07 March 2023

Some play music, others listen

Back in the day, there was an interesting musical event held the first Saturday night of every month in Peradeniya.  It was called ‘Saraswati Mandapaya,’ homage of sorts to SaraswatI, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom and learning. It would start at any time after 7 o’clock in the evening and go on until the early hours of the following day. There were those who could play instruments and those who couldn’t, like me, who would nevertheless enjoy those hours.  

I don’t know if things changed or indeed if the first Saturday of every month is dedicated to North Indian classical music as it was back then, but in the late eighties and early to mid nineties, it all happened at the residence of Prof Goonetilleka of the Sinhala Department, in Meewatura, just beyond the Akbar Hall.

Obviously my knowledge of music in general, including North Indian classical music, is abysmal; my recollection is mostly anecdotal. There are lots of stories from that time, but this is one that came to me this morning.  

Those evenings were made of regularly featured artists, if one wants to put it that way. There was Neil, an engineering student, who played the sitar. Nishad Handunpathirana played the israj or the dilrubah. Thilanga accompanied them all on the tabla. There may have been others, but I can’t remember. I remember two others though: Prof Goonetilleka and Prof Weerakkody (Department of Western Classical Culture). The both played the flute.  

For me, both produced exquisite music. Prof Weerakkody thought otherwise. I remember him saying, humour and humility in his tone, that he could never play if Prof Goonetilleka went before him. He always thought that his fellow academic was the better exponent on the flute. He said he would feel embarrassed to play after Prof Goonetilleka did because his friend ‘was so much better.’  

I wouldn’t know, but he may have been right. I should ask my friend Nishad, who introduced me to such events and to North Indian classical music. He would know. I do understand that there can be artists one admires so much, is inspired by and yet who, one feels, can never be matched, however hard one tries.  

I remembered the late Prof Weerakkody this morning as I read ‘Sleeping Alone,’ a collection of short stories written by my sister, Ru Freeman. Wait. I’ll explain.

I write. That’s what I do. I’ve written a lot. That’s what I have done. In fact I can’t think of anything else I’ve done with the same kind of commitment and consistency. I have on occasion thought of writing a novel and whenever this happens, I remember something that my friend Arnuddha Karnasuriya told me more than 20 years ago. I think at the time Anuruddha may have thought that I had the potential to be a novelist. He warned me: journalists get used to writing articles, short pieces, with deadlines in mind; after a while they just can’t write at length.’

Now this might be what's happened to me, but it is not exactly true in general. There are journalists who have also written novels and journalists who have reinvented themselves as novelists. Lots of them. Martin Wickramasinghe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez come to mind. There are probably others with similar credentials and thousands who have gone unnoticed but who have written something of worth. It is unlikely that I would be one of them, and not because I am old.

I read ‘Sleeping Alone.’ No, I am reading ‘Sleeping Alone,’ I’ve read only the first three short stories and there are several more to be read. Here’s what I have concluded so far.

She’s observant. To the last detail. And she must have reflected on what she’s observed for she’s recounted so vividly that it can’t be fictional. It’s all political but she’s not writing politics, she’s written human stories, she’s drawn delicately the threads of the everyday that typically roam seemingly amorphously in the subconscious. These are not short stories, but several epics condensed and entwined, and yet told without leaving bits and pieces hanging which would have distracted from reflection on what I believe is the principal threat of the tapestry. Each story, moreover, a condensed novel which, if she poured the liquids of elaboration over the pages, would expand to the kind of reservoir that short-listers of literary awards just cannot ignore.

There must be, and I am sure she will be the first to admit, better story-tellers. You could put it down to the admiration of a sibling, but I am sure it’s not just that. She can tell a story.

The admiration of a sibling, an adoring older-brother, might have  something to do with it, but I doubt it. The truth is, as far as I am concerned, if she’s Prof Goonetilleka, I am not even Prof Weerakkody. I am the young boy, now grown old, who would sit on one of the many mats laid out in Prof Goonetilleka’s living room and listen, all night long, knowing I am privileged just to be there.

['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:

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


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