Thursday, 1 March 2012

Allegiance and an alphabet

I slip out of my guest house at dawn, to stretch my legs before the onset of the heat and humidity of the day. Watching a pair of purple-rumped sunbirds sprite about a butterfly-flowered Bauhinia I hear the cheery snap of a pale-billed flowerpecker who joins the sunbirds for a dawn fix of sugar. As I walk towards the old town of Negombo the neon lights of the beach-tourist strip fade and Sri Lanka herself begins, youthful, smile-eyed and devout. A boy whose newly-long legs poke from royal blue school shorts earnestly bows his head before an idol of the dying Christ. Across the street a tall man in a long lungi emerges from a wedding-cake temple, his ash-smeared forehead announcing his devotion to Lord Siva.

Buses of children, their faces barely big enough to hold their smiles, trundle cheerfully in all directions, no-one here in any doubt that education is an honour and a duty. All their uniforms are immaculately white, red or blue ribbons and ties declaring school allegiances. On signs and billboards everywhere English competes with the fat, contented curls of written Sinhala; competition and allegiance the seeming subtext of everything in this still riven country.

A crow clips me above the ear. This to my knowledge is only the fourth time I have been touched by a wild bird. Years ago in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, on one of my thousands of dawn walks, a roadside hawk thumped me on the back of my neck, with no provocation I could discern. In the Galápagos magnificent frigatebirds tip-touched me with their wings as, a deck below, the cook tossed scraps of fish for them. And on the rooftop of my grubby, familiar hotel in Delhi, where I have made friends, learned Bollywood songs, and stumbled over hours of Hindi conversation, a black kite whacked me about the head as I stood one evening watching the kabootar baz whistling to their fast-winged flocks of pigeons.

Walking back along the beach I see a gull-billed tern making lines along the surf. These gorgeous birds have always an air of composure and of competence about them. A professional tern if ever there was one, of a different mould from the jerky, tin-toy little tern and the shaggy, flap-winged Sandwich.

I still believe the most beautiful alphabet was created by the Sinhalese. The insect of ink curves into a shape that is almost sickle, spoon, eyelid. The letters are washed blunt glass which betrays no jaggedness. Sanskrit was governed by verticals, but its sharp grid features were not possible in Ceylon. Here the Ola leaves which people wrote on were too brittle. A straight line would cut apart the leaf and so a curling alphabet was derived from its Indian cousin. Moon coconut. The bones of a lover’s spine.

Michael Ondaatje
Running in the Family

New this morning


pale-billed flowerpecker
Dicaeum erythrorhynchos
gull-billed tern
Gelochelidon nilotica

2012 Totals
Mammals: 33
Birds: 342
Reptiles: 6
Amphibians: 3
Fish: 1

No comments:

Post a Comment