Island Cricket

Monday, November 5, 2007

A cunning plan | A Letter from England

Originally published by the Daily Times of Pakistan.

For such a small island, especially one with a civil war going on for the last 25 years, Sri Lanka contains a remarkably large number of first-rate artists, architects and designers.

As I watched the Pakistani cricket team commit hara-kiri in the decider against South Africa the other day, my son Shakir kept reassuring me by saying there had to be a cunning plan in the captain’s mind. After we had pulled defeat from the jaws of victory in a team effort that saw six wickets falling for 20 runs, skipper Shoaib Malik revealed the ‘cunning plan’ at a post-match conference.

“This defeat,” he declared, “will help us in our coming series against India. Now we will know what mistakes to avoid.”

I knew there had to be a method to the team’s madness. Now all we have to do is to throw away our wickets to the Indians, and that will prepare us to take on the Australians, or whoever we play next. Soon, we will be ready to take on Bangladesh, and when we have lost against them, we will be favourites for the World Cup...

Currently Sri Lanka is touring Australia, where win or lose, they won’t roll over before the Aussie juggernaut. In short, they won’t be as well prepared as we will be for the next World Cup. At present, the island nation has little to cheer about apart from their cricket team’s performance.

And yet, despite the interminable civil war, the people are resilient and get on with life.

When I was there last week, I rang my friend Neloufer de Mel, a professor of English, and author of two books on gender issues and popular culture. She invited me to a pre-launch party for a book she had recently edited.

The guest of honour was Kumari Jaywardena, a remarkable ‘activist, feminist, labour historian and theoretician’, according to the blurb on the jacket. The book consists of a number of essays by well-known scholars about themes that have engaged Kumari Jaywardena’s attention during her long and illustrious career. There were a number of others at the dinner, including the ex-prime minister Ranil Wickremsinghe’s wife. One woman whose name escapes me just now is the UN secretary-general’s special assistant on child soldiers.

Kumari was warm and funny, protesting that the honour being conferred on her ‘made her seem old and retired’. In conversation, she mentioned that she was selling some old maps and prints at her house. I made a mental note of this as we have been looking for old things for our dream house; neither the lady wife nor I like the idea of a brand-new home, and are trying to soften the edges by putting as many old and familiar objects in it as we can.

So after my meeting with Amila at her office the next day, I mentioned the dinner with Kumari, and she said her house was very close by. On the way, Amila told me that Kumari’s house had been designed by Minnette de Silva, Sri Lanka’s first woman architect. Indeed, she was a pioneer in using the term ‘modern regional architecture’ some thirty years ago before this idiom became fashionable. When I entered Kumari’s house, I was struck by the open internal spaces that led on to an interior garden. The ceilings were vaulted and covered with beautifully polished wood.

Geoffery Bawa is the iconic Sri Lankan who has influenced a generation of architects around the world with his fusion of internal and external spaces, and his innovative use of local materials.

Nobody is a bigger admirer of his than David Robson who was head of the architecture department at Sussex University until a few years ago. He is the author of a stunning book about Bawa, where I was pleased to see the details of the architect’s last house on the beach near Tangalle, barely a hundred yards from where our folly is coming up.

Ever since the Sri Lanka project was conceived, David has been giving us suggestions and introducing us to local architects. He has now produced a follow-up to his first book called ‘Beyond Bawa’ in which he evaluates the country’s leading contemporary architects.

For such a small island, especially one with a civil war going on for the last 25 years, Sri Lanka contains a remarkably large number of first-rate artists, architects and designers. On every trip, I manage at least one visit to the Gallery Café at Paradise Road, my favourite restaurant in Colombo. Originally, it was Bawa’s studio, but when the great man suffered a stroke and began working out of his house, he agreed to let Shanth Fernando run it as a gallery and a shop, together with a small café.

However, over the years, the tail has come to wag the dog with the restaurant being packed most evenings. And to get in, you have to pass through the gallery that always has a new exhibition on whenever I have been there. Last week, there was a collection of paintings by a young artist where most of his subjects were powerful images of muscular men in the nude.

And the food, let me add, was excellent.

The writer is a freelance columnist

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