26 August 2023

Life signatures

['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 the 206th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below] 

 When I was around 10 years old my father told two stories related to ageing. One was about Dorian Gray, the highly acclaimed novel by Oscar Wilde. He offered a to-a-ten-year-old version.

‘Dorian Gray was a beautiful young man. Someone paints his portrait. Dorian sells his soul so that while the portrait aged, he would not. Years later he sees the now hideous looking portrait. Enraged, he slashes the portrait with a knife. His body is later discovered with a knife thrust into his chest. The portrait is also found. It’s a picture of Dorian Gray, young and beautiful.’

I can’t remember the name of the principal character in the other story. All I remember is that someone, a beautiful woman I think, was asked to make one wish. ‘I want to live forever,’ was the wish. It was granted. And so she lived and lived and lived. She aged and aged and aged. She grew decrepit. She shrivelled up and became small enough to live in a bottle. The wish-granter had visited her again and asked her what she wants now. ‘I want to die,’ she had said.

Both stories must have got etched in the subconscious a few years ago while discussing infirmities associated with old age. I observed that Buddhists generally wish ‘niduk nirogi suva!’ That would be free of sorrow, good health and a sense of peace and not ‘long life.’ We do wish ‘chira jeevanaya’ and say ‘ayubowan (may you live long)’ but niduk, nirogi and suva are not age-bound.

These stories and thoughts came to mind when I read the observations on ageing expressed by one of my favourite actresses, Merryl Streep,

‘Let no one deprive and deny me of the wrinkles on my forehead attained by the delight of living a beautiful life, don’t rob me of my lips which remind me about how much I laughed and how much I kissed. Look at the bags under my eyes, they reflect upon how much I cried. All of these memories belong to me and they are all very beautiful. You can’t believe a changing face is so beautiful. It’s the history of one’s life, which reflects what one did, his or her experiences, and achievements. It reflects the love one has received, given, shared, and also the pain one has gone through. I am happy, excited, glad, and proud to grow old with such grace.’

It’s about treasuring the signs of our passing through the years that are inscribed on our bodies. The duka-saepa (sorrow-joy), laabha-alaabha (profit-loss), yasa-ayasa (fame-obscurity), nindaa-prashansa (insults-praise) or the ata lo dahama (the eight worldly conditions) leave traces. They constitute a biography of sorts. They give us the privilege of looking back. For meditation on the thilakshana or the three marks of existence (‘sabbe sankhara anicca, sabbe sankhara dukkha, sabbe dhamma anatta’ or ‘impermanence, suffering and not-self) they suffice. A mirror is all you need. In fact you don’t need even that, for these traces are evident even on your hands and can be obtained even if you close your eyes.  

And all the life lived, all the lives refused to be lived, all the loves experienced, all the loves lost by ‘loving’ (as per norms) and all the lives similarly lost by living will manifest before us, to be touched by fingertips, gaze and mind, without rancour, without regret but just the peace of knowing, ‘this was who I am, this is how I became who I am.'

All stories get written on the skin. Traces of life settle in the heart and mind. They are eminently readable. And if wrinkles and lips and bags under the eyes are seen as metaphors, then theoretically it is so easy to reconstruct the lives we’ve lived. All the gardens we’ve walked through, the thorns that cut, the fruits that delighted, the landscapes that made us stop, the smile of a stranger, the tears of a child and innumerable moments that shaped us into who we are, one petal and one thorn at a time are laid out like a tapestry. Every thread, a story. Every color a moment. Not a perfect pattern but still epic. Like Meryl Streep. 


Other articles in this series: 

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

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
The allegory of the slow road