When survival is the toughest call..

When survival is the toughest call..

Dedicated to all martyrs who gave their lives in the Easter Sunday bomb blast on 21st April 2019 – the victims in the hotels and the surviving family members…

He is a father who still misses the warmth, the presence and the love of his three children and wife – he lost them in the bomb attack on their church at Katuwapitiya on Easter Sunday two years ago.

On days when it rains with thunder flashing, he goes to the grave of his daughter and sits there – she used to be frightened of thunder. So he tries to keep her company. Even now.

Then there is the mother who lost her two lovely daughters and her husband in the same church. The memories are what keeps her going – the photos of her two beautiful girls smiling along with their father, echo the deep ache in her heart.

There were others who were on suicide watch in the aftermath of the attacks – they had lost almost everyone in the family and saw no reason to stay on.

Across Katuwapitiya, every family has tales of loved ones dead or incapacitated.

Two years on, the pain is still there, raw yet somehow, contained and comforted by the Master’s touch – healed as only He can, restored somewhat as only He can. It is indeed a process.

From St. Sebastian Church Katuwapitiya to St. Anthony’s in Colombo, Zion Church in Batticaloa, the hotels Shangri-La Colombo, The Kingsbury and The Cinnamon Grand – the death and destruction came unexpected on a day sacred to Christians, almost unbelievable that such a tragedy could happen.

From crowded pews resplendent with worshippers dressed in their Easter finery, to blood soaked body parts in a matter of seconds.

Today, as we remember them, we also remember that this nation grieved and reached out to those who suffered.

From the Buddhist monks who came and cleaned the church premises to the Moslem maulavis who offered their mosques to conduct services to Christians, the true heart of Sri Lanka bled as one.

The first responders, the ambulance crews, the doctors and nurses, medical personnel, armed forces and police officers gave their very best.

Once the dust settled on the burials and the funerals, it was a survivor’s nightmare to resume normal life.

That’s where we all fail – when it comes to doing the everyday little things without the loved ones.

The mother who had to accept that the school shoes her daughters wore, now lying on the rack, were never going to be worn again.

Or the young son who went straight to the graveyard where his father is buried, with his exam results – he kneeled and told his father the results with tears streaming down his face.

The children who must recover at home, shielded and kept from noises and light because parts of their injured brain have been stored in the hospital cell bank so that the cells could grow and be re-grafted later on – their trauma is real, their pain acute.

The bright child who got 99 out of 100 for maths every term and now has to deal with his arm and leg not working properly – his father tearfully says that his son thought the bomber with his heavy pack of bombs, was actually bringing milk rice for Easter celebrations.

It doesn’t stop there.

In some cases, entire families were ushered into the presence of God – their tea mugs, half drunk, still in the sinks that no one was going to wash.

Two years on, the pain is real but so is the knowledge that someday, we shall see them on that beautiful shore.

Hope is the only thing a Christian has.

Hope is the one thing that can keep us going.

Hope helps us to keep doing what we do against all odds.

As we move on, we have one singular focus as a nation, no matter whether the politicalrhetoric may sound hollow – we owe it to the victims and each other that it will not happen again.

That’s the best gift we can give those who are grieving and those who gave their lives.

That’s the best gift we can give the next generation.

May God bless and comfort everyone who suffered in the Easter Sunday attacks on 21st April 2019.

” I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me , though he may die, shall live.”

  • John 11:25 – The Holy Bible

You will always remember where you were the day we won the World Cup…

You will always remember where you were the day we won the World Cup…

I have not been particularly fond of cricket – until the Sri Lankan team kept gaining the advantage over competition and eventually brought home the World Cup in a jubilant display of camaraderie and exceptional sportsmanship in 1996.

Watching Arjuna and his boys deliver what to us Lankans was a dream come true, I became a fan – overnight.

Who can forget the image of him receiving the Cup from the late Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto – his eyes shining with the spirit of victory, drenched with tears of joy shed by every Sri Lankan watching?

Who will forget the moment?

You will always remember where you were when Sri Lanka won the Cricket World Cup in 1996.

I was at home, watching the incredible final when Sri Lanka won and the entire country burst into celebrations.

It is etched into our collective Sri Lankan psyche – it will continue to inspire the future.

At the time, we had no social media – internet was just coming as this novelty on your computer.

Yet we took to the streets as celebrations poured over and ecstatic Sri Lankans found ways to tell the world it mattered to the very heart and soul of the country that we won cricket’s most coveted trophy.

That year, as Sri Lanka went on to hold sway over international cricket, we savored each victory as it united us across various divides.

Twenty five years later, the ring of its sweetness still echoes through the country’s villages, towns and communities.

We have not forgotten that there was a day when this nation could rise above party politics, communal divides, religious differences and other factors that sometimes can divide an island and its people.

That day, we came together as one – there was something powerful about the way Arjuna and his team went out there and won a cup which many would have doubted they ever could.

It still validates everything Sri Lanka stands for.

Above all, it sends out a powerful message to the young generation who were either not born or were babes in arms back in 1996.

It takes work to build a world class team – it takes work to build a common thread of identity and togetherness that can rise above pettiness – of communal, religious, political and class divides.

That day, the entire cricket playing world were Sri Lankan.

We had come to defy the odds, turn the Englishman’s game on its heels and give the world a taste of exceptional cricketing talent.

The Sri Lankan team tasted success because at the time, they had what it took to be one – one team, not individuals. Together, each member did what he could do best. And naturally, everyone thrived in such an environment of brotherhood.

As a result, what was delivered was a once-in-a-lifetime gesture of bringing home the most coveted award in cricketing history.

Will we see such a moment again?

It is no secret that cricket became a highly competitive sport following the Word Cup victory – which is a good thing.

Every cricket loving young boy dreamed of becoming the next Kalu or Sanath.

More importantly, the talented young men from the rural areas found the doors of stardom opened wide for them.

It changed the landscape and it changed us.

Trouble with victory is that it raises the bar so high that anything lower would be seen as a devastating disappointment.

And that’s what we have come to expect from our cricketers every time.

While there have been times when they delivered, there have been moments of despair, disappointment and downright anguish.

And so the conversations have flowed, tears shed and fists shaken in fury as cricketers have faced acid tests again and again.

But one thing emerges out of the victory a young team of an island nation registered twenty five years ago.

Victory is never about complaining or individual ambition. It is never about secret agendas and ulterior motives.

Victory comes to those who put the needs of others above theirs, who can think as one and work towards reaching goals of common good.

On that day, in the sweltering heat, a young Arjuna Ranatunga showed every Sri Lankan since then that victory on the world stage is only possible when a team can work together as one.

We can only hope that twenty five years later, we could find it in every one of us to send out a team that can think and work like one with one goal in mind.

May we be able to do that – that I’m sure is the prayer of every Sri Lankan.

The doctor we desperately needed we lost to Covid-19…

The doctor we desperately needed we lost to Covid-19…

A young doctor who still had so much to give to Sri Lanka, succumbed to COVID-19 today.

Dr Gayan Danthanarayana goes into history not just as the first doctor claimed by the virus in Sri Lanka.

He goes down in history as a doctor who was much needed – we lost him at a time when we needed him most.

We needed him because he didn’t think twice about serving the poor in the often tough rural areas with low facilities.

Where hospitals are ill equipped to deal with the stress and strain of taking care of the sick – yet those of the calibre of Dr Gayan always had just enough inspiration to go on serving.

In a community that often sees the bad before it sees the good, young doctors like Gayan give all of us hope – that the medical professional is as noble as we could imagine it to be.

That for every doctor who disappoints us, there are hundreds of silent yet dedicated medical professionals who make their calling still the most respected in the world.

Today, as the nation mourns the untimely death of a young doctor, social media is awash with heartfelt tributes to a young man whose life’s calling seemed to have been a passion beyond a mere job.

One post recalled Dr Gayan’s stint at the Ampara Hospital.

Often, an ambulance – not really an ambulance but a makeshift van with a bed, traveling across roads with more pot holes than the van could negotiate, would carry a sick child from a hospital without facilities in a rural area to the bigger hospital at Ampara.

Every time the van hits a pot hole, the tube on the breathing apparatus would come off and the attending staff would have to stop, light a torch and put the tube back in to ensure that the child would be able to breathe and make it to the hospital safe.

The nightmare trip taken through some of the most difficult terrain of the deep rural Sri Lanka, would end at the Ampara hospital where Dr Gayan waited with more than just medical help at hand.

He would reach out to the doctors and the staff who took the challenging task of bringing a very sick child through a perilous journey – once the child was taken care of, he never forgot to treat the accompanying doctor and nurses to a cup of tea.

The writer, a doctor himself, also noted that most of the children who were thus resuscitated and made well, would come back to see them with grateful hearts. They owed their very life to the commitment displayed by doctors the calibre of Dr Gayan.

Dr Gayan served in hospitals considered difficult, often attending to the needs of the rural poor, helpless villagers whose only refuge is in a hospital a million miles away from what we in the city perceive hospitals to be.

It breaks my heart and the hearts of every Sri Lankan to comprehend that a doctor of his calibre had to leave so soon.

It breaks my heart that a doctor who ministered selflessly to the poor had to be rushed from Ragama, close to Colombo and then to IDH before finally being sent to Karapitiya Hospital in Galle which is said to have the sole life support system for critically ill patients.

Maybe there is enough reason for us to come together to do something about it. That would be the best we could give in Dr Gayan’s memory.

Dr Gayan was also an accomplished musician who played his guitar – a smiling young man whose cheerful demeanor seemed to convey his zest for life, his dedication to his profession and to his music.

Let Dr. Gayan’s untimely death not be in vain.

Let it light a path of hope towards more ECMO units being installed in the island.

Let it open our eyes that if we come together as we did for the Cancer Hospital Project, we as a nation can raise the funds needed to put up another ECMO unit in a hospital easily accessible.

One young girl who united all Sri Lankans..and she wears a head scarf..

One young girl who united all Sri Lankans..and she wears a head scarf..

When Shukra Munawwar excelled in the Sri Lankan version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ on a local TV channel, the 17 year old schoolgirl from the South of Sri Lanka, brought all Sri Lankans together in one joyous celebration.

It was not just her sincerity, her candid and cheerful demeanor that captured the hearts across religious and ethnic divides.

It was her story, her talent, her skill and her determination.

Shukra, beautifully clad in a head scarf and exceptionally knowledgeable in her answers, was not just another Muslim girl – she was a Sri Lankan young woman, who epitomized the hopes and dreams of her generation.

In a nation that has been more than divided – deeply wounded in fact – following the brutal Easter Sunday massacre in churches and hotels that saw over 300 dead and countless wounded, many still in deep trauma and recovery, Shukra was the healing balm we all needed.

The recent controversy over the cremation of COVID-19 victims had only widened the level of tensions.

But none of it was visible, when post after post on social media, shared by jubilant people of all ethnicities and religions, celebrated Shukra and her exceptional skills and talent tested on the screen.

There are lessons for us all here.

The courageous young woman up on the stage, telling her story of how she came to take part in the ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” style contest on Sirasa TV, bubbled over with enthusiasm and hope.

She may have been from a less than affluent background but she was richer than many who boast of wealth, could be.

She was richer in her values, in her attitude and outlook in life and her unstoppable hope of a better tomorrow.

She came to take part in the show, she said, because she needed to buy a laptop computer to continue her studies online.

Her mother, who accompanied her to the show, couldn’t afford to buy one for her – her father was too sick to work and was bedridden. But she was determined to rise above it all.

In one single sentence, watched by thousands, this cheerful young woman was able to highlight the plight of hundreds of children who cannot afford the resources needed to pursue a holistic online study experience in Sri Lanka.

Her story was sad but she didn’t cry sharing it.

Instead, she chose to say what needed to be heard – that stories like hers should only serve to make one stronger, enabling one to reach heights of doing the impossible.

Never give up, she said. Until you have reached your goal.

I am here, she said, because I know the difficulties children doing online classes face in economically challenged families.

Respect your parents, she said, especially when they cannot afford to buy you what you want.

Give us all an equal stage to show our talents, she said, no matter where we come from.

At a time when average youngsters of her age spend the majority of their time either constantly engaged with a device or playing games, often choosing the solitary confinement of their rooms, Shukra gave us all hope that among them are young women and men like her, who still find the time and the ability to acquire knowledge that matters.

Someday, I want to be the CEO of a well known organization, said this cheerful young woman with the candor that the young could muster, her eyes sparkling.

Singlehandedly capturing a nation’s love and warmth.

Shukra has a powerful message for us all – she refused to curse the darkness – instead, she chose to light a candle and let the light cast its glow upon herself and the others.

May we meet more and more young people the calibre of Shukra.

Thank you for the books, Aunty Sybil..

Thank you for the books, Aunty Sybil..

The daughter of a writer, I was introduced to the magical formula of reading and writing at an early age, by my father.

My father Premil Ratnayake knew Sybil Wettasinghe well – they both shared a common work heritage at the Lake House, the home of legendary journalists.

I was five or six years old when he brought me Duwana Rawula (The Runaway Beard) which was the first Sybil Weerasinghe book I ever read.

More would follow. Many, actually.

As I started to discover the magical world of books, her mesmerizing stories of the simple village life became more than just books – they were escapades, a journey into an imaginary world of enchantment, one in which wonderful characters lived.

Her books were a staple for us as children of the Seventies.

We had no phones, no internet and not even TV back then.

But we had her books.

Listening to me, my thirteen year old daughter raises her eyebrows –

but what did you do then, Ammi?

We read. That’s what we did, I tell her. We read Enid Blyton, we read Charles Dickens, we read Nancy Drew.

And yes, we read Sybil Wettasinghe.

Fed on a diet of reading that nourished you from inside out, it would not have done justice to the words I read if I hadn’t turned to writing – which came as natural as reading was to me.

I would clank away at my father’s old typewriter, writing stories and articles for children’s newspapers.

All the while, reading Aunty Sybil, among others.

But the enchantment of dear Aunty Sybil didn’t end in childhood for me.

Years later, as I continued my reading and writing into adulthood, her book Vaniyan Kalu Vaniyan (The Child In Me) which chronicles the serene childhood spent in the charming village of Gintota, in Galle, never failed to inspire the child in me.

It was her gift to the next generations – her signature narrative about a way of life that no longer existed.

If she didn’t tell the stories, how would we understand?

How would we know the thrill of going to school across streams and greenery? The thrill of picking fruit that grew so abundantly in the village?

How would we know the love of a grandmother for her granddaughter as they foraged the forest together for ripe fruit?

The story teller in Sybil Wettasinghe takes us by the hand and together, we discover her village home, the idyllic setting of her aththamma’s (grandmother’s) house.

We meet the characters who bring her stories to life – Sedara Akka, Loku Amma, Babun Appu, Nandaseeli and many other village folk whose stories she so charmingly details.

The silvery waters of the stream in which little Sybil and her grandma bathed – or the silvery moon on that special night when her mother and the rest of the villagers would boil jackfruit and eat it as a midnight feast.

We are right there with her as the cook Carolyn churns out condiments on the traditional stone grinder, almost meditating.

Or ponder the plate sized hoppers little Sybil had for breakfast on her way to the primary school.

The stories are not just full of enchantment but they bring to life the vivid memories of a simple childhood, spent in the serenity of a village in which everyone knew everyone and life was a lot less complicated.

It was the old world charm of an era long vanished – yet still alive in the pages of her books, living on for the generations to come.

Her other books – from Runaway Beard to Children of the Clay House, often chronicled simple stories that left a deep impact on children. Her lucid style of story telling captivated audiences, whether young or old.

The stories were never complete without her magical drawings that accompanied the stories.

I will never forget how the old Seeya (grandfather) in the Runaway Beard found his beard growing as white as snow to fill an entire house – the childhood memory is still so alive that I could close my eyes and hear my father reading the book to me.

Thank you Aunty Sybil for your unforgettable art of story telling. The clarity, the lucid style that never failed to captivate hearts and minds as you took us on journeys into the heartland of the village.

The characters you helped us remember – the stories you told so beautifully.

It is indeed a privilege to pass on your legacy that lit a thousand lights in the fertile mind of the young – to my children.

They have enjoyed your books as much as I have.

May the turf lie gently over you – may the stories live on in our hearts.

Why 18 year old Shan inspires us all…

Why 18 year old Shan inspires us all…

Imagine a three year old left on his own, deserted by his mother in the aftermath of his father’s funeral.

Little Shan packed his school uniform, wore the other and set out in search of a shelter, leaving behind his coir mill home for good.

He was alone.

It had been no home – but it was the only one he knew and he didn’t mind the dust. But now it was no more because he was alone.

What happened as the three year old started his journey on his own, is history.

He remembers waking up in hospital soon afterwards and  being taken in by a kind bus conductor and his family. They took care of him until he sat for his O/Ls.

Shan had to cook his own food and do chores in the home they gave him but he didn’t mind.

He went on to get prizes for his talent in singing and other extra curricular activities.

Soon afterwards, his foster father dies from a cancer – knowing that he would become a burden to the the foster family, Shan sets out, determined to build a life on his own terms.

One goal is to get his birth certificate – he didn’t have one.

Because he did not have a birth certificate, the school had not allowed him to take part in any activities.

He didn’t mind – every time this young man was dealt a blow in life, he used it to become stronger.

He was able to get a birth certificate after much persistence, time spent and great efforts undertaken – but thanks to archaic laws that govern such documents, his birth certificate states that his parents are unknown.

Just like in Kenny Rogers’ song, where they called Jimmy the coward of the county, people called Shan the fatherless child in less flattering terms.

Shan didn’t mind – he had goals to attain.

Shan then gets a job with a restaurant – and a place to stay with a salary.

He learns cooking and all of its craft here – after working from dawn until evening, he believes he has finally found a place he can call home.

Things change when Shan is fired for not waking up on time one day – he has only one passion in life and that is music.

After work, he would stay up to watch the music sessions going on in a close by place.

And then one day, he oversleeps.

Out of a job and back on the street, Shan is no longer alone.

His friend, the pastry chef earning a salary of LKR 75,000 per month along side him in the restaurant, chooses to walk out with him.

He refuses to leave Shan to face the world on his own.

In a true test of sincere friendship, Shan and his friend set up a restaurant, along with another friend in the Kuliyapitiya town who gives up his ambition to join in the venture.

The three friends are soon joined by another – they work like a team and the result is a restaurant with a booming business in Muthukuda Plaza Kuliyapitiya Town.

Shan is more than an example to the young generation of today – and to all of us.

Just eighteen but wiser beyond years, Shan has formed his own line of defense in the face of insults, refusals and rebuts.

His strength is his quiet resilience – and a steely determination to fine tune his art and emerge not just a dynamic entrepreneur but also a musician.

The many certificates and awards he has recieved stand testimony to his tremendous talent in music.

Today, helped by his friends and well wishers, he has recorded an album of 05 songs in it.

How does a young man, rejected by his family, ostercized by society and left to fend for himself, manage to hold it all together, so courageously, so well?

At a time when all around him, young men with families, parents, much loved and nurtured, are making wrong decisions and wrong choices, Shan stands tall, a beacon of hope to us all.

Shan bears no ills, no grudges against those who called him names, those who sneered at him.

His eyes shining, his hopes high, he tells of his ambition to qualify in music and eventually, to save enough to buy a plot of land, build a house and invite his mother – if he can find her – to live with him.

Among restless young men who wear anger like some sort of a jewel to consolidate their position in society , Shan could have easily turned the rejection, the pain into a weapon he could have thrown back at those who opposed him.

Instead, he has perfected the best weapon to fight injustice – success.

Shan and his friends run their restaurant with perfect precision – and share the profits on an equal basis – a true band of brothers, if there one ever was.

So what does this courageous young man with his eyes sparkling with hope, his voice so rich with talent, tell us?

That every rejection can be turned into a powerful weapon of hope.

That being fatherless and motherless yet knowing the right path to trod on is richer than having all the family in the word and yet feel lost and hopeless.

That taking inspiration from what you possess instead of lamenting over what you don’t possess, is greater than mourning what you never had.

That when all is said and done, if there is courage, determination and talent, the only limit you have is the one you impose on yourself.

May Shan be truly blessed – may his band of brothers who gave up their comforts to stand by him, be blessed as they stay a beacon of light in a world of darkness.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.