Neluka’s‘balancing act’

Recommended by Neluka Silva

By Smriti Daniel

Neluka Silva could make a playwright of a ten-year-old. As the founder and director of Kids @ Play, this Professor in English believes theatre can teach her young protégés some valuable lessons. “The process of encouraging children to think and create their own plays through their own initiative gives them tremendous confidence and because it is a group effort, it also builds up the ability to work in a team.” A mother of two, she credits her elder daughter with having inspired her to work with children in the first place, but says she chose to carry on because of “the imagination and unbelievable creative ability” the children in the group displayed. Having been involved in English theatre since 1985, Neluka’s is clearly the voice of experience.

But it’s been sometime since Neluka trod the boards herself, and she is better known as the author of the collection ‘Our Neighbours and Other Stories’. Published last year, the book joins two others that carry her name: ‘The Rolled Back Beach - Stories from the Tsunami’ with Simon Harris and ‘The Gendered Nation: Contemporary Writing from South Asia’. Of the short story format she says, “I like the intensity of the short story – of concentrating on one situation with one or few characters.” Her only attempt at a novel, ‘The Choices We Make’ was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Prize in 1997 and is soon to be published under the title ‘The Iron Fence’. But had the book never made it to print, Neluka says it would not have changed her pleasure in having written it. Instead she prizes her writing as “a kind of escape” and says it allows her to indulge in something that is entirely her own.

Juggling her various interests leads Neluka to describe her life as a ‘balancing act’. She has just begun a new term with her drama group, and has plans to devise a play sometime next year. She also serves as the Head of the English Department at the University of Colombo. Is another novel in the offing? “At the moment, I don’t have an idea that I think can be developed into a novel form, but then I never planned to write short stories, so who knows?”

What to eat where:

I am a cheese addict, so the chicken and cheese roti at Hijra, with the hot, melted cheese and spicy chicken is real indulgence. I don’t think I’ve had cheese roti like that anywhere else.

We also take the girls quite regularly to 88 Chinese and love the seafood noodles and kankun and garlic. I can go through an entire dish of kankun and feel very resentful about sharing it! Since I am always on the run and don’t have time for proper breakfasts, stringhoppers, pol sambol, fish curry and potato curry, is sheer bliss. So when we travel, we stop off at wayside kades and have stringhopper breakfasts, which is something that I look forward to as much as the trip.

Where to visit:

Although my husband and I love foreign travel, since Sri Lanka has so much to offer, we try to explore new places whenever possible and, luckily, we have some adventurous friends, who have taken us to amazing places on some exciting, and sometimes, hair raising trips. Of all the travel, we did two trips this year which were really memorable. In April we went camping to Kumana and found a river in the middle of the forest that can only be described as paradise. The river was shallow, and the banks were lined with massive trees.

We were the only ones there and spent the days just sitting in the river with our friends, while the kids played and swam and, as I looked around the scene of tranquillity and pure beauty, it was like something one can only dream about. We also visited Jaffna which was an emotional experience for me, because I had dreamed of going there since childhood. We really explored the Peninsula but Point Pedro was special. After years of looking at the northernmost point in the map and teaching it to my daughters, I couldn’t believe that I was physically there, that dot on the map, looking out at the Bay of Bengal.

What to read:

The time I have to read now for pleasure is so limited that it is usually a few minutes snatched here and there. Right now I am reading The Book Thief, by Markus Zusack which is an incredibly crafted and extremely poignant book. I find Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s work captivating, and the ways in which she presents complex situations and characters, highlighting their grey spaces are remarkable.

What to listen to:

Listening to jazz on Sunday afternoons, and the range of voices and music – from Jerome Speldewinde to Natasha Ratnayake to Rukshan Perera – and so many versatile musicians, is a really pleasurable experience and I love it because it is a family event and all of us have a lovely time. I also love the Soul Sounds version of Danno Budunge which I heard in performance a few years ago and has been recorded. The harmony is stunning and impressively captures the emotion of the piece. I think it really brings out the best in the group and is testimony to Soundarie David’s incredible talent.

What to watch:

I find it fascinating to watch children playing cricket on the road. It has all the elements of what I aim for in my work with Kids @ Play – fun, excitement, team spirit and energy. It also takes me back to my childhood holidays and those endless cricket matches with neighbours and friends that lasted an entire day sometimes (though I have to admit that I was hopeless at any kind of sport!).

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