26 February 2015

Manoharan’s effortless six over prejudice

‘Thangamale’ is how people working on the tea plantations, all Tamils, refer to Glenmore Estate, Haputale, located between the Haputale and Idalgasinna railway stations.  It means ‘golden rain’.  The Sinhalese who lived in a small village at the lower end of the tea plantation use the corruption or rather the Sinhalized term ‘Thangamalewatte’.  Their village is called Yahalabedda.  The Sinhalese did not work in the tea plantations.  That was the lot of Tamils, descendents from labor brought over from South India. 

Over time some Tamils settled down in the Sinhala villages.  Upul Shantha Sannasgala, born and bred in the area, claims that these particular Tamils were partly persuaded to migrate because they liked Sinhala cuisine: ‘Back in the labor lines they ate roti for the most part whereas the Sinhalese consumed a wide variety of vegetables with red rice.’  There were probably other ‘pull and push factors’ but these are incidental to our story.

In the early 1970s a man called Perumal took up residence in the Sinhala village along with his family.  The children grew up with Sinhala children.  They grew up with the Sinhala language.   They adopted Sinhala terms of address, freely calling men and women older to them ‘mama’ (uncle) and ‘nanda’ (aunt) respectively and children their age aiya or malli (older or younger brother), akka or nangi (older or younger sister).  These are kin terms that do not necessarily imply blood tie, but nevertheless indicate a certain inter-personal closeness.  No one objected. 

The children of Yahalabedda played cricket.  Since English is the language of cricketing terminology, that’s the language that dominated on-field proceedings.  None of the boys would know the Sinhala or Tamil equivalents of most of these terms.  Manoharan, Perumal’s second son who was cricket-mad didn’t know either. 

Manoharan was so fascinated with the game that on one occasion he attended a talent-identifying camp conducted by the Badulla District Cricket Association.  The contestants were required to bowl just six deliveries with a tennis ball.  Speed was checked.  More than this, they had to bowl at a single stump instead of the usual 3.  Manoharan was on target.  He was asked to gather his stuff and get ready to go to Colombo for proper training. 

Manoharan, according to Sannasgala, still recalls with pride the fact that he declined the offer.  The logic: he didn’t have shoes, he had to spray pesticides on the cabbage plot, plant sticks for the bean vines, and he felt that with his betel-red mouth and long hair he would be out of place.  When he said ‘I didn’t go,’ Sannasgala offers, he really meant ‘I didn’t get caught’ or ‘they couldn’t trap me!’ 

Manoharan grew up, got married and had children of his own.  Cricket-mad Manoharan named the boys after his cricketing heroes.  There’s Roshan (after Mahanama), Hashan (after Tillekaratne), Tilakaratnan (after Dilshan), and Arjuna (after Ranatunga).  Manoharan’s brother Savundiram also named his own children after cricketers.  There was a Kumar (after Sangakkara) and an Aravinda (after De Silva).  Manoharan made a cricket team out of the cousins. 

All this happened even as the flames of war engulfed the country and where identity and identifies sought to sharpen perceived difference and bury commonality.  Through it all, this cricket-mad, easy going and yet proud man remained in the village, called his fellow villages akka or aiya, nangi or malli, mama or nanda, as relevant to age and gender.  Through it all, he spoke Sinhala not for convenience but for the simple fact that he knew no Tamil. 

Now Manoharan would, on occasion, take the bus to Haputale.  The bus, which plied between Diyatalawa and Haputale had a name: ‘samagi bus eka’ (Bus of Unity).  It was indeed a bus about solidarities.  Of a particular kind, let me add.  It took people to a bar in Haputale.  The commuters, according to the size of purse on the particular day, would gather in groups so everyone could get their fill of their favorite brands of alcohol.  If a single individual couldn’t afford a bottle, two or three or even more would pool money to purchase one.  Manoharan was part of this unity. 

On the night in question, the men were returning after spending what money they had at the bar.  As was often the case, they sang.  Perhaps some had reason to sing more gustily than others.  This was, after all, just after May 2009, i.e. around the time the 30 year long war ended.  Manoharan picked a song he liked: ‘Sebalaaneni oba marunaa nove’ (Dear soldier, it is not that you died…). 

Maybe he hadn’t noticed.  Maybe no one else noticed.  Maybe there was nothing out of the ordinary to pay any special attention to the fact that someone had got into the bus at a place called Kolatenna.    We don’t know if he was a regular commuter.   What is relevant is that he was not inclined to sing along.  He had thrown a punch, shouting at Manoharan, ‘para demala…kata vahaganin’ (shut up, you bloody Tamil). 

Irony.  That’s a word that comes to mind.  Here was a Tamil who didn’t speak a word of Tamil singing a Sinhala song celebrating the proverbial ‘Unknown Soldier’ who has laid down his life to protect a nation considered by some Sinhalese as theirs and theirs alone against what they believed was an attempt by Tamils to carve out a separate state.    

Manoharan is human enough to relate the story in anecdotal form, in a way not too different from his dismissal of the invitation to go to Colombo to play cricket.  But there’s something so very wrong in all this. 

This is not to say that all Sinhalese are insensitive, cannot see beyond identity markets such as a name, expands the responsibility of wrongdoing by an individual to encompass the community he or she identifies with and so on.  This is not to say that all Tamils will pick this particular insensitivity, wickedness and brutality as a genetic trait of the Sinhalese.  That would be extrapolating to the regions of lunacy, a territory that we, as a nation, unfortunately show an amazing need to inhabit.   However, we can safely say that the stereotyping evident in the incident is visible all over the country and not just in how some ill-informed Sinhalese man whose ideological make-up is founded on all kinds of prejudices treats someone from a different community but by all people from all communities across multiple identities. 

There are Manoharans all over Sri Lanka.  There are Manoharans being punched all over Sri Lanka.  Not all of them are Tamils.  Not all of them are vegetable-growers.  Not all of them are cricket-mad.  We have all punched or pinched one way or another. We have all been punched or pinched one way or another.   Being punched or pinched is not reason to indulge in punching or pinching.  Manoharan did not punch back. He laughed it all.  Someone might argue he had no choice. Someone else might counter that he did make a choice, an enlightened and humane choice, a ‘pick’ and ‘picking’ we can learn from. 

Manoharan is still cricket-mad.  He still chews betel.  He still has long hair.  He still sings.  He still shames the man who punched him.  He still teaches.  He informs us that we are all Manoharans and that haven’t stopped punching Manoharans either.  He, however, makes his points without throwing a single punch.