Charles Dickens: A Victorian in Colombo

2012 marks Charles Dickens’ Bicentennial. As part of a worldwide celebration, the British Council in Sri Lanka asked five people to imagine what Dickens would write today (if he were in Colombo.)  Our answers are collected up on the Dickens Microwebsite

Charles Dickens is sweating profusely. He swelters, he cooks, he poaches gently in the heat and humidity of Colombo. With one hand, he wipes away the sweat that beads on the high, noble dome of his forehead.

He ignores me.

The three wheeler driver does not recognize him. His eyes are on the road, which he gazes on through a windshield decorated with stickers of Buddha and the goddess Lakshmi. They are resplendent, sitting in complete amiability side by side. It is nearing evening and Dickens has just finished tending to a twisting line of readers, all clutching his books, many of which are cheaply bound Sinhala and Tamil editions of David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (Price: Rs.180). Dickens is a little pleased, but he is more peeved.  Intellectual property rights are not of concern in Sri Lanka, he notes wryly to a smiling fan, but then stops his translator from conveying the message. His wrath has been sapped by the heat, and after years of campaigning he is resigned somewhat to the existence of piratebay and its cohorts.

My courage falters as I remember the copy of Bleak House nestled cosily in the Kindle in my bag, right there with all the other pirated e-books.  To distract us both, as we turn down onto Galle Road I ask him about the iOS and Android apps he helped design instead. (In one, you can save Little Nell, in the other you must help Pip become a gentleman by guiding him through a series of challenges, in yet a third, you are put to blacking shoes – the best players rub their touch screens with their index fingers so fast that all you can see is a blur.) He thinks they will be a fine addition to the merchandise he already sells – they’ll make him more than the stickers with quotes but less than the Swarovski crystal encrusted ‘Estella’ pendants. It’s tough being a novelist these days, he confesses, one must be a marketer as well. Certainly, he is good at it. He has more followers on Twitter than Lady Gaga.

Dickens is looking for inspiration. He will write about Sri Lanka when he leaves, and our tourist board is hoping he will be kinder to us than he was to the Americans. After all, the island’s inhabitants have come out (and paid) in the hundreds to hear him and to marvel at his skilled re-enactments. (Our hearts warmed as Tiny Tim was delivered from certain death; we cried out in horror as Nancy met her brutal end; we wept as Sydney Carton stepped forward to face the guillotine.)

I find it easy to believe that he charmed his fellow diners at the long table set up in Temple Trees. It is why he is to be given every consideration, just so that he will write something nice. Now that the war is over, we need those tourists to come. Dickens is assigned the most luxurious suite in a charming old hotel and every morning a smiling man who proudly lays claim to the title of ‘world’s oldest hospitality industry veteran’ sees him off on another adventure. He tours the museums, visits the National Archives and inspects the work of street artists on the newly renamed Nelum Pokuna Mawatha. He is given a bib and served lagoon crabs the size of his head.

He day dreams, savouring the glimpses of a dazzlingly blue ocean at the end of the thin long roads that lead to the sea.

He is introduced to the monks in a temple filled with rich carvings and convinces them to produce a modest sized Perahera for him, complete with a dozen drummers and dancers, prancing down the street ahead of elephants bedecked in yards of shimmering fabric. He gets lost for hours in the old city, where he discovers musty bookshops, tamarind juice and a pair of stylish second hand boots.

But Dickens soon tires. He will not ride in a motorcade anymore or let us take him snorkelling (though when we drive past Galle Face, he turns his head to the sea and lets the breeze tangle his long beard). Now, he looks away from the polished city. I wonder what the Minister thinks of Dickens’ intention to visit Slave Island today. There are no slaves there now, only citizens. Still, there’s no knowing what he will hear, down in the labyrinth where the children play cricket and the adults wait for their homes and their lives to be torn down as part of the city beautification program.

Dickens goes unrecognized, but the kindness in his eyes inspires trust. The children are the first to approach and then their parents follow. They tell a curious Dickens about what it is like to live in the Prime Minister’s backyard and how the land they live on is worth more with them off it. The long conflict brought its own insecurities, their windows shattered by a terrorist bomb, the occasional witch hunt for insurgents. Now there’s uncertainty of a different kind. This conversation and others are all conducted on the stoops of houses.  (Inside the tiny living rooms, Dickens feels claustrophobic and the permeable walls allow the voices of the neighbours to seep through.)

Its hours before Dickens realises he is hungry. I take him to visit the tiny shop run by Kabeer and his family of nine. There he is served a hot pastol; when he breaks it open a cloud of fragrant steam escapes out of a pastry envelope stuffed with spiced meat. Later, we walk back down to Galle Face with Kabeer and his friend Iqbal. Iqbal sells deep fried vadai adorned with prawns and whole crabs off his cart on the promenade. Howling children run across the green chasing airborne kites, lovers embrace discreetly behind umbrellas, groups of raucous boys in their underwear play on the narrow beach and down at the pier Dickens looks out over the water.

The next morning, Dickens oversleeps and we have to hurry to make our first appointment. The Welikada prison is opening its doors to him and he wants so much to meet the women incarcerated inside. He hears that the conditions are inhumane. That petty thief and murderess alike are packed in there together – jostling in a space meant for half their number. He hears that some have their children in there with them. He is first astonished, then somewhat repulsed when he is told that he will be an honoured guest at a fashion show where the inmates are to be models. He sits through it, but only barely. The women on the ramp keep their eyes trained downward.

It is the last time Dickens is left to his own devices. After the show is over, he is not allowed to approach the inmates, instead he is hustled away. Unfortunately, I have been exposed as an untrustworthy guide, he as a poor tourist. Now the rest of his trip is to be heavily curated; the great author is to be protected from any possibility of distress. Dickens rebels, but it does him no good. He returns home tanned, well fed and frustrated.

Once back in England, he begins to write: ‘There are times in Colombo where I am possessed of the conviction that I can taste the saltiness of the ocean on the breeze…and now I begin to suspect the very elements have followed me home.’

2 thoughts on “Charles Dickens: A Victorian in Colombo

  1. Wow. That was brilliant and fun. I doubt he will be kind to us after the prison tour but there’s sure to be some great satire. Huh. Wait, he probably won’t be allowed to saunter off on routes that deviate from the official ‘picture postcard paradise island’ tour, will he.

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