(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.