Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

Hurrah for the Merry!

By Manik Sandrasagara

Manik Sandrasagara and Topi

After and during the Josephian-Peterite and the Royal-Thomian cricket encounters in my salad days the boys made an offering to the God of Booze and sang their hearts out. Although the last line of the most popular of the chosen ditties never made sense to me at the time, with age and the help of James Joyce, I now see the relevance of this multi-layered ballad. A few days before the elections I saw a politician being paraded in a motorcade on the Galle Road. He was standing in an open truck wearing a cap. In front of him was a brass band and behind him cars tooting their horns. The brass band played. It was the song I knew.

Hurrah for the merry,
Hurrah for the land,
Hurrah for the Sri Lankans,
Who do not care a damn,
Everywhere the merry goes,
The land is sure to go.
Down with the battle cry of freedom.

I hummed my version of the song to myself. It was a fine song and unconsciously we were singing the truth. Most revellers singing this song were too intoxicated to understand the words. It had shades of Mary and her little lamb. Now as we watch yet another election the sentiments expressed in the song becomes very clear. From cricket to politics it is just a short step. Only the flags change. Politics is actually a puja to Bacchus. It is a drunken orgy. In days gone by in our culture at festival time the village idiot dressed up and walked around pretending to be King. The villagers stood and cheered. It was common sense that God alone was King, but this was how they partied once a year with role reversal being the theme. Today the post-colonial Radalaya dresses up to look ‘big’ like a pincushion while he also sports a pair of drainpipe trousers with the frills of a clown, in order to perform the identical ritual function. The only difference from then and now is the theatrical aspect of role-playing is forgotten. The drummers however will always continue to beat the tom toms. Everybody drinks and parties and a good time is had by all.

Booze and politics are synonymous, and together they naturally spawn violence. The political entourage has used sticks, knives, and shotguns in the past and now the T56 to protect their hero. In traditional cultures exorcism exists as ritual purification, but our Galle Road civilization frowns upon it. Instead of exorcising its demons traditionally, society finds its vent by erupting at every election as a release from frustration and tension — a therapeutic exercise — also a ritual, however without the safeguard and limits imposed by culture. Yes, an election is an orgy of food, booze, noise, blood and rhetoric. Millions of rupees are spent on hatred and division. Platforms are for scoring debating points as if in school. The politician represents the ‘Pambaya’ or ‘Buffoon’ whose traditional role was symbolic but who in a post-colonial society aspires to nobility and soon falls in love with his own name, fame, image and argument. The British created this prototype.

Of the many western influences in our lives namely; English, whisky, cricket and democracy, the last is the most interesting, for any student of cultural transformation. The history of parliamentary politics in Sri Lanka from a village perspective is indeed fascinating. A villager from Bundala, clad in just a span cloth, once told me that a tall gentleman came to their village elegantly dressed like a ‘suddha’ (white man) stood on a box and spoke to them about independence. This tall man turned out to be D. S. Senanayake, who was subsequently called ‘the father of the nation’. The villager wasn’t in bondage. He was free as a bird. Life to him was sunnyata. However, Galle Road civilization wanted freedom and independence, so that it could replace the "suddha" and itself ape the white man.

With the Kandyan Convention, the people of Lanka entrusted their lands and the protection of their culture and religion to the King of England. They did not know him, but had seen his standard — the Union Jack. They knew this symbol. The colours — red, white and blue represented the three gunas. The Union Jack similar to their Kathira Thorana proclaimed the Dharma and therefore had to be the standard of a King. They had no problem in entrusting their lives to a King. A foreign King was also no problem as long as he safeguarded the Dharma. Their previous King had been from Malabar. The institution of Kingship itself required a Kshatriya and since this tribe was alien to a people who had lived by ‘Mahasammata" or common consensus, it was agreed to import both the King and his retinue of Brahmins. They held court and played the required symbolic role that ensured the prosperity and fertility of the Kingdom. If ‘hubris’ set in some of them even claimed divinity. Very few died of old age in bed.

In Merry England in the meantime the King had fallen foul of the commoners who grabbed his power and possessions and entrusted it to an exclusive club of their own called Parliament. They encouraged other commoners in other lands that they had plundered to also form such clubs so that they could divide the spoils. What our ancestors gave in trust to the King of England was usurped by the British Parliament and then returned by this mob to a local mob from the maritime belt of Lanka. Village Lanka was pauperized overnight and maritime Lanka made rich. The village lament was "Suddhata rata giya, Paddha uda giya" — the white man took over the land and the commoner became nobility.

First the people were asked in this game of parliamentary politics to vote for a colour. Then they were given a symbol. Finally a name was attached. The show was on the road. Every family was divided on party lines. Arguments became commonplace. Everybody tears each other apart. Divide and rule becomes the norm. Consensus is gone. Humour is gone and mediocrity rules. It is indeed the Kali Yuga. Nobody gives a dam for the land and the life that depends on it. Only armed thugs grow in numbers. More booze is consumed. The advertising agencies make merry. One sells ‘peace’ the other ‘a free and fair election’. Politicians return to their original role — playing the buffoon. We see them everywhere. Looking at us from dustbins, street walls, garbage dumps, and buses. They dance on television like in a sequence from a B grade masala movie. The level of publicity seems directly proportional to the loss of dignity. The media, today’s tom tom beaters, make a lot of loot with high profile campaigns selling politicians like aerated water and non-fat milk. It is Monty Python live in Sri Lanka. The best show on the planet. Come and observe how an ancient and proud culture exhibits its ignorance. It is election time once again in Sri Lanka, and this time we have had several names, fuelling fierce competition. Come join the merry.

It is in this context that I find the song ‘Hurrah for the merry’ relevant. Hurrah for the Sri Lankans who do not care a damn! The battle outside is only getting worse. The division increasing. It is not a question of government that is at issue. In truth one cannot even govern oneself let alone another. The real issue is co-operation and not government. Co-operation for public benefit. That is not Government. A blueprint for our sustainability is urgently required. A plan everybody can agree upon. We know what we disagree about. Do we know what we agree about? Once we know that, who manages the concept becomes irrelevant. Proper management is what is needed not Government. The President in this context becomes Country Manager, with the credentials for the job requiring excellent management skills, the ability to assimilate and disseminate information, and the all-important ability to manage time effectively.

The great Mahatma Gandhi I am afraid was wrong. Self-rule or Svaraj never meant home rule. It meant the subjugation of the smaller self to the greater Self. By confusing traditional motifs he transformed what should have been an inner battle, into an external war. He did, however, come from the equivalent of the Galle Road civilization of India. So did Nehru and Patel. However all these folk meant well, and as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Senanayakes, Jayewardenes, Premadasas, Bandaranaikes have all meant well. But something has not worked. Fifty years down the line unlike in the case of cricket the whole region has not done too well with politics. We have lost the plot. We can spend the rest of our days finding fault or fix the rot.

How? First of all let us understand that a nation is not just an anthem, a flag, an army and a language. It represents a land and a people. Let us design for life first and put that plan to a vote. Here there are no Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims or Christians. There is only life — all life. If we represent a true culture we will all agree. There will be overnight consensus. This return to principle will make strife obsolete. Failing which we can continue the way we are, singing ‘Hurrah for the merry’ while blood flows and Sri Lanka is damned. Consensus and a national government are now the only way.

Ranil Wickremasinghe by standing with principle on his side lost several elections in the past. He was chastised by many for refusing to lie and play the game. He, however, has kept his dignity, which few others can boast of. This is a beginning. Now that an enlightened electorate has endorsed his integrity let the consensus building begin. What all of us need now is not more rhetoric but a clear-cut policy on how to walk, head held high, into the future. Once this policy is agreed upon, who implements the vision ceases to matter. If we prefer play to work we can always hire some suitable foreigner to do the job while we relax under the shade of a mango tree. Maybe Prince Charles may oblige, as he is getting older with no sign of his mother quitting. He has a responsibility by those of us that trusted his ancestors and lost out. All of us would love a King who talks to trees, improves public taste and consults native physicians regarding his health and wellbeing. A return to style will re-position Sri Lanka and give us back our brand image we have lost due to 50 years of self-indulgent buffoonery.