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SLE LIKE NO OTHER

Once upon a time in our own Utopia


BY Wijith DeChickera

A funny thing happened on the way to vote a few months back. I discovered that we islanders can stand in an orderly fashion after all. Not that the citizenry since then or before have demonstrated the least familiarity with a queue. But on that day at my local polling centre, it was ‘first come first served’ like never.

And it was a refreshing change to see the electorate minding its Ps and Qs.

All of which made me nostalgic for an age when the old Ceylon was the very flower of courtesy. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not losing my marbles at the tender age of – well, never mind that now! There is however, a warm and vague recollection of our sunny island as

being a sort of ‘other Eden, demi-paradise’ – as the poet phrased it.

So permit me to meander down memory lane… while the wistful mood lasts and this tendency to dwell on our past persists.

There was a time and place – not too far out of mind or from around memory’s corner or – when we well and truly deserved the civilisational appellation ‘a hospitable people.’

For one brief shining moment in our early innings following independence from colonial yokes, there was an island race at peace with itself and its neighbours; no matter who they were or what they did, where they came from and wherever they were going. It was ‘cricket.’

On many an early boyhood jaunt with my late father, I remember being surprised by the kindness of strangers on public transport or by wayside tea kiosks whenever we disembarked for a breather.

That was an era when bus conductors were uniformed and polite, collectors let you keep your train ticket with a knowing smile and checkers were courteous. And policemen – inclined to stern duty as they may be – held no terror for law-abiding folks.

We could walk down a deserted road at night and not worry about thugs of any kind. There was a sense of community whereby mothers in the neighbourhood watched over their own offspring, as well as other people’s children with an indolent indulging eye, until it was late and stumps were drawn after an exhilarating game of street cricket.

TV had a kinder tone to it then, and the ring of a Bakelite telephone heralded a grandmother’s cheerful call…

Snatches of fragmented conversations – slices of emotion recollected in tranquillity – underlined the naivety and innocence of an epoch that is no more nor ever will be again.

“Wonder if Kinross is calm enough for a sea bath today?”

“I am coming to spend the day with you in the garden!”

“Shall we take the intercity train down to Galle or up to Kandy?”

“Hope you remembered to pack Orange Barley in the picnic hamper!”

Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. To be young was very heaven!

Happy as the proverbial lark, I wandered through a glorious childhood. Until one day, my dad came home ashen and on the verge of tremulous emotion – he had been ‘pickpocketed’ on his way home from work on payday and lost his month’s earnings to some nimble-fingered no-good rascal.

It was a rude awakening. There were serpents in our Eden… thankfully, few and far between in those days… and a son could console his distraught pater with no fear of penury. For not only is the child father of the man but families lived in the plenty of a more gracious age of clear skies and cold fresh produce from unsullied paddies.

It was real, a dream, and a fantasy.

Today, the world and its best friend seem villains of the piece. A glance at Hansard will serve to underscore the impression that the worst are full of passionate intensity while the best seem to lack all conviction in town hall and marketplace.

But that is another story. And better narrated in a more suitable forum than this happy place where we can celebrate our once and future blessed isle.

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