I have visited Sri Lanka twice: the first was as a tourist and the second as a bride. Predictably, perhaps, the Emerald Isle revealed different facets of its social and cultural fabric to me each time. The common thread linking both these visits was that they were made in December. Colombo had acquired a festive buzz and Christmas lights adorned shop fronts and traffic roundabouts.
On my first trip, two years ago, I approached the city with the distance and perspective of a traveller. What struck me at once were the wide, leafy avenues and the unhurried air - everyone followed traffic rules and even at peak hour, there were not too many motorists honking angrily at each other.
Although it's easy to give in to the illusion, Colombo is no small town, cocooned from the compulsions of modern metropolises. The city is too battle scarred to be innocent. Or inconspicuous. Yet, despite the security pickets at every street corner, the city definitely felt gentler, kinder and safer than most big cities, in the sense that a close-knit family feels safe.
A war-ravaged country
Two years ago, I noted how it seemed like everyone knew everyone else in Colombo. Perhaps it was a comradeship born from their shared upbringing, experiences and until recently, fears. During my last visit, the discussion at Christmas parties invariably turned to war. Family friends discussed the 1996 bombing of the Central Bank in Colombo, one of the deadliest terrorist attacks by the LTTE, in which close to a 100 people had died and thousands had been injured. They discussed how everyone in Colombo had lost someone in that attack, but with the detachment that can only come when a war has been playing out in your backyard for most of your life.
When I visited Sri Lanka in December 2010, there were many things that had changed - both in my own life and in the country. Inexplicably, I didn't sense the ebullient joy that you'd expect from a country picking itself up after being ravaged by violence for so long. It seemed that the sudden peace, delivered forcefully by a brutally efficient army, would take time to sink in.
As a bride visiting Sri Lanka for my homecoming, I also got a much more intimate view of the genteel social mores of the island. From weeks before the homecoming, gifts had begun to trickle in. It didn't seem to matter how well we personally knew the gift-givers - or if we knew them at all - the presents were unfailingly generous.
On the colourful night of the homecoming, guests lined up at the entrance to the ballroom, patiently seeking out their names in the elaborate table plan we had drawn up. Coming from an exuberant celebration in Chennai, Colombo struck me as restrained and orderly, as if keen to not make too much of a spectacle of itself. In Colombo, no matter how much music and dance you throw into a wedding, it is still considered a formal celebration. Everyone applauds but not everyone breaks into a spontaneous jig.
The day after, we returned home to a living room floor covered with gifts. Each gift had been neatly numbered, and the names of the guests who had given them entered in an elaborate registry by the hotel staff. Many of the gifts were immaculately presented and you could see that as much thought had gone into the outer wrapping as on the articles inside.
There can be no better tutorial in a foreign culture than by getting married into it. My homecoming in Sri Lanka showed me that even an understated celebration can be fun, and that sometimes, the way a gift is wrapped lingers for far longer in the memory than the object itself. As travellers, we often wish we could understand a different culture not as voyeurs, from the outside in but with the sensitivity and insight of an insider. I got an opportunity to acquire, however fleetingly, a Sri Lankan identity and I'm much richer for the experience.