de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2009). Local Colour. LMD. April 2009. Page 137. Volume 15, Issue 9. ISSN 1391-135X.
On a day of colour in Sri Lanka versus efficiency.
An English aid worker told me once that when she returns to England life would be so ordinary. “Ordinary?” I had asked. “Would you not be happy that most things work smoothly and efficiently without needing to know someone to get something done?”. She let out a long sigh” Yes” she conceded. “But living in England would not have the colour that life has here”.
Colour! So that was it. All this vexatious, mind numbingly stupid, tortoise paced inefficiency that one has to deal with is, local ‘colour’. I firmly resolved to do my best to continue to shield myself from this ‘colour’, as much as I could. One Saturday in September, local colour caught up with me. I found myself within a triangle of drugs, poverty and police. Three apices of life which distressingly too many Sri Lankan are acquainted with.
Village boy Chaminda looks after a somewhat eccentric experiment by me to maintain a private nature reserve on the outskirts of Colombo. He called me to say that the ‘Kudu Karayas’ had removed one of the water meters to the property. Drugs are an all pervasive problem in Sri Lanka and contribute significantly to rising theft. This was not the first time I had had things stolen. Metal pipes, wooden doors, anything that could fetch even a hundred Rupees was fair game to fund the habit. The last time this had happened, I had confronted the culprits and warned them that the next time would result in an entry to the police. The water meter was state property and I had no choice but to report it.
At the Police Station, courteous and smiling police officers ushered me into the office of a Senior Police Officer (SPO). I had a ringside view of a day in the life of a police officer. A tearful Householder (lets call her Hamu) was present with one of her domestic staff (lets call her Latha) who had stolen some jewellery. Hamu was being comforted by her husband. Well at least he was making all the right gestures, but I suspected he would rather be watching the cricket. ‘Please tell the truth, otherwise he will beat you” implored Hamu to Latha. “We have ways of getting the truth out” intoned the SPO solemnly, clearly making a reference to the possibility of a severe slap or two or worse. “But it would be much easier if you told the truth and we recovered the jewellery” he added helpfully “Then we don’t need to take this before a judge and you can go home”. Latha did not betray her emotions.
I wondered whether the prospect of jail held no more fear for her than the prospect of a caning held for me and my school mates in school. Accompanying Latha was a tall statuesque lady with a young man, perhaps a nephew. Elegantly dressed in a sari, with my photographer’s eye I could not help describe her as being handsome. Years of labour in the sun on the tea fields in the highlands had given her a dark baked complexion. She observed with a quiet dignity. I really would have liked to know what she was going through. Was there shame and despair that despite her best efforts to provide for her daughter that it had come to this? Or was this just all part of the daily grind of the poor? The SPO alternated between his good cop and bad cop routine, having to play both roles himself as the police station was busy. I had no doubt that he was a tough guy who could break an offender’s bones if he needed to and probabably could as well without being brought to book for police brutality. But perverse as it may seem, I could sense that outside his official role, he was a kindly person who would rather resolve matters by diplomacy and mediation. He could have made a good ‘English Copper’ in the right environment.
Latha fainted. The SPO raised his voice, which I could see was put on, and explained that he does not fall for acts of fake fainting. I could see he was vexed and wanted the jewellery returned and everyone to leave happy so that he could do some real work.
The interrogation was briefly halted by the SPO who directed me as to how to proceed with my formal complaint. I returned to my car which I had been careful to park away from the station where the road was narrow. I did not want to interrupt the traffic flow even though parking on one side of the road was legitimate. I was unlucky. A bus had crashed into a lamp post near my car and what had been a good place to park was no longer so. I hurried up to the policeman and explained why I had parked there and that I was not prescient to buses crashing into lamp posts. He stormed off with my driving license to write a ticket. I rushed off the SPO to explain that despite my best efforts to being a responsible driver, I was being issued a ticket. The SPO listened sympathetically in between growling threats to Latha. It was too late, the ticket had already been written and it was quicker just to pay. A brisk walk to the post office and I returned to claim my driving license.
Chaminda informed the village that I had made a police entry and the village grapevine carried the story. The next day he called me to say the water meter had been flung back into the property. I visited the Area Office of the Water Board where a thoroughly efficient lady at reception took in all the details and took steps to officially remove the water meters on the property and to terminate the supply. She must have been English. No colour, just plain old efficiency.