By Mahesan Niranjan –
Yesterday, after a long break, three of us met in the famous pub in Bridgetown, UK. My companions were Sivapuranam Thevaram, who is my regular drinking partner and Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Soloman Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela, our occasional company. You will know from the structure of their names that the former, Thevaram, is from the Tamil tribe and the latter, whose name we shall shorten to Pol for convenience, is Sinhalese. Phonetic convenience is just one reason for shortening the name to Pol. There is semantics, too. Pol in Sinhala means coconut which is white on the inside and brown externally. This fact may be more important than the tribal identities of my friends for the story today.
Now you might assume the long gap in our drinking session is because we have stopped drinking. Not at all.
Let me digress a bit and tell you about another friend of mine who had indeed given up drinking. He was a Sikh chap whom I met when I worked as barman in the very same Bridgetown pub during a summer vacation. He was the only Sikh friend I ever had.
His name is Justone Singh.
He came into the pub one Friday afternoon and bought three glasses of Peroni, sat in a corner and drank them all in a rather strange way, taking a sip from each glass in turn. When he came in and did the same next week, I introduced myself and said to him “you know, if you bought your three pints one at a time, each glass will be fresh and cold, no!”
“You know, machan (buddy),” Justone explained, “I am from a family of three very close brothers. We used to drink every Friday. Two weeks ago, both my brothers got jobs in Dubai and have left, so in order to keep our drinking tradition going I do this, so their memory of drinking with me stays fresh in my mind.” I took this to be a reasonable explanation. So did my regular customers in the famous Bridgetown pub. Maintaining stiff upper lips being the custom in England, everyone accepted this peculiar behaviour and explanation. Or perhaps diversity training at their workplaces was having an effect on my customers.
On week eight something changed. Justone bought just two beers. Went to his corner and drank from the two glasses, taking sips in turn. There was pin-drop silence in the pub. We all knew what had happened. I walked up to him and said very gently “I am very sorry to see one of your brother has passed away, please accept our condolences.”
“Oh, no, not to worry,” he said cheerfully “both my brothers are fine in Dubai, working hard and sending money.” And figuring out it was the missing third glass that made me think the worst, he said:
“Just me, I have stopped drinking.”
Back to my drinking session with Thevaram and Pol, our conversation drifted into the topic of the state of Sri Lankan universities. We talked about nepotism in appointments, political interferences and student unrest. Pol had strong views on the subject. “Staff there don’t do any research, machan,” he said, “what have professors there published in international journals in recent years?”
He also had his solution to the problems we discussed: “We should just close down the University of Jaffna, machan. The buggers there don’t do any research. We should reset the place and start from scratch.”
[ In standard English, the term “bugger” is somewhat vulgar. In Sri Lankan English its use signifies social class. The more frequent you use it, the higher is the chance you were educated in one of the leading private schools. ]
I was rather angry about this particular suggestion from Pol. I have friends employed in SL universities. Five of them took their postgraduate research training in my group and in two subjects I have been serving as an external moderator reviewing their exam papers, scripts and making suggestions on maintaining standards appropriate for the degrees. Most graduates from there are able to fit into demanding jobs and manage to do well in post-graduate work. And on every visit to Sri Lankan universities, I meet amazing people, like the chap in Buzytown who has built an entire morphological analyser for Sinhala language, the chap Upnawth who does difficult measurements on solar cells, the civil engineering chap at HillTop who consults on complex soil foundations, the enjoyable lunch with an award winning poet and the long conversation with a lawyer about human rights and other political issues. On one of these visits, I shared an office with a chap and observed how he interacted with his project students. “Focus on the question,” he encourages them, “recognising the question is what is important when defining your project. Solution comes next.” I plagiarize it instantly.
How can Pol suggest we close the place down as a solution? I was utterly miffed.
Thevaram, however, maintained his cool. After taking another sip of his Peroni, he said, “that is just like the suggestion Manimehalai (Thevaram’s wife) made about my lawn.”
“You see, over the years, I have been trying to grow a lawn at my home in Bridgetown,” he went on to explain. “When I started, the whole garden was overgrown with bits of nettles and weeds and not much turf in it.”
Manimehalai’s suggestion was to get a man in, kill it all and concrete it up.
“What sort of lawn do you have there,” she had challenged Thevaram, “in the world ranking of lawns, you won’t even be within the top 1000,” she teased, showing him a picture of a Bridgetown campus lawn.
Three hundred years of loving tender care and regular supply of water and fertilizer. And strict instructions to anyone who steps on it, too: “Please, Sir, keep off the lawn.”
“You see machan,” Thevaram said to Pol, “ the first thing I recognized was that in my lawn, there were good bits and there were parts with overgrown weeds.
“I gave fertilizer and water to the parts that were good and slowly weeded out the weeds.
“I created conditions under which the good grass grew faster than the weeds, consuming more of the water and fertilizer, and, over time, weeds were only appearing sporadically and could be easily weeded out.
“Now, nine years later, I have very few weeds, and though I need another 291 years to catch up with the Bridgetown lawns, mine, too, is a decent piece of turf.”
“Cheers,” I said, raising my glass of Peroni, as a toast to the observation that, unlike my Sikh friend Justone Singh, we had not stopped drinking.