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Single entrepreneur – the difficult years and the Russian trade

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(Excerpted from the autobiography of Merrill, J. Fernando)

The early 1970s were difficult years for all businessmen in the country. The changes on the political front and the progressive policy of Ceylonisation resulted in forcing the foreign company owner out, but, simultaneously, created doubt in the minds of the potential local investor/entrepreneur. The Marxist doctrine which underpinned State economic policy and attitude did little to encourage the spirit of private entrepreneurship, unless it was for a few individuals who, for various reasons, found favour with the Government.

The exit of expatriate business families such as the Joneses (of AF Jones) did enable politically-unaffiliated locals such as me, to get a toehold in the tea export business. Given my strongly-held views on the tea export trade, particularly the British domination of the industry, which was highly detrimental to the interests of the producer with its sublimation of the real value potential of the authenticity of Pure Ceylon Tea, I would certainly have eventually set out on my own. The opportunity may not have come so early though, if not for the decidedly ‘foreigner unfriendly’ stance of the first Bandaranaike Government.

In 1974 I launched Merrill J. Fernando Exports Ltd., of which I was the sole owner. I believe this was a turning point in my business career as a tea exporter, for I was able to build on and consolidate on the back of the contacts I had made and the connections that I had established, in most countries of the tea-drinking world. The fact that the company bore my name was later a huge advantage that I did not foresee when I started marketing ‘Dilmah’ as a highly-personalized family brand. The latter eventually became its unique selling point. Whilst unhesitatingly conceding the element of good fortune – divine intervention, in my view – that is inherent in every success story, there was always my readiness to grasp opportunities as they presented themselves, in spite of the ever-present risk element.

I became the fourth largest exporter in the country when, in 1974, Merrill J. Fernando Co. Ltd. exported 24 million pounds of tea. It gave me business satisfaction as I was competing with the giants in the country, but exporting bulk tea to blenders and packers abroad never gave me the sense of achievement I was looking for. It was not a challenge as such an enterprise does not require vision or real skill. One had only to be competitive. The entire process was concerned only with generating volume, which had nothing to do with creating real value. But my long involvement in the bulk tea trade gave me knowledge and experience of the trade, and the trading disciplines, which served me well later when I started marketing my own brand.

My contacts in the USSR began playing a very significant role in my business and the subsequent development of the ‘Dilmah’ brand. Before the dissolution of the USSR, I would visit Moscow at least four or five times a year, mainly in connection with the supply of bulk tea. Grigory Pipinov, who became my friend when he was Deputy Russian Trade Commissioner in Sri Lanka, was of great help to me. During his stint in Sri Lanka, he and his wife Lilian were frequent visitors to my home. He was also a great cook and would spend much more time and effort organizing his frequent barbecue parties, for which he bought the beef from a particular butcher in Borella, and marinate for hours in my kitchen! The level of culinary perfection he required, in his view, could be achieved only by himself.

On all my visits to the USSR, I would be met at the airport by two or three officials and conducted to the National Hotel, the only equivalent then to a five-star hotel in Moscow. It had been built in 1903, during Czarist times, and was located close to both the Red Square and the Kremlin. My meetings were mostly with Grigori Pipinov and Bathov, Chairman of Sojuzplodoimport (Sojuz). The latter was also an extremely nice man and I developed very good relationships with the two, and all of the others that I dealt with. I gained their confidence as, in all my dealings with them, I was absolutely straightforward and they soon they realized that my agenda was what was on the table.

The tea trade in Russia was controlled by the State-owned Sojuz, a Moscow-based entity established in 1966 for the import of various food items in to Russia, including coffee and cocoa. It also owned a couple of premium vodka brands, such as Stolichnaya and Moskovskaya. Despite the subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union and the privatization of many previously State-controlled trade arms, control of Sojuz was retained by the State.

Whilst it was operating under State control, Sojuz imports of tea amounted to about USD 1.5 billion in value, annually. India accounted for about 60% of it, in volume. The balance was made up by China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, collectively. Up to about 1988, average annual imports by the bloc amounted to about 135 million kilos. In the years 1989-1991, the volume reached 200 million kilos and in 1992, increased further to 260 million kilos. Till then, all the tea imported to the CIS bloc (Confederation of Independent States – 11 countries initially, increasing to 12 with the addition of Georgia in 1993), was processed in 16 tea packaging factories spread out across the bloc, and distributed to retail shops at fixed prices, under an agreement with the Ministry of Food and Industry and the Ministry of Internal Trade. The entire process, from importation of bulk to the cup of the consumer, was controlled by the State.

Tea and Perestroika

In 1988, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia wanted to import 20,000 MT per month. I agreed to give my buyers 500 MT and then gradually increase it to 1,000 MT. For me, it was a golden opportunity. Pipinov indicated to me that they were considering purchasing Dilmah tea exclusively, in 250 gm and 500 gm packs. I was invited by him to travel to Russia, to meet his Chairman, Bathov, and within a week I was in Moscow.

They accepted whatever price I quoted to them and, in order to maintain the trust in the relationship, I always ensured that my prices stayed reasonable in the context of the prevailing market. I believe that they were fully aware of this. Between 1988 and 2002, I used to ship an average of 100×40 ft. containers per month of bulk tea to Russia. Initially, whilst the dealings were directly with the Russian Government, trading conditions and commercial interactions were stable and reliable. I shipped tea to various ports in the USSR. However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Republic and the consequent muscling in of the Russian Mafia in to the trade, the business became fraught with difficulties and physically dangerous to other participants.

When I first started supplying large volumes against the Sojuz orders, as a result of my heavy buying, the Colombo Auction prices shot up by about Rs. 15 per kilo and I had to absorb substantial losses on my first order. I had indicated to Bathov and Pipinov that I would be quoting a very moderate price on the first order, but that I would have to adjust it thereafter, as I knew for a certainty that the auction price would increase sharply. That is exactly what happened.

On my next trip to Moscow, when Bathov asked me about my losses resulting from the tea market upturn, I told him that irrespective of the bottom line, I would maintain the agreed quality of service. He asked me for my new price for the second order – adjusted by me to cover my previous loss – and actually insisted that I increase it. I made a further small adjustment, but still kept it at a reasonable level. The fact that I did not try to exploit their urgent need for tea to my advantage established trust between us.

The new contracts enabled me to recover the losses I made on the earlier orders and start on the road to profit. I made certain that, irrespective of Colombo Tea Auction price fluctuations, I delivered consistent quality and freshness. This was the business which, for a considerable period of time, made ‘Dilmah’ a household name in Russia and also paved the way for its subsequent successes in other countries.

This importance of establishing one’s credentials with the buyer with the very first order is an invaluable first principle, which I learned for myself when, during my time as a trainee tea taster, I did a little extra business by supplying shops in Negombo with tea. I used to impress on my people in the company, from the very inception, that the tea export trade is a business of frequently-fluctuating fortunes. The latter is directly tied to auction price movement and the first principle is, irrespective of the auction price, to maintain consistent quality. If you supply lower quality to maintain profit, the loss of the buyer is a guaranteed consequence. If you stay the course with integrity, you will eventually prosper.

I entered the Russian trade when the socialist bloc was one nation and, over the years, watched its fragmentation even as I continued to ply my trade with them. One immediate result of the break-up was the sudden increase in tea import volumes, surging from around 135 million kg in 1988 to 260 million kg by 1992. At the time of the dissolution, only the Republic of Russia had the infrastructure for the import and export trade. Therefore, the release of tight state controls and the sudden exposure to a free market environment, presented opportunities to aspiring private sector entrepreneurs to move into an area which, previously, had no direct dealings with local traders.

Our marketing blunder and a lost opportunity

Our traders foolishly misinterpreted Russian market preferences, assuming that it would be an ideal destination for cheap tea, which could be sold with large margins. In fact, this misjudgment of the CIS market – as it later came to be called – even led to requests by our traders for a revision of minimum product standards in exports to Russia. What the newcomers to the Russian trade failed to realize was that even under the previous State monopoly, Russia had been purchasing largely quality tea and that despite the liberalization, the market’s expectations of Ceylon Tea did not change. As a result, eventually, the fly-by-night operators were forced to drop out, whilst the reputed, established brands stayed the course.

The Russian market could be roughly segmented in to four. At the bottom there was space for cheap blends. Then there were the slightly superior blends which came largely from the UK and, above that, Dilmah, noted for its consistent quality. At the top level were a few specialty products from well-known UK brands. A matter of interest was that a few of the multinational and European brands of tea, whilst being expensive, were also of consistent good quality. Those brands were a serious threat to Ceylon Tea, on account of their quicker delivery capability from destinations close to Russian ports, and, also because of their reliable quality.

With my emphasis on supplying quality tea at a proportionate price, as the first major Sri Lankan entrant to the Russian market, I was able to establish a valuable quality principle in the expectation of the Russian consumer of Ceylon Tea. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the consequent dismantling of the State-controlled centralized purchasing policy was an ideal entry opportunity for our exporters to develop our own brands for export to the newly-created independent states. The market was surging and the Russian buyer was literally at our mercy. However, in the import/export free-for-all which ensued at the fall of the Soviet Union, many of our traders, despite my warnings, entered into cheap bargains with Russian traders to packet and supply low-cost tea under Russian labels instead of establishing purely Sri Lankan/Ceylon Tea brands.

With the fragmentation of the Soviet Union, in addition to Sri Lanka, countries such as Indonesia, China, Kenya, and India became active suppliers to the separate states of the original Soviet Union. Collectively, these states comprised the world’s largest single Black Tea market (apart from Indian internal consumption) and I confidently expected the market, jointly, to eventually move up to 300 million kg, annually.

In my experience, when a previously centrally-controlled market is opened for competition, within a matter of months consumers decide on brand preferences, depending on quality, presentation, and price. Once those standards are established in the minds of the consumers, it is difficult to wean them away. Had we quickly developed a strategy by combining both State and private resources to secure a reasonable share of the CIS market by treating it as a preferred region, we would be exporting 120 million kg to that market, annually, today, provided our national production continued to increase at a reasonable rate, ensuring that supplies to other markets did not suffer as a result.

In fact, in March 1993, I made such a proposal to Mr. R. Paskaralingam, then Secretary of the Ministry of Policy Planning and Implementation, suggesting that the Tea Board, Export Development Board, and Central Bank, should pool appropriate resources in developing a marketing plan for the CIS bloc in its entirety. I also offered my total support to such a project, backed by my knowledge and experience in the Russian trade.

3rd March, 1993
Mr. R. Paskaralingam,
Secretary,
Ministry of Policy Planning and Implementation, 123, Wijerama Mawatha,
COLOMBO 7,

Dear Mr. Paskaralingam,

MARKETING STRATEGY TO GUIDE USSR – CIS IMPORTS TOWARDS SALVAGING CEYLON TEA INDISTRY

For many years, we were the major supplier of bulk tea to the former USSR, outside the period when it was a monopoly of Consolexpo. In respect of Value Added Teas, we were the exclusive supplier. In the final year, leading to the breakup of the USSR, our Value Added exports were in excess of Rs. 1 billion.

In the years 1991 and 1992, there were hardly any exports, due to political and economic crisis prevailing in CIS countries,The position leading to exports to CIS countries took a dramatic turn in the last three months, when demand for Value Added Tea, from all Tea producing countries, escalated. India, Indonesia, China, Kenya and Sri Lanka are active in supplying these Republics, at the present time. Within the next six months, consumers will determine their preferences for quality and presentation, which will lead to market share, for each country or product, in what is the world’s largest single tea market.

CIS importers know nothing about tea or private trade, as yet. In this scenario, they are exploited by intermediaries, who contract to supply tea at good prices and draw stock from suppliers in this country at very low prices, for very poor tea. CIS consumers pay high prices for relatively poor tea. This exercise benefits only intermediaries in Europe, UK, USA, Canada and some other countries.

The total CIS market for tea is approximately 300 million kilos, p.a. and it will grow steadily.A suitable strategy must be developed immediately, to secure a good share of this market, for Ceylon tea, which I believe will be 50 million in 1993 and no less than 120 million per year, from 1994, provided we treat CIS as a preferred market and make a concerted effort, using the SLTB, EDB and Central tank to co-operate very closely, towards evolving a marketing plan, which I shall assist in formulating.

I have no doubt that exports to CIS countries will increase Auction price levels, to guarantee the operation of Plantations profitably, if opportunities in that market are harnessed for the benefit of Ceylon tea.

Considerable harm to the image of Ceylon tea has already been caused by misguided exporters, who are shipping very poor tea. Government should not watch this situation helplessly, as it will deny to Ceylon tea, a golden opportunity to balance its annual budget, if the export trade is correctly guided and monitored, in respect of exports to CIS countries.

TEA SMALL HOLDERS FACTORIES LIMITED

I understand that TEA SMALL HOLDERS FACTORIES LIMITED is due for privatization shortly. I shall be prepared to acquire a 51 % stake in it and develop the Company to produce value added teas, at plantation level, and export direct to CIS countries. This would offer maximum possible return to small holders and workers on these plantations. In fact, I may be able to persuade a CIS investor, with tea interests, to participate in this venture. This would be a model on which several ” growers’ co-operatives”, could be developed to manufacture value added products, for direct export.

I shall be leaving for Australia on 15th March and would like to meet with you, soon after your return from the U.S. If you agree with what I suggest, I am prepared to delay my departure by 3 or 4 days, in order to get the marketing plan underway, in association with SLTB, EDB and the Central Bank.

With kind regards,
Yours sincerely,
MERRILL J. FERNANDO,



Features

Illegality of Urumaya programme

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President distributing land deeds in Galle recently

by Neville Ladduwahetty

The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (news.lk).

Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka.    This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi.     By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).

BACKGROUND to the URUMAYA PROGRAMME

“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).

“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).

VIOLATION of the CONSTITUTION

The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.

For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.

Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….”  The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People.    Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.

OPINION of the SUPREME COURT
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENTS RELATING to LAND
S.C. 884/99 BULANKULAMA AND OTHERS v. SECRETARY, MINISTRY OFINDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OTHERS (EPPAWALA CASE AMERASINGHE. J.

Jurisdiction

“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3).   Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.

“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.

Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic.    It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.

A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:

“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President

“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).

By Permit:

“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless.   Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes.     Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).

By Grant

“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).

By the President

“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).

Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.

Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).

PROPOSED STRATEGY

The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive.     Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.

The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend.  These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan.  The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.

The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.

Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State.    Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.

 CONCLUSION

The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy.  However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.

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Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey

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Royal Thomian. March 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.

All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.

It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.

Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

June 2022

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.

Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

So did Osmund Jayaratne.

If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.

And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.

These were sentiments I could relate to.

A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.

My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.

My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.

It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.

My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.

———————————–

Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.

In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.

They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.

That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.

Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.

Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.

A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.

Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.

In the end, we ended up teaching one another.

It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.

I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.

Gods do exist.

When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.

Come over one day, I will show them to you.

If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.

To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.

Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.

———————————–

Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied:

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .

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Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive

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The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.

It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.

Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.

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