Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, in Email Memo to Michael Roberts, 13 December 2012 **
Yesterday an ex-fisher/diver from Mullaitivu shared a curious tale of a recent act of ‘vengeance’ in a small kovil [at XYZ]…. 12 family members from the same area (XYZ district) had purchased a multi-day boat, pooled money from others who expressed interest in going [so that] there were about 55 altogether. The engine had broken down midway (some 13 days after they set sail). The 12 family members were supposed to have locked themselves up in the cabin in order to ration the food supplies. The rest had been locked out. Rice gruel had been passed through the cabin once a day through a window, while the other passengers who were locked out felt that the 12 members were keeping themselves fed to their heart’s content. Among the 12 was a close family friend (the relative of the informant I was speaking with) who was among the ‘chosen. He had come out for a cigarette. Out of anger, the rest, who were vegetating outside, had lynched him; and then thrown him overboard. They had been like this for about a month.
Subsequently they were rescued by a ship’s crew and were taken to Indonesia where they are wiling away in a camp. Now, [at some point before this tale surfaced] one of the brothers of the survivors (who lived in N….) had gone to a soothsayer/light reader at the Kobalapuram kovil … to ask what had become of his brother. The light reader had said that the boat had certainly sunk as he hadn’t heard from any of them. But, then, news of their rescue reached his ears subsequently and the brother had walked into the kovil and done quite a bit of smashing up. He was taken into custody, and now has to pay 2 lakhs to the kovil as compensation for the damage. It was quite a buzz in XYZ when this happened. So that’s a related story!
Significantly, it also puts the legitimacy of soothsayers on the block as well … needless to say, they wield quite a bit of influence in changing perceptions about migration and wellbeing!
PS: This memo also added the following note on the issue of asylum boats lost: …. several people I spoke to told me that boats disappearing or sinking was relatively rare. I encountered just one boat a family had been awaiting news from since August — nothing has been heard to this day. What I was told yesterday was that problems usually occur with engines breaking down midway. As a result, the boats continue to drift, and there have been times when younger and older passengers have died — out of starvation once the food ran out. Most often however, the survivors were generally found by other ships out at sea and were rescued.
** Siriwardane-de Zoysa is a postgrad student at the University of Bonn.
Note from Michael Roberts: There is limited difference between the Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims of Sri Lanka where it comes to the supplication of deities in the face of anxiety from illness among kin folk, impending investments or risky journeys. They often approach deities through intermediary ‘priests’ and resort to intermediaries known (in Sinhala) as ädura, kattadiyoand tovilkārayo.
Note two: In response to the first blog comment let me surmise that a significant proportion of the Sri Lankan population probably resorts to intermediary soothsayers etcetera and that the proportion would be even higher if one includes astrologers in one’s ambit. Among those who rely on these paths of assurance and support are businessmen, politicians and criminals – for the reason that they are in high-risk trades. As one knows there is also quite an overlap between politician-businessman-criminal. Another high-profile venture that call for extra-terrestrial support is the field of cricket as one illustration from St. Anthony’s Church in Kotahena in the 1990s reveals: Pic from Roberts, Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, 2006 ISBN 955-1266-26-9
For this particular topic, one article is mandatory reading:
Gananath Obeyesekere: “Sorcery, premeditated murder and the canalization of aggression in Sri Lanka,” Ethnology, 1975, 14: 1-23.
But also see
Bruce Kapferer: A celebration of demons, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Bruce Kapferer: Legends of people, myths of state, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988.
Masakazu Tanaka: Patrons, devotees, and goddesses, Kyoto: Institute for Research in Humanities, 1991.
Gananath Obeyesekere: Medusa’s hair, Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1981.