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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Respice Finem – TCK, you rock.

Respice Finem – TCK, you rock.

When the whole drama of the little boy without a school ( forbidden word – HIV –  he is not infected , it is confirmed ) unfolded, what broke my heart was the way in which the little tyke sat, alone and downcast, his face turned away from prying cameras. The little blue shorts and the crisp white shirt reminded me of my son’s first day at the school by the sea. Seeing adults trying to outdo each other in shouting out against his admission to the school of their children, made it worse. This was Sri Lanka. In the 21st century.

As the little guy waited with vacant eyes, there was the silence, loud and clear. Folk on social media argued , appalled by the agitating parents and the school authorities. It was a moment when Sri Lanka would showcase her heritage, her pride and joy, her cultural upbringing, her deep sense of hospitality and her hope for her future generations.

It took a school with a strong and deep Christian heritage from the hills of Kandy, to break the deadlock. And to stand up and tell the world despite the protests, the concerns, there were people whose ethics would not permit them to sit still and do nothing when the call was for sanity and for acceptance. To the end. Respice Finem. In the hallowed traditions of the Trinity College Kandy, the values imbibed within its precincts by men the calibre of Rev. Senior who loved Ceylon and composed the beautiful hymn for Sri Lanka, the tune of which is adapted for Danno Budunge, which caused a storm in a tea cup recently when the well known soprano Kishani Jayasinghe sang it.

And so Trinity it was. It was heartening to see the Principal of TCK sign a MOU with the Minister of Education Akila Viraj Kariyawasam in the presence of Bishop Dhilo, Bishop of Colombo. It was a brilliant move, Trinity – one that showed Sri Lanka and the world that as a Christian school built on values of humility, love and empathy, what it takes to make a difference is action not words. As empty words were exchanged between all parties, verbal swords were crossed and opinions aired, Trinity College moved in with deed, sealing the end of a poignant tale with agape love, as embodied in Christ’s mission to the world.

With a son who just left S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, I deeply appreciate the wonderful cultural mix of Christian schools,not just as a Christian but also a Sri Lankan. At STC or at TCK, and also at Ladies College where my nine year old daughter schools and all other Christian schools, the children have the opportunity to mix and blend wonderfully – Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Moslems work and eat together, laugh together and learn together. To me, it is a truly beautiful representation of the multi cultural country Sri Lanka is. This little boy will get to experience a culture at TCK that is rich with diversity, that represents the true heart of Sri Lanka. Prejudice along racial and religious lines will be far from his orbit.

Thank Heaven for that.

He will have the opportunity to be a man of courage and conviction, a true Sri Lankan who someday, will give back to society what TCK taught him.

When the story broke, I looked around for any links that I may find in my immediate environment to TCK. And found some  that made me glad to claim a distant yet a link nevertheless, to this great school – my uncles from my mother’s side , the Devendra clan, taught there. My husband’s clan, Dodanduwa Weerasooriyas have had and continue to have Trinitians among its members. Its most illustrious Weerasooriya was Arnolis Weerasooriya who left the college in early 20th century to serve God ; Arnolis is credited with the arrival of Salvation Army in Sri Lanka. The next illustrious member of the Weerasooriya clan to have graced the halls of TCK was David Paynter, whose mother was Anagi Weerasooriya, wife of Rev. Paynter. David Paynter’s beautiful legacy of murals are etched in the chapels of STC and TCK – brilliant creations glorifying Christ, from the hands of a true master. The chapel at Trinity College is featured on a stamp as well and is recogniszed widely for its uniquely Sri Lankan architecture. My father-in-law Maurice Weerasooriya was also a Trinitian, one of the many Christian boys from Galle who went there.

So Trinity, you made us proud. We salute you because you showed everyone that you could make a difference. Stand up and be counted.

” For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” – Matthew 25:35

 

Of Danno Budunge, Hymn for Sri Lanka & Opera

Of Danno Budunge, Hymn for Sri Lanka & Opera

The perfect delivery of the much loved Danno Budunge in operatic style was done with both aplomb and finesse by Kishani Jayasinghe, a soprano whom we should all be proud to call a fellow Sri Lankan.

The story that goes even further, despite the ire of many social media users, is that the original melody of the Danno Budunge was the beloved Hymn for Sri Lanka, penned by Rev. W.S Senior back in the early part of the 20th century. The hymn is still sung in churches throughout Sri Lanka. Rev Senior was an educator in the style of pioneer men and women from Europe and USA who went out to the world – he was the Vice Principal of Trinity College Kandy and contributed immensely to that school.

This, really, is not about Rev Senior, the Hymn for Sri Lanka, Danno Budunge or the stellar reputation Kishani has as a soprano whose voice and talent has put Sri Lanka on the map. It is more about who we are as a nation, where we are and where we are going. About what values we are passing on to our children and in which ways we can connect to the rest of the world.

For some of us, anything western is anathema – but migration to a western country is not. It’s perfectly ok to have children here at home in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the world who cannot pronounce Sinhala properly but it is not ok to sing a Sinhala song in any other style but the one it is sung in.

It’s ok to drink frizzy drinks and eat fast food – pay no heed to the mantra to return to healthier food and drinks of our forefathers. It’s perfectly acceptable to throw garbage and ruin the fragility of the scenic environment in Sri Lanka – or invite the dengue mosquitoes to breed with unclean drains and polluted environs.

But it is not acceptable for a Sinhala song to be sung in a different yet perfectly acceptable style loved by half or more of the world out there.

The list goes on – and the list is full of hypocrisy and phobias. After some 2,500 years we are supposed to be proud of – I recently came back from a visit to Polonnaruwa during which I took my 9 year old daughter around the ruins and we both fell swelled in our chests about the feats of our ancestors – we are more inward looking and insecure than we were during the days of kings.

The world runs on innovation. That’s the buzz word for economic, business, social and personal success. Granted we must be proud of our heritage and who we are – but we also must emerge as capable and relevant in the world of today. The ostrich mentality will only serve to sink us further – like some truck stuck in the sands of time unable to get its wheels out of the mire.

The world of today is not limited by race, creed, caste or religion. It combines it all, making a perfectly stirred pot of all nationalities that strengthens and reinforces the hope of humanity. The lyrics of the Hymn for Sri Lanka are penned by a clergyman who loved this land like his own and is buried here, and is set to lilting music by Deva Surya Sena, who pioneered the style of local and traditional singing of Sinhala hymns. The same melody is then transformed into the beauty of Danno Budunge and has enthralled generations with its simple yet profoundly sweet melody.

In a nutshell, this melody connects the nation at many different levels. To me,it embodies the spirit of Sri Lanka as we are – Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem. The true spirit of a nation in which we all share the common space to grow, to work, to gather together to worship our God or gods.

When Kishani Jayasinghe sang Danno Budunge on 68th Independence Day, it was not the first time. She sang it last year, at a concert titled Kishani Sings With Friends – her rendition of Amazing Grace and Danno Budunge were applauded with gusto. But it took a post of her singing going viral to generate the kind of contempt that can only come from a deep sense of insecurity ingrained with a false sense of pride which is contrastingly different from the real love one feels for one’s heritage and identity.

For the generation of today who connect seamlessly via social media and the internet, the world is their oyster. They can relate to all kinds of music, which for them transcends all barriers.

Let us learn a lesson here from the young ones. And they surely have plenty to teach us.

 

 

 

 

Of hotel apartheid and back-to-Raj syndrome

Of hotel apartheid and back-to-Raj syndrome

Reading about some hotels in Mirissa refusing to serve Sri Lankan guests brought back memories of an era gone by.

It also brought back memories back when the civil war was in full swing and the only guests keeping the Sri Lankan hotels going were the Sri Lankans themselves. Even today, as much as I cherish every foreign visitor to Sri Lanka, whether backpackers who are plentiful or otherwise, I cannot help but be mindful of the fact that Sri Lankans still keep most of those hotels filled and the rooms occupied – just check whether you can get a hotel room in a luxury 4 star upwards hotel for the Independence Day weekend coming up.

Talking of discrimination, the actual reach of the whole thing goes much deeper than merely barring Sri Lankan visitors to a handful of hotels. One individual defending the gesture opined that he believed only unruly guests were unwelcome – in which case, the board must say so without mentioning “Only foreigners allowed’.

Are we in 2016 or back in the Seventies?

I can understand the part about unruly Sri Lankans – but what about hundreds of decent, law abiding, well mannered Sri Lankans who book into some of the most luxurious hotels not just in Sri Lanka but elsewhere in the world? Who has the right to make sweeping statements about all Sri Lankans when some of us can afford to stay at The Four Seasons and The Claridge without batting an eyelid?

In the West, as I write, a politically correct attitude in bending over backwards to deal with mass migration of a people from a totally different culture and background, has resulted in utter chaos.  It seems impossible to get the two to integrate while still sticking to freedoms the developed world takes for granted.

Yet, out here, in this part of the world, we see some ‘expatriates’ who , it seems, are unable to shake off an out of place colonial mindset when they come out here into the tropics get used to a different lifestyle, a zillion miles away from everyday life back home. Of course not all of them – there are wonderful expats from all over the world who have fallen in love with Sri Lanka and find living here such a wonderful experience. They add colour, refreshing change and perspective to a lot of going ons here.

My focus is the others , ones who acquire some kind of an sahib avatar when they are out here. Maybe its the way some of our own people, stuck in a time warp that stretches back to Raj days, treat the expats – with some sort of an outdated reverence. I knew one lady from Europe who mastered the art of lording it over policemen, bank clerks, security officers and other locals down the line. She liked wielding the stick at them.

Some have become snobbish enough to develop a total Raj mentality, complete with a penchant for cucumber sandwiches and all. Can’t blame them when they get spoilt when they land out here – the wide appeal of Sri Lanka to the world is still somewhat stuck in period movies, with occasional delightfully antiquated glimpses of a past rich with colonial heritage. I love it too – but it all becomes too much when the sahibs and the sahibas start behaving like the characters in the period movies.

In a world in which an Indian from Chennai heads Google, one of the world’s most powerful companies and a Chinese founded one of the world’s biggest e commerce companies, colour and ethnic background no longer holds water in any area. Whether it is about serving Sri Lankans in hotels or otherwise, the world today by and large, is colour blind.

Yet, in a country such as ours,  with some of us are still finding our way out of a colonial time warp, someone with shallow roots can easily get carried away into assuming that expats have some sort of a privileged position here. It can be an initial impression that is deceptive yet difficult to shake off when you go along with the perks of having help, someone to drive you, someone to do your grocery shopping and take care of the children. Harder when back home, you do all these things yourself.

Just walk around some sections of The Galle Fort – you will know what I mean. It’s difficult not to catch the drift there. Or hob knob with them at one of their favourite watering holes in the city and you will see the picture emerging. Not that I mind – I for one love the wonderful heritage the British left behind. There’s so much of colour and identity in the unique cultural mix we have had from the time when the Portuguese came on board and the Dutch followed. Yet, when it threatens to spill over to the common space we all call home here on this little island and emerges in a hundred little ways that send me warning signs of lurking discrimination, I get concerned.

I guess I have reason to be.

I am a citizen of the world – not just Sri Lanka. I understand and can relate to common issues we face and deal with everyday, no matter where you are from. I am sure you are too.

So the next time you feel the expat syndrome coming on, just take it easy and leave it at the door.

 

 

 

What does it feel to hit 50 – finally?

What does it feel to hit 50 – finally?

Ever since finally becoming half a century old this month, the question I get asked often is how it feels to finally hit the big five o. And my answer is always the same – age is but a number. It doesn’t feel any different being 50 years old – you are the same old you but yes, there are things you can work on.

When you reach 50, you begin to understand what really matters in life and what doesn’t. It’s a great point in time to choose what is important in life and what can wait. Or forgotten. You understand the fragility of time and the importance of spending time doing things you want to do. Somethings that were on the back burner can be brought up front. Spending time with your spouse and the children are important –  at 50, realization comes that time can be fleeting and the opportunities to make the best use of relationships can be gone before you can grasp them. Finding time for your aging parents is also paramount here ; they don’t have much time left and it would be good to make an effort to spend some time with them.

At 50, you don’t want to hold grudges and be enslaved by them. It’s a great opportunity to forgive and forget. And to let the slights pass. Especially from younger, over confident folk who think they’ve seen it all – you can laugh it off and shake it out of your system. Retorts and rebuttals are not worth the while, considering the bad blood it pumps into your system.

At 50, you are comfortable – or at least you should ideally be – with who you are. You don’t have time to keep analyzing the portrayal of you by others. Fat or thin, easy to please or hard to get, you are who you are – and you can only improve upon what you are. You can set goals to achieve once you understand and realize that the buck ends with you. You can still bring on change even at 50 – but first, you need to know where and what to change without having to reconsider it later on.

Hitting 50 , in my book, gives you a few privileges. Chief among which is not to have the time or the desire to put up with anything you don’t want to. Having lived for half a century, you somehow come to the conclusion that you don’t really have the time to keep on playing games. If someone doesn’t want to be your friend, that’s fine. Not that you would ignore that person for the rest of your life but you understand the dynamics of relationships. They don’t always stay the same and that’s fine too. You don’t have the time to spend mentally reversing situations and regretting the flash backs.

At 50, feel entitled to some opinions – even though they don’t seem to matter to anyone else but you. You have earned them ; they are yours to keep. You may not always be right but you have time on your side. You have been there, done that and when someone not touching this side of 40 thinks you ought to know better, you have earned the right to shrug it off.

Being 50 is also a great time to finally comprehend that you will never have that hour glass figure or be able to squeeze into that bandage dress hanging for ions in your wardrobe. Give it to charity – instead, focus on eating and exercising right. Not because it is fashionable but because it can keep you fit and healthy and add productive years to your life.

In the final analysis, being 50 isn’t bad at all. In fact, it is good because it is that point in your life when you know for certain what remains and what is fleeting.  appreciate more – you can look out of the window and experience the sunset instead of worrying if another day just ended on an uncertain note.