A Siren In Ceylon – Sri Lanka

A Siren In Ceylon
Sri Lanka

Once I got out of the city of Kandy, or rather what passes for a city in Kandy, and stopped expecting Sri Lanka to be India and appreciated it for what it is, the island began to open to me.

A rainy day in Kandy
A rainy day in Kandy
Sri Lanka is not India, obviously (the food is a lot worse, for one thing), though there are lots of the cultural similarities, and some unfortunate standard features found in this area of the world (touts, overcharging, heat, air pollution, lack of information).

However, some things are blessedly missing, like:

Crowds. Sri Lanka, even when crowded, like on a market day, is far less so than India. They don’t seem to have the population issues, (literally, using “issues” in the Indian sense!) for whatever reason. This takes a lot of that Indian desperation out of the atmosphere. I read an interview last summer with a famous Indian cricket player who made the observation, “In India, we are a mob, with a mob mentality lurking just below the surface.” There is a lot less tension in Sri Lanka in general.

The gender thing. I can walk through a crowded market or busy street in downtown Kandy wearing a t-shirt, no bra and baggy pants and not worry about being grabbed or groped. There is no need to swathe myself in fabric the same way women must in India. Also, on a bus I can sit between 3 or 4 guys and relax – because they are NOT trying to use every bend in the road as an excuse to leaaaaaaann into me or talk to me (“you are from?”) or anything.

Because of this, the ladies themselves are more relaxed in both dress and behavior. I think there are a lot more genuine smiles. I see more ladies running shops, cash registers and doing general public jobs (even waiting tables at Pizza Hut).

My sources say that marriages are arranged here and it’s very much like the Indian system, but something must be different. For one thing, at the Royal Palace Park in the
middle of town, every single bench (EVERY bench) was taken up by courting young couples. Not even one bench was just friends hanging out! That, you would not see in India.

In other words, it is more relaxed in general. Other than the touts/rickshaw hawkers, which are about like India, the general atmosphere is more that of a laid-back island.

Sri Lankans ask fewer personal questions. They – sorry, Indian defenders – are MORE POLITE. Whatever you want to call the trademark Indian attitude (proud, haughty, officious), it’s not there generally.

Train from Colombo to Kandy
Train from Colombo to Kandy
Traffic is much more quiet and less insane. That is, drivers do not incessantly honk their horns, and they drive more slowly.

Sri Lanka is far cleaner than India. Amazingly so. Rural train stations here are green, dewey and orderly, not soaked in urine, and are not home to entire communities of permanently displaced persons the way railway stations are in the great neighbor to the North.

The men do not usually wear the compulsory moustache. A few older ones do. In fact, you can often spot ethnic Indians by looking for the moustache.

There IS Sri Lankan pop music (Sinhalese), though it sounds like a sort of generic island-music you might call International Tropical Island Pop. Part calypso, part German oom-pah bassline (really), part bouncy African highlife, VERY bouncy, upbeat and mostly silly sounding. You would expect to hear these types of tunes in Trinidad, Mauritius, and so on, at least to my ears.

Sinhalese pop music is best appreciated while riding (comfortably, not guardedly, seated between gents) on the back window seat of a public bus through tea-plantation hill country, passing banana stands, farmers, day laborers, Tamil Mariamman and Buddhist shrines amid garden-of-eden vegetation as you spiral down the winding, bumpy road. As you breathe the cool upcountry breezes, the relentless bounciness of the music seems cheerful and fun, as it was meant to be…not obnoxious and frivolous as it feels while breathing in city exhaust fumes and sweating downtown.

Lankans do have fetish for very dated, schmaltzy US pop music, which I found unfathomable. “Never Gonna Change My Love For You,” “You Left Me, Just When I needed you most,” Kenny Rogers’ “Through the Years…” AGGGGH. Now THAT makes me homicidal. A Carnatic classical music program on the radio made me misty eyed with nostalgia for the superior musical kitsch of Madras.

There is even some good Sri Lankan food – but it’s all adopted from Kerala. “Hoppers” and ‘string hoppers’ are actually appam and idiyappam. “Sambol” is a kind of better sambar and ‘pittu’ is puttu.

Also, the fact that the economy is not so developed makes for some inconveniences, but it also leaves more gorgeous scenery untouched.

Typical mountains enroute to Kandy
Typical mountains enroute to Kandy
The Tamil presence here is pretty strong; official figures say 20 percent but I think it may be more. In town, they run many ‘hotels’ (restaurants), shops, and many are rickshaw drivers. In the country they do the majority of the farm labor, in fact that’s why they originally came here 100s of years ago, to work on Brit tea plantations.

Still, up in the Nillambe hills where I attended a Buddhist retreat center, when you see any tea-planatation woman worker and say “Vannakam, eppady sugam?” to her immediately she will answer in Tamil. (The fact that I can’t understand them makes no difference. It brings big smiles to their faces.)

No, it’s not India – there is nothing like India!

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