Sri Lanka Revisited – part two

An ultra-modern “village in the jungle” (with apologies to Leonard Woolf) is how I would describe the Cinnamon properties (the Lodge and the older Village) situated in the middle of the Habarana wilds. While monkeys roamed the vast grounds, guests enjoyed peace and quiet in semi-detached chalet-style apartments, replete with every type of modern convenience.

Habarana is a great jumping off point to the attractions in what is now known as the Cultural Triangle that includes Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, each situated within short drives from the hotel complex. In this part of the country, the well-paved roads are less crowded and the traffic is more likely to be stopped by a straying wild elephant (and we saw plenty of them by the side of the road as we toured).

The historic sites have been restored and cleaned up since my last visit 8 years ago. There was also a conscious effort being made to portray the religious side of these sites, in particular, their Buddhist aspects. Where once upon a time all visitors had to remove footwear prior to entering hallowed premises, now women, especially tourists, had to additionally cover necks, shoulders, arms and other revealing skin.

The water tanks, built by far-sighted Sinhala kings, that had been allowed to languish in colonial and post-colonial times had been restored, for there was actually water in them now; the Sea of Parakrama was actually a giant body of water helping to irrigate farmers’ fields in the vicinity. Gone, I hoped, were the droughts of my childhood, or the excuses of droughts, when whatever rain that came was supposed to have fallen outside the catchments of the tanks, leading to the lack of food, to power cuts, and to other shortages.

Onto Trincomalee, a place I had visited in my childhood and youth. I remember taking a never-ending boat ride around the giant natural harbour, walking through the streets of the old town, and vacationing at my great-uncle’s sprawling estate home where everyone was welcome, where the food was plentiful, where there was no electricity, where we sat outside at night under the stars and swapped stories while listening to a battery-powered radio.

My great uncle and his family emigrated to Australia a long time ago, and the great man himself had since passed away, and so I decided to experience another side of Trincomalee – the beach. We spent two days on the beach outside town and it was a restful break from the constant travelling of the last few days. The seas were rough but the water was warm and the beach was strewn with dive shops, guesthouses and sea food restaurants. The local fishermen conducted a daily ritual of running a giant net out into the water, without a boat, and then hauling it back very slowly, the lead fisherman bobbing out far in the rough seas as he towed the net out and in. The sorting ceremony that was performed on the beach opposite our hotel after the laden net came in resulted in a battle between the gulls and the crows for the spoils left behind by the fishermen – a raucous event, and you had to watch out for falling offal from the sky. The unevenness of the beach became clear after while: this entire strip had been washed away in the giant tsunami that ripped the island in 2004.

I observed another phenomenon in Trincomalee, a town that has always been predominantly Tamil and Muslim: the burqa had replaced the salwar khameez. I wondered whether moves by the previous government to firmly entrench the nation as a Sinhala Buddhist one had resulted in religious minorities retaliating and staking out their own turf, and whether a subtle polarization was taking place – again. Or were returning housemaids from the Middle East wearing their work clothes to avoid buying a second wardrobe to wear at home? When the driver advised me that in the recent census, Muslims instead of Tamils were now the dominant minority in the country, I raised my eyebrows even more. And talking about politics, I realized why the common man was still enamoured with the last regime, corrupt or not; he had witnessed visible signs of progress with the last gang: roads, infrastructure, and price controls on essential goods, on a scale never seen before. The common man did not care that the new guys were saddled with the former guys’ bills, or that the new guys were still trying to figure out how Green and Blue (traditional rivals since Independence) could work together, or that they were trying to reduce – yes reduce, not increase – Presidential powers that lead to dictatorship.

Last stop: Jaffna. I have been trying to get to Jaffna since 1978. On that last occasion, I had turned back on my bike due to the “troubles” that were brewing, especially as my pillion rider was an American friend with a powerful camera who could have been mistaken for a CIA spy. But this time the rebuilt highway (and railway track) ran uninterrupted into the northern city with scarce traffic accompanying us. I saw the signs of the recent war immediately: military camps in every major town en-route, police check-points spot-checking motorists (we were stopped twice and my driver said that the cop was disappointed when he saw two tourists in the car, preventing him from collecting a customary bribe), the bombed out water tank in Killinochchi lying on its side as a stark reminder despite reconstruction going on around it.

My old school teachers used to tell me that Jaffna was a hot place where they only grew chillies and garlic. Well, if those pundits are still alive I’d like to inform them that they are wrong. Many tanks and ponds accompanied us as we entered the peninsula, and paddy fields, coconut estates, palm and corn fields ran right up to the outskirts of the city. Jaffna itself is a smaller version of Colombo with its teeming Pettah-like centre, the fishing harbour, the stately colonial buildings, the Fort (a military one unlike the commercial one in Colombo), and the temples and churches (make that Hindu temples and Catholic Churches). There were no Buddhist shrines to be seen, unless I missed them. But the signs of “We beat you, now buckle up and behave” were everywhere: the army’s foot patrols that walked the town, bullet-scarred houses of those who fled or died crumbling into decay beside modern structures of those who survived rising beside them, and hotels with management staff who spoke only Sinhala and English, sent from head-offices down south to manage lower level local Tamil staff. Temple Road leading to the famed Nallur Temple, once dubbed NGO Row had lost all its NGOs as those benevolent organizations had packed up and returned home when the war ended. Our Tamil tour guide lamented that now they had no help in the reconstruction as the foreigners had left and the government in Colombo was wrapped up in its internal conflicts. Testament to his lament is the state of the Jaffna Fort, slated for reconstruction but only with its outer walls restored, the inside is still a mass of bombed out structures with cattle grazing in the tall grass growing amidst the rubble. The only sign of hope was the fully restored Public Library, burned down twice in recent history by those who have no appreciation of history; I now only hope that its sparse collection of donated books and periodicals would increase and multiply over the years. Unlike in the Buddhist temples where we had to cover up, I was asked to remove my shirt at the Nallur temple, and I wished I had been permitted to take a selfie – darn!

We took the train back to Colombo. And we travelled “local” this time: second class. The CGR (Ceylon Government Railway) is still the same as it was 40 years ago; its rolling stock, its railway lines, its stations; the toilets still stink and there are no garbage pails so you are encouraged to throw your refuse on the track outside. Vendors ply their trade on board between stations, and railway guards turn a blind eye because there is no restaurant car. But we left and arrived on schedule, 7 hours later, something unheard of in the old days.

Before I left the island, I had to revisit my old home in Nawala where I had lived for 18 years. I had learnt by now that old landmarks are useless after 40 years, only the narrow, un-expandable road remains constant. The turns, inclines and declines in the road were my markers, except that over-construction in the once open land on either side had shrunken distances. I followed this road to my old address, but it had vanished behind a giant wall, even the number on the gate read differently. After much jumping up, ferreting, and snooping like a thief, I discovered that our former garage had now morphed into the main building and the old house was just an annex. Over the top of the wall I caught a glimpse of the American-style bungalow roof that my mother had picked out of a magazine and my father had charged the contractor to build for us. I could not proceed further; I did not know the new residents, and to all intents and purposes, I was an intruder. However, I was lucky to find my former neighbour, a retired octogenarian doctor and an eminent writer, at home, as well as a former teenage buddy (now retired, sobering thought!) who came rushing home from wherever he was as soon as his wife phoned him to announce that I had arrived unannounced. And their instant showers of Sri Lankan hospitality, replete with fish cutlets, patties, cake, tea and Lion Lager beer, all magically produced from the recesses of their kitchens and the kindness of their hearts, were… well, heart-warming.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka. However, I left with optimism. This country may not be my home anymore but it is a place where I feel extremely comfortable, in its hustle and bustle, its polluted traffic, its mouth-watering food, it’s side-splitting humour, its social contradictions, its irreconcilable political differences and its incomparable beauty. It is a place to return to, again and again, because HOME, after all, is only a state of mind.

Do titles sell books?

I know that covers sell books, well, at least for now, before e•books run us over, but do titles do the same? Is it best to plagiarize an existing best•selling title, and modify it a bit to ensure that unintended searches will unearth your book and present it to an unsuspecting reader? I know I had some unasked•for success when my last novel After the Flood came out a few months after a more famous book called The Year of the Flood (honest, I did not plagiarize here, I had been toiling at my tome for over seven years and had a mass of publishers and other gatekeepers to wade through before I arrived at my launch party, late, as to be expected)

Or is it better to use the most unremarkable title like The (Something) or a longer one like the curious incident of when I went to buy groceries and met a long cool woman in a black dress? Or adapt one of those biblical passages that Hemingway was so fond of using even if it has no relevance to the story: I lie me down in green pastures.

I have been struggling to find the title for a collection of linked stories that I would like to see published next. These stories cover the immigrant experience from both sides: the home country and the host country, and deals with the unfinished business often left behind, the emotional baggage that prevents the immigrant from making that final commitment to his new home, to what was originally just a leap of faith. I started with Unfinished Business, then I found out that there were plenty of titles under that moniker; also it could be mistaken for a poorly written business book. I lingered over Memories – too soppy and melodramatic. Departure Stains was next, but it sounded like someone had taken a dump on the old country and run away in a hurry seeking sanctuary in the new home (which is true of some shadier immigrants, but is not a general condition). From Both Sides Now is the name of a famous song, so I discarded that one. In desperation, I thought of Untitled but even that has been taken several times over. My Short Stories would be too immature, Immigrant Stories would be better as a sub•title, and I Can’t Bloody Find A Name For This Book would definitely sound paranoid.

I thought of asking my publisher. After all, they are going to market my book, let them do some work. But then I could see their rebound question hitting me squarely in the face: “You can’t even articulate the meaning of your book with an appropriate title? Okay – Reject Pile. Next!”

Dear readers, you seem to be my last resort. If you have an idea, please let me know. Perhaps cyberspace will come to my rescue, and as Frasier Crane said, “I am listening…”

Home – where is it?

Having lived at various times of my life in different places, I’ve often wondered where home really is. Is it where I live right now as a suburban transplant in a small town by a large lake? Is it back in Toronto or in some large city where everything is more or less the same: same stores, same entertainment, same shopping malls, same pace same anonymity? Or stretching back into the past, is it the Spartan home of an expatriate in an oil•drenched oasis, the home of a hired gun who could be sent back at any time when services are no longer required? Or even further back where it all began, in an island by the sea whose gentle waves and peaceful people later turned into killing machines? (And weren’t those gentle people fighting over whose home the island really was?)

As occupations become more temporary and transferable, as the world shrinks with globalization, as civil and climatic unrest displace populations, the concept of home is becoming a preoccupation for more people than just myself. I tried writing a novel about a man discovering home. The models I drew from were Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in which the hero, Ulysses, leaves the island of Ithaca, has many adventures abroad, and returns to drive out the usurpers of his wife and throne, and builds his nest again. But this homecoming is contrary to my personal experiences. When I returned to my old island after a 21•year absence, I drove past the old family home without recognizing it – the place had become a jumble of over•construction. So too was my former transient expat building in the Middle East: I couldn’t see the oil flares in the open desert and the planes coming into land at the airport – instead I stared at the glaring neon sign of a night club in a tall skyscraper that had landed across the street obliterating the once panoramic view. I wasn’t inspired to tarry long in these old haunts for they did not remind me of home any more, and there were no usurpers to throw out or nests to re•build either.

Then I read the old novel, Captain from Castile, and it hit me that Shellabarger’s hero, after finding that his old home in Spain has changed, heads back to the New World, where he had earlier made a fortune and forged his adult identity, to establish his new home. He has no sense of what he will find when he gets there but he pursues the dream, nevertheless. His home is in the present. This premise made more sense to me.

So, where is home? Is it a geographical place, a place in time, or a state of mind? Whatever it is, it is a human dilemma which consumes large quantities of emotion and contemplation. Wars have been waged over homelands, security forces have arisen to protect The Home Land, real•estate and mortgage industries have been formed over our desire to own a home even if we cannot afford it, and families draw battle lines when it comes to divvying up the family home due to a death or a divorce. And transplants like me float around seeking this elusive refuge, leaving a trail of blogs, novels and stories in my wake.

Christians adhere to that Gospel saying “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Could I apply that statement to the concept of home as well and say that the “Home of Man is within himself?” Therefore, there is no need for battle in the name of defending or conquering a home because it cannot be physically damaged or taken away. Like our DNA, home is a unique and personal space. I’d like to say that and end this perennial quest.