02 March 2014

Can we ever get beyond the twisted reach of crazy sorrow?*

Flavio Da Cunha Renzende. A man I cannot forget.  Not for anything spectacular that he did, but one mindless-sorrow night in a small town called Ithaca, located in upstate New York.  Flavio Da Cunha Rezende, resident of Boa Vista, Recife in Brazil is now a professor and researcher, working at the Federal University of Pernambuca. Back than, and here we are speaking of the year 1998, he was a doctoral student at Cornell University. 

I was introduced to Flavio by my friend and classmate Kanishka Goonewardena, a fellow PhD student in the same department as Flavio and now a senior professor at the University of Toronto.  ‘Kaniya’ graduated and moved on. Flavio was junior to him. We used to hang out a lot.

I am remembering an evening in early spring. Friday.  Flavio wanted to drink.  No, he wanted drinks. In the plural.  And he wanted a woman.  I was not interested in either, but Flavio was great company and I tagged along, talking about Brazilian soccer, politics and things related to his academic work and mine.  Each bar in Ithaca has a character unique to it, and I suppose this is true of all bars in all places.  In Ithaca, some are for the gentry, the professionals and academic.  There are a couple of bars preferred by graduate students, because they are quieter.  Some are frequented by undergraduates who are only focused on getting drunk as quickly as possible.  Loud places.  Some bars are preferred by the working class, so to speak and these are the places where you get the most stimulating conversation, I figured out. 

Flavio wanted to drink. He wanted love.  I never asked him but I am sure there was something that was gnawing the insides of his heart.  He somehow had the idea that women not only wanted men as much as men wanted women but they would not hesitate to walk over and pick up a guy.  We moved from one bar to the next. And to the next.  I was happy just having a beer.  He would go from Beer No. 1 to Beer No. 3 before I could get through half a pint. 

‘Malinda, look over there,’ he said. 

I looked. 

‘Those two women there.  They want us.  In 10 minutes they will be here at our table.’

I smiled and said ‘I doubt it’. 

Ten minutes passed.  Fifteen. Twenty. Hardly a glance came our way.  Flavio got up.  He went up to the two ladies.  Said something. He came back.  I asked him what he said.

‘I said, “My friend Malinda, sitting over there….he likes you”!’

‘What?’ I was shocked out of my skin and couldn’t help laughing. 

‘Flavio,’ I said, ‘don’t talk rubbish; next time you want to pick up someone please don’t say that I said I liked her.’

He changed his line.  ‘Can you see that guy over there? He’s Malinda. He’s a great guy. Would you like to talk to him?’  Fortunately or unfortunately none of them were interested in talking to me.  Or him. 

Three hours later, we get off the bus in the area known as North Campus, where we both lived.  Flavio says, ‘I want to sing.’  I say, ‘go ahead, sing’.

We are both sprawled on a lawn outside one of the undergraduate dorms.  Nothing but sky and stars dripping upon us.  Flavio sings Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’.  He didn’t know all the words, but he knew enough to sing and to tell a world that didn’t give a damn about the matter that there was something tormenting him. 

Listening to Flavio, I remembered a short story I had read 20 years before.  It was by Gorky.  It was about a young boy madly in love with a woman who teased him no end, taunted him, ridiculed and humiliated him and enjoyed seeing him wince in pain. She danced and flirted with another man until he could suffer it no more. He stabbed her.  As she lay dying, she looked at him, smiled and said ‘I love you’.  Maybe it was different, but that’s how I remember the story.  The young man is distraught.  The narrator, explaining the silence that follows, comments at the end that it is impossible to alleviate certain kinds of grief with words. 

To this day I am not sure if the woman really loved the man or had exacted revenge or punished the man for the crime of murder. Or love.  Who knows?  I didn’t ask Flavio anything. Maybe he just liked the song.  He sang it several times that night and later too. Maybe it was his favourite song.  He gave me the CD, ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits’. 

I have listened to Mr. Tambourine Man many times. Like the lyrics.  Like the music.  It was never a favourite though.  Not until a few days ago.  Tormented by a story that is older than history, remembering Tuesdays that will never come again, the song came to me again.  Not the entire song. Just some lines.  These:

Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreamin’.

Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.

In the end, ladies and gentlemen, it all boils down to a simple thing called love, that thing that resists definition and can only be recognized by the unutterable joy it brings and the unbearable sorrow that it inevitably produces. It is a thing that is unspeakable.  And yet we write about it, sing about it, talk about it and look for it in all corners of life. Well, some of us at least.  Like Flavio.    

In the end we are left with the burden of nostalgia and we weave the shreds of illusion into this that and the other, desperate to console ourselves when in fact there is no consolation when heartbeat leaves heart, life is divested of theme song and togetherness is un-dissolved as orbits pass points of intersection.  We end up sprawled upon the lawn of our respective dreams, the sky raining song-shreds and other mutations upon us, gasping out words that make no sense to anyone else but the beloved and recite the words of most ancient love song.  This:

There are times

when I am visited

by flowers,


with a florist’s tag:

‘deepest sympathies’.

my voice is too weak to say,

'not yet, 

although her heart has died for me,

mine has not, for her'.

Last night Flavio came to me.  I had forgotten his last name. Didn’t have an email address.  No contact details. I emailed ‘Kaniya’.  He responded: ‘Can’t remember, unfortunately.  I feel like it’s buried deep in my head, under too much accumulated crap from the 15 years.  If it pops up, I’ll let you know.’  It had popped up 6 hours later and I immediately got an add-friend request on Facebook from Flavio.  Kaniya would have looked for him and added him.

I am not going to ask him about Mr. Tambourine Man.  ‘Some things look better baby, just passing through; and it’s no sacrifice – no sacrifice – no sacrifice at all,’ my sister referred me to Elton John’s song.  ‘Some things’, yes. Not all.  No, not a sacrifice, I agree.  But still.  Flavio might understand.   In the end, the world will not care. That’s ok.  But the world is made of people.  And each of us will have our own little love-tumour, the melting of hearts and heartbeats packing their bags and leaving us to sing a song that only kindred spirits would hear.  More than ten years later.

Life is good.

*First published in 'The Daily News' (to which I wrote a daily column titled 'The Morning Inspection') on February 20, 2010.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at malinsene@gmail.com



Sum said...

This is Beautiful Malinda! Touchy, Feels personal! Everyone is tormented by love or lack of love at any given moment... don't they! We all know its going to end with unutterable sorrow...but still we look for love through out life, in every path we cross, in every stop we make.

Himashi De silva said...

It so happen a day like today I read this ..... I simply lost words for few minutes.. It's complicated and truly no word will fully express the feeling of tormented heart .... Perhaps never