I recall leaving Sri Lanka and my family of origin on 22 May. Ironically, this was Republic day in Sri Lanka when Sri Lanka got its independence from British rule. It was a tearful one, as I was embarking on a journey to start a new chapter of my life in a land where I knew no one except my husband whom I had met a few months earlier. I was 22 and though I had lived away from home whilst studying in India for 3 years, this exit was different. It felt more permanent and here I was a naïve young woman not really realizing what I was giving up by leaving behind my parents, siblings, extended family, friends, a laid back lifestyle and part of myself. I was also leaving at a time when the war saw many Tamil and later Muslims fleeing the country, fearing for their lives. I was exposed to the refugee crisis in Chennai (then called Madras), as some took refuge in homes of relatives and friends living in South India, as well as some convents and other places that opened their doors to a steady flow of refugees.
Over the years I began to accept the inevitable and the unplanned nature of life’s events – a concoction of adventure, trauma, heartache, laughter including chance meetings with long lost friends and family. This was a full deck of cards and I learned that you play the cards that fate deals you in your own style, build your own narrative and cherish the experience that gives you chances to search new paths never explored before. There was always a sense of nostalgia whenever I departed Katunayake airport and a sense of heaviness in my heart in my earlier years. It now feels different for I always tell myself I will return when it’s meant to be. I have chosen not to plan the detail in my life, as this is sometimes done for me.
Earlier this year, I was contacted to source two Muslim participants from each gender for a reconciliation tour. I recall thinking this would be a great learning experience for those disconnected from their country of origin, more so for those who had not returned after the 30+ years of civil war. I canvassed for young Muslim females to be part of this journey with a handful expressing interest. I decided to volunteer on the basis that if no suitable candidates were found, I would be the fall back person. As fate decides, the journey opened a past that I had laid to rest. These links were like time capsules that burst into life stimulated by smells, sounds and scenes reminiscent of the people, incidents and places that had played an important part in my life.
Serendipity played a magical part in this journey, the first being the hotel we stayed in was a stone’s throw from the primary school I had attended. The day after we arrived, Sivanjana, my roommate and I decided to walk to the Kollupitiya station, and as my old school was quite close we decided to venture in. It was ‘Pet day’ and the caretaker was kind enough to let us in when I told him I had attended the very school many years ago. What was significant during my visit was to observe how children rarely, if ever, do not discriminate, and I witnessed friendship groups of kids from all faiths holding hands, sharing experiences and laughter that was spontaneous and unconditional.
I wasn’t expecting a gush of memories to flow like a massive wave as I started recalling stories linked to each place in the school like the assembly room, the classrooms, the playground, even the staff room which was out of bounds for students at that time. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel this way when I visited my High School a few years ago. I was grateful that I had a childhood rich in being nurtured without racial disharmony or hatred. I guess I can now say first hand, that one’s primary years are the building blocks to one’s temperament. Being in my old school took me right back to where I started exploring my ties to people who made a difference in my life and looking back, this was a gift to me to reconnect with my past. While there were a couple of teachers who were slightly lacking in patience, this trait was non discriminatory, so it didn’t feel any of us were being picked on because of the religion or race we belonged to. Punishment was dished the same way across the board. My friendship groups throughout my primary, secondary and tertiary years as a result of this foundation has been multicultural and I am blessed to have a melting pot of ethnic diversity, much like a spicy curry!
Adulthood offers new challenges and the carefree abandon that many children spontaneously succumb to sometimes becomes restrained. I’m delighted to say that this was not the case in our journey of reconciliation. In fact, what I noticed was that our minds were open to every experience and I felt the group transformed into inquiring children waking up each morning thirsting for what the day would hold for us. Much laughter and tears were shared which I felt strengthened us as a collective body wanting to be there for each other. There were times when we needed our own space and we were respectful in giving each other this time. There were other times however, where we felt rushed when meetings were arranged or the journey was longer than planned. Food appeared to be mother nature’s healer on some occasions, while simply sitting under the trees, walking down the beach, singing off key, running, swimming, sharpening our punning skills, fondly teasing each other and even dozing on the bus gave each of us the opportunity to re-charge.
Our visit to meet the Estate workers in the hilly regions of Kandy highlighted the inequality and exploitation of labour rights. I was impressed and humbled by the dedicated voice of one female estate worker whose vision for the rights of the estate workers and the community was compelling and heartfelt. Her genuine passion is a quality that shines only in someone who is gifted, a person who sees what changes are needed to turn a community into a resourceful and self sufficient one. Her main message was that she wanted us to convey to the Diaspora not to forget their plight amidst all the work that is being done in the Northern part of the island, that the estate workers have been exploited and downtrodden for many decades well beyond the outbreak of the war. They need help to end their struggle for basic human rights and their dignity restored.
The Esala perehara in Kataragama was a panorama of colour but what was unique about this one is that it was an interfaith gathering of Hindus and Buddhists, who walked side by side without ethnic divide. This was a historic event celebrated each year with such pageantry, that it was hard to witness this without thinking how could two faiths so alike end up distrusting, harming and almost destroying one another. Thousands gathered and waited patiently, devotees paid homage to the shrines, others sought solace in performing rites and rituals specific to their religious beliefs. What was clear in this moment is that every individual was on the same path – the path to reach spiritual upliftment, the release of one’s soul from suffering and the hope that their life will be one of peace. I understand that Kataragama is the only place in Sri Lanka that has places of worship representative of all four faiths of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.
Visiting the Veddah community in Mahiyangana reminded me of the simplicity of life and once again I was able to draw parallels with the lifestyle of the Aboriginal people in Australia, and what Islam preaches. I now understand the term ‘walkabout’ a lot better, and I see this a way of emptying one’s thoughts, connecting with nature and a retreat in rejuvenating body, mind and spirit. Communal living is advocated in the Veddah community, especially sharing of resources and respecting elders, especially parents. There are verses in the Holy Quaran that specify the way you treat your elderly parents. From memory the metaphor is how a bird lowers its wings to protect its young. The Veddah chief stated the community do not have a caste or class system. All are equal and because of this communal living, there is very little need for possessions, and hence no reason to fight for land or material gain. There was a strong belief among the Veddahs about respecting other religions, for accepting all faiths and no hidden agenda for converting anyone to their way of thinking. I left this space quite humbled thinking about so called sophisticated cultures who could learn from this simple yet advanced lifestyle. Interestingly, I noticed the chief or the other Veddahs didn’t have mobile phones on them!
Batticaloa exposed the ravages of war, as the bullet holes in the walls of the mosque in Kathankudi lay uncovered as a reminder of what took place during the war. A memorial with 105 names and ages of worshippers, as young as 10 who had been shot while praying is for all to see – a warning of the gruesome nature of violence. I wondered if worshippers felt eerie to attend a place of worship and be staring at bullet holes in the wall while praying. I soon realised that we are told as Muslims when we gather together in prayer, we need to think of each prayer as our last prayer, for you could die at any moment without warning. The bullet holes were definitely a grim reminder.
Walking on the beach at Mulaitivu was another grim reminder of innocent lives lost, of the desperation of the starving locals who were praying for a miracle when all their supplies had depleted. There were no markers to indicate lost lives, yet there was an eerie silence and heaviness in the air as we stood in silence reflecting. I was distracted by a couple of fish in the ocean jumping out of the water and swimming off again. It felt like a sign that life moves on, just like the fish swimming away, so had the people – the place around this area was deserted. I choose not to say more as I can only guess the pain survivors and members of the Tamil community live with and to be respectful to the memory of those lost, I say a silent prayer that their souls rest in peace.
On our last day, we stopped by the Puttlam mosque on our way back to Colombo for Friday prayer. After the congregation had left, we had the opportunity of entering the mosque, climbing up a very steep spiral stairway to check out the mechanisms of a large old clock that had been ticking away since 1938, and also view the town of Puttlam with windmills in the distance. I hadn’t realised that every person on the bus, including Athula, Kumara and Ajantha all of Buddhist descent had decided to enter the mosque. This was the first of perhaps many shifts I hope will occur with the wider community, as our group conveys how this felt for each of us. I was touched by this moment that here we were people of faith, some being in a space that wasn’t their own religious place of worship yet felt safe and open to the experience. We were all simply visiting a place of worship, respecting its existence as a space of solace where our diversity was celebrated.
I ask myself lastly, what did it mean to go on this journey of reconciliation – all I know is that we started out as strangers and bonded as family, people of different faiths, ages, backgrounds and gender. We shared our space of faith and trusted each other to not violate or take for granted the experience each faith taught us. We learned the only way to know each other is to be each other, to immerse oneself in the practices of other faiths, that it was okay to be a silent observer and simply notice how this felt, to be respectful that every faith values life, and to know that acceptance amplifies the essence of reconciliation.
To the Diaspora that are sceptical or have lost reason to go back to the country you were born in, remember your roots are still embedded in the soil that will always be your motherland, your country of origin. Reconnect with the lost ties, with family, friends, strangers – they await you. There will be heartache, disappointment and uncertainty, but there will also be love, joy and rejuvenation as you reach many crossroads in making peace with your past, shaking hands with your present, building hope and wonder for the future. Search for those who are building bridges strengthening the message of living in harmony with all faiths, those who live and practice the true teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, the Tripitaka, the Bible and the Holy Quaran – be with them. There is much work to be done … find the common ground, what is sacred to you is also sacred to others.
I am grateful for all the blessings of this journey, for the supportive roles all members of the group undertook, for the generosity of some very special people from Uniting Journeys who had faith in us and for all those moments that cannot be replicated. Our ties are stronger, for we now have a shared understanding of what it’s like to be a person of faith, to rejoice in the shared values that were built together as a group, a richly woven tapestry of connections with many more to come. It takes visionary people to take risks, to trust the process, to believe that goodness lies in the heart of every human being, to know that change will occur when the moment emerges, and the universe conspires to support you to reach that destination. My heartfelt appreciation for this gift.
Shyama Fuad travelled to Sri Lanka with Uniting Journeys this year.