Jug Suraiya, 15 March 2012, courtesy of Times of India
The best gift we can bring back from a so-called ‘failed state’ is a SMILE ….. ….. Visiting Sri Lanka i noticed a peculiar expression on the face of almost all the people i saw: Sinhalese and Tamil, Buddhist and Hindu, Christian and Muslim. It took me a while to figure out what this strange expression was: it was a smile.
You don’t see too many smiles in public in India, not even in the National Capital Region (NCR) where i live, and which is the pampered sarkari showcase of the country in terms of the civic amenities available to citizens. And if you don’t see smiles in the privileged precincts of the NCR where are you likely to see them? In the benighted and government-forsaken boonies?
But in Lanka there were smiles and to spare. The immigration official who welcomed us into the country with the traditional Ayubowan (May you live long), did so with a smile. The driver who drove us to our hotel did so with a smile. On the way, when the traffic stopped at red lights, perfect strangers frequently exchanged smiles.
This puzzled me. What did all these people have to smile about? Did they know something that i didn’t? I knew that, unlike India, Sri Lanka couldn’t boast being the second fastest-growing economy in the world, and an up-and-coming regional – if not yet global – superpower, nuclear bells and whistles and all. I also knew that it was only three years ago that the island nation – believed by many to be the original Garden of Eden, complete with Adam’s preserved footprint on a peak named after him – had emerged grievously wounded in body and spirit after a 30-year civil war that had transformed an erstwhile tropical paradise into a blood-drenched battleground.
The war was brought to a violent close three years ago, but peace still remains an uphill task for Lanka. The US and its allies – as well as India’s Tamil parties – accuse it of being a ‘failed state’, which has yet to address the human rights violations that took place during the long decades of brutal conflict.
After all that it’s been through – including the devastating tsunami of 2004 – external bullying is the last thing that this gracious and gallant country needs. So what were all these smiles about then? What caused them?
One of the things might be that – despite those years of internal war with its crippling social and economic consequences – Lanka can claim to have the most creditable quality-of-life indices – in terms of primary education, healthcare and public hygiene – in all of South Asia. Failed state? Many places – including not a few in India – would be happy to aspire to such a ‘failure’.
So which came first, the chicken or the egg? The Lankan quality of life – interrupted but not destroyed by war – or the Lankan smile? Like the Ayubowan greeting, the Lankan smile affirms an underlying social contract, an acknow-ledgement that my well-being is inextricably linked with your well-being, that the one necessarily must ensure the other in order to exist itself.
In Lanka – in Colombo with its carefully preserved heritage buildings and in the idyllic tea garden surroundings of Nuwara Eliya, unspoilt by congestion and over-construction as Indian hill stations are – this mutual regard and respect for others is evident everywhere. At zebra crossings, vehicles give way to pedestrians without being forced to do so by police presence. No one pees on the street; free public loos are plentiful. The roads and pavements are innocent of garbage and potholes.
Can all this be the result of a small thing like a smile? Or is the smile a result of all this? I don’t know. But i do know the best souvenir that any visitor can bring back from Lanka.
It’s a unique gift, in that the more of it you give away, the more of it you get to keep for yourself. So here’s a memento from Lanka for you. For you to keep and pass on to as many others as you want: . Ayubowan.