Manel by another name will not smell as sweet

| by Gamini Weerakoon

(September 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) We have often in this column referred to Sri Lanka as the Land of the Lotus Eaters. Not that we are any less patriotic than those fire breathing Hela Urumaya types who claim to be the sole agents of patriotism. But we find it hard to refrain from commenting on those who are quite happy with life in Sri Lanka, splitting hairs on esoteric issues while the flames are raging around us.

The term Lotus Eaters refers in Greek mythology to an island of people drugged and indolent who are quite happy with their way of life, eating Lotuses which is said to have produced the euphoria.

Grease Yakkas

Right now in some regions of this once happy isle the people are scared out of their wits, particularly in the North and East about Grease Yakkas. Travellers from the peninsula tell us of women, children and even men being afraid to go out in the dark because they have often encountered this greased devil. You cannot catch the Yakka yourself and collective community efforts have often led to disaster such as when an entire neighbourhood chased a Yakka into an army camp. Whether a Yakka has been caught and prosecuted in courts we have yet to hear of. There seems to be no great hurry about Yakkas scaring the northerners.

Land grabbing Yakkas

Those in most parts of the country fear another Yakka – a land grabbing Yakka. Many stories have we heard of Sri Lankans who fear that their ancestral property and lands may overnight be occupied and claimed by unknown people who could produce deeds from the Land Registry to prove that the hapless individual’s lands and houses are theirs. The police have quite often washed their hands off the complaints claiming them to be ‘civil matters’ and the victims are asked to seek ‘relief’ in courts but this ‘relief’ comes only after years after they have been relieved of much of their income by their lawyers. Land Yakkas have been going from strength to strength.

Municipal Yakkas

Then there are the municipal elections which those concerned say would be the last chance for democracy. The UNP is crying out in all its fury about the ‘militarisation of the Town Hall’. They are supposed to be beautifying Colombo, showcasing it as the ‘Miracle of Asia’. Boundary walls are being pulled down to display colonial buildings in ‘vista vision’. Ancient trees are being chopped down, pavements are being lined with arty concrete slabs made to order. Most of it is in Colombo Seven. But then Rome was not built in a day say some.

Cool baby cool

Be it any other form of devil most of us take it easy or keep it ‘cool’ as the modern lingo goes. Right now at Pallekele the Australians have let loose their pace devils sending the pride of Sri Lanka back to the pavilion before lunch as this column is being written. But are we worried? No! No! The Pallekele crowds we hear chanting in Sinhala: Nava gilunath band chune. Langin giyoth ehak na. (The band will play even if the ship sinks but if you pass close by an eye may go missing).

The National Fixation

The finest and the closest example of Lotus Eating in present times is the botanical/scientific/ linguistic debate going on about the ‘National Flower’.

Sri Lankans being fervent nationalists have our National Animal – the lion of course that adorns our National Flag. Any other suggestion – even though fossil records do not show existence of lions in Lanka at any time – is to ask for mayhem and countrywide riots.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa who had a fixation about naming things national – probably with the idea of going down in history as the originator of national nomenclature – named Na [ Ironwood tree]–botanical name (Meusa ferrea) as the National Tree. It does seem that a Portuguese had beaten us to the botanical name but never mind. Premadasa then chose the beautiful Blue Water Lilly (Sinhala name Nil Manel) as the national flower. It is the botanical name that would identify the correct species – the Nil Manel – chosen by Premadasa is what this National Debate is all about.

Manel – flora and fauna

If we may be permitted to digress a little from botany, Manel is also the name of thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of girls, some beautiful others not as beautiful. We know of many a young buck in their salad days who got confused about many Manels around and found themselves in very hot water. Imagine writing a letter with all the passionate exuberance of youth to the wrong Manel and being discovered!

Getting back to botany, two university dons (husband and wife) Kapila Yakandawala and Deepthi Yakandawala after much research have found out that in the booklet, published during the days of President Premadasa by the Central Environment Authority, has the wrong picture of the Blue Manel. Sri Lanka has been using a picture of not Nymphaea nouchali (the botanical name given to the flower) but has instead been using pictures of Nymphaea carpensis, Nymphaea caerulea or even a hybrid Nymphaea micrantha not native to Sri Lanka, the two university dons have been quoted saying in a newspaper article.


Terminological inexactitudes may be summarily dismissed by politicians as Winston Churchill did in a debate in the House of Commons when Clement Atlee used the term ‘occupation units’ to describe houses but to botanists it will be a very serious matter.

It will also be a very serious matter for two legged Manels too. Imagine one Manel being confused and identified as another Manel!

Even though we did spend some time in the University of Ceylon four decades ago trying to fathom why frogs fornicate and conifers mate we did not get to the stage how Nil Manel propagates – whether by pollination or some other device. But if it has produced a hybrid species Nymphaea Micrantha, (as the two dons have said) our Nil Manel has not been patriotic or nationalist mixing up with foreign species and does it deserve to be the National Flower?

Manels and Roses

A reader of another paper strikes a poetic note and says the name Manel, be it light blue (Nil) or dark blue (Thad) will not matter. At the end of the day a Manel will remain a Manel.

He is going back to Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet: ‘A rose by any other name will smell as sweet’.

But roses are not considered as sweetly today as in the days of the English bard in some of Lanka’s political parties. Every rose has a thorn says one faction of the party while another says: Every thorn has a rose.

Roses may be close to the hearts of Englishmen. But Manel is closer to the stout hearts of Sri Lankans. That is why President Rajapaksa has appointed a ten member high powered committee headed by the Secretary of the Ministry for the Environment to resolve the issue. Other problems can wait.

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