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