In Sri Lanka, life imitates art

As we travel through Sri Lanka, its strong literary voices come crashing in like waves, and life seems to imitate art

I sit in the huge living room of the old governor’s home in Jaffna. The walls, painted… a warm rose-red, stretch awesome distances away to my left, to my right and up towards a white ceiling. When the Dutch first built this house egg white was used to paint the walls. The doors are twenty feet high, as if awaiting the day when a family of acrobats will walk from room to room, sideways, without dismantling themselves from each other’s shoulders. — Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje

The first thing we notice as we enter the hotel in Galle is the massive winding staircase. As we ascend, climbing alongside us is a sculpture of the Portuguese-Sinhalese encounter on the battlefield: Sinhalese warriors and Portuguese invaders frozen into brass sheet and copper, with animals, weapons, cannons, pennants, all making their way intractably along the balustrading to a blue-tiled dome. It is sculptor Laki Senanayake’s depiction of the Battle of Randeniwela, waged in 1630 between the Portuguese invaders and the Sinhalese warriors, with life-sized horses and horsemen, bows and arrows, a head on a spear, and above it all, the Sinhalese king playing the flute.

Trying to read up more about this battle, I find an essay by historical novelist and historian Gaston Perera in The Island. The Portuguese attack was led by the fidalgo Constantino de Sá de Noronha, who would be killed in battle. A Portuguese account of the fierce clash mentions that a thunderstorm had soaked the Portuguese firepower. Perera adds that this detail is indirectly confirmed by a local story: “The belief among the villagers is that a party of Kandyan archers was stationed here during the fighting with orders to shoot fire arrows — arrows tipped with burning arecanut husk, kamaranka puwak — at the place where the Portuguese had spread their powder out to dry. This oral tradition has nothing to say about a storm but why should the Portuguese have to dry their powder?”

It was a decisive victory for the Sinhalese.

A building can only be understood by moving around and through it, and by experiencing the modulation, and feel the spaces one moves through — from outside into verandah, then rooms, passages, courtyards. Architecture cannot be totally explained but must be experienced. It should play to all the senses — the smell of vegetation after rain, the sound of birds, and the wind in trees. — Geoffrey Bawa

Designed by legendary Sri Lankan architect and landscape artist Geoffrey Bawa, the hotel is named after the Galle Lighthouse. Built on a promontory outside the 17th century Dutch Fort, the massive rocks are part of the design: they are showcased like stone sculptures that deserve to be looked at.

For a country so full of luxuriant natural beauty, Sri Lanka’s architecture is equally striking. Even the buildings seem to spring from the ground fully formed, like the stalks of plants emerging with a powerful motivation from the soil. We are on the first floor and close enough to feel the spray. The waves crash against the rocks. The breakers are brilliantly white.

On a landing, an artist from Colombo has set up a stall where he is making miniature paintings on white pebbles. Our 10-year-old son befriends him and buys a bunch of handpainted bookmarks and pebbles. He saves his phone number into my phone: “Artist, Colombo.”

Colombo has its memories. Much poignancy, too, if we could dig deep enough through the concrete and asphalt that has carpeted it for miles in most directions. — Colombo, Carl Muller

As we reach Colombo, on one of the alarmingly narrow U-turns, our vehicle makes contact with a Volkswagen Beetle. Our driver stops the car in the middle of the road — not difficult in the traffic that’s barely moving — and so does the other driver, who is wearing a t-shirt and cargo shorts, as if he’s headed for a day at the sports ground.

The two drivers embark upon a lengthy conversation but in soft murmurs, while traffic honks half-heartedly and then continues to ebb and flow alongside, treating the two men as a part of the street design. Then we find the two drawing up on the side of the road to continue their conversation.

Back at home, we would have been fretting by now; here, on our summer vacation, we wait calmly, carried along by this unhurried mood. While our 11-year-old son plays a game on his iPad and the 10-year-old peers over his shoulder, we read the newspapers, which are full of the debate over bringing back the death penalty after a 40-year moratorium.

The bitter debate in the newspapers seems oddly incongruous with the quiet, almost gentle argument between the two drivers.

After a bit, the two drivers get back on the road and pull into the large and tidy compound of the police station. Here they will continue their conversation in the station while we take a walk to the pizza restaurant down the road, use the washrooms, charge our phones, and walk back unhurriedly amid the slow-streaming traffic.

When we return, we are not surprised to find that the conversation is still continuing, in the politest of murmurs. Finally, to our surprise and relief, we pull out. It has taken three hours for the two men to have this discussion, but without road rage or even raised voices.

It looks like it may be possible to reach the Selyn Fair Trade store this afternoon after all.

It is not, despite its aura of strength, its rising pillars, its soaring towers, a solid place. It is rather, a great hotchpotch of greater pretensions, false pride, immense corruption, and in it, its citizens live on dazedly or doggedly, as suits their demeanours. — Colombo, Carl Muller

Colombo is crowded, noisy, full of traffic, and absolutely delightful. We feel immediately at home. The husband and the boys settle in to watch the Sri Lanka vs South Africa cricket Test match at the lovely Colombo Cricket Club Ground.

Around us, a bunch of shrieking, energetic schoolboys, masses of club lunch of rice and curry, the eternal cricket fan Percy Abeysekera, and another elderly gentleman from Kandy — “I’m 80 years young!” — shaking his fist, holding up his beer can and yelling swear words every time someone misfields.

It’s the perfect setting for a Romesh Gunesekera description of a cricket match.

Sri Lanka batted first. It wasn’t a good start, wickets fell fast, but the play was for runs, runs, runs. Anything cautious was booed… There were trumpets and drum rolls, klaxons and whistles and rattles and chants and screams. This was cricket at full decibel. A game where every ball was a missile and the field an arena of gladiators. — The Match, Romesh Gunesekera

I leave the others to the cricket ‘at full decibel’ and go off to spend the afternoon in Colombo National Museum. Walking through its warm, sunlit galleries is to walk through the crowded, textured pages of Sri Lankan history: the Anuradhapura Polonnaruva and Kandy periods; the inscriptions, the statuary, the weaponry, the throne, the palm-leaf manuscripts, the demon masks, the remnants of the colonial empire.

It is a long afternoon, and the hot air is pushed around by slow-moving blades of standing fans placed in the galleries. Outside, I stop to sit under one of the magnificent banyan trees in the museum grounds and take in the beauty of the building itself.

I open my book: Ashok Ferrey’s light, evocative novel set in the 80s — when the civil war had only just begun — about a family house in Colombo. Beautiful Colombo, with its great houses and bits of history and its sense of peace slipping inexorably away.

Aunty Chelvam’s house was of a beauty so luminous, so incandescent, it left you breathless. The classical perfection of its tall white columns of polished chunam, its broken pediments, its bottled balustrades, was tempered with just that touch of Arts and Crafts to prevent it from sterility. — Serendipity, Ashok Ferrey

Years of a bitter civil war; and then the devastation wrought by the tsunami. It has been a tragic contemporary history for this green, fertile island.

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