Suffer one more Govt. office, and I’ll…

By Rajpal Abeynayake
When there is a perception, rightly or wrongly that people’s buying power is on the decrease, many other factors that have a bearing on people’s quality of life, get forgotten.
The quality of life on the road seems to be ever diminishing. People spend unproductive and ennui filled hours in traffic.
But when the economy never really takes off or sputters on take off as it happens in Sri Lanka all the time, people’s quality-of-life deteriorates in somewhat sad ways that sometimes cannot be quantified, or even properly conveyed.
Take the ‘quality of life’ of people who brave the rigors of what is called the ‘government office’ to get things done.
In semi-privatized entities, at least, these office spaces are livable spaces, and people generally get things done, get new telephone connections or whatever, without really feeling that they have wasted a day, or spiraled into a state of comatose depression.
It’s not the case in most state run departments, from you name it — the Labour Secretariat, or the various Divisional Secretariats, to state run offices for commerce and trade, required for the most mundane of exchanges between state and citizen, all necessary for basic existence. From obtaining passport forms to National Identity Card verifications, ordinary folk are compelled to call over at the the Divisional Secretariats for better, or worse …
Most of these offices have come a long way from what state run facilities used to be a couple of decades back – slum lands basically, with broken concrete floors, and cat feces strewn around the dustbins.
That era may be over. Most state-run departments are now equipped with usable toilets, and almost all are complete with tiled floor and walls and the basic amenities, generally in working condition.
But the offices themselves are nothing better than sweatshops for hassled bureaucrats and even more hassled citizens, who approach these dinghy ill-lit office spaces, because they have to.
There is no sign that things are improving. In some key departments such as Immigration and Emigration for instance, the outside of the office looks swanky, but the insides are anything but. The walls and the partitioning have not seen a coat of paint for eons. The seating areas are reminiscent of cattle sheds at worst, and the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage at best.
There are no signs that things are improving. State banks have the money, and semi-privatized institutions manage because of various reasons that are too complicated to go in to here. But the average government office looks positively unhealthy for office workers, and are generally anathema to those who visit them for unavoidable reasons, because the latter are less used to such uninhabitable surroundings.
The basic facts of economics tell us that things are not going to get better any time soon, no matter who wields power, because the basic workings of a modern economy guarantees this kind of atrophy, when economies don’t grow at a healthy pace.
What could be done? Here is a bucket list of ideas that might be considered but are unlikely to be considered, if you know what I mean!
• Consider semi privatizing some of these organizations, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the working masses. But who is interested in running a Passport Office with an infusion of private sector funds? No, that option won’t do then. But at the very least, there could be a few offices that could benefit from a healthy dosage of private sector model dynamism. Who knows? A risk taken is better than chronic atrophy?
• Ask for a public shramadana by do gooders to clean up Govt offices, for their own good. Volunteer organizations could take the lead.
• Introduce mandatory standards for State run offices. If there are no airy spaces, air conditioning to be made mandatory. Yes, air condition technology has developed and with the Inverter type machines, cooling offices is not the nightmare it used to be years ago.
• Make it mandatory for all offices to regularly update their web pages, especially in social media spaces, so that the top Management feels embarrassed if their offices resemble slums, recently made into tenements for pukka sahibs.
• Usher in the Revolution ASAP.

Here is Sam’s Gratiaen sambol story

by Rajpal Abeynayake
(Picture — Gratiaen nominees and judges, 2015.)
They have done it again, but this time most spectacularly, even for the Gratiaen.
The Gratiaen award judging process almost always has been totally quixotic and quirky, and that is putting it by way of massive understatement. Most often the judges show bias towards people who they favour in the incestuous world of Sri Lankan creative writing in English. However this time around their bias is so glaring that the person heading the panel of judges Elmo Jayewardene could justifiably call himself Sam. Not Uncle Sam, but just Sam, as in Sam’s story. He wrote that book, Sam’s story. It is about a simpleton, forced into sophisticated circumstances. Sort of, a language retard suddenly asked to pick the winners for a literary prize, you think? Just kidding. But you know the sort. A Prize Idiot.
One feels a little bit of empathy for the book’s protagonist Sam however. Not so much for Elmo Jayewardene, the Sam in the Gratiaen scheme of things.
This Sam is either completely naive to the point of being moronic, or is plain naive, but is also a bit of a plotting character, who is more than a tad devious.
But it is the Gratiaen Award patrons, or the grand wizards who bestow the prize who are to blame for the total asininity and transparent bumptiousness with which they go about this business of giving away the award.
This time they made Sam the Head judge, and then made a woman by the name of Tracy Holsinger one of his co-judges or helpmates in the judging panel.
This made the whole process a case of Sam plus Simpleton plus, that it would have been better if these people had picked some pineapple and gram eating kids from Sam’s poetry competition for adolescents, and called them the Gratiaen judges, ( … also known as the Blue Sky Candle Panel of Pixies, or something like that.)
Pity there were no children’s books entered this time. If there were it is guaranteed — guaranteed with money-back — that the Gratiaen would have been awarded for the second time to a children’s book. (Yes, once they did that, giving away the award to a kids’ book called Mythil’s Secret!)
Sam is Sam. He thinks books are better if they can be read by simpletons such as himself. Just take a look at the Gratiaen shortlist this year. There is a kid in there whose poetry is full of swear words, f—- etc, that one would think she’d just left the kindergarten with that word stuck in her memory from some day she had a case of indigestion eating kiri topee and kadala in her Montessori class.
But this kid’s work is what Sam and the other kid in the Gratiaen judging panel Holsingher chooses for the shortlist.
But then no simpleton, even one such as Sam, could get away from the incest that has to figure each year in the Gratiaen scheme of things. Things got so incestuous this year between the cosy club of Colombo literati, that it became positively hilarious.
Sam recently organized some kind of literary to-do where he made half of Colombo’s roads bathe for a day with water poured from a kadala gotta. Just kidding. But, yes, Sam invited half of his Gratiaen judges and half of the Gratiaen nominees for the year 2015 for his to-do, and this was even before the Gratien prize 2015 had been awarded!
Tracy Holsinger started her panel skit at Sam’s event, by saying she doesn’t watch Talking Heads because they talk a whole lot of rubbish. Apparently she was watching herself in a mirror when she said that.
At least Sam should not have put half of the Gratiaen Prize nominees and judges for the year 2015 in his literary panels, you’d think? No, but, this simpleton has no scruples or nicety. Where is the appearance of propriety, because, as the wise men said, justice not only must be done, it must appear to be done as well, right?
Fat hope. This is Sam. He gives an entire panel at his to-do to a guy who he says makes people laugh, and who was one of the Gratiaen 2015 nominees. Yes, that guy does make people laugh, not with what he writes, though. He merely has to stand there, and look pompous as he always does, to have everybody splitting their sides …
But this is Sam. A simpleton who cannot get beyond the concept that books have to be Montessori primers such as his Sam’s Story, if they are to be read and enjoyed, and that he has to keep everything simple, meaning that he has to dumb everything down to his level. He likes them dumb, especially books written by people as cutely mediocre and leprechaun-like, such as himself, who in their naivety are of the view that if they write, they become literati by simple virtue of the fact.
So you get that buff-muscled living caricature Ashok Ferrey shortlisted. How could they forget the token impresario who they parade at all their literary to-do’s, the way they paraded him this year at Sam’s gram-scramble affair, during which Sam bathed Colombo with a kadala gotta? If Sam thinks that a book must be a Montessori picture book for it to be readable, Tracy Holsinger does even better, and this is in the tradition of Gratiaen award judging panels.
She knows nothing about books or literature at all. She dabbles in drama. Mary Poppins type. That’s it. Beyond that there is no evidence that she has read anything. Nothing whatsoever. It shows, when she says things like ‘even the LTTE came for his plays’, to celebrate a Tamil playwright she had just discovered, the way kids discover Christmas lights and Santa Claus. That’s right, ‘even the LTTE came for his plays.’ Whoa, even Satan appeared at his Bar-Mitzvah, what?
This time’s shortlist has a token everything. Such as, as stated, Ferrey, who can never win, in the manner of the player who can never get the ball over the line, even though he’s regularly passed it on a platter. The token f-word spewing kid. The token Tamil perhaps, except that they made him win this time. Writes prolix prose, which Tracy Holsinger reads in her faker than fake accent with such pompous gravitas, that you’d have been excused if you puked right there. Then there is the token activist book, of the kiddo who says he is autistic. There is the token gesture, the nod made to Shehan Karunatilleke, how could they have ignored him, eh what? Just kidding. That was probably the only worthy pick in 2015.
And so it goes, the same cavalcade, the same incest, promoted by people such as Sam as in Sam the pilot Elmo Jayewardene. People who are in it mostly to promote themselves, as the nice poor-man’s impresario types, who think they decide what is culture and what is not. Even that would have been ok, in a country which is by no means a meritocracy, if at least the man knew a little literature beyond the literature of the village idiot. Sam, what a sham — what a garden-variety snake oil salesman, really? And you think you could’ve fooled me, man?