By Mano Ratwatte –
I lived down a lane in Colombo 5 before becoming an economic émigré . At the end of this lane, where the bottle neck extension to another road named after a school in the region lived a famous musical family with a Rock musician; close to an unpaved lane down where one the most famous cricketers in the world now has a property, there was a Kottamba(Kapoch) Tree. Under the Kottamba tree, there is a Three wheeler park run by outsiders with no respect for the old ways, and a nice old man and his fruit stall Van.
But long before that, during the socialist days, an enterprising person I knew as K.K Dayananda opened a small tea kiosk and newspaper stand. Perhaps just like the three wheeler stand and the fruit stall it was also an illegal wooden shack. But Daya was a strong LSSP supporter. Dayananda was from the Palputh waththa(Shanty) our lane.. His entire family were LSSP loyalists. He was an honest man who was trying to make an honest living. So that is where I used to go sit with them and drink plain tea. I was given VVIP treatment but I never asked nor expected anything special. As usual most of our conversations were about politics. Because his tea, then gnaanakatha(25 cents), and other food items and his newspaper agency the place became a gathering place for a lot of discussions. It was quite clear people were disgusted with food shortages, ration cards and queues and they made no bones about those feelings with me.
The happy drunk down the lane, Bunny Aiya decided he will open a Bicycle repair shop. It made perfect business sense. Those were the days; people rode bicycles all the time. Cars were not too common in Sri Lanka. So we used to take our bicycles for repair all the time. Probably cost a rupee or two at the most to inflate the tyres or repair a patch. People could safely ride their bicycles without being afraid of being knocked down by some arrogant corrupt political crook’s son driving the latest BMW, Range Rover or the Boxster. I recall being splashed by one of those first generation Mitsubishi “manthree jeeps” Green in color waiting for the 138 Bus to take me to work on Havelock Road in 1985 and resenting it; had to come back home to change and got late to work.
As time went by, and the UNP won the landslide election in 1977, unofficial polls at Daya’s kiosk indicated that. The tea kiosk was destroyed and pillaged in the middle of the night. UNP’s record of attacking opponent’s houses and destroying people is unparalleled. This was the onset of Dharmishta JR’s rule. Less we talk about the 1983 targeted pogrom against innocent Tamils the better; because the UNP was directly involved in those attacks and practiced communal violence like no other. There was Ebert Aiya, eyeing the tree spot to open his own kiosk. Ebert Aiya was jubilant. No one died in that attack on the tea kadey but the envious Ebert Aiya wanted Daya’s spot. Ebert Aiya used to campaign openly with his green cap just like Daya did with his red and blue caps. Now on one hand Dayananda had no more means of income but Ebert Aiya on his bicycle suddenly was a proud owner of a tea kiosk. Proud new entrepreneur.
Bunny Aiya, was either neutral or a master strategist. His bicycle repair shop survived the purge and grew to service the new booming economy which saw a flood of Three-Wheelers. Everyone knew Bunny aiya loved a tipple. He is always done by 4:00pm and drunk by 4:10pm. No one knew if he had a family or children or savings.
Like thousands of lower income Sri Lankans, Daya too sent his wife Hema to the Middle East to make money(that 47% of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange comes from the blood,sweat and tears of the nearly 600,000 Sri Lankans in the Middle East seems to be lost on our leaders) . Daya, proudly bought a Mini Bus and ran route to Piliyandala and Kesbewa and proudly visited one day to show me his Mitsubishi Rosa. Thanks to his wife’s hard work, he was able to make a down payment and lease a bus. Benefits of the open economy were clear after 7 years of stifling stagnating state controlled policies. Daya remained true to his principles and never switched parties; he could have benefited if he did. The poor maids like Hema akka was lucky to get a TV and Fridge for Daya with her money on her way back.
Speaking of conditions faced in the Middle East, those are far worse than Mexicans and other Latinos face in the USA where they do all the dirty work Americans don’t want to do for the pay they will receive. Housekeeping, plucking chicken feathers, bussing tables at restaurants, cooking, mowing yards, the do the whole Enchilada; our poor labourers risk being beheaded or raped.
Back to Daya: I was saddened to hear he too had died of cancer recently; seems more and more people are dying of cancer now in Sri Lanka. I recall how he had become a proud owner of a Bus and then a Three Wheeler thanks to the open Economy. I remember getting my family to ride his three wheeler. He was so happy to see me and was visibly moved. I put a thousand rupee note in his pocket and he protested loudly saying no “I don’t want money, I just came to see you.” But I insisted that he take it for his kids. By then he had moved to Piliyandala and had a house and made a decent living. He had crashed his bus and was injured. Anyone who travels by private Bus knows how insanely “Ayrton Sennas on the Monaco Track”, those drivers become causing so many deaths.
Royalists will remember Daya’s father; he ran the “BONNS” ice-cream bicycle at Junior School. A very simple decent people.
In time, through poverty, poor nutrition, drug addiction, one by one Daya’s siblings died young. One was a drug addict thief: Leelarathne. Daya was honest and loyal and enterprising; but Leela was everything that was wrong with the drug plagued shanties of Colombo. Every time the cops busted Leela for petty theft Mili nona their mother came crying to my father to make sure to tell the cops not to beat him. For Mili nona the sons were always innocent even despite Dayananda having contempt for his own brother Leela, and saying “Baba oka hari hora gederata num ganna epa”. Rarely a month Leela wasn’t at the station. So they will come say “Aney sir my son is innocent”. My father always said “I am not sure If I can tell the police if you son is innocent or not, so don’t tell me that he is innocent . But I can tell the Narahenpita police not to assault him or torture him” Beating people was the norm….It usually worked and the cops got what they wanted and the thieves were not bruised that badly when they came out on bail to once again possibly steal a pipe fitting, door fittings or whatever caught their eye for their hit for the day.
As drugs replaced the high of choice: moonshine, the unwritten rules of the lane got to be broken. The thieves no longer followed the gentlemen’s rule of not stealing from the neighborhood. That all disappeared in the scourge of drugs and nothing was sacred anymore. My parent’s house got burgled and they even stole the brass pipe fixtures and door handles! Another brother, Thuman , who was happy to come pluck coconuts for us from the 3 Coconut trees in our back yard for a modest fee had also died of drugs. That kid had lots of potential when he was attending Issipathana. Now Jaffna youth are facing the same scourge the South suffered. Tigers at least made sure that was controlled.
What about Bunny Aiya? He was a survivor bar none. Bunny Aiya still worked on bicycles and three-wheelers. As an émigré desperately yearning to identify with the old way of life these small moments were precious: Bunny Aiya used to come running to collect his “happiness tax” Ok a 100 rupee note was probably enough for a shot. The shanty town that became Government flats now has pipe borne water, electricity, TV and toilets now in comparison to the time they had community Taps where they collected their water, showered and did their laundry. But at least his sin was kassippu; wondered if he carried a spare liver around with him.
In 1998 to celebrate Sri Lanka’s 50th Independence day, the government was going to town to host a parade in Kandy in the middle of Tamil tiger terrorism and a disastrous expensive war. Charles, the Crown Prince and future King who was with Camilla those days, was going to be the Guest of Honor at the parade on February 4th. The Tamil Tiger terrorists had other ideas. They wanted to ruin the day and provoke a retaliation against innocent Tamils. Tigers decided to sabotage the events and launched a terrible suicide attack in Kandy that fateful January 25th morning; Tigers attacked the holiest shrine for Buddhists across the world: Dalada Maligawa. Tigers wanted to incite ethnic violence against innocent Tamils in Kandy and other areas possibly by inflamed Sinhalese. Luckily it didn’t happen. The Sinhalese had learned their lessons and CBK also acted quickly unlike Hon. JR Jayewardene who did nothing in 1983 to stop the attacks on innocent Tamils until it was too late. He had the audacity to blame the JVP. How sad. The parade was immediately moved to Colombo. All that expense, and parade costs were the talk of the anti-government media. I think attempts were made to spruce up Colombo for the event.
A couple of days after the attack in Kandy, I ran into Bunny Aiya. It was more like Bunny Aiya “running into” me every time the gate was open and he could see me stepping out. Being gregarious, and having a talent to talk to anyone in extremely fluent Sinhalese sort of decided to get a pulse of the people about what I thought was an absurd waste of money when the war was still going on really badly for the government and people were dying.
So I asked Bunny Aiya “Bunny Aiya, mokakda hiththanney mey uthsawaya gana”. This was in the morning so I think he was not completely intoxicated yet. So he says “sharr, apita bicykalayak rim eken duwanna puluwanda, baa-ney? Api rim eking duwana ratak shaarrr, mey wikara shobana walata kawda gewanney, meywa boru shobana wada”? බොරු ශෝබන .
The translation would go like this “Sir, can you ride a bicycle on the rim with flat tire? We are a nation that is running on its rim; how can a nation that runs on its rim afford all these expenses for some false show”?
Why do Sri Lankan political parties on a May day divide up the labour force into Green, Blue and Red rallies and ply them with food and booze to show their party strengths?. For what purpose? Couldn’t all the leaders of all parties get together and say “ok next year we will just give the day off to the Workers. Let them spend time with family”. “We the politicians will not boost our egos by bussing them or parading them in stifling heat and pump them with booze and offers of rewards, buth packets etc to show up for rallies to boost politicians.” Bunny Aiya probably would have liked that. And while they do that, whether they be SLFP or UNP entitlement politicians can start to think of how well they are served by the foreign inward remittances of the Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim working in the Middle East under torrid conditions for their Boru Shobana and entitlements.
I don’t like the three wheeler stand there now. They are no longer “gamey kattiya”. They have no respect for people who were from the gama and the cads have no respect for girls. There are some loud transplant thugs of different cultures, and others who park there three wheelers there next to the fruit stand. The fruit stand guy seems to be a nice enterprising fellow. But I still miss the They kadey(Tea kiosk) of Dayananda’s. Wow the debates and arguments about party politics those days was amazing.
Bunny Aiya RIP or may he attain Nibbana. I never knew his religion. බොරු ශෝබන has become worse since then.