Stolen mangoes are sweeter

The back garden of my home borders Isipathana School (a large boy’s school in Colombo). At first when I moved in to our home I found this quite annoying. Invariably the first quarter of the year we had to put up with an un-tuneful band practicing for the Independence day (celebrated on February 4th) accompanied by a teacher with a grating voice on a loud speaker giving instructions for formation dances etc. They got somewhat tuneful only by about the 2nd of February. Then this was closely followed by the Sportsmeet, so from 7 in the morning till about 4.30 in the afternoon the tuneless band continues along with the teacher on the loudspeaker, plus children screaming and cheering during sports practices. This is not all. We would invariably have cricket balls and footballs sailing over the fence at various ungodly hours and then we would have scruffy children pole valuting the fence to get in to our garden or screaming ‘anti bole’ (aunty Ball). Then we raised the chain linked fence and that got better. Now they just peer through the fence in to our garden and home.

But after sometime I got used to them.

The main attraction of our garden for them, is the mango tree which has most of its branches hanging over the chain link fence in to the school grounds. During mango season I find bricks, sticks and stones thrown in to my garden as they attempt to break the mangoes from their side of the fence. As long as they don’t break any windows in our home I am quite comfortable with them stealing mangoes from their side of the fence. After all I don’t have the motivation or the ingenuity to get to their side and pluck the mangoes from our tree. I figure the mango tree knows who enjoys its fruits the most and therefore has leant more towards the school than our back garden.

Today I observed in marvel two little boys with a stick trying to break the mangoes on their side of the fence.

I marveled at their patience. The stick was puny but not their will. I saw them around 2.15 in the afternoon. I would really like to know why their parents have not come to pick them up from school. But this is not my business I guess. I went back in to the kitchen which faces the back garden around 02.45 to make myself a cup of tea. They have not been successful in breaking the mango. But they were still at it.

It is amazing how focused and committed children can be when stealing mangoes. I wondered with little hope, that this focus and commitment was probably not shown when the parents eventually took them home and asked them to do their math homework!

Then again, from some distant memory I seem to recall that stolen mangoes are much sweeter!!!


Democratic Roads in Sri Lanka and the Villagers Vote

“Sri Lankan roads are very democratic” I quoted to my three friends, Bishan, Chiranthi and Thilini who were travelling with me for the weekend (29 Jan) to the Galle Literary Festival (http://www.galleliteraryfestival.com/), “because everyone has right of way. The dogs, cows, three wheelers, cars, big belching buses, imposing SUV’s, cyclists, cars ….”. We laughed. This was what a friend told my Professor from University of Bath when he came to visit Sri Lanka.

I didn’t realize at that time that I would soon have an opportunity to see this democracy played out in real life, with me as a central character.

Only Thilini joined me in my return journey to Colombo on Sunday. All was uneventful and peaceful, until in Maggona (just outside Kalutara) a dog exercised his democratic right to cross the road in a non-crossing zone. Having reduced my speed as I entered the town, I was prepared and slowed down. Then like many of us citizens who were unsure of how best to use our democracy this election and which way to go, he too paused briefly not sure which way to go. By this time I had to slam my brakes.

I heard a big noise as if something was caught underneath my car. Frozen and panicked that I hit the dog, I scanned the road. A dog barked, and it was not in agony. So what the heck was that? It took a few seconds for me to realize that something hit me from behind, and was very possibly under my car. Thilini, quickly told me “it is a motor cycle, don’t worry, the man is ok, he just walked off”. The fact that a man could actually be under my car came to realization only then, and my heart ran cold at the thought.

I stepped out in to the ‘nadagama (Sri Lankan Folk Art Theater). Immediately there was a huge crowd surrounding the scene. A lone policeman on a motorcycle appeared. I went in search of the man, panicking that he may have been seriously hurt. Someone pointed in the direction of the roadside shops and said “he went in there”. He emerged, looking a little shaken, but without any injury, and after I inquired to his well being, we both walked to the car. Then only I saw the motorcycle under my car! I couldn’t believe that this man walked off unscathed. In the meantime the crowd had grown bigger and many were now venturing their opinion. A man who was trailing by me started telling me “oh miss this is a terrible thing that has happened. Very serious trouble”. He eventually turned out to be the ‘Chief Negotiator”. Then there was another man who was trying to calm me “don’t worry this is not a problem, get in to the car and start it and go forward and we will have to lift the car and get the bike out”. He was one of the ‘Calming Influencers’. In the meantime, typically, the policeman was not at all involved.

Having established that no one was hurt, my concern for the damages to my car now increased. I was getting a little worried, as every time I started the car and tried to move, it wouldn’t budge. Naturally as I had a motorbike underneath my car! But there was a lot of teamwork happening at the back and in a few seconds, with instructions for me to “poddak passata, hari than poddak issarahata, thawa poddak” (a little back, right, now a little forward, a little more”), they had the bike hauled out.

The front of the bike was a little damaged, but relatively unscratched for having been under my car. My car (at that time) didn’t seem to have that many damages.

Then began the voting of the village. Who will they support in the negotiations? The Policeman briefly appeared and checked our licenses etc, asked where we were from. The Motorcyclist I think was from Mathugama, a town close to Kalutara. The policeman inquired disinterestedly whether we wanted to make a report to the police.

The whole village and I must say it was only the men in the village, as I assumed the women were out working or cooking or doing something useful, ventured their opinion. The chief negotiator was working for both of us, as he tried to reconcile and set both of us against each other at the same time. By this time the majority of the crowd (at least 15 people) were telling the motorcyclist that it was his fault, because he hit me from the back. There was a ‘witness’ to the scene, who kept saying that he saw that I was driving very slowly. The Motorcyclist kept saying he was riding slowly too, and that I braked and that’s why he ended up underneath me. Then again the village chorused that in a court of law, it would be still his fault. Another remarked, that he did not keep enough of a gap between his bike and my car, and therefore it was his fault. Somebody helpfully reminded us that it was the dog’s fault, but of course he knowingly added that “we can’t prosecute the dog”.

Seeing that I had some of the villagers on my side, I too repeated that it was his fault and asked him how he wanted to proceed. He suggested that I pay him something!!! He had only third party insurance, and appealed to me to be humane about it. The underlying assumption is that I can afford the repair on my car AND pay him for his.

The Chief negotiator and several others now started saying that it is not fair for him to ask for all the money, to ask only for a portion. I asked him how much he was asking for. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. But I just wanted to leave the place (which he knew, and the village knew), and my better self was also genuinely feeling sorry for the man (oh and the man knew which buttons to push too when he appealed to my ‘human side’).

He scratched his head and said that it looked like his bike would need quite a big repair. I became firm and told him to name his price, so that I could decide whether I would play ball with him or not. The village chorused after me “yes, yes tell her what you are asking for”. I had also quickly concurred with Thilini that this was the way to go, and she had advised me to get in writing that this was the final payment. He scratched his head again and started mumbling the list of repairs he would have to do, and then loudly said “Rs. 6000”. I opened the back door of the car, making the motion to take my handbag out and said “Ok, I will give you Rs. 2000”. He looked pained and suggested conciliatorily that we agree at Rs. 3000. I kept the bag inside the car and suggested that we sort this out legally. The whole village started scolding him “don’t be a fool, just take what she is offering, why do you want to ‘rasthiyadhu’ (be hassled) going to courts”. He reluctantly agreed and I asked for his driving license number and National ID no. Thilini produced pen and paper and I hurriedly scribbled a note with his details and added that he accepts this money from me as being final payment for damages to his motorcycle as a result of him hitting my car from the back! I read it out to him and explained what I had written.

The disinterested policeman made another brief appearance and asked whether we had agreed to settle out of courts.

In the meantime the Chief Negotiator cunningly quips in and suggests that I give the motorcyclist my address for future reference. I politely and firmly declined, saying that it was not necessary, I had not asked for the motorcyclist for his address, only his ID details. If he wants he can have my ID number! The Chief Negotiator smiled as he knew I saw through his cunningness. The motor cyclist by this time was mumbling again “at least 10,000’ for the repair I think” and started feeling his leg for the wounds.

One of the ‘Calming Influencers’ suggested that I now be on my way. And I realized that it was best I should do so, before the ‘democratic court’ decides to prosecute the ‘Colombo lady’ against the ‘Motorcyclist from Mathugama’. I hurriedly said thank you to everyone (including the motorcyclist who got paid off for his mistake), heaved a sigh of relief that this little drama took all of just 15 minutes and drove back to Colombo cautiously without further mishap!!!

This little accident portrays so much of Sri Lankan social phenomena. The curiosity and involvement of complete strangers at a road accident, the way they help you in a crisis and the way they take sides and be engaged participants in the negotiation process even thought it has absolutely nothing to the do with them and the complete lack of interest of the police.

On the level of the involvement this is symbolic of village life. If any minor or major event in a village, everyone gets involved to help as well as to decide who is in the right and wrong. This social phenomena now extends to towns too where this level of involvement now continues with complete strangers when a road accident happens.

On a more personal side, the men in my family were dead against me driving to Galle on my own. The reasons offered were precisely that it was not safe for a woman to drive on their own, what if I met with a serious accident, what if I got in to trouble on the road and there was no one to help. All true. But none of which can be avoided either.

As I was getting dressed in the morning I decided against the dress I had first picked out thinking that it was a little short and it seemed more appropriate for me to wear a longer dress just in case I had get out somewhere on the way. The fact that the length of the dress is considered in my choice of wear to drive from Galle to Colombo, means that I don’t feel completely safe on the road as a woman driving on her own. I know of many incidents where the crowd can get very ugly in certain areas, and the ‘votes’ generally go for the ‘the person with less income’. The crowd can go violently against the ‘out of towner’. Women can get harassed more as they are more vulnerable.

In this instance Thilini and I thought that the fact there wasn’t a man with us may have also worked in our favour for the villagers to be more kind to us. On the other hand as my father said “I capitulated” and gave money to the man who was at fault. Agreed and it is quite hilarious that I should do so, as I was the one taken for a ride. But I console myself that given the circumstances, I had to handle it as best as I could, without making an ugly scene, or handle it in such a way that I didn’t get hassled in the legal system in Sri Lanka, which could be quite painful.

Another friend on being told the story warned me to be careful as this man could have noted my license and then start harassing me for more money. All possible. I know of a similar experience when a gang in the area decided to get involved in an accident. Where the ‘victim’ suddenly produced a limp, and demanded money asked to be visited at home presumably in the presence of gang friends. The ‘victim’ was visited with a casual backup of an Army friend, and the victim’s limp miraculously vanished and he even walked around his living room to demonstrate that the limp had vanished.

I reflected that on the brighter side, no one was killed, the dog was at fault, and he crossed the road and lives to bark his story and a whole village got an opportunity to come together to help and vote to decide the fate of two strangers. Only in Sri Lanka.