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The Everyday Person and the Identity Card

Kapila Kumara Kalinga

Some people say that a Chinese woman who is lost among men in a city might find it challenging to find her husband because all Chinese men are alike. But, Chinese people face no such problems. They can easily distinguish differences, although others cannot. 

We must not be too proud of our faces and appearance. When we go to India, any Sri Lankan is misidentified as Indian, as I have personally experienced several times. We are different from them only by language.  

I first went to India to participate in an annual conference of journalists. A journalist from a remote state talked to me in a non-Hindi language misidentifying my ethnicity during a break. I answered him with yes and no and avoided meeting him after that. He might have known later that I was a Sri Lankan when the journalists from my country were called to the stage for a photoshoot. He too, limited his relationship with me to a smile after that. I still do not know what language that older person spoke. He surely thought I belonged to an ethnic community who spoke his language. 

Some Indians were curious about my name also. They told me that all three parts of my name were Indian. I did not argue because they were correct. I also looked like an Indian.

Indians called me Kapil. An Indian woman once called me Kapilaa. I did not worry because a name is needed for a man only to differ from others. 

During school time, a teacher called me KKK using my initials.  In the US, KKK stands for Ku Klux Klan, a white, racist and extremist group. 

Sri Lankans began to use the national identity card in the 1970s, when I was a schoolboy. Before that, identity cards were issued by the Postal Department, and we used them for sitting for the G.C.E. examinations. 

During troubled times like the JVP insurrection and the 30-year war , the National Identity Card was an essential tool, and had to be kept at hand to be shown whenever asked. Those who had no identity cards were in trouble. Since the JVP collected people’s identity cards during the night, people had to surrender them. Obtaining a new identity card is a time-consuming endeavour. 

Humans created the name, birth certificate, as well as identity card for social requirements. 

However, like the common Chinaman in the initial anecdote, many other everyday people are scattered around the globe. Although they have different skin colours, speak different languages and belong to diverse cultures, they have red blood and respond to joy, sorrow and pain in the same way. All are driven by the same things: love, anger, jealousy and desire. 

Is there a physical difference between a Nigerian and a Kenyan? We cannot differentiate Singapore, Korea or Chinese nationals in the same way. Since we are not anthropologists, we cannot identify the subtle changes in human features. We need so-called national costumes, ornaments and other cultural outfits to show our identity.  

A Sinhala man quickly looks like a Tamil when he wears Tamil Verti and Vibhuthi ash lines on his forehead. Tamils can be made lookalikes of the Sinhalese in the same way. 

Once, a colleague of the advertising company where I worked attended a seminar wearing a salwar. A Muslim participant talked to her in the Tamil language, misidentifying her as a Malay woman. Queen Elizabeth may also look like a Muslim if she wears a Burqa or Niqab.

Veteran writer Ivan Alwis recently completed work on his autobiography. I read his manuscript and noted a part with a comical tone but with hidden meaning. 

Ivan had to support an international media team that looked into the life of the Tamil population in the plantations. Before going to the estates, a discussion was held between the media team and Fr. Paul Caspersz at Satyodaya Centre in Bahirawakanda, Kandy. Veteran musician Hague Karunarathna also participated. 

After describing his experiences with the Upcountry Tamil people for about an hour, Fr. Caspersz opened the floor for questions. 

A journalist asked whether there is any physical difference that is useful to specifically identify the Upcountry Tamils. 

Fr. Casperz pointed to Ivan Silva and said he was a Sinhalese. He pointed his finger to Hague, who was also a Sinhalese but told that he was a Tamil.

“Look at the difference,” Fr. Casperz asked. 

Both people were alike. Their height and skin colour were very similar. 

Hague was confused. Ivan was looking at the floor, tightening his lips to stop the laugh. The cameras documented everything. 

Fr. Casperz made them Sinhala and Tamil models within seconds. 

Once, I wrote a docudrama script on plantation workers, directed by Christy Shelton Fernando. For our ease, we used veteran actor H.A. Perera for the role of a Tamil worker. 

When the make-up artist Buddhi Galappaththi finished his work, the turban-wearing H.A. Perera could not be distinguished from the other actual estate workers. 

The only teacher of an estate school travelled from Matale to the school on the bus. He was a newcomer to the school and did not know the individual estate workers. He misidentified H.A. from the beginning as a Tamil estate worker. H.A. could speak a little Tamil, but he refrained from it.

The teacher was also invited to lunch by the Superintendent of the estate. The Tamil teacher was perplexed to see a Tamil estate worker sit at the dining table and talk to the superintendent in Sinhala. 

The next incident was some trouble I had to face. I visited the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation quite often as a script writer and a relief producer. I had many friends at SLBC, including famous mandolin player Anthony Surendra. 

One day, we were talking near the reception desk. A middle-aged man wearing a sarong and a shirt came over to us. He looked at us and sought help to fill the funeral announcement form in Tamil. 

Surendra is a Colombo-born Tamilian, while I am a Kandy-born Sinhalese. For that humble man, I looked more Tamil than Surendra. Surendra did not laugh and opted to help him instead. We still recount this incident whenever we meet. 

The entire human population in the world is one family. They should have only one identity and identity card. That is humanity. 

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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