Sri Lanka Revisited – part one

One always runs the risk of upsetting someone when recounting a visit to the old country, especially when viewing it through the eyes of a westerner. My visit back to Sri Lanka this Christmas, after eight years, was a pleasant surprise, especially since my last one after a longer 21 year-gap had been during the height of the civil war when movement had been somewhat restricted. This time the country was finally in motion, going in the right direction for a change. And everyone was engaged, even if it was in criticizing the government (which is a national pastime, no matter which government is in power).

There are still two Sri Lankas, I realized: one for the tourist and one for the local; and for people like me, I get a pass to both, for I speak the vernacular; I am a product of the “Sinhala only” days of the Bandaranaike dynasty. In the tourist world, the experience is top notch: great hotels, vast arrays of food served by world renowned Sri Lankan cooks with signature Sri Lankan cuisine now totally outshining standard western fare, ancient cities, fantastic beaches, wild life, night life and a gentle climate. The tourist wishing to experience this Sri Lanka has to commute in air conditioned cars along new highways or in private airplanes between city centres, and on prescribed routes and itineraries. Step off this path and you wind up in the other Sri Lanka where the now well-paved roads, especially in the southern half of the country are clogged with traffic and the air is stifling in leaded exhaust fumes, where the teeming hordes spill over sidewalks, where the tuk-tuks appear to be on hara-kiri missions, where every town is a garish parade of shop signs lining narrow main streets, making them all look the same, except for the size and age of the bo tree that sits in the middle of the main intersection. The contrast between these two extremes is evident in the Colombo Fort, where York Street acts as the physical and metaphorical divide between West and East: the West heads towards developed, touristy city blocks with shopping centres like the Dutch Hospital complex, hotels and restaurants like the Kingsbury, the Stuart and the Ministry of Crab, and office towers like the Trade Centre and the Bank of Ceylon; the East draws in the sprawl of the local bazaar crawling in from the nearby Pettah replete with the detritus and smells of night dwellers who squat in prohibited places, hollowed out structures like the Ghaffoor Building, and motorcycle parking lots on Lotus Road where once I used to catch the bus home from work. The country will have “arrived” when these two worlds coalesce. And help is around the corner, for a huge land reclamation project, almost the size of the present Fort, is underway on the western end of the city to ease congestion. Hopefully, it will also bring prosperity in the way of jobs to the man on the street, so that he too can enjoy the pleasures currently affordable only by the tourist and the local 1%.

The hills of Nuwara Eliya were a welcome respite from the heat and the pollution but the switch-back roads through beautiful vistas looked perilous to the older me. The town itself was just another crowded, sign-plasted warren of narrow streets, although colonial bastions like the Hill Club, the Grand Hotel and the Golf Club still communicated grace and genteelness. I recalled fondly how I had travelled down the Ranboda Pass in a rainstorm on my scooter with a madcap CTB bus driver on my tail all the way down to Kandy back in the ‘70’s. Now being in a car, in dry weather, with no such mad bus driver to distract me, the journey looked far more dangerous – age makes one cautious! The tea estates were in good repair – a national treasure not to be squandered in wartime or peace, and the estate workers’ dwellings had improved, some were even two-storey concrete structures now. The Kandyan lass who sang out her commentary on the workings of the tea estate reminded me how much English had deteriorated in the country over the intervening years. There is an attempt to introduce English in the schools at present and students must study all three national languages now, but an entire generation has lost its opportunity for global advancement due to political expediency. This gave me the added impetus to practice my Sinhala on the locals, an effort that paid off handsomely – I didn’t get charged tourist prices when I frequented local dives and chimed “Keeyada? (How much?)”

Descending to Kandy threw us into an unbroken circle of traffic whizzing around the lake and I wondered why the authorities could not divert motorists elsewhere like they had around the Dalada Maligawa area which is now a security controlled pedestrian zone. I took in a cultural show next door to the palace and watched the Kandyan dancers exert gymnastically to the drums; then the fire-walkers trod on hot coals before my eyes and I felt the heat – this was pretty serious stuff, not an illusion. The water level was low in the Kandy lake – drought, said my driver – and I couldn’t see the fish or the myriad of coins that used to lurk below in the old days as the remaining water was murky. But a drive along Upper Lake Drive at night for dinner in one of the many cosy restaurants overlooking the lake gave us a break from the pollution and offered a bird’s eye view of this picturesque city. Arrack had become my staple drink by now, one I hadn’t tasted in years – it was cheap, available in different flavours and strengths and had even infiltrated new fangled cocktails. And a good rice and curry was always welcome, three times a day if necessary.

The stop at Sifani Jewellers was a no-pressure visit, unlike the one in Colombo where the salesman had pressed me to buy a precious stone lest his family starve for the lack of him earning a commission. The Sifani lady was gracious, giving us a history of the gem industry in the country and letting us loose in the showroom where we were free to browse and/or buy, or not; the sheer variety of stones only made me gasp. The same no-pressure approach held true at the Batik factory where we got the run down on that garment’s 8-stage creation process, and at the Ayurveda farm where we got to sample various native treatments and received a massage to boot. The no-pressure tactics worked, for we bought from these places.

Walking around the lake one evening I saw a middle-aged gentleman with brief case in hand standing for his bus. As the crowded vehicle roared by with no intention of stopping, he deftly ran into the middle of traffic and jumped onto the footboard and pushed his way inside. I used to do that in my youth, and it came to me as a shock that I could have been that man, one who had decided to stay and not roam the world like me.

The deeper I went, the safer I felt. Yes there were warts and everything was not perfect but this was an imperfection I had been raised with and come to expect as normal. Maybe it was the imperfection that made the journey comfortable and familiar. ( to be continued…)

So, what’s your opinion? You must have one, mustn’t you?

What is your take on the old country? After all, you are a writer, and don’t writers always have opinions? About almost everything?

I do have a take – and that is that I left the old country to begin a new life in Canada. I brought with me my thwarted dreams to realize them here. I left behind the resentment, disappointment and alienation of being marginalized. Does that answer your question?

Not quite. The dead rebel leader, whose body was paraded on TV like a prized kill from a hunt, was similar in age to you. You lived about 200 miles from each other: him in the north, you in the south. He came from a minority group while you belonged to another minority. You were both discriminated against in your own ways. He chose to take up arms to fight for a piece of land to call his own, you left to find yours in a cold but warm•hearted country called Canada. His legacy leaves a country divided and devastated, while you were able to give a few people some hope in this new land. Is that a fair description, Mr. Writer?

Yes. I also think that home is a place in time, not a piece of land, for I have had many homes.

So what’s your opinion? You still haven’t said it. Instead you skirt around the issue like a good politician. Are you afraid that you will be another name added to PEN’s growing list?

Well, since you persist, I think now that the military in the old country has done such an efficient job of ending the war, its government should step aside and let the peacemakers take over. Build statues and immortalize the victorious President if you must, but let him take his place in history, not in infamy. Even Churchill knew when it was time to go. I think that blocking highways and creating civil inconveniences in the streets of Toronto and other world•class cities does not show world•class strategy. I think that statements such as “there will be no more minorities” needs further clarification as it is a loaded one to make. I think that opening doors to all the war•damaged refugees to come to Canada and other western countries sends a wrong signal to ruthless politicians around the world: that they can shoot the shit out of their countrymen and send them abroad for R&R (Rest & Resettlement) at these generous neighbours’ cost.

Good! You are doing fine. You have vented. But you have still not offered a solution.

I think that the young, educated people in Canada—descendants of those who came grabbing what little possessions they could during their hurried and often forced exit from the old country—and who have been daubed with the paintbrush of Canadian values, must assume the leadership for the persecuted minorities. They should mobilize public opinion in a positive way, for they have a good story to tell and less baggage to carry. And if a piece of land in the old country is important, they should negotiate with the home turf majority, being open to making concessions as much as they win some. And that message goes to the smug majority back home too – you may have won the arms war, but you have not won the battle for the hearts of your fellow countrymen until you say “I am sorry. Forgive me. Let’s start again. And, let’s share.”

Is it time for the next round of global teamwork?

So it finally hit! Or did it? The Pandemic, that all prophets of doom had been forecasting. And as predicted, the media began feeding on it faster than the virus eating at its victims. But this time, global panic never happened. Why? Well, for starters, haven’t we seen this stuff before? Aren’t we numb from 9/11, Anthrax, SARS, Avian Flu, forest fires in the West Coast, floods in the East, and the crash of the global financial system? Haven’t we been hit with umpteen computer viruses that spread faster than biological ones and yet the world’s computer industry and the Internet are still standing. And then there was that famous non•event Y2K…

The other reason that these doomsday scenarios have become manageable in recent times is due to the responses from governments and global regulatory bodies with tightly coordinated activities. 9/11 brought disparate warring counter•intelligence and police departments in America together under one umbrella, Y2K led to global information sharing, the pandemics have led to quick co•ordinated responses from global health authorities, and the financial collapse prompted global political leadership to circle the wagons rapidly with huge injections of fiscal support• great examples of teamwork and sharing in action.

But…but this only applies if you belong in the club of G20 and their associate nations. There are lots of other countries outside this orbit, and their citizens perish needlessly. Like the thousands caught between government and rebel troop crossfire on a strip of beach in Sri Lanka, the impoverished ones dying of AIDS in Africa, the starving in Darfur and the vulnerable left exposed in power vacuums caused by our naive interference in foreign countries that we thought would embrace democracy overnight. Can our political team managers, who have shown great stick handling in recent crises within our domestic shores, reach out to include these other less•mature players in the political game? Can they educate these callow peers that bombing civilians to smithereens or using them as human shields does not win one long•term political stripes; that blocking highways and inconveniencing fellow Canadians does not stop the bombing half a world away, that democracy means handing over control, not sucking it in, and that respect for the law is a pre•condition for any civilised and progressive society?

I think it is time to reach over the fence and impart some lessons learned • if indeed they can be taught.

Don’t let the music die

I took up playing the ukulele when I was 10 years old, sick in bed with a chicken pox that would never leave, it seemed, for when old sores healed new ones replaced them. The itching and the silence in my room were deafening, so the ukulele helped me get through my illness. Its tinkle was like a benevolent angel by my bed. An uncle, who lived with us at the time, taught me to play each evening, and I started with “three•chord songs”: Wooden Heart, Rudolph the red•nosed Reindeer. Yes, it was Christmas time too – bummer!

I have always played the guitar (I graduated from the ukulele sometime in my early teens) and did not want to let the music die. So I roped in others to join me. Bread, Butter and Jam, was my first band (me and two other guys). We did “curfew parties” when people were confined to their houses during the ’71 insurrection. In exchange for good vibes and happy memories that we evoked for our audiences through our music during that sad period, we asked only for food (a beer was also welcome, although we were underage) and a place to stay over the night until it was safe to go out on the road in the morning. When the band members increased, we added Marmalade, Bacon and Eggs to our moniker, and when our name became unpronounceable without salivating, we shortened it to Breakfast. But the music ended when some of the guys immigrated to Australia from the old country after the insurrection ended– people were always immigrating from the old country due to some internal conflict or other, that’s how I landed up in Canada.

Oh, but I did not let the music die. Other bands followed in Canada: Monks R Us (shortened to The Monks just in case we faced a lawsuit from another R Us outfit popular with children), Memories of Sri Lanka (shortened to Paradise • after all, the old country was a paradise before it became a hell), Playtime, Shade (versions 1, 2 and 3). But they all, except for the last, ended and there were horribly loud silences in between.

That is why I hang onto the music and hope that the guys in the band (there must always be a band) will do the same. Otherwise, strains from those old folk songs we sang, the Don McLean and Simon & Garfunkel pieces, juxtapose and whisper in my ear, “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died…Hello darkness, my old friend…”. And there would be no way to fill that “sound of silence.”