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
But it is too late to cry over spilled beans. What 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
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
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
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
(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.
The blood of the Coloniser that runs
in my veins is also the blood of the
Colonised, an island invaded
An island raped
Where is there room here
For the ancient gods; the ancient
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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.
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.