Let the Sri Lankan in me rise up!

Let the Sri Lankan in me rise up!

One month ago, on Easter Sunday 2019, suicide bombers set themselves off in three churches in Sri Lanka and three hotels.

Amidst the mayhem, the confusion, they killed almost 300 innocents, injuring over 500.

Among the dead were mothers and fathers, children and teenagers.

Some lost all – the entire families perished. Others lost parents and parents lost children.

Many were the sole survivors of their once beautiful and much cherished families.

Before we looked for the perpetrators, we tried to find the answers.

I too had walked out of the Easter Sunday service – my family and I were looking forward to the traditional Easter meal.

The pork chops I had bought sat in the sink where I had left them in a dish to marinade before running off to the usually packed church service.

There were many others who too would have dashed off to service that day, hoping to come back to clear the dishes or the cups. They were from areas that traditionally celebrated Easter with festivity and pageantry. They were rejoicing in the Lord’s resurrection, following the 40 days of fasting since Ash Wednesday.

They never got the chance.

Somewhere in Katuwapitiya, the Negombo neighbourhood that had over 100 snatched from its community in the Katuwapitiya St. Sebastian Church blast, the closed up houses would remain closed up. Maybe empty tea cups still sat in the sink ;maybe the traditional Easter meal was to be cooked.

We would never know.

Why?

The question still reverberates in our hearts.

Our hearts continue to be broken as we seek answers – as the armed forces do their job, the questions remain. Why and how did such despicable acts become almost ordinary for the suicide bombers, not some desperados with nowhere to go, but educated young men from rich families, blinded by hatred, walking so calmly into the churches and the hotels, with their deadly backpacks?

Last night, I saw an image of a young father cradling his dead daughter’s body in his arms in the bombed Katuwapitiya church. His daughter and wife both perished in the attack. He lost his entire world.

That image broke my heart into a thousand pieces. As did the images of Anusha Kumari, who lost her husband and her two children. The two young girls who lost their doting father in the St. Anthony’s Church Kochchikade attack. The children whose skin burns and injuries sustained in the attack on the Zion Church in Batticaloa burn our hearts every time we them. The young mother who had to face life saving surgery on the spine last week – she lost her son and was blinded in the blast. The British man who lost his wife and the two children in the hotel blast. The list is long and every needless death, every injury, tears at our heart strings.

Sri Lanka had been through a 30 year war that was as merciless and vicious as it could be. Suicide bombers blew themselves up in trains and city centers. Until ten years ago, when the war was finally won, we lived with check points, identity checks and fear of another bomb going off. We were resilient – we knew we would overcome.

One month following the attacks, we are still numbed with pain. Not a day passes by when we don’t think of the victims, their lives so cruelly snatched, their memories let behind. The psychological scars are stronger than the physical ones ; some may never recover from the loss.

For us , resilience has become not just a choice but a key component in our ability to emerge from a dented national psyche. How do we come to terms with the new normal of searching bags and vehicles, check points and suspicious glances? Where do we find a common thread that binds all of us as Sri Lankans? Can we find it in us, who overcame a war of greater proportions ten years ago, the strength, the power, the will to learn the lessons and emerge stronger?

These are the questions that surround us as I write this one month on.

Of course there is a way out.

Firmly entrenched in our memories.

As a child growing up in the Seventies, I remember a Sri Lanka that was so unique in the way her different communities were connected yet each individually proud of its own distinctive mark. Christmas was everyone’s festive season – Vesak was the occasion to celebrate the lights, Ramadan meant a biriyani feast and the Hindu Vel festival brought everyone out on the streets to watch the parade.

The differences were celebrated – they were never meant to exclude but rather, include all.

The Muslims were embraced by the Christians and the Buddhists – the Hindus were too.

Some traditions were too hallowed not to continue into the 21st century.

The famous Majestic City Hotel Biriyani that continues its champion status to this day – thanks to Rifai’s commitment to maintaining the quality.

The Green Cabin cream buns – no matter how carb conscious you are , you cannot resist biting into the cream filled centre.

The Piccadilly Cafe ice cream and the Bake House milk shakes – the list of Seventies nostalgia is endless ; there is tremendous potential there to revive the Sri Lankan spirit.

Food of course brings communities together in more ways than one.

It can do the same again.

Somewhere down the line, the oneness gave way to walls going up around the community – suddenly, there was an us and a them.

From then to now, there had been nothing but erosion ; of the old old fashioned values that were held dear and common to all.

Let’s all rally around a common Sri Lankan identity – one etched in food. Good old Sri Lankan dishes we all loved and still do. That are waiting to be discovered by the young generation as well.

That road my friend is still wide open – we just have to discover it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cave rescue restores faith in mankind..

Cave rescue restores faith in mankind..

A few weeks ago, 12 boys went to explore a cave in Thailand along with their coach.

At the time, they never imagined that what would have been a boys’ day out would become a drama watched by an anxious world, saturated with prayers from all faiths.

But that’s exactly what it became.

As news stations around the world waited for news with bated breath and experts came together to look for ways to get the trapped boys and their coach to safety, it brought to light the heroism of Thai special forces and countless volunteers from specialised military operations such as SEALS from all over the world.

Amidst the anguish of mothers and families, only too familiar to mothers everywhere who wait anxiously for their children to return home from trips, excursions and the like, there was something else that struck me.

It was the power of humanity that assures me that yes, there is hope for mankind.

Love and compassion is not dead as the world or its media would like us to believe. For a moment frozen in time, it was love in action. The men leading the rescue were fathers themselves ; this mission was personal.

The cave rescue showed the world that despite the gloomy predictions, there is enough reason for our children to look forward to kindness and mercy in the world.

Not only because so many experts came together to put their lives on the line in wading into a treacherous cave to rescue boys they have never seen or known ; also because the story brought the world into a tight circle of caring – across social media platforms, reaching the furthest places and beyond.

From Elon Musk to the prayer warriors of your corner church, the world stood together, wanting nothing but the best for the trapped boys and their coach. It was a beautiful moment history would record for the next generations to see that humanity can be a beautiful thing, Still.

In an age when a singular preoccupation with the smartphone often means we miss tender moments that connect us together, the rescue meant something to all of us. It restored our faith in humanity – as a community, united through a thin but powerful line of technology that enabled each of us to connect with the heroes on the ground in Thailand, celebrated the rescue as never before.

It was not just the rescue effort but the commitment undertaken with an iron resolve to ensure that there would be no looking back. From the determined Thai SEALS one of whom sacrificed his life towards setting the children free, to the British and American SEALs and other cave diving specialists who gathered at the mouth of the cave to lend their shoulders to the effort.

Thailand was not alone. The world was with them, united by more than just a popular effort, one that touched every mother’s heart, one that resonated with people everywhere. From Facebook updates to prayers seeking divine intervention, people all over the world stood together in wishing nothing but the best outcome of a chaotic situation.

And there we find a cause for celebration – not only because as I write this, the boys have been rescued and the heroes quietly slipping away back into their lives. But also because for a moment frozen in time, humanity came together in one singular effort that cut across national, geographical, political, ethnic and religious borders.

Tonight my children can sleep tight in knowing that kindness is very much alive out there somewhere ; and when needed, it can flow right in.

 

 

 

 

 

divided we stand..

divided we stand..

 

My son’s good friend Hameed Zahran passed away tragically around this time last year.

His friends mourned him across religious and ethnic divides.

It never occurred to them – or to my son that this was a Moslem who died. He was their friend, the boy next door who strummed his guitar and sang out loud during breaks. The first one to volunteer for anything.

He will stay in their memories that way.

For years, I have sworn by my daughter’s Paeditrician  the trusted Dr Azyan Shafik, a student of late Dr Stella who was a legend and a stalwart in Sri Lankan paediatrics.

It has never occurred to me or to anyone of us that he is a Moslem.

Whenever we are in the mood for well prepared, tasty biriyani, we look no further than the trusty old Majestic Hotel. The owner is a Moslem,  but it has never ever occurred to me to question his faith before tucking into the delicious rice.

Often enough, we order sawaans from Moslem owned eateries – mostly because they are easy to serve and often suffice for big groups of guests.

No, we don’t wonder about the religious beliefs of the eatery owners.

A step further, when Thajudeen was mourned across the divide as a clear case of misconstrued justice for a human being, I don’t recall anyone mentioning his faith.

Why has it suddenly become a dangerous factor that is forcing us to pause and take stock if ethnicity or as in this case, a religious group, is something to be worried about.

Having recovered from years of blood shed and mayhem, if anything I want to teach my children as Sri Lankans, is to think Sri Lankan. Not to be limited to a time or a space that calls for narrow straight jacketed thinking that smacks of insecurity and bias.  To even think that someone in the orbit of tomorrow must consider a person’s religious or ethnicity before his or her qualities as a human being, should be worrisome to us all.

Hear me out here – yes, there are extremists on both sides.

As there always are. But the majority of Sri Lankans, whether Moslem, Sinhalese, Tamil or Burgher , are not and are only happy to lead their lives and mind their business.

If a nation can be governed through insecurity gnawing away inside about a particular ethnic or a religious group who could be positioned as a threat, then we have learnt nothing from our deeply scarring experiences with the 30 year old war. We have only burdened the next generation with prejudice, colouring their world view for good.

We are no longer in isolation today. We are a part of the vibrant international community, whose larger than life presence on social media can pick up vibes in seconds and form opinions without facts.

We have opted to forget that in such a interlinked world, no ethnic or a religious group can stick to their corner and cry wolf. It doesn’t work that way. If someone can play on your insecurity, then you have not evolved much.

When we shop or hunt for bargains, we don’t choose to dwell on the shop owner’s ethnicity.  When we choose a product or a service, the religious affiliations or the ethnicity of the owners, often does not come into play. We choose what we want. It really doesn’t matter.

Some of Sri Lanka’s biggest and best known companies which employ thousands of Sri Lankans of all ethnicity and religions, are owned by Moslems. There are Moslems working side by side with fellow Lankans in companies owned by Sinhalese.

Matters not to anyone to question the ethnicity or the religious affiliations of the owners when applying for a job.

Where would we go if we give in to extremists? Where would our children be able to come together as a nation to go past the mistakes and the mishaps we have come through as a nation, to celebrate unity in diversity?

My son schooled at the great school by the sea, S. Thomas College Mount Lavinia where he learnt the best lesson of all – getting along with all shades of fellow Lankans. Although a Christian school, STC was a great place that brought together Sri Lankans of all faiths and ethnicity. Even today, my son and his class mates do not see themselves through the coloured lens of ethnicity and religion – but as Sri Lankans of Generation Z.

That should be the goal of us all.

 

 

 

When the scars remind you of the battle ..pick up the pieces and move on..

When the scars remind you of the battle ..pick up the pieces and move on..

What do you do when you go to pieces?

What do you do when your world collapses – in one earth shattering moment?

Sometimes it is the last thing you had in mind. At other times, it is what you thought would never happen to you. All the same, when your sanity lies on the edge, mutilated and wounded, your sense of balance is gone and you just sit there wondering what happened, it is that moment that you come face to face with yourself.

Not the you who faced the flak. Not the you that went to pieces – but the you who overcame the odds and survived.

We are all survivors, one way or another.

For some of us, it has been a process – sometimes easy at other times tough yet a process all the same. Yet, there are others who never recover. Who may live for years with the emotional trauma of it all.

Recovery has to be self-willed. There’s no other way around it.

If you are waiting for someone to come and help you pinpoint the pain and somehow magically, take it all away, you are dreaming.

The will to do something about it starts and ends with you.

You choose to overcome. You choose to learn from what happened and move on.

In short, you choose to pick up the pieces and move on. Apply the lessons you learned. Forgive those who hurt you. Forget – if possible – what happened.

The scars that heal over time are there to remind you that you fought the battle.

That you survived  – not because that is what people do. But because that’s what you chose to do.

You chose to wear your scars as lessons. Lessons that teach you about the treachery, the betrayal, the sheer folly of living life. There will always be those who will be the bad guys. Yet the good guys have survived and always will.

Battle scarred doesn’t mean defeat. It means that you have become stronger, better because of those scars. Scars often help us overcome the odds – to remind ourselves that we fought the battle and yes, we were wounded but what matters is that we survived.

Change your perspective. Sometimes, the worldview we hold is often at the ground level – go higher. One step, yes but maybe two. A higher perspective often calls for a better view. You would see what you didn’t – couldn’t see at ground level. That somehow, it would all be okay.

All survivors have fought battles – sometimes within, sometimes outside. Often, they have had to fight the fifth column – the enemy within. But the important thing is that they have overcome.

Did you know that there is a winner living inside you – beneath all the heartache, the pain, the betrayal? That the winner can emerge just the same way that a caterpillar became a butterfly.

So, if you that survivor, move on. You can. You will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hameed Zahran – a requiem for another mother’s son..

Hameed Zahran – a requiem for another mother’s son..

I didn’t know there was space in my heart for another mother’s son but there was.

Hameed Zahran was my son’s batch mate from law school – I never saw him face to face but his zest for life, music and fellowship flowed through my son’s mentions many times. I learnt, between work, cooking and a hundred other things we do in a home, that he loved composing his own music, sang often, carried his guitar with him and loved to travel.

And that he was the soul and the sound of almost every singing competition. That he could sing in Sinhala and English too. That he sang with gusto and fervour, a young man whose talent was more than a measure of his capacity to give of himself to others.

When on Thursday the 02nd of March, one day after Lent started, my son suddenly burst in on me and told me that his friend had died, the shock of it just took my tiredness at the end of a long work day, away.

How? I wanted to know. What happened? How does a lively 22 year old die like that?

To cut a long story short, he just happened to be at the beach side, accompanying two other friends looking for cardboard boxes for an event, when along comes two policemen who choose to frisk him on the rail tracks. Hameed hands the policemen his wallet and the phone and the next nano second, a train comes along and hits him in the back.

He dies 24 hours later in hospital. After an operation in which doctors fought hard to save his life – but could not. His body was damaged too much by the train hitting him at that speed, at that distance.

I try to hold back tears. But they flow freely, as freely as they did when my father passed away almost four years ago.

A son from another mother. His memory stares back at me, his cheerful eyes lighting up the photo on his Facebook wall.

I can’t even bring myself to think of his grieving parents. I heard about the parents having to wash his body before burial as the Moslem custom requires them to. What struck me like a thunder was what his mother would have felt, washing him in death, as she did in life as a little boy.

I could feel the beat of her heart, being torn apart, muscle by muscle, vein by vein.

No mother would want to go through such pain. It was not just unbearable. It was unneccesary ; and in vain.

One more conversation, one more song from his carefree style of singing, his hair flowing, his eyes glowing , one more moment of living a vibrant life, one he was snatched so soon from.

His friends remember Hameed the patient listener, the wandering free spirit, the friend who always had a smile. And a song. And a word of comfort.

A gracious soul, vivacious in life.

Grief has no words. It does have a place, one that squeezes everything out of you.

As I write this, I try to hold back the tears. I never knew him – I only knew him through my son’s words. Yet his spirit reached out and touched me, a young man whose zest for life, for music and for friendship descended through it all.

Who was responsible for his death? Why did he have to go so early?

Those are the questions his friends, as would-be lawyers are asking. They will undoutbtedly  find their answers.

Until then, goodbye sweet prince – may the turf lie gently over you.

You live up there, in the clouds, where you would serenade Heaven with your music.

Down here,  your friends will always miss you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ivanka Trump – a daughter’s triumph..

Ivanka Trump – a daughter’s triumph..

There has always been something special between fathers and daughters.

I realized that early on. A fully fledged Daddy’s Girl, the highlight of my life was when my father would take me every last week of the month to the Lake House Bookshop and together, we would buy books. Even today, I can close my eyes and smell the sweet fragrance of new books in that wonderful book store all those years ago.

Today, watching my daughter with my husband, the close bond they share, brings back memories of the father-daughter connection that lasts a lifetime.

Today, the citizens of the United States of America elected their President for the next four years. Donald Trump defied all odds and proved the pundits wrong to capture the seat of the most powerful individual in the world ; he was a true winner in the eyes of his voters. But in the eyes of Ivanka, his daughter who led the front lines and was always by his side, he will always be her father,  her true hero.

I remember a picture from the early days of their campaign – the camera captured her adoring eyes, her admiration for her father who let’s face it, built a successful empire on his own. She has chosen to wear the Trump laurels well, succeeding with her own brand of clothing and serving on the board of some of the companies of her father’s business empire. In a recent interview, she told media that she was indeed glad that not one of the Trump children had turned out to be a social liability. 

In contrast to other campaigns and other contestants, Ivanka was the constant face beside her father in the election campaign, graciously given the passenger seat by her step mother Melania. It was a sweet moment to watch the daughter beside the father – through the nail biting campaign, through the mud, the accusations, the take downs. Ever the dutiful daughter, she never wavered but stood firm in her conviction that her father was what America needed.

Not even when a few Hillary supporters chose to attack and boycott her brand, Ivanka chose to stay put and do everyday things, holding her peace. A mother and a wife and a role model in her own right, Ivanka’s devotion to her father and her belief in his capacity to lead their country, cut through it all. Here was a daughter who was standing by her father’s side. If nothing else, it bode well for everything The Donald meant to the everyday, middle America that the Hollywood pundits and Washington DC number crunchers did not care to give any credit to.

There’s something that’s credible about such a father daughter relationship ; it is not orchestrated. Her presence by his side may have reassured the voters that here was a father-daughter duo who were, celebrity status aside, just like the millions of families who wanted to vote right. It was not a well put together show nor one of Washington’s seasoned career politicians in a sassy PR act ; the honest sincerity in Ivanka’s presence by her father’s side would have convinced a million Daddy’s Girls to vote for her father.

The media have used words like quiet resilience and under stated elegance to describe the woman who would soon be America’s First Daughter. She has been identified as his closest advisor although she has tried to downplay the role. To her credit, Ivanka made it a point not to outshine her stepmother Melania. They stood side by side, flanking the man they both love, two elegant women always dressed right. Trump women were not known for their flamboyant taste and outlandish fashion sense – that is definitely more Michelle Obama territory. Ivanka and Melania have chosen to make elegant but firm statements about who they were and where they were grounded.

Now that the world has recovered from the shock of seeing a non-political businessman capture the hearts of voters in the USA, it might be time for us to move on.

But not before we celebrate the daughter behind the father. All the way.

 

 

 

Robbed on Champs de Elysees & listening to a policeman sing..only in Paris..

Robbed on Champs de Elysees & listening to a policeman sing..only in Paris..

I had so looked forward to my first trip to Paris, the city of lights.

I pictured myself sitting at a cafe on Champs de Elysees, watching life go by…shop at the world’s biggest LV store on the fashionable street and saunter around the city.

We finally board the Eurostar and get ready for the Channel Tunnel ride, setting out from St Pancras International in London.

Two hours later, the Eurostar rolls smoothly into Gard du Nord. I can’t wait to experience the City of Lights. Yet as we step out of Eurostar, the platforms of Gard du Nord, the main railway station in Paris, is nothing like the St Pancras we left behind in London – busy but clean-  it hits me soon that Gard du Nord is dirty and not very tourist friendly. Many immigrants parade here with boards written in bad English asking for financial help. They literally walk into you, bold and unafraid. My husband, our two kids and I try to walk out of the station as fast as we can.

Outside, on the taxi line, we hail our first cab in Paris and are promptly charged 45 Euro to get us to our Air bnb apartment. Our host Didier is mortified to learn the amount – robbery, he says and quite rightly so. It seems the usual fare is only about 15 Euros. Our cab driver was an Arab looking immigrant and we didn’t ask any questions.

Having settled in, my husband and I take a walk – the street we are on is lovely, very Parisian – plenty of cafes where people sit and sip coffee, delicatessens where we buy delightfully French pates to go with fresh bread from the near by patisserie..so far, so good.

The next day, we go to Champs Elysees. Triumph de Arc looms over us majestically at one end – we walk leisurely along the tree lined road known famously throughout the world. We reach the world’s biggest Louis Vuitton store soon enough and I am feeling enthralled by the sights and the sounds.

Inside LV, shop assistants clad in chic black LV outfits present LV bags with gloved hands to eager customers, staring in awe at the world’s most coveted hand bag. It is a moment most cherish – one in which you can lose your bearings and for a moment frozen in time, forget all the warnings about the pickpockets and the street hustlers of Paris.

No one inside LV’s shiny store, knows that outside the luxury goods store, pickpockets wait, clad in finery themselves. And that they can swiftly, surely, unknowingly open your hand bag and flick your wallet in no time.

The unfamiliar lump in my throat grows by the minute when I discover, to my horror, that my wallet, with money and credit cards, is missing. We had just sat down for our dose of a Parisian cafe on the great street itself. It  was such a powerless moment that is etched, almost  frozen in my mind. Even now, I can close my eyes and feel the panic.

Push becomes a shove when my iPhone starts receiving texts of purchases amounting to over 1000 Euros on my stolen cards. I clam up and for a spilt second, cannot comprehend anything. My husband takes over and urges me to call the banks – I do and the cards are blocked. But not before one purchase goes through -albeit for a small amount – on a debit card. Increasingly, the thieves bring down the amounts they are trying to charge on the cards.

Finally, after what seemed like eons, the attempted charges stop.

I walk on, fazed. Being robbed on the world’s most elegant boulevard brings me back to earth with a thud.

I have seen the French police fully armed and ready to confront any would-be terrorist, patrol the streets of Paris. They’ll get the pickpockets, I tell myself.

At the police station on Champs de Elysees, I sit down and try to explain my predicament to the policewoman on duty. She is not impressed – I’m but one of the many tourists crowding the police with complaints of being pick pocketed. One Korean lay sits down, tears in her eyes ; they robbed her money and her passport.

The Parisian police is so laid back you want to do something but you just sit there and pretend you are ok when you are not. Suddenly, the police we grumble about back home seems very efficient to me. This is Pink Panther true to form; departing and arriving policemen and women kiss each other on the cheek in true Parisian fashion, armed to the teeth. This is Paris ; get used to it, I tell myself.

Finally, a policeman is ready to take my complaint. I explain what I lost and in halting English, he nods his head as he types on the keyboard. The French keyboard can be challenging to English speakers.

But wait – the best part in the whole drama is when he pulls out a speaker from a drawer and starts playing classical music. Right there, as he takes my complaint down. He hums and sounds like he is enjoying it all.

I will always remember the singing policeman in Paris. I had never, ever heard a policeman in full uniform, taking down the complaint of someone in distress sing as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

He hands me the complaint in French – and I leave.

Outside, the City of Lights was still the same.

Afterwards, we are hesitant to finish the rest of our touristy visits but no, I tell myself, we came for this, we’ve got to do the rest of it.

Even though Paris was hot and the crowds were pressing – we visit The Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. And Notre Dame.

Later, the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen I meet in the local butchery, the patisserie and the pharmacie apologise profusely for the shame of being pick-pocketed- even the cab driver. He shakes his head and says ‘ That’s Paris of today”.

The French are not bad to tourists at all – those who live in Paris have much to do deal with. Roma gangs bother tourists at places where people gather such as Champs Elysees and Notra Dame. The pickpockets, the refugees who hustle for money and the belly of the ugly Paris still exists.

We go for a last night dessert to Avec Ma Blonde, a quaint Parisian cafe on Montemartre Damremont, 18th Arra, our neighbourhood. The cafe is run by Benjamin and his friend.

Benjamin turns out gourmet desserts as only a Frenchman can  ; as the sun goes down on a hot summer’s day, the cafe fills up and people eat, drink vine and have great conversations. It’s all very French. And very elegant too. No one wolfs down food – everyone eats slowly, digesting it well, while having the conversations with the ease that only the French can. Laughter and the sweet aroma of Benjamin’s desserts fill the room.

Taking the Eurostar back to London, I miss my cream coloured wallet. And my ID. And my driving licence. And whatever else that was in my wallet, a lot of things that people usually put in their wallets and forget.