03 April 2023

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

A call came around 11 pm on a Friday with an apology, ‘I’m sorry, I just got your message on the answering machine.’  This was long before WhatsApp and Viber. The caller and receiver were not really friends. They had met just once and had agreed that it would be good to meet again.

‘I read some of the things you’ve written. You had quoted Hafiz of Shiraz. So I emailed you some thoughts, the receiver, a young man visiting Geneva, who had been trying to reach her, said.

The young lady, an academic and a peace activist, born in India and educated in England, apologised again, ‘I have been very busy all day and just got back.’

‘I’m leaving on Sunday but I’m free all day tomorrow.’

‘Unfortunately I have to leave for France at 6 tomorrow morning.’

‘That’s still seven hours away.’

‘Where are you now?’  

‘A friend invited me for dinner. I am having a drink.’

‘Then I can’t see you.’

‘I have low alcohol tolerance. I’m done. From now onwards there’s only poetry and philosophy.’

‘I’m going to do something that I wouldn’t usually do. I am coming to see you.’

So she turned up in her car, still in work clothes, an orange sari. Beautiful.  She took him to one of the many places above the city from where there were truly wonderful views of Lake Geneva. They didn’t talk much. They just enjoyed the view, the city lights, the shimmering lake. There may have been stars out that night but he does not remember.  

‘So what did you write in that email?’

‘I wrote that if you are truly interested in building peace, you should leave your conflict resolution job, give up teaching, sit under a tree and write a book.’

She was quiet for a moment: ‘I should do that soon.’

He didn’t say anything. He just smiled.

‘Why are you smiling?’

He just looked into her eyes: ’Soon is now,’ he said softly.

‘We must leave now.’  

They didn’t speak on the way back. She stopped to drop him off.

‘As a parting gift…,’ she said and looked for something on the back seat of the car. A collection of poems by Hafiz. I can’t remember the title of the book. She started flipping through the pages, obviously looking for a particular poem.

‘Let me find it for you,’ he said.

She gave him the book. It might have been her favourite poem. Maybe she had read it many, many times. He opened the book to a random page. The title of the poem on that page was ‘The time is now.’

‘How did you do that?'

So he said what he had learned from having read and reread the poetry of Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī the 13th-century Persian poet, Islamic scholar, theologian and Sufi mystic: ‘when you are in harmony with the forces of the universe, the universe conspires to give you what you need.’

And they parted. But she called when she got home: ‘Tell me something, anything, even if it is just one word.’

‘Silence,’ he said, again remembering Rumi, something on the lines of ‘hold your tongue and be silent, heart, do not set fire to the thicket for your tongue is a flame.’

‘You are a mystic,’ she said. He didn't understand, not then and not now.

That’s it.

The truth is that he had never heard of Hafiz until he had come across what she had quoted, which he now does not remember. But he would in later years look for Hafiz in bookstores and once even bought a collection simply because it contained ‘The time is now.’ He carried it with him for a while. He told the above story to a friend, who was interested in literature. He showed him the book and the poem.

His friend made a request: ‘Give this to me.’ Done.

And now he doesn’t even remember the title. He looked for collections of poems written by Hafiz of Shiraz. The one cover that looked familiar is of ‘The Gift: poems by Hafiz the great Sufi master,’ translated by Daniel Ladinsky. He might be wrong, but when looking for poems by Hafiz of Shiraz, the 14th Century Persian poet who was born Khwāja Šamsu d-Dīn Muḥammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī whose work is considered the pinnacle of Persian literature, he chanced upon the following:

“Listen: this world is the lunatic's sphere,
Don't always agree it's real,

Even with my feet upon it
And the postman knowing my door

My address is somewhere else.”

Probably misaddressed, but that’s as good a parting gift 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:

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

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