Neruda's '"Dusky Statue" In Wellawatta And An Airport In Chile


by Tissa Devendra

"Pablo Neruda was a Nobel Laureate whose poetry chronicled the lives and struggles of ordinary Latin Americans, and whose life was upheld as a symbol of resistance to

dictatorship. But a decision to rename Chile's busiest international airport after him has been met with outrage from human rights activists who argue that the honour is inappropriate for a man who admitted to rape in his Memoirs ....'The encounter was like that of a man and a statue; "[ News item -The Guardian UK]

This news item took my mind back to my short story "Brumpy's Daughter" where I spun a yarn around Neruda's sojourn ninety years ago in Colonial Ceylon. The 'dusky statue'who shared his 'lightning spasm of the flesh' was a young Tamil 'cooly' who cleaned toilets. My story gave her a name, Thangamma, a baby, ,Imelda,from Neruda, and a husband, Brumpy.

In my story Imelda grows up to be a lovely, accomplished young lady who becomes an officer in government service where she worked in my office. She is much admired by my Assistants but shows no interest in her admirers . She moved elsewhere and I had no news of her.

"Some years later I was at an FAO conference in Mexico. At the inevitable evening reception " A distinguished Chilean delegate walked up to me and introduced himself as Ronaldo Frei who had been an FAO Expert in Sri Lanka....He was accompanied by his wife, She was a handsome woman with an intriguing smile, who seemed strangely familiar. As she stretched out her hand to shake mine she said "Sir, can't you recognize me ? I am Imelda Ratnayaka who worked in Aluth Eliya Kachcheri." It was a seismic shock for me.....Ronaldo told me their story..He had always been enthralled with the poetry of Pablo Neruda and decided to come to Colombo to absorb the atmosphere his hero once strode in..He roamed the byways of Wellawatta armed with Neruda's Memoirs...His persistence paid off and he located Brumpy and Thangamma in Puhulweva. This led him back to Imelda whose olive Latin looks had first charmed him when he met her at an FAO meeting in Colombo. At last she had met her Prince Charming. And Ronaldo had won a living link with Pablo Neruda."

Postscript I never realized the pitfalls in mixing fact and fiction in a story till I received a phone call from London. The caller was a young English writer embarking on a biography of Pablo Neruda. He had read my story "Brumpy's Daughter" and pleaded with me to advise him how he could contact Neruda's daughter Imelda. My 'confession' would have broken his heart.

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