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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.

23 comments:

  1. Very nostalgic reminiscences from a superb writer. What is so creditable about ND's posts are that he has developed his own instantly recognisable style of writing.

    Change is inevitable and I am sure even those who remained in Sri Lanka would have experienced unimaginable changes in our country of birth. When I think of England, from the early 70s when I came here, to the present time, we too have lived through vast changes. The last 40 years in Human History have witnessed unparalleled changes and we are all part of them.

    ND refers to the dowry system and I doubt that this by itself would be acceptable to most young people but my own view is that it is wrong to interpret all instances of providing a dowry as wrong. If the main "selling point" was the dowry and the poor girl was a hostage, then it cannot be condoned but where the dowry was given in good faith for the couple to get off to a good start in life, this seems acceptable. As with so many things in life, context is important. I have seen no evidence that so called "love marriages" are any more successful than "arranged marriages" but of course the criteria for "success" are hard to define. The low Divorce rate does not necessarily indicate a high success rate. My own view is that the dowry (and horoscope matching), should not figure at all in the decision to marry but a well meant donation from either family to help the new couple, with no strings attached, may be a good thing. My understanding is that the dowry system and arranged marriages are on the decline in Sri Lanka but my colleagues in Sri Lanka can speak with more authority. What I witness more and more sadly, is the vast sums of money spent on receptions at expensive 5 star hotels in Sri Lanka. For those who can afford it, that is their choice but I see many who get into debt and suffer enormous financial hardships going through this as it seems necessary for social acceptability. Add to this the costs of photography, videography, dressing and "painting" the bride etc etc. it all seems so wasteful. I know I am on dangerous territory here!

    When I go to Sri Lanka on holiday and talk to friends and acquaintances, it is hard to find a family without children who are living abroad. The lure of better things, mainly material, has been very strong. With our knowledge of English and with advances in information technology and transport, this was inevitable. Wherever we live, a large part of our heart will remain in Sri Lanka, as I tried to express musically in
    http://colombomedgrads1962.blogspot.co.uk/2015/08/creative-spot-my-heart-is-in-sri-lanka.html

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  2. Mahen
    Thank you for your kind comments. Those provide the buzz to write. I must reiterate that I lead a happy and contented life at present after an enormously satisfying professional career in the UK. I do not regret leaving SL in my situation at the time. This was the wisest decision of my life. Nevertheless I miss the life I left behind although perhaps it doesn't exist anymore, in that same form, as things have moved on.
    The dark days and the cold nights of winter has the remarkable ability bring on memories of the past. The loss of childhood friends is harder to accept not living in SL and seeing them grown old.
    I merely wanted to know if the dowry and the caste system still exists.
    I've had the support of my wife throughout the 40 years of marriage for which I feel deeply grateful.

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  3. I wonder what has become of the Walauwwas. They were scattered throughout the country in various states of disrepair.I loved their old architecture and the lovely gardens they maintained. Each of them has a history worth recording for posterity.

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  4. ND. As you know, I am sometimes provocative in my comments hoping to get broader views on subjects, hence my comments on dowry and show piece marriage functions! Like you I have no regrets but at time I wonder how useful I could have been to the advancement of Neurology in Sri Lanka, working joint ly with JB. But then, Sri Lanka has done very well without me in that field confirming my belief that no one is indispensable!

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  5. Mahen
    You are not provocative at all. You are a gentle soul most understanding and often too good for this world as I know it.
    People appreciate your contribution and expertise wherever you have worked both in the sphere of clinical medicine and also management. At the end of the day you have done your best for your patients who needed help.

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  6. I have followed your dialogue with great interest. I hope the two of you would not mind if I intervene. As you know I have lived my life here and I am happy about it. If I am given a choice in my next birth, I would love to live here again.Before I came to UK I was booked to follow a course in London and I got bored soon . Then I worked as a SHO in neonatal paediatrics for 6 months at the Whittington Hospital North London.There I got a taste of hospital life . Higher pay and less expenditure.(no travel expenses,free lodging, subsidised food,free laundry,free phone calls, free beer in the doctors' mess etc.)During this time I acquired both the DCH and MRCP which I was sent for.I had two options now for the remainder of leave. Firstly to work as a NHS registrar for a higher pay or fall back on my scholarship allowance of STG 72.00 per month and be trained in research .Financially I would have been much better off working for the NHS. However I opted for research and went to work at the Institute of Child Health,London as a research fellow in paediatric gastroenterology ,on the scholarship allowance.After a few months, as my supervisor was happy with my work,he asked me whether I would like to register for a PhD and a minimum period of 2 years was required for it. As I had already spent 9 months I needed an extension of study leave by another year (i.e. a total of 3 years.) I registered for a PhD and applied for an extension . The administrators in Sri Lanka did not reply and I happily carried on with my research. Suddenly I was informed that an extension cannot be given and for me to return after completing 2 years as I had obtained the qualifications I was sent for.. I protested mentioning that non-clinicians were given 3 years leave and only 2 years leave was given for clinicians.After a lot of hassle my leave was extended and I returned home after 3 years with a PhD. If my leave was not extended I would not have returned and like the two of you would have been domiciled in the UK.When I was a research fellow, I worked for the Southern Relief Service(GP locum agency) during the weekends. I worked for 10 hours, each Saturday and Sunday and was paid STG 30, which went a long way.
    Later after returning home,after a few years, I got fed fed up working as a Senior Lecturer with Priyani Soysa and was looking for opportunities abroad. In 1979 when I was on sabbatical leave I worked as a locum consultant paediatrician at Pilgrim Hospital,Boston, Lincolnshire and the permanent post was offered to me.At this time the Ruhuna Medical Faculty opened up and I got the Chair. (The palmist's prediction came true because I became a Professor at 37 years.) If Ruhuna did not open up probably I would have remained in Boston. So that has been my fate and I have no regrets whatsoever.In the late 80's when I was on sabbatical leave in Saudi Arabia, when my leave was over the 2nd JVP uprising was in full swing, (particularly in the south.) My friends in Sri Lanka and in Saudi, advised me not to return home. However I came back because the Chair in Colombo was due to fall vacant soon. I am proud to say that I have continuity of service at home.
    My marriage was an arranged one but I told my parents that I was not interested in a dowry but wanted to marry a doctor. Buddhika was of the same caste. Our 2nd son's and daughter's marriages were both arranged by Buddhika (caste was ignored). Daughter's marriage was arranged by Buddhika from her sick bed with the aid of a cordless phone extension. My future son -in-law was living in England and Buddhika interviewed him.(He told me later that it was the toughest interview he had faced!) They got married about one month before Buddhika passed away.
    So dear friends that has been my destiny.
    Sanath

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  7. Sanath
    Thank you for your story. You have explained with remarkable clarity how close you have been to staying permanently in the UK. I feel happy when you say that was your destiny. Yours has been a life fulfilled.

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  8. Sanath, I really wasn't aware of this and it just shows how things pan out for you depending on the circumstances you face. I admire your honesty in admitting that things could have been different and that you could have ended up like ND and me in the UK. However, our admiration for you for what you have achieved and the service you have given to Sri Lanka remains undiminished.

    In my case, I was packing my bags ready to come back to Sri Lanka and assume Neurology duties in about August- September 1977 when my Cambridge Bosses decided to send me to the World Congress of Neurology in Amsterdam in October as a mark of appreciation for working with them, and I got a 3 months extension and during that period, I met Wendy, got married and the rest as they say is History! I doubt whether historians recording the various outcomes of the World Congress of Neurology have included this significant event! As ND would say, the Awesome Force of Destiny in action!

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  9. Sanath and Mahen
    Wherever we have worked it was to serve the sick and the suffering, to ease the pain and to teach and care. Let us be joyful we have done it to the best of our ability for so many decades. Professional life was never easy but we stuck to our task.

    I will never forget my last and final patient. He was lying on a couch while I was doing ultrasound. The English gentleman in his 70's remained silent during the procedure despite my efforts to engage in a conversation. At the end of it all I gave a brief report. I told him he was my last and final patient after being a doctor for 40 years. We looked at each other for a minute or so although it seemed a lot longer. His eyes welled up as did mine. He said thank for all what you have done and gave me a bear hug. When I opened the door he waived goodbye and disappeared into the crowd. That image has stuck with me since.

    We are part of this universe;
    we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.

    Neil deGrasse Tyson


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  10. ND, I really enjoyed your beautifully written nostalgic article, and the comments made by Speedy and Sanath. We all have goals and ambitions, but AFDs do play a huge role, don't they. I left Sri Lanka in late 1970 with the intention of returning at some stage, but that did not happen, mostly because of the political upheavals in the country. In the early 1980s when I became a divorced mother of two young daughters, I had fleeting thoughts of returning "home." A good friend advised me that I should stay put. ("Don't even think of it" was what he said!) I was doing well professionally in Connecticut, and there was no reason to uproot everyone from what was familiar and comfortable. My daughters and I made regular visits to my family in Sri Lanka over the years, and I am pleased that they are very much in touch with their cousins, aunts and uncles. In fact when my daughter was doing her graduate studies at the University of Texas in Austin, her roommate was my brother's daughter (from Sri Lanka) who was doing her undergraduate degree. My life is richer because of all the friends I have acquired along the way. I've also managed to stay in touch with some I've known since I was about 6 years old in Sri Lanka. Now that I am retired, I manage to enjoy the best of both worlds. When I go back to Colombo in the winter I catch up with all my friends and spend as much time as possible with my siblings, nieces and nephews. It often feels as if I never left.
    Yes, Sri Lanka has gone through major changes, and Colombo is a lot more congested than it was when we were kids. Progress is not without its downside. Our old house no longer exists, but in its place there is an elegant apartment building, which is a "family compound." I feel very much at home there, but I also feel very much at home in Connecticut. I think I will enjoy them both as long as I can.
    In answer to some of your questions ND, I think the dowry system exists in some circles. Just read the matrimonial sections of the Sunday papers sometime. Most of the people who post the ads seem to be concerned about caste, professional accomplishments of the prospective groom/bride etc. I don't think arranged marriages are any better or worse than others, but I don't claim to be an expert on the subject!
    Some of the old Walauwas are in disrepair or torn down, but others are being maintained as guest houses, boutique hotels etc. Some of them are being used as settings for Teledramas, which are very popular.
    ND, I don't think it is too late for you to make a trip to visit relatives and old friends in Sri Lanka. As long as you don't expect things to be the same as they were when we were kids, I think you will enjoy it. Now that you have time, why don't you give it a try?

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  11. Srianee
    Thank you for your kind comments and for answering the questions. It is also wonderful to hear your experiences with the force of destiny.

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    1. Srianee
      Yes I will indeed make a trip to SL. I am an only child and my parents are no more. There is one uncle with whom I keep in touch with Skype. Cousins are mostly abroad or have crossed the vale. I still have friends from school and medical school. My old SL doesn't exist anymore but there are vestiges of it which I can see and and sigh Ah! those were the days. I ask myself where have all those years gone?

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    2. Yes ND, I think you should definitely plan a visit. It may take a little effort to connect with the people from your past, but it will be worth it. I always feel a bit rejuvenated after my visits to Sri Lanka, in spite of the changes. Sanath has already said he would meet you. (See below.) You will gather a lot of material for your writing as well. When James Michener was once interviewed (a friend gave me the article from a magazine) he said that the road from Colombo to Galle was one of the most interesting roads in the world. That slow road still exists, with sleeping cows and dogs, and the beautiful ocean on one side of it, although further inland there is a super highway for the people in a hurry.

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  12. ND, I cannot remember when we met last. If you come to Sri Lanka, I would like to meet you. Please contact me on 0777 886119
    Sanath

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  13. This is the most interesting biographical account I have read for many years. It is an admirable CV! Your style is commendable. Your thoughts, aspirations, regrets, reminiscences touch our hearts. The discussion above bears witness to that. I think we can now expect many others to follow your suit and write up (digitally these days). Nihal ( I prefer that name) you are a proud son of Lanka and proof of her excellent education, both general and medical.
    May your retired life prove to be the best part of your life yet!
    With all good wishes from,
    Zita

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  14. Nihal,Your thoughts so beautifully expressed as always-
    thanks for giving us the pleasure of reading them-

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  15. Srianee, Zita, Sanath and Rohini
    Thank you for the feedback on my thoughts of home. I just write what comes to mind as I see life unfold. It will indeed be a great pleasure to see you Sanath in SL. Similarly if ever you visit London do contact me and I will send you the contact details by email.

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  16. ND, Please send me your e-mail address. Mine is snathp.lama@gmail.com
    Sanath

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    1. Lama, I think there is a typo here, should it not be sanathp.lama@gmail.com

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  17. Sanath
    My email: douglasamera@yahoo.com
    We are in the process of moving house and my phone and address details will change, hence I didn't give it earlier. I will keep you posted of my new address etc. I last saw you at the MRCP Part 1 exam in Colombo when you finished in half the allocated time and walked out. We spoke on the phone when you were at Worthing near Brighton on a sabbatical. Meanwhile time has passed relentlessly. Wonderful if we can meet up.

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  18. Mahendra,you are right. It is sanathp.lama@gmail.com
    Sanath

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  19. Mahendra,you are right. It is sanathp.lama@gmail.com
    Sanath

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    Replies
    1. Just a slip of the pen and no fault of the brain. It is comforting to know this happens to the best of us.

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