Inquiry into a Sri Lankan Man’s Stolen Bicycle

On a beautiful late summer day, the eighth of September 2010 to be precise, outside the railway station in the historic university city of Bridgetown, England, I found this Sri Lankan chap, Sivapuranam Thevaram, of whom we have read a bit in these pages recently: the structure of his name, his debt to his father and the sorrow of Sivahamy, his mother. Thevaram has been crying at the railway station when I caught up with him — crying over his bicycle which had just been stolen.

Grownups don’t cry, we are told. Thevaram has made several exceptions to this in his adult life. Watching Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on television was one such occasion. As the former prisoner walked past the gates with his raised arm and clenched fist, Thevaram could not hold back his tears. That’s odd, we might think. It should be a happy event and why does one cry when faced with such good news?

The exact inverse also happens at times, and I will tell you a story on that. When Thevaram was a young fellow, he was visiting his uncle in Colombo on that day in July 1983 — the ugliest day in our country’s modern history. Thevaram jumped off a second floor balcony when his uncle’s flat was attacked by thugs, scaled a six foot wall, used his Sinhala phonetics skills to fool a woman into showing him directions to the local police station and got help to rescue his uncle and family. Thereafter they went to Jaffna by ship. At the KKS harbour, Thevaram’s uncle was interviewed by a BBC reporter. “The Singalese have taken everything,” lamented the materialistic uncle, “all gone.” Three decades on, that interview has become a family joke in the Thevaram household. Just the other day, Thevaram was looking for a pencil, couldn’t find one and shouted at his kids. “I had twenty pencils in this house, and I can’t find any now.” “Ah, may be the Singalese have taken them,” mocked his kid, Samanthiram. “All gone, no?” echoed the other urchin, Senguthu, imitating a Sri Lankan English accent. How can horrific memories trigger laughter?

Note the function of “no” in “All gone, no?” It probably features in Michael Meyler’s A to Z of Sri Lankan English. Thevaram has introduced Meyler’s work to his kids as a way of getting them to identify with their roots: the Sri Lankan way of doing things, the Sri Lankan way of speaking things. Thevaram doesn’t recall that luxury to Meyler’s standards from his childhood, having learnt whatever little English he knows from W.H. Samaranayake’s English with a Smile. “There is a breathless hush in the Close tonight…” and so on. Do you see the role-reversal here? Samaranayake, the Sri Lankan, seeking to give us the best English has to offer and Meyler, the Englishman, selling back to us our worst! Just like laughing and crying reversed, as we saw in earlier paragraphs.  Is there a philosopher in this forum who can explain this to us?

Another time, half way through a flight back to the UK, after visiting his father, Sivapuranam, recognizing that his old man wasn’t going to survive the illness for much longer, he had remarked to his wife, Manimekalai: “After my parents are gone, I probably am going to end up cutting off all contact with Sri Lanka, am I not?” “What’s left here for me?” That thought hit a nerve and brought out all the gin and tonic he had drunk straight through his eyes, something he skilfully hid from the wife. A further G & T to stabilize the system only made it worse: positive feedback, engineers call it.

Thevaram used to own a bike, the topic of out story today. It was an old one, the two wheels of which weren’t entirely co-planar. As he rode it, he found the wheels dragging in different directions — one to the left and the other to the right. Whichever force was higher, which was often stochastic, determined which way the bike went. After some careful observations of this phenomenon with intrigue, he gave it a nickname: democracy.

“Democracy may not be a perfect bicycle”, he had once explained to Manimekalai, borrowing a famous quote, “but it is the best I have”.

During a train journey in February 2009, Thevaram was reading the Guardian, the edition that reproduced the last article written by Lasantha Wickrematunge, along with an editorial introduction that described it as an “extraordinary article”. The writing was extraordinary indeed. Thevaram, reading some of its paragraphs again and again, lost control over the tears rolling down his cheeks. It could not have been Lasantha he was thinking about, for he neither knew the man nor much about him. Perhaps it was memory of Richard De Zoysa, whom he had met at drama workshops at Hilltop University, and the structural similarities in what happened to the two, which bothered him more.

Whatever it is, the systematic removal of the nuts and bolts that hold your bicycle together, those checks and balances that prevent it from falling apart, and the dishonest scholarly justifications that follow, certainly bring you much despair — if at all you actually care.

An old woman sitting opposite Thevaram offered him some tissues. “Are you OK, dear”, she inquired kindly. “Oh, my bicycle”, he snapped at her rudely, “It is going to be stolen.” She was puzzled at the confidence in his predictions. Sure, any bike is likely to be the target of theft, but how can he be so sure it is going to be his? But we, followers of Sri Lankan politics know, don’t we? Just the same way that editor was able to confidently predict his death, and its accuracy did not come as much of a surprise to us, Thevaram’s bike theft prediction is also not outside our space of imagination.

Back at the Bridgetown railway station, a police officer by the name Orifice Vandonkey, had arrived to inquire into the theft of the bicycle. She was an analyst, highly qualified and never too shy to blow her own trumpet. You try challenging her conclusions and you will get the following response: “You know, I am very clever, I get my bike repaired at the corner shop over there. Do you know that Nobel laureates Sidney Brenner and Frederick Sanger also have had their bikes repaired in that very same corner shop?” That is establishing cleverness by loose association, something Orifice excelled in.

“Where did you leave the bike?” “Over there, at the bicycle stand.”

“Show me, which row exactly?” “Here, 18A.”

“Did you lock it securely?”

That embarrasses Thevaram. He had known all along that he did not invest in a good bike lock. Even the one he had, he often forgot to use, as did happen on this particular occasion.

“You see,” says Orifice, “you must know that if you use a bad lock, it is obvious that an opportunistic thief will pinch the bike.” “The purpose of the lock,” she goes on to lecture, “is to provide the opposition that can act as effective guardian of your bike and dissuade the thief from stealing it. It is entirely your fault you failed to develop and provide that opposing force to bike theft.”

Thevaram feels helpless. “Catch the thief, please stop him from stealing more bikes,” he begs. Orifice Vandonkey is unmoved. “Your fault dear!” she insists. Thevaram cries in despair.

  • wijayapala

    Hi Mahesan, thank you again for a very entertaining story about Sivapuranam Thevaram. I think I look forward to these updates than any other articles written here. The photos for emphasis were terrific.

    Please pass on to Siva that the bicycle is still ok. Its fittings have gotten loosened a bit but not completely. The only problem is that the repairman is the same old washed-up coot who got his job after his seniors all got murdered by criminals, and he hasn’t been able to repair anything but he won’t let others take his place. i guess we’ll have to wait and see.

  • Dilkusha

    Beautiful! The last bit about the analyst and her ideology relating to the padlock and locking the bike, and the “loose associations” she has with Nobel laureates is truly priceless! Want more stories, please.

  • sapper

    Okey….. bicycle was stolen! lets give Mr.Sivapuranam Thevaram a three wheeler or ” Tuk Tuk” of wich Rear two wheels follow one in the Front!!
    but am not sure weather this Asian vehicle is welcome by European highways where now ST living.

  • Saman_Melbourne

    Great reading- well done Niranjan!

    The bike thief will not come after you as he (they) may not have the brains to understand the article.

    If they had, they would not have stolen the bike in the first place :)
    Hope that we get the bike and the lock one day back to Tevaram and the Sinhalese, who were blinded in July 1983, will have the decency to give back more than they took to the Tamil people in the years to come!

  • dingiri

    Epilogue:

    Van Donkey was so outraged by poor Siva’s lack of vigilence he even threatened to lock him up for foolishly losing his bicycle. The CCTV evidence which clearly showed the bicycle being pinched by the well known local gangsta Sahul Redd did not deter PC Van Donkey. He was firmly of the belief that being robbed through sheer carelessness was a far greater crime than theft itself.

    However Siva, quite uncharcteristically plucked up the courage to challenge PC Van Donkey and asked him if he at least denouced theft in priciple.

    To which after some much hesitation PC VD pompously declared:

    “My views on theft have been captured in the writings of Gramsci, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx.”

    However the tenacious and now impertinent Siva who had no knowledge of the writings of Gramsci, Fidel Castro or Karl Marx would not give up. Interjecting with…,

    “But Ralahamy is that a Yes or a No?”

    To which an irate PC VD, annoyed at being put on the spot by this rasthiadu chap without even a PhD, replied…

    “Which part of “My views on theft have been captured in the writings of Gramsci, Fidel Castro and Karl Marx.” do you not understand”

    The argument between the two was getting too hot for my liking, so I slowly slunk away leaving Siva to his devices. Afterall, poor Siva losing his bicycle had nothing to do with me or my daily battle to put food on the plates of my wife and children. Anyway, it was only a rackety old worthless bucket of bolts. So who really cares…

  • Thuyavan_Manchester

    It may be that this was Thevaram’s detiny due to his “Karmic” cycles and the planetary positions. Hence there was nothing he could have done to prevent this theft. He could have tried reciting the “Sivapuranam” more regularly, organised a “Bodhi Pooja” /”Adhishtana Pooja” at every lunar cycle, toured Mecca more regularly or visited Our Sacred Lady’s shrine at Lourdes. The very least, he should have at least lit the sesame oil lamp at the Birmingham Balaji Temple on more Saturdays after donating his entire monthly ice cream budget to the “liberation struggle”.
    A trial of the bicycle thief……along the lines of the trial of the “Potatoe farmer” published in this forum several moons ago may shed more light on the matter. Brilliant piece of writing.

  • anonymous

    …….and the chief constable said:

    “Van Donkey, what a Useful Idiot you are!”

  • Velu Balendran

    Moral of the stoty: “if you use a bad lock” of the LookingToughTotallyEmpty variety to safeguard your possessions then every VD will bray“Your fault dear!” Can’t argue with the obvious.

  • Post DJBS Scenario

    “Van Donkey, what a Useful Idiot you are!”

    ROTFL!!!

    Mahesan i really enjoyed this story. MUCH better than the Taxi one. Please keep writing.

  • MV

    As per VD, Sivapuranam should have replaced his bad lock, not with anyone of ‘em, but with one particular lock called “Sajith”.

  • http://srilankalandoftheblind.blogspot.com/ PresiDunce Bean

    What next?

    Inquiry into a Sri Lankan Man’s Stolen Human rights and freedom???

  • Tmama

    TO Continue from Dingiri —-

    So Mahesan went home walking tiredand dejcted.

    Manimekali was not at home. Senguthu was watching TV. Samanthiram was playng his favourite computer game. Neither wanted to be be disturbed. He was crying almost aloud in his bedroom when Manimekali arrived home with weekly shopping basket. No one came to thedoor.

    She was furious see her man slleping while she had walked home all the way with the food trolley and none of thebeloved family members bothered to come to greether or unpack the goods

    ‘What isyour problem this time’ she asked.

    Thevaram came outwithhis long story.

    ‘YOu and your Karl Marx and the global warming concern, Why did you choose this god forsaken country. Look at my cousin Vijaya Luxmi. They chose Canada and used their contacts opened a shop. and they have two cars and a house already. Who cares for PhDs who where the money is coming from. Beg borrow or steal. Try find a job in the Canada side.

  • dingiri

    “A police officer by the name Orifice Vandonkey, had arrived to inquire into the theft of the bicycle. She was an analyst, highly qualified and never too shy to blow her own trumpet. You try challenging her conclusions and you will get the following response: “You know, I am very clever, I get my bike repaired at the corner shop over there. Do you know that Nobel laureates Sidney Brenner and Frederick Sanger also have had their bikes repaired in that very same corner shop?” That is establishing cleverness by loose association, something Orifice excelled in.”

    For those who didnt get it.. This PC VD has to be Dyan Jayatilleke!. hence my postscript.. ;-)

  • Dr. Mevyn Silva

    No bicycle going missing in the Kelaniya side. I am using new method to stop bicycle stealing: tying man and bicycle both to the mango tree!

    To all teh people in teh Groundviews. I am also now having the blog to tell the people of my opinions:

    http://merrywin.blogspot.com/

    If even little children are having the blog I can also have one. So come to the blog! Come to the blog!

  • Padraig Colman

    “Outside the railway station in the historic university city of Bridgetown, England”.

    Where is that?

  • Agnos

    Well Padraig, can’t you see that the names are fictional but autobiographical? The author teaches at the Univ. of Southampton, and I would think that is what he means by Bridgetown. He refers to Peradeniya as Hilltop.