08 February 2023

A song of terraced paddy fields


I may have never heard of Barclay Jones if one of his students, Kanishka Goonewardena, hadn’t chanced upon some terraced paddy fields in my company. 

Barclay G Jones, Cornell professor of city and regional planning and regional science, I now know, was a noted expert on protecting historic structures from earthquake damage and on the social and economic devastation of national disasters.

He was Kanishka’s assigned supervisor when he began reading for a doctorate at Cornell in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Kanishka remembers him as someone who had vast empirical knowledge and a man of integrity.

Anyway, as we walked along a ridge high above the waters that would eventually fall into the Heen Ganga with paddy fields descending from the foot of the towering mountains beyond presided over by the majestic Lakegala whose peak was cloud-shrouded that morning of light drizzle and damped pathways, Kanishka shared with me an observation made by professor had told him, as he remembered it.

‘I have seen all kinds human and natural environments in the world and I can understand how all these were produced or evolved—except terraced paddy fields. I simply cannot understand how anyone could have planned and constructed such intricate and marvellous landscapes. They just boggle my mind.’

And he spoke about hillside houses, hundreds of them, in certain areas of Europe, particularly Italy. These were probably built over a long period of time, with increasing population and growing demand resulting in empty spaces being used to build houses. In the manner of typical urban expansion. They are picture-postcard-pretty, but then the long view tends to be. Tiny spaces, lack of greenery and lots and lots of brick and cement might not make for easy breathing.

It’s one thing to build houses on such terrain and quite another to cultivate. Given that they require irrigation systems which enable optimal use of rainfall or water sources across a territory with multiple owners, certain solidarities are implied. More importantly, as Kanishka pointed out, it must take something special for anyone to look at a sloping landscape covered in thick jungle (‘like all this,’ he said, waving his hand to indicate the mountains surrounding the area, all covered in jungle) and visualise terraced paddy fields.


While terraced cultivation has been practiced in mountainous regions in South America and Northern Portugal, terraced paddy fields are almost exclusively found in Asia. Those of Japan, Nepal, Indonesia, Vietnam and China are truly spectacular. In these regions too, a long time ago, people would have cast gaze on hills covered in trees and visualised a treeless landscape, all terraced tinged in blue-grey hue or gold as the grain ripens. They would have calculated the difference in elevation of adjacent terraces, figured out how best water could be diverted to the top most terrance and how it should be released to the one below and the one below that and so on.

It could not have been, unlike in the case of destroying the upper catchments to plant tea, a meticulously planned affair taking into account weather patterns, soil composition, the possibility of erosion etc.

Theoretically, any hill could be transformed into a terraced landscape. Which hill, though? How and for what purpose? For how long? For whom? Such questions don’t come easy to the mind. After all, how many reading this can claim that they saw a hill and thought ‘could be turned into terraced paddy fields’? How many over the centuries looked upon deserts and thought, ‘someday all this will become infrastructure’? How many experienced processes of political economy and thought, ‘state!’   or ‘deep state’? How many saw a population and saw a people, saw people and thought ‘community,’ imagined a community and designed strategies that tapped into or generated solidarity?

The hills are alive with…the sound of music? Sure. The hills were not terraced paddy fields back in the day, but there was a song about rice, land preparation, irrigation, cultivation, harvests and food. Only, not everyone heard. Some did and among those who did there were special kinds of planners, visionaries and saw and could turn vision into reality.

We see hills but don’t see paddy fields. We see paddy fields and don’t see the forests they replaced? We see a rock but don’t see ‘the Thathaagatha,’ we see the Thathaagatha but not the rock from which a sculptor one day drew out the Enlightened One.     

Barclay G Jones, who died in 1997, saw terraced landscapes. He may have reflected deeply on the phenomenon, asked relevant questions and was perhaps inspired to plan and implement transformations of one kind or another. One thing is certain. He planted a seed in the mind of a student many years ago; some fruit was harvested.

 

Other articles in this series:

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

 

 

05 February 2023

Of red ants, bridges and possibilities

Photograph: Sandra Mack

No 69, Jambugasmulla Mawatha, Nugegoda is an address I’ve known for more than 40 years. That’s where my friend since 1977, Kanishka Goonewardena, now a professor at the University of Toronto, lived. Classmate and fellow scout in our younger days, we graduated to discussing political and ideological issues once we entered university and ever since. Kanishka studied architecture at Moratuwa University and would later move to city and regional planning, and eventually political philosophy.


There are lots of stories associated with my friend, his father who taught German and was a diligent student on a wide range of subjects, his mother who treated his friends and their friends as though they were her own sons, his siblings and that household. This is about the gate.

It was an ordinary iron gate, with a latch that held the two parts together. I remember having to open that gate very carefully because there was always a line of red ants going back and forth across the bar at the top. The movement, obviously, would be interrupted whenever the gate was opened. I was always fascinated by the behaviour of these ants. I would watch them after placing the latch back. There was agitation at the interruption, but not for too long. The ants would go back and forth, as before.

What was particularly fascinating was the fact that there was a slight gap between the two parts of the gate. Just too wide for the ants to cross. And, as ants do I suppose, a couple of more of them would form a bridge so others could cross this ‘chasm.’  Myrmecologists, i.e. those who study ants, may know more about such phenomenon, but for me, it was pure fascination at the coordination and solidarity expressed in this simple bridge-making act.  

A few years ago, visiting ‘Kaniya’ I noticed the ants. Probably not the very same ants, I told myself. Kaniya and I had a good laugh: ‘they are still here!’

Apparently the life expectancy of an ant varies from a few weeks to 15 years, depending on the species. I don’t know how long red ants live on average, but clearly several generations had lived and died since I first saw them on that gate.

A few days ago, dropping him off at home, I glanced at the gate. There was no ant-bridge, no line of red ants. There was one ant at one end of the gate, though. Maybe, I told myself, ants do other stuff, as colonies or as individual creatures. Maybe, I told myself, it was the weather. Maybe, I told myself, it was just coincidence that there were ants each time I visited that house.

It was coincidental that Sandra Mack, actor, model, art director, copywriter, archer, martial artist, cat-lover, photographer and maker of ‘homemade pro-veg lava-hot sauces, sweet sauces and toppings under her own label, “Burgher Hottie’s” posted a picture of ants upon a gate. Red ants. A bridge. A gate. A memory-rush.

Sandra called it ‘Possibilities.’ Perfect.

It took me back to an essay I wrote in a sociology class in which I mentioned bees in relation to community, social organization etc. The lecturer took issue with the example with a one-word dismissal - instinct. I have since learned that non-human creatures, insects included, engage in livestock development and have good knowledge of appropriate medicines. I have asked myself, across the many decades that followed that dismissal, ‘how can we know, ever, if it’s instinct, did we ever ask the creatures we pass judgement on, did they ever tell?’

Sandra explained: ‘I stood outside, not going in, scared I’d kill them if they fell, but eventually when I had to, they were so well organised that like gymnasts on either side, they held on. Simply amazing.’

‘Words fail me, I kept looking at this scene in awe,’ she said.

Two gates. Two people. Several decades apart. Same species. Both in awe. A bridge is an overused metaphor. Solidarity too. But ‘possible’? No. We are fixated with its antonym, impossible.

There are red-ant stories all around us. We may not notice, we may choose to brush them all aside. We can stop. And be awed, at and in the universe of the possible. 

 

Other articles in this series:

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

 

 

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva


It was the 19th of May, 1989. I was doing a part time job as a library assistant. It was, one could, say, a pretty cushy job. A departmental library is used mostly by graduate students of the particular department. There were never more than a half a dozen people in the library. Responsibilities consisted of attending to those rare visitors who checked out a book on the rare occasion, putting back returned books on the shelves and once a year or so going through the bookcases to make sure the books were placed correctly.

Work time, then, was time to do assigned reading and write letters to friends and family (this was the pre-email, pre-whatsapp, pre-almost-everything-now-taken-for-granted era). Occasionally of course a returned book would get my attention and I would browse or, as it happened on that particular day, read it cover to cover.

‘The autobiography of Malcolm X’ (as told to Alex Haley) was gripping. A woman, probably a young graduate student, came by and she would have gone right into the library without receiving my customary ‘Hi,’ except that she stopped by my desk and said ‘hi’ herself.

She smiled and said, ‘do you know it’s his birthday today?’ I did not know. I didn’t know much, even back then. We talked a bit. She went inside. I returned to Malcolm’s story.

And that’s how I learnt the word ‘Aadvaark.’

Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little and later became Malik el-Shabbaz, is one of the most prominent figures of the Civil Rights Movement. He was to Martin Luther King (Jr) what Subhash Chandra Bose was to Mahatma Gandhi. King and Gandhi, not surprisingly, are celebrated by those they opposed and if they made any gains it is because Malcolm and Bose, respectively, created space for the so-called ‘moderates’ simply by refusing to varnish the truth or be shortchanged on justice.

It was when he was at the Norfolk Prison Colony that Malcolm decided that he needed to read. Here’s what he said, years later to Haley:

‘I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary -- to study. . . . I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary's pages. I'd never realized so many words existed! . . . Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that 'aardvark' springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.’

Malcolm wrote it all down so he could improve his handwriting, ‘down to the punctuation marks.’ In copying down every word (he surmised that he must have written down around a million words!) and studying the definitions, he acquired an incredible amount of knowledge which is why he said that a dictionary is like a miniature encyclopaedia.

A man once gave a dictionary to his grandson who asked, ‘how many words does it have?’ ‘All of them,’ his grandfather answered. This was after he had told the boy, ‘This book not only knows everything, but it’s the only one that’s never wrong.’ The boy read it as if it were a novel, in alphabetical order. He would later state, ‘it was my first contact with what would be the fundamental book in my destiny as a writer.’

My parents never told me or my brother or my sister the meaning of any word should we ask them. ‘Check the dictionary,’ they would say. And we did. We learnt the meaning of the unfamiliar word and also became familiar with adjacent words and others on the same page that caught our eyes and our curiosity. The Random House Dictionary, a heavy volume, not an abridged or concise version, I was shocked to notice a few years ago, is in tatters. Usage.

Somehow, my recollection is that Malcolm read all the words, from Aardvark to the last letter beginning with Z, which I don’t remember now. Apparently, Aardvark is preceded by ‘A.’ The Oxford English Dictionary divides the letter ‘A’  into a total of 33 senses. The word Aardvark (defined as ‘a medium-sized, nocturnal African mammal, Orycteropus afer, which has sparse hair, long ears, an elongated snout, strong burrowing limbs, and a thick tail, feeding solely on ants and termites’) is frequently associated with Malcolm because of his tryst with a dictionary and how it helped turn him into one of the most eloquent speakers of the 20th Century. 

And as of today, the last word is Zyzzyva (the name of a genus of tropical weevils native to South America and typically found on or near palm trees coined by the entomologist Thomas Lincoln Casey in 1922).

Now consider this ‘fun fact’: The number of words from ක to කි makes a book as thick as any regular English dictionary. And if a dictionary is like a novel, as it was to that little boy (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, by the way) who was gifted a dictionary by his grandfather, imagine what an epic the Sinhala Dictionary must be. Indeed one might say that it’s a collection of epics.

Each word is a story if you bother to check the etymology along with the meaning. Between A and Zyzzyva, then, there are stories that we can never finish reading. Malcolm was a great orator. Marquez, well, gave us exquisitely lyrical prose. They both drank deep and frequently from wells that never run dry. Dictionaries. No laws against using them. 

 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

 

Other articles in this series:

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

 

World’s End


Adults say all kinds of things, whether or not there are children present, not realising that they are heard, what they say is understood in various ways and remembered too. When I was a little over seven years of age, I heard some adults discussing the state of the world. One of them said, I distinctly remember, that the world would end in 1975.

This happened during the December holidays which, like all holidays of my growing-up, was spent with my maternal grandparents in Kurunegala.

Then, as now, I kept my anxieties private. A few weeks later, school would start and I would be in Grade 3. So I calculated that I had only two years left, most of it to be spent in school.

Grade 2 felt longer than Grade 1, maybe because there were more assignments and closer supervision. There seemed to have been more homework, perhaps because my mother felt I could do it on my own. So, even though the idea of the world coming to an end troubled me, I still felt that the time left was quite considerable.

The third year in school went by fast. When the fourth year began my anxieties grew. Throughout the fourth, 1975, I wondered when and how it would all end. Midnight, 31st of December, was anticipated with both anxiety and hope. Then there was relief.

‘The end of the world’ returned in the form of ‘Tintin and the Shooting Star’ in which a self-proclaimed prophet went around proclaiming it. It was fiction. I wasn’t perturbed. There was a calamity, but nothing apocalyptic. The ending was, well, like most endings in such books, pleasing. Nothing to worry about. Nothing to keep me awake at night, wondering, ‘what?’ or ‘when?’

The third ‘world’s end’ was the place I would visit frequently after leaving school, located in Maha Eliya, aka ‘Horton Plains.’ I was in the sixth grade at the time. It was an excursion during a trip to Nuwara Eliya. No one explained what it was or maybe someone did and I cannot remember. There were several adults around and a lot of adult talk. As a kid, I tried to connect the dots. It didn’t reveal a picture.

We didn’t make it to ‘World’s End.’ We had started out late and it was already late afternoon by the time we reached ‘Little World’s End.’ There was mist and not much could be seen. What was apparent was that there was a precipice before us. The rest was left to the imagination. I don’t recall imagining much.

THE World’s End was visited eventually. It was a clear day. Clear enough to take in much of the area south of this part of the central massif. There was no need to imagine. It was all there. Spectacular. A few years later, I would climb down to Belihuloya via two tea estates, Nagrak and Nonpareil. Twice. And I was old enough to know that the world didn’t end there. Or anywhere else for that matter. A figure of speech, nothing more, I realised.

Maybe because these ‘world-end’ moments never delivered on promise or what such proclamations made me expect, I’ve never taken too much notice of doomsday prophets and pronouncements.

This is why I was rather shocked to learn that one of the most optimistic poets I’ve read, Pablo Neruda, had written a book titled ‘World’s End.’ I found the book among a couple of dozen books my sister brought for me. There was also ‘Stones of the Sky,’ one of the last works Neruda produced.

But ‘World’s End’? By Neruda? Intrigued me. Here’s how Goodreads read the book: ‘Terrifying, beautiful, vast, and energized, Neruda’s work speaks of oppression and warfare, his own guilt, and the ubiquitous fear that came to haunt the century that promised to end all wars.’

Yes, that’s all there in the book. There’s also, as always, much to inspire full engagement and committed contestation, the will to make things better or make the best of bad times. The 20th century, like all centuries that came before and the two decades of the 21st that have passed is full of war, disease, destruction, ambush, humiliation, theft and all manner of oppression. It is also made of struggle and sacrifice, community and solidarity, reasons for hope that are as formidable as reasons for despair.

Will the world end? Who knows? Perhaps. What do we do, though, if we are convinced that this end is coming and is just around the corner? We live!

World’s End. It implied one thing: there was a beginning, a World’s Beginning which is framed by wild conjecture and as yet unproven theories of origin Speculation. Speculated beginnings and speculated ends. 

The world didn’t end in 1975. It might end tomorrow. I delight in opening a box of books and finding a couple written by a poem I love, make some ginger-tea and read, read and read, occasionally glancing out of the window and noticing that time is passing, light is fading and that this is how it probably will be tomorrow as well, and returning to my book, this time, ‘Stones of the Sky’:

Eyelids raise the curtain
of endless earthen time
until deeply buried eyes
flash clear enough again
to see their own clarity.  

I. Am. Fully. Empowered.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

 

Other articles in this series:

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

02 February 2023

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse


 Marlon Ariyasinghe, poet, dramatist and friend, understands words. He understands that words are political or can be so. A few days ago he offered some observations on the words ‘resilient’ and ‘resilience’ through an Instagram post:

‘The words ‘resilient’ and ‘resilience’ should be banned in Sri Lanka (I’ve used them too). Politicians have been using this word for decades to show how much of a threshold we have for suffering and how quickly we normalise [the] horrific.’


Yes. Politicians have done that. They still do.  In fact it is almost second nature for politicians to do such things. It’s one of the many strategies used to appropriate that which rightfully belongs to other people. Tyrants toss around the word ‘democracy.’ Brutes have talked about a ‘Dharmista Samajaya’ or, as they translated, ‘a just and free society.’ The world has known prisons and torture chambers named ‘Peace’ and ‘Freedom.’ People have been convinced or coerced to abandon practices that are sustainable and have thereafter been forced to adopt others that are not but nevertheless named ‘sustainable.’

Language is political and Marlon is right — the words ‘resilient’ and ‘resilience’ have been used to sweeten unbearable condition; people have been pushed to thresholds of suffering and the associated horrors have been normalised by celebrating resistance and fortitude simply through the (over) use of such terms.

There are other words which, through overuse and abuse, have been robbed of meaning and indeed even rendered unusable simply on account of association with the horrific, laughable and absolutely deceitful.

Peace is a word that had a 'good' run not too long ago. It was used, overused and abused by those who were determined to sanitise terrorists, terrorism and attempted land-theft. The track records of politicians touting a particular brand of ‘peace’ as well as their approvers sullied the word to the point that it was divested of meaning apart from the fact that it came to be associated with all kinds of racketeers.  

‘Sahodaraya’ which literally means brother but was used as the Sinhala equivalent of ‘comrade.’ The track record of the sahodarayo and the outcome of sahodarakama, so to speak, made it a term associated with all manner of atrocities.

Aragalaya or rebellion used to be a respectable word. What the ‘Aragalaya’ produced, the ways and means preferred by prominent ‘aragalists,’ the identity of their principal backers and the simple fact that its champions were essentially fighting for a right to beg and therefore celebrated mendicancy and turned a population into beggars, has now inscribed elements of villainy on that word.

Democracy. Good governance. Nation. Nationalism. Patriot. Patriotism. Motherland. System-change. All overused, abused and therefore made less usable. "Resilience' and 'resilient' are comparatively benign. What this means is that language is also a site of struggle. Words have meaning and if meaning is robbed, words lose their potency.  

The thing with words is that you can’t really ban their usage. You can, at best, stop using them and hope they go away and become politically irrelevant. What can be done is to wrest the word from the powerful, call out their villainy and make it hard for the usurper of words to misuse them.

Terrorist sympathisers can and will sanitise pernicious endgames by using words such as peace and reconciliation. Does this mean that we should not use those words? Will not such refusal make way for the continued ill-use of such words?

Put another way, is resilience a bad thing? Should we cease to be resilient? Should we look for synonyms and try to popularise them? Should we take the struggle over words, language and meaning underground? Perhaps. The cockroach is said to be one of the most resilient creatures on the planet. Does not utter a word though.

We don’t and cannot take issue with the word; we can and should contest usage by confronting the user. This, I believe, is what Marlon calls for. It might require the abandonment of a word or term or else recovering the power to define and use it. Resistance is called for. Contestation is called for. It’s a battle and in this battle, in the fact of often superior forces, resilience is a virtue. Whether or not we call it that.  

Words. They are not innocent. Language. It’s not apolitical. It is a battlefield, yes,  even a single word is a site of struggle. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once observed that things that go without saying often come without saying. Applicable to words and the mischief they are part of. The user is not innocent and those who resist cannot afford to be naive. 

 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

 

Other articles in this series:

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

 

 

01 February 2023

Street corner stories

‘…[T]he sign said, "The words on the prophets are written on the subway walls,’ is a line from one of the more popular songs of the duo Simon and Garfunkle, who have been accused of robbing melodies from the Andean cultures (yes, that needs to be mentioned too). ‘Sound of ‘Silence’ is described as a hymn to resistance, a call in fact to speak out. They do acknowledge that people do speak out in various forms including radical graffiti sprayed on the walls, subways included.

Walls do speak. They come plastered with advertisements of various kinds, peddling products, brands and tuition classes. They have been used for political propaganda too. Around three years ago we saw what was almost a national trend where (mostly) young people expressed their understanding of the present and their visions for the future on all kinds of spaces available for the purpose.  

Lost in all that, often, is the less fancy and yet far more honest neighbourhood stories expressed upon walls, probably hastily built or meant to be temporary constructions which for whatever reasons were never upgraded to relative permanency.  

Hill Street, Dehiwala is a long road. It is arterial and therefore there are dozens of lanes and roads leading to it or, put another way, darting off left and right. Among them, there’s Kadawatha Road, a right turn when approaching the Dehiwala Junction from the East. There’s a corner story there. A street corner story.

It’s a picture of a police officer with the following legend: ‘Salute to Nawa and the good policy officers.’ At the bottom there’s an ‘explanatory note,’ so to speak: ‘Many thanks for Nippolac.’ It’s just the first segment of a mural painted on the sidewall of a small shop.

There must be many stories there. One that jumps out is that of a police officer who is referred to as ‘Nawa,’ probably an abbreviation of a longer name or else a person by that name who worked in concert with ‘The Good Police Officers’ (implying of course that there are bad officers too) to provide some paint or the money required to purchase the paint so the neighbourhood artists could complete a mural as per their artistic and societal preferences.

Now we don’t know if ‘Nava’ and/or the ‘good’ police officers insisted that the contribution be acknowledged thus. Probably not. The community, however, felt it necessary to demonstrate graphically their appreciation. Indeed they seem to have sequenced the segments of the mural in such a way that the ‘thank you’ came first.

Not all street corner stories are ‘written on the walls,’ and it is not the case that all stories find expression only at such intersections. Obviously. The thing is that some stories come in large font sizes, bold and in uppercase letters and some do not. There’s no correlation between font-size and truth, elegant cover and literary worth, popularity and humanity. And yet, the prominent stories not only get read but are taken as truth-tales.

Who is Nawa, I wonder. Who are these ‘the good police officers’? Who labelled them ‘good’ and why? Is there a Nawa in your neighbourhood? Are there good police officers you know? How about good Grama Niladharis? Good teachers, thambili and keera vendors, barbers and indeed good neighbours? I can think of many and so could you, I’m sure. I say hello to them and maybe you do too. Maybe we don’t stop frequently enough and long enough to read the stories resident behind their words, in their eyes and eloquently written in the things they do not say.

I have, to this day, never come across a collection of street-corner stories, ‘street corner’ in a metaphorical sense obviously. And yet, many people must have collected street-corner stories in the course of their lives, for we do know that there are times we cannot but pause and read the signs on the walls, we cannot but hear the narratives written in the languages of silence and we cannot but reflect on the lives we live and encounter, which, whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of the fact or not, shape who we are, what we think and things we do thereafter.

Someone, somewhere, at this very moment, is deciding to paint a wall, deciding on what to paint and is being helped by someone who truly believes that the painting will chisel away the rough surfaces of life with tenderness and love.  

 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

 

Other articles in this series:

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

 

 

31 January 2023

Who did not listen, who’s not listening still?


That’s a slight spin from a line in Don Maclean’s popular song ‘Starry starry night,’ dedicated to Vincent Van Gogh, subsequently used in the experimental adult animated biographical film ‘Loving Vincent,’ the first fully painted animated feature film ever, directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman. 

‘Now I understand what you tried to say to me, how you suffered for your sanity, how you tried to set hem free; they would not listen, they did not know how…perhaps they’ll listen now,’ is what comes at the end of the first two verses. And at the end, Don Maclean twists it a bit: ‘now I think I know’ instead of ‘now I understand,’ and ‘they would not listen, they’re not listening still…perhaps they never will’ in place of ‘they did not know how…perhaps they’ll listen now.’ From hope to pessimism, then.

What Vincent tried to say and whether or not he was heard is up for multiple interpretation of course. That song has been dissected enough.

What’s been said and who’s said it? Did anyone listen, did anyone hear? Is it possible that someone will listen one day, is it more likely that no one ever will?

These are old-people questions, I feel. The thoughts of those who think they are prophets, the worries of those who don’t harbour such grand images of self and yet who have said or need to say things in the hope that someone, some specific person or persons will listen. 

‘Starry starry night,’ was introduced to me by Sanjeeva Ravindra Gunaratne, ‘Ravin’ to his friends back in the day, then a first year student in the Department of Architecture, University of Moratuwa. Ravin was an artist. He could paint. He could play the guitar. He could sing. He could, if pushed, sing all the songs of Maname and Sinhabahu. Indeed, he once observed that during a trip to Yapahuwa while a guest at the ancestral home of Channa Daswatte in Rambewa, Wariyapola, people communicated more with song than anything else.

So Ravin explained the lyrics of the song during one of the many long afternoons of music, literature and philosophy at his place down Thilaka Gardens, Nugegoda where food would be of the ‘elolu rasa (vegetarian, essentially),’ he said, following a discussion on the aesthetics of North Indian Classical Music.   Van Gogh, his story, his agonies and tragic end. All ‘news’ to me. And he told me about  Al-Hallaj the Persian mystic, poet, and teacher of Sufism who was stoned to death for the crime of blasphemy — ana'l-ḥaqq (I am God) he insisted.

Al-Hallaj, Ravin said, danced during his ‘death-walk’ flanked by the devout who threw stones at the misbeliever. He sang too, Ravin said. And then, in a heretical trajectory and winged by the sacred a single and singular rose took flight from among the multitude and fell at his feet. It ended song and dance. Mansur had then wept, Ravin said.

One account of his assassination details the story thus:

Mansour al-Hallaj was taken to a crossroad. Everyone asked him to stop saying Ana’l Haqq and hurled stones at him while he was smilingly chanting, “Ana'l Haqq. Ana’l Haqq.” His whole body got wounded. Then, it was his sister Shimali's turn. She threw a flower instead of a stone.  And then he wept.
Shimali asked, ‘Oh Mansur! People were throwing stones at you and you were laughing. Did my flower only hurt you so much that you started crying?’

Mansur replied, ‘Shimali, they knew nothing.’

'Abba Shboq Lhon (Father forgive them for they do not know what they do),' Jesus said at the crucifixion.   And the Bodhisatva, as an ascetic (Khantivadi Jataka), decapitated by a drunken monarch, did not waver in his patience, his composure and his compassion: 'my patience is not skin deep, it is in my heart.' He too died of his wounds later that day. It's all there in the Maha Vakyas of Hindu philosophy: Tat Tvam Asi (that, thou art), Aham Brahman Asmi (I am Brahma), Ayam Atma Brahma (my atma is Brahman) and Pragnanam Brahma (the consciousness is Brahman).

He had spoken what he believed to be the word of god; in essence that god is omnipotent and omnipresent and therefore is in everyone’s heart and mind, in the believer and the infidel. Mansur had spoken. No one seemed to have heard. Mansur had spoken. One person had understood. Shimali. 

And so, here’s to hoping that those who have things to say will speak, that those spoken to have the sense to listen and in the saying and hearing the earth will be made fertile by enough tenderness for a garden of roses to bloom and make hearts and minds that much more fragrant:

THERE WILL BE A ROSE
Striding down an empty street,
so much like a King;
nothing ahead, nothing behind,
and on either side
the multitude screaming;
Mansur danced the dance of the sublime,
singing the praises of the lord:
“Ana al Haq, Ana al Haq, Ana al Haq....”
So fervent the conviction,
so true the word,
it had to rain and how!
Stone after stone after stone,
making a monument
a blasphemous sepulchre
for Mansur Al Hallaj, Son of God.
Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani?
And yes, there was Veronica
with a rose-petalled kerchief.
and then the tears.
And Mansur
risen from the dead
once again unafraid
walks the streets of love
lined with screams and hand-grenades.
There is a humble song
of love and roses,
of waiting and knowing
and a scattering of body
in the disavowal of divinity.
Listen!
It is the Spirit of Mansur. 


The spirit of the Bodhisatva, of Jesus Christ. And Vincent Van Gogh, one might add.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

 

Other articles in this series:

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road

 

 



29 January 2023

The Book of Layering



There’s layering that can be seen at dawn and at dusk and sometimes at various moments during the day depending on the weather. Travellers know for they’ve seen. Those who have cultivated observational skills notice. And they are pleased.

One doesn’t have to have seen these very same dreaminess made of mist and in various shades of white, silver, blue and gold know that they rest upon and among mountains. The specific contours may require a dash of imagination to obtain, though.

Layers are everywhere, in fact. They are certainly found up in the hills. They do materialise in other places as well where open spaces allow the gaze to take in wider pieces of horizon. Layers are everywhere, actually. You find them in books, for example; a single sentence, phrase or ever a word can have many meanings.You find them in conversations where that which is said is overlaid with that which is not; silences add or subtract depth and help create layers for a more complex reading or a dive into a region of incomprehensibility.

Eyes and gaze — they are layered too. Facial expression — that’s another territory of flatness and ridges upon which truth can come intertwined with deceit. Music and art, poetry and prose, chronicles and biographies — all multi-faceted mirrors reflecting light, breaking it into constituent colours, refracting the sunlight of truth and encouraging the mind to wander into intricate labyrinths that are at once pathways to amazing adventures and portals to insanity.

Time perhaps is the most layered thing around. We can ‘see’ its passing in a clock but the meaning of a time-slice can be understood in so many ways that we need to consider the possibility of layering.

So what does it take to un-layer these horizons? Sunlight does it. So, time. That requires a bit of patience. Close reading of the text before you, in whatever language or form is comes in. Meditation. Mindfulness.

The mountains emerge, contours can be seen, things step out of shadow and silhouette. And then we see what’s there to be seen. Only, we are now confronted by a different kind of layering.

Maps, for example, detailed with contours, roads, rivers, estuaries, inland water bodies colour-coded to given average rainfall (for example), tell us a lot about a particular territory. A high mountain top or a high-rise will give us details too, perhaps of a different order but limited by what the eye can take. Says very little about human commerce, the structures of power, the triumphs and debacles small and great, opportunities seized, missed and deliberately shunned.

The weight of the past and the expectations regarding the future are layer-makers, they blur the present. On the other hand if moment is the fixation the ways in which yesterday and tomorrow define, help understand and chart any course of action plagued by the inevitability of error. 

Layers make for much philosophical reflection. But then again, perhaps the only relevant philosophical question is whether or not to seek un-layering.

You could piece with eye and mind and imagination the mist-laden landscapes of human existence. You could also choose to exist. You can theorise about love and you can love. You could think of time in linear terms, try unraveling the tenses or inhabit the moment. You can also allow mists to life and not be too perturbed if they do not or not at the pace you wish and not revealing the expected or, as the case may be, revealing the expected and therefore disappointing. Love can be pursued and wished for. It could arrive too, without prompt and in unexpected ways. No less magical.

No formulas. No guidebook that can be emphatically blurbed as THE Last Word on layering and unwrapping with or without human intervention. It’s an as-you-will kind of proposition.

Maybe the trick is to consider the possibility that un-layering is a cruel trick as pernicious as layering. For there are times when layers and that which is layered or covered by layers are as fascinating as the process of layering and un-layering. Put another way, mist-laden hills may invite meditation on the meaning of layers but it could end with happy abandonment: let the mists do what they will, ’tis noble to read the landscape as you will, never mind the inevitability of error and therefore the consideration of a revisit.

And if you’ve read all of the above, you could tell yourself: I need not have, for the picture tells many stories anyway. That would be as good an un-layering as any. 

 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below] 

 

Other articles in this series:

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road