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Christopher Ondaatje uncovers Richard Boyle’s Serendib

Sinbad in Serendib’

Vishinudu Prakashakayo (Pvt) Ltd.
Rs. 1950/-

Richard Boyle, the British writer who has lived in Sri Lanka since 1984, has written an extraordinary new book Sinbad in Serendib, which includes fifteen strange stories and curious aspects of Sri Lanka. It is in fact, a collection of 15 essays, but is unique, because it is remarkable for its detail and accuracy. The book also could not have been written, except by someone, with a good knowledge about Sri Lanka. There is little doubt that, his first essay, from which the handsome book takes its title, indicates that, long-distance sailors and traders were very familiar, with the island in antiquity.
“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.”

The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor
John Barth, 1991
Boyle explains that, on Sinbad’s eastward journey, it is possible that, his ship ran aground, at the notorious wreck location Okanda, at the north eastern corner of the Yala National Park, and the only place on Sri Lanka’s coastline hemmed in by a hill, largely conforming to Sinbad’s description. Sinbad, Boyle reports, climbed Adam’s Peak, witnessed a perahera, and mentions both the pearl fisheries and the precious stones, and even speculates, on the whereabouts of an elephant graveyard.

Other essays by Boyle, delve into “Horace Walpole, Serendipity and The Three Princes”, which explains Walpole’s coinage of the word Serendipity in 1754; ‘Mulgirigala: Rock of Ages’, reveals a hitherto undocumented portrayal of a gravestone, referred to as Adam’s Tomb in 1766; ‘The Anaconda of Ceylon’, which includes a 1768 report of the giant anaconda, found on the outskirts of Colombo and almost certainly gave its name (from the Sinhala hewakandaya), bestowed on the large South American snake. Other extraordinary chapters feature the 1874 attack, by a giant squid on the schooner, ‘Pearl off the East coast’; and indeed information on the ‘Nittaewo’, an extinct tribe of ferocious pygmies in Sri Lanka, and featured in an Indian periodical, under the title “Nittaewo: Dagger-Clawed Little People.” The recent discovery of a human called ‘The Hobbit in Indonesia’ may prove significant in determining the authenticity of this information.

Finally, Boyle’s concluding essay ‘C.G. Jung’s Field of Vision’, brings us into more recent times, with the psychologist’s 1934 visit to Sri Lanka, and subsequent near-death experience, in which he imagined floating in space above the island. Although Jung wrote his autobiography before man entered space, his convincing description of earth orbit, foreshadows astronauts’ accounts.

These and other essays on such topics, as the ancient pearl fishery, the persecuted tribe of the Rodi, the endangered dugong, and the legendary Great Ruby, provide a wealth of unusual and esoteric information on Sri Lanka. Those who know Richard Boyle’s former works, including B.P. de Silva: The Royal Jeweller of South-East Asia (1989), and the ubiquitous Knox’s Words (2004), will not be disappointed in ‘Sinbad in Serendib’, a peculiarly entertaining book,which is in itself, a journey of discovery.
Christopher Ondaatje is the author of The Man-Eater of Punanai and Woolf in Ceylon.
Source: The Sri Lankan Anchorman, Toronto Canada

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The ‘Poetry of Challenge’

Clouds Over My Senses by Carl Muller Published by Godage International Publishers, Colombo, 2007

By J. W. Wikramasinha
On the back cover of this book, the contents are described as ‘Poetry of Challenge,’ and there is no mistake about this. Carl Muller’s new collection of poems takes the senses by storm and the clouds have to be those of hypocrisy, corruption and social ills.

They settle over his senses like clouds of unreason and represent everything that makes natural life so rotten in the world of today. These are the clouds that rest upon the writer’s senses.

Attack
What Muller has done is not only react but also attack. The whole collection is an attack on everything that he considers inhuman: the stupid postulations, belief, stagnant philosophy, inane ideas about who and what we are, all the impertinence and the vainglory we dress ourselves in to impress those around us and depress those we think are better than they are.

It is his last grand poem in this collection that is really an eye-opener. It is titled Life – An Argument and his argument may be called a sort of raving philosophy that shakes the very thrones of belief and the deities. This is such a long, detailed argument too, and he introduces it with the words:

“This final section may raise a storm in some circles. It may please the evolutionists, give the upholders of Creative Design something more to think about, and irk the upholders of Creation. It is presented with apologies to none.”

I will give you some lines from this piece at random:
...we are also told,
and this the pompous priests will proud uphold,
that all life came to us from some unknown star,
dispatched from some celestial realm afar,
takes sanctuary within our bodies, God-appointed,
and that, religion says, is Soul-anointed.”
“And so we have this principle of soul...
a living principle that makes all life a role
we needs must play ... and now we claim we are
the human warders, harbouring this gift of distant star,
and in enfolding it within our outer shells,
are unique, Lords of Life, and in us wells
both life and soul - the soul that makes sublime
each separate existence in God’s own time...
and that, at death, this soul in us takes wing,
returns to where the angels welcome sing.”
“...what litanies of lies
that have enslaved us, made us look to the skies
for gods we cannot see, or touch, or hear;
for gods who mark the hours of our lives - we fear
their wrath, are told to love them well,
honour and obey them, or surely go to Hell!”
“From microscopic and unicellular, we became the success
of multi-cellular Man! Consider how this evolution
has always moved to find an environmental solution:
the fin that swims can reappear
as a limb that walks, or a wing that flies!
What fear lies in this transition? It may seem complicated
but the key to efficiency lies in this aggravated
push to ensure survival. We accept today
that the human brain is the latest brain - in its way
it is the most complex. There is an increase
of nerve-management, and the structure frees
all that is old and of no use, to place
a newer organisational roof over our minds - we displace
all that sticks in the mud, and progress is ensured
when evolution takes its own conjured
path of increasing complexity -
no longer hovel, but shining city.”

This very long poem offers one of the most challenging arguments I have ever read. It throws to the wind all the hocus-pocus of religion that denies the ‘naturalness’ of man who really belongs to this natural world.

Argumentative
The poems in the preceding section are also just as argumentative. Muller wishes to know whether all the blood-letting, the human hatred, wars, massacres and sacrifices are not the mimesis of the past.

‘”Is piety
the ritual decreed that we must kill ... “
In his poem Prophecy, he warns of the final ‘”great trembling” and paints a terrible picture:
“...as the lands sway and the seas froth
and the womb belches its havoc
of undigested eras, brings forth its vaginal fires
to cauterise the valleys, steam-bowl the lakes...
So eat, eat, and drink, drink, for this your time
is still yours to eat and drink
and dance and smile and kill your neighbour
and call yourselves the lords of all.”
What is most exciting is Muller’s ability to give us so many melodious rhyming lines. This is a far cry from the blank verse that is so evidently in fashion. You see such beautiful construction in his My World, where he tells of a dream, a resolve, an imagining to mark his own universe.

Mockery
He actually sings his mockery of what is. And he chooses carefully and I find a lot of vehemence in the way he presents each poem. This is why his poem Meaning and Meaninglessness has so great an impact in its form. He equates the meaningless with suspicion, hatred, ethnic and religious strife:
“…an eerie and nihilative shadow
that fractures all meaning.”
I feel that each poem demands a special study-review. There is so much excellence of thought that we suddenly find a stunning philosophical bent that can only issue from an exceptional mind. In his poem Such Peculiar Creatures Muller tears our so-called ethics to shreds:
“Were ethics grounded on the edge of a sword
on the crusades into the Holy Land,
or the horrors of Darfur? Or is it
simply a matter of taking sides
and defending positions?
“Now we have burdened ourselves
with an ethics based on competition,
in winning through strength,
on priority and public attention
and discrimination.
“We live today in a night world of conscience
that pulls its own train of prejudice,
of bigotry – bogged down in the borders
of religion and in those outer reaches
of scientific understanding ... “
In Miracles and the Miraculous, he lashes out but with words of pure saccharine, ending with:
“Oh, I suppose miracles do happen, but
I think they are an amusement to cut
the simplicity in relation to God
and this gives us a great deal of fraud!”
In Mouths Almighty, we have another ending that digs us in the ribs:
“...we, in our pride, call animals dumb!
While the mouths of the world go yap, yap, yap ¬–
Such are our mouths almighty
That distract and heap contempt on ourselves”
The thoughts that seem to fill Muller’s mind are like a tide that rushes headlong, and who can say where it goes:
“It is so apt that we call tomorrow another day
and not another night!”
“How many of us seek out those
we wish to imitate, and don’t seek ourselves?”
“Is life so marvellous that I cannot presume to end it all?”
...our soldiers know
they go to die – yet they are honoured, heroes called;
but if I kill myself, I’m a wretched miscreant!
How so?”
Among it all there are also his Random Jottings, each of them of true quality:
“If you have to add ‘yes’ to truth
are you not
justifying a lie?”
“They are burning the flag
of the enemy - but can’t find
the enemy in the ashes”
“People always look for reasons
when I cry. Why can’t I just cry
because I want to cry?”
“Buddhism is mind.
If there is no mind,
there is no Buddhism”
“Where will I go when I die?
I don’t know, because
I haven’t died yet.”
“I gave a beggar a meal
and expected him to thank me for it,
when it was I who should have been thankful.”
Clouds Over My Senses is a very fine collection and I can only ask myself whether I can face Muller’s many challenges. But I must say that with this new book, Muller has become one of our finest poets even if he insists on rubbing salt in every wound.

****

Masterworks Concert by Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka

The Masterworks Concert of the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka will be presented in association with the Royal Norwegian Embassy on Saturday, May 3. It will feature works by Boccherini, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Verdi and Grieg. The soloists will be Tamara Holsinger, cello, who is a member of SOSL and Camilla Jonstang, soprano, visiting from Norway. The concert at Ladies’ College Hall (7 pm) will be conducted by Ajit Abeysekera.

The soloist in Boccherini’s elegant and expressive Cello Concerto in B flat major, Tamara Holsinger, has previously performed cello concertos by Vivaldi, Saint-Saens and Elgar with the orchestra. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music from Mt. Holyoke College, USA.

The principal orchestral work will be Mendelssohn’s beautifully evocative and high spirited Symphony No.4, the ‘Italian’. Mostly written in Rome in 1830-31, when Mendelssohn was in his early twenties, it is a ‘paean of praise’ to the light, colour and animation of the Italian countryside.

Camilla Jonstang, soprano, who is a graduate of the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, has performed widely in Norway and Russia and at numerous international music festivals and church concerts. Her repertoire spans from the lyrical Handel and Mozart to the more dramatic Richard Strauss and Rachmaninov, in orchestral works, oratorio, songs and opera. She will perform Mozart’s ‘Exsultate, jubilate’, ‘Solveig’s Song’ by Grieg from his Peer Gynt suites, and Verdi’s aria ‘D’amour sull’ali rosee’ from his opera Il Trovatore.

The box plan is open at Titus Stores, Liberty Plaza. There is no charge for the tickets as the concert is funded by the Norwegian Embassy in Colombo, in line with their goal of promoting exchange and collaboration between Sri Lanka and Norway in the cultural sector.
From Terry Benson, Governor SOSL 4616691, 2689170

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