Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Sal Mal Lane by Ru Freeman

 I bought On Sal Mal Lane for quite a few reasons; I was told it was a nice book, that it was better than A Disobedient Girl, which I loved, and because if you were to judge a book simply on its cover, On Sal Mal Lane will be one that will definitely find room on your bookshelf. I also had to spend more than one hour in a book store, found the book which I feared I’d have to someday order online (can’t afford that right now) and wanted to buy it because I wanted to read the book I had heard/read so much about.

So I bought it but didn’t plunge deep into it for quite a few days.

Once I did start reading it, On Sal Mal Lane captured my heart and at least for a few days, gave me a world full of happiness, innocence and love. It wasn’t a book you couldn’t put down; because every now and then you have to put the book down to really feel what Freeman is telling you, to picture that world the Heraths, Silvas and Bollings live in. And you aren’t totally immersed in the book either, your face expressionless. You smile, frown and laugh as the children say and do things only children can say and do.

While reading On Sal Mal Lane, I kept thinking about The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Both books are about war, about innocence and children living through houses that are flattened to the ground. There are games and words, laughter and tears. They both have a narrator; Liesel’s story is told by the ever-present Death while the happenings on Sal Mal Lane are told to us by everything around them.

However, On Sal Mal Lane is better than The Book Thief because this is a story about our children, our roads, our country, our war. It is our story.

It becomes our story because those characters, every one of them, are someone we know. We know people who live in their musical worlds, where words are not mere letters strung together but sounds that tell us stories, that make us feel things. We know of the Youngest in the Family who is loved and taken care of her older siblings in a way that makes us envy the love of siblings. We know of Rajus, who are children, not adults. We know of Sonnas who we want to help, to love, to be friends with, but we can’t or we don’t. We know of the Herath parents, too immersed in their adult worlds and we know of people like Mr Niles who find happiness in words shared with someone still young, still healthy and still innocent.

We don’t know what the characters look like. Freeman gives us few details, about ponytails, Kalu Kellas and hidden-away scars. But their appearances don’t matter, the Alice bands, flowery dresses or sandals. In the book, what matters is who these characters are, the choices they make, the words they use. We picture them as we please, climbing trees, playing cricket and learning about things children shouldn't be learning about; war, violence, hate.

*Mild spoilers regarding the twist in the story. Events that take place aren't mentioned*

There is an artist. He shows us his empty canvas, so white, so clean. He covers it in water colors, bright, happy colors. He carefully dabs at that white sheet, with blues, purples, pinks, reds, yellows and greens. He covers it all, with happiness, innocence, love, kindness. And then he drops it in water, the paint washed off, and the paper damp with faint patches of color here and there. That sudden pain you feel when you see him dropping that painting into water, that is what you feel when reading On Sal Mal Lane.

You know something bad has to happen. No author gives the reader so many reasons to fall in love with a book without snatching all those reasons away. However, with the war, terrorism and anger, with Black July and looting and the Pomeranian on Kalyani Avenue, the reader assumes they have gone through the worst the writer has in store for them. Such false beliefs, just like those the children had.

On Sal Mal Lane isn’t about the war. It’s about Sri Lanka, it’s about children and it’s about life. Sure, there is a war going on, but it’s almost as if Ru Freeman created this war just so the story could go on. It’s not only about politics, which Mr Herath talks about and the children rarely listen to, it’s not only about dead soldiers and a man who stood before a group of youth and launched a war. On Sal Mal Lane gives you everything you expect from a book. It makes you say to those characters, “I understand” and it makes you feel like Sonna, who never joins but watches from a distance.

Why buy the book?

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

On Sal Mal Lane is such a book.

“Books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

But it is also a book that you don’t want to tell others about because they may not fall in love with it the way they should.

On Sal Mal Lane is also a book that paints that perfect picture of a childhood in Sri Lanka, the kind of memories we have, the same fears we had. It’s a book that belongs to us.

Books written by Sri Lankans who don’t live in Sri Lanka tend to be like a puzzle with a few missing pieces. On Sal Mal Lane doesn’t have those missing pieces.

And why shouldn’t you read the book?

Because it will make you think less of the other books you have read. Because it will give you all the reasons to feel truly happy, and then take those reasons away from you. Because it will make you go to bed with an aching heart and tears that sting your eyes. It’s a book that won’t gather dust on your bookshelf and it’s a book that deserves to be reread and reread, the reader hoping for all those ‘what if’s and ‘only if’s Nihil keeps wishing for.

"Love is for the person who loves, not for the one who is loved."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dear Buddhist monks,

I don't think temples are really asking us to send them our ideas and suggestions, but as a Buddhist, these are some of the things I would like monks to focus on.

1. Majority-minority
I don't understand why numbers matter, especially since we use them to claim ownership of land which contradicts what the Buddha said about ownership. Anyway, if Buddhists are worried about the now-minorities soon becoming the majority, then you need to focus on why that's happening, instead of trying to kill each other.
It could be that there are less Buddhists. This is understandable since the protectors of the Dhamma are no longer doing a good job. So less reasons to believe, less in number and less reasons to claim ownership of land.
It could also be that forced conversion is taking place. If this is happening, do something about it because while you are shouting like lunatics about Halal and shawls, there are people being forced to convert to other religions.
Give us a reason to believe. I wouldn't give into conversion simply because I don't believe in other faiths. I was born a Buddhist, but I also choose to be a Buddhist. This is because I know what Buddhism is all about and I want to live by the Dhamma. Give people a reasons to believe and then you wouldn't have to worry about becoming the minority.

2. Them gods
So I don't believe gods have super powers. If they do exist, it's just as a different life form. I don't understand why there are dewalas in temples. I know so many Buddhists who first pray to the gods and offer fruit and money to those gods before offering flowers to the Buddha. When and why did this confusion of beliefs happen? If you are a true Buddhist, I don't see how you can think some god can change the way things are.

So Buddhist monks, can we please let Buddhists know that the god they are depending so much on could be a completely different life form now?

3. Behavior and attire
I went to a temple/dewalaya recently. There were people in leopard print dresses, hot pink tight pants, short tops, beach shorts. It looked like a carnival. And let's say we don't let their clothes bother us, well, their behavior. It was a place of worship and yet they were shouting, screaming, pushing, stepping on toes, leaving lit joss sticks everywhere, dropping flowers, leaving bags and wrappers on counters and so much more.
I was once at the Kaluthara Bodhiya. A young couple was listening to something, sharing a headset. A monk saw them and asked them what they were listening to. They sheepishly answered that they were listening to music. Like, why are you listening to music in a temple?

4. Meat eating and alcohol consumption
So the orange robed monks and the dressed in full white Buddhists make meat eating and consumption of alcohol seem like a crime. Oh save that poor cow, they say, comparing the four legged creature to our mothers. But then they say nothing about rape, abuse, cheating, theft and all the other things that keep happening in this world. Oh the poor man shouldn't drink toddy but it's okay for the rich guys who travel in those SUVs to rape thirteen year old girls and boys?

5. Sangha bedaya
Can we agree on one type of Buddhism? Can we agree on one set of rules and regulations and traditions and rituals? Before we talk about a larger Buddhist population, we should get the sangha to act as one and not create their own religions and followers.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Opinions, insults and comments

Constructive criticism is supposed to help. The truth is encouraged because lying is sinful.
Negative comments are a big no, people say.

Looking at most pictures that people post on Facebook, my first thought is "dear Jesus, who would upload such an ugly picture of themselves?" I see outfits people wear and think how terribly matched they are. Do I say these things to the people concerned or any other person? No. I keep my opinions to myself, especially if they are negative, if they are hurtful.

However, not many do this. While calling someone ugly is considered extremely offensive, calling them an idiot seems okay. Why? Because everyone is beautiful but not everyone is smart.

As a human, would you like it if people left comments on your pictures calling you fat, ugly or disgusting?

As a photographer, would you like it if people told you, in a public forum, that your photographs suck? That you are better off selling your camera and working at a fast food joint instead?

And as this is something I too go through,

As a writer, would you like it if people told you, in a public forum, that you can't write to save your life and the newspaper, magazine or blog you write for should stop publishing such meaningless crap?

We all have opinions. We all think our opinions matter. I guess, they do. But when you write your opinion, and people call you an idiot, you stop having an opinion. You stop thinking for yourself and instead, do and think and say what everyone else does.

Comments and messages. One, the world can see, the other is private. When you criticize someone, insult them and call them names in a public forum, ask yourself if you would want someone to tell this to you. If you spot mistakes, if you have some negative thing to say, send the person in concern a private message.

I can leave comments on people status updates, their pictures and various posts. I can be mean and hurtful and honest. But I don't leave such comments. I would rather compliment and praise than ridicule and insult. This isn't because I'm this amazing and good human being. It's because I'm selfish. Because I don't want that same thing to happen to me. I refrain from making rude and hurtful comments because I don't want such comments about stories I write.

Constructive criticism is good. No one is perfect, we all make mistakes. But we also have feelings. Being insulted and laughed at for not being good at what you do hurts. Trust me on this. It makes you want to stop what you do, even though you love doing it. I've considered putting a stop to my writing thanks to comments that have been made. I've considered not voicing my opinion, which I rarely do anyway, because of hurtful comments. And if they continue, there is a chance I'll stop doing what I love doing.

We live in a world where calling someone ugly is treated like committing murder but insulting someone's creation is considered being honest. Think twice before you post those mean comments. You could be the reason someone stops doing what they love.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


There are reasons. Reasons enough to explain. Reasons that are mere excuses. Reasons that are half-truth. Reasons that are desperate attempts of explanation. There are reasons silly or serious, real or made up.
There are reasons. So few at times, they feel unreal. Too many at times, the word sounds too familiar to be with meaning. Reasons abandon us. Reasons suffocate us.
There are reasons. Reasons to stay. Reasons to leave. Reasons that make us want to hold on. Reasons that make us let go. Reasons to say hello. Reasons to bid farewell.