Sri Lanka Revisited – part two

An ultra-modern “village in the jungle” (with apologies to Leonard Woolf) is how I would describe the Cinnamon properties (the Lodge and the older Village) situated in the middle of the Habarana wilds. While monkeys roamed the vast grounds, guests enjoyed peace and quiet in semi-detached chalet-style apartments, replete with every type of modern convenience.

Habarana is a great jumping off point to the attractions in what is now known as the Cultural Triangle that includes Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, each situated within short drives from the hotel complex. In this part of the country, the well-paved roads are less crowded and the traffic is more likely to be stopped by a straying wild elephant (and we saw plenty of them by the side of the road as we toured).

The historic sites have been restored and cleaned up since my last visit 8 years ago. There was also a conscious effort being made to portray the religious side of these sites, in particular, their Buddhist aspects. Where once upon a time all visitors had to remove footwear prior to entering hallowed premises, now women, especially tourists, had to additionally cover necks, shoulders, arms and other revealing skin.

The water tanks, built by far-sighted Sinhala kings, that had been allowed to languish in colonial and post-colonial times had been restored, for there was actually water in them now; the Sea of Parakrama was actually a giant body of water helping to irrigate farmers’ fields in the vicinity. Gone, I hoped, were the droughts of my childhood, or the excuses of droughts, when whatever rain that came was supposed to have fallen outside the catchments of the tanks, leading to the lack of food, to power cuts, and to other shortages.

Onto Trincomalee, a place I had visited in my childhood and youth. I remember taking a never-ending boat ride around the giant natural harbour, walking through the streets of the old town, and vacationing at my great-uncle’s sprawling estate home where everyone was welcome, where the food was plentiful, where there was no electricity, where we sat outside at night under the stars and swapped stories while listening to a battery-powered radio.

My great uncle and his family emigrated to Australia a long time ago, and the great man himself had since passed away, and so I decided to experience another side of Trincomalee – the beach. We spent two days on the beach outside town and it was a restful break from the constant travelling of the last few days. The seas were rough but the water was warm and the beach was strewn with dive shops, guesthouses and sea food restaurants. The local fishermen conducted a daily ritual of running a giant net out into the water, without a boat, and then hauling it back very slowly, the lead fisherman bobbing out far in the rough seas as he towed the net out and in. The sorting ceremony that was performed on the beach opposite our hotel after the laden net came in resulted in a battle between the gulls and the crows for the spoils left behind by the fishermen – a raucous event, and you had to watch out for falling offal from the sky. The unevenness of the beach became clear after while: this entire strip had been washed away in the giant tsunami that ripped the island in 2004.

I observed another phenomenon in Trincomalee, a town that has always been predominantly Tamil and Muslim: the burqa had replaced the salwar khameez. I wondered whether moves by the previous government to firmly entrench the nation as a Sinhala Buddhist one had resulted in religious minorities retaliating and staking out their own turf, and whether a subtle polarization was taking place – again. Or were returning housemaids from the Middle East wearing their work clothes to avoid buying a second wardrobe to wear at home? When the driver advised me that in the recent census, Muslims instead of Tamils were now the dominant minority in the country, I raised my eyebrows even more. And talking about politics, I realized why the common man was still enamoured with the last regime, corrupt or not; he had witnessed visible signs of progress with the last gang: roads, infrastructure, and price controls on essential goods, on a scale never seen before. The common man did not care that the new guys were saddled with the former guys’ bills, or that the new guys were still trying to figure out how Green and Blue (traditional rivals since Independence) could work together, or that they were trying to reduce – yes reduce, not increase – Presidential powers that lead to dictatorship.

Last stop: Jaffna. I have been trying to get to Jaffna since 1978. On that last occasion, I had turned back on my bike due to the “troubles” that were brewing, especially as my pillion rider was an American friend with a powerful camera who could have been mistaken for a CIA spy. But this time the rebuilt highway (and railway track) ran uninterrupted into the northern city with scarce traffic accompanying us. I saw the signs of the recent war immediately: military camps in every major town en-route, police check-points spot-checking motorists (we were stopped twice and my driver said that the cop was disappointed when he saw two tourists in the car, preventing him from collecting a customary bribe), the bombed out water tank in Killinochchi lying on its side as a stark reminder despite reconstruction going on around it.

My old school teachers used to tell me that Jaffna was a hot place where they only grew chillies and garlic. Well, if those pundits are still alive I’d like to inform them that they are wrong. Many tanks and ponds accompanied us as we entered the peninsula, and paddy fields, coconut estates, palm and corn fields ran right up to the outskirts of the city. Jaffna itself is a smaller version of Colombo with its teeming Pettah-like centre, the fishing harbour, the stately colonial buildings, the Fort (a military one unlike the commercial one in Colombo), and the temples and churches (make that Hindu temples and Catholic Churches). There were no Buddhist shrines to be seen, unless I missed them. But the signs of “We beat you, now buckle up and behave” were everywhere: the army’s foot patrols that walked the town, bullet-scarred houses of those who fled or died crumbling into decay beside modern structures of those who survived rising beside them, and hotels with management staff who spoke only Sinhala and English, sent from head-offices down south to manage lower level local Tamil staff. Temple Road leading to the famed Nallur Temple, once dubbed NGO Row had lost all its NGOs as those benevolent organizations had packed up and returned home when the war ended. Our Tamil tour guide lamented that now they had no help in the reconstruction as the foreigners had left and the government in Colombo was wrapped up in its internal conflicts. Testament to his lament is the state of the Jaffna Fort, slated for reconstruction but only with its outer walls restored, the inside is still a mass of bombed out structures with cattle grazing in the tall grass growing amidst the rubble. The only sign of hope was the fully restored Public Library, burned down twice in recent history by those who have no appreciation of history; I now only hope that its sparse collection of donated books and periodicals would increase and multiply over the years. Unlike in the Buddhist temples where we had to cover up, I was asked to remove my shirt at the Nallur temple, and I wished I had been permitted to take a selfie – darn!

We took the train back to Colombo. And we travelled “local” this time: second class. The CGR (Ceylon Government Railway) is still the same as it was 40 years ago; its rolling stock, its railway lines, its stations; the toilets still stink and there are no garbage pails so you are encouraged to throw your refuse on the track outside. Vendors ply their trade on board between stations, and railway guards turn a blind eye because there is no restaurant car. But we left and arrived on schedule, 7 hours later, something unheard of in the old days.

Before I left the island, I had to revisit my old home in Nawala where I had lived for 18 years. I had learnt by now that old landmarks are useless after 40 years, only the narrow, un-expandable road remains constant. The turns, inclines and declines in the road were my markers, except that over-construction in the once open land on either side had shrunken distances. I followed this road to my old address, but it had vanished behind a giant wall, even the number on the gate read differently. After much jumping up, ferreting, and snooping like a thief, I discovered that our former garage had now morphed into the main building and the old house was just an annex. Over the top of the wall I caught a glimpse of the American-style bungalow roof that my mother had picked out of a magazine and my father had charged the contractor to build for us. I could not proceed further; I did not know the new residents, and to all intents and purposes, I was an intruder. However, I was lucky to find my former neighbour, a retired octogenarian doctor and an eminent writer, at home, as well as a former teenage buddy (now retired, sobering thought!) who came rushing home from wherever he was as soon as his wife phoned him to announce that I had arrived unannounced. And their instant showers of Sri Lankan hospitality, replete with fish cutlets, patties, cake, tea and Lion Lager beer, all magically produced from the recesses of their kitchens and the kindness of their hearts, were… well, heart-warming.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka. However, I left with optimism. This country may not be my home anymore but it is a place where I feel extremely comfortable, in its hustle and bustle, its polluted traffic, its mouth-watering food, it’s side-splitting humour, its social contradictions, its irreconcilable political differences and its incomparable beauty. It is a place to return to, again and again, because HOME, after all, is only a state of mind.