14 July 2023

Faces dripping with time

Line drawing by Gamini Abeykoon

All ages are written upon the face. Of this I am convinced. And I think that conviction, before it surfaced like a lotus, had gestated for years (yes, time again) in the mud-bed of the mind’s reservoir as a seed planted with the first shock of seeing Salvador Dali’s ‘La persistència de la memòria.’

The painting, which features several melting pocket watches, is considered one of the most recognisable works of surrealism.  There have been, naturally, all kinds of interpretations, but Dali insisted that it was inspired by the surrealist perception of a camembert melting in the sun. Yes, I had to look that up (camembert: a mouse, soft, creamy, surface-ripened cow’s milk cheese).

The melting watches obviously speak of and to time’s relativity, that it is in a sense a construct. Bendable. Wreckable. ‘Puttogetherable.’ Imagination and memory allow this, and the latter is the Dali’s focus, going strictly by the title, ‘The persistence of memory.’

A melting clock, whether inspired by melted cheese or used to note the work of memory, says something about movement other than the mechanics of the hour, minute and second hands. It is a face but a ‘disfigured’ or, let us say, ‘re-figured’ one. And that’s what made me think of faces. Human ones. They are in constant movement, but the inscriptions of time and life go unnoticed simply because the daily engraving is minute. We see ourselves in the mirror everyday and we see the faces of our diurnal routes too often to notice.

If we didn’t look in the mirror and think about people we don’t meet often, if we look at photographs taken in different years, we will certainly see how we’ve changed, how they’ve changed. We do know that change is inevitable but we don’t think about it too often.

Flip through an album of family photographs. There’s a baby who became a child and then a teenager. The baby is later captured as a young person. There may be a wedding photograph featuring this same person at the centre. There will be a middle-aged person, someone carrying a child, a grandparent and someone who is very old.

The same person marked by the passing of time, marked by the signatures of encounter, choices, tragedies, accidents, serendipity, dejection, knowing, resignation, acceptance of the verities and wisdom. All of it written on the face. Time, I feel, drips down each face even as it courses through veins and inks our memories with punctuation, exclamation points, question marks, colons, fullstops and ellipses,

The face of an infant could be extrapolated to obtain a rough picture of what it would look like 15 years later, 25, 50 or 70 years later. There are apps that generate such images and I’m sure there are apps that can work backwards too. It’s one of those fun things some people check out. We don’t or can’t force others to submit themselves to such extrapolation or interpolation using apps. We can but read faces we encounter. At the very least we become aware that there are histories behind every line.

Gamini Abeykoon’s line drawing of an old man is probably a near-perfect replication of a photograph. There’s time dripping all over this face.  Histories have left their mark. Arrivals and departures, inevitable or arranged, happy and sad. All in the lines. Theoretical the years can be removed, layer by layer. Facial hair can be imagined away. Worry lines can be erased. Sunken cheeks can be made full once again. A smile can be manufactured. You have a baby boy right there.

The reverse, again theoretically, is possible.

An idle exercise, did someone say? Perhaps it is. It could also become a regular habit that sobers us in our engagement with people and of course in tempering our egos.

We walk through temporal valleys and time-rivulets running through our hearts can be swelled or made to run dry by the vagaries of life’s relentless give and take. There’s time dripping down faces. There’s nothing we can do about it. We can, however, acknowledge Time the Chiseller and treat with a bit more respect the skin that has been and is being chiselled. All we need to do is to pick an age, a number or an age category (like childhood, adolescence, youth, middle-age and old age) and the carve or un-carve as we wish.

All ages are written on faces. Not all the ‘numbers’ are visible. That’s how time drips, stays, removes and eventually leaves without a trace.

It’s a human landscape:

Landscape immemorial
where mountains and valleys
trees and caverns
depressions and signature peaks
are born to decay
in the rise and fall
of civilization and illusion
the erosion of dream
and the reincarnation of hope
these are lines that await us
with soft-time patience.


['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: 

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

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