21 July 2012

Ranatunga Prera: Resident of the Earth

Ranatunga Prera, or just Ranatunga Aiya, lived on an island on the Kukule Ganga.  Farmer. Activist. Poet. Gentleman.  He passed away not too long after I wrote this piece (in October 2011).  He lives still, in many ways and in many places.  Remembered and remembering included the ethic of sharing that marked his life.

In the Maha Satipattana Sutta, delivered to the Kuru people living in the village of Kammasadamma, the Buddha explicates the pathways to mindfulness. Starting with the simplest of meditations on the body directed towards mindfulness of being, he moves on to the more complex examination of the sensations, the mind and the dhamma.

The Satipattana is often regarded as the preserve of the yogavachara bhikkhu, but its message for practical and meaningful engagement in day to day life is both profound and powerful. In particular, the bhikkhu or whosoever chooses to walk this particular path is said to discover the inextricably integrated character of all thing, the distinctions between ‘self’ and that which is termed and separated as ‘the world’ inevitably disappearing upon deeper reflection and keener awareness.
The Satipattana, I believe, is a powerful tool that allows us to penetrate better politics, society, power, nature, social theory and a wide range of other things that are the bread and butter of lay life. The simplest extrapolation is that which pertains to the natural world and the human being’s connectedness (for lack of a better word, obviously) with it. And yet it is very rarely that one encounters people who have accepted this foundational truth about being and have fashioned their lives in ways that do not wound the delicate balance involved. And even among them it is extremely rare to find someone who epitomizes the other persistent message of the Satipattana, engaging without attachment, without upadana.

In the lush and scenic lands below where the controversial Kukule Ganga Project is located, surrounded by the fast flowing waters of the Kukule, Pelen Ganga and the Maguru Ganga, is a small island, about 35 acres in extent. In this place, upon 8 acres of land containing tea, rubber, and innumerable fruit trees, there lives a poet. He is an environmental activist, a patriot, an orator and a pretty contented human being. His name is Prera. Bodiyabaduge Ranatunga Prera.

I was taken to meet this soft and wise man by my friends Suranjan Kodituwakku (a veritable thorn in the flesh of those who rape the environment and impoverish people in the process) and Wasantha (self-confessed professional rastiyadukaaraya).
Ranatunga Aiya, as they called him, had come into their lives way back in 1992 when Suranjan was compiling the Citizens’ Report on the Environment for the controversial Rio Summit. They had been brought together by an environmentalist monk in the area who had turned a wasteland into a flourishing eco system with a high density of biodiversity. Later Ranatunga Aiya had accompanied Suranjan all over the country, gathering data and educating the general public. This is how Suranjan described him to me: "Whatever we understood in scientific terms and explained in academic language, Ranatunga Aiya would articulate simply, eloquently and in a form that was easily understood by ordinary people."

Ranatunga Aiya was born in 1943, the sixth in a family of seven children. He traces his ancestors to those who had come with Theri Sanghamitta and the Sri Maha Bodhiya. They had been trustees of the saplings that were planted in various parts of the country. His immediate ancestors were farmers. His grandfather, Deemis Vedamahattaya, also known as Bempi Vedamahattaya, had learnt his craft with the famous Wickramaarachchi Vedamahattaya of Gampaha. "That was a time when there was a veda for elephants, one for snakes, one for cattle, one for people. Now both minissu and sattu have the same diseases!"

Genes matter, I believe. Having made a habit of associating the temple, teachers and ayurvedic physicians and complementing the knowledge thus gathered with extensive reading, Ranatunga Aiya has an extensive understanding of native medicine and medicinal plants.

His father was a farmer. When he was growing up, the island and the surrounding lands had yielded rich harvests. "This island is called Welagamuwa. There were about 100 jak trees here. The history of all this goes back to an edict by King Valagamba who encouraged the planting of jak. During those days the river would break the banks twice a year, depositing rich sediments. This was a very fertile area and we had ample livestock." The area literally overflowed with milk and honey. "Meva kiri valalapu gam, mahattayo," he said, indicating the wealth of an era gone by. "We were self-sufficient. Even now I operate according to the principle ‘two vegetables from the kotuwa, and one from the kadey."

He had his basic education at the Paragoda-Kitultota school, and it was here that he had learnt the basics of rhetoric and debate. He had been trained for the inevitable "kathika tharanga". At that time we had to speak to the topic, mathrukavata adalava. Perhaps this training is what makes him speak with finesse, without a word out of place. An avid reader, he devoured all the books in the temple pothgula. "I read the ganadevi haella, the buddhagajja, sakaskada, prathya sathaka, namartha sathaka and whatever else I could lay my hands on," he said. These exercises and learning probably made him the great exponent of the hitivana kaviya that he is, i.e. impromptu poet.

He had had to abandon his schooling after his father died, but like the old man he had engaged in social service, being an active member of the Dayaka Sabha, the Maranadara Samithiya and other community organizations in the area. The family had fallen on hard times after their father died, and with decreased fertility and disruption of the age old ecological cycles once "development", not to mention mindless tree-felling by those given land under the Land Reform Act. And of course by politicians who turn timber-merchants.

He had found work on the Hartley Estate and he claims that this is where he learnt his agriculture. Later, he had worked on an estate taken over by the Land Reform Commission. He had resigned because he found that the workers, with their newly found political clout with which came an insufferable arrogance accentuated by an unwillingness to learn, hard to swallow. And he had done his resigning in style, rendering his protest cum political analysis in verse in the presence of stalwart leftists like Colvin R. de Silva.

"kamkaruwa thamange thathvayata misa
nosithiya yuthuya innata vena thenaka usa
palanayata giyoth uduma genama hisa
badaginne merey rata hingamanayata besa"
[The worker should know his station and if power goes to head the entire country will starve]

After quitting, he had helped set up a rubber collecting center in a nearby village called Pelenda, which is where he met his wife, Seelawathi. Seelawathi and their children, Samantha and Dilani share Ranatunga Aiya’s feel for the soil, his work ethic and sense of dignity, although they seem more than a little amused by the idealism he voices without hesitation. The way of generations, I suppose.
Ranatunga Aiya has always been a man of the community, an indefatigable petitioner for benefits for the village. His school had been taken over by the government during the free education wave of C. W. W. Kannangara and it is with unconcealed pride that he mentioned that the school had produced an irrigation engineer and a doctor now practicing in England.

As Wasantha says, our society has a system, a system carefully nurtured and perfected over millennia. Some of the key elements of this system are sacred. "The sacred is secret," says Wasantha, explaining that it is obtained not through books, but by conscious living. "When you know the system, all you have to do is to adapt yourself to its logic. Then you become kind." Ranatunga Aiya seems to know a lot about these cultural and historical paradigms.
While we were getting ready to bathe in the Kukule Ganga, a group of people who were visiting his neighbour, came by, wanting to bathe. Ranatunga Aiya quickly pointed out the dangers of bathing in that place, telling horror stories of people who have drowned and giving gory details of the circumstances of their deaths. The party quickly did an about turn. Suranjan said, "Ranatunga Aiya eyalava lassanata haravala yevva neda?" (He deftly diverted the story, didn't he?)

Ranatunga Aiya explained that these people comprised the family of a potential bridegroom and were visiting the prospective bride. "There is a way to do things. In these things, you got to bathe before you come visiting the bride. And if you still want to bathe, the bride’s family has to attend on them.

Everything has a time, a place and a way. This is why we have nekath. We place the couple of the poruwa, prepare them for a conjugal life with the ashtaka, and then bring them down at the proper time, because "they have to be earthed!" As it happened, he is in fact a professional master of ceremonies at traditional Sinhala weddings, and one of the reasons for Suranjan’s visit was to invite him to recite the ashtaka at a friend’s wedding!

This understanding of history, legend and the underlying philosophical tenets has helped him whenever his patriotism took him to the agitation front. He would draw deep from these wells when protesting proposed coal power projects or fighting to protect the Eppawela phosphate deposits from multinational racketeers.

Ranatunga Aiya has an endless stream of stories and each of these charming tales is deeply coloured by a Buddhist understanding of things and processes. "Hema rasayema yatharthaya geb vela thiyenne dharma pothe," he said (the reality of each sensation is embedded in the book of dhamma). He grew up after all in an environment that was totally wrapped in the dhamma. He claims that he developed a certain tenderness, compassion and calmness by associating the Jathaka Poth Vahanse.

"We never engaged in killing. Not even snakes. The cobra is an important creature for us, because it controls the rat. Now they talk of integrated pest management, something we’ve known for centuries. We always had a kurulu paaluwa for the birds; here the rice was planted early, so the birds left the rest of the yaya alone. There was a mul vakkada specifically created for the fish. That is how we controlled the various insects that attack the paddy.

There are five families living on that little island. He believes that soon everyone will leave because there is no electricity. He seems quite happy without it, though. He summed up his approach thus: "kadinam veda epa; thani engillen karana veda epa." ("I don’t want to do things in a hurry, and I don’t want to do things with just one finger, meaning of course things that require just turning on a switch). He insisted on the worth of the sehellu pevathma, the relaxed way of life. "The saying laba upan heti has a lot of meaning. It is not about being defeatist, it actively counters greed!"

Someone once told me "there are no objective pre-conditions for revolution in this country, since there are no poor people as such." I offered that the poor don’t turn up with signs saying, "We are the poor, here we are!" pointing out that it would be hard to believe the fact that 50% of Colombo’s population live in slums. Years later someone told me, there are no Sinhala Buddhists in this country. I have the same answer. The Sinhala Buddhist is not a creature who dances out waving a flag all the time. For the most part, he/she lives a contemplative life of engaging deeply with the environment and its dharmic logic. I have seen it in people living in the strangest and remotest corners of this island. And in the soft ways of Ranatunga Prera, a rasthiyaadukaraya of sorts and a man who has resolved not to be perturbed by the ata lo dahama. A man whose life is the story of our way of life, something we need to revisit again and again.
[First published in The Island, October 2011]