The longer I stayed in my last job, the better it fitted me. The income it brought elevated me from comfort to luxury and finally extravagance. Then, just as I lapsed into complacency, my livelihood suddenly got ready to forsake me. I counted the money in the till; penury could only be months away. I looked at investments; they ranged from illiquid to ill-chosen ones. It was a relief that not too many years remained ahead; but disaster was not years but months away. Those months before D-day had somehow to be stretched out. So I cancelled the summer trip to Europe.
Catastrophe does not become more endurable if one pulls a long face. I decided to cheer myself up. I thought of all the economic concepts that might help save me — ingenuity, innovation, enterprise. I looked around for an opportunity; I found it in Sri Lanka. It was not a job; but Sri Lankan Airlines was prepared to fly my wife and me to Colombo and give us a five days’ holiday for less than the cost of flying to Calcutta (I prefer to call it that). I decided to save money and fly to Colombo. I thought I was being clever and economic: there would be no tourists in the war-torn country, and I would have my run of it. How wrong I was! Eighty thousand Indians had preceded me there last year — more than tourists from any other country — and the Ceylonese hoped Indians would cross 100,000 this year.
In Ceylon I took further cost-saving measures. I decided that the cheapest holiday would be if I could sit in one place and meditate. And what better place for meditation than the holy city of Kandy' It has a lake surrounded by green hills. On the lakeshore is the Temple of the Tooth. It is very different from a comparable Indian temple. There are no shops or hustlers. Entry is controlled, separately for the Ceylonese and foreigners; foreigners pay more. I do not know how they recognize Indians as foreigners, but they do. In return for the entry fee, Indians can give their footwear for safekeeping; locals have to leave theirs here and there. There are also separate booths for body search; foreigners, being fewer, have to wait less. On one wall are photographs of the temple as it once was, and as it became when the LTTE bombed it in 1998; the entire front of the temple was reduced to rubble.
Inside, the believers do not mill around; instead, they go and sit down on the floor in front of the inner temple, waiting with their offerings of lotus flowers — white, pink and purple. Every once in a while the silver doors of the sanctum open and a pilgrim is admitted. I wandered to the back of the temple, where there is a historical museum. The kings of Sri Lanka were pretty sanguine and adventurous; one even invaded south India and defeated sundry local kings.
Once the Cape route was discovered and Europeans swarmed across Asia, the Ceylonese kings found it increasingly difficult to protect their kingdoms. One even turned Shaivite, but it did not save him. Finally, they retreated to Kandy, which is 1,800 feet above sea level and must at that time have been inaccessible on account of the thick jungle. The palace was built above the temple, and the queen built a square little building jutting out into the lake, where she could go and have a bath. Today, the queen’s bathhouse is a police station.
Although the bathhouse is no longer available for bathing, the Queen’s Hotel is just opposite the temple. But after looking at the photographs of death and destruction, I decided that if I stayed in the Queen’s Hotel, there was a slight risk that my meditation might be violently interrupted. So I travelled some kilometres upstream, to a charming little hotel called the Citadel. It is on a hill; its rooms, each with its own broad sun terrace, cascade down to a garden, which borders the Mahaveli river. With a singular lack of imagination, some people call it the Mahaveli Ganga. That is an insult to Mahaveli; it is a clean, green stream coming down from the mountains: no water hyacinth, no plastic bags, no detritus, just serenely flowing water. For those who do not fancy entering the river, there is a swimming pool, and next to it, a little watering hole. It suited my meditational inclinations perfectly as I floated on the water and contemplated the stars in the late evening sky.
Although the civil war is over, its accoutrements are all over Sri Lanka; there are pillboxes near important installations, and soldiers with auto-matic weapons. As one leaves Sri Lanka, one’s luggage is searched by well-mannered women soldiers. It is apt to make one paranoid sometimes; but my worry was misplaced, for there is real peace in the island. I was even told I could take a bus to Jaffna.
Still, the Tamil question is very much in the air. Locals guess immediately that one is Indian; then they assume that one speaks Tamil and likes South Indian food. Tamils come and introduce themselves. Somehow, it is difficult to hide one’s Indianness. I noticed how many people had close relatives abroad, and how many young people wanted to emigrate. At first I thought it was only Tamils, since they spoke to me about it. Then I read that the editor of Ceylon’s premier English newspaper had decided to migrate to Canada. An editor, who can hire and fire journalists, who earns a big multiple of their income, should surely feel he had arrived, joined the country’s elite; he at least must feel secure. I sensed a certain sense of despair, of lack of confidence in the country’s future.
I asked the prime minister if it worried him that so many people wanted to emigrate. He said it was to be expected; local salaries were so low. He mentioned a ridiculous figure for MPs’ salaries — Rs 200, but I still cannot believe what I heard.
Maybe he is right; maybe it is not lack of hope that drives people out of Sri Lanka, but low real incomes. But real incomes are limited by real productivity; they must be low because productivity is low. It is a bit like socialist India, although Sri Lanka is anything but socialist. The reforms in India made being rich respectable, and unleashed a flood of productive activities that supported a new, high-earning corporate middle class. That is what Ceylon missed out on — and so did Bangladesh, and Pakistan. And that is why young middle-class people — the ones that tourists like me are likely to encounter — want to leave these countries, just as they did India till the Eighties.
They cannot solve this problem by liberalizing. Both Bangladesh and Ceylon have more liberalized economies than India. But liberalization by itself cannot create productive industries. One needs a large market too. If India seriously wants to make friends with its neighbours, it should open its markets for goods and labour to them. Ceylonese would make perfectly good software programmers; importing them would make Indian IT firms more competitive.