By Mohamed Hussain Shareef – Ambassador of Maldives to Sri Lanka
Among my most vivid childhood memories is a scene of horror involving an apartment inferno followed by a frantic dash from our Dehiwala home, escorted by family members, to Katunayake Airport. The year was 1983 and the timing was the flaring up of ethnic violence in and around Colombo, which then escalated into a prolonged and bloody civil war.
Another such incident, albeit from my early teens, was waking up from my slumber in a huge heap, flung meters from my bed and with fragments of glass puncturing my back. That was on Gower Street, a stone’s throw away from Police Park. The date was the 2nd of March, 1991, and the event was the assassination of the then Defence Minister, Hon. Ranjan Wijeratne.
Yet more flashbacks involved a real life glimpse (and stench) of the charred human remains and twisted metal of the immediate aftermath of a massive bomb blast at the Pettah bus station in 1987, and the inhalation of tear gas through the vents of our family sedan, as we drove past a violent protest near Kanatha Cemetery in 1993.
While I carry these terrifying memories with me, they are nothing but faint brush strokes in a very detailed caricature of my early life in acountry of awe-inspiring beauty and overwhelming kindness. They merely help to put into context my lasting impression of a home away from home, and certainly do not define SriLanka in the eyes of a naturalized expatriate.
For me, Sri Lanka is a land of unprecedented hope and optimism.Where, in spite of such carnage in the immediate past, the people choose to believe in and work towards a brighter future. It is a land of rolling hillocks decorated with symmetrically-aligned tea bushels. A teardrop-shaped jewel that has been blessed with so much variety in sights, sounds and resources. For me, Sri Lanka is abou tthe smiles of its people, the cheerful cacophony in the stands of cricket stadiums, and infectious melodies of baila songs. It is about the majesty of the leapords in Yala, the peacock inspired sarees worn by helpful flight crew members of Sri Lankan airlines, the adventurous car journey from the bustling metropolis of Colombo to the hilltop retreat of Hatton or maybe the scenic train journey further up to Horton Plains.
Sri Lanka is about history and culture, including the Tooth Relic in Kandy, the frescos on Sigiriya and the Dagabas in Anuradhapura. It is about the industry of its people – the tea pickers, the stilt fishermen, the rubber workers. It most certainly is about the lamprais, the string hoppers, the lentil curry, theladies finger salads, the seeni sambol and the biriyani rice, all of which aremust-dos whenever I commute to Sri Lanka. I must, of course, add to the menu the sumptuous taste of the late night Kottu Roti of Pilawoos Hotel.
If the UK gave me an education, Sri Lanka surely deserves the credit for grounding the most basic of human values in me. As the father of a 10 year old son, I try, today, to pass on much of what I absorbed while studying in Sri Lanka. Respect for family, elders and teachers. Tolerance for different faiths. Appreciating other cultures. I can think of no better place to raise a young family.
With the exception of brief intervals, some part of my extended family had always resided in neighboring Sri Lanka. Starting from my uncles and aunts, I belong to a lineage which is now in its third generation of studying and residing in Colombo. I still have close relatives residing here, including a nephew who is schooling. Personally, I resided here from 1988 to 1995-7 years spanning the most eventful and exciting period of transition from child to adult.
To date, I count more of my friends from Sri Lanka than from my native Maldives. Many of my school chums went on to be flat mates throughout my UK-based undergraduate studies. We still keep in touch, of course!
A couple of years ago, we all congregated for one nostalgic evening of fun to celebrate the 20th anniversary of completing our schooling – the class of 1995 of Colombo International School (CIS).Many of us with thinning hairlines reminisced about our funky school day hairdos. Those of us with pot bellies felt alive, as we shared stories of our sporting exploits in our prime.Some, including me, flew down to Colombo for the special occasion. There were those who were compelled to join us a bit late that evening, having put their younger kids to bed. Doctors, entrepreneurs, pilots, engineers, politicians. It was a collection of all crafts, disciplines and trades. Until we all will possibly meet up again a decade from now, that was also an occasion of heavy hearts involving goodbyes.
School was, for me, a healthy mix of study and play. I must confess that, now, I can recall precious little of the contents of Mrs. Malalasekera’s human biology classes, Mrs. Chandrasekera’s chemistry classes or Mr. Yapa’s physics classes. Having the opportunity to do English literature at school was surely the foundation upon which I honed my drafting skills, a skill that many associate with me throughout my professional career back home. It was the persistence of our wonderful mathematics teachers, late Mr. Pulukkodi, Mr. Subasinghe and late Mr. Kulukulasuriya that embedded the art of mental arithmetic; I still rarely use a calculator for every day sums at work or home. I was then among the few who opted to sit the O’Level exam in History. That was the start of a love affair with contemporary history and politics, disciplines that were ever present when I read for my BA, MA and MPhil degrees.
Equally memorable was my time spent on the school playground. Asany other young Maldivian, I arrived with a passion for football (soccer). I soon realised that it would indeed be a struggle to find enough enthusiasts to form a strong team. “If you can’t beat em, join em, they say!” So I tookup cricket, less with the objective of excelling and more to be good enough to be picked for the daily interval break games on the playground. I went on to play in University and later in the top tier of local competition in the Maldives. In fact, it remains my sport of choice for recreation and health.
I can fondly say that I was among the millions that celebrated into the wee hours of the morning of 18th March1996, after Aravinda De Silva almost Single handedly defeated the mighty Aussies to bring home the Cricket World Cup of 1996. I was in the stands to witness many a Test Match and ODI, admiring Arjuna Ranatunga’s crafty “walked” singles, Jayasuriya depositing the ball to every corner of P Sara Stadium, the textbook cover drives of Marvan Atapattu and the box of tricks on display during a typical over by the smiling assassin Muttiah Muralitharan. From then until now, there is no team that I support in international cricket other than Sri Lanka.
I completed my O’Levels here. I also did my A’Levels here. I ran my first half marathon, participated in my first pantomime (which was also thankfully my last), and sang in the choir! I even learnt how to drive in Sri Lanka, an early morning ritual around Town Hall during the final days of my schooling.
I did change school too. Just for my final year. In so doing, I was a member of the very first batch of the then newly-opened British School in Colombo. There too, I made new friends and cemented former acquaintances. I was a Prefect, an MC at school functions and Captain of Football. On the morning of 24th September 2005(my 18th birthday), I left for the UK for further studies. I said goodbye to my childhood, the best years of my life. I surely did not leave empty handed. The memories will last a lifetime. So will many of the friendships.
I would of course return to Sri Lanka frequently, both for work and on holiday. Among my many duties at work over the years was the act as Minister in Attendance for then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, during his 2014 State Visit to Maldives. I was also the very first foreign dignitary to greet President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, barely 24 hours into their current terms of office.
As I recently returned home on a brief work visit to Maldives from Tokyo, Japan (where I was serving as our Ambassador), I was asked to take up a new call of duty as Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Needless to say that I accepted gleefully.
The life of a diplomat, by definition, is to serve in a foreign country, slowly but surely acclimatizing to the country’s unique surroundings. I may, therefore, be among the first diplomats to be asked to serve my country in my home away from home, in a place that needs no introduction and among people that l love and cherish.
It’s good to be back, 22 years after I boarded that plane to the UK!