By Myles Ludwig
The bombings in Sri Lanka didn’t surprise me. I’ve long known it to be a violent country, its savage beauty riven by communal, religious, ethnic and racial conflicts and a repressive government that brooks no dissent and gives no quarter.
It was born in conflict between competing kingdoms of Tamils and Sinhala, each claiming birthright, then ruled by conquering Dutch, Portuguese and English. Despoiled by rivers of blood that mock its claim to be the Garden of Eden, the island in modern times has been easy hunting ground for pedophiles.
Names and faces may have changed, but not the tactics. Though outwardly a Buddhist country, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike was assassinated by Buddhist priest Talduwe Somarama Theroon in 1959.
So much for the religion of calm.
There was a terribly vicious war against the communists marked by unspeakable torture, then an equally brutal 30-year war between Sinhalese and Tamil, whom the British had left in a repressed condition. Muslims and Christians suffered in the crosshairs.
The Tamil Tigers who fought for an independent homeland were a fierce lot within the teardrop-shaped island of elephants, Buddhist dagobas, immense reservoirs and suicide bombers. Hindus, the Tiger men and women wore capsules of cyanide strung around their necks, lest they be captured by the merciless Buddhists. When the neighboring Indians interceded, they were to kill Rajiv Ghandi with a bomb carried by a woman in a basket of flowers.
That war ended a decade ago in complete destruction, and indiscriminate killing of civilians.
It seemed like the island was always crying.
I can recall stepping off the plane from Hong Kong at something like 2 a.m. some years ago and finding a nation of barefoot men in skirts. Shortly before I arrived, the Sri Lankan president had been killed in a bicycle bomb attack during a parade that left dead bodies and detached limbs littering the street. I recall a photo of the road filled with the empty shoes of those who had hurriedly escaped.
It was a scene repeated last Sunday.
“We are a poor country,” said the driver who picked me up at the airport in a seat-sprung and rusty Mercedes to take me to my hotel, the venerable Galle Face, untouched by the current bombers.
I was reminded of this some weeks ago when I attended a lecture at Raptis Rare Books on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach given by Churchillian scholar Lee Pollack, who offered a lighthearted tour of the great stateman’s gustatory, copious imbibing and furious smoking habits to a packed room.
As a young man serving in the British army, Churchill noted “the stomach rules the world,” and he preferred the standard English dishes of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding to anything else. But not humble pie. He’s reported to have said: “In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.”
Apparently, he drank scotch and champagne nearly all day, which occasioned President Franklin Roosevelt to observe, ”he’s the best man England’s got, even if he is drunk half the day.”
Sir Winston’s achievements were legion. Until I met him in Pollack’s presentation, the closest I’d come to the great man was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where his poster-sized portrait glowered at me from one wall of Winston Churchill Suite I occupied.
The Galle Face was a colonial relic, opposite the Indian Ocean and the stretch of grass known as the Galle, a kind of public park. It was redolent of the past, with its birdcage elevator, aphorisms and epigrams from the famous and notorious guests taped to the walls, the sibilance of people-driven punkahs, whirring ceiling fans and the slap-slap of the tall, barefoot white-uniformed and turbaned Sikh’s large feet on the dark plank floors.
It was a hostelry straight out of Somerset Maugham who had, indeed sojourned there. Churchill reportedly stayed there too, thus the eponymous suite.
My companion in a very narrow canopied rope bed was a young Tamil girl with skin the color of a burning coal ember and buck teeth. Though lulled by the great rollers of the Indian Ocean, I was ever alert for explosions; parts of the city were targets for Tamil Tigers. One never knew when they would strike next. It was a fitful sleep, one eye open to the possibility of death.
As now, one never knew where the front lines of terror were.
Myles Ludwig is a journalist living in Lake Worth.