Portrait of an Immortal : Sri Lanka’s eternal elite

srilankan-immortal

His cologne takes your attention before you see him. Forcing your instincts to turn and notice. That his Versace, Patek Phillipe and the rest are real. That you are in the presence of a higher power.

A power that does business with men who toy with the fate of nations. Over food, wine and single malts money can’t buy. At places too exclusive to exist in public. In Geneva, London, New York, Shanghai, Moscow. Wherever billions are quietly made. Without fussing over human rights, ethics, the environment and other trivialities. Meetings reached on a hassle free first world passport. Without sitting among the common cattle in business class.

He knows that in his world, he’s another minor darkie shark. Yet in the small pond of Sri Lanka he tops the power and money food chain. He knows that too. When he shakes your hand you feel it in your bones.

The power is bought with the money. Yet only time you will see it is in a Cartier money clip. The cologne gives a hint about his cars. Though he’s only seen climbing out of some fancy SUV. Always with mute tough chaps in baggy shirts.

You will hear about his toys from other people. The ones who try to show they are his pal. The cars of course. What he has docked on a exclusive Rivera pier. The fab party he had aboard while anchored in Dubrovnik. Or the views from his posh pads around the planet.

Like the Nile, the sources of the money flow behind a fog of respectable vagueness and unverifiable rumour. The respectable part says its family money. New money aged out of its vulgarity. No hint that it ever needed washing.

He’s done wonders investing profits from Thathi’s business they always say. Yes there are companies with places where overseas investors visit. The poor guy has to cart them around. Endure endless receptions and dinners introducing them to politicians. His uncles are on boards of this and that. Lots of dull import export run by cousins in Dubai and Singapore. Or is it Bangkok? One is never sure.

For the rumour part you hear of fingers in every white elephant pie the politicians cook up. Assuming you think our rulers have the brains for fancy schemes of moving money. Perhaps he gives them advice. Introduces them to helpful overseas chums.

Then there are tales of the usual money men in Labuan. Shell companies in the Dutch Antilles. Owned by foundations in Liechtenstein. Links to “investments in the Middle East” are bandied about. He is not the sloppy type. You won’t see his name attached to anything. From Panama or elsewhere.

It’s harder to wonder about such things in his presence. His physique is too distracting. After the ex special forces personal trainers, the supplements, and regular mid mornings in a home gym, it better be. Custom tailoring emphasises his assets to the ladies. Makes boys out of the men. Gossips speak of surgical enhancements. That he never cuts his hair outside Europe. Shocking how uncharitable people are these days.

He isn’t tall. Yet you feel he looms over everyone. It’s his polish. The way he handles and reads people. Becoming whatever the situation expects. The urbane executive of something too important for you to ask about. The perfect putha to the aunties. With astrologers paid to keep them off his back.

His looks are frozen somewhere around thirty. A picture of youth matured by experience. Oozing with confident strength from surviving the ordeal. Yet immortality comes not his looks but from what he does. From the ancient role he plays in the ecosystem of human society. From the eternal class of the connected he joined through daddy’s connections. The connected who leach their powers by hanging around the throne. By being nice to cronies of whoever wears the crown.

Am I being too abstract? This is not a rant about the Illuminati. Just an acknowledgment of the physics of politics, money and the power it buys.

Human societies are hierarchical. Run by small groups of people. Who come and go with the gusts of politics. The immortals avoid politics. Turn access to the top into a strategic advantage. The money such access brings is just a means to an end. Which is the power to rise above the laws, norms and other inconveniences in the mud of “normal life”. The glow of knowing you have God like power to decide how lesser mortals live, starve or define happiness.

In the first world they are the now famous “one percent”. Under anything socialist they are The Party, the Nomenklatura, the Apparatchiks. Celine’s laws, Robert Michels’s Iron Law of Oligarchies, and the field of Elite theory outline this uncomfortable terrain better than I can.

Yet you know that already. If you ever had the privilege of free education in a Sri Lankan boys’ school you know. Even as you deny your knowing. Most seem to accept this as a price of living in a social system. Others aspire to such immortality. A few are already immortal. There are those who rail against the workings of the immortals. A fraction of them take action with meaningful results. Not that I have heard of them or their victories.

Which group do you fall into? Think about it as you sweat in the power cut dark. While the immortals make money to last three generations off the power plant that should be working. Stashed billions all over the world. While your piddling earnings are taxed to pay for generations of “policy” fuck ups. To prop up the organised crime called politics.

Or perhaps it is better not to think about such things. There are no easy “answers” and quick “solutions” to such “problems”. Find refuge in what ever comforts you. Perhaps it a cheaper single malt. Your family. The job that keeps it fed, clothed, housed, educated and cocooned from misfortune. Hobbies. Art. Sex. Wait for the end. Which, as far as this blog post is concerned, is now.

Sri Lankan organisations – Tragic tales

Capsized ship, Kankesanturai Harbour, Sri Lanka

You must have heard the story countless times. A Sri Lankan builds an institution from nothing. It could be a company, government department, an organisation or a movement. Success makes it significant in its field. Then the vultures descend. Ending in a tragic collapse/demise before its time. What survives is the rubble of forgotten achievements. Choked by the weeds of bitter recriminations from those who care to remember.

Before the fall there is the golden age. A flowering of growth, hope, idealism and toil. The founders are diligent. They delegate. They organise. Even create sane standard operating procedures. Thought impossible in the face of the mad variables of Sri Lankan life. Which makes the high standards of their routine work look like miracles. Making it all happen is a loyal smart often idealistic core of true believers. They give it their all for a higher cause.

On the outside the organisation is held in awe – the acceptable expression of envy. Everyone wants a slice of the glory. To stand in its glow. To say: “I work there”. With its growth come more people. Operations expand with growing complexity.

Then things start to go wrong. Sometimes the rot is slow. Other times it’s a sudden train wreck. The core narrative is always described as a clash of personalities. Grim trails of anecdotes of escalating animosity over petty things. Subordinates are forced to pick sides. Personal loyalties become the sole gauge of any decision.

At this stage the facts become hard to find. Interpretations are clouded by who tells the tale. These are littered with familiar characters. The villain who loots the organisation for personal enrichment. The demon whose ego hijacks the whole enterprise. The zero sum clash of geniuses at the top. A failure to admit changes in there organisations’ eco system. The good clueless idealist who did not or could not or would not see the looming iceberg. Of course this person will go down with the ship (note the Titanic reference). The heard of elephants in the room just build and builds. There is always the climatic event when the back breaks. The tradition of these tails demand that one one can agree what that moment is.

Of the cast of minor characters there are a few. The faithful ones who gave it their all only to get burned. They end up as bitter cynics or wounded veterans. The heroes who kept things going to the very end. The stronger/cleaver ones who rode the waves. After the fall they reinvent themselves. They have the resumes and the contacts to fly higher.

Each tale has its own variations. I have kept to the most general descriptions. Which I have overheard too many times from friends of my parents. The uncles in the palace have stories that are a class of their own. The more common stuff get chatted about at weddings, funerals, dinners, post alms giving lunches and late night veranda chats on outstation strips. Nothing brings out stories like armchairs in the shadows of a moonlit night. Perfumed by Lion Lagers and the crash of waves in the breeze.

I doubt that the tragedies of organisations is a purely Sri Lankan thing. No wonder the history of republican Rome seems so familiar. It’s almost Sri Lankan. Have you heard your share of these stories? I hope you are so far lucky like me to avoid experiencing them first hand. The comment box awaits.

Sex Toy Kings: Rural Sri Lanka’s Saviours?

Never got the fingers right

Rural Sri Lanka prospers from global high end Bondage Dominance and Sadomasochism (BDSM) culture. The link is not obvious. Yet it has gone on quietly for decades. As with anything to do with BDSM, the relationship is bound in hidden complexities.

It began years before “50 Shades of Grey” mainstreamed a closeted world. When a Sri Lankan family firm seized control of the world’s high end BDSM apparel and apparatus market. It transformed two cultures which are worlds apart. At one end, the secret bondage dominance and sadomasochist whims of the global elite. At the other, the lives of small hold rubber growers in Sri Lanka’s rural lowlands.

The firm is run by the Desawe brothers. They keep a tight grip on their market lead from a nondescript office in outer Kiribathgoda. With relentless innovation, the quiet trio of brothers tied a secrecy obsessed culture to their distinctive brands.

“Our proven confidentiality is a big selling point to our clients” says CEO Marcus Desawe. Called “The Markie” by his siblings, he setup the company in 1984. His contacts from selling U.S medical equipment to exclusive Middle Eastern clinics gave him access to the region’s elites.

He remains tight lipped about his clientele. Recent Wikileaks releases hint at who they might be. Sheikhs in gulf countries remain major buyers of the Desawe’s high end bespoke products. Penetration of the China market is rumoured to continue at a red hot pace. The same is said of their popularity with the western world’s ultra exclusive dominatrixes.

Selling remains “Markie”’s preserve. The company is compartmentalised into sections. Each run by a designated brother with a specialised skill set. Youngest brother, Justine designs the firm’s vast array of BDSM products. They range from heart stopping attire to complex restraining apparatuses.

Justine joined the family firm after a stint in the Paris fashion world. His design talent flowered into the creative engine of the Desawe brands. He is modest about his work. Which he claims is in “perpetual evolution”. Cutting through them all is an optimum balance of form and function. Graced by his signature style of subtle, intricate traditional Sinhalese motifs.

Bringing these designs to life is Kilesa, middle brother. He is a gruff, pragmatic Soviet trained medical engineer. His expertise building psychiatric restraints and interrogation equipment in the US has found its perfect place in the family firm. He runs all aspects of manufacture down to designing production workflows. It is he who floated the idea of using nano fibres and organic rubber. Thus ensuring the prosperous bulks of high powered persons are supported while they are bound and whipped.

Despite the compartmentalisation, the brothers operate as a tight knit team. Industry insiders say they project a unified Steve Jobs like personality. Which comes out as uncompromising focus on design and quality. This focus has made the Desawes’ the Apple Computer of the BDSM world. The success of their mass produced Libertine brand is the ultimate proof of this analogy. Its products caused a paradigm shift in the BDSM world the way Apple’s “i” products changed personal technology.

The Libertine brand is the public face (if there can be one) of the Desawes’s success. Aimed at the bottom of high end market, it’s financial success benefited from the 50 Shades of Grey. According to Suburban Bondage USA (the lead industry magazine), Libertine brand products are a staple of upper middle class bed rooms in North America, Europe and emerging economy Asia. It’s success is proven by profits and a growing base of loyal customers.

The Libertine brand is also a monument to changing customer values and expectations. The vegan Desawes removed all animal based material from their products. Nano fibre supported organic rubber is the sole primary material. The change caused a total conversion of the world’s Leather culture and the BDSM elite to veganism. All by the sheer quality of the products and simple direct marketing messages.

This conversion demanded a steady supply of high quality organic rubber. The brothers picked a radical course to manage production costs and ensure a reliable supply of quality organic rubber. They built a unique community based system of production. It involved harnessing Sri Lanka’s dwindling small hold rubber growers. The details of the arrangement is steeped in what the brothers call “traditional village temple centred community values”.

The result is a social contract. An intricate flexible web of mutual interdependence between growers and the company. Game theorists marvel at its balance of inducements. Which give grounds for all parties to cooperate. The relationship covers all aspects of rubber production. From planting to processing. As a result, the high quality of the rubber continues rise at a sustainable pace. Growers see consistent increases in their real incomes. Smart use of robust distributed technology keeps production costs low.

“It was all very hard at first” says “Markie” Desawe. The system evolved as many robust systems do, with much trial and error. Problems were dealt with honest and open communication. Making each surmounted obstacle a building block of mutual respect and trust. This relationship thrived despite the upheavals of Sri Lanka’s history.

Some have hailed the system as Sri Lanka’s economic holy grail. THE key for rural Sri Lanka to globalise without compromising its uniqueness. The Desawe brothers are skeptical. What they have built is a unique niche in a niche market. The system requires a high level of personal commitment and integrity. Something not easily possible in Sri Lankan life. What do you think?

What my school taught me – about Sri Lankan rules of power


  1. Seniority is power
  2. Unaccountable brutality is the true measure of “real” power
  3. Power must be demonstrated often – by sudden acts of physical and mental cruelty
  4. The prospect of random cruelty is an essential ingredient of fear
  5. Fear is the only true form of respect
  6. Servility and obedience are the only possible expressions of respect
  7. Kindness: occasional minor acts of mercy by the powerful to prove their confidence. Too many acts of kindness is proof of dimming strength/power
  8. Equality is an illusion created by the dominating few for the dominated many
  9. Among the powerful there are no peers. Only snarling rivals
  10. The powerful are infallible. Specially when they are wrong
  11. Highlighting the mistakes of the powerful (however minor) is an unforgivable insult
  12. In such matters a powerless one is brutalised to save face, increase fear (and thus power)
  13. Brutal public physical and/or verbal humiliation enforces fear (respect)
  14. Discipline is word for brutality used by the powerful
  15. Disobedience is the failure of lessers to meet contradictory rules of their betters
  16. Rules are to be obeyed or not understood
  17. The individual has no rights. Only a duty to obey his betters
  18. Punishments are for getting caught
  19. Smallest infractions are harshly punished to maintain discipline (fear) and face
  20. Rules create a market for exemptions.
  21. Servility is the currency for buying exemptions
  22. Patronage is developed through servility. It is key to survival and becoming powerful
  23. Tradition is the repetition of meaningless rituals over time
  24. The purpose of tradition is to numb and groom lessers for greater servility
  25. The rituals of tradition creates a language and opportunities to negotiate patronage deals between lessers and their betters
  26. Ideals are for sermons, institutional songs and justifying traditions entombed in silly Pali/Latin mottos
  27. The school song is the ultimate meaningless ritual and symbol of hypocrisy

The list goes on. I’m sure some of you old boys you are already hot under the collar.

Yes yes it is very wrong, long and horrible. But you get the drift. With enough good single malts I’ll bang out a longer list. I prefer not to. Feel free to contribute. I went to an all boys school. Perhaps the girls had it different.

My childhood in Sri Lanka’s free colonial eduction system gave me many gifts. A refined sense of cynicism. An appreciation for the absurd brutality of life. I learned to become invisible in the plain sight of authority. Mastered the masks for appearing bland, conformist, compliant, obedient. A good boy they patted. Not a trouble maker. They never knew of the books I read. Or what I thought.

I could have scrawled something subversive on the walls. Shocked them all and faced the caning in stoic defiance. I was too dim for such bravery. It would not have mattered anyway. I should have departed but didn’t think it was an option. I learned the rules to survive. Yet refused to thrive from that learning. I could have paid a worse price.

This learning saved me from being disappointed by the world. The shock at its natural evil. The inevitable human failures. Yes yes it is all very shocking and appalling they say looking at the news. Then go back to their breakfasts. Turning the page. Changie the channel. What do they know of history? It could be worse.

I like to think I have a healthy skepticism of my cynicism. It lets me appreciate the ultimate works of art – acts of kindness, however small. Preserves my emotional energy for positive things. For the bad stuff, a cold and calculating approach. When I read 1984 I pitied Winston Smith for lacking my education.

Sri Lanka is approaching another turning point in its history. I feel oddly calm about the approaching train. The only fear I have is for the personal dangers people face. Specially during times of uncertainty. When the powerful will do any cruelty to preserve themselves. I hope we all make it through this round of history without sorrow.

Be well, do good work and keep in touch 1. May you be happy and free of suffering.

Postscript

This post was written before the famous What Your Schools Didn’t Teach You word grenade was hurled by Thisuri Wanniarachchi. Certainly before Rothbourne’s response. Another good contribution to the discussion is Shailendree’s “What schools should teach us” .

Thisuri’s post was published in the mainstream media. It triggered quite a storm in the tea cup of the Sri Lankan Internet. All of it got washed away in the next week’s online outburst. At least the “What Your Schools Did/Didn’t Teach Ye” exchange jolted some interesting discussions. My post had nothing to do with any of it.

9th blog aniversary

Kottu sign, Baseline road Colombo

I started blogging 9 years ago today. I write that in a state of mild disbelief. It’s not a big deal. Two posts a month is all I can manage. Stretching the definition of whether I’m a blogger or someone with a blog. An irrelevant academic question. What matters is the result of writing something on a regular basis for nine years. Logic says I should have improved. My bias claims the opposite. So I’ll let you decide in the comment box below.

The compulsion to write what the voices dictate make my opinion irrelevant. Among those compulsions are these anniversary posts. With the traditional link to my 1st blog post. Why? Tradition dear boy. Tradition.

Instead of the usual tedious thank yous’ and the navel gazing I thought I’ll offer a personal narrative of kottu.org. A site that’s always been part of my blogging life. I began writing is at Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s prodding a long while back.

kottu.org a Personal History

In the beginning, the Sri Lankan blogosphere was a smatter of blogs. Then there was kottu.org (more on that later) and The War. Thankfully The War ended. Many blogs suddenly had little to say and died. Or moved to Twitter.

Thus the Sri Lankan blogging completed a cycle as a medium. Returning shrivelled, quiet and scattered to its original form. A fringe medium. Ignored by the majority of the Sri Lankans for its irrelevance in their lives.

I rode that turn of the chakra when I started blogging in early 2007. The golden age of Sri Lankan blogging had just started to flare. I got a front row seat to its goings on. It was an interesting ride.

Central to that ride was blog aggregator kottu.org. It was becoming the central square of the Sri Lankan blogosphere when I arrived. I wrote a post about kottu.orgthat covers the details. Founded (and still maintained) by the grand old man of Sri Lankan blogging, Kottu.org was not the first Sri Lankan blog aggregator. Just the one that hung on long enough to gather a following.

It offered the convenience of seeing what the other bloggers were writing about at a glance. To join all it took was an email to its creator. At its peak, kottu.org had the vibe of an old time online forum. Incendiary posts from one blogger triggering responses from others. A cornerstone of the Sri Lankan blogosphere were its prominent bloggers. They had a talent for setting comment feeds on fire. I won’t bore you with a list.

The War more than just cheap fuel for flammable writing. It became the Sri Lankan blogosphere’s central theme. At a time when being part of anything online was the privy of the few. The few with Internet access for personal stuff and the confidence to strut their English (Sinhala fonts and blogging platforms had barely met).

The ant called the Sri Lankan blogosphere then as now, had little to do with the elephant of mainstream (print) media. Accept for an occasional clash. When blogs became free content streams for newspapers to plagiarise to fill Sunday feature pages. The “articles” would be “credited” with the blogger’s handle without even the curtsy of a request for permission. The supposed justification was that because it’s on the Internet, copyright didn’t apply. It’s just copy-paste. What are you complaining about.

As internet access seeped through the tiny digital part of Sri Lankan society, the blogosphere became, for a moment, a social media platform. Facebook hadn’t reached critical mass. People were still head scratching about Twitter. Instagram was just another blog post with a photo.

Then the bomb of peace blew it all away. After the final blog fights over what was going on on the beaches of Mulativu, faded, things went quiet. Facebook and Twitter came to the fore. Short blurts on both platforms were easier than labouring over long form writing. Which few people read (according to the stats). Thus the Sri Lankan blogosphere slid deeper into the irrelevance from which it came.

Despite writing this post I’m not nostalgic. What I miss most of that time is having a good pile of interest in things to read. Local, topical and readably written. Stuff like that is still around. I just have less time to sniff around for it.

Change is the only constant. Which is how things stay more or less the same. While giving us the wrong idea of what the change is. For a more analytical take on kottu.org read Yudhanjaya’s post on the subject.