by Dr. Nihal D. Amerasekera
I recall most vividly the day I left Sri Lanka in 1974. The grey clouds mirrored my thoughts and mood. I waved goodbye to my family and boarded the Swissair DC10. Through its oval window I watched my homeland and its lush green palm trees disappear into the horizon. At the time it never crossed my mind I would be in exile for the rest of my working life.
I have now lived most of my adult life in England. Carving a career and raising a family has consumed my time for three decades. The trials and tribulations and also the happiness and fulfillment of those years abroad have enriched my life beyond measure. Now the children have left the nest leaving me with time on my hands. The desire for a soft life and pleasant experiences fill my thoughts. Still despite the years my childhood memories make me crave for the peaceful Sri Lanka I left behind.
Until late into the 1970’s Wilpattu and Yala were virgin forests. Herds of elephants and many leopards roamed freely. Only dirt tracks marked its green and forbidding landscape. There were a handful of bungalows to serve the few visitors. Road from Puttalam to Anuradhapura had nothing but jungle on either side. Wild animals often crossed the road. This drive alone often took my breath away for its lonely desolate setting. Tourism brings us the much needed foreign currency. The infrastructure needed for tourism destroys the village life that has existed for many centuries. Change we must for progress but it is hard to bear for those who have seen an idyllic world disappear.
Sri Lankans have been known for their friendliness and hospitality even before the days of Robert Knox. They are peace loving and easy going. Modern living has changed all that. Time means money and no one seems to have time for anybody else but their own family. In the cities many work late into the evening and also at weekends. When not in the office parental duties fill their time. Friendliness and hospitality is an inevitable casualty of this hectic lifestyle. Sri Lankans have now adopted the western culture which would have been previously described as selfish and egocentric. "No money no talk" is the slogan. That’s the cost of progress we must accept. The real Sri Lankan ethos surfaced during the recent tsunami when the selfless sacrifice of the many thousands touched the world. The tsunami broke the back of a country trying to rebuild after a long and bloody war.
The war changed many of our precious values. Killing soldiers and civilians became a daily occurrence and the people became immune to its horrors. We learnt to accept the loss of life with a shrug. The war created a mass of young people trained to kill and maim. The respect we had for fellow humans became a casualty of a futile war. This evil generates its own momentum and even after the ceasefire continues to cause us grief. Lawlessness and contract killings are an offshoot of war. It would take a generation of peace in our land to change the inbuilt hatred which has festered for so long. The ordinary folk from both sides of the divide have shown a weariness of the conflict and 9/11 marked a turning point. At last the killing is at an end.
I grew up in the fifties when the children were seen and not heard. Discipline was of paramount importance. We listened to our elders with respect. Meanwhile the west was changing rapidly into a permissive society. Birth control pills freed the women from the fear of pregnancy. They also maligned tradition, discipline, old age and conformity. Men and women living together out of wedlock and having children became acceptable. Religion which was the backbone of their society became less important and got pushed aside. Worst of all is the abuse of drugs by our youth with its enormous social problems and also the curse of AIDS and child abuse. These diseases and hideous attributes have come to settle in our tiny island paradise.
While I was away there have also been many changes for the better. Even in poor homes and in the villages radio and television have become an important source of entertainment. It is a tremendous store of knowledge and information. The worldwide web is a double edged sword. It brings enormous benefits for the majority. Affluence has reached even the remote parts of the country although still much needs to be done. Health care is still free and those who can afford can have the best available anywhere in the world. Every Sri Lankan is now aware of the value of a good education which is also free. Schools are seen even in the remote places. Quite rightly even the poor students have access to university education and to a professional life. I realize we are still not perfect but for a developing country our achievements are commendable. The country can be pleased of this success despite the horrors of a war which ravaged the country.
Let us not forget the harshness of British rule in Ceylon. We were right to fight for independence and seek our own destiny. However the British left us rich and without debt. There was a free press and an independent judiciary. Law an order was our pride. We had an excellent infrastructure to build on. Our intelligentsia could compete with the best in the world. Nepotism bribery and corruption were serious offences and dealt with severely. We seem to have squandered the basics of good governance we inherited from our colonial rulers. The blame lies squarely on the successive governments since independence.
There was a post-independence backlash. Everything foreign was despised and a wave of ultra-nationalism swept the island. Sadly such vile sentiments became vote winners. Goodwill and trust that was built between the various ethnic groups over many centuries went up in smoke in a matter of weeks. With the wisdom of hindsight I wish the politicians of the time were able to lead us into a period of racial harmony. Their careless rhetoric and remarks did not help to diffuse the ugly situation. It has taken much courage to reach the peace we enjoy now. We have been through war, assassinations, an attempted coup d’etat and two insurgencies but to the credit of our politicians democracy has survived.
The sixties saw drastic import restrictions. Foreign goods were luxury items banned by the government. The lack of new cars gave us empty streets and this encouraged the government to improve public transport. It was a pleasure to drive around in Colombo. Living in the city or its suburbs was relaxing and peaceful. Now the city is one big traffic jam at all hours. Its fumes continue to pollute and poison us. The noise of it all is unbearable. There is hardly any green space to provide some refuge for the weary. Buildings have emerged willy nilly without any respect for the law. Money seems to justify it all.
The years at Wesley College were full of innocent fun. Discipline and learning went hand in hand. The dedication of the teachers helped us enormously to fulfill our dreams. Now sadly teaching is just a job and with it has gone the respect the profession enjoyed. I still revere my teachers and often think of them and their tremendous contribution to society. They had a genuine concern for student welfare. The parents did not interfere at school unlike now. The parents must take some of the blame for the indiscipline in schools. This is sadly a problem worldwide.
Storms at school
As I take a walk through Wesley I miss the open space, the gardens and trees. They were our refuge from the inevitable storms at school. They have given way to buildings. The playground at the back of the school which was an arena for budding cricketers and soccer players is now converted to bricks and mortar. Whether it was greed or necessity it is indeed a tragedy. We have sold our family silver!!
Medical College was great fun too. The visiting physicians and surgeons in Colombo in the 1960’s were great teachers. They loved their private practice but never neglected their duties towards the students. Many were egocentric and difficult personalities but their clinical judgment and dedication to patient care amazes me still. I cannot comment on the teaching now but they still turn out good doctors. With the glasnost and openness that exists now I cannot believe the present day medical students enjoy the strenuous course as much as we did. Every move of every person is now scrutinized with a fine tooth comb and indiscretions become headline news. The antics of the Law Medical match, Block concert and the Dance as it was then would not survive the scissors of the current censors and the wrath of the Faculty Dons. I would give my right arm to be a bohemian medical student of the sixties once again.
I spent seven sublime years working as a doctor in Sri Lanka. It was during this sojourn I developed my love for the people of the Vanni. Their volatile tempers and vitriolic comments matched the harsh unforgiving terrain they called home. Despite this they had hearts of gold and gave of their best to those whom they respected. These simple rural folk epitomized village life in the 1960’s. Their boundless generosity has often left me speechless. People expected little from life and were grateful for small mercies. They had implicit faith in my ability to heal, a confidence which was somewhat misplaced. I look forward to a time when I could once again visit my beloved Vanni and its remarkable people. Nikeweratiya tank with its blue waters and the distant hills haunts and beckons me still.
Living abroad I was immune to the constant criticisms and the relentless gossip of relatives and "well wishers". Even if they did, I didn’t hear them. This I believe is a bonus for a non conformist like me. I missed my close knit family enormously. I was not able to take an active part in the births, marriages and deaths that occurred within my family in all these years. As a result a new generation has emerged whom I do not know. Many of the older generation have left this world in my absence. I was not able to say goodbye to those whom I loved and respected. I am a stranger now in SL to many. Above all my inability to spend the final days with my father will remain with me a matter of great regret. I take comfort that I have my mother’s love always despite the vast oceans that separate us.
We are on the crest of a wave in international cricket. In my youth we were the punch bag and didn’t fare too well with the visiting international teams. If we could draw a match in those days it was a great delight. As I watch Sri Lankan matches in England the years melt away and my youth returns to support my motherland in the way I was used to during my schooldays. Our teams have done us proud and winning the World Cup was our finest hour. We must accept we can’t win ‘em all.
Although the years have been kind to me I have changed vastly too. Living and working abroad must transform ones psyche. Physically I have lost much of my hair and what is left needs a regular polish. Lines and furrows cross my face and dark shadows surround my eyes. Time has stolen my youth but I look back with much gratitude for the golden years I enjoyed in mother Lanka and later in the UK.
I dedicate these notes to my teachers at Wesley College. Mr. Fred Abeysekera taught me English and helped me appreciate the poetry of Wordsworth, Longfellow and Coleridge. We were inspired by his dedication and sincerity. I wish him a long and happy retirement.