Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Summer is Here

Love bites, originally uploaded by halwis.

Summer is here, with its promise of blue skies, warm beaches, sweaty underwear, road trips, late night sunsets, fireworks, cricket on weekends, cold water showers and barbeques and beer with books on beanbags in the garden.

Summer has come dressed in green leaves and sunglasses, convertibles and sunroofs, basking in hammocks wearing short skirts and bikinis.

Summer is here with warm raindrops and dry winds, bushfires and camp fires, tents and portable stoves for heating up backed beans and stroganoff under clear starlit nights.

Summer is here promising Christmas with family, festivities, New Year revels and fragile resolutions.

Summer is here even though spring never came, and winter still lingers in the air. But summer is here, with her, and she smiles… and I smile back.


Friday, October 19, 2012

In Memoriam

Trinity College Chapel by Parakrama Ekanayaka

The Chapel is perhaps the most poignantly sublime symbol of Trinity for most Trinitians across the ages, irrespective of their faith. Though distanced by the years and geography, our memories often rest among those pillars, under the cooling shade of bare clay tiles with a view of Hantana nestled among the treetops. Even the quiet breeze rings with voices of friends and teachers of a time now bygone...

Yet the high roof resting on crafted pillars and adorned walls, the chimes of its bell tower and serene garden; is more than a marvel of architecture for Trinity’s choristers who sit on the elevated pews below the alter. As one who has spent many years there not so long ago, that beautiful space occupies a very special place in my life – not merely for its monumental impressions but also for the profound life-lessons, memories and inspiring people that I associate with it.

Among the dedicated teachers and inspired Chaplains who shaped our lives and nurtured our minds, Mr Ronald Thangiah remains a beacon of light that guides us still. A year and three weeks has passed since he left our midst, but I have no doubt his life will inspire generations of Trinitians to come. This was never going to be an eulogy but a celebration of the music of life that he so generously shared with us over four decades of service to our school and to God, so that we may continue to learn from the lessons he taught us.

He taught us how to sing: to create and propagate beauty by what we say and do, to seek out excellence and enjoy the journey that takes us to the pinnacles of our endeavours and aspirations. He taught us that it was more important to be faithful to ourselves and to God, even when that means we may sometimes have to deviate from the score to improvise. We sang Rutter and old folk songs, revelled in the Choir parties and the ‘paan parties’ and were lucky enough to count ourselves among his students.

‘Through all the changing scenes of life’, his family was his most sacred composition. The dignity and self respect that defined his life’s work was his masterpiece. The rhythm of his actions always held true to the beat of his heart and that was the greatest example of his life. Today we join our voices together with his family, close friends and loved ones in giving thanks to God for the life and work of his faithful servant.

We will remember the words: because he did not allow the allure of a melody to drown out the meaning of words. His words were deliberately meaningful and his actions had a creative purpose beyond the immediate concerns - to lead by example. He chose the most appropriate words and was a master at choosing the most suitable time. He was forthright but never harsh, nurturing and never authoritative.

We will remember the melodies: because he taught us that as much as the pitch of notes that wave across the score of a divine melody, so too must life also follow the same rhythmic rise and fall, to etch its sweetest memories. He reminded us that ears that are not repulsed by the cacophony of crows may never be bewitched by a symphony; and a life that has not known the depth of despair may never scale the heights of ecstasy.

We will cherish the harmony: of different voices, each tone swinging to a different tune but blending in complete harmony. He taught us how we would be richer - not merely for the diversity of our constituent tones and pitch, but more importantly for being able to combine our hearts and minds and voices for a common purpose. As each of us sang our own part, we were encouraged to listen to others. There was no individual or collective gain in singing louder than the rest. He was keen for us to understand that making beautiful music as a choir was a metaphor for life, of teamwork and coexistence, to realise the value of individual contributions as well as the joys of striving collectively for the greater good of all.

We will remember him: Above all, he was honest to himself and had the courage of his convictions to stand up and fight for just cause. His had a special place in his heart for the choir and choristers of Trinity. Soon after his retirement in 2006, he shared with me this solemn reflection: “I miss the choir and the choir practices.” he wrote. “The choristers have always looked up to me to deliver the goods and I'm proud to say I usually did. But when I failed to restore what was rightfully yours, I didn’t deserve to continue to be your Choir Master. It would have been undignified to do so.”

It was not only his genuine humility and sense of duty that made him an endearing teacher. The choristers and their choirmaster mutually held each other in highest respect. “As for me, the choir and choristers always came first” he continued. “Everything I did was because the choristers have always been a super, fantastic bunch of boys. Carol Services were a by-product.”

The worldview he shared with us, the attitudes he exemplified, the standards of dignified conduct he encouraged and the taste and appreciation of music he inculcated in us have all shaped our lives. For that we are eternally grateful. Perhaps that is why we shall not mourn, but celebrate his life; and hope that his example will live on through our lives also.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Love, Hurt and Forgiveness

Slope Dwellers, originally uploaded by halwis.

I used to believe that the key to solving any problem or misunderstanding was by effective communication that leads to a deeper understanding and empathy. Perhaps that’s only half true. Because, communication is a two way process and when one party or the other stops talking or listening or fails to muster the empathy and interest necessary to understand the other, don’t care enough to keep trying, or sensitive enough to use the right tone of words, communication fails all too easily. So, there are times such as when contact with a nuclear armed submarine is lost in Atlantic waters, or when hearts fall silent, or longstanding friends become too preoccupied or excited by shiny distractions; when communication is lost in a way that nothing we already know or trust about each other can transcend the gap it creates. Crisis ensues. Yes, even the Cuban missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of its destruction was, in the final analysis, nothing more than a breakdown of communications. (So, yeah... I was reading a paper on nuclear disarmament which sparked one thought that led to another that compelled me to write this post!)

When words fail, I suppose it doesn’t help to go on talking, or to keep reaching out. Sometimes thoughts are best left unspoken, feelings unexpressed, demands not made, concessions not sought. Sometimes a gentle hug - if that - would suffice, or even that is best held back. Words unspoken can be more useful if given a chance. There are times when silence - if only one can muster the courage to take the risk of being consumed by it forever – is the best option.

But we are never strong enough to take a step back into the shadows and immerse ourselves in silence when we feel our loved ones drifting away. To love or care for someone mean different things to different people. But human bonds are all too often galvanised by insecurity and parasitic needs that make it particularly difficult to withdraw, even to create space. We need constant reminders to be reassured that we are loved, thought of, prayed for... to know that we matter to our loved ones as they matter to us. Those very bonds that sustain and nourish us, also makes us vulnerable.

It is not solely the affliction of those whose sense of self worth is dependent on another. The joy of knowing that we are loved and needed is at the very core of this lethal romance and wonder of being human. That is why we dread silence – not so much for its emptiness, because silence is never empty – but because of our addiction to the thrills and joys of fellowship, camaraderie and indeed love.

So it is that we are at our most vulnerable when our human bonds are strained or broken. The depths at which they shake our souls defy rational understanding or empirical analysis. The only way we are able to respond is at a spiritual level, and therefore such profound experiences of helplessness and vulnerability become defining moments in our lives because of the way they shape our spirituality. There are many spiritual responses to such situations, some almost opposite - yet equally valid and rational ways of dealing with despair. One is to choose to love in the full knowledge that it will hurt. Another is to detach oneself from all sources of love and hurt. Principally they both arise out of the same understanding: that love and despair, joy and suffering, are merely manifestations of the same feeling that is rooted in human desire. We have a choice, either to embrace desire or to elevate ourselves above want and need and break the cycle of dependence. ‘Redemption’ can be found at either end of the same path: one through the ‘perfection’ of love in practise and the other in its passive transformation into something else.

Anyone who has been hurt or forsaken by a loved one, can draw instructive lessons about the dangers of choosing to persist with love. It is not a common experience that people we love would knowingly hurt us. Yet, if the strength of the argument for detaching ourselves from forming close human bonds lie in how it empowers the individual to rise above worldly afflictions, the case for embracing them lie in the promise of a love that transcends our fear of being hurt or broken.

Perhaps that is why I have never lost empathy for those who place all their hope in God. Belief in a love that no human can sustain, unwavering in the face of denial, betrayal or abandonment; the kind of love that can be hung on a cross and yet remain untainted and undiminished has been my inspiration in times of distress. But the paradox remains; that the love of a God or deity is perceived and conceptualised based on historically unverifiable events - not physically felt like in the warmth of an embrace or empirically tested as mortal relationships are. The love of friends, parents and lovers that is part of our daily experience however, will always remain inherently flawed and often strained by egos, neglect, selfishness and lack of empathy.

So, regardless of how we choose to respond to the imperfections of our loved ones, the simple truth remains that only those close to our hearts can hurt us. The ones who we embrace the tightest will inevitably be the ones who will cause the deepest wounds. So it dawned on me, that it is not love alone that sustains human relationships, but our willingness - ney, our commitment - to forgive those we love the most for the imperfections of their love that will hurt us often, and equally seeking their forgiveness when we fall short of the ideals of love, for as long as we love and live.


Sunday, October 07, 2012


Reflections (c) Harendra Alwis

The tip of his stencil settled on a surface that had long ceased be canvas. The shade it carried did not contrast much with the countless layers beneath that he had painted over and over again, but he noticed her cheeks dimple and her expression intensify as the white horse-hair bristles stroked them. The movement caught him by surprise and he glanced over his shoulder, without removing his brush from the canvas, to make sure he had not left a window open for the sun and clouds to alter the shades.

And there she sat behind him, her stubby fingers clinging on to the pleats of that beige dress, the same one she wore however many years ago – he didn’t remember. All he wanted then was to paint the perfect portrait and she was the perfect subject. And there she sat with the same mischievous smile and accusing eyes framed by those luscious locks streaming down her shoulders as she had on that fist evening now but a fond old memory. Sharp, but not yet wise; mature, but not yet a woman; refined, but not yet a lady, her feet dangled restlessly – not because she lacked the grace to remain poised, but out of sheer will not to conform to the snobbery that has forced her to sacrifice far more curious pursuits, to indulge a master painter who had dare lay down a shadow of her immortal likeness on an already decaying canvas.

In all those years that have passed since the first time she sat there, her skin grew more radiant and her face saturated with the playfulness of youth. With each passing month, he noticed how the dance in her eyes intensified and the locks flowed thicker around her brow. Even then, he knew the exact length of her eyelashes and the shade of her tresses; he knew every wrinkle of every pleat in each of her dresses. His palette bore the colours that made up different tones of her skin from the light of dawn to dusk, in the light of a candle flame and under the moon and stars. Indeed each hair on her head had been counted.

Even as he noticed that the windows were shuttered, his brush felt reluctant to part with the canvas. He turned back almost reflexively – worried whether he had inadvertently made a mis-stroke, but before his eyes met hers on the portrait, or he had time to realise it was blushing, he was thrown back a few steps. The picture on the canvas was no longer the one he had painted, the face not the one he had tried to perfect over innumerable years. In the moment he took to realise what had happened, all those years had passed. The girl on his canvas was missing and in her place sat a woman, now perfect in every way that the artist was too flawed to recognise, let alone appreciate.

And there she waits in a studio that the painter had long abandoned, together with his palette and the horse-hair stencils.