By Mahesan Niranjan –
Some weeks ago, my friend and drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram met five of his friends for lunch. The friends, Sangaram, Sengaram, Singaram, Songaram and Sungaram, had much in common with Thevaram. They were from the northern parts of Sri Lanka and were educated at excellent Jaffna schools and the Universities of Hilltop and Bridgetown. They have reached the top of their careers: a university professor, an engineering specialist in the mechanics of foundations, an expert in the systems infrastructure of lottery machines, one who knew everything unknown there is to be known about crypto-currencies, one who designs large software systems that recommend to you what to buy and a specialist in the seventh generation communication systems (are we in 4G or 5G nowadays? I have lost count, so let’s go for lucky seven). An impressive and diverse range of high achievements.
When friends like these meet, topics of their conversations are highly predictable. After a few pleasantries of inquiring after their health, with particular attention to their receding hairlines, and exchange of traffic and weather reports, time travel takes them back ‘Home’. That is necessarily so, for when they were busy building their careers in their lands of refuge, a deadly war was being fought back in Sri Lanka, making ‘Home’ a place of no-return. But its end nine years ago triggers much nostalgia my friends readily indulge in.
First, let us review their commonalities.
None of the friends believed that a separate country in the North-East of Sri Lanka is either possible or even desirable. But all of them have used the public library in Jaffna that was torched by thugs under the supervision of two ministers of the then Sri Lankan government.
None of the friends made financial contributions towards the war in Sri Lanka, but all of them had observed how chauvinistic thinking among the Sinhala political class and narrow minded nationalist thinking among their Tamil counterparts danced in tango since the Suddhas (white folk) left us to mind our own business.
None of the friends thought of the rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran as a friend, but all of them have observed that, with the possible exception of Chandrika Kumaratunge, Presidents of Sri Lanka were his best friends: one helping him with recruitment by orchestrating rioting against the Tamil people; one supplying him truck-loads of arms at a time he, VP, was at his weakest; and one giving him suitcases full of cash to engineer a boycott by the Tamil people of a tightly contested election. Those were times of war, and the three presidents above did it with competent military precision. In the coming months and years, if Tamil youth, misguided by a repeat show of cheap nationalism that hides the incompetence of the elected local chief, start throwing stones at soldiers, then the incumbent would also be guilty of the same. This time, sadly, by sheer incompetence.
Presidents can afford to be traitors, the only lesson that we Sri Lankans can claim to have taught the Americans.
Back in the restaurant, over lunch, our friends noted two anniversaries in the near horizon: five years since an elected local government has been in office in the Northern Province, and shortly after, ten years since the end of the deadly war. That being the case, questions such as “what has been my/our role?” “what could be my/our role?” “is there a contribution I and/or we can make?” inevitably come into conversations. If you are in such a gathering and do not hear such questions, casually drop the name C.W.W. Kannangara in the conversation and see the reaction.
Thevaram reported on a recent trip to the former war zone. “There is some development,” he said, “the university has expanded and built a faculty for engineering in Kilinochchi, there are a few factories – branches of Colombo based businesses, and one or two software companies have toyed with the idea of opening small branches there, but finding it difficult to retain staff, and of course the A9 road is kept carpeted to high standards.
“The last of these, i.e. keeping open a good highway, ignoring the drudgery 100 yards perpendicular to it in either direction has a purpose,” Thevaram continued to explain. “Post-war, it was thought necessary to keep the troops in camps in the North, in a constant battle-ready state, so they may not come into too much contact with the Southern population and could be brought back within a few hours to quell any rebellion.
“But overall, you will see that all the investment there is either from the government or private companies based in Colombo, machan (buddy),” he said to his friends, pondering for a moment if the word machan will work in the plural, too. “If you think about it, apart from a trickling of individual efforts, there isn’t much from the likes of us.”
“And the people who financed the war with hundreds of thousands of dollars — and brought upon the Tamil people immense destruction – what can they show by way of a positive contribution in peace time?” he asked.
“It is going to be ten years since the end of the war. Have we been able to create at least one sustainable job back `home’, using the expertise and purchasing power we have?” he lamented.
“But what can I do?” asked Sangaram, “I specialize in pile foundations, if I go and dig the ground deep, I will disturb the limestone water deposits, no?”
“But what can I do?” asked Sengaram, “I am a specialist in the systems infrastructure of lottery machines. If I set these things there, people will turn into gamblers, no?”
“But what can I do?” asked Singaram, “I am a specialist in seventh generation communications. If I set up more efficient communications, telephone will become cheap and adventurous men might chat-up idle housewives and divorce rates will go up, no?”
“But what can I do?” asked Songaram, “I specialize in systems that make purchase recommendations. People don’t have the money to buy things based on my recommendations, no?”
“But what can I do?” asked Sungaram, “I specialize in crypto-currencies, which require high energy consuming powerful computers to verify legitimate transactions over distributed ledgers. There isn’t such energy there, no?”
“I also can’t do anything,” agreed Thevaram, a university professor. “If I try to encourage critical thought and research, then the social and administrative hierarchies will feel insecure; just try saying standards of English should improve and you will be rejected as `Western thinking outsiders not welcome here’, no?”
They all agreed that there isn’t much point in thrusting upon a community our own respective expertise with poor knowledge of the local context, its precise needs and prevalent attitudes.
Maybe, there could be better coordination from the local government in identifying what the shortages in skills are, where new ideas and expertise are actually needed and where some external funding could be tapped into to leverage developments already happening via government investments and local private-sector activities. Maybe, there could be efforts from the local government to make people feel welcome when they do try to engage.
“It is not red carpet we seek,” emphasised one of the friends, “what is needed is information to match needs to expertise, and an open mind to welcome new ideas.”
“Without such engagement, we have no role,” said another, “whatever specialism we have, even if it is in converting foxes into horses.”
This particular conversion, according to Hinduism, is an act of God Siva executed to save a devotee from a brutal Paandiyan king. Ten thousand foxes were converted into horses in a few milliseconds by divine intervention. Thevaram was sceptical. “Converting to horses is not the issue machan,” he said, “but where did He find ten thousand foxes at short notice?”
The friends agreed that no positive action towards engaging the likes of them has been forthcoming over the last five years because the local government has been preoccupied with passing resolutions on how to spell the G-word. Nationalism, they felt, was a nice cover for incompetence. It was a missed opportunity, both for Sri Lanka as a whole, and specifically for the northern region. Is there a solution to this, they wondered.
That was a few weeks ago.
Back in the Bridgetown pub yesterday, Thevaram joined me in an unusually delightful mood: “Eureka, I have found a solution, machan!”
“There is a local leadership vacuum and that can only be addressed by replacing the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council.”
I thought it unlikely because the CM was a respected judge of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka with extensive education and experience. He was brought out of retirement to head up the local council, and I was one of those who felt elated to see him standing on the balcony of the Jaffna public library when the British Prime Minister David Cameron visited that part of the world.
A person with education, rather than the gun-wielding striped ones in the jungles, representing what I think of as “Home” was pleasing for me to see. Colombo Telegraph even carried an article hailing his recruitment as “Sampanthan’s Master Stroke.”
Who then was Thevaram proposing to replace the Honourable Chief Minister with?
“Impossible. Who has such stature?” I challenged.
“We urgently need to replace the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council,” Thevaram said slowly, taking the last sip from his glass of Peroni, “with something I have just written:
“an artificial intelligence software!”