Saturday Magazine
Leila Hadley: Star Sapphires, metta and sansara

(Continued from last week)
When H. A. I. Goonetilleke first compiled the collection "Images of Sri Lanka through American Eyes, there were some essays that he did not include for reasons of space. Some enchanting letters by distinguished Americans who had been enthralled by the beauty of the land were thus left out in the bicentennial edition of "Images...".

The essays, which were not published are being serialised exclusively by The Island, appearing in successive issues of the Saturday Magazine.

In a speech made at the 1998 launch, Goonetilleke elaborated on why the essays had been excluded. The size of the manuscript overshot the extent of the budget. "I curtailed my enthusiasm and the resulting coat of many visages fitted his cloth in the end," he said.

The proprietor wandered out from the curtained chamber in the rear, where the cooking was done and, having wiped his hands on his sarong — which was all he was wearing — spat on the floor, shouted at the pye dogs fighting outside and asked what we wanted.

Flies swirled over the saffron-tinted curry puffs that Kippy ordered. The button-sized yolk was quite lost in the boiled egg that I ordered. Fat black crows bounce about the dirty floor scavenging our crumbs. I asked where there was a place we could stay. The proprietor cranked the handle of the station telephone, shouted into the mouthpiece, and reported that there was a vacancy at the government rest house. We drove there in the one taxi in town, a large Brougham automobile of ancient vintage, whimsically called a quick shaw.

The only other occupants of the rest house were two Indians, travelling salesmen for Peacock cigarettes. The food was standards country fare. Our dinner that night consisted of tepid mutton curry submerged in coconut oil, side dishes of plantain, jack fruit and rice, and a wedge of papaya served with a flourish by a red-sashed Tamil waiter in a white suit and a plastic bow tie. (Dried egg, of course, on the tines of the forks.) Afterward, coffee was brought to the lounge accompanied by a pitcher of boiled milk with a wrinkled piece of scum floating on top and a bowlful of rough gray sugar crystals that I had to stir the ants out of.

The lavatory on our floor was a disinfectant-smelling cubicle furnished with a wooden-seated pail and a bucket filled with sawdust. But our bedroom was large and high-ceilinged, everything white and fresh and perfumed with the fragrance of the champak tree in the courtyard below. The windows were without screens, so that at night the darkness of the room was streaked by the sulphur-yellow flares of fire beetles. Kippy and I went to sleep listening to the nocturnal chorale of cicadas, owls and tree frogs, and we were wakened by the retching brays of a donkey and the trilling descant of bulbuls and golden orioles coming to life in the champak tree.

The town of Ratnapura had one main street of hard-packed red earth, rutted with the wheel tracks of bullock carts, pitted with pot holes, and lined on either side with one-storied, open-fronted shops and dwellings, their doors and windows covered with bamboo blinds to keep out the sun. The mazing side streets were soft and muddied by the monsoon rains and piled high with decaying middens and urine-soaked refuse. The heat and the smell of open drains hung over the city like a pall. Wherever I went I was accosted by wheedling-voiced men importuning me to buy precious stones at bargain prices. They followed me down the streets like frenzied magicians, pulling topazes out of their turbans and rubies out of their pockets.

In the afternoon of our second day in Ratnapura, Kippy and I were caught umbrellaless in a monsoon rainfall that came flinging down in sheets of water. We took shelter in the boutique of a Mohammedan lapidary by the name of Ismail. Mr. Ismail was seated at a rickety pigeonholed desk shuffling through his accounts and smoking a thin black cheroot stuck into the mouth of a dragon shaped ivory holder. He instantly sent a boy out into the rain to fetch us chairs and glasses of a sticky chemical-cherry mixture covered with circles of a bead-weighted muslin to keep out the wasps and the flies. He was a man of middle age with coarse, curly gray hair, a dark, pock-marked complexion and protruding, almost batrachian eyes. His white duck trousers held a knife-edge crease, and a fountain pen and pencil set were clipped to the brease pocket of his white shirt.

"Americans," he said dreamily. "I am so pleased to meet Americans. I am a great admirer of your cinema." He gestured to one wall covered with photographs and sepia magazine illustrations of Hollywood movie stars. Allowing his English to fall word by earnest word, he exclaimed over the wonders of America. He held the unshakable belief that all Americans were rich and that life in the United States was lived on a scale of cinematic extravagance. As he spoke, he clasped and unclasped his hands emotionally. His hands were like a woman’s, thin and fragile, with oval nails impeccably manicured and varnished with transparent pale pink polish.

After some little talk about America, we got down to the pleasant ritual of looking at the jewels Mr. Ismail had for sale. He seated me before a green baize-covered table out of the way of an assistant who was polishing a sapphire against a lapidary wheel. He switched on an overhead light, opened the door of a standing safe and removed several trays filled with small square paper packets fastened with elastic bands. The elastic bands were snapped off, and the heavy parchment wrapping, with much rich crackling, undone. Each packet revealed a linen square with its four corners tied in a knot. Mr. Ismail unknotted the linen squares and spread them before me in order of the value of the stones which they contained, the smaller, more common gems first — satiny moonstones, greeny-yellow cat’s eyes, garnets, cinnamon stones and rose spinels. Then a choice lot of tourmalines, topazes, aquamarines, chatoyant opals and glittering zircons. Mr. Ismail pinched up stone after stone with his jeweller’s tweezers and held the gems up to the light, counterpoising them against minuscule weights on a balance scale. His face was shuttered from expression, his voice cooing the prices.

Then he swept the lesser stones aside and laid before me an assortment of star sapphires and pigeon-blood rubies, the light quivering in their mounded depths, the most exquisite stones I had ever seen.
Continued next week