By Emil van der Poorten –
Being a glutton for punishment from the usual sources of racist rhetoric, I thought I’d take a short jog down memory lane to provoke them into another frenzy of bad grammar and syntax!
Since my return to Sri Lanka a few years ago, my partner and I have chosen to celebrate the festive season with a little get-together with our neighbours in the (spacious) premises that we occupy. We only have one couple and their children resident on our land now and depend for workers, both full-time and casual, on those living on the informal “colonies” which have grown out of squatter settlements which, in turn, came into existence after the collapse of the estates that the State placed under its management after one of the most inappropriately named pieces of legislation in Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history – “Land Reform.”
I have on previous occasions referred to the economic and social damage done by legislation that was driven by malice and revenge and I am not about to repeat the facts again. Those of my vintage who have observed what became of agriculturally productive land in the mid-country of Sri Lanka, in particular, can speak far more eloquently to that bit of history.
A half-century ago, as a “newly-wed” with an infant daughter, we decided to have a “Christmas Party” for the children of those who were employed by us. Given the extent of replanting and rehabilitation of the ancestral land I was working at the time, the number of children of those engaged in this work was quitesubstantial. In any event, that occasion nearly ended in a calamity when someone decided that the person chosen to be Santa Claus should wear a pair of the cricket boots of that era. These had canvas uppers, hard leather soles with metal hob-nails on them. In any event, when “Santa” entered the front door, his feet which were not usually shod with footwear of any description, took off from under him and he reflexively reached out for some source of support. This happened to be the Christmas tree which had the usual adornment of that time of yards and yards of tinsel. This would have been fine except that the electricity supply to the festive lights on the tree wasn’t perfect and had a few “leaks” that made the tinsel decorations “live!” As a result, Santa received a fairly significant jolt of electricity, let go in a hurry and landed in a heap on the polished floor. No serious damage done, but that was one of the more ill-humoured Santas of my recollection and the children collecting their presents from him were not greeted with an excess of bonhomie. Those who, disconcerted by Santa’s (awful) face mask, raised any kind of protest while collecting their girfts were given (very) short shrift by him! However, all was well that ended well with lots of food and fizzy drinks which we didn’t realize at that time constituted a dentist’s nightmare!
A half-century later, we decided to do away with the “Santa” bit, pile the gifts under a “twig-tree” with (electrically-safe!) illuminations and play many of the parlour games that have endured over the years. These are admittedly of “western” origin but certainly don’t appear to offend even those determined to enforce the political and cultural “correctness” that appears to be the Sri Lankan “reality” today. The innocuous “passing the cushion” and “blind man’s buff” were among the juvenile amusements into which the participants – parents and grand-parents included – entered with gusto. Silly, inoffensive games have a tendency to provoke that kind of response, it seems! The “penalty” for getting caught with the cushion on one’s lap when the music stopped, was having to perform a song or a dance, with pretty well everyone opting for the former. Interestingly, there had to be the occasional intervention by the listeners to gently remind some of the performers that every verse of every song did not have to be sung!
In any event, the dentists’-nightmare food and drink was consumed, Christmas crackers were pulled and the presents piled under the tree were handed out to all the young people. Mind you these were of a very simple kind, not of the “designer” variety which are a “must-have” among the political and “pandam” class in this country. The balloons decorating the room were untied to be taken home by the children and a few of the parents lingered, after expressing their thanks on behalf of their children, to clean up the debris that is generated at times like this. As for us and those who live on our premises, the evening wasn’t complete without a recounting of its highlights, accompanied by the little bits of gossip that go with such chat!
What struck us as most sad about an event such as this was the fact that despite half a century having elapsed, there has been virtually no improvement in the financial and economic status of the families. If anything, the gap has widened significantly between the “haves” and the “have nots” in the matter of living standards. The economic divide, no matter how congenial the personal relationships might be, has become a veritable chasm and there are the unmistakable signs of deprivation aggravated by the fact that our rural neighbours are prevented from growing food of any description with which they can supplement their incomes and/or improve their nutrition by the depredations of vermin of various kinds. On the visual evidence, it is quite apparent that the children are malnourished and smaller than they should be for their ages. That they maintain a bright and sunny outlook on life is probably attendant on the fact that they are children without the onerous task of keeping the family’s literal and metaphorical body and soul together.
I expect that, as in the past, the usual horde of chauvinists will heap their abuse on me with the demand that I, personally, have to “fix” this problem. Sorry, folks, individual charity is NOT where it’s at in these circumstances. The only hope for these and millions like them in rural Sri Lanka is not acts of charity by the “haves” but societal change to create a fairer and more equitable society for all. The bandit capitalism of the Yankee Dick years has continued to accelerate, with the assistance of such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, denuding the country of all the social supports that were a reality in even the early twentieth century trumpeting “growth” figures that have no positive impact except on a miniscule percentage of the population of this country while the vast majority of the citizenry are victimized by that very “growth.” Organizing Christmas celebrations for the children of those who work for one or are one’s rural neighbours seems only to bring home the injustice and unfairness of a system that is being burnished and expanded while one looks on. We are certainly on the way to being crowned The Debacle of Asia and no matter how many messengers are shot by the sycophants of this regime, THAT is the reality, festive season notwithstanding.