“Do you see those birds?”
My cousin was pointing at the Wehi Lihini flying high above us. I was a small kid, holding onto her hand. We were standing on a grassy hilltop in a beautiful small village nestled among the mountains: the village where my mom grew up, where I spent my early childhood.
“They come out when it’s about to rain. See, they can’t drink water like you and me. They can only drink when it rains.”
“Those birds were humans in their previous lives. When thirsty people asked them for water, they refused to give it to them. They are now born as birds who have to catch drops of water when it rains. When dark clouds roll in, they come out, crying for water.”
Thirty years later I still remember that day, and those swallows, circling, circling, high above us, waiting for the rain.
The Big Story
The stories we tell reveal a lot about ourselves. Embedded in my cousin’s story, handed down through generations and told to her by her parents, remain values that an old culture wanted to preserve for its descendants.
Water is sacred. Water is life. You don’t deny water to anyone. Your actions have consequences. These are the values of a people whose lives ebbed and flowed with the waters of Mahaweli. They erected guardian stones, proudly overlooking the vast and intricate irrigation systems they built. To guard their intimate understanding of nature and the ways of water against the passage of time, they created stories.
Our most elaborate story—Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle—which carries the origin myth of the Sinhala people, ends with Mahasena, a third-century king who became a god of water. Minneri Deviyo is an old deity, but he is still venerated by the people of Rajarata who depend on water for their livelihood. And thus, the story endures.
The Small Story
For those of us who grew up in villages, the story of water was narrated to us by fish, frogs, freshwater snails and tortoises. One caught fish, trapped in a bottle with good intentions, dead in the morning, was enough to teach us the lesson: with water, the container matters. Life thrives when the water flows free.
Both my parents had their ancestral homes right on the banks of streams flowing through their villages. I know firsthand how, a mere generation ago, it was taboo to pollute our rivers and streams. People didn’t spit into water, let alone urinate or defecate. It was not a dumping ground. Even the small canals taking water to the paddy fields were clean and clear.
Every New Year, my mother—just like her mother, and many mothers before her—would make a trade with our well. She would offer a gift to the well, and then draw a bucket of water. It was a beautiful acknowledgement of our dependence on the generosity of the well. The story of water endured in such small acts of our people.
The Beginning of the End
The first to disappear were the tortoises. People ate them. Once so numerous that on rainy days they would hog our gardens and become a nuisance, now we have trouble finding any even if we go looking for one.
Then went the frogs and the snails. Their numbers dwindled as the agricultural chemicals started flowing in the streams. The mighty eel, somewhat of a diva in the stream, failed to make any appearances.
And then there was the water itself. It was not so clear anymore. It wasn’t flowing as fast. The roar that we could hear from afar was now just a murmur.
One day, in my mother’s village, it went completely silent. Today there’s no stream there—only the smooth, dry rocks of its old path telling a story of dead water.
When old stories die, new ones take their places. We are now replacing the water stories of past generations with some of our own, and they don’t always make very good reading.
When the LTTE blocked the Mavil Aru anicut, depriving farmers of their water source, the protests sparked the fourth and final phase of the Eelam war, bringing a violent end to an old conflict. When people protested peacefully in Rathupaswala, asking for clean water, the army came in and terrorised the area, injuring and killing people, losing some of the goodwill it had earned.
And then last month Coca-Cola spilled something into the Kelani river and messed up the water supply to our capital city Colombo. Coke says that a pipe burst. That it leaked diesel. The government says that they couldn’t find a leaking pipe. That it wasn’t diesel but some unidentified organic solvent.
This is the nature of stories. When they are still forming, there are often multiple versions. There are people behind the scenes, trying to weave them all into something easier to digest, working on “media relations”, “crisis management” and “brand building related PR activities”. One of these days, we’ll receive a clean, consistent, sterilised story from them, carefully crafted to fit some agenda.
Until then, though, the story is evolving. If we want to have any say in it, now is the time.
The Stories We Tell
When it comes to a story like this, some of us are more qualified to contribute to it. I’m not one of them. On the other hand, we can agree that environmentalists and leftists are traditionally the thought leaders in these matters.
The environmentalists—and I mean the card-carrying variety, not amateurs—are silent about this Coca-Cola oil spill. Where are the scathing articles, press releases, FB posts, tweets, Colomboscopes, protests, people with placards and megaphones and photographers with cameras all documenting it for the next funding application?
No, the environmentalists are silent. They want no part of this story.
But let’s spare a thought for them. Coca-Cola is very active in the environmentalist sphere, and they’re pumping in good money. When the time demands it, how many of us can really afford to publicly protest against our employers?
An international icon of capitalism, neoliberalism and globalisation, a brand that is synonymous with American economic expansion, a company with a notorious record of violence against union leaders and organisers, pollutes the main water source of the capital city of your country, affecting millions of people. This is a leftist’s wet dream. An opportunity of a lifetime. It just doesn’t get better than this.
Surely the left is incensed, its hordes protesting?
No, the left is silent. They too, want no part of this story.
But then again, as a friend of mine put it, there’s no left left in Sri Lanka.
You and Me
That leaves the story of water in the hands of ordinary people like you and me. We might not have the credentials, but we make up for it with our authenticity and independence. With our articles, FB posts, tweets, we’re keeping this story live.
But why keep it all virtual? What about “actual” protests? Shouldn’t we mob the Coke factory, raise a ruckus, get beaten by the police and make a spectacle out of it?
No, there’s no need for it. If we want to convince Coke, a boycott hits where it hurts the most. It’s deceptively simple. But if the public can’t be bothered, if we don’t collectively see a problem big enough to warrant a temporary boycott, that’s our prerogative. That’s just a display of market forces at work.
This is how stories unfold. Between you and me, though, I think there won’t be a major public outcry, let alone a boycott.#NoCokeSL was stillborn. The oil spill is so last week. The situation, as they say, is “contained”.
The New Water Gods
The old water stories and myths of Sri Lanka arose from a culture that had a symbiotic relationship with the rivers and lakes. The new stories that we create reflect the modern dynamics of this old relationship. Now we transact. It’s all very businesslike. Give me water, and take my oil while you’re at it.
Another Minneri Deviyo will not rise from us, and the one we already have is fading into obscurity. Coke sells well in Anuradhapura. It creates jobs. As someone commented on our last article, we have decided, “we need them more than they need us.”
Minneri Deviyo, on the other hand, we can apparently afford to do without.
Cover photo © Sarala Gamage