06 March 2020

Small is beautiful and a consolation

Yes, we’ve heard that claim. Small is beautiful. It’s also the title of a popular book by German-born British economist, E.F. Schumacher which had the tag-line, ‘a study of economics as if people mattered’ and a chapter on ‘Buddhist Economics.’ 

Size is relative. Beauty is subjective. It’s all about context too. This note is about the use of ‘small’ or rather ‘little’ as a consolatory device. Consider the following exchange between a seasoned hiker and a much older man who hasn’t really hiked in years if not decades.

thava durada?’ (‘do we have to go much longer?’ or ‘is it far now?’)

‘tikak durai.’ (a little ways more).

‘tikak?’ the older man asked with a smile, weak in body but alert to language-nuance.

‘aththatama durai! (‘to be honest, it’s a fair distance away). 

The ‘it’ or destination is not really relevant here, but it was a trek up Dimbulagala starting from the ancient monastic ruins of Namal Pokuna and heading towards ‘Maara-Veediya’ (translatable as ‘Death’s Avenue’). 

The first ‘tikak’ obtains from the question. It is coated in hope. It anticipates as answer something to the effect, ‘the hard part is over,’ or ‘the torture will end soon.’ The second ‘tikak,’ is essentially an understatement. It fools no one. It means and is taken to mean ‘a considerable distance more to go,’ in this instance. 

And yet, we say it. A courtesy, essentially.  

Tharindu Amunugama, the young hiker, is a veteran when it comes to off-the-beaten-path travels all over Sri Lanka. He has walked. He has talked. He has listened. He offers that people figure out an answer that pleases. Not necessarily an untruth but neither fact. 

Sometimes they calculate wrong. 

‘How much further?’ 

‘Hmmm….maybe 10 kilomaters.’


‘Well….maybe less actually. The road is not bad. You won’t miss it. You won’t get lost.’

Ask three persons the distance from A to B within a few minutes and say separated by a few hundred meters and you may very well get three answers that make a surprising range. Obviously a lot of factors come into play. Some people give a perception-answer, some have a better knowledge of distance, some read ‘need’ and respond accordingly and a few might even lie so they can have a private chuckle at misleading some stranger. By and large, though, the need to place frames the answer. 

Tikak.  It’s not the Sinhala equivalent of ‘a bit more’ because ‘bit’ can be taken as ‘a little’ or as ‘a lot’. ‘Tikak,’ in Sinhala, mostly means the opposite. ‘Tikak ammarui’ or, literally, ‘a bit difficult/painful’ indicates great difficulty or pain. The commanding officer of an Army camp once said ‘when they say “there’s a small problem,” it usually means things have gone dead wrong!’  An expert on the language might be able to shed more light on how this came about and the trace of culture in that evolution and practice. 

For me, for now, it’s quaint. It speaks of strange solidarities in an ancient language game. In the case mentioned above, it produced a bit of conversation, some smiles and a few moments of rest. The distance seemed a tikak shorter, in the end. Small mercies. Beautiful. 

This article was first published in the DAILY NEWS [March 4, 2020]

Other articles in the series 'In Passing...':  [published in the 'Daily News' on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week]