By Mahesan Niranjan –
Last week, I was invited to a wedding in Bridgetown. My regular drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram’s son Samaanthiram was getting married. Thinking it was going to be a Hindu wedding, where rituals are performed around a fire, I turned up with a portable fire extinguisher. Such is the level of health and safety training I have been given in my day job.
Welcoming the guests and congratulating the bride and groom, Thevaram said “One thing we Sri Lankan immigrants struggle with is the concept of the `best-before’ date on food packages. To me, if it looks and smells edible, I eat; but to Manimekali (Thevaram’s wife), if it says best before day-after-tomorrow, we should have consumed it day-before-yesterday!”
It wasn’t clear where he was heading, but he put me out of my misery when he continued: “Another area in which we struggle with `best-before’ is our culture. There are aspects of it we carry in the form of social structures and rituals, claiming these to be thousands of years old, but fail in attaching to them a `best-before’ date.”
“So, if we had stuck to these customs,” he said, addressing the young couple, “there would have been a priest, he would have lit a fire, jabbered ad infinitum in Sanskrit and you guys would have had to walk around the fire some even number of times. And if you get your count wrong, there will be a perfectionist aunt who will complain: “Now, that was odd!”
“What is your problem with Hindu priest, machan (buddy)?” I asked him later. “Rituals are harmless. Sanskrit sounds nice to the ear, there is deep meaning in it even if we don’t understand what it is and it is dead.”
“No priest. No, not when I am in charge,” he snapped, with a heavy emphasis on the I.
It was clear there was more to it than what met my eyes, which I was determined to find out. So, after the wedding, we adjourned to the famous Bridgetown pub and I bought the first round of Peroni. Liquid in, story out!
There is a little island called Couragenagar off the north coast of Sri Lanka. Some fifty years ago, a ten-year old boy, half asleep in the veranda of his house, overheard a conversation between his father and a visiting uncle. You might easily guess that the young boy is Thevaram and the father, Sivapuranam. Uncle Crinkle-Bottom (not he real name, but I have synthesized a double-barrelled name to illustrate his social standing in the village) is a regular guest at their place who reports a summary of his daily activities to Sivapuranam. It was mostly monologue, and, whether the recipient shows the slightest interest in the topic being narrated or not was never a consideration. It might as well have been in Sanskrit, as far as the eves-dropping young boy often wondered.
That evening, Crinkle-Bottom was particularly jubilant. “We stopped the hotel project,” he shouted as he walked in, “the village Council has voted against it and the Government Agent has accepted their decision!
“How can they even think of building a hotel in this sacred place of worship?”Now, the place of worship is the lovely beach in the village. An exceptionally nice sandy beach with shallow water just up to an adult’s chest, half a mile into the sea. A sparsely populated region with a few fishermen and occasional local tourists which included Sivapuranam and his kids who went swimming and seashell collecting on a regular basis. Uncle Crinkle-Bottom lived a couple of hundred yards from the beach. He was originally a rice farmer but, probably having taken on-line courses on entrepreneurship, recently developed himself into a wholesale rice trader.
There was a temple nearby with statues and priests. Every year, there was a festival. Part of the festival was the bathing of God. The gold-plated stone is wheeled out on a decorated chariot by devotees to the beach and given a through wash, before being returned to its holy pedestal. One day a year, the beach belonged to God, and the remaining 364 days to fishermen and the occasional local tourists including the Sivapuranam family.
There was a proposal to develop that beach, from some entrepreneurs with possible government backing, by building a hotel and better access roads. This is what Crinkle-Bottom boasted to have blocked on the basis that the beach, where God bathed, was sacred.
To understand the rest of the story, aspects of the society in that region should be described. This is best done in the jargon of the professional statistician in me: Hierarchical and clustered.
You belonged to a cluster, assigned at birth and supposedly in your blood! It had to be blood because the human genome had not been sequenced around that time. You knew your place in the hierarchy of these clusters. You do not question that arrangement. That was defined and accepted as your culture. It had no `best-before’ date stamped on it.
“What was that all about, thaththi (dad), uncle was saying about blocking a hotel project?” the boy asked the father next morning. “It is ok to block building a hotel, no. After all, it is a place of worship? Uncle Crinkle certainly has his heart in the right place,” the boy said, with a sense of gratitude for the lego set he received from the uncle on his birthday.
The father took the boy to the beach. Kanthan the fisherman had just landed with his catch. Crincle-Bottom, after his early morning jog along the beach had arrived to buy fish.
Kanthan takes the best of his catch and gives it to Crincle-Bottom.
“How much?” asks Crincle-Bottom.
“Give me whatever you like, aiya (Sir),” says Kanthan. [/aiya/ refers to a senior person of higher status; /Sir/ is approximate, /aiya/ carries a sense of reverence which is not captured in the translation.]
Crinkle-Bottom gives him a few coins which Kanthan receives with both hands outstretched and a bow at about 45 degrees to the direction of gravity.
“Did you see what happened there putha (son)?” the father said to young Thevaram. “Uncle is a rice trader. Rice is the staple food around here. Uncle sets the price of rice. He is also higher in the hierarchy of clusters in our society. So he sets the price of fish also!
“What would happen if there is a hotel here? Kanthan will sell his fish to the hotel at a higher price, wouldn’t he? And uncle Crinkle will lose the economic power he wields over Kanthan. So, he needs the social hierarchy, he needs the God, he need the rituals of the God having a bath once a year, this place has to be declared sacred and the hotel project blocked.”
The boy felt for the plight of the fisherman and the lesson in socio-economics got etched deep in his mind. Such social clustering and hierarchy carries to this day, we ought to note with a sense of shame. It was reported a couple of months ago, in a village neighbouring Couragenagar, when there weren’t enough young people of one cluster to take God to his bath, instead of letting those from other clusters to participate, temple management hired a JCB earthmover!
Throughout his teenage years, Thevaram avoided temples in which poojas (rituals) were conducted by priests. They qualified to be priests by birth and blood. They did not take degrees in theology or even pass exams on Sanskrit as a second language.
[ Shush. He did make exceptions to this boycott during his late teens when he wanted to be within the visual range of his admirers of the fairer sex.]
In shame and anger, the young boy waited for a chance to avenge the system. Half a century later, in the far away city of Bridgetown, he got that chance.
“No priest. No, not when I am in charge,” said Thevaram gulping the last mouthful of Peroni and slamming the empty glass on the table.