Flashback. The memories return like a flood; the forgotten becomes graphic again. Sitting in the prime minister’s Air India One, flying from Delhi to Colombo, my thoughts returned to the many friends and people who were vital to my existence from 1995 to 1997.
My return was to a Colombo under semi-curfew for the annual gathering of South Asian leaders. But, given what I had lived through, the security hardly came as a surprise. It had always been part and parcel of life there.
Eleven long years have passed since my stint as a reporter in Colombo. My older daughter, Anushka, born at the sprawling Joseph Fraser Hospital, will soon be 12. She’s old enough to laugh at my nostalgia trip. “Get a life. Why would you want to visit the hospital in which I was born?” she asked me, genuinely puzzled. As things turned out, time and the heavy security for the SAARC Summit ensured that Joseph Fraser Hospital slipped off my itinerary. But, visiting my old house on 5-1/1 Queens Terrace, off Duplication Road, did not. I managed to meet my former landlady, Hema Perera, one of the kindest and most generous persons I have known. I mumbled my condolences to her on the death of her husband, who passed away a year ago.
We recalled how the rent cheques in a sealed envelope would be slipped under the door by me and, in turn, Mr. Perera would slip the receipt back. No words were exchanged about the money; it was as if the commercial transaction was almost an embarrassment. Like me, Mrs. Perera is much older now. “His time was up,” she says about her late husband. As we chat, my mind wanders to how my wife, Minu, and I came upon the name Anushka. We actually spotted it in a newspaper byline; and for once agreed on something.
When we brought Anushka home, she received her first pair of gold earrings from Mrs. Perera. As the months passed, we also received gentle admonishment from her —never say anything about children — anything can happen to them. I remind her about what she had said.
Upstairs, in ‘my house’, lives Murali, who is now the Colombo correspondent for the paper I used to represent. We quickly catch up as I look around at what was once both home and office for me. I’m happy that no stranger has occupied the house, but one who is a close friend. This makes the visit a pleasant one.
I speak to an old friend, Dharmalingam Siddharthan of the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam, but we can’t meet on account of security conditions. He can’t come to my hotel and would rather not meet in a public place.
Likewise with Jayadeva Uyangoda, one of Sri Lanka’s best political analysts, and another old friend. We just chat on the phone, knowing that meeting is out of the question.
Many of the people I knew in Sri Lanka have been killed. My old phone book is of little use. Leading lawyer and Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader Neelan Tiruchelvam, a source and guide, is no more. He was killed when a suicide bomber jumped on his car close to his Kynsey Road office in 1999. Likewise, A. Thangathurai, TULF member of parliament from Trincomlaee was also killed by the Tamil Tigers in 1997. Many friends of mine, one-time critics of the LTTE, are now clapper-boys for the Tigers. It’s a matter of survival.
Mention must also be made of M. Sivasithamparam, who died a natural death despite carrying a bullet in his head after being wounded in an LTTE attack that also took the life of TULF President Appapillai Amrithalingam.
There are others, like my erstwhile neighbour in Queens Road, the late Kumar Ponnambalam. He was killed in his car by unknown assailants, possibly by the Tigers. But no one can be sure of such things in Sri Lanka. Keteeshwaran Loganathan is another friend gone. One could just go on and on, the list is endless.
Velupillai Prabhakaran has ensured that very few moderate Tamils remain in the politics of Sri Lanka. Those who question his brand of militarism are eliminated, never to speak again. For, Prabhakaran styles himself as the “sole spokesman” of the Tamilians in Sri Lanka and, possibly, beyond.
Equally those who are critical of Prabhakaran are not supporters of Sinhala chauvinists, whose acts led to the creation of a monster like the LTTE in the first place.
But enough of the past. Colombo, with its picturesque seafront and pretty houses, still looked as beautiful as ever. It may have been dotted with guns and security personnel, but the city hadn’t lost any of its charm.
Our reports filed for the next day’s paper, I insist that Ravi, a friend who writes for a Singapore newspaper, accompany me to The Cricket Club, a pub that looks as good now as it did over a decade ago. Getting to the place at night is tough, but with our security badges we manage to roll in.
Since it’s a little outside the core security zone, the club is alive. Sipping from a rather large glass of draught beer, in the midst of some fantastic memorabilia, I enjoy my evening out. As we leave, Ravi buys a Cricket Club cap and I pick up a T-shirt.
Dinner at the majestic Mount Lavinia Hotel must await another visit; it’s too far out in the suburbs to make it back. So, the evening must end with me dropping Ravi to the Trans-Asia Hotel and returning to the gracious Galle Face hotel that now overlooks a grassy green ‘beach’ — missing are the umbrella couples, canoodling in their bit of shade and the king coconut sellers. Given the security obstacles, the evening out is the highpoint of my Colombo trip.
Tailpiece: I manage a shopping spree at Odel, the clothing store in Colombo, but as usual get the sizes wrong for my daughters. Consolation: a few did fit.