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I come from a mango. A mango ripened over two thousand five hundred years. Some say that my mango is a tear drop. Yes, I have seen mangos like tear drops. But, I prefer to call my motherland, Sri Lanka, a mango, because I don’t like the negativity surrounding a tear drop. Besides, mangos are my favourite.
After two and a half years of studying and working abroad, I stepped on home soil after a thirty-hour Etihad Airways flight on January 14, 2015. My ears bobbled with all the Sinhalese I heard at the Bandaranaike International Airport. I turned around to look at people who were saying things in my mother tongue, similar to what I did when I caught a glimpse of Sinhalese in California or New York, as if they were all talking to me. This must have looked ridiculous here. Some of these strangers smiled at me inquiringly. I had a grin primly pasted on my face, perhaps like the one I had when I saw my crush around the corner at school. I wanted to hide it, because I didn’t want to look stupid. But, I never could have hidden it fully. I was rapturous to be among my people again.
My mango had seen a profusion of change during my absence, just like how I had evolved, in more ways than one, precisely 13,872 kilometers away from her. But, yes, I still deal in metrics.
When I left in 2012 August, we had a newly completed 126 kilometer-long highway running from Colombo to Galle. This was the first time we Sri Lankans got a feel of traffic-less driving. The drive was paved with postcard pictures along the way: the curved coconut trees, the green veil of shrubbery, the ring of dark green mountains welcoming us ahead. Now there was another new highway, connecting the airport area, Katunayake, with Colombo. We took this route on our way home, and the journey was remarkably short and smooth. I was impressed. My father also drove me around the first highway later on, unaware of the fact that I had already been on it with my boyfriend, on an escapade before I left in 2012. The ride was eye-gluing nevertheless.
The day after I landed, I had a sugary yellow mango. I clawed on the seed, with its hair sticking on my nose, some sneaky hair even making its way to my nostrils. I was never one to care too much about the mango seed. But, I have not found one mango, even in the Asian store in Beaverton, Oregon, that tasted texturally similar to the one I had that day. My mother made sure I had my fill of local fruit: Ambarella, Rambutan, Ceylon Olive, Ripe Jackfruit, King Coconut, and food: Koththu, Gotukola Sambola, Fish Head cooked with coconut milk, Beef Stew, Pol Roti, Short Eats, Hoppers, String Hoppers, during those two weeks.
Few days into my vacation, I began feeling dehydrated like a marathon runner in Africa. The sun warmed our mango trees to ninety degrees. “How do you cope with this weather?” I asked friends and family everywhere I went. I’m sure they thought of me as a stiff-necked snob, after living a mere two years in the US and now complaining about our weather. But, I had gotten used to the rainy, cool, and low-humidity Portland weather. The humidity drove me nuts as I hopped on buses and clutched on tuk tuks, three wheelers heavily used instead of expensive cabs in developing nations, when I went to visit my friends and ex co-workers. I was lucky to get a seat on most of my bus trips. The Sinhalese music coming off of the loudspeakers was too much for me. I was never a big fan of bus music anyway. I enjoyed the price bargaining on tuk tuks, although these devious drivers must have taken me for a ridiculous ride, given my unfamiliarity with current prices. “One hundred and fifty rupees, madam. Lot of traffic at this time,” they said. “But it’s so close by. I’ll give you one hundred rupees. Can’t you take a different route to avoid the traffic?” I had forgotten alternate routes in my city and had to settle on one hundred and twenty rupees, which I’m sure was a rip off. Although, perhaps much less than what a foreigner would have had to pay. Time had made me forget the quirky taste of my mango.
Two old buildings in Colombo have been revamped into plush malls, the Independence Arcade and the Race Course Arcade. These pure white buildings were remnants from the British colonial times. Their thick, curvy pillars were muscular but mellow. I met my work-friend, running buddy, and spa chiller, Kumari, at Race Course Arcade on a Saturday. While I was waiting for her to come to Tsing Tao, the Thai restaurant, I walked around looking at how this archaic building has been transformed from downtrodden to plush. Lots of teenagers hung along the corridors, doing nothing productive of course. This was the new Majestic City, a place where I had hung around in my teens and one of the first malls in Colombo. A kiddo, as I refer to youth now, stopped me out of nowhere.
“You seem very familiar. Are you from Wisdom?” He adjusted the rim of his spectacles and ran his left hand through his wavy hair.
Wisdom is a Business Academy that tutors on various business courses.
“I was there ages ago. But, there is no way you could have seen me there.” I smiled politely, and resisted the urge to teach him more sophisticated pickup lines.
The other new complex, the Independence Arcade, housed a Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Levis and Dockers. My boyfriend’s best friend and his wife introduced me to t-Lounge on a weekday evening. This place appealed to the serial tea drinker in me. I had vehemently resisted coffee in the US, out of fear that I would become like the American who has to have a sixteen ounce Americano from Starbucks every day in order to stay focused. Dilmah Tea, owners of the t-Lounge and prominent tea exporter, had taken tea to the next level, mixing tea with ginger beer, and blending tea with Elephant House Vanilla ice cream.
My nineteen year old brother and I had our first together-drink at RnB, Race Course. Legal age for drinking alcohol is eighteen over there. I had made plans to have a one-on-one dinner with him before I came back, and he had hinted at going to an expensive pub. He wanted to poke a significant hole in my wallet, as little brothers always want to. As we walked into the pub, climbing the tall steps of the former pavilion, a skimpy waiter with a shot of hair falling into his eyes, came to the door to welcome us. Although it was a Friday night, the upper level of the pub was not too crowded. I’m sure no one would have guessed we were siblings. He is dark and tall, while I am fair (although not so much the case when I dwell with snow white Americans) and short. Even in character, he is more relaxed and I am the get-set-go-getter. But, we both possess that big flat nose that we had inherited from our father.
I chose a two-person table by the glass door, which led to the old pavilion. Lights were dim enough to give the pub, the pub feel, but bright enough to clearly see the food. I want to see my food when I eat. The only other guests were three guys, seated on the couch a few tables from us. One of them, the dark one, wearing a red shirt that looked like the buttons might explode anytime now, seemed drunk enough to get home on his wobbly feet and curl into bed, but only after puking on his toilet seat. Downstairs, a band I did not know of played rock songs. A bit too loud for my planned talk. I had a lot of things to tell him. Or maybe I was simply getting old now.
My brother ordered a Jack Daniels Whiskey, a double shot on the rocks. I think he wanted to show me that he could drink well. I ordered a Long Island Iced Tea. I’m unsure of whether this was the best example that I could have set for my younger brother, because I have read in some online magazine that this was a mess-me-up drink. I knew I could handle it, because I have had couple in the US. My brother asked me what was there in my drink. “Can’t remember.” My attention to details and memory span was lower than average.
“I heard that your new fascination is weed,” I looked at him directly. I always look people straight in the eye when I talk. He seemed surprised that I knew about this incident, but he soon recovered with an ambivalent shrug. He hadn’t thought my parents would tell me. Maybe he thought they would protect his ‘character’, or that they would be too ashamed to admit this to their daughter, who has always had too many know-it-all opinions about how her brother, a boy, was been parented more loosely than she had been. But, both my parents told me about finding weed inside a man-made hole in my bulky children’s Encyclopedia book in his school bag. An Encyclopedia in his school bag was like a barber having a stethoscope at his cutting station. My mother had called me the day after this discovery and rattled off her disappointments nonstop. She told me she planned to take him off the list of beneficiaries on her retirement fund. My father calmly told me about this during one of our quiet drives around Colombo, during my two-week stay. He tried to keep the tone light by laughing it off, but told me to advise my sib. His forehead wrinkled and his breath muffled.
I was secretly proud that my father thought I could get through to my brother more than he himself could.
“Everyone uses weed here now. It’s no biggie,” my brother said, trying to sound American.
“I know everyone uses it. But, can’t you use your head once in a while? Can’t you try out these things without getting caught?”
I’m reminded of the time he was caught red handed when stealing money from my father’s wallet, when I caught porn on his smart phone, not once, but thrice, when he was suspended from school for writing something indecent on the wall of the school restroom, when he came home drunk like a balloon-eyed fish, with his motor bike strapped to the hood of a tuk tuk.
“What if you get caught to the police? They will remand you until we bail you out. How do you think Dada will feel walking into a police station to get you released?”
My father had been in the police for over a decade, but had retired as an Officer in Charge (OIC) due to some political rifts.
“Don’t give them so much pain. They are too old to handle this now,” I implored.
Despite an eleven year age gap, we have been almost-friends for a long time now. I tried to be the cool sister, who got his music, although not so much the case now, the one he could come to with his problems, and who would understand his laidback point of view. But, he knew that whenever I got pissed off, he had, in fact, gone way beyond his boundaries. This was in contrast to my mother’s frequent vexation sessions, directed at me, my brother, and occasionally at my father.
On our drive back home, my brother promised that he will be more careful in the future, as I started alcohol-induced yawning.
City of Colombo and suburbs were now flooded with walkways, brainchild of Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, our ex-President’s brother. My town, Battaramulla, situated in the vicinity of the Parliament complex, also had an exercise-enticing walkway around the Diyawanna Oya. Swans sauntered around the lake in groups, proud of their long white necks and fluffy feathers. The sky was a hue of rosy purple, my favorite color. A string of random people stretched their muscles and burned their calories. This was a first for me. I have never been in my country when people liked to exercise this much. Perhaps they didn’t have enough walkways back in my days. Not as if our people have too much flesh, like those in developed countries.
On January 8, we elected a new President, Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, and bid farewell to Mr. Gotabhaya’s older brother. The President who freed the country from the daggers of a bloody thirty-year civil war in 2009. Thanks to my work schedule, I missed voting for the historical Presidential election.
My fondest memory of the outgoing President, Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, is the time he kneeled down on Sri Lankan soil, touched the ground with his bare hands, and brought his hands to the namaskar position, as soon as he got off the plane from a foreign visit. Our army forces had defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after a blood-curdling operation, when he was away. But this gesture of Mr. Rajapaksa’s clashes with his unnecessary number of rich-pedigree dogs, his many exquisite planes, his son’s one-too-many Ferraris, and his posh bungalows. Power and wealth form a vicious cycle, to want more of each when you already have these, like how I want one more Ferrero Rocher chocolate, when I already have a tongue-melting, crunchy, Ferrero Rocher chocolate ball in my mouth. The gold wrappers galore beside me until the box is done and doomed.
About eight months ago, during the Rajapaksa regime, I saw a red-robed monk screaming into a microphone on YouTube. This was at a Buddhist rally in Aluthgama, a coastal area inhabited mostly by Muslims. He was darker than the average Sri Lankan, and had an I-can-fight-if-I-want-to type of build.
“Let’s show these Muslims who we are. We still have a Sinhala police and a Sinhala army in this country.”
People at the rally hooted and later looted that night. I’m not sure who or what started this conundrum. It is near impossible to find the exact solution for these dilemmas, because people and journalists view the world through charred glasses. Truth takes many forms depending on the level of char.
According to the grapevine of local media and social media, this encounter arose because of a personal argument between a Buddhist monk and few Muslim youth in the area. The monk, a passenger in a van, was returning from a sermon, and the driver had tooted hard at these youth who were partially obstructing the road with their motor cycles. The youth have responded with twenty-something male rage.
The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force – BBS), Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Organization, which was headed by the monk who pursued the Aluthgama rally that day, exploited this incident to call upon Sinhalese Buddhists to unite against the Muslim conspiracy in the country. Their arguments were supported by historical evidence depicted by world media, which exhibited Muslims as a race that everyone should be weary of.
I can’t say that the BBS was wrong to use the past as an indicator of generalizing Sri Lankan Muslims. Even stock market investors use the past as a basis for forecasting in this ever-changing world of ours. But, labelling Muslims as racists and conquerors inevitably results is more isolation of the race. Another vicious cycle.
I am no conflict resolution expert.
But, what I do know for sure about the Aluthgama clash is that lots of innocent people lost their homes, businesses, and trust in the judicial system. They were both Muslims and Buddhists. Those who had no desire to declare war against each other. Those who were only trying to get by, and educate their children so that their next generation will see the dawn of a brighter sun.
Being a moderate Muslim myself, I began to realize that my mango wasn’t mine and ripe after all. It had gone a deep sour.
Before and after the Aluthgama riots, there were other incidents reported around the island. I checked in with my parents more frequently than I normally would. My father told me that Aunty Sandra had called because she saw a mini-mob gather close to her home. He had contacted his friend in the Thimbirigasyaya police and the mob had slowly dissipated. Touch wood, my family was untouched. Perhaps because we don’t wear the burqa. Perhaps also because my father knows many police officers.
I was born in January 1984, five months after the Black July. A seven-day mob took to the streets of Colombo, starting the night of July 24, 1983. Mobs found every single Tamil they could find and robbed their faith in humanity. A basic search on the internet returns the following image: a Tamil youth stripped naked in the Borella bus stand, his hands on his head, either to deflect his shame or to diminish the next blow he might get from the Sinhala rioter, who had a smug smile pasted on his face.
Every time I see this image, I’m ashamed as a Sri Lankan.
The riot had been a response to the killing of thirteen soldiers in the North by the militant Tamil Tigers. But, why didn’t these rioters go to the North and fight with these Tigers? I believe the Black July riot was pivotal in propelling the war to create a separate Tamil state, Eelam. A disastrous fungus of civil war infested my mango for thirty years. Suicidal bombs went off in the capital, corporate buildings blew up in the South, Tamil girls got raped by soldiers, and educated Tamils migrated to USA, UK, Australia, and Canada.
Estimated and documented death toll of this civil war is between 80,000 and 100,000 Sri Lankan citizens.
My brother still had his whole life ahead of him.
I don’t ever want my brother to become such a statistic while I comfortably rot away in a safe hideaway.
Two months after the monk’s speech, when the Aluthgama flames had grayed into charcoal, I started Googling Asylum. I might have to get my family out of that rotting mango if the situation worsened. My family told me that things back home weren’t as bad as I thought they were. But, I had seen too many crying mothers and burnt homes by that time.
During our previous President’s time, the Daily News only published stories that spoke ill of opposition members and will of the ruling party. Similarly, on the morning of the presidential election, Rupavahini, the government television channel, broadcasted that a well-supported opposition member had joined the government, when no such thing had in fact happened. I used to criticize these institutions, claiming that the profession of journalism had gone to the dogs. But, now I understood why journalists post biased information when political thugs hold their family at ransom. Family should be protected, irrespective of our melodramatic relationships.
Our new President, stoic and thin, with a crooked smile and gold framed glasses, is a non-decorative man, who had proposed to demolish executive powers of Presidency. As soon as he came to power, he reduced prices of essential items like milk, gas, rice and potatoes. Then he renamed a road in Colombo 7 from Nelum Pokuna to back to Ananda Coomaraswamy. The name was changed to Nelum Pokuna by the previous President to match the name of the performance center, shaped like a lotus flower, he built in that road. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was a Lankan Tamil philosopher and metaphysician. Personal land, occupied by armed forces during the war, was also given back to the Tamil people in the North. My mango might get sweeter one day.
During a football season during my two and a half years at Portland, Brett, my American co-worker bugged me. “I know you will be glued to your TV watching football this weekend,” was his weekend good bye to me one Friday evening. I curled my lips, sharpened my eyes, and smiled. I knew he was just being sarcastically friendly. I have no interest in football, to be more specific American football.
Sometimes I don’t quite understand what Americans are talking about. It’s not so much the language, but more the colloquial references they make. I find it odd that people ask you how you are doing, but don’t usually want to know how you are really doing, and walk away instantly.
One day, Jill, another co-worker who was offsite that day, wanted me to explain what treats another co-worker had brought to work. I had no idea what they were called. I tried explaining: they are cut in squares, beige or cream in color, white stuff at the top, maybe sugar, I don’t know. A not-so-descriptive description. I discovered their name later – lemon bars. “I have never had them. I didn’t know what they were called,” I told her the next day. “How long are you going to play your foreigner card?” she asked with a frown. I know I will never feel at home inside another mango, no matter how sweet it may be. Other mangoes are different from my mango.
I arrived at the Portland International Airport after a delayed overlay of forty six hours. Flip flops from my tropical weather did not transform well to the winter-heavy rains. My father hates it when I travel long distance in sloppy flip flops. As I stared out of the window of the Radio Cab that I had hailed, a breath of fresh air embraced my nostrils. The city felt new, but also familiar in a peculiar way. The line of naked trees looked bare, but free of
un-welcomed concerns. My free spirit was home again. Home away from home.
A few days after I got back to the US, I met my co-worker, Thomas, who is originally from Uganda, in the lunch room. The only guy darker than me in my team. He is short and has an oval face, made more oval by his one-inch long hair.
“Are you hoping to stay on in the US?” He casually asked me. He has been in the US for about fifteen years now.
“Maybe for the next five to six years. I want to get career exposure here. But, not forever.”
“I want to die where I was born,” I added.
He laughed, showing off his white teeth, and shook his head in denial. “You are funny. Thinking about death when you are so young.”
I smiled along not understanding what the joke was. I just want to crawl back to my mushy mango, hopefully not so rotten when I die, and become one with its pulp. A folder named Asylum resides in my laptop C drive, which I hope I will never have to open again.