The Brits left behind lingering memories of inferiority within the Sri Lankan culture.
One of these was our relentless desire to be like them. It’s the kind of globalized f*cked-up left in the aftermath of being conquered—colonized minds.
A deepening patriarchy settled over us like nightfall. Unlit and translucent, it hung around and between us as though a secret. Our culture—once shimmering with wisdom—pulsed with it.
Now we measure our worth by profit margins, billionaires, and beauty queens. Perhaps the whole world entered a collective coma when we took flight from our bodies and entered into our minds as a means of escape. Colonialism followed by capitalism was one of those waves on which our disconnection rode.
It is to this world I was born. And as far back as I can remember, I was at war with it.
Only in the presence of my paternal grandmother did the tug and pull of my parent’s colonized ambitions seem absent. I felt at home with her, free to roam the fenceless yard. To lie on my belly for hours and watch in awe as dung beetles sculpted perfect, round dung pellets and rolled them across the yard. She allowed questions like, “Where did they learn that? How do they know what to do?” to form and melt.
My grandmother did not offer ready-made, off the shelf answers to my questions. In the silence, they were allowed to metabolize.
I gazed into the weaver birds’ beautifully-crafted nests. I peered into the intricate rooms within them and fell in love with nature’s multidimensional intelligence. No words or understanding were required. I observed how the slither of a rat snake through the knee-high grass made the entire backyard erupt into a frenzy of bird call. I spent hours in the stream with fish nipping at my heels. I swam with my cousins and dogs until the skin on my fingers shriveled like raisins.
At the end of each day, I dragged my sunburnt, exhausted body back to my grandmother’s house.
I lay a gunny-sacked, lumpy coir mattress and stare at the wooden beams above me. Sometimes I’d see a beady-eyed rat snake wrapped around one of the beams watching me and I’d scream. The snake would sense the commotion and slithered further up, falling to the ground with a thud. My grandmother gently swept the writhing mass of coils out of the house. Dogs and bare-bodied young boys in shorts chased it. Some ran behind the snake with kerosene oil-dipped rags tied to the end of a stick, like a giant q-tip. My grandmother yelled after them to leave the snake alone.
These sights and smells gradually seeped through my pores until they became inseparable from my being.
My grandmother revealed the contours of defenselessness to me. I call her a shaman of presence.
Perhaps she sensed the storms ahead in my life. Storms that were coming to pull my heart open and wash away the illusions so that it could hold rage and grief the size of a continent—hold them without falling apart. Perhaps she sensed the rage imprinted in my heart like a tattoo, even at that age.
She was a woman of few words, yet she had a profound impact on me. She was unschooled, unread, as yet uncolonized, but glowing with wisdom. On school holidays I watched her wake up at four a.m. to cook for the dogs and tend to Ratthi, the milk cow. I watched her tend to Ratthi with such reverence, long after she became an aging cow, that it made me cry. It was at my grandmother’s side that her beloved cow gasped her last breath.
And it was on a humid August afternoon when I was five years old that my grandmother anchored me to the earth.
Her wispy form wrapped in a cotton cloth abloom with tiny blue flowers, white blouse held together with three silver safety-pins, glorious weather-beaten face, a collapsing mouth for a lack of teeth, eyes that absorbed you in kindness like an amoeba and a smile that held the stars, moon and the earth.
That afternoon, she offered me something precious.
We walked along raised footpaths through the marshy paddy fields with the scent of wet earth in our nostrils, past the tiny lilac puffs on the touch-me-nots that shriveled in protest at the brush of our feet—hers bare, mine Bata-slippered—beyond the dead skin of a snake, cast off like an old sock.
We stepped into the verdant rainforest. It heaved and breathed like a mythical creature. Its ancient breath swallowed us whole. We carried nothing to protect ourselves.
We walked through a clearing where they used to plant corn. Suddenly I stood beneath an unblemished blue sky, the light blinding me. She pointed toward a tree-house, a little platform where the men sang at night to keep the elephants and leopards away. We walked deeper into the bowels of the forest where black faced monkeys with silver beards screamed and darted between trees. Birds burst into a frantic flight while something slithered through the thicket. We stood still and breathed. Felt the forest breathing us. Expansion and contraction: a cosmic heartbeat.
Since that day, no animal, no matter how fierce or menacing, has had the power to scare me.
We walked on and hovered close to the wild elephants, with the smell of elephant dung close. I basked in their presence. Up close, they were the grandest and most majestic sight to my five-year-old self. That was the day I downloaded resilience. My fear of animals peeled off like a dead skin.
It is with hindsight I realize that this earthing experience has kept me sane through many difficult storms throughout my life—storms I felt were going to drive me to suicide. It is this vivid memory and the experience that directed me to listen to my still inner voice rather than the voices that came from the external world. That inner voice is what I listen to and trust today to guide me when I feel uncertain and insecure.
I was compelled to write about this experience not because I believe everyone should have a grandmother like mine or go on a shamanic walk in the rain forest, but because I believe in the power of the earth to root us in truth.
I realize now that our true material mother is the earth. The connections we make with nature remain with us for good. They never leave us. Earth is the mother that never abandons us. No human can be that for us. It is no coincidence that earth and heart are spelled with the same letters. They are intimately connected to one another. They reflect one another. The state of the earth and the state of our collective heart are one.
Everything material we are and have comes from her. In our relentless pursuit of wealth, we have forgotten this simple truth. Even our inventions, such as the camera and television are rooted in natural phenomena. Now in the midst of Standing Rock—which seems to reflect stillness—it is good to remember the earth and the forgotten people who stand for her, those we dismiss as insignificant because they do not fit with the images of “success and prosperity” we are fed daily by the external world.
Perhaps the world we take our cues from is mad and illusory. It is time to listen to our own voices and take our cues from within.
Author: Nely Fernando
Image: Alexandre Chamon/Unsplash
Apprentice Editor: Molly Murphy/Editor: Khara-Jade Warren