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The demons of the past:

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“Paangshu”

 

By Uditha Devapriya

How Baba Nona sees her son, for what he is and what he does, drives much of the drama in Paangshu. Visakesa Chandrasekaram, the director, doesn’t let us into what she’s thinking at once. But there are clues lingering beneath the surface. Through them we gather that she vacillates between her intense love for him, and her disapproval of his activism. And yet she doesn’t really condemn much less discourage him; at one point, reflecting on the past, she confesses that she was helpless to stop him.

Because this dominates the narrative so profoundly, Visakesa doesn’t let the other elements of the plot take over. Hence there aren’t any drawn-out sequences of her pursuing the men who took away her son: right after he’s kidnapped by a paramilitary squad one night, we get to the courthouse years later when she identifies a member of that squad, a soldier. There is also no mystery about his fate: at the police station Baba Nona pleads with an officer to let her see her son, and while the officer denies that they have him, the camera moves back to reveal that he is, indeed, there; bloodied, bruised, and blindfolded after an interrogation, his torturer pointing a gun at him, lest he try to speak through the gag in his mouth.

The drama, in other words, grows out of her responses to the world around her, including the soldier, his wife, the tuition master who befriends the son and convinces him to help him spread anti-government propaganda, and wealthier villagers who, while sympathising with Baba Nona, stays quiet about her son’s activities. The story doesn’t just depend on one performance. It literally moves and flows with it.

Paangshu is the best film based on the second JVP uprising I’ve seen so far, and I say this as someone who critically admired Anuruddha Jayasinghe’s Ginnen Upan Seethala when it first came out. Even in that film, the violence, the human dimension, came up in pianissimos: we became so engrossed with the lives of the men who founded the movement which led the uprising that we simply didn’t have time to dwell on how those led by them ended up dying in prison. Not surprisingly, I left Ginnen Upan Seethala a little dissatisfied, even frustrated; there’s so much to tell about this era, so much from both sides, and Jayasinghe’s version of events, great as it was, relegated them all to the background.

Visakesa doesn’t let them remain in the background; he brings them to the fore. Though he doesn’t pretend at a faithful reconstruction of that period, he takes great effort to recreate the sense of despair, of futility, which lingered on in the minds of all those affected by that period. For tragedy, as a friend of mine who lived through the insurrection once told me, was inescapable then. It was a fact: you acknowledged it, or you didn’t, but it affected you all the same. Everyone had to take a side, and those who didn’t had their fates determined by the side they seemed to take right before they were killed, or made to disappear. As with history, so with the movie: the characters in Paangshu have all unequivocally taken sides in the past. But the past is what was, and the present, when they reflect on what they did or did not do, is what they must move on to. In Baba Nona’s quest, Visakesa tells us about the journey of one such person who tries, fails, and succeeds, in moving on.

There aren’t many landscapes in the film. The narrative unfolds, for the most, in courtrooms and houses. Because of this we focus on the people, not on what surrounds them: on what they feel, think, and desperately want done. We also focus on the relations that bind them to each other: not just politically, but also socially.

Thus Baba Nona isn’t just cast in the stereotypical mould of a mother searching for a missing son, detached from the world around her. She’s very much a part of the village, and as much a member of her community. When she consults a Buddhist priest on her son’s horoscope to get to know where he is now, for instance, he brushes her aside: why bother telling the future of Che Guevara type revolutionaries and murderers? Yet moments earlier, a wealthy villager whose daughter had been killed by those revolutionaries had expressed concerns about her granddaughter, now on the cusp of puberty, growing up without a mother. The monk had consoled her: she’ll grow up just fine, he had told her.

A low caste washerwoman, Baba Nona doesn’t try to defy these codes and taboos. And to be fair, the director doesn’t make it out that she’s being persecuted because of her status or of her son taking up arms against the establishment either. Indeed that wealthy matriarch, played with characteristic weariness by Grace Ariyawimal, invites Baba Nona to her house on more than one occasion. While she’s treated less as a guest to be entertained than a servant to be tolerated, they are not unkind to her. After the granddaughter goes through her coming of age, they share a moment in her room together: the little girl tells her of her mother, a contestant at the 1989 parliamentary election from Vijaya Kumaratunga’s party, and Baba Nona tells her of the night she was killed. It’s an otherwise trivial moment, but to me it’s also one of the most illuminating: it reveals their shared sorrow.

Paangshu is about the pain of waiting for justice, and the cool indifference of those who try to ensure that justice comes out. The only other character who becomes more than a prop on Baba Nona’s side, then, is her lawyer, played here by Jagath Manuwarna. Manuwarna’s intentions are inscrutable and hard to grasp: does he want Baba Nona to find her son, or does he want to bask in the glory of his practice? Visakesa doesn’t provide us with the answer, though as he once told an interviewer, his disenchantment with his profession – for he too studied law – was what partly encouraged him to direct the film.

 

Manuwarna, at any rate, wants to win the case, and does everything to pin the soldier to the wall. But there’s a sequence where after much consideration, the mother changes her mind. The lawyer is furious: he did everything he could to get her son’s torturer to prison, and here she is refusing to let him proceed. She stares on, reiterating her decision. He begs her. She refuses. Then he shouts at her to leave. She leaves. Defeated, furious, Manuwarna stares at her walking away. The relationship between these two make up for very little in the plot, but it forms its bedrock. To see these two interact is to see through the surface of the story. At times it is hard to watch, and at others, edifying.

Which is what you could say of the whole film. Malinda Seneviratne once remembered the tears in his eyes as he heard the news, from far, far away, of Rohana Wijeweera’s capture and murder. He was hardly sympathetic to the neo-fascism of the JVP, even less so the neo-fascism of the government. And yet, despite my lack of sympathy for those from both sides who let a whole country bleed, those tears came back to me as I sat through the end credits of Ginnen Upan Seethala, at the names of those killed flashing on the screen. I couldn’t help it then, and as I saw Baba Nona searching for her son, I couldn’t help it now.

Not all viewers would share that sentiment. In fact one of the most frequently invoked criticisms of the film has been that it fails to rise above its material and offer an analysis of why the second insurrection took place. Speaking to Meera Srinivasan of The Hindu, for instance, ex-JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake, admitting that his party has to confront the demons of its past, argued that “while the film tells the story of an individual, it doesn’t capture the ‘true nature’ of the struggle or the socio-political context that led to it.”

This, of course, is to demand of a work of art the criterion one would normally use for a documentary. And yet, misplaced as Ratnayake’s critique may be in the context of the film, it does shed light on the unwillingness of most critics to examine the “true nature” of the insurrection in their reviews; all of them barring none, for instance, seem to have been able to recall that hundreds of thousands of mothers like Baba Nona lost their children to government and government allied anti-JVP Marxist squads without as much as a flicker or a frown from Colombo’s self-proclaimed NGO and journalist gatekeepers, a phenomenon that Susantha Goonetilake has comprehensively covered in his book, Recolonisation. However, that is a different kettle of fish, one which I hope to explore in another essay. The subject of this piece, meanwhile, is the film, not the history underlying it.

As the plot unfurls, Baba Nona becomes more than just the protagonist or the centrepiece. She becomes the plot. That tells a lot, obviously, about the performance. Nita Fernando does her best to capture the weariness and the indomitable spirit her character would have embodied. The result is the finest performance she’s ever given; even finer, I should think, than that of the widow in Prasanna Vithanage’s Pawuru Walalu.

Nita, in her performance, revels as much in what she reveals as in what she does not. We see that nearly everyone – even her kindly neighbours and her nephew (Xavier Kanishka) – treat her as a simpleton, a woman incapable of resolve or decisiveness. The triumph of her playing hence comes out at the end, when, in a flashback, she reveals to the tuition master who got her son involved in anti-government activities how she tied up the story’s last loose end. It is here that we encounter her true face, the resolve and the decisiveness she was capable of, which she had hidden from all those around her.

It’s only fitting that the story ends there, literally after she Baba Nona looks at her son and swims across the screen. If Paangshu was about how at what became of him, after all, it can only finish at the point when she confronts her demons, and lets them rest.

In that sense Nita’s performance reminds me, somewhat, of Joe Abeywickrema’s performance as Vannihamy in Purahanda Kaluwara. Like Vannihamy, Baba Nona refuses to accept the official version of things, and persists with her belief that her son is still alive. Like Vannihamy, she seems credulous, naive, an elderly figure who exists to be humoured. Thus everyone expects her to follow through her case against her son’s murderer, as they expect her to follow through everything else: to its logical end. When she refuses to do so, they fail to understand her motives and castigate her. But like Vannihamy, the consolation of relief comes to her only after she does what she feels is right.

One of the many motifs which crop up in the story is a dream Baba Nona has: her son is caught adrift in some otherworld, and he’s imploring her to release him. At first she thinks she can liberate her son by putting his killer in prison; after she changes her mind, however, she lights up a lamp, prays, and tells her son that he can finally seek the freedom he craves, since she has chosen to forgive his murderers. It’s no doubt the most powerful moment in the story, and arguably the most heartbreaking; it’s a testament to Visakesa’s direction, and Nita’s acting, that it comes through so convincingly. This is a touchingly absorbing film. Yet as scenes like this show, it mustn’t simply be seen; it must also be experienced.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

Breathe clean for better health

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Air impurities enter the respiratory system via inhalation, causing various health effects in all age groups.

Air pollution and climate change were recognized as the top environmental global threats to human health in 2019 by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Air impurities enter the respiratory system via inhalation, causing various health effects in all age groups. The health of susceptible and sensitive individuals (pregnant women, kids, elderly and people with severe disorders) can be impacted even on low air pollution days.

Short-term exposure to air pollutants is closely related to cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, with high rates of hospitalization. Long-term exposure to these also leads to severe conditions like lung cancer, heart disease and central nervous system dysfunctions.

Nasal hygiene matters

Your nose is a passage to various air impurities; hence it is important to take care of your nose. Air impurities e.g. allergens, pollutants, bacteria or viruses etc. may enter the nose and get trapped, leading to complications.

Take care of your overall health:

*Manage diet – Antioxidants, fibre, protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may help you beat the effects of air pollutants.

*Regular Nasal Washing -Saline sprays wash out the impurities and debris trapped in the nasal passage and helps to prevent allergy symptoms and sinus infections. It also supports natural nose functions.

Benefits of nasal saline wash

* It is a good habit to use a saline wash every day to clean the trapped debris and impurities.

* It also helps to moisturize your dry nose, especially in winter.

*  If you are taking any steroids or medications to treat your nasal allergies, it is suggested to rinse your nose with saline before using them. It will clear out debris/mucus and help medications work better.

Take care of your nose and practice nasal hygiene regularly to breathe cleaner.

Minimise the exposure to air pollutants:

* Shift from motorized to active travel e.g. walking and cycling

* Track the air quality index in your area

*Exercise regularly but moderate outdoor activity when air pollution levels are high

* Ventilate your kitchen or cooking room

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Sat Mag

Places and people

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Raddella and Karangoda

By Uditha Devapriya
With input from Roshan Jayarathna

From Panadura to Ratnapura the bus takes three hours to complete the ride. It goes through Horana, Ingiriya, Idangoda, Kiriella, and Kahangama before reaching its destination. The bus stop at Ratnapura is largely empty after six in the evening, and after eight there’s no one. It was raining last December. I was getting late. The clock struck 4.30 when I reached Kiriella. Another hour or so, and there wouldn’t be anyone to take me. I had come to visit Raddella, 25 minutes away. I would be staying for Christmas: I wanted an escape from the fireworks, and I wanted some peace and quiet. Raddella promised both.

Tucked away in a far off corner, Elapatha is one of 17 Divisional Secretariats in the Ratnapura District. The road to it is small, just wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other. Located seven kilometres from Ratnapura Town, it turns and swerves for three more kilometres before you reach a village called Karangoda. From there to Raddella it takes 10 minutes. Filled with forbidding roads and welcoming homes, Elapatha, to which it belongs, is located in Niwithigala, in turn a part of Palle Pattuwa in the Nawadun Korale.

The area is of immense historical interest, though it’s not obvious at first glance. Ratnapura, of course, features in the travels of Marco Polo. Yet this part of the country figured in the country’s history long, long before Polo’s visit, particularly in the reign of Parakramabahu I. In 1156 AD he faced a revolt in Ruhunurata led by the mother of an aspirant to the throne, Manabharana, whom he had defeated and vanquished. The mother, Sugala Devi, provoked an uprising in the South in the hopes of restoring the monarchy to her son.

Parakramabahu was by then engaged in bringing the country under one dominion, a feat unaccomplished since the days of Dutugemunu. Perturbed at the machinations of Sugala Devi, he ordered two of his generals, Damiladhikari Rakkha and Kacukinayaka Rakkha, to traverse to Ruhuna and subjugate her. The mission took years, and it threatened to drain the country’s resources. Yet in the end, the king triumphed.

Codrington speculated that Kacukinayaka Rakkha proceeded to Devanagama, or Dondra, after suffering defeat at Mahavalukagama, or Weligama. From there he and his army made their way through Kammaragama (Kamburugama), Mahapanalagama, Manakapithi, the ford of the Nilwala River, and Kadalipathi. Damiladhikari Rakkha, on the other hand, had taken the route from Ratnapura: Codrington wrote that he may have gone through the mountains between Rakwana and Deniyaya, or the mountains of the Kolonne Korale on the outskirts of the Ratnapura District. Either way, he reached Koggala, and from there to Magama, where he waged a series of battles after which, finally, he won the war.

As they marched through Ratnapura, Damiladhikari’s troops captured the villages of Donivagga (Denawaka) and Navayojana (Nawadun). From there we are told they advanced to Kalagiribanda, or Kalugalbodarata, encompassing the Kukul, Atakalan, Kolonna, and Morawaka Korales; from there, to the Atakalan Korale, Dandava between Kahawatte and Opanayake, Tambagamuwa near Madampe, Bogahawela, Binnegama, and finally Butkanda. Nawadun, roughly the Nawadun Korale of today, hence became the army’s first priority; so impossible to claim did it become that the army despaired of it as “hard to pass through.” During the civil war Parakramabahu had waged with Manabharana, he set about taking the region from Manabharana’s forces, and eventually succeeded in doing so.

The writing of the Tripitakaya precedes Parakramabahu, Manabharana, and Sugala Devi by several centuries. It was in Nawadun that the first puskola poth on which it would be written were made. Two kilometres before Raddella, you stop by the village of Karangoda, which reputedly got its name from the word given to the remnants of ola leaves after they’ve been used to make books. Here, at a temple less well heard of than anything Parakramabahu built and came up with, the first talipot books were put together for the Fourth Buddhist Council. Thus the region from Elapatha to Raddella is linked to two of the most important events in our history: the unification of the Sangha by Vatta Gamini Abhaya, and the unification of the polity by Parakramabahu I a thousand years later.

After Vatta Gamini Abhaya suffered defeat at the hands of a South Indian dynasty, he and a group of his most faithful followers retreated from the capital, Anuradhapura. Among them was a monk, Kushikkala Tissa; he would settle in Karangoda with his disciples and several other refugees from the war torn capital. The village of Weragama is not too far away, and there a sentry by the name of Bodhinayake, who befitting his title had been in charge of the Sri Maha Bodhiya, founded a settlement of his own, giving it its present-day name. Those who hail from the Bodhinayake line, according to local sources, continue to reside in the area. Its history, and the history of the sangha parapura from Kushikkala Tissa, has a great deal to do with that temple in Karangoda: the Potgul Viharaya.

Locals call Potgula the second Sri Pada. There’s no real resemblance: the association with the latter comes off mainly in the fact that locals, and even those passing by the area, tend to pay their respects to it before making their way to the Holy Peak. Not unlike the maha giri dambe at Sri Pada there’s a series of steps – 460 according to a pamphlet issued at the temple, 469 according to Explore Sri Lanka – to ascend before reaching the viharaya. The climb stiffens the limbs, though shorter than Dambulla. Yet despite its reputation, not many seem to have heard of it: an anomaly that proves to be more curious when you consider its history is tied, inextricably, to the history of the Buddhist order in Sri Lanka.

A. H. Mirando has written of the emergence of Ganinnanses or lay monks, comparable to the Achars of Cambodia, in Kandy in the 17th and 18th centuries. With vast sections of land coming into their possession, he observes, they remained priests in name only, contravening the rules of Vinaya and getting involved in the affairs of the laity. Owing to their persecution by the tempestuous Sitawaka Rajasinghe, many Buddhist monks fled to Kotte, contributing to the disintegration of the Sangha in the upcountry further. Dutch and British annexation of the littoral regions distanced the Kandyan priesthood from low country monks, compelling the latter to seek favours from colonial officials.

The descendants of Kushikkala Tissa had made Potgula their sanctuary, and despite the moral decline of the Ganinnanses, the sangha parapura flourished. We next hear of a Chief Incumbent whose contribution to the revival of Buddhism has been as scantily noticed as the historical significance of the Potgul Viharaya itself: Vehalle Sri Dhamadinna. Together with Sitinamaluwe Dhammajoti, the last non-Govigama monk to be initiated into the Siyam Nikaya, Dhamadinna began a campaign to breathe new life to the order and the doctrine in the Maritime Provinces. The two of them had been ordained by Kadurupokune Navaratne Buddharakkitha, who resided in Tissamaharama and became one of two monks initiating a generation of reformists to the priesthood; the other, Suriyagoda Kitsirigoda, Rajaguru and Dhammanusasaka of Narendrasinghe, would ordain Velivita Saranankara.

In 1753 when the upasampadawa was finally established under Kirti Sri Rajasinghe and Buddharakkitha’s students underwent the ceremony to symbolise the beginning of the new chapter, Dhammadinna, who took part in it with 22 Ganinnanses from Sabaragamuwa and 20 Ganinnanses from Matara, would have been 74; if so he was 97 when he passed away in 1776. Together with Malimbada Dhammadara and Kumburupitiye Gunaratne, he formed a trio of low country monks who, after Saranankara’s demise, were placed in charge of the Shrine at the Sri Pada. This proved to be a source of contention once they came to hold two offices – Chief Monk of the low country and the Shrine – following the separation of those offices after Kamburupitiye Gunaratne’s passing away in 1779.

Far, far away, 12 kilometres from Raddella, the Sumana Saman Devalaya continues to occupy a preeminent place in the Sabaragamuwa Province. 13 kilometres away in Kuruwita, the Delgamuwa Viharaya, a quiet, empty, yet still hallowed reflection of its past, links the entire region to the patronage of Buddhism. It was to Delgamuwa that Mayadunne moved the Tooth Relic in the early 16th century. Faced with the threat of destruction at the hands of Portuguese marauders and proselytisers in Kotte, it remained hidden beneath a kurahan gala in Delgamuwa for 43 years. Around it an entire culture and way of life came into being: Sabaragamuwa natum, instituted for the perahera of the Relic, and angampora, instituted for the protection of the Relic from thieves, spies, and proselytisers.

Tourists and devotees flock by the hundreds to the Saman Devalaya, yet few, if any, seem to visit Delgamuwa. The road to it is narrow, empty, and quiet: house after house line up along the way, reminding you more of a suburb than a religious site.

Potgula endures the same fate, though more pilgrims make their way there. There, at the viharaya after climbing the 40 or so steps, you come across a well full of holy water – and plastic cups to drink it with, used and reused by devotees and visitors – as well as a stupa, a watering hole, a swarm of wasps said to be descendants of the sentries who had guarded the temple, and a long, winding, though enclosed tunnel which some believe goes up to the Ehelepola Walawwa in Ratnapura town. Regarding the latter, no one really knows where it ends: a local told me someone tried to test the Ehelepola Walawwa thesis and lost his way, never to be found again. Vatta Gamini Abhaya apparently hid himself here, though locals dispute it: according to them, given his contribution to Buddhism, temples everywhere went on claiming that he and his family sought shelter in them.

Living next to these edifices, genuflecting to them, but also dispelling them of the myths surrounding them, are the people of Ratnapura. At least one local I met took me by surprise with his candour. Unlike the people of the South who tend to accept unconditionally the folklore their societies are rooted in, their counterparts here who I met didn’t seem to buy the Orientalist aura visitors conjure up about their surroundings.

Modernity in the Western, cosmetic sense has obviously arrived, and you see it in patches everywhere. The old cohabits with the new. Thus family bonds are reinforced and adhered to, while the lucrative occupations – not just gem mining but also textiles, groceries, and the law – are breaking them apart. Religiosity exists with rationalism: one generation follows the myths of popular Buddhism, while the other spurns them. And of course, there’s the dialect. Osmund Jayaratne, canvassing for the LSSP here, was once offered a maluwa. Expecting fish, he was astonished at being handed a completely vegetarian lunch: “Maluwa,” he was told, “can include anything with rice in it.” Things have in one sense changed from then – a period of half a century – yet in another, they have not: I too could barely conceal my astonishment when, expecting fish, I was handed a maluwa full of anything but fish.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

IDIOMS: Befriend Languages and Communities

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‘Idioms are the distilled wisdom of a community’

By K. A. I. Kalyanaratne
Consultant – Publications
Postgraduate Institute of Management
University of Sri Jayewardenepura
Vice President, Hela Havula

While being locked down with the rising high tide of the recent COVID-19 gush in the country, I kept on reading as there was nothing much to do to spend the spare time. This was of course in addition to my legitimate work of the office. In my ponderings while reading I came across a phrase which said “a bad apple would spoil all the apples that surround it”. It struck me that a bad apple would be like someone who would act irresponsibly, without caring a tuppence for the incessant publicity given by the authorities as to how we should behave and act hygienically. In fact, these practices have taken near-mandatory status, as they are that important in our struggle to bring new-normalcy to the society. It is a must that one should get acclimatized to ward off the threat of the current pandemic. Is it that necessity knows no law?

I was imagining what would happen if there’s one rotten apple inside a basket of apples. This picture will help you to convince that a bad apple is someone who creates problems or trouble, or exerts a bad influence on the other people in a group. Herein I was pondering as to how COVID-19 has been capable of bringing back to normalcy certain words and phrases in our attempt to create new normalcy!

Becoming Curiouser and Curiouser to Know More About Idioms

It is but natural that when you come across a peculiar word or phrase, obviously, you become curious to find out more about it. So I accessed the sources at hand, and that search gave me the clue, that ‘a bad apple’ is an idiom. This is how I began to dip my pen to write this short essay. As I became curiouser and curiouser to know more about idioms I searched in every possible nook and cranny to first find how the word ‘idiom’ crept into the English vocabulary. The English language is full of idioms. My university teacher Dr. George Thambaiyapillai, climatologist, writing his research findings on rainfall in Ceylon commenced his monograph with the sentence ‘In Ceylon it never rains but it pours”. I was then wondering whether what he meant by this phrase was the ferocity of the downpour we experience, especially our monsoonal and inter-monsoon tropical thunderstorm weather. However, I little knew then that it’s an idiom he has used to connote a deeper meaning. Now I know that in modern English this is an idiom which means that a series of events, and especially misfortunes never come singly. The Proverb Hunter website elucidates this idiom with an apt episode,

‘What a day it’s been’, sighed Mrs Wood. ‘First, I burnt out the kettle, then the electricity fused, then Mrs Mopp didn’t arrive, then the butcher didn’t deliver the meat in time for lunch, then the doctor called and said Tommy’s got measles. It was one thing after another. They say it never rains but it pours.’

Origins of Idioms – Covered with a Haze Dust

No one has so far been certain as to how ‘Idioms’ entered the English language. It is guesstimated that the origin of idioms goes back to the 14th century. Those who have researched say that the idiom ‘nook and cranny’ had come into usage after the two words first appeared from mid-1300s and 1450s respectively. While ‘nook’ had been used to connote ‘a distant corner’. ‘cranny’ had meant ‘a crack or gap’. It thus becomes pretty obvious that the particular idiom came into being after 1450s.

As we know English is a ‘mixed up bowl’ or a ‘mixed bowl’, and the word ‘idiom’ had got mixed up in this bowl from the French word ‘idiome’, which had been again borrowed from late Latin ‘idioma’, which had again been a word loaned from Greek ‘idiome’, which meant ‘peculiarity, peculiar phraseology’. Fowler, the famous lexicographer writes that “A manifestation of the peculiar” is “the closest possible translation of the Greek word” idiome. He further says that idioms are sometimes treated as ungrammatical. It is normally said that ‘borrowed things will never shine’. But whatever said and done, after the word got into the English-bowl, idioms are ‘shining like nothing’.

Idioms Bemuse All Measures of Grammatical Classification

It is found to be a common trait in any structured language that those who are familiar with that language know at a glance to which part of a speech a word belongs. It is also a common trait in many languages that some words can belong to two or more parts of speech. However, there is a category of words which cannot be readily understood or brought under any part of speech. Their meanings can only be construed through the common usage of years or centuries, for that matter. Such a category of words (or phrases) that bemuses all linguists and grammarians are the so called idioms. Idioms, thus have not only bemused them, but have also brought haziness that challenges all the rules that classify and define the parts of speech.

Idioms as Seen by Sinhala Grammarians

Idioms are common to all communities as they are offshoots or spinoffs (upstarts?) of their total communication process. In the Sinhala language idioms are referred to as ‘prastha pirulu’. (in the spoken dialect ‘pirula’ has been changed to ‘piruvata’. In a verse composed by Veedagama Thero ‘pirula’ appears in a poem starting with ‘Pirulen aragath abarana mangulata’ which means ‘jewellery borrowed/loaned for the ceremony’. Hence, the word ‘Pirula’ means borrowed or loaned. The Pujavaliya of the Dambadeniya period had used ‘pirula’ in the transformed form ‘piruvata’. ‘Prastha pirulu’, therefore, connote words/phrases that are borrowed/loaned for the occasion. ‘Sinhala grammarian, linguist, writer and poet, the late Raphael Tennekoon, explaining Sinhala idioms in his ‘Honda Sinhala’ says that idioms of the language could be categorized under upama and bevahara:

(i)

upama’ (Similes) are those words used by learned people of the past, to elucidate or to explain some phenomenon and to make it clear and easy to understand. ‘uru thudehi datha thebuwa se’ is an example cited for a simile by Tennekoon. A pig could dig into the soil with its long snout that is strengthened by a prenasal bone and by a disc of cartilage at the tip. The simile says that ‘placing a tooth in the pig’s snout’ would make its digging much easier.

(ii)

‘bevahara’ (Vyavahara/Usages) are traditional or popular sayings that have been passed down through ages. These are also rendered into English as ‘proverbs’. For a proverb or a traditional usage Tennekoon refers to the famous saying ‘inguru deela miris gaththa vagei’. which means ‘an injudicious exchange; that is about ditching one invader for another. According to Tennekoon a usage or proverb (bevahara) differs from a simile (upama) as the former derives its origin from a previous event or incident. The idiom referred to above is a well-known saying in the Sinhala language, the origin of which is King Rajasinghe II, in 1656, seeking help of the Dutch to get rid of the Portuguese from the coastal areas. It’s an important revelation as a majority of the students and teachers wouldn’t know this difference, and they put everything in one basket.

Logicality and Rationality of Idioms

A deep study of both these categories of idioms would reveal that although the origins of a majority of them are shrouded in mystery, they are, nevertheless, extremely logical and rational. They stand to reason, giving the indication that whosoever had originated these sayings they could, for certain, be men of standing in society. Take for instance the old Arab proverb ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. There’s a similar saying in Sinhala which says ‘Hathurage hathura mithurayi’. Look at this Tamil idiom ‘Aadu nanayuthendru Onai Aluthathu’ which says ‘Wolf crying that sheep are getting wet’. A marvelous gesture from a good-mannered and sympathetic wolf, out of all the other animals! Sheep are said to be eternal prey of wolves. See how rational it is to advise someone to ‘Put on your thinking cap’. If you tell someone to put their thinking cap on, you ask him/her to find an idea or solve a problem by thinking about it. It is certain that Edward de Bono’s concepts of Six Thinking Hats, had its origin in this idiom. Instead of one thinking cap de Bono has twisted it to say Six Thinking Hats. De Bono introduced the concept of using six different coloured hats, so participants can use it for thinking logically as well as creatively to generate and assess innovative and different ideas.

Idioms Build Bridges Across Communities

A comparative study of idioms also unearth several hidden facts, which indicate that amidst the differences that exist among communities there’s a common chord that binds humanity across all the man-made barriers. It is, therefore, heartening to expose such similarities as they, more often, reveal that humans are a single species, although socio-cultural and political factors have kept them apart. The following tabulation clearly shows that irrespective of the differences in the communities they either use almost the same or different expressions to convey similar sentiments/ideas.

Sinhala, Tamil, English

Kimbul kandulu helanava (shedding crocodile tears) Mudalai kanneer (shedding crocodile tears) shed crocodile tears (To display hypocritical sadness) Linde inna mediya vage (like a frog in the well)

Kupa manduka

(in Sanskrit) Kinatruth thvalai (frog in the well) A frog in the well (an individual who cannot or refuses to see the big picture) Betalu hama poravagath wrukaya veni (an insincere pretender) Aadu nanayuthendru onai aluthathu (wolf crying that sheep are getting wet) A wolf in sheep’s clothing

(those playing a role contrary to their real character Poth gulla (book mite/weevil) Puthagam puzhu (Book worm) Book worm (a person reading/ studying more than usual) Have nose in a book (people who always seem to be reading) Gal hithak (stony heart/mind) Kurangu pidy (Monkey grip / stubbornness) Stubborn as a mule (intractable/ refractory) Hulangata desana karannakmen (like preaching to the wind/ a futile act) Eeyotudal (chasing flies away* no occupation) A futile act Pouring water off a duck’s back (a futile act as water doesn’t retain on a duck’s back)

Humour in Idioms

Irrespective of what the language is, a close study of idioms would reveal they have been coined by master-craftsmen, who are both witty and humourous. In this background it becomes pretty obvious that quite a number of idioms are bent on sarcasm as well. As most idioms are products of communities who had enough time to enjoy life idioms reflect that most of their sayings were either witty, humourous, sarcastic or punchy.

If you look closely at the literal meanings of most idioms, you will realize that they are often downright hilarious. Here is a compilation of some such humerous idioms found in Sinhala and English.

Labba degawwayi labu wela gawwayi

– while the pumpkin-creeper is only a gavva away, the pumpkin is two gavvas away. A ‘gavva’ is said to be a league in Sinhala which is taken as a distance of three and a quarter miles.

This idiom is similar to ‘a bridge too far’ in English – a goal or plan which is too far.

Do a Devon Loch –

is an idiom which says a person giving up half way when everybody expects him to succeed. Devon Loch was a racehorse that collapsed just short of the winning line of the 1956 Grand National race in the United Kingdom.

Theetam tinunne pattiku ariyamo oochinde mannam’ is a Malayali idiom which says ‘the dog that eats shit cannot smell a fart’. How similar is the Sinhala idiom which says ‘urulevata uge ganda therenne ne’. It means a civet-cat cannot smell its own smell (odour).

Idioms – A Veritable Palimpsest of a Community

While planning to conclude this short essay with a punchy note, it stuck me that I had come across a very rarely used phrase, ‘a veritable palimpsest’; a phrase which could be used only in very special circumstances related to subjects like geology, topography, architecture or inscriptions where evidence is found of superimpositions on effaced earlier features. They, in fact, still bear the evidence of original surfaces. Based on this premise I strongly think that idioms are ‘veritable palimpsests’, that still show so many facets of a community out of which these had emerged. They either reflect beliefs, virtues, and even habits, behaviours and human relationships built on moral, principles and respect of a community. Moral is related to the standards of what is right or just in behaviour. Or as rightly exposed by Raphael Tennekoon, erudite scholar, many idiom are off-shoots of historical incidents/events. So a ‘veritable palimpsest’ itself is an idiom that could be used on very special occasions as spelt out above.

‘Puhul hora Karin denai’, –

The pumpkin-thief is seen by his shoulder’

‘Raigamayata Gampolaya ekvuna veniyi’,

– Similar to meeting of Raigamaya with Gampolaya.

‘Kana kiri pata keeva se’

– like the blind person told the colour of milk’

‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’

which means getting information from the most reliable source, is said to come from the 1900s, when buyers could determine a horse’s age by examining its teeth.

Why We Need to Study Idioms in a Language

Every developed language is rich in idioms. Although it is possible to converse correctly in non-idiomatic language, anyone with only a superficial knowledge of that particular language will find himself/herself at a serious disadvantage in his/her reading, and even more so, when he/she takes part in discussions and other means of communication.

Although cultural variables would make differences in the settings or use of words, all idioms help stress particular points. Therefore, cultivating familiarity with and using them often, even a foreigner would sound more like a native, and can also boost his comprehension skills. By now you would have been sufficiently convinced that idioms are a fun subject that will, for certain, help making one’s communication descriptive, colourful, creative, lively, interesting, exciting and at times concise/precise as well. Idioms have, thus, enriched every language. The more one uses idioms in his/her communication, the more he/she becomes closer to a native speaker.

Idioms are Distilled Wisdom of a Community

An idiom is an everyday figure of speech or metaphorical expression whose meaning cannot be taken literary. They often go against the logical “rules of language and grammar” despite being commonly used by the language’s native speakers.

Sir Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1940-1945) who had not stepped into a university in pursuit of higher education, once said that eighty percent of his education had been through the study of idioms. In fact, he referred to idioms as “Distilled Wisdom” of a community.

 

The writer can be reached on kaly@pim.sjp.ac.lk

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