When you hear Ceylon, you think Ceylon tea. Today most people know Ceylon by it’s modern name Sri Lanka. I prefer the old name. The name I heard throughout my childhood. The word that conjures up an island paradise complete with swaying coconut trees. When I was five, my mum showed me Ceylon on the map. She told me it was like a drop of ice-cream had dripped off the ice cream cone of India. It was an easy way to remember the shape of the country which was also known as ‘tear drop of the Indian Ocean’.
Both my parents and I were born in Singapore and have stayed here every since. I had no idea about nationality at 5, but I had a notion that I came from somewhere else when I heard my relatives constantly mentioning Ceylon. We still had people there, in the remote north, in Jaffna. I was fascinated by blue airmail letters my father received from Ceylon where his sisters still lived among rice padi fields. I would tear them open carefully but somehow the words at the edges were always unreadable due to the torn bits.
As a child my mum had a very different image of Ceylon. She didn’t want to go there because she was frightened that it was a dark place without electricity and filled with snakes. Her cousins who had been there had needled her about it.
Her father, who died long before I was born, came to Singapore for a job in the civil service. He travelled exotically by Ocean Liner. It was the 1920’s and both Singapore and Ceylon were British colonies. It was a period of exploration. Brave people venturing abroad to make their fortunes to return home one day – rich. Mostly they were compelled to leave by their parents. But due to the troubles that brewed and erupted in Ceylon no one chose to return
The British favoured the Ceylonese and gave them most of the jobs in the Civil Service. Years later this lead to the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka (the new name for Ceylon after independance) when the neglected Sinhalese majority formed the government. Another case of Imperialists messing up one of their colonies through divide and conquer strategies…sigh! I cannot understand the animosities of the war as my very close friends are Sinhalese. Mostly I think people in power are the ones who trigger off nasty wars.
Arranged marriages were the only thing allowed then. My grandfather was persuaded (probably commanded by his parents) to go back to Jaffna to marry my grandmother. They then travelled to Singapore by sea. It sounds like a big adventure, something you would see in a movie, but thinking about it now, it must have been pretty scary for a twenty year old. She left her heart in Ceylon because even though she only returned for a visit once, she never gave up her Sri Lankan citizenship. She held a blue Singapore identity card not a pink one (which is for citizens), refusing to take up Singapore citizenship. Fiercely she clung to her past and imbibed that sense of identity in us.
I have never been to Ceylon due to the unrest, but my heart superficially longs for the clear beaches and the misty highlands where the waterfalls take your breath away. I wonder how much of the beauty is still intact or whether it has been torn apart by the war. As I melt in the Singapore heat, deprived of space, at least I can dream of those lush green hills where the grass seems greener.