Colombo, Post-War, Reconciliation

My Country of Contradictions

Some years ago, when I was younger, I could see where all the stereotypes about our island came from. I could see why people said Sri Lankans were particularly warm or friendly – they really were. I could see why Sri Lanka was known as an escape, a Shangri La for western tourists and foreigners – it truly was breathtakingly beautiful and pristine. I could see why people liked to live here – I liked it too. The people were nice, the pace was relaxed, and the atmosphere was that of an island.

Today, I find that I live in a country of contradictions. The colonial alongside the native. The beautiful co-existing with the horrific. The arrogant beside the hospitable. The humble alongside the aggressive. If you ask me today to tell you what Sri Lanka is like, or what Sri Lankans are like, I would have to reluctantly answer that I am no longer sure – that I can’t really explain.

Many worlds exist, side-by-side, rubbing shoulders, and yet carefully separate. Young people sip expensive cocktails in shiny nightclubs, go to movie screenings in garden cafés, and take weekends off to sun by the sea. Some go back and forth from air-conditioned office rooms to air-conditioned homes, in air-conditioned cars, of course – and with all this air-conditioning, it gets easier to forget that you live on a tropical island, where the sun blazes at you all day long. It becomes easy to forget that right outside your door, there is poverty, and easier to forget that a couple of hundred miles from where you live, are the consequences of a war – hundreds of thousands of people in camps, entire towns and villages bullet-holed, bombed, demolished and destroyed. It becomes easier to forget with time, and then all at once, it will be erased from your memory altogether. You will not pass this knowledge on to your children; it will never affect you again.

My generation particularly, suffers from this combination of not having been told, and having forgotten ourselves – that any world besides our own exists. We are not taught in schools, nor is this information easily available to us. Entire bits of Sri Lanka’s modern history are left out in our education, and therefore it never even enters our memories or becomes a part of our collective knowledge about our country. And the signs – the stories you hear, the memories that are recollected, the homeless on the streets, the Tamil boy in front of you is harassed at a checkpoint – all these signs become easier to ignore if they are not in context. They become easy to look away from. The people of these different worlds rarely ever cross paths. And yet, they need each other, in a funny way.

Such a country of contradictions I have never known. Sri Lankans are world-famous for their warmth and hospitality, – and yet, we have proven that when angered, when pushed into a corner, we can be violent, irrational and unstoppable in our hatred. We are well-known for our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural communities and tolerance – and yet, we have proven that we will allow our distrust, our paranoia, our nepotism, and our refusal to accept, to destroy everything. We could be a country abundant with prosperity – the natural resources are bountiful and plenty, the people are intelligent and skilled – and yet, we have proven that we would throw it all away for power and personal gain.

It all exists – carefully, just about touching each other but not really, these worlds. The turmoil, the rustling unease, the simmering tempers, the corruption and abuse, carefully standing quietly alongside the luxury, the bustle of jobs and coffees shared by friends, the lives untouched.

I have tried to know all these worlds. I have tried to look beyond my own, journey beyond what I was taught and not taught; I have tried to live a little each day in all these places and times. Because to me Sri Lanka is all these worlds. It is not one, without the other. It is not only the world of the poor; it is not just that of the rich. It is not the world of war, and it is not the world of unaffected peace. It is not merely the world of suffering and pain, and it is also not solely the world of blissful ignorance. It is all of these things, and every little thing in-between. To me, the country of Sri Lanka hangs in the balance of where these worlds meet – the fine line on which these worlds cross and collide, the method with which these worlds exist together.

That is the Sri Lanka I know and live in – and love. And it is the Sri Lanka I wish everyone would get to know.