Tea And Times Roman

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SRI LANKA [image, unknown]

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Tea and Times Roman

On his way back to New York Asia's best-known journalist, Varindra Tarzie Vittachi, reflects on a brief visit to the island - and to the village - of his childhood.

IN THE Development Mafia the thing to be these days is a Villager. Bureaucrats from the poor world and academics in the rich, whose closest contact with a village probably is ‘The Little House on the Prairie’ or, possibly even ‘The Good Earth’, make proud and public claim to being villagers and to expertise in ‘The Felt Needs’ of the village. Why not? It’s a harmless piece of gamesmanship as long as no one takes it seriously.

When bourgeois denizens of Jakarta, Rangoon and Colombo speak of their villages, I pay some heed because if they have lived in the capital city for a generation, they still have a village home or close relatives who live there. I suppose they think of the village as Robert Frost thought of home — the place where, when you knocked on the door, they had to take you in. I recently heard a grandmother who was born in Colombo and has lived in a slum garden in the middle of the city for years refer to the city as her ‘gama’, her village. Jakarta, Rangoon and Colombo retain a great deal of old rural simplicity in spite of the new high rises, new hotels and traffic jams.

There is a very tiny minority who were deracinated two or three generations ago and became irrevocably — and, I suppose, happily — off from the sense of the country. But they are less likely to be interested in Third World development than even Dennis Thatcher.


NOT BEING ritual-bound, by nature or upbringing, I wonder what has impelled me three times these past three years to visit my grandfather’s grave — actually the little coconut grove in the village of Pilikuttuwa, in which his ashes were buried in 1926. However ‘global’ one’s experience, as one grows older the groping for roots seems to become more and more insistent. My grandfather was the headmaster of the Government Vernacular Boys School, a small coconut-leafed, thatched, mud-and-wattle building, as I recall. The etching on his marble headstone is capped, ‘In Loving Memory’, and is etched in English. The letters are in ornate Times Roman. How many people in his village ever read that inscription? Not many, I guess. He himself read only Sinhala and would have had problems with Times Roman.

But that was how it was in those days. English was the posh language, and though my family was by no means that, it was culturally cachet to be buried in English. All that is now changed. The ‘vernaculars’ have been reinstated as the languages of one’s deepest relationships, of literature, of song and drama, and the idiom of one’s affections and dreams. And English, as it should, has reverted to being the medium of diplomatic and commercial exchange as it was when the East India Company first came prospecting for business.

Basil Wright caught this brilliantly in his classified documentary film, ‘The Song of Ceylon’, by interspersing voices of the pilgrims climbing Adam’s Peak chanting, ‘Karunavai, karunavai!’ (Compassion, compassion!), with the dry crackle of brokers negotiating tea prices.


THE COMMUNAL quarrel in Sri Lanka keeps blowing hot and warm. Except in rare cases of racial flare-ups which die as soon as passions are spent, communal issues are closely interwoven with the fear of economic deprivation. And, since economic prospects in libertarian countries are always determined by the class structure of society, the sense of communal deprivation, if not remedied very early, inevitably becomes radicalised into an ideological issue. You can find a close correlation between unemployment, for instance, and the rise of communal tension. Someone has to be blamed for ‘taking our jobs away’. And since the market forces which determine economic activity are too remote to be plausible scapegoats, the stranger in our midst — even if he’s been around since we can remember — will do. That is how it all began, when the gains of the Korean War boom had been dissipated in the mid-fifties. The answers are likely to be found in economic development and the equitable distribution of those gains across the divisions of class, creed, caste and ethnicity.


ON A side-trip to the Maldives (Mawldivs, for heaven’s sake, not Mawldives; derivation is Male = necklace, diva = island so, marvelously, necklace of islands), I learnt that Maldivians don’t care to eat white fish. Seer, so beloved in Sri Lanka, pomfret, regarded as gourmet fish in India, tanguingi and all those highly priced sea foods of south and southeast Asia make the Maldivians see red. That is all they eat— mullet, bonito and any blood-fish they can find. Little or no vegetables are eaten.

Ever since their principal customer, Sri Lanka, cut down on imports of their main product — Maldive fish (sticks of blood-fish dried and smoked to horn-hardness, then powdered and used to flavour curry), the Maldivian fishermen have been selling their entire catch, including white fish, directly and for spot cash to Japanese trawlers hanging about the atolls. Result — there is a dearth of fish to eat back home. The Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Ahmed Hilmy, told me laughingly how a crew of fishermen came home one evening after disposing of their catch and went in to dinner. When they removed the big basket cover over their meal they found a bowl of boiled rice and another bowl of ten rupee notes to garnish it with. Their wives had given them a telling lesson in home economics.


THE SOCIAL indicators of Sri Lanka continue to glitter like the eastern star, attracting pilgrims from the social science institutes of the West. Infant mortality is down to an impressive 37. Life expectancy pushes upward. School enrolment is high though the early dropout rate is troubling. The rate of population growth has slowed.

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Tarzie Vittachi at his grandfather's grave in Pilikuttuwa, Sri Lanka: 'As one grows older, the groping for roots seems to become more insistent'.
Photo: Peter Adamson

What about the economic signs? Good and bad. Rate of growth is about 5-6 per cent and the Marga Institute arguably foresees it staying around there for the foreseeable future. A million new jobs have been opened up and given out in the past three years. But unemployment is still high and rising. Quite evidently there is a new-rich group — gem traders, commodity exporters and other business people who have been able to turn the loosening of trade and exchange restrictions to their advantage and, of course, those who returned with petro-dollars from contract labor in the Gulf. Farm incomes and wages in the booming construction industry are high. The sufferers are the salary-earning middle classes — public servants and other monthly-paid officials. Inflation, admitted to be around 38% — perhaps higher — is savagely eroding their living conditions. This is where the rub is. The food stamp programme, for instance, needs drastic change because basic food prices have doubled since the programme began. The government is aware that these will be the crunch issues at the next election two years from now. Will it be able to become the first government to be re-elected in 20 years? The nasty truth is that social development wins applause abroad but economic prosperity is what wins votes at home.

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New Internationalist issue 105 magazine cover This article is from the November 1981 issue of New Internationalist.
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