10 February 2023

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

Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, once asked (and I am paraphrasing because I can’t remember the exact words), ‘if man be dust, what blows across the plain, is it people?’ What if each speck of dust is a word, I’ve asked myself. Are they stories or poems, that which lies upon the earth’s crust, agitated into movement by natural forces or human beings, taking flight now and now sifting as though in rumination, awaiting story-teller or poet?

Do these dust-words, powered by entities unknown, gather and conspire to arrange themselves in different sequences? Do they agree to a mix that reveals the world as is or in metaphorical disguise just so that the wrong people won’t get the message and duly abuse it?

And what of crossroads, the dust at intersections, the meeting places of words prearranged or coincidental? Here’s a word that may have been dust-wrought: crosswords. It probably has a long history but it came as a reminder of intangible things and processes that slip through mind-fingers and rest for a while in the heart awaiting the fermentation of love and yet other intangibles. It was offered by Mahinda Prasad Masimbula, friend and word-dust writer.

‘Consider the crossword that’s before you — there are words waiting there, ready to help you.’

It is on the last page of ‘Apoyyava,’ a delightful novel in which lives, lifestyles, culture and simple truth are woven into conversations between a boy and his grandmother as they tackled a crossword puzzle.  Masimbula, in the blurb on the back cover, elaborates:

‘Words come to our crossword puzzle just like we approach our home along these four roads. Silky words like ‘akka’ arrive early. Mischievous words like us come in a bunch. Female words like ‘amma’ and ‘kiriamma’ take quick steps along shortcuts but big words like ‘thaaththa’ arrive after dark. Anyway, at night, all words gather inside the house.’

There could be, theoretically, idea-words. There can be words that are commonly used when discussing particular subjects. There can be words associated with a person, a country, a culture, a literary genre or a school of art. They wait at crosswords or crossroads for those who need them.

Words are like people.  Akka, amma, kiriamma and thaaththa have personalities. Pieces of earth, by the same token, and even specks of dust, have personalities. They converse in all likelihood although we don’t hear them or, if we do, cannot understand simply because it’s all in a language that’s unknown to us.

We can imagine though. We won’t get the translation right because we would use filters known to us and much could escape. Consider this, however: Nishad Handunpathirana, now heading the Aesthetic Education unit at the Ministry of Education, probably one of the best exponents of the esraj on the planet, says there’s music in everything around us. Someone else said a long time ago, most natural phenomena lend themselves to mathematical modelling.

Things puzzle us, perhaps, because we are impatient. We come to crossroads or pick up a crossword and cannot see the people-words or the dust-words because we don’t have the gift of sight or language. They are all there, though. After all, as some have argued, if the universe is contained in a grain of sand, then all things are contained in all things. There’s poetry scribbled on a cloud, the underside of a leaf, upon a rock, along a wet road, on a kite, its frills and string, in conversations not easily remembered and in what someone said. Just. Now.

Who or what is waiting for us at the crossroads we will presently reach? Who or what could we encounter or miss as we ponder a crossword puzzle? There’s light that rains words upon us, there’s light in the light rain that imperceptibly percolates into heart-chambers. There’s a child running along a niyara calling out to a kiriamma who never went to school but knows words. There are stories that will be picked up and some that will never be told. That’s what the kiriamma in Masimbula’s story, the title of which could be translated as ‘OMGism,’ believes:

‘Language is a trick much like the night-light on a tract of paddy. All kinds of noises. Some from afar and some from nearby…rises and falls. If spoke aloud it means one thing and if softly uttered something else. The sounds of a moonlit night are different from those when the moon is hidden. There are different sounds when it rains and when the dry season is upon us. And it’s something else in the morning following the rain. The devil-bird has a signature voice. The frog has its own voice. And we hear them in different ways. Sinhala in a particular way and Tamil in another way. English is altogether different. And yet, little child, everyone is trying to say the same thing.’

The wind may have died but it will come to life again. Things will move and in movement we can see dust, words, people, ourselves and each other. Stories made of known and unimaginable flavours. Fragrant, one and all. 


Other articles in this series:

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