Rum-inations-by Somasiri Devendra

Rum-inations-by Somasiri Devendra




Somasiri Devendra was an undergraduate at Peradeniya when Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, declared it “more open than usual”. Recalling this, Devendra decided to be “more retired than usual” at age 88. To take retirement seriously. (Or not so seriously. Whatever.)

COVID had imposed its own sanctions, but “COVID does not a prison make, nor curfew a cage”. As long as the mind was free, so was he.

He let it free to scroll through his life – as teacher, naval officer, stockbroker, maritime archaeologist, naval historian, boat ethnographer, writer, and inquisitive schoolboy.

And thus emerged this journal of ‘The mind on holiday’.


Snowed in by COVID-19, I sit out in my garden. I am lucky to have a 20ft broad strip of (burnt out by the sun) ‘grass’ between the house and the perimeter wall. I am one of the lucky ones. At about five in the evening I haul out a chair to cool the sweating skin and watch: somebody’s pigeons released for their evening’s constitutional ‘pyrne in the gyre’; water birds going home to roost at the zoo; the early flying foxes; a couple of bulbuls; kohas; a kaputa balayaalu kobeyyas. Crows and, of course, loud little battichchas.

Today I have had the luxury of a drink after many days. Mihiri has brought me a bottle of red Rum from the factory she visited in Bundaberg, Australia. Not my favourite drink, but I got a bottle of Coke, so that will do.

Something there is in a snifter of alcohol that makes you philosophical. I cannot but think of the man-made trouble that is fencing us in. Polythene is the culprit but I think that there is no way we can really live without it. It is one of the great inventions that we cannot un-invent. Too much of our way of life depends on it. No alternatives can be found in the quantities required. So, what to do?

Find a better way of disposing it or of breaking it down. You can sell that idea to capitalists easier than asking them to look for alternatives. Manufacturers will be willing to invest in a new ‘product line’ (of research/development/business) and push their existing production lines into a siding (out sight, out of mind). Give them a profit motive and something concrete can result.

What other inventions can we not un-invent? Electronic/digital communications. Pills to pop. All forms of cooking other than by firewood. Canned and processed food. Commercialized/Institutionalized Medicine and Hospitals. Water on tap. Supermarkets by the yard. Cars in the garage.

When we bought this house a near 50 years ago it was a good buy. No telephone (but available at a neighbour’s house). Cooking by firewood. Water on tap, recently added, but a well still there. We had a ’frig. And electricity. One toilet. Family Doctor (for all ailments) round the corner. ‘Pola’ round the other corner. Bakery round yet another corner. Fish and other perishables delivered to the door.

THEN: House + water service + electricity = sufficient unto the day.

Look at post-COVID today. A mixed-grill. Supermarkets gone. Family and other doctors too scarce. Bakery not functioning. Power and water still there. All sorts of goods once again delivered to the door.

NOW: Communications + Home-deliveries = sufficient unto the day.

Makes me think. Not quite impossible to go back to simpler lifestyles with better utilization of resources that cannot be un-invented. Making optimum use of three-wheelers for essential trips, ordering things for home delivery (keeps you from loafing around, going shopping/marketing by car, going for meetings, lectures, weddings, funerals, birthday parties). Use the phone, WhatsApp, Viber. Keep in touch. Sell the car. Put old fogeys to grass. Invest in young people, computers.

It’s a Rum do, all right. No, I’m not on to another drink: one would do. One makes me philosophic, more makes me maudlin. (Though I remember with relish the Appleton Estate Rum I had in Jamaica: it needs no chaser!)

Back to philosophy. All things are made up of the ‘elements’ and ‘humours’. What are the five elements? Scratched my head but could remember only four – earth, water, fire and air. Looked at it from all angles but could not spot a fifth. So I Google-d it. Apparently it’s something not quite material: Aristotle called it ‘Aether’, Hindus ‘Akasha’ (Void), Buddhists ‘Mind’, Tibetans ‘Space’. Therefore, when we die, our early body breaks down into four elements, not five.

Aether, Akasha, Void, Space, Mind are indestructible. Not plastics. Ergo, plastics are destructible. So we should be able to work towards break-down. A-ha! Let’s get on with it!

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