Sri Lankans thrive on their loony togetherness and divine discontent, says Ashok Ferrey. Why be normal when mad is more fun?
No mad person ever believes that they are mad: they are uniquely, wholesomely sane, and it is the world around them that is mad instead. We here in Sri Lanka believe that we are uniquely, wholesomely sane; that the madness only begins once you leave our shores.
Please don’t draw any conclusions from these two statements, not until you have fully heard me out. Sri Lanka may be justly famous for its cinnamon and sapphires, its ebony and its elephants. But madness? I must be joking, right? Yet the more I think about it, the more I realise that madness is both a strength and weakness of our Sri Lankan society, the invisible thread that runs through the fabric of our lives. If the UK can include cocaine and hookers in the calculation of its gross domestic product, why can’t we include madness in the calculation of our gross domestic happiness? You may think I’m particularly off in this case—and I’m sure you won’t be far wrong—but please have a little patience while I lead you down the crazy paved path of my tortuous imaginings.
In Sri Lanka we specialise in madness of every shade and colour; indeed, we are to the madness born. I have a friend whose grandmother was fond of taking her clothes off and running stark naked through the streets—of London. I myself had a great-aunt who every afternoon, when the shadows lengthened on the lawn, would sense the presence of devils; she would berate them loudly as if they were recalcitrant children. Finally (perhaps because she got no satisfactory response from them) she would turn on us actual children and drive us out of the house, blaming us for this postprandial invasion of evil. It was a good thing she lived next door to her (only slightly more) sane sister: otherwise we children would have been put out on the streets. Then, of course, there is my mother. Please don’t get me started on Mother or we’ll be here all night.
I know what you will say: it’s nothing new. Every family, every country has its share of madness. Trust me, you don’t. Not the way we do. We Sri Lankans have taken it to another level: we have honed our madnesses to the very pitch of musical perfection, and we have the certificates to prove it, framed and hanging on our walls. So what is this madness, and how did we come to acquire it?
Firstly, Sri Lanka is an island, surrounded by an ocean of which we are all mightily afraid. We have been told endless stories of its cruelty, its treachery, its corrosive and malign influence on our lives. So we turn our backs on it. We are not the seafaring nation fond of swimming and diving that others take us to be. (Indeed, very few of us can swim. Of the 40,000 who died during the last tsunami, a huge number perished simply because they couldn’t swim.) If at all possible, we build our houses inland; only the white man was, and still is, foolish enough to build beachfront houses. The only Sri Lankans who go out to sea are a relatively small community, the Karawa fishermen, and they only came over from India in the last 1,000 years or so (like yesterday in this ancient land of ours). So, quite simply, this means that we are surrounded on every side by the enemy, with nowhere to go, no escape. And then—oh cruel fate!—the sea ensures that nobody comes in either. Yes, yes, I know the ancient Phoenicians and Arabs traded here, that Roman coins are found on the northwest coast, that there have been Thai settlers and even Burmese. These are only random bits of driftwood washed up by chance, not design. In the main it is just us locals stuck with each other. What better recipe for madness?
Incidentally, the English—that other great race of eccentrics—are an island race too, surrounded by water. But I would actually argue that being hemmed in like this by the sea, with this degree of proximity and connectivity to our fellow man, makes for a supremely satisfying existence. This is a country to grow old in, because you will never want for friends in your old age, you will never suffer from the loneliness of old people in the West. So what if those friends are mad too? Let’s all grow old and mad together; for better or for worse. Until the asylum do us part—that’s our motto.
Secondly, this is unquestionably one of the most lush and fertile countries on earth. It has been called a paradise by Marco Polo and many others—generally by those who didn’t stay long enough to get the whole picture. Surely this lushness, this ease, should make for a life of quiet contentment and placid well-being? Ha, wrong again! One of the few “true” axioms of life is that you only ever really value happiness if you have worked long and hard for it. If you have sweated blood and tears, you will savour that half ounce of joy like honey on your tongue. Here, it is all so mind-numbingly, boringly easy: all you have to do is sit on a beach and wait for the coconuts to fall (just don’t sit directly under the tree, please). So what you get instead of happiness is that classic Sri Lankan malaise—what I call divine discontent; a niggling suspicion, for instance, that Abroad is so much better than here; that Abroad you will find the streets paved with gold. Almost any Sri Lankan you speak to (including myself!) has been, or yearns, to go abroad, to escape this crushing small-town mentality that is such a standard feature of our humdrum lives. Can you blame us? “Abroad” is the one way to escape the madness. Sadly, many of us come back years later, poor and disillusioned, and still no less mad. I had a friend who came back a bare three months after he left. He was outraged that over there they had developed this rather strange concept of work; that those ignorant foreigners actually expected you to work for your money. Imagine the cheek of it.
Of course, being an island, we have our genetic problems too. We particularly specialise in that other type of madness, of the neurotic-hysterical-overbred variety. Trust me. I’m from Kandy, the ancient capital, where we specialise in neurotic, overbred and hysterical. I will never forget that day—I had only recently returned to Sri Lanka when my cousin caught his finger in the mincing machine. My uncle, who should have been comforting his son, ran outside the house instead, shaking his fist at the darkening heavens, berating his mother for being the cause of all his misfortune. The fact that she had been dead 30 years didn’t seem to have occurred to him. It was left to me to take my young cousin to hospital and hold his hand while the finger was being stitched. And my uncle? He declined to accompany us, preferring to remain behind, a gibbering wreck on a Kandyan hillside. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, this oversensitivity is actually quite common out here. During my days as a builder, I remember a Sri Lankan welder, an iron man in every sense of the word, who actually burst into tears when I mildly criticised his handiwork. It took all my self-control not to laugh. Just as well, because I’m sure he would have bludgeoned me to death with an iron rod if I had.
Indeed, this idea that we are not wholly responsible for our actions, that there is an unseen agency up there shaping our destiny, pulling strings, is a very prevalent one on the island. You might argue that this fatalism is merely the result of our philosophical Buddhist religion, but, to my mind, this seems too simplistic an answer. The corollary is there too: the idea that because we are not wholly responsible for the good and bad in our lives, then surely the world must somehow owe us a living. Sri Lanka has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Often, it is the reason for those suicides that warrants closest scrutiny. A farmer comes home after a day in the fields and finds that there is too much salt in his wife’s jackfruit curry. So he takes a length of rope and strings himself up in the barn. As a protest. Against whom, you will ask. I would argue that the protest is not simply against the wife. It is against this whole system that has somehow conspired to put him in a position where he is forced to bear the indignity of an over-salted jackfruit curry. If you think this story is a product of my fervid author’s imagination, I promise you it is real. Every day there are stories like this. This morning’s paper—at the time of writing—carries the story of a man who set his house alight last night, killing himself and his two-year-old daughter after a dispute with his wife. The details are not given, but I can well imagine they are as banal, as farcical as in the story before. You can talk all you want about alcoholism or indebtedness or mental health issues being the causes. But at the end of the day, it is this refusal by us to accept ultimate responsibility for our lives and actions that is the true madness here. And I would go one step further: I would argue that this throwaway attitude towards life is caused precisely by the ease of it. If conditions were more harsh—if, for instance, we had to sort out clothes and shelter and food for the winter—then we simply couldn’t afford the time for this cavalier attitude towards life.
Finally, there is this strange and rather disturbing attitude we have towards work and money. An English CEO with a Sri Lankan workforce of 600 tells me that his biggest problem is the lack of productivity in his labour force. The same problem that prompted the British, 150 years ago, to import workers for their tea estates. We native Sri Lankans quite simply refused to do the work. Why sweat your guts out for mere money? Madness, surely? Isn’t life bad enough without having to work for it? We decided long ago that just enough is more than enough—the middle path in other words. Unlike in India or the US, generations-old business houses are a rare phenomenon here. The tendency is to cash in your chips as soon as you can afford a fairly comfortable living. Too much money is a bad thing: you never know where it might lead you.
As for holidays, Sri Lanka used to have the most holidays of any country in the world. We may not be at the top any more but I can assure you we’re certainly still in the top five. Every full moon day is of religious significance, therefore it’s a holiday. At least this is the official reason given. It is well known that madness gets magnified at the time of the full moon. Is this some subtle conspiracy to keep us chained and in our kennels on this most dangerous of days?
So I leave you to choose who is the more mad: the Sri Lankan who sits on the beach under a coconut tree, waiting for lunch to fall, divinely discontent with his rather limited existence; or the American CEO in his Manhattan penthouse, living his glamorous life to the full, with two ulcers and three ex-wives, who doesn’t dare get off the treadmill for fear his expensive world will come crashing down around him. Perhaps, just perhaps, I would dare suggest that there is after all a secret method to the madness of this paradise island. So why not come and join us lotus eaters? You never know, you might actually enjoy it. After all, the best thing about being mad is that we don’t know any better. Right?
Ashok Ferrey has been many things: failed builder, indifferent mathematician, barman, personal trainer to the rich and infamous. He is the author of four books: Colpetty People, The Good Little Ceylonese Girl, Serendipity, and most recently, The Professional. He lives in Colombo with his wife, two kids and cholesterol.