Saturday, January 24, 2015

Houses that pass away

Nothing lasts forever. Everything rots. Wastes away. Returns to dust. Always. This world is subject to the vicissitudes of time and space, after all. Nothing new there. We are born. We live. We suffer. We die. That's it.

It's the same thing with the world and what's in it. Death is inevitable. It can't be erased. Ever. Inanimate things too are subject to this eternal verity. They are created by man and killed by carelessness or neglect. They have stories to tell. Years behind them.

It's not easy to hear them, though. We need to listen closer. They die a thousand deaths, after all. Not like people. They die every time we are careless. Take houses, for instance. Take the place you live. What if you stopped tending to it? Wouldn't it rot away? Wouldn't it die? Wouldn't it go down with dust and ash?

That's the way with houses. They are older than us. Older than the years they have been built. They age quickly. Die soon. And are also reborn. But that's rare. They are in a twilight world, between care and carelessness. In another sense, however, they don't pass off. Not that easily. They are just remembered. Your heart resides in them, after all. Even after they die.

So when houses rot away, and we look at them, thinking about those glorious days gone by, we are sad. But that's life. Things don't stay put. Ancestral homes, whenever they are abandoned, are condemned. Even with care and money, they cannot be saved. They are sick. Maimed. They cannot linger. The new must consume them. It can't be otherwise. That's the inevitable ata lo dahama (eight vicissitudes of life).

But places aren't abandoned that easily. We try to regain them. Whenever the old order is threatened, whenever the new order comes in, we try to hang on to what must leave. Houses therefore aren't just places where your heart resides. They are symbols. Symbols of the past gone by. Icons and museum pieces for the new order to come.

Virginia Woolf's novel, To the Lighthouse, describes the process of death and decay in a house. At night, after everyone goes to sleep, invisible forces come in to try and whisk it away. But not everything. "Whatever else may perish and disappear, what stays lies here is steadfast," Woolf says, writing about those who sleep within. Those who reside, she writes, give life to what they reside in. After they leave. after what they leave is abandoned, nothing stays steadfast. Everything is doomed. Everything.

Martin Wickramasinghe's seminal novel Gamperaliya describes the same thing, but more intimately, closer to home. The Kaisaruvatte walauwwa symbolises the aristocracy. It breaks apart. Those who live in it refuse to rebuild it. They refuse the help of Piyal, who has risen up into the new order. Money can't save it. It can't be given artificial life. It must die. On its own. Naturally.

I don't know where my mahagedara is. It's somewhere in the South, like the Kaisaruvatte walauwwa. The years may have consumed it. I'm not sure. But I have seen another house. Another mahagedara. Everything around it is decaying. The trees are overgrown. They creep around you. Shriek at you. Horrify you. They entangle the house, turning it into a sick, maimed mess overnight.

I am reminded of another book here. Also close to home. Leonard Woolf's Village in the Jungle. Looking at this house, and how nature has overpowered it, I reflect on this passage: "The jungle was bursting through the walls, overwhelming the house from above. The jungle moved within the walls: at last they crumbled; the tiled roof fell in."

The tiled roof has indeed fallen in. I see sunlight streaming through what remains of it. I also see grimed walls. Muddy floors. It's almost as though the house has fallen from grace. This must be some divine fate, I think to myself. For I am overwhelmed. If a few months of abandon have done what I have seen, what would another year or two do?

We can't predict everything. Ever. We can't see the future. All we know is that everything in this world, living or not, is subject to growth and decay. The ata lo dahama. The eternal verities. We can't best them. They take us. And our homes. Can we ever preserve them? Maybe. I don't know. Technology can do only that much after all. Beyond a certain point, we must give up, and let ourselves be subject to the world around.

Same thing with houses. The old die a painful death. The new emerge. Always. It takes time for new to become old, of course, but in this world of trends, we can't be sure that what is built today will linger tomorrow.

So beware. There are forces larger than you. And like the forest of Beddagama in Leonard Woolf's novel, they may overpower you. And with you, they may even take over your home.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 23 2015