Thursday, February 4, 2010


They came, they saw, they conquered

They stole, they doled, they wandered

We talked, we fought, we thundered

We won, we stalled, we blundered

I’m clearly no poet but if I could sum up our post-independence history, that’s how I would do it. It has been 62 long years since our first prime minister, the honourable D. S. Senanayake, proudly hoisted the national flag that black and white February 4th morning (I say black and white because the only footage available of that historic moment is, sadly, in black and white) and, looking back, we have to ask ourselves how far we’ve come.

A lot of blood and sweat was shed to achieve independence from our colonial masters, and although some might argue that we didn’t “win” our independence but it was merely given to us purely for the sake of circumstantial expediency, the fact remains that our national heroes of all ethnicities, religions and castes fought tirelessly with much vigour and patriotism to win our freedom and that freedom struggle paved the way to achieving Dominion status in 1948, effectively ending a 133 year British occupation (yes, it was an occupation – in many ways).

However, decades later, it is safe to say that those national heroes must be spinning in their graves.

Our freedom struggle, although not a perfect one, was unique in that it was a true manifestation of the hackneyed phrase ‘unity in diversity’. The Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers were all united, at least on the surface, in the face of a powerful foreign adversary and they were able to work towards the one common goal of gaining independence for Ceylon – and they pulled it off.

What ever happened to that unity? Why were we not able to hold on to that? Where did we go wrong?

We are now divided along lines of ethnicity, religion, financial status, political predisposition, etc., etc. Not that such division wasn’t always there, but back then it wasn’t so apparent and we had the capacity to not let that get in the way of moving ahead as a nation. What changed all that?

Take a look at the results of last week’s Presidential Elections for instance. There is a clear division of the vote along ethnic and financial lines. While an overwhelming majority of the rural Sinhalese voted for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tamils in the North as well as voters in the heart of Colombo and other urban areas voted en masse for General (Rtd) Sarath Fonseka, which begs the question, WHY?

Why do the Tamils feel that they must not vote for the preferred candidate of the Sinhalese, and vice versa? Why does the so called Colombo Elite not want to elect a candidate not backed by the UNP for once? Aren’t we all part of the same citizenry? This is not to say that everyone should’ve voted for one candidate and not the other, but shouldn’t we as a country give priority to the bigger issues, such as, I dunno, the freedom and the resultant, (albeit short-lived) togetherness and harmony our forefathers fought so hard for? Shouldn’t we all at least vote as one nation?

The country is at an important crossroads now. A three-decade-old bloody, meaningless war has come to an end. We’re in the threshold of achieving economic stability, if not fast paced development. Isn’t it high time we put these petty differences behind us and moved on, at least as a mark of respect for the likes of Mr. Senanayake to whom we owe so much? It's better than celebrating them once a year, isn't it?

Think about it.

Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Monday, February 1, 2010

On the road to Jaffna

I was in Jaffna two weeks ago, backpacking and camping. And it was awesome. There is no other word to describe the experience. It was my first time in the fabled peninsula famous for its Palmyra trees, grapes, terrorists and friendly people. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to travel to the country’s formerly war torn North, and when I finally got around to doing that last week, it was truly a rewarding experience. I couldn’t help but feel it was worth the years and years of waiting. It was that good. Even after decades of conflict, Jaffna didn’t disappoint.

The train ride from Colombo to Vavuniya was fast and uneventful, but it was a pleasant one nonetheless. As the train was whizzing through the outskirts of the North Central Province, I took a quick peek outside the window, just to have a look at the night sky outside. What I saw blew my mind. The sky was crystal clear and was littered with hundreds and hundreds of the brightest stars you could ever hope to see with the naked eye on an earthbound location. If you’re into astronomy like me, it’s worth taking the Vavuniya train just for this. The cold wind hitting your face while you’re traveling at 60 miles per hour with your head sticking out the train window only adds to the overall effect. It’s out of this world.

Getting back to the story, Vavuniya is where the journey to Jaffna really begins. The town doesn’t look very different from towns closer to home, like Kurunegala or Ragama. Take out the Sinhala signboards and replace them with Tamil ones, add a little more heat, and also a few extra pinches of salt to the food, and you have Vavuniya.

It doesn’t look like the three decade war has had much effect on the place. If there is a strong military presence in the town area, it is hardly visible. The people seem to get about their business unhindered and happy. We didn’t get to spend much time exploring the neighbourhood, though. We had a bus to catch - the Vavuniya-Jaffna bus plying on the world famous A9 highway.

Bussing it is the way to go when you’re up in the North. I spent almost the entirety of that three and a half hour bus ride from Vavuniya to Jaffna on the footboard of the crowded CTB bus and I’m glad I did. The footboard offers the best possible view of the beautiful landscape on either side of the nearly uniformly straight A9. Barring a stretch of about 15 kilometres where it gets a bit jolty due to a few scattered pot holes, the road is mostly well carpeted and is super flat. You can easily hit a 120 here. It’s every driver’s dream.

The bus was stopped at the Omanthai entry-exit point for checking. It was surprisingly quick, but very thorough. The soldiers who checked my backpack were pleasantly surprised to hear that me and my ragtag band of friends were from Colombo and wanted to know about the eclipse we were going to see. They were a friendly bunch, I thought.

Speeding through Kilinochchi, I found my eyes wandering the waysides desperately looking for any sign of its bloody history, and I found nothing. The only thing to indicate that it was the epicenter of a massive battle just over a year ago was a gigantic water tank that had been ‘chopped down’ using explosives, like a tree. There was nothing at all to indicate that it was once the “capital” of land controlled by the LTTE. Everything appeared to have been erased.

Passing through Elephant Pass and getting into the Jaffna lagoon was one of the highlights of the trip. There were no elephants, but the sheer vastness of the open terrain with water on either side of the road was mesmerising. It’s enough to take your breath away.

By the time we finally got to Jaffna Town we were all hungry and exhausted but immensely satisfied. The peninsula itself will take a few pages to describe, what with the friendly people, the colourful shops and Kovils, Point Pedro, the beautiful beaches on the west coast of the peninsula and a host of other sights that could probably fill a book. I shall not attempt to do that here.

But let me try and describe what the town is like. The average Jaffna citizen’s preferred mode of transport seems to be the bicycle. I think there are more bicycles here than there is any other type of vehicle. I could be wrong, but there was a bicycle everywhere I looked. The town is reminiscent of towns like Wellawatte where there is a large Tamil population, but there is something uniquely different yet very familiar about the place. It is abuzz with activity, much like Wellawatte, but not so much that it suffocates you.

Shops and street vendors that sell all sorts of food items, toys, coloured Papadam, etc., etc. line up Jaffna’s busy streets, occasionally interrupted by a ‘saivar’ joint. And these saivar joints are where it’s at, so to speak. You have just got to try out them out. The food is nothing mouthwateringly exotic, but eating dosai or string hoppers off a banana leaf in a crowded Jaffna restaurant is an experience worth having. Just make sure you throw the leaf into the dustbin before you go. If you don’t, the waiter will ask you why.

There is much, much more to be said about this amazing place of course. This post will not do it justice. SinhalayaTravels will probably have something up soon. But I have to say, the trip taught me a lot of things. The most important lesson I learnt was that there is still hope for this country. Peace IS possible. The war is no longer there and the people in the North genuinely want to live peacefully with the rest of us. It shows when they help you pick the right mangoes, when they stop to give you directions to the bus stop. They’re as sick of this meaningless “conflict” as the rest of us. Now is the best time to visit Jaffna and other places in the North and East. If you have the time and the ability to make your way there, please do so. It will go a long way in building peace and harmony. You owe it to this country. Think about it.