The writer and Naamal Fernando enjoying some light moments at Jetwing Lagoon
My reward for winning the My Island photography contest was a day’s stay at the Jetwing Lagoon, Negombo hotel on bed and breakfast basis.
I asked my family members to go. But, due to Covid 19 and other concerns, they declined.
I worked long ago in tourism and have stayed in all the five-star hotels in this country except those which came up in the last decade. I left tourism because I got tired of its monotony and false values. Staying in a luxury resort doesn’t excite me any more.
But things are different today. I’m exhausted and eager for change after two years of the pandemic.
I also had a dream. For many years, I wanted to take my guitar, sing and enjoy music with friends at the seaside. I have tried several times to do this. Each time, the planned event got cancelled at the last minute. Someone has a funeral, or falls sick, or some disaster happens. But I kept dreaming.
"I also had a dream. For many years, I wanted to take my guitar, sing and enjoy music with friends at the seaside"
So, I decided not to let this opportunity pass. On Sunday, I travelled to Jetwing Lagoon, taking along my guitar. I invited my old friend Naamal Fernando from Pitipana. Believe it or not, he had to attend a funeral (!!!), but came and stayed with me till 11 pm.
It was a great night. Naamal is a wonderful companion, faithful friend, my diving instructor and environmental activist who would defend the Negombo Lagoon and its flora and fauna with his life.
But it turned out to be an amazing night. I discovered that he can sing very well. We have been friends for two decades, but I didn’t know that he can sing. He has a superb voice ranging from tenor to baritone. With absolutely no training in music, he has an instinctive grasp of pitching. Above all, he sings with great feeling. Perhaps he is genetically gifted, as his father belonged to the Negombo nadagam tradition. But it amazes me that he has never displayed his gift for singing to me. Anyone with a voice like that would be working hard to produce a music CD, or at least go on You Tube!
We sang together till eleven (we had to remove our masks to sing, but we kept social distancing, and there was no one else in sight).
He is also a marvellous storyteller, and began reminiscing about his fishing and diving days in Thiriyaya, Trincomalee. Thiriyaya brings back vivid memories to me. In the mid 1980s, I didn’t know Naamal, but went there with a lorry load of fishermen working for a big time merchant called Martin Wevaldeniya in a rickety old BMC lorry, and spent an unforgettable night on the beach wadiya.
"A long time dream came true for me that night, and I earned that chance because of my talent and hard work, not because of any political or business contacts or kickoffs. I am proud of it"
All the fisherfolk were Catholics, but there was a single young Buddhist called Shantha. From a farming family in Kegalle, he said he wanted to try fishing for a change. I wrote a feature for the Island newspaper about them.
A few months later, Martin Wevaldeniya told me that Shantha and most of those fishermen were abducted by the LTTE in Thiriyaya. They were never heard of again, and the wadiya was abandoned.
As Naamal talked, I had a sense of time travel – this was a page out of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, where Conrad’s narrator Kurtz narrates enthralling tales of the sea to a captive audience under a starlit tropical sky in Malaya. The rainy skies of morning had blessedly cleared by night, and the lagoon looked serene and lovely.
Naamal talked of his friendship with H. R. Jothipala in the 1980s, the time when his fame was at its peak. Jothi married into a Burgher family from Kuchchiveli near Trincomalee. One day, Naamal was out fishing when a Land Rover stopped by. It was Jothi’s brother-in-law Robert, asking if Naamal could get him a few lobsters. Robert was reputed locally for treating serpent bites.
"Sea breeze, nature’s voices, good company and good music in a blissfully warm and tender night – what more can anyone ask for?"
Naamal obliged. As the friendship grew, Naamal was invited home and introduced to Jothi. The two hit it along right away, and got into the habit of singing together while having a drink.
As we sang Jothi’s hit song ‘Honda siriyavayi akase,’ Naamal laughed and said he and Jothi used to sing that together often.
“But the day of his funeral,” Naamal told me, “I couldn’t even get anywhere near the body. The crowds were so big.”
After he left, I sat there watching the flickering lights far away and listening to the lagoon’s mysterious voices.
Sea breeze, nature’s voices, good company and good music in a blissfully warm and tender night – what more can anyone ask for?
We have been through two tough years. The year ahead is even harder. It’s scary. I don’t know in what shape I will be by this time next year. The pandemic has taken its toll. But I’m glad about one thing. Sometimes, it takes us a long time to realise even something simple. The odds are against us, society has other priorities. But a long time dream came true for me that night, and I earned that chance because of my talent and hard work, not because of any political or business contacts or kickoffs. I am proud of it.
Naamal in his diving gear