A lost time that leaves its residue behind

Her ammi kal and aruvaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade.

Published: 20th October 2016 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th October 2016 11:03 PM   |  A+A-

Her ammi kal and aruvaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost — Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it’s something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s
inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend, with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm, is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one of us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s, postponement in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called Directive, and contains these dark lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what the distance of a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30’s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.
The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

(The Chennai-based author writes poetry, fiction and more)

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