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The City and the Writer: In Colombo with Ru Freeman

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Colombo as you feel/see it?

Colombo is moody. It has gone from terrible fear—of suicide bombs, of right-wing government pogroms, of disappearances—to playing with hope, to complete despair, and back again. In the last five years it went from dogged, everything-for-the-cause determination, where the streets were filled with military personnel, checkpoints guarded every entry and exit, and patriotic slogans and photographs of soldiers hung from every building, to a vast sigh of relief. In the wake of that relief Colombo has become orderly. People observe traffic rules, the rubbish is collected on time, long-overlooked regulations have been implemented. Walls and guard towers around public buildings have disappeared, the streets are clear of guns and uniforms, and the city has been beautified. Most of all, people move around without suspicion. We speak freely to each other and Tamil is heard and spoken without apprehension and with courage, respectively. The city is like a patient coming out of an illness that had been deemed terminal, with a new appreciation for health, but a long road still to complete recovery. Life cannot be taken for granted, but it is when we are able to do so, able to forget our own mortality, that we can take the risk of living fully with each other. Colombo is in the mood for remembrance of the fact that peace does not come when we get the coordinates right, but rather when we forget ourselves.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I returned home in October 2009, for my mother’s funeral. One morning as required by Buddhist custom, my older brothers and I took her ashes to set them adrift in the Kelani River. I held the urn in my arms as we drove. It was a simple, round receptacle, so small. It felt like I was holding an infant, all of my mother’s body reduced to these ashes in this cool clay urn. I felt protective and bereft. I wanted to say I was finally able to give to her this thing that she had taught me to give to the world—to see the child, the “some mother’s child,” in them no matter how old they were. I had never given her that, she had always been bigger to me, more than a child, indefatigable, irrepressible, a deity. And I realized I could not. It broke my heart in ways I would not have believed possible. I believe that was her last gift to me. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Colombo is a city of temples, churches, kovils, and mosques. It is hard to turn a corner without seeing a shrine erected and maintained by people of one religious persuasion or another. Buddhist chants, church bells, and the Muslim call to prayer ring out over the city at different times of the day. It is an ecumenical city with a musical love affair between many faiths ringing in the air around people who were compelled at gun-point to forget this aural reminder of the possibility of harmony. And still, even through those years, such songs of peace continued to ring their wordless message. It is magical.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

The most important writers are those who write in the native languages of Sinhala and Tamil, people like Martin Wickramasinghe and Subramanyam Bharathi. It is hard to find publishers willing to bring such work to the English-speaking world, which is why I value organizations like Words Without Borders with whom I’ve worked on an introduction to Sri Lankan literature, along with one of my brothers, also a writer and journalist, Malinda Seneviratne. He is in the process of translating the epic poem of Mahagama Sekera, who is regarded as the finest of our national poets of the twentieth century. You can find an excerpt here.

Among those writing in English, I will mention the usual suspects: Michael Ondaatje, Tissa Abeysekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Jean Arasanayagam, Michelle de Kretser, and Shehan Karunatilaka.

Is there a place here you return to often?

There is a monument to the nation’s independence, erected in one of the more upscale areas of the city. The Square, as it is called, consists of an open pillared structure that is very ornate, with carvings of lions (a national symbol), and surrounded by fountains and open paved trails. It is used by everybody—the rich and poor, the old and the young, adults and children. In the afternoons, lovers often shelter from the heat on its breezy raised platform, and in the evenings, grandmothers corral small children there while parents run or walk around the area.

My first significant memory of the place was when one of Sri Lanka’s most beloved leaders (a socialist, and of the opposition party), N.M. Perera, died, and lay there in state. It was the largest funeral in our history. The Square features prominently in my first novel, as does that funeral. Whenever I go there now, I am reminded both of its public significance and its personal relevance to my life as a writer.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Lionel Wendt Art Center was established by an act of parliament fifty years ago, in memory of a barrister, who was also a pianist and photographer. It contains art galleries and a theater. It’s where I was first introduced to Shakespeare, the plays of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—directed by my mother—all the musicals imaginable including My Fair Lady and Annie—directed by Shyam Selvadurai, in which I played an orphan—and a screening of Gone with the Wind, where I was more taken with the young man who showed up wearing blue eye-shadow than with Scarlett O’Hara’s waistline. It’s still a sanctuary for artists of all stripes, no matter their status or level of achievement.

There are many other wonderful places in Colombo that host readings (in all languages), and other literary events, but “The Wendt” holds all the cards with regard to its range and storied history.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

There is a slum just beyond the main road that abuts the lane on which I grew up. I spent a lot of time going in and out of that slum as a child when I was growing up because some of the women there worked in the houses on our lane. I would go there to ask, on behalf of my mother, if one or the other was available to help out. On my way home from sports practice on Saturdays, I would also frequently take a shortcut through another slum so I could save my bus fare for strawberry milk. Except on school days, when we all wore white uniforms. There was little to distinguish me from the children in these slums except that I wore slippers on my feet. That fact became embedded in my psyche and permeated everything that I wrote even as a young child, this underbelly, this parallel life that was being lived, and that could have been mine if I—or fortune—had moved a single sideways step this way or that. I find myself most often in the deepest conversations with the people who come from such areas—the scooter taxi drivers, the domestic workers, the janitors. Those are, to this day, the cities of my preoccupation.

Where does passion live here?

In the hearts of women and men. We are a nation of lovers, willing and able to embrace more than one at all times. Our lives are rarely circumscribed by norms. In much the same way that we have high walls and barbed wire fences and green hedges between our houses but are completely immersed in each others lives, we lay claim to norms with the enthusiasm of zealots but our hearts are utterly, almost helplessly untrammeled.

What is the title of one of your works about Colombo and what inspired it exactly?

On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013),  is set down a lane much like the one on which I grew up. It is the story of a lane whose many multi-ethnic, multi-religious families are changed when a new family moves in. It takes place between 1979 and 1983, the years the country experienced the worst communal riots and bloodshed in its history, which led to a quarter century more of war. I had seen violence in my life but none that is greater than the end of innocence. I wanted to write about the way we lived within that innocence, and how life—for all of us, anywhere in the world—is a commitment to regaining that innocence.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Colombo does an outside exist?”

There are worlds within worlds outside Colombo and still within the country. Outside Colombo is where the trains teeter on uncertain tracks over misty steeps that look out on waterfalls and the high plateaus named for both the footprint of the Buddha and the bible. Outside Colombo is where the valleys roll away in the sweet green of early rice saplings, and where the mountains climb in orderly rows of tea, and both are skirted by vegetables for which there are no translations into the English. Outside Colombo the many-blued beaches of my childhood are at ease, decked by coral and girded by silken sands. I think of Colombo as I do of New York: it is a city that insists on its own importance but it is nothing without the civility, the sensuousness, the great wonder of all that lives beyond.

Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan-born writer and speaker whose creative and political writing has appeared in journals, magazines and newspapers internationally. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), both long-listed for the DSC Prize in South Asian Literature, and translated into several languages including Italian, French, Hebrew, and Chinese. She blogs for the Huffington Post on literature and politics, is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and teaches creative writing at Columbia University. She considers Sri Lanka and the United States home.

Published Jun 4, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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