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Footloose in Sri Lanka: Fire walking and poisoned arrows - Part II
Driving from the airport to Colombo city, the first time visitors to Sri Lanka cannot escape the obvious: The country is doing reasonably well for itself.

In fact, it has the highest per capita socio- and economic ratings, as compared to all other South Asian countries. Among 188 countries, its Human Development Index of 73 leaves us far behind at 130! While Sri Lanka is bracketed as a “High Development country’ with annual 12 per cent job growth, we are bracketed as a ‘Medium Development country’. Early on, it had introduced direct dialling (STD) far ahead of us and in recent times it introduced 4G earlier than India. 

However, the country also has pending serious human rights issues, emanating from the days when battle lines were drawn against Prabhakaran and his Tamil Tigers. 

Sri Lanka has been in dire straits, as well. In the pre-globalised world, they were literally living under hand to mouth conditions. In 1977, I have seen days when the whole country was without butter, because a ship from New Zealand was delayed. Also, the whole country going without sugar because of a delayed consignment from Australia! 

Those were the days of heavily subsidized pricing for the local populace. And higher prices for the foreigners. As a middle class salaried toiler, this was also the only time that I felt like a rich man and that too in a foreign country! This is how the system worked: 

On my arrival at the Colombo airport, I had to declare all the hard currencies I carried. After physical verification, they gave me a passbook in which my German marks in currency and travellers cheques were endorsed. Next, when I went to the exchange counter to change some marks, the gentleman gave me a pile of Sinhalese rupees. This certainly was far too more than what I had reckoned. The cashier sprung a pleasant surprise. He told me that those arriving on tourist or pilgrimage visas and exchanged hard currency were entitled to a bonus of 40 per cent from the government. I had never seen so many notes in any currency in my life! This too was a Eureka moment for me! Had I gone on work on a business visa, this largesse would not have come my way. 

Hippies and others in India had a way of financing their entire trip to Sri Lanka, for free. From Madras they would pick up a few Kanchivaram sarees, tahmads (lungis) and pocket transistor radios, for they fetched a high premium in Sri Lanka. As soon as they came out of the airport, any number of eager buyers would mob the fresh arrivals! Thanks to the short Madras/Colombo flights, there was a thriving business of saree runners, who went in the morning with a few sarees tucked between their other clothes and returned by the evening flight!

On the day of my arrival, my host took me for lunch at Lanka Oberoi, a hotel by the seaside. There also, I witnessed something I had never seen before. You were not given the menu straight away. The waiter first brought a register, in which we had to fill our names, nationality and local address. The manager went through the register and instructed the waiter, whether to give the menu with higher prices for the foreigners or the other one with low subsidized prices for the locals! When we went for dinner to Taj Samudra, we had to undergo the same ritual! Throughout my travels in the island, I had to undergo this cumbersome routine. Invariably the managers or the waiters would discreetly ask me, ‘Sir, do you have a pocket transistor?’ 

After reading the guide book, ‘India, Nepal and Sri Lanka on $5.00 and $ 10.00 a day’ I had chalked out a program to crisscross the country like the locals - by bus. And ride the only railway stretch in the country at that time – from Colombo to Kandy. However, a glance at the Avis-Rent-a-Car’s outlet in the hotel lobby changed my mind entirely. With 40 per cent more cash in my pocket I could jolly well afford the latest Peugeot 504, complete with driver, fuel and oil for a trifle. I booked both the car and the driver straight away. Next morning we set out to explore the by-lanes of history and culture of an island, which was once aptly called Serendip! 

While statistics may lie about a country, what you see around you in a foreign land speaks for itself. In another popular destination Thailand, uniformed Tourist Police and their kiosks are visible everywhere, and they offer immediate help to tourists being troubled by touts, taxi drivers, conmen etc. Sri Lanka has gone even further: It encourages its police to learn Hindi, Chinese and French, as most of its visitors fall in those linguistic categories. Its official languages are Sinhalese and Tamil. Having lived for more than a decade in Madras, I found it easier to come closer to the people, being able to read Tamil and animate a conversation of sorts. Much to the amusement of the locals! In Muslim pockets they were curious to know, if I could talk in Urdu with them, their ancestors having migrated from India! Many were also descendents of Arab traders. 

My driver D’Silva, noticing my interest in the Buddhist artefacts in Anuradhpura, Nuwara Eliya and Kandy often would talk about some obscure caves where Buddhist monks meditated. So one morning we headed for the caves, which I could not find on my map, but D’Silva knew the way. On arrival at the caves, thanks to D’Silva’s overtures the monks seemed to assume a positive stance. They were not used to prying visitors, as these caves were not in the tourist circuit. Not knowing how to greet them, with folded hands I uttered, ‘Buddham Saranam Gacchami’! This generated some more positive vibrations and seemed to break the ice! 

Though most of the monks spoke Sinhalese, there were some from Thailand who spoke halting English. They escorted me inside the caves and showed me ancient frescoes on the wall, depicting Buddha’s life and scenes from Jataka stories. At meditation time they started mumbling to each other. I sort of outguessed them and said that I will join them and meditate, too. Soon a bond of commonality was struck. After meditation I sensed more bonhomie, and they offered me a cup of hot Ceylon Tea. When I got up to bid them good bye, the monks lined up and chanted a blessing, wishing me Godspeed! 

Talking of tea, a Buddhist monk in China discovered this magical herb, a refreshing pick-me-up. Like our exquisite Darjeeling tea, Ceylon tea has also been officially recognised and given the GI status (Geographical Indication). Teas grown elsewhere cannot be branded as Darjeeling or Ceylon teas! 

It was the British planters who spread the sub-culture of tea plantations and exclusive clubs, in their colonies. Sri Lanka too has miles and miles of lush soothing green, terraced tea gardens. And the clubs the British left behind are now in service of the pukka brown Sahebs, with their clipped accents!  D’Silva took me to one of these. The local manager explained to me the nuances of planting, plucking, roasting and curling of tea. Most interesting is the long shed in each tea garden, which is the domain of the tea taster, the highest paid man in the industry. Hundreds of cups of tea are lined up on tables. Starting from one end, the tea taster sips from each cup and spits it out, in quick succession. His word is final, regarding the quality of the tea and the category in which it should be classified. I was asked to sip a few cups, but my taste buds were not quite up to the highest paid job! 

Next we headed for Ratnapura, which true to its name is the centre of gem mining, cutting and polishing industry. We drove up to a hill side where there were rows of tiled cottages. D’Silva explained that gem cutting and polishing was done there. We entered a cottage and as I started observing the processes, one of the workers came to me and asked me in Tamil, ‘Sir, are you from India? Our master would like to meet you’. A tray of tea came and I waited, wondering what the master would like to talk to me. After a long wait a venerable gentleman of advanced age, assisted by one of the workers came out. In his freshly starched kurta and churidar he could have been easily mistaken taken for an aging Lakhnavi  nawab

After exchanging adaabs, he asked, ‘Aap Urdu bolte hain kya? Kahan se tashrif laa rahe hain?’ (Do you speak Urdu? Where do you come from?’

Soon he became emotional and related his antecedents. I gathered, that they were Bohri Muslims. His father had migrated from Bombay to start this business. He himself had never seen Bombay and asked many questions about me, my family and my city. The conversation was long. In between he whispered something to his attendant. After a while the attendant brought a small velvet case. The gentleman took some time to stand up. He opened the case and pointed at its content.

‘Yeh moonstone hai. Meri taraf se tohfa hai. Aap ise kisi angoothi ya kisi tie-pin mein zaroor lagaiye ga!’ 

(This is a moonstone. It is my gift to you. You must use it in a ring or a tie pin!’) 

Moonstone was supposed to bring good luck.

This too was a Eureka moment for me. A gift from a total stranger, in a strange land! 

Travelling has its blessings!

(To be continued)

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