[Though this is not a post about food, I thought my fellow Sri Lankans would appreciate it.]
Last month Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New York to address the United Nations. To mark the occasion the Sri Lankan embassy and consulate hosted a reception at the grand Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue to which I somehow received an invitation. To be honest, I would not have gone had it not been for my mother’s prodding, since she, too, received an invite. So I packed my only suit and headed up to Manhattan.
I wasn’t sure what to expect aside from tight security since this was the culmination of the week in which world leaders descend upon Gotham city for the U.N. Summit. Sure enough, plenty of New York’s finest lingered outside the hotel—as well as all over the streets—and we had to pass through airport metal detectors before emerging into the congested Waldorf lobby. Here the scene was wall-to-wall with well-dressed Sri Lankans waiting for a few seconds of face-time or perhaps just a handshake or snapshot with the Sri Lankan leader. I recognized one familiar face from DC who told me that quite a few Sri Lankans from DC and Virginia had also driven up for the event.
No sooner had the doors to the Empire Room opened than the fashionable mob aligned itself in one direction like a flock of migrating geese. Luckily I happed to be on the side closest to the entrance, so I got in without much fuss, but it still felt like “queing” up for a bus in Sri Lanka with all the requisite pushing and shoving (despite all the designer labels).
Once inside, I was pleased to have first dibs on all the food and drink, but I wasn’t prepared for the actual menu—roast turkey, pasta, mini grilled cheese sandwiches—which seemed more fitting for a PTA meeting. Where were all the familiar short eats—the cutlets, patties, and Chinese rolls—that one came to expect at gatherings of the spicy crowd? After all, at a Sri Lankan function you’d think they’d serve stuff we like to sink out teeth into. I was relieved when one of the roaming waiters brought around a tray of vadai, but unfortunately that was my first, and last vadai of the evening. Hors d’oeuvre tables lined the perimeter of the room, but my mother later informed me that I missed the one serving Sri Lankan specialties.
After the Empire Room was filled with a crowd of about 300-400, two Kandyan drummers began their rat-a-tat to announce the entry of the guest of honor. Large video cameras donned their spotlights and all manner of cell phones and digital cameras materialized from peoples’ pockets. Once again, I was lucky to be on the side of the room where the president and first lady made their entrance.
After doing a little loop with their entourage of embassy people, security personnel and paparazzi, the President and Mrs. Rajapaksa settled into a corner of the room where they proceeded to stand and pose for pictures with people for the next two hours. I could see that both of them were tired after what must have been an event-filled week, yet they managed to maintain their patience and good humor. I can imagine that everywhere they go they are gawked at in a similar manner, and I didn’t notice either of them having even a bite of food or a sip to drink the entire time. Wow, it must be kind of tough being a world leader. I almost felt sorry for them–so much so that I didn’t want to join the line to pay my respects.
Then I figured, what the heck. I had met Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandarnaike when I was four years old at the embassy in DC. Later at age 10, I had tripped over President J.R. Jayawardene at a wedding at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Might as well meet my third Sri Lankan leader. By now the line was thinning out and there was not a long wait. But what does one say? I shook hands with Mrs. Rajapaksa first, since most people were not giving her the time of day. Then to the president I said: “Thanks for winning the war, Mr. President. I was just in Jaffna in May and it’s amazing. There’s still a lot to do, of course, but if anyone can do it, it’s you.” He looked me in the eye and smiled. I think that means he’s going to take my advice.