By Emil van der Poorten –
A recent incident on our doorstep, as it were, brought back to us, “in glowing technicolour,” as that out-dated expression had it, the constant challenge of dealing with what might be potential threats in a realistic manner while avoiding descent into paranoid schizophrenia!
It’s bad enough being threatened on the streets of the city in which you were born, in broad daylight, no less, for “writing against the President” but having burly motorcyclists coming up one’s approach road, with pillion-rider in tow, checking one out on the week-end is getting to be a bit much! And this is not some “carpeted” highway that the guy had traversed in order to reach my abode, but a road which the local Pradeshiya Sabhawa ensures is kept in a condition that has now led to commercial vehicles refusing to bring our “bread and butter” – paying guests – to our home.
In all fairness, one has to give what might be outriders for a potentially more sinister follow-up visit some credit for being intrepid enough to negotiate a track that would be a challenge even for a bullock cart of yore. After all, if the attempted reconnaissance came unglued, rider and buddy could have been in serious trouble if their vertical stance dissolved into a horizontal one!
But, to the narrative………………..
Given the fact that most of those who work for us and live in the neighbourhood have been associated with my family for the better part of my lifetime and, in some cases, going back a generation or two, both in their families’ and mine, there is a certain camaraderie that prevails across class, cultural and language divisions. Having demonstrated that we are not mahatmayas and nona-mahatmayas of the ruling class who merely issue orders to those who might earn a living on our land or in our business, we all tend to look out for each other and perform the odd little courtesy when required, pretending, perhaps, to the status of “good neighbor.”
Anyway, last Saturday, one of our neighbours who happens to be on our payroll as well, encountered what he described as a rather large man with a companion on a motorbike, a good way up our approach road. This individual had inquired after me, with the usual reference to the “suddha” (white man) who lived at the top of the hill, saying that he wanted to meet me. “Our man Friday” who had developed a particular and consistent response to inquiries of this kind, with the knowledge that people of certain political affiliation appeared to take an inordinate interest in me ever since I had begun writing for The Sunday Leader, pretended that he had no particular connection to us but advised the motor-cyclist and his passenger that the gate at our home was kept locked and only those who had provided advanced notice of their arrival were let in. Our potential visitors had then gone on to the only other house located off our road.
When my informant spoke with our neighbours who had been visited by the motorcyclist and his passenger subsequently, he had been told that the strangers were interested in building a timber storage depot of some kind and were checking out the area for suitable prospects. Given the weird and wonderful reasons that people have for riding motorbikes on very inhospitable tracks, this could well have been the absolute truth. However, the entire incident brought home to us the current “reality” in the Disaster of Asia where the rule of law is conspicuous by its absence and crime of all descriptions is rampan.
While we haven’t lost any sleep over this incident, our level of alertness was raised a notch or two and would stay that way for a little while at least, “just in case!”
In days gone by, the response to this business of strangers loitering around one’s neighbourhood would have been a phone call and/or a visit to the local police station with the request that one of their number check out who this person might be and his bona fides. In short, whether there was any cause for concern and what the local constabulary could do to alleviate any potential hazard. And, at this point let me say that I have generally found the local police personnel a pretty decent bunch who appear to live up to the old motto, “To serve and protect.”
But times change, and since the visitor could well have been an unsavoury “emissary” of some kind with “political connections,” such an approach on our part could well have been not only an exercise in futility but an invitation to behaviour of a kind that you would not want visited upon you when you don’t have so much as a blunderbuss for protection.
To us, the significant realization is that what would be totally abnormal in any democratic country is totally normal in Sri Lanka and, dare I say it, magnified if one is not seen as an acolyte of “the powers that be?” Interesting stuff, indeed, and something that I could have very appropriately included under the title of my column last week that talked about black being white and white being black.
While our Sri Lankan world is, without the shadow of a doubt, an upside-down one, is it necessary to spend your waking hours standing on your head to make any sense of a culture of unfettered criminality and lunacy? Seems like a hell of a poor use of one’s time!