During a recent visit to my island home, I met several people in various stages of life’s ever-changing palimpsest. As someone who continues to socialize twixt the haves and have-nots, my recent experiences in Sri Lanka were a startling revelation of the inequalities within our society which (I thought) needs addressing. Even though this piece may turn out to be an exercise in, “how to lose friends and influence people,” it is what I have seen with my own eyes and heard of from both sides.
At first glance, everything seems to be back to normal after the upheavals and protests that took place in 2022, but its only when you mingle with the common man that the underlying issues seem to unfold. The truth that all this was caused by a handful of rogue politicians whose deceitful dealings have brought this country to a standstill seems astonishing to all those who are impacted by the huge increase in the cost of living. Some simply exist from one day to another. It has also left our country with a society so unequal that the gap between abject poverty and immeasurable wealth seems too wide to be bridged. As we are aware, the wealthy did nothing to stop the fraudsters. The poor and desperate seem to have protested in vain. Nothing seems to have changed! The distance that exists within the strata of society that can do something about these problems is increased by their very own detachment from reality which is why the twain shall never meet.
The carefree smiles that one usually encounters almost anywhere in our country were no longer easily visible. Worried and anxious beings in various states of depression and desperation unburdened themselves if you gave them the slightest inkling that you had some time to lend them an ear. From trishaw drivers to the cloth vendors, the familiar pharmacists to the man who works in the ‘sillara kade’, the stall holders in the markets and the man who repairs your broken slippers, it a never-ending tale of woe that expresses a unified concern about endless and mounting debt. They looked at me with vacant eyes and asked me, “how did we get to this?” even though they knew the answer. “Why did we let this happen to us?” they say, wracked with guilt about casting their votes for the wrong candidates and expecting to live in a land that they thought would be theirs to own and theirs only to live in.
If the conversations had time to develop, it invariably ended up with endless curses being heaped on the powers that were, the powers that are and those who don’t give a damn! The polarization between the haves and the have nots is stark. A burning hatred of those who don’t seem to care and party-on as if tomorrow is just another day simmers beneath the surface. It is patently obvious that the common man is suffering as never before
Concurrently, there are those who seem to be living the life of Riley unaffected by the ongoing economic crisis. The smiles are wider than ever, making one wonder if its genuine or fake. The celebrations in Colombo are thriving and one dares not question the ethics of this imbalance in case an accusation of jealousy is flung in your direction The sense of ‘me, myself and I,’ has indeed overcome the community spirit which we once knew. Even the simplest requirements of a proper spiritual life such as meditating, going to temple, or giving alms is broadcast as a ‘look at me’ event by those who flaunt their affluence, triggering a vision of a banquet being held in the middle of a shanty town!
The haves defend their extravagance by never failing to mention that they keep so many in employment whenever their excessive expenditure is frowned upon by those who see it as unnecessary. especially at times like the present. Yet, how can you argue when a man of great wealth wants to have an unforgettable wedding for his only daughter? Would it be a crime if a lavish celebration is held even after thousands have just lost their lives in a natural disaster? Do we expect everyone to feel the pulse and mood of a country and tone down, or do we (as most Sri Lankans do) accept such blatant selfishness when it suits us and blame those who do the same when they are not within our fold? These are arguments that no one can ever win. After all, even florists, hairdressers, designers, caterers, drivers, travel agents, event organisers et al do need to make a living. And thereby the dealings within the worlds of business and commerce go on unquestioned simply because they keep the money-go-round in operation. Everyone has a justifiable explanation for the way they manage their finances yet most explanations I have heard thus far have felt quite hollow. This is exacerbated by a set of people whose sheer lack of consciousness about anything (or anyone) is superseded by their own egotistical machinations. Superficiality and selfishness have trumped common sense, sensibility, and selflessness. Me, mine, and ours – is all that seems to matter.
In the less selfish world that our parents inhabited and in some memories of the distant past that I have lived through, people were happy to comply with particularly stringent rules that reflected the state of the nation. At the time my parents married everything was done in moderation due to the aftermath of the second world war and the rationing that the public were expected to abide by. Everyone bought and shopped locally regardless to their status in society and did not feel ashamed to do so. Celebrations were considerately moderate. People toned down to support a full and vital resurgence to normalcy.
During the “self-sufficiency” measures put in place by Mrs. Bandaranayake in 1960, restrictions were places on foreign goods being brought into the country. No one was allowed to bring more than two silk saris from India. Second-hand clothing shops such as those formerly situated in Aloe Avenue and Glen Aber Place including boutiques such as Nearly New and Ranmal’s flourished as a result. The general public was asked to buy local produce and wear cloths made of local fabrics. Lest one forgets – this was what began the huge influx of batiks, tie, and dye and ‘amu redi’ garments in Colombo. Entrepreneurs such as Ena De Silva, Sakuntala Rajagopal, Swanee Jayawardene produced and designed exquisite clothes setting new trends. They were worn with pride by young and old alike. People adapted admirably and found ways of being glamorous and fashionable despite these restrictions being enforced. Only one hundred guests were allowed at weddings! Though some people grumbled, they complied by these rules. Nobody thought less of anyone for restricting numbers at occasions. It was done and done with grace.
My uncle (the former Inspector General of Police who was also the Chief Advisor and Permanent Secretary to Mrs. B during her premiership) did just that. He had an elegant yet simple wedding for his eldest daughter even though he could have put on a show with enough bling that could have blinded the nation. But I suppose such exhibitionism was not required at a time when social media was not even thought of. Only a few photographs in sepia stand as a testament to the dignity of such events.
Alas, we have reached an age were those who promote the so-called wealth of our nation are the very people who are ashamed of being seen in anything local. It HAS to be designed, created or made anywhere other in Sri Lanka to be accepted by the hoity toity set.
And worse still, I know of quite a few people who think its beneath them to be seen in a trishaw. They rather be dead than be seen boarding a bus. They don’t wear local and only order in or go out. Servants do almost everything for them and all their needs are paid for by parents who fool themselves to thinking that they are doing their best for their children. Even though these princelings and princesses have the trappings of university educations (albeit a foreign one) their lack of compassion and common sense is palpable. Everything about them and their lives are completely fake and that truly is a hallmark of bad parenting by those who feel they need to compensate for something they lacked in the past. No parent expects this outcome as most of this grooming is being done with the best intentions for the children to become good human beings. Yet that grim determination to show that one is better off, lives in a bigger house and has all the trapping of privilege has led us to the state we are in. This has created a wealthy young generation that have been systematically separated from the realities of life. Especially the reality of those who live on the other side of the wall. Remember the story of Prince Siddhartha?
He was also a spoiled and pampered young man shielded by his father from interacting with the world outside. It was only on the day that he stepped out of the confines of the walls of his father’s three palaces and mingled with the common people that he witnessed their reality. It is only then that he saw poverty, starvation, suffering diseases, old age, and death.
People outside such palace walls interact with suffering with increasing frequency from childhood, but inside them, great pains are taken to engineer a suspended reality, a state of oblivion. This is what creates an inevitable tension between the super-rich and any outsider living among them.
I think it’s time that all of us began to rethink, reconnect, reach out and enlighten ourselves of what really is occurring on the other side of the wall.