Sunday, January 10, 2016
The Lamentations of an Expat Sri Lankan
By Nihal D Amerasekera
My head gets clouded with images of the past as I write this in the fading twilight of a winters day in England. I left the comfort and sanctuary of my home in Sri Lanka for the bright lights of London and the la dolce vita, exactly 42 years ago. Bringing up children and building up a career has taken much time and effort. Now that too seem a distant memory.
Retirement provides the time and the space to rummage deep into my childhood. Those memories seem to fade and wane as the years pass. I am married to a non-Sri Lankan. Hence our lives do not revolve around my home country, culture or its cuisine. Our friends belong to many different continents. I have tried hard to retain my birth tongue. This has been made difficult with the huge changes that have taken place in the Sinhala language in my own country. Nowadays I cannot understand much of the Sinhala Radio and TV programmes. For sometime I thought YAHAPALANAYA was something about Jaffna until I realized the context was different. Then it dawned on me Yaha=good and palanaya=governance. My Sinhala writing skills have gone with the wind.
I am not a regular visitor to Sri Lanka. Colombo now is a bustling city fizzing with energy. There are eating houses and restaurants in every street corner and they all seem packed to the rafters with people. On every visit I find the roads increasingly clogged up with vehicles spewing acrid fumes. It is a sign of progress and also one of regress as the infrastructure has not kept up with the times. Even the genteel Nugegoda of my childhood is a cauldron of vehicles and humanity. The known landmarks of my childhood are all gone demolished or disappeared by the growth of new and bigger buildings and the appearance of new highways and byways.
I grew up in a peaceful Ceylon just released from the clutches of the British Empire. In my childhood the days and nights were quiet beyond belief. There were so few cars on the road. Sundays were particularly tranquil. The morning ritual was to read the Sunday Times and the Observer written by editors who were brought up with English as their first language. Sunday lunch was special, a sumptuous meal with the family ending with curd and kitul honey. After a brief siesta at 2pm it was the start of Sunday choice with their unmistakable signature tune “For each his own” by the Ink Spots.
I miss my school friends despite the passage of years. There were many who played cricket and football in the blistering sun and in the monsoon rains. We went fishing and swimming in murky ponds. Sadly several of them have now crossed the vale. Their youthful faces and friendly smiles still linger in my thoughts. I remember most fondly the closeness that developed in those years, the little tiffs that ensued and the pleasure we enjoyed. The sense of loss of those years seem indelible.
In those days at lunch, at bars and when meeting friends everyone talked politics. Now politics seem out of bounds not wanting to be on the wrong side and disappear into a white van. My knowledge of SL politics are frozen in time in the 60’s and 70’s. I still remember Sirimavo Bandaranaike, NM Perera, Colvin R De Silva , Peter Keuneman and before that Dudley Senanayake SWRD and Sir John with OEG pulling the strings as Governor General. I know nothing of the new breed of politicians or which party is in power. The Presidential form of democracy which we have adopted has changed the old order.
Cricket has been my passion since childhood. From schooldays, when I was not playing the game in some back street I was talking about it. That was the strength of feeling for the game. I am still a supporter of our national team and look forward to their games in England this summer.
Marriage is still a good topic of conversation. I have often wondered if the old caste system still prevails. There was a tug of war between the Karawa and the Govigama castes as to who was superior. One of my school mates who belonged to the Karawa (fisher-caste) said with great conviction ”when we eat rice we put the fish on top of the rice”. Is the caste still a major factor in marriages or does money even out the discrepancies. I wonder if dowries are still in vogue and are considered important in marriages. I assume there are many more marriages now which are not arranged. Perhaps, the old days of the “kapuwa” and the arranged meetings of the couple are stories for the Sinhala cinema.
At the time of independence the population of Ceylon was 8 million. The majority lived in villages. There was a powerful aristocracy that ruled us. The Bandaranaike’s, Senanayake’s, Molamure’s are a few of the names that come to mind. The ruling elite lived in the lap of luxury in their mansions with a retinue of servants. The middle class was small and mostly worked for the government. The wind of change blew over our island in the mid 1950’s bringing with it a new dawn, the era of the common man. That was true democracy at work. There after the villagers were better represented in government. That indeed was real progress. I wonder if the aristocracy still exists or has it now merged with the ever widening middle class.
I have missed my family in Sri Lanka enormously and have paid a heavy price for my desire to live and work abroad. I wasn’t present for the births, weddings and deaths of those most dear to me. I am now a stranger to the new generation born during my absence. I feel a foreigner in the country of my birth as Sri Lanka has moved forward in leaps and bounds despite the destructive forces of a long ethnic conflict. Although I live happily in England I have left my heart in that beautiful island of my birth and the land of my fore-fathers.