BY Priyan Rajapaksa

Many of us first met Pandora and Prometheus in primary school while reading Greek mythology. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was punished with eternal torment, and Pandora was banished to Earth with a box of tricks. She married Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus.

The box – which was marked ‘do not open’ – contained sickness, death and many other evils.

That was in Greece thousands of years ago. But Pandora’s gifts have resurfaced in Sri Lanka and it’s time for ‘Pandora 2021’ on a Sri Lankan backdrop.

Epimetheus and Pandora moved to Sri Lanka, took native names, and became Mr. and Mrs. Perera. In 1948, the Pereras forced the crown off King George VI, whose ancestors had stolen it from King Sri Vikrama Rajasinha II.

As a condition of abdication, George VI gave the couple a gift sealed with a golden chain. It was a bound book marked in gilt: ‘Constitution – do not alter.’ It contained eternal torment, sickness, death and many modern evils, and were rules to govern (not rule) the constituents.

But the Pereras, being brown sahibs, chose to rule (not govern) while pretending to be Europeans wearing Western clothes. Only skin colour betrayed their South Asian heritage.

In 1956, the citizens – led by an opportunist with a sharp tongue and rabble-rousing speeches – used people in yellow to usurp the power of the Pereras. He opened the book and pulled out two evil genies: language and religion. To compound the problem, the usurper said only the language genie would be recognised in his fiefdom. That was an ‘own goal.’

We know from Aladdin (another childhood story) that once a genie is released, it cannot be put back. The rabble-rouser was shot by the religious genie who was running amok in the country.

The ‘ruling as governance’ facade continued until 1970. The London-educated brown sahibs were from similar backgrounds. After battering each other in the pit of parliament, they would meet in the legislature’s bar  or at the Orient Club.

That changed in 1970 when some white sahibs were ousted by a left-leaning lot who thought they were more representative of the common people.

This Rosemead Place-Moscow-Beijing-Pyongyang inspired group thought they knew better than King George and his advisors, and cut the gilded chain and rewrote the rule book.

But the common people were unschooled in the art of governance or ruling. Like some of those in power these days, they were barely educated and couldn’t understand the sacredness of a document such as a constitution. They wrote the sacred document on a gal-lella (slate) for easy alteration. As the sacred book is on a slate, every passerby gets to rewrite the constitution…

The language genie of 1956 was gunpowder; but in their ignorance, the leftists promoted one evil religious genie and placed him above all other monsters. This was a fuse for the gunpowder. Four religions, three major ethnicities and many castes within 65,610 square kilometres was a powder keg with fuses primed for detonation.

Though the country carried on as before, the economy was sputtering and the citizens who had eaten well before were eating manioc and kurakkan by the 1970s, and allowed to purchase only six yards of material annually. The fabric was called ‘Jumping Fish’ and smelled of kerosene oil.

Explode it did in 1971, 1983-2009 and 2014. The simmering tensions are stoked from time to time by both genies.

The recent picture on social media of a family tree depicting governance and nepotism is a rehash of the 1977 poster to bring J. R. Jayewardene to power. Then the names had ‘B’ instead of ‘R.’

One label that has stuck in my mind is Bandaranaike kakussiya (toilet). With sickening regularity, the accusations of corruption kept well ahead of inflation – now in billions instead of millions.

Pandora’s original box contained sickness, death and many other unspecified evils. In Pandora 2021, the unspecified evils can be explained as the shortage of foreign currency, inflation, import restrictions, accusations of human rights violations and the ever-present threat of purchasing Greek bonds.

In the original story, Hercules came along and cut the chain, and set Prometheus free. There is no Hercules on our horizon; but all is not lost… because at the bottom of Pandora’s box was trapped a little thing called ‘Hope.’

However, hope alone cannot saw through chains. We can’t rely on individuals since they go berserk if left unchecked. The citizens are a modern Hercules and your vote is the wire cutter.

Sir Ivor Jennings once said: “It’s not ingratitude but political maturity, which replaces a Churchill with an Attlee after the war is over.”

The war ended in 2009. And it was political imbecility to empower those two genies.

If the voters do not cut the chain that binds us to the genies of language, religion, race, ethnicity and caste, we too will suffer eternal torment – like Prometheus did.