Where is Prageeth?

While the world turns and changes; while we thrill at global events; for some, life is in stasis.
Today, the Sri Lankan journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda will have been missing for 500 days. Ekneligoda was abducted on 24 January 2010 and has not been heard from since. There is still no news of his whereabouts or fate and his abductors are still at large. His wife Sandhya has been petitioning the Sri Lankan government to investigate the disappearance, but they have callously ignored her pleas. Ekneligoda had been a thorn in the side of the government, exposing crimes against humanity. From Sandhya’s incredibly moving letter to Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, about the case.

In late 2008, Prageeth produced conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons by Government forces against Tamil civilians in the North. Prageeth, who believed that such weapons were being used with the aim of annihilating the Tamil population living in LTTE controlled areas, dedicated his time and effort to gathering further evidence and to raising awareness regarding this issue at different forums both locally and internationally.

Ekneligoda is one of several independent journalists to have been disappeared or killed in recent years. Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga was one such writer, who predicted his own murder and wrote an editorial to be published posthumously. The Sri Lankan government always denies involvement in these most sinister of crimes, but it does nothing to stop this violence againsts its own citizens, which is an implicit endorsement and encourages further disappearances. It has allowed a horrible culture of fear and oppression to develop, one that shrinks civil society and ruins the lives of ordinary people. This, in a Commonwealth country that recently hosted the cricket world cup.
Sri Lanka also hosted the Galle Literary Festival in January, one of the few places where ideas of free speech and human rights can be discussed. Author and poet Minoli Salgado imagined what the festival might have been like. I recorded a podcast of Minoli reading it.
Continue reading “Where is Prageeth?”

Ebenezer

Following my post regarding names and over-achieving name-alikeys, a correspondent of mine writes:

I wanted to call my son Ebenezer. I wanted him to have a unique name, and I don’t know any other kids called that. When he grew up, he could shorten it to ‘Ben’ if he wanted, or if he fancied something a bit more street, he could call himself ‘Ezey’, like if he was a DJ or something. It would be a good stage name. It would look good on a book jacket. Everyone he met would remember him. He would be talked about. People would say “Do you know Ebenezer?”

But my wife wasn’t having any of that. She said that kids at school might bully him. So instead we named him John, after my Dad. My son John, who must now compete for attention with the billions of other Johns out there.

Earlier this year, sitting on a bus winding through the hills of Sri Lanka, I met a British couple who were expecting a baby. He was a Scotsman, while she was of Sinhalese Sri Lankan parentage. They were discussing what name to give the baby. Part of the discussion was to find a combination of first and middle names which acknowledged their disparate heritage. Would the child take on the father’s monosyllabic Scottish surname, it’s mother’s polysyllabic Sri Lankan second name, or a hyphenated tongue-twister which combined the two? I wondered to what extent the origin of the name would affect the child’s relationship to the world around them. In those weeks before a decision was made, the baby had as much chance of being named Christopher or Angus, as being named Dilip, or Hasantha. Born into the twenty-first century UK, he would not, I hope, suffer any prejudice, had his parents chosen the latter moniker. However, it would serve as a constant reminder of his heritage in a far-off continent. What effect would this have on his approach to life, his politics, his “identity”? I imagine it would be quite significant, and positive. EbenezerJohn’s father clearly agrees… as did Johnny Cash when he wrote “A Boy Named Sue”.
Or; Would Cassisus Clay have won as many fights as Muhammed Ali?

Encounters with souvenir sellers: scene II

Sigiriya: More ancient ruins. This time, a castle high on rock, built by a paranoid king who had killed his father and lived in fear of his exiled brother.
Down at the foot of the mountain, an old man approaches. He carries a single item for sale, what appears to be a wooden book. The other pedlars have not shown me anything like it, so I am a willing audience when the man offers a demonstration. It turns out to be a box with secret compartments, and one must pull back secret panels to open them.
It is clearly hand-made, from solid wood, and I recognise the guard-stone patterns carved into the sides. It is a quirky item that I may not find again, so I make up my mind to have it, there and then. But at what price?
Now don’t worry, I have done plenty of bargaining in my time. I once spent a full forty minutes arguing over a stone rhinoceros with a woman by the roadside outside another UNESCO site, the Great Zimbabwe monument. I eventually bought it for eighty Zimbabwe dollars, and broke the horn a day after purchase when I threw my bag into the back of a truck. In recent years however, the idea of haggling fills me with a certain unease. To make a fuss over what amounts to only a few pounds is surely petty. It is, after all, the kind of money that, in the average British pub, I can send through both my digestive and renal system and piss away in under thirty minutes. It is, after all, above the average daily wage for many of the people I encounter. Surely the benefit of the bargain must fall on their side, and not mine?
And so, as we begin to discuss the price, my heart is not in the game. He suggests over four thousand rupees, cheap if I had found the same item in a shop in the UK. All I have to do is hesitate for a short while, and this drops to three thousand. Passive, rather than pro-active bartering has won me a discount.
I consider that I can afford this amount, and that my group have already begun to climb the steps to the ruined castle, so I hand over a few of the many green notes in my wallet and make off with the book. The wood is thick and varnished. The carving has a tactile quality. It will look good on my shelf, and I begin to imagine the times I shall point it out to friends who visit, and tell anecdotes about Sri Lanka. It is a worthy artefact, and I shall treasure it forever…
Around the next boulder, I am accosted by another vendor, holding another secret book. It is exactly the same as the one I have just slipped into my satchel.
“Sir! Sir! Look, a seecrit book! Come see, only two thousand rupees!”
My heart sinks. My own purchase, once destined to take prime position as a genuine piece of take-home Sri Lankan culture, is devalued in an instant. I have paid over the odds. By the time I have descended the mountain, I have been offered other examples for for fifteen hundred. My scowling and reluctance to purchase is once again taken for passive bartering, and the price has dropped to a thousand. By the end of the day, I will have overheard an offer to one of my friends for five hundred.
The fact that some other pale tourist has bought the same thing for a cheaper price bothers me, haunts me into the evening. We haggle because of this pride. Never mind the money in our wallet. Never mind paying over the odds to a ragged old peddlar. Even if he is laughing at my naivety (and surely, by the Lord Buddha, he is laughing), I can write off the difference as a charity. The real dent to my ego is that I have lost out relative to the other tourists. And – make no mistake about this – they will remind me about this for the rest of the day, and probably tomorrow too.
I guess the crippling need for value for money, down to the last rupee, is a universal trait. Too many holiday conversations revolve around how much he paid for this, or how much she paid for that. Are we getting a good deal at our hotel? How much did the flights cost? Hearing that we are paying less for our hotel room fills us with secret glee. The news that someone managed to get a flight for fifty pounds less will threaten the entire trip. We need to confirm that we are having as good a time as everyone else. We search for a constant endorsement of our every action. Instead of enjoying the holiday – souvenirs, hotel rooms, flights – on their own merit, we judge them relative to what other people have done.
“These shoes were on discount … How much did you pay for your house? … We haggled down the price of our taxi … We found a delightful guest house that no-one else has been to … Our seats were upgrade … pray do tell me, how was your steak? It looks rather over done from this side of the table … “
Every day in Sri Lanka (as in Edinburgh), tourists take photographs of land-marks, duplicating a million photographs of the same scene, carbon-copies of which exist within a hundred thousand photo albums world wide. Of course, we want to remember the scene, its history and its beauty… but we could do that by purchasing a post-card or a professional print. But the problem with paid-for pictures is that they do not endorse the holiday in a way that personal, amateur snaps do. Our own pictures (with our gormless, pasty mugs in the foreground) are proof that we went there, and thus proof that we had a great time, had our value for money.
As, indeed, are wooden souvenir boxes with exotic carvings. Just don’t tell anyone how much you paid for them.

Encounters with souvenir sellers: scene I

Anaradhapura: A serene and shaded park conceals the ruins of a vast ancient city, which was a centre for Buddhist learning and civilisation, a thousand years ago. For centuries the city lay hidden beneath the jungle, but the foundation walls peek above the grassy banks, like milk-teeth breaking through a baby’s gum. We see stores for rice, plenty of areas for meditation and prayer, and some swimming pools in which monks would bathe.
We lean on some modern iron railings to view a moonstone. These are semi-circular floor sculptures, which lie at the entrance to temples – a kind of door mat for the soul. Our guide tells us that this is one of the finest examples in all of Sri Lanka, and explains that the four layers to the pattern symbolise the obstacles on the path to nirvana. One set of animals represent cravings, and another set symbolise desires. We have a short semantic debate about the difference between craving and desire, and decide that one is physical, the other cerebral.
Strolling back to our bus, we are approached by two young men in grubby T-shirts. They each have a tray of souvenirs, and I cannot help but steal a glance at their merchandise. They have an interesting selection of brass trinkets and bangles, but nothing that I crave or desire.
I try to walk on. “No thank you.”
“You are British?” I know they want to engage me in a sales pitch, but I owe them the courtesy of answering.
I nod, and smile. “Yes, I live in Scotland.”
“Tell me,” he says, “why is it that the Germans and the Americans will buy from us, but you British always say ‘no thank you’? Then you always go and buy the same things from the shops in Columbo!”
I am taken aback. This is not an effective method of endearing oneself to the customer.
“I’m not going to buy anything from the shop in Columbo,” I retort.
He looks at me with scorn. “You say this, but then you will buy somewhere else for a higher price. You won’t get these prices in the hotel shops.”
Now I am quite agitated at this effrontery. He is missing the point. “I realise that, I really do. But please understand that I don’t actually want any of those things.” I almost say, I have enough tat in my house already, but I bite my tongue. “Even if you offered me these things for one rupee only, I wouldn’t take them.” I also do not mention that the Buddha suggests we relinquish, not accumulate, worldly goods.
He shakes his head in disgust, turns his back on me, and wanders off to greet the next tour bus that has pulled up to view the moonstone. His silent companion follows a few steps behind. A few Japanese in wide brimmed hats and big sun-glasses step off the bus and into his path. Perhaps he will have more luck with them.
Rejoining our group, we find that Jude our tour guide is getting excited. “Now,” he gushes, “Who wants to see a well in the shape of a key?”

Old Sri Lankan folk tale

Once upon a time, o best beloved, the Man lived in the jungle – next door to the Elephant. They went about their daily business together as friends. The Elephant would pull up trees for The Man to make a shelter. Sometimes, he would allow the Man, weary from a long walk, to ride upon his back. The Man allowed the Elephant to eat the rice he cultivated in the fields, and would make a fire for the Elephant to warm himself beside. They would sit together around the flames, and the Elephant would tell the man the long stories of the jungle.
Of all the animals in the jungle, only the Man felt shame. He would weave himself clothing from banana leaves, so that his body was shielded from the gaze of the other animals.
One day, the Elephant happened upon the man, down where the river becomes wide and splashes over the rocks. The man was bathing in a shallow pool, and thus was not wearing his woven clothes as usual.
“Good Morning,” said the Elephant to the Naked Man.
The man stopped splashing water on his back, and turned slowly to face the Elephant. “Hello,” he replied.
There was a short pause. The Elephant sensed that he should make conversation. So he stared at the Naked Man and said: “How do you breathe through that?”
The Man did not reply. Furious, he stomped off out of the forest. He never spoke to the Elephant again, and the Elephant never understood why.
After that, Man forgot the language of the Elephants. He lived by himself on the edge of the jungle, and ate his rice alone.