Into a Sri Lankan Heartland


The road is named after a corporal. It carves its rutted way through a landscape bursting with lush greens. Lakes of paddy fields on either side of the road. Punctuated by dark green islands thick with coconut and trees planted by great grand parents. At the foot of the horizon, another band of green, then mountains rising in progressively cooler, paler shades of blue and purple. A land made for water colour, a world untouched by blogs, tweets or image streams. Hardly any outsiders come this far off the B roads. Certainly not journalists, activists, report writers, development types or anyone who can afford the latest smartphone. Even the local politician only swings by at election time with his empty promises and jeep load of goons.

See that new house ? The result of four sons (three army, one navy) who survived to send home enough combat pay. Further down: parents who can afford to use electricity (when ever the fickle moods of the Electricity Board makes it available). Their eldest made sergeant. The second son is doing something technical in the airforce. The daughter married well. Got a qualification and a Colombo job. They say she can speak English enough not to bother coming home often. Next door, a more common tale. The only son missing at Elephant Pass. The parents sold most of their fields to marry off the sisters.

The concrete bus stop is dedicated to the earliest casualty from the area. His moustached face stares blankly from under a beret in a faded, skewed photo. The first in his family to score a university spot but he was patriotic and paid the price. A land mine. There are similar photos in many houses. The price of new plumbing, concrete walls, dowries, a sibling’s education. Paid in years of sealed coffins, traumatic funerals, and silent guilt grinding endlessly into the years.

Absent family is an unspoken hereditary curse here. There are those that never came back from places with mispronounced Tamil names. Interspersing fathers, uncles, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins “disappeared” during both “JVP times“. For the blessed, there’s the remnants of funds from daughters in the middle east that survived the reach of alcoholic husbands. Or sons living illegally in cold places further away. Among those still around: aiyas’ with Jaipur feet, shrapnel, wheel chairs, white canes, a cheap looking prosthesis, or invisible wounds medicated nightly with kassippu. Of the majority who came back intact only a few plough the fields of their fathers. The rest away in places that have jobs.

This year things are looking good though. The boys still in the forces come home on leave at regular intervals. There will be a spate of weddings. Than new faces of women from other parts of the country shopping in the market. Later a next generation will be walking to what passes for a school across the paddy fields. Did you see all those new three wheelers and motorcycles at the junction next to the recently built shops ? The village stupa was repaired by a local prodigy who got a scholarship to America. He might visit one day. Till then he sends computers to the village school. Three still work.

I feel there are other heart lands like this to the North. Typically pictured with Palmyra trees. Places more extensively devastated (no papered over with infrastructure projects) by the traumas of our history. Their people trying just to live. Those heartlands are popularly viewed as far way places. Yet I sense fundamental link among such heartlands that reach beyond the superficiality of ethnicity and culture. Generally by the common aspirations of humans who have killed and wounded each other. It is a common bond that feudal rulers of various types have cloaked for generations. Their tools of carefully cultivated fears, myths, and ideologies still potent. This is a view I dare not talk about as my words will descend to the laziness of sweeping generalisations as evident in this paragraph. Resulting in arguments, rhetorical clumsiness, and ill feelings – the price for the futility of talking anything political in Sri Lanka.

In the back of the van they are mumbling about the heat and the dying air-conditioner. I crank down the window and savour the humidity. It has been a long ride and we not there yet. “Nearly there” is what our guide has been saying forever. Eventually we will meet our Mr Kurtz. After the meeting there’s the promise of a rest house lunch and perhaps a chilled Elephant House Ginger Beer (may it be ice free is my only prayer).

I accept that my presence is a frivolous addition to the purpose of this journey. I’m bouncing along because of a “free” weekend and a commitment made without probing for details. I’m obviously not smart enough even to be stupid. At least there should be a blog post in all this I think.

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