The events of Easter Sunder of 21st April 2019 will forever be etched in the souls of right thinking human beings be it in Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the Planet.
The aftermath of the carnage, has left behind physical , emotional and psychological scars which will take forever or never to completely heal. My thoughts, prayers and positive affirmations are with those who have been directly or indirectly affected and I trust that they will heal in the best way they possibly can. This penning down of thoughts is my way of trying to heal and trying to figure out why why why ???
By Shama Ismail – Mohamed
It is while I am thoroughly engrossed in the traditional South Indian meal all spread over in little palm leaf cups of curries, Sambhar Chutneys and dollops of rice on a plantain leaf at Nair’s Mess in Chennai that I noticed her come and sit by adjacent to me in the next table, it being minutes after the earlier diners had vacated the seat… my heart stops .. Umma? No it cant be and it is certainly not her.
The lady did look in her 60’s , about the age when my Grandma passed away and no she looked nothing like her really ..but it was the saree and the way she had draped it and the way she was intensely talking to her companion , a lady more of my vintage that diverted my attention to her. She was wearing the saree “Munnuku Mundani” style (a drape worn by ladies of my grandmother’s era and a style now long gone unless its worn for style) and the dupatta of the saree lightly on her head just like my Umma did.
Do people even remember this drape now was the first thought that came to my mind. I don’t know if I did or did not mention this to my companions at lunch and the moment took over with a new dish turning up and my attention going certainly to that direction and then we were out of the crowded lunch place with the next bunch of diners eying our seats like hawks..
This family break we had long planned just so happened at this juncture and it was too late to call it off and we needed it for our sanity too.
It wasn’t till I got back to the hotel later that night that I could think back and digest why the sight of this random stranger invoked feelings and memories packed away from a long time ago.. I had been browsing my phone devotedly and things on my newsfeed on FB and messages on WhatsApp were piled with negativity, hate, justifications and apologies and being away from Mother Lanka for a few days made these very touchy, cringy and intrusive. And Ramadhan being so close around and memories of Umma and the comfort she offered, is always a happy place I venture into when I am down. For those who know me, know that this simple human being , a young widow with 7 children under 14 at the time of widowhood stood strong to see her children grow up has been one of my role models in life.
Hardly lettered and without any dominant male in her life she managed to rise up and be strong right through what life threw at her. No frills and fancies accompanied her but hard work and commitment and tough love (not material stuff or soft toys or chocolates!!!) was her motto and here we are her 15 grandchildren spread across the globe to evidence the roots she gave us. Of course she had her favorites and not so favorites and the in betweens, to which I fall in, but we all learnt and have got something out of her for which we are all so grateful.
Back on track I am on my ranting .. now why did this sight of this random stranger invoke such emotions in me – the low ebb I (which extends to all my compatriots I believe) is a starter but it did transport me back to an era of simplicity , compassion, tolerance and being comfortable in one’s self and skin. Yes I am catapulted back in time to a where we were a bunch of human beings who valued the concept of being human beings. Galle Fort being my home town (of course you can never go back home!!) – a tiny enclosed town or whatever it can be called where everyone lived in peace and harmony and contentment ( at least seemingly but certainly not as nasty as todays living) with lives revolving around Desmond De Silva’s Classic Yanna Rata Wate’s ගමයි පන්සලයි , වැවයි දාගැබයි - Village, temple, lake, Dagaba or Kovil, Church or Mosque to be substituted and of course the Sea substituting the wewa and life was ethereal, peaceful, calm and I suppose in my rose colored spectacles perfect!!! .
The lives of the community were so intricately interwoven and there was no communal distinction (maybe social ) between the Mahadevas and Mahendrans or the Tampoes and Sugathes or the Wijeynayakes or the Marikars or Zains who lived in the Fort and the days and years passed on with celebrations of each others festivities and celebrations happening like clockwork. I remember anxiously waiting for that specific Kevili plate among others nearing Avurudu from Alfred Aiyyas house (that was his name and we knew him as no other!!) which had the most amazing soft moist kevuns in the world that like of which I have not tasted since leaving the Fort 3 or more decades ago.
I remember the pongal rice and stuff from Aunty Jayanthi across our house and very often or not a few of us waited with her to celebrate her festival as she was at the time a single lady and a dog in the house with her family being in Jaffna, and we did not want her to be alone at her auspicious times.
I remember our Eids and the mosque feasts with so much love. Writing in detail on this would be diverting again so I summarize it to the taste and the smell of the most amazing biriyanis, kaliya wirundu rice, thakkiya shooru , Odukoththu Pudan rice and so many exotic menus traditional only our Fort natives. It was a lifetime of smiles and sharing and if there was heartache it was tears and comforting .
The mosque which stood at the end of our road – Leyn Baan Street was a majestic white building to which every male walked in and walked out during prayer times daily after the melodious Azan by the Muazzin at the time and later on in the evenings elders gathered out there in the ramparts to talk about the days happenings and other matters of the community. The only preacher or Moulavi I remember there was , was the Muazzin who used to visit every Muslim house on a roster for his meals. I remember my Granny preparing a special one (all her meals were special so this I guess would be extra special) on the days he visited ours.
The only religious issues the Fortians had were the little squabbles between the 2 main sectors known as the Kaadiriya and Shaazuliya and we children were generally not privy to the details of which, but I know they were not nasty or destructive.
I recall my grandmother telling me when I asked her what sect we belonged to – she said we belong to the Maadiriya– which I learnt later was a non existing thing and it was her way of saying we were not confined to any of them.
Each home in each quaint lane of the Fort despite whatever faith we followed, had a daily night ritual. The family sat together and prayed together around the table ..it used to be the Quran or mawlid books with beautiful melodious recitals in the Muslim households with the smell of incense and other eastern scents.. the Hindu houses would listen to their prayers and so would the Christian families and the Buddhist families in theirs. Though TV had come to Sri Lanka, the rituals continued. I do not know whether these recitals really had any religious significance but it sure did soothe the spirit and nourished our souls.
The highlights of the day around the Fort would be the young boys upto some pranks or Aunty Jayanthis dog had run away again or Sugathe having a drunk episode or Naja the colorful lady of the town having some sort of commotion with some prudish family or visitor. These were just the norm and just accepted by all.
There were no preachers from outside coming to our mosque to incite or preach new things. Sure the Mowlanas from different sects came and went and all they did was bless people and give them prayers for their need and of course good food came wherever they went.. People went to the Thakkiya ( a small building which is not a mosque but conducts religious activities) and each Thakkiya had their annual feast. Yes food, food and more food was the dominant feature of my colorful childhood. It still is and I guess will always be despite modern day constraints of diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease, kidney disease, arthritis and the list goes on.
Color dominated our lives. The children wore colorful clothes, the girls wore colorful clothes, the ladies wore colorful clothes and even the old women. Only exception would be the white clothes women wore during their mourning period on the loss of the spouse – otherwise it was all color that was there in our clothing – and yes no hijab , no niqaab just shawls across their shoulders or the saree dupatta across their heads by the older folk.
Back in my Utopia we lived and we survived – no preacher made us feel we were superior or inferior or we were the chosen ones. Our prayers were answered, charity was a plenty and there was less tragedy and abuse in our lives. Kids were punished accordingly and no one went for therapy unless of course there was something really wrong and life went on perfect in its imperfection. Prayers were recited, the Quran was read yes at it should be and not understood and dissected. My belief is that the first commandment to the Prophet (Sal) by Angel Gabriel was “Read” not understand and that is what I will always do. Understanding is an individual perception and this is the cause of all diversion. Of course seeking knowledge is primary on all of us but dissection and interpretation has taken over and the perfection of the message is lost.
The people of the Fort mainly the ladies loved gathering – there were the weekly gatherings of various recitals at various homes , the forming of the ladies clubs and the younger ladies and not so young meeting regularly – socializing and having their fund raisers and causes. Parallel the males had their fun too. How can one not forget the Bucket Group who dominated our teenage lives.
The Fort Ladies in the past were known to be “forward and progressive” but this was going away. They were being cocooned now to be the controlled and restricted and their bright outlook changed . There are the exceptions who within the restrictions have risen and shone in the village but they are few and far between. Of course with most of the major families moving out of the Fort and the Fort becoming a commercial hub as the families are scattered around the island and the globe and the ideologies and wonder is lost.
And then the years took over, the trips to home base was less and less and we became secular – some for the better , some for the worse.
School, College work , career, marriage to a Colombo man , children, home and all these happened to me and in the background things changed.
They came stealthily in the beginning to my village – first the workers and migrants from the KSA returning with their ideologies and cultures and then the preachers from various denominations who started infiltrating the minds of the simple people by coming into the mosque and dominating the pulpit. The changes were not imminent in the beginning but it was happening. Each visit saw initially inward and thereupon gradual outward changes. People becoming exclusive , warped and aloof. And those not conforming being viewed like evil doers and the judgmental and self righteous avatars arising and finally the color going away and leaving a black , black and black view – inwardly and outwardly
This was not restricted to my Galle brethren.. the changes crept stealthily to the boisterous fun loving noisy family I married into in Colombo.
These changes here though came very quickly after we married and within a couple of years everything changed. Suddenly all birthday parties , naming ceremonies and any function of color were taboo and were replaced with bayyaans or unnamed get togethers in black, black and black or bit of white around. The beautiful sarees and shalwars and dresses were replaced by the black cloak and functions which had activities or games was just come in sit down eat say your byes and go. And of course the stares and the sneers and the back talking that were given to me and the few of my ilk for us not conforming to their mindsets and clothing. Maybe we are and still viewed as harlots and kafeers (unbelievers) I really don’t know.
The ensuing years I have been subjected to verbal abuse several times on my dressing . I no way wear anything indecent.. I am seen mostly in long kurthas and trousers or blouses or a long dress and sarees when I need to be glammed up. I love feeling good for myself and a touch of make up and perfume always goes with me. For this I have been called out not by the elders directly but the children who I guess are instigated by the elders.
Once a little girl was browsing my handbag and found a lipstick and wanted to know what it was and I told her it was a lipstick and she responded – I know my Mummy said you are a Kuffaar. I was shattered at the time and still am when I see her now and she wears lipstick herself!!! Another time I was told that only whores and prostitutes wore lipstick or those women who wanted to attract men. My response for the time being was I am very comfortable in my relationships and I wear lipstick to feel good about myself and not for any other purpose. A young boy said something about me being a Kuffaar and that I will be damned. Seeing how distraught and hurt by this , my hubby said once his other things start getting activated he will know what is happening and sure to my beloved’s words this boy who was a real introvert and religious pundit has now turned into a man of the party and certainly not a role model for anyone. While I feel for his family who have been ultra conservative and nice , I guess Karma is a bitch and some days it has puppies too.
My choice to stay a non-conformist within the Islamic faith is my choice. I have not been a Hijabi but I know that my faith is strong and my submission to my Creator has moved mountains for me. I know am confident in my faith and I know my communion with my Creator and the lengths I have done and gone with my faith and beliefs. The hours of prayer and contemplation , the days of fasting and all what is expected of me in my faith is in the knowledge of my Creator and that suffices for me. Not the opinions of the frogs in the well who stay indoor and sneer or attend religious classes which in addition to their brain washing is a hub for passing on “news” of the others in the Community.
We were taught that there are 5 Pillars of Islam namely the Shahadah (declaration of faith) , Prayer, Fasting, Zakath (Compulsory Charity) and Hadj (the Pilgrimage if you can afford it) and that there are 6 Articles of Faith in Islam namely the Belief in the Oneness of Allah, Belief in all his Prophets, Belief in All his Books, Belief in All his Angels, the Belief in the Day of Judgement and the belief in the Divine Decree. This stood steadfast for me all my life , but now I guess the pundits have added a new line to this. There are 6 Principles of Islam and 7 Articles of Faith. That being you have to be covered to be considered a Muslim (if you are of the female species) and that your definition of being a Muslim is this covering.
Where has common sense gone ? Where is the human touch? How can goodness and Godliness be practiced when the fundamentals are so twisted? If this is what is expected and practiced in the name of religion, then let me stick to my beliefs as it is – submission and surrendering to the Almighty and doing good to human kind. That would be the only religion for me. The sight of the massacred innocents, the homeless, the helpless being posted en masse on Facebook makes me just want to scroll down and go into denial hoping these are just photo tricks or photo shopped, but my being knows it is not so. The hurt the anger the helplessness I am lost for words here and then having to put up with these indifferent , cruel and heartless messages just about wants me to go and be an ostrich!!!!
We have now approached a time where we have to teach empathy, kindness, manners and right ideas to people – things that we were born with, what we observed from our right thinking elders. All these new schools of thoughts, the brain washing of the half baked minds and the innocents , mostly through the rising of the mushroomed religious oriented schools which have no supervision as opposed to the regular secular schools where we attended which taught us to be human first and then anything else.
My anger is now stemmed to a lot of things my children and the younger generation is facing
Who is going to answer to the fact that they were deprived of a lovely community living with right thinking people ? Their lack of social functions and deprivation of the fun kind we were privy to ? The fact that they are being looked down merely because they do not conform to the M-Asses of the community? What about the culture of the Sri Lankan Muslims taken away and the alien culture inculcated? And the accommodative society moving into the isolated one they are now? I am angry and hurt and confused. Who is going to take responsibility for all this ? Who is going to wipe away the pain it has caused ? Who is going to be held accountable? And mostly who is left picking up the pieces…
Until then I will keep getting teleported to the times of my beautiful childhood, my happy places in the back of my memory to comfort me till there is a solution and wait patiently for the answers that I may ever or may never receive.
PS. These rants may be meaningless to some or out of context or inappropriate but these are my feelings to comfort me and to get off my chest things that have festered for a long time and it has to be drained out. Also note that I am not a qualified person in religious matters and these thoughts are personal to me and those who think like me. I am a God fearing, God loving and God conscious person who is more spiritual than religious.
(The author describes herself as a regular female juggling a SOHO (Small Office Home Office) and her family and trying to balance both)
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