02 February 2016

‘Sithuvili’ is another name for serendipity

This happened during the Galle Literary Festival.  Not the one that was held a few weeks ago.  It happened way back in 2010.  Some stories can be re-told.  Like this one.  

A few days ago I was walking down Leyn Baan Street, Galle Fort, to a place called Serendipity Café.  I had been invited to an event that was taking place outside of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF); ‘outside’ in that it was not included in the GLF Programme.  A book launch: ‘Froteztology’ by Marlon Ariyasinghe, published by Juliet Coombe’s publishing outfit.  That’s another story. 

This story is about walking down Leyn Baan Street, looking for the venue, wondering which house belonged to our foremost lyricist and conspicuously absented personality from the GLF, Ratna Sri Wijesinghe, checking out the many quaint arts-crafts shops on either side.  I saw one called ‘Sithuvili’ and it made me think. 

‘Sithuvili’ or ‘thoughts’ are not foreign to any of us, but as a proper noun and name board it seemed more familiar than it ought to have been.  It was not the first time I’ve been to the GLF and not the first time I’ve wandered up and down the byways within the Fort.  Couldn’t remember seeing it.  I walked into a neatly and tastefully kept shop full of curios including paintings, masks and numerous other things that would charm tourists, local and foreign.  There was no one to be seen.  I noticed that the shop extended to another room at the back and saw a salesperson explaining something to a foreigner. 

I went towards him, but something caught my eye as I passed the counter.  A laminated newspaper cutting with the title, ‘Janaka’s “Sithuvili” gives a sexy twist to the traditional’.  My byline.  Remembered a lot.  Here’s the link: http://www.island.lk/2004/01/12/featur02.html.

Eight years ago I had met a boy at the ‘Kala Pola’.  He had interesting things in his little stall, intriguing enough to make me stop and chat. He had a story and one I wanted to write. Lost his number.  A year later, he found me and re-told his story.  In detail.  He was planning an exhibition.  He also planned to open a shop in the Galle Fort.  Wrote his story.  Ran into him at Barefoot a few months later, lost my phone, his number and other contact details. Left the newspaper I used to work at.  Forgot his face and in time his name as well.  Remembered his story, though.

It is something I’ve told people many times, the story of this boy from Ambalangoda who figured out that skill mixed with enterprise and flavoured with root constitutes a recipe for success.  I’ve re-told his story but it constantly slipped my mind that he could be located inside the Galle Fort. 

I asked the salesperson where Janaka was and told him that I had written the article that had become part of their furniture.  He gave me a leaflet which contained the number. I called.  The following is the English translation of the short conversation.

‘This is Malinda.’
‘Malinda?’ was not an I-remember question.
‘Malinda Seneviratne.’
‘Are you in Galle?’
‘Yes, outside your shop.’
‘Stay there. You are very important to me.’

I told him I had to go across the lane for the book launch.  A few minutes later he came to the café with his wife.  Recollection rained inside the walls of that shop.  Caught up with the intervening years.  He had more stories to tell. And a lot of gratitude to express: ‘I’ve been featured in books and foreign magazines, but no one in Sri Lanka wrote anything like you did.  I took the line from your article for my leaflet.’

I hadn’t noticed.  Had forgotten it in fact.  Janaka said that it captured perfectly what his work was all about.  I informed him that I had retold an anecdote he had related: ‘Malinda Aiya, I discovered one thing during the time I was in Colombo: one can sell anything to people.  You will not believe this, but I sold the discarded and rotting door of my grandmother’s toilet for 25,000 rupees!’  He laughed. So did his wife. 

I told him that I would like to write about the years that had passed where our lives bypassed one another.  I told him also that I would write about this serendipitous encounter which for many reasons was one of the un-programmed highlights of the GLF. For me. 

I had to rush for the book launch and then to discussion about translations and translating.  We parted, promising to meet up.  I am anticipating another long conversation and a lot more learning. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com