My father was from Tibet, but had never been there. He lived much of his life in Darjeeling, Hong Kong, England and America but he died believing Sri Lanka was his true home. After he passed away in his sleep, my mother, brother and sister left to make arrangements for the cremation. I stayed alone with my father’s body, in deep contemplation, still unsure how I would overcome this great loss. The phone rang — I hate phone calls at the best of times, so almost did not answer but at that moment I thought speaking to someone may help comfort me.
‘Chhimi, is it true?’ Aunty Lakmini, one of my father’s friends asked. ‘Is the bugger dead?’
‘My father?’ I asked. ‘Yes, he passed away.’
‘Aiyo, I thought it was a joke.’ She took a deep breath and then laughed. ‘It’s a bloody joke, no? Please check again, putha.’
‘Aunty, I am sorry, he’s definitely dead.’
Silence on the other end of the phone. Then sobbing. ‘Aiyo, did he suffer terribly?’ She started thumping her chest, I think.
‘How can you go on without him?’
‘We will celebrate his life,’ I said.
‘But he has no life. He is gone. You must be feeling terrible loss, knowing you will never see him again. When you need him in your darkest hour, he will not be there. He is gone, gone, gone.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Unless you are joking.’
This was 16 years ago, but I remember the phone call like it was yesterday because my own reaction surprised me — I laughed. The call was so blunt, so devoid of any semblance of what is PC, so utterly Sri Lankan that I was comforted by the familiarity of it. It was so much simpler than someone beating about the bush.
A few years later, when I started writing for a magazine, Aunty Lakmini wanted to meet for lunch to reminisce about my father. While she was telling me that I was eating too many sweets, Irasha, an old friend, approached our table.
‘I read your articles in Adoh!’ Irasha smiled and rubbed her belly. ‘The first one was so funny, men, I tell you.’
‘Thanks so much,’ I said, surprised to receive a compliment from the girl who told me I looked like a burnt pork chop after I had spent hours working on my tan.
‘I tell all my friends to read it, men. Your second one was also not bad, but after that you have become a bit crap, no?
‘Sorry, what was that?’
‘You must not be trying,’ Irasha said. ‘Just taking the pay cheque and writing drivel.’
‘I have been trying.’
‘Really?’ she said. ‘Wow. Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. The articles are not badly written.’
‘They’re just a little boring.’
In unrelated news, Irasha’s father died soon after. Funerals in Sri Lanka are enormous social gatherings. The rule here is, if in doubt, go to funeral. If your work colleague’s mother’s astrologer’s jogging partner’s cousin’s wife dies, go to the funeral. There, I bumped into Yohan, my best friend from junior school, now 220 pounds, grey-haired and constantly panting.
‘You didn’t invite me to the wedding, you bugger,’ he said.
‘I’m not married.’
‘But then why have you let yourself go?’ He scratched one of his seven chins. ‘You have really aged, and look at this.’ He grabbed my love handles. ‘Disgusting.’
‘You look amazing,’ I said.
‘I know you’re joking, brother, but come on, I have always looked bad and yet, I have a wife. You’re single and you make no effort with the clothes you wear. Brush your bloody hair at least.’
I have been in Sri Lanka long enough to get used to this bluntness. I find it charming and endearing because I know that it is meant with good intentions. Aunty Lakmini was simply sharing the burden of my father’s death with us, Irasha thought I needed to work harder at my writing, and Yohan was concerned that I had no wife, when he was already on his second.
If you drive here, it would be fair to assume that people have little or no awareness of others. They barge, beep and bully you. Yet, if you have an accident or get stuck in a drain, these same people will put their lives on hold to run to your assistance. After the recent floods, the authorities had to plead with people not to turn up just to watch. At the same time supermarket shelves in Colombo were empty because Sri Lankans, from all walks of life, used much of their money to buy rations for those affected. Our maid infuriates us by always busting her money so quickly and asking for advances, yet we had tears in our eyes when she gave my daughter a birthday gift that cost half her salary. ‘I love her, no?’ she said.
Sri Lankans are the kings of offering unsolicited advice and of sticking their noses into your business when their noses have not been invited, but at the same time they are the gods of generosity, kindness, and friendliness. If you ever want a hand up when you are in trouble, don’t get in touch with the Good Samaritans, the police, or social services. Don’t signal for Batman. Call one Sri Lankan and a thousand will come to your assistance. In fact, you may not need to call because often people are so invested in your life anyway, they will automatically be there when you need them. They might tell you, ‘You’ve put on,’ or instruct you on how best to live your life, but they will drag you out of whatever hole you may be in. And you can be damn sure they will be smiling.
These are Sri Lankans. This is Sri Lanka. This is why expats like me find it impossible to leave.
In 2015, at Barefoot Café, when I did my first ever book signing, Irasha turned up and bought 10 copies of the Amazing Racist as gifts for her friends, even though she thought they were too intelligent to read my rubbish. ‘No one else might buy, no men,’ she said lifting one copy up. ‘It’s just dumbed-down fluff, no?’
When I wanted to propose to my wife (before she was my wife, of course), Yohan arranged everything from the venue, to the wine, to the flowers: ‘She’s too good for you. If you don’t get this right, she will say no for sure.’
For two years after my father died, Aunty Lakmini called our house every day checking on us, sending us food, buying us presents. She was an absolute pain in the neck, to be honest, especially when she started badmouthing some of my friends. I lost touch with her, but still sent her a wedding invitation in March 2011. Soon after, she messaged saying it was unlikely she could come because she would be dead by then.
On our special day, as I was giving my speech, I noticed her at the back, smiling and crying her eyes out.
Was she dying? No, she was only joking.
Chhimi Tenduf-La lives with his wife and two children in Colombo, where he has based each of his three books. His latest, Loyal Stalkers, has just been released by Pan Macmillan India.
Updated Date: Jun 11, 2017 10:14 AM