On a Street Art Trail in Colombo

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A man (Gihan, he tells me his name later) catches sight of me surveying a stencil of a smiling child sandwiched between a photocopy shop and a dilapidated building on Dawson Street, and signals from across the road: “There’s more over here”. Cheerfully appointing himself as my guide and with a number of wide eyed, bashful children in tow, we weave our way through a path punctuated with bird droppings, ceramic bathroom fittings, criss-crossing clothes lines, concrete debris, drains and enter the unlikeliest of art spaces.

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Lately, I’ve been juggling multiple lives. I secretly revel in the bustle that working divergent jobs bring. One line of work brings in a hint of order and solidity. The other brings in an element of uncertainty and creativity — never know if I’ll land up at a fish market, a five star hotel or as in this instance, alleys in Slave Island.

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Occasionally during my moonlighting work, there’s a story which lingers long after I’ve transcribed the interview, wrestled with the deadline and then laid the article to rest. An interview with French artist C215, who was in Colombo recently, was one of those which stubbornly persisted. I’d mentally dog-eared his work when I had come across one of his graffiti stencils in Delhi years ago and was pleasantly surprised when I saw his cube shaped signature in Colombo. After our conversation, I found myself returning twice to Slave Island on a graffiti hunt, retracing the artist’s path, in search of pockets of colourful graffiti tucked away in unexpected nooks and crannies.

If you’re a fan of street art, C215’s work abroad is worth browsing. Favourites include the Caravaggio series, the stained glass series, this one of a couple (she has such an interesting face) and a recent tribute to Robin Williams. Christian Guémy’s technique is a head-on collision between the scrupulous detail of the classical and the unaffected spontaneity of street art (“You plan nothing and begin something – things happen with interaction”). There’s a gentle hijacking of standard, flat stencil art with layers of colours and minute details giving his work an unexpected depth.

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind”

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

His choice of locations in Colombo were especially intriguing. I liked that he deliberately stepped out of Colombo’s rarefied art bubble and transformed non-spaces into visual poetry — all with polite permission from the residents and owners, mind. “I’ve always been interested in exploring the world. This kind of painting is a kind of exploration,” he shrugged. During our conversation, Christian pointed out that he liked people to follow his path, to wander down a street where they have nothing to do or no reason to go. “I think that the little street I have been painting in are not the streets you put on the tourist guides,” he remarked wryly, “but maybe rich people are making the right Colombo”.

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Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

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Man with pigeon who wanted his picture taken

Christian’s stencils painted in Sri Lanka varied between those from his existing library of stencils from his work around the world to site-specific ones of the people of Slave Island themselves. Creating site-specific stencils is laboriously meticulous work and is a back and forth looping between the virtual and the real. It entails multiple visits to the same location, photographing people, printing the pictures out, carving out the stencils by hand from the printed portraits and then finally returning to paint. Once the painting is complete it is again documented and distributed online – almost a tango of sorts between multiple layers of the virtual and the real.

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

Pasindu with his portrait

Pasindu with his portrait

Some of the kids in Slave Island

Some of the kids in Slave Island

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Street art has a short lifespan. While the rest of the art world battles time and decay in the fight for preservation, street art is resolutely temporal with an oddly poignant acceptance of the inevitability of aging, decay and deterioration. “Nothing is permanent, everything is ephemeral. And this is something that I believe deeply […] In some way, creating art outside in a public space is also a kind of comment or a meditation about giving up with yourself, with your ego, with what you are — because it is something you leave behind you — you know you have to abandon it every day. And every day when you pass by, you have to abandon it [the art] for a new one,” voiced Christian, referring to the natural decay wrought on street art.

“You cannot look for being permanent by yourself as a human being — it’s the same with art. When I paint, I know it has a birth and it has a death. And that’s interesting because it (I speak for myself) helps me to accept that I am alive and I will die”.

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Public art can heavily impact a city’s visual culture and there’s a lot of potential for street art in Colombo – hence my enthusiasm for the manner in which artists like Christian have employed the medium.

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Martin Irvine sums it up eloquently in the Handbook of Visual Culture: “Whether the street works seem utopian or anarchic, aggressive or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, most street artists seriously working in the genre begin with a deep identification and empathy with the city: they are compelled to state something in and with the city, whether as forms of protest, critique, irony, humor, beauty, subversion, clever prank or all of the above. The pieces can be ephemeral, gratuitous acts of beauty or forms of counter-iconography, inhabiting spaces of abandonment and decay, or signal jams in a zone of hyper-commercial messaging. A well-placed street piece will reveal the meaning of its material context, making the invisible visible again, a city re-imaged and re-imagined”.

For the most part, graffiti in Colombo have been school boy scrawls (RC ROX 2 DA MAXX) of neither literary nor artistic merit and is understandably linked with vandalism. In terms of street art, the only public murals — as far as I know — are ones on school walls (which are tediously didactic in nature), a rather gruesome mural on Baseline Road and a few works here and there. I remember Artists Collectives like CoCA having plans for public art projects and it would be great to see more around Colombo.

One work of street art which is almost indelibly imprinted on my mind is this simple black and white line drawing which was done in 2006 in Kollupitiya during the war- I wish I knew who painted it. Days after an attack was carried out in Colombo, it popped up on the shrapnel pocked wall (remnants of the attack), only to be speedily taken down afterwards.

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Ps: Shout-out to T for the early morning company on the second leg of the photo-jaunt.

Update: Hat tip to Janith for linking to more street art in Colombo.

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Memory, History

(Written a few months ago, posting now. Fervently hoping this has lost its relevance.)

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New Delhi,

June 2013.

 To you,

I’m not sure when it happened but Running in the Family has become one of my favourite books. I’d read it years ago and I stumbled across a battered copy at a Sunday book bazaar last year and pocketed it (50 Rs!) with little hesitation. Over the months, I would head for it almost instinctively whenever I needed a pick-me-up or a reminder of home and my already worn copy now bears the brunt of public transport, marginalia and dog-eared pages.

‘You know, I honestly haven’t been homesick in months’, I muse to my mother the other day. 1506 miles away I can almost hear her bristling over the phone and I hurriedly repair my tactlessness. Tonight though, I’m overcome with a wave of melancholy and I push away my mini mountain of readings and reach out for the book. An exercise in nostalgia, I think one of the many reasons I love it is because Ondaatje manages to combine just the right eccentricities of Sri Lanka with his perfectly imperfect family, reminding me so much of my own.

While reading, I suddenly remember an incident—I think it was during the late nineties when the terror was slowly reaching its zenith and Colombo’s comfortable little bubble was in danger of being punctured. It was around this time that security was drastically increased and warning posters about unknown parcels containing bombs dotted bus interiors. Emergency training was conducted in schools. All I remember was that we were told to put a pencil between our teeth and scramble under a desk in case of an explosion which, between you and me, seemed quite pointless.

My cousin sister was a member of the national netball team and had been out of the country for a tournament. The entire team had arrived back to Sri Lanka earlier than planned and there had been little or no time to make arrangements for accommodation. Most of the girls hailed from far flung parts of the island and so the entire team and coach apologetically arrived on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. The army had suddenly started doing spot checks around this time, and just after we had settled into bed that night, the doorbell rang.

Awakened by the voices, I crept halfway downstairs and sleepily observed the motley crew assembled in my living room—My mother in her pastel housecoat; four perplexed army personnel unsure of what to do; a dozen girls rudely interrupted from their sleep, scrambling from their makeshift beds, and my father unsuccessfully trying to explain in fragmented Sinhala why there were a dozen unknown girls asleep in our living room. I think my parents managed to convince the army personnel that their house wasn’t a front for nefarious night time activities and the army personnel saw the humour of the situation. They finished their security check, patted my head awkwardly, as adults usually do with children, and with a few parting quips, headed out.

Lately, in light of the recent events unfolding in Sri Lanka, I’ve been trying to reconcile three ideas of home. One is the sanitized, selective history propounded by the state. The other is a far more sinister side siphoned off information sources on the internet and international news. The final one is the version of home in my mind and the limited geographical space I grew up in. All three meet rather jarringly. There’s a quote by Julian Barnes which seems apt as I attempt to untangle my own notions of personal identity and geographical space; ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.

It’s been years and I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in school our text books conveniently trailed off after 1948. We would spend months memorizing kings, cataloguing their bloodthirstiness and making lists of their achievements. We dutifully memorized the advent of the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (17th century. My social studies teacher should be proud of me) and the British. More names were memorized—colonial governors, freedom fighters, dates of quelled rebellions. Certain changes in the constitution after Independence and elements of parliament were included in the syllabus like an afterthought and then it conveniently trailed off into ellipses. Like a person hurriedly using a napkin to blot stray specks of sauce before it congeals on his shirt, insurgencies, political parties, uprisings, tensions were blurred away.

While living away from home brings an enviable sense of detachment, it also brings about an augmented anxiety in times of crisis. The recent wave of violence in Sri Lanka has left me in a state of agitation. I’m writing to you because I’m scared and sad and I’m struggling to make sense of this madness.

News alerts, snippets from blog posts, articles from dubious sites with even more dubious grammar, racist rhetoric in the guise of opinion columns, information compressed into 140 characters, grainy videos of mobs led by monks storming commercial establishments and places of religious worship, pictures of torn Qurans on Facebook—I devour all of it in an attempt to wrap my mind around what is taking place at home.

All the information I siphon is second-hand and I don’t know enough to differentiate if this recent eruption of violence is a result of professional agitators and higher political powers staging a decoy or if this will snowball into a repetition of the conflict we have only just emerged from. I’m sad that selective amnesia was and still is the norm. That memory and an acknowledgement of the past are dismissed as irrelevant and that our country seems to be approaching the future with all the arrogance and brash indifference of an adolescent teenager.

I feel helpless because I’ve seen enough of the world today to know that violence is now the first impulse and not a last resort. Everything I’ve read about the riots in the eighties suddenly come to mind—the betrayal of neighbours, mobs drunk on power, men stripped naked and burned on the streets, houses looted and families forced to flee. I’m scared because my Muslim family lives in a staunchly Buddhist neighbourhood and while this never seemed important all these years, I’m suddenly acutely aware of it.

Yours in anxiety,

Me.

Of funk-sticks, rastiadu cases and body parts

The dictionary of Sri Lankan English is proving to be an entertaining read so far. Since my move to Delhi, I’ve noticed that there are certain words in my vocabulary which puzzle my friends. I once sent a text to The Dancer and she called me in a few minutes, slightly perplexed – “Err. I got your message but I have no idea what you just said”. I went through the message and realized that the inclusion of ‘men’ tagged at the end of my text had left her confused. Tagging ‘men’ at the end of sentences (in retrospect it’s a very ‘aunty’ thing to do – how are you, men? Yeah, men etc) was something that I’d grown up hearing and had imbibed into my vocabulary without a second thought. I’ve had to take two steps back and analyse elements of my vocabulary and certain figures of speech, ever since I moved here.

While reading, I recognized phrases that I hear from friends, family, old colleagues and which I sometimes use (damn sin, hi-bye friend) and it was interesting to note certain colloquial terms which I’d actually taken for granted as a part of British English. Our Sri Lankan English is this wonderful pickle of Burgher, Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim sub-varieties, interspersed with a handful of Indian words, spectacular disregard for tenses and a cheerful appropriation of British English. The recent surge in Sri Lankan youtube videos like this take advantage of these idiosyncrasies and are usually exaggerated versions of SLE.

Here are a few which I’d marked while browsing the dictionary.

Aeli maeli;  Ambarenafy; Am I right?; And all; And go; Back side; Bada pissa; Bakala; Still batting; bayagulla; Big big; Bioscope; Body parts; Boru shok; Bugger (coll), chandiya, Come or go, Chicago; cool spot; cracked; cussed (apparently less common in British English);

Damn shame; damn sin; damn wild; damn cheek; not a dog; dot-dot; expensive (aloof, standoffish); fine (maara); gal (stern, hostile); geetic (flashy, tastless); giddify; glass maker’s daughter (someone who stands in front of you and blocks your view); gobbaya; gonbaas; good name; hi-bye friend; how if..; kichbichify; komala; kunju; kusukusufy;

Land side; last minute case; latapata; machang; maini; maru; Who and who; what and what; in vain; too much; small small; a rastiadu case, patta, patas!,

Admittedly, I groan every time I hear someone say something like “Oh, it’s in the backside” but I’ve always found the doubling of words (small small, dot dot, big big) and signboards advertising ‘body parts’ amusing.  I also noticed certain words which have been dropped along the way but which you’re likely to hear the older generation use. My grandmother, for instance, refers to stoles as ‘mufflers’ and watches as ‘wristlets’ – something you’re not likely to hear too often these days. I suddenly started reminiscing about the school-slang that we picked up during our early teens. No one spoke Sinhala in my household and I went through a phase where I would use words like ‘kindy’ (you can’t see me, but I’m cringing as I type this. I haven’t heard anyone use this word in years), ‘ela’ and ‘goday’ (another cringe) to the amusement of my parents.

I now know the difference between ‘machchan’ and ‘machang’ and was delighted that ‘love cake’ had earned itself an entry in the dictionary. On a completely unrelated note, I think love cake is one of Sri Lanka’s best kept secrets. None of my Indian friends had heard of it before and are now staunch fans. I’m currently on a one woman mission to force feed love cake to everyone who hasn’t had it. Please join me in this worthy cause. The world needs more love cake.

There were also words I hadn’t come across before. Never knew that ‘the Boys’ referred to members of the LTTE or that the ragging ritual I’d heard my mum talk of was called ‘bucketing’. Also, ‘box along’  (carry on),  ‘cockered’ (drunk); ‘cowcatcher’, ‘double orphan’, ‘forward Peter’ (a cheeky person), ‘hot drinks’ (alcoholic), kadavule, kuppi class and funk stick (such a fantastic word. Must use it more often) among others.

Indian English is replete with its own variations. I’ve heard ‘healthy’ being used as a (rather politically correct but deceiving) synonym for ‘fat’ – Ex: My brother is a very healthy person. A ‘bath’ refers to what we Sri Lankans would call a ‘bodywash’ and ‘trishaw’ is ‘auto rickshaw’. Sentences are sometimes prefixed with a ‘Tell me one thing’ or ‘Do one thing’ and the phrases ‘what all’ and ‘who all’ are the Indian answers to the Sri Lankan ‘what and what’ and ‘who and who’. There’s an overuse of words like ‘actually’, ‘only’, ‘also’ and ‘obviously’ and I first heard words such as ‘prepone’ and timepass only after I moved here. It doesn’t fall into the label of Indian English but I do love the Indian ‘Uff’ – it stops short at being a swear word and it’s nicer than the ‘Arey yaaar’. I also heard someone being described as a ‘cutlet’ and have been dying to call someone that now.

I liked that there was effort made to explain the deviations from British English and the inclusion of illustrations here and there in the dictionary. The boundaries between Sri Lankan English and Sinhala and Tamil words are a bit blurred (a point which Meyler has addressed in the introduction) and the examples from Sri Lankan books could have been reduced a little, but that’s just me nit-picking.  The dictionary itself is considerably comprehensive – props to Michael Meyler and the editors. It’s been around for a while and I’m picking it up 5 years too late but do put a look (do you see what I did there?) if you’re interested in this sort of thing. Here are some links as well, because I’m generous like that.

 

Trishaw Evolution

The thing with three-wheelers in Delhi is that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. With green and yellow exteriors and plain interiors and sometimes a picture of their respective deity/religious leader or Salman Khan wedged between the frame of the three-wheeler and the tarpaulin, there’s very little distinguish one three wheeler from the other. Even the drivers are supposed to wear a standard uniform so there’s little room for individuality. This fantastic realization dawned on me a year or so ago when Indian A left her phone in a tuk-tuk and we had to do a mad dash around Central Delhi trying to find the right three-wheeler.

I’m not sure how it is in the rest of India but compared to Delhi, their Sri Lankan counterparts are definitely more personalized and have more character. Maybe it’s the lack of the fourth wheel and complete disregard for road rules, but for the longest time, I found it hard to take tuk-tuks as a serious form of transport but I’ve watched how the Lankan three-wheeler has come of age gradually and it’s pretty interesting.

Most drivers I’ve spoken to have their own three-wheelers while some of them are rented and a certain amount paid regularly to the owner. I’ve seen three-wheeler drivers back at home look after their vehicles with meticulous care and how at times, their vehicles are even an extension or representation of themselves (Ex: Bad ass tuk-tuk = heavily tattooed driver + super loud engine + heavy beats) Till a few years back, most three-wheelers were sparse and unembellished. Sometimes, there would be an androgynous baby poster on the inner sides or a token landscape poster with a random quote (home is where the heart is, smile and the world will smile with you, etc) but that was basically it.

It may have begun with the introduction of a stereo at the back (which took up almost all the storage space and gave way to after-hour three-wheeler parties on the side of the road) and more three-wheelers in varying colours. Snazzier interiors replaced the usual ones. The bars, handles or whatchamacallits were gradually revamped. Fancy, metallic work or padded frames replaced the plain frames, a light inside for the convenience of the passenger was introduced along with more storage space and bottle holders (for the driver).

Dashboards are now decorated with enthusiasm. There’s a curious tendency for flowers and plastic grapes dangling distractingly.

Or you know, hello kitty bobble heads.

Some tuk-tuks even come with skylights.

Sometimes, Bob Marley chills in three-wheelers

With leery babies and their austere mothers.

 

St. Fallen posted a picture yesterday of a trishaw with two fans – one for the driver and one for the passenger. How’s that for service?

Wearing your religion on your sleeve is another distinct feature of Sri Lankan three-wheelers.  Religious symbols are predominant while figurines, garlands and statues adorn the dashboard. If you hail a tuk early enough, you might see the traces of the morning incense and flowers strewn on the dashboard as well.  Sometimes, Buddhist and Quran verses are on the exterior or a short prayer asking to bless the respective vehicle.

And of course, the trishaw wisdom. Megs has done a fantastic job documenting quotes and general pearls of profoundness three wheelers in Sri Lanka dispense. Some of them are pure gold. I’ve popped in a few but I’d advise you to check the full collection out over here on Pinterest. (All pictures of trishaw quotes via Megs’ Pinterest page)

Living in SL, it was something I took for granted and it wasn’t until I noticed the homogeneity of the Delhi wheelers that I realized how Lankan three wheelers have morphed over the years. My favourite features would be the dashboard decorations and the quotes. I’m not sure about the functional aspects and engine enhancements, but if they’re jazzing up the rims I’m going to guess that they’ve made internal improvements as well, along the road.

It’ll be interesting to see what would be added on in the future. I’ve seen wheelers being used to advertise stuff and it’s only a matter of time before some genius decided to harness its full potential and go all out in a commercial frenzy like the buses of Colombo have been subjected to. Which although an eye sore, it would mean an additional source of income for the drivers and extra money is always welcome.

I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for trishaw-art or a Sri Lankan version of the London Underground (but instead of the subway, the tuk-tuk) with Sinhala and Tamil poetry. Not sure how feasible poetry would be as a mass communication tool but hey, this is just wishful thinking.

Marble Beach, Trinco

 

Sunrise, Trinco, a few years ago.

 

As a child, most of our holidays were spent in Trinco. Despite the war, the pull would be too great for my dad to resist. He was in his element only in Trinco, and holiday after holiday, to Trinco we went.

I have two pictures of Trinco embedded in my mind. One was near the harbour. We’d been out for a walk early morning. My grandfather looking curiously out of place in the backdrop of the sea, standing tall with a walking stick, woollen vest (he felt cold in the mornings) and hat; my sister, chubby and shiny eyed and I, young, bespectacled, awkward, grinning at the camera. I loved walking along the harbour. My grandfather would point out interesting sights and if we got up early enough, we’d be able to buy fresh fish as soon as the fishermen pulled into the harbour with their catch.

The other picture is at Fort Frederick. I’m posing with a deer and I’ve got the most delighted expression on my face (‘Maa! Look! I’m feeding a deer!’)

I’ve ‘done’ most of the touristy stuff ages ago so when the war ‘concluded’ years later, I was all ‘been there, done that, bought the t-shirt’ when everyone rushed to Trinco.

The Fort Frederick I remember was a solitary one with heavy security and lazy deer. Earlier they wouldn’t let vehicles in. So that long drive that vehicles take from the entrance to Koneswaram Temple? We had to walk it. Lovers leap fascinated me. There’s something morbidly beautiful about the sheer drop into turquoise waters, lined by rocks.

We’d been to the Hot Springs years ago, taken the ferry to Kinniya (the ferry has been discontinued now. There’s a bridge instead. Safe, but terribly boring. I miss clutching the edge of the railing, looking at the murky waters, thinking I’MGOINGTODIETODAAAY), eaten oysters in Kinniya, barfed out oysters in Kinniya, visited Muttur, wandered through old cemeteries and been to Nilawali.

When I went back home for the Summer, we returned to Trinco for a very overdue visit. We hadn’t visited Pigeon Island before, so that was priority on our agenda. We were also given a tour of the Prima Factory (we knew a guy who knew a guy).

View from the top of the Prima Factory. The little, obscure dots at the bottom are trucks.

 

Pigeon Island was beautiful but I was a little appalled at how crowded Nilaweli had become. The once pristine, isolated beaches had been taken over by grandmothers gallivanting in kaftans and bus loads of school boys.

Pigeon Island

 

Pigeon Island

 

Crowds at Nilaweli. Please note man chilling in the sand.

My dad casually mentioned that this was a good bathing spot which he used to frequent as a boy and we wanted to get away from the crowds, so we headed to Marble Beach. I don’t know if it was because we went on a weekday or if tourists haven’t caught onto it yet, but apart from three families the entire beach was deserted and the waters were absolutely heavenly. Think blue skies, perfectly still water, clean shores and coconut trees – the kind of stuff postcards are made of. I don’t have any good pictures, sadly (I was too excited about getting into the water).

Token picture. Marble Beach, Trincomalee

I’m a little curious as to how the name came about but Marble Beach is maintained by the Air force. You aren’t allowed to take any food beyond the car park and there aren’t any hotels in the vicinity so you’ll have to rough it out with sparse, open air shower areas.  The thing is, for all my love for the sea I *shuffles feet* can’t swim. And Marble beach is perfect for the aquatically challenged like me. The boys went snorkelling (the Air Force has instructors who supervise) but I was perfectly content floating along.

After we returned to Colombo I was told that the Air Force runs a beach resort here. They also have a site with a very long domain name.  I didn’t feel any ‘whispers of the wind’, but I can vouch for the sunburn. Listen to Baz Luhrmann. Wear sunscreen.

I wish I’d discovered this place a little sooner. Its tough finding nice, isolated beaches back at home this days – definitely heading back here the next time we head to Trinco.

 

The Language Conundrum

Probably one of the toughest parts about moving here is the language barrier. It’s incredibly frustrating to think twice every time I venture out; to haggle with three wheeler drivers in broken Hindi mixed with English; to be forced to rely on the kindness (or sullen gestures, depending on the nature of the person) of strangers for directions or for advice and to resort to rudimentary hand gestures to get my point across.

I’m used to going wherever I want without a second thought and given the unsafe nature of this city (rape capital of India, folks) and my language handicap, all this second guessing – it’s terribly frustrating.

I’m a little better with the language now. I’ve picked the most elementary Hindi phrases and as long as I don’t encounter a chatty/rude/antagonistic three wheeler driver/vendor/salesperson, I’m safe. But the moment they try to carry on a conversation, counter my bargaining skills or speak in Hindi phrases I’m unfamiliar with, I’m forced to grimace, shrug my shoulders and recite ‘Mujhe Hindi patha nahi’ (I don’t know Hindi).

I miss talking to strangers. I miss the fluidity of a familiar language and forging a connection with a random person. Over here, without the proper knowledge of the language, I can’t bargain, barter and banter like I do back at home (please note the unintentional alliteration. I’m quite proud of it). It’s hard to gauge a person solely on the merit of their body language sometimes and because I’m hazy about their motives, I can’t even smile freely when they strike up conversations. For all intents and purposes, they could be asking me to hand over my kidneys and I would probably just nod and smile back since I wouldn’t know what they were saying.

Jokes apart, I’m forced to be a bit of a snob when I venture out. I’m the snooty cow who doesn’t talk to vendors and who doesn’t smile at people and I hate that. Some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve had back at home, have been with three-wheeler drivers and little kids. There’s a melting pot of diverse people over here, from the turbaned chai walla with a white beard to his waist to the cat-eyed boy who sells vegetables down our lane, who have stories to tell, if you’re willing to stop for a minute and listen.

This is just a part of my language issue. Here’s the second. Brace yourselves, it’s a little long.

There’s a general curiosity from most people when they hear I’m from Sri Lanka. Some aren’t too bothered, it’s too close in terms of vicinity for me to be an exotic import and in their minds, it’s almost a part of India (go figure). But there are others who ask me questions (oh, the questions! Some of them are too funny) and are genuinely interested.

A friend kept asking me what my mother tongue was. ‘Well, it’s Sinhala or Tamil for most people back at home, but I’m more comfortable with English’ I replied. She made a face. ‘No. Your mother tongue’ she emphasized, ‘it can’t possibly be English. What is it?’

The thing is, I really don’t know.

I’ve had the mother tongue debacle for as long as I can remember.  Both my parents grew up speaking Tamil and are equally fluent in English. The maternal unit’s Sinhala is excellent, when the paternal unit speaks in Sinhala, people run away (it’s appalling. Lots of fodder for dinner time conversations). As far as I know, both my maternal and paternal grandparents grew up with fluency in Tamil and English, while only my maternal grandparents know Sinhala.

Apart from the few Tamil lullabies, my grandmother would croon, I grew up in a household of people who predominantly spoke in English to me.  My bed time stories were written in English. I think in English. I’m most comfortable writing in English. Hell, I even dream in English.

I studied in Sinhala while in school. Struggled in Sinhala would be more appropriate, really. While we were in school, we didn’t have English medium (I’m not talking about the International Schools over here) I remember being completely flummoxed during my first Sinhala classes in nursery and coming home, sobbing to my mum. (That marked the beginning of my long stint with Sinhala tuition)

For 11 years I struggled, since all my subjects for O/L’s were in Sinhala. My flow of thought was in English, so I would have to constantly filter my thoughts, translate them into Sinhala, sometimes struggling for the right words and then put pen to paper. It wasn’t easy, but I pulled through.  I’m just grateful that we had the option of having English medium during our A/L’s.

Now, I’m finally fluent in Sinhala. I can’t swear yet, but that’s okay. I have a feeling my expansive knowledge of English swear words can tide me through any situation but my Tamil leaves much to be desired. I can read if I keep pausing after every two words, but my spoken Tamil is as good as my dad’s Sinhala.

Most of my paternal relatives speak solely in Tamil, so whenever we visited them the language barrier was the elephant in the room. They weren’t fluent in English, I wasn’t fluent in Tamil – it was one big family party.

I think I earned the title of the snobbish Colombo cousin. Relatives thought that I considered myself ‘too good’ to speak in Tamil. But really I was far too shy, because my broken Tamil phrases would immediately have my brigade of relatives smirking behind their shawls.

So, what determines one’s native language or mother tongue? Your nationality, ethnicity? How about geographical location? People of my ethnic group situated in the North and South of the country, speak different languages. Little breakaway groups even have varied dialects of one tongue. And then there’s the Diaspora – what of them?

The internet informs me that a person’s mother tongue (also known as first language, arterial language) is,

1) The language first learned by a child

2)  One’s native language or parent language; the language learned by children and passed from one generation to the next.

3) Or the language that a person speaks best and so is often the basis of socio-linguistic identity.

 If it’s the first and the third, then it’s definitely English for me but it also brings up the problem of my socio-linguistic identity (I have no idea what the native language of my ethnic group should be. Arabic? Tamil?). If it’s the second, it should be Tamil, since that’s the common language predominantly passed down from my family, but as I’ve explained, it’s not.

I had teachers in school who constantly emphasized that you weren’t a true ‘Sri Lankan’ if you couldn’t speak in Sinhala (I kid you not) and that it was scientifically proven that children who studied in their mother tongue were xyz% smarter and excelled more than those who didn’t. Hence, I’ve always been a little uncomfortable about my linguistic identity, wondering if somewhere down the line, I’d lost my way and as a result dropped fragments of my identity on the wayside.

Is there anyone else who has had a problem with their mother tongue or native language?  Or have all the lines we so love to draw around languages, identity and culture and the pigeon holes we like to pop people in, dissolved in the 21st century? Should I go back to studying Tennyson instead of having identity crises’ at 2.30 in the morning? Should I worry that I haven’t finished a quarter of my syllabus for my finals which are in less than a week?

Notes from Delhi: I think…

..I was too emotionally invested in this times World Cup. Sunday saw me physically drained and rather blue. Also, everyone here went completely crazy. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if we had won instead.  But good game, India.  There’s no denying that you were the better team.

Not going to write anything about it, but this picture pretty much sums up things for me.

The Big Picture has more pictures in case you’re interested. So does the Delhi Walla

Also, this note has been doing the round on Facebook. Thoughts?

 

Update: More link love. A response to the note on Facebook.