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18 November 2015

Beauty is the number 14 and it lasts for 72 hours

It must have been in 1987 or 1988.  The place was the sports school down Independence Avenue.  The Chess Federation used to organize tournaments there. Those who finished their games early would move to an open space which at that time was adjacent to the artificial hockey turf at the Racecourse to play softball cricket. It was late evening and I had finished my game.  For some reason, there was no cricket that day.  I stepped out of the ‘tournament hall’ and was greeted by an amazing sunset, screaming and dripping through the trees.  A few minutes later I was joined by Ravi Arulnandi, a promising young chess player from Royal College.

“Ravi, just look at the sunset!”“Hmmm,” was his surprisingly disinterested reply.“Isn’t it beautiful?” I asked.“I suppose it is,” he remained unconvinced.

He explained a few minutes later: “I see beauty in other things.”“Such as?”“Mathematics,” he offered quite dispassionately.

There are beautiful places, beautiful ornaments, beautiful paintings, beautiful films and beautiful women and other beautiful things of course.  We are bombarded with ‘I am beautiful’ or ‘This is beautiful’ claims all the time and are conditioned to subscribe to certain definitions of ‘beauty’.

The cacophony of the world intrudes.  It shapes, distorts, misdirects, defines and in other ways determines my tastes. I don’t tear my hair out on this account.  I do try to understand what makes me like certain things over others, but then again not all the time.  If an object is made up of an elemental mix, it is also a product of our gaze, crafted, flawed and scattered though it may be.

‘The eyes of the beholder’ then are certainly not innocent.  So ‘beauty’ or our understanding of beauty is always context-bound; there are no absolute criteria to separate the beautiful from that which is not.  All this is known.  Ravi had a point.

I remember writing an answer to an A/L question.  The year was 1984. The question: ‘Hard Times is a sunless novel; deliberately so.  Comment.’  There was a ‘beautiful’ line that I had reflected on and I used it to frame my response.  John Keats, in ‘An Ode to a Grecian Urn’, wrote:“Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is allYe know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Now I know that it is an incomplete conceptualization.  It is true that the U.S.A. tortures prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the U.K. supports this inhuman practice. It is true that a million people have been killed in Iraq in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and that half a million are displaced and over 35,000 civilians have been killed in Pakistan and Afghanistan because these two countries cannot find Osama bin Laden.  Beautiful?  Ugly.  Unless of course one has the privilege of omniscient gaze and has cultivated the ability to treat all things with equanimity in which case the understanding of the eternal verities insulates one from horror.  There is something beautiful in that state of ‘being’ I suppose.

But take the reverse.  Think back on all previous ‘love affairs’ for instance.  I am sure there were ‘beautiful’ moments, but would you call it ‘love’ given your current understanding of the word?  Isn’t it possible that something which was beautiful was simultaneously ‘not true’, that it was an illusion?
Does beauty not exist then, is love impossible?  No, it exists. And yes ‘love’ is possible.  As per personal definitions of these things, which in turn are informed by experience, reading, culture and other things one associates with. They change over time, naturally.
One can therefore speak of ‘beauty’ in this necessarily limited sense or not at all.

My wife would never win a Mrs. Sri Lanka contest, but is a truly beautiful woman and is my Ms. Universe for many reasons.  She tells me that I don’t understand ‘beautiful’ in that none of the women in my life was pretty.  Well, neither am I for that matter.  Voltaire once said, “Give me five minutes to talk away my face and I will bed the Queen of England.”  If Voltaire got by with words and not face, what’s stopping un-pretty women from using non-face things or me from doing the same? It is after all a matter of adjusting parameters.

It is a matter of parameters getting adjusted, one could also say.  The ugly/beautiful dichotomy is false and this falsehood becomes apparent in each case sooner or later.  There is a girl I know who laments that she is ‘ugly’ and frets over the ‘fact’ that no one would ever want her.  I was thinking about this recently.  I find that certain things in certain light and seen at certain angles with a certain frame of mind can be inspiringly beautiful whereas in other conditions they would hardly be noticed.

To me the Ruwanweliseya is beautiful from any angle, at any time of the day or night.  But when I see it or read about it the first thing that comes to mind is a verse from Mahagama Sekera’s ‘Prabuddha’.  Prabuddha is at the Ruwanweliseya. It is evening. The evening star is clear in the sky.  Prabuddha walks around the maluwa until he finds that one spot where gaze, pinnacle and star intersect. Writes Prabuddha: ‘deepena thama dansina!’  What is more beautiful now, the artifact, the history symbolized and embedded in it, the evening star, Sekera’s exceptional eye and tender gaze or the intersection of these things?  I am not sure, but Sekara’s juxtaposition was certainly illuminating.

Over time it is the less tangible things that have become more fascinating: gaze more than shape of eye, nature of kiss more than lip-contour, tenderness of ways more than skin-texture, heart-temples that resist desecration more than solid, enduring architectural edifices.

To me, there is no country more beautiful than mine, no child more beautiful than my children, no language more nuanced and made for and of music than Sinhala.

She was 14 and I 26
She saw me but I, 
I did not see
She was later 29 and I 41
I saw her but she, she did not see
And so she got to 32
and by then I was 44
She took us both back to 14
and there we stayed.
Time bends, she taught me
But only for 72 hours.

It is beautiful that such things can happen, is it not?  To me, ‘beauty’ is a state of grace; something that allows us to breathe, to dissolve and to shake a mountain.  It is a moment and an eternity; a rose that is fragranced by the fact that it has a thorn; an unguent that is also a knife; a waterfall and a storm-water drain erupting; a heartbeat, an anniversary card and time’s softening of gaze; a forever-endearment, a piece of blue in a thunderstorm-sky, a heart-crayon drawing unpredicted lines on mind-paper; the fact that city walls can recycle graffiti, that street-corners and vehicle tyres can piddle on dogs, and fathers who have the humility to learn from their daughters. It is about remembering a time through a song, a fragrance an image that defined some poignant moment. Intersections that produce fire and love, juxtapositions which like a flash of lightning illuminate a city, but only for a fraction of a second. Things like that.

Yes, it is a state of grace eminently accessible if one has eye, the ability to direct eye, to employ eye to draw it from the inevitable clutter in which it is born, the wisdom and patience to search for that singular point of vantage that can manufacture lightning and the heart to bear it all.   Beauty then is nothing but a sunset and an algorithm that drives us crazy and of course about being 14 for 72 hours.  It is something to be experienced, not written about. For there is nothing beautiful in this world and there is nothing that is not beautiful either.



Anonymous said...

This was first published in the 'Daily News'......? Intentional?

Anonymous said...

Deliberate miss out on the earlier published date to manipulate a purposeful mix up?

Malinda Seneviratne said...

From what I remember, it was published in the Daily News.