When Krishanti Weerakoon heard her husband, the Sri Lankan high commissioner to India Esala Weerakoon, had been appointed as the island country’s new foreign secretary, she was overwhelmed.
But there was also a strong sense of deja vu, for her father made the same journey - from the high commission in New Delhi to becoming the country’s top diplomat in 1989.
The difference - her father, Bernard Tilakaratna, was Sri Lanka’s longest-serving envoy to India during deeply turbulent years, from 1982 to 1989. The civil war had begun, and India got engaged in a direct military operation.
Her husband, Esala, will go back as the country’s shortest-serving ambassador to Delhi - but in relatively more stable times for the relationship. He came to Delhi only in October 2015.
The elevation came as a pleasant surprise to them, for he supersedes eight other senior officers to take over the country’s diplomatic services.
For Krishanti, the announcement cements the special place Delhi has in her heart.
“My father served here four times. I was born in what is now the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital in 1962. In his subsequent stint, I went to school to Carmel Convent. And when he returned as high commissioner, I went to the Jesus and Mary College and then Delhi School of Economics,” she recalls over a conversation at the high commisioner’s official residence.
Two days ago, she returned to Delhi University, and was thrilled when the vice-chancellor called her ‘one of us’. “I went to D-School and had bun-omelette and met my old teachers.”
The India connection has led to strange problems. High commissioner Esala Weerakoon smiles and says when they were filling up her India visa form online, it jammed. “From the place of birth to education, we filled in Delhi. And the nationality column is Sri Lankan. The system did not recognise it, and we then had to send a hand-written form.”
When her husband was appointed high commissioner last year, it was ‘home-coming’ for Krishanti, because she returned to the same house, and even the same room she had lived through the 80s.
“My father went from this house to become FS; my husband has done the same,” Krishanti tells HT, showing old photographs of the family with President Giani Zail Singh.
When her father presented credentials to Singh and told him Krishanti was born in Delhi, he remarked, “You are a Dilli-waali!”
Another photo shows her father in a meeting with then PM Indira Gandhi, prompting Esala Weerakoon to remark, “This kind of one on one meeting with the Indian prime minister will not happen now.”
Growing up in a diplomatic household, Krishanti saw high politics first hand. The residence was teeming with dignitaries. “President Jayawardena was often in this drawing room; many delegations visited, and I had to take the women sari-shopping. Karol Bagh was the only major shopping area then.”
Krishanti wanted to become a diplomat herself. But her father warned it would be difficult to find a house-husband who moved with her across the world. But Krishanti’s engagement with the international community and diplomacy took another form - through her career and her marriage.
She worked with the International Red Cross and then the UN in Colombo, but gave up her career this January to join her husband. “This is such an important assignment for a Sri Lankan diplomat and I wanted to be here to support Esala. The spouse plays an important role. It is not only the entertainment and glamour, but showcasing the country and networking with people.”
But back home, she plans to work in the area of reconciliation. “I have been a mine action officer and seen the destruction. The worst is over and we have to work towards genuine reconciliation.” The theme is sure to crop up in her husband’s diplomatic work as FS, as the world is watching Sri Lanka’s efforts to accommodate Tamil grievances.
Between 1989 and now, life has come a full circle for Krishanti. Her story is illustrative of a certain continuity in the Sri Lankan elite.
It is also a story of someone who has witnessed first-hand, in the drawing room of the high commissioner’s residence in Chanakya Puri, the evolution of the India-Sri Lanka relationship. Her presence may or may not have any direct impact on the trajectory of this relationship, but testifies to its special people-to-people ties.