Joy and sorrow in Sri Lanka

As the old saying goes, joy and sorrow are two faces of the one coin. Well, the coin certainly flipped quickly for us here in Sri Lanka. The lead-up to Christmas was full of the usual sales and celebrations and there was obviously no hint of the disaster that would cast such a pall over the island during the weeks that followed.

In order to enter the Christmas spirit, I decided to catch the 5.22pm train from Colombo to Negombo on Christmas Eve.

The week before Christmas I was in Colombo and caught the 5.22 home. I was early arriving at the station and managed to get a seat, a rare privilege in most public transport here. As the carriage filled, the passengers greeted each other warmly and joked playfully with one another. Those standing claimed the right to load those who managed to get a seat with shopping bags, umbrellas and other paraphernalia. And those sitting happily accepted their role as cloakroom managers. I suggested to the man sitting next to me that he could open a shop if he collected any more bags. His reply was quick—he was not much of a salesman but he was prepared to offer me the black one for a fair price! This sort of good-natured banter reflected the tone of most of the conversations.

I had presumed that the passengers all worked in the same office. No, my bag-seller neighbour, Suriya, informed me.



They simply caught the same train, morning and evening, and many had done so for more than ten, 15 and even 20 years. They always gathered in the same carriage—number seven—and, in the absence of newspapers, books and walkmans, it seemed that familiarity had bred friendship. Suriya invited me to join them on the 24th—‘that’s when we really celebrate’. And so it was that I made the trip to Colombo just to take the train home again.

Once more I arrived early at the station, but no chance for a seat this time. I was given a roll of streamers and conscripted into helping with the decorations! Some of the passengers had knocked off work early and were making sure that carriage number seven was properly decked out to encourage a festive spirit. By the time the train departed, there were streamers and tinsel hanging from the luggage racks, balloons being palmed around and even a mini Christmas tree, with star atop, perched on one fellow’s head.

Then the carols started. Buddhists and Christians alike raucously bellowed Joy to the World above the rattle of the train. The singing continued throughout the journey with a mix of Sinhala and English carols. Like elsewhere, memory of the words usually faltered after a verse and a chorus, but as one petered out a new one was quickly begun. Nobody minded repeats and O Come All Ye Faithful proved a favourite.

As sunset approached, candles were produced, passed around and lit. And that was how I left them when I got off at my station. Singing and celebrating the joy of the season and their fellowship with each other.

I haven’t caught the 5.22 since and haven’t heard how the tsunami affected my fellow Christmas travellers. Since we live on the protected side of the island, there will likely be no loss of life among them although all will know people who have died. The extent of the destruction and death has deeply affected us all.

New Year’s Eve was a national day of mourning and, as is the custom in Sri Lanka, white flags flew from public buildings, houses and cars, signalling the people’s grief. I didn’t see the 5.22 as it passed our place but I fancy there were white flags fluttering also from the windows of carriage number seven.

 

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