01 January 1970

The Emerald Isle: War And Peace At Play In Sri Lanka

If we lift the burning veil of current affairs can we still steal a glimpse of the picturesque and leafy island? Arijit Ghosh writes about the emerald island, Sri Lanka.

War and peace in Sri Lanka
War and peace in Sri Lanka AP Photos

Days after the high drama of the previous Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapakse fleeing the country and protesters overrunning the Presidential Palace, his loyalist, and former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected as the eighth President of Sri Lanka on Wednesday, balloting 134 of 219 valid votes cast in Parliament. That he clearly does not enjoy the confidence of the people was amply clear earlier, when his private residence was set on fire and his official residence, as Prime Minister, was stormed by protesters demanding his resignation. It was therefore with a familiar sense of déjà vu and being cheated again, that the average Sri Lankan viewed his elevation to the Presidency.

Immediately on assuming office as acting President, Wickremesinghe had reimposed a state of Emergency, granting sweeping powers to the military to detain and arrest protesters and curtail the right to protest. As daylight broke on Friday, a day after his swearing-in, Sri Lankan soldiers armed with assault rifles swooped down on an anti-government protest camp in Colombo and tore down a portion of the camp. It was a show of brute force and at least 50 protesters were injured, as per reports, including some journalists who were beaten up by security forces. 

This excessive violence can only lead to further erosion of the people’s confidence and cause greater alienation at a time when the people are only asking for their right to lead sustainable, peaceful lives and hold the leaders who failed them, accountable. As Sri Lankan cricketing icon Sanath Jayasuriya said, the country had never been so united. Fellow cricketing legend Kumar Sangakkara endorsed that saying this unity was the future of the country. The overrunning of the Presidential Palace had become a symbol of the people’s power and of the outrage that cannot be contained when a nation is stretched to breaking point by the callousness of those in power. 
For months now, the peaceful existence of the average Sri Lankan, so precious and hard-earned after years of untold hardship and disruption caused by the thirty years of war, had been torn asunder and thrown into disarray. Prices skyrocketed and queues outside shops and petrol stations lengthened to unmanageable proportions. Former Sri Lankan Test Cricketer Roshan Mahanama was seen distributing tea and biscuits to people stuck for hours outside petrol stations. Australian captain Pat Cummins said families were skipping meals to feed their children.

The anger spilled over onto the streets as people defied curfews proving, yet again, that nothing can stop public fury once ignited and a spark becomes a raging conflagration in no time. Over centuries of human existence, History bears witness to the fact that Governmental suppression is no match for the people’s wrath, once aroused. 

Over the past few months this beautiful, once welcoming land with its peaceful, hospitable, law-abiding people, has plunged into a state of chaos that no tourist would care to brave at this time. Ending the short years of peace and tranquility and bountiful tourist seasons that brought prosperity to the people. 

To a beautiful land, a tiny teardrop in the sparkling waters of the Indian Ocean, with misty blue hills and lush green tea gardens dreaming in the mellow sunshine. And miles of golden beaches, where the roar of the sea is never very far away. Tourism, which boomed after the war ended and sustained the economy to a large extent, looks unlikely to come back anytime soon, at this uncertain juncture.

For me personally, The Emerald Isle remains my favorite ‘Island in the Sun.’ I had first traveled there with a school's cricket team almost a decade back, on a tour that my long-time friend Jagath Jayasundara had helped to organize. Our teams were to meet many more times after that on similar tours, as we played at some of the best grounds in the country, including Test Centres SSC and the beautiful Galle cricket stadium, perched right on the ocean.

Each meeting, each visit was a pleasure, a rich tapestry of fond memories. Of a beautiful land of gentle people, forever welcoming, forever friendly, forever caring.

We thought these exchanges would go on forever.

And then came Covid and the economic crisis and the unrest. 

My mind travels back to the time when we drove upcountry from Colombo, past the picturesque, leafy, Kandy University campus, to Nuwara Eliya. We make a stopover at a tea factory en route, for a tour and tea-tasting. The flavor and aroma of world-famous Sri Lankan Tea wash away our tiredness from the long drive and we are amazed to learn that the machinery is a legacy of the British, from a hundred years ago.

Driving up the winding mountain road to misty, drizzly Nuwara Eliya, we see rows of vegetable and fruit stands displaying bountiful local produce, on either side of the road. A colorful profusion of okra, squash, watermelon, bell peppers, and cauliflower, all freshly picked and pearly in the rain, welcome us to a beautiful hill station that seems to have a perpetual cloud cover and fine rain hovering over it.

All our matches scheduled at Kandy and Nuwara were invariably washed out, barring one played at a tiny stadium lost amongst lush tea gardens on all sides. A lovely little place, with its Honours Boards going back a hundred years. 

At Nuwara, we stay at a beautiful hotel called Hill Club, located on extensive grounds that are a riot of flowers of every conceivable shade and hue. This was earlier a British Planters Club and still follows the ‘Rules of the House’ when it comes to wearing jackets and ties for dinner at the ‘formal dining hall’ that boasts of an active fireplace and a library.

It rains heavily all night and is still raining when we wake up the next morning, but the view from our first-floor window is beautiful, with the mist and drizzle rolling in from the surrounding hills, alternately. No wonder this place is called Little England.

We catch a quaint, old-fashioned, impossibly overcrowded train to Ella from the nearest railway station, Nanuoya. Reserved seats are all taken, so we ride third class in a jam-packed coach and somehow manage to find a place near the open door. That gives us a grandstand view of one of the most beautiful train journeys of the world, as we meander through hills, lush green tea gardens, and forests, stopping occasionally at tiny wayside stations nestling in the lap of the blue mountains.

Later we travel to Bentota and Galle with their miles of warm, sandy beaches. And picturesque hotels and cottages perched right on the ocean, with their unceasing roar of waves crashing onto the shore. You could sit for hours on the balconies watching the white, luminous surf come in, listening to the music of the ocean and no two moments would be the same. Down in the Dining Hall, there is a live band going from table to table, singing old English and Hindi numbers. 
It is such a warm, nostalgic feeling.

The next day, we stop at a seaside shack for a never-to-be-forgotten lunch of the biggest lobsters that we’ve ever seen in our lives. The morning’s catch. fresh from the ocean served to the accompaniment of a bowl of delicious, spicy sambal and rice.

Cricket has long been an inseparable part of life here and even now, amidst all this unrest, there is a home series that has just ended against Australia, bringing smiles to the faces of the cricket-crazy people of this tiny island nation.

And they showed their appreciation to the Aussies with banners of “Thank You Australia,” for visiting their country at this turbulent time. Many fans were in yellow Australian T-shirts instead of the traditional dark blue Sri Lankan ones that they so routinely wear, even when going about their day-to-day lives in the streets. 
And though Australia won the T20I series comprehensively, the Sri Lankans came back in style to win the ODI series, their first victory over the Aussies since 1992, and drew the Test Series with an unbelievable innings victory in the second Test, bringing cheer to their beleaguered countrymen.

A new Jayasuriya shone in Sri Lankan skies, claiming 12 wickets on his Test debut and Dinesh Chandimal played the innings of his life. 

Today with the country in the throes of unrest and financial instability, it could do with more such shows of support from the international community, to set it back on its feet again.

And amidst all the political uncertainty, one cannot but feel for the people. 
For the ones whom we know and the many whom we don’t. 
And we owe it to ourselves, to help bring back peace and tranquility to this beautiful land. The world would be so much a better place for it.
Till then, just hang in there friends… Ayubowan!

(The author is a former first-class cricketer and a retired Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force. Views expressed in this article are personal)