Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Alien Worlds and Nebulous Publics


Onward and outward. When I was eight years old, I had a set of gadgets inspired by the Dan Dare strip in the Eagle comic. I remember being disappointed that, despite what the buttons on the dials said, I could not communicate with Mars or have a chat with the Mekon. When I graduated to 45 rpm singles, I used to let the stylus run on at the end of the song and imagine I could hear the Coasters or the Drifters chatting in the studio.

My first “computer’ was an Amstrad PCW word processor purchased in 1993. This gadget made Alan Sugar a power in the land. He founded his company in 1968 and went on to be chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. Trump equivalent on the UK version of The Apprentice, a baron and the 95th richest person in the UK. Amstrads were very popular in the UK because they were very cheap. They were very clunky and not compatible with any other gadget. I had an atavistic longing for a computer to perform some kind of magic, linking me to alien worlds. The Amstrad was never going to do that for me, and I swapped it for a proper PC. This had very little memory power, but I could extend outwards a little bit through obsessive purchasing of CD Roms. Eventually, this proved frustrating and it was not until 1999 that I managed to connect with the internet. I could see great potential in this but was frustrated by the crippling slowness and expense of dial-up connections. Only connect.

Everything is so much more efficient in 2021 but am I happy? Is the outwardness I craved such a good thing?  Jacob Silverman is not happy. Silverman writes: “Our experiences become not about our own fulfillment, the fulfillment of those we’re with, or even about sharing; rather, they become about ego, demonstrating status, seeming cool or smart or well-informed. Perhaps there’s an inevitable hollowing out of interiority, of the quietness of your thoughts, as reading becomes directed outward, from a period of private contemplation to a strategic act meant to satisfy some nebulous public.”

Jacob Silverman

Silverman writes: “The smartphone is the Swiss Army knife of social-media culture. It’s also the ultimate site of social retreat.” Silverman is a frequent contributor to Slate, the Atlantic and other publications and in his first book, Terms of Service, he looks in depth at digital culture. We have all seen what he describes, dinner parties where no one is talking to or even looking at their companions because they are locked in a pod looking at their screens. No-one can live in the now. The digital behemoths are profiting from this, but they could not do so without our compliance. “They condition us to always expect something else, some outside message that is more important than whatever we might be doing then. When the phone lights up, it must be dealt with immediately, if only to banish the alert from the screen.”

Trade in the currency of attention

Linda Stone writes: Continuous partial attention “is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.”

Yes, We Can, and We Will

Silverman writes: “…our whole world, and all of our sensations and thoughts within it, will be transcribed. Not because it is right or good, but because we can, and because this information, they promise, will be useful. In this temple, anything is worth sacrificing on the altars of efficiency and productivity.” It is difficult to understand how this will be useful to me as an individual. It has proved to have little benefit to homeland security. It makes a lot of money for Facebook and Google through data mining, but it is of little benefit to me.

Some people seem to be suffering from some kind of mental illness on social media. They devote a lot of time and energy, almost a career’s worth, to “crafting permanent online identities that allow us to see and be seen.” This has a tendency to undermine the real identity of minnows such as myself who are tempted to strut about upon an ephemeral stage posing in a fake character. “I share, therefore I am—more interesting, more sociable, more desirable, more myself” than myself.

Nathan Jurgenson describes social-media users as developing “a ‘Facebook Eye’: our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and ‘likes.’” Christopher Lasch noted as long ago as 1991 that ordinary people now face “an escalating cycle of self-consciousness—a sense of the self as a performer under the constant scrutiny of friends and strangers.”

“Memoir has become the genre of first resort for many writers” says Silverman. That’s OK with me. I have always wanted to be a writer and I used to assume that it would be short stories and novels, or, at one time, TV plays when there were such things. These days, I find it much more satisfying writing non-fiction and this will often be about myself. No-one else might be interested but they would not be interested in a novel in which I laboured to construct a plot.

Lunch Mob

I once had a FB friend whom I will call Bloggs (to protect the guilty). Not a single Bloggs meal went unpublicized. I found this amusing, but I thought it a little creepier when he started saying some nasty things about his teenage son on FB. I gently chided him about this and mildly suggested that he might be giving disproportionate importance to Facebook in his life. He unfriended me and blocked me and set his many followers and admirers to hound me.

Silverman notes the “general online tendency toward disinhibition”. Social media allow the ability to speak freely without fear of consequence. “The social web is suffused with an incessant enthusiasm, constant liking, and a culture of mutual admiration in part because those are the possibilities offered to us.” For me, X’s lunch mob became a lynch mob. “These networks, particularly Facebook, have a banality problem. The cultural premium now placed on recording and broadcasting one’s life and accomplishments means that Facebook timelines are suffused with what seem to be insignificant, trite postings about meals, workouts, non-accomplishments, the weather, recent purchases, funny ads, the milestones of people three degrees removed from you.” Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil when describing the Eichmann trial. “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” Now we have the evil of banality.

Privacy is Yesterday’s Capitalism

By the 1960s, the rise of a propertied middle class meant that privacy suited capitalism. Money could be made out of building walls to give people private space. Tim Wu: “…what we’re learning is that the symbiosis between capitalism and privacy was maybe just a phase, a four-hundred-year fad. For capitalism is an adaptive creature, a perfect chameleon; it has no disabling convictions but seeks only profit. If privacy pays, great, but if totalizing control pays more, then so be it.”

In her monumental book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that something transformational happened in the early twenty-first century in the relationship between capitalism, privacy, and human autonomy. A new form of power has been forged which does not depend on coercion or terror. We have chosen to give up our freedom by buying voluntarily into “ownership of the means of behavioral modification.”

What to Do?

I suspect that for all his wise words, Jacob Silverman might be more enslaved to social media than I am. I had to be forced screaming to use a smart phone and an iPad. I have no intention of ever using Twitter or WhatsApp. I don’t have a clue how Instagram is supposed to work. I had a little bit of a Facebook addiction at one time but controlled that by drastically culling my friends list and only connecting at set times. I try to avoid fights and curb my sarcasm and pedantry. This is what Silverman advises: “Leave your phone at home. Go for a walk with your friend or your lover. Go into the woods . . . Swim in a pond where nobody can see you. Try to actually enjoy privacy sometimes. Get away from the Internet and have a life that’s independent of that kind of shit.”

What Have We Done?

This article was published in Ceylon Today on December 3 2020.

Where are we? Why are we?  What are we doing here and why are we doing it? What on earth have we done!

Fighting with Phantoms

A reader wrote to the Guardian’s agony aunt Mariella Frostrup: “Everyone seems to be frazzled and ready to fight. I feel it myself. I have three teenage daughters and all they seem to do is sit on their phones and flounce around the house dropping dirty underwear as they go. If I ask them to get off their phones, they treat me like I’m violating their human rights. 

They also complain about being exhausted all the time when all they have to do is attend school and maintain their social lives.” Mariella responded: “The internet helps by offering a multitude of ways to be antagonistic and aggressive without having to leave the kitchen table… All of us seething, surfing and fabricating into the small hours, conjuring fantasy worlds as we edit our existence. I’m not taking any moral high ground. I can only boast occasional glimmers of self-awareness, as I scroll enviously though strangers’ holiday snaps while my husband gently snores”.

I have found many people to fight with on social media. There is a certain je ne sais quoi when the adrenaline starts pumping but it is not a good way to live, to be fighting with strangers with funny names on the ether. Take a look at the comments threads on Colombo Telegraph and get a vision of what hell might be like. Phantasms with no real names or genders or working parts or life histories biting one’s ankles into eternity.

Frazzled by Fantasy

It is even worse when real-life friends get caught up in the trollism and become fictional characters of the blogosphere.

One can even have a look at what the real-life neighbours are posting on Facebook and see the delusions they are embracing. Some people have long lists of “friends” but when one looks closely at them one wonders how these elderly men got to know these gorgeous young women in Latin America or Thailand.  I once played an interesting game -reporting fake Facebook accounts. You will all have seen them. Attractive ‘young women’ in provocative poses which fall short of nudity (FB does not like nudity). They have bizarre names (Tina Tix Tracey, Michala Motyl, Jessy Trejo) and improbable CVs. Many of them have persuaded sad old gits to ‘friend’ them and the sad old gits tell the ‘girls’ how beautiful they are. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Social media has taken the concept of an imaginary girl friend to another level.

In reality, the accounts are probably set up by pockmarked hairy ugly men with halitosis and armpit odour who are looking for ways to mine data from said old gits so they can rob them. I am a sad old git, but I don’t fall for this when they contact me. I report them.  Sometimes, FB responds to my reports by saying that I have identified a fake account and they have removed it. 

FB suggestions 

FB kept suggesting that I make a friend of ‘Owen Lynda Skye’.  I am afraid that I cannot reveal in a family newspaper what carnal delights ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ offered me. It was rather gynaecological. ‘Her’ English was not perfect, but it was easy enough to get the crude gist. I reported this several times and was told the account had been removed but it kept cropping up. It was obviously a fake account designed to get foolish old men like mygoodself excited enough to give away their personal details so that a scammer can take advantage. 


When I reported ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ again, I got a lengthy standard response which did not address the issues but came to this conclusion: “We’ve looked over the profile you reported, and it doesn’t go against any of our specific Community Standards”. I looked at the community standards and read this: “We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing”.

They do not explain why they object to innocent pictures of naked women but are OK with obvious pornography.

No Going Back

Social media can be very helpful. In times of lockdown people are able to keep in touch with friends and family. I left the country of my birth in 1998, but I am able to keep in touch with people I have known from the age of five. 

The downside is that the perceptions, the very synapses of a generation have been disrupted. Can we ever go back? Perhaps Joe Biden can reverse the deleterious effects of the orangeutan who has been laying waste to the orangery of the White House for four years. Can anything reverse the inexorable rise of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon?

Have the brains of humans been irreparably altered for the worst by these new giants? 

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman was an American author and media theorist who eschewed technology, including personal computers. Postman is best known for twenty books about technology and education, including Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argued that by expressing ideas through visual imagery, television reduces politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. He worried that culture would decline if the people became an audience and their public business a “vaudeville act.” I have not watched TV on a regular basis since 1997.

I watch it occasionally on visits to the UK and am appalled by its banality and condescension.   Postman argued that television was destroying the “serious and rational public conversation” that was sustained for centuries by the printing press. Postman wrote: “When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.” Since Postman — who died in 2003 — wrote those words, technology has rendered the world altogether different. How quickly it became unimaginable to think of being without a smartphone. Postman wrote technology’s “capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does to us and for us”. 

When I sit in a restaurant and see a total absence of eye-contact, when I sit in a family home and see every single person tapping away on a smartphone I despair. Will we ever be able to return from this loss of affect?

Goose Is Cooked

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 1 2021

There has been much bluster from Boris Johnson about an ‘oven-ready deal’ for the UK to leave the EU. There was much anxiety that there would be no deal at all or that it would be a Christmas turkey. In the end, a deal was struck on Christmas Eve and there was much relief and a fatigued kind of feeling that it might have been worse. Repent at leisure. It could be that the UK’s goose is well and truly cooked not just oven-ready.

Carry on trading

A positive aspect of the deal is that there will be no tariffs on goods exported and imported between the UK and the EU. This should allow the UK and the EU to carry on trading much as they do now. This should limit price increases and prevent stocks of goods in shops from running out. Tariff-free and quota-free access to one of the world’s biggest markets goes beyond the EU’s deals with Canada or Japan. Chris Johns in the Irish Times explains what a Canada-style deal means: “The relationship between the US and Canada offers a template for what will happen next: A dominant power that periodically delivers an economic kicking to its smaller neighbour. “

There will be mutual recognition of trusted trader programmes. This means UK producers will have to comply with both UK and EU standards. However, there will be more red tape, which is bound to mean delays and extra costs. According to the Cold Chain Federation, The UK’s food chain could well be “slower, more complex and more expensive for months if not years”. 

It will make it much harder for Britain to sell services to EU countries, where they once had an advantage. The financial industry, lawyers, architects, consultants and others – was largely left out of the 1,246-page deal, despite the sector accounting for 80 per cent of British economic activity. Britain sells $40 billion of financial services to the European Union each year, profiting from an integrated market that makes it easier in some cases to sell services from one member country to another than it is to sell services from one American State to another. That will end.

Restricted freedom of movement

UK nationals no longer have the freedom to work, study, start a business or live in the EU. Visas will be required for stays over 90 days. Coordination of some social security benefits such as old-age pensions and healthcare will make it easier to work abroad and not lose any pre-existing buildup of contributions to national insurance. UK citizens wishing to travel to Europe should have at least six months left on their passport before they travel. From 2022, they will have to pay for a visa-waiver scheme to visit many EU countries. The European Commission says the choice to end free movement “inevitably means that business travel between the EU and the UK will no longer be as easy as it currently is”. People are advised to check with the member state they are travelling to.

There will be no more automatic recognition for doctors, nurses, architects, dentists, pharmacists, vets, engineers. 

They will now have to seek recognition in each member state in which they wish to practise. A framework is being drawn up to facilitate some form of mutual recognition in the future. It may well be that each UK qualification body will have to negotiate a bilateral agreement with its counterpart in each respective EU member state.

Britain’s thriving TV and video-on-demand service providers will no longer be able to offer pan-European services to European viewers unless they relocate part of their business to an EU member state.

Exile from useful institutions

Britain will no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank, which lent billions to depressed regions of the UK. Inward investment, which boomed under EU membership, and which has already fallen by four fifths since the referendum, will remain depressed. The UK will also be out of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, crucial to the fight against climate change and essential to the economics of wind farms and new nuclear power stations. The UK loses all automatic access to EU databases.

The UK will no longer be part of the European Arrest Warrant system. Nor will the UK be a full member of Europol or Eurojust. There will be “continued cooperation between the UK, Europol and Eurojust” with “strong cooperation between national Police and judicial authorities”.

Cost of chaos

I used to write regular monthly columns on Europe for two Sri Lankan business magazines. Reading those articles now, I can see that most of them were critical of aspects of the EU. A rational case could have been made for the UK leaving the EU, although it would have made more sense to stay in and reform it, while having a say on the rules.

Chris Johns again: “The British voted for Brexit but whatever they thought they were asking for, this was not it… Before the referendum, few people in the UK had strong views about Europe. Most now just want Brexit to disappear.” Get Brexit done. It will never be done. I doubt if anyone voted in the 2016 referendum for the years of expensive chaos that ensued from the decision to leave or for the deal that will surely bring more years of expensive chaos. According to the think tank the Institute for Government (IfG) the UK Government committed to spend £6.3 billion on Brexit preparations up to April 2020. That is the equivalent of buying two brand new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, or the money being spent on extending the Thameslink railway in the south-east of England.

Bloomberg Economics analysed how much the decision to leave the EU cost the economy. Bloomberg economist Dan Hanson said, “As the UK comes to terms with its new trading relationship with the EU and grapples with the productivity challenge that has hindered growth since the financial crisis, the annual cost of Brexit is likely to keep increasing,” Economists believe that, as a result of this, the British economy is still three per cent smaller than it would have been if the UK had voted to remain in the EU in 2016 – even with the slowdown of the global rate of growth taken into account. 

Meanwhile, business investments have been held back by Brexit uncertainty, they said, with the annual rate of economic growth halving to one per cent. 

An analysis by UK in a Changing Europe, a research organisation funded by the UK Government, estimated that Brexit’s ultimate economic cost to the UK would be larger than that of COVID-19. The UK economy contracted 20 per cent between April and June because of COVID-19. Some forecasters expect the UK economy to recover rapidly now that a vaccine is available, but they predict that less trade and immigration because of Brexit will have deep and prolonged effects. The UK Government’s own estimate suggests a trade deal like the one agreed to this week would leave the country’s output five per cent lower in 15 years than if Brexit hadn’t happened.

The money spent on Brexit would have helped the NHS to cope better with the pandemic. The UK goes into 2021 suffering from the incompetence of its government’s handling of COVID-19. The economy is shattered because of the virus and now there is Brexit to cope with as well. Martin Kettle commented in the Guardian about the circus leading up to the deal: “For probably the first time in human history, these have been trade negotiations that aim to take the trading partners further apart, not closer together.”

Who voted for this?

The breakup of the United Kingdom gets closer. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford described the deal as a “disaster for Scotland”. He said the agreement was an “unforgiveable act of economic vandalism and gross stupidity”.

Did anyone vote to make their lives worse? As Tom Kibasi, founder of The Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote: “People voted not to terminate our economic cooperation but to put it on a new and different political basis, with sovereignty more explicitly and firmly rooted in Westminster rather than pooled in Brussels. Instead, Britain will have the same trading arrangements as far and distant countries.”

Many people have expressed relief that the annus horribilis of 2020 is over. It is doubtful if 2021 will be an annus mirabilis. 

Ireland’s Shame

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 29 2021

There was a little flurry of ephemeral controversy when it was reported that the newly ensconced President Biden had removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Biden knows his Irish history (his roots are in County Mayo and County Louth) and is unlikely to share an Englishman’s regard for Churchill. My father was born in County Cork but served in the British army on D-Day. The last thing he smelt was rotting corpses on the Normandy beaches. Despite taking the King’s shilling, he was a patriotic Irishman and often reminded me that it was Churchill as home secretary who sent the Black and Tans into Ireland. I recently re-watched Ken Loach’s powerful film about the Irish fight for independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. We see the Tans pulling out fingernails with pliers, beating a 17-year-old boy to death in front of his mother for saying his name in Irish, homes being burnt to the ground. This is what Churchill is remembered for in Ireland.

No Freedom in the Free State

Unfortunately, brutality continued after the British left. Many of the rebels dreamed of a new society guaranteeing equality and justice. It did not happen. Idealism became intransigence, brother turned against brother in a futile and bloody civil war. The fledgling state created a dark place in the process of trying to prove its respectability. The Catholic church consolidated its power; the Irish Free State lost freedom and became a totalitarian and repressive society. Writer Sean O’Faolain described Ireland in the 1930s as “a dreary Eden”. It was far from paradise for most people and it was particularly harsh for unmarried mothers.

Two men who made sure that Ireland was not free. John Charles McQuaid and Eamon de Valera. De Valera was prime minister and later president of Ireland. McQuaid was the Catholic Primate of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin between December 1940 and January 1972. He was known for the unusual amount of influence he had over successive governments. In 1937 a new Irish Constitution was adopted which acknowledged the “special position” of the Catholic Church “as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.” From early 1937 de Valera was bombarded with letters daily – sometimes twice a day – from McQuaid.

The first report of the registrar general of the Irish Free State highlighted the appalling excess mortality of children born to unmarried mothers. A Department of Justice memorandum in 1930 said that “many unfortunate mothers are denied the shelter of their own families” and many women were subjected to  abuse, poverty, incest and alcoholism.

Bon Secours

I wrote in these pages back in June 2014 about a mass grave being found in Tuam in County Galway.

The Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours is a Roman Catholic religious congregation for nursing whose stated object is to care for patients from all socio-economic groups. The congregation’s motto is “Good Help to Those in Need.” The congregation’s foundress, Josephine Potel, was born in 1799 in the small rural village of Becordel, France. In 1861, Ireland – which was still suffering the consequences of the Potato Famine – became the Sisters’ first foreign foundation. The Bon Secours Sisters ran the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. The home hit the international headlines following allegations that the bodies of up to 800 children were dumped in a septic tank.


The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation submitted its final report to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration & Youth on 30 October 2020. The report was published on 12 January 2021. The Commission investigated 18 institutions and the report is 3,000 pages long. Some 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children passed through the homes during the period examined by the commission, 1920-98. 25,000 more women and a larger number of children were likely to have been in homes that were not examined by the commission.

In all, 15 per cent of the approximately 57,000 children who were in the 18 institutions investigated by the Commission died during their time there. Nine thousand children died in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes between 1922 and 1998. 75.19 per cent of all babies admitted to or born in the home at Bessborough in Cork in 1943 died in infancy. The highest mortality rate of all of the homes was in the Sean Ross Home (1931 – 1969) at Roscrea, Co Tipperary where 1,090 infants out of 6,079 died – 79 per cent of them between 1932 and 1947.  “Sean Ross had a much higher incidence of mortality from major infectious diseases, such as diphtheria and typhoid, than any other mother and baby home.” The report attributed this to “the transfer of mothers to the local fever hospital, where they worked as unpaid nurses, and their return to Sean Ross, where they appear to have transmitted infection to their child.” The Commission said “no publicity was given to the fact that in some years during the 1930s and 1940s over 40 per cent of ‘illegitimate’ children were dying before their first birthday” in the homes.  

 “The high level of infant mortality in the Tuam Children’s Home did not feature at meetings of Galway County Council, though Tuam was under the control of the local authority and it held its meetings in the Children’s Home.” There were “many references” to the Tuam Home in meetings of the council but “none refer to the health or mortality of the children”. Between 1921 and 1961 (when it closed), 978 children died in the Tuam Home, 80 per cent under one year, 67 per cent between one and six months. Three-quarters died in the 1930s and 1940s, with 1943 to 1947 the worst years.

The report finds no single reason for the excessive infant mortality. Most of the mothers “were poor” and “their diet during pregnancy would have lacked essential nutrients, and this may have been exacerbated by efforts to conceal the pregnancy.” It was also the case the “many women were admitted in the final weeks of pregnancy, some arrived following the birth of their child.” In the homes “overcrowding probably contributed to excess infant mortality.” The “large size of most of the homes, the large infant nurseries, with cots crammed together – sometimes only one foot apart – served to spread infection. There was an absence of infection control; a failure to isolate mothers and children who were being admitted, until they were proven not to carry an infectious disease.”

The Taoiseach, in making his apology suggested that the scandal was a product of a country dead and gone, an oppressive theocracy nothing like today’s secular and liberal nation. The report is not just critical of the institutions themselves but of Irish society. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter asks: “Who engineered and promoted the culture that made ‘immediate families’ act so uncharitably? Surely there are clues in the vitriol that emanated from the altar. The violence of the language used about these women was remarkable in its unvarnished hatred. “

I can recall the coercive power of the church in the 1950s. As Fintan O’Toole puts it: “This culture of fear fused the physical and the spiritual, the social and the religious, into a single, overwhelming system of domination. Authority was so absolute because it operated seamlessly in the soul and in the world.” There was no escape.

Archbishop McQuaid was typical of the brutal bully boys of the church.  A report found that his handling of sex abuse complaints in his diocese was “aimed at the avoidance of scandal and showed no concern for the welfare of children”. In his biography of the archbishop, John Cooney relates a number of stories that suggest that Dr. McQuaid had an unhealthy interest in children. When asked in 1965 if the Irish Catholic Church was obsessed with sex, he responded: “No. There is probably a saner attitude to sex in this country than almost anywhere else. Family life is stable, women are respected, and vocations are esteemed.”

Of Saris and Grapefruit by Rukmini Attygalle


A review

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on January 21 2021

Rukmini Attygalle writes in her acknowledgements in her debut collection of short stories entitled Of Saris and Grapefruit, “To all those who, in one way or another helped me to: See clearly; Feel deeply; Laugh heartily.”

The first story in the collection is “The Setting Sun”. The story hints at the dark side of tourism. Wimal impressed his contemporaries with his relative wealth. He was fifteen but “seemed older and was the richest young man in our village. Although, most of the time he walked around barefoot, like the rest of us, he did actually possess a pair of shoes.” One can guess how Wimal makes his money and the narrator is soon following the same path. “’You will work for this gentleman today. Do as you are told, and he will give you a good tip.’ Mr. Jinasena nodded at the man, smiled at me, and walked away. “

In “Dawn of Birth and Death”, we see life in the midst of death. From the terrors of tourism, we turn to the terror of the Tigers. “Kusuma, the eldest daughter now heavy with child, sat on a low stool watching her father busying himself with wood, hammer and nails, making a cradle for his soon to be born grandchild. …No one in the family nor anyone in the village, for that matter, possessed a cradle. Somapala had wanted to make something special for the expected child. Although a farmer, he had inherited his father’s love of carpentry. “

The family’s peace is soon disturbed and their modest expectations thwarted. Nearby Kumbukpitiya village had been attacked by the LTTE. Kusuma “instinctively picked up the child, cut the umbilical cord and separated it from the afterbirth. She ripped her underskirt, wrapped the child in it to keep it warm and nestled it against her.” Kusuma knew that Somapala was never going to come back. “As she cradled the child in her arms, Kusuma’s eyes rested on the legacy left to her son by her father – the cradle which was ‘almost finished’ and needed ‘only a bit of sand papering.’ “

We are in a lighter mood with “Money Lender” and “Let-Down”; both stories deal with the narrator’s encounters with a shrewd beggar called Andoris, who plied his trade mainly in and around Colpetty market. He was double-jointed and had the ability to contort his limbs to such an extent that, when it suited him, he could appear horribly deformed. “He never ever verbally claimed that he was in any way disabled. If others thought so – well that was their prerogative! Their undoing too!”

In the afternoons, he went into the market-square to work as a porter and hailer of taxis. “He seemed to change miraculously from the pathetic deformed figure prone to breathing difficulties to a man-of-action. The agility with which he pranced about on his thin stick-like legs never failed to amaze me. Veins bulged out of his upper arms as he lifted heavy shopping bags, and he seemed very much happier doing this than his morning work.”

The narrator’s eccentric relationship with Andoris begins when she is on her way by taxi to a social function and is horrified to find she has not brought any money. She borrows money from the beggar, which, of course, she repays. “What I had given him was much more, very much more than what money could buy. To him, the entire transaction between us was like an exchange of gifts between two friends. Momentarily, he had been the benefactor and I the beggar. And I? I was so glad. Grateful too.”

Her friends and family disapprove of her friendship with a beggar and she allows them to dissuade her from accepting an invitation to the wedding of Andoris’s daughter.  “He probably accepted that socially I was considered his superior, but he knew, that we both knew, that on a basic human level we were equal.”

Leela, the central character in the title story, “Of Saris and Grapefruit” is happily settled in London working in a government office. She gets on with her colleagues but does not want to abandon her Sri Lankan identity and is aware that some people might struggle to accept immigrants. “Leela was proud of her national heritage and no amount of pressure subtle or otherwise would change her decision to continue wearing sari. She stood out like a parrot among a flock of grey pigeons.”

There was an initial British froideur but soon the people she worked with became friends as well as colleagues. Mary, however, still exhibited some reserve and continued to hold back. After an embarrassing incident when Leela’s sari fell off in the street at Elephant and Castle, Mary revealed more about her life and character and displayed her true worth as a friend. “She slowly left the room and returned with the British panacea for all stressful situations, a ‘nice-cup-of-tea’, and shyly placed it on Leela’s desk. Leela noticed a motherly gentleness in Mary’s face, that she had not seen before.”

My favourite story in the collection is “Shared Bench”. This is the longest story in the book and it has subtleties and nuances and twists of plot worthy of a novella. Swarnamali was sixteen when her mother died. She stepped into her mother’s role and took on the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Despite her eligibility to go to university, she joined the local Teacher Training College in Kegalle, so she could stay at home and help her father. Later Swarna went to live in London but made frequent holiday visits. This was the first time she had come to Sri Lanka since her husband Mahinda passed away.

Swarna had taught at the village primary school before she married and left Kegalle and memories come back as she now visits the school. She visits the Teacher Training College and thinks about Mr Raymond, her English lecturer, who showed great concern when she tripped and injured her knee. “He was tall, fair and good looking and also approachable with an easy manner and a good sense of humour.”

She was happy to see today that her favourite bench was still there under the kottang tree. “Again, a sharp memory came vividly to mind. She saw herself, of course slim and girlish and different from how she looked now, seated on the bench sketching when Mr. Raymond happened to pass by. He stops and says ‘Hello’. Swarna’s heart misses several beats; she drops her pencil and turns red with embarrassment, or was it pleasure, she now asks herself? He bends down, picks the pencil and hands it to her. Did her fingers touch his?”

Today, the seventy-year-old Swarna saw a figure of an old man shuffling along the sandy path waving a white stick in front of him. He was obviously blind.” As the blind man approached, she noticed his hunch; his balding head sparsely covered with downy white hair, not scraggy but neatly trimmed. His face was almost completely covered with a thick grey beard. His eyes and upper face plus the bridge of his nose were encased in a pair of outsize extra dark sunglasses that ran across from ear to ear.” The blind man, whom Swarna guesses is about ninety, introduces himself as Andaré (after the blind jester) and the two are soon enjoying a good conversation about culture and philosophy. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the twists and turns of the story by saying any more. Please read it.

This collection of eleven short stories displays many clear insights, much deep feeling and also an engaging sense of humour. Some of the stories are bleak, dealing with the horrors of terrorism and tourism. Some stories deal compassionately with marriage, aging, fading memory and mortality. There is also a lighter note of social comedy and acute observation of human interactions. The stories lead the reader on gently with simple, lucid prose that creates a subtle air of mystery.

Of Saris and Grapefruit is published by Bay Owl Press and is available in all good bookshops at Rs 850.

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 3

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on November 26 2020

Tamil Influencers

Like any sensible person, I was overjoyed that the Biden/Harris ticket won the 2020 election convincingly enough for anyone apart from Republicans. I am conscious however that the consequences might not be entirely good for Sri Lanka. Trump, in one of his many hissy fits, pulled the US out of the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council). It is likely that Biden, who has taken a long-term interest in human rights, will bring the US back into the Council. The so-called “national unity government” that was elected  in Sri Lanka in 2015, sold itself out to the UNHRC and shot itself in the foot with Resolution 30/1, which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan  government and unanimously adopted by HRC members in October 2015.

Biden’s vice-president and possible successor as president is of Tamil origin. David Jeyaraj has exploded the rumour going around that Kamala Harris’s mother was from a Sri Lankan family. However, Harris’s chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, is of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and the Biden White House may be willing to listen to the grievances of the Tamil diaspora.

American Exceptionalism

There is an American website called Persuasion which aims to give a rational explanation of what is happening in world politics. The site carried a piece on how populist leaders were taking advantage of the Covid 19 pandemic. This is what they said about Sri Lanka:The more politically savvy leaders have used the pandemic to further entrench themselves in power. For example, the Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, called early parliamentary elections, then postponed them due to the health crisis, enabling him to rule without a legislature for five months. When the voting was eventually held, the government’s tight control over campaign activity and the media helped ensure victory for the political party of the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, allowing the two to establish a firm grip on both the executive and legislative branches.” This is not the situation as I see it from the viewpoint of someone actually living in Sri Lanka.

In 2008, John McCain made a dignified concession speech which was for me somewhat marred by the fact that he was promoting the virtues of Sarah Palin and driveled on about American democracy being the envy of the world. Obama has been spouting similar nonsense. Biden has been coming out with the same old guff. Joe Biden said: “Democracy is sometimes messy; it sometimes requires a little patience as well but that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” Let us look more closely at what Americans delude themselves is enviable.

A Beacon in a Dark World?

The United States is a nation founded on land-grabbing, ethnic cleansing, genocide and slavery. George Washington was a slaughterer of indigenous people as well as a slaveowner.

Those Mount Rushmore icons, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both Virginia slaveholders. At the time of George Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people.  

In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote: “all men are created equal”. Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life. 400 people were enslaved at Monticello; the other 200 people were held in bondage on Jefferson’s other properties. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” What Jefferson set out clearly was that he was making a four percent profit every year on the birth of black children. He used child labour in his nail factory and allowed slaves to be beaten.

Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. When Martha died, Jefferson took Sally as his concubine and she bore him six children. When the “relationship” began Sally Hemings was 14 and Jefferson was a 44-year-old widower. This was what we call today  statutory rape.  There was no possibility of consent. The man Americans revere for writing the Declaration of Independence raped a minor. For a female slave to refuse a master’s sexual advances was illegal. Hemings remained enslaved in Jefferson’s house until his death. He lied about it. He once tried to bribe a hostile reporter.

American politicians continue to live under a hypocritical delusion. Gary Younge in the New Statesman expresses the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism better than I can.  “America was a slave state for more than 200 hundred years; an apartheid state for a century and has only been a non-racial democracy for less than six decades. Most of the country couldn’t vote during the Civil War. Black people were not legally protected to vote during Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Post Trump America

An editorial in Le Monde said that “Trumpism” was a “lasting heritage of American politics,” not an accident or brief “interlude.”

Here in Sri Lanka, we are accustomed to candidates saying the executive presidency is the root of all our problems and must be abolished. Once elected they forget all about it. There are calls in the US to abolish the Electoral College but once the current presidential election is over that will be  forgotten.

Democrats are vaguely aware of how Republicans are shafting them by disenfranchising Black people and gerrymandering boundaries. In his 2012 acceptance speech, Obama thanked the voters who waited for hours in long queues to vote for him. In a throwaway line he said, “By the way, we have to fix that.” He didn’t. In October 2020, eight years on, Obama tweeted. “Nobody should have to wait 11 hours to vote, but we’re all grateful that you—and all those in line with you—stuck it out.” Outrage dissipates to   amnesia, and the chance for reform is lost but American politicians continue to preach to the rest of the world.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, writes:In 2020, it became evident that sizeable numbers of working-class voters of all races found something appealing in Trump’s indictment of a status quo that is heavily tilted in favor of politically connected insiders. But while the growing economy during Trump’s term benefited the working class, he had no interest in advancing policies that would make his populism anything more than rhetoric and invective… the Republican Party has it within its power to either destroy the country or come up with solutions to the problems that threaten us all. Ultimately the long-term health of the American political system depends on having two reality-based parties.

Will we see any real change?

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 2

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 19 2020.

According to Gallup, 61 percent of Americans favor the Electoral College’s abolition. It is unlikely that it will be abolished because Republicans strongly support the status quo. 

Note that four out of ten Republicans believe that Trump won the election. Republicans’ sweeping claims about voter fraud are specifically targeted at delegitimizing Black voters and cancelling their votes. They have focused their baseless claims of voting fraud on majority-Black cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where support from Black voters helped Biden convincingly win the presidency.

Republican Party Invincible in Decline

A big problem with US democracy is the Republican Party. At one point in the presidential ‘debate’, Trump taunted Biden with the snark, “You were in power for eight years. Why didn’t you do something then?” Biden mumbled that whatever Obama tried to do was blocked by a Republican Congress. When Biden is back in the White House, he is likely to have similar difficulties getting any legislation through a, narrowly, Republican senate.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already promised to block Biden appointees he does not like. The former national security adviser Susan Rice is tipped to be named Secretary of State.

Not if Mitch can help it. The voting rights activist Stacey Abrams will be blocked from taking a cabinet position. McConnell promised to veto the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. “If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate,” he said, “think of me as the ‘Grim Reaper’. None of that stuff is going to pass – none of it.”

When Republicans faced a sweeping Democratic landslide in the 2008 election, their response was not to work with Obama and congressional Democrats, but to implement a strategy they crafted on the night of the inauguration, January 20, 2009, before Obama had been in office for a day: oppose everything he wants, block whatever you can, delegitimize what you can’t, demonize the president and use every tactic, from the debt ceiling to the filibuster, to destroy any policies that might be favored by the country and result in a positive response for Obama and his legislators.

The Undead

Jonathan V Last wrote in the New Republic: “A political party that includes a significant bloc of voters so deeply estranged from reality cannot be anything other than a source of mischief—and worse.” Last claims that  Republican politics are devoted not to policies and ideologies, but to grievances and combativeness.

By rights, the GOP should have been dead and buried long ago. Were it not for the Electoral College, Democrats would have occupied the White House for the past 20 years. In 2013, the Republican Party, then chaired by Reince Priebus, issued what was widely called an “autopsy” report on itself. 

Republican senator Lindsey Graham stated: “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” For years the Republican Party has been in terminal decline but like a malignant zombie the undead monster continues to stifle the polity. The Republican Party is a minority party, or what political scientists call a ‘counter-majoritarian’ party.

Also, in the New Republic, Matt ford wrote: “But the Republican Party is now going beyond the scope of soothing the president’s psychic wounds and toward seeking mass disenfranchisement on a scale unseen in American elections since the end of Jim Crow. Those who supported this effort or merely stood by while it happened should never be forgiven for their role in it. Of them, Lindsey Graham is uniquely beyond absolution.”

Ron Brownstein writes in The Atlantic: “Republicans believe they have a better chance of maintaining power by suppressing the diverse new generations entering the electorate than by courting them.” Democrats “more thoroughly represent the nation’s accelerating diversity”. According to Jay Rosen in the New York Review of Books, the Republican Party has to rely on fictions: “The beliefs and priorities that hold it together are opposed by most Americans, who on a deeper level do not want to be what the GOP increasingly stands for.”

Rigging the System

The Republican Project is to manufacture durable white majorities through the purging of voter rolls and the adoption of strict voter ID laws, restriction of immigration and deportation of immigrants who would probably have voted Democrat.

Voter fraud is very rare in the US but Republicans have made a big issue of it in order to make it more difficult for Democratically-inclined voters to cast a ballot. In the 2016 election there were four documented cases of voter impersonation; a 2017 academic study put the upper limit for incidents of double voting in the election of 2012 at 0.02 per cent. A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that strict photo ID laws could reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points.

In Atlanta, the number of polling stations has been cut by almost ten per cent even as the voter rolls have grown by almost two million. The cuts to voter access and the growth in voter population have mostly taken place in the same areas, disproportionately affecting the black, brown, young and poor. The metro Atlanta area, for example, has almost half of the state’s active voters but just over a third of the polling places.


Elbridge Gerry was the fifth vice president of the USA and died in 1814. Gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. The original gerrymander was a strange shape that wound around Boston and was portrayed by cartoonists as a salamander.

As race is one of the most accurate predictors of voting habits, when gerrymandering takes place the constituencies are carved up with the express intention of putting as many black voters in one district as possible and leaving them thinly dispersed elsewhere.

In 2012 Republicans received 46 per cent of the popular vote in Wisconsin state elections but received 60 per cent of the seats in the state assembly. Nationwide that year, Democrats got 1.4 million more votes in House races. Republicans won 33 more seats.

David Daley argues in Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, that, at a low point in their political fortunes, the Republicans discovered redmap, the Redistricting Majority Project. redmap was funded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which included large corporate donors such as Philip Morris and the Koch brothers. The aim of the project was to seize control of vulnerable statehouses in purple states in the 2010 elections and use the redistricting process to the advantage of the Republican Party.


REDMAP targeted state legislative races for the express purpose of controlling redistricting, REDMAP funded negative ads in lower-profile state legislative races. They peddled quite appalling lies to get their candidates elected. This helped to give Republicans control of 10 of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts in 2010. 

They then used software like Maptitude to devise districts favorable to the Republican party. Democratic voters were clustered into a handful of districts and boundaries of the rest were redrawn to ensure Republican majorities.

A 2018 report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that “Michigan’s maps are beyond the threshold for what is considered gerrymandering.” Ari Berman wrote for the Washington Post on similar trends in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. One district in Pennsylvania was nicknamed “Donald Duck Kicking Goofy”. It spanned five counties and 26 municipalities, and at one of its narrowest points ran through the parking lot of a seafood restaurant in the town of King of Prussia.

Supreme Court

Trump pushed the Republican-held Senate to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as Supreme Court justice, which created a 6-3 conservative majority. Republican senators immediately opposed Obama nominee Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The system, which is supposed to be about checks and balances, grants an unrepresentative Senate the ability to install justices to lifelong posts. Biden can expect the Supreme Court to limit any ambitious plans he has. There is also an army of right-wing judges at appeals courts and district courts around the country, packed in due to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s success at blocking President Obama from filling seats. Those judges will oppose Biden in areas from environmental protection to human rights and voting rights, while protecting corporations and the gun lobby. 

More next week on the foundation of US democracy

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 1

This article was published in Ceylon Today on November 12 2020

I was moved to tears watching John McCain’s concession speech of 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency. Such dignity compared with Trump’s mean-spirited crassness! However, McCain lost me when he went on about American democracy being the envy of the world. Biden has been coming out with the same old guff. Joe Biden said: “Democracy is sometimes messy; it sometimes requires a little patience as well but that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” Let us look more closely at what Americans delude themselves is enviable.

Simpler Democracy in Sri Lanka

The November 2019 election in Sri Lanka to choose a president was fairly straightforward. There were 35 contenders but it was essentially a fight between two main candidates. The people were choosing between those two and 52.25% voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He thus became president because a majority of the electorate voted for him. Simple.

Because of the Electoral College, among other factors, it is not so simple in the USA. In 2016, nearly three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump. You may have noticed that Trump became president and is now determined to stay on even though it is clear that  five million more people voted for Joe Biden than for Trump. In the nationwide popular vote, Biden has more votes than any other presidential candidate in US history and over five million more than Trump.

The Electoral College

In Sri Lanka the people vote directly to choose their president. In that beacon of democracy called the USA, the people do not directly choose their president. The US president is not chosen by the 233.7 million eligible registered voters. The president is chosen by the 538 individuals who make up a strange institution called the Electoral College. The electorate is voting for people called electors. People in all 50 states vote in November and those decisions are conveyed to the electors. The electors meet in mid-December to cast the official ballot for president.

Each state is allotted a fixed number of votes in the Electoral College, based roughly on the size of its population. Electors are generally chosen by the party but each state determines for itself how it chooses electors. Whoever wins the popular vote in a state also wins all of that state’s electoral votes – with two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska, which divide up their electoral votes partly on the basis of who wins the popular vote.

Each state must have at least one representative and there can only be 435 members of the House of Representatives. Because of the way those available seats are divided up, certain states have fewer representatives per person than in other states. For example, each of the 53 representatives in the House from California represents roughly 746,415 people. In Wyoming, that number drops to 577,737 for their one representative.

There is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states but throughout the nation’s history, more than 99 % of electors have voted as pledged. A Republican governor could go rogue and submit his state’s votes for Trump. Or a Democratic governor could do the same for Biden regardless of the actual result. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature considered submitting its own electors in 2000 before the Supreme Court ended the contest between Bush and Gore. The Electoral College distorts US politics, encouraging presidential campaigns to concentrate their efforts in a few states that are not representative of the country as a whole. The Eurovision Song Contest voting system seems much more rational.

George Mason of Virginia was one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who refused to sign the Constitution. He said, “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper candidate for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would be to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.” Founding Father Alexander Hamilton wrote: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated [tasks].” In 1787, the Founding Fathers worried that the people might elect a demagogue and set up the Electoral College to prevent this. In 2016, a demagogue with 3m fewer votes than the losing candidate became president thanks to the Electoral College. Trump had an advantage in states with smaller populations and an advantage in the Electoral College. The system of checks and balances was not built to hinder someone like Trump.  

In its first major failure, the Electoral College produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and  Aaron Burr (who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and was charged with reason in 1807).

Aaron Burr

There have been five presidential elections in which the successful presidential candidate did not win a majority of the popular vote. In 1824, Andrew Jackson polled 152,901 popular votes to John Quincy Adams’s 114,023; in 1876, there was no question that Democrat Samuel J. Tilden outpolled Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote, with Tilden winning 4,288,546 votes and Hayes winning 4,034,311. Hayes was known for the rest of his career as “His Fraudulency”; in the 1888 election, incumbent president Democrat  Grover Cleveland received 90,596 more votes than his challenger Benjamin Harrison but  only won 168 Electoral College votes to Harrison’s 233; in 2000, Democrat Al Gore received 48.38% of the popular vote (50,999,897) compared to George W Bush’s 47.87% (50,456,002).

Three Fifths of a Man

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from the slaveholding south had their own reasons for not wanting the president to be directly elected by the people. There were roughly equal number of people living in the north and the south; however, one-third of those living in the South were slaves. There was no way they were going to be given the vote but the south would be at a disadvantage if they were not counted. The population number would determine a state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and how much it would pay in taxes. The compromise proposed by delegate James Wilson was three out of every five slaves would be counted as people, giving the southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored, but fewer than if slaves and free people had been counted equally.

The compromise gave the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson an advantage over his opponent, the incumbent president and abolitionist John Adams. To quote Yale Law’s Akhil Reed Amar, the third president “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.” 

Under the Electoral College, black votes are submerged. Five of the six states whose populations are 25 percent or more black have been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections, even though that goes against normal black voting patterns. Three of those states have not voted for a Democrat in more than four decades. 

There are other ways in which the US system is rigged against democracy. More on that next week.


A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 4 2020


For a long time, I have been complaining that the west has been paying little attention to the relative success of Sri Lanka in dealing with the pandemic. I made this point again on a comment thread on YouTube reacting to a GOSL video explaining what actions the government had taken. Most of the comments on the thread were broadly supportive of the video, of the government and of my comment. There was one glaring exception; someone calling himself ‘poorpoor’ who violently abused Sri Lanka, saying that the deaths must be higher and being covered up. Nobody agreed with him and his comments seem to have disappeared. A new pseudonymous troll, who seems an awful lot like those malignant entities who swarm all over the comments sections on Colombo Telegraph,  has taken his place, and is crowing that we have egg on our faces now that there is a new surge of cases in Sri Lanka and we should be embarrassed about our boasting.

Deaths Rising Everywhere

It seems to be a very odd thing to find joy in Sri Lanka’s new outbreak of the virus. I take no joy in the fact that nearly 100,000 people are catching coronavirus every day in England, and the daily number of deaths is 350. Britain has crossed the one million mark for total cases, according to a New York Times database, and its death toll from the virus is 58,925, one of the highest in Europe. This is well past the civilian death toll from the Blitz in World War Two, terror attacks and soldiers lost in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I worry for friends and family in the UK. I had been hoping to visit. A much-loved family member died in the early days of the epidemic. More Sri Lankans have died in the UK than have died in Sri Lanka.

Timothy Snyder, the distinguished American historian, pointed out that more Americans have died of the virus than were killed in Vietnam: “Coronavirus has killed more Americans than the Wehrmacht, or the Japanese imperial army, or indeed any other battlefield foe. We endure the equivalent of 9/11 every few days. This time, though, Americans took decisions that killed horrendous numbers of other Americans.”

The ICN (International Council of Nurses) V has revealed that as many nurses have now died from coronavirus than were killed during the entirety of the First World War. The latest figures collated by the federation of 130 national nurses’ associations show that 1,500 nurses have lost their lives since the pandemic began around the world. However, the ICN expects the figure of 1,500 to be a significant underestimate, as it only includes those who have died in 44 countries where data was available.  

New Cases in Sri Lanka

The total number of COVID-19 cases reported in Sri Lanka rose to 12,970 and the number of deaths has risen to 30. Upul Rohana, President of the PHIA (Public Health Inspectors’ Association of Sri Lanka), said the spread of COVID-19 in the CMC (Colombo Municipal Council) area was ‘slightly out of control.’ Dr Ruwan Wijayamuni, Chief of the CMCPHD (Colombo Municipal Council Public Health Department), denied that the COVID-19 situation in the CMC area was “somewhat out of control”. 

Sri Lanka’s new clusters were first found in a garment factory in Minuwangoda but the infection of a fish market in Peliyagoda, where large numbers of traders, buyers from restaurants and individual customers buy each day, led to a wide spread of the disease.


I wrote about the Brandix situation in these pages on October 15. Brandix issued a number of statements denying allegations that were circulating on social media that they were bringing in workers from India to work in their factory at Minuwangoda and not following the correct procedures on testing and quarantine. On 7 October, a statement said, “no parties from India or any other country have had access to the facility during this period.” 

I do not have the resources to be an investigative journalist but I can analyse statements and balance one side against the other. Why did Brandix deny bringing workers from India and then admit to bringing Sri Lankan workers from India? The issue is not the nationality of the workers but the fact they were brought in and they appear to have brought the virus with them. Why were they brought in?

Why did Brandix issue the bold statement: “Brandix DOES NOT have the authority to operate a private aircraft in & out of India!” when it is well-known that Brandix CEO, Ashroff Omar, is on the board of directors of Sri Lankan Airlines and Brandix admitted on October 7,  “We operated three chartered flights from Visakhapatnam, India” and the aircraft chartered belonged to Sri Lankan Airlines.

If Brandix followed the recognised government protocols “under the supervision of the respective PHIs”, why does the PHIU deny participating?

Blaming the People

Brandix received support from former Sunday Leader journalist and Newsline TV presenter Faraz Shauketaly: “The fact of the matter is that all Sri Lanka has an attitude of complacency brought about by several weeks of literally leading the global pack with relatively low positive cases. Somewhere for whatever reason it would appear that Cv19 spread to the ranks of Brandix staff. It is too much to believe that the senior management and Board of Brandix gambled and forced contractors to carry on in spite of showing signs not conducive to CV19. Brandix is a Sri Lanka success story. It is easy to be critical but think of the positives this company has brought to the general wellbeing of our nation. Let us show some sympathy, some decorum and some understanding at this critical time for our nation as a whole. And learn from the collective laxity all around.”

Faraz Shauketaly, uses weasel words to deflect attention away from Brandix: “learn from the collective laxity all around”. Shauketaly has no new evidence to offer, merely the assertion that his well-heeled friends at Brandix could not possibly behave badly. This is rather like Boris Johnson blaming the British public for the spread of the virus in the UK and defending his cronies like Dido Harding. There is little doubt that this new cluster originated with Brandix. Don’t blame the public, Faraz. The public won’t like that.

Bad Examples for the People

In the UK, Boris Johnson recently suggested that the reason the virus was spiking was because “everybody got a bit, kind of complacent and blasé”. This is the man who was boasting about not wearing a mask when he visited NHS hospitals, who was proud of shaking hands with front line health care workers (one nurse who met him subsequently died of the virus and he came close to death himself). Public compliance was not encouraged when Boris Johnson’s chief adviser blatantly flouted the rules that he had helped to formulate. Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have been handed a 225-page dossier urging them to investigate Dominic Cummings for allegedly perverting the course of justice, (a crime which could lead to a life sentence) in relation to a statement about his journeys to the north-east of England at the height of the pandemic.

UK ministers, including the prime minister himself, seem to get very confused about the guidelines they are expecting the public to follow. Michael Gove apologised after wrongly claiming people may be able to play golf or tennis, while Robert Jenrick mistakenly said people from a whole household could take a stroll with another person from another household.

Some individuals and groups of ordinary people will always behave stupidly and recklessly. I heard the story that a man who lives in a housing complex near the HNB ATM that I use felt some symptoms and went to a surgery near the Sampath ATM that I use to get himself tested. He had to wait a few days for his result and, rather than staying at home, went to the Cargills branch that I use and several other shops that I use and had a jolly time visiting friends. In the UK, there were horrendous images of people crowding into Soho pubs and onto beaches.

Many if not most ordinary people try to do the best for themselves and others. It was not conducive to public discipline for the golf club of the Irish parliament to break the rules. It was not conducive to public discipline to allow Cheltenham races to go ahead and then give the woman, Dido Harding, responsible for that decision an influential role in dealing with the pandemic. It was not conducive to public discipline to allow rules to be flouted during the Thondaman funeral. Apparently, medical professionals concede that the holding of mass rallies in Sri Lanka for the Parliamentary elections in August resurrected the virus.

AG Calls for Brandix to Be Investigated

The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka reported that the state intelligence agencies conducted a thorough check on Brandix operations and that their findings, reported to President Rajapaksa, were “extremely damning”. Attorney General Dappula de Livera directed acting IGP CD Wickramaratne to investigate the COVID-19 spread from Brandix Minuwangoda and submit a progress report within two weeks.

A WEEE Problem that Is Getting Bigger

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 28 2020

I was pleased to receive a message on my (second-hand) smart phone inviting me to bring my e-waste to the local post office. I had up to October 10 to do this and just about met the deadline.  This seemed to be a very welcome initiative by the CEA (Central Environmental Authority). Mahinda Amaraweera, Minister for the Environment, said the programme was organised with the objective of minimising the harm caused to human beings, animals, and the environment by improper e-waste disposal. He said that all government agencies are bound by international development agreements to implement the UN SDGs (United Nations Sustainable Development Goals).

The acronym WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) describes discarded electrical or electronic devices. WEEE contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame-retardants and polyvinyl chloride. These substances cause cancer, respiratory and reproductive problems. Even a low level of exposure of children and pregnant women can cause serious neurological damage. Phthalates causes sterility; chlorinated dioxins cause Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Unregulated WEEE activities do not only harm those working directly with the materials but also contaminate agricultural lands and livestock and enter the food chain.

E-waste represents 2% of America’s garbage in landfills, but it equals 70% of overall toxic waste. The US generates 3.4 million tons of WEEE a year only 11% of which is recycled. Only 15% of Indian WEEE is recycled, while the remaining was mixed with normal waste.

The communications revolution combined with rampant consumerism has created vast amounts of cyber-clutter, as people feel compelled constantly to upgrade their phones and computers. I have never been an early adopter. I have never been a great fan of phones of any kind and I have only recently been forced to use a smart phone. In those dark days when I had to work for a living, The Management was always trying to force gadgets on us; there were little hand-held computers called Organisers which one had to go on courses to learn how to operate. I never used mine at all and was chastised for creating this redundant e-waste. I found it much easier to jot things down in my diary – and I don’t mean Filofax. I tread lightly on the earth. I had an amplifier that served me well for over 30 years and speakers that lasted 20 years.

Even a Luddite like myself manages to accumulate a lot of redundant electronic rubbish. Some of it is a result of well-meant but misplaced charity, or recycling by friends and family. Some of it is stuff like my trusty old amplifier which reaches the end of its natural life and crawls away to die. It is difficult know what to do with this redundant equipment.

Electronic waste is sometimes recycled in a bad way, finding its way into counterfeit parts. A 2011 report by the Senate Armed Services Committee said that the US military supply chain might contain over one million counterfeit parts, including crucial avionics components. Counterfeit Chinese parts have been detected in the instrumentation of C-130J Hercules transport aircraft. Failure of these components would leave pilots with blank instrument panels in mid-flight. Production of these counterfeit parts often begins as electronic waste, shipped from the US to Hong Kong.

The only answer seems to be to send e-waste to another country and cause a problem elsewhere. In direct violation of federal law, Colorado-based firm Executive Recycling falsely claimed they would process waste in the US. Instead, they exported it. The fine was US$4.5 million and the court sentenced CEO, Brandon Richter, to two and a half years in prison.

The EU exported 220,000 tons of WEEE to West Africa in 2009. Some products sent as charitable donations, ostensibly for reuse, are unusable. In Ghana 30% of WEEE imports are unusable. Pakistan receives thousands of tons of WEEE every year from developed countries.

Creative capitalists have developed markets in WEEE. There are companies that extract gold, silver, palladium and base metals such as copper and nickel from circuit boards. Their worth can reach more than $15 per pound. The microprocessors inside circuit boards can sell for more than $30 per pound. EWEEE could prove a valuable source of metals in developing countries if the dangerous work processes were to be regulated. All over the world, local communities are taking positive steps to encourage recycling. New York state residents produce more than 300 million pounds of electronic waste each year. New laws make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their own products and bans disposals of consumer electronics in landfills. A study from the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) shows that retailers are lagging behind consumers in social responsibility.

How did the recent Sri Lankan initiative work out? I sent my e-waste to the post office and wondered what would happen to it. Would it be dumped in a land-fill? What happened to it was that it boomeranged back to me (as do some of the letters I deposit at the post office). They only seemed to be interested in phones and computers that they could find an immediate use for thmselves.

I have looked at a number of academic studies on the subject and am filled with despair. No-one seems to have a solution and the problem just keeps growing. One study of the Sri Lankan situation says: “Currently all the E-waste collected within the country is being exported because of the unavailability of a recycling facility for electronic waste. Hence it is an urgent requirement to establish an environmentally sound E-waste recycling facility to cater E-waste generated within the country.” That does not get us very far.

It would be interesting if Minister Mahinda Amaraweera could clarify what criteria were given for deciding which items of e-waste would be accepted at post offices. The only guidance I could find was a statement that only domestic e-waste and not industrial-grade machinery would be accepted. I certainly have never had any industrial-grade machinery. What are we to do with the items that we are still stuck with? It would also be interesting to learn what was done with the items that were accepted at post offices.

Padraig Colman

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