By Mahesan Niranjan –
On a rather rainy day a couple of years ago, the year 2010 I believe, two middle aged men in deep thought and nostalgic conversation, attempting to cross the main road outside the campus theatre of HillTop University in Sri Lanka, had a narrow escape. A fast moving car, going completely out of control, came to a sudden stop, crashing into a roadside lamp-post with a loud noise.
Who were the two men, and why were they not looking carefully before crossing the road?
The two are my friends. One is Sivapuranam Thevaram, my drinking partner from Bridgetown, who was taking advantage of the end of the long running deadly war in our country to visit the place on Earth he loved the most. From the structure of his name, you will immediately infer that Thevaram is of Tamil ethnicity and he comes from the Northern parts of our island.
His friend was Dakunu Aarachchige Richmond Sinhaya. Not his real name, of course, but from the structure of the name I have synthesized, you will infer that he is of Sinhala ethnicity, and that he comes from the South.
During the golden days just prior to scaling up of the deadly war, Sinhaya and Thevaram were contemporary students at HillTop. Though they were supposed to be from the opposite camps, the mutual respect and affection they had for each other were above all known bounds of those particular traits.
You might wonder why I chose the name Sinhaya to refer to a friend from the South. After all, the image portrayed by the chief of the animal kingdom has recently been hijacked to represent a particularly nasty aspect of political thought in our country, right? Well, I have chosen that name because during his teenage years, Sinhaya approached public examinations in a manner very similar to how the King of the Jungle would attack, tear into his prey and finish the job. No examiner was known to set a mathematical problem that Sinhaya could not solve. His talents were unparalleled and natural.
Thevaram, on the other hand, though mediocre in his natural abilities, was raised in an environment of unparalleled inertia. He was a product of an educational environment of immense social and parental sacrifice, exceptional state schooling and even more industrious private education. Mass production of university entrance was the single minded objective of the community around him, very focused on benefitting a small social class, with all other damages of its inertia swept under the proverbial carpet, and to this day remaining unacknowledged in popular political discourse.
Thevaram knew of those environmental advantages and its knock on effects.
Sinhaya knew that Thevaram knew.
That, perhaps, was the basis of the bond between them.
If you subscribe to a simple-minded model of the political spectrum, linearly going from Left to Right, you might place my friends firmly on the Left.
Walking along the road, my friends were reflecting and catching up after thirty years, narrating their experiences and trying to explain to each other how the world around them had changed.
Thevaram described an incident. Just the previous day, he had given a lecture at HillTop in the topic of modern biology, and the computational advances and challenges of the post-genomic era. Half way through his lecture he had looked through the window, at the ever peaceful looking mountain range at a distance, so well etched in his memory. In his line of sight was the outer perimeter of campus looking untidy with grass grown uncontrolled to a few feet tall. Later that day, over a glass of arrack in the Faculty Club he had mentioned it to the chief administrator of the institution: “Why can’t we just cut the grass and keep the place neat and beautiful? That is not rocket science, nor does it cost a huge amount, does it?”
“Look,” said the administrator, “last week a fellow came to my office. He had a letter from the Minister, simply instructing me to give the guy a job.
“`What can you do?’ I asked him.
“He chose the gardening department, where he will do a few minutes of work in the mornings, and spends the rest of the day chewing bulath [betel leaves, a particular delicacy enjoyed by our countrymen who rest more than they work].
“What then do you expect me to do?” lamented the chief.
It was now Sinhaya’s turn to observe. “Look at the Halls of Residence,” he said, remembering the days they both lived in rooms across one of those corridors. “We have lost control of their management. We don’t even know who is living in which room!”
“How so?” queried Thevaram, “aren’t there wardens and sub-wardens managing them?” “Yes, but that is in theory,” continued Sinhaya, “the student union is powerful, so whoever is allocated a room, the union guys can bring a gajaya [squatter] and force the occupants to share the room.”
“What was one of our biggest assets,” he said with a sigh and continued after a brief pause, “has now become our biggest liability.”
The assessment of the ugly state of the Halls and the Estate caused my friends pain. It wasn’t just that. It was quite clear in their minds that these were just two examples of issues of much wider scope and severity.
What might be a solution, they both wondered.
“Perhaps,” they said almost simultaneously to each other, “the way forward is to privatize much of these functions.”
The embarrassment my friends felt at the use of the “P-” word was evident. I, too, am embarrassed by their assessment. This is not what I would have predicted of my friends thirty years ago.
The recklessly driven car that went out of control and nearly killed them had come from the Left.
Perhaps due to their age and experience, or perhaps the middle class lifestyle they had acquired since graduation, they were distracted and were looking, for inspiration, to the Right.