30 December 2022

Countries of the past, present and future

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articles]

Prabath Sahabandu, Editor, ‘The Island,’ batchmate, friend and one time colleague, related the following story a few years ago at the launch of a children’s novel by a young student of Royal International School, Kurunegala, to which we had both been invited.

Prabath had been an English teacher at Angunakolapalassa Maha Vidyalaya in the Moneragala District. He had to leave his job and Angunakolapalassa when he was selected to the University of Peradeniya. He had announced his imminent departure to the students.

‘It was one of the saddest moments in my life because a little girl came up to me with a gift which happened to be the only thing she owned, the exercise book she had brought to take down notes.  I never saw her again. I don’t know where she is or what she is doing. Indeed, I don’t even know if she’s still alive.’  

This would have been in the year 1985. Things may have changed. She may have bested the numerous depravations of her circumstances. Circumstances, however, have a way of persisting in the main. Here’s a story from twelve years later.  

Thanamalwila is also in the same district, around 15 km away from Angunakolapalassa. Some students from the Sociology Department, Arts Faculty, University of Peradeniya were in the area learning the practicalities of fieldwork under the supervision of the late Karunatissa Athukorala. A different set of students from the same department, also guided by ‘Tissa Sir’ had identified several critical issues in this area, among them a high incidence of abortions and suicides. This group was focusing on suicide, inquiring into the why and how of the phenomenon, with a view to developing some kind of programme to combat the problem.

The area that came under the jurisdiction of the Thanamalwila Divisional Secretariat, apparently, had the highest suicide rate in the country at the time. Free access to pesticides meant that those contemplating suicide didn’t have to worry about the means. The fractures typical of migrant labour, the absence of an established social safety net in the form of temples or sports associations which may have provided an avenue to vent frustrations, it was hypothesised, may have contributed.  

There were very young children who took poison for what may seem to be trivial reasons such as being scolded by a parent or a teacher. The story of one particular kid, around 11 years old if I remember right, who had survived a suicide attempt has remained with me all these years. Never fails to make me reflect on the enormity and pathos of certain sections of our citizenry. Never fails to provide some perspective.

That little boy had decided to take his life because there had been a grand funeral for a friend who had committed suicide! He had seen the outpouring of grief over the death of the boy prompted probably by love and affection. The attention that the dead boy received was nothing like this boy, the one who survived a suicide attempt, had experienced. The decision to take his life, then, was prompted by a desire to obtain in death what he never had in life.

Twenty five years have passed. I don’t know the boy’s name. I don’t know what he is doing now. Indeed I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. I do remember however a Facebook post where someone was urging reluctant or let’s say less-agitated or more reserved friends to join the Aragalaya. It went like this, more or less:

‘Tomorrow, your driver will say that he can’t buy school books for his child. Tomorrow your domestic aide will say that she has no money to buy milk powder for her child.’

The post went on to insist that the ‘friends’ have a moral responsibility to act. Clearly the issue was not deprivation of the kind that is the daily bread of certain sections of the population if you’ve got a driver and a domestic aid, probably deployable in petrol queues and gas queues respectively.  Inability to purchase school books and milk powder is not a problem that cropped up just the other day and if people didn’t see this it has to be because they didn’t give a hoot or were blind to realities outside their comfort zones.

It reminded me of a Russell Peters clip where kids from different ethnicities in Canada discussed punishment: ‘The white kid said, “I was sent to my room” and the black kid responds, “you have a room?”’

There are so many countries on this island. In some of them suicide is not uncommon. In some, beneficiaries of a corrupt and dysfunctional system get agitated when lifestyles get disrupted. In a country called ‘System’ the beneficiaries and victims co-exist in varying degrees of exploitation and subjugation where the perennially disenfranchised are seen but the disenfranchisement largely invisible to citizens in Comfort City who, moreover, act the aggrieved if forced to forego the most trivial of privileges.    

In a country called Angunakolapalassa, a little girl gives away her most precious possession, an exercise book, by way of appreciating a teacher. In another country there are young people who find it hard to decide where they should have their birthday parties, a grand dinner at Shangri-La or high tea at the Colombo Hilton. And in a country called Thanamalwila, a 11 year old boy doesn’t have even a half way grip on the basics of life and death.

There’s a country called ‘Tomorrow’ too. Some will reach it and among them, I hope there will be a woman who as a child gifted an exercise book to a beloved teacher and a man who as a child wanted to kill himself so he could have a beautiful funeral, a 'lassana mala gedara.'



Other articles in this series:

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road