On departure

WHILE roaming the house in Madras in recent months I would find bits of memories stuck in books, in drawers, on the walls. I found them as I tried to assemble my life, put it in order in case of a hasty departure. Outside in the garden roamed our cocker spaniel Lucky. He spread himself thin, rushing at a furious pace towards crows and mongoose, the odd cobra. He ate well, slugs, bits of wood as well as the vegetable curries and lamb bones we would serve him, instead of his usual fare of biscuits and dry food, on special mornings and evenings. He had several rare feasts. He was at times spoiled. He had a huge garden home and an enclosed verandah to spend the night.

I wonder now about the next home I will inherit, or make my own, as I contemplate a farewell to Madras, to my new-found, and quickly-shed, closeness to the ancestral birthplace of Ceylon. Immediately, the question becomes why does one leave? And why arrive? Perhaps the questions can be rolled with your thumbs like dough, kneaded, baked, eaten and spat out. Perhaps, the constant revisions of these questions are ultimately futile, endless like the constant suspension of thought and action in "to be or not to be". Of course, "Hamlet" ends at least in a blood bath and a catharsis. Surely, the exile or fugitive can find a more pacific way towards the great and undivided blue, beyond the horizon and the chattering and nattering, the disappointments and the sometime thrills of family and professional engagement, completion of five year plans, "something to perfection brought".

When my wife and son left Madras they took the house with them. I mean they carried its beating heart out to the airport ensconced in suitcases, in memories. My son tells me to stay in India because he wants to see the house again. After returning from the airport, having said goodbye, I sat on the verandah and looked out at the night, fumbling a cigarette, its fire the only bright spot. Lucky sat with me and we mourned together the passing of another sojourn, a way station on the stationed path towards the wilderness and away from the desert, towards bright new cities and away from dull and dank and boarded-up rooms where the rat and beetle now hold sway.

I think now about a far away city by a lagoon on the west coast of Africa: Abidjan. I ate its grilled fish and attieke, a kind of semolina, with relish. I ate the French language with an equal amount of hunger and desire. I felt young then, in command, in attendance at the birth, and as we say in diplomacy, the consolidation, of that country's democracy. A different emotion seizes me now as I look back at Chennai, not from the verandah, but from a distance of 15,000 miles, on another continent, from my moveable office in the centre of our diplomatic enterprise — how shall I name that emotion, regret, loss, yes, but also a kind of mature acceptance. The Sri Lankan Tamil, who had the privilege and luck to have found a home in an ancestral geography, for about a year, discovers again that geography is malleable, that human beings board ships and planes and modify their cultures in constant revisions throughout the globe. There is no home but a thousand homes. There is no blood line but a thousand courses, that lead to no-longer strange couplings.

I leave Chennai, Madurai, the South, the medieval sources of "What Her Friend Said to her Neighbour", or what the gossips uttered in the public places. I leave three-wheelers, absent sidewalks, the boiling sun, friends, coconut groves, and redbrick universities and other reminders of schools and childhood in nearby Colombo. I leave the sounds of my son captured in between the covers of a photograph album, painted on the walls of a room still full of early toys, stuffed animals, stickers, something to perfection brought.

Indran Amirthanayagam is a poet who writes in English and Spanish. His latest book, Ceylon R.I.P., was recently published in Sri Lanka.


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