Sri Lanka – The Emerald Island

Ceylon , as the pearl shaped emerald island positioned
like a comma to the South East of India , was called when I was growing up, has
always been a fascinating place . Steeped in mythology and ancient lore , it’s
relationship with India dates from the time of the Ramayana , one of the most
popular ancient Hindu scriptures .
It is said, in the Ramayana , that the King of Lanka (
Ceylon is now called Sri Lanka) Ravana , abducted Sita , the wife of Lord Rama
and Lord Rama , with the help of Lord Hanuman and his army of monkeys , invaded
Lanka, defeated Ravana and brought back his wife Sita .
Even though Ravana is called the Evil King of Lanka , he
is also considered to be one of the most learned and disciplined worshippers of
Lord Shiva and is known and admired , despite the abduction,  for for his treatment of the captive Sita
with honour and dignity.
The beautiful island surrounded by the Indian Ocean on
all sides has the most beautiful beaches and is primarily a fishing and
agricultural community of people . Besides the abundance of coconut palms and
the bounty of the sea , Sri Lanka is famed for its produce including tea,
rubber and rice. The people are a mixture of the local Sinhala ( Buddhists,
Catholics ) and the Tamils ( Hindus and Muslims) speaking Sinhalese and Tamil .
Sinhalese is an amalgamation of influences from the  Dutch, Spanish , Sanskrit and Tamil
languages. The Tamil speaking community came over eight generations ago from
India , brought by the English to work in the plantations.
In recent history , the island nation has undergone
tremendous difficulties, misfortune  and
tragedy brought upon by the Civil War that lasted over three decades . The
Tamil minority in the Northern parts of the country led by a militant group of
rebels fought a destructive war seeking liberation and their own country to be
carved out of the island . Thousands of lives were lost and property damaged
and the land ravaged before the leader of the rebels was captured , killed and
the uprising quelled . Colombo and other parts of the country were bombed and
destroyed during these turbulent years and as one patient told me , no mother
and father ever traveled together in the same mode of transport , fearing their
children then being orphaned in the event of an attack.
Today , there is calm and peace and the country is
rebuilding itself . Fresh elections seem to have brought a stable and forward
thinking Government in place with a leader who seems eager to spend thought and
resources on developing those parts of the country where there was unrest ,
ensuring progress, development and integration into the mainstream .
Ever since GIPAP was launched in Sri Lanka , which was in
2002 and which was when I used to manage the enrolment and re approval process
from my little office in Bombay , I had wanted to make a visit there to meet
and train the physicians and get to know the patients better and see how we
could bring to them what I had created for the patients in India . In those
days I was also working long distance with Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as
Nepal . Eventually the Juggernaut of GIPAP in India consumed all my attention
and our PO team in HQ took over the management coming to me for special cases
that needed intervention. And the of course the accruing of new cases stopped
altogether . And I became busy with the setting up of FOM and nurturing it.
This made me all the more eager to foster a similar
support system in these smaller countries in the sub continent which were so
similar to the Indian scenario. And though I visited Pakistan twice I had to
wait till last week to make Sri Lanka happen. Maybe the time was right only now
, after I took over as Region Head of the newly formed South Asia segment of
Asia. And after the PO team in India took over from their counterparts in HQ
the management of their cases.
In a way I must acknowledge Rising Sun’s role in my pursuing
this rather more aggressively.  Whereas
the other counties in the region were making their presence felt , erratic and
then no participation at all by Sri Lanka made them conspicuous by their
absence . What was actually happening there in that country where there were
close to 500 patients who needed care and guidance and who would benefit from
learning how to get together for their own betterment . Why was the one
representative who showed promise , not able to contribute and make a
representation ?
I began to feel that I really was not putting my own full
potential to use and made up my mind to pursue Project “Visit Sri
Lanka”. It had been lying on the back burner for long enough . Being given
the responsibility of Region Head I guess spurred me on.
To be honest what really kick started the effort was a
random Hello All email  request I got
from Dr Mahendra Perera ( the senior oncologist and HOD at the National Cancer
Institute in Maragama with whom I have been working in close virtual proximity
for the last 13 years ) to vote for his son’s video film in some on line
I just decided to write to him in reply to that email
telling him I was interested in visiting his institute and conducting a support
group meeting for all the CML and GIST patients . And Hey Presto the project
was on track. He called the next morning and said , ” Fix the date , Madam
. My hospital is yours ! ”
Beena , who is the PO for Sri Lanka got cracking and
wrote to all the other doctors to check if we could reach out to their patients
and obtained permission to share their contacts. The Admin team and Sudha and
Priyanka got down to working on adapting our local Meeting SOP to an
International one and before one could say Ceylon Tea , banners were being
designed and draft agendas prepared , the Sri Lankan National Anthem sourced
and necessary audio visuals uploaded. Copies of Maximo, FAQ on CML and GIST ,
Book of Stories and wristbands were couriered ahead while a Registration Box
with Feedback Forms , Name Tags , Attendance Register and other paraphernalia
was prepared to go with me.
Periodic phone calls and text messages from Beena and
myself to Dr Perera reminding , alerting and urging him for updates and
confirmations were the order of the day till the day I left .
My flight landed on Monday morning there at 5 am and I
just had enough time to throw my bags in the hotel room before heading out to
Maharagama which is an hour and a half away .
Had a good meeting with Dr Perera and his team and learnt
so much about the needs and challenges they faced as well as how they overcame
most of those.
The next day I was at Ragama and met Dr Senani and her
team and patients.
I will let the pictures say the rest …the meetings ,
the sharing, the presentations, the energies present and Maximo’s popularity .
Those of you who have met Manura briefly at Rising Sun
will be happy to know he was there and was of the biggest help to me as was
young Dhanushka , a 20 year old GIST survivor . Both of them are eager to work
with me and set up a group with other enthusiastic peers. In fact , volunteers
have been recruited and a date fixed for a core group meeting in January .
The physicians have promised all support to us as well as
to each other.
I am totally overwhelmed by the Sri Lankans !!! Their
good and loving nature , their humility , the understated elegance in all they
do, their incredible good looks that prove handsome is as handsome does and
their hospitality .
The common thread of Asian heritage keeps us bound
together and so many little details brought home the similarities amongst us.
The love of the Saree, the fish curry and rice on banana leaves which is the
staple diet and which is eaten with the fingers by one and all, the fondness
for music and dance and the love of the sea.
My moment out of all was when the fishermen at Galle,
down in the Southernmost part of the country, called out to me to help pull in
the day’s catch . Heaving the haul , and dragging the net in, one with their
breathing and their chanting it brought home this one fact to me . We are no
different from one another . The infinite power of the Universe brings us
together at it’s will and then it is up to us to make the most of it . 

*Blog posted on behalf of Viji Venkatesh

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