From ‘O sole Mio’ to ‘doing away with plastics’, it was a soul-searching week, not forgetting Kussi Amma Sera’s shenanigans. It began with Kussi Amma Sera’s ranting on the unbearable cost of living, a delightful evening of opera music and ended on a serious discourse on plastic waste that is ruining the air we breathe. [...]

Business Times

It’s now or never


From ‘O sole Mio’ to ‘doing away with plastics’, it was a soul-searching week, not forgetting Kussi Amma Sera’s shenanigans.

It began with Kussi Amma Sera’s ranting on the unbearable cost of living, a delightful evening of opera music and ended on a serious discourse on plastic waste that is ruining the air we breathe.

Many patrons at the opera concert organised by the Italian Embassy on Wednesday would have left the Nelum Pokuna humming the tune ‘O Sole Mio’ or its English version of Elvis Presley’s ‘It’s Now or Never’ during a grand performance by the orchestra. Though I am a country buff and can tell you stories about Gene Autry, John Denver and the present-day Alison Krauss or play a mean guitar, I am no expert on opera.

But some of the concert tunes were infectious and the ‘O Sole Mio’ finale with the Lanerolle Brothers and visiting Italian singer Silvana Froli, virtually brought the house down. Spotting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the audience, the final song, unwittingly was also a reflection of the back-and-forth pendulum-like crisis the country is facing. I hope no one whispered into the PM’s ear, “Sir, it’s now or never in Sri Lanka”, and spoil an evening that I, truly believe, he enjoyed. On the other hand, he may have taken such a comment in good spirits!

If it was ‘Now or Never’ at the concert, a discourse at the Colombo University on Thursday on how plastic waste is destroying the planet was in legendary environmentalist Prof. Sarath Kotagama’s words “it’s now or never” to save the planet.

But wait, isn’t everything hunky dory in the country including ‘moderate inflation’ according to the government’s soothsayers?

As if reading my mind, in walks “Karapincha” Silva, another down-the-road gossipy neighbour, escorted reluctantly into the sitting room (just as I was sitting down to write my column) by an annoyed KAS, announcing, “Apey Karapincha Mahattaya avilla pol gena katha-karanna (our Karapincha Sir has come to discuss coconuts)”. While Kussi Amma Sera doesn’t like the man because he stays too long in the house and often demands his (no polite request) cup of tea, I think the feeling is more out of jealousy since “Karapincha” gossips far better than KAS, Serapina and Mabel “Rasthiyadu”, put together.

This Thursday’s conversation went like this:

“Machan, unbearable no, the cost of living. Everything is rising even the price of coconuts. I hope this doesn’t deprive me of a good pol sambol because my ‘Gedera’ Nona (wife) is also complaining that coconut prices have hit the roof and are too costly.”

“But I thought inflation is coming down,” I replied, baiting him into a debate on politics and inflation.

“Inflation? What has that got to do with cost of living?” he replied, adding sarcastically, “Those fellows at the Central Bank are theoretical economists and don’t have a clue about market prices. My Nona will tell them a thing or two on ‘street-smart economics’, meaning the actual prices.”

He has a point but in fairness to the Central Bank, in an earlier statement, the banking regulator also linked rising prices to coconuts.

“Karapincha” then breaks my reverie, virtually shouting into my ear as I appeared not to be paying any attention, saying: “Why is the President jabbering nonsense these days?”

“What do you mean?” I asked, quickly looking around to make sure no one is listening to criticism of the President, and then realising that an era where such criticism was not tolerated is over (or may be returning, who knows).

“Why is he criticising Ranil and his team saying he didn’t know the 100 days programme and what not”?

“That’s politics, buddy… that’s politics. These leaders don’t mean what they say or in other words, don’t say what they mean,” I said.

That comment appeared to confuse him, and quickly finishing his tea, he left saying ‘bye’ and thanking grumpy-looking Kussi Amma Sera for her strong cup of tea, laced with a few words of annoyance.

Sitting down to write the column, three things struck me most about the week’s happening connected to inflation, cost of living, leaders fighting and discipline.

Watching the discipline, connection between the conductor and the orchestra, the wave of the baton and the perfect timing of every player at the Italian event; it was a lesson in values, discipline, governance, team work and balance – many ingredients missing today as politicians fight for power, money or position, in the name of the common man.

Even intellectuals and professionals are grumbling these days, blaming a new tax regime, however much the government says taxes have been liberally distributed so as not to affect people too much. “They may have reduced personal taxes for us but the tax on goods has gone up and that in a way nullifies any personal tax benefit,” said one disgruntled executive.

Another grouse: Taxing ‘benefits’ like allowances in the form of a car, petrol, education, family, etc. Rather than increasing your salary, most companies opt to provide allowances which are not taxed and some of which can be claimed by companies in tax returns. While companies claim it’s a win-win, such benefits are not counted in bonus payments, gratuity (on retirement) and/or pensions.

Inflation (or the way it is projected by a government) has always been a puzzle to the working class. While on one side inflation (measured by the cost of living index) has reportedly come down, according to the Central Bank’s monthly statement, a regular trip to the ‘Irida pola (Sunday market)’ provides a totally different picture. Prices are rising – you hear this tune every Sunday – just like the never ending jibber-jabber of shoppers.

A couple of years ago, my economist friend Wije, gave me a lesson in economics. I didn’t understand it clearly then and, probably, never will.

When I told him, like any consumer or lay person, that it’s unbelievable that the government proclaims that annual inflation has come down, his response: “What it means is that the pace (speed) of inflation has come down, not inflation itself” and explaining further, he added: “This means that if prices had gone up by 5 per cent in 2015 from 2014, and the rate of increase fell to 3 per cent in 2016, then prices had decelerated, meaning that the cost of living had increased by 3 per cent year-on-year as against a 5 per cent increase in the previous year.”

Does that make any sense? Try explaining that to a harried housewife trying to balance the household budget? No way, as gossip-down-the-road Mabel Rasthiyadu once said: “Oya Central Bank kattiya, okkoma boru kiyanne (Those Central Bank fellows are lying)”.

Finally, for those who love the song ‘O Sole Mio’ or ‘It’s Now or Never’, here’s my version of Elvis’s verse:

It’s now or never (Crisis in Sri Lanka)
Come hold me tight (Tighten your belts)
Kiss me, my darling (Kiss goodbye to moderate inflation)
Be mine tonight (Last chance before elections tomorrow)
Tomorrow, will be too late (Exactly)
It’s now or never (Very true)
My love won’t wait (Hold elections fast before popularity
sinks further).

From Italian opera to Elvis Presley, today’s discourse didn’t make any sense to the likes of Kussi Amma Sera and her ilk. “Monawada Mahattaya, kiyanne (what are you saying),” she asked, trooping back to the kitchen with an air of exasperation as if I had gone raving mad and didn’t understand the plight of the working or professional classes.

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