By Emil van der Poorten –
There has been in the so-called “First World,” for a not inconsiderable time the concept of the urban legend which Wikipedia defines as
“a form of modern folklore consisting of stories that may or may not have been believed by their tellers to be true. As with all folklore and mythology, the designation suggests nothing about the story’s veracity, but merely that it is in circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it. “
What has been doing the rounds in Sri Lanka has the additional, sinister complexion that comes from it being driven by a corrupt and venal agenda increasingly desperate for bread, circuses and other distractions to keep the public from realizing what is happening to and around it.
Sri Lanka had the phenomenon of the “Grease devils (GDs)” not so long ago, a phenomenon particularly ubiquitous in the Eastern Province and parts of the North when there seemed to be very real possibility of some significant dissent from the policies and practices of the Rajapaksa government. There was panic in the countryside despite the government’s heavy-handed attempts to permit only selected information into the public domain. There were well-documented tales of women cowering in fear after dark, not being prepared to brave the outdoors of rural Sri Lanka for fear of being raked by the fingernails of “GDs.” There were some incidents which, on the basis of the anecdotal evidence could not be easily dismissed and which pointed an unerring finger at miscreants who were connected to the government. On one occasion villagers chased several GDs who did not have the luxury of concealing their tracks because the pursuers were hot on their heels. And guess where their tracks led? An army camp, entry into which was repulsed violently by uniformed personnel who bought enough time, according to newspaper accounts, for re-suited “GDs” to leave the premises in official vehicles. While they did succeed in getting away, it was not before the villagers had been able to identify them.
Even in our neck of the woods, which by virtue of the prevailing Kandyan village culture perhaps does not seem to support overly dramatic stories, we had several reports of intruders with indeterminate intent. In any event there was significant panic but not to the extent, as happened in the Haputale area at the height of the GD hysteria, where a couple of itinerant salesman were killed, having been mistaken for those wandering around with evil intent!
A few days ago, there was a report of a wild elephant having wandered up one of the main source streams of the Deduru Oya and having reached a point a couple of miles from the town of Galagedera. The story went that this thirst-maddened and disoriented animal had come upstream from the jungles of the North Western Province and had traversed several miles of (dry) stream bed in its quest for water.
A few days after I’d heard this story which had led to all six members of a family that resides on our land, a long way away from the water course referred to earlier, ending up clinging to each other throughout one whole night in abject fear that the marauding pachyderm would visit them, imagining every gust of wind in the trees adjacent to their abode to be the rogue elephant. At daybreak, as the rising sun brought some degree of comfort and security to them, one of their number made a bee-line to our home in the belief that we’d be able to defend them against this monster of the night! How they expected us to repel this very large mammal with a popgun meant to scare off marauding monkeys, heaven only knows!
A couple of days later a guy who lives, literally, on the banks of this same headwater of the Deduru Oya, at the bottom of the jungle trail that serves as an access road for us and a couple of hundred other unfortunates, regaled me with his own ‘pachydermatous experience!’ It seemed that the lone elephant (Thaniya) had either produced some progeny since we’d first heard of his presence in the area or some of his friends had joined him because, with the first heavy showers of rain that broke the unprecedented drought that we had experienced till recently, my new informant who had all the hatches battened down in his modest abode, was subjected to this terrific crashing and bashing, literally, on his doorstep. He claimed that there were three elephants, none of which he had seen because his adult son had insisted that they not open so much as a window or door because of the huge danger that such an action would create. In any event, for whatever reason, the animals had decided to return to wherever they came from and had left. Unfortunately, because the level of the Oya had risen due to the heavy rainfall, all of the footprints of the elephants had been washed away! However, I was assured that, if I checked with a kinsman in the area he would confirm that the marauding animals had eaten a toddy-palm (KithulCaryota Urens) plant in his compound when they were passing through) Knowing that worthy, I know that if he had the opportunity of embellishing that tale to include a whole forest of kithul destroyed by a whole herd of Elephas Maximus he would very willingly embrace such a story because that might serve as a deterrent to the notoriously-thieving villagers whose nocturnal visits to his property might conceivably be curtailed by fear of, literally, bumping into an ill-tempered elephant which checking out said kinsman’s land for whatever produce could be spirited away!
If I have gone to some lengths to lay out what happens as these rural legends gain increasing credibility it is to show what can happen in a culture driven by government repression of disagreement and dissent. During the First World War there was the famous admonition that “Loose lips sink ships,” and with the juggernaut of a totally ruthless government still coasting on its defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, there is already an escalation of “Kalay Paththara” and the ever-present word-of-mouth gossip through which the most innocuous piece of bad news about a minor traffic collision assumes the proportions of another Pearl Harbour.
When people are in panic mode, they tend to believe the most outlandish tales and when they do that, they also react in a manner out of proportion to even the monstrously inflated threat.
We have seen this all over the world in a variety of circumstances and we have seen this in Sri Lanka as well. I remember, during Emergency ‘58 the total fabrications about women having their breasts hacked off, being thrown into wells and inflammable liquid thrown after them and that liquid ignited. There wasn’t a smidgen of truth to those horror stories. However, they did provoke a backlash that resulted in upto-then unheard of cruelty to innocent men, women and children of a minority community. I’m told that in 1983, a similar, deliberately-propagated lie about a Tamil army invading Colombo resulted in a backlash of carnage without precedent.
In all of these instances, the sparks of spontaneity were missing in what preceded the conflagrations. These were fires that were deliberately set.
In the current time, when there are truly vexed questions the answers to which are going to determine whether this country will exist as a place fit for sane and civilized human habitation, a similar pattern of concocted stories is emerging again, much of it with a veneer of “respectability,” “based on fact” if you will, that makes it that much more effective as a means of undermining the very foundations of basic democratic practice, inclusive of the separation of powers among the judiciary, the executive and the legislative elements that is a sine qua non for the existence of even a very basic democracy. I hate to quote one of the more reprehensible of recent world leaders, but Dubya Bush’s term the “Axis of Evil” suggests itself as an apt one with which to describe the fulcrum around which events in The Miracle of Asia are now beginning to revolve.