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In the isle of serendipity

Last updated on: December 11, 2013 13:36 IST

In the isle of serendipity

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Sudatta Roy

Sudatta Roy’s fear gave way to awe during her five-day long vacation in Sri Lanka.

I have a lot of vices, the chief being my enduring ability to bask in the abundance of unreasonable hope. So when on that February day in Chennai nothing seemed more difficult than to choose between the sea and the mountain for our five-day long vacation, the incorrigible me had hoped for both.

A month later, I was lumbering past the hair pin curves for Kandy, a quaint hill station, after lunching beside the warm turquoise sea in Columbo.

For once, I believed in the audacity of hope.

The six-hour long drive wasn’t particularly a tourist’s delight. As the puke-breaks gathered momentum, the brave-heart-weak-body regiment fighting motion sickness found comfort in recapitulating the feats extraordinaire achieved in the weeks following up to Sri Lanka trip. From arguing with self-styled activists questioning our integrity as Channel 4 flashed documentaries of atrocities committed on Lankan Tamils in the war against LTTE to calming down fretful parents who foresaw us being taken hostages, the prelude to the Sri Lanka trip was so variedly exhausting that we posed with the victory sign the moment we landed at Bandaranayake airport.

To Kandy we ascended then.

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Photographs: Sudatta Roy

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The next day, dawn revealed in full splendour what the dusk had so clandestinely hidden. We woke up to a picturesque expanse of a hill country nestled in the lap of cloud forest. After filling ourselves with the delicious spread of hoppers, pitu and sambol, we set out to cover the “cultural triangle”, Polonnaruwa, Dambulla and Sigiriya.

Sigiriya was a test of stamina. Located at the summit of a granite peak, it is the ruins of a fortified palace once impregnable. This little historical fact meant climbing 1500 steps of every conceivable geometric structure. The uphill task worsened with warnings of slippery steps, dead ends and wasp attacks. It was only while we were coming down that the enormity of the ruined palace struck us. The bird’s eye view of ramparts and the moats surrounding the stone fortress, the intensive network of gardens and lakes, the intricate frescoes and the mirror wall transported us to an era of fear and heroism, aesthetics and erotic, science and nature -- all in one breath. 

Alas! Ours is a different age.15 minutes on the way and Hemal (our driver, guide, protector, redeemer all rolled into one) announced that Dambulla, a Buddhist cave temple would be a 200 odd steps climb. In the split of a second the group crystallised into two non-reconcilable binaries: the “vacation-ist” and the “expedition-ist”.

As both sides lobbied for their cause, news reached us that India had voted in favour of a contentious United Nations resolution asking the Lankan government to allow independent probe of war crimes allegedly committed by the country’s army. 

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Photographs: Sudatta Roy

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Fear helped straighten what reason could not. A temporary truce was established. The vacation-ist agreed to play the sufferer-saviour while the expedition-ist(s) let go Polonnaruwa.

For every half circle that we transversed around the hillock of Dambulla, we mutated from Singaporean to Malaysian to Dhivehin till we realised that Tamils are separate from India in the collective-psyche of the Lankans. Eventually, the Tamil song blaring out of the transistor of a girl selling blue lotuses for Buddha’s feet so surprised us that we felt for the passport tucked in our bagpacks and reminded ourselves that we still stood on Lankan soil.

During the four-hour long drive back to Kandy, as we joked on our unfounded fears, we also tried to make sense of how the litter free roads, the teeming tourists, the smiling visages of the natives revealed nothing of the country just emerging from the slaughter of the worst kind.

Similarly, nothing of the fatigue had revealed itself when we stood dazed at the painted soles of the reclining Buddha dating to the 3rd B C in Dambulla.

But it did reveal itself next morning when the group unanimously announced that the agenda thereon would be to hang our boots and not to die with them still on.

The famed beaches of Galle won over the tea gardens of Nwuara Eliya. The tyranny of choice was never felt more intensely than when we turned to wave goodbye to the imposing hills of Kandy veiled in misty morning.

But not before stopping at the temple of the relic. Believed to enshrine the tooth of the Lord Buddha in a series of nested reliquaries, it is the incorruptible peace in the din of shutterbug crazy tourists, fervent parishioners and busy monks that transfixed us for the time we could have afforded to spare.

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Photographs: Sudatta Roy

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Next we were heading at a breakneck speed towards Pinnawala so as not to miss the “feeding session” of elephants.

Said to shelter the largest herd of captive elephants in the world, the Pinnawala elephant orphanage offers a second home to elephants mistreated by mahouts, kidnapped by poachers or crippled by landmines of the warring groups. For us it was a chance to be up close and personal with elephants of all figure, status and temperament -- from the overprotective grannies to the rebellious youths, from well-behaved conformists to rogue anarchist, from the macho hunks to the dainty darlings. We met Kumari, a cute newborn, shaking hands with her trunk. Beside her was Shankar, an octogenarian, staring with suspicion at this amity.

By the time we reached Galle, the surreptitious dusk was busy dissolving the flamboyant colours of the sky in the Indian Ocean, under the watchful eyes of the Dutch rampart. As we walked through the narrow lanes lined with quaint gem shops, cafes, curio and churches, it seemed that the entire Europe has been knead into dough and rolled out in the streets of Galle. The influences of multi-fold colonial domination blended so seamlessly with the indigenous culture, that perhaps for the first time we felt like foreigners in the not-so foreign country. We retired to our rooms, a colonial manor converted to a boutique hotel. It looked like cross between a Moorish guesthouse and a modern art gallery that has fused colonial decor with Asian motifs.

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Photographs: Sudatta Roy

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We opened our eyes to the gentle sound of waves lapping on the barnacle-scaled rocks. It was the same wave that on a sunny December day roared into a tsunami over the fort and turned into a graveyard the same land that it had selflessly nurtured over the centuries. A line from William Blake’s Tyger came to my mind “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

But beauty is not judgmental. She belongs as much to the meek as she is to the fierce. She eventually drowned all the misgivings we held against the sea (from getting drowned unceremoniously to getting tanned permanently) and we ran towards the water like amphibians, who belong to the land but have their hearts in the sea.

The Galle coastline seen from above would look like a pearl necklace to which an emerald is pierced in some moment of artistic experimentation. The thick green foliage of the hillock Rumassala, surrounded by the crescent shaped coves of the white sand has bewildered the geologist and nature lovers alike. We were however perfectly content with the explanation that a local guide had to offer on this anomaly. It dropped off from the Gandhamaadana Mountain when Hanuman was rushing back with it from India to save his injured friend Laxmana.

We chose to debut our snorkeling operation in that part of the beach where Rumassala meets the sea. The NRI-jungle, we had hoped, would guard our privacy and ensure that there are not many free takers of the comedy our gang so effortlessly pulls through. But we were so mistaken. The jungle beach, as it is called, was swarming with tourists. And we with our burkini-like swimsuits attempting to snorkel wearing life jackets must have looked like astronauts exploring an alien sea.

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Photographs: Sudatta Roy

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Better sense prevailed and we hired a boat with a glass bottom to take us deeper into the sea. Beneath was a riot of colours. If life emerged from the sea then its colours must too have been lent by the corals, the fishes, the sea urchins, the turtles and the countless indescribable life forms.

That evening we spent sipping ‘arrack’, local coconut hooch, with a la carte spread of seafood on the white sands of Unauntana glittering with the innocent light of the new moon. Words came like the waves, for its own sake and we spoke of broken promises without rancour and budding hopes without wants.

But what do you do when fulfilled promises give rise to more wants, when what is experienced seems like a teaser for what wasn’t? You would want to go back to it. But what if, you had with you all that you wanted and suddenly it slips away never to come back.

I opened the Sri Lanka travel book, flipped through the countless names of places we have to come back for and stared at the peninsula India on the cover jacket. The cape looked like a chin of a lean girl, from which has trickled a teardrop.

This image keeps coming back to me, is it because I now I have a some idea what it feels to let go off a country like Sri Lanka?

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Photographs: Sudatta Roy

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