Friday, April 16, 2010

Celebrating Sinhalese New Year at breakfast

15 April 2010 - Colombo

I first visited Sri Lanka in the summer of 1987. Since then, I have visited every year but two. Some years, I have made three visits. My wife has remarked that if I wanted to choose a tropical island with political instability problems to study, why couldn’t I have chosen Jamaica.

Most US nationals whose work includes overseas assignments remain for relatively short tours of duty. For State Department and AID, the normal tour is three years. Moreover, becoming an “area specialist” and especially taking several assignments in the same country is somewhat frowned upon. Military overseas assignments in postings such as Afghanistan and Iraq are even shorter, not only for those fighting on the ground (typically one year) but even for commanding generals.

Ever since immersing myself in Sri Lanka, I have become increasingly skeptical of this practice. Here is just one reason. On each visit I discover new customs and practices; gain new insights; view a familiar scene in a completely different way as a result of something I have discovered. My friends exhibit new levels of trust by sharing confidences. Among things I have learned from chance conversations or being asked to participate are, for example:

  • Why so many modest restaurants, in improbable parts of Sri Lanka, have at least a few offerings of Chinese food on their menus
  • Why Sinhala and Tamil scripts are shaped so differently
  • The deep-rooted role that caste plays in many aspects of Sri Lankan society, even among the highly educated and well-to-do
  • Why, for many years, wine was taxed at the same high rate as hard liquor, which meant that little wine was drunk in Sri Lanka.
  • The traditional custom of a young child’s learning to write his or her first letter at an auspicious time, taught by an respected older relative or honorary “uncle.”

And on this trip, I was introduced to a traditional Sinhalese New Year breakfast, served at an auspicious time, on the morning of New Year’s day.

On New Year’s morning, we were awakened by loud firecracker detonations at the auspicious hour of 7 AM. At 9 AM, five of us - my 90 year old host, his housekeeper, her two teen-aged girls, and I, gathered for the traditional breakfast. Our introductions were punctuated by a second set of firecracker detonations, at the auspicious time of 9:10. This signaled that it was time to light the ceremonial oil lamp (actually candles) that commences many Sri Lankan ceremonies and festivals. A complex menu of traditional dishes was laid including most importantly, “kiribath rice” a rice cake made with coconut milk, which is served on various auspicious occasions. There were various sweets and pastries, plus ‘Sambols” (made with fish onions, coconut, coconut milk, chili peppers and other ingredients). So as not to offend the cook, it was important to take at least one of everything - which was a lot.

For many, including me, this began a day of socializing with friends, relatives and neighbors. In Sri Lanka, many of those who gathered would fit into all three categories.

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