IN my mind's eye it's always morning at our kitchen window in Colombo. Just outside the window are three banana trees. The early sunlight bathes the broad green leaves and upturned fingers of golden fruit with a brightness that will fade as the day's heat settles. Overhead are the graceful arching fronds of coconut palms. The air is still fresh. Beyond the banana trees I can see over the wall into the neighbor's garden, where a trellis of flowering vine spills down off the side porch of the bright pink house. The window is my destination as I make my way through the dark shadowy hallway to the kitchen each morning. Our house servant, Manual, has preceded me, his bare feet padding silently along the same cool cement floor. Sometimes I arrive early, just before he opens the shutters. In the gloom, all that is visible is the pale white of his sarong and two white shirt sleeves reaching upward to release the shutter hooks. Then the morning bursts upon us. I linger at the window until Manual gently asks what I'll be doing to the eggs this morning.
Leonard Woolf says that our houses shape our lives. This was true of our house on De Kretser Place, in Sri Lanka's capital city. It sat on a corner where a small rickshaw lane intersected the narrow street. At the front and along the sides, windows opened out over a small garden. It was a modest house, indistinguishable from others around it except for a large jambu tree in the narrow side garden. The wall enclosing house and garden was barely chest high. Unlike walls in more prosperous parts of the city, the top was not embedded with menacing glass shards.
We found the house with the help of my husband's office staff. Sri Lanka was Ralph's first overseas posting as a newly hired field representative for CARE.
The owner was a Hindu doctor who was leaving the country temporarily. He rented it to us completely furnished. There were flowered curtains across each of six doors leading off the long living/dining room. Different-color curtains hung at the windows, and a third floral pattern covered the sofa set. In the middle of the dining room wall was an enormous picture of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Her presence was designed to ensure good fortune for the household.
Despite the furnishings, there was a basic grace to the house and a sense of harmony with the outdoors even in the tiny kitchen. In addition to the window, the kitchen had a small gas stove, a few cupboards, and a sink. The refrigerator was in the dining room. Manual had a small room next to the kitchen.
Except at night and during monsoon season, the barred windows of the house were always open. From very early morning until dark, the sounds of the neighborhood were part of our lives. First there would be the predawn roosters crowing. Then from next-door kitchens came the rhythmic thump of rice being pounded into flour for the breakfast hoppers, thin pancakes from rice flour.
While we ate breakfast the street noises floated in. Young men in white-cotton shirts and trousers hurried to catch buses at the junction. Schoolchildren in uniforms drifted along among them. There were women already on their way to market carrying empty baskets and sometimes, folded black umbrellas. Later they would return, umbrellas opened against the sun and baskets full of packages wrapped in newspaper.
All day the calls of street vendors rang out. Some used bells or other handmade noisemakers, but most simply used their voices. They ranged from high, piercing cries through melodious entreaties to low, rasping summonses. There were the knife and scissors sharpener, the shoe repairman, the bamboo-curtain maker, and a score of others whose unique calls gradually composed a familiar pattern.
A singsong of high-pitched voices and giggling announced that school was over and children were climbing in the jambu tree to pick the small green fruits and peek over the curtains into the Americans' house. The piano in the pink house next door signaled the practice hour of the two young daughters and reminded me to begin supper preparations.
We never lacked for visitors. There were the neighbors with whom I practiced Singhala and English and exchanged recipes. There were people we met through Ralph's work, and still others from weekend national-service work camps we participated in.
Our best friends were a Buddhist civil servant and his schoolteacher wife. Many was the evening our lights burned far into the night while the ceiling fan gently stirred sari hems, and the scent of jasmine floated in from the bush just under the front window.
Since then we have lived in other countries, acquired our own household furnishings, and raised a family. But the house in Colombo stayed with me. It did more than shape the form of the days I lived there. It taught me something about greeting the unfamiliar and about paying attention to the small fascinations of every day. In this sense it continued to shape my life for many years afterward.