Authors: Michael Ondaatje
for Hetti Corea, 8 years old
“The Sinhalese are beyond a doubt one of the least
musical people in the world. It would be quite impossible
to have less sense of pitch, line, or rhythm.”
Your voice sounds like a scorpion being pushed
through a glass tube
like someone has just trod on a peacock
like wind howling in a coconut
like a rusty bible, like someone pulling barbed wire
across a stone courtyard, like a pig drowning,
a vattacka being fried
a bone shaking hands
a frog singing at Carnegie Hall.
Like a crow swimming in milk,
like a nose being hit by a mango
like the crowd at the Royal-Thomian match,
a womb full of twins, a pariah dog
with a magpie in its mouth
like the midnight jet from Casablanca
like Air Pakistan curry,
a typewriter on fire, like a spirit in the gas
which cooks your dinner,
like a hundred pappadans being crunched, like someone
uselessly trying to light 3
matches in a dark room,
the clicking sound of a reef when you put your head into the sea,
a dolphin reciting epic poetry to a sleepy audience,
the sound of a fan when someone throws brinjals at it,
like pineapples being sliced in the Pettah market
like betel juice hitting a butterfly in mid-air
like a whole village running naked onto the street
and tearing their sarongs, like an angry family
pushing a jeep out of the mud, like dirt on the needle,
like 8 sharks being carried on the back of a bicycle
like 3 old ladies locked in the lavatory
like the sound I heard when having an afternoon sleep
and someone walked through my room in ankle bracelets.
“This Ceylon part of the journey goes wearily! wearily! Tired out by being constantly disturbed all night—noisy sea, and noisier soda-bottle-popping planters, and the early dawn with crows and cocks.
The brown people of this island seem to me odiously inquisitive and bothery-idiotic. All the while the savages go on grinning and chattering to each other.
… The roads are intensely picturesque. Animals, apes, porcupine, hornbill, squirrel, pidgeons, and figurative dirt!”
From the journals of Edward Lear in Ceylon, 1875
“After all, Taormina, Ceylon, Africa, America—as far as
go, they are only the negation of what we ourselves stand for and are: and we’re rather like Jonahs running away from the place we belong.
… Ceylon is an experience—but heavens, not a permanence.”
“All jungles are evil.”
* * *
I sit in a house on Buller’s Road. I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner. Looking out on overgrown garden and the two dogs who bark at everything, who fling themselves into the air towards bird and squirrel. Ants crawl onto the desk to taste whatever is placed here. Even my glass, which holds just ice water, has brought out a dozen who wade into the rim of liquid the tumbler leaves, checking it for sugar. We are back within the heat of Colombo, in the hottest month of the year. It is delicious heat. Sweat runs with its own tangible life down a body as if a giant egg has been broken onto our shoulders.
The most comfortable hours are from 4
until about nine in the morning; the rest of the day heat walks the house as an animal hugging everybody. No one moves too far from the circumference of the fan. Rich Sinhalese families go up-country during April. Most of the events in the erotic literature of Asia,
one suspects, must take place in the mountains, for sex is almost impossible in Colombo except in the early morning hours, and very few have been conceived during this month for the last hundred years.
This is the heat that drove Englishmen crazy. D.H. Lawrence was in Ceylon for six weeks in 1922 as a guest of the Brewsters who lived in Kandy. Even though Kandy is several degrees cooler than Colombo, his cantankerous nature rose to the surface like sweat. He found the Sinhalese far too casual and complained about “the papaw-stinking buddhists.” On his first day the Brewsters took him for a walk around Kandy Lake. Achsah and Earl Brewster describe how Lawrence pulled out his silver watch and noticed that it had stopped. He went into a rage, heaving and pulling to break the chain, and threw the watch into the lake. The silver time-piece floated down and joined more significant unrecovered treasure buried by Kandyan kings.
Heat disgraces foreigners. Yesterday, on the road from Kandy to Colombo we passed New Year’s festivities in every village—grease pole climbing, bicycle races with roadside crowds heaving buckets of water over the cyclists as they passed—everyone joining in the ceremonies during the blazing noon. But my kids, as we drove towards lowland heat, growing belligerent and yelling at each other to shut up, shut up, shut up.
Two miles away from Buller’s Road lived another foreigner. Pablo Neruda. For two years during the thirties, he lived in Wellawatte while working for the Chilean Embassy. He had just escaped from Burma and Josie Bliss of “The widower’s tango” and in his
writes mostly about his pet mongoose. An aunt of mine remembers his coming to dinner and continually breaking into song, but many of his dark claustrophobic pieces in
were written here, poems that saw this landscape governed by a crowded surrealism—full of vegetable oppressiveness.
Ceylon always did have too many foreigners … the “Karapothas” as my niece calls them—the beetles with white spots who never grew ancient here, who stepped in and admired the landscape, disliked the “inquisitive natives” and left. They came originally and overpowered the land obsessive for something as delicate as the smell of cinnamon. Becoming wealthy with spices. When ships were still approaching, ten miles out at sea, captains would spill cinnamon onto the deck and invite passengers on board to
before the island even came into view.
“From Seyllan to Paradise is forty miles,” says a legend, “the sound of the fountains of Paradise is heard there.” But when Robert Knox was held captive on the island in the 17th century he remembered his time this way: “Thus was I left Desolate, Sick and in Captivity, having no earthly comforter, none but only He who looks down from Heaven to hear the groaning of the prisoners.”
The leap from one imagination to the other can hardly be made; no more than Desdemona could understand truly the Moor’s military exploits. We own the country we grow up in, or we are aliens and invaders. Othello’s talent was a decorated sleeve she was charmed by. This island was a paradise to be sacked. Every conceivable thing was collected and shipped back to Europe: cardamons, pepper, silk, ginger, sandalwood, mustard oil, palmyra root, tamarind, wild indigo, deers’ horns, elephant tusks, hog lard, calamander, coral, seven kinds of cinnamon, pearl and cochineal.
A perfumed sea
And if this was paradise, it had a darker side. My ancestor, William Charles Ondaatje, knew of at least fifty-five species of poisons easily available to his countrymen, none of it, it seems,
used against the invaders. Varieties of arsenic, juices from the centipede, scorpion, toad and glow-worm, jackal and “mungoose,” ground blue peacock stones—these could stun a man into death in minutes. “Croton seeds are used as a means to facilitate theft and other criminal intentions,” he wrote in his biological notebooks. In his most lyrical moment, in footnote 28 of his report on the Royal Botanic Gardens, William Charles steps away from the formal paper, out of the latinized garden, and, with the passion of a snail or bird, gifts us his heart.
Here are majestic palms with their towering stems and graceful foliage, the shoe flower, the eatable passion flower. Here the water lily swims the rivers with expanded leaves—a prince of aquatic plants! The Aga-mula-naeti-wala,
creeper without beginning or end
, twines around trees and hangs in large festoons … and curious indeed these are from having neither leaves nor roots. Here is the winged thunbergia, the large snouted justicia, the mustard tree of Scripture with its succulent leaves and infinitesimal berries. The busy acacia with its sweet fragrance perfumes the dreary plains while other sad and un-named flowers sweeten the night with their blossoms which are shed in the dark.
The journals delight in the beauty and the poisons, he invents “paper” out of indigenous vegetables, he tests local medicines and poisons on dogs and rats. “A man at Jaffna committed suicide by eating the
root.… A concoction of the plumbago is given to produce abortion.” Casually he lists the possible weapons around him. The karapothas crawled over them and admired their beauty.
The island hid its knowledge. Intricate arts and customs and religious ceremonies moved inland away from the new cities. Only
Robert Knox, held captive by a Kandyan king for twenty years, wrote of the island well, learning its traditions. His memoir,
An Historical Relation
, was used by Defoe as a psychological source for the ever inquisitive Robinson Crusoe. “If you peer into the features of Crusoe you will see something of the man who was not the lonely inhabitant of a desert island but who lived in an alien land among strangers, cut away from his own countrymen … and striving hard not only to return but also to employ profitably the single talent that had been given him.”
Apart from Knox, and later Leonard Woolf in his novel,
A Village in the Jungle
, very few foreigners truly knew where they were.
* * *
I still believe the most beautiful alphabet was created by the Sinhalese. The insect of ink curves into a shape that is almost sickle, spoon, eyelid. The letters are washed blunt glass which betray no jaggedness. Sanskrit was governed by verticals, but its sharp grid features were not possible in Ceylon. Here the Ola leaves which people wrote on were too brittle. A straight line would cut apart the leaf and so a curling alphabet was derived from its Indian cousin. Moon coconut. The bones of a lover’s spine.
When I was five—the only time in my life when my handwriting was meticulous—I sat in the tropical classrooms and learned the letters
, repeating them page after page. How to write. The self-portrait of language.
Lid on a cooking utensil that takes the shape of fire. Years later, looking into a biology textbook, I came across a whole page depicting the small bones in the body and recognized, delighted, the shapes and
forms of the first alphabet I ever copied from Kumarodaya’s first grade reader.