Capt Elmo Jayawardena, whose title for this tale is “Sri Lankans, for better or for worse”
I wrote some articles to the newspapers mainly about Sri Lankan matters and the political climate after Nandikadal. It was just to share my humble thoughts on where we should be heading in search of peace. Many acknowledged my line of thinking, and some asked me why I do not write something about aviation? Not a bad idea, considering I have been around aeroplanes for more than fifty years. But I did wonder who would want to know how I landed through a snow- laden sky in Alaska or how I flew over the Golden Gate Bridge on my way from San Francisco to Hong Kong? At best, it could all be a bit on the boring side. Yes, I do have some unbelievable fairy tales to relate of times I flew VVIPs for Air Lanka, but such involve names and names are a dangerous game. One never knows how far the freedom of expression extends. I like to let discretion be the better part of valour. Let me then change track and tell you some stories I have in connection with aviation and meeting fellow Sri Lankans all over the world. These are true stories, in black and white and not drawn with colourful crayons.
Singapore to Auckland is a long night trip, ten-plus hours and I was walking to the aeroplane passing the checking counters. They were all empty, passengers labelled and weighed and sent to wait in the lounge for the doors to open. That’s when I noticed something familiar. There were two men standing by the counter, one look and I knew where they were from. The Halmilla and Burutha suits were unmistakable and we Sri Lankans stand out like shop window dummies in dark browns and navy blues that Hameedia stitches for us. The two waiting by the checking-in counter appeared to be having a problem: solemn faces, like funeral directors.
“No, we could not get on the flight, it is full, and we have to be in Auckland tomorrow for a cargo meeting.” Well, they were Sri Lankan and that is all the qualification I needed.
“Put them on the flight deck and I will take them,” (this was pre 9/11 when the world was a little less violent) the instruction was to the checking desk clerk and the Captain’s words carried weight in SIA. Matter sorted out, Halmilla and Burutha got an instant promotion to cockpit status, not to be folded in the cheese class like sardines, but in pole position, Louis Hamilton style, right in front. Off we went in the big jumbo jet, 400-plus passengers with two Chinese and three Sri Lankans in the cockpit.
It was a long night and the autopilot was doing the work and we chatted away, no “machang bachang” talk in respect to those who did not belong to our lingua franca, but palatable conversation to pass the time cruising in a beautiful star-sprinkled sky on a black velvet night. Indonesian islands went underneath while we ate cock-pit dinner and time crawled and the night got long as the aeroplane crossed the vastness of the Australian continent. The talk was Sri Lankan and of home, who they were and who I was and many more mundane conversations to pass the time. Yes, we touched nostalgia too, how the fabulous Moonstones came to the limelight of music and how Clarence rode his bicycle, carrying his guitar to the Malawana house where they created the immortal lyrics of Mango Nanda and Dilhani and coined “umbata ridainam, hemihita vatiyan, Dunhinda manamali.”
Great stories to swap, especially when Halmilla was a Moonstone musician.
The night dragged on and the two Chinese pilots took care of the cruise work and we talked and talked till the distant sky turned tangerine and heron blue promising the dawn and it was time for me to get to work and bring the big bird down.
I wonder whether an Englishman standing at a ticketing counter in Heathrow could tell a British Airways Captain that he is from Liverpool and get to go in the cockpit because he is English? My two cargo friends are big businessmen now. One I saw some time ago sipping champagne seated in the business class. He’s obviously done well, has traded his Halmilla to travel in a tee shirt; that is progress. The other I met at a book launch and I was so happy when he came up to me and said ‘hello.’ He is in the top rung of corporate businessmen, but the same simple man who took the flight-deck ride to Auckland. Maybe they will see this story and will read what I have written and remember how they flew on a SIA 747 with a fellow Sri Lankan. This is not about Airline Captains, nor am I soliciting brownie points for assisting stranded passengers. It is all about being Sri Lankan.
I was walking once in New York with my Singaporean co-pilot and here comes a familiar face, looks Sri Lankan. He goes into a broad grin, “From Sri Lanka?” “Yes” “From where?” “Moratuwa.” “Aiyo! I am from Panadura no, so what are you doing here?” He sounded like he owned New York. “You have a Green Card?” That was a pricey question. “No, just short time,” I replied. “You are from Moratuwa, I had a friend there you know, Fernando.” I scratch my head; there are ten-thousand four-hundred and seventy-eight Fernandos in Moratuwa. “You are Ok? Prashnayak naane” that part sans English must have been to keep my companion out of the private conversation. You have a problem, tell me; that was straight Sri Lankan.
Avishka Fernando …. Apoyi! ….a FERNANDO from Morauwa
“Moratuwa no! We are neighbours no! Come! We will have a coffee.”
That is exactly how it happened. He and I and the Singaporean sat in a wayside Big Apple Turkish joint and had cakes and coffee. He told me of people he knew in Moratuwa (Fernando included) and I asked him about people I knew in Panadura and we did discover some common friends. The bill came and Panadura jumped and paid. We exchanged telephone numbers (pre-email era) said good-bye and walked our separate ways.
“Captain your friend, nice man,” says my co-pilot. “No, he is not my friend; I have never seen him in my life.” “But he paid for us too,” asks my companion. “How come?”
There were no words to explain to a Singaporean why a stranger bought us cakes and coffee simply because he and I were born in the same country. No, that’s something my Chinese friend would never understand.
I have met so many in my years of vagabonding, like the cake and coffee man who owned New York or Halmilla and Burutha who rode my flight deck. Off and on there’s been a thief or two who spoke pure nonsense in capitals. That is acceptable as the instant excellent camaraderie of Sri Lankans I have met and enjoyed far outweighs the few that went sour.
Then there was an Old Ben with a gospelic name, Kotahena-bred, now living in Connecticut. We met in Pretoria whilst watching Sri Lanka play Sean Pollock’s men in a one-day battle. The Ben and I sat together and cheered, two against South Africa, friends after that. We lost the match, but the whole stadium heard our cheers that resounded in typical Sri Lankan fashion. Thank God by then the country was Mandelised and dark skins like us had permission to shout.
In life anything is not completely won, nor is it lost. It is the count that matters, especially in people we come to know. As for me I won most and lost a few and with pride I say it was wonderful to fly aeroplanes and walk the world as a Sri Lankan. The friends I have made are many, all over the world, and they have come to my life for no other reason than us being simply Sri Lankan and left me richer for having known them.
This is our motherland and its people, kind in heart and endowed with laudable human qualities. Irrespective of what ethnic roots they sprung from or which God they worshipped, the core was Sri Lankan. Of course, there are those spitting venom and blowing fire from their nostrils labelling people and separating their own countrymen. If the truth be trumpeted, it is mostly fanned by political ambitions.
Where is the end to all this? Is it near or far or nowhere?
That is the 6.9 million question!