Eleanor Wachtel's South Asian Conversations

Writers & Company will be airing a special five-part series based on Eleanor Wachtel's recent travels and interviews in South Asia starting Feb. 19. Eleanor has contributed this blog post describing some of the highlights of her journey and to offer a glimpse of what we'll be hearing about in the series.

eleanor-wach-52.jpgIt all started when Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai invited me to the Galle Literary Festival that he's been curating for the past two years. In the southwest part of Sri Lanka, Galle, I discovered, is an historic port town about 120 km south of Colombo, the capital. The Portuguese occupied it in the early 16th century, then in 1640, the Dutch who built a 90 acre fort there that has since been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was the fort's high ramparts that protected the old town from the worst ravages of the 2004 tsunami that killed  many in the new town. And along the south coast, beyond the town, damage and death were substantial.  

buddhist-temple-175.jpgI had long wanted to visit Sri Lanka -- ever since reading Michael Ondaatje's family history, Running in the Family -- and had even vaguely planned a holiday for that fateful Christmas 2004, but Shyam's invitation was my first real opportunity to find out more about this beautiful country.  Sri Lanka -- or until 1972, Ceylon -- is the famously tear drop shaped island, off the southeast coast of India. For a small country, with a relatively small population (21 million) Sri Lanka is extraordinarily complex in terms of language, religion, ethnicity, urban-rural disparities, caste and class. It is home to the Sinhalese Buddhists (who make up about 75 per cent of the population) and Tamil Hindus, but also since the 8th century, Muslims, and for four and a half centuries, Christian Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonizers. There's still a remarkable mix -- Hindu gods in Buddhist temples, a whole range of denominational churches. For instance, my opening panel for the series, "South Asian Conversations," includes a Buddhist Eurasian poet, a Sinhalese Catholic fiction writer, and a Muslim publisher and novelist.

Independence came one year after India's, in 1948, but in the 1970s, there were Communist uprisings and bombings.  Then in the early 1980s, the country was plunged into a civil war between its Sinhala majority and elements of the Tamil minority -- especially, the militant group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE.  That 26-year civil war only came to an end in May 2009, and before it did, an estimated 100,000 lives were lost -- soldiers, militants and civilians. And now, almost three years later, it isn't far from public consciousness. While I was there last month, the newspapers carried stories about the 16th anniversary of an LTTE attack on the Central Bank in Colombo, and about demonstrations protesting the still unsolved 2009 assassination of an outspoken journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunga, the editor of The Sunday Leader (Sri Lanka is in 163rd position on the World Press Freedom Index).   And everyone was talking about the recently released report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.  

An outreach group from the Galle Literary Festival was travelling to Jaffna, the country's historic Hindu-Tamil cultural and religious centre in the north, and I was invited to join them.  For more than two decades, Jaffna was a no-go war zone. Even now, there are something like 50,000 soldiers in the area for a population of 300,000. Until very recently, there were checkpoints throughout the city. One resident described how he would take visitors on a "Jaffna by Night Tour"  -- nineteen checkpoints from one end of town to the other. It's about a 10-hour drive from Colombo or you can fly with the Sri Lankan Air Force who operate flights three times a week. On the outbound flight, the fledgling flight attendants were servicewomen in stewardess uniforms. We made an unexpected stop at Trincomalee -- scheduling is subject to various VIP and military requirements.  In fact, on the return, we were bumped from the morning flight to an afternoon troop carrier -- rows of servicemen on benches in the back, a few seats upfront, no flight attendants, a roar throughout.

street-sign.jpgJaffna itself feels like another country, more like India than the south in Sri Lanka.  While I'm there, the president declared 2012 as the Year for a Trilingual Sri Lanka, a conciliatory gesture. The street signs in Jaffna are Tamil, then Sinhala, and English. In the south, Sinhala is first, then Tamil and English.  A friend tells me how during the civil war, she and her husband would return to Colombo from the north just before curfew, and what a sense of "disconnect" they felt watching young people crowd into city nightclubs for "curfew parties" - that is, partying until dawn -- while they were still haunted by what they'd experienced.

What struck me at the Galle Festival and throughout my travels was how warm and welcoming people were, eager to initiate conversations.

This month marked the second Colombo Art Biennale with artists from South Asia, Europe, Australia and U.S. as well as Sri Lankans. The theme of the first one, in 2009, was "Imagining Peace." This year, it's "Becoming" invoking all the possibilities that are present in the country today.

The series "South Asian Conversations" begins this Sunday on Writers & Company.

Comments are closed.