Monday, November 03, 2008

A land like no other

With a civil war raging within its jungles and isolated by International and local travel bans to the region, the northern region of Sri Lanka offer great views and adventure to those who dare cross the Forward Defence Lines (FDLs). This week, our special correspondent Sonnet goes behind enemy lines to discover the stories of those who have been caught in the crossfire for many years.

To say that 'Sri Lanka is a land of contrasts' would be an understatement that could get you thrashed in a night-club or run over by a three-wheeler. From the shacks of tea estate workers in its cool hills, to the luxury condominiums in the capital Colombo, it is a country that shouts out myriad life stories, but perhaps none as forcefully as the stories of those who live in or near the war zone in the North and East of the country. Their stories are more elusive, so I went searching for them.

Starting off on my trail, I met Kandasami (36) a local winemaker and his family of five who welcomed me to their 'earthy' villa. The terracotta path through their courtyard is flanked by a tastefully designed rock garden on the furthest edge of their one hundred acre vineyard, which coincidentally is also a minefield.
Only last night, they were trapped in the middle of an exchange of heavy artillery fire, followed by Ariel bombardment. Despite the sleepless night, Kandasami and his family woke up early morning to start another peaceful day in Kodikulluppu, a small town just 236 kilometres north of the capital Colombo. The family had spent the night underground, tasting the latest batch of Sauvignon Blanc in their cellar, which doubles up as a safe refuge during heavy fighting.

Despite the smoky morning sky and smell of gunpowder in the air, Kandasami – one of the handful of winemakers in the country – is optimistic about the future, even though he sometimes worries about the minor possibility that a 'bunker-buster' might damage his collection of precious wines. "Sauvignon Blanc has done exceptionally well in this land. The soil and weather is just ideal" he says with a 'Champaign' smile that is iconic of the people of this tiny island off the southern tip of India. The hundreds of anti-personal mines buried centimetres below the ground has been a blessing in (mighty) disguise for Kandasami. "I think the mines on my fields are what make my wines special. Apart from making life (and the possibility of death) a touch more exciting during the harvest season, they add an 'explosive' undertone to the taste, which compliment the melon taste of Sauvignon Blanc," grins the brave entrepreneur.

His family, like any other in this paradise isle, has the same concerns and anxieties; what will happen in the next episode of "Batti"? Will Surendra get fed up with Batti's family? Who will be the next Super Star? They; like everybody else who voted last time, are thrilled that Pradeep won, but are a bit upset that the SMS cost more than what they thought it would.

As I bid goodbye to Kandasami and his family and make my way on a cratered landscape, I am greeted by Periadorai who has just opened a coffee shop near the esplanade. Its large French windows offer stunning views across the large man-made lake and what remains of the main highway. Periadorai's coffee shop is a popular hang-out for the social elite of Kodikulluppu, including the teenage boys and girls of the International Weapons and Suicide Training School in the area, who invade the place soon after school hours for their favourite Hot Chocolate served with a marshmallow in a tall glass. Periadorai, who received his barista training while living in exile in South India, offers me his speciality – a sublime Macchiato and a delightful bacon and egg sandwich, toasted, with Swiss cheese on freshly baked Italian Herb bread. It leaves me wondering how good his lemon cheesecake or cinnamon doughnut would have been under a sky lit up by anti-aircraft fire, if I could be back in time for afternoon tea.

If business is the lifeblood of Kodikulluppu, then art would surely be its heart. My next stop is at the house of a young and promising painter. Sivagi, a child prodigy who began drawing on the dusty floor when she could barely crawl, had already sold her first crayon painting at the age of 6. Even though the first buyer was her uncle who bought his uncanny portrait for a mere Rs. 5, she (was) literally 'shot' to fame when she lost her arms to an unexploded shell. She miraculously escaped death and so did her love of art. Now she draws with a paint brush held between her toes and has since inspired hundreds, if not thousands of children like her, who has also lost their limbs in similar circumstances.

Despite the rare claymore mine explosion, slightly more frequent kidnappings and just above average murder-rate, the northern and eastern regions of Sri Lanka are a tourist paradise waiting to be discovered. It is a must-see destination for everyone who lives in the south of the country and pretends to care. As anyone who visits this part of the world would soon find out, the flat arid space and wide cloudless horizons that cradle the stars at night, the white sandy beaches that stretch for miles and the tall palms are only a fraction as delightful or fascinating as the people who live there and their warm embracing smiles.

(published in The Sunday Times - Mirror Magazine (25/11/2007)