Photography: Sujeewa de Silva
The void that cripples us
On life’s threshold.
So in shadows we mingle
In shadows we live
I met Priyanga in Pahe Ela, somewhere near Anuradhapura. She is still a beauty, in her thirties…She was widowed in the early nineties, a year after her marriage…she told me the exact name of the battle he lost his life in, which evades my memory now…it was somewhere in the eastern frontiers…now she lives with her family. The pension of Priyanaga’s husband is quite something. It’s almost as if that money and the prestige of a war hero could replace the loss of Priyanga’s man.
But somehow, the loss of this man dominates the whole house. The moment you enter the place, you confront with his life size image garlanded. He makes a visitor slightly nostalgic and sad. I stood there trying to find a way to relate to him and the loss of him and this attempt to replace the loss of him.
After lunch, in the dry-zone drowsiness, Priyanga asks me to use her room; take a nap if i want to. I walk into her little room.In some places the paint was coming off the wall, and you could see a thin sun beam seep through a tiny crack in the ceiling…but apart from that it was a room of a woman who was meticulous about tidiness. Somehow, these things you would notice only much later…after you get over the initial shock of having to face with so many photographs of a her husband – in uniform, in civil clothes, carrying an AK-46, sitting on a armed car, arm in arm with his platoon buddies….her room was like little museum dedicated to his memory. A photograph of Priyanga and him together was on the dressing table, with a little paper red rose Priyanga had made.
In the throbbing intimacy of that room I couldn’t breathe for sometime…naturally I couldn’t nap…I had stumbled upon someone else’s privacy…
and it has taken me all this time to write about it, to acknowledge…and still, months later, I do. I found the time. I found the courage. I found the emotion.
I add to this post a poem written sometime back…this is for Priyanga and the man she lost. It’s something personal, as always…
A Soldier Mourned
Gunshots in the distant night
Surge with news of death
Inklings of my turn brew
In livid silence between the shelling
News of death that comes, as foretold
In the guise of white papers to be signed
Neatly typed, touchy words from someone unfamiliar
Someone without a shadow or a face
Fever-pitched battle to game and mate
A minor crisis on the half-done ceiling
Their frenetic scuffling
Trailing into my dreams
I turn to your side of the mat
To residues of your last embrace
The memory of you tapping
On the valley between my breasts
Asking, as if you knew
It is what I almost cannot give
The ghost of your ardour
Sealing my womb
As days slip too easily
Tarkovsky inspired me to look at my candlestand by the mirror once again. I watched his Nostalghia yesterday. many Sri Lankan filmmakers are inspired by Tarkovsky. I admit, he is poetic. I admit, I couldn’t beat his concept of “Sculpting in Time”. But there was a strange foreboding while I watched his film. The scene on the Maddona of childbirth, and the candle of faith were really haunting.
What is it exactly that we like so much in Tarkovsky?
Baby Loudes is born in the Kiliveddy IDP camp. Though I am concious of female aid workers posing for photographs carrying malnourished kids, I couldn’t help reaching out for Loudes. At least, I am not an aid worker. And I wish from the botton of my heart that Loudes would never suffer from malnourishment.
I don’t know why, but some babies seem to choose me. Loudes did. She just stared at me so long I felt like carrying her back to Colombo with me. But she has a mother, albiet internally displaced mother.
Loudes also reminds me of Sanduni, another baby who chose me, long time back when I was working for a local NGO with a wing for abandoned babies. It was my first job. I used to finish work and hop across the road to the baby orpahnage. At the time there were around 18 babies, all crying out loud for love than milk really…something that the staff there just couldn’t give enough of, though they all had big hearts. Sanduni just stood in her cot and wanted me loving her. I learnt that she was found by a bus driver somewhere on the route from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa, inside a shopping bag, hanging from a branch of a roadside tree. The driver had thought someone had left a kitten in a bag, when he saw something moving and kicking inside. At the orphanage she was named Sanduni, and treated for the rash she aquired from being inside a polythene bag in the dry-zone heat.
And that’s how I ended up adopting her as my babe for a while. I would run to the orphanage in the morning, before work began, to feed her. Run back in the lunch hour and after work. Buy fruits and stuff from the measly salary i earned at the time. I just fell in love with that babe like crazy.
Single women can’t adopt in Sri Lanka. So I could never adopt her. Besides, I was only 23 at the time. Economically unstable and emotionally volatile. Almost persuaded my parents to adopt her, though my father decided he was not taking another daughter he had to put through school and college. He probably calculated the whole investment he had in me from birth to then, ha ha!
So anyway, I never adopted Sanduni. One day when I returned from a long overseas trip I found Sanduni was tranfered to another orphanage since she did not deserve intensive care anymore. I created bit of a scene at home, saying I want to go see her. But ofcourse, that never happened. Somewhere down the line, I realized it wasn’t realistic. And I put Sanduni out of my mind. It was a bit like getting over a boyfriend, I felt.
It’s five years since. Everytime I hold a baby, I think Sanduni.
I’ve got my blue boat
to sail a red horizon
I’ve got my passion painted
across the sky
I’ve got my blue boat
To sail me through
the moods you give me
red and blue…
In Kiliveddy IDP camp in Muttur, a tire is a toy for this kid. Deprived of his home in the Sampur battle, he doesn’t know how long he’s been here in the refugee camp. Not that he does not remember, but he cannot count. He does not answer anything more than his name, and that’s what he repeats, smiling…as if his name is the only language he knows. Obviously, he is not going to school.
Personally, I have seen tires in a different context as a kid. It is something I can never imagine as a toy. I don’t want to repeat what a tire stands for in my childhood, 1988, 1989 Sri Lanka: The world knows about it; and I have already written a story about it: Pallu (it’s listed under Pages). With that I imagined that it is out of my system.
And then I meet this boy, Seethan – if I got his name right, with his toy tire around his neck, homeless, probably rootless, and futureless despite my optimism for him and the others of his kind. Seethan plays with a tire that epitomizes the hieght of violence I have experienced in my life. Of course, he’s lived through another war, with its own symbols of violence.
I want to hug him as if I were his twin. But I couldn’t.