SHE ADDED FLAVOUR TO THE GOLDEN TASTE OF CEYLON TEA

by Thilak S. Fernando

She is charismatic, charming, talented and pretty. Something about her personality makes even the passers-by in London turn their heads towards her to have a second glimpse. To blend with her cheerful and happy disposition she has been given the most appropriate name by her parents. She is Preethie, ( Happy), and I met her in London once again nearly after a decade and a half.

It was purely by coincidence that I lifted my head towards the direction of a gentle voice which resonated in my ears from where I was seated at the Sri Lankan restaurant, Lihiniya, in Cricklewood, North West of London. I was not hallucinated for sure, but there she was, Preethie Perera, only a few tables away from where I was seated, enjoying a typical rice and curry meal with her daughter Mihiri.

With unbelievable eyes I approached her to say hello. I had met Preethie, for the first time in London, over fifteen years ago at a venue where no pair of human eyes would have missed her presence at that time. While working at the Ceylon Tea Centre at Piccadilly Circus thousands of foreign tourists, who dropped in for a Ceylon Cuppa during their Oxford Street shopping spree, admired her as a typical Sri Lankan beauty always in elegant saree, performing a public relations task to the full.

Preethie, (nee de Silva) arrived in the UK at first in 1974, after a two year assignment in India as a speech and drama teacher. As a person who has the first-hand experience of living in England and Sri Lanka I thought she would be the best role-model for many Sri Lankan housewives who still seem to dwell in their own fantasy world believing that London is a paradise to live in. Preethie s experience of living in two countries, therefore, would be a real eye opener to many who do not seem to appreciate what they have been blessed with in Sri Lanka !

I soon gathered that Preethie had re-visited London two months ago, after living in Sri Lanka for 16 years, and even this trip has been only to settle Mihiri in Goldsmith College, University of London, to enable her to pursue a Degree in Information Systems & Management. Mihiri, born in London and having taken to Sri Lanka at the age of two, had two ambitions in visiting London to see her much talked about roots and to continue with her University education. In her own right she has been a vocalist in Sri Lanka before she left Colombo.

Preethie had been a bright student from her young days and grown up in a family environment full of love, and being spoilt to the hilt by her brothers and sisters. From her early days she has acquired a positive approach to life and to face challenges. It was that very spirit within her that made her go to India on a teaching contract at such a young age. She managed it by scoring top marks at an aptitude test when she was only 18 years old, just after her A levels and successfully obtaining a Diploma in speech and drama at The Wendy Whatmore Academy in Colombo.

When she went home on holiday after a two-year stint in India, she made a quick decision to head towards London. In 1974, making her dreams come true, she managed to find work at the Ceylon Tea Centre, Piccadilly Circus to add colour personally to the flavour of the golden taste of Ceylon Tea. Her hardwork, resolute character and ambition were further demonstrated when she managed to sponsor her fiancÚ, Premalal to London to study Accountancy, within three months of her arrival in the UK.

In London they got married and the couple settled down. Preethie continued to work for a brief period at the Tea Centre while Prem became a qualified accountant. Later she left the Ceylon Tea Centre and joined an English firm, Smith and Nephew, to become the only Asian beauty in the entire firm. Having a cascade of hair up to hip level Preethie still remembers how the sophisticated English gentlemen would approach her in public transport, excused themselves and felt her long hair with loaded complements and behaved in public impeccably those days. Its quite different from now or even in Sri Lankan public transport she adds. When their daughter reached the age of just 2, her husband made a non-reversible decision to return to Sri Lanka and settle down. Therefore, much against her Will, she had to leave her favourite London town in 1982.

Was it easy for her to get absorbed into the Sri Lanka life style once again having lived in London for nearly 9 years? And what did she see in Sri Lanka ? I put the questions to her.

Her first impressions of Colombo had been unbelievable with a changed skyline depicting a mini western city with high rise buildings. Also what struck was the fashionable houses which had sprung up, the exodus of people on the road wandering about and the complete change of its environment. Despite how the civil war in the country had an economic dilapidation on the social fabric she noticed that, at least superficially, people seemed to dress fashionably and everyone was money orientated. No doubt, it was a time when free market economy was given the thumbs up and the local garment industry was cashing-in US dollars by the millions, giving the local community also an infinitesimal opportunity of purchasing a decent dress around Rs.150.

And that was in Colombo, but how about in her own home town Wattala ? It was a different scenario Preethie would say. She found the gap between the haves and the have-nots had deepened. She was painfully touched by a certain section of the society, the middle class destitute, living in dire hardship and hopelessness and being worse than beggars. They were a different entity who were desperate, but were barred from going with a begging bowl due to the social stigma attached, she noticed.

Going home straight from a British society where no one should, in theory at least, starve because of the welfare benefits available, the predicament of her own town people touched her deeply and emotionally to the extent that she joined the Rotary International Club and became an inner wheeler to work for the poor at Wattala.

In Sri Lanka she set up her own private school which is affiliated to the Wendy Whatmore Academy of Speech and Drama. She also has Diplomas in Child Psychology and The Montessori method of education .. Dealing with students up to GCE A level on Speech and Drama she has become very much involved in counselling abused children on her voluntary social service functions. Amidst such responsibilities and pressure of work she has been managing a busy household smoothly and disciplined and brought three children up giving them the same kind of love and attention she received as a child. She believes that as much as discipline, mothers love and mother-child bond is vital to a childs character building.

In between her free time, when her mind began to wander literally, she has been writing modern English poetry which she wants to publish one day as an anthology. Preethie says her classroom has always been an inspiring portal and her pupils are the best critics of her work. She considers the poem titled Home Thoughts as her favourite. This seems to have nostalgic memories of a felled mango tree in her garden during her childhood and found missing on her return home from London. The memories surrounding a huge swing which was on the mango tree still manages to moisten Preethies eyes. Every time Ammi reprimanded us, Aiya and I used to swing non stop until our feet touched the tree tops and I could still visualise ammi screaming with fright, Preethie would relate her childhood experiences with shining eyes and expression written all over her face which has by now gone pink all of a sudden. Another area of Preethies talents has been oriental dancing which she learnt from two well-known gurus in Sri Lanka Vagira and Hema Maligaspe. Although she has toured the whole of Sri Lanka with Vagira and Hema Maligaspe troupe, unfolding her fluid movements supple and graceful, today she laments having given up her much loved hobby after becoming a housewife.

Having returned back temporarily to London after a sixteen-year spell what were the changes that have taken place in London lifestyle, I asked her. The population explosion appeared to be quite clear in her vision along with dirty streets. London roads are not certainly paved with gold stones No way ! she exclaims. Unemployment is rampant, cost of living has sky rocketed, public transport costs an arm and a leg, never ending bills seem to eat up peoples earnings, with the result of a huge refugee intake to Britain indecorous scenes of Kosovan refugee women begging on the streets and inside the Underground tube trains, have managed to change some parts of London into a third world city! A sad spectacle in London which she could not digest was the unbecoming public telephone kiosks infested with photocards of semi nude women advertising for sex - in certain instances some Sri Lankan women too in bold print. What has happened to the orderly behaviour of the Britisher at bus halts? She asks and answers herself by saying that it has become worse than Sri Lanka when it comes to pushing and breaking the queues when buses arrive! What did she have to say about the punctuality of the London bus services ? At every bus halt there are printed time tables giving specific times to expect buses but in practice there is not much difference here now from Sri Lanka Its the same old story, when they appear they come in convoys she emphasises. With Preethies speech and drama background, her intonation itself is sufficient to give a clear picture to the listener to understand to what extent the British system has been deteriorating over a period of sixteen years !

London is certainly not a bed of roses, Preethi flashes a warning laser beam to those who are dreaming of this wonder land. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages and one needs to rationalise and adapt to ones priorities if they want to come and/or live here because life in London is a continuous slog, she warns. "Many, even qualified, are compelled to do odd jobs to make ends meet". She does not approve of what some of the Sri Lankans say about life in England when they go home on holiday and paint a completely divergent picture where the gullible become victims of such egotistical jabbering - a sad but a rotten situation.

Talking of the youngsters in general Preethi refers to the teenagers at home as becoming increasingly influenced by the American television. Americanism among the younger generation seems to be contagious at present as kids seem to be fully influenced with the American dress and the way they talk. In a way it is nice to see the young being very smart as long as they hold on to their Sri Lankan cultural values she adds.

Having seen, lived and experienced in two different worlds, she says there is nothing like home for me where I can get back to my family and teaching. To confirm what she said at the interview, she is scheduled to fly out of London in December 99 . Her daughter Mihiri too decided to get back to Sri Lanka and continue with the London degree from home where she could have best of everything - a loving family unit, home comforts and simultaneously continuing with her singing career. What did she, as a teenager see in Sri Lankan youngsters in London compared with her Colombo clan? She confined her answer to one sentence - " They are a nauseating lot!".