On Horseshoe Street, by Tissa
Devendra. Published by Vijitha Yapa Publications.Reviewed by Rajpal
Tissa Devendra lived the better part of his times in a spacious
era, and he lived a charmed life. I’m glad I am getting to
review his book in this column for more reasons than one.
gave me a copy of his earlier work to review -- and I never got
around to doing it. This obviously would not have endeared me to
Tissa but what he doesn’t know is that I wasn’t callous
reason I never finished it was simple. I intended to do a good review
But, time must be seized by the forelock, and my well intentioned
procrastination resulted in the book disappearing into a black hole
among my collection.
Tissa reminded me later, I said, truthfully, that I lost the book.
He smiled and sent me another one. But by that time, I wanted to
do an even better review, and put the review project on hold again.
Result: that never got done either, the upshot of which is that
Tissa Devendra never asked me to review any of his books again.
I should at least be glad that he is speaking to me. But he is that
kind of man: genial, and forgiving of human foibles. His writing
is testimony to that. Incidentally, this latest book was sent for
review by his publisher.
Tissa Devendra was brought up in Kandy and he went the straight
and narrow and always did the proper thing. He schooled at Dharmaraja
College -- essentially that is -- walked a girl back from school
keeping the obligatory ten paces behind her, and then graduated
to University – ate mas paang at Lion house - - and become
a Government Agent.
a kind of thing that any father would have wanted a son to do in
those days, and whatever Devendra can be accused of, he can hardly
be accused of being rebellious. But therein lies the catch.
man manages to pack into his years of public service so much adventure
that it would leave a Che Guvera wondering why he took a gun ---
and perished so early in the bargain.
gift is that he seemed to be of the bent that took a narcotic-high
from the seemingly mundane. This was from his early ears. His descriptions
of Horseshoe Street in Kandy (Cross Street actually but better known
as Ladang Veediya for reasons that can be guessed…) are nothing
short of magical. This book should be a collector’s item even
if it may never fall into short supply.
This was the time that Kandy schoolgirls -- the shy ones that Tissa
walked ten paces apart from -- feelingly warbled “There will
always be an England’’ to bolster the morale of British
troops here, and Tommies awkwardly kept their dates with painted
professionals at a place that’s called -- with misplaced fidelity
to the colonizer -- Brownrigg Street.Tissa also talks of his female
companions without being cloying, and this is in contrast to say
U. Karunatilleke who speaks of his wife in uxorious terms in his
own book Colombo Diary.
Devendra also writes of Palugama and Vanniyakumnbura off the town
of Badulla, and this part of his book is also in diary - - which
makes it eerily reminiscent of Karunatilleke’s jottings even
though only for a moment.
Devendra coaxes the salt out of the earth with his prose centered
around remote outposts such as Gomarankadawela, by recreating them
with nostalgia for the physical terrain as well as for the life
of the young swain just starting out: intellectually adequate, but
why Devendra was always flummoxed by characters such as Mrs. Ratnayake
who we learn is Pablo Neruda’s daughter from his famous liaison
with a Tamil ‘coolie’ woman. Neruda feverishly recounted
this in one of his latter jottings talking of the dusky statue with
whom he shared “the lightning spasms of the flesh.”
book is full of might have beens such as the ‘ink and paper’
romance in Colombo campus, but after a string of might have beens,
Devendra and his reader realize that what might have been would
not have been so poignant or bittersweet -- if not for what in fact
might have been that Devendra turned out to be a rebel a la Che
Guvera, or, wait a minute, even a la Manusinghe, the JVPer in one
of the later chapters who disappears only to reappear abruptly 25
years later -- by chance – in Washington. But eventually it
was what he was – a dedicated government Agent -- that made
Devendra’s life one hell of a ride.