Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I was reading Rev. Fr. Mervin Fernando’s “This piece of planet earth SRILANKA, and the characteristics of its people”, and few lines from his book hit the nail so hard on my head.

“Arthur Clarke had to find his way here and discover SriLanka. I was born and bred a SriLankan but it took me long years for me to realize what it meant. Truth is really strange than fiction. It required a foreigner and his poem to draw out the SriLankan genie in me (he is actually talking about the poem by W.S.Senior “The call of lanka”…………..) My mother and Father made me a human being; mother Lanka made me a SriLankan being.

Part of the poem:
“.....my cities are laid in ruins
their courts through the jungle spread,
my scepter long departed and
stranger Lord, instead,
yet give me a bard, said Lanka
I am living, I am not dead...."
(i'm posting the whole poem in a separate new post for those who never got to read it before)

What touched my heart so much was Rev. Fr.’s following words.
I did my school education in Jaffna at a time when the peninsula was almost a separate state. We had very less or no access to the world outside. Our history books and other text books failed to teach me what it means to be SriLankan, and what it takes to be SriLankan. I still remember my pre-school social studies book with pictures of Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers and Muslims so very well defined. Book didn’t help me to see the SriLankan in me. On my first day at school, I was asked for my Surname and my Religion. I was registered as a Hindu student on that day and I left the school after 13 years as the same Hindu student, knowing only the following about any other religion- Christmas is a big thing for Christians, Muslims fast for a whole month and Buddhist celebrate Vesak. And these facts were not on our text books, nor was I taught by any teacher. Christmas, Ramzan and Vesak are public holidays!!!!! It is the holiday that mattered, not the message of the festival/religious event.

In news papers we read, ‘Muslim youth murdered’, ‘two Tamil sailors missing’, ‘a Sinhala youth kidnapped’. Why is it we never identify ourselves as SriLankans, not at birth, not even at death?
No doubt we have 'ethnic' conflict and identity crisis in SriLanka these days.

What happened to all the SriLankan traditions and customs my grand mother used to boast about?
Areaconuts and beatle leaves, white flowers at the entrance, sweet meats that were exchanged over the fence, new year visits, worshiping parents and elders in the morning, greeting a stranger with a smile….. were all these Ceylonese ways and not SriLankan? It looks to me as we have changed a lot with the name :)

These days, when we meet a friend, we say ‘hello’ and shake hands. We greet people saying good morning/afternoon/evening (we used to have a wonderful tradition of holding our hands against the chest in a worshipping position and greeting friends with a musical ayubowan, vanakkam, or slamalaikkum). Many of my international friends tell me that SriLankans are very flexible, they are not culturally rigid and they adapt to any cultural set up. But I never could take these as compliments. These comments always leave me more confused and alarmed; ‘Are we too flexible to forget the SriLankan-ness?’; ‘Is it because we don’t know our own culture and traditions that we easily adapt well to a foreign set up?’
And I never found answers.