The Lankan Gypsies

Driving from Welimada to Bandarawela, I saw a man walking along an isolated patch of road with a monkey. The little fella with a long tail was clad in bright coloured clothes and was kept by the owner in a long dog-chain.

Little did I realise that a few hours later both of them would show up on our doorstep.

The Sri Lankan nomads (gypsies/ahikuntaka) are a minority community in the country, slowly disappearing in their numbers. Threatened by the change and technology, they find it hard to fit in to the common culture even though some of them have successfully integrated in to the main Sinhala community. The gypsies are believed to have come from India, (when exactly not known) and some of them still speak Telegu while they are also fluent in Sinhala and Tamil.

These gypsies would travel from place to place with their donkey-caravans, set up camp in an abandoned plot of land where there is potable water, and able men and women would roam the countryside making a living by palm-reading and earning with their performing animals. Its the women who are conversant with palm reading, while the men stick to the animals (no pun intended). Usually, a gypsy man would carry a performing-monkey and a snake; and a python in his bag would be a bonus photo-opportunity.

The men would go from door to door sounding their snake-charmer’s flute – a trademark sound known to possibly every Sri Lankan kid. Hearing the flute, kids would trouble their parents for an opportunity to witness the “dancing cobra” or the “performing monkey;” and the whole neighbourhood would flock to join in the entertainment. At the end of each performance – which lasts less than half an hour – the monkey usually goes around and collects the “fees” from the spectators. The gypsies would prefer to negotiate a pre-agreed amount these days, they know not to take a chance at the end of a hard day’s work.

The women read palms, and there’s more entertainment value than truth. Most comments are generic, and universal truths, and when they say “Sir, something really good is going to happen to you soon,” one would, naturally, makeup one’s mind to double the tip. Gypsy men charm the snakes and their women charm us.

It is said that the gypsies wouldn’t camp in one place for more than seven days. Probably they couldn’t either, even if they wanted to – due to sanitary and hygienic reasons.

Over the years, the donkeys who used to carry the camping gear and the woven palm leaves that made shelter, have dwindled in numbers, possibly giving way to motorised transport and polythene sheets. The coconut shell that was once a drinking cup is no more, there’s a plastic cup instead.

The gypsies are, almost, a forgotten community. There are no records of them (such as births, marriages and deaths), or even addresses. Therefore, they never have most of the basic human rights, including the right to vote. Gypsy kids aren’t admitted to schools, for they lack any documentation. Public transport wouldn’t accept them in, at least not without frowning upon them.

However, recently there had been a few initiatives to improve their lifestyle. In one occasion, a Public Health Inspector helped a gypsy community of 18 families settle down in Mahakandarawa, and helped them send 18 of their kids to school. There has been some other such reports as well.

In a way, it is a blessing to hear that these people living in sub-human conditions receive the basic rights they rightfully deserve. At the same time, it would also be sad to see them get integrated in to the mainstream and see them disappearing from the face of the earth...


A generation later...

I grew up in the mountains and went to a Christian school for my primary education. They didn't mind me sitting with them in the little chapel, and I was fascinated. A Buddhist priest who was teaching at the school where my mother taught, used to have his mid-day meal at our home every school day. My mother used to take us to the Christian monastery when she visited her ‘friends’ and we frequently attended the evening religious offerings at the nearby Buddhist temple.

The Muslim merchant who supplied goods to the army camp was a good friend of my father. We eagerly looked forward to their fasting season, we knew we were in for a feast almost every evening during Ramadan. Dr Selvaraj was our family doctor – he could’ve given just flavoured water and any ailment would’ve disappeared; we trusted him, almost blindly. “Doctor Uncle” was the best doctor in the whole world; specially since he never ran short of sweets in his “medicine cabinet.” As kids, we didn’t know if he was Tamil or Sinhalese, and that didn’t really matter.

Life in Diyatalawa was a dream; we didn’t care who’s who and who believes in what. We were one and the same, it was a small town then, it was a happy little town. Everybody knew us, and we knew everybody. Except, perhaps the young infantrymen temporarily training in the camps.

Looking at the 21st Century Sri Lanka, my heart aches. Specially since this country will never see that harmony I saw in my childhood, ever again.

I left Diyatalawa when I was 10. I left the country when I was 20-something, and the dollar was 30-odd rupees then.

What did I miss while I was away? I missed the dollar sky-rocketing to end at over 110 rupees. I missed the political division taking place. I missed the Buddhist monk(ey)s contesting in general elections, instead of practicing what they preach.

And I returned to a hell-hole, where there is no respect for life – human or other wise – anymore. There is no respect for each other, there is no respect for anything. Where are all the values in life? How could a country deteriorate so fast, so soon, physically and morally?

Every time I drive past the town of Panadura, my heart fills with disgust as I see a signage that reads: “You are entering the Buddhist Township of Panadura.” What if Beruwala is labeled a Moor township and Haputale becomes a Hindu town – and erect massive sign boards to that effect? Would we, the non-Moor, non-Hindu, Sinhala majority of the country like it?

This country is divided, and divided to the bone. There are schools that do not accept non-Christian kids. I think this is the only country where education system is thus discriminated. Even in the Middle Eastern countries, non Muslim students could attend public schools where the only religion they teach is Islam. Non Muslim kids get to go to the library or study moral science. And, they don’t boast of a civilisation 5,000 years old.

Education, politics, religions and faith, race, cast and creed... the base for division itself is divided in to hundred different categories. As if we don’t have enough, we are even divided in to “up-country” vs “low-country” people. Next thing, my kids will be looking down upon yours, just because my hometown is few meters higher in altitude.

What a mess.


Back from the Dead

Lot of things have happened since I went in to oblivion.
• Google takes over Blogger and I get locked out. Changed the browser and Firefox lets me in. So here I am.
• Some of my ramblings appear in a newspaper. Didn’t know until I received an email from “anonymous.”
• I’m in love. Suddenly, there is not enough time to do anything else anymore.
• A litre of petrol hits 120 rupees. This is a trick to get people walking.
• Royal beats Trinity handsomely in rugby and gets trashed by the Petes. Happiness, short lived.
• Brown is new Blair.
• There is an airline called Mihin Air and Kimbula Banis rocks, I heard.
• Alcohol ban has actually increased the consumption by over 20%. Must ’ve been those Hela-Urumaya ones celebrating the ban.
• Sri Lanka has become a Shari’ah territory; the nice triumph boobs on billboards have disappeared. ;-(
• There’s a silver Maserati on the road. Or, is it an Aston Martin? I could still be dreaming.
• Hey, there’s something called the ‘Facebook.’
• “Thoppigala” is the new political mantra.
• There's Foot ’n Mouth disease in the UK, again.
I just woke up. There must be a lot more that I didn’t notice. Perhaps Blogger is dead.