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behavioral economics

I met Nathan on a bus bound for Hatton. Nathan lives in a shop at pettah. A hotel. He’s a career hotel worker. Having worked in Nawalapitiya. He now juggles three jobs in pettah in order to raise his kids of which he has four. He is also a karate master. Owns five cows. And farms a small patch of land of about 90 perches in Bogawantalawa. His pet peeve is hating on Muslim Tamil, he thinks we bastardized it. For example, our word for ‘eat’ is what real Tamil speakers use when feeding dogs. So when a group of Hindu priests from India arrived at his shop in Pettah and the Muslim waiter boy asked them if they want to ‘eat’ they looked at each other’s faces and got up and left.

On young men and the pitfalls of living ‘alone’…

Nathan gets up at 5am and starts work at his uncle’s hotel, making roti for about an hour or two. He gets free lodging there and also a salary of 1000 bucks a day for making rotty. I asked why he doesn’t get a proper room with some privacy. But apparently it costs too much. Like 10k. And also being alone. It’s not good for your head. Apparently you get all sorts of ideas. One young man who lived alone, he says this as if that young man was indulging in some extravagant luxury, started smoking ganja and got caught to the cops.

Lots of young men, fresh from the mountains so to speak, fall into various traps. Like women. One guy from Nuwaraeliya met a girl from Batticaloa and was ‘carrying on’ with her four about for years. Whereupon she left him with about four lakhs of his money. He got ‘mental’ and eventual drank ‘medicine’ which is probably weedicide. He didn’t succeed in killing himself but Nathan and others eventually returned him to his village. Four lakhs is a fortune. Four lakhs is four cows. But before I elaborate on the cows, another young man who met a girl from Anuradhapura while working as a waiter in a shop. She eventually stole a gold chain from him and left. All these girls are sluts, says Nathan. They are no good. They come to shops to eat, flirt with the waiters and ensnare them in their putrid honey traps.

On working in tea plantations…

But Nathan is self assured. He’s been through a lot and wears the experience like a generalissimo. Both his parents were estate workers but he refused follow in their footsteps. His wife works in the estate however and he says it isn’t that bad. You don’t get paid much. Rs 500 a day. But the estate gives you 10kg of flour for just Rs1000. There’s also a one time payment of 15k per child. They also cut a little bit for the Employee’s Provident Fund (EPF). The EPF is the best thing about the whole deal. At the end of a long lifetime if plucking tea, the worker can look forward to about 5 to 10 lakhs to retire with.

Cows…

I’m guessing some of his parents’ EPFs were used to buy Nathan’s cows. He has five. But minister Thondaman gave them two on an easy payment scheme. These cows aren’t like the ones in Colombo, they’re imported from Australia and can deliver about 20 liters of milk a day. His five cows earn him about 60000 a month. He has to spend about 20000 on punnakku. So 40000 is clean profit. A cow can typically give birth to 13 calves in its lifetime. So having a cow says Nathan is better than having gold. It earns and earns you money. So how can you even think of eating its flesh? A man who eats a cow’s heart and does so for six months will soon find his own heart getting bigger, too big for his chest. He will have trouble breathing and will have to go to a clinic. A cow is sacred. It is like a mother. Eating its flesh will make humans cows by nature. Cows are allowed to die in peace and are then buried. No such care is taken with bulls though. Male calves are allowed to grow upto full size and promptly sold to a butcher.

On surviving…

Nathan juggles his life between Pettah and Bogawantalawa. He has to do a lot of work in his small plantation. He has to cut grass to feed his cows. Which are kept locked up in a shed 24/7 because ‘that’s how you’re supposed to breed them’. Also cattle thieves are everywhere. In addition to this, his job making rotty in pettah Nathan also makes short eats. After his two hours of morning rotti making he grabs a bit of sleep and uses his uncle’s kitchen to make all sorts of short eats which he sells by about 3pm. Then once in every two days he does Nataami work which is hard labor lifting and carrying sacks of produce. Nataami work typically starts at 12 midnight and lasts for about 90 minutes. It’s not easy work, Nathan must be in his mid to late thirties. But you get paid about 1500 rupees. And you have four kids to raise.

He told me a horrible story about something that happened to his wife. Who he refers to as his Samsaram. She went last year to Saudi for work. And returned after one month and seven days. She lived in the third floor of a four story house with a family of three. The son was vey abusive and would touch and fondle her and cut her hair. She eventually escaped from her third story room by tearing her bedsheets into strips and using them as a rope to climb out of the window. Many housemaids return to Sri Lanka as corpses says Nathan. In the house his wife lived in a Sri Lankan girl had been killed previously.

and wrapping up with a conspiracy theory..

It is obvious that Nathan is well liked. Especially among the residents of the Gunasinghapura koreas where he lives. He likes to make fun of their Tamil and they return in kind. When his daughter attained puberty a whole load of them came to Bogawatalawa and he took them to see Siripada.

Nathan shares my ambivalence for bus music. Ok he fair well hates it. The only song he liked was the Hindi dam arey dam.

Oh yeah. Apparently in the US the authorities have imposed a new kind of ID. It is a microchip. They implant it in your arm if you’re a man, forehead if you’re a woman and at the top of your skull if you’re a child. They can track all of your movements and actions. He doesn’t seem quite clear on whether this is already happening or is still at some experimental stage. Anyway it’s somehow connected to the number 666 and 18digits like the barcodes you find in products everywhere. Somehow this long number will become the ‘last number in the world’ just before apocalypse hits. I didn’t get that bit either.

take it easy and you’ll do fine: Upali

Upali is what industry insiders call a ‘professional tuk tuk driver’. He bought his first tuk tuk 27 years ago. Currently driving a four stroke TVS,  he claims that it is better than its Bajaj equivalent. The TVS is the latest of 8 three wheelers he has owned throughout his career. He gets a new one every three or four years.

Though he makes a successful living (he has built two houses), the idea of sitting back and having others drive his tuk tuks for him never appealed much. His past experiments have all failed. At one time he owned 3 tuk tuks simultaneously. But the problem with having others drive your tuk tuks is that well… others drive your tuk tuks. Accidents are a norm. He has lost count of the visits he paid to the courts. Drivers don’t pay you on time, if ever. So no thank you but i’ll drive my own, he says. Even if it means less money, the peace of mind is worth more.

His lease costs him Rs.10,500 a month. Petrol about Rs 500-600 a day. Servicing costs about 7500 every 3 months. But spare parts are a problem. Tyres cost in excess of Rs 2000 and other parts don’t come cheap. This is why its important to use your vehicle very carefully, he thinks. He needs to earn about Rs 2000 to be happy; a decent figure.

Upali recently switched to a meter. He says he gets more hires this way but the fares are less, so in the end it probably amounts up to the same. Asked why he refuses to join a taxi company and get even more hires that way, he balks. Taxi companies don’t give you time to relax. They’re always calling you with hires.

Instead Upali has nurtured a strong network of contacts. He regularly transports light cargo for a firm in Piliyandala. This morning by nine he had already earned about Rs 600 through other hires who called him personally. He’s relaxed and at peace with his job. His years of experience have served him well and i’m sure he can teach a thing or two to budding professionals in the field. Like for instance; so long as you don’t do crazy stuff like running whores and other dodgy things, you’ll make a good living.

Are a thorny topic. officially the unemployment rate is pretty low. But unofficially people are just not happy with their jobs, or employers are not really happy with the type of people who work for them. This is underemployment, or mal-employment and im not sure the latter qualifies as a proper economic term.

Add to this, there are the myriad economic factors that affect education. How dynamic is our tertiary education system, How much money is pouring into the system, Is the money pouring being used properly, Is the government really focusing on developing human resources, what are the other policy measures the government can and must take and what if anything, is wrong with the people?

On the latter, more than you think. Or just as much as you think. Sri Lankans have propensities to either engage in government bashing or people’s-attitude bashing seemingly based on their mood. But actually the government and the people are highly intertwined within the issue of education. And word on Intelligentsia Avenue apportions equal blame to both.

The government can initiate reform. But the people are just too damn backward and intent on handouts to brave the new world of competitive spirit. Kishu Gomes, at an IPS organized panel discussion on the topic (accompanied by a Twitter discussion) yesterday, voiced the opinion that Sri Lankans have knowledge, but that knowledge is not ‘commercially viable’. While this might seem like blasphemy to puritans who believe in knowledge for its own sake, Gomes has a point. Economically speaking, within the traditional measures of wealth such as GDP, knowledge that cannot make money is of no use.

Another interesting point that Gomes raised was that people here don’t aspire enough. They aren’t motivated for progress. Sri Lankans are much less inclined to want great things out of their lives than workers from countries like India, China or the US (examples are my own). I agree, we do have this islander tendency to kick back. And personally i find the idea of converting myself into a sweating, steaming corporate machine geared to achieve a definition of greatness outlined by materialistic frameworks of human well being repulsive (some might read this as: But I’m just a lazy bugger). But wanting some downtime in your life doesn’t mean you can’t be a productive citizen.

And here’s the other point, on the employee’s side there is sentiment that the jobs available don’t really accommodate their needs. They aren’t customized to their skill sets or they don’t respect their knowledge levels. This ties in with Gomes’ first argument. Knowledge does not match job availability. And the unemployed graduates can scream all they want, those empty board room seats (I’m assuming) aren’t getting filled. But it isn’t only because graduates are under qualified. Many people who are more than qualified and have shining skill sets to boot, leave the country in droves because the job market here simply cannot offer them what they want. This results in maybe more foreign remittances to the country, but betrays a chronic inability for it to hang on to its most valuable human resources.

One of the biggest drivers of the economy, what am i saying, THE biggest driver of the economy, is business. And how easy is it for people to start businesses in Sri Lanka? Given that Sri Lanka ranks 89 in the world for doing business, starting a business especially for a young person out of school with only a plan and no capital is like climbing a grease pole during Avurudu, you deserve a prize for doing it. At least that’s what young entrepreneur Gayan Panditharathne says. He started a drink bottling business but received virtually no help from the government, his many approaches to various government offices proving useless. The one’s who’ve somehow managed, have a hard time doing their first year taxes, for instance. Sri Lanka ranks a shocking 173 globally in the efficiency of paying taxes, and has actually slipped two places in 2012.

Another big issue is stigma. Parents don’t like their kids venturing into business. It is seen as risky and crass. The riskiness can be improved. With proper policy reform and support mechanisms, but for this the government has to really get involved. But the image problem of business is not something that policy can cure. Being a lawyer, doctor or an engineer is seen as infinitely more respectable than being a wheeler dealer bringing in the millions.

Talking about tertiary education and ‘education sector reform’ almost seems useless. The topic has been bandied and boxed around for fifteen rounds. And like a doddering prizefighter with nerves of steel, is refusing to go down. On both sides there is inertia and unwillingness to change. I sympathize with FUTA’s call to increase spending on education to 6% of GDP (this interesting slide set from Moratuwa University claims to make a case, well worth a read) but do not sympathize with how the local education system is run. And i think feeding more money into a broken system is pointless.

More money going into education is all very well. But i worry when i see protests, seemingly based on nothing but vested interest, denying the implementation of a private medical college for instance in the country. The opposition to private education from the so called ‘free education’ system and its politicized left wing student unions is nothing short of irrational and downright scary.

Add to this a government that wants to make the country an ‘education hub’ but displays absolutely no intention of investing in any form of research whatsoever and allows its best academic minds to leave the country in flocks for want of sufficient benefits and you have an ‘education system’ that reads like an analysis of one of Freud’s most difficult patients.

So what’s the alternative? The market. The economy, if it keeps doing well, will attract more investment, and people will do whatever it takes to get those jobs coming in. We already have ample private education in IT, design, tourism, finance, marketing and business. Vocational training isn’t doing too badly either i hear. All being said though things right now are a bit of a Charlie Foxtrot.

Quite enjoyed Vedi, which i had the pleasure of watching on a recent bus ride to Jaffna.

Tamil movies capture the imaginations of millions, and completely command the attitudes of a good chunk of them. A certain segment of Tamil movie fans will swear by their favorite movie stars. To them this shit is real. And this is evidenced by the large proportion of actors who become very successful politicians in Tamil Nadu.

In Sri Lanka growing up in a Muslim household with plenty of uncles who were fans of the likes of Rajni KanthMGR (who was born in my hometown) and Sivaji I had somewhat of an early exposure. I never developed into a frenzied fanboy because my extended family was probably much saner by the time I was born. But walk along Galle Face on any evening and chances are you’ll see plenty of guys wearing Kolaveri Di t-shirts and denim jackets or busting the latest Danush and Suriya dance moves on the pavements, while music blares from parked vans with open doors and loud sound systems. Tamil movies are getting bigger. And continue to penetrate the zeitgeist here. A part of a global phenomenon of Indian ‘soft power’ making strong inroads into global culture.

Actors who play heroes appeal to masses because they idealize perfection on screen, or so goes my theory. They’re always honorable, powerful and love the poor. And so the poor love them. Tamil movies are never complete without a despicable villain; evil and convoluted as much as the hero is honorable and upright. It is always black versus white, good versus evil.

The villain isn’t villaining for business. He’s in business purely for the villaining. He is intelligent but too confident, loud and brash, and reveals the full extent of his evil plans in fierce monologues often overheard by a lowly minion or his long suffering mother. Always displaying some suitably spine tingling idiosyncrasy, he will either fling his shirt collar back in a manner that reveals an acre of chest hair, walk with a swagger so pronounced he is practically turning sideways at every step, or if he is old and ugly which he often is, will have a uniquely spine chilling sound affect play every time he enigmatically breathes out his cigar smoke.

The villain and his muscles-for-brains goons carry out their unbroken assault on society; raping, stealing and kicking dogs, all the time laughing at some rich private joke that no one else understands. They are mean and petty, brutally cruel. But their spree of glee ends when they finally mess with the wrong guy. Usually by messing with the wrong girl. And the hero, awakened from his humble, everyday-Tamilian stupor by a maddening righteous anger, rises to spell doom and gloom to all villainy, everywhere.

But before the villain can meet the hero, whom he always underestimates, in the final battle; several important events must take place. There is, for instance, the small matter of the chemistry between the hero and the heroine that must bubble with an acidic fervor. When locked in their haphazard game of a thousand flirtations, they must dance along at least a dozen different beaches, alpine mountain ranges, and botanical gardens and develop the skill of surreptitiously changing costumes in the few seconds when the camera pans to the horizon. Random strangers and distant acquaintances in marketplaces, college campuses, night clubs and ‘autorickshaw’ stands must suddenly develop remarkable skills of coordination as they dance along in tandem to music that apparently plays out of speakers hidden in barrels and fruit baskets.

Heroes in tamil movies have full scale symphony orchestras following them around with different tunes for every on screen emotion, innovative punch, kick and every cleverly executed pun. Of course there are separate actors who specialize in comic relief. But they don’t have it so well in terms of physical prowess or sexual prospects. Their orchestra comprises of random pings, poinnggs and other scraping noises to complement their varied failings and faux pas as they bravely attempt to aid the hero in his struggle against his personal Goliath. These actors tend to be a few in number and can often be seen in the same role in countless movies. Vadivelu for instance has been around for as long as I can remember and is quite the powerbroker now I hear.

With roughly 65 million moviegoers in India, 12 million Indian Tamils abroad and countless other Tamil speakers in Sri Lanka including Muslims, Tamil films enjoy a bigger market than the UK cinema industry. In Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh (which makes films in Telugu – 75mn people), India’s biggest movie industries outside of Bollywood, popular films are more recognisably ‘about’ local culture and exhibit a close relationship between film and politics. Fanclubs will often morph into political organizations as a particular actor decides to become a hero in real life (I.e politician). Actors become politicians and fail to do anything helpful sparking the need for more actors to become politicians in order to replace them. A neat vicious cycle.

Of course not all Tamil movies are so stereotypical and transparent. Many movies, even those of the cornier variety show a high level of political and social awareness. Their heroes wouldn’t appeal to the masses otherwise. But some movies do stand out as masterpieces all on their own. A real fan would rattle off many. To me right now Mani Ratnam‘s Roja and Bombay come to mind.

In terms of entertainment, they are pretty good when they get the formula right. Pretty much like any movie industry.

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Today at the barbershop i had an epiphany about films. An old Sinhalese film, must have been from the forties, was playing on the small TV. The barber told me that those actors are all probably dead now. The move is called ‘Geetha’, the full credits roll by in the beginning, but there’s a short intro into the whole theme with a scene before that.

The son has just come from England. He sports a little Hitler mustache. He is wearing a dress shirt, pants and tie. The father is dressed in a suit. They are rich people. The mother is absent. She has apparently gone to yet another meeting of a ‘women’s club’. It is a habit of hers to throw away money on these clubs and receive high positions in them. She has taken the good car to go for a function now. The son ridicules his mother’s behavior and questions her objectives. The father says that he has no real say in the matter, since he is a poor man and his wife owns all the money.

Soon the mother returns, bearing a heavy basket of flowers which she was gifted at the event as the chief guest. The son accurately guesses that she must have donated ten thousand rupees to this particular event judging by the weight of the basket, which weighs ten pounds, and the going rate for gifts of flower baskets in return for donations must be a thousand rupees for a pound. This angers his mother. She is dressed in an immaculate sari and sports one of those elaborate 1940s hairstyles that curve around a woman’s face. Further argument is suspended when a worker from their factory comes calling, to tell them that his daughter is getting married. The worker is dressed in an old but neat suit and sarong, his wife wears a carefully preserved white sari.

They have obviously come to ask for financial assistance. but as custom dictates, they don’t say so openly. All pretension is to the effect that the visit is merely to ‘inform’ for propriety’s sake. The father invites them in, the son asks them to sit down. The worker and his wife sit with great hesitation. The father and son then ask some random questions like “where is the groom from?”. The groom is from Kandy and works in the civil service, apparently his salary will be increased once he gets married.

Further conversation is interrupted when the wife loudly calls the husband aside.

“What are these poor people doing sitting in our living room, she asks, “who are they?”

“He is a worker in our factory with his wife”, says the husband.

The wife becomes livid, “poor people have their place and they should not be sitting around becoming pally with the likes of us, have you no shame?”

“well, what do you want me to do?”

“tell them to bloody leave!” she yells, so loudly that the worker and his wife get up, startled, and make as if to go away.

The husband though, plaintively persists “his daughter is getting married, we should give them something, how about five hundred rupees?”

“Are you mad? We already pay them salaries and bonuses. Just give the man five rupees and send him off”.

At this moment, the wife sees some of her acquaintances from her club coming to pay a visit. She becomes alarmed. “Chase those two away at once, what will my friends think of me if they realize the kind of people we welcome into our house!”

The women have come to diplomatically elicit yet another donation, in return for which they will nominate the wife for a post in the parliament. The wife is more than eager to agree. And shells out ten thousand rupees, which must have been a thumping amount at the time, on the spot. Meanwhile the son muses on the fact that his mother loses no time in throwing away ten thousand rupees to become a ‘public servant’ when she can’t stand the sight of the general public inside her own house.

Who in Sri Lanka makes films like this anymore? All i see are movies aping Bollywood. And ‘comedies’ with jokes so lame they need crutches. Some might say that good films with strong messages do get made, but either they get no exposure, or there simply isn’t a market for them.So is something wrong with the Sri Lankan film goer? Have the people no more appetite to ponder ground realities like the class and political differences that underpin the way we live today?

Many Sri Lankans today are sold on cardboard dreams built on TV reality shows and dolled up movie stars. The typical poor Sri Lankan is caught up with the glamor of the rich, and wants to own it as soon as possible. So when he sees the politician roll by in his cavalcade of Range Rovers and matt black BMWs he doesn’t see a vile rogue who owes everything he has to corruption and abuse of power, he sees the epitomization of his own dream. The only way to stop being oppressed is to become the oppressor.

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For minorities to know their place in this country all they have to do is to look at its national flag. Here’s a picture. There are the minorities colored in green and orange, and the Sinhala have a big patch of red.. Hey that’s fine, proportional representation ain’t no crime, but what’s that there in the red patch? is that… A lion? wielding a drawn sword..? Roaring in the general direction of the minorities? Keep out, its saying. This is my turf I’ve pissed all over it, one foot where it doesn’t belong and you’ll soon be ingesting several feet of sword.

No matter.. Minorities here know their place. The Muslims especially have always known their place. In Sri Lanka it seems to me that it is patriotism that is the opiate of the masses. and the Middle classes the biggest consumers. The rich are too busy getting richer, the poor are too busy being poor, but the middle class is upwardly mobile.. Asiff Hussein the anthropologist mentioned this in passing once and the thought has been running around in my head and gelatinizing and taking shape.

The middle class want wealth, the politicians and oligarchs steal that wealth and direct middle class anger towards the Muslims. It’s a classic strategy. Take the USA that stronghold of democratic justice, despite all the problems its people face what do they argue about the most come election time? Gay marriage, abortion and yeah, Muslims. Everything else is secondary. The whole political-media mechanism gears itself around these issues and the people are nicely distracted from the real issues. The wars the corporate abuse the widening wealth gap.

The war here is done.. The upwardly mobile middle classes are hungry, educated and success has been long in coming and now they won’t let anything stop them. They’re really starting to chew on what’s stopping them but it would be disastrous if they start chewing on how their leaders are screwing them out of so much money and opportunity.. So the Muslims, probably the most peace loving people in this country are painted black.

Easy job right? global propaganda is already helping them along. All they need to do is translate books of Ayaan Hirsi Ali or of some incident of barbaric cruelty perpetrated against a woman that has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam and sell them on the pavements of Nugegoda. All that needs to be done is to channel the appropriate funds to bhikkus and organizations willing to sell their souls and you’ve got a racist ‘movement’ that operates in increasing legitimacy.

Facebook statuses I see, pictures being shared around by educated Sinhala youth, sometimes even my direct friends and people I like and who I think like me.. They are all wasting their youthful exuberance. Muslims aren’t the enemy. Muslims in Sri Lanka have made it a habit of living off local prosperity. If you the majority aren’t rich then who will buy our goods? We’ve never had any political ambitions that threaten your sovereignty. If you prosper, we prosper and vice versa. In the past we both prospered by working together against the Portuguese, Dutch and English. Crack open a history book, a real history book, not the one you get from school.

Something is sucking your energy, young people here have always been activists, always headstrong and now something is trying to make you blind. The drug that does it is patriotism, in a context far removed from any form of economic prosperity, which is to say a bastardized form of patriotism. You are blind to the social injustice around you.. That effects you everyday. That shuts you out and closes the door; that invisible barrier beyond which true power and wealth lies in this country.

So wake up and smell the plain tea… It’s got a coating of grime on it called patriotism, but actually it’s just trickery.

Another crime scene, another time and place

At around nine last Thursday I was sitting on the balcony of my friend’s suite at the Cinnamon Lakeside, the hotel’s floating restaurant was doing the rounds on the Beira lake; it’s basket-like structure lit up with lights, competing with the neon lamps of the new Bally’s casino across the water. Colombo seems on the cusp of a bright future.

At around 1030 that night I was discovering the body of Kanapadipillai Udayakanthan, 38. What i mistook for a drunkard lying in a pool of urine turned out to be a muscular young man lying on his side in a pool of blood, quite still. We told the cops. A dark, mustachioed sergeant stared me in the eye a little too closely and told me he’ll ‘check it out’.

The genesis of a Colombo Crime Scene investigation is interesting to watch. When i came back after dropping my friend, there were two bemused looking traffic policemen, and one grave looking bystander. A closer look reveals multiple stab woulds on the victims’ arm and face, there were probably deeper cuts on his neck and torso but he was lying on his front and side so i couldn’t see. Tinny Sinhala music was playing from somewhere, a phone in the dead man’s pocket.

Fifteen minutes later, there are more bemused cops, and more curious bystanders. Some are taking pictures. Strangely, the cops are letting two of the seedier ones get awfully close to the corpse, not that they were particularly restricting any of the others. These two turn out to be inspectors from the crime squad, as do a few other plainclothesmen in the crowd. Word gets around that I was the one that reported the body, and a few of the cops nod at me in appreciation.

Soon the Inspector is pulling out a wallet from the victim’s shorts, the name, race and address of the victim, as yet unknown, is now confirmed. The realization that he is Tamil creates a barely perceptible change in the atmosphere, slight relief, this is now a routine job.

Meanwhile more cops are digging through the late Mr. Udayakanthan’s backpack. They’re finding some documents, among which are four passports, three are in the victim’s name. None of the cops wear rubber gloves. People are all over the scene, walking on what must be evidence. The cops, mildly annoyed, tell them to keep away, but they keep slinking back and the police just give up. The yellow cordon only goes on some two hours later, when everyone’s basically gotten bored and gone home.

Now the phone is ringing again, muffled Sinhala music (why would a Tamil man listen to Sinhala music?), his front pockets are caked with blood, still wet. The inspector digs in with gusto, rummages for a while, and manages to pull out the phone from the left pocket. It’s a fake iphone. The person on the other end is a woman. Their conversation goes something like this:

“Who are you” says the IP, “why is so and so in Bambalapitiya?” she is obviously very confused at this stranger barking questions at her. “We are the cops..he’s been stabbed (meyawa kapala kotala dalla thiyanawa)” the cop doesn’t believe in easing into things, and i react like i was slapped, she reacts like the cop is barking mad. “No i’m not joking” says the IP, “call the police station if you don’t believe me” she hangs up.

Another call, again a woman. She cant speak Sinhala, and the IP asks the crowd who can speak Tamil, I volunteer, but soon regret it. You ever seen those cop shows where the short straw always goes to the guy who has to tell the dead man’s wife? well it’s not a fun job. My Tamil is broken, and after the cop’s attitude to the previous caller, i feel strangely desensitized and out of sync.

To my credit, or lack of it, i first thought it was the same caller, and that she already got the brunt of the bad news. So when she asked where Udayakanthan was i replied that he was dead. She asked me what the hell i was talking about, and then i asked her who she was, his wife, she said. I tried to sound as sensitive as i could. But my Tamil was just warming up, and the correct words and tone just wouldn’t come. I think i ended up shocking her very badly, she started screaming and bawling. She only managed to tell me that she didn’t know what her late husband was doing in bamba and that she was in London, and worse, that she was without family there.

I subsequently spoke to several of her neighbors, and then her sister called from Batticaloa. i told them to send someone to the Bambalapitiya Police, since the Police seemed a little clueless as to what i should say. None of them knew what Udayakanthan was really upto in Colombo, only that he worked for a ‘studio’ and that he had many Sinhala friends. He had a big red motorbike, but it was nowhere to be seen. Mysteriously, his helmet was nearby and his keys were next to him soaking in a rivulet of his own blood. Police say that tire tracks nearby indicated that he was killed somewhere else, and dumped here.

About two hours pass before they ask me for a statement, but i could have left at any time before that. While giving my statement by the side of the road, I look through the passports, and only one of them has been used. Once on a trip to India in 2006, and then for work to Saudi in 2007. The other two are brand new. The cops are chatty and open about everything, me looking through evidence doesn’t seem to bother them. My phone is dead or there might even have been pictures.

I think the Island picked up the story the next day. But it has more or less gotten buried. Probably got billed as gang violence, petty crime or something else. Murders are commonplace in Colombo and everywhere else, a cop tells me abot a particularly bloody case in Anuradhapura where the killer foolishly returned to the scene of the crime in his car, which was also the murder weapon.

Most people like to pretend dark stuff like this doesn’t happen. Judging by the cars that must have passed by the corpse before i reported it, most Colombians like to pretend stuff like this happens in a different dimension, but also the perception that ‘getting involved’ will be a major personal hassle plays a large and relevant role.

Me though, i was just morbidly curious.

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