In the month after my extended 60th birthday celebrations, I travelled extensively. This was not however to any new countries, so I remained stuck on 89 for a few months more. But I was able to get to fascinating places in countries I had been to previously.
In India this was to the North East, which had until a few years previously been forbidden territory except with a special permit. But by now things had settled down in a few of states that had been created out of the original Assam Province.
I was invited there by the Centre for Regional and Industrial Development, which was based in Chandigarh, but had been working for some time in this relatively neglected region. Given the special circumstances of our own North East region, it was quite interesting to work on a paper on ‘Sri Lanka’s North East, and the need to promote integration whilst preserving local identities’ for the Conference to which I was asked. Before delivering the paper I was able to register some similarities in our situations and work these into what I said.
The conference was held in Shillong, which had been the capital of Assam but was now part of Meghalaya, which had been created in 1972. It did not have a proper airport however, so we flew to Gauhati, the capital of Assam, and then drove for several hours to get to the University in Meghalaya, where the conference was held. The roads were not very good, which renewed my appreciation of what the Rajapksa government had done in building up connectivity so swiftly after the conflict. Had it only applied similar energy and commitment to human resource development, we would not have suffered continuing tension, but I suppose that lacuna is a function of our general neglect of an area which it is not profitable to work in.
An unexpected bonus of Shillong having been the original capital of the area in British times was the grandeur of the residence of the Governor, where we were hosted to dinner. This had been the home of the British resident, and the splendor of the reception rooms, with lovely wooden paneling, was still preserved.
The university staff were extremely helpful about arranging a car for me to hire to travel, after the conference had ended, to Cherrapunjee, which has claims to being the wettest place in India. The drive there was wonderful, with detours to spectacular waterfalls and also shrines in caves, including a beautifully formed stalagmite, which had naturally to do duty too as a Shiva lingam.
Cherrapunjee lived up to its reputation while I was there, with torrential rains all night. But before that I had enjoyed a fantastic sunset over the hills, at the isolated resort for which the university had arranged a special price. And the next day I had a memorable excursion deep into the forest, to see what are termed root bridges, tangles of massive thick roots joined together by the tribes who inhabit the area, to form bridges which are immensely strong and can take dozens across them at a time.I went back to Shillong the next day, and managed to get to Shillong Peak with its magnificient views, before being driven back to Gauhati. There I had arranged with Aide et Action, the NGO which had helped me with my vocational training centres in the North, to hire a car from the next day to have a quick look at Assam. I treated myself that night to a stay at the Brahmaputra Ashok, which gave me a special rate for a room with a fantastic view of the river, beyond a lawn bedecked with flowering flamboyantes.
The driver who turned up next morning was game to explore at random, so after a quick tour of the city temples, involving a trip across the river too, we set off to look for white rhinoceri. Again one of the participants at the conference had put me in touch with one of his friends who had a guesthouse near the Kaziranga National Park, and I was sent an escort who took me there. Before lunch we drove round the outskirts of the park, and were rewarded with magnificient sightings of several of these splendid beasts, gorging themselves in easy view. I realized I was extremely lucky from the excitement of young Dibrajothi who, though a tourist driver, had not seen such a sight before.
We drove on then however for I wanted to see a bit more of the state, and stayed overnight at a small town called Tejpur which had a couple of interesting temples. But it was the drive there that was the real treat, through tea plantations – on flat ground, unlike ours – and across massive rivers, with the sun setting just as we crossed one.
The next day we went on to Madan Kamdev, a 10th century archaeological site that proved fascinating, with a lovely little museum that had some splendid sculptures. The staff there were delighted by my interest, and even treated me to their own simple lunch in their quarters. This meant a mad dash to get to the airport on time, but Dibrajothi managed it.
In passing through Delhi on these occasions, I would generally meet the Joint Secretary in charge of relations with Sri Lanka, which our High Commission facilitated, though these were not official meetings. I realized that, though they were very proper, our High Commission staff were in despair about the mess the Ministry was making of relations with India. I think too that the Indian officials welcomed my visits, since it gave them some idea of possibilities of progress, though as it happened, the Ministry, dominated in those days by Sajin vas Goonewardene and Kshenuka Seneviratne, seemed determined to ensure hostility between the two countries.
Less than a week after returning to Colombo I set off for Norway. I had been asked to something called the Oslo Forum, an annual meeting on international relations which the Norwegian Foreign Ministry conducted together with the Geneva Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. I was asked specifically to debate with Mr Sumanthiran on the topic of whether one should talk with terrorists, with Tim Sebastian of Hard Talk Fame being the moderator. But the rest of the programme was also fascinating, with Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter participating. The latter lived up to his reputation as a thoughtful idealist, and shared with us his disappointment that his efforts to bring peace in the Middle East had not borne fruit because the Palestinian problem had been forgotten.
The most interesting session for me was the one on Syria, not least because for the first time the organizers had invited members of the official opposition, who had long wanted reforms but had no truck with the extremists whom the West supported. One of them revealed how her group had been offered support if they demanded the removal of Assad. But by now, with ISIS having just recently established its hegemony over such a large swathe of land in countries where the Americans had destroyed stable government, at least the organizers of the Oslo Forum had realized that the only elephant in the room could not be allowed to dictate all agendas. Indeed they had gone so far as to invite an official representative of the Iranian government, which would have been unthinkable when the United States governed all Western initiatives.
Fascinating as the conference was, I was as interested in travel after the Conference, and had been told by my former student Indra Soysa, who was now Warden of S. Thomas’, that the best thing to do was a cruise up the Norwegian coast, along the fjords. The Norwegian Ambassador, Grete Lochen, who had continued the practice I had set up with her predecessor, of small dinners to bring people together, proved immensely helpful, and directed me to the website of the firm called Hurtigruten that ran this service.
I had made the necessary bookings in advance, so the day after the conference ended I flew up to Bodo and boarded the Nordnorge, an immensely comfortable ship. The cruise, for three night, was quite expensive, but fully worth it I felt. What would not have been worth it were the very expensive meals on offer, only breakfast being included in the cost of the journey. But the breakfasts were superb, and I had stocked up before on bread and the pastes the Norwegians produce in abundance, along with a stock of beer.
I spent hours on deck, taking pictures of the sea and the sky and the ever changing coast. They had a jacuzzi on deck, and I used it on the first afternoon, on a beautiful day when the wind nevertheless was bitingly cold, in contrast to the immensely warm water of the tub. It was just as well I took my chance then, for the weather turned and we did not have such bright sunshine over the next few days.
On that first evening the ship went into what was supposed to be the most picturesque of the fjords, a narrow strip between looming cliffs, down some of which water cascaded. We were served hot soup on deck, an immensely cheerful chef filling up my cup repeatedly, between my dashes from side to side and up and down the deck. Sadly, the next evening, my iPad fell from my hands in the wind and, though thankfully it did not go overboard, the glass cracked. It continued to serve me well however, until it got drenched at Victoria Falls, and I fear too much water went through the cracks for the poor instrument to survive.
The ship landed at several ports en route, and we could get down and explore, and marvel at the lives of those who survived bitter cold and days of extended darkness during winter. But in these days of almost continuous light the towns were lively, with flourishing markets.
I also enjoyed some bridge on board, having responded to a note put up on the noticeboard. We were an eclectic crowd, American and British and Australian, male and female, and had a great deal of fun. The rest, who were on board for longer periods, did not grudge me interrupting proceedings occasionally so I could catch the best of the sunset from the deck.
After three delightful days, I disembarked at Kirkenes, dropped in on its pleasant church, and then flew via Tromso to Bergen. Norway’s second city was a lovely place, an impressive cathedral, grand Hanseatic houses, and a fortress with what was called the Rosenkrantz Tower, though this was a Norwegian Rozenkrantz, nothing to do with Hamlet’s friend and victim.
The next day I took the train across the mountains to Oslo, a fantastic journey along snow covered peaks and picturesque mountain lakes. And in Oslo, apart from seeing the Cathedral which I had missed when I had been there on official work back in 2008, I had lunch with the former Ambassador Hilde Haraldstad who had served in Sri Lanka for a long time, having been Deputy first to Tore Hattrem, the ambassador during the war. I had found both of them, as well as Grete, and their predecessor Hans Bratskar, very decent, though as I told them I felt Norway had not always been disingenuous, given that policy had often been dictated by Erik Soheim, whom I thought a scoundrel.
Ceylon Today 18 October 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=7522