The wind here smells like rain, and is as cold. The sun is raw and bright, and together the sun and wind burn memories onto your skin. Memories of mountains and entire colonies of people living within the mossy layers of these mountains, almost forgotten.
It’s strange, really. Us Colombo folk don’t see much of mountains, except – maybe for the ones made out of garbage in Kolonnawa. But out here, where the mist rolls down the streets on all fours, in the belly of Sri Lanka, that’s all you see. If you look to the skies, you’re greeted with majestic mountains that loom over you like giants with white halos over their heads. Pouring down the steep ridges of these mountains are waterfalls that make you forget yourself for the moment. The sound of water giving into gravity and raging past makes you pause and think of how small you are in the grand scheme of things.
The town of Badulla in fact resembles a basin, with mountains makes its outer edges with the town wedged in the middle. The roads that wind up and down from this place aren’t for the faintest of stomachs. They twist and turn in circles that make Domperidon a must-swallow before you hit the road. The mornings and evenings are the only times when it’s chilled and misty, and remotely remind you that you are not in Colombo. That, and the lack of Cargills Food Cities and the tilted roads. The rest of the day is either rainy or sunny depending on which weather you’re in. The entire town mostly runs on small scale businesses save for a few banks and insurance companies. Places to see in Badulla include Dunhinda Falls, Bogoda Bridge (one of the oldest, working wooden bridges) and the two minis; Mini World’s Ends and Little Adam’s Peak.
But my journey there wasn’t only about the places, but the people.
We spoke to people.
Hidden within the many layers of the hill country and away from the towns are the estate workers, living or rather, existing. I say existing because I didn’t see much of ‘living’ going on there. The roads leading down to the estates are barely walk-able, and pass as roads only because there is no other platform for the people to walk on. There were houses – no – rooms, measuring 10 x 10 ft, crammed into each other and sometimes housing almost ten individuals in each family. Boys and girls marry young aged sixteen and they too join the clans in these tiny houses. Water runs in their pipes once in every three days sometimes, with rain water flooding their homes most of the time.
Her husband had run off with another woman. She and her three children live with her parents in one of those tiny 10 x 10 ft compartments I mentioned above. She goes to the town to work as a domestic for 300 rupees a day. Her oldest is a daughter, and has only gone to school till grade ten and opted to stay at home to watch over the house, her siblings and her grandparents while her mother is at work. I asked her why she is okay with her daughter not going to school. ‘It was her decision and it makes things easy for me. My mother is old now and can’t do much house work. So she does it when I am away at work. She is always inside, except for when she goes out to dry the washing. There are drunkards in the evenings. The men don’t know what they are doing when they are drunk. She is safer inside.’
When I asked about her two other children, both boys, she said they are going to school. ‘I send them to the school 2nd mile post (we live in 7th mile post) in a three wheel because it’s too far away. I have a person who takes them for a reasonable price. There aren’t many teachers, and the few teachers there are, tells to bring them to their tuition classes. I only send my second one. Tuition fees is 500 rupees per month. How can I afford that for both children?”
Wrapped in a gunny bag from waist down and wearing an over-sized shirt, this woman just arrived in the middle of her tea plucking. ‘Every time there’s an election, they come and say they will do this and this will do that. But look now. The government changed. Everything is still the same. We are poor. Only if we work more than 21 days per month, we get 600 per day. How can we feed ourselves with 12,000 rupees? We can barely buy milk powder for our children and food for ourselves with that money.’ She says.
These people living in estates are decedents of the workers bought down from India by the Brits way back in the day. They have been plucking tea and making money for the companies they are under since the Queen’s reign. They even used to get shuttled back and forth between estates. Documents used to get forged when they switched estates enabling them to get higher rates when a child of 15 was written ad 18 to increase their rates. But this again would affect their retirement.
That was then.
Sri Lanka is evolving rapidly. Or atleast the few major cities including Colombo are. We have roads and fancy buildings and education and jobs and houses and what not. But not many of these ‘evolutions’ have graced the lives these people. They woke up and went to sleep in the same place, and have been doing so for many years. Their children, most of them don’t go to school, marry young and get sucked back into working in estates. They don’t have everyday things, things that we sometimes take for granted, like a birth certificate, national ID’s or a street address. Until recently most of these estate people didn’t have addresses. This led to letters not being delivered. What does missing a measly Christmas card or an electricity bill do to you? Nothing much, really. But what if the letter had been your entrance to state-funded university that you worked so hard to achieve for?
This woman can speak a little Sinhala too. She says that any letters written to the grama sevaka have to be in Sinhala. ‘A lot of people here can’t read or write or even understand Sinhala. So they come to me to get their letters written. I even go with them to the hospital to tell their sickness to the doctors.’
With the little Sinhala she knows, she spoke to me and said ‘Miss, if you can, please do something about this.’
There wasn’t much I can do. I can’t change the rules. I can’t change policies. Me holding up a board in lipton is not going to change anything. I came with a team of people who are doing their best to bring some form of relief to these people. What we can do is, take back what we learned from these people and make sure it reaches other people. People like you.
The language difference is still an issue. There have been instances when a perpetrator of rape walked free because the police officer who wrote the case didn’t understand enough of Tamil and had taken a statement from the mother of the victim instead of the victim and the court held it against them. There are people in Colombo grunting and protesting about having two national anthems. I want them to know that there are people out there who have far less than we do out here. It’s easy for us to complain and snivel about having two national anthems when the difference in language is affecting these people so much, to the extent that they can’t communicate to a doctor about their illness or write a letter of complaint to the government officials about a an issue or even communicate to the authorities about a crime like rape or theft. It’s easier for us to say “Ah they are in the estates and we are here.” or “Those estate people need to know Tamil. We are okay with English and Sinhala” or “India has 300+ languages and they don’t have 300+ anthems” or “We’ll be at war again if we go to give these people what they want”
‘What good is having two national anthems to anyone here OR there?!?’
It opens us.
It opens us to the people who have been here with us since the very beginning of our history books. How do we expect ourselves to be compassionate and understand the hardships that these people go through if we are not open to communication between us? How do we expect ourselves to understand when we refuse to even listen?
Its not a case of “us” against “them”. It used to be that when some bloke came along and said that “they” wanted a separate state. Not anymore.
Its about us. All of us. And us alone. We are the solution.
We’re a small, beautiful country. We don’t have oil, but we do have something more precious – Water. We have trees, and mountains and river valleys that fill our tanks and acres and acres of paddy fields. We’re famous for our bronze beaches, Asian elephants, rubies and sapphires, killer pol sambol and getting our tea just right. Ironically, the very people who make tea possible, bringing so much profit to the country and the companies they work for, are ill treated. A giant portion of the problem involves language. So why aren’t we open to the prospect of knowing and accepting another tongue? One that opens us to an entire section of people that is a part of the beauty that Sri Lanka is proud of.
Nowhere else can you watch the whales in the morning, roam with the elephants in the evening, witness the sun rise over the mountains on the following day, and be back in time to catch a fabulous sunset over a golden-brown horizon. That’s what I love about Sri Lanka. It’s this diversity that makes us beautiful. Along with the vibrant, multi-cultured people who decorate it.
So I welcome you. Come, see the wonders of the cultures and communities we have here. The people who are part of the diversity that is Sri Lanka. The mosques and kovils and temples and churches that guide our faith and the humanity that we share in the core. I invite you to embrace this diversity that makes us who we are rather than shunning it away.
Stay with us and learn our ways.
We’re a land like no other.