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Thursday, 30 June 2011

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Out of the mouths of babes...

The military plane flew at speed, soaring over the afternoon traffic and suddenly came down in a thrillingly impressive vertical drop to disappear behind the high-rise buildings glistening in the sun. The Paris Air Show was in full swing as we made our way behind the slow moving traffic to Bondy, a Paris suburb, for an event organized by the Tamil school in Bondy and the City Council or Mairie as it’s known in France.

Ambassador Dr Dayan Jayatilleka and his wife Sanja De Silva Jayatilleka with little Maya at the event organized by the Tamil school in Bondy and the City Council.

Bondy is a world city, said one of the officials I met at the event, because it has people from all over the world as he explained proudly. His job at the Mairie was to ensure access to disabled people in the city. Having need of crutches himself, the task seemed in very safe hands, and I admired the foresight of the city’s administration, remembering emergencies closer home where the less difficult task of addressing the special needs of women was considerably less safely placed in the hands of all male committees.

Smiles of relief

A room full of children swinging their legs and turning in their seats with impatience greeted us with smiles of relief. The colourfully beautiful costumes of the performers peeping out from the edges of the stage, the little bells on their feet betraying their presence to us, made us smile with pride and affection for these children who were mostly of Sri Lankan origin.

The Socialist Mayor of the city, Gilbert Roger, (soon to be a Senator) who was in the audience, had an easy familiarity with the children and the organizers. He likes being with the people, he told my husband; he finds it so much more gratifying than his other job where he makes policy for a million and a half people and never meets a single one.

Dignified people

Rajendram, the livewire of the event, ensured that we were well-looked after, even providing translators for my husband and me for the speeches which naturally were in French. She was everywhere, seeing to everything, on the stage and beside me, with the children, with the officials, announcing, organizing tirelessly and making it look easy. She told me she works for the Mairie and has five children, two of whom were the star performers of the show.

How does she do it, I wondered, watching her beautiful and talented daughters dance on stage. Her husband, the cheerful Sivananthan Rajendram, President of the Association for Links and Cultures, (according to my neighbour’s translation from the French for me, adding emphatically, but for dignified people) was equally busy guiding the event. That he was much loved by all was obvious, even before my neighbour and city official whispered to me.

He is very nice. He is like my brother. It was clear that Mr. and Mrs. Rajendram had achieved something remarkable, as we observed the officials of the Mairie, including the Mayor and his wife, rallying round the event and working like members of one family. They were all kind enough to make the effort to tell us in English, that we were very welcome in their city.

The hall fell silent as the organizers took the mike to announce the commencement of the performance. Association Liens et Cultures said the banner at the back of the stage, which in co-operation with the City Council had sponsored the event being held to award year-end certificates to students of the Tamil School, where they teach English, Tamil and Dancing. There were many items of Bharatha Natyam and children’s dances ending with a couple of lively and enjoyable Bollywood items.

Beautiful eyes

During a short break for costume change by the dancers, a tiny little girl, dressed lavishly for the occasion, complete with opulent necklace, matching bracelet in each hand, hanging gold earrings and a dress to match came straight at my beckoning husband and fitted herself close to him and stood there cuddled up as my husband put his arms around her gently and held her.

She stayed there for longer than I thought she would, and occasionally lifted her little face with two big and beautiful eyes, and attempted to say something softly but neither my husband nor I could understand it. Perhaps she couldn’t really mouth the words, she just expected us to know from her look. When her mother came into her line of sight, this little beauty ran off to hide amongst the folds of her sari. Her mum told us her name was Maya and that she was three-years-old.

Cultural heritage

The certificates were handed out to students as they came up to the stage where my husband, the Mayor and his wife, various officials of the Council’s Cultural Association did the honours. You could see the Mayor was indeed a man of the people as he kissed the girls and patted the boys as they took their certificates from him. I appreciated their gesture in offering me the privilege of awarding some of the certificates.

France, and Bondy in particular, teaches us a lesson, said my husband in his speech. Bondy had provided the space for its residents to practice their cultural heritage, teach it to their children and encouraged the learning of their language - in the present case, one which was 5,000 years old. The Mayor, who had been present for the first half of the event had to leave to attend another one of the city’s cultural events, this time an African one.

Bondy’s Mayor, my husband revealed to the audience, had requested his assistance in persuading the government of France to consider teaching Tamil in schools.

Peace and harmony

Tamil culture, my husband continued, was an important constitutive component of Sri Lankan culture and it was heartening to see it being practised and taught here in France, and he thanked the City Council for their support and encouragement. We take away the lessons of this afternoon, he assured them as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France, of Bondy’s commitment to celebrating its residents diverse cultural heritage, for providing the space and its active support so that all those cultures may flourish amongst its communities.

It would have been impossible for those of us Sri Lankans who were present there, to stop our private thoughts from wandering to our own country, its years of conflict and their inevitable consequence, the polarisation of our communities.

Our country was still healing, after being battered and bruised for decades, now longing for peace and harmony and well-being for all its citizens. One of the Tamil guests told me, we feel so much freedom after the Tigers were defeated. So much freedom. She was talking about Bondy, France. Now it’s alright.

As we left the hall after the event and the group photos, and the many hugs and the feeling of having been a part of something significant, we met little Maya, playing with the other kids on the steps to the exit. As my husband turned round to wave at her, Maya who had been sucking on her lollipop, and gripping it tightly and protectively as any three-year-old would to her most prized possession, turned towards him, her big bright eyes widening in a smile of recognition, took the lolly out of her mouth and held it out to him, in an invitation to share.

 

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