Sunday, February 19, 2012

Born to Write: Samantha Modder

link up to published version

“I was born to write

You may not like what I have to say

Or the way that it is said

You may not think that it's the best

Thing you've ever read

But I was born to write

When emotions find the way

To be still in time and space

When hours pass and I feel alive

As each word falls into place

I know I was born to write…”

(Born to Write)

Samantha doesn’t know how or why she started writing; she’s simply always been doing it (her parents have poetry she wrote when she was four years old – when most of us were probably not sure how to spell anything!). “If you find something interesting you just write about it” she says simply, seemingly confused as to why anyone would be interested.

But then, it’s not every day that a nearly-17-year-old publishes her second collection of poetry. And not just any old collection of rhymes either. Though In a Head Like Mine features poems from when she was between 10 and 14, there’s quite some depth of thought in the works. ‘You From Where?’ and ‘Jesus, My Shooting Star’ for example deal with serious issues that are personally very important to Samantha: identity and Christianity. “I try to put a little bit of humour in it, but [Christianity] is a big part of who I am, so I’m not gonna joke about it” she tells me, matter-of-fact.

But more often than not, there’s lots of humour in what she writes. She pokes fun at her not-so-tech-savvy mum, her super-spy brother, her friends, and just picks up little things (homework, dust-balls, vegetables, cockroaches!) from everyday events, adds lots of wit and sarcasm, whips it together with tonnes of imaginative insanities and puts together a delightful concoction of unbelievably good poetry.

Samantha's cover illustration for her new collection

And then she illustrates them too! Samantha’s second love (after writing) is drawing, a flair for which she loves to show off. “That’s something I’m not embarrassed about” she laughs, explaining that since she simply draws images, and not what she feels, she’s not as self-conscious about her painting as her poetry. “The reason why this book took so long to come out was that I really didn’t wanna publish it” she admits, “I write for me, and if you read the stuff I write, then you know a lot about me, it’s very personal”.

She begins, in a mocking, super-flowery accent describing how her parents have “always been very supportive” (they have the kind of relationship that leaves no room for false emotion but plenty for good laughs) but gets serious with a truth she took “a long time” to realize. “I recognize the importance of not being ashamed of what you have”. Publishing has helped her share and assert the strength she receives from knowing that “this is what I do, and it’s good”.

How she switches modes, from playful to serious, confused to confident, reveals not only what seems an instinctive desire to “capture” and highlight moments (as she does with her poems) but also her love of treading the boards. “I love to act!” she smiles, a tad regretful though, that she doesn’t have more opportunity to do so. Now, we’re starting to think she’s one of those “perfect” girls from out of a movie. She has smooth but striking features and a slender figure, tops most of her classes, wins prizes, writes, acts, draws, sings a little, plays a little sports, and everyone seems to love her. But Samantha Modder defies the box I’ve arranged for her. “We got kicked out of here (the quiet little tea-shop where we’re having our highly animated and giggle-punctuated conversation) once for playing Uno” she tells me quietly, grinning broadly, “cus we were banging our hands down on the tables really loud and stuff”.

more pot than poet!

The story, in fact, is not all that difficult to believe. There is a persistent glint in young Miss Modder’s eyes that sparkle as they roam the area, seizing things up, and I learn, she is not fond of jewellery, heels, party dresses or shopping. She will most definitely not be stereotyped.


It’s quite likely that it is this quietly rebellious streak in her that makes Samantha’s writing so surprisingly mature and well-controlled, allowing her to see and represent the irregularities in everyday situations. “So this is what it feels like/To be alive” she writes at 13 years old, in ‘I Watched the Ball’, unexpectedly sensitive to the unintentionally marginalized, the true writer’s sensibility. These moments of what her father calls “thoughtful, creative calm” were not so frequent in her earlier works on aliens, haunted houses and panthers drinking Fanta, as they are now. The passion and intensity of a few more years added to her age are starting now to show on her notebook of scribbles and doodles;

“There's a pain deep inside me

That never goes away

It sits and hides quietly


For the moment, for the word

That will make it come

Gushing out

In hot salty tears

And tiny little gasps

Of air as I try to breathe…”


“Love?” we wonder aloud, to which the sweet-sixteen laughs. “I've never been in love, and I haven't imagined myself in love, AND I think that most people who think they're in love aren't really in love... So!” you really can’t expect her to be how you expect, or to feel uncomfortable that she is not what you expect, because in her own words;

in a more pensive mood“…right now, right here, this very place

I know what I must do

Sculpt these words and form these lines

'Cause I was born to write

For you.”

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Walk and Talk: Galle with Channa Daswatte

link up to published version

Sure, the Galle Literary Festival (GLF) is about books. Not Really. For a lot of people, especially those who’ve been attending the festival over a number of years, GLF is about discovery. Discovery not only of new authors and new books and new things about old authors and old books, but also ideas, people, perspectives. What GLF does is create the kind of atmosphere conducive to discussion, and if you’ve ever been to GLF you will know that Galle Fort has a huge role to play in that. You will know it best, if you’ve been on an ‘Excursion’ through the quaint old place with Channa Daswatte.

“I think it was simply because [this] is such a beautiful place” Channa says of the thinking behind the first GLF Excursion. This full-day outing which was part of the GLF schedule took participants all the way from Galle to Tangalle bay beach over nine hours, and thus seemed “untenable” a second time around. So it was decided that the second (2008) GLF Excursion would be a walk around the Fort. “Of course by then I had already done quite a few projects in the Fort, so I had access to a few of the houses and people knew me so I could just walk up and say ‘Can I walk into your house?’ and they would say ‘Yes that's fine’” he continues the story “And that's what we did.”

In what comes across as a characteristically carefree vein he jokes that by 2010 “they (GLF) decided they’d had enough of me walking”. So that year’s GLF excursion was, in fact, not a literal one but a figurative one which took the form of an audio-visual presentation ‘A Room of Their Own’ (ringing quite aptly of Forster!) by Channa Daswatte – a look, he says, at architects’ houses. And though 2011 saw an enthusiastic return of the walk around the Galle Fort, by the time GLF plans for 2012 were being discussed, Channa confides, the thought of another walk was “really, really boring, for me”.

So together with Jetwing, GLF organized what the architect (The Architect!) calls “a sort-of part-tour of the suburbs of Galle”, looking at the variety of influences on architecture “a stone’s throw” from the Fort. The sites Channa chose for this year’s tour, he says, embody “how people began to decorate their buildings taking fashion cues from other religions, other cultures” and in these borrowings “created a very beautiful architecture”. This sort of mixing and borrowing, he says (albeit hesitantly), is still common, although it happens with “a lot of bad taste”. What he sees as a problem in contemporary Sri Lankan architecture is that “there is no specific style that seems to be prevalent”. Seemingly regretful, he continues that “that's what comes of a democracy, when everyone has their opinion. I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but, most great architecture arises out of power and dictatorship”. Timeless wonders such as St. Peter’s Tomb and the Sistine Chapel, he points out, arose out of the Pope’s supremacy.

One reason for the popularity of the GLF Excursions is becoming clear. Channa Daswatte has tonnes of ideas to share, and be these on governance, identity, ambition or history, their figurative foundations lie in literal buildings. Plus he is articulate and witty, in a quiet sort of way. He seems to enjoy himself on the tours. “It has truly been good fun for the last six years, and I don't know whether they'll ask me next year, they may not!” he laughs. But the fact that the excursion tickets sell out “minutes” after they’re issued should clear all doubt. Not only is the tour entertaining, it is also informative in a way that tourist guide-books and Wikipedia simply are not.

One of the sites on this year’s excursion (and probably one of the most desired boutique hotels in the world!), The Dutch House, dates all the way back to 1730. What Channa is interested in bringing to our notice though, is how as far back as the 18th century, the “classic” Palladian plan (stylistic bent named after Venetian architect Andrea Palladio who drew inspiration from classical temples) is fused with patterns from the typical “Sri Lankan Sinhalese houses” to create something unique. A little later, around 1820, is built a similar house that was recently complemented by what Channa calls “tropical modernist style” additions to the garden by architect Kerry Hill, resulting in “[an] old house surrounded by these very beautiful, contemporary constructions”. The highlight for him though, is “a beautiful old temple”. It is “on the inside, a Sinhalese temple with the Buddha and all the paintings and so on of the southern school”, Channa describes, “but on the outside it's entirely decorated with the baroque, which you find in the Dutch-reformed church!” Another example of such unexpected similarity, he shares excitedly, is St. Mary’s Cathedral and the mosque just opposite the road from it, both with towers on either side, framing a similar main structure. But while the architect is seeing form, the inner child has begun to hear the tale of “how these things begin to work”.

Channa Daswatte is no architect or designer. He is a storyteller. “I can see myself retiring in some lovely old house somewhere, and telling stories to people” he smiles and, on second thought, laughs. “Every time I take people on this walk I try to tell a slightly different story”. So the theme of each tour is different, and “even if someone comes for all the tours, they're not doing the same tour”. Even when he is working on a new design, Channa is making stories. Of his latest project he says “it’s in Beruwela so it's got something to do with the Muslim culture that's there”. The story then, is about “how that gets integrated into the building – and suddenly there's a huge oculus in the middle of the building - oh, that's where the dome was, which collapsed into a garden and -” one can’t help but be caught up in the images he deftly conjures up in one mad flow. It is somewhat amusing but at the same time incredibly inspiring. “I try to live that story” he explains, adding that whether visitors to the building see his story for the place or not, “there's still something interesting that comes out of [it] - at least [for] myself”. But, “if that translates and is readable, to someone who comes in the building, then that's fantastic”.

Ultimately, he says, his work is “very openly eclectic”. He picks “different strands and threads” from different “cultures of understanding architecture” and puts them together, “enjoying how they relate and interact with each other.” He believes that the fact of there being “no identifiable style” to his work is a result of his philosophy on life as a celebration of diversity.

“I think we might not have so many problems if we accept each other for absolutely who we are” he says, simply. The Galle Fort too, he believes, we ought to see in the same way “absolutely for what it is...this wonderful mix of architecture[s] and culture[s]”. True Channa has special memories of Galle from his childhood holidays to his times as a student of, and understudy to Geoffrey Bawa, but what really draws him to the place is this fusion, what he likes to call the “mongrelism”, of the place. “We always call it the Dutch Fort when it’s really not the Dutch Fort. There’s very little ‘Dutch’ left of it. And to start with, it was built by the Portuguese, so it’s really the Portuguese Fort, of Galle – or wait, is it the British Fort!?” This confusion, this “wonderful, wonderful” mix of different periods and cultures he believes is what gives the old place “an architecture that is so rich” and its own special magic.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mama in her Kitchen

link up to published version

Yeah, we’re still on about Galle. But it’s impossible to make a trip down that way without dropping in at Mama’s. In a matter of months, Mama’s Cafe on Leyn Bahn Street in the Fort developed a flattering international reputation for its rice-and-curry. What sets it apart from tonnes of other similar places is the simple fact that there is no food like home-cooked food, because at Mama’s, it’s really Mama who cooks.

Malini Perera, in her simple skirt-and-blouse, is the shyest when I tell her everyone seems to just love her polos curry. She laughs quietly, because she doesn’t know how she “became” such a good cook, “I guess it’s something I’ve brought from birth”. What’s special about her cooking, she thinks, might be the spice. She buys the raw ingredients from the market and spends dear time washing, cleaning, drying and pounding it to the right consistency. The mix, she puts together intuitively and bottles for the next few weeks, sending some to her daughter’s store down the next street.

Her chicken and polos curries get special blends of curry powder prepared for them, but the other curries on the buffet line-up get the usual amu paha, turmeric, maldive fish, chillies, garlic, rampe, karapincha etc. They’re still so special because everything falls from Mama’s own hand, and as our mothers and grandmothers know, there is so much more in the hand that cooks than in the ingredients themselves. “I want everything right” she smiles, “the taste, the aroma, and I also need the food to look good” But it must be Malini’s simple generosity that makes her cooking irresistible – in her typically “Mama” way, she is not happy to let me leave without having eaten something, asking every few minutes whether I’ll not have some lunch, or “something small”, or even a drink from their extensive menu.

Mama’s Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, dinner, full course meals, snacks, and drinks and takes special pride in their Coconut Flang. To get to the food though, one must needs walk up the quaintest little wooden staircase that curls tightly upwards, past the guest rooms and little reading nooks to the rooftop. Wide windows, soft light, sea breeze and a view above the Fort rooftops to the sea... perfect for a chilled out meal in the heat of the midday sun.

Quietly managing the bustle of the place is Malini’s husband Jerome; the man behind the name “Mama’s”. Malini giggles shyly as she relates the story of how during the planning stages, Jerome would constantly be sharing his ideas with her. “He loves me so much, really” she smiles, “that every five minutes it was ‘Mama, mama, mama’” as he shared every little part of the plan with her “that’s just the way he is”. And so when it came to naming the restaurant/guest house, there were no two questions about it, Mama’s it was.

Malini and Jerome’s younger daughter, Dinesha, helps with the accounts it seems, and where the great food and comfy atmosphere come from is becoming obvious. It feels ridiculous to call the staff that wait the tables “waiters” because they are smiling away and genuinely happy to be serving you, as if it’s a simply matter of passing a dish down the table. It’s a simple case of having stepped into the Perera’s home to pay a visit and grab a bite.