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Sunday, July 8, 2018
Wednesday, 4 July 2018
It was getting towards noon, height of a hot June day. In the distance the skies were turning ominously dark, threatening another monsoonal downpour. The heat was terrific. We moved towards the grateful shade of the Nuga tree by the ‘Good Market’ for a quick chat.
If Peter finds himself in Colombo on a Saturday he will not miss the Good Market, the city’s popular craft, farmers and street food bazaar. After holidaying for nearly two months in Sri Lanka he was booked on a flight to Canada that evening.
“I like the atmosphere at the Good Market, clean and orderly, not overcrowded; sometimes you can pick up the odd souvenir of a good quality. Here I can gather my thoughts, ready myself for the long flight, may be even pick up a good book from Kanages, the book seller,” Peter said, sipping his fresh pineapple juice from a long paper cup.
He loves the country, visiting the island at least once every year. “It is so different, exotic I would say; easy going people, chaotic environment; there are no firm rules or even thoughts, most things are open to negotiation; connections, influence means a lot. If the correct influence is called upon, any rule can be stretched. Maybe the rule was unfair anyway. They are not institution builders. From what the people tell me, it seems nearly all institutions have lost credibility in this country, failure in one form or the other.”
Peter probably is unaware how deep the deterioration goes, not only does influence get action; the fact is that without influence there will be no action at all! We don’t need to look far to see the general breakdown of the institutions we have come to rely on. The underperforming institutions; the ministries, local governments, hospitals, universities, police service, transport services, the list is endless; in daily life there is no escaping them. Corrupted and politicised, they only distinguish themselves by being an ever heavier charge on public funds every year.
It can be said that the above institutions are based more or less on foreign models, primarily British. In 1978, we made a play at creating institutions on our own; an autochthonous constitution and a somewhat new concept of an executive presidency (different in important ways to the presidency of both the US and France, two countries much referred to during the drafting).
In the relatively-short period since, widespread disillusionment has led to so many amendments to the constitution that it is now almost unrecognisable.
The institution of the presidency is even more controversial. So diminished an office it has become that every incumbent foreswears it-promising to abolish the office no sooner sworn in, only to succumb to its trappings and temptations. And of course, when true greatness cannot be claimed, power structures call upon meaningless pomp and pageantry, which abounds here.
According to our Constitution the office of the Prime Minister, apart from being first in line of succession to the President, plays a key role in the system of governance. His official residence is ‘Temple Trees,’ the sprawling colonial era bungalow in Kollupitiya. During the previous Government the President occupied both the President’s House as well as Temple Trees. So topsy-turvy is our governing mentality that nothing is certain or inviolable, even to the level of location. The Prime Minister could be here, there or nowhere!
We do not know what the country will eventually become, but certainly things are in a state of flux all around, incomplete, confused. What is right or wrong, good or bad depends on the circumstances, particularly on whose fortunes are in ascendency then. Today, a Parliamentarian may call himself a social democrat (as the idea is understood generally); concepts like social justice, liberal interpretation, and strong government involvement are bywords of his philosophy.
Tomorrow, today’s social democrat can easily become an ultra-conservative or even the very opposite -a Marxist, not because the guy has seen the light, but only because he can become a minister of the government by changing his party allegiance. There are ‘justifications’ for the jump; ‘I could serve my community’, ‘I want to strengthen the hand of the President’, so on. As to what he would do the day after, is anybody’s guess! There is no sense of a betrayal of self, being untrue is a profitable life style!
Unlike previous farewells, this day I sensed a certain sombreness, an unease in Peter.
“You know last night on TV I watched the slaughter of that leopard in Kilinochchi. It was one of the most shocking scenes of brutality I have witnessed .The animal, fierce it may be, is a national asset of your country. It is a rare and endangered species. Everybody knows that animals live by instinct; they do not have human ways of thinking. Due to deforestation wild animals sometimes stray into human settlements. All over the world these situations are handed humanely and intelligently. The animals are captured and released into the jungle. Slaughtering the animal is not the answer. What those men did to that wild, beautiful and majestic leopard shook me to the core.
“I have met many recent immigrants to Canada from that part of Sri Lanka. We opened our doors for them when the situation in Sri Lanka was rather bad. By and large, they are pious, law abiding and dutiful. Although Sri Lanka has now returned to normalcy, they have no idea of returning to their land of birth. Refugee status is no longer a political necessity. But having experienced something better; a conscious decision has been made by them to assimilate into that culture, enjoy what life in Canada offers. My interest in these new Canadians made me visit Kilinochchi and other northern areas. I wanted to see the country they have left behind, how their people live in the native setting.
“The land, claimed incrementally from the jungle is mostly flat and arid. Kilinochchi is not large, walking distance to the north or 100 kilometres east or west you probably will hit the ocean. The inhabitants have developed basic agriculture and several small industries; nowhere near the scale or advancement of Canadian agriculture, but they have learnt to live with what they produce. It would not have been easy. Everything is so difficult in this country; they work on their small farms for crops only slightly above subsistence level. Scrimping, making do with the little they have, there is such an austere quality to everything about them. Then, they had the war, which went on for nearly 30 years.”
The slaughter of the leopard went viral, sickening audiences all over the world. Viewers could hardly believe that in an age with so much awareness of all creatures great and small, an animal of such uncommon grace and strength is destroyed in that manner by a frenzied crowd. Their behaviour was so ugly to watch that it could be said they diminished the idea of humanity by their conduct.
We are said to be the only self-conscious species, aware, capable of both observing and judging our own actions. Can the members of that mob, ever watch those shameful moments when they beat to death a cornered leopard with every conceivable weapon they could grab? Anyone watching those small immature faces exulting in the thrill of the kill can only reconcile it with crazed savages taken leave of any claim to what is good and noble.
It is not only in northern Kilinochchi that basic instincts rule men. When an accident happens in this country, particularly if there is a fatality or even injuries caused, the gathering, even strangers to the victim, let their fury lose on the vehicle involved! Of course the smashing of the vehicle destroys the scene of the accident. But it does not worry the mob. It is not taking the offender to justice that is important, but the immediate release of their pent up instincts.
In recent times, several detainees accused of killing policemen have met sudden death in police custody. Invariably, a deadly weapon ends up in the hands of the prisoner, his guards reacting to the threat posed, shoot the prisoner dead. There is no trial before the law. Yet justice is done.
Was it justice being meted out to that leopard? Or did a fearful and cowardly mentality spur the large mob to corner and massacre that single leopard in that manner?
“I saw the immigrants from Sri Lanka as peaceful and pious. They have also brought something of their country with them to Canada in the form of temples and cultural events. On special days they indulge in many rituals, some of which look arduous. They fast regularly and forego other comforts in the name of god. I am an atheist. In the West, many question the faiths they were born into. Surely, the truth cannot be determined by the accident of birth.
“Nevertheless, I admire the piety and devotion of immigrant cultures. When I came to your country I expected to see a spiritualism that transcends rituals, an awareness that penetrates the appearance. Now, I am not too sure whether it is the other way around, rituals overwhelming everything. I also expected to see a depth of understanding and seriousness of purpose, only to meet a lot of superficiality and frivolity. It is a dilemma how a land of such piety also carry so much failure, anger and violence.”