The Boy-Men of Sri Lanka
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
I posted my first article on Open Salon in August 2008. Kerry Lauerman himself made the first comment.He said: “Thanks for such an interesting piece, a vivid little look into SL culture.”
In his 1996 novel ‘The Road to Notown’, Michael Foley described ‘the Terrible Grey-haired Boy-Men of Ireland, a group of fortyish men who live with their mothers and spend their days in armchairs playing cards and talking sport’
The Sri Lankan boy-men are not grey. Fashionable young men fight ageing by shaving their skulls completely but the more conservative resort to a Japanese product called Bigen, which comes in two shades, black and black/brown, to enhance nature and sustain an illusion of everlasting youth.
In Sri Lanka, one sees more ill-fitting wigs on men than in other countries. The wigs are always jet-black but sometimes the bearer’s eyebrows are of a different hue. When Professor Mohan Munasinghe shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, Sri Lanka was proud enough of the native son to publish endless pictures of him in which he seemed to be carrying a dead animal on his intellectual dome. One paper accompanied its picture with the caption ‘Munasinghe wears many hats.’
The womenfolk of the boy-men are extremely indulgent to their brats. As the fat lump sits helplessly at the table, his mother or wife will proudly tell visitors that he would have no idea how to make himself a cup of coffee or butter a slice of bread. The son/husband will smile smugly at this compliment.
In Ireland there has been a tradition of boy-men remaining bachelors into old age or forever. Their Sri Lankan equivalents tend to marry young but do not change their ways. Often it will be the mother who finds a spouse for the son. This is not quite the western concept of arranged Asian marriages. The happy couple will have some choice in the matter. Sometimes people will refer to a marriage as ‘a love match’, which suggests that there is some element of coercion in the usual arrangements.
The normal situation is probably more to do with the passivity and indolence and the general immaturity of the male of the species and the assertiveness and protectiveness of the Sri Lankan materfamilias. You do not find many middle class Sri Lankan women who conform to the western male fantasy of the submissive Asian babe but that subject is potential fodder for another article. ‘Bossy women in saris’ would be a more accurate stereotype. Do not forget that the world’s first woman prime minister was Mrs Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka and her daughter later became president.
You see schoolboys in the streets with uniforms whiter than the soul of the Immaculate Conception. You can bet your sweet bippy that these young men played no part in achieving that crisply ironed whiteness. In addition to being mammy’s boys, Sri Lankan males have servants to cater to their whims and to bully.
I have personally witnessed boy-men bellowing for servants to rush from distant rooms where they are immersed in some awful drudgery to come and pass a glass of water, which is just beyond the reach of the podgy boy-man arm.
There is a species of boy-men even in the lowest of classes. Poor village women and tea pluckers talk about their sons as if they have some kind of physical or mental disability when the truth seems to be that they would rather not work if their mothers or wives can support them.
Many village men sit around all day drinking kasippu and smoking bidis while the wives and mothers pluck tea or break rocks. One often sees women doing backbreaking work quarrying rock or mending roads while men stand by ‘supervising’.
Most village and plantation households cook on fires and it is the women who scrabble around in the hot sun or torrential rain for kindling and firewood.
A woman who works for us supports her own family and several families of relatives of her husband on what we pay her. The husband works spasmodically because he falls out with everybody.
Men of his mentality are somewhat torn because they would like the wives to stay at home all the time to cater for their every whim but are not prepared to go out and earn money for themselves.
There is a huge problem of alcoholism and domestic violence. Again, there is scope for a separate article on this subject.
Foley wrote: ‘Although the English caste system has been slavishly copied, dislike of the English and the illusion of independence make it impossible to acknowledge class distinctions in Ireland.’ In Sri Lanka, social distinctions are based on school, often a parody of the English upper class schools, or International Schools, or influential contacts.
Employment very often depends on social and political contacts or sporting prowess rather than ability, which does not help the efficient running of the government or the economy.
Some of the Sri Lankan boy-men have influential fathers who have become rich through commerce or inheritance or grubbing in the trough of politics. These boy-men do not just have maids to feed them and clothe them and wipe their bottoms, they have bodyguards with guns paid for by the taxpayer.
One former cabinet minister and party-political yo-yo, has an errant son who booked the huge Royal Suite at the Galle Face Hotel on the Colombo Indian Ocean sea front for a New Year’s Eve party. Although he was fondling the current girl friend, when he saw a former girl friend dancing with another man, all hell broke loose. The girls fought each other, Junior beat the ex-girl friend and his goons waded in firing their weapons. Then about 20 police arrived waving T-56 automatic assault rifles to protect the VIPs.
The son of another cabinet minister was asked to leave a Colombo nightclub. He took out a pistol and placed a single bullet from the magazine on a waiter’s tray and said ‘Ask your manager if he would prefer to have this inside him.’
Another minister still in the government, despite universal loathing (whose own exploits will be recounted elsewhere- they include squeezing the testicles of a fellow MP, who also happened to be a Buddhist monk, so hard that the poor saddhu had to go to hospital), has a son who is a boy-man but not grey. He has been described as bleached-blond, muscle-bound and tattooed, a typical member of the pseudo-aristocracy of mammy-daddy boys. At Colombo’s Irish pub, Clancy’s, the bouncers frisked him and told him he could not come in with his handgun.
The next night he returned accompanied by government SUVs and three-wheelers full of men with firearms, clubs and knives. Some say daddy was along for the ride. The mob trashed the club, Sopranos, next door to Clancy’s and went through the place stealing mobile phones from customers.
There is a dynastic element to Sri Lankan politics. This could be the future talent that the nation can look forward to as its rulers. Will one of these Prince Hals transform himself into a Henry V? Will one of these delinquents achieve the statesmanlike qualities we all admire so much in George W Bush, who similarly had a troubled youth?