My ancestors were from the deep south, but I grew up in the suburbs of Colombo. It was a quiet neighborhood with lots of trees and beautiful gardens but nothing much happening, unless you made it happen. Before my parents build the house I live in now, we lived in my grandmother’s house.
As a child, my grand mother’s garden with it’s beautiful flowers was a constant source of inspiration for me. It was like the garden of paradise; every possible plant grew there. The house was surrounded by beautiful flowering trees, shrubs and pots in plants at the sides. Little ponds with pink and blue lotus were scattered around. A shallow rainwater drain that looked morel like a little stream in the wild, wrapped round two sides of the house before it met a bigger drain that took refuse to the drain along the side of the road outside. A large mango tree stood at the front next to the gate and at the far end of the garden a large uguressa tree and several thambili trees in between. A guava tree hugged the side next to the driveway along with sour-sap and some other trees.
Being in that garden was like being in another world. There were so many stories hidden behind the rocks and shrubs waiting to be told; frogs croaking under ferns waiting to hop over my feet when I passed by and scare me, making us both jump, me to get out of the way and the frog to make that long leap to dive into the pond and hide under a lotus leaf. Butterflies roamed from flower to flower dazed by the variety and birds and squirrels would vie for the best fruits on the trees.
This poem looks back at that time of carefree childhood. It was published in Silver Birch on April 29, 2015. In the photograph I’m standing next to the mango tree. This was at my 4th birthday party.
Growing Up in the City
Climbing the mango tree in my
grandmother’s garden, going up as far
as the fork in the branches,
straddling a low branch I sit with my legs
hanging down from either side
like washing on the line
and gaze at the black cat staring
up at me. Sucking on the mango fallen
on the ground I’d picked up
before I climbed and put inside
my pocket for safety, I slurp through the
sweetness, both hands turned orange yellow
from squashed fruit pulp. Juice dripping down
bare brown arms spill onto my dress
creating patterns within those already
existing. I lift my arms up one by one and lick
away the dripping juices. Only in childhood
can you get away with things like this when adults
aren’t around to scold away bad manners.
A line of ants scurry along the branch
overhead to someplace else. I stare at them
moving as one, a long live chain, black,
like my aunt’s hair she braids so carefully
before leaving for work every morning. I’d watch
her dress and wonder how it must feel to
be all grown up, with hair as long as
my arms, falling down below my waist, or dress
in saree, volumes of silk wrapped around my
body. Sometimes I pick up her saree
from the clothes rack where she leaves it
to air after returning home.
I’d try to drape it but never quite get
to finish as it’s too long and although I get it
round my waist, pleats and all, I find
I cannot move; trapped in a cocoon
of silk that ties me down at my feet. I smile
at the recollection and swing my legs
up and down. The
mango is eaten to the last, there’s
nothing left on the seed, no longer the taste
of mango but something else, hard
and sour. I throw it down, my eyes
following as it disappears behind
a cluster of thick ferns at the side of the
compound wall. The cat stretches its
limbs and meows from below,
keeping an eye on me as if she’s been told
to babysit today. Climbing down’s
tricky, I guess there’s
a reason cats prefer to climb up and not
down. My palms bruised and my
knees feel sore. The taste of mango long gone
I lean back against the trunk contemplating
the best way to get down.
I still live here in the house next to my grandmothers house that was built on a side of the sprawling garden. But things have changed. A lot. The town has rushed to the future faster than it was supposed to, with rather unaesthetic results. I wrote this poem as I reminisced about childhood.
When I was small I used to tell people
who asked me out of curiosity, that I lived
beyond the town, along
a wide quiet lane
that meandered past rubber trees.
The town ended at the bank.
We’d have to walk a long way to get
to the shops, but that didn’t matter.
Walking was good, besides, the pavements were
nice and sturdy, unlike pavements now;
The shops were small; just enough to hold
goods needed for the few folks
in the neighbourhood, and some space
for people to stand.
No browsing, no long aisles,
shelves stacked with food no one really needed.
But now the town has grown,
encroached on our lives like we
It’s walked past the lane to my home taking
every space on the main road.
Big buildings with flashy exteriors, tall
glass windows in shop fronts to see
right through to the inside, music
blaring out at all times.
Nowhere to park,
not even for the old bicyclist.
People walking on the main road jostle
with shiny new vehicles
whizzing this way and that.
Developments taken over, yet
people can barely afford it.
Tranquility is only a memory, as busses
screech past almost running us over.
The town’s growing, spreading its
tentacles in all directions while homes
disappear into the countryside.
They too may one day be lost forever.
I became interested in travelling because the family used to travel a lot. During the holidays we’d get into my maternal grandfather’s black Volkswagen Beetle and travel to Kandy to visit their ancestral home or we’d go down south to visit my paternal grandparents in Matara, travelling along the Galle Road with the ocean on the right. A License to Dream was also published in Silver Birch on April 26, 2016.
A License to Dream
If I took the wheel I wouldn’t see
trees standing tall lining roads,
a guard of honor as I
pass, bending branches to caress or
gently tap a strange melody on
the hood. I wouldn’t notice expressions
on pedestrians faces, bored, anxious,
wondering why the bus hasn’t arrived as yet,
some talking animatedly on phones
some staring into the distance
cooking the dinner inside their heads
or doing the daily accounts. I might not
catch the dogs lively discussion at
the side of the shop or the angry man
berating the bus driver who almost knocked him
down in his haste to gather commuters.
I wouldn’t be able to stare at people inside shops
wondering what they are doing,
admire the fancy window dressing
that tells me that would be something I
might need. I’d fail to chance on dreams peeping
out of the clouds inside my mind and
watch them unfold frame by frame
while I let eyes gaze at the blur outside.
I would miss the scenery rolling past
as I ride on out of town, mile upon mile
of green mixed with blue sky,
touches of red brown from houses
dotting the sides as I whizz by, sticking
my head out to let the wind play with my hair or
turn my face towards the winking sun,
stare up at the power lines
running faster than the clouds above,
count birds flying high and try to discern
their tribe, see flowers in gardens, gates open in
welcome, people standing outside homes
talking watching the world go by or
turn my head to the other side and gaze upon
aquamarine waters rolling in, in, in,
their white lace tipped frothy edges
a dancers skirt lifting up as she kicks her heels
to flop on golden sand,
admire the myriad shades of the setting sun
colouring the sky or spy the moon peering
through a curtain of creamy yogurt cloud trying
to join my journey. If I took the wheel,
oh what I’d miss.
I had two homes, one, the place where I lived and the other, Musaeus College, my school. In those 13 years I was a student there I spent more time at school than I did at home. In 2016 Musaeus College celebrated 125 years and a commemorative souvenir was published by the school. This poem was written for it.
Will I recognize this place when I return in
a hundred years? Will walls now standing linger
to greet or would they have altered, moved
from here to there like they did this
past century or crumbled to the ravages of time,
modernity and the need to transform? Will
the pictures stay hidden behind crevices
in someone’s mind or fade away
like old photographs left buried between pages
in an album someone forgot to put away
and finding gaze upon our faces,
try to recognize, give us names?
Will we recall what it was like, how we
entered through the high gates?
Who will remember the little mud hut,
that humble start, the cinnamon trees? Where are
the films, poems of praise, the stories we
carried through these years? Will I be welcomed
as I once was and will this family that is mine
now be there as well? Will I see you
my friend, back again in the first grade, playing
the same games, singing familiar
songs or will those childhood
activities have changed
like they did when we grew up and left, our games
and songs lost as the next generation invented
things anew? Will we amble down the old
familiar corridors, talk about the same things
or will our aspirations and dreams have
become different? Will we stand on
a balcony at the top most floor and
shout out our dreams to winds
wafting down to meet us? Will I be able to find
this place when I come back?
Feel an old familiarity as I
step on the road leading to over here,
our home that once was, that once
again will be. When I return.
When you return. We will seek out
this place once more.
A golden sun shining in a bright blue
sky leading the way. We’ll follow the light
that shines bright, forever bright.
Someday. When we return.