Superstition

The central character in Ashok Ferrey’s The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons leads a difficult dual life between England/the west and his ancestral Kandyan home. The former dominated by rationalist materialism, the latter by superstition. I can’t claim to be quite so conflicted but I do empathise to some extent. I sometimes wonder what drove me to call home a land where rational thinking takes a poor second place to belief in the supernatural. Where planning is always trumped by fatalism. Sally tells me I’m not an atheist but an agnostic, since I cannot prove there is no god, and she has a point. But in seven decades on this planet I have yet to see a shred of evidence that there is a supernatural being (or beings) which gives a flying fart about either me in particular or humankind in general. Plenty of things I’m unable to explain, for sure – and many of them science remains unable to explain. But even if science never makes it that far, there is no reason to worship something just because it’s awesome and unexplained. There is no such thing as divine intervention or a divine agenda, of that I am certain.

All of which places strict limitations on how close I can get to almost all Sri Lankans (and, of course, a whole lot of religious folk from my own culture, however much I may like and admire them). As readers of Broke’n’English may recall, when we started building Jungle Tide we were mystified to get a rare e-mail from our architect, a British-educated, western-dressed middle-aged man, informing us that he had made an overnight journey from Colombo to the house site to lay our foundation stone at something like 4am as this had been determined to be the auspicious time. Given the subsequent problems we’ve had with the place, I hate to think what might have happened had the stone been laid at an inauspicious time, but let that pass.

Determining the right time for things to happen is an obsession here, and at no time is this a greater obsession than at Tamil and Sinhala New Year which is now upon us. (The Tamils and the Sinhalese do not agree on much but at least they agree when New Year is, which I suppose is comforting). Two years ago we and some friends were staying at a hotel near Anuradhapura at New Year and were invited to participate in the festivities, involving much lighting of lamps and consumption of festive foods. In the background a TV was showing the usual countdown to the crucial moment, familiar to us on 31st December, except here three or four countdowns were going on simultaneously. Countdowns to the auspicious moments to light candles, to serve kiribath (milk rice), and a couple of other activities I never managed to fathom. I found myself musing on who has the right to determine these auspicious moments. The Buddhist high priesthood? But Tamils are mainly Hindu and operate to the same timetables as far as I could tell. And in any case, if the history of any world religion is anything to go by, deep schisms would surely erupt as rival factions interpreted the relevant signs to suit their own purposes and came up with different auspicious times. The government? Maybe elections are fought over whether the UNP or the SLFP is best at telling the time.

Horoscopes are consulted not just to tell the time but to check whether a person is the right one to marry. And unlike any horoscope I’ve ever read in the British popular press, or indeed unlike any tarot reading I’ve come across, the findings always seem to be clear and indisputable. The daughter of a guy who used to be one of our drivers was in a relationship with an Australian who the family regarded as quite a catch – but on checking out the horoscopes he was reluctantly but firmly rejected as being unsuitable.

Yakas (demons) are everywhere in this land, and measures need to be taken to protect against them. They particularly go for half-built houses and, given the local propensity to build places as high as the available money will stretch, then stop until more is raised, the yakas have a lot to go at. The solution – to hang dummies from poles atop the half-completed buildings so that travelling around Sri Lanka is a bit like being in an endless version of those village scarecrow festivals which have lately become so popular in England. Some of the dummies are crude and simple but others are dressed in jacket and tie, perhaps an indication that western culture is more effective at curtailing the activities of demons.

Before reading Ashok Ferrey’s book I’d been unaware of the mobility of yakas. They don’t just hang around and haunt a particular place as our more staid British ghosts do but travel relentlessly about the countryside, making them much harder to counteract. In a (literally) lightbulb moment I realised that this probably explains why Sri Lankan drivers keep their right indicator lights permanently on. It keeps the yakas of the road at bay.

Superstition is strongest in the villages and among older people, but it’s far from dying out. My friend Jim told me recently of a village funeral attended by one of his staff. Prior to the funeral the local priest had undertaken a search of the grounds of the deceased to seek clues as to the cause of death (yes, they do also have doctors and death certificates out here, but belt and braces applies to matters of such moment). Some rusted metal items were dug out and declared proof that someone had intended evil to befall the deceased. Moreover, continued the priest, the findings were also proof that vengeance would be wreaked on the evil-doer within nineteen days. Two weeks later Jim’s man’s grandfather died and he took this as the priest’s prediction coming true. Quite why anyone would come to this conclusion among all the many other possible (and more probable) reasons for granddad’s death is utterly beyond my comprehension.

Among the hosts of yakas a few top the Mount Olympus of yakadom, as it were. The Devil Bird (Ulama) brings doom to all who hear its terrible wailing deep in the forest (it’s probably just an eagle owl but let’s not spoil a good myth). A Kinduri is a kind of radical feminist yaka in the form of a pregnant woman who deals death to randomly selected men. The Riri Yaka is a four-armed, monkey-faced little chap who rides a pig and carries with him, among other things, a rooster and a parrot. Probably a Norwegian Blue. He certainly seems to belong more to the leftfield humour of Monty Python than to any religious belief system.

Yakas with at least some claim to authenticity, though, are the Nittaewo. There is some anecdotal historical evidence of the existence of a tribe of small human-like creatures in Sri Lanka until comparatively recent times – maybe survivors of either Homo Erectus or Australopithecus. The Veddha – the aboriginal human inhabitants of Sri Lanka – claim to have wiped out the Nittaewo in the 18th century. But rumours persist of more recent sightings, including a gruesome tale of a Government official being attacked and dismembered by one in a tea estate not far from here. On the other hand, all kinds of humans have good reason to dismember Government officials…

Which bring me to the other more authentic yakas – the Grease Yakas. I first came across these characters in a bewildering press report a year or so ago. The headline: “Grease Yaka resurfaces in Bataramulla following Cabinet re-shuffle” has got to rank as one of the best non-sequiturs of all time. Grease yakas are naked men who grease themselves up and roam the streets at night, sometimes assaulting women. Why they do this I have yet to see explained. And I have absolutely no idea why a Cabinet re-shuffle should engender this response. In a just world they would all be wiped out by Kinduris.

And so, finally, to matters medical rather than fatal. I don’t have a strong take on ayurvedic versus western medicine – my guess is that both are effective in different ways and sensible folk should make use of both rather than arguing for the dominance of one over the other. But I part company with those locals who believe that illnesses are caused by a band of eighteen demons responsible for everything from deafness to insanity by way of flatulence. The other side of the coin is the twaddle dealt out to tourists by the proprietors of the rash of “Spice Gardens” who insist that their herbal remedies can cure everything from baldness to diabetes. If this were true then Sri Lankans would enjoy wondrously long life expectancy, which they manifestly do not. But that, I guess, is because of all those malevolent demons. Against superstition and religion we rationalists just can’t win. Better get this posted, Friday 13th is coming up!

(Thanks to Jim Aitken for suggesting the topic and providing some of the material. Sorry if I’ve misconstrued any of it!)

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