Metamorphoses: Sri Lanka |

Trincomalee: The Lost Photographs

Liz Fernando

This is a work about a journey through my father’s memories – a journey to a place where the objective of a photograph ponders an evolving interplay between its fragile and fugitive existence. At a personal as well as academic level, my own research into the role of photography in South Asia highlights the different meanings that photography inhabits, often dealing with the notions of memory wherein the personal archive occupies a fundamental space, both aesthetically and practically within non-western cultures. Trincomalee in Sri Lanka became synonymous with the war-ravaged northern region. In contrast, my father’s stories are not nostalgic ruminations on its political history but naïve and beautiful little conversational episodes between a Tamil girl and a Sinhalese boy, describing a childhood lived in innocence, free from existing social restrictions. It is a visual journey to a forgotten past preserved in my mind’s eye through precious oral histories relayed by my father. Though they are at times ambiguous and ungraspable, I have tried to formulate them in to touchable and palpable pictorial narratives that I feel are essential for cultural change and social development within Sri Lanka. The text, an extract from a larger piece of writing, oscillates between the present and the past, dealing with memories that linger and continue to haunt.

The earliest memory. Bold letters.
Destination: Trincomalee
Early morning on a November day. The whispering waves of the Gulf of Mannar feel as close as the familiar calling of the crows. Every step closer to Trincomalee, the words around me turned into something alien. Fifty years ago, Badra the maid used words unknown to me but she did not speak the language he speaks to me. I excavate into his mind searching for memories…

Suddenly he begins to sing; his arms mimicking Kathakali dance movements and for the first time I hear him speaking the forgotten language of his childhood…. ‘Pachaikili Paduthu’. I dance and sing with him like I have seen in the Tamil movies, my skirt, whirling with the shiny bangles on my wrists, tinkling and, yet his eyes cannot not follow me. I close my eyes but the wheels of time constantly turn around. Dust and wind blow around my ears. I see a dense green rushing past. Harsh sunlight breaks into soft shadows.

That voice, over and over again. Penetrating my sleep. Carrying me away. Breathing softly into my ear. Her voice floating from the temple, Hindi words interjecting ever so often. Her voice wakes me, my eyes still bleary; it comes closer, from the brimming market nearby. I follow the small path. Small, bare feet, my own, running, faster and faster, following Chandra and the soft clink of her bangles. I heard the tinkling of bells, fixed on delicate chains running around her fragile ankles while she dances.

His dark brown eyes like little buttons look at me and he gives me
his warm hand. We start singing, and his mother claps her hands, leaning against
the door at Moor Street 60/3, Trincomalee.

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