Sri Lankan New Year traditions are about renewal and continuity. But I feel an undertow of something cracking that illusion. It hard to notice or realise initially. There are children of cousins gleefully tearing through the house. A happy shrieking gaggle of British, American, Australian and Sri Lankan accents. Elders too senile or physically delicate are parked serenely in the shade of the veranda. Grateful to sit in peace next to their walkers and canes. From the main room, the din of reunion chatter. The ladies are the loudest. So much gossip so little time.
The newest infant is passed around like a cute foot ball. He is heart meltingly adorable in his little sarong, singlet with mosquito repellent patch, and drooling grin. High on a wall the sepia poker face of the common ancestor surveys the festivities. According to our elders, he would have approved.
The men circulate quietly due to a lack of alcohol. Slightly louder are the wrinkled relatives who migrated long ago. They have the confidence for silver chains, shorts and T-shirts of prosperous visiting first world relatives. A contrast to the formal tropical shirts, slacks and sarongs on those who stayed behind to survive.
The new British in-law (thankfully un sunburnt) is inclusively chatted with. He’s a nice chap and they make a good pair is the unspoken consensus. If the elders frowned on a her for marrying a suddha it doesn’t show in the mood. Acceptance has long sunk in. The grip of our generation is complete. Yet I am still taken aback when the younger non adult generation offers me betel and worships on all fours. Even with offspring it takes a mental leap to think that I am an uncle now.
Finally the food is ready. It’s stupefyingly good. Some people are eating where they can. On their feet, sofas, and the steps of the staircase — the dining table reserved for the revered elders. An expat relative tries using knife and fork with the plate on his lap. Thankfully he has the sanity to give up and use his hands as per section 36k of the 1953 Ceylon Food Consumption Act. Rice and curry this good shouldn’t be eaten any other way. Desert is rapidly reduced to splatters of melted Elephant House ice cream and destroyed cake. The heat is killing the barely touched cheese cake which wasn’t a hit. People slowly trickle out. There are other in-laws to visit.
In a few days most of the people in the room will be scattered across four continents. Those manic moments frozen into photos flashing by on Facebook feeds. Then washed away in the avalanche of frantically recorded social media lives. Quiet will return to the house.
Even amidst the frenzy I feel the unmistakable sense of an unraveling. The old family tree is dissolving. During my childhood such gatherings were cemented at the grandparental house. Now long demolished and replaced by an apartment building.
Current children of cousins won’t share the same bonds forged in family “outstation” trips. No informal chats in the fringes of alms givings. No joint mischief at temple functions. Regular gatherings are too far apart in time. They will not share the multi layered connections soaked in the peculiarities of Sri Lankan social rhythms. Birthdays, spend the days (do those things still happen?). The shared overlaps of school and tuition class friendships, pets, annual sports events. Random drop ins that go on and on through weekend afternoons.
Such things are now diluted into the superficialities of social media likes. They’ll grow up apart. No different from the tectonic plates they live on.
Change is the only constant. It’s one thing to philosophise about it. Its another to feel the tug of its undertow at a gut level. To finally know that human traditions, formal or not, are transient. Suddenly gone. Faster than an ice cube in the sun. Leaving behind a damp patch of fast fading memory. Something new to realise this year.
Have you felt anything like this as well? It can’t be just me.