Jane Russell

“When I’m in the Strand or 42nd Street, or at NASA Headquarters or the Beverley Hills Hotel, my surroundings are liable to give a sudden tremor and I see through the insubstantial fabric to the reality beneath….” These words by Arthur C Clark, the sci-fi writer, are quoted at the end of Roloff Beny’s photographic chronicle “Island Ceylon”. But where does Clark’s reality reside? He writes, “No other place is so convincing as Sri Lanka”, and having spent almost fifty years there, we believe him.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, also lived in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. He served as his country’s Consul in 1929/30, but spent more time writing poetry than attending diplomatic parties. Neruda was equally struck by the convincing quality, the palpability, of Sri Lanka. Many years after he left, he published this poem:

“The light in Ceylon that was life to me
was death to me too - for to live
in a diamond’s intensity is the lonely lyceum of corpses;
a bird made diaphanous
suddenly, a spider webbing the sky, and then gone.

Stung by the light of those islands,
I keep circumspect always,
as though a beam of that faraway
honey might turn me to ash in a moment.”

Neruda captures the double-edgedness of Sri Lanka. It is not just the postcard image of palm-ringed sandy beach, an azure wave washing over bleached-bone coral reef, while an outrigger canoe turns to black silhouette against the flattening tropical sun - but also the fear and violence which is the underbelly of Sri Lankan life. Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, was a young colonial officer in Sri Lanka. He wrote a moving, tragic novel, “A Village in the Jungle”, on his return after seven years there. To Woolf, it was the menace of Sri Lanka that he found most tangible. “It was a strange world, a world of bare and brutal facts, of superstition and grotesque imagination, a world of trees and the perpetual twilight of their shade, a world of hunger and of fear and devils, where a man was helpless before the unseen and unintelligible powers surrounding him.”

In response to this highly-charged environment, the human imagination turns naturally to artistic expression. It was A.K. Coomaraswamy, Sri Lanka’s great art historian, who noted that “an artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist”. The Sri Lankan villager, whose world is full of malevolent spirits and hungry ghosts who live in a parallel universe, organised just like that of the human, meets the challenge of his/her life with the music and dance of sorcery and ritual; with the poetry of Buddhist verse and the ceremonies of the yearly cycle of rain, harvest and drought. The insistent and penetrative drumbeat rules their existence. In this turbulence, death is inseparable from life:

“The mass of flowers, fresh-bred, fragrant and choice,
I offer at the sacred lotus feet of the Noble Sage.
Even as the flowers must fade,
so does my body march to a state of destruction.”
(Buddhist verse)

The bleached skull of a bull is often found tied next to a blooming betel vine in a villager’s garden to guard the creeper from the “evil eye” which would cause premature decay. For the Sri Lankan artist too, the poisonous glance of envy constantly threatens to evoke the despond that entails failure.

So artists such as Malathie de Silva turn for inspiration to the carvings of the ancient Buddhist civilisations, which lie scattered all over the island. Here they find like Thomas Merton, the American poet, “an inner clarity - as if exploding from the rocks themselves” whose value and character is informed by the thought that “everything is emptiness and everything is compassion”.

So let us too begin in piety by invoking the power of Buddha in a line from Sri Lanka’s most auspicious verse, the Jayamangala: “All happiness is wished for by the help of Buddha’s power.”

Jane Russell lived and wrote in Sri Lanka for almost thirty years. She is currently Lecturer in Critical Thinking at Lewisham College.