24 February 2023


There are trees that tower over the surrounding landscapes. There are mountains that rise above the clouds. A single cloud in a cloudless sky. The star that is first to be visible. The one that outlasts others and fights the sun for the title of Light-Giver. The sun itself and on some nights the moon. Natural sentinels, all. And you can add to that list.  

They watch the world and watch over the world. They note the passing of years, decades, centuries and millennia. Seasonal transformations don’t escape them. The work of nature and creature leaves behind traces. There’s cleave, shatter and dissolve where cleaver, shatterer and dissolver are typically outlived by the sentinels, their comrades-at-arms and progeny.  

Their gaze falls on the far horizon, following the sun, the clouds, the sweeping rain and dust-covered time. Their bellies carry the residue of unnecessary war and the relics of bitter loves. Such things percolate into the earth and in underground streams are carried to rivers and oceans to, how knows, discuss with fraternal waters and particles the way things were, how they are and what they could unfold into.  

They are. They watch. They take care. In ways unobserved or noted in passing and duly forgotten. It can’t be too stretch of the imagination to think of things inanimate or less animate, let’s say, as sentinels, as sentient beings even. The blades of a fan, the fan itself, it’s rotation too are eyes that take in what’s before them, play with things given to movement like a toffee-wrapper, a feather, a piece irreverently torn from a love letter or the thoughts of companions ignorant of companionship.

What does a toffee-wrapper wrap itself around — a melody from a bamboo flute wafting across decades, generations or from next door, weaving through memories and sorrow and fraternal bamboo groves? Do they quarrel with ants for sweet-traced conversation remnants abandoned in the rush of passion by ignorant hearts?  And what of the ants? Do they also watch and wait, erode in nonchalance and footnoting?

There are sentinels in workplaces. Some have eyes that focus on two objects only: he/she who would replace and he/she who could be replaced. There are also eyes that sweep.Very. Slowly. So slow that their owners are often mistakenly thought to be slothful and simplistic. They too are sentinels for they have knowingly or unknowingly cultivated the virtues of observation, patience and the ability to distinguish meaning, the meaningful and meaningless. They speak slowly, if at all, and an impatient multitude often are too busy to evade the gigantic waves they may have been warned about had they a moment to listen.

There are sentinels all around us. We are surrounded by ‘sentinelity’ but those who watch and who watch over us are seldom asked to express presence. They go unnoticed. They can be near or far, out of the line of vision, out of earshot, but they see and hear. They do the little things that make things right or make things better or at least bearable.  

Parents come to mind. Teacher. But that’s not all. Where there is kindness there is sentinelity. If there’s compassion it’s part of sentinelity. If there is empathy, it’s because there’s a sentinel. And if there is equanimity being proposed in the most unobtrusive way, it’s very likely that there is a sentinel somewhere in the vicinity.  

They are not there to be recognised and they don’t mind being unnoticed or, if noticed, misread, mis-identified and vilified. They are not there to be celebrated. Indeed, they do their work best when they are imagined to be absent or even nonexistent.

And, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, we have sentinelity in our DNA. Only, it often comes hand in hand with ego, with arrogance, with the kind of ignorance that makes us believe there is some messianic purpose laid out for us. And we fail. And we fall.  This of course doesn’t mean that we cannot be the sentinels we have the power to be.

There’s a tree standing alone atop a hill, its high branches conversing with wind and exchanging glances with the clouds. There’s a mountain with tears rolling down its cheeks or with visible gashes carved by tears that streamed down in a different time. There’s an ant and a sunset, a streetlamp and twilight, a beam of sunlight filtered by the greenest canopy and yet strewing gold coins on leaf-laden earth. There’s steaming kiribath and a melting cone of ice cream. A Rubik’s cube that spins like a dervish while singing the most sacred songs of silence. There’s a street corner where love-notes without address gather to conspire against the tyranny of constellations. There are stars so tired of looking down that they turn themselves into fireflies and glow worms.

There’s a sentinel standing by your side. There’s a child and a hopeless romance waiting to lean on an ancient tree trunk. Could be you. Could be you.  Really.

['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 circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

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