By Emil van der Poorten –
Today, let me relate a case history illustrative of the seeming hopelessness of the lives of some of our neighbours.
The predicament of Thadi Menika (obviously not her real name!) is not, unfortunately, as exceptional as it might seem to some urban-dwellers. She is in her middle years, widowed for a considerable time and has two of her grown sons living with her in the little house she has on land that she, together with dozens of others, has squatted on subsequent to the collapse of the state enterprise that took over productive plantation land at the time of Hector Kobbekaduwa’s Land Reform. Incidentally, Mr. K was probably the first major political figure to demonstrate what has since become the rule rather than the exception in this country: a very powerful politician motivated by vengeance and sans the intelligence and knowledge to make effective and productive change. Additionally, totally lacking anything even vaguely resembling a moral compass, the economic destruction he wreaked was further multiplied by the environmental degradation that has resulted in this part of the country.
Returning to the subject of this story, while what little land Thadi Menike and her fellow squatters had available to them could certainly not sustain them independent of the poverty-level wages they earned on the adjacent agricultural enterprises, she did, as they used to say, have three meals – thun-vela – of indeterminate quality. Of the two sons resident in her house, one travelled by bus to some urban site or other, to work as a mason’s helper, returning home at night. His sibling was a stereotypical “no-goodnik.” No one ever remembers him doing anything productive. Simply put, he stole because stealing was the only thing he chose to do. His nickname, “Ahinsakaya,” had simply been the product of some neighbour’s very warped sense of humour.
Among his many activities during the time I have been aware of his existence, was terrorizing school girls on their way up a deserted estate road late in the day by leaping out from under a bridge across small stream, stark naked, and, on one occasion, holding a knife to the throat of a little boy who, very understandably, screamed blue murder at the predicament of his female companions. This outrage went un-investigated because the children belonged to a particular ethnicity and chose not to report it to the police because they thought, very understandably (and realistically), that their complaint would be dismissed out of hand by the local constabulary. Subsequently, he slashed a grandmother who, with a stick she’d picked up, was trying to defend her little grand-daughter from this monster’s unsavoury attentions. End result? Case settled out of court because the injured party and her husband didn’t think it was worth risking further harm from a lunatic criminal in their pursuit of justice.
This man raids the homes of his neighbours when they are away during the day trying to earn a living. There is, literally, nothing he will not steal: pots and pans and hand tools which he apparently flogs to the local junk dealer; his neighbours’ pepper, nutmeg and cloves when they are in season and there is an additional element of waste here because he picks whatever is easiest to harvest even if those spices are not mature. He doesn’t mind getting a pittance from a local mudalali because it has cost him nothing to steal. He has even been known to steal clothing and given the fact that peasant families don’t have wardrobes full of finery, that would give “stealing the shirt off one’s back” a whole new meaning not originally associated with that trite phrase!
One of his more recent exploits was beating his mother within an inch of her life when neighbours heard her screaming “Buddhu ammo, mava maranna epa!” By all accounts, the only reason she is alive today is because she succeeded in stumbling through the dark to some neighbor who gave her shelter and protected her from her errant son. When we sent word to her that we would provide her with accommodation if she chose to return from the village to which she’d moved the day after the onslaught, her response was that her son could well visit her wherever she was and we could end up as custodians of her corpse!
As for her son, Ahinsakaya, there is a further demand on his thieving skills now because he has to make good what cash he used to take from his mother.
Want some icing on that little cake? This man who is an ambulatory psychiatric time-bomb was recruited into the army in the final days of pre-Nanthikadal hysteria and trained in the use of assault weapons. “Chagrin” might well describe the feelings of those, such as the present company, who are prohibited from access to so much as a single-barrelled shotgun for protection of crops while a man who gives every evidence of criminal insanity has been provided training of this kind at the expense of every one of us. One can but hope that he doesn’t have the opportunity and tools with which to apply those combat skills. A footnote here would not be out of place: at least three other people with track records rivaling Ahinsakaya’s have had similar training during the same period.
This isn’t just a simple isolated horror story. I can relate several more, perhaps not as bizarre and dramatic, but scary nevertheless for those of us who have to lead unarmed existences in rural Sri Lanka.
This is what the total loss of the rule of law has resulted in for people in a vast number of rural neighbourhoods. This is a culture that has become our reality where a primitive “dog eat dog” philosophy has been forced on those of us who have no wish to descend to that level. It has happened because our “rulers” have cocooned themselves with armed security guards and bulletproof vehicles so that they are, truly, insulated from all of this while they engage in wholesale theft from the public purse and we are left to the mercy of the lower level (financially speaking) of Sri Lanka’s criminal brigades.
It’s not going to be easy to turn all of this around but do we have any other choice? It would be convenient enough to shrug off what we, as a society, face and simply hope that time will heal all things and all will be right with the world one day. (Presumably after The Second Coming if you’ll pardon my cynicism) The simple fact, though, is that we do not have the luxury of time in this endeavour. No matter how tough it is going to be, we must insist that our government conducts itself as any decent government should and punish the guilty and set the innocent free. If one were to look for the truth of that old aphorism that “Justice delayed is justice denied,” here it is in capital letters and bold type. This government has to rid itself of those who continue to equivocate in the matter of legal, ethical, and principled behaviour choosing instead bribes in cash and kind, now and anticipated, as do the “insurance buyers.” President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must act and act NOW, demonstrating that cleansing starts at the top and goes relentlessly down the criminal feeding chain. This is a sine qua non and will brook no delay. And how can you, Citizen Banda or Anulawathie support this essential effort? Join the growing chorus in whatever way you can to compel those in the seats of authority to do their duty by the people of this country. Make your voices heard, if not in print, at least with your neighbor and at the street corner. Only in this manner will we stand a chance of returning Sri Lanka to the land of peace and plenty it can be where people can live in dignity without fear of the neighbourhood thug.