The Revenge of a Tamil Man
Some months ago, I arrived in Colombo on a trip to London from the Far East with Sri Lankan Airline. When the transit is more than eight hours, they put you in an overnight hotel with basic facilities, but good food, Lion Lager and sea breeze to go as extras. On the drive back from the hotel, the taxi driver starts a conversation: â€œSir from India?”
Statistically speaking, his is a good guess. Almost a quarter of humanity being Indian, the average Sri Lankan having no reason to stop in Colombo on transit and no obvious visuals on me that distinguish me as Sri Lankan, it is a good way to get a conversation going.
His wit was at odds with my other similar experience. At the first formal dinner as a graduate student at Bridgetown University in England, the academic sitting next to me opened the conversation by saying: â€œYou must be from Sri Lanka”. I was quite pleased, for I had just arrived in this country and a local can accurately guess where I was from. For a moment I thought that scholars of Bridgetown must be very clever! Alas, that conclusion was shattered by his next remark: â€œPardon my ignorance, where is Sri Lanka?” (The secretary who made the seating plan had briefed the idiot: â€œSri Lankan chap to the left and Irish girl to the right”, so he could make us feel welcome.)
With my taxi driver, I decide to be mischievous:
â€œNo”; â€œThen Sir?”
â€œYou guess”; â€œWhat Sir?”
â€œGuess where I am from.”
He seems taken aback a bit and drives into a pot hole. My posterior hurt a bit. He takes other shots:
He gives up: â€œI don’t know Sir”.
I shock him: â€œkiyanda baritha magE rata mokatha kiyala?” [can’t you tell what my country is]. My grammar is not perfect, but I am trained in phonetics and can pronounce whatever little Sinhala I know perfectly. He is embarrassed, looks at me with wide eyes and even broader grin: â€œehematha?” [is it so?]. He is silent for a few seconds.
â€œEnang Sir-ta LankavE gama kohetha?” [so where in Sri Lanka is your town/ village?] I pause a bit before answering this one.
I could say I am from Karainagar, the little island off the north coast of Sri Lanka where I was born and brought up, a village with very industrious people forming a close-knit community. With no natural resources, they became very robust, travelled far and wide setting up small businesses. They have a local saying: â€œWherever crows fly, Karainagar fellows have been”.
Or should I say Bandarawela, the beautiful up-country town where I schooled several years?
Or should it be Jaffna, where I lived next door to the famous Nallur temple â€“ the only place where you could photograph Sri Lankan politicians with their shirts removed and pot-bellies showing (Temple rules insist men take off their shirts before entry â€“ why not the women, huh, I remember complaining as a teen-ager). Jaffna was a place for scholarship those days, with its high density of schools â€“ some with well equipped science laboratories, dedicated teachers, ambitious students and pushy parents. It was also a society sustaining much collective foolishness, allowing short-sighted nationalistic politics to overtake common sense.
Or should I say I am from the peaceful university town of Peradeniya, where I spent my undergraduate days — a town where I had, on the previous trip, been looking at buying property for my retirement?
Or perhaps I should say I am from Colombo — the dynamic city with its naked complexities of economic polarization. The city from where I faced the rioting of 1983, jumping off a second floor balcony when the uncle’s flat was attacked by gangsters let loose by the then Government, and a subsequent free trip to Jaffna by cargo ship.
After an infinitesimal pause during which I quickly contemplated all of the above, I replied â€œYaapanaya”. I guess he wasn’t expecting that, so a minute silence follows.
He probes further. â€œEthakota, Sir Sinhalatha?” [Are you then a Sinhalese?]
What an idiot? Has he so quickly abandoned his ability at statistical guesses? Or is he thinking of some way of teasing me in return? Whatever it is, I have a choice. I could say I am â€œTamil”, the most common way in which Tamils would identify themselves to non-Tamils. Or I could insist on the phonetics of the language and say â€œThamizh”, with the retroflex /l/ (transcribed as /zh/) at the end which is not common in other languages, or I could say â€œDemala” which is Sinhala for Tamil, with other connotations going with it.
I opt for the parsimonious solution and say â€œNae, mang Tamil” [No I am Tamil].
He stays quiet in some uneasy way.
Turning into a short-cut, he changes the topic of conversation. â€œIssara junction ekE traffic vadi, Sir” [Traffic is high at the junction ahead of us]. That’s very clever of him! Here in the UK, one can talk about the weather as a handy way of changing the subject of a conversation: â€œIt is quite chilly today, old chap”. â€œRather, though I’d say a touch warmer than this time last year.” As if you remembered the temperature of that particular afternoon 365 days ago!Â Similarly, in Sri Lanka, we can always talk about traffic.
Now, this taxi driver need not have put us both in such a situation with his probing questions. I was most uncomfortable with that conversation with him, though I can’t explain precisely why. Nevertheless, I shall take revenge for this, I tell myself. Not on this particular taxi chap, for I had the rest of my journey to consider, but on some arbitrary Sri Lankan of Sinhala ethnicity when the time comes. We Sri Lankans are good at it, aren’t we â€“ dishing out collective punishment to the tribe for the guilt of its individuals?
My opportunity came a few months later, on a late cold night in the UK when I stopped at a service station off the M1 motorway for a break. At the Kentucky Fried Chicken joint there, I noticed two employees talking in Sinhala to each other.
Nowadays there appears to be a new wave of Sri Lankans coming to the UK, and they are mostly Sinhalese. Just the same way as in the Eighties lots of Sri Lankan Tamils came over, having been driven out by the war. But when Sinhalese are leaving in significant numbers, one has to ask what war is driving them away (one also cannot help wondering if the war alone was what drove Tamils away). The new arrivals are mostly students. Visa rules allow them a certain amount of part time job, and an unlimited amount of cash-only opportunities. The package is costly, and parents would have borrowed heavily or sold property to send these sons abroad.
I approached the KFC counter and with an artificially posh English accent placed my order: â€œI wonder, mmmm, if I could have,â€¦ er, let me thinkâ€¦, a two-piece Colonel meal with coffee”. Note the semantics of being posh. I did not ask the guy anything. Instead, I just stated that I wondered something. Here is a quick tutorial if you are not familiar with this sort of thing. You call a place where a phone is shared, and someone other than your target picks it up. You don’t say â€œCan I speak to Punchi Banda please?”, because you are then asking for a favour, which is not posh. Instead, you should make the statement, â€œI wonder if I could speak to Punchi Banda”, merely throwing a hint.
Colonel Kentucky, Street Vendor and Motorway
The guy at the KFC counter hasn’t been in this country long enough to know its sophistications â€“ and the social class of his usual customers don’t do to him what I had just acted out. He punches the order into the device in front of him. â€œTwo-piece Colonel and one coffee”, he shouts to his mate, and reads the bill to me: â€œThree pound fifty please.”
Now I take the revenge I was waiting all these months for. Mustering all my phonetics skills, and looking straight into his eyes, I say sharply in fluent Sinhala: â€œthunaai panaha vadi nE, adu karakla thenda baritha?” [3.50 is too much, can’t you reduce the price?].
You should have seen the embarrassment on his face. He is no longer the man for whom his parents built all that ambition of foreign travel, education and a job wearing a neck-tie. By my offer to bargain the price of my Colonel meal, though just for a fraction of a second, I reduced his social status to a pavement vendor he never wanted to be. My revenge is achieved.
He lets out a smile which was a rich mix of the pleasure of meeting a countryman in a far away land, and the shock of the status reduction he has just suffered. I smile back.
â€œLankaavatha?” [from Sri Lanka?] he mumbles.
â€œOw” [yes], I say cheerfully.
â€œLankavE gama kohetha?” [which town in Sri Lanka?].