14 June 2016

A journey on a paper boat to childhood and beyond

Time has a way of whittling away the discomforting slices of the past.  It erases completely things that made one sad as well as things one regrets.  It offers in sharper focus things that made us smile and these appear as the markers that help memory navigate the years that have rolled by. 

These are days of rain: music on the roof and tears through fissures whose repair has been postponed on account of financial-lack, lethargy and the intervention of things considered to be more urgently in need of response; inadequate drainage systems turning gardens into pools; overflowing drains.  Rain-days are paper boats days. 

My childhood was magical.  I never went to school as a child in this magical childhood.  There were only holidays.  I think others my age must have attended school. My mother was a teacher so she had to go to school too.  When schools closed for the holidays, she was free.  She was free the day after to take her three children to Kurunegala, her mahagedara.  The bus fare for children was 1.75 rupees back then. The adult fare was 3.50.  She took us to Malkaduwawa and returned the next day. She came back again the day before the next term began and brought us back.   

Back in those days the year was made of three months: April, August and December.  Back then I didn’t know the names of those other months people said were also part of a year.  Things might have happened in those other months whose existence I was suspicious of, but none of it could have been important. I just don’t remember.

I remember, however, those three months and especially rain-days, monsoonal and non-seasonal.  I loved watching the water draining off the roof, neatly arriving at one corner and pouring out like a waterfall.  When it rained hard, the water came gushing out.  Showering in the rain beat anything that a bathroom could offer. 

The back garden was a square patch bordered by two sections of that old house. It was a hollow and shaded by a massive mango tree on one side and a jak tree on the other.  When it rained hard, this lawn became a pool.  Not a swimming pool, but above-ankle deep was pleasurable enough.  Once the rain ceased the air was new-born fresh and baptized by the croaking of frogs in the presence of kakkuttas scurrying hither and thither in the elegant sideways dance that was species-signifier.    Through it all, there were paper boats.

They were made of all kinds of paper.  Scrap paper, pages torn from old exercise books and newspapers.   Homerun Pas crayons were used to colour them.  Little flags were made and stuck on them.  They were given names remembered from a visit to the Harbours: ‘Lanka Rani’ and ‘Lanka Gajaba’ or whatever grand name came to mind.  They were placed in the drain that ran around the house.  We screamed as the water carried them away.  Their progress was observed from beginning to end, the three of us running from window to window. They all ended up in a small pool that had formed where the drain ended.  Some must have not made it that far, but that’s not something I remember.  Bad craftsmanship combined with the weight of rainwater wrecked them into pulp by and by, but we didn’t wait to see. At the end of the journey there’s another paper boat, we figured out.  We rushed to make it. 

A few months ago I saw a wonderful photograph.  The subject was paper boats. It is an elegant composition.  Hiranya Malwatta takes amazing pictures that captures amazing dimensions of Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, their history and heritage, and the paradise this country is. Her photography describes our land that confer poverty on word-description.  That photograph inspired a poem to which I gave the natural title, ‘Paper Boats’:

in line and fold
clarity in light-shadow constituency
the promise of plain sailing;
love is always Paradisial
and blinding in prediction,
until the touch of life
wets, weighs and breaks
the parchment of togetherness.

Life has a way of wrecking paper boats, of smudging the elegant composition, and subverting perfection.  Memory, however, is illusion’s best friend and loyal accomplice.  There are things that are broken that remembrance re-makes, often in a crispness that was sorely absent in the original crafting.  Holidays, like love affairs, are said to be anticipated with relish, experienced with discomfort and remembered with nostalgia. 

Our paper boats were never fine-lined and creaseless.  Their decoration wasn’t anywhere close to perfection.  They were made, knowing well that Disintegration was their inescapable fate.  Life was so honest, back then, I realize now.  Perhaps this is why we return again and again, become children again and again, and indulge in the timeless pastime of ‘paper boating’, learning and re-learning a truth that ‘adulting’ seeks to rob us of. 

All things are transient.  Some last longer than others. Like paper boats and memories.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene