9 August, 2020

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The Story Of An Imagined Conflict: Development Versus Dignity

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof Mahesan Niranjan

I am at my local pub in Bridgetown UK. My usual drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram is away this week. So I have come here with another buddy, Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Junius Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela. We will call him Pol for short. Astute readers will observe that this friend is also a Sri Lankan and comes from the Sinhala tribe — not that this particular piece of information matters when friends are out drinking.

Pol and I are keen followers of the politics in Sri Lanka, and have recently read much about the elections to the Northern Provincial Council. We have been intrigued by the often repeated slogan “We did not vote for your development, we voted for our dignity.” That the further you are from that part of the world, the stronger is the preference for dignity over development, did not escape our notice. We recognized that if three members of the Tamil tribe were to engage in a discussion about the mandate given to the TNA by the Northern electorate, they will have four views between them on what precisely that mandate was. We have been amused by the post-election tug of war over ministerial appointments: one fellow wanting his brother appointed, one fellow threatening to resign from the party he is head of and several fellows boycotting the oath-taking event and threatening to take oath in Mullivaikkaal. Pol and I are agreed that the inverse relationships between the strength of their outbursts and the time constants with which they quietened down afterwards amply qualify them to become occupants of the new zoo that is being created in Battaramulla.

While Pol shares such amusements with me over a drink, he finds it harder to comprehend other intricacies of Sri Lanka’s post-independence political developments. “I have a one Tamil friend, machan (buddy/mate),” he started explaining. “His name is Navaneeth Asingam, lives in Colombo, does business in Jaffna and he has no problem. I don’t understand what these people want to fight over. We can be united and develop the country, no?”

A reasonable proposition, readers will agree, but there are several subtleties we need to note about Pol’s comment on his understanding of the world. “A oneinI have a one friend” is a deliberate linguistic construct, not very common, but certainly Sri Lankan English (Michael Meyler, take note). Pol’s Tamil friend’s name is a compound (Navaneethasingam), which when split correctly as Navaneetha + Singam, the second part (singam) means lion. But with the little error Pol made (splitting the compound as Navaneeth + Asingam), the second part (asingam) means dirty or ugly. Now if Pol can’t get such a simple thing about his friend’s name right, what chance do I have of explaining to him that part of the citizens in our country are systematically made to feel by our government that they don’t belong? Pol’s logic also deserves comment. He has seen one example and has extrapolated to the whole. A common error in the application of statistical sciences to the practice of medicine and law, as my friend Thevaram, the statistician, would have pointed out.

 

“With strong leadership, machan, we can develop like Lioncity,” Pol was determined to make his point. “Just look at Colombo these days, there is a lot of development, roads have no pot holes, pavements have been broadened, the whole of the area near the Parliament looks just like the waterfront in Lioncity.”

Now this Lioncity is an island state, a couple of hours of flight from Sri Lanka. It has an important bearing on how we Sri Lankans calibrate our standing in the world, ever since Lioncity’s chief Mr Timber made a comment about wanting his country to be like our country, then known as Ceylon. I must say who Mr Timber is. Timber translates into lee in Sinhala (lee is Sinhala, not Sri Lankan English, Michael Meyler, don’t write this down). Mr Timber believes in strong leadership, and, similar to headmasters of reputable schools, would not hesitate to apply the cane if you don’t fall in line. “If only these northern terrorists stop blowing us up, we can develop like Lioncity” and “If only we can separate from these modayas (fools), we can develop like Lioncity” are very common political positions taken by quite a large number of our countrymen across our tribal divide, as readers will readily acknowledge.

Pol attributes much of the development he celebrates to the responsibility and power of urban development being brought under the Ministry of Defence, and the strong leadership given by its Secretary.

You might think this is so because Pol, who happens to be a professor of technology, is a well connected in government circles. You are mistaken. Pol’s views are indeed shared right across the social spectrum in Sri Lanka. Last March, when I was in Colombo, I engaged a taka-taka driver in conversation. As we drove past the Parliament and waited for traffic at the junction of Batharamulla road, the driver said to me: “balanna Sir, than Lankaawa Lioncity wage (look, Sir, Sri Lanka is now like Lioncity).” He was showing me the banks of the Diyawanna Oya which have been done up nicely, with lights, nice new park benches upon which sat romantic couples hidden under umbrellas and two or three pleasure boats shaped like swans.

aththada (oh, really)?” I acknowledged, wondering if he had ever been to Lioncity to verify this similarity he was so confident about. “Okkoma eyaage vaeda ne (all of it his work, no),” he continued.

kauda, janaadhipathithumaada (who, the President)?” I was inquisitive. I did quickly bite my lips and stopped myself from saying “kaude, rajathumada (who the emperor)?”

Nae (no),” he said, dragging the vowel several times its usual length, making effective use of intonation to show what he actually thought of me — stupid kalu suddha (black skinned white fellow), I am sure it was — but without being rude to his customer.

“Gotabaya,” he gave me the answer, naming the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, the same hero of my educated friend, Pol. “Contract denawa, hari giye nathtnang hamudaawa daala veda hondata karanawa (he gives these jobs on contract, if it does not work well, brings in the army to do a great job).” honda means good in Sinhala, but if you stress and elongate the second vowel in hondata, you can achieve the effect of “great,” just as a quarter circle of Pizza might be described in America. (No, that is also not for the A to Z, Michael Meyler).

A couple of months after that trip to Sri Lanka, I did get a chance to visit Lioncity. Reading about it in the traveller’s guide in the plane, I was impressed that such a crowded and developed place could function to military precision. Moreover, it managed to stay green like a park. What the guide book claimed was immediately noticeable on the taxi ride from airport to hotel. Busy road, extensive development, yet it was all looking green on either side.

Back in the hotel, and later in an open air cafeteria in the technological university in Lioncity, I could not help thinking about the taka-taka driver’s comment. The cafeteria was spotlessly clean. I compared with my memory of student cafeterias in HillTop University back in Sri Lanka. They were so dirty. Was it the students? Or was it careless workers? Or just lack of investment?

After some thinking I figured that the main source of the dirt was caused by crows. They come in to eat leftover food, the more enterprising ones even daring to snatch it off your plate if you were careless. It was the crows that dirtied the tables and chairs. I felt very uneasy thinking about all these.

Later that night, lying in my bed I solved the puzzle about the trees I saw on the ride from the airport and about crows dirtying HillTop cafeteria tables.

It was one of my “Eureka!” moments.

All the trees I saw were of identical height. And there were no crows on them.

The implications being too much to explain to Pol, “Cheers machan,” I said, gulping down my last sip of Peroni for the evening.

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Latest comments

  • 0
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    You mean they were Artificial trees? Who would have guessed!

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      Niranjan ,
      If we make trees perfect, then there won’t be crows, that is true, but then there won’t be any singing parrots or powerful eagles either.
      I believe imperfection of trees is the beauty of existence. If we make trees perfect then theoretically world cannot exist.
      Anyway, keep drinking and send us your stories, I love your writing skills.
      Anura

  • 0
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    It almost seems that there is no problem. The trishaw drivers seem thrilled with all these jogging tracks, pavments and carpeted roads. Of course trishaw drivers are a privileged class. In Colombo they easily make Rs 1000 a day profit. More than what some of our young professionals earn after spending on education and studying so long.

    One small time contractor told me ‘Api okkama ivarai’. He had no proper work for the last several months. ‘Apata kawadawath mehema wune naha’. He is now trying to go abroad, leaving his kids and family. I asked him, is it really so bad? He said that even a person who owned vehicles on lease to a company had come to him for a loan of Rs 15,000.

    We hear about the people who were displaced by the war. We read about young people committing suicide. We read about parents killing or abandoning their children. We hear that so many graves were found in Matale. We read that people have gone missing. It seems there are many things we do not know, hear or read. Even what we hear or read is an unfinished story. No one knows the end.

    • 0
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      or the begining.

  • 0
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    Subtle. Clever. Very.

  • 0
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    There he goes again, after a few beers his ideas pour out like draft beer!

    • 0
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      …and then diarrhoea!!!!!!!!!

  • 0
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    Tamil ‘boycott style’ politics is like smoking cigerette isn’t it really? Each fag creates a noxious atmosphere and reduces the life span of the smoker. 2/3 of the packet is finshed. Others will wait patiently until last one is smoked ending the menace for good.

    • 0
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      “fag creates a noxious atmosphere and reduces the life span of the smoker.”

      Go tell that to the marines who know not what a smoking room looks like.

      The most wonderful thing is no man believes that he would die. So are you the attendant at the mortuary I get the smell.Phew!

    • 0
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      Tamils should boycott living! Then SL will be prosperous.

  • 0
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    Fascinating !

  • 0
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    “All the trees I saw were of identical height. And there were no crows on them.”
    Because they were like the fun cities of Cedric Price.

    Folk who have been so long inconvenienced and denied opportunities for development are naturally afraid of anything that sounds like discrimination.

    “Nothing is unthinkable, nothing impossible to the balanced person, provided it comes out of the needs of life and is dedicated to life’s further development.
    Lewis Mumford

  • 0
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    Why Peroni , Professor?.

    You should put down a few Pommy Lagers no, to show solidarity with the English Tamils … !!

    • 0
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      The London-based brewing giant SABMiller bought the company in 2005, making it one of the few international brands in its portfolio.

  • 0
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    Simply Brilliant Prof.Niranjan.
    When I come to London next,I shall bring a bottle of my favorite Lankan Gal Pol and we can taste of it in the company of the LL of your Bridgetown pub.

  • 0
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    Nice reading, like a short story, but what is the point the writer is trying to make?

    I am still awaiting my own “Eureka moment” on this one!

    • 0
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      Mr Timber = Mr Lee = Lee Kuan Yew
      Lion City = Singapore
      Hill-Top university = Peradeniya

      Lee Kuan Yew locked up the opposition when he started developing Singapore. It is still a very authoritarian country. The trees from Changi airport to the city centre are of equal height and free of crows as they have been chosen and planted for this purpose. Control and discipline everywhere. Efficiency and cleanliness in exchange for democracy and freedom of speech. Is this Lanka’s future?

      • 0
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        What would you call the writer? Colliewobbles from Haputale?
        Singapore was created by professionals for professionals. So they tried to emulate Cleeeen Idealist Japan the yankee kids “fire wire” .

      • 0
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        No Kidding!!!

        Some of us are not that dense not to have picked up the nuances about Singapore,Lee Kuan Yew, Peradeniya and the artificial trees.

        However, you seem to contradict yourself.

        You say Singapore stands for “Efficiency and cleanliness in exchange for democracy and freedom of speech.”

        And just before that you say “Lee Kuan Yew locked up the opposition when he started developing Singapore. It is still a very authoritarian country.”

        It seems that you may need to visit Niranjan’s pub to get your Eureka moment!

        • 0
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          Its not what I say, its what the story writer implies. Don’t be embarrassed.

      • 0
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        You will not find a copy of the moderate “Economist” in a news stand nor will you get a wad of chewing gum, that is Lion City for you.

        • 0
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          Exactly!

  • 0
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    What’s all this bullshit then? These two goons can stay in their pub in Bridgetoon and drink and ‘machan’ all they want but if they come down south and try their cameraderie our pradeshya sabha chairman will insert his piece up one end of you and click! and then ask your lady to bend over. Get real in the miracle of asia.

    • 0
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      Lanka needs a Banksy very badly.

      • 0
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        I thought you were our literary Banksy?

        • 0
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          Wishful thinking.

          Literary is the field of concepts (dis.dev.dym.det.)
          while Banksy art stylizes reality no faking.

    • 0
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      I am still laughing – a good summary to the `highs` of a relaxing Professor and machans!

  • 0
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    Of more interest to UK/sri lankan pub-gogers should be what is happening in our most friendly Country viz. C H I N A:

    This on-line Petition to the UN closes by 30th November, 2013. Please
    sign, visiting:-

    http://www.dafoh.org/petition-to-the-united-nations/

    Other links of interest are:

    http://www.organharvestinvestigation.net
    http://www.staatsorgane.org/
    http://www.igfm.ch/organraub.html
    http://www.david-kilgour.com/

  • 0
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    didnt you notice when in Colombo every male has the same hair cut and walk the same…soon they will all wear the same uniform …..and walk in rows of five

  • 0
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    Lets face the truth.

    Tamils lost dignity when they lost the war in 2009. This is the bitter truth the government doesn’t tell you.

    Now we should wait till the fruits of Tamils losing dignity comes for all others to enjoy not just the army and grease devils.

    • 0
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      “we should wait till the fruits of Tamils losing dignity comes for all others to enjoy”

      Catching your bollocks jump up and try catching the ceiling and

      don’t drop that smelly hijab/hi-jack.

      Alternatively, go back into the cave you came from bin lardens tainted knickers.

  • 0
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    Prof so what are you trying to say.? Lots of words, some thoughts but no substance. Will it get a C or a C+ or a repeat.

  • 0
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    My dear Prof. Niranjan,

    We professionals in Colombo drown the sorrows of week’s hard work on Friday evenings at the OPA Center, Colombo 07 and clash of opinions and ideas take place until the barman puts up shutters at 11.00 pm. If clash of opinions and ideas is politics then the politics we have been discussing since the OPA Bar started its business with a sweating “chef” preparing cheap but palatable bites and a barman who could open bottles with stuff that cheers with a traditional palm blow to bottom of bottles, are enough to draft several constitutions for the country not for an Utopian State.

    After reading your articles, I am of the opinion that solutions that come out of politics of professionals in the OPA Bar on Friday evenings are sensible and practical compared to solutions that come out of politics of politicians in the parliament. Therefore I am strongly in favour of opening a pub in the parliament of Sri Lanka for helping the law makers to come out with sensible and practical home grown solutions to the problem of surviving in democratic politics.

    Knowing the culture of current breed of professional politicians of Sri Lanka and knowing that their heads are already swollen with philosophical opinions and ideas of their own, I am sure that they would always come out of the parliament pub with an unwritten agreement on continuation of politics of hatred as a strategy to survive in democratic politics.

    • 0
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      “Therefore I am strongly in favour of opening a pub in the parliament of Sri Lanka “

      You know nothing exists as parts and holes in their natural context.
      You need to teach them sensible drinking first- more folk in the west die of alcohol related than smoking there is also beating of women and kids related to it.

      I would suggest you propose “Auto Urine Therapy” to all those “pricks” and once they graduate then why not the romantic wine- vino pero tinto.

  • 0
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    Having trees of uniform height with no crows in them is of course a very obvious proposition, the only problem being that it is not how biology works. The trees and the lifeforms surrounding them – including the crows, form one integrated whole. Attempts to eliminate the crows, is almost certain to destroy the trees as well- even if they were all of uniform height. One only need to turn the history pages of the last 40 years if proof is needed.

  • 0
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    Smacks of the algae island of Life of Pi heh! Here’s the interpretation:
    The tops of the trees were clipped off neatly by the shells, fired by highly professional soldiers who used precise smart bombs. The crows were driven away by the noise ie the lucky ones ones who escaped the bombs. Everyone is in awe about the cleansing and the resultant beautiful uniform park, where every tree looks the same, where every tree thinks the same, and where every tree is rotting from within. Never mind the greens and RSPCA who are shouting about the trees and the birds. What do they know? They cannot enjoy the beauty of uniformity, conformity and the cleanliness.

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