21 June, 2024


The Rooster Coop & Its Impact On Sri Lanka

By Basil Fernando

Basil Fernando

This article is link to earlier article “Beneath The Skin Deep Liberalism Lies Cancerous Caste Prejudices

Following is an incident which happened in a suburb in the deep south of Sri Lanka. In this area, there was a dominant family which has been the most powerful family in the area for some generations. People feared the family and particularly the head of the family. All the businesses which were mostly things like shops, and other trades belonged to the members of the family. In all the local societies the head of the family was always treated as the chairperson or the president. That was the case of the co-operative society also which quite a popular enterprise throughout the country was during that time. At one particular meeting at the co-operative society, presided over by the head of this family, one young man who had just passed out from the school got up to ask a question. It was on some small matter of relating to minor affairs. However, the head of the family presiding over the meeting was angered by somebody daring to ask a question from him in public. What was worse was that this boy’s mother had worked for the prestigious family as a servant-woman. The old man took this as an insult. The same day he got the boy to be called to his house and with a big knife stabbed the boy to death and then carrying the knife in his hand went and surrendered himself to the police. That was the extent to which the idea of dominance prevailed and it was the son of this old man who was a graduate from a university who narrated this story. Much later when this son was asked as to whether his father ever regretted having killed this boy, his firm reply was no. He merely thought he had carried out his duty.  In trying to understand this man’s behaviour, as well as those of many others throughout the whole period of many centuries, it would be useful to spend a short while on a novel that explained the way how these things happened in India. Many Indian writers over a long period of time have tried in many ways to expose similar kinds of behaviour that has happened almost everywhere in India. These writers mostly wrote in their own local languages. One of the books that excellently explained the way caste worked to keep the vast masses of India in subjugation is the novel written by Aravind Adiga titled The White Tiger. 

Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger which won the Booker prize in 2008 is perhaps the most insightful narrative which exposes how deep the influence of the caste structure is on the mind and the soul of Indians. The book is written in a satirical style. 

The author calls India’s interior system of social control as the Rooster Coop. The novel is written by way of a series of letters written by a young man named Balram Halwai who was from an extremely lower caste family and faced enormous hardships as a child. By describing his childhood, the stark poverty of the countryside and the draconian societal rules that keeps India’s oppressed masses under subjugation has been told most powerfully. As a young boy, Balram finds a job of cleaning the floor of a restaurant. While attending to such work, he discovers the art of getting some information about the world, by listening to the conversations among the people who attend the restaurant. There he learns how the exploitation takes place by four families who dominate and profit by all the productive activities in the village. Later, Balram through the help of a driver learns to drive and looks for a job. He finds a driving job in one of those four families. Balram later accompanies the son of the rich man who has come from United States with his wife. This young couple is western educated and their ways are different to that of the landlord family. This son is sent by the family in New Delhi mainly to promote the family business by cultivating contact with the powerful politicians. In fact his job was to arrange for a bribe in order to cultivate a business opportunity. He carries a bag full of cash to be distributed to his patrons. Balram who observed all this also understands why the underclass Indians obey the type of family patriarchs like his rich masters. He knows that there is one simple law operating which keeps the whole system together. That thread was the uneven and disproportionate punishment that would be imposed on anyone who in any way offended their masters. The punishment is not directed merely towards a single transgressor, but to his whole family meaning the larger family of the clan. One serious act of transgression could led annihilation of the entire clan. If anyone were to dare to think of a future beyond those prescribed for them within the social order, he would have to take the risk of facing the certainty that his whole clan will be annihilated if he were to take the risk. It would be the rarest of rare persons who will take that risk. It is such a person that is named ‘The White Tiger’. 

Balram who understood this eternal law decided to take the risk knowing the drastic consequences that his entire clan including his grandmother, parents and the young ones in the family would face as he too wished to become rich and powerful like his masters. He kills his employer’s western educated son, takes the bag of money that is being carried around to give bribes and disappears. Next he emerges as himself an entrepreneur, utilising the skills that he has observed in order to ensure his advancement. 

Balram sums up his understanding of the dynamics of Indian society and Indian entrepreneurship under the title of a Rooster Coop. This inimitable description is worth being reproduced

The Fifth Night

Mr. Jiabao.


When you get here, you’ll be told we Indians invented everything from the Internet to hard-boiled eggs to spaceships before the British stole it all from us. Nonsense. The greatest thing to come out of this country in the ten thousand years of its history is the Rooster Coop.

Go to Old Delhi, behind the Jama Masjid, and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages, packed as tightly as worms in a belly, pecking each other and shitting on each other, jostling just for breathing space; the whole cage giving off a horrible stench—the stench of terrified, feathered flesh.

On the wooden desk above this coop sits a grinning young butcher, showing off the flesh and organs of a recently chopped-up chicken, still oleaginous with a coating of dark blood. The roosters in the coop smell the blood from above. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop.

The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.

Watch the roads in the evenings in Delhi; sooner or later you will see a man on a cycle-rickshaw, pedaling down the road, with a giant bed, or a table, tied to the cart that is attached to his cycle.

Every day furniture is delivered to people’s homes by this man—the deliveryman. A bed costs five thousand rupees, maybe six thousand. Add the chairs, and a coffee table, and it’s ten or fifteen thousand. A man comes on a cycle-cart, bringing you this bed, table, and chairs, a poor man who may make five hundred rupees a month. He unloads all this furniture for you, and you give him the money in cash—a fat wad of cash the size of a brick. He puts it into his pocket, or into his shirt, or into his underwear, and cycles back to his boss and hands it over without touching a single rupee of it! A year’s salary, two years’ salary, in his hands, and he never takes a rupee of it.

Every day, on the roads of Delhi, some chauffeur is driving an empty car with a black suitcase sitting on the backseat. Inside that suitcase is a million, two million rupees; more money than that chauffeur will see in his lifetime. If he took the money he could go to America, Australia, anywhere, and start a new life. He could go inside the five-star hotels he has dreamed about all his life and only seen from the outside. He could take his family to Goa, to England. Yet he takes that black suitcase where his master wants. He puts it down where he is meant to, and never touches a rupee. Why?

Because Indians are the world’s most honest people, like the prime minister’s booklet will inform you?

No. It’s because 99.9 percent of us are caught in the Rooster Coop just like those poor guys in the poultry market.

The Rooster Coop doesn’t always work with minuscule sums of money. Don’t test your chauffeur  with a rupee coin or two—he may well steal that much. But leave a million dollars in front of a servant and he won’t touch a penny. Try it: leave a black bag with a million dollars in a Mumbai taxi.

The taxi driver will call the police and return the money by the day’s end. I guarantee it. (Whether the police will give it to you or not is another story, sir!) Masters trust their servants with diamonds in this country! It’s true. Every evening on the train out of Surat, where they run the world’s biggest diamond-cutting and-polishing business, the servants of diamond merchants are carrying suitcases full of cut diamonds that they have to give to someone in Mumbai. Why doesn’t that servant take the suitcase full of diamonds? He’s no Gandhi, he’s human, he’s you and me. But he’s in the Rooster Coop. The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.

The Great Indian Rooster Coop. Do you have something like it in China too? I doubt it, Mr. Jiabao. Or you wouldn’t need the Communist Party to shoot people and a secret police to raid their houses at night and put them in jail like I’ve heard you have over there. Here in India we have no dictatorship. No secret police.

That’s because we have the coop.

Never before in human history have so few owed so much to so many, Mr. Jiabao. A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent—as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way—to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man’s hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

You’ll have to come here and see it for yourself to believe it. Every day millions wake up at dawn —stand in dirty, crowded buses—get off at their masters’ posh houses—and then clean the floors, wash the dishes, weed the garden, feed their children, press their feet—all for a pittance. I will never envy the rich of America or England, Mr. Jiabao: they have no servants there. They cannot even begin to understand what a good life is.

Now, a thinking man like you, Mr. Premier, must ask two questions.

Why does the Rooster Coop work? How does it trap so many millions of men and women so effectively? Secondly, can a man break out of the coop? What if one day, for instance, a driver took his employer’s money and ran? What would his life be like?

I will answer both for you, sir.

The answer to the first question is that the pride and glory of our nation, the repository of all our love and sacrifice, the subject of no doubt considerable space in the pamphlet that the prime minister will hand over to you, the Indian family, is the reason we are trapped and tied to the coop.

The answer to the second question is that only a man who is prepared to see his family destroyed —hunted, beaten, and burned alive by the masters—can break out of the coop. That would take no normal human being, but a freak, a pervert of nature.

It would, in fact, take a White Tiger. You are listening to the story of a social entrepreneur, sir.

To go back to my story.

There is a sign in the National Zoo in New Delhi, near the cage with the white tiger, which says:

Imagine yourself in the cage.

When I saw that sign, I thought, I can do that—I can do that with no trouble at all.

For a whole day I was down there in my dingy room, my legs pulled up to my chest, sitting inside that mosquito net, too frightened to leave the room. No one asked me to drive the car. No one came down to see me.

My life had been written away. I was to go to jail for a killing I had not done. I was in terror, and yet not once did the thought of running away cross my mind. Not once did the thought, I’ll tell the judge the truth, cross my mind. I was trapped in the Rooster Coop.

What would jail be like? That was all I could think about. What kinds of strategies would I follow to escape the big, hairy, dirty men I would find in there?

I remembered a story from Murder Weekly in which a man sent to jail pretended to have AIDS so that no one would bugger him. Where was that copy of the magazine—if only I had it with me now, I could copy his exact words, his exact gestures! But if I said I had AIDS, would they assume I was a professional bugger—and bugger me even more?

I was trapped. Through the perforations of my net, I sat staring at the impressions of the anonymous hand that had applied the white plaster to the walls of the room.”

The foundation of caste based societies and its contemporary relevance

The famous Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, internationally recognised as a scholar of repute in his lifetime, Walpola Rahula, during one of his last visits to Sri Lanka from abroad where he spent several decades of adult life as the head of the department on Religion in an American University after also being a recognised scholar at Sorbonne University France, made the remark in a publicised TV interview referring to Sri Lanka saying there are no free men here- what you have are slaves.
The remark is nothing new. It is particularly in the manner in which people vote at elections frequently a repeated comment found is that- it is the people themselves who bring to power their own tormentors. The inability to resist oppression, and to find ways to assert themselves in order to improve their own conditions is what is implied in such remarks. 

However, what has not been asked is as to how such a situation of subservience, fear and unwillingness to fight for their own rights came about in the first place. It is when the cultural roots of this subservience is being excavated that one could easily see the link between long centuries of which the impact of the Rooster Coop prevailed in Sri Lanka that one could find the explanation for the contemporary situation. 

Some who say that the references to caste will disappear in 10 or 20 years should give some attention to understanding the meaning of the rooster coop and the long centuries of during which entire social organisation of Sri Lanka in the South as well as in the North and the East was structured around the belief structure on which the rooster coop has been founded. 

In India, there had been a conscious attempt in an extensive scale to grasp this problem and particularly since the 20th Century this debate has had a central place in Indian political debates. 

In the Indian Congress Party itself, till the time closer to independence, there were two major trends. One was to deal with the social problems within India itself. Among such problems the problem of caste oppression together with problems such as child marriages, oppression of widows expressed by experiences such as Sati, eradication of child labour figured prominently. The other trend was for independence from the British rule and the establishment of self-governance. At least over the century these matters were severely debated, organisations developed, mass education took place and thus there was a historically recognisable conversation on these matters. These debates led to many reforms and reform movements. All these factors had their impact on the making of India’s constitution. The records of the debate in the constituent assembly itself reflect the extent of these debates. That by agreement of all parties, a man representing the lowest social strata of that society who are now known as Dalits, was selected as the Chief Architect of this constitution. He was Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, most outspoken critic of the Indian caste system and one who openly advocated its annihilation 

However, in Sri Lanka even up to date there had been no such debate on the impact of caste on the social consciousness of the people. The tendency is to either deny the existence of such a problem or to state that it is not such a big problem at all. However, while publicly stances are taken, in the private sphere, everyone acknowledges that one of the greatest obstacles for Sri Lankans to come together in solidarity, as one nation, is the issue of caste. Despite of this, there are many forms of erasures that have developed to avoid confronting this issue. 

In India, even despite of massive attempts to deal with this issue from many points of view, the influence of the rooster coop still remains, although, modified to some extent, by the influence of the influence of these movements. However, for the future, this will remain one of the major challenges for India particularly as it tries to compete in the global stage and even in the Asian region itself, both, in the economic and international relationships. Now the challenge of dealing with the rooster coop is the deeper parts of how this belief system on which the rooster coop is based is to be dissolved and dismantled. This poses challenges not only in the area of economic development and social developments but also in the ability to deal with the interior aspects of this influence in psychological and spiritual realms. Inter-generational trauma and inter-generational psychological habits and even the modes of linguistic expressions are all bound up with this many thousand year old traditions in India. 

Naturally, the situation is much worse for Sri Lanka which has not even tried to deal with the problems of the rooster coop or even to acknowledge it. The mere critique of corrupt politicians without relating it to the corrupting system, the foundation of which is the rooster coop will only create resentments and protests. These in themselves, are not adequate to bring about a fundamental change needed in order to become a dynamic society with possibilities of interchanges and channels for co-operation among the people. 

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Latest comments

  • 6

    “Naturally, the situation is much worse for Sri Lanka which has not even tried to deal with the problems of the rooster coop or even to acknowledge it.”
    Is the caste associated with the Religious Fundamentalism?

    • 8

      “Is the caste associated with the Religious Fundamentalism?”
      Certainly with Hindu fundamentalism, for caste (Varna) is central to Hinduism.

      • 2

        Buddhism is not different to Hinduism.

        • 5

          “Buddhism is not different to Hinduism.”
          Did you even try thinking before shedding this ‘gem’?

        • 2

          If I may correct you here, not buddhism, but “sinhala-buddhism is not different to Hinduism.

      • 2

        Ayatollahs of Maha Nuwara, Senkadagala have greater adulation for Caste Fundamentalism in their religious activity, unsurpassed by any means by Hindu caste system!!!???
        What for the telling???? Not only limiting non-high caste from entering the inner sanctum, but they also determine who governs too!!!???
        Which Brahmin Hindu has ever got that right in this thrice blessed country!!!
        Not only that Adolf Hitler, at the end of WWII, committed suicide after killing his partner, but the Ayatollahs could invite peoples representatives to be welcomed in office, if they agree to act like Hitler!!!???
        They forget Sri Lanka is a democracy, abhor and denounce dictatorship and autocracy

  • 13

    I think that the author is unaware of the progress made socially and economically since 1956 by several depressed castes.
    Inequality and discrimination exist, but when one compares them with what was there six or seven decades ago, and with what exists in India, one will make more objective comments.
    There is much work to do, but let us not exaggerate issuers.

    • 2

      The Karawes elevated themselves a century earlier by taking to business, which the Goigamas, like the Brahmins, thought was below their dignity.

      • 2

        True, and the Salagama and Durawa followed them.
        But in Jaffna, Vellala domination persisted, and there was little industrial enterprise. The economy relied considerably on government employment (and of course agriculture which, except for the hard working small owner cultivator, relied on cheap/free low caste labour).

        • 2

          The Kandyan ‘low castes’ were held down for much longer.
          Even along the coast the Vahumpura were slow to catch up and craftsmen took time as well.
          There was a kind of untouchability in practice in the walauwas, about which not many speak now.

  • 1

    No doubt, in the early days of Independence in 1948 and thereafter till 1956, the CASTE played a major role in decision-making to “SELECT” (nomination of candidates to various electorates) and to a larger degree in “Electing” representatives to Govern the country. This has FADED to a considerable extent by the 20th century. It doesn’t mean that it has completely got erased.

    A new trend EMERGED in the 20th and 21st centuries and that is the “ELITIST” class (Delit in Indian terms) This has become a “LETHAL” weapon against humanity. This “Class” is composed of the “Wealthy”(money & property owners – no matter how they acquired such wealth); the “Religious Elite” (who have bonded people to dogmas and taken away the Freedom of the followers); “the “Professionals” ( Academics who have lost their heads of humanity); the “Politicians” ( composing all the above classes).

    In Sri Lanka, the people are BONDED not much in caste “Coop” but in this “ELITIST COOP” – the very foundation is based on “WEALTH” – OWNERSHIP of “Property and Money”. The people are GLUED to this “COOP” and are on the “RUN” to be an “Elitist”, no matter how they acquire that status. This “Run” is very exhaustive, in that, all human VALUES are surrendered/forgotten/sacrificed and the worst is the “FREEDOM” to FREE from this bondage to “Elit Coop” is DENIED cohesively.

  • 5

    An enlightening essay and great references in The White Tiger. Yes, there is much that has happened over the years. While India progresses, and hundreds of millions of people have been elevated above the poverty line in the last thirty odd years, the situation in Sri Lanka sinks deeper into a morass of immorality, opportunism, violence, deceit, skullduggery, mutual distrust and hopelessness. The people are dumber than they used to be, say a few decades ago, in their voting patterns and philosophy. I do not see any hope for redemption.

    • 5

      “hundreds of millions of people have been elevated above the poverty line in the last thirty odd years,”
      I know that it happened in another Asian country even faster.
      Indian poverty level is still high
      “The country’s [Sri Lanka’s] poverty rate has jumped from 11.3% in 2019 to 25% in 2022.”
      The post 2019 data needs no elaboration.

      • 2

        Single person, with singular characteristic is 100 times richer than the next in line of the 10 richest people in Sri Lanka at cumulative wealth of USD 39 Billion!!! All others had to contend with only Millions and not Billions!!!??? What for the telling!!!???
        Though always claiming that he is the friend of the downtrodden, couldn’t offer to help, but SL had to go with begging bowl, even to India and Toilet Nadu for FOOD!!!
        Proved that he is compassionate and full of Empathy – reserved for election time – Rs 5000 only!

    • 0

      Lasantha Pethiyagoda,

      Is that really so for India? Read this article: https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2017/10/world/i-on-india-income-gap/

      We wouldn’t want Sri Lanka to become that, would we? And it’s all for the sake of spending money on useless Western goodies to look Western, so Westerners can balance their finances! At least our poor people live in rural houses surrounded by greenery.

      • 2

        You’re being superior again. You haven’t even read the article, but use the first few passages to trash those “dirty, smelly cities and people “.
        “Useless Western goodies? Really? Do you live in Afghanistan? Why do you object to poor Asians eating KFC while you do it yourself?
        Did you even understand this part? “But there is another reason as well. Increasingly I’ve grown intrigued by India’s metamorphosis from a poor “Third World” former colony to a global power.
        I am aware, too, that a Westerner’s view of India is often clichéd — it’s a land of corruption, bus crashes, pollution, arranged marriages and colorful festivals. It may still be all of that, but there are so many new dimensions to Indian society.”
        Stop being a coconut. You were born here.

        • 3

          “At least our poor people live in rural houses surrounded by greenery.” Really? The ones in Wanathamulla? Or the ones by the Wellawatta canal? Or the ones by the Modera oil pipeline? I know all these places, you see. It can’t be the ones living in tents in Pittsburgh.

        • 1

          KFC! Heavens no,…..I go to the Indian restaurant and eat paper thosais with nice crunchy ends.

          • 0

            Old Codger,

            Yes, yes,…India is indeed a metamorphosis from what it was. But it has plateaued because of the caste system. No other place they can go but to the moon with Indian mortals suffering on earth.

            But the writer of the article doesn’t want to criticize her country to much, and has much hope for it. She wants the Indian billionaires to invest on the suffering people. She wants a socialist and egalitarian kind of business opportunity. She wants Indians to go back to their natural habitats and live amongst the flora and fauna and be self-sustaining.

            Even Modi wants that I’m sure but has got screwed by the Ranilian thought-process. Now the fellow wants to kick out all the workers from around Colombo and force them in misery into the Colombo outskirts so Colombo looks nice and shiny. Never mind if they have no jobs and suffer. Sci-fi dystopia!

            So, Old Codger, do the noble thing : Don’t place your money on destroying Rama’s land-bridge. Place it on rice-fields so both India and Mother-Lanka can have Bashmati and Samba rice. It won’t make you ultra-rich, but it will make you quite rich.

            • 0

              As per Wenathamulla and Wellawatta canal, place your stocks on securing decent dwellings for them. Returns will be on the 25-year plan. Present the proposal to your fellow investors.

              The choices are : Ranil’s 25-year Dubai superstructure plan where the masses will enter sci-fi dystopian hell, or the American plan where they do a blend of philanthropy and people livelihood plans, or they go to war with oil-producing places. Now we don’t have the advantage of going to war with rich places anytime soon, do we?

      • 1

        Hello Ramona,
        Would you like to come and tell the poor people of Polgahanga, Welligala, Gelioya and many of the other rural villages between Kandy and Gampola how lucky they are to be “surrounded by greenery” whilst they have their electricity cut-off by the CEB for non-payment. Many local labourers have great difficulty finding any work, – and if they do, they get around 2000 rupees per day (that’s five UK Pounds). Practically every day here the current goes off for no apparent reason. If this happened in European countries there would either be litigation or a lynching. However Sri-Lanka’s version of the “Rooster Coop” means that people cannot ask pertinent questions of the bureaucrats (numpties in English). We have seen prices here for most grocery items double or treble in the past 3 years. No-one here is building houses due to the same increased cost reasons, hence no work for local labourers. So Marie Antoinette, what’s your solution, or should they “eat cake” because bread is so expensive?
        Best Regards

        • 1


          Don’t you see the iceberg below the waters? Megalomaniacal politicians forced Motherland into the situation with the out-of-synch megalomaniacal Capitalistic drives, and now everybody is suffering for it. And you want it to continue with Ranil converting the whole of the Motherland into an industrial desert so Lankans can finally arrive at the Western Capitalistic pinnacle (via India) wearing Louis Vuitton shoes. Gosh, it is only our highly-intelligent University Students who protest against this continuous abomination, who can lead the way.

          • 1

            And LankaScot,

            To be fair to the previous politicians, they had no clue to what it was to become.

            Jr Jayawardena began the Capitalistic drive quite nobly, really thinking that the masses needed to be kicked into action. Ended up with masses working as slaves in the Middle East, and a terrible terroristic war for over 30 years.

            Rajapaksas tried to do the Capitalistic Drive, Feudal Style, and with China. It resulted at the Worst possible result ever in the history of Blessed Lanka (and with no war too)!

            Shouldn’t THAT have told something to Ranil? We would have thought that both the R’s and Ranil would have taken some expertise from JVP-NPP along the way. But R’s and Ranil only got obsessively WORSE!

            Bring on the JVP-NPP with ALL of the University Students! Only hope for the Motherland!

          • 0

            “Gosh, it is only our highly-intelligent University Students who protest…”
            Which one is that? The one who spent 8 years NOT finishing a basic degree? Yes, amazing intelligence.

          • 0

            Hello again Ramona,,
            I saw industrial deserts in the North East of England in the 1980s created by Margaret Thatcher’s policies. The film “The Full Monty (1997)” gives you an insight into the deprivation, and desperation in working class communities at the time. It is also very funny.
            In order to create industrial deserts you need to have had an industrial landscape in the first place.
            I fail to understand the relevance of your reply to the questions I asked. Maybe you can enlighten me. I didn’t mention Ranil at all. People in our area cannot afford Nike, never mind Louis Vuitton. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the revolt against Stalinist Russia by Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia and others had many students in the vanguard, but it was the working class that took the leadership. Maybe Ranil will have his own Ceausescu moment in history?
            Best Regards

        • 1

          “Marie Antoinette”. 🤣🤣🤣

  • 1

    In the meantime, GoSL is hoping to soon replace our rice fields with potatoes farms. Farmers will be forced to do cheap tourist jobs. Money saved will be used to build present day Dubai and Singapore superstructures. Farmers to live in congested cities.

    • 1

      Money saved will be used to build present day Dubai and Singapore superstructures in 2048….at a time at which Dubai and Singapore will be going au natural.

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