In exactly 12 days, I will leave Sri Lanka after 6 months of teaching here. This is accompanied by the strange feelings usually associated with suddenly shifting your entire surroundings overnight. We humans weren’t designed to wake up one morning 5,000 miles away from where we woke up the morning before. It’s always a surreal experience, and is pretty hard to believe, on a fundamental level, until it actually happens. We participate in it as far as checking in online, getting to the airport, and from then on it’s a largely passive experience. Sit back, try to sleep, watch a film. Modern travel is something done to you, rather than something you do.
I hear it’s raining back home, that it’s getting colder. My body won’t know what’s going on. Anyway, I think that starting this blog is a way of alleviating these feelings of uprooting, a way of establishing a thread of continuity. Let’s see how that works out.
Of course, it’s not just timezone, climate and food that contributes to this total shift, but also the way people you’ve become used to seeing every day suddenly become people it might be years before you see again, if at all. I’ve made a load of great friends here, but I’m particularly indebted to the Herath (hard ‘t’ sound; ‘Herat’) family that has put me up for the last 10 weeks of my time here. They’re a normal family, which is to say they’re a largely crazy and dysfunctional mess of competing personalities.
As a way of saying thanks, I thought that with my first post I’d showcase some of their daughter’s work. Shanika is studying architecture at the University of Moratuwa, and has a rare talent. While she’s excelling at the architecture course’s photorealistic approach to drawing, some of these paintings from her school days really impressed me.
Isn’t there something of the Mona Lisa in that smiling girl; something of the young Lucien Freud in those slightly disproportional children? But my favourite has to be this:
Her father, Mr. Premasiri (Prem) Herath is an English teacher in the school where I’ve been working, Al Aksha Muslim Maha Vidyalaya, and moonlights as a tour guide in the archaeological site. He is a slightly mischievous guy, the kind everybody knows, who wears a wide smile the way some men wear jackets. Here he’s holding the sun out of the camera lense of an Australian tourist.
There’s something deftly beautiful about this watercolour. It’s a picture about the production of a picture, with the subject of the tourist’s attention invisible. Invisible, too, is the expression on Prem’s face. His eyes closed, his mouth covered. Is he waiting in contemplation for the man to finish? Is he covering a cough? Stifling a laugh? The mischief and mystery of the painting is perfectly engineered.
Though the man with the camera is stealing the foreground, he deflects, even rejects our attention – shielded from the sun, squinting into the eyepiece of his camera. He is shielded on every side. Our attention, our complicity, lies in the man with the umbrella and his enigmatic, half-hidden perhaps-smile. The man making the photo possible.
Another person I will miss greatly is the grandfather of the Herath family, somehow simultaneously a tigger of energy and a shambling skeleton, with a crop of tattoos like a South-Central gang member: a star on each shoulder; a native american in headress on his arm; a snake-coiled dagger on the inside of his wrist; a tiger with a dagger through its head. He has the crumpled hands of an ex-carpenter.
He speaks Sinhala to me as though I know much more of the language than I do, or as though it doesn’t matter, which I like a lot. Almost every night, he reminds me that I have to return to Sri Lanka quickly, or else he’ll be ‘under the ground’ when I do, and each time does a hilariously irreverent impression of being dead, rolling his eyes back in his head so only the whites are visible, curling his hands up to his ears. Then he gives a deep-throated version of a mischievous child’s laugh, a slightly unhinged toothless grin. Sitting on the porch and casually smoking his unfiltered beedis. At night, he comes to my room and slips cigarettes through the latticed window with a look of cheeky complicity.
I feel such love for the people I’m leaving behind, and such apprehension for the future.