It was a slow afternoon, at the market, date Saturday 8 December. The Saturday morning rush was over, and there were plenty of parking places. As I wandered over to my favourite vegetable sellers, there was a heated discussion going on. Just across from the veg stall, the lady who sells bananas was reading from the popular Sinhala daily “Lankadeepa” the lead story.
The banner headline was visible and said “ 3 Districts in danger in another 30 years: Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Hambantota – No rice farming and parts of Colombo will go under water.” As the lady continued to read the article most sellers at the market could not understand how the rising temperatures will in turn cause rising sea levels and the coastal towns being submerged. But what’s that got to do with Anuradhapura, and Polonnaruwa was the question — One bewildered guy said “there is no sea in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa—so how can rice farming be affected.” Another man shouted “You idiot, the sea is under those cities too!”
With patience that comes with age and wisdom, the lady went on to explain how the drying up of water resources will affect the farmers in the dry zone, and the possibilities of those cities turning into deserts. Quoting the paper she said that there was a need to come up with newer less water dependent varieties of rice for planting.
Totally fascinated by this discussion I went over to speak to the neatly dressed lady – Obviously, educated, quite well read, what’s she doing selling bananas I asked myself.
Her smile was quizzical, eyes bright, her name Gallage Sriyawathi. Born in Poregedera, Padukka she had been a bright student at the Padukka Kotiyangoda Maha Vidyalaya. She had obtained what in today’s terms a pass at the the ‘O”’ level exam, passing 8 or so subjects including English, Mathematics, Geography, History, Literature, Sinhalese, and had even done a short hand and typing course. Her one ambition was to be a Policewoman.
But her dreams were quashed by her parents who put their foot down and said No, no, no – no daughter of theirs was going to be a copwoman. She was told that she was educated so she would know to read a prescription etc, but not to go to work. Totally dejected she had refused to continue her studies and so was married off at 21 years and went to live in Rathmalgoda, Horana. A common story no doubt of the fate met by quite a few smart women in the country.
Nearly two months later today, I found her still reading her favourite paper. Now 65 years old she has five children and says she has lost her English skills. Life is not easy for her as she leaves home at 5:15 am to get to market to set up her stall. Sriyawathi says she earns anything from LKR10,000 to LKR 15,000 ( approx US$100-150) per month and that is without accounting for her travel costs.
I couldn’t help but think if she was in the Police, she would be earning a pension and reading her newspapers from an easy chair.
Text and All photographs© Chulie de Silva