30 May 2016

Two hundred thousand words later…

There are times when a man takes stock.  He looks back at the road taken, reflects on the million what-ifs along those other roads that were not taken; either by choice or circumstances, due to knowledge or out of ignorance; and says ‘hmmm…ok’.  Or perhaps something profound.  Or else it’s all just such a blur or is so bland that one reflects, blinks and moves on. 

There are no auspicious times for these reflect-now moments. They can be precipitated by any random thought, a word, a phrase, a gaze, intersections unexpected, longed for, forsaken.  Today I was made to look back by a casual question regarding this column: how many have you written? 

Using a computer helps.  I opened the relevant folder and counted.  As of May 26, 2010 (that’s ‘yesterday’ when you read this), I’ve written 200, beginning from the first piece on August 30, 2009.  Counting an average count of a thousand words per article, this is a road made of 200,000 words.  By certain standards this would amount to what some might call ‘a lot’.  I looked back and four things came to mind, the last being the source of the first three and also referring to my favourite article among these 200. I will relate them. 

ONE. I remembered my favourite verse of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ (the third verse of No. 79 of the collection):  When I sit by the roadside, tired and panting, when I spread my bed low in the dust, let me ever feel that the long journey is still before me---let me not forget a moment, let me carry the pangs of this sorrow in my dreams and in my wakeful hours.  I owe this to Ravin Gunaratne, who recited this to me in 1986, when he was a second year Architecture student at Moratuwa University.  (We all drink from other people’s wells and enjoy the shade of trees planted by unknown people).  

Thanks to Ravin, I learnt early in life that ‘achievement’ is a misleading word, that it is all relative.  There are high-points in a journey, landmark events, unforgettable encounters, but there’s hardly enough reason to indulge in raucous laughter or endless wailing.  Take the blow, nod head, move on.  Acknowledge praise, forget reason for praise, move on. Equanimity is the key word here.

TWO.  A history-making day. May 17, 2009. President Mahinda Rajapaksa arrives in Sri Lanka after an official visit to the Kingdom of Jordan.  He arrives in a land that has defeated a terrorist plague that had caused untold damage to the country and its citizens for more than thirty years. I was about to set off for an almsgiving in Kuliyapitiya. I missed the television coverage of the President’s arrival.  Did I miss ‘history’?   The important thing was to contribute to the process that culminated in such celebratory moments.  I felt I had not been lax.

THREE.  May 18, 2010.  A question was put to me: ‘Are you celebrating?’ The reference was to the first anniversary of the end o the war.  The answer: ‘Yes’.  ‘How?’ The follow-up question was answered thus: ‘I am working’.  Could be read as being ‘pretentious’, I know.  Can’t help.  That was what I did, that’s what I do.    

FOUR.  Something happened on October 13, 2009.  A death.  That of my mother.  Indrani Seneviratne.  Teacher.  Hard to please.  I am yet to come across anyone who gave as much as she did.  No, not to me.  Others.  Almost a month later, I wrote a piece titled ‘Death is a teacher’.  (http://www.dailynews.lk/2009/11/11/fea02.asp).  Celebration is work. History-making is about working.  Looking back is about looking forward, knowing full well that I’ve hardly walked one small step, not for myself and certainly not for mankind.  I think this way because of her. 

Someone sent me an interesting quote about mothers and children.  Women, it is claimed, end up like their mothers and this is said to be their tragedy. Men on the other hand don’t end up like their mothers and this is supposed to be their tragedy.  She didn’t teach us how to work or the ‘why’ of working. She worked.  All her life.  Even on the day she passed away, she was teaching.  Two minutes before she collapsed in a car she was calling an old student to get him to help the child of a friend.  She taught us in her living and in her death.  

I couldn’t write to her or of her for a long time. And I will never finish writing her story.  Three months after she died, I wrote a poem for/about her:


Like always,
 she is present and absent,
in and out of me,  
I speak her words,
wonder if my face mimics 
manner and humour,  
love and confusion,
and I remember the intensity of giving  
equalled by an intensity of refusal;
she was proud and such a child  
in her gifting  and embrace, mother 
and teacher, but such a student too.
And I,   
I cannot remember the kiri-suwanda,  
that baby time or her giving
for time-squeeze and event-mix arrived 
with the curse of awkwardness 
she left so did I  
each to a specific banishment
each in a specific abhinishkramanaya,
and our returns never coincided  
our orbits chose to slip  and miss.
I was not her eka-pun-sanda,
not all the time;  
but I was, I am sure,
now and then,  
and that's all that matters  
in the matter of thanksgiving.

Two hundred thousand words later or thereabouts, there is a silence in my life.  And lessons that will be revisited. Again. And again.  All these words amount to a thanksgiving.  And a moment-to-moment resurrection.  My mother worked. I too try.  

This article was published in the Daily News on May 27, 2010.  At the time I wrote a daily piece for that newspaper titled 'The Morning Inspection'.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column titled 'Subterranean Transcripts' to the Daily Mirror.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene