Hopeless Dreams: Those Weighed Down by Poverty in Sri Lanka

Elmo Jayawardena in Elanka and in The Island, mid-October 2022,where the title runs “What colour is your parachute?” … presented here with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

A few years ago there was an extremely popular book in North America called “What Colour is Your Parachute?




It is a great book that all young people who leave universities from all parts of the planet should read. The contents wise up the reader what they need to do to get into some suitable employment. Theoretically very good, practically too it gets a pass mark, the book certainly is sensible. Unfortunately, it also depends on which sky you are walking under. Third world denizens (living below the poverty line) and 4th world ‘super-stars’ like us Sri Lankans (borrowing money to eat) hardly qualify for this floating parachute business. We may have a few colour pens here and there but who has parachutes?

For the first and second world countries, it is a cake walk; come home with your degree and find your silk parachute and paint it bright and beautiful with colours that shout out your qualifications and bail out. They soar in the corporate markets until they find employment or till the employers find the para-gliding candidate. The chances are pretty good that some ‘King-Pin’ giants would see the ‘rainbow-hued float’ and pick you to join their serenade. There you go! Dream job and minted silver-plated future and sometimes in gold or could even be platinum. Doors open automatically as if they were waiting solely for you.

Good if you have a silk parachute, good if you have the colours to paint with and good if you can float and be found. The best would be if you are a Manchurian Candidate, especially in the third and fourth worlds where papas and grandpapas carry ‘magic potions’ like Asterix, connected to their I-phones that are much more powerful than multi-coloured parachutes.

One call to the right man and it is just “you scratch my back and I will reciprocate” becomes the final selection criteria.

Out here in Sri Lanka the life of a prototype Uni student is very different. I do not know much, but I do know some of the horrendously tragic tales of students. They struggle from the first whistle of tertiary education to the final exam and end up in Lipton Circus getting water-washed for sins committed in impotent protests. I am not talking from stories that drift in the monsoon winds but firsthand miseries that I have come across. For the last 27 years I have been associated with an organisation working as a volunteer to help some of these unfortunate students. Most undergraduates I met were sandwiched between the ‘Sa duking pelena un” ideology and the ramshackle existence of poverty they inherited as a birthright. All their dreams are tied to the degree they read in a local university where hope springs eternal at the beginning for a secure future. But that often stands lava-frozen simply as a mirage of misery.

Now he and she have the qualification, but it is at most times wrapped with the English dilemma of ‘fol toppie and fan cake.’ That’s what they take to the interview. And their parachute itself is certainly not of smooth silk (such is only for the elite). The average student often has only a gunny sack material floating device with ‘rat-eaten’ holes, and no colour spectra to select and paint with. How to be seen? Everything around them is colour-blind. How to leap and float to be found? It is more like a jump in the dark, swinging one’s arms to cling to some salvation of a job, just so that their pauperised existence can be maintained without being a perpetual burden to their poverty-riddled parents.

“Sir, I sold my earrings to pay my hostel fees”. I asked ‘Why did you sell? You could have pawned them.” She gave me a dry smile, “Where do we find the money to redeem, Sir?”

Yes, I know these stories. On a given day we have more than 1,000 students under sponsorship and around 400 of them are uni-students. Some of them are the ‘super-poor’ types who receive the “Maha Pola’ scholarship and send some money home so that their siblings can have some sort of food on their ‘belek pigang’ to eat and survive. These are the students, the confederacy of the humiliated who constantly get marginalised by the many manifestations of poverty and suffer a hundred setbacks just to survive to read the degree.

The sad side of this Rubik Cube is that few among the well-to-do are aware of the perpetual plights of a lot of Uni students. How would you know? Unless you too have been on that ‘Full Option Poverty Trail’. It would be difficult for you to understand what I am talking about. Yes, I have been there before, a long time ago, that is why I know.

“Sir, I eat a vadey for dinner,” says one. “Sir, I drink a lot of water to fill my hunger in the night.” No, these are not fairy tales of my imagination but what I hear in sighing words from sad-eyed faces. The ear-ring seller is now a practising lawyer and the ‘water dinner man’ is a Financial Controller. They did make it, more by chance than by design.

Do these bright hardworking undergraduates get a chance to write a CV and apply for a job in the posh and polished corporate world? Do the big guns with their carpeted floors allow these  unfortunate youth to walk in through their gilded arches to face an interview? Of course, some kind and considerate institutions do consider them and such corporate leaders should be lauded and praised. But isn’t the truth more of refusals?  ‘Many are called, but few are chosen,’ that sings right for these ‘law’ income graduates, who are tattooed at birth as children of a lesser god. They will certainly not be in the chosen few. They rot for long periods of unemployment and if lucky, they might get selected for a job in a government office. That too needs a special qualification, more to do with whose posters they ‘paappafied’ and pasted on the walls.

Even if they get an interview, they will mostly be ‘also rans’ if the medium of conversation is English. Most have never had any communications in the Queen’s language (sorry I forgot, it’s the King’s language). How could they compete with other applicants from affluent backgrounds who have been on debating teams arguing the merits and de-merits of subjects such as colonialism and League of Nations in Shakespeare English?

Would they get any consideration for the mire-filled trenches they crawled out from birth as poor pilgrims? Can they write in their CV in bold black that they have suffered multiple burdens of poverty to educate themselves? Have you seen any CV that highlights how poor they were?  No blame to those who sit on interview panels, how would they know?  That is a very sad part of this education system. The equation is at most times lop-sided for the non-English speakers.

One says to me “Sir, I was a frefect.” Another says “Sir, after that I will play with the ear.” Thank God, both the frefect and the ‘with the ear man’ are now gainfully employed.

The problem is English. That is the catalyst that brings down the confidence of the graduate job seeker. We need to do our best to address the recurring purgatory that burns the very souls of the youth. Oh no! Please do not talk about regime changes and the milk and honey that will start gushing limitlessly from every orifice of Diyawanna Oya. Man! We have seen that far away dream for 74 years at every political change when different gods took their seats on the proverbial Mount Olympus. Let me stop there before I go berserk with my abated anger.

This is 2022 Month of October as I write. The country is suffering like never before and the peoples’ hopes too have become almost hopeless. The queues may have reduced but the prices have soared to reach the distant stars. The Diyawanna Oya circus is operating at its optimum latitude and some of the mongrels in that mansion think they have a god- given right to destroy this beautiful country and ruin its inhabitants. People are leaving Paradise in droves; it is a migration of hopelessness that has no single reason but multitudes of unfathomable man-made miseries that are the direct responsibility of those who rule us.

We can only wish for a better day. Pray to all the gods in creation to give us solace from the catastrophic calamities that are looming ahead for us.  We live in a misplaced paradise and if the powers that be continue this trend of destruction it won’t be long before we convert ourselves into a paradise lost.

Something needs to be done, somethings have to be changed by some means. Unless we find a way to make a serious course correction and charter a roadmap to break away from the sugar-coated slippery slope we are sliding on now, we are finished. That cannot be too far away.

 Capt Elmo Jayawardena, ……….. Elmojay1@gmail.com

PS for Uninitiated: The House of Representatives is located on the edge of Colombo within the waters of the Diyawanna Oya

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