Shanaka’s Utopia in Melbourne

| by Laksiri Fernando



( December 24, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is a crazy idea but it works. Shanaka Fernando is a Sri Lankan origin migrant living in Melbourne, Australia. Although he is my ‘namesake,’ we are not relatives. I didn’t know him personality until the last meeting and only acquaintance was through information. He perhaps didn’t know about me, but I knew about him because of his ‘Lentil as Anything.’

‘Lentil as Anything’ is a multicultural and refugee friendly ‘not for profit’ restaurant network with three outlets in Melbourne metropolitan area, at St Kilda, Footscray and Abbotsford. ‘Pay as you feel’ is the principle. There is a big wooden box like a till for people to contribute. I had the pleasing opportunity to visit his outlet in Abbotsford, thanks to my friend, Saman Halgamuge (Professor of Engineering at the University of Melbourne). He took me there for lunch when I visited Melbourne recently. I ate the stuff and it was good, rather excellent. We met Shanaka briefly and he was there at Abbotsford.

I asked Shanaka why it is ‘not for profit’ and he said “I believe in people’s honesty and generosity. I trust them. ” Then I quipped, “Is that the case in Sri Lanka?” Then he replied, “That’s in politics, but not in ordinary life.” Although I was not sure about the second remark, or he didn’t either, we kept talking. He had to leave soon as he had to fetch his daughter from school and he is apparently a good family man also.

From all counts, the place appeared Pop, very much similar to some restaurants in Balmain area in Sydney, Inner-West, I am familiar with. I remember a restaurant called ‘death by chocolate,’ some time back, where you can go and pay a sum, I think it was $ 15 that time, and eat or drink as much as chocolates, of different exquisite varieties, as you can. That was like our old Hospital Street Jaffna Hotels in Fort, where we used to go and pay just Rs 1.20 and eat as much as you can.

Shanaka’s joint also reminded me the Jaffna Hotels in another respect. It was completely vegetarian, the animal rights and health matters are all respected. It also reminded me our Parippu, the old delicacy of our childhood. But at ‘Lentils,’ there were all kinds of lentils and many other vegetarian food items. One can also say, it is like a ‘parippu dansala’ but with a difference. Shanaka also brought the concept of ‘dansala’ to the discussion. But obviously complete free meals cannot be served every day and it is not at all necessary in Australia. People are asked to make a reasonable donation. Some apparently give more, some less of the cost. The three restaurants cater to over 3,000 customers per day, Shanaka told us. When we were there at Abbotsford, there were around 100 people eating.

It was a pleasing atmosphere quite serene with the former Abbotsford Convent in the background and being part of the old building. It was a multicultural place in its true sense. There was light music playing, changing from one cultural tradition to the other. ‘OneMan’ Celtic band playing on some days. This is what I heard from others. When we entered, there was a corridor with dim lights and no reception. Walls were decorated with paintings and artefacts of different cultures. Then we turned left to the main serving area with buffet arrangements. Perhaps it was the nun’s old dining room before. There were about fifteen people before us in the queue. We served ourselves our meals from a number of delicious dishes as we liked and several attendants were filling the utensils in a quick succession. We could see the kitchen area behind, several cooks with their white aprons and hoods, like in any other restaurant, attending to their chorus. There was a seating area in the main hall with woodwork tables and benches, but Saman preferred to go outside and sit. There were tables and chairs with umbrellas covering the sun in the advancing summer.

There were waiters or rather waitresses only collecting dishes and used cutlery and cleaning the tables. They also bring water for you if you ask or didn’t collect yourself! The idea is for you to help yourself. I asked Shanaka whether they have ‘too many cooks,’ so to say. Because I have seen a web comment on the venture saying that it once got bankrupt because of debt and the commenter opined perhaps too many people are working at the restaurant. Shanaka said that there are around 150 people working at all three places but half of them are volunteers. They also have trainees to learn professional cooking, catering and other restaurant services. ‘The Lentils’ help the new migrants and refugees, and many others, that way.

‘Lentil’ at St Kilda is where it all started in 2000. St Kilda is situated on one of the picturesque points in the Melbourne Bay not very far from the city. As its website said,

“An idea of meals without borders took root here. ‘Lentil St Kilda’ is a venue where the previously marginalized, fashioned the standard. Care took a new form. Pride, ownership and struggle blended uniquely. Sincerely filled the shoes of convention and Lasagna came with a Roti and Chai. Becky from the Mavis on the coffee-machine – Soma from Sri Lanka at the stove.”

Be sure, ‘Mavis’ is not an unknown country like Sri Lanka, but a pop music group in Victoria. There are many volunteers and social workers involved, but no government or church funding like in other NGOs.

Shanaka Fernando was born to a Sinhalese father and an Irish mother in 1968 and brought up at Thimbirigasyaya, Colombo. He had attended Ananda College like Saman, but much later. It was at the age of 30 that he had moved to Melbourne in 1998 to study law but had dropped out to involve in other adventures including his idea of ‘pay as you please’ restaurant. One time he was living in a tent, along the banks of the Yarra River, but perhaps not during winter! Now he lives in a modest house keeping all doors open, with his second partner, and a daughter and a son. He has extensively travelled in Asia and Latin America and has a deep respect for the indigenous people and the villagers as they live closer to the nature.

Now he is 45, but still young in his ideas and habits. He has always been a party man but not at all taken into drinks or drugs. He rather helps people to move away from those habits. He has an unmistakable penchant for banter and humor and those are a part of his life and ideology. He has also taken into public speaking and even to become an amateur comedian. If the following link could be clicked successfully you may see for yourself of what the man speaks of himself and on social issues. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jodpW59On7g

In many interviews that he has given, Shanaka says that he has a bigoted upbringing in Sri Lanka in his middle class urban family. One is against the Tamils or the minorities as enemies or threats, while the reality was often otherwise. He sadly recollects the events in July 1983. Another one is against the poor and the village people as outcastes or a nuisance. What is lacking is a humanist approach to these issues from the majority and the upper classes. He is in this sense a rebellor (though not correct spelling!) against his own background.

Once he was running a school restaurant successfully. The kids were the most enthusiastic about his concept of ‘pay as you can,’ paying from their meal or pocket money given by the parents. See also the following link to follow the thread of thought. http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=1887
Shanaka as many of his ilk has had ups and downs. In 2007, he was awarded the Australian of the Year. He was running five restaurants and a school canteen. Then came the crunch. There were criticisms, and all about his hypocrisy. Perhaps he was largely misunderstood because of his, sometimes unsavory, jokes. There was an adverse SBS documentary, ‘The Naked Lentil.’ Then he became bankrupt around 2010. Perhaps he lacked enough managerial or business skills. But that was not his interest. During the last two years, however, there is again a resurgence of his concept of lentils or parippu.

I became interested in Shanaka and his ‘Lentils’ because of his Utopian views. I was struck by the fact that many Utopian views since Thomas More (1468-1535) are similar, giving priority to the good side of the human nature, believing in people sometimes quite naively, experimenting things or advocating experiments of new ideas etc. and etc. I also recollect Chalo Mahattaya (Mr. Chalo) at Bulathsinghala in the mid-1960s who advocated ‘governance without a government’ based on community spirit and goodwill of the people. Perhaps he was more of an anarchist than a utopian or anarchism is one trait of utopianism. Many Utopians also were with a high sense of humor; this was there in Thomas More and this is there in Shanaka.

I asked Shanaka whether he has any plans to export the idea to Sri Lanka. He smiled and asked “doesn’t it come from Sri Lanka?” Yes, he is keen in setting up the experiment, if there are good takers to organize. We said (Saman and I) that it can be a part of the reconciliation process where Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims meet and share a meal and ‘reconcile.’ Heated arguments might vain. Shanaka has mentioned that an Irishman came some years back and took the idea into Killarney where it is not called Lentil but “Pay as You Feel” directly. There are of course similar or parallel ventures. Bon Jovi has opened a series of restaurants called ‘Soul Kitchen’ in America. Shanaka has written his biography also called “Lentil as Anything,” subtitled “Everybody Deserves a Place at the Table.”



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