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No. 22: Doing time in Heaven

One thing I learnt in the Indian sub-tropics is that you cannot decapitate Buddha and hope to get away with it.

Up until this catastrophic morning, I was blessed with a certainty of heaven's approval of my existence. Bougainvillea burst with scarlet joy in every corner of the country, jasmine hidden behind Bodhi trees mangroves sent its secret ecstasy on the breeze to me at dusk. Temple flowers fell at my feet, and found their way to my pillow at night.

On the coral white shores, Sinhalese boys collected shells and offered their extraordinary beauty for me to behold, and affirm with them that here, heaven was so bent towards earth that it could touch the ground and scrape the sea bed. At night when the stars outside gleamed through the jagged silhouettes of palm trees my room would be lit up by fireflies like floating neon planets. Frogs drummed out their song for the night creatures to work by, snakes mated, turtles buried their eggs in the sand, while I slept.

One morning, when the sun had risen its tangerine sphere above the veranda, and there was no more room for pineapple or paw paw, I knew it was time to pack my little canvas bag. My research into exotica for the next album was complete, the toucans were calling and the tuc tuc was waiting.

Perhaps the heat, or the disruption of actually having to do something caused an irritation that lead to a door being slammed, shocking the Buddha out of his meditative equanimity, off the shelf of his shrine and onto the floor, knocking off his head, on a stone bowl, as he landed.

The world of harmony stopped revolving.

Mortified, I stared at this disembodiment for a long time before I could pick him up. I had not previously paid much attention to this Buddha, for all I knew he could have held this repose for a thousand years. To my relief when I bent down and looked at the raw break of the neck it was clear he was made of chalk and brand spanking new!

Before dashing into town to find a replacement the Buddha had to be somehow disposed of. What to do with a headless god? If the surf had not so powerfully pounded the beach I could have buried him there with the assurance that it would not be long before he was eroded into the shingle. But the idea of him resurfacing in this macabre state was horrifying. So instead a tent shrine of dried palm leaves and driftwood was made for him at the grassy edge of the beach, his head with broken nose was balanced atop his body, still amazingly in the lotus position, for him to gaze out across the ocean, well, until a breeze picked up.

On the road to Colombo, windows and doors of roofless houses blown out by the tsunami created concrete picture frames for the scenes of tropical paradise beyond them. Feeling better for the wind in my hair, contemplating the colours of the country as they went chasing by I sighed, "I wish I didn't have to leave!" Herein is the superstition born out of that morning's disaster: that, if you decapitate a Buddha, you may make a wish and it will come true! Wise readers, you must know to be careful what you wish for...

That evening, while I spent the last of my rupees on cocktails at that Grand old bar in the Galle Face Hotel, my plane was taking off. It hadn't occurred to me to check the itinerary, ordinarily I rely on guessing, sometimes referred to as intuition, to get by in the world. On this occasion my instincts failed me.

When the hotel car dropped me off at the airport there was an eerie quiet to the place, only cleaners moved about in the terminal. The check-in counters were closed. No flights to European destinations were displayed on the departure screens. I was informed by the guards that I would have to return to Colombo and try to book another flight from the airline company there in the morning.

Hesitantly, unaccustomedly desolate, I stood outside by the empty taxi ranks, until a handsome young Tamil approached me and kindly offered to take me back.

There was no room at the Galle Face Hotel, where previously many sympathetic nights had been spent, so he drove to the Ceylon Continental, a five-star purgatory, gilded in plastic, afflicted with the cries of corporate karaoke. From my room on the thirteenth floor could be seen the pillared frontage of my glamorous old hotel across the deserted Galle Face Green, with palm trees leaning protectively around it.

I could also see outlines of soldiers on flat rooftops-turned-sentry-towers dotted across the city, their weaponry like lopsided steeples, and how regularly dispersed the military blockades were surrounding the hotel, queues of traffic forming before them as armed guards questioned each driver. Out at sea, motor torpedo boats patrolled the coastline. Crows continued to caw at one another. The night was heavy with the reality of a country at war with itself.

I was hungry. The dresses with me were crumpled and salty, lingerie torn, shoes frayed, hats misshapen. My personal portable telephone was debilitated and credit cards now exhausted. No money for calls, laundry service, drivers, coconut cocktails, or return flights to England, drat.

The sickening thought occurred to me that I might have to join the synthesizers downstairs and sing for my supper, but doubtless they had never heard of my songs, Gamine's international acclaim not yet having penetrated these parts. Success here was equivocal, what is Gamine without the pomp and circumstance of costumes and cars, her envoy, dressers, dogs and devotees? Nothing very special in a country already full of urchins.

Tomorrow, I would have to walk to the Embassy and explain my predicament in the hopes that they would repatriate me, but without a decent frock how could I? They simply would not open the gate and allow me in.

Helplessly, I gazed around the unfortunately-decorated hotel room. The wallpaper was a mixed mustard pattern, the foam bedspread had a flowered print in peach and lemon yellow, the carpet I tried not to look at, only the curtains were acceptable in coral taffeta, a better colour for dresses though, I thought to myself... hmm... maybe... if...I ran to the marbleised bathroom, yes the miniature sewing kit was there in its basket, but scissors... there was a beauty salon downstairs which would have decent shears, but it would be closed, in the current atmosphere of pessimism I was almost defeated.

Again I looked at the coral curtains and it dawned on me to take inspiration from the elegant ladies I had seen on this trip, I could make some sort of sari but with a European twist. Down came the curtains and I spent the rest of the night transforming them into a splendid interpretation of all I had seen.

Opportunely, being barefoot in old Ceylon is considered a sign of reverence and placidity, so, confident in my new regalia, that morning I headed for the embassy. I was greeted with the utmost respect and geniality. They wired England, where all that I confessed was confirmed, and allowed me to contact some of my wonderful friends. By the afternoon, my bank account was brimming with their generosity. There was nothing to do except continue to marvel at the serene beauty of the land, and hand out rupees to urchins, until another flight for me could be found.

Well, you will be glad to know that I am home now - my misadventure is hardly even worth relating - however, what I wish to convey is the contagious nature of disaster, how quickly it can spread to every part of a hitherto privileged existence. If it had not been for the redeeming rosiness of those curtains, goodness knows where I would be now.

Being penniless, hungry and poorly shod is not nearly as romantic as I expected. Poverty can find a place for any one of us at any time; it must be feared and respected. If you take one thing with you as you step out into the day, dear darlinghearts, make sure it is compassion.


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