30 April 2023

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Wet Zone

I don’t know when the terms viyali kalaapaya (dry zone) and theth kalaapaya (wet zone) were first used in relation to this island. I don’t know when the term mosam sulang (monsoon winds) was first used.

Knowledge doesn’t follow naming. People obviously knew the difference between wet and dry. They could tell which parts of the country got more rain. They knew when the rains could be expected. They planned cultivation accordingly. They probably knew that the climate has changed long before they were told about ‘climate change,’ because climate and cultivation and indeed climate and life are interconnected.    

Almost forty years ago, the loku hamuduruwo of the Kathnoruwa Rajamaha Viharaya, spoke about such things. First of all he questioned the relevance of the term ‘environment,’ insisting that svabhava dharmaya (translatable as ‘natural order’ or the logic of natural processes) is more appropriate. Then he pointed out that the Rajarata is hardly dry although large swathes of it are located in what’s called the ‘Dry Zone.’

Even before large dams were designed, built and commissioned along the Mahaweli, the Dry Zone was considerably wet thanks to the innumerable water conservation and planned irrigation initiatives over several millennia. ‘Dry’ has connotations of chronic water scarcity. That’s not true of the so-called Dry Zone.

There are droughts, sure. There are dry periods. There are pockets that get meager amounts of rainfall. And yet, for the most part, there’s cultivation. People may have to walk a kilometer or more, but even in dry spells they find the time and energy to bathe in a nearby reservoir.

So it is relative and the relativity is understood. Heat leaves marks on the landscape, on skin and settles like fine dust in the minds. When the rains fail, in certain parts of the country, people don’t die of thirst, but the fact that they are forced to purchase rice irks them no end.

The rain, when it does arrive, does not descend on dust-brown landscapes and trees bereft of leaves, but it still re-colours everything, including the complexion of faces and the width of a smile. It adds that much more variety to the palette of the earth.      

It happens when there hasn’t been rain for a long time. It also happens when it has been raining almost everyday. Rain re-blushes the world de-blushed by the sun. The greens of the moment-ago are replaced by during-rain and post-green hues. It’s a part of the endless magic of the ‘dry’ zone.

The word for dry in Sinhala is viyali. Wet would be theth. Thethamanaya could be translated as wetness, but the Sinhala word has an additional meaning which may have been first inspired by seasonality associated with rain. It’s about a heart that is moved to be empathetic, to be kind and generous. Such hearts are not zone-bound or country-bound, but in an area designated as ‘dry’ and to a visitor who is swayed by names and assumes the accuracy of labels, a heart, a person, a family or community clearly empowered by this quality would appear to be quite exceptionally magical.

But that’s how people are, for the most part. In all parts of the country. They don’t have to be taught how to smile. They don’t say ‘hi’ or ‘what’s up’ out of learned courtesy. They may nod their heads, acknowledge presence, reciprocate similar greetings and if you ask a question will take the trouble to answer. Ask for directions and they will tell you. If they don’t know, they will ask someone who does. They will make sure you don’t leave without an answer.

In this country there’s that kind of greenery, that kind of thethamanaya. It is not seasonal. The colours are not always vibrant but there’s always the promise that vibrancy there will be. Perhaps it has become part of the svabhava dharmaya but even if it is not its traces are unmistakable. Always there, just around the next bend or wrapped in a word or in the contours of a smile. We are an island that is a theth kalaapaya in and of itself. 

['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:

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

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