Tuesday, 2 July 2013

A Tear Drop in the Ocean

Sri Lanka sits like a giant tear drop on the expanse of Indian Ocean. Over the last three decades, the country has been terrorized, ravaged, and destroyed by a brutal and horrific civil war where neither side has spared the other. Large areas of the country have seen unimaginable horrors with rapes, tortures and exterminations. The war culminated with state sponsored and large scale ethnic cleansing of its Tamil minorities. Crimes against the minorities continue, but under the radar, unseen and mostly ignored by the world outside. To the outside world, Sri Lanka has reverted to its original identity as a lush tropical island - a drop of paradise, beckoning the lost and the seeking " Buddham Sharanam Gacchami".

I recently went to Sri Lanka. I went as a mind less tourist, shoving aside all that I knew and all that I believed in - to wander over the contours of its cool hills, to plunge into aquamarine depths of its beautiful ocean, to explore the dark emerald cacophony of its still virgin forests; I ignored the human calamity, loss and despair and roamed the country in silence, being just an observer, a traveler. And, there was plenty here to please - from fire eaters and dancers of Kandy, to ancient abandoned cities of Polanaruwa, the rock fortress of Sigiriya to a vibrant cosmopolitan Colombo. I spent most time on the unspoilt, quiet beaches of Mirissa and Hikkaduwa - swimming in silken waters, and walking barefoot, miles along the soft sandy beaches.

What struck me most was the people - and how gentle and pleasant they seemed. No one seemed to be in a mad rush; the country was very clean, with no obvious signs of garbage, dumps, or  plastics; I saw no slums, and the rivers ran clean, dense and tropical brown. There was no honking on the roads, or rarely if ever; the public transport was cheap and frequent, out numbering private cars and autos. People looked at you and smiled, not having yet learnt to avoid gaze while saying " how are you" - in passing. People paused for long chats...the whole mood was unhurried and relaxed.

While I spoke, engaged and listened, and wandered  through the country, I also pondered 'what makes hate?'. I avoided speaking in Tamil, for fear of entering its domain of suspicion, fear and hate and managed to mostly avoid the whole genocide issue. Everything changed at the mention of Tamils, the separatist movement, or the killings, including the state sponsored genocide. I brought up the subject only twice. Once with a young and devout Sinhalese and the next time with a Tamil hotel owner.

The young buddhist, while espousing vegetarianism and non-violence towards animals felt that the killing of tamils was justified for the murders that had been committed - especially of monks, women, and children by the LTTE. He was enraged at the concept of a separate Tamil nation and felt that Sri Lanka belonged to the Sinhalese - and not the hindu tamils or the muslims.

I spoke to the Tamilian at the end of a long day. He must be about forty, thin with a belly, balding, hard working and with an easy laugh. I was dining on a simple fare of masala dosa and filter coffee; the restaurant was empty except for the owner and staff - all of whom spoke to each other in Tamil. The man came and sat down with us for a chat, about his relatives in Tamil Nadu, the cost of things and all the general stuff. He was happy to speak to an Indian in Tamil. And then I asked " what about the killings in the north?" The man went completely silent and then quickly looking around to make sure there were no Sinhalese around said " They are all gone.... killed..everyone, about four lakh people died in a few days..the army went in...killed and burnt everything down. Whatever was left was dumped in the ocean...no one knows how many missing were killed ...our people know, but no one talks about it". He seemed to have great deal to say about India's role in the war including, "She (Sonia Gandhi) did not help..why should she help anyone who killed her husband..?"
The conversation ended abruptly with a late comer walking in for a delayed dinner. The Tamil did not approach our table again.

I left Sri Lanka, as I had entered it, with a heavy heart, and a burden of conscience - denied. I knew of the evil that lurked even in this paradise - of evil in man's heart - which flourished and fractured even while the sun shone, the winds played with waves and forests chanted their evening songs.