07 March 2016

I might never see Gopalaswamy Anthony Suresh again

I am friends with many three-wheel communities.  If I were to work somewhere for an extended period of time I end up going somewhere in one of the ‘threewheelers’ nearby and after a while, courtesy chit-chat and ‘ennam’ (see you sometime), there is exchange of life-slices. Both ways.  I don’t know all their names but this does not mean I know nothing of their lives.  Some are closer than others on account of greater frequency of contact or more stimulating conversation.  Among them is a man called Gopalaswamy Anthony Suresh.

Suresh parks his vehicle near Rahumaniya Hotel, Town Hall, i.e. opposite the Davatagaha Mosque.  He lives down a small lane known to residents as C.W.W. Kannangara Road.  I’ve know Suresh for almost 7 years now and although I don’t spend as much time near Town Hall as I used to, whenever I stop at Rahumaniya for thosai or a cup of plain tea, it is customary for me to see if he’s around and if not inquire after him. 

He and I never haggled over the fare.  He would say ‘kemathi gaanak denna’ (give whatever you like) and I would respond by offering a note that was large enough to exceed the fare and say ‘kemathi gaanak ganna’ (take whatever you like).   He would give me some notes by way of ‘balance’ and say ‘kamak nedda’ (is this ok?).  ‘Hari, hari,’ (ok, ok) would be my response, followed by ‘ennam, budu saranai’ (May the blessings of the Buddha be on you; I will come again). He would say ‘God bless, Sir’ in return (he’s a Christian, wears a cross and in my opinion more a child of Jesus Christ than those who scream and shout about faith and call non-believers heathens).  

I’ve been to his house.  It was about 4 years ago, late at night.  There were no ‘wheels’ in the park.  I asked someone to direct me to Suresh’s house.  I had to wade through puddles along the broken pathway that led to the 7 or 8 ‘houses’ on that 28 perch block of land few know about, one of the 550 plus slum areas or wattas in and around the City of Colombo.  It was a tiny house with a low roof.  The light was too dim to make an assessment of the building material.  All I gathered was that Suresh and his family was making ends meet with a lot of difficulty.  Suresh crawled out, greeted me warmly, and invited me in as is customary among friends.  I was in a hurry. He put on a shirt and took me to where I wanted to go in this vehicle. 

Suresh ages fast, I noticed.  He seemed young when I first met him but the last time, about 6 months ago, his was almost completely grey.  I went to see him this morning (March 6, 2011), after my thosai breakfast.

There’s a car park just behind Rahumaniya and off the CWW Kannangara Road, a road, by the way, which is less than 10 feet wide.  I had my thosai and went to the car park.  An old man sits at the entrance industriously making bulath vita (betal, arecanut, chunam and tobacco, all rolled in a piece of paper).  Before I could ask him about Suresh, a lady who was chatting with him spoke to me. She said ‘oya reporter kenek neda?’ (You are a reporter, right?).   I said I wrote to newspapers and putting two and two together asked if she was Suresh’s wife.  She said yes and before I asked said that Suresh was away.  She had a story to tell.

There are 7 families living down that lane. Four of them pay rates.  Suresh’s family have been living there for more than 40 years.  The property was originally owned by a Tamil person.  Somewhere down the line someone (a Muslim, according to the lady) had forged a deed and used the tensions of ’83 to threaten the owner into silence regarding the validity of the claim. He had subsequently secured a court decision ratifying the claim. 

The ‘owner’ has offer Rs. 200,000 to each family to leave without a fuss.  They can take it or leave it and be evicted to boot.  None of them have the resources to take up the issue in any court of law.  I don’t have to talk about the land value in Colombo 7. In fact I cannot because the magnitude of any figure that has over 5 zeroes at the end is beyond comprehension. 

All I can say is Rs. 200,000 is a pittance in comparison not to mention.  All I know is 40 years is a long time in a man’s life.  All I know is that I might never see my friend Suresh again, for I have no idea where he would go and what he would or would not do tomorrow.  All I know is that he’s an honest man who does not drink or smoke or engage in any illegal activity, that he works hard to feed his family, that even he if had no legal claim to the few square inches of earth which he calls ‘home’ he remains a citizen and deserves a status other than ‘homeless’. 

 I have no idea what to do right now.  Perhaps President Mahinda Rajapaksa would know; he is, after all, by assertion and in terms of officer, custodian of all creatures, human and otherwise, on this land. Including Gopalaswamy Anthony Suresh.

This was first published in the 'Daily News' on March 7, 2011, exactly 5 years ago.  Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com