Colombo Telegraph

The Story Of A Geriatric Puzzle

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof. Mahesan Niranjan

At the famous pub in Bridgetown UK yesterday, my regular drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram and I were setting puzzles to each other. It was my turn first and I asked him a question I had remembered from back in 1985, around the time the one pound paper note in the UK was replaced by a coin:

“What is the similarity between Margaret Thatcher and a pound coin?”

Even decades after her premiership ended, some of us have the habit of regularly joking about the Iron Lady because we are certain that all modern evils around us in the United Kingdom can be traced back to her. It is not just the damage she did, but her legacy of a Labour government implementing her policies gives us extreme indigestion.

Thevaram gave me the correct answer:

“It is thick, made of brass and thinks itself sovereign!”

“Ok, my turn now,” Thevaram continued after a sip of Peroni:

“What is the similarity between Elizabeth Windsor and Tricornermountainge Sampath?”

Now, not everyone reading this will know who the two subjects in the above question are. Did I say “subject?” I have already sinned, for the lady in the question is no subject. The rest of us are, and hers! Elizabeth is the Queen of the United Kingdom and I regard her with respect, for only a few years ago I had sworn allegiance to her in exchange for citizenship here. Not just to Her, I might add, to her Heirs and Successors, too. That, mind you, is Charlie, William and little George who wasn’t even born when the above contract was agreed. My Oath was duly witnessed by a lawyer whose focus of attention throughout the proceedings was on the fiver he charged for making it official.

The second character in the question is the Leader of the Opposition in the Sri Lankan parliament. He is also the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, and readers who can recognize naming conventions in Sri Lanka will immediately suspect the name — Tricornermountainge Sampath — doesn’t sound much like Tamil. True. I have morphed his name to reflect his current political position in which, while holding that Office, he is indeed a firm supporter of the present government. Since he leads the opposition for the whole of Sri Lanka, statistics requires the adoption of a name that fits with the convention of the majority, hence the suffix “-ge” attached to the name of the town he originates from.

Her Majesty the Queen turned 90 a few days ago. Sampath is rather close. So I thought that might well be the similarity Thevaram was looking for and said:

“Yeah, I know, they are both long past retiring age, yet continue to hold office.”

Now, that answer relates to a particular bugbear Thevaram and I share. We are both teachers at universities with our retirement age within our lines of sight, but as a moving goalpost. “Sixty five” says the contract we signed, “sixty-seven” is an amendment imposed a few years back, “you can ask to continue beyond that” came the next rule and “if asked, we have to let them continue” is how management interprets it. So now Faculty Boards in universities run the risk of looking like the British TV programme Dad’s Army, whereas it was far more fun and purposeful when they were more in tune with Blackadder.

Several novel ideas Thevaram himself has proposed during early days in his career (for example, give a student a random grade and suggest: “A predicted grade of 52% has been awarded to you.

If you think you can do better, take this exam.”), are very difficult to push through a faculty of old codgers who are long past their prime.

“Well done!” said Thevaram, cheering me on the answer, and went on to ask the second part of the question.

“Now tell me, what is the difference between the two?”

That was a tough one, you will agree. Sure, there are obvious differences such as gender, but that’s not the sort of question my drinking partner will ask. After scratching my head a bit, I gave up.

“OK then, what is the difference between Lizi and Sampath?”

“It is the purpose, machan (buddy), purpose!” he said, not only repeating the word, but also putting his glass down with a slightly more force than usual to gain emphasis.

Her Majesty the Queen’s purpose is rather clear to any of her subjects. By convention, if she were to take retirement, the next in line to the throne will be her offspring Charles. Now, there is only one person in the entire kingdom who thinks Charles is eminently suitable for the job – Charles himself. Hence the Regina and her subjects have an unwritten agreement that she shall stay, and be loved and thanked for staying on. We her subjects are extremely polite to her and she in turn plays her part by addressing us just twice every year on television, saying very nice things that have been scripted by the elected folks.

So, when her subjects sing “God save the Queen,” they really mean it.

Sampath, on the other hand, hit the headlines recently for showing exactly the opposite trait – that of extreme arrogance. To understand this, we need some context.

Back in our country, there was a war — a long running war that cost us a great deal. We can theorize about the causes of it, blame it on the “other side” and can exercise our freedom to hero-worship whoever supposedly represented “our side”. Yet we can all agree on one thing.

That war is over.

We, the people living in Sri Lanka and those travelling there, do not see anyone fighting; we do not hear the sound of guns, blasting bombs and the wailing of the aftermath; we do not smell burning sulphur, and with high probability our limbs remain attached to the main.

That is seven years of peace. Be warned! We will be judged not by our collective and individual guilt of the past, but by our performance in these last seven years of peace.
And during these seven years, there remain locked up in our prisons some two hundred of our citizens for their alleged role during those sad days of war. Supposedly they are in various stages of processing of the evidence against them. Some have never been charged.

Some have been sentenced to serve long terms on the basis of confessions they signed as the only evidence. Their signatures are not entirely perfect, judges observed. Imagine what your own signature will look like should you suspend yourself upside down by your feet, connect yourself to a car battery and apply some chilli powder to your private parts. Under such experimental conditions, I bet you will not be able to sign like what appears on the back of your credit card. So, our legal system has allowed for some error tolerance when serving upon those who committed horrible crimes the punishments they deserve, right? It is entirely possible, is it not, that our recently-emancipated Tamil nationalist — the Chief Minister of the Northern Province — himself might have been the presiding judge in some of these cases? He was just doing his job, no?

Some of these people held behind bars have recently been released in the interest of goodwill that followed the regime change of a year and a bit ago. A small group of them recently went to meet Tricornermountainge Sampath seeking help in securing the release of those still held in prison. One has taken advantage of recent technological advances and recorded the meeting with a hidden camera. Thevaram opened his newly acquired Amazon Fire device and played me the video from

Sampath’s dialogue with them is shocking. He displays extreme arrogance in the way he speaks to them, making dismissive comments while continuing to read his newspaper:

“The key is not in my hand,” the defence Sampath spurts from behind the newspaper sounds so much like coming out of an orifice below his belt. Who would have thought a newspaper in Sri Lanka could be so very absorbing?

Now, we might all easily agree that the Tamil youth taking up arms was a silly idea. It was never going to achieve their stated goals and its pursuit brought out the worst on all sides. Some horrible crimes were committed in the process that culminated in the massacre we saw at Mullivaikkaal.

But what of those who instigated the youth to take up arms? Do we not remember Tricornermountainge Sampath himself standing shoulder to shoulder with his mates from the Tamil United Liberation Front in the Seventies, proclaiming that a separate country in the north and east of Sri Lanka can be established? Did he not have a part in encouraging the youth with the illusion that this can be achieved with the help of India, just the same way it happened in Bagladesh? Did he not contribute towards the emotional wave of the Seventies that took the Tamil people through thirty years of suffering?

We as a society find it acceptable that the instigators, fund-raisers and brutal commanders of a rebellion may live in comfort because they switched their hats with perfect timing. Yet we have locked up a small number of our citizens who most likely played minor roles in that process of destruction: the butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers of the show, those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time or those who didn’t have rich relatives overseas to bribe them out of captivity.

Is it that we do not care because they are from the bottom stratum of the hierarchical society we are? Should we not, now, in the interest of decency, collectively demand that their cases be reviewed in open court?

The video has a clear message: Tricornermountainge Sampath should go. He has nothing further to contribute. His continued time in office has no purpose.

He needs his remaining years to stay quietly and repent his role in the failed experiment that brought upon those whom he claims to represent unimaginable misery. We should wish him good health so he may have a chance to reflect.

Queen Elizabeth the Second, however, should stay. Her continued time in office has a purpose.

“Happy birthday, Ma’am,” Thevaram and I raised our glasses to mark Her Majesty’s 90th birthday in the Bridgetown pub.

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