I need a cigarette.
In another impulsive moment, I had made the irresponsible decision a few months ago to become a social smoker. I do not particularly know what that means but I figure it would be a good way to force myself to have conversations with strangers on this trip. I also romanticize that it would be just the thing that one of my many alter egos, Manohar – Karthik’s character in Mani Ratnam’s “Mouna Ragam” – would do. He dies at the end of that film, I suddenly remember with a grimace.
I still need that cigarette. I look around to score one. I like this lounge. It has become my favourite spot since arriving in Colombo a few days ago. It is the kind of place you expect to see in an island holiday destination where tourism is booming, whether ethical or not. It is perched on the rooftop of one of the many expensive hotels that are clustered together in the city and looks out to the ocean. Not that you can see the ocean during the night but between tracks the DJ mixes and after the traffic dies down, you can hear the waves faintly and the breeze is delicious.
It is a mixed crowd that comes to this place. Many are from the diaspora (people spit out that word in distaste here) and probably not as angst-ridden as I am about their relationship to this country. They are young and beautiful, sporting recent tans from lying on the beach during the day or off-roading down south. British, Aussie, Canadian, American accents, and the Sri Lankan English of Colombo’s international schools and Royal-Thomian circles is all you hear.
It is a class thing – when, how and what you speak in English is testament to where you fall on the city’s social ladder. You speak in the vernacular only with “the help”. So, when I hear Sinhala, it is mostly the help again – the waiters – talking to each other. They are all male, and many of them not much older than myself. For the most part, they are attentive and anxious to please. They smile, mostly with their mouths. I wonder what those smiles hide.
I imagine some of them are military intelligence – there are many working undercover in the hotels a friend whispers to me. I imagine others returning to their homes after their long shifts, and telling their mothers or girlfriends about the obnoxious overseas people they had waited on that night. I recognize it is a random un/kind act of the universe that they are serving me instead of me serving them. I smile back brightly, and they are genuinely confused about how to react to it.
The complete absence of Tamil in these spaces is the elephant in the room that only some of us choose to see. Even those friends I am traveling with who rarely speak Tamil now attempt to do so. I am surprised the first time it happens but I gradually understand. It is an act of subversion – each of us trying in our own way to reclaim our individual and collective place in a land that, much to the chagrin of some back in Canada, we still want to connect with. If nothing else, speaking the language, broken as it may be, reminds us that we at least belong to each other and that act itself creates a culture. It is a conspiracy of insiders in a place where we are all outsiders in one way or another. I am happy enough, though, to hear Tamil on such nights and grow wistful for an Ilaiyaraaja song, and thoughts of another home arise.
Thankfully, a lot of people smoke here but even in a relatively liberal city as this, not many women do so publicly. So I am grateful to see a group of women a few tables away, smoking. I approach them with my best charming self, and re-stage the Hindenburg crash. No, they are not interested in joining my friends at our table for “conversation only” because they are on a girls’ night out. They have also run out of cigarettes, they inform me apologetically. But yes of course, they would love to have a drink instead.
Wearing a wide smile, I ask the waiter to get them drinks on my tab and bid them a good evening. I provide a damage report to my friends who tell me that the women are probably visiting from abroad for yet another wedding – the locals are apparently friendlier. I nod sheepishly and continue to look around for a cigarette. Colombo is a city whose signs I can see but cannot quite read. I feel like an interloper here, an imposter even.
A friend and I crashed a wedding in this hotel last night. It seemed like an interesting thing to do at “this tender age” of ours. It is a Tamil wedding although it is difficult to tell which party, if either, was local or international. I knew it was a Tamil wedding because even in this expensive hotel in Colombo, a nirakudam framed the entrance to the venue and the aunties wore their saris the way amma does. The women were beautiful and men in expensive, tailored suits glanced at us curiously. One of them approached us and asked if he could help us. I recalled the groom’s name from the board outside and say we just dropped in briefly to wish him. He gestured towards the dance floor. What did I say my name was again, whose son was I, where did I go to school, the man inquired. I stammered out a response and walked away.
My friend and I stuck out like a sore thumb but not just because we were in jeans and sneakers. I felt like Ludowyke’s Durai. Despite the kind currency conversion rate, my intermittent visits to this city in the past, and relatives who have settled down here, I still came from Jaffna. I had no pedigree in Colombo now made worse by ex-families whom I avoid. So, I was an outsider even in this minority-within-a-minority circle. I got a brief glimpse of a potential trajectory of life that never was, a world which I can now only observe and not participate in because of the contested politics of my Tamilness that made me and others leave this place many years ago – confused, hurt and angry. My friend is a Colombo Tamil, a label that he wears proudly as he should. However, he too realized this world is an inheritance that he has been cheated out of – he had left soon after 1983. We both walked out of the wedding in silence, lost in our thoughts.
I have almost given up on finding a cigarette tonight, and then I spot her. She is wearing a red dress and I almost choke on my arrack-EGB combo laughing at the cliché. What catches my attention is the fact that she is the only one in this joint moving to the beat of the Spanish track that has just come on. I walk up and ask her if should would like to dance. She agrees but not until I chat up her guy friends and put them at ease with my machung-this and machung-that over the fate of Sri Lankan cricket.
We eventually dance. It feels good to dance – to simply hold someone in my arms again. She tells me she is a painter recently returned to Sri Lanka and that she loves to dance. I smile at her and try telling her something about myself but a dull pain squats behind my temples and begins a lament about memories of other dance-filled nights. The song ends, the lights come on, and I give her the customary Sri Lankan sniff kiss for being a good sport. I slip her my card telling her that we should keep in touch if she is interested. She smiles but we both know I do not mean it. I get a cigarette from one of her friends and exit stage left.
At this time of the night, I cannot see the ocean so I stare out into the blackness instead. I realize there are only a few more days left in this bubble that I have chosen for myself. Jaffna lies ahead of me. I am not sure what I am going to find. I absent-mindedly feel the Buddhist meditation beads hanging from my neck. It is a gift from a friend and has become a talisman of sorts on this trip – that and the Canadian passport which I know will get me into meetings and spaces I would not be able to otherwise. I now carry it with me at all times – a reminder that normalcy in this country is a subjective reality. I am only certain of the private and public pain that is waiting for me up north which I do not know if I have the courage to confront.
My cigarette has burned down to the filter. I stub it out. I carefully arrange my face into a smile and turn around to re-join my friends.
Much like a number of other Tamil-Canadians born in Sri Lanka, navarasan is a third culture kid who grew up in several places, belonging everywhere and belonging nowhere. Nevertheless, he feels blessed to have finally found a home in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which, despite its flaws, still manages to hum a beautiful tune of peoples, accents, and cultures even in the midst of polar vortexes.
Re-printed with minor edits of the original published on Groundviews.
Images courtesy of Len Theivendra, a good friend and travel guru. To see more of his stunning travel photography, visit FlySeeStay.com.