(extract from a work in progress)

But have you seen the houses clinging to the wall on the seaside of Bambalapitiya Station, like clams to rocks, like algae, asbestos eaves slanting into the water in waves at right angles to the ocean’s waves, wooden-slat walls rickety and salt-sodden, black polythene drapery rippling always buffeted in the wind. Just past seven on a weekday night, it’s dark enough in the world to realise that theirs are not nights lived by electric lights, wives coming out to their only two lintels at either end of the Station-wall, to sit and—what is it that they do, sitting there, so early in the evening but also so late in the day, in the dim fluorescence of possibly a battery-powered CFL, at least three mongrels apiece curled at their heels, sleepy-awake, tired from a day of chasing their tails? Do they have lessons for me, or only words of accusation for having what they don’t, living truly in a margin with no time for metaphor, no time for time, no need to harry the night into surrender?

Here’s an edge to the island I live on. There’s city, emanating as alleys from an unknown centre before coming up short at the Marine Drive, hemmed by the railway tracks, oil-drenched sleepers arrayed in parallels, a gigantic stitching pattern, the over-lock-train-lock snaking its way hand-in-hand with the boulders locking island-soil against ocean, from Colpetty, and Bamba, then Wellawatte, these old, not-so-colonial Stations of ignored, indifferent architectures, where we gather in hordes to go home, riotous sunsets now mundane after years of daily commuting. And then the great blue ocean—all of this in precisely this order—except Bamba, which is the aberrance. The narrow gap between boulders and maroon-station-wall taken over by inhabitants, living in temporary-looking permanent structures, a tunnel of houses facing the sea and hiding from the city, playing peek-a-boo behind a government wall.

The joke insists on cracking itself in my head, unfunny and uninvited, how literally they are stuck between a rock and a hard place—can an ocean ever be a hard place? Can an island. Rain-wet, slime-slick rock-garden at their backs, the city the view spreading out at their feet. Teach me lessons, why don’t you, teach me something about the clothes I wear and the bag I carry, how these could erode to the wind if it swelled to a gale strong enough, and it yet wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen. All the worst things possible have already happened, all there’s left is a kind of waiting-for that’s slow, dull, thudding a beat in time that rhymes, rhythmless. Teach me how to listen.

But keep an eye out for the illusion, these knowings are really non-knowings, tendrils of me reaching into spaces I am locked out of, into spaces existing beyond the locks of the spaces I belong in, that belong to me—aunty sitting on the step of her door makes no pretences at an existential wisdom, she has no claim to the esoteric or the exotic inexotic, she doesn’t say, “Look at me, I am poor, and somehow that makes me better.” I just want her to be better. I just want her to have a secret ancient knowledge lost to me in the cacophony of the knowledge of all the prices of all the things. That “some” things can’t be bought, like happiness, like love in its true, non-aggrandising sense, like success in its non-achieving form. I want her to tell me sea-secrets because I want her to know sea-secrets, secrets the sea whispers in her ear as she sleeps her nights beside the ocean. Someone must know something lost to the rest of us, and why not her, living in her algae-house behind Bamba Station, frugal furniture rattling sardonic in the wake of passing trains. Why not her?

I want to step off the platform and strike up a conversation. Step off the podium, my soapbox vantage point of unscientific examination, of unknowing a knowable person. But, I don’t. I don’t know how to traverse her spaces, though she knows mine in their casual obviousness. Familiarity by use, familiarity by self-imposition. I am shocked at how normal my world is, shocked how my normal exists on top of things not-quite-so-normal, like parasites, like colonials, white men in brown skin and skinny jeans having had taken over. I wish I could sound out the trumpet and call for retreat, for withdrawal, order the backwards march back to oblivion, to let people just be people. But, no. Who am I but just a foot soldier. Considering territory lines to be crossed, magnanimous and presumptuous, just a visitor deigning to deign.

I am only, after all, here for my train.


A screeching hoot draws itself out and announces the train’s arrival, led by the pool of pallid, milky light cast by its head lamp, reminding the child in me of a giant worm in surgical headgear, slicing through the night, throwing the adjacent streetlights into shame.

I’ve always liked the moment when a train arrives, the sheer animal panic you naturally contain—the earth-shattering noise, the whoosh against your face of the passing locomotion…

The train is packed beyond belief, it’s the last southbound train before the nightmail past midnight, so everyone packs themselves in somehow, men hanging off footboards and looking for purchase off girders with their feet, women running along the platform, unable—or afraid—to cling, in their saris or heels or both, until someone inside grabs them by the wrist and pulls them in, taking pity, someone else on a footboard pushing them in from behind, against and amongst bodies. On trains, you share survival. On trains, the need to go home is a uniting goal.


Where did the horde go? From either end of the train, drivers lean out to wave their green flags—replaced in the night by flashlights—the all-clear to start on their journey again. An almighty lurch. A shrill, drawn-out wail. They’re all off, the platform now completely deserted.

I realise I didn’t get in. The chug-chug becomes fainter and fainter, before the train disappears around a bend and into the south of the island. And in the ensuing silence—comparative silence, there’s still the motor traffic on Marine Drive and the static of the waves—I make my decision.

I sit down on one of the concrete benches. I take off my bag and put it beside me. I take out my wallet, and put it in the bag. I take out my phone, and do the same. The words it’s now or never are singing themselves in repetition, a frantic tune in my head. I can feel my heart ready to join in, standing on the ledge of a fever-pitch, but I shake my head, disagreeing, and—for once—everything listened.


their story

There’s history,
as sprawling
as a landscape
as vast
as the universe,
spread out,
like the place
for all the places
there ever were

—but how things
assume a different size,
how small and summary,
all the lives that’ve been lived,
in all their inescapable fullnesses—

where are we,
lost outside the foci of this stubborn place
only ever partially visible,
our ordinary lives,
without ambition, without invention,
the pursuit of the glorious,
to whom conquest is only a rumour,
a memory,
an adjustment, maybe, when
looked at through the scheme of things,
because all things continue
until they don’t,
in that way they do;

shouldn’t the scribe walk through our lives
—the angel looking for doors
with no blood on the lintel—
and touch us with his nib,
the scientist with his pipette,
to catch something of us and
release it to his
waiting scroll of ola,

a steady swirl of words

hitting at
something we’ve always known
but ignored, that
if we all stood, stock-still, together
across the ages, across this place
larger than the universe,
through the past, the future,
and the present,
and just breathed,
we would know, together,
the way a country of men
knows their anthem,
that everything we ever were
is nothing to what
we’ll always be:
the same.


Featured in special supplementary edition of PIX, a South Asia-focussed photography quarterly, accompanying Liz Fernando‘s evocative work, The Imprint of Lovers.


Copyright: Liz Fernando, The Imprint of Lovers (2015)

I’m sorry I made you leave alone, ahead of me. I’m sorry for the hypocrisy of walking in together, but not being able to leave the same way. I’m sorry for all these apologies, I’m being apologetically post-coital. I’m sorry for the bad sex.

I couldn’t dream of being the demurrer. The man at the desk would guess, with one look at the cast of my eyes, that I was on the receiving end. I couldn’t bear being yet another he-wife for his list.

I had all these images ready in my head. Of you, and of the first time you trace my bones with your skin. I didn’t add details like sheets and pillows because they are usually a given. I didn’t add privacy because when you plan a painting, you just assume the canvas. Everything was meant to be clean.

You’re the most beautiful man I know. I wanted to unpeel you, not strip you. I wanted us to swim around the air, like Disney’s Aladdin and his secret friend who didn’t make it to the film, before you came free of your clothes, brown and linear and questioning.

Questioning. I expected your body to question me.

I expected a lot of laughing. Bodylaughing. Lovelaughing. I wanted to see if you knew how hair spirals, and if you knew how to follow those swirls, the curious interplay of tongues and fingers and body organs, the fluidity of all these things, roiling.

I’m sorry I wasn’t alone with you. I’m sorry for all the ghostcouples who fucked each other while you tried to make love to me, all of us sharing the same bed, pink walls garish and gruelling, the whole room the inside-folds of a woman we would naturally recoil from.

I’m sorry all I could hear was the tick of the ceiling fan, my legs in the air and you between them. I’m sorry I made you gather your things as soon as you were done. Now I have to walk out alone, maybe I should have thought these things through.

My eyes will still be cast low, and the man at the desk will still know what he needs to know.

I keep insisting to myself, again and again.

One day, in a room of our own, we’ll have our first time again.

rehash (an excerpt)

The past eludes remembrance. So we contend with remembering sidewalks’ sides that are swirly at the edges, like CGI that the brain composed to make memory magical. These words won’t be complete. They’re doomeed to inadequacy. They work with their incomplete partner, memory. I’m zipping through images like their names are only now being invented. As if their meanings could ever live in the lettered cages I give them. I can’t explain myself out of this. I can’t pull in characters and sentences to fill in the gaps of a wholeness that can only be lived in, not remembered, nor relived through lines on paper. Because he was everything. And it’s not easy to catch everything and paste it on a page. I can try to build him with all the words I have in my pocket, but he will still refuse rebuilding. So, instead, I listen to my inventive memory, who imagines remembering something that might have happened completely differently, predicting the past, injecting magic and reality in equal measures to balance his believability.

Was he magical?

He was everything.

I wish there was a way to remember completely the first time we met. There was a kitchen full of people, and the most casual upward glance to receive the introduction. Someone was rolling a joint. Me, to be specific. Someone was telling a ribald story to someone else. Someone was laughing with her beer teeth yellow. A hi, an excitement, a wariness. And a return to normal universe. The one we all inhabit, arm in arm with the rational friend we keep talking to in our heads. Drinking wine, sip by putrid sip. The going-back to non-introduction. Do our shadow selves hold their breath? Do they cross their fingers when you receive the chance to step out of the flush and touch someone you just met with fingers warm with animal fire – hoping against hope that you won’t look away and fall back into resumption with a snap? I’ve always wondered at how distinctly we separate our disappointment with the lives we live and any other possible disappointment we may ever feel about the way we live our lives. But there were allowed things and unallowed things, so I slid back to where I was and refused memory the chance to commit with accuracy, so that when we sit down here to start our retelling, I can only imagine it happening, and not it happening actually.

There are full pictures. Like that time when he stood over the swimming pool and looked up at the sky, and it was a crazy night, he had been stuck in some scary swivel of a drugmare, and it had felt like it would go on forever, but then he looked up at the sky, and I said, “Look at the moon,” and then he grinned his gold-tooth grin and said, like a child, “Home! Finally!”, and I wanted to say, “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.” I felt like we won. Like the whole thing was a show about reality, people getting voted in and voted out, and him and I, when we found the moon, it felt like we won the whole, amazing race.

Let’s take a train. Again. Just meet me near home, we can jump on a train because we have nowhere else to go. We can slide through the side of Colombo together, again, you secretly holding my hand, and then daringly, even when the teenaged boys arguing in tamil can clearly see us from where they stand. Let’s repeat. Go through all those conversations we’ve had, about who knew whom the most in a way he has never been known before, but this time, let’s be cautious. Let’s be honest, this time. Because are you really that easy to get to know?

I didn’t think I knew you when we stood outside that empty swimming pool full of people, everybody holding a drink in their hands. The music was amazing, but it felt like we were all pretending, like we all had to prove our right to stand on that spot of earth we had been given, the light slapping the walls like a cinemascope, beating. You give me a can of beer that I don’t remember how to open. All I remember is the siren going on in my head, just get away, just get away, don’t you think you know a stranger when you know the facts which make him the stranger. But you put your best face on, and I told the rational friend inside my head to step aside: let this night be awkward, I know I don’t know how to snap a beer open, but tomorrow, tomorrow I’ll tell him he was right, and that I was wrong, and that I’ll go back to knowing him the most he’d ever been known by someone else. The most understanding person he’s ever met.

buswords #1

If only fish could swim in the sunlight of harsh March.
If only we could escape the obscenity
of wanting to touch every beautiful thing we see
and still touch them.
What is this.
What is this capsule of a soul that contains the soul’s soul,
why can’t it swirl into the air he stirs,
this beautiful man, his body occupying the stirs of his own self.
Loop back, loop forward.
This ceaseless, easeless desire to have ourselves spent,
be consumed, be in that way freed.
This hatred of body is in itself bodily,
sitting at its central tangle of loss.
These words, they only bind their own contradictions,
clarity is a different plane of thought,
and there’s no escape,
not even beyond the black mystery of closed eyes.

poets for young men

If only we had words that could point us to the meanings of these things, everything that happens in an ageing man’s house at four o’clock in a morning. I think, if there were a word for holding you back, of catching the last of you, your elbow, as you sidle out my door, and asking you to stay, I would speak it. I know the paradox here, because I am the one throwing you out. But, then, I know that as much as I am inside, and you’re the one leaving — we both know, really — that I am the one being thrown out.

It could be kick-out and pull-in. Or go-but-please-also-stay. Or nothing. Forget it. Just be quiet. I can lie and say I was wrong. Come inside, go upstairs, sleep in your bed, I’ll sleep in mine. We’ll wake up in a few hours and I’ll forget you hurt me, and you’ll forget I love you. Everything can fall back into the places we’ve given them. You’ve given them.

I hate you for how beautiful you are. I love you, and all I want to do is cradle your head in those mornings you cry when you know yourself more than you want to. I love you, and I want to pull you out of your dreamlessness. I love you, and that’s all I want. But you’re the most beautiful thing I know, and I hate you for it. I hate you for this house, the way it frames me outside you as you sleep wrapped up snugly in your hideous beauty, like a joke thrown in my face.

I could ball them up, these things you’ve scattered here, where I live, these pieces of conceit you’ve dropped around, on your way to doing what you always do. I could ball them up and throw them out with you; or throw them at you, one after the other, like a scared Jew stones his harlot — but I’ll let you slide out, sideways through my door; let you shuffle out angrily into the coming dawn, directly into the waiting uncertainty of my life.

And, while you’re gone, I will sit down and pray that you will never lose your youth, because, of all the things of you I hate, the one I hate the most is your ruin.