The Land of Serendipity

D.J. Enright

  • The True Paradise by Gamini Salgado
    Carcanet, 192 pp, £14.95, May 1993, ISBN 1 85754 007 7

It was a different country that Gamini Salgado was born in: Ceylon, not unhappy Sri Lanka. The first chapter of these childhood memories tells of the hawkers who took turns outside the railway station: the dealer in pills for constipation, the palmist with his dogeared charts, the itinerant vendor of story books (‘he had a lovely high chanting voice, dreamy and faraway like a girl’s’), and best of all the snake-bite man, who appeared every Friday. His allure lay not in the pellets he was selling or in his dirty jokes, but in his cobra, ‘the most beautiful creature in the world’ and the boy’s first love, with ‘a gorgeous hood as large and bright as a lotus, with a beautiful brown ripple along the outside and a needle-bright flicker of tongue at the centre’. One day the cobra was gone, casting off her unworthy bedraggled master, but the boy dreamt of holding her in both his hands, ‘all the secret power of the universe coiled within that splendid shining body’.

‘The true paradises are the paradises one has lost.’ Proust didn’t mean that paradises have never existed, but that only when memory calls them up are they recognised as such. Paradise has to be lost before it can be gained. The young Buddhists couldn’t enjoy themselves catching fish, but they used to watch the Christian children fishing from the river-bank. Nor could they properly catch bait for their friends, though they might, speechlessly and as it were absent-mindedly, point out where the worms were by digging their toes into the mud. And all this to the accompaniment of basic religious debate: on one side, So your God lets innocent fish get killed?; on the other, Are you afraid that your great-grandmother has been reincarnated as a fish?

All religions need their little loopholes. Salgado tells how, at an alms-giving meal, an ascetic Buddhist monk, desiring a second helping of some dish, might remark casually that the reverend monk squatting next to him would appreciate a little more, even if his colleague’s plate was still full. The coded message would be at once understood and implemented. ‘We took in with our mother’s milk an abhorrence for taking life. Even today, I cannot without wincing swat a mosquito.’ On the rare occasions when illness required the use of eggs, these were sent to the Christians next door to be cracked.

‘So you want to fill the boy’s noddle with a lot of heathen rubbish about God and Jesus and crucifixions?’ Gamini’s grandfather would roar, hearing that his son, the author’s future father, proposed to study English at night school, but without making much effort to prevent this disaster. The Buddhist children envied the passion plays put on by Catholic fishermen and carpenters, though the Salgados were lucky in having an aunt who turned Christian through marriage to a doctor, and so, despite the absence of chimneys, there was always a chance of spotting a figure in a red cloak with a big white beard. The Buddhists had their own great festival, Vesak, which threw Christmas and saint’s-day processions into the shade: paper lanterns and archways richly decorated with pictures of the life of the Buddha, vividly described here, and notably the horrific representations, thanks to electricity, of the torments of hell. The punishment for lust featured a sinner climbing up a tree studded with jagged spikes in pursuit of a lovely maiden positioned at the top; when he arrived there, the girl suddenly reappeared at the foot of the tree, and down the poor man had to go. At any rate in its popular aspects, Buddhism isn’t the abstract, intellectual faith we tend to think it.

Living in a coastal village not far from Colombo, the family was modestly well off, enjoying the satisfactions of rural life without the miseries often assigned to the peasantry. The father, a civil servant and a devotee of both the Rationalist Press and horoscopes, was a great buyer and reader of books, mostly in English, among them Popular Mechanics, Gems of English Eloquence, Samuel Smiles, Marie Stopes, Dickens, Burns, Shakespeare and the Romantics, and, of course, that reciprocal compliment from the West, Sir Edwin Arnold’s poem, ‘The Light of Asia’. How these books, and the Victorian editions peddled from door to door, came to reach Ceylon was a mystery to the boy. His mother grumbled that his father already had enough of them to last him through who could say how many incarnations, though she too was fond of reading.

Once, armed with a wooden sword, Gamini used to play at driving the Tamils back across the sea to India. But by and large, it seems, difference of race they hardly knew under British rule, itself not too bothered with such niceties. There was a Tamil woman, with rings in her nose and bangles on her arms, who sold roasted nuts and various kinds of devilled pulse, whose accent in Sinhalese much amused the children; she was well liked because she gave credit. The cloth-seller was a Tamil too, ‘a huge black man dressed in spotless white’; it was from him that the boy first heard the mysterious names pertaining to feminine attire: par-pleen (poplin), aar-gan-dee (organdie), and nen-sook (nainsook, from Hindi, ‘delight to the eye’; ‘the fabric that caresses the skin’ as Joyce noted of Gerty MacDowell’s knickers). The third Tamil frequently encountered – and initially through the nostrils – was an indispensable employee of the urban council, the man who came to empty the lavatory buckets.

Not that life, or these memories of it, were wholly idyllic. The fall of Singapore was followed by Japanese air-raids. Posters appeared, urging people to DIG FOR VICTORY, apparently while wearing trousers and boots. And Gamini was hauled into court for riding on the footboard of a crowded train without authorisation during wartime; he gave a fictitious name, Stephen Dedalus – taken down as Stephen D. Dallas – from a book he had just been reading. Earlier the boy had gathered that promiscuous behaviour – one of the things he vowed to abstain from – was to do with disobeying one’s parents. Now sex began to rear its neck, no longer in the shape of a cobra’s hood, helped on by the school servant, nicknamed The Universal Encyclopaedia of Sex, a one-man show far more instructive than the diagrams in Married Love. The great dare among the youths was contriving to touch up a passing Wren; this could be a dangerous operation – once, attempting to make contact with a Wren travelling in a rickshaw, Gamini caught the rickshaw man on his jaw – and he was saved yet again by literature, by Keats’s observation that while heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are sweeter. Saved for a while.

His long ‘enchantment with England and things English’ was barely tarnished by anti-imperialist resentment, and after the death of his mother, and the common realisation of how much he had loved her, despite those no doubt well-earned canings, and how little he had shown it, the enchantment prevailed. Through ‘a fine mixture of the fortuitous and the inevitable’ in which the inevitable must have been the stronger element, he made his way to England – the year before Ceylon attained self-government – to Nottingham, where he went on to obtain a doctorate in (almost inevitably) the poetry of Lawrence. His first teaching post was in Singapore, the next (I recall reluctantly writing a reference for him) in Belfast, then Sussex, and finally, in 1977, as Professor of English at Exeter. He died in 1985, at the age of 56.

As Michael Schmidt remarks in his preface, posthumous publication often has an air of piety about it. Not in this case. The pieces in The True Paradise have been sparely and efficiently edited by Salgado’s widow, Fenella Copplestone, who has had the excellent idea of ending with his inaugural lecture at Exeter University. Such exercises offer a chance to show off, though since you’ve got the job you don’t really need to. Notwithstanding the title, ‘Shakespeare and Myself’, and charmer as he could be, Salgado wasn’t preening. The lecture shows in the simplest, most direct way, how his background, his origins, served him so well: literature truly meant something, and a lot, to him, it was not a commodity to be cleverly played with, or a means to petty professional self-aggrandisement. The study of literature, he said, is best done in ordinary language, ‘adapted, where appropriate, to the requirements of formal prose’, for literature is ‘the most comprehensive and eloquent body of human meanings we possess and human meanings can only be expressed through, by, and for human beings.’ When education is hard come by, you are not tempted to throw it away.

In the lecture he was trying, he said, to deal with the topic in a spirit of cheerfulness, ‘though philosophy would keep breaking in’. And in his closing sentence he confessed that, contrary to tradition, it was not one of his youthful ambitions to become a professor of English. ‘What I really wanted to be was a snake-charmer.’