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Enter William

By Carol Aloysius
It’s spring cleaning day at my house at Vipulasena Mawatha.
I usually put off this tiresome task till there’s a festive occasion around the corner. But this time, I’ve been compelled to start early for a far more serious reason: My 106 year old house is under white ant attack!!.

Without any prior warning, these tiny white invaders which are hardly visible to the eye, have begun their relentless attack on practically everything that I possess. Creeping stealthily through layers of earth, they have made their way through twenty inches of sturdy kabok wall, finally emerging to ‘nest’ among my family heirlooms; carved almirahs of yester- year, 100 year old cabinets, book cases that have seen the better part of half a century, and yes- books.

They have invaded the priceless collection of treasured books, that I have amassed over the years, and in the process, shredded them into tiny bits of paper impossible to put together. Gone are the neat rows of books, I have painstakingly filed according to their respective authors and subject. Row by row, books that I grew up with, then passed on to my children and subsequently kept aside for a third generation, have perished under my very nose, from the assault of these nasty little aliens.
Had I seen them coming, I would have been ready with my weapons of counter-attack.

But it is too late to cry over spilled beans. What has happened, has happened.
And now as I go about my unenviable task of salvaging what I can from the remnants of my shredded books, I have come across unexpected treasures that have suddenly surfaced from beneath this mound of white ant eaten paper.
My eyes spot a pile of diaries as I rummaged through the dirt heap. Fortunately, they have escaped being attacked. They are diaries dating back nearly 40 years. Each of them is packed with brief notes on every single thing that had mattered to me at the time of writing them.

A compulsive diarist from the age of seven, until today, I have found that the best way to remember anything is by writing it all down in a diary. Not just important events like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, deaths, birth of a child, the day he took his first steps, cut his first tooth, gave his first smile, and the arrival and departure of our various domestics, but the more prosaic things like bank account numbers, telephone numbers, doctor’s numbers, and even contact numbers, were noted down in my diaries.
I fliped the pages over and stopped at an entry marked in red ink: “Enter William”- 1972”

The three letter entry triggers open a flood gate of memories that I had carefully stored at the back of my mind, to recollect and savour at leisure. They were memories of my most unforgettable and lovable household help.

William as some of my readers may recall, was my former domestic. He was one of a kind. While his unique character and his innumerable antics since he joined our household over 15 years ago, have been already documented in a previous series by this writer, this particular entry caught my attention for another reason; It brought back memories of my first encounter with him on a day just like today…

I was spring cleaning my house, or rather my kitchen that morning. Only then I was not trying to get rid of any white ant invaders. I was simply throwing out the unwanted clutter in my kitchen: getting rid of old pots and pans, and trying to give my old kitchen a ‘New Look;’ for the coming New Year.

I had lost my former domestic who left for the Middle East sometime ago, and had been making desperate inquires from friends, relatives and anyone who could, to help me find a replacement. It had to be a young woman with house cleaning - and cooking skills, I told them.

In the middle of cleaning my old stove, with my back turned towards the door, I heard a timid knock followed by two more knocks. It must be the dirt cart man I thought. Let him wait till I finished my cleaning. A loud cough followed by a stifled sneeze startled me and looking up I saw vaguely outlined at my door, the figure of a slightly built man carrying a suitcase.
Barely looking up, I asked what he wanted. “My name is William. I have come to work for you” he replied. Grasping at straws, and welcoming any help, I then bade him come inside and help me first clean up the mess in my kitchen and get all the unwanted stuff into a garbage bag for the dust cart man.

Without further ado, my new help went into immediate action. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, and tucking up his sarong, he grabbed the broom from me and began sweeping out the kitchen. The room soon filled with clouds of dust as he brushed down cobwebs that had hung from the walls and roof for timeless years, swept under the rarely cleaned kitchen hearth bringing up a cloud of smoke, dug out insects that had perished long ago under my frequent No Roach spraying. Then, grabbing the nearest mop, he began scrubbing and mopping the floor cleaning it of all the grime and dirt that had spread around it over the years.

An hour and a half later, we paused to admire my newly scrubbed shining kitchen floor, my well scrubbed and washed walls, clean hearth and shiny kitchen stove, pots and pans that looked as good as new, It was then that I took a close look at my unexpected good samaritan. My heart sank. The first thing I noticed about him was the slightly upward tilt of his head which gave him an alert and expectant look. His newly dyed hair was slightly wavy. He was of medium height and judging by the work he had done so far for me, seemed quick and light in his movements, despite his deceptively frail appearance. Yet the lean fragile looking specimen of a man, who seemed well over sixty years, despite his newly dyed hair, was far from the ideal domestic help I was looking for. No, I couldn’t possibly hire him. It wasn’t fair to expect him to do my household chores including the cooking. Could he cook? I challenged him, hoping his reply would be in the negative and would give me the perfect excuse for sending him away. His reply again took me by surprise. “If Nona wants a beef steak, fish steak, any western dishes or oriental dishes, I can make them all. Only give me a chance to prove myself”, he said refusing to budge.

There was nothing I could do. Having already acquainted himself with the domestic area of which he expected to take charge, he was already walking to the domestic’s room adjoining the kitchen, carrying his battered suitcase and his long handled hamuduru umbrella which appeared to be his proudest possession.

It was pretty obvious to me that William was as determined to stay as I was determined to send him home. It seemed that a tug-of-wills between mistress and domestic was about to begin. And as it invariably happened thereafter, when he and I had a clash of wills, William emerged the Conqueror.

There was no looking back for him or me. He would make this his home for fifteen long years becoming an indispensable part of my family, and brightening our lives with his innumerable antics in the process.
As for me and my family, we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

****

Jean Arasanayagam - Capturing the essence of memory

The relation between aesthetics and poetry is far from simple. It is simple, but intricate. There are poets I know of who like to philosophise. It is felt that, a spoon of philosophy adds to the richness, but I have found it, more often than not, falling into stereotype or becoming an activity, of which - as a secondary sophistication - is more than enough to any reader. It’s worrying to think that writers keep trying to reflect on things, when there is nothing to really reflect upon.

Today, Sri Lankan Literature and poetry has made seven-league strides. We have moved into new eras of human experience and if, I recall right, it was Blake who said that, ‘to generalise would be idiotic.’

Jean Arasanayagam is an exception. No two of her art is the same. Sometimes, in reading her, I have wondered, if her mind first sets out to kill reality, for it is so evident, that the intellect cannot be the creator. To me, her poetry, in all its rich robes, are the mutual flames where one poem can never extinguish the other. She certainly is a paradigm, an exception, for she will tell of a beauty that can save the world and will not be cowed by the horrors and qualifications of history; the roar of guns, and even the scent of the jasmine. Everything is part of her faith.

In our world of poetry, we have Jean, who not only captures the vital essence of memory but also, allows us to feel that, if poetry is her religion, her art is the theory, and from the theory comes vision. I have seen her frequent reference to the Vedas, the Upanishads, as well as such as Shelley, Keats and Wordsworth, but she remains a romantic, with a difference, leaning with ease on truth, goodness and beauty. Call her a piper of the perennial appreciation of all about her, but the tunes she pipes will always be her own.

She does not look on her lines as a purely social product, or governed by utilitarian considerations or socio-economic factors. She knows too well that, once she has written, once a poem is read, it is freed from its genesis and needs to emphasise its independence. That, I feel, is very like creation. One cannot ask a dewdrop to tell us of its parentage, can we? I simply must quote Rabindranath Tagore, for he is the one with Jean when he said:
“The materials or ingredients of Creation are supplied partly by History, partly by Society, but these neither make nor explain the Creator.”

To Jean [and I intend to give you some extracts from her work at the end of this essay], poetry belongs to the procession of life. Its pilgrimage takes her to vanished years, unknown shrines, even above and beyond social and historic events. She offers a world of universal values, and yet, I have to marvel at the - shall I say - unstoppable and undiminished work she continues to produce. She does not seem to accept that, one side of her life that is finite can exhaust her. Rather, she asks us to accept that , all her aspirations, joys, even sacrifices, are infinite. She has surely given us her symbol of immortality.

Jean [and knowing her as well as I do] has met, faced, suffered and overcome a tyranny of many days, and yet, she does not seek a refuge for avoiding the disagreeable facts of a past, where encounters keep beating at her skull. She made of her writing, a transformation of such vile realities - no, not nuances of nostalgia that brings about a fusion of opposites. To her, poetry is an intensification of human reality, never an impoverishment. We find the language of personality and a complex of ideas and attitudes.

In Indian terms, I have found that, there are some of her works that equate sensibility and sanctity. We have rasa or relish, ananda or delight, and dhyana or contemplation. Her poems also carry elements of exploration and discovery - mapping out the paths of our past, making us wish to share, even talk of what is now not talked of

I have often wondered what makes Jean so private a person, content to live in her own “nautilus chamber,” but I think there is an answer. The true poet is an ascetic. She seeks the free self in her, but not outside her doors. How could she immune herself in today’s world of marginal, manipulable, instrumental creatures, who are the victims of attachment and preference? No, it does not mean that she is a hermit, but her place, that is so distinctively hers, above all other places, is her meeting-ground between her lesser and greater self. And in that swirling sense of being immersed and alone, she can bind together a vast empire of human society.

Jean often goes back to nature, the flowers and vines, and that too, is embodied in her. I have felt that, when she tells of the hills and the vales, the groves and the fruit trees around the wells of old-time northern plantations, she stands outside herself -- standing as a signpost on the road to unity.
She puts aside all “hereness-thereness” divisions, becomes accessible to totality - so like Blake’s line: “To see a world in a grain of sand.”

There are times, of course, when Jean becomes the generic heroine in her own poetry, but there is no search for sensation. She has distilled herself in her travel poems, her visits to other climes, but that is as it should be, shouldn’t it? Her voice remains unmistakably that of a serious poet.

In writing this, I ask myself, ‘am I passing judgment on a lifetime of her work, or only in those moments that crystallise her poetry. Frankly, it’s hard to tell, for you will find no social platitudes, no abstractions, every line seen sharply, often giving expression to an individual moment balanced against the timeless moments of the past. Let me give you a few abstracts. Read what she has written and tell me if I have spoken truly:

(From “Left Eehinder”)
I do not know when I last knew
The meaning of that word “merry”
Belonging as it does to all those lost annals
Including nativities, proselytisation, ballads and lyrics.
I do not make merry any longer
Not with thoughts of blood-sodden battlefields
With their unrecognisable dead, revolutions,
Torture or burning tyre-piles and the weight
Of fear my daughter still expresses of that
Terrifying past in the minutiae
Of her psyche.

(From “The Native Knocking)
My forefathers carried arms,
Musket, flintlock, sabre,
Trundled cannons through jungles,
Marched with their regiments of
Mercenaries. Yet, the door opened
For them with so much ease.

Why then do I lurk outside
Stalking in the dark,
Flailing upon a door with my clenched fists?
I, the native, knocking on the door
Inhabitant of the true paradise
Now ambushed by history.

(From “Coloniser/Colonised)
The blood of the Coloniser that runs
in my veins is also the blood of the
Colonised, an island invaded
An island raped
Subjugated/victim
Conqueror/victimiser.
Where is there room here
For the ancient gods; the ancient
Goddesses?
No conquest can destroy them
Those who still inhabit the springs
The rivers, the trees of this earth.

****

Handicrafts from coconut

By Sarashi Samarasinghe and Abeeth Nirmal
Sri Lanka is renowned for its handicrafts and G.A.R.S.Wickramasinghe is one of the most talented craftsman. He specialises in handicrafts made out of various parts of coconuts.

“I have been creating coconut handicrafts for more than a decade,” said Wickramasinghe. According to Wickramasinghe, he has been a handicraft teacher for the past 15 years. “I used to teach steelwork and woodwork in schools in Ratnapura, Embilipitiya, Balangoda, Veyangoda and many others,” said Wickramasinghe.

However, his career as a professional artisan began in the late 1980s, after his retirement. “I had to quit my job in 1988 and started giving serious thought to handicrafts, although I had been doing a lot of experiments,” said Wickramasinghe.

In quick time, Wickramasinghe’s talent gained recognition and was able to sell his handicrafts such as, wine cups, spoons, tea sets, saucers, fashionable items, cutlery sets, made out of coconuts to Laksala and Lakpahana. “I also provided items to the Janakala Kendraya as well as to ODEL,” he added.

Wickramasinghe also participated at the Western Province Handicraft Competition held at the BMICH from November 13-15, 2008, and became second. “The rules of the competition require a minimum of 75% usage of natural ingredients in the submitted entrée,” he said. “I submitted a tea set made entirely out of coconut shells, which was within the rules of the contest. Although I think, I deserve the first place, I came second,” he added.

He accentuates his point further by recounting what happened at the final round, “The guitar, which somehow was placed first at the Regional competition, failed to get any place/merits in the island-wide contest. Whereas, the tea set I submitted was presented with a merit certificate”. Wickremasinghe is also the proud first prize winner for another tea set he submitted in the same competition three or four years back.

****

Public lecture on copyright laws

Soundarie David, a well known musician and lawyer (with a Masters in Law from the University of California, Berkeley), will conduct a lecture titled “Copying music- The notion of Musical Copyright Infringement and Intellectual Property,” at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies, 83A, Barnes Place, Colombo 7, on Tuesday, March 3, 2009 at 5:30 p.m.

She won the Rotary World Peace Scholar Award for the years 2007-2009. She has specialised in Intellectual Property Law, and her thesis was based on the Notion of Subconscious Copying and Music Plagiarism. Being a performing artiste and a lawyer, Soundarie will discuss the doctrinal background to the Law of Copyright, in light of the role of an artiste/composer and performer.
Conductor- Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka and Dean- Faculty of Applied Science, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Prof. Ajit Abeysekera, will also participate at the event.

****

The Stroke Walk - March 1, 2009

Stroke is the second highest cause of deaths due to medical illness in Sri Lanka. The National Stroke Association of Sri Lanka was formed in 2001, with the aim of minimising the number of deaths due to Stroke and creating awareness of the symptoms, prevention and treatments. The Association has been endorsed by the Ministry of Health, and the Department of Inland Revenue has approved it as a Charitable Voluntary Organisation.

Amongst the main activities of the Association are island-wide seminars, research, helping Stroke patients and their careers, printing and distribution of posters, newsletters, literature etc., on Strokes.

National Stroke Day falls on February 22, 2009. In order to commemorate this day, the National Stroke Association has organised a ‘Stroke Walk’ scheduled to be held on Sunday, March 1, 2009. The walk will commence at 7.00 a.m from the main Town Hall premises in front of the Buddha Statue at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo.
The aim of the Stroke Walk is to create public awareness, regarding Stroke and to raise funds.

****

Country Roads XVII

The 17th installment of the ever-popular Country Roads concert organised by the Country Music Foundation (CMF) will be held on Sunday, March 29, from 4.30 p.m. onwards, at the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU). This is Sri Lanka’s first-ever ‘Country-Western & Folk’ themed open-air acoustic concert and jamboree.
The proceeds of the concert will go towards displaced children, based in Vavuniya camps through Save the Children.

****