By Mahesan Niranjan –
At the last general elections in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, held in 2019, my occasional drinking partner, Pol, cast his vote in favour of the Conservative and Unionist Party of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, thereby spoiling the chance of working towards an equitable society in which big corporations were to pay their share of taxes, education was to be free at point of delivery, the lower ranks of the workforce was to be paid decent wages and the bombing of far-away places was to stop.
Now Pol, as he is known for short, is Polgahawela Aarachchige Don Solomon Rathmana Thanthiriya Bandarawela. From his name, you will immediately guess, unlike my regular drinking partner Sivapuranam Thevaram, the Tamil fellow, Pol is of Sinhala ethnicity. For the story today, this is irrelevant. Though the meaning of the word pol (පොල්) in Sinhala being coconut has some significance.
What matters is, Pol is a highly successful Sri Lankan, naturalized as British. An educational culture during his youth in Sri Lanka has stretched Pol’s mind to excellent standards of curiosity and knowledge. Here in Bridgetown, Pol has shone in scholarship, reaching fantastic heights. He is not alone. There are several successful Sri Lankans, who shop in Waitrose, admire Her Majesty the Queen and voted Brexit. There is a pol in many of them.
Now, the UK is the fifth largest economy in the world, inheriting much of its wealth from the Empire it once ruled and thanks to the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. But the attack by the virus on such a powerful nation has been devastating. Deaths per million population is highest in the world, and, apart from the vaccine rollout which is working very well because it has been left to the professionals to carry out, every other aspect of handling the pandemic has been to line the pockets of friends of those in power by signing lucrative contracts with no due process.
Yet Pol admires Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as a competent leader and would vote for him again.
What’s more, poverty has risen at an alarming rate. Children, over a million of them, live under the poverty line and are entitled to free school meals. During school holiday they do not get enough to eat and a children’s charity has called for a reduction in the school holidays from six weeks to four, so the children may go hungry less. I could read Oliver Twist again and be forgiven for mistaking it to describe the present times.
And yet Pol admires Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson as a competent leader and would vote for him again.
In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States, there is much talk about racism, institutional racism and the notion of Equality, Diversity and Inclusiveness (EDI). If 20 years ago, the Metropolitan Police was found to be institutionally racist by the Macpherson inquiry, last year, British universities have been declared the same by the Equalities Commission. They ignore what is structural – i.e. the reinforced glass ceilings that keep the “other” out of high office — and focus mostly on behaviour, i.e. the use of foul language, the N-word, the P-word etc. In this area, too, the track record of the Prime Minister is not great. He has been careless in his description of Muslim women and Africans.
Still, Pol is oblivious to Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s shortcomings and would vote for him again.
“What drives Pol?” I asked Thevarm when we met for a drink over zoom, with our own bottles of Peroni.
“Pol’s acceptance of and admiration for Johnson, machan (buddy),” Thevaram said after a minute’s pause, “is simply a reflection of his own thoughts.
“Pol has views similar to Johnson. He thinks people are poor because they are benefit scroungers, children go hungry because the parents are lazy to feed them and he himself wants to describe Muslim women and Africans in the same language Johnson has used.
“But in the educated professional circles he moves in, he cannot say the things he wishes to say, and suppresses his inner thoughts.
“So his vote for the Prime Minister is simply placing himself in the imagined world of Johnson and pretending to articulate those views that he cannot in his normal world do.”
I could sense this was heading in the direction of Sigmund Freud’s line of psychoanalysis, not a particularly healthy one for our drinking session. Perhaps sensing this, Thevaram referred to a Tamil literary figure to make his point.
“Remember the good old days, machan, the evenings we used to spend at the Jaffna Public Library and the Pannai bridge?” he asked.
“We have actually discussed Pol’s psyche there!”
How can I forget those days? In late Seventies, we were in secondary school at Jaffna Hindu College. After classes in the afternoon, we would cycle down to the library to spend a couple of hours reading. We would then walk along the Pannai causeway chatting about various things: mathematics, politics, philosophy and literature. No topic was off limits.
Among our favourite authors of the time was the Tamil novelist D. Jeyakanthan. His short stories were immensely powerful, brilliantly subtle and probed deep into sociological issues of the Tamil society. Though based in South India, much of Jeyakanthan’s writings had wider resonance. Critics of the time thought, and I largely agree, that DJ was good with the lower strata of society but somewhat wide of the mark when dealing with the middle class.
I have not read Tamil authors of such standing since those days. Among contemporary writers, A. Jesuthasn (writing under the pen name Shoba Sakthi) is impressive. His early work Gorilla, on a Sri Lankan Tamil child soldier, centred around his own childhood experience is a gripping read. The language is rough, but draws the reader into the context of family struggles, atrocities by security forces, life in the rebel group and his wake up call to slip away at early signs of fascism in it. A smaller piece I enjoyed much is a hilarious short story கண்டி வீரன் (Kandy Veeran), which mocks Tamil rebel groups, their incompetence and internecine rivalries. The writing is beautifully creative and shows the rebels no mercy. Shoba is also a successful actor, and one of his films Deepan features here.
Returning to Jeyakanthan, Thevaram asked me to recall a particular short story we had discussed in detail from the Pannai causeway. It was based in Madras in South India – now Chennai — about a manual labourer and his wife, living a hand-to-mouth life of daily work and food. They were addicted to cinema. As a source of entertainment, stress relief and make-belief, cinema dominated the lives of people. Hero actors were idols of worship, and Gods were losing out in competition.
The man and his wife were fans of the actor M.G.Ramachandran (MGR for short, also referred to as vaaththiyaar by fans). The couple had seen every one of MGR’s films multiple times. Earnings from the day’s labour is carefully managed on food and cinema tickets. On some days of low earnings, cinema ticket got priority over food.
Their relationship as husband and wife is at the heart of Jeyakanthan’s story. Over time, the man observed declining interest from his wife towards sexual activity. This was not a consistent decline, for then he might have attributed it to physical exertion of manual labour.
There were nights she would respond to his advances with immense passion and energy, and their love making was sensual and memorable. But then there were other nights when she would simply push him away, faking a headache.
The volatility in her behaviour puzzled him.
In frustration, the labourer decided to do a controlled experiment. He would systematically note all events and actions of the days in which pleasure was achieved and contrast them with the days in which he was rejected. Every single detail of his actions, from wishing her well in the morning to the hoppers they had for dinner, were meticulously noted in his lab book. One by one, he eliminated each one of the hypotheses as the discriminating aspect of reward and rejection. And then he had his Eureka moment!
It was the T-shirts he owned featuring vaaththiyaar, posing in great hero style.
The night he realized it, he collected his T-shirts with vaaththiyaar’s picture on them, lit a fire and burnt them all, saying
“Vaaththiyaar, to everyone in the whole world, you are a hero.
“Only to me, you have become the villain!”
“Does that not explain Pol’s vote machan?” Thevaam asked, “to situate oneself in that imagined setting that is either not allowed or not accessible, and modulate your behaviour accordingly?”
It was clear Pol’s vote for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson at the next election is assured!
“Cheers,” I said to Thevaram.