The Buddha in Colombo

23 February 2007

The Buddha looked down at me in the murky temple. Nirpal Dhaliwal, a fellow writer going to speak at the Kitab Festival with me, explained that this was a good religion, a gentle religion, one that didn’t specialise in making you feel bad about yourself. I looked at the elephant munching at the sticks of grass in his pen, the carp swimming in their pool, smelt the incense drifting on the breeze, stared up at the crescent moon in the lilac twilight, and believed him. This was a religion about wonder.

In the museum, we were shown the world’s smallest Buddha, crouching behind a magnifying glass, and an ancient frozen motorcade of 1940s cars — both of which were part of the Buddha’s temple. Across the road, behind the screeching traffic, there was an old traction engine, mounted on a pedestal and not moving anywhere.

We had stopped off at Colombo, in Sri Lanka, on the way to Mumbai’s literary festival Kitab. Mina, the leader of our group, took us after the 10 hour journey into the city, having arranged a van and a hotel for us to have lunch in. The hotel was full of burnt Brits lounging around the pool, and an Indian man in uniform sitting at a desk underneath a palm tree, with the sea at his back, as he filed the hotel bills in his bureau. He looked surreal out on the lawn by himself, in his uniform, filing bits of paper. Toby Litt, one of the writers I had hooked up with, said: A Kafka clerk in the sun.’

I went swimming in the amazing blue outdoor pool, the palm trees above me, tasting the salty water which was filtered in from the sea.

I am now in Colombo airport, in the business lounge, writing this. I am not supposed to be here and have been asked to leave but have managed to sneak a fantastic head massage and a great curry.

We’ll board the plane soon and touch down in Mumbai at two in the morning.’

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