Sunday, June 22, 2008

Paradise Misplaced

by Captain Elmo Jayawardena

Our island was called Lanka in pre King Vijaya times. Valmiki s immortal Ramayanaya had King Ravana ruling the land from the city of Lankapura. That was almost four thousand years ago. The Arab traders termed it Jaziratul- Yaqut, island of rubies. Some called it Serandip, some Ceilan, from which the Portuguese picked Ceilao and the European map- makers coined Ceylon. Many were the names from the many that came, and they all were collective in their comment in the description of this land. Bar none, everyone agreed and noted in their chronicles that this island was indeed the complete Paradise. We never gained it. Let s be honest about that part. We simply inherited. The Gods from their celestial dome, in their infinite kindness, gifted this Paradise to us, the beautiful island of Lanka, to the people of Sri Lanka. The privilege of being born and belonging to such a place can only be rightfully expressed if one can take the turmoil out and look through the veils of disharmony that obscure what lies beyond. The purity of the land, still remains, so much unspoiled. The occupant of Paradise, still smiles, in spite of the battering he had received from the time we were reborn after the colonials left. Mother Lanka dawdles, whilst her sons and daughters drowse in ignorance, somewhat a prelude to the disasters ahead. .

Ruben walks daily carrying his Malu Kada following the footsteps of his father and grand father. His son Saman tags along, apprenticing the trade, helps to weigh the fish, cleans the broad blade knife as his father barters with the housewives, haggling for the bargain. They leave, father and son, with the little boy shouting Malu Malu straining his tender vocal chords. The fishmonger to be, on his first lessons. No change. Podi Hami prays every day. That s all she can do. She and her son Sirisena, did try every possible means, and failed. No they couldn't get a letter for employment. Wrong party, not our people, that is what the man said. Not that Podi Hami had any inclination of what happened in the parliament or who sat aloft. She merely crossed the ballot papers. There was always too much controversy in the news and people spoke in such different tones about their leaders that Podi Hami had long given up in her little mind to seek the truth. That was impossible. She merely voted and got branded. Now she sees young Sirisena, a posthumous corporal, beret and braid, in black and white, immortalised in a cheap framed photograph, hanging on the nail infested bedroom wall, boring his eyes at her, a sad and constant memory of a war where mainly the poor make the payments. A Porsche glitters inside a show room at the Bambalapitiya junction. A young boy pushes his crippled father, looking at the cars. The old man sits crumpled, folded along with his worldly belongings, in a rickety old chair that rolls on warped wheels. Donated by the Lions, says the back. A blind man and his woman share their lunch, seated on the pavement of Dickman s Road. Someone had been generous. The woman, withered and wasted, raises a bath kata to her toothless mouth and hears the world with sightless eyes, whilst the husband waits his turn, scratching his mottled skin of burnt black- Citizens of Paradise.

The sun goes down and the pavements become the bedchambers for the super poor who pray for the rains to hold till morning. These are no fairy tales of my redundant imagination. They are the stories of Paradise. The day-to-day events that play sad and silent along the cacophony of achievement. Don t tell me they are isolated, oh no, not by a long shot. They are the unheard, the ignored and the expendable debts of the displaced denizens of Paradise. The stentorians are there, loud and clear, announcing to the world and beyond, the inflated paths of progress, with rainbow visions for the morrow, splashing milk and honey stories. But, isn't there a big question mark? Isn't there some straining needed to seek the truth? I'm not talking of devolution and separations, politics don't interest me. I m like Podi Hami, totally confused between right and wrong and where lies the light. I m writing of the core, the very basics that humans search for, Uncle Sam's stuff, the pursuit of happiness type, the very essence that Paradise should be made of, which I think, is sadly missing at present. They leave Paradise by the thousands. Why? That is a good question. Look around and you will see the answer. They move out to pursue their happiness elsewhere. Not by choice, but by reasons of sheer necessity. The Sri Lankan Diaspora is everywhere, from the chilly summits of Northern Canada to the dry lands of Tasmania. From sushi land to Swaziland. From the deserts of Dhahran to the lush green valleys of New Zealand. You see them with their little Sri Lankan clubs , clinging on dearly to memories of a homeland, torn between a new life and what they left behind. It s a love they cannot shed, a romance gone rotten, and they gather and lament, speak in sad nostalgic tones and save miserly to visit and spend a week or two in their much loved and beloved Paradise.

Why do these inheritors leave Paradise? Something must have gone wrong in the system. The exodus only began after we were reborn. Hence, the blame is not with the colonials and their House of Commons. It is ours and ours alone, lying firmly in the Pontius hands of the custodians who were chosen to charter our future, and seemingly have failed in their delivery. Isn t it a fact that there is a mass cry for employment outside. The mason and the maid lead, followed by the waiter, the janitor and the bartender. Name him, and he is there, looking for agents to send him to some far away Valhalla. The banker too, and the medicine man, fill passport forms, standing side by side with the young urban professional and the academic erudite. All looking across the sea, from the shores of Paradise. There are some consolations too, one cannot be totally paranoid. The factory jobs are there for the tradeless. Foreign Marks and local Spencer make the mint and scope the cream and the poor Paradisians eat the peanut. Still, it's something to keep the kitchen fires burning. The rest of the no skills pawn their souls to go abroad. Local Dick Whitingtons charging into the unknown, exploited at every toll gate (there are many) and slave in alien homes in the Middle East and Asia, sending their carefully hoarded pitiful dirams and dollars to their loved ones, whilst counting agonising days to return home. Sixty years have gone by from the day of independence. The blameless blame, the nameless suffer, the shameless go on, ramroding their way to erode and annihilate Paradise. No need to further elaborate, the reasons are obvious. Some things happen to be best left unsaid. Let me be the coward and let discretion become the better part of my limited attempts at journalism.

Call me a fool if it pleases you and I ll accept it. But let me trickle some sanity to your thoughts. Just to kindle an interest. Totally non political. I cannot and do not separate the villain from the venerated, the line is too thin and the facts are wildly scattered. The truth certainly is in masquerade. The Lankan Paradise is not lost, not yet. It is certainly misplaced. That much can be clearly seen, lest one be blind. What happens in the end to things that are misplaced? They never get found and as time goes by; it sure will become something permanently missing. Ours is a Paradise misplaced. Let us all valiantly search, it is not too late. Let us collectively find ourselves and our land, before it vanishes beyond the limit, and becomes a Paradise Lost.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Walking to Work in SL

The fun of a walk to work in Sri Lanka

By Louise Gray


Louise Gray's blog of working for a tree conservation society in Sri Lanka

I have been in Sri Lanka long enough now to just about have a routine. In other circumstances that might mean things could get boring. Here it is quite the opposite. Take my walk to work.

As soon as I step out my front door on Kirula Road, Colombo 5 I am confronted by men with armfuls of guns. It is a local security firm and they are always very friendly but I have not quite got used to being greeted by groups of men unloading AK47s from white vans first thing in the morning.

I turn onto a dusty street already full of traffic to be greeted by a familiar cry: "Madam! Taxi!" It's the dawn patrol of tuk tuk drivers. I ignore them and walk on, but they persist. "Ok madam, get in".

"No, thank you," I refuse. "I am walking."

This will take some time to sink in as maybe one or two tuks trail me down the road hoping I will change my mind.

By the time I have reached my first obstacle fondly known as rat corner, because I usually narrowly miss stepping on a rodent at this juncture, they have peeled off.

advertisementI will get a few more by the time I turn on to Jawatta Road, the main thoroughfare I have to negotiate. The traffic is dreadful. Big Lanka Ashok Leylands, the local buses and undisputed kings of the road, roar past scattering terrified tuk tuks.

"There are zebra crossings which are meant to stop the traffic but the only protection they give you in Sri Lanka is if you are run over on a zebra crossing it is the driver's fault, whereas if its anywhere else it is your own fault. They would certainly not have much sympathy with someone so stupid as to attempt to walk to work, especially when I have so many offers of transport.

"Hello miss taxi?"

"No, really, I'm walking."

The roads I pass reflect the rulers of the country from the Portuguese Don Carolis Road to the very British Ascot Avenue. In the same way the places of worship reflect the mixed religion in the country, from the majority Buddhists, 18 per cent Hindus and minority Muslims and Christians.

The Buddhist shrine is always adorned with offerings of fragrant flowers, fresh fruit and water and I will often see worshippers stopping to offer prayer. The Hindu temple is even more colourful with its tangle of Gods and wafts of incense. By comparison the Anglican church on the corner and the mosque seem dull in the extreme.

Anyway I can never stop without attracting attention. "Aha! You want a trishaw madam?"

"No, I don't."

I'm really just being stubborn now as it is hot work walking in 30ÂșC plus and while there is no AC in tuk tuks there is a moderately cooling breeze. If you are lucky the driver will have garlands of flowers around the windscreen, pictures of laughing Chinese babies or psychedelic seat coverings lovingly protected by sheets of clear plastic.

Like London taxi drivers there is always plenty of chat almost always beginning with "Where you from?" followed by "You married?" I prefer to practice my Sinhala but this can be confusing for everyone involved.

I press on past various Sri Lankan ministries. I pass the ministry of water and irrigation and the ministry of youth empowerment and socio-economic development. There is also a ministry of religious affairs and moral enlightenment and a department of ayurveda. Sri Lanka has one of the highest numbers of ministries in the world with more than 100 members of cabinet. Unfortunately I do not go past the ministry of silly walks.

I also pass the national identification office where there is a massive queue of people every morning waiting to get identity cards. Since the end of the ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tigers earlier this year and an increase in terrorist bomb attacks, it has been necessary for everyone to have ID on them at all times for the many police checks. Almost in defiance of the ethnic conflict the queue is a mixture of Hindu Tamils, often with ash on their foreheads, and Sinhalese Buddhists.

"Bakeries" offer short eats like egg rotis from trailers on the back of bicycles, hawkers sell pineapple with chilli and disfigured beggars sell lottery tickets to the crowd.

There are intermittent pavements until I get to the streets around the embassies and international aid headquarters in an area known as Colombo 7. This is a bit like Sri Lanka's version of Mayfair hence you have "Colombo 7 mums" which I guess are a little like Stepford wives but with stricter morals.

Intermingled with the blaring horns of tuk tuks and buses are the sleek UN 4x4s. The streets are a little more leafy here and for a while I tried to practice identifying trees on the walk to work. But standing underneath a tree with my field guide to the common trees and shrubs of Sri Lanka invariably drew so much attention and tuk tuks that I soon gave up.

I do know that there are rain trees and Indian willow as I scuttle from one to another glad of the shade. Unfortunately there are not as many trees in Colombo as there used to be. Part of my job as communications advisor to Ruk Rakaganno, the Tree Society of Sri Lanka (, has been firing off angry letters to the press complaining of this fact.

There are even rumours that trees are being cut to stop terrorists depositing bombs in them. This is a high security zone and soldiers in blue combats patrol the streets. At first it made me uncomfortable but after a couple winked at me, I got used to them.

I have got used to a lot of things in Colombo. The heat, the crows, the nice and not-so-nice spicy smells. I have even taken on a few Sri Lankan habits. At work I eat a lunch packet of rice and curry, I try not to think about bombs, I wobble my head when I don't want to do something but feel too polite to say no.

At the same time I try to keep an eye out for the unusual things like a monk with a mobile phone or a whole family travelling on one motorcycle. It is only a week before I leave Sri Lanka and I want to make sure I remember the extraordinary experiences and even the ordinary ones like the tuk tuk drivers who persist even as I am turning into the entrance of my work.

"Hello, madam, you need a tuk, tuk?"


Of course, I could always have jumped in a tuk tuk for 75p (after 10 minutes hard haggling) but where would be the fun in that?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Sermon from Mount Mary

A Sermon From Mount Mary
By Nalin Fernando.

Where have they all gone?

I am thinking about the Railway Burghers, not the flowers in the plaintive melody made popular during the Vietnam War.

Recently, I met one of them who did not uproot himself while almost everyone nearest and dearest to him had sought new pastures abroad to work or to retire.

He was the ultimate railway man, born in Mount Mary and he hoped to die in the vicinity in which he had lived all his life.

Once upon a time (he told me, over an arrack at the Twentieth Century Club where he was a guest) Eric de La Motte was bringing the 72 Up Night Mail from Badulla to Colombo.

He was piloting the old steam war-horse that had chugged along for well over thirty years, never failing if it had enough coal and water.

Melo, his ever-loving wife (home calling Melo, outside calling Maloney) was all a twitter as she was wont to be when he stays away overnight after taking the 463 Down Passenger two mornings before.

She had spruced up the railway quarters they lived in.

The floor was mopped, brushed and gleaming.

Although cobwebs stretched across the ceiling, one could comb your hair looking down at the floor as in a good Burgher home.

She dusted the paper flowers in a glass vase on an imitation ebony tea-boy.

She kept her quarters shining just as Eric liked his steam gauge glass and brass fittings in the loco cabin to sparkle.

The leftover ox tongue stew had been warmed up.

The raw onion and green chilli sambol and the bread cut in practical three-inch thick chunks were on the dining table that was draped with a blue and white checked plastic tablecloth.
The table stood on four tinned fish cans full of Jeyes fluid to keep the ants away.

Eric and Melo were well known in railway circles as a "lovely couple".

There was a grand do at the Railway Institute three years before when they celebrated their silver wedding anniversary.

Melo, now was shunting towards fifty, but she still maintained vestiges of her pleasant face and figure that had been the rage of the institute get-togethers in the days gone by.

Her bust, tummy and hips were about five inches rounder and her once delicate rear brake wagon was more prominent.

But, after two children, now grown up, what happened to Mrs. Hepponstall happens to all.

When they first met, Eric was a dashing young fireman who shoveled a stylish spade of coal.
He was tall, handsome and had a tattoo of a snake coiling round a totem pole on his left upper arm.

Melo often recalled those leathery palms of his in her soft hand and on her softer shoulder when he came up to her at a Christmas social and said, "dance".

They were married three weeks later and her mummy and daddy, also railway folk, approved of the match.

Old Meerwald was very proud of his s-I-l, especially his ability to drain two drams in one "gallop" and then nonchalantly crush the glass with his leathery bare hands.

Melo was giving the front steps a final swish and sweep when she spotted Dottie (outside calling Dorothy) doing the same chore in the adjoining quarters.

Dottie was Melo's good friend although socially inferior since her husband, Andrew, was still on the Puttalam run drawing cattle wagons and a few second and third class carriages.

"Erico coming soon", cried out Melo. "Bringing a leg of farm pork and bacon from Nanu and a bottle of Tiddenham Barrow from DLA. Making bacon and eggs. Pork for lunch".

"So, so, matinee show today", she replied mischievously.

Melo tried hard to blush at Dottie's naughty suggestion, failed miserably and only managed to coyly toss her short crop of hair.

"Don't be silly, Chile", she replied and walked in with a sly smile.

Eric arrived soon after in his favourite rickshaw.

It had been a satisfying run from Badulla.

The steam charge had been steady and he had not got any red signals approaching Fort that tested his patience after a long run.

He carried under his left arm-pit a parcel and on his right hand a bottle, both wrapped in old newspaper.

His overnight bag was slung on his left shoulder.

Moreover, if you think that the items wrapped in newspaper were leg of pork and a bottle of passion fruit, you were sadly mistaken.

The parcel was two pounds of fresh bread that Eric got from a florist cum undertaker after every run to Fort in appreciation of bringing back safely a basket of flowers from Blackpool.

The bottle had the last two shots of black arrack, the original contents having been progressively reduced at Bandarawela, Pattipola, Nanu Oya, Gampola and Polgahawela.

Eric walked in and placed his cargo on the dining table, took his shoes off and reclined on the armchair.

He turned to Melo and said "glass" in the same tone and timbre as he once said "dance" or says "coal" to his fireman when the steam gauge hits the warning line.
He paused until the glass was fetched and then said "food".

He was a man of few words.

Now, Melo had to fry bacon and eggs as previously boasted to Dottie.

If there was no bacon in the house, how was she to produce the sound and smell of frying bacon for which Dottie must surely be waiting with envy on the other side of the thin partition walls of the railway quarters?

Melo was a real one.

With a deft flick of her wet fingers she sprinkled water into a hot pan of old bacon fat.
Dottie, with her ears against the wall, heard the sizzling sound of water sprinkled on hot oil and aroma of bacon fat was in the air.

She resigned herself to the fact that her Andy could hardly be expected to bring back pork or bacon from Muslim dominated Puttalam.

Eric downed the remnants of the bottle in a single 'gallop".

He was ready for food after having had for dinner only a tasty but small parcel of rice and curry given to him by a certain tootsy-wootsy in Badulla - a middle-aged wife of a much older retired Sinhalese head guard with whom he had a discreet understanding.

When the plate of ox tongue stew had been wiped clean with the last chunk of bread, he released a subdued belch akin to a short blast of his steam hooter on seeing a jaywalker on the tracks ahead of him.

He rose from his chair unbuttoning his shirt, and loosening his belt and waistband he lounged in the armchair with his feet up on the extended foot-rests.

"Duckworth and Joppe coming for lunch. Buy some soda and beef. Duckworth bringing brinjal pickle. Rice and curry. Wake me when they come", he said in a rare long speech.

In three minutes he was fast asleep.

Melo spent half an hour de-stoning the rice, washing the dhal and peeling the potatoes to fry later.
She then stepped out dutifully towards Dematagoda with a shopping basket in her hand to buy some chicken necks for bites.

She could hear Dottie somewhere in the front of her quarters and was sure that she would be seen going out.

She put on a fleeting self-satisfied smile.

She tossed her short hair and smoothened it down on a side with her free hand.

She then wiggled her hips and hitched up her knickers.

How to disappoint that woman about the matinee, chile.