One of the more notable lay activities during the main Poya days is the dansala. Generally conducted in urban settings, soup kitchens of sorts, these are open houses where those passing by are assured of some victuals, even a proper meal in some places.
The intention, on the face of it, is generous. In any society, there are the prosperous and there are the poor; what can be more meritorious than the former donating some food to the needy, if not consistently, at least on a special day. In every religion, giving has a special place. It has been specially extolled in Buddhism, not only the giving of money and material; but of your time, prospects and even of self, if required. Although many of them rank among the poorer nations, countries with Buddhist majorities like Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand score high in the ‘giving index’.
In these convoluted times it can happen that ‘giving’ can become a mindless exercise, driven by other motivations, something done for effect; launched with fanfare, conducted with an unseemly loudness, with maximum attention drawn to the ‘giver’. And if an activity with a religious element is carried on for long enough, time will surely sanctify it.
Down the Colombo street where I live there are three dansalas held, or have been held, unfailingly for three years now. The first is sponsored by a well-heeled doctor with a lucrative general practice in the suburbs. Having prospered, he moved into the city a few years ago, building a fortress like house on the newly purchased land. He is a successful doctor, apparently in the suburb where he practices referred to with awe as ‘one shot’. I am not very certain why this sobriquet is used on him, perhaps his prescriptions result in immediate relief to the curable, while the incurable are dispatched forthwith.
You would have thought that his professional exertions alone would be good enough; ending of pain, curing the sick being very high in the hierarchy of meritorious deeds. But the good doctor wants to do more, there is the sick and there is also the hungry; the idea of a dansala, when hundreds line up in front of his house for the food, their thankful murmurs permeating the air, is irresistible. The act of curing is private, between the doctor and the patient inside a consulting room. But a dansala is a public act of charity, the gratitude of the masses is palpable.
Doctor’s ice-cream dansala
His dansala gives ice cream, from the aspect of organising, perhaps an easier option. It takes only minimum effort to arrange for the ice cream and the edible cone in which it is served. The launching of the dansala is announced, like most public functions in this country, with loud crackers, sustained for about five minutes. It takes a little longer for the dogs, panicked by the noise to stop their howling. Attracted by the free ice cream passing vehicles of all descriptions; massive four-wheel drives, three-wheelers, and motorcycles stop haphazardly, blocking driveways and even the road. Some walk away with several ice cream cones in their hands, ‘for those at home’, they explain, needlessly.
The doctor has arranged for a lot of ice cream, the dansala goes on for a good three hours. There are several helping out; merit earned is generously shared. It is not only the financier who stands to benefit in the afterlife.
Now in our more enlightened times, sugar is considered a dangerous enemy of good health as much as alcohol and tobacco. A doctor who smokes may be like an overweight physical trainer, a contradiction of his calling. How about the medical profession promoting sugary foods?
Tavern’s bread and seeni sambol dansala
The second dansala is sponsored by the prominent tavern in the area. It is commonly said that powerful political figures are behind it, a belief supported by the indifference of the regulators to a hooch business emerging suddenly in a residential area with several religious and educational institutions within touching distance. Go in any time to the bar and you will see men bombed out with booze, inelegantly slumped on their seats.
Once a year the tavern hosts a dansala, bread and ‘seeni sambol’ doled out to those passing by. This dansala is launched with a religious ceremony, with officiating priests. While the food lasts there is loud music for the diners. Next morning the Abans cleaners confront a road overwhelmed with plastic bags, pieces of bread and empty water bottles.
Three-wheel stand’s fried rice dansala
There are no rich sponsors for the third dansala which is hosted by the nearby three-wheel stand. Young three-wheel drivers go around before-hand with a list, giving the fund collecting exercise a certain accounting legitimacy. In addition to the merit earned, the donors are also invited to partake of the fried rice. Those who give large donations need not stand in line.
For the flotsam and jetsam the fare served at a dansala is immaterial; they are indifferent to the goodness of the food or the hygiene of its preparation; it is the occasion, the noise, the throng; a participation that thrills. By any reckoning the eager partakers are not destitute, most of them are probably better off than the three-wheel drivers and more educated than the bar keeper. But there is a poverty, a lack; apparent, but difficult to pin down.
How about dansalas for elders’ homes?
A few weeks back, I was at a home for the elderly where a meal for the inmates was sponsored. Nearly all inmates were afflicted with some form of health issue, given their age, only to be expected. The home was basic; there were no provisions for special care, which some of the inmates clearly needed. On inquiring we were shown an unprepossessing middle aged man as the person in charge of administering medicine, which had to be provided by the family of the inmates. It was obvious that only a perfunctory attempt was made to keep the place clean; I suspect the home was hastily cleaned that morning in anticipation of our visit. Yet the smell of rotting cabbage, mildew and stale sweat that clung to the place could not be removed. I peeped into the kitchen, a sight of unwashed utensils and plates. There was a large cat lying on a table.
The meal we served was partaken with obvious appreciation. You could tell that the richer offerings, the pastas, the puddings, were familiar to some of the inmates who, despite themselves relished the fare. Perhaps they were reminded of happier days when such foods were a regular part of their lives.
Talking to the inmates was revealing of lives once full of hope and expectations. The tedium of their present existence can only be explained in terms of life’s uncertainties. In their productive years it would have been unimaginable that their last years would be spent in such a place.
Typical of their life stories is that of the former bank manager. His career began as a clerk at a government bank. The man worked hard, sat his banking exams and eventually ended up as a branch manager. He obtained a loan on concessionary terms with which he built a house on a land owned by his wife. On completion, the house was gifted to the daughter, their only child. After the passing of his wife the daughter had looked after him. Eventually the daughter got married to a Sri Lankan domiciled in Australia and the house was considered her dowry. Her husband wanted to buy a house in Australia and in order to meet him half way she sold the property and took the money with her. The retired banker moved to a rented house. He still had some savings with him.
Some years later the daughter’s marriage broke up. She had two children by then and needed money urgently. The father dipped into his savings and was eventually compelled to move into this home. His daughter has put in the papers for him to join her in Australia and he is hopeful of joining her soon. That day for him will be a joyful escape from the surrounding air of defeat, dejection and hopelessness.
There are no dansalas in these homes; there should be, not only providing those stranded in these cheerless places with good meals, but also bringing some light and happiness to their dreary lives again.