What would Dickens write today – Sakunthala Sachithanandan

SAKUNTALA SACHITHANANDAN is a lawyer by profession now living in semi-retirement  inWattala,Sri Lanka. She won the Gratiaen Prize 2010 for  her book of poetry, “On The Streets And Other Revelations”.

There are, still, way too many Oliver Twists around to forget Charles  Dickens!! His work has made a deep and lasting impression on my mind, his attitudes  strongly resonating with my own views  on human brotherhood and social justice.

If he was here today he might imagine that the world has changed ‘miraculously’ over the years since ‘his day’, into the wondrous technological marvel it is now, with rockets zooming into outer space and buildings streaking up into the skies seemingly emulating the rockets, ultra sonic jets looping around the world and vast luxurious restaurants  squatting at the bottom of the sea and he himself recording the outpourings of his literary genius on a modern computer !

But he would also see the swift, cancerous proliferation of wars so numerous, the mind boggles at the speed with which the conflagration spreads, fuelled by political and religious conflicts and fought with brilliantly conceived and produced modern weaponry  with capabilities of annihilating whole countries in one blast. He would be shocked to observe the resultant breakdown of the social fabric and the intense suffering of ordinary men women and children embroiled in conflict  situations.

He would see millions of humans starve while the privileged few live the good life, although there are sufficient resources to feed us all. He would see one disease eradicated by modern medicine replaced by another running rampant, killing those who cannot pay  for necessary  relief.

He would realize the sad truth that Man’s heart has not advanced with his galloping technological genius. He would discover that  Man’s inhumanity to Man and Beast remains the same, if  not actually worse, his brutalization going on apace.

He would see, at work, the age old mechanisms of the precipitation of the displaced  and the homeless, the widowed and the orphaned ,   living in poverty and squalor.

Zooming down on Colombo, my city of origin, he would see a city groomed, beautiful, busy and alive with the latest  in everything  on the one side and full of mean shops and slums and overflowing stinking drains, teeming with the  poor and destitute, on the other,  many living by their wits or labour wherever they could find work, to earn their daily bread or should I say their handful of rice and parippu.

Ramu was orphaned at the age of six on a tea estate in the hills. He was farmed out by relatives with the owner of an eating house in the Pettah, Colombo. He tended to domestic chores for several years and then was taken to the eating house (euphemistically called ‘restaurant’) at the age of ten. He is now  seen, aged fourteen, running helter skelter inside the dingy, squalid place, carrying  trays  of string-hoppers and samosas, kottu roti and kukul curry, and  glasses of tea, or wiping the fly-laden table tops with a smelly grey rag with which he also wipes his face. His young eyes hide the painful consciousness of a life deprived of even small kindnesses, being told to be thankful for every mouthful of food he received, which was mostly rice and parippu curry (supplemented by left over dregs of milk tea, and morsels of food). The trauma of being sexually abused by the mudalali or shop owner and his assistant at times has left permanent scars in his very soul.Apart from the occasional movie he is allowed to see in a close by theatre, he has no escape.

In an alleyway  squats  seventy  year old  Saranelis the carter. He feels helpless and lost without his iron  push – cart of goods which he can no longer push along the crowded  streets. His stomach rumbles and he longs to smoke a beedi . Widowed when his daughter Sumana was but seven years old, he is now totally dependent on her, herself a mother of three children. In the morning, she begs at the foot of shrines, be they lace- curtained Buddha statues, or statues of Christ on the cross inside glass cases , or at  a mosque, or a Hindu temple, whining for sympathy amongst worshippers. Two of her little ones scrabble about in the dust in graying rags, blissfully unaware of the contemptuous glances of the pious. Occasionally, she sells packets of joss sticks or camphor balls. At night she is sometimes compelled to entertain male visitors in some back room to augment her income. Old Sarnelis turns a blind eye , sleeping with the kids in their  lean-to hut of broken crates in the slums, hoping for  two beedis on the morrow – and perhaps a tot at the tavern?.

Sumana’s eldest child  Ruwan of twelve years  works as a helper at ‘Buddhhika Motor Mechanics’. Coated in grease and grime and always hungry, he scuttles around ‘learning the trade’ and is routinely verbally abused, by Gamini  the  mechanic. Not being a stranger to such language, Ruwan ignores this, thinking only of his lunch of two vadais and a sweet plain tea. He accidentally stumbles against a can of oil, spilling it. Gamini slaps Ruwan, and  bellows that he would now cut off Ruwan’s genitals  under which threat even poor little Ruwan’s hardened exterior crumbles. He stands there, fearfully clutching his filthy trousers and sobbing ,  Gamini  laughing  raucously.

Vast numbers of smug, self satisfied heartless people choose to be blind to the cruelty and injustice that even now prevails all around us. They justify their amazing indifference by putting forth bizarre theories:  - these “victims” are but “sinners” suffering through their own “karma” and their origin or fate is nobody’s business. One socialist friend of mine even said, the Great Revolution was the Only Solution and until Society could thus be re-aligned, one should not bother with such folk.

The milk of ordinary human kindness has curdled in the vinegar of their veins. Charles Dickens, plainly would have plenty to write about today to shake up  corroded consciences and, in his own inimitable, humorous style, like a  spoonful of sugar, help the medicine go down!

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