I book a ticket to Colombo on Sri Lankan Airlines. Somebody important must be expecting me. At the airport in Bangkok I’m upgraded to business class. I arrive in Bandaranike International Airport on June 30 just before noon. Nalaka meets me at the airport and takes me to an annex graced with a private garden in Bambalapitiya on Skelton Road in the home of an aristocratic old woman named Manel. I feel utterly at peace in Manel’s garden and don’t wish to move on to Batti where I’m told the Butterfly Garden has closed after twenty-two years of inspired conspiracy with the children of Batticaloa. Things are in sad shape there. Part of me doesn’t want to see it. But another part says, push on Po, you never know. This is the ancient isle of Serendip. Good luck, bad luck, who can say?
I’m enjoying the calm before the storm in Manel’s butterfly garden in Colombo before moving on to the embattled Butterfly Garden in Batticaloa. I sit on a stone bench enjoying morning coffee. An old Tamil gardener named Vellu shuffles about watering the trees, bushes and flowerbeds. A variety of butterflies are busy doing what butterflies do, fluttering, floating, sipping, dipping, dancing about on the breeze. The nearby jasmine and bougainvillea bushes are especially attractive to them. This garden is good for butterflies; good for the soul. The mind relaxes to such an extent I can say I’m not here at all, though in fact I’m more present than ever. No me, no mine, no here, no there. Just Manel’s garden.
Do you remember the Greek myth of Psyche and Cupid? Venus kills Psyche because her son Cupid, who is supposed to be spreading love throughout the world, is so besotted with Psyche’s beauty he neglects his duties in order to seduce her. Zeus countermands Venus’ intervention and makes Psyche – which also means ‘soul’ – immortal. She is usually represented by the wings of a butterfly to imitate the lightness and delicacy of the soul. Much as I would like to succumb to this enchantment it’s plain to see other wizards at work in the world besides butterflies. The wizards of war and Wall Street prefer skeletons dancing in the streets to Psyche and Cupid cavorting au naturel around the shrubbery and fountains.
Odd then isn’t it that Manel’s garden happens to be on Skelton Road in Colombo? Disquieting too, were not the harmonies of her garden so intoxicating. An ancient butterfly scripture reminds me that as long as I remain in one extreme of thought or the other I can never know oneness, and without that knowledge it is impossible to flutter, dip and soar, let alone fly free of earthbound angst. I drain my coffee cup and rise to meet the day. A Common Jezebel and Crimson Rose accompany me to the gate where a roughhewn granite globe of the earth inscribed with two words, nibanna on one side samsara on the other, pinpoint my position in the universe as precisely as any GPS device. A black and white preacher bird lands on the rock flicking his tail up and down indicating that I have just passed checkpoint inspection.
The first order of business in Colombo is to help initiate a small atelier, the Paint Drop Studio. Chaminda and his student from Crippled Crow Centre, Timi Miranda, are scaling up 14 paintings selected from hundreds of images in our Mystery Painting archive. They are planning a small exhibition starting on the Uduvap Full Moon Poya in December, which this year happens to coincide with Christmas. Timi being Catholic and Chaminda Buddhist the timing seems auspicious. I’m backing them with a small Garden Path grant to cover the costs of materials, framing, and transportation. Chaminda accompanied me to Batti this time to seek advice on selection of images and design in consultation with Master Kularaj from the Monkey’s Tale Centre. On the rotunda of the Monkey’s Tale Centre that night we discuss the long and the short of the planned exhibition. Chaminda waxes determined and doubtful by turn.
“You’ve got the stuff, Chaminda. Just put it out there for the world to see,” I tell him.
“In God’s hands,” he shrugs, devout Buddhist that he is.
“God? Who’s God?” I ask. “The bank manager?”
“No, definitely not,” says Chaminda.
“The art critic at the Daily News?”
“So? Who then? Pope Francis?”
“God is… sit down, shut up and …
“…hang on to your hat!”
He’s got the picture. In fact fourteen of them in the works!
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka
July 8, 2015