Almost every year, my (now very much diminished) family makes a trip to Ratnapura. It’s where we all came from – me, my mother, her family, my father, whatever’s left of his family, so like migrating birds, we inevitably reach one point in the year where there are a couple of dozen reasons to go visit. And so we do.
It’s not always on the same date. Sometimes it involves a wedding: sometimes a funeral: sometimes a dhaane, or alms-giving: sometimes it’s purely a social visit – these little trips that we make, all of us, to make sure people haven’t forgotten us yet. When I tag along, it’s not for love of the people: it’s for the love of the place.
You see, Ratnapura is beautiful. Never mind the fact that it’s far away. Never mind that it has one of highest crime rates in Sri Lanka. Ratnapura is a beautiful place. You start seeing it on the road, as the fields turn to forests and the forest turn into rubber plantations and these, too, begin to twist and blur into driveways cut into the side of the mountain, spiraling alternately into chic, professionally triple-teir designed homes or squat, brooding remnants of the colonial days. You see it as gray concrete and stone meld and fuse with green vines and trees.
You see it in the sky, which turns grey as you pass further in, like a permanent frown suspended over your head. There is no dust, unlike Colombo, nor is there the sunlight gleaming off apartments, or the rows of SUVs and BMWs parked at cafes.
No, here there are just miles of tar and concrete, roadside shacks that sell everything from a whole meal to cheap beedi; here there are no apartments, but instead fantastic houses, symbols of the power of gems, set so far apart from each other in gardens that would make an urbanite dream of cricket matches. Here there is a city that seems to absorb the people that walk its streets, turning them into mere figments of its own slow, somber imagination.
But pass the city. Go into the mountains. Kandy may be mountain country, but to me, few things beat Ratnapura’s mountains. Take one of the long, winding roads, snaking into cloud-kissed mountains. Go all the way up, to the point where the air becomes crystal clear and your ears pop slightly and you begin to see, for the first time, the other mountain, miles away, with nothing but a vast gulf of empty space and a steep drop between you. Go to where the mist lies and your cellphone stops working and your are disconnected from the incessant beeping, the ringing, the tinkle of Whatsapp mesages, the notifications and the missed calls.