afternoon and night.   Poya day. Well, Poya ‘night’.  Clear sky.  Shooting star and constellation, dirty jokes and contentment.  Perspective is what I got.  How small we are. How insignificant.


Walking back to a different time, different decades, different loves, different pregnancies of dream and conviction, ideological non-negotiable that is now remembered with smile and indulgence when encountered in others, I am not sure if I have come far, stayed where I always was or if I’ve only gone back (which is not necessarily ‘bad’ by the way).  The pebbles I am seeing now were of different colour and shape from what they were when I passed them going in the opposite direction years ago. 


I met several people called Malinda Seneviratne. Some I remembered and even liked, some I just can’t stand and they, in fact, appeared disgusted seeing me, and some were quite unrecognizable and looked at me as though I was a complete stranger.


It is good to walk. And roads are good too, regardless of what direction we go.  The piece on roads and trees prompted other responses too. This, apart from Renton’s, also made me pause.  A poem, authored by my father Gamini Seneviratne , appearing in the Navasilu years and years ago. 


People down the road
go to and fro
carrying things. Roads take them
places, that they do.
The way they fetch
their grain, carry their sick,
make the roads.  Highways grow,
and rivers bend, to all the land they work.
In the old days the roads went
only to places where
people must go or perish
Now travel is
an industry, they must keep
moving or it will sicken, people cease
to come cease to go and on the rocks
the tar will loose its hold, once more the grass
will thicken of its own
free will and fill up the cavities so
that roads can grow,
Yes, the grass was slow,
travel takes us now much faster
than we need to go from here
to the hereafter
missing signposts all the way.
Where the buck stops ends
the road.

Not easy, this matter of getting to a point when one realizes that the buck, the road and the stopping are all resident within; that anywhere is nowhere and vice versa.   Walking is good exercise, though. For legs. For eyes. For heart.  Happy journeys!

*first published in the Daily News in July 2010