Thursday, July 7, 2016

Palitha Thewarapperuma is (not) our hero

"Unhappy is the land that needs a hero" - Galileo

Not too long ago, a man called (Dr) Mervyn Silva roamed the country. He spiced things up. He was always in the news. The media loved him. They caricatured him. Whatever he did, however much he disregarded basic norms of decency and good conduct, he was indulged. Thankfully that was then and now we don't (care to) hear about the man's antics. Times have changed. What was new then is old now. Naturally, one can add. On the other hand though, when the status quo shifts, new faces come up. Like Palitha Thewarapperuma. Again, naturally.

"Eat your heart out, Mervyn! There’s a new Avatar in town" is what a major weekly English-language newspaper has to say about him. Rubbish. The man isn't Mervyn Silva for the simple reason that he can't lend himself to caricature that easily: he's more a tragic antihero than self-parodying thug. But his most recent antic (attempting to hang himself if 10 students weren't admitted to a school in Matugama) has won sympathy and vitriol, with both sides oversimplifying what he did (and has done so far).

Now thuggery in politics isn't new, not in Sri Lanka and certainly not in the rest of the world. It comes up most starkly, for better or worse, when the thug is from the ruling party. By this token, some will say, Mervyn Silva is out and Thewarapperuma (if we are to consider him a thug) is in. So when the man makes headlines when he punches politicians from the other side and then threatens school principals, we must notice. Not (only) because he's taking justice to his own hands, but because dismissing what he does as symptomatic of a society that's deteriorating does little to nothing by way of dissecting the issues he's contending against.

We don't know why those 10 students weren't admitted. We don't know why he's so concerned about them. We don't know why he insists on playing Batman when meting out justice. We do know, however, that vigilante justice is a misnomer even in as unruly a political culture as ours, because everything wrong committed under the sun by our politicians is committed secretly, away from our sight. So when a person like Thewarapperuma comes into the open, two points stand out: he does wrong to (ostensibly) correct another wrong, and he makes sure that whatever wrong he commits is more than offset by that other wrong he tries to correct.

We also know that politicians are wont to act in their interest. Thewarapperuma is no exception, we can assume. Maybe we're wrong, maybe we're cynics, but the truth of the matter is that even those who parade themselves as statesmen aren't squeaky clean. On the other hand, I refuse to believe that stereotyping politicians this way should turn us away from the institutional flaws which crop up with the kind of incident they get involved in. Like education. Or healthcare. Or even democracy.

There are, as Malinda Seneviratne once commented, many things wrong in our education system. Systemic flaws. Corruption. Bribery. The list goes on. From Grade One to the time our children leave school, we are cynics. We are forced to pay our way through education even if it means breaking every rule in the book and teaching our kids to do the same with their sons and daughters.

Sri Lanka prides itself on being a bastion of free education, but little to nothing has been done to improve this in many, many years. Politicians, at least a great many of them, aren't concerned about it, not because they're in Cloud Cuckoo Land but because they indulge in what Shakespeare called the "insolence of office." Put simply, if they receive the best healthcare and if their children are sent packing off to this near-mythical construct called "popular schools", they don't or rather can't give two hoots about what the rest of the country is facing. Those who work from ivory towers hardly feel the pulse of those who do not, after all.

I don't know whether Thewapperuma prefers to work outside ivory towers or whether he's just pretending so as to get votes (Matugama belongs to his district, Kalutara), but even if he is, I know this much: at least he's pretending. Throughout this fiasco, he raked up some glaring deficiencies in a system we're conditioned ourselves to accept without question. The system is failing, not because of the government in power but because (and I'm speaking only about our education system) those in power, whatever the government, have next to nothing to lose if some rural child gets screwed up in life. Whether or not Thewapperuma was correct in doing what he did is something else altogether. What matters is what he raked up.

We live in a country where incompetence attracts ridicule and laughter, not condemnation. We laugh at larger-than-life caricature and condition ourselves to do the same with reality. We laugh at the likes of Mervyn Silva because (and some of our artists are to be blamed for this) we are distracted and entertained by them. We refuse to look dissect whatever issue crops up or to constructively engage with it. We instead find room for laughter in whatever politicians do, be they from the government or the opposition. About time we realised that. And about time the media, which plays along to this sorry trend, woke up.

Meegahathenna Primary School is in Matugama. Until a few days ago we didn't even know it existed. How many politicians in this country are concerned about what goes on in a place like that, I wonder. Probably not many. Why? Because they've no reason to be. We've divided this country into what's popular and what's not so much that we don't care anymore. Things would, I'm willing to bet, have been different if Meegahathenna was in Colombo and every affluent family made it an annual rite to fight tooth and nail to get their children admitted to it, and if that school was associated with those who pride themselves as being meritocrats and technocrats because it promotes a kind of elitism a rural, far-off place like Matugama doesn't.

For this reason, the likes of Thawarapperuma will remain as jokers in our minds. Not because we are ignorant about their potential to turn to thuggery, but because the subject of their debacles is some outstation, hitherto unnoticed institution. That adds humour to the fiasco, we think. Naturally then, we mock tragedy. And grin at it.

Nine mothers were arrested after Thewarapperuma's fiasco. They were arrested because their children were admitted to a school which (allegedly) barred them for no good reason. In the end we laugh at those nine mothers, because we don't know what it's like to have our children kept away from school. So let's admit it: the media serves those who live in ivory towers. Not (only) politicians, but us. The reason? We wallow in want so much that we've detached ourselves from those who wallow in need.

Palitha Thewarapperuma is not my hero. He's a pretender in my book. Like Mervyn Silva, he spices things up. That's his way of making political capital. But that we should forget everything he unearths because of what he does isn't cause for complacency. It's cause for shame. National shame. What Galileo said about heroes, then, is as true today as it was in his time. A tragedy, given that the closest thing to a hero in our political culture is a man who acts in the crudest way possible, who attracts ridicule and not scrutiny in what he does. Even though what he does manages to dig up some unseemly, undesirable, but nevertheless real deficiencies in our system.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com