26 November 2012

Dhamma’s father, the rich man of Karametiya, Viyaluva

I have never met Dhamma Dissanayake’s father.  In fact I’ve known nothing about his personal life.  I first met him at the end of one of those ‘Common Opposition’ May Day marches which ended at Cambell Park.  The year was 1992.  I was at the time associated with a small group called the Ratavesi Peramuna.  Dhamma was an undergraduate at Colombo University.  I didn’t speak to him then.  I only remember him offering some critical comments about the exercise, but I forget what he said.

Since then I’ve known him to be associated with the now defunct ‘X Group’.  I’ve known him to take up progressive causes and have appeared with him on radio talk shows.  My perception of the man, in brief, is this: intelligent, philosophical, patriotic (but not of the often obnoxious flag-waving kind), endowed with a sense of humor and pragmatic in assessing the can-be-done.   He has built a considerable reputation as an excellent speaker but I have never heard him speak.  Until last Monday.  I heard him deliver the keynote address at an event organized to mark 50 years of social engagement by unarguably our most successful social worker and grassroots visionary, P.A. Kiriwandeniya, leader of the SANASA Movement.  The topic was ‘Rural poverty, challenges for SANSASA and my vision’. 
This is not a nutshell account of Dhamma’s speech, which was in Sinhala.  The transcript, however, ought to be translated, published and followed by a series of articles on the subject of development and poverty, a task that I suggested that he undertake.  This is about what he said about his father, admittedly a series of anecdotes that helped frame his argument.

Dhamma said that he was astounded that he, ‘a rich man’, had been asked to speak on poverty.  This is what I remember him saying.
He is from Viyaluwa, i.e. ‘Viyali Uva’ (Dry Uva’).   The name of the village is Karametiya or ‘Parched Clay’.  That says everything.  There was one bedroom in the house.  That bedroom was also the varendah.  It was also the living room.  They had a kitchen.  It was also the ‘thimbirigeya’, or ‘birthing room’.  His mother had given birth to all 10 children in that kitchen.  There was, no Obstetrician, no midwife.

‘It was my father who clipped the umbilical cord each time my mother bore a child.  He knew a kema that helped ease out the afterbirth if necessary. All ten of us have perfect navels which are more beautiful than those displayed by the girls we see on television.  My father is a rich man.’
He recounted: ‘One day my father went out of the house. He had heard that ‘drought donations’ were being collected.  When he returned, he just had his loin cloth.  Seeing him return without shirt and sarong, our mother called to us to go find out what had happened.  She thought that there might have been some trouble.  It was like that at home. One shout and 5-6 boys would rush out.  My father is a rich man.  Anyway, he was smiling.  He had nothing to give those who came to collect ‘donations’.  So he had given his new shirt and sarong.  My father is a rich man.’

There were other stories of course.  Dhamma’s point was that ‘development’ needs ‘poverty’ much more than poverty needs development.  ‘Poverty’ is a must-label for development.  ‘Poor’ too.  Development is a big-bucks industry and it would go under if there were no poor people.  His father was rich, but had to be counted among the poor, like millions of other all over the world, none of whom are starving or complaining.  Of course there are those who starve and in need of assistance, but his father and his family were rich.
Dhamma’s father is in his nineties now.  He lives in Kara Metiya, Viyaluwa, with his wife.  He sweeps the midula almost every day.  He chops firewood.  He doesn’t listen to his wife, who sometimes complains to the children about his stubbornness.  Dhamma doesn’t think he’s wrong. 

There are times when Dhamma’s friends visit his parents if they happen to be traveling that way.  Some of them find it unthinkable that the old could live alone in that village, rich though they are (a fact they don’t notice of course).  His father puts them at ease, pointing out that there’s no earthly reason for him to trouble his children and none for the children to trouble their parents. 
Dhamma, a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Colombo, confessed that he is poor today.  There’s a big development racket going on.  It has been going on for decades.  SANASA is a yes-we-can movement that has been doing we-can things for more than a hundred years before Barack Obama came with that line in 2008.  We need to do something to subvert the development book.  When we write our story, Dhamma said in conclusion, there will be a chapter on P.A. Kiriwandeniya, the appreciation of whose work by many who have known him for many decades was collected in a volume launched that very day, along with a website about the man, his life and times, www.kiri.com . 

P.A. Kiriwandeniya is my father-in-law and so I know about him.  I did not know Dhamma’s father.  I still don’t know a great deal about him.  What I know is what Dhamma told us that day.  A rich man, certainly.  A man to learn from.  He won’t come to the Ministry of Economic Development or the Central Bank or the Treasury.  Those institutions could visit him though.  We can only hope that the relevant officials are still familiar enough with the language of their fathers and mothers to understand what Dhamma’s father has to say.   Even if they didn’t they still might have eyes to look around the house and the village of Karametiya and learn something.  Even if they don’t, we can.  Dhamma says we must.  That’s something to remember. 
[Published in the FINE Section of 'The Nation', November 25, 2012]


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece of writing. Very enlightening.

Rumal Jayamuni said...

That is a wonderful piece of thougt by Dhamma.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I think Dhamma, his father and you are rich men. Dhamma has pointed out why his father is rich. And he is proud of his father. So, he is rich. You wanted to share this with us. So, you are rich. And this is where we, Sri Lankans who haven't severed their roots remain rich.

sajic said...

Lovely piece. But I dont think we should allow sentiment to overcome reason. A certain amount of development is necessary, otherwise we would all live in the 'stone'age.
The values that governed the lives of our ancestors should however, never be forgotten. That is the danger.