“What is the similarity between President Mahinda Rajapakse and our former President Dingiri Banda Wijetunge?” the Sri Lankan Tamil man, Sivapuranam Thevaram, of whom I have told you much in these pages (for example see the story about his stolen bicycle by clicking here), asked me during one of our regular drinking sessions in BridgeTown, UK. I was clueless. One is of a gentleman type, who rose to the occasion when his predecessor Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated, served his term and gracefully went into retirement, making no attempt to cling to power and wealth in the interest of himself or his friends and family. The other was once a heroic human rights activist, who, during the dark days of the second JVP rebellion when a large number of our youth were being brutally killed, attempted to bring those to the attention of the wider world by bravely smuggling records out of the Colombo airport to Geneva. What similarity does this man see between them?
Before I could venture an answer, Thevaram asked his second question. “What did Excellent C++ say to Excellent C when the latter was recalled?” I could decode this puzzle because I happen to be a computer guy. [Hint: Pronounce “Excellent C” as “Excellent See,” read it fast and you get “excellency,” which could mean a mayor or an ambassador. And “C++” is a more powerful computer language than “C”. Get it?]
“Recalled? You mean recalled to life?” I showed off a bit of Dickens.
“Oh no, recalled to explain the furniture invoice,” Thevaram clarified, and went on to give me the answer: “va’diyen liyanna epaa (don’t write much).”
“You are kidding — you could never have been privy to such conversation between big boys,” I objected. “True, of course I am making it up” Thevaram conceded, “just a bit of statistical inference, by observing the words per day rate.”
“OK, let us get back to your earlier question,” I said. That was still bugging me. “What is the similarity between the two Presidents?”
His answer was strange: “They are the only two Presidents of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka whom I have not met.”
“Oh, come now” I laughed, and with a cocktail of humour and deliberate insult lashed out at him: “You, an insignificant Tamil man like me, your community experienced nothing but failure when it sought a political settlement in post-independence Sri Lanka. Whatever means your leaders promised to achieve their goals by: satyagrahas, pacts or violence, they failed. You cannot muster courage to question the evils done by your people to your own people. You got to the point where the whole world turned against you, or was happy to turn a blind eye when thousands were bulldozed off in their bunkers. ‘Still counting,’ the reporting lady writes.”
“You cannot develop the areas you live in. The town you come from is an open prison, where you cannot engage in any activity without running the risk of being rehabilitated. You could be a judge of the High Court, but a government minister can dismiss your finding on television simply by referring to you as Tamil. And you, a man from such a weakened community, you are telling me that you have met JR, Premadasa and Chandrika?” Switching gear to sarcasm I continued the momentum “Tell me, you had coffee with the foreign minister G.L Peiris, too?”
Unperturbed, with a subtle smile he said “as a matter of fact, yes.” “And when was that,” I challenged. “It was back in 1996 when he and the then Attorney-General, Sarath N. Silva, travelled the world consulting experts in Constitutional Law. They stopped at our College in Bridgetown.”
“But you know nothing about Law, you are just a computer man,” I countered.
“It is not me they came to see, it was an expert colleague. On the day of the visit this colleague alerted me by email: ‘if you want to meet these VIPs, come to high table for lunch, but on the other hand you may wish to avoid men of their ilk. If so, go find a sandwich somewhere.’ I did go to College, but turning up a bit late to join them for coffee. I remember a pleasant conversation with them. They appeared serious about solving the problems in our country. They seemed naïve in thinking that carefully crafted fine points matter the most, not the arrogant attitude of ignoring the system of Constitutional safeguards in the first place.”
“They were well mannered: ‘A spot of milk for you?’, ‘Do you take sugar?’ etc.”
“We Sri Lankans can match the best of etiquette in the company of Suddhas [white men], no?”
“But then,” I asked, “have you followed statements from these two recently?” “Yeah,” Thevaram sighs, “they are right in the middle, either of the monotonically tightening dictatorship, or the impotent opposition to it. One preparing an impeachment against his own protégée, and the other boasting that it was he who enabled the current President to compete for the top job.”
“Ridiculous, no,” I agreed, “when the Suddha is not looking all etiquette is gone and our animal instincts seem to have taken over.”
“Oh that is minor,” he rejects, “do you know what we Sri Lankans really do when we think the Suddha is not looking?” He whispers in my ears: “we google for ‘sex’.”
“Aney, now what to do, got caught, no?” I said with that unique pattern of intonation only found in DSRSL, popularized these days via brilliant acts from Jehans Videos.
“And when did you meet Chandrika?”
“At the BridgeTown Market Square, one autumn day in 1998 when she was visiting her daughter at the University, there I was, you see, one minute trying to buy some Worcester sauce, and the next minute standing right next to the President of my country. ‘Hi’, I said.”
“Did she respond? Did you get to talk to her? And did you tell her?” I fire quick questions. I knew he was waiting for an opportunity to give her a piece of his mind. Back in 1994, Thevaram had applied for British Citizenship. Believing from Chandrika’s speeches that she had a more progressive approach, and hyped up by her victory, he had withdrawn his application. The subsequent disappointment had made my friend feel bitter.
“Yes, she was gracious enough to stop and talk, and I did express my frustration,” said Thevaram, “but she could only say ‘but this war, man, it was forced on us.’ ”
“Tell me about meeting the other two: JR and Premadasa,” I moved the conversation on.
“It was a chance encounter in 1982, at a technological exhibition in Hilltop University, I was entertaining school kids with a simple computer programme that told you the day of the week if you give the date.”
“There was a sudden commotion, sound of heavy boots from security personnel followed by three VIPs entering the hall I was in. JR, the President, Premadasa, the Prime Minister and a young man with a baby face, who I believe was a nephew of JR, were by my exhibit. I told them about computers, how to use them by programming, and what that particular little programme did. I even managed to sneak in the word ‘algorithm’ into my explanation.”
“Try a date Sir,” Thevaram said to JR. (“Sir” is what he said, “you cunning old fox” was what he meant. That is Sri Lankan English. When we say “Sir”, we are very liberal with its meaning.) “17 September 1906,” said JR, Thevaram typed it in and the machine responded: “Monday.”
“That’s correct. Well done. Can I have another go please?”
Don’t be fooled by the “please” from the architect of all our troubles. That was a command from a dictator who kept signed undated letters of resignations of his MPs. They all signed such letters and handed him absolute power, didn’t they?
“Of course, Sir.”
“29 February 1981,” JR said and Thevaram keyed it in.
“Please don’t bother me,” answered the machine.
“Ha, ha haaa….,” laughed JR.
“What, what, what” barked Premadasa who was clueless as to what was happening.
“E kiyanne, Sir (that is, Sir),” Thevaram heard the young nephew struggling to explain to the PM as they moved on. You can sense the difficulty, can’t you? That nephew understood a tiny fraction of what went on around him and could communicate only a tiny fraction of what he understood – a phenotypic novelty we saw quite a lot of, in the three decades since that Hilltop exhibition!
“Happy New Year,” Thevaram and I say to each other.