Assume, like me, you are one of those expatriate Sri Lankans, living far away from home, often feeling the remorse of a guilty thief. You took a lot from there, particularly in the form of free education, but never gave anything back. Say your daily rituals include reading infolanka.com, kottu.org, uthayan.com, groundviews.org etc., and getting depressed by the barrage of unfortunate happenings back home: amendments to the constitution, deaths in police custody, legislation rushed through, beating up of the student union leader and murder of the politician.
Worry no further! The Sri Lankan Tamil fellow, Sivapuranam Thevaram, of whom I have told you much in these pages, has a cure for such depression. Bookmark these pages: (a) “My Own Obituary” by Lasantha Wickrematunge; (b) “The Captain’s Speech” by Kumar Sangakkara; and (c) “…they are all calling and asking who is Lionel, and where he went” line in the Pusswedilla satire, and visit them daily. The therapeutic power in these masterpieces mitigates any setback you might have — of feeling less of a Sri Lankan than you actually are. Try it.
One autumn afternoon in BridgeTown, UK, Thevaram and I met at a local pub – a famous pub from where the structure of DNA was solved. We contemplated philosophy — of arrogance as a trait that drives politics. Some of our leaders tell us that the rest of the world has nothing better to do than to gang up against our tiny island, threatening to drown us via their NGO agents. You heard that the rest of the world has nothing better to do than to send in their armies to help carve out part of the island into a separate country, or to come to the rescue of some from the beaches of a sort of Dunkerque when they walked with their hands held high and heads bowed low. (Yes, on a previous occasion we did manage to invite our neighbour to meddle, but that didn’t go according to plan, did it?)
Thevaram gave me two points to calibrate such arrogance, enough to draw a graph and work out the rest by interpolation.
At his high point of arrogance, he was approached by a lady with a matrimonial proposal. “Are you available?” she had gently inquired on behalf of her friend. That drove his arrogance to stratosphere, for by then he had reached the 3-2-1 stage in his life: three kids, two bank loans and one wife. “Men are like corner seats in the Yarl Devi,” he had said, “Good ones are already taken.”
“At the other end of the scale, what goes up is sure to come down,” he said, paraphrasing the Third Law which was also formulated in these parts of BridgeTown. On a visit to USA some years ago, as his taxi drove out of JFK airport, the driver made the usual friendly inquiry: “Where are you coming from?” “Sri Lanka,” Thevaram had said, with nationalistic arrogance. “Gee…, which state is that in?”
That autumn afternoon of our drinking session, Thevaram had had a big row with his wife, Manimekalai. It all started from him abruptly announcing that he was considering moving back to Sri Lanka – a recurrent thought he entertains, much reinforced in recent times. He has made scouting trips, eight of them in the last two years — which you will agree is rather high compared to just two visits in the previous eight.
Manimekalai is a realist who holds an array of arguments that nip such temptations in the bud. She first calibrates against peers: “OK, you want to go, but look at Thuriyothanan and Thuchathanan. Will they go there, why only you?” “Oh who cares what they do,” he dismisses, “this is about me and what I think my duty is.”
That failed, she calls for slightly stronger ammunition. “What about the kids?” “Well I am not going right away — the kids will be grown up soon.”
That too not working, she draws on her supply nukes. “Are you sure you are wanted there?” That is a heavily loaded question encapsulating a whole range of our government’s structured efforts, caused by incompetence or malice he had not bothered to find out, by which in the post war state of our nation, even those ethnic Tamils who never supported Tamil nationalism as an adventurous response to its Sinhala counterpart, are being systematically alienated.
“How about the National Anthem?” she continues, referring to the discussion that the anthem may only be sung in Sinhala. It came as a shock to many, to whom the message between the lines was: “You don’t belong here anymore.”
Mice in progressively confined spaces behave in odd and unpredictable ways, they say. After an immediate reaction of frustration, Thevaram realized that he actually did not know the lyrics in Tamil. In Sinhala, he could sing just the first two lines. So, he responded by memorizing the whole of it in Sinhala. He loved its tune and verse, and was heard singing it in his shower often since — that being the only part of the house in which he is allowed to sing.
“How about your dual nationality, huh,” she rubbed in the salt. Thevaram qualified to apply for British nationality back in the late eighties, but his arrogance stopped him from doing so. In 1994, tired of visa queues, he entered the process known as naturalization. While his papers were in the system, Chandrika Kumaratunge appeared on the scene. With her progressive speeches, she had given the impression that a new era was on its way. Believing all that, he withdrew his application to become British. How disappointing? It took him another ten years to re-connect with the real world, acquiring British citizenship and thereby losing his Sri Lankan one. These post war days, with his agenda of debt repayment, he so much wants to get dual nationality and spend extended periods working in Sri Lanka. Alas, they have now stopped the scheme. (Conspiracy theorists say the decision to stop duals has something to do with crowd control at Nallur temple festival.)
Her logic appears to win. How can he respond? He takes his diary from his briefcase, throws it at her and shouts: “There are two sides to my country you know — read that and find out.” He slams the door and walks out, to meet me in the BridgeTown pub.
Later that evening, Manimekalai picked up the diary and found in it a few entries in a language she did not understand. It was the language she had refused to learn because she was forced to. Leaving the diary open on those pages, she retires to bed, saying to herself: “This man has really gone mad.”
Let’s me translate:
——– Monday 22 August 2011 —————–
Checked into hotel in HillTop, got to go to the conference site and hand over the bottles (It is a tradition that returning old boys bring duty free alcohol to enrich these conferences). Walk to get a taka-taka three wheeler. There are two parked. I approach the first and ask: “Can you drive to the campus?”
The driver declines with a lateral harmonic head motion and waves me towards the other vehicle. I go to the second driver. “How much?” “250”; “Let’s go.” At the conference venue, I give him 300 and he gives me 50 change. “It’s OK, keep the 300,” I say. “Thank you, Sir’” he replies, and with both hands makes a prayer gesture towards me. I smile in embarrassment, clutching the bottles with care.
———– Tuesday 23 August 2011 ———–
Need to be at the conference early, because mine is the first talk. I come out of the hotel and call a three wheeler: “How much, 250, let’s go”. My memory bugs me a bit. Have I seen this driver before? “Were you the one who took me yesterday?”
“No Sir, the other guy” he pauses a bit. “He said he had not had a single hire the whole day, so I passed [your custom] to him.” “This week is school holiday no” — an explanation for low business.
A sudden gush of air on the dusty bridge over LongRiver throws heavy pollution on my face. I reach for my handkerchief to dry my eyes.