2 March, 2024

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April & May – Images From Two Months

By Ravi Perera

Ravi Perera

Reflecting its status of a burgeoning middle class suburb, the Thalawathugoda supermarket was large and modern looking by Sri Lankan standards. It also provided ample parking, a feature unavailable at most Colombo supermarkets. Wanting to get some groceries I directed my taxi driver in.  

The supermarket had no eggs nor fresh milk!

A supermarket which has neither eggs nor fresh milk refutes its very definition (recently I was told at the SLT teleshop down Dickman’s Road that they had no portable telephones) What economic policy led this country to be out of basics like eggs and milk is mind boggling. Unlike the portable phones, these foods are locally produced, in farms, as well as domestically.

Almost from the time of independence, our governments have been talking of promoting both dairy and poultry industries. There are several government institutions specifically assigned for the task. After seventy years of hype, we cannot yet ensure adequate supplies.

Giving up grocery buying I headed home towards Colombo, going past the Japanese built Parliament House. I could not help reflecting on the fact that this impressive edifice was our primary policy maker, directions emanating from there decided the nation’s journey; the country situation today is the sum of the mind-set, attitudes and abilities of our parliamentarians. 

Perhaps a metaphor for the country; at high noon the traffic on the Parliament Road is chaotic. Bumper to bumper, crawling forward yard by frustrating yard, progress is measured by the number of times you are able to cut   across other vehicles; what would be considered rude in most road cultures, passes for initiative here. To give way to another vehicle was to diminish the meaning of the driver’s private journey, every inch mattered, every second counted. 

I was being driven, giving me a fleeting opportunity to observe the other drivers. The shared agony on the Sri Lankan roads appears to have imposed a standardization even in their appearance; edgy, slovenly men reduced by their own rat like manoeuvres on the road.  

The disorder in the country is so pervasive it defies description, to comment on it is trite, like saying there is a lot of water in the ocean. Without grappling with such a generality I thought I will attempt to describe the images of various happenings these two months, impressions they had on me, thoughts that came of them.

The month of April was scorching, a heat wave singed the entire region. Without an electric fan, even the indoors gave no respite. Then a double jeopardy, the cost of electricity was raised substantially at the same time. The relief that the fan gave became exorbitant in price. For a people whose buying power had been already reduced by the drastic depreciation of the rupee, electricity has become a luxury.

 In Sri Lanka, adversities do not come singly, hard in the heels of the heat wave, came the torrential monsoons, lashing the fields, flooding the roads; from heat-strokes moving to Dengue and Malaria warnings overnight. 

However, come hell or high water, politics, Sri Lankan style, goes on. May Day which is marked only perfunctorily in most countries now, is still a big event in this country. When an idea is introduced, it seems to assume a permanency in our national psyche, even though the basis of that idea has long ceased to be of any meaning in the originating countries. (look at the deplorable rag of the freshers at our universities, something that does not happen in any other country today!)

Some of our May Day parades carried huge busts of Marx, Engels and Lenin, the former two German Jews, and the latter, a Russian. Those who are uninitiated in such things may wonder why these three fierce looking Westerners are held up as icons at May Day rallies in this very South Asian setting, a multitude so different in character and outlook to them. All three come from mighty nations, hugely productive races and world powers. What German hands manufacture, invariably ends up becoming the standard in that product. Russia, although different to Germany, is no less impressive, for decades the second most powerful country in the world, going eyeball to eyeball with the American colossus.

Marx, Engels and Lenin were of a large mould, men whose life mission was no lesser than to change the course of human history (‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it’-Marx) They were towering intellectuals, writers with an enormous impact across national borders, inspiring generation after generation. For some reason, for a failed country, for this dispirited nation, these three revolutionaries seem to offer an ideal to look up to, regardless of the gaping dissimilarities between their cultures and ours.

In less than a week after the May Day parades, the nation moved seamlessly towards celebrating Wesak, the most revered event in the Buddhist calendar. Gone were the blood red uniforms of revolution, the battle cry of class war; the devotees made their way to the temples, professing loving kindness towards all beings. Is there a deep-seated   confusion or even a bewildering indifference to the moral contradictions that this attempt at reconciling two very different cultures and philosophies represent?

Marxism avowedly is a materialistic philosophy, with no room for religious speculation or constructs. Perhaps such an easy meeting of two disparate philosophies is only possible when the purported believer is either insincere, or, simply incapable of grasping the true meaning of his own contradictory postures

Socialism does not happen automatically, it is a social order to be constructed consciously, by human will, as well as skill. The Sri Lankans are reiterating their faith in a social construction at which, the Russians and the Germans, despite their best efforts, failed. Brave, or even foolhardy perhaps, does our record since independence give reason for optimism?

If the unfurled red banner of the May Day signifies a march to the unknown, the rituals seen at Wesak celebrations can only portent a long road ahead for the disciple, they are only at the very beginning. Ignorance is the key; the sense of “self” so predominates in their every word and action. Meanwhile, the country is awash with every kind of vice; avarice and cant hold sway, particularly in the religious institutions.

The other image I have of this period is of our President Ranil Wickremesinghe attending the coronation celebrations of King Charles III in London. In September last year, he attended the funeral of Elizabeth II, the King’s mother. In the egalitarian world of today the pomp and ceremony surrounding the royals may look like a circus, however it has worked for the British, one time the most powerful country in the world; and even today, a prosperous democracy whose systems and concepts have come to define good governance.

Under our constitution, the President is to be elected by popular vote, while the position of the king of England is hereditary, a Head of State whose role is primarily ceremonial. Only history can explain Sri Lanka’s affinity to this far away island in the North Atlantic Ocean; neither geographically nor culturally, are we linked.

It makes no sense to quarrel with history, we cannot change it. The British not only conquered the entire island, but also left a permanent imprint on the systems, and even the culture of this country. When we say parliament, elections, political parties, legal systems, western medicine, the constabulary or even cricket we refer to things that came with them. Not that all of these came in 1815, many were non-existent then even in Britain, while other concepts were in an embryonic stage. But they developed and evolved in Britain, the British were institution builders, that is their genius. (compare with our creation-the executive presidency, an institution deplored all around!)

Nevertheless, it was an empire and we were the conquered. If the experience was hurtful for us, it must be deeply rankling for India, much older, larger and populous than Britain. Now, the India story is rapidly changing, with modernity has come wealth and respect. It chose to send its Vice President for the coronation.

Relative to the massive empires they built, the seafaring European nations were small, hard-pressed to find the manpower for the mammoth task of administering their far flung colonies. Conquering was the easy part, in military terms, they were rarely matched; guns versus bow and arrow, professional soldiers versus hereditary leaders. Again and again, they encountered decaying societies, primitive technologies, people led by traditional leaders: conceited, insular and foolish men. 

The feudal lords of the native lands may have bamboozled and terrorized their own people, but the moment of truth had arrived; their countries were empty shells, miserably weak. For Centuries these comically inept indigenous leaders had vindicated their status with feudal shibboleths. Kept in a state of befuddlement by that system, the people had no capacity to judge their rulers, nor did they have a true assessment of other societies. They assumed societies just like them; small schemes, small intrigues and big talk.

These native lords may have been deficient in true capabilities, but they had plenty of pragmatism. Before long, they were playing the role of native administrators of the conquered lands, on behalf of their foreign masters. The shrewd eyes of the colonialists would not have failed to notice the avarice of the local worthies, their supine nature and their greed for office. It suited them well to have these native caricatures running the colonial government, of course, under the watchful eyes of the King’s representative.

I picked these two months (April and May) for no particular reason than that the impressions of this period are still fresh in the mind. These two months are no different to other months of the year, and the year is no different to every year since independence. A story of a nation on a downward spiral, stupefied and unconcerned.  

Seventy years after the British left, that distant era now looks like a mere interlude which ended in 1948. Since then, there has been much hoopla; fuss and bother, a lot of big talk but true greatness has eluded us. We have had, many false prophets, pretenders, wind bags and plain and simple crooks, but no great men. The situation now seems to be what prevailed before 1815: a weak country ruled by a few families; a country defined by systemic corruption, economic stagnation and overall social decay!

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Latest comments

  • 13
    1

    SL is not alone in the current sorry situation after gaining independence. While some SE Asian countries have prospered, former African colonies, & Pakistan, have all suffered under incompetent & self serving corrupt politicians after independence.

    Mismanagement & hypocrisy, particularly, of the so called ‘socialist’ leaders & the ignorance of the average voter who have put their faith in uneducated politicians, SL has become a begging nation. Yet, we pride our selves with the past glory of Sinhala kings, folklore entwined with unsubstantiated historical facts written by a monk in the Mahawansa centuries ago, taken as the gospel truth, just as Buddhism, rewritten by current monks, we are only fooling ourselves. The claimed high literacy rate in SL is limited to read & write only, not critical thinking, as there is no other explanation for tolerating known corrupt politicians, accepting bribery & corruption as normal, immune to the suffering of animals (despite calling SL a ‘Buddhist nation’), including wild animals, due to loss of habitat & unregulated tourism in wild life sanctuaries & inherent racism, not learning the lessons after decades of civil war, all of which, boils down to our general mentality. We have only ourselves to blame.

    • 2
      21

      Everything is hunky dory under the monarchy I suppose— the country is still unable to be rid of an archaic monarchy!

      • 5
        0

        If people are into to it, how can you get rid of it?

        Statistics prove yet today, over 60% in UK are pro monarchy in that country. They are not alone. The Netherlands and Spain are the same. This is comparably somewhat similar as our stupid folks agreed with ” mlechcha Rajaakshes” keeping them above all the years.

        If people were wiser in our hell, things would not have reached to this level of tragic for sure. That is why I always believe, not only politicians, but people are to blame.
        .
        However, not knowing the venomous nature of Rajapakshes, the majority of this country were misled in repetition… If a society is misled by any means, outcome is beyond estimation.
        .
        I spent few days in London last week, and I thought it is still the place where I think everyone respects the other. I have been travelling around globe and I know what I am talking about. London is still the place any nationalities to feel somewhat better. Be them garbage collectors or higher officers, they are all helpful to anyone.

        • 1
          0

          “When an idea is introduced, it seems to assume a permanency in our national psyche, even though the basis of that idea has long ceased to be…”
          I am reminded of the Mihintale Loku Hamuduruwo, currently kicking up a fuss that the State is not supplying him with funds for his annual Perahera. This arrogant monk appears to think that his needs for self-aggrandisement trump even the country’s bankruptcy. Should we be surprised at the state of Buddhism in the country with such pompous idiots at the helm?
          Even the much-touted NPP/JVP doesn’t have the nerve to take on such characters, despite their May Day tamashas.

          • 5
            0

            OC , this time I can agree with you .You must be taking your pills now ! Have you read Ranil’s brilliant book on Buddhism ?

            Those who talk of religion, even for cunning reasons, must be exposed as fools or rascals.

            For them, in the day it is religion, in the night it is money. Both are addictions-opium of the masses !

      • 7
        1

        SJ,
        Yes, this country is still unable to get rid of monarchy, but it has much more better position on democracy than the so called monarchy less dictatorship in Sri Lanka or Communist China (Full dictatorship).

        • 0
          8

          Are we sure?
          Check on racism for a start.
          *
          Learn a little about China with an open mind, and we will talk.

  • 7
    0

    “The situation now seems to be what prevailed before 1815: a weak country ruled by a few families; a country defined by systemic corruption, economic stagnation and overall social decay!”
    I don’t know what to say about our people but we have sufficient evidence to say that our rulers are not sincere to this land and people since the power handed over to them in 1948. Even after we show the final evidence that is our rulers declared Bangruptcy. This Country have a population of more than 22 million people or more than 6 million families but we could not find not a single familiy to produce a better leader than from this few families. US which has a population over 330 million or UK which have a population of over 60 million is now able to produce leaders from migrated coloured people, Why Sri Lanka still wants to continue with the same families who proved evidently that they are not suitable to govern the country and people?

    • 8
      1

      Part I)
      Ajith,
      “This Country have a population of more than 22 million people or more than 6 million families but we could not find not a single family to produce a better leader than from this few families. US which has a population over 330 million or UK which have a population of over 60 million is now able to produce leaders from migrated coloured people, Why Sri Lanka still wants to continue with the same families who proved evidently that they are not suitable to govern the country and people?”
      How could one compare Sri Lanka with UK 1500 – 1800 years of history or heritage, USA with only 350 – 400 years of Heritage!!
      On the contrary, Sri Lanka has 2600+ years of Civilisation and Heritage, under their belt!!??
      Further Sinhala Buddhists (SB) are a superior Aryan Heritage, unmatched by any other in this world!!!
      That’s the reason our constitution provided for Buddhism, though born in Bharath, present day India, we Sri Lankans, gave that religion (Buddhism) PRIME IMPORTANCE or Foremost Place and appointed an eminent Buddhist Monk to implement the the “ONE LAW ONE COUNTRY” ethos and
      (TBC)

    • 9
      1

      (Part II)
      Believe me Gnanasara Thero has been doing an excellent and admirable job unmatched by any other mortal, envied by one and all for his PROGRESS AND INTERLECTUAL CAPACITY BEING EXHIBITED BY THIS COLOURFUL TUMULTOUS INDIVIDUAL!!!???
      Wonder of Asia!!!???? If not for Bankruptcy, we would have been on the “TOP OF THE WORLD”!?

  • 17
    0

    SJ
    Everything is hunky dory, as you put it, in UK. There are no shortages, except, maybe, free range eggs, which are in short supply sometimes due to recent bird flu but barn eggs & caged hen eggs are freely available. Food inflation is around 18% but its no big deal, the poorest of poor who are effected can rely on free food banks, so nobody goes hungry. As for the monarchy, its up to the born & bred English to decide, after all, it’s their country. However, for your information, abolishing the monarchy cannot be done by a referendum due to constitution implications, just like abolishing the ‘not fit for purpose’ Presidency in SL. More importantly, we have a PM of Indian heritage & is a practicing Hindu. He didn’t change his faith just to be in politics, unlike some of SL politicians.
    It is abundantly clear you have a chip on your shoulder when it comes to ex pats, so just stick to the subject instead of making irrelevant comments.

    • 18
      0

      As usual an excellent article from Ravi Perera, telling facts, in his own eminent way. The last paragraph sums up out sorry history. Since INdependence there has been much hoopla, fuss and bother, a lot of big talk but true greatness has eluded us. We have had many false prophets, pretenders, wind bags and plain and simple crooks, but no great men. The situation now seems to be what prevailed before 1815. A weak country, ruled by a few families, a country defined by systemic corruption, economic stagnation and overall social decay. We are now left with citizens who are as stupid or worse than leaders. Parading with huge bust of Marx, Lenin, Engels (I was there on May 1) , pseudo Royalty. . . . . are sideshow of Lankan stupidity.

    • 5
      4

      Raj,
      .
      What I like about you is that you don’t try to have the final word on everything. So you’re willing to leave the issue of the monarchy “to the born and bred English to decide”.
      .
      I’ve been trying to tell you that the NPP is the only grouping that can save us. I;m sure that Ravi noted that the May Day Rally was organised by the JVP and that Harini Amasuriya accepted a subordinate role in the May Day activities . That is the pragmatism that Naganada will not accept.
      .
      I have the occasional IELTS students – no “group classes” from me . We’re far too concerned with formal perfection. But the nasty school master in me leads me to prescribe this to you:
      .
      https://www.dictionary.com/e/affect-vs-effect/
      .
      Slight irritation from you – to be followed realisation that a minor thanks being in order?

      • 2
        0

        SM
        “I;m sure that Ravi noted that the May Day Rally was organised by the JVP”
        “to be followed realisation that a minor thanks being in order?”
        Teacher, heal thyself…..

  • 5
    1

    Dear Ravi,
    .
    This is just wonderful;
    great writing, recognised as such by a guy who has had to slave away teaching basic English; as Raj_UK says we teach them to read and write, not to THINK CRITICALLY.
    .
    I do almost nothing of value now, except scour the Internet for what must be read and digested, and listening to speeches on YouTube – not a totally balanced collection of speeches, mostly those that the NPP has placed. Yes, I read all, a good deal about the JVP rally included, that you have said, having spotted your article only half an hour ago. This is my first comment; I want to return and say a little more; they may appear simultaneously. Please remember that if you get irritated by what seems nit-picking.
    .
    The first nit-picking: you say that Ranil visited London for the Coronation. That’s what he wanted the poor villagers to think. He met Charles III for 13 seconds, the day before the Coronation at the meeting of Heads of Commonwealth Government. I worked hard to get at that fact; see if you can falsify it (a relatively easy task) as Karl Popper said.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela (NIC 483111444V)

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