Friday, December 23, 2005

On The Galle Road

It is 7 p.m., and I am at the seaside town of Bentota, sitting in a tiled-roof bar that is practically empty and that is now playing Akon’s I am so lonely, I have nobody. Over the music you can hear the whirring of a generator running in a building not very far away. It isn’t a generator, though; it’s the sound of the ocean.

Presently that sound is drowned by the rattling of the seven o’ clock train that is passing by. The rail track is just a few feet away from the balustrade of the bar. That’s how it is in Sri Lanka. Wherever you go, a rail track always follows you, just like that faithful dog in the Hutch commercial. Even when you go to a local bar. The track, of course, doesn’t follow you inside the bar; it waits for you outside, as is the case now.

I look at the passing train. Like many things in Sri Lanka, the rail coaches have something old-world about them. Maybe it's the make: they are still painted a rusty red and seem to have been manufactured at least a quarter of a century ago. One wouldn’t be surprised if the coaches were indeed made then, or even earlier, because for the past two decades, the country’s energies—and resources—have been directed towards fighting the war against Tamil separatists. A country that registered eight per cent growth until the early 1980s, economically ahead even of Singapore, today spends nearly a billion dollars annually on defence alone. And now there is talk of war again.

‘‘I think Mahinda (Rajapakse, the new President) is giving them (the LTTE) a last chance for peace. If that doesn’t work out, he will go for a fight-to-finish war. I think you can expect a war in six months,” says Chaminda, my driver, who is sharing the local Lion beer with me. According to him, the LTTE has already been decimated because of last year’s tsunami (which wrecked the country's eastern coast—the stronghold of the Tamil Tigers). ‘‘The LTTE is now run by young boys,’’ he says.

The ocean continues to roar, and a young man emerges from the darkness and walks into the bar, carrying two pineapples. He is wearing Bermuda shorts, and so is the boy who runs the bar. The music has changed to a party number. If you discount the talk about political turmoil, we could have been sitting in a restaurant in a Caribbean island. I suddenly pity friends who have always pitied me for my love for Sri Lanka. They say: ‘‘What is there to see in Sri Lanka? It is just like Madras.’’

Not quite. The panther and the tiger may belong to the same family, but they are two distinct animals: you never make the mistake of confusing one for the other.

I ask Chaminda what he thinks of Rajapakse. His opinion is no different from those of the Sinhalas I’ve spoken to so far. ‘‘He is a good man. He is not like Chandrika. He is not like Ranil. They come from the elite class, just like all the previous Prime Ministers and Presidents. Rajapakse is the first President to come from a village, from a village down south. He understands the problems of the poor,’’ he says.

Today, the problems of the poor primarily means suffering because of the December 26 tsunami last year, which killed at least 30,000 people across the island. Many in the country think the toll is much higher: 80,000 to a lakh. Rajapakse, who is also the finance minister, set aside 50 billion Sri Lankan rupees (a hundred rupees make a dollar) for post-tsunami reconstruction in the budget he presented recently.

‘‘I lost my house. I was in Colombo that morning. But my wife and son were down south. They ran to the hills. Then they moved to my mother’s house. That’s where we all live now,’’ says Chaminda. But he does not betray the bitterness of a man who, like millions of others, has lost his home, his belongings.

It is not difficult to see why: after 20 years of war, Sri Lankans have made peace with adversity. Adversity, for them, is like the wayward son you resent but cannot discard: you have to give him food and shelter. So the next day, a Sunday when the traffic is almost nil, when we drive from Bentota to Galle, you hardly feel that this stretch was a scene of destruction only a year ago.

The highway has been rebuilt. A few metres to its right is the ocean, and a few metres to the left the mandatory rail track. ‘‘There were houses here,’’ says Chaminda, pointing to empty stretches on the side of the ocean. At some places, damaged, deserted houses still stand. At other spots, wooden houses have come up. Sinhala boys loiter around here and there. Their bodies are sculpted, and many of them have grown their hair like Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

The real testimony to Sri Lankan resilience are the hoardings flanking the Galle Road. They tell you that the tsunami is now a memory, and that the country is looking forward. Aishwarya Rai is selling Lux. Another hoarding, hoisted above a tsunami-wrecked building, screams ‘‘Sun & Fun’’. It is selling a sun screen lotion (‘‘Tested in USA’’) and shows a bunch of girls frolicking on the beach. Another one advertises Sri Lanka’s ‘‘fastest growing fixed line network,’’ Suntel.

Chaminda suddenly cries out: ‘‘They took away the train!’’ He points to a stretch of the rail track on the left. ‘‘They had put up the Matara train there, but now it's gone.’’ He is talking about Train No. 50, the morning fast passenger from Colombo to Matara, which was washed away by one of the killer waves on December 26 last year. Nearly 2,500 passengers died—about a 1,000 of them were those who had jumped into the train to escape the first wave. Today the site of the disaster looks like an innocuous stretch of the unescapable rail track.

If there is any suffering on account of tsunami, it must be elsewhere, perhaps in the relief camps. In Galle city, life is as usual. Families are headed for the Dutch fort, where barebodied teenagers offer to jump into the ocean from its parapet for a small tip. There is one scar, though — the Galle cricket stadium, where many a famous cricket match has been played and which today lies unattended. The sea is so close to the stadium that a powerful shot by someone like Virender Sehwag can land the ball into the water.

We stop by at the Dutch museum on the Leyn-Baan Street. Opposite the museum is a 150-year-old house inhabitated by an old woman and her daughter. ‘‘Water came upto four feet inside the house. My furniture got washed into the garden,’’ the woman, who refuses to give her name, says in a clipped accent. As if she were talking just about a flood, not tsunami.

I asked her how the prolonged war had affected her family. ‘‘You mean the Second World War? Oh, you mean the war with the LTTE. That was going on in Jaffna, we weren’t affected.’’ So did she have memories of the Second World War? ‘‘Yes, yes. I was five years old then. 1939, I remember. Even Colombo was bombed then.’’

Driving back to Bentota, and then back to Colombo, the spirit of celebration is palpable. Last year Sri Lan- kans had welcomed the New Year in gloom. This time they are determined to celebrate. Tiding over tsunami, at least mentally, seems to have been easy for them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are the best! Great post. Very well written.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Pradeep Nair said...

I am sure this must have been a great experience.

10:55 PM  

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