The Sunday Leader

Is There True Independence?

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

Abeyratne and Gnanawathi

Today, we are looking at the independence of human beings in society. At present when we walk along roads, abandoned helpless and weary elders is not uncommon. However, these elderly people, who have become homeless and have been compelled to beg for their meals out on the streets, are like our own parents and relatives. They might be a parent, sibling or a relative of someone and even if they are not linked to us our failure in considering these elders as a part of our society, clearly proves the lack of humanity inside us. At a time when we celebrate independence from our colonial rulers,  hope that such compassion would grow in the hearts of Sri Lankans, is a necessity.

Although there are many documents containing information about the demography of Sri Lanka, generally, out of the country’s population, around 24.7% are under the ages 0 to 14. 14.9% belong to the 15-24 categories, 42.1% of the population is between the ages 24 to 55 and 9.5% of the population belongs to the 55-64 categories. However, an alarming 8.7% of the country’s population now belongs to the category of above 65. Under the current growth rate of 0.86% in our country, these numbers are bound to increase rapidly.

According to census reports the mean age of mothers at first birth has been recorded as the age 25. Life expectancy at present is between the ages 76-79. When discussing ethnic diversity of Sri Lanka at present, 73.8% are Sinhalese and 7.2% are Sri Lankan moors. There are 4.2% Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka as opposed to the percentage of 3.9%  comprising Sri Lankan Tamils. Apart from that there is  0.5% of other ethnic groups in this country. According to this census a considerable number of elders in every ethnic group have been faced with this plight. Similar to the streets of Colombo, even in the streets of Jaffna, helpless elderly people begging for their needs is not a strange sight. This is a plight that is common in all other ethnic groups.The following is a discussion we made with some of these elders, and they revealed many reasons as to why  that had been pushed onto the streets.

Colombo 08 also know as Borella is a heavily populated area in the city of Colombo. At any point of the day the Borella junction is filled with people and due to the busy nature of the city, the pedestrians have been provided with a network of underground tunnels to cross the street.  At the time we were there the tunnel was heavily crowded. Being the rush hour at 9 am everyone was busy moving everywhere. However, ‘soothing’ the ears disturbed by painful shouts and noises  a flute was being played in a corner. We too went towards the direction where the sound of the flute was coming from.

While the piper was playing a vintage Hindi song called “Ajaye Pardesi” with his skilled hands, some of the passers-by threw coins and notes in to a cup that was in front of him. Some of them  were seen waiting for a while to see this man playing his flute. After listening to his songs, occasionally a fan talks to him. We too were able to talk to him.

His name was Abeyratne, a resident of Punchi Borella. Due to an accident that had taken place whilst he was working as a Mason, one of his legs was been badly injured. Ever since then, the 56 year old man has been playing the flute in a corner at Borella junction to earn his living.“I’m come from Yatiyantota. My wife is still living there. I do not wish to be a burden to my children. They lead their own lives and I lead mine. I earn a little from this job but it is enough for my living. I have been playing the flute since childhood. I did masonry for a while. I have not learnt any other vocation. Music is an important part of my life. I do not beg from anyone. I just play the flute and I happily accept whatever the people give me,“ he said. Then he played another beautiful and touching Sinhala song with his flute.

It is a relief to see that they are not feeling sad about what they had lost. Even after raising children, he still does not wish to become a burden to them by seeking their help. His attempt to get up on his feet by himself is a true testimony of courage and is an example for all of us.

It is a known fact that these stories are not a rarity among beggars. Some have even called this a mafia claiming that beggars are some of the richest people in the society. Such imposters are known to us too.

There are thousands of elders like Abeyratne who have become helpless during the latter part of their lives due to many reasons.

Another person to whom we talked to is a woman residing in the Angoda area.  She wanted to remain anonymous  and therefore we call her “Kumudu.”

Kumudu’s husband was involved in the tourist trade and they had a sufficient income to live their lives well. Once she had lead a life of luxury accompanied by servants and since the couple had not had any children, they had adopted a girl making her their sole heir. However,  after her husband’s untimely demise, she has become helpless as the relatives had snatched all their wealth from them forcibly. To make matters worse, the adopted daughter too had eloped during this time. Today she is begging for alms near the Kochchikade church.

“I would be very grateful if someone can give me a place to stay. I have lost one of my legs and it costs around Rs 50,000  to make an artificial leg. I’m suffering from many other illnesses as well. Now I’m 60 years old. When my husband was alive all the relatives lived out of his wealth,  but now there is no one. It is from whatever I find here by begging that I am able to buy food, medicine and pay my rent. This is my misfortune. I had to sell the house we lived in to give the three moth almsgiving for my husband. I do not come here often. I cannot stay long due to my injured leg. I do not know how long I will be able to go on like this. After my husband’s death I went to work at a day care center but after two years I lost my leg due to an accident. Now there is no one for me. “ she said with tears in her eyes. She has also lost her adopted daughter and she has become lonely again.

Mohommed Mussar is a resident in Kompanna Weediya. A 66 year old, Musar is also a helpless adult suffering from the same plight. “ There is no point of talking about my children. I was a vegetable vendor. Some time ago when I was travelling by train I met with an accident. I lost a hand from that. My leg was injured as well. After awhile my wife eloped with another man. I stay here during the day and go home at night. I eat when I can. When I collect enough for the day I go away.

When I was ill none of my children came to visit me. I do not want them to come either. I do not like to ask money from them or my relatives. I need money to buy food and medicine. So when I collect enough I go away,” he said. Although he is disappointed about his children’s conduct, he still loves them. “  They maybe having their own problems. They are all married now and have children of their own. “ He even recalled their birthdays. Normally it is the mothers who remember such important dates of their children, but for this father, the memory of his children was still fresh.

However, it is not always a pleasant experience for these elders to beg on the  streets. Most of the time, they are compelled to suffer harassment from the police. According to the law it is prohibited to loiter in public places but they have nothing else to do. Hence even after being punished by the law, they tend to return to their usual spots.

Even though weak in limbs, his mind is still strong and he is doing all this with a determined heart to once again be able to visit his children and grand -children before he dies.

After  marriage a woman toils hard for the betterment of her children One such courageous woman is Gnanawathi, a resident of Borella.  She  sells is lottery tickets.

Clad in a while jacket and a cloth, Gnanawathi is a lady that grabs everyone’s attention. One of the reasons for this is her age. She is now 79 years old.

“I have being doing this job for over thirty years. I was only 38 when my husband died. I sold vegetables at the market in the beginning as I had to raise eight children. Even now I am able to provide for my children. I also take care of a grand daughter of one of my deceased daughters. I normally sell around 200 lotto tickets  a day and that gives me Rs  500 . That is enough for both of us. Although I sold fruits and vegetables at the market before, it is hard to do such things at present. I cannot work hard at this age. So this is the ideal job for me,”she said.

Parents bring up their children without  big expectations. However, at a time where ethics and morals are evaporating, mutual care has become a buried concept.

We live  in a  time and a society  that is celebrating our independence. Is this a true independence? Is everyone independent in this nation? Even after walking through the better part of their lives, these elders have not yet become truly independent. This is the plight for what we  are all to be blamed.


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