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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sri Lankan tales

Some lands don’t take a chance with their greatness and add it to the name itself so people respect the land by default; Great Britain, Maharashtra, Sri Lanka, to name a few. But for a small country, Sri Lanka gets more than its fair share of bad press. When we had visited, the government was fighting a battle of words with the judiciary and today prisoners had taken over Colombo prison, Latin America style. As for the conflict, the evidence of its end is everywhere, almost! Signs of peace are ubiquitous in Sri Lanka where white is a fashion category in itself with about a third of the population always dressed in white. Buses with the freshest coat of paint are the ones that go to Jaffna. Newspapers are filled with reports of companies and government agencies opening branches for the first time in the hitherto forbidden north. Sinhala people talk about how they had till now accepted bombings and security checks as a normality of life. Sinhala middle class is again employing in large numbers domestic helpers of Tamil origin from the Hill Country and the north. In Kandy streets, a poor Sinhala man selling sparrow toys from a small basket is delighted to detail his philosophy to us, “Every man is equal; all races are the same; there is only one reality, humanity.” A Tamil driver explains, “Sinhala people are good, but their politicians are bad.”  But speak Sinhala in a Tamil run roadside eateries, and the workers, with an exemplary service culture, will serve diligently but make sure that you talk to them the next time in Tamil. One man muses, “If I could, I would hand over Sri Lanka back to the British.” Such is the depth of the conflict that people have such feelings despite the conflict tracing its roots in the mass migration of Tamils brought about by the British to work their tea plantations and the subsequent divide and quit policies at the time of independence.
A hundred thousand deaths; can a small country and its people be capable of so much hatred? When a monkey falls from its cable highway in front of our Kandy hotel, crowd gathers to feed the monkey and monitor its condition, a tuk-tuk kept on standby to take it to hospital. Strangers offer help at every moment, from leaving a seat for a visiting tourist in a crowded bus, to offering to exchange a sturdy umbrella for our rickety one in a pouring day. Army people leave their posts near the once bombed Kandy temple to ensure we are safe from an angry temple elephant. Courteousness is everywhere, overseen by Buddha’s gentle eyes. Psychedelic Buddha toys on top of bus driver’s seats are surrounded by psychedelic Hindu idols, their Technicolor halos blinking in sync with the blaring bus audio. How can grudges of a hundred and fifty years accumulate to wipe out peaceful co-existence over thousands of years?   
But Kandy Lake provides and inspiration, a giant monitor lizard and a turtle can often be seen sitting together on a submerged tree, the lizard moving its long tail to make enough space for the turtle.
Once we land in to the international airport, it feels like somewhere in China. Waiting Chinese faces crowd the arrival halls before letting you see the first layer of Sinhalese, the immigration men. The duty free shops are yet to be infected by Gucci and Prada. Instead there are rows and rows of shops selling refrigerators, washing machines and ovens. What else can be better for last minute shopping for your loved ones back home?
We head straight for Kandy at the middle of the night to escape the legendary Colombo traffic. The town of Kandy is a lake whose two banks always seem to be meeting each other but don’t do so for long. From these banks, rise small green hills on all sides with narrow roads climbing up their spines. Kandy is the heart of Sinhala Buddhism and like the temple town of Varanasi in India; people are expected to visit the Tooth Relic temple at least once in their lifetime to escape damnation.  The tooth relic under consideration is rather peculiar because it is as long as the thumb and supposed to coming from one of Buddha’s forty teeth. But for the believers, this eerie resemblance to Sabre Tooth is not distracting and thousands prostrate themselves at every available corner. Just outside, along the lake borders, poor old women haggle visiting couples demanding their business as palm readers. Shameless fat fish and ducks too heckle visitors to feed them buttered pop-corns. Outside the temple grounds, Buddha is everywhere and in all sizes, at street corners, sometimes caged in glass, at times inside a grill. Taking a cue, President Rajapaksha smiles over the many narrow streets. Being a temple town, Kandy is also where Sri Lankans play dice with their lives. Lotteries are for sale everywhere, especially just outside the several Buddhist and Hindu temples where priests are often handily available to offer advice with respect to picking numbers. And if still you don’t feel like walking the five meters from your home to go to the nearest lottery seller, just wave to the mobile lottery shop, men in cycles and motorbikes selling lottery tickets displayed on a wooden board tied to the front of their vehicle. Along the cozy roads, ply tuk-tuk drivers, carrying only a bunch of dogs as business. Scarecrows stand in front of every house and they are literally scary. Bus conductors ramble on names of suburbs and always end with a loud squelch as if being strangled. When it rains, mist arises out of steaming chick pea stalls moving to the woodpecker beat of mincing meat coming from murtabak stalls.
The famed Botanical Garden at Peradeniya, just off Kandy is infested by bats, squirrels and doting couples. Every tree has its young couple, some in complicated postures. Tree trunks have been engraved with names of lovers, confusing avid botanists, and the overcrowding has meant that some couples have to bring in a ladder and rope to be able to write their name, isolated from the rest down below, lest an affair is mistaken for a love triangle. Parents inspect tree barks every day to check for their daughter’s names and Love Police whistle around their way whenever they spot lovers violating acceptable positions. Sri Lankans, with their mystical English, talk of all romantic relationships as “affairs”. Our homestay owner in Sigiriya mentions that he had met his wife through his colleagues and subsequently they had an “affair” and that most Sri Lankans now marry through “affairs”.
The ticket fees for the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Sri Lanka are the highest in the world. Entry for each site typically costs over thirty five US dollars for foreigners. Such high fees were perhaps intended to keep away terrorists because the infrastructure and quality of toilets in these sites don’t indicate any premier feeling about them. At the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the capital of Sri Lanka around 1000AD, the tuk tuk drivers offer a package deal for ruin hopping that costs a good ten dollars less than buying the tickets. They merely enter the complex from another road that bypasses the ticket collectors. It was cyclone period, and we go tuk-tuk hopping from ruin to ruin. In the heavy rain, we wade and swim between the countless Buddha statues, the highlight among which are the ones in Gala Vihara, the finest specimen of Sri Lankan carving from antiquity.
Two hours from Polonnaruwa, the Lions rock at Sigiriya thrives as a symbol of human duplicity.  Suddenly jutting out of the flat plains, it is the surviving magma plug of a long eroded volcano. While archaeologists believe that it had been a monastery all along, locals by and large believe it to be the harem for the patricidal king Kashyapa. The unbelievable fresh murals of bare-breasted, soft-limbed and dreamy eyed women in Sigiraya are explained as representations of Tara, a key character in Tantrik Buddhism. But locals and guides explain them as paintings in honour of the exceptional women in the king’s harem; there you see, Mongolian, over there, Chinese, there African, Indian, Cambodian. If their version is true, Kashyapa indeed may have been one of the pioneers of interracial porn. In present times, the rock does serve as a harem for dogs and we came across several hungry bitches (and no male dog) in the complex all the way to the top. In 1967, a man had defaced many of the paintings with lacquer paint. No one knows what his motivations were. Perhaps for him, it was what Edmund Hillary had said about climbing Mount Everest, “Because, it’s there.” The stairs to the top of the rock go under giant boulders forming a megalithic bum, pass by hornets’ nests and the mirror wall where people in historic times inscribed their thoughts after observing the erotic paintings. As we were climbing, the wind gained strength around the rock and collected the rain drops to launch a full-blown assault on us. We felt the wind trying to unhinge our grip on the railings to throw us off its ancient home. A Russian couple went back hurriedly as the wife began cursing and swearing at rock for this menace. As umbrellas became satellites, local men turned their sarongs into veils.
All along the highway from Polonnaruwa to Dambulla, doormats in Mark Rothko prints are being sold. The cave temples of Dambulla showcase Buddhas, some more Buddhas, and a few more Buddhas as statues and frescos. Who has been represented more: Buddha or Che? Each has his niche. Che is the undisputed ruler of t-shirts, Buddha in taxi dashboards.  Large donation boxes have been placed in front of some of these Buddhas. In every direction, there is a poster of a Chinese man doing all things forbidden like touching a statue, taking photographs with flash, or sitting on the altar. These posters come with a giant Alibaba red cross and the punchline “Please don’t do this.”
Travelling cheap in Sri Lanka is remarkably easy as people make sure that they have guided you to the right bus, then that you have got a seat, paid the local price, and got down at exactly where you wanted to. Also unlike Indonesia where buses and bemos are poison-gassed with cigarette fumes, Sri Lanka is largely a non-smoking nation. People get their nicotine kicks from the incense sticks that are always burning somewhere behind you. The bus stops are lined with lovely vines of grapes and citrus fruits hanging from the rickety stalls. Except of course, for the road from Colombo city to the airport where any small incident can result in people unleashing a vicious verbal assault on the government. On the day we were travelling, a giant tree had fallen and it was causing delays of over two hours. I couldn’t help pity the men gently pushing the tree like a recalcitrant kid being persuaded by an entire family.
At Colombo, families assemble to count waves at the Galle Face Green, a promenade with lawns on one side and an ocean on the other. Groups of poor teenage boys form circles and sing for hours without taking breath, clapping in the same beat for all songs. They call us to join in and share a song. They keep clapping to give beats and hip hop grunts to our Chinese song, catching a breath for the endless night ahead for them.

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