05 April, 2013

Colombo Calling

As our aircraft landed with a thump, I woke up to be utterly surprised at finding myself in Malé, the capital of Maldives, instead of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Unknown to me, a connecting flight via Maldives had been hurriedly cobbled up in Dubai after the original one got missed due to a late start at Lahore.  The embarrassing feeling was like having boarded a wrong bus, but it did not last long as we took off for Colombo after an hour’s stopover.

Business in Colombo pertained to a workshop on South Asian Stability, sponsored by the US Naval Post-graduate School and, involved Pakistani and Indian armed forces veterans and scholars, along with members of various think tanks and institutions from the US.

Driving from the airport to the city, one could see shops lining all 35-km of the distance, with old terra cotta roofed buildings and quaint Victorian churches completing the colonial scene.  Orderly traffic was the first thing that struck me.  Buses were strictly following the bus lane.  All motor-cyclists were wearing helmets, including pillion riders, whether men or women.  The taxi driver would brake every now and then at zebra crossings, something I was quite pleased with when the same courtesy was extended to me later as a pedestrian on many an occasion.

As I got off at the Taj Samudra Hotel, the taxi driver reminded me that all cricket teams stayed there.  He said that the most popular of them all was the Pakistani team and the Sri Lankan fans often caused a traffic jam at the hotel premises while seeking autographs and pictures of their favourite players.

Before the workshop started, I had a complete day to myself, so I decided to roam the streets of Colombo. The municipality seemed to be working most conscientiously, for there was no garbage to be seen anywhere and the streets were as clean as could be.  All roads are being turned into one-way thoroughfares to ease traffic congestion.  The serene Hunupitya Lake has a tree-lined walkway all around it and the young and old, jog and walk early in the mornings and late in the evenings.

A facility known as ‘Friends in Need Society’ is a 182-year old institution located in downtown Colombo, dedicated to the care of the handicapped, especially the amputees of the civil war.  Disabled adults and children are provided every possible medical help, including dignified reintegration into society.  It was no surprise that there were no beggars to be seen in Colombo.  The idea of such a benevolent institution is certainly worth emulating in Pakistan, if there are philanthropists willing to help.

As the sun’s rays became more piercing, I hailed a rickshaw to take me back to the hotel.  The driver asked for a rather huge sum of Rs 1,000, but after some haggling, came down a bit.  Not impressed, I suggested something more reasonable, but when he learnt that I was from Pakistan, he immediately slashed the fare down to Rs 200.  While driving back, he gave several reasons for his generosity: firstly, that Pakistan helped Sri Lanka quell the murderous insurgency, secondly, that our cricketers were very popular in his country and finally, that he was pleased to meet a fellow Muslim.  I thanked Tasleem for the flattering comments which were offered in immaculate English which was no surprise, as the literacy rate in Sri Lanka is over 93%.

Though religious tolerance is generally evident in Colombo, there have been some instances of bigotry, of late.  The majority Sinhalese Buddhists (70% of the population) have objected to meat being certified as halal.  Even the Muslim hijab is coming under criticism from some radical Buddhists and, there have been odd instances of attack on mosques.  Despite this recent acrimony, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians have a long history of peaceful co-existence and mutual respect of religious places,  practices and traditions. This is evident as a mosque stands next to the famous Murugan Hindu temple; another main mosque and the Baptist Church Community centre share a common wall; yet another church and mosque stand on the two sides of a main road.  It seems that extreme courtesy flows out of a tolerant attitude borne of a multi-faith and a multi-cultural society.  I would not be off the mark in claiming that Sri Lankans are some of the most polite and considerate people on the globe and hopefully, they will be able to maintain this wonderful tradition in the future.

During a visit to the Buddhist Gangaramya Temple, I happened to watch a wedding party receive the benedictions of the priests.  Dressed in maroon saris (the colour of the Theravada Buddhist faith, also reflected in the national flag), the bridesmaids escorted the rather fat bride for a pooja ceremony.  This was followed by a photo session, much like our never ending ones, in which every family member is roped in and forced to smile under sweaty brows or melting make-up.  A stuffed elephant, which was a temple mascot when it lived, is still revered and the faithful make it a point to pray for its comfort in the Hereafter.

While the workshop was in progress, the very appetising South Indian food started to take its toll on the waistlines, so evening walks had to be resorted to with vigour.  During rush hour, walkways were full of people, with working women being in evidence in large numbers.  Odel, an upscale shopping mall, was thronged with well-heeled Westerners who were willing to pay the inflated prices of the clothing and other items on sale.  Tourists abound in Colombo, which serves as a springboard to other places of historical, botanical or zoological interest in the rest of Sri Lanka.  A dozen top class hotels within a square mile of central Colombo attest to the increasing popularity of Sri Lanka as an affordable holiday resort.

One day when we got an early off from work, a hunt for the fabled Sri Lankan gemstones turned out to be successful.  Though this blue sapphire for a necklace pendant set me back by a fortune, the recipient of the gift (my wife, of course) was more than happy, as it turned out! 

One of the famous getaways of Colombo, especially for socialising couples, is the vast Viharamahadevi Park whose coconut palms, huge banyan trees and dense herbage provide much needed cover from the sun, as much from prying eyes.  A golden statue of Buddha lords over the park, while the Town Hall, popularly known as the White House, forms an impressive backdrop. On one end of the park is the Cenotaph War Memorial built by the British in memory of the Ceylonese soldiers who fell in World War I; it later came to commemorate the fallen Ceylonese soldiers of World War II and, still later, those who laid down their lives while fighting the recently ended insurgency.

The oddly-named Galle Face Green is a mile-long beach front promenade lined with palm trees, at the western end of the Colombo.  It is a popular strip for jogging, as well as family outings on weekends.  The elegant Galle Face Hotel dating back to 1864, is a prominent landmark on the Green. I went out for late night walks a few times and was quite amused to see kite flying at that late hour, with colourful kites having long streamers shimmering in a flood-lit sky.  A drumming concert was underway, with hundreds of youngsters enjoying the merriment with abandon.

Security in Colombo is flawless and, given the 25 years of insurgency that had badly racked the country, it is indeed commendable.  Smart and courteous policemen can be seen at virtually every traffic crossing. During a VIP movement near the Presidential Secretariat, I was most politely told by a policeman to take a detour, “if it is not a problem, sir.”  Except for military installations, roadblocks and checkpoints are non-existent. Even the GHQ, located right behind the Taj Samudra Hotel, gives a welcome look, with a bevy of military policewomen alongside their male counterparts guarding the main entrance. 

During my stay in Colombo, I noticed a virulent tirade by the media against India and US, for passing a UN resolution against supposed human rights violations by the government during the last stages of the counter-insurgency campaign.  It seemed that the resolution had more to do with Sri Lanka cosying up to China, than anything else.  The inauguration of the Chinese-built Hambantota Port in south Sri Lanka seems to have rubbed the two powers on the wrong side, I thought.  Sentiment against interference by outside powers is strong for another reason too.  Four and a half centuries years of exploitative rule by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, has left an anti-colonial mindset amongst the Sri Lankans, and they strongly feel that they can handle their own affairs.

To me, the short Colombo experience was a very pleasant surprise.  The 18th century English man of letters, Horace Walpole, coined the word ‘serendipity’ describing such accidental discoveries which the heroes of the Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip, were always making.  To relive those discoveries – or to experience serendipity – one must first hearken to Colombo’s call and then delve deeper into enchanting Sarandib of the Arabs and Persians, which is none other than the beautiful Sri Lanka of today.
© KAISER TUFAIL. This is an open-access article published under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution Licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

This article was published in the daily newspaper The News International on 19 May, 2013 under the title Serendipity in Essence.