By Ajita Kadirgamar –
I’m not a religious person. I don’t go to church very often. But I was in church last Sunday because my beautiful and talented Hindu friend invited me to listen to her choir at an event titled HymnFest ’13 – a festival of hymns for brass, organ, choir and congregation. So there I was at the quaint old St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk, Kollupitiya, listening to the powerful voices of a very ethnically mixed choir, including my Hindu friend.
When everyone is dressed in nondescript black, singing in one voice, you don’t see the individuals, you see one unified body with a single thread that binds them together – a love of music and singing. A glance at the names in the programme revealed a Malay (making his debut on Timpani), Burghers, Tamils, Sinhalese, a Colombo Chetty and a few foreigners. Yet little did it matter what their denomination or ethnicity was. No one questioned the appropriateness or their right to be in a church singing hymns to an audience that was equally diverse. There were even some seemingly foreign Muslim ladies dressed in shalwars in the gathering!
My friend may be a devout Hindu, but she has been singing in choirs all her life, thanks to her open minded parents. The youngest of six siblings they were all encouraged to go beyond their cultural and societal boundaries in their quest for hobbies, interests and pastimes.
While I listened to hymn after hymn and observed the ‘congregation’, I marveled at how unique and special this country is, for it affords us such a mixed tapestry of citizenship.
Having lived for long periods away from Sri Lanka, the one thing that lures me back time and again is the rich and varied friendships I have here. There are my two Bora friends. One I met through a common social circle and though years may pass with no contact, the bond of friendship is renewed in an instant from the first welcoming hug. The other who I met during a diploma course in the 90’s, is a sane voice in a mad world and keeps me grounded. My long time “Sinhala Buddhist” friend who calls me her sister and who felt abandoned when I left the country ten years ago, is delighted I am back and has been a source of tremendous support as I readjust to life here. My European friend and former neighbor was born a Catholic but converted to Islam when she married a Sri Lankan and moved here over 30 years ago. We were the kind of neighbours who were in and out of each other’s homes, borrowing eggs, sugar, needle and thread, whatever the need of the day. Her home was our second home. As a young child my son thought he was a Muslim too, especially during the month of Ramadan when he would rush there to ‘break fast’ with them in the evenings. He loved the samosas that uncle would bring from the mosque.
Our lane in fact was a picture book microcosm of a harmonious Sri Lanka, for there were Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim families wall to wall, living and socializing in perfect coexistence. The kids would play cricket and basketball, the women would stand around chatting in the evenings, we would visit the homes of newborn babies and condole when there was a death in the family, food would be shared at festivals and special events. Such joyous times! To top it all the house next to me functioned as a Montessori. For nearly a decade it was home to children from every community and walk of life.
All of this is in stark contrast to the few friendships I developed in the US. For instance my first friend there, a Greek Orthodox American on a spiritual quest, once said she should not even be friends with me because I was not a ‘church going Christian’. We remained friends even though she moved to another state, but this comment always bothered me. Was religion a deciding factor in friendship? This was an alien concept to me.
Meanwhile the Sri Lankan model of neighborliness can never be replicated elsewhere. Though I did associate with one neighbour in the US, through a shared interest in gardening (there were no fences separating our properties) and invited them over a few times over the years, never once did they reciprocate.
Friendships aside when I look at professional and other relationships I realize that here too the diversity is plainly evident even though is not a conscious choice. My dentist is Muslim, my doctor is Sinhalese and my lawyers are Tamil. Do we not select them for their professionalism and expertise first and foremost? Dr. Lakshman Weerasena who I have known for nearly 30 years now, speaks English, Sinhala and Tamil and with equal ease. He will speak to a patient in the language they are comfortable in and whether prince or pauper they will receive his expert prognosis with equal care and concern. This man is the true essence of a real Sri Lankan whom I hold in the highest esteem.
Never, never have I questioned the multi ethnic, multi communal makeup of this country. It is and will always be what makes this island unique. Shame on those who think otherwise.