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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sriani Snippets - 7

Upto a generation back, most Sri Lankans were very interested in the “Who’s Who” of everybody.  In the 40s and 50s, when the population of Colombo was one tenth of what it is today, the upper and middle classes of Colombo’s Society knew the genealogy of all the other families, and one had to just mention a name, and the person was immediately slotted in as being So and So’s, So and So. This habit is gradually dying out, and most of today's youth are not in the least bit interested in the”who’s who”of anybody, unlike their grandparents. 
My  mother at eighty one, is a good example of that dwindling minority that still wants to know the who’s who of every name mentioned to her, and she in turn cannot relate an incident without giving the ancestry and connections of all the people mentioned or connected with the incident. On most occasions I miss the crux of the matter, or what she is trying to tell me, for she has to only mention the name of one of the people involved in the incident, and off she goes at a tangent telling me who’s who that person was. By the time she has elaborated on that, the primary objective has been forgotten. 
One day she phoned and informed me that she had just returned from the Dentist’s, and I was concerned and interested to find out the nature of her dental problem. I never found out as to what took her there, for she began by telling me that she had been to a new Dentist, who she said was my sister-in-law’s, sister-in-law’s, sister’s husband!!! As my sister-in-law has eight brothers and sisters, it took quite some time to trace the dentist, and her enthusiasm in tracing this relationship overshadowed the dental problem that I was interested in, and the matter ended there. 
When she gets invited to a wedding, she cannot rest until she has gathered “who’s who” the other party is, and even when I get a wedding invitation, she just can’t understand why I do not display much interest in tracing the ancestry of the bride or groom.  Recently, on receiving the invitation to a nephew’s wedding, the first question predictably was “who’s who is the Bride”? I had to only say it was Barbara’s daughter, and the next question was “Barbara who”? “Is it Barbara X, Barbara Y or Barbara Z.”?  The computer in her brain ran through all the Barbaras programmed there, and she would  not rest until I sorted out the “correct” Barbara, who fortunately happened to be a friend of hers, for otherwise I would have had to trace Barbara’s family tree for some distant relative that she had heard of, so that her curiosity could be satisfied that she knew who’s who the bride was. 
Even today I find that often, when one is introduced to someone, the conversation does not flow smoothly until that person has asked a series of questions, and established who’s who you are. Nine times out of ten, when I have been introduced to someone , the first question invariably is “Are you anyone of  S… & V… Basnayake”? When I answer in the negative, they go through all the Basnayake’s they have heard of, and are never satisfied until I have been “slotted in”. It is only then that the conversation begins to flow. 
This brings to my mind an unforgettable incident that took  place inside a plane, at Singapore Airport. I had just boarded the flight back home, and sat down in an aisle seat, when a Sri Lankan gentlemen made his way towards my seat. I knew who he was, though he did not know me. He had been allocated the window seat in the same row, but before getting in, he stared hard at me, and carried on the following conversation while still standing by my seat, impeding the smooth flow of traffic down the aisle, and ignoring the pleas of the flight stewardess to kindly move into his seat.
Question - “ Are you R…..De Saram”?
Answer  -   “No”
Question - “Sure, you are not R…..? You look so much like her”
Answer -   “Sure.” (I felt flattered, and thought how insulted R…. would have been at this comparison)
Question -  “ Are you a De Saram”?
Answer -    “No.”
Question -  “Are you related to R..De S, even distantly”?
Answer -   “Very distantly”
His face lit up, and he tried probing a little further.
Question -  “How are you related”?
I was not quite sure myself, and gave him what is called in common parlance a “D-rope”. 
Question -    “What is your name”?
Answer -      “Sriani Basnayake”
Question -    “Then you must be related to S..…and V….”.?
Answer  -     “No” 
By this time the Chief Steward had been summoned, and Mr. Nosey Parker (hereafter referred to as NP) was politely but firmly ordered to occupy his window seat. A few seconds later the middle seat was also occupied by a gentleman [Mr. “X”], and I heaved a sigh of relief, and took up the in-flight magazine, glad to be rid of NP.  Five minutes had not gone by before NP leaned over Mr. “X” and wanted  to continue from where he left off. He then went through all the Basnayakes he had heard of, and since my answers were in mono syllables, he did not make much progress in getting on with establishing “who’s who” I was. 
By this time the plane had ascended to 35,000 ft, and Mr. “X” (through sheer exasperation I believe) asked us whether we wanted to change seats so that we could continue our interesting (ugh!) conversation. Mr. N.P. excitedly said “yes, thanks awfully” and undid his seat belt, and simultaneously I said a firm “No thank you” in such a tone, that Mr. “X” got the message, and stayed put. 
For the next half an hour I was questioned and cross questioned by Nosey Parker, as to my school, my job and various other facets of my life, in an attempt to establish my who’s who. At that point--alas-- Mr. “X” got up to go to the toilet, and NP leapt into the vacant seat so that he could continue his interrogation at a closer range. 
He then got a new lead, and asked me what my maiden name was. I replied “Dissanayaka”.
Question  -  “Dissanayakas from where”?
Answer  -    “Nugegoda”.
NP’s face lit up.
Question -   “Was your father in the Police”?
Though I was tired and irritated, I thought of that little game we used to play as children, where we hid something ,and the other person went round the room looking for it, and  when they came somewhere close to the hidden object, one said “warm-warm”, and if they got very close, you were supposed to shout “hot-hot”.
I nearly burst out laughing, for I wanted to say “hot hot”.       “Yes” I answered.
He only did not jump out of his seat. “Jingle or Jungle”.?
“Jingle”, I answered.  A look of utter relief swept over his face. “why didn’t you tell me all this time that you were Jingle’s daughter? My uncle was your Father’s Bestman, and  my parents knew your parents,and my so and so and so and so, and … a long list of relatives who were supposed to be good friends of ours.”      “ Yes, I knew it, I know that you are Mr. So & So” I said, with what I imagined was a  smug look on my face.
“You mean, you knew who I was all the time”?
“Yes” I said, and flew off to the toilet, leaving a stunned but satisfied Nosey Parker. It is unbelievable to what lengths a person will go just to know who’s who a fellow passenger happens to be. 
Even today, many Sri Lankans are concerned about the who’s who of people they meet, and what others may think about their own family connections. 
Recently, I heard a story about a politician who was all ruffled and angry that some person at a function had made an insinuation that he (the politician) was a nobody. He tried to explain the situation to a group of foreigners who were with him, and shouted “knowing people know, who we who we who !!!”
(“Danna minissu dannawa api kargay kauda kiyala”)
 Dr Sriani Basnayake  
(This article was published in the “Lanka Woman” in 1998)       


  1. Sriani
    Thank you for that insight into a fast disappearing world of aristocracy. From your story vestiges of it still prevail. It is now gradually being replaced by meritocracy, where people's position in society is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth. In SL like in the rest of the Indian subcontinent the closeness to the seats of power in the field of politics overshadows all other differences.
    "The 20th Century Impressions of Ceylon" is a treatise on the delegation of power by the British to maintain the system of aristocracy for their own benefit.

  2. Another enjoyable snippet, very funny as it is also so true and like all comedy, reality is hard to beat. The business of finding connections appear to be peculiarly Sri Lankan, or is it? I can't recall an Englishman trying to trace connections apart from trying to relate to Sri Lanka through possibly a great uncle who has been to Trincomalee or Colombo during the War ("lovely country, lovely people" etc). The other Sri Lankanism is the use of the word "one" - such as - my daughter got married to the son of "one" Siriwardena from Horana who married the daughter of the famous Silvas of Kohupitiya.

    Although I empathise with Sriani's airline experience, things could have been worse, as happened to me once. Just as I was leaning back with smug satisfaction that the seat between the pleasant lady on the window seat and my aisle seat was unoccupied as we were getting ready for take off, this rather enormous man wearing a flowing white robe and a big smile on his face inserted himself with great difficulty in the middle seat, with generous amounts of his personage overflowing on to my seat and that of the lady. He then repeatedly leant forwards rhythmically while praying, ( I suppose I should have been thankful as the flight was now going to be safe for me as well). Very soon, an overpowering aroma of scent and sweat spread around him and at that moment, I believed in Karma - I must have done something in my past life to deserve this.

    When meal time came, he could not bring his tray down as his stomach was already occupying that space. His tray was perched precariously on his tummy. But give him his due, apart from being generously endowed with the stuff we are all made of, he was extremely pleasant and I found it hard to be hard on him..... if you see what I mean, no?