On Tuesday I received a text from an old friend. “Suba Aluth avurudak weva!” Happy New Year in Sinhalese. My wife and I met Elsa and her husband Steve in 1991. We had all volunteered to spend two years working for Voluntary Services Overseas in Sri Lanka. We were the two younger couples amongst the volunteers that set out that year. Jo and I had married in August and our first contact with our future friends was at a training course that summer in Bristol. I don’t remember meeting Elsa at that time. I remember Steve appearing at mealtime and announcing that Elsa was feeling a little unwell and would not be able to make supper. Very formal given the circumstances. Odd chap, I thought. This initial impression was only confirmed during the flight to Sri Lanka. Air Lanka was not the world’s most luxurious airline. Jo does not enjoy flying. The in flight movie (this was in the days before choice) was Mannequin. Which seemed old fashioned even then. If you have not seen it – well, don’t worry too much. It is not a great film. Part way through, Steve got up and made his way past us down the narrow aisle to the toilet. As he passed, he leant over and smiled. “Sterling film” he said.
Upon arrival in Sri Lanka, we spent one grateful night of recovery in a nice hotel on the coast. Then we embarked on an intensive six week language and cultural acclimatisation course. By the end of which we were functionally fluent in the language but still baffled by the cultural differences. The colonial legacy means that much in Sri Lanka seems, on the face of it, familiar to the British. There are newspapers in English. Much of the architecture seems familiar. There is an obsession with tea and cricket. They are very fond of the 80s pop group Boney M. But that is just surface impression. Delve a little deeper and it soon becomes apparent that this is a very different culture. Things are not what they seem. The Sri Lankan culture is ancient, sophisticated, complex and informed by much more than just the British Empire. That is just one of the more recent layers. In fact, Sri Lanka holds a multitude of different cultural influences. Like the UK, it is an island. Like the UK, like any island, it has thrived on a history of people visiting its shores. Migrants, merchants, conquerors, explorers. It has thrived on a constant influx of new ideas, new influences. Culturally, both UK and Sri Lanka have large gene pools. When they recognise this it is a source of strength. But it can sometimes be tricky holding such a rich stew. There is a temptation to try and bring it to order. To make things simpler. More understandable. It is stressful dealing with too much that is complex, different, hard to understand.
Which is how and why Steve and Elsa and Jo and I became friends. During our training course, it became clear that we shared a similar sense of humour. We found comfort in laughter. Realised that the only sensible way forward, the only way to deal with the stress of so much difference, was to embrace the seemingly absurd nature of things in this strange country. So, when custom dictates that, at New Year, one wears green, climbs backwards out of a window and lets the milk boil over, we did so with relish – and continue to do so. After all, it is no stranger than drinking to excess, singing an old Scottish poem no-one knows the words to and kissing strangers. It all adds to the richness of life and is to be celebrated.
Because, if we do not embrace and celebrate diversity, there is a dark shadow waiting in the wings. Waiting for its moment. To take centre stage. We saw what it is like when that happens. It is not pleasant. It is ugly and brutal. We were in Sri Lanka at a time when tensions were high. The Tamil Tigers were fighting for the right to an independent state. The Sri Lankan government called them terrorists and were engaged in a war against them. We spent time in the South and West – the capital, Columbo, the old capital, Kandy. Jo and I were eventually based in the West Coast town of Kalutara. Steve and Elsa in the hill town, Nureleya. We were not allowed to travel to the North or East. These were Tamil Tiger territories. But we made friends with people working as translators for the Red Cross who did travel there. They told us stories of awful atrocities. Of Tamil schools and hospitals targeted by Government bombs. Of torture and abuse.
Where we lived in Kalutara it all seemed so peaceful. Sri Lanka is a beautiful island. The people are friendly and charming. Jo and I worked at a Teacher Training College. The staff and pupils there went out of their way to make us feel welcome and cared for. They brought us food, invited us for meals. The food is fantastic. Any of our friends who have eaten the Sri Lankan food Jo makes for special occasions can attest to that. When they heard that I was six feet tall, they had a special bed made to fit me. The college Principal introduced us personally to the traders in the local market and explained that we were only being paid local wages (£15 a month) so they were to charge us local prices, not tourist rates. Tamil, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim – all lived happily side by side. The festivals of all the religions were observed equally. Barely a week went past without a public holiday. We celebrated in December with Christmas trees and Diwali lamps.
But, in time, we discovered that everyone we spoke to had, in the not so distant past lost a family member to or had direct experience of the war. It was not spoken about. But the scars were there. Elsa said the whole population was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress. The occasional bomb went off in Columbo. Then, one day, we decided to travel further North than we had previously dared. Further North than was strictly advisable. Our bus was stopped by armed men. The locals were ordered to get off the bus. We were ordered to stay on board. The locals were lined up. Several of them were taken off into the forest by armed men. The rest were ordered back onto the bus. The bus driver was ordered to drive away. We never found out what happened to those people who didn’t get back on the bus. But when, not so long ago, I read in the English press that the Sri Lankan had eliminated the Tamil Tigers, I was in no doubt that a genocide had taken place. I am convinced that the dark shadow took over completely. Complexity was shunned and the simple solution was embraced. The Final Solution.
Because democracy is complicated and messy and difficult. It is about tolerating difference, accepting that truth is plural – it means different things to different people. And that is okay. It has to be okay. Because dictatorships are simple. Fascism is simple. No if, no buts. My way or the highway. If you don’t like it here, then leave. Simple. And genocide is simple in the same way. And, in times like ours. Times of such complex problems. Simplicity begins to seem attractive. When everything seems out of control, beyond our understanding, it is very comforting to believe that there is a simple solution – one truth. But there isn’t. Never was.
When I hear people talk of “the one true God”, I tremble.
When I read that scientists are searching for The Theory of Everything, I shiver.
When politicians start to blame immigration for the nation’s ills and conjure dreams of simpler times, I shake.
Not just because I have Parkinson’s, you understand. But, because I fear that a desire for simplicity has let in the shadow. It is Mankind’s curse that he needs to try and understand. It is the defining nature of our species. Our glory and our downfall. The need to know. To understand. Everything. To find the truth. To reduce it all to an answer.
Maybe, after all, there is no answer. Maybe it’s all chaos. Maybe, there’s no grand plan. Certainly, not one that we will ever comprehend. Maybe, our time would be better spent embracing the chaos and trying to figure out how to get along with each other. It will be difficult. it will be messy. There will be set backs. But don’t take it all so seriously. Try and enjoy the ride. Have fun.
Maybe, existence is like the ocean. Deep. Unknowable. A great big churning mess. Waves and currents and tides. You can’t swim against it. It’s too strong. The only option is to try and surf the waves. Might as well have fun and smile whilst you’re doing it.
After their time in Sri Lanka, Steve and Elsa returned to live on the South coast of England. We remain in touch and visit each other when we can. Once, when we went to visit them, Steve took me to his local newsagent. He explained that, each month, he liked to buy a magazine on a subject he knew nothing about. Carp Fisherman Monthly, perhaps. Or Knitting World. He liked to gain a glimpse into other people’s worlds. Try and understand the attraction of their hobbies. In this way he was expanding his own world. Keeping the shadow at bay. Steve is a wise man. And a stirling fellow.