Thursday, January 22, 2015

On getting lost in Fort

Michelangelo Antonioni's film L'Avventura has no real story. Two women meet in Rome. They go on a yacht to an island in Sicily with some friends. Nothing much happens. There's tension of course, and all that gets caught by the camera pretty quickly.

Soon enough, the tension reaches boiling point, and one of the two women (Anna) disappears. Just like that. Everyone looks for her, but even in the end, when two of her friends go to Sicily to find her and end up falling in love, we don't know where she is. She is lost. Forever.

The island looks forbidding, by the way. It's covered with rocks. And with no body found there, everyone is baffled. She may have committed suicide. She may have eloped. The island may have consumed her. Some places are like that, after all. Easy to get lost in. Without a trace. So easy that every time you go there, you look back to see whether those you've come with are there.

I am in Galle right now. The Fort. It's not easy to get lost here. Not easy to be consumed by nothingness and disappear. But I've been called a paranoid recluse all my life. Maybe that's why things look different to me. Places have stories to tell. The Fort has around 500 years to claim before it. It's been associated with conquest, reconquest, and bloodshed. And I am afraid.

There are battlements. Walls. Shrines. Houses. A clock tower. There are human beings like you and me, walking around, taking snapshots, and relishing the post-click moment. There are people basking in the sun, looking up to the sky and towards the distant fold in the sea.

There is happiness here.

I am constantly on the lookout, though. Things feel different. For me. There are statues of soldiers painted in white and green, and they seem to come alive. There are age-old inscriptions and youthful love verses on walls. There is defacement, and with both old and new graffiti, there is a sense of horror.

It's the past we see here. The past is a long time back. Where are those who inscribed? Have they gone on? Do the verses of love and history unburden themselves of those who wrote them and live long after they die? I don't know. I wish I did.

There are other things. They say that those who conquered us started with the Fort. I'm not sure how true this is. But there's no denying it: the Fort offers security. It is impenetrable. It has withstood disaster, natural and man-made. To control it is to control an entire people. I know I'm exaggerating here, but looking at those ramparts and cannon turrets, I can't help but think just how much protection would be afforded to the traitor who takes control of it.

The tower shows me the time. It's getting late. I must end here. But how? How am I to take my eyes from all what I have seen? The answer comes to me at once. I must go and see everything. So instead of getting out through the way I came in, I take the longer path around.

Things look different now. I am consoled by what I see. There are houses, shops, ordinary people going about their daily lives. They are smiling. All the time.

There are also buildings. Old and grimed. There are churches, most prominently the All Saints' Church, which faces a Buddhist shrine on the other side. It had been built according to Victorian architecture. Its Gothic feel unnerves me, as though it is a quirk that disturbs everything "modern" surrounding it.

Yes, I see nostalgia along these roads. But old is meeting new, and everything is coming together. There are old men, probably older than their years. There are children, carrying the burden of their grandparents, ambling along, still unused to where they live. There are also diverse faiths, a melting pot, and I see worshipers along their way to the daily prayer.

And finally, seeing all this, I leave.

It's not all that frightening, I think to myself. Maybe it's to do with my vertigo. You see, I'm afraid of heights. That's why, whenever I climb up the peak in the Fort, I think back on Antonioni's film. Anna's disappearance isn't explained. It cannot be explained. There are stories that have potholes and places that remind you of those potholes. As I look down from the peak, into an unforgiving abyss down below, my mind swirls. I am reminded of Anna.

But looking back up-to the peak (from where I am now), I laugh. There are 500 years inscribed on those walls. They have been defaced by the "පෙම් කවි" (love poems) of foolish youth. It is easy to get entangled in those years. I haven't. There is no reason for fear. No reason to be afraid.

I am still reminded of that island in Sicily. Italy after all is not far away from Portugal, Holland, and Britain, all of which captured us and structured the Fort I am leaving behind. Perhaps this is what terrifies me. I don't know. What I do know is this: there is history and treachery transcribed on those walls. They are meant to be faced up-to. So every time I go there and am reminded of Anna's plight in Antonioni's film, I will be ready. For now, however, I am done.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, January 22 2015