12 June 2023

Letters that cut and heal the heart

Dineth Mallikaarachchi once related a fascinating story about a book of poetry. Mine, actually. He had visited a used books store and, having come across the only book of poetry that I had published, at that time, decided to buy it.

He had read it cover to cover on his way to the University of Peradeniya. The poetry, he claimed, had made him feel he was walking on air as he got off the bus at Galaha Junction, for it had helped him sort out some issues related to a girl he was enamoured with at the time: ‘The lightness I felt was such that to my mind gravity had lessened.’

More interestingly, for me, was what he had to say about a note I had written to the person I had gifted it to, the person who for whatever reason had given it to the used books store.

'He had written a poem that was not in the collection by way of dedicating this to his friend. It was a divine poem that surpassed any in that collection. She must have left it at the used book store, a fact that he had predicted with the observation “this is how it should be.” And thereby, this friend had elevated him to divine status.’

A lot of exaggeration there, but I’ll take it.

There are notes like that penned in books one finds in such places. Some of them come with dates. Some are of the ‘from so and so to so and so’ type. Some are poetic and others philosophical. They all speak of people and hearts, relationships and landscapes about whom and which we can only speculate.

Just the other day someone named Kasun Sameera Cooray posted a photograph of a letter he had found in a book, ‘Suicide,’ by Emile Durkheim. It was written in 1976 by someone named K A Premawathie to a teacher, informing him that she had got an appointment as a graduate teacher at Ganthiriyagama Maha Vidyalaya, Anuradhapura. She expressed her happiness, informed him about where she was staying, promised to visit him when next she went home for the vacation and wished him good health and happiness.

We don’t know where she is now, how her life unfolded in the almost fifty years that have passed since she wrote the letter. We don’t know the name of the person she refers to as ‘sir.’ We don’t know if it was he or someone else who had given this book to a used book store or library or someone else. We don’t know the pathways that brought the book to Kasun so many decades later.

There are so many stories in a letter, in a letter misaddressed, in a letter misplaced and misread even. The things we write and say take on lives of their own. I am reminded of the letter inadvertently dropped by a postman and picked up by a boy whose life was forever changed when he decided to read it as depicted in Jayantha Chandrasiri’s movie, ‘Samanala Sandviniya (Butterfly Symphony).’

Kasun posted that photograph with a note: ‘It's remarkable how a simple letter hidden within the pages of a book can evoke such curiosity and fascination. Let's uncover the story behind this letter and celebrate the power of human connections.’

Maybe Ms Premawathie will hear about it. Maybe someone who knows her or of her will see this letter. Maybe we are all being too inquisitive. Kasun is correct though: human connections are powerful and there’s nothing wrong in making a note and celebrating.

What are the things we have not said or said it all wrong? What are the things we wished we said but didn’t? What kinds of winds would we have precipitated if we had said something at a particular moment and in a particular way? What kind of perfume would have been manufactured had someone got to read something we had written, had read the words we couldn’t say at the time?

In the here and now, there’s a ‘sir’ and a ‘Ms Premawathie’ we know. There’s a ‘sir’ and there’s a Ms Premawathie in each of us. Letters we’ve written which we forgot to post or decided not to do so, letters posted but may have not been read or read and forgotten. Visits we postponed until it was all too late. People who touched our lives but didn’t know they left a mark. Correspondence of hearts and minds no one else knows about.

One letter of how many, we do not know. We know this: communication tells an incomplete story. Most chapters live and die with the authors who penned them or stored them in some corner of the heart and mind. We see a few rays of light and they tell us about who we are more than about the people who sliced the sun into so many shards.

The title of the book, coincidentally, is ‘Epistles.’ Letters. Written and tossed into winds whose sources are long forgotten and anyway are as relevant or irrelevant as a reader wants them to be. Can cut the heart. Can heal it too.

['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:

Vanished and vanishing trails


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya

The soft rain of neighbourliness 

The Gold Medals of being

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

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