By 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 one” in “I 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.