"These are only some of the friends of Sri Lanka here tonight," said W.S. Karunaratne, the ambassador of Sri Lanka. "Tomorrow, the prime minister will meet the Sri Lankan Americans."

"Yes," echoed an aide, "and there will be lots of lovely hot curries."

"No," said someone else, later "we will have finger foods . It is so difficult to eat rice at a reception."

Standing nearby, to the left of the ambassador last night, just inside a ballroom of the Sheraton Carlton Hotel, was a small man in an immaculate white tunic, the robes of which brushed the floor as he pressed the hands proffered him.

Although seemingly engrossed in the reception line -- smiling warmly, shaking his head in sympathetic understanding -- his eyes worked the room all the while. Ranasinghe Premadasa, politician -- prime minister of the tiny Republic of Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon, once part of the British Empire.

Sri Lanka is busy courting, successfully thus far, foreign investment capital on three continents. Which is why the prime minister has come to Washington. Tonight he'll receive several hundrd of the approximately 6,000 Sri Lankans in the United States, and talk up the Sri Lanka Overseas Foundation, which hopes to capitalize on the patriotism and technical expertise of the Sri Lankans in the United States for the benefit of the Republic.

"Sri Lanka means 'resplendent island,'" said Tilak Semasinghe, an embassy employe who has lived here for 20 years. "We have wonderful beaches, as you know. But we have something else -- an ancient civilization. You must come and see it now. Who can say what it will be like in 50 years." And then, in a reference to the island repubulic's hopes for an economic boom, "Who knows? In 50 years, it might be a parking lot."

Last night's reception, hosted by the ambassador, was short and official, and very low-key. State Department officers, women in gold-trimmed saris, embassy employes, prominent Sri Lankan Americans all mingled.

"The prime minister?" whispered a woman draped in red and gold cloth. wrestling delicately with an unwiedly slice of watermelon. "The prime minister is a man of the people. He is the people," she said, gliding away.

Shortly after eight, the man of the people, wearly of receiving lines, began moving purposefully toward the door. His wife followed. So did the receiving line. So did the guest. Soundlessly. Smoothly. End of party.