“Bonfire of the Vanities” in Screeching Crescendo in Sri Lanka Today

Elmo Jayawardena, in Island, 15 August 2019, … http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=209019

The phrase BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES took life more than 500 years ago, 1497 to be precise, in the Italian city of Florence. The unusual practice was started by the followers of Franciscan priest Girolamo Savonarola. He denounced corruption, despotic rule and the exploitation of the poor. These were un-abated traits of Florentine rule, which were evenly spread among the rich and the powerful. Friar Savonarola waged war on vanity and preached to his followers to discard anything that was vain for a simple life of a man or woman who sought lasting contentment and happiness. To this end, he encouraged people to bring all their items of vanity and burn them. The bonfires of the vanities became a rallying call of the followers of Padre Savanarola so much so the Pope excommunicated the rebel priest and imprisoned him. He was later hanged along with two of his assistants and their bodies were burned. So ended the Bonfires of the Vanities, and Florence went back to abusing power.

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA – AUGUST 17 : People stand in a queue waiting to vote in the General election in voting center on August 17, 2015 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Over 15 million voters will go to the polls today to elect 225 Members of Parliament. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

If vanities be the subject of discussion let’s look at Sri Lanka running its final laps before the ‘all-important’ presidential elections. Nothing to beat the front page of today’s Island Newspaper (12th August). The headline captions are interesting, so interesting that I must take them one by one and try to make some sense from them in order to share with my fellow citizens. The last 71 years have seen Mother Lanka sent to the gallows where she is currently swinging with dangling feet hanging on to her final breath (for how long?). She who has been so extensively blessed by the gods as a perfect paradise was only guilty of one unforgivable mortal sin. That too happens to be so easy to define, needs only one word – CORRUPTION. The question that makes me sigh to the high heavens as the death penalty is re-established is will our poor homeland Lanka be hung till death for being guilty of CORRUPTION?

Let me get back to my newspaper stories. It is very difficult to make any sense of them, as colourful political personalities occupy the entire page seemingly blowing bubbles that fly as high as the sky. Some will float and some will burst; nothing new as we’ve seen it all in times gone by. Rajitha has a bold statement to make saying they will nominate a winner for the Presidential race. That is faith. Well! This is not a ‘not to win, but to take part’ like in Coubertin’s slogan for the Olympics. Rajitha sure needs to find a winner; the question is, can he? Sajith says he will definitely be the candidate at the start line for President; that is hope. He thinks he is a safe bet with a lot of promise. But there seems to be hesitancy in the hierarchy. MR is charitable; he mocks the inadequacy of the 100,000 rupees promised by the UNP to the family of a child killed by a terrorist. Good political point, but then, another Zahran has to come around to test his generosity. And Ravi says people think all politicians are rogues. Cannot be la! (Like the Singaporeans say). There must be at least one good potato in the sack, corruption-free and dazzling with honesty? And finally, Gotabaya is promising to learn from the previous governing mistakes. Very laudable for a leader to look back and mend his ways. But then, can he really shed the forty thieves?

Looks like we pretty much need a roaring bonfire to burn the vanities that are spoken from the pedestals of political power. The Sunday Times had a banner headline, which said the President stated boldly that the government needs to cough out 4.4 billion rupees to erase the unpaid debts of the Rajapaksa government. I cannot figure this at all. 4.4 billion is not kaju ata or kos-ata. Of course, in this instance, there is nothing left to throw to the bonfire except the redundant hangman’s noose. Almost five years in power and the all-powerful President could not re-claim at least a tiny fraction of the debt, but admits defeat and starts coughing. Looks like it’s all for the love of blowing bubbles.

Interesting times are ahead for the 21 million people who tread the soil of Sri Lanka with anticipation of a better day. Hope springs eternal to live above the poverty line, have three square meals a day, and find a school for a child who is entitled to a better education. That is not asking for much from a land that belongs to all of us. We need peace and harmony and some sort of equality for all races and religions to co-exist. That is not asking too much from any President who gets elected to run this country. We can draw lines of racial separations or religious demarcations, but we the people are all receiving the ‘goma end’ of the stick, being battered by wave after wave of political vanities that never reach the bonfire.

Recently, I saw on television an erudite Sri Lankan professor from South Africa giving his views on the pending election. He is a supporter of Nagananda Kodituwakku. His logic was perfect and his reasoning faultless. Though it appears that Nagananda is fighting a lone battle, it is slowly becoming clear that he too is gathering a reasonable following. Of course, his clarion call is the eradication of corruption. He sure has the words and the rhythms that sound clearly as the answer Lanka needs, and he is all out to start the bonfires and burn to cinders the disgusting vanities of the powers that be. The question is will he have the numbers to March with him, or the cash to spend to keep his ‘war-wagon’ rolling to trample the Goliaths. After all, he has to battle on an uneven playing field where the odds are stacked against him and his vanity-burning political principles? Nagananda maybe a Lilliputian underdog, but let’s not forget the man who dined on hoppers who went to battle swinging a sling shot.

The race is about to start and Gotabaya has already come to the start line and is seen flexing his muscles. The UNP is still looking for their Don Quixote to ride against the Rajapaksas. At the rate the Greens are going, they may have to toss a coin and call heads or tails. Oh no! That too is not possible as, if I heard right, there seems to be three making the call. The JVP may have a diminutive Pancho following the parade collecting the crumbs as they simply don’t seem to be in the main event. Are they really contesting or is it face-saving tokenism?

This seems like the repertoire for the forthcoming election to choose the leader of the land. Of course, we must not forget the dark horse who in 2015 upset the entire applecart, by sprinting to the finish line well ahead of the favourite whose stars told him wrong.

There are still a few months to go before the gong sounds. Anything can happen. For us it is a matter of waiting. For them it is a matter of dealing and brokering. The one common question among us the ‘peeditha panthiya’ is Kaatada Chande Danne?

Nagananda promises to light bonfires and burn the vanities, Gotabaya talks of equality and forward vision to 2030, Ranil wants to carry out an economic miracle, Sajith wants to give ‘Samata Sevana’ and JVP says no more guns and violence. Haven’t I heard all this before?

I think the time to hope is here once again; 21 million souls are eagerly awaiting the presidential election result. Better go to YouTube and listen to Nanda Malini singing Avurudu Dedahas Panseeyak.

That I think is more relevant.

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“The [original title of Elmo’s essay] is a reference to the historical Bonfire of the Vanities, which happened in 1497 in Florence, Italy, when the city was under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola, who ordered the burning of objects that church authorities considered sinful, such as cosmetics, mirrors, books, and art” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bonfire_of_the_Vanities

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