Colombo Telegraph

“Skinning Cats” And Other Figures Of Speech

By Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

The past five years has provided me with a political education that rivals that provided by the preceding five decades!

Apart from the “advice” about the necessity to abjure criticism of the current regime and more overt threats at high noon on the streets of cities, there have been warnings channeled through friends who steadfastly refused to reveal where they originated. Mind you, these were conveyed in good faith and were intended to be protective in nature.

I have increasingly heeded the advice of a much younger friend who has followed the lead of the prominent Czech writer and head of the post-Iron Curtain Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, in acting “As if…..” Sri Lanka was a democratic state. Even before I was aware of the late Mr. Havel’s virtual appropriation of that phrase and philosophy in pre-democratic Czechoslovakia, my own instincts, experience, politics and circumstances had me treading the same path, though not consciously, perhaps.

In the event that the foregoing needs more explanation, here goes:

It is my belief that when one is compelled to live under a regime such as that which has prevailed in Sri Lanka, particularly since the ascent of Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Presidency, it becomes very necessary that one stakes out their place in the scheme of things, irrespective of whether that position meets with the approval of a repressive regime or not. In an era of ‘disappearances’ and when the highways and, particularly, by-ways are seemingly full of white vans, this is considered suicidal in some quarters. However, not to stake out a position of integrity at a time of repression would, in my opinion, constitute a living death for a thinking, feeling human being. Quixotic? Perhaps, but certainly less unacceptable than the alternative which has been so readily embraced by so many, from exam-successful and thesis-writing PhDs to those who’ve come by those and similar qualifications by far less reputable means!

But, it seems like the current regime is nothing if not resourceful in the means they employ to make life difficult for dissidents. In the case of myself and my partner, both past the proverbial three-score-and-ten years, geography and the existing vegetation of our neck of the woods appears to be on the side of those seeking to make our lives just that little bit more difficult.

I have, admittedly, not helped my case by resurrecting the fact that a local Pradeshiya Sabhawa has been dumping garbage illegally for better than a decade, creating dreadful pollution, poisoning two drinking-water springs and virtually destroying motorable access to several hundred people who have no alternative means of reaching their homes.

On one occasion when the road was made completely impassable, the local police were persuaded to take action and have the logs obstructing traffic removed by their owner. Some nights ago, one huge tree stump which was teetering above the road slid on to it and last night its fellow followed suit! Relief through the intervention of the police was not forthcoming this time because our public-spirited Officer-in-Charge was away on a training course and the gentleman acting for him deemed the obstruction a civil matter not deserving of police intervention. Several days have passed as I write this and the road continues closed to several hundred men, women and children who have no other motorable means of reaching or leaving their homes.

Of course, a significant contributor to the blockage is the fact that this particular part of the road and its sides have been ravaged by the tractor and trailer hauling garbage up this particular road six times a day, creating conditions ideal for debris of various kinds to slide on to the road from above.

A clue as to the inordinate delay in clearing this road lies in the fact that the only means of access to our paying guest operation, which has received many kudos in its brief existence, is made inaccessible and, of more immediate concern, our (foreign) visitors marooned by this state of affairs had to make a better than two kilometer trek down a very rough trail to reach the “rescue” vehicle that had arrived from a nearby town to help them continue their Sri Lankan holiday. Bad enough? Try adding two children, both under the age of three, to the equation and you have a fair idea of the grief caused all around! Ah! But then, the real target has been “got” because you have seriously inconvenienced a noisy government critic and the bonus might be if he or his spouse needs emergency medical help and have to navigate an unlit, virtual jungle path, because not so much as a three-wheeler or motor-bike can get to them. Of course there can be an additional bonus here because one of the pair is an insulin-dependent diabetic with a major heart problem and is an asthma sufferer, to boot.

Does one continue to live “As if…” in the circumstances? If you, dear reader, don’t think we should, maybe you can suggest how one might keep body and soul together within the bounds of the law, without money-laundering or engaging in some other, more lucrative, occupation while maintaining your self-respect? A very well-received paying guest operation has helped, in its little way, to promote Sri Lanka as a tourist destination, while promising to repay the heavy investment of scarce personal resources sometime down the road. While the current situation might seem, literally, and I don’t use that word lightly, intolerable there is really no other choice but to persist against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Also, there is another little factor that comes into play: does one succumb to the most blatant efforts at intimidation meant to drive you out of a home that your family has occupied for three generations and which you have chosen to return to in your twilight years?

Ah, but then, this is the Miracle of Asia when anything can and will be done to those who don’t pay obeisance to those who formulated the “gospel.” Some of us, though, will continue to live “As if…” their self-respect is not a negotiable commodity.

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