The best of Sri Lanka is to be found between these covers

Saturday, 7 June 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Elmo Jayawardena is a Sri Lankan who has travelled far in life. He grew up with difficult circumstances in Moratuwa, just outside Colombo, and walked to school in rubber slippers. He worked his way up to become the Chief Pilot with Air Lanka and then an instructor Captain with Singapore Airlines and currently trains pilots for the Boeing Co. But that is less than the half of it. For, in middle age, Elmo, with his wife Dil and a small band of happy brothers and sisters, founded what is now Candle Aid, which does wonderful humanitarian work all over Sri Lanka. Helping the less fortunate, first and foremost, is what Elmo and Dil do; it is their occupation and preoccupation. And that is not all. For, also in middle age, Elmo turned himself into a writer. Several books have flowed from his pen in the last fifteen years: a mammoth work of historical fiction, a novella, a collection of short stories, a coffee-table travel guide to Sri Lanka. Elmo’s latest offering is This & That, a variegated miscellany of his newspaper columns over the last few years.  These are short, sharp, often sweet pieces, almost all revolving around the Sri Lanka that Elmo lives and breathes with such passionate intensity. The style is characteristically South Asian, sentence after sentence exploding with lush tropical exuberance. Aviation, predictably, is one of Elmo’s pet themes. He is a self-confessed “sky tramp” who “drives” his aeroplane. He recalls his first sighting of a Boeing 747, landing at Katunayake airport with a bellyful of German tourists; his first job as a flying instructor on a DH-82 biplane, earning Rs. 10 an hour; and the electric thrill of landing his jet plane at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport. But one of my favourite pieces in the book is his rendition of the “flight of the double sunrise”. During the Second World War, after Singapore fell to the Japanese, Qantas Imperial Airways had Catalina flying boats brave contested skies between the Swan River near Perth and Koggala Lake on the south coast of Ceylon – 28 hours of non-stop flying, a world record, taking in two sunrises. Candle Aid stories fill many of these columns. These are stories of flesh and blood, of Sri Lankans born on the wrong side of the tracks, trying to escape lives of poverty and destitution, without rich relations or political connections. So they come to Candle Aid. Some come in search of a job, others for help with their education. There is Dhanapala, a paralysed ex-postman, his eyes filled with pride when he sees his son learn how to swim in a Candle Aid pool. And Mary Felicia, trying to bring up three daughters after first losing her fisherman husband to the sea, and then losing her simple little home to the tsunami. Then there is Jayathilaka, Candle Aid’s most illustrious graduate, born lame and dirt-poor in a remote village, now a postdoctoral fellow in physics at the National University of Singapore. Elmo and his wife Dil help the Dhanapalas, Mary Felicias and Jayathilakas of Sri Lanka every day. It is this sort of thing that creates the warm glow, the overflowing humanity, of his writing. He states his call to volunteering thus: “Isn’t it also true that between the big things we cannot do and the small things we do not do, we often end up doing nothing?” Candle Aid stories reflect Sri Lanka in miniature. But other pieces in the book are about the bigger picture. Elmo belongs to a dwindling band of non-political, non-partisan, ecumenical Sri Lankans, without a drop of chauvinist blood in his veins. Sri Lanka is his “paradise misplaced”. Sinhalese and Tamils, orchestrated by their political leaders, have torn each other and the country apart. He hopes – perhaps too optimistically – that the end of the war, with the Government’s military defeat of the LTTE, will bring about the ethnic reconciliation that has long eluded the country. But he has no grand political solution to advance: that is simply not his style – most unusual for a Sri Lankan. Elmo’s reflex response is to think of reconciliation in terms of the “grassroots” – what ordinary, good-hearted Sri Lankans can do to reach out to each other and help the less fortunate. “You and me to go in search of a Tamilian and shake his hand and say we are friends and hope he does the same too,” he says. “Peace begins with me,” he adds. As when girls from a well-heeled Colombo school go to open a Candle Aid library at a school in the Jaffna peninsula, and get to mingle with the girls there. And when a Sinhalese Catholic boy gets a transplanted kidney, donated by a Buddhist monk and financed by a Tamil expat in Dubai. Finally, this miscellany would not be complete without Elmo’s pleasure in family life and what he calls his “wild goose chases”. He delights in the prelapsarian play and witticisms of his young grandchildren. And in his jaunts, paddling down a great river and a smaller stream in his trusty canoe, and hunting down the nineteenth-century grave of an exiled Kandyan aristocrat off a byroad in Mauritius. Yes, the best of Sri Lanka is to be found between these covers, in bite-size, warm, human form. Enjoy.