Sri Lankan narrative and reality | Sunday Observer

Sri Lankan narrative and reality

14 August, 2022

The recent upheavals in this country have been covered widely in the international media. Rarely, even during the long-running war did the country get so much of international media attention. The country has been typecast, and of course the stories of economic meltdown are for the most part true.

But internally, the people were shell shocked by how fast things happened, and how it all turned their lives upside down. The politics also was hyper-changed and there was a time when people didn’t know what would happen, politically speaking, from one moment to the next.

But there is a certain way in which the story unfolded. It appeared to acquire a life of its own in the international media. The country was typecast as being debt-ridden and a total disaster in terms of how badly debt-mismanagement had impacted it. In the meantime so many different story versions were written. There were those about the vast numbers that were trying to get away from the country seeking greener pastures or better alternatives. For the most part these were true as well.

A country’s turmoil becomes a total disaster when the narrative acquires a life of its own. This is not to say the people of this country had it easy. There would have been times when the ordinary folk in fact had it worse than the international coverage made out. Yes, in certain aspects that would have been the case too.

But what kind of country was this that was being torn apart? What hope would all the events of today engender in people and young people in particular — if any hope at all? These are not aspects that would be apparent from the news narrative of the day.


In other words, to get a real picture of what the country will go through and where we would all end up, there ought to be a certain distance created between the narrative and the reality. That’s because sometimes in major stories of this sort, the narrative becomes more powerful than the story unfolding on the ground.

It would take time to realise what impact inflation — which is unprecedented — would have on the lives of ordinary people, for instance. Would things ever get back to anything like normal for ordinary folk? In other words, would incomes rise to keep up with inflation, and if so by how much and by when?

The narrative on this is very bleak. But on the ground the picture is of men and women determined to live through it all and come out on top, and this is not counting the politicians. In many ways, however traumatic the current events are — and they are indeed extremely traumatic — the people by and large act as if it’s better that they behave as if nothing has happened.

They have made it all in a day’s work. People walk if they do have transport, and the young, the old, the breadwinners and the mothers — they all trudge along on their feet, shanks-mare, for long distances if there is no way that they can secure any form of transport. A lot of them have been unable to. Three-wheelers and cabs have been non-existent and public transport as has been there such as buses and trains have been unbelievably crowded and inaccessible.


But the spirit of the endurance in folk has never faltered. There may have been individual cases of those who haven’t been able to cope and have buckled under pressure. That is to be expected. But as a people, Sri Lankans have fought by making adversity a part of their lives, and not hoping for but willing a better tomorrow by dint of their hard work and determination.

From the standpoint of view of rebellion this may be bad. And from the point of view of politicians this may be more than what they would ask for. As a breed politicians have been far from helpful in this crisis even though there may be the few exceptions that one can count on the fingers of one hand.

Eventually, it’s the people and not the ‘once removed’ or ‘twice removed’ narrative — removed from reality that is — which would determine the future of this country from here onward. Eventually the investors who are here already but have not proceeded due to the chaos of recent months would proceed with their projects. Sri Lanka is a country of that type — its default is normal, even during the time of war.

So it is important to see the reality in this way, as separate from the narrative. It would give perspective. It would also give perspective on why though some people want to leave this country, others want to stay. Out of those who stay, the vast numbers are those who never thought about it because their day to day reality is far removed from the whole idea of leaving. They are too involved in their lives here in this country to have ‘going’ as part of the whats on radar.


But if lives would be as difficult as they are projected in the narrative that is common vis-à-vis Sri Lanka, a lot of these people would also be forced to leave. But they aren’t. They would rather be stoic and endure because they see that there would be light at the end of the tunnel — because of them, and what they do to ensure it.

They would achieve that by the dint of their own attitudes and their own hard work. That’s what’s missing from the narrative in Sri Lanka. It’s that the people and the spirit of this country is different from what obtains in so many other disaster-zones.

This is a country that has a lot going for its people in an elemental sense and that cannot all be upended in some crisis, or several crises even. The people’s quality of life is reflected in the way the people interact with the environment and in the way people interact with each other. People are not hard-wired to worry in this country.

They see things through because they know that If they endure they would do it all by themselves. They also know that despite the adverse narrative, the ordinary people of the world would not abandon us. They may not be sure of governments but the world knows there is too much potential in this country to have it go under. It won’t go under anyway.

About the politics, well it’s not known how things would turn out from here on. Nobody quite knows that. There may or may not be more political turmoil but the people are by themselves slowly turning things around, and that’s an absolute certainty.

Yes of course a lot of interventions are necessary at the level of Government, but the people would see that if those issues are not worked out one way, they would be worked out another way. As they say, by way of cliché, one way or another.

All this is not factored in the narrative at all, but narratives are prone to be that way. They meander because they are buffeted by the immediate stories and drama of a given day or a week, and are notoriously weak on the big picture. Unfortunately narratives can sometimes be misleading and damaging, and there are rare times when they have a self-fulfilling quality about them.

Even though that’s rare, a narrative must not be permitted to take over and subsume reality. Some would wish that is so.

The current Sri Lankan narrative is in many ways negative, but the positives must be factored in too, but it’s not happening when the story unfolds because drama loves hype. That’s the way it is, but as long as people are aware that nothing could trump reality, they could live with the narrative, which is after all somebody’s version of what they are — and a poor substitute.