Monday, November 21, 2005

Colombo Journal

Unforseen expenses may rise,” the star forecast in the Daily Mirror cautioned me, before adding with an air of authority: “No cheer for the romantic.”

My spirits instantly touched the ground even though I was flying at 35,000 feet. I suddenly felt angry with the air-hostess for having given me the paper. As compensation I asked for another drink. It isn’t, after all, a great idea to begin your first day in a new country by keeping an eye on your wallet instead of eyeing the beautiful things of the land.

The land, meanwhile, was 15 minutes away, as the screen in front of my seat informed. By the time the plane touched Colombo and the stewardess folded her hands and said goodbye, my anger had melted. She had really been warm. The warmth is on record: Sri Lankan Airlines has got awards for having the most friendly cabin crew. In any case they were going to be my hosts for the next five days. So I thanked her and stepped down into the steaming heat of Colombo.

The hour-long drive to the city seemed like a drive in our own Kochi — the same greenery, the same heat, the similar attire and mannerism of the people. Only the vehicles on the road were different: instead of the Ambassador and the Maruti and the Santro, you see Toyota and Nissan and Isuzu. The autorickshaws — or the tuk-tuk, as the locals call it — are, however, made by Bajaj. But they are not painted in any uniform colour. Some are bright red, some deep green, some others blue. I wondered if the colour depended on the whim of the driver or some government rule.

‘‘Do you like your room, sir?” the bell-boy asked me as he placed my bag on the rack. Clever boy, because the answer couldn’t have been ‘no’, for my ninth-floor room at the Colombo Plaza offered a splendid view of most of the city’s high-rises, the Beira Lake and the Indian Ocean. Is this the same city, I wondered, from where all the news that came out all these years were mainly about conflict, wars, blasts, suicide bombings and, of late, the tsunami? The tsunami hadn’t hit Colombo — fortunately so because most buildings that matter are just metres away from the Indian Ocean.

News about the tsunami devastation, however, continues to dominate the newspapers. All the more because this is the ‘National New Year Season’ — a time to introspect about the past and move into the future. But the past is yet to be repaired. “Avurudu (New Year) in welfare centres, thanks to officio-political bungling,” screamed the headline of a massive article in the Mirror’s edit page. The article lamented, “As politicians and policy makers wrangle over how, when and where the tsunami displaced are to be located, tens of thousands of fellow Sri Lankans will continue to languish in welfare centres, tents and makeshift places as we celebrate the Sinhala and Hindu New Year tomorrow.”

It also bitterly complained that ministers and MPs, instead of doing something for the victims, were going on foreign jaunts to study “disaster preparedness methods.” Reports on the front page had also taken the government to task for various other things. One report began like this: “In a National New Year attack, the main opposition UNP yesterday accused the government of deceiving a heavily burdened people, by advertising false price lists for essential items.” Another report said chicken had gone out of stock in Colombo and some suburban areas following a dispute between traders and producers.

I put the paper aside and turned on the piped music. A radio channel came alive with ABBA’s Take a chance. Then came George Baker’s Sing a song, then Osibisa’s Dance the body music... The jockey soon came on air to make the periodic announcement that this was Gold FM “that brings you the best of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.” The noise of the nineties had been left out. It was with some effort that I tore myself away from the speaker. Colombo, after all, was waiting to be seen.

Heavily-burdened people. The phrase used in Mirror kept ringing in my mind as I made my way to Odel, a shopping mall recommended by the hotel staff. The mall doesn’t have the size of the malls you usually find in Indian cities: it’s only a two-story colonial building, but that makes it elegant. I happened to pass by a large mirror. In fact, I looked like a heavily-burdened man, compared with the impeccably-dressed young men and women floating past. People of Colombo are fashion-conscious. (They are also a friendly lot: people often smile at strangers).

The men often look good in what they wear because they seem to work out. And the women seem to be spending a lot of time turning the pages of Vogue. In any case, giant screens in Odel keep showing Fashion TV (unless a cricket match is happening) — the idea is to inspire you to buy more and more. And there is so much to buy — Calvin Klein underwear to Guess jeans. The price tags might send you in a tizzy — Rs 3000, Rs 5000, Rs 7000. But that’s Sri Lankan money: for the approximate Indian value you’ve to divide the figure by half. Two hours there had lightened my wallet. Part of the star forecast seemed to be right.

‘‘Those days were bad,” says Anura, a twenty-something who works with an advertising company. She was referring to the days when the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government had not signed the ceasefire agreement. “The police would stop people at every few metres and frisk them. You could not park your vehicle anywhere. Boys could not go out with girls, girls could not go out with boys. You could not go out in the nights. And you had to carry your I-card all the time, or else you could be arrested.”

Today, you hardly find police on the streets. And night life is rocking. I ask Anura which is the most popular disco in Colombo. “You mean the most happening disco? It’s the Blue Elephant.” I was tempted to ask Anura out to the disco but did not for the fear of the rest of the prediction coming true so quickly.

Right now the sun was about to set so it was time to head to the beach. You won’t find sand but a promenade, called the Galle Face Green, which stretches out a kilometre and a half. Laid out in 1859, it’s a picnic spot where families gather every evening and mothers help their children fly kites. More grown-ups play cricket while even more grown-ups come with their girlfriends. The place teems with couples. The sun had just dipped into the ocean, turning the light into faint orange. The crescent of the moon had shown up overhead. I sat alone on the stone steps, eating pieces of raw mango dressed in salt and chilli flakes and watching the expanse of the ocean through the silhouettes of lovers sitting on the embankment. The forecast, I guess, was correct.

*****

Many heroes of Sri Lanka today are cinema heroes, and the biggest of them is Shah Rukh Khan. Aamir Khan and Salman Khan have a lot of fans too. Among the Tamil heroes, Vijay (not to be confused with Vijaykanth) is the biggest heart-throb. But no one can beat Shah Rukh. “I accompanied Shah Rukh Khan from the airport to the hotel when he came to perform in Colombo. He is awesome, and also a nice human being. A child wanted his autograph but the security people would not let him. Shah Rukh happened to see the child and gestured him to come in,” says Martin (his name changed), who works with a travel agency.

Buddhist monks did not want the show to happen that evening, for it was the first death anniversary of a revered monk, Gangodawila Soma Thero. The actor was about to end his show when a bomb went off, killing two people. “Shah Rukh immediately rushed to his Mercedes. Just before he got into the car, I heard him saying, ‘F*****g Sri Lanka!’ The other actors jumped in too and they sped off, straight to the airport,” he said. “But please don’t say that I told you that Shah Rukh said this. I have to live here, and people here worship Shah Rukh. They will kill me if I say anything against him,” he pleaded.

*****

But the real-life heroes in Sri Lanka are its people, who’ve retained their warmth and smiles in spite of years of conflict and hardship. The cheerful family you spot on the beach is likely to have lost a number of relatives in the December-26 tsunami. But the tragedy happened four months ago: right now it’s the time to usher in the New Year, to move on.

At a party, I found myself drinking with M Zarani, a society photographer and a man with impeccable manners who speaks English with the old-world elegance. We got talking and soon he gave me a recap of the island’s political history, starting with the rule of Sirimavo Bandaranaike “when children learned that A is for apple but never got to see an apple, when you were allowed to carry only three and a half pounds worth foreign exchange if you went abroad.” He also spoke about the tsunami devastation, and said how the government was doing little to rehabilitate the people. Only much later did he let it slip that almost the entire family of his father’s brother had been wiped out by the tsunami. “I think every second person in the island lost someone or the other,” he said thoughtfully.

Another person I met at the party was Nimmi Dethlefsen, a 54-year-old woman who runs an ayurveda resort near Galle. For an hour or so we spoke about yoga and panchakarma and about the yoga ashrams in India. The next morning we met again and she took me around Colombo — to a Buddhist temple, a few shopping malls, and also to the beach. I bought a couple of CDs and a granite figurine of the Buddha, but she didn’t let me pay at the shops. “You are in Sri Lanka. When I come to Chennai, I will make you pay.”

It was only over dinner that night that she told me her story. On the morning of December 26, she was in the bathroom of one the cottages at Galle, getting a tap fixed. Suddenly she heard people shouting and she came out to see what was wrong. The first wave took away her sauna huts. The next to go were the cottages. The third giant wave split her home into two. And the fourth washed away the upper half of the home. The destruction was complete. Nimmi survived holding on to a column.

Miraculously for her, all her staff and guests survived too. “Ganesha saved us all.” Today, she is not only rebuilding her resort but also helping — with aid from her clients abroad — to rehabilitate displaced villagers on the Southern coast. There are many like her in Sri Lanka who are silently doing their bit without seeking — or getting — recognition. For them, it’s all a part of life.

*****

Sitting by the window on the return flight from Colombo and sipping arrack and watching the plane glide above the kingdom of clouds, I pondered — what is it about Sri Lanka I would miss the most? The beauty of the place? Maybe, but Kerala is just as beautiful. The weather? Certainly not — it is as hot as Chennai this time of the year. The people? Of course, yes; one doesn’t come across a friendlier lot very often.

Then, after a few more sips of the golden-coloured drink, I realised what I’d been missing the most ever since I left the hotel a few hours ago. Gold FM. Imagine the Beatles, ABBA, Boney M, George Baker, Osibisa and others taking turns to keep your spirits up round the clock. Is that why Sri Lankans manage to be so lively in spite of the years-long conflict and, now, the devastation caused by the tsunami? I wouldn’t know.

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