20 April 2016

When Chootikka Aiya’s "school" kept the lamp of tenderness alive

It is around 4.30 pm on a Thursday afternoon. The place is "Sinhapura", a shanty town in Kolonnawa. Nimal Dayaratne and I are there because Chootikka Aiya is going to be there. We are there because Chootikka Aiya, a disabled soldier, has over a period of two years taken over a hundred children from off the street in that area infested with drugs, drug trafficking, murderers and who knows what other kinds of violence.

We find a bunch of kids ages ranging from around 5 to 18 gathered outside Chootikka Aiya’s humble home. Some were putting up a banner, "Ranminimuthu Singithi Havula saha Yovun Havula". A few hovered around a "biththi puvath patha" (a wall newspaper) which carried contributions by children as well as paper cuttings of informative and educational articles. It was called the "Pragna Pradeepa Biththi Puwathpatha". Some were setting up benches while a couple of others were sweeping the premises. This "school" was in fact a thin strip of land in front of Chootikka Aiya’s humble house.

Suranjith Sampath, who has just got through his O/Ls and hopes to become a software engineer someday, is in charge of discipline and is the President of the Subcommittee on Religion. "Before, we used to spend out time playing on the streets. We didn’t care about school or our studies. Now we meet here everyday, learn something and engage in activities that help us become better, more disciplined individuals." That was how he described the transformation that has taken place. Sankha Rukmal, the Vice President of the Yovun Havula added that most children don’t go to after school classes and that in fact in this "school" they often learn things which ought to have been taught in school.

"Is it just the children around here that come to Chootikka Aiya’s place?" I wanted to know. Suranjith Sampath said that while most of the students were from Puwakwatte, there were children from adjoining "villages" as well.

"Puwakwatte? Is that what this place is called? I thought this was Sinhapura." I was confused. The young boy smiled. "Sinhapura has got a very bad name. We don’t want to use that name. We want to erase ‘Sinhapura’ from this village." For a lad of fifteen years, he sounded very wise and his logic was irrefutable.

So what do these children do here? Rasika Priyadarshini, the Secretary, chose to answer. "We meet here everyday of the week for 2-3 hours. Each day there are specific subjects that we focus on. On Monday we borrow and return books from the library. It is a day devoted to reading. Tuesdays are for Sinhala. Wednesday is for special programmes. The children get the opportunity to develop their creative talents. Thursday is set aside for Mathematics. Friday for Art. On Saturdays we have the "Maha Samithiya", our general meeting, where various issues including matters of discipline are discussed. Sunday is for religious activities."

We are there to talk with Chootikka Aiya, but he hasn’t returned from work yet. "There are days when he is unable to come. On such days the loku aya take charge." They were in charge, in fact. As is the daily practice, a lamp had been lit and flowers offered to the Buddha. Religious observances followed. "We have Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus among us," remarked Rasika Priyadarshini. While some of the older students were making sure that the younger ones were seated according to their grade, others did their best to explain to me why they were there, what they did and how it all came about.

"Every month we have a special programme. It could be a shramadana, or some festival or a concert. In addition we always have a bana pinkama on Poya days. We are also members of the gihi pirith sanvidanaya (an organisation of lay pirith chanters) Actually the Ranminimuthu Sanvidanaya was born out of this gihi pirith sanvidanaya. At least once a week a few of us are invited to chant gihi pirith." This was Tharindu Sampath, a Grade 9 student and Treasurer of the Yovun Havula speaking.
"So, do you know the thun sutraya by heart?" I asked. "We have the pirivana poth vahanse with us and we chant from it," Sankha Rukmal said.

"We also have a kreeda kamituwa (Sports Committee). We organised a bak maha ulela this year," a little boy chipped in. There was pride in their voices, pride shining in their eyes as well. Two trophies were brought out. "This was won by our junior cricket team, and this by our senior volleyball team".
It was also with pride that they told me that not only were they a registered organisation but they had a constitution, a logo and even a theme song.

How did it all began? The best person to answer this question was Chootikka Aiya. He arrived a little while after we did. After making sure that things were alright, he sat down with us. Chootikka Aiya’s real name was Mathara Arachchige Udayakumara. He was the 6th in a family of 7. His father owned a boutique. From his early days he had been referred to as Chootikka. "Now even those who are older than I call me Chootikka Aiya," he said with a smile.

He had attended Vidyawardhana Vidyalaya like most of the children in the area. Later he had transferred to Rajasinghe Vidyalaya, Kotikawatte to do his A/Ls in the commerce stream. "Even as a child I had close associations with the temple. I used to chant gihi pirith myself. In fact, I helped form the Parama Dharma Gaveshi Gihi Pirith Deshaka Samithiya before I joined the army. I would have been around 18 at the time. I joined the army in 1991. I was a casualty on three separate occasions. I am an abaditha soldaduwa. I was hit by a baba mortar in Ileykadu. My hearing is impaired. My eyesight is impaired and I have a piece of plastic in my left elbow."

What had persuaded this man to do something for his community? "It is impossible to reform the adults. I found that the kids around here are easily attracted to babul, parampara puvak and mal (cannabis). We have a culture of alcoholism. You are journalists. You know about this place. We have all the vices here. My child is a little over a year old. I know that he too will be drawn to these things."

"I thought that we have to begin with the children. You know, I have been in the army for 13 years. I know that I serve my country. I wanted to serve my children, the children of this community. That is the story of this place. Now, when they see me coming home, the children come running to my place. Parents no longer punish their children, they just come to us and we take care of the problem. These children don’t use foul language any more. When someone gets out of line, he or she is advised. Today they are all doing much better in school."

Chootikka Aiya’s commitment to uplift this community by showing the right path to the children is perhaps illustrated by the fact that he has decided to follow a course in Child Psychology at the BMICH. He is operating with meagre resources, but he is not complaining. "We don’t charge a membership fee. We never ask students for money. Whenever we organise a big event, we collect money through tickets and souvenirs. I also contribute, but for the most part the children somehow find the funds."

The children, especially the older ones, are acutely aware of the transforming potentials of the exercise. One boy, Nilanka Sampath, who had dropped out of school at the tenth grade says that had the Ranminimuthu Sanvidanaya been in existence when he was younger he would have never left school. He has no regrets though. He sells vegetables with his father and spends much of his free time with the younger children.

The results are transparent, at least to these children and especially to Chootikka Aiya. "Those days the children of the area used to play with toy guns. Today no one does that. This place always showed the wrong path to children. Drugs, alcohol, thuggery`85these were what they saw. But things are changing. We believed that if we found our work in religious and spiritual soil, we cannot go wrong. We have not asked anyone for huge sums of money. If someone donates books to our library it would be an extremely meritorious act. The mayor has promised that the name of the village will be changed to Ranminimuthugama. This is also important. Little things go a long way, I think."

Chootikka Aiya has realised that children are orphaned not only on account of terrorism. He has understood that terrorism has many faces and that the "frontline" is often right outside your door or even within the household. He has not waited for the politician, the social worker, the NGO or the evangelist to enter or indeed invade his community. He has shown that people are not helpless, not weak. He has shown that a 5 year old child too can be a soldier, a social worker and can contribute much to the community. He has shown that leaders and leadership is not something that is always found in glittering places escorted by security men and praised in the media.

As we were about to leave, he suddenly bellowed: "Amma, poddak mehata enna" (Mother, come here for a moment). An old lady came out rather hesitantly. He introduced us: "amma, meyala me lamai gena liyanna avith" (Mother, they have come to write about these children). Her face broke into a smile that melted our hearts. "Aney, me lamayinta pin siddha venna one". That was how she blessed us. It was not difficult to understand from where Chootikka Aiya got his soft ways. He is not a miracle worker. He is simply a man doing time-proven things; recognising the worth of tradition, valuing the community and working with those who are the least corrupt, the children. Perhaps our country is not as damned as some people believe it is.

When Sinhapura disappears into history, I am convinced that the lion that is the heart of the community will be reborn in Ranminimuthugama. Brave children and strong children there will be. But most important, there will be tenderness in their hearts. And tenderness is the lamp with the strongest flame. It is this flame that Chootikka Aiya and his children are keeping alive. And not just in that violent but gentle place in Kolonnawa. 

*This article was published in the Sunday Island on April 27, 2003.  It is time to re-visit Chootikka Aiya and find out the nature of the yield of his little project.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene