By Mahesan Niranjan –
We start this story with an unusual analogy, from an island far away from the Bidgetown pub where my drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram and I meet regularly. On this island lived two tribes whom we shall refer to by the letters S and T, forming some 80% and 20% of the population respectively. They were a colony for some 500 years, and, when the last colonial masters, the Brits – known locally as Suddhas (white man) – left, chose to forget their genetic similarities, amplified their phonetic differences and started fighting each other.
Naturally, under a democratic structure of governance, one would expect tribe S to have an upper hand and how the national wealth or poverty is shared between them, or how any of their cultural practices sustained, became points of contention. But instead of seeking a rational solution to these, the political class saw the opportunity of using these as paths to power: “You are poor because the S tribe is in ultimate control,” shouted the politicians of the T tribe. “All your problems are because the T-tribe has taken more than its fair share,” echoed their counterparts.
To cut a long story short, the T’s have claimed they are a persecuted tribe, a claim with which one can sympathize given that the library in their hometown was torched under the supervision of two senior members of the then government. “You do not belong here,” some hard line members of the S tribe would say, “go back to where you came from.”
Some members of the T tribe took this particular call rather seriously and accepted this challenge. “We do not belong here,” they agreed. “Let’s go to where we actually came from. We can create our own country, in the land that we left some time ago, and develop it to high standards so milk and honey may flow on its roads.” After a careful study using the technique of phylogenetics, they made a decision on where they came from:
The village of Dinga Bonga in present day Ethiopia!
A number of T’s arrived to settle in Dinga Bonga. They built houses, roads, libraries, toilets and schools. They set up plants that manufactured goods and shops that sold them. They modernised their language, music and dance to suit the present times, but retained parts of their age-old script, tones and moves. All in all, they created the ideal country and a society to live in and maintained powerful economic and political ties with the T’s still left in the island where they came from. Well, where they came from, before they came there from here, which, according to them, is where they originally came from.
Who lived in Dinga Bonga before this influx of T’s? It was a tribe of people headed by chief Mbwange Nbwange. These people did not have the sophistication of science and economics that formed the basis of the T’s rapid development. They lived in small huts, dug wells for water, grew date palms and had about two or three goats per person. When the T’s arrived in the village, they threw Mbwange Nbwange and his people out and erected a fence to secure the boundaries of their newly developed land.
“But this land belongs to us,” protested Mbwange Nbwange, “look, my father lived here and my grandfather lived here. They had huts, wells, date plants and goats. “Here are the deeds,” he said, producing some scribblings etched on dried date palm leaves.
“Oh yes, that was just two generations ago,” said the T’s, “this land is where we the T’s originated from. We have just been away for a while and have now returned to claim what was originally ours. You guys can build your own country outside the fenced area.”
“And it says it all in our book.”
“What book?” challenged Mbwange Nbwange.
“Does that book actually say this land belongs to you guys?” asked Mbwange Nbwange after reading the book carefully. “Not explicitly,” the T’s said, “but it clearly implies that is the case.”
Squeezed between the fence and the deep sea, life was incredibly hard for Mbwange Nbwange and his people. They had limited access to fertile land or water. They could not trade with the outside world because anything had to come through Dinga Bonga and the tiny crossing the T’s allowed on the fence. Their lives could be summarised as miserable, just managing to hold body and soul together, in an open prison.
Once in a while, out of sheer frustration young men from Mbwange Nbwange‘s tribe would throw stones over the fence at the T’s in Dinga Bonga. The T’s would respond with vengeance. They declared Mbwange Nbwange and his folks as terrorists. “We are a legitimate state defending our fence from attack by terrorists,” they would say before firing a thousand stones for every stone thrown by Mbwange Nbwange. An uneven equilibrium ensued, with the immensely powerful T’s brought in by the exodus and a displaced tribe in an open prison, periodically throwing stones at each other.
In the ratio one thousand to one.
Now, back in the island, a politician by the name of Jaysee, rather atypical of the political class, has been active in challenging economic inequalities, exposing the profound lies that sustained them and seeking peace. The name Jaysee could be read as initials J.C., but care should be exercised if comparisons are to be made with others carrying the same initials.
Jaysee was slightly unusual: He made his own jam from palmyrah fruits.
Free access to tertiary education, re-nationalization of transport and not throwing powerful bombs on faraway places based on nostalgic views of the islanders ruling the waves were among his top priorities. He seemed to say that successful entrepreneurs such as tea estate owners in the island owe part of their success to the environment in which that success is achieved. After all, the society educated their workforce with elementary arithmetic so they could count the “two leaves and a bud” to pluck, paid for their healthcare so they would not bleed to death when bitten by leeches, and provided them with basic transport to get to work. Hence, Jaysee has argued, a slightly higher level of tax on the tea estate’s profit to pay for education, health and transport is a perfectly justifiable thing to do.
All hell broke loose at that suggestion.
Jaysee had a weakness, a soft spot for the plight of Mbwange Nbwange and his people. He argues that throwing them out of Dinga Bonga, slowly starving them in an open prison and the 1000:1 ratio of stone throwing was grossly unfair. By articulating these views, he offered his critics the opportunity to kill his political career. On a silver plate!
“He is siding with the terrorist Mbwange Nbwange,” headlined the Island Daily Noise.
Its reporters sprang into action. All of Jaysee’s writings and speeches were scrutinised. Every “i” he did not dot and every “t” he failed to cross were examined. They concluded that they had statistically significant evidence of Jaysee suffering from an “anti-T” sentiment. “Our investigative journalists have unearthed evidence of association,” wrote the IDN editorial, “of Jaysee’s cousin’s cousin repairing his bicycle in the same shop where the terrorist Mbwange Nbwange’s cousin’s cousin has also had his bike fixed.
“He criticized the throwing of 1000 stones from Dinga Bonga across the fence, on the same platform where an anti-T speaker mentioned the burning of the library of the T’s.” The editorial was hard-hitting. “Sharing platforms in that way is proof of his subscription to anti-T-ism, and he is not doing enough to root it out from his own actions and those of his cousins and cousins’ cousins.”
Back in the Bridgetown pub, Thevaram and I agreed that Jaysee’s political career is all but finished. His energy was being drained on which of his cousin’s cousin went to have his bike fixed in the shop as Mbwange Nbwange’s cousin’s cousin did, and offering a series of apologies for any hurt caused. Energetic detective work and a moving goalpost of definitions kept him permanently distracted.
His political space to articulate why tertiary education should be free, why major transport infrastructure should be in state control or why random bombing of faraway places based on nostalgic views of the islanders ruling the waves is neither nice nor useful, monotonically decreased and eventually disappeared.
He did not even have the energy to make his own palmyrah jam anymore.
Thevaram and I raised our glasses of Peroni to mark our prediction of the end of a political career that challenged inequality, exposed lies and sought peace:
“Cheers, machan (buddy)!”