Enchanting island

A TV producer called me two weeks ago, asking if I would be interested in doing a short commentary stint for a T20 tri-series. I asked him the location. He said, Sri Lanka. Yes, I said instantly.

Sri Lanka has been one my favourite places, to travel for work, and also to generally unwind. With the long civil war behind them, every time I visited Sri Lanka after that, it has looked better and better.

Somehow, as a player, I never got picked in the team when India toured Sri Lanka. But, my first overseas tour as a commentator was to Lanka. I did not know what to expect then. I had a vague image in my head of it being like Goa or Kerala. But, after I explored it, I came to realise that although its topography is a bit like south India, it is nothing like India. Its people are nothing like Indians.For starters, it is clean. The entire country is clean. You will see obvious poverty in the smaller towns, but you will not see dirt. Give India a nice scrub and you get Sri Lanka. They are already ‘Swachh Sri Lanka’.

Like the Worli seaface in Mumbai, they have the Galle face in Colombo, where people turn out in the hundreds to take walks and generally hang around in the evening. There are a few stalls serving local food. After the people leave, the place remains litter-free and clean.

Clean and bright: A street in Kandy, Sri Lanka | B. Manojkumar

Kerala is perhaps the cleanest state in India, and it has a very high literacy rate. I wonder if there is a connection between the two, because Sri Lanka has a 100 per cent literacy rate, too.

Sri Lankans are not necessarily comfortable with the English language, and that hinders their progress somewhat on the world stage. But, as I said, they are still educated people.

What struck me the first time I went there was how Sri Lanka was nothing like its neighbours, India or Pakistan. Come to think of it, they are more like Europeans in their general lifestyle and instincts.

I watch with fascination how people react when they see a celebrity, say a cricketer, wandering into a hotel lobby. In India, fans will scream when they see one, topple a few things around them, as they rush to meet him, hoping to take a picture or two. In Pakistan, I have noted, they love their handshakes. When they see a cricketer they recognise, they will come forward and offer a firm handshake. While in Sri Lanka, even when they spot someone like a Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene, they will only exchange knowing looks with their friends, murmur about the presence of a celebrity near them, and generally feel very happy about it. That’s it.

Some of the more excitable and brave ones will come up to you, and you think they are going to ask you something very awkward by the way they approach you, but all they will want is a picture. They love cricket, but they are not as passionate about it as their neighbours are.

You see this quality of theirs at cricket matches, too. They come to the ground to support their team, they will play their music, beat the drums and basically have a party at the ground. But, when their team loses, they quietly leave the ground, some still playing the drums on their way home.

They speak Sinhalese; its tone is very soft and polite-sounding. So, when they speak English, it is in that same style. A Sri Lankan will never come across as disrespectful or cocky. As I said, I love a lot of things about Sri Lanka and no, I have not been paid by their tourism department to write this piece.

Manjrekar, a former cricketer, is a commentator.