By Mahesan Niranjan –
At our drinking session in the Bridgetown pub yesterday, my regular partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram, and I were joined by our countryman friend Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Soloman Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela, known to anyone phonetically challenged as Pol. I might have introduced him before in these pages, but if not, from the length and structure of his name, you might easily infer he is from the Sinhala tribe in Sri Lanka. While this detail is not particularly relevant to our story today, you may wish to note that the meaning of the Sinhala word pol is coconut.
Our friend Pol moved to the UK in his early adulthood, naturalised and acclimatised rather easily, thanks to his fascination for the power and organisational skills of the Suddha (white man). “They come from a little island, but ruled the whole world, machan (buddy),” I remember him saying. While our own island of Sri Lanka – or Ceylon of those days – was under colonial rule for some 450 years, roughly equally split between the Portugese, Dutch and British, it is the last of the masters who impressed our friend Pol a lot. His ancestry managed to be dynamic – acquiring the names “Don” and “Solomon” along the way, and resetting now to “Bandarawela,” so as to gather the right political capital at the right time. Had not things turned out the way they did, with the Empire winding down, Pol might have even considered taking the hyphenated identifier “Crinkle-Bottom” as his surname.
It was during a coffee time conversation, when we had both just started as graduate students in Bridgetown, I learnt of Pol’s particular admiration for the Brits. We were chatting to Pierre Cardin, a mutual friend and fellow graduate student. Pierre, had great difficulty understanding the proof of an algorithm which Pol and I derived for him with ease on the back of a paper napkin.
“These guys don’t appear that smart, no?” I said to Pol, overly generalising the term “these guys” and not yet having learnt that in a civilised society I ought to behave and speak in a colour-blind and other-blind ways.
“But, Pierre is not a Suddha (white man), machan,” Pol said dismissively, “he is French!”
Later in life, settled in a very successful career in the UK, Pol continued to admire the Brits and adopted their ways with ease. The more he restricted his social circles to the affluent sections of the British society – private schooling for the children, membership of rather exclusive gyms, grocery shopping in Waitrose etc. – the greater his admiration became. He did notice societal problems around him but had ready explanations as to what their causes were: laziness leading to unemployment, immigration leading to housing crisis, lack of selection at the age of eleven leading to uneducated urchins loitering in the streets and social security leading to child birth were some of his pet theories. As such, Pol has morphed into a kind of Brit you will be uncomfortable meeting.
Yet, once in a while Thevaram and I catch up with Pol for a drink. That is our way of sampling how the other half thinks, if at all it does.
In the Bridgetown pub yesterday, Thevaram and I were deep in conversation about happenings back home. The appointment of the Vice Chancellor of UpNawth University in Sri Lanka was our hot topic. We thought the University’s Governing Body handled it rather badly. The gist of it is as follows: There were six applicants – five internal and one from Boston. The application from the external candidate arrived a day after the advertised closing date. The Unions of the proletariat and students appealed to consider a wider field of candidates including the Bostonian, but the Governing Body — which included the five candidates for the job — chose to stick to the rules: “a deadline is a deadline, just as in my undergraduate coursework,” one of its more articulate members is reported to have said. Much unhappiness over the issue has been vented in the pages of Colombo Telegraph recently.
“That wasn’t fair – there was conflict of interest,” shouted one side. “Oh, they are mounting a vicious campaign on this forum,” cried the other.
“At the end of the day, machan, the message was to keep the outsiders out,” Thevaram sighed. “Just like the posters I saw at the Parliamentary election in Nallur in 1977, in support of the local candidate: “Nallur nalluraanukkE” (Nallur is for the local chap), they said, no?”
“Anyhow, justice should be done,” he said.
“And seen to be done,” I echoed.
“Processes should be fair,” he said.
“And seen to be fair,” I echoed.
“How are these things handled elsewhere?” I asked, trying to bring Pol into our conversation thinking he will have good insight into practices at better established universities, particularly ones in Britain which he admired so much.
“How do they keep outsiders out without anyone noticing or kicking a fuss?” I asked.
“Keeping outsiders out or do you mean keeping undesirables beneath the glass ceiling,” Thevaram corrected me, after taking a long sip of his Peroni. From the way he held his hand over his head, I guessed he probably had experienced being knocked a bit from above.
“This is all about management, machan. See, the first thing UpNawth Governing Body should have done when the unions objected to their decision is to write back nicely. Our buggers don’t even know how to write a bloody letter, no?” He used the words “bugger” and “bloody” in classic Sri Lankan posh schoolboy style, than in any derogatory or rude way and ended the sentence with the classic “no” to invite agreement from the listeners.
“How would you write such a letter?” I challenged. Pol had it at his fingertips. He certainly had learnt the ways of his adopted land well. He took out his ball point pen and wrote it for us on a paper napkin.
“Would that do the trick?” I asked innocently.
“It does! Every time it does,” said Pol. “A courteous reply does wonders. If it doesn’t work, one could always invite the executive committee of the Union for an afternoon tea and biscuits on the campus croquet lawn machan!”
“But still, even in this system of yours – which you admire so much — Pol, the people who are to be kept out will be kept out,” protested Thevaram.
“Or to be more precise, kept below the glass ceiling, no?” the fast learner in me corrected him this time.
“So, your system can also be unfair,” Thevaram said with emphasis on the word “your”.
“Of course,” Pol conceded, “but it will be seen to be fair!”