Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Visitor

This article reminded me of a visitor at home in Vizag ten years ago.

On a train journey from Vizag to Hyderabad, my father met a few Sri Lankan people who were in India for some sort of navy-related training (that I cannot correctly recollect). He was coming to join my mother and me in Hyderabad, from where all of us were supposed to go back to Vizag together a couple of days later. It was rather a surprise, then, that the Sri Lankans were also travelling back by the same train. I had never spoken to any foreigners, and I was pretty excited at the chance to meet people from abroad and know what they thought about India. I didn't ask any profound questions, I just wanted to know if they'd enjoyed their stay here, and was delighted when they told me they had.

A few days later, one of the men from the group visited us at home. My father picked him up at the bus stop where he'd alighted, and as soon as my mother opened the door, prostrated himself full-length at her feet. "In our country, we venerate women," he explained, and insisted on calling her Mother. He referred to me as his sister- "I don't have a sister, but now I feel God has given me one."

He was of average height, with a serious face and a beard. He wore glasses on a string around his neck. This was around the time when Afghanistan was in deep trouble, and the Bamiyan Buddhas had just been destroyed. A Buddhist, he had been shaken by the incident and asked to see the newspaper as talk veered around the destruction of the Buddhas- he pored over it seriously, at the gaping cavities in the sun-backed rock where the statues had once proudly reigned. He was evidently disturbed, and his already reticent self seemed much quieter.

In a while, he handed my mother a light green tin of apricot-flavoured Ceylon Tea, saying this was something that was to be expected from a visitor from Sri Lanka. He rose to leave, prostrating again at my mother's feet, and saying quiet goodbyes. He called us once later to thank us, but we haven't heard from him since.

A decade has passed, and things have changed so much around the world, in the countries around us, in Sri Lanka and India. Afghanistan was followed by Iraq, the tsunami struck in 2004 and killed thousands of people, the LTTE was routed a couple of years ago, the fishing boundaries between India and Sri Lanka and the rehabiliation of Tamil refugees continue to be dicey questions. India grapples with its own domestic problems and corruption, and struggles to bring to book criminals who rape and plunder in broad daylight but evade punishment for long periods. If ordinary people can get along with one another and make things work, what really goes wrong at centres of power?

I don't know where our visitor is now, but I do hope he is happy and flourishing. Our bilateral ties with Sri Lanka might be steady, but a lot of work needs to be done on the points of contention. We need to move beyond mere civilities now and work with our neighbours immediately to improve the situation in the region.

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