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Verve People
June 14, 2016

Consul General Saroja Sirisena Talks About Her Journey So Far

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Ryan Martis

Fuelled by an interest in travel, politics and international relations, she carved a career in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service

Her residence in South Mumbai quietly speaks volumes about her homeland — walk into its welcoming ambience, and the Sri Lankan flag immediately catches your eye. Simply furnished – in a minimalistic fashion — the different rooms can be seen as one walks down the short corridor and into the hall that boasts furniture from the island country, a few paintings that speak of its owner’s artistic taste and potted plants that lend a soothing touch to the Sri Lankan official’s address in the city.

Her first posting as consul general brought Saroja Sirisena to Mumbai, and the self-confessed nomad has endowed her new address with her individual touch. In the almost two decades that she has served as a diplomat, before she came to India, she had been posted to Paris, Brussels and then Geneva — and, interestingly, has also lived in Britain and Australia, and of course Sri Lanka, with her parents. Her slim frame draped in an orange sari, Sirisena sits elegantly on the couch and admits, “Like a crab or tortoise, I carry my house with me. Whenever I am posted to a new country, I bring the familiar with me, like an oasis in an unfamiliar territory. But, I always have regrets when I have to move, as I tend to miss the people and the place. And as much as I can, I carry a part of Sri Lanka wherever I go. And when I have to move again, I carry a bit of the latest place where I have lived to my next destination too. I travel with 200 boxes. And when settling into a new city, I don’t go to shops and buy popular stuff. I go to little places and try to find things that appeal to me. And the best part is that there is a difference between travelling and living in a country. When you stay abroad and work for your nation, you get to see the best of the other country while continuing to be connected to your own.”

Interestingly, the girl who grew up to be a diplomat initially nurtured dreams of being a housewife. Born to doctor parents, she rewinds, “I grew up in a household of professionals, so the emphasis on education was strong. My paternal grandmother was a teacher. For a long time I thought that I would follow in my parents’ footsteps, but when I turned 16 I told them that I wanted to be a home-maker. Believe it or not, but I was not a nerd as a child. I played a lot, was involved in athletics and was also interested in playing the piano. Later, my interest in travel, international politics and languages greatly influenced my choice of career in the Sri Lankan diplomatic corps.”

The only child of her parents, she confesses to being the apple of her father’s eye. She recalls a precious gift he gave her when she was barely four or five years old. Sirisena reminisces, “I used to play on the dining table and hum tunes to myself. So, while we were in England he ordered a brand-new piano for me, which got delivered when we returned to Sri Lanka.”

Her life today is filled with numerous activities — for her role is about being the face of her country here, facilitating new economic gateways and interacting with a host of celebrities and businesspersons, and the people of the country. Although while growing up, she says, “I never felt that there were any limitations to my achievements, for my parents did not let my gender define me”, she does admit that being a consul general is at times a challenging job. “I embrace my life as a diplomat. My personal and professional lives move seamlessly and percolate into one another. I don’t have any pretentious airs as a diplomat. It is just a way of life. People always see the glamorous side of it, but there are several important consular functions. For instance, when I was posted in Paris, a tsunami struck Sri Lanka and its surrounding regions. We had never heard of something like that and were soon packing boxes with relief material to send home. There was an outpouring of grief and of kindness, sometimes misplaced, for people also sent winter clothes. Generally, work ranges from helping your own citizens when they are overseas, to handling visas, trade and investment matters, and promotional exercises for your country. This is my 18th year as a diplomat; so it comes naturally to me.”

On the gender bias in her domain, she states, “Diplomacy is still quite male-dominated. And as a woman, one has another role to play. You still have the feminine side to you that wants to be able to run a nice home, whether you are single or married. And when I move, I have to do everything on my own — it is tough, and yet exciting.”

When I ask her if she has a preferred destination to work in, Sirisena says diplomatically, “I live in the present, and the present moment is always the best. Each station — and country — has something very special. Paris was my first posting, I had lived there as a student and five years later, I was working there, living the life I had seen from outside. Each city has something to offer and when you live your quotidian life in that space, you take something back with you. Even before I came to Mumbai, the city was familiar to me. It is the Mecca for saris and I had come here with my mother 20 years ago for shopping. And I had asked to be posted here. People in India and Sri Lanka look the same, have similar attitudes and thought processes. I represent my country with so much pride. It is the most important thing I have ever done in my life. It is such a beautiful country and I am happy to set up a little bit of Sri Lanka here and share its unseen aspects with Mumbai. We have a very simplistic style. Open spaces are inherent to our island culture. Our homes reflect that. My only regret so far is that I have not picked up as much Hindi as I should have. I enjoy the local food and have relished puran poli, aamti and masala bhaat!”

Her job has its own risks; what would she do if posted to a country that was characterised by unrest? Sirisena states calmly, “I have been lucky in that I have not had to face unusual difficulties in my postings. But growing up in Colombo, during a time of rampant terrorism, has equipped me to face any difficult situation. I have seen strife at close range as I have grown up amidst tension and conflict. You learn to cope with it and then move on. You become a little resilient, which is a good thing. I have never really felt unsafe. The only time I felt so was when I was a student in Australia, and my family was in Sri Lanka and trouble erupted there. I was worried as I did not want anything to happen to them, and be the only survivor. But, by nature, I am a positive person and do not imagine the worst.”

There is a break in our conversation as the dining table, beautifully set with a floral centrepiece, gets laden with a host of Sri Lankan delights — mince balls, coconut-and-jaggery-filled rolls and more, topped off by a refreshing coconut cooler. Sirisena who quickly steps out of her sari and into an outfit from Kalaasa, a Sri Lankan label, by artist Lasantha Karunaratne who also designs clothes, says, “I like glamorous clothes, and I also wear dresses, pants and jeans. But, I spend most of my time in saris as that is the official dress code for Sri Lankan public servants. It is an embodiment of both tradition and modernity, and is also very functional. A sari is a symbol of respect and authority in my culture.”

Her strong connect with Sri Lanka keeps her grounded as she moves around the globe. Sirisena points out, “Our culture is what keeps me rooted to my home. It evolves over time; however, the essence remains the same.”

In India, she has slipped into a routine that, along with the demands of work, has also embraced yoga. On her affinity with the Indian ethos, she states, “India, especially Mumbai, is like a second home to me — with its foods, clothes and spirituality. Add to that the positive response of Indians to Sri Lanka, and the entire experience makes me feel completely local and happy.”

And, home in Sri Lanka to her is Colombo. “My parents, cousins and friends live there. It is the perfect combination of traditions, ancient culture and modernity, bustling cities and a tranquil countryside, white sandy beaches and lush green hill forests. It truly is a magical land.”

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