13 May 2023


This is said to have happened almost a century ago. Maybe even before that. The month and year I do not know and it doesn’t really matter.

There was a man, reasonably wealthy with probably extensive properties, who belonged to a highly respected family. Suffice to say that he was the Lord of the Manor, the ‘Walawwe Hamu.’ Every few months or so he would order those who worked for him to pack his cart with all kinds of  goodies. Then he would leave and would not return for a few weeks.  

It was assumed that he had another family elsewhere as was quite common in those days. Some people would have known the details and others would have assumed. No one questioned because, after all, he was the Walawwe Hamu and of course because it was not entirely out of order.

Time passed.

One day a young man arrived. He was a stranger. He walked straight to the house, stepped into the verandah and there he encountered the lady of the house. There had been no sign of any respect or deference, not in word or in gesture. No greeting either. Just a query.


That would be ‘where?’  

Where what? Where who? These questions were not asked by the lady. She did not ask who he was and what his business was. She turned around and went into the house. And in the following manner, informed her husband.

‘Anna aava. Gama dunnath nama denna baehae.’

Essentially: ‘There [he] has come; you could give him all your wealth but you cannot give him your name.’

The lady had put two and two together. Rather, two and two and two together and arrived at ‘six.’ She figured that a young man who was a total stranger, to have the gumption to walk into the house, show her no respect, offer no greeting and ask a question without a backstory and devoid of any detail whatsoever, had to have some kind of authority. The only kind that was relevant was a claim related to the Walawwe Hamu. It had to be a son. This explains, also, the conditions she imposed on her husband.

Apparently, the custom was that a man had every right to bequeath his entire wealth or part thereof to any son, recognized or not, ‘legitimate’ or not.  However, he could give his name only to a child from a woman who belonged to the same caste, regardless of whether or not she was wealth, had some social standing or status.

I don’t how the properties were divided, but I was told that the name had in fact been given to the young man in accordance with what custom permitted.

One cannot draw broad conclusions about the prevalent social order based on this story. That’s for sociologists, anthropologists and historians to investigate. What’s important is the power of the Sinhala language.  

Ko. It’s a single word. Ko? A single-word question. The context has to be obtained by a consideration of much that has transpired, the unwritten and yet adhered to norms of a particular social and cultural moment and the authority of the voice as evidenced by the sheer brevity of communication.

Ko? It’s a single word. In fact it’s a single syllable!

A language has to be extremely powerful and precise for such kinds of communication. Maybe part of the story lies in the voluminous nature of the Sinhala dictionary. The words starting with the ‘ka’ sound (ka, aka, ki, kee, ku, koo, ko, koa etc) alone make a collection more extensive than the Oxford Dictionary. When you have so many words at your disposal, you can say the same thing in numerous ways. You can say things with better clarity, confident in the knowledge that the listener is unlikely to misinterpret.

But, ‘ko?’ still amazes me, more than thirty years after I heard the above story for the first time. Ko: there’s a sociological treatise embedded in this word, this syllable. And we are not even talking about the variations of meaning that can be conveyed through varying the drag on the word, the use of inflection, the gravity of the tone or the accompanying facial expressions.

Ko? An invitation to examine. the Sinhala language, Sinhala customs, culture and how they’ve evolved, what has changed and what persists. Pretty neat, I think. 

['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. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

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