What strikes you on landing in Sri Lanka is the air, slow, thick, a kind of luxuriant sense of outcome, of waiting. Then you notice the green of the frangipani leaves, a sheen that appears almost lacquered.
You imagine you are in some place familiar, yet the sense of the foreign is heightened. I was sleepy by the time I’d landed at dawn, and as I’d foolishly forgotten my wallet back in Bombay, the prospect of arranging cash in a new country had rankled me. But I went to the hotel and slept for a few hours, rising at 10am, refreshed; my sleep, dreamless but intense, was like waking after weeks of slumber.
The seaside town of Galle
Drawing back the curtains in my room in Colombo, I was met with a view of the sea; there was boundlessness to it, a blue grey expanse ending only where the eye could no longer travel. Since it was Poya, a public holiday occurring every full moon day, there was little traffic. The seaside promenade was taken over with families; a few kite fliers had launched paper tigers into the clear blue sky. Having arranged for cash – a panic call to my manager, who made the necessary arrangements – I stepped out. My friend Farrokh had told me to check out the Colombo Dutch Hospital. A beautiful old building, it housed the usual run of chic cafés and expensive restaurants common in most cities, these are often in neighbourhoods salvaged from obscurity, where someone with a fine eye has glimpsed possibilities, that cave where beauty hides in times of war. But these cafes and restaurants share the same intention – to disguise the disfigured city and present in its elegant environs a sameness that doesn’t console with familiarity but numb with the customary.
I went onwards to Paradise Road, a store highly recommended. And with good reason: it was glorious. There were ceramic pitchers you could marry, and cement apple replicas you wouldn’t mind serving a sentence for. A friend had suggested I meet with the owner, Shanth Fernando, so I skedaddled over to his hotel, Tintagel. The pile was absurdly refined, contrast tones on walls and fine linen for delicious sofas; one immediately wanted to conduct a love affair, if only to toss the cushions to the floor in a fit of passion.
The privately owned Taprobane island dwells in magnificent isolation.
Luckily, in Shanth Fernando’s company this impulse was quickly extinguished. at first, I thought him an old world curmudgeon but in the process of our conversation the phrase ‘personality disorder’ sprung to mind several times. In the car ride to his café – also a Colombo favourite, housed in a building designed by Geoffrey Bawa – I asked of friends we might have in common. These were figures of public life, and easy to identify. A few names down he said, ‘I am not a networker,’ which rang false since he had agreed to meet me, a rank stranger. He spoke of being incredibly busy managing his properties, he owned another hotel on the beach, a few other stores – this was all rather impressive, of course, except the fuss would make one think he ran an oil company. At lunch at Gallery Café – an excellent fish in splendid atmosphere, a far cry from the ghastly café society of Bombay – Fernando made some noise of how the generosities I’d encountered in Sri Lanka would extract a price. ‘There is no such thing as a free lunch,’ he said. I immediately offered to buy him lunch, to assure him I agreed with him, and to also relieve myself of whatever obligation this lunch might bear. He said, ‘I’m shocked,’ and excused himself. I let this pass thinking that Fernando had set up what were no doubt institutions, not only in Colombo but the world over. His aesthetic was singular, admirable, luxuriant, and that I would come back not once but many times over to Sri Lanka only for Paradise Road. that same evening I returned to the café as a guest of Otara Gunewardene.
A former model who started her massive business empire, the formidable chain of ODEL, out of the boot of her car, she was a wonderful, gregarious host. Refined, clever and fierce, she spoke of her love for animals – she sold a successful range of merchandise at ODEL, proceeds of which supported a dog shelter. We talked also of the perils of running a business in a country coming out of war but she remained upbeat, citing plans for expansion across Sri Lanka. ODEL has a whiff of Marks & Spencer or Selfridges, stocking similarly curated clothing and objects, and is a testament to the founder’s vision and ambition. Her optimism was guarded but compelling, and her keen, feline eyes were clearly gunning for a large piece of Sri Lanka’s new economy (many had pointed out to me that the government had taken such massive loans to rebuild the country it was a wonder how they were going to ever pay it back).
A detail from Geoffrey Bawa’s home in Colombo.
After dinner, Channa Daswatte, one of the subcontinent’s most feted architects and trustee of the Geoffrey Bawa Trust, whisked me away for a drink. Earlier in the day, at Daswatte’s suggestion, I’d spent a few lovely hours at Bawa’s personal residence in Colombo, in thrall of the great architect’s love for contour and symmetry, clean lines and that rough and tumble with object and tapestry. Daswatte had served as Bawa’s principal, so one could glimpse strains of a familiar genius running through his mansion on the outskirts of Colombo, a neighbourhood hedged by a lake.
We drank under the stars, as Daswatte’s friends spoke tenderly of betrayal and loss during the war – they volunteered affecting anecdotes, and the evening had a sombre close as the stories ended in sudden death and unexpected insanity (‘he was never quite right in the head after that bombing’). When I said the political scenario in India enraged me enough at times to want to leave, Daswatte cautioned me. ‘I could have gone anywhere, y’know,’ he said. ‘But I stayed on because I knew that only by sticking around could I bring about any change when the country was ready for it.’
I am glad he did, but I felt that the change he – and so many of his fine peers have ushered in Sri Lanka – was possible because of the scale: the Sri Lankan population hovers at 22 million, this is roughly the size of Bombay with a few vote bank slums thrown in. In Sri Lanka I saw the beauty of an Asian country untroubled by scale. How would anyone – be it our well-meaning but misguided intellectuals or an autocratic leader with a deathly past record – transform a country whose numbers showed no sign of abating? the following day, on my way to the seaside town of Galle, the roads impressed me: they were built to international standards, they were clean, they had a sense of direction, someone had thought through their destiny. Reaching Galle, I witnessed distant echoes of destruction – houses done to ground by the tsunami. I looked out at the sea, at its sheer, magnificent expanse, and imagined this land was suffering for its beauty; like a trouble genius, it oscillated between renewal and ravage. Galle Fort is overrun by expats who have taken over most of its hideaways out of which they run design stores, cafés and restaurants. There is a sense that the foreigners had recognised the wonders of Galle Fort and arrived to claim it; there was no particular mood of integration but of dainty planets of lattes and art galleries living in a larger orbit of the local cosmos. It could also be easily argued that without their prescience Galle Fort could have been any old fort by the sea; they brought to it civilisation and modern whimsy. (And yet, there was a feeling of expats banding with each other in a way they probably never would in their own countries).
I was at dinner at Sun House – voted by many as among the best restaurants in the world – whose owner, Geoffrey Dobbs, joined me. After a lively supper we agreed to meet again the following day for lunch at Dobb’s private island, Taprobane. It’s easy to see why Paul Bowles once owned it, why he wrote here, it has majestic isolation, one walks to it through pale emerald waters and reaches a white mansion of such spectacular views that one experiences a kind of death: a self that had existed before knowing Taprobane, and the self that now lives in its knowledge, of the lush tropical green, a sense of eternity across the waters.
Taprobane island features a white mansion with great views.
Dobbs pointed to the house of the artist Saskia Pintelon, her abode designed by Japanese maestro, Tadao Ando. I had sat for a long time before Pintelon's portrait of Taprobane, dark, heavy colours in counterpoint to the brightness that surrounded it presently, it felt like something hauled out of ancient memory, a fossil of something perfect and sublime, much like the lyric physical beauty of Sri Lanka.
On my way back, I was told repeatedly about the autocratic governance – there’s an overwhelming resentment for one family running an island like a private stronghold, but hey, how different is that from India? – and that the sins of war had not been overcome by innumerable civilians (one saw the maimed victim of a landmine, and this brought tears to the eyes, the sheer space of Sri Lanka allows such injustices to register poignantly while in India these often pass into the unfeeling theatre of unending statistic). Of course, my experience of the island, its people, was brief and temporal, a summary of quick observations balanced by no lived experience, no broadside viewpoint that transcended all that was pleasing on the eye. But I would go back for this alone, beauty experienced in my sleep, and in my bones, as a kind of truth.
Shanghvi is the writer of books like The Last Song of Dusk and The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay facebook. com/Shanghvi
You are in someplace familiar, but the sense of the foreign is heightened
In Sri Lanka I saw the beauty of a country untroubled by scale
From HT Brunch, April 7
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