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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
Sin-eaters and Snollygosters
4 October 2000
Election season is in full swing in Sri Lanka and two Tamil characters who were not seen in the last 1994 parliamentary election have appeared and working for the beleaguered President Chandrika Kumaratunga. These two characters, namely Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and ex-Chief Minister of North and East, Varadaraja Perumal, fit the descriptions of sin-eater and snollygoster.
According to Brewster's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, sin-eaters were the poor persons hired at funerals in Medieval Times, to eat beside the corpse and so take upon themselves the sins of the diseased, that the soul might be delivered from Purgatory. This tradition of sin-eating has been recorded in England, Ireland, Wales, Eastern Europe and even in India. Though there may be cultural variation, a unifying theme of this job is that, the sin-eaters are poor persons, and because they take others' sins on to themselves, they are generally viewed as unclean and stand outside the general community.
Lakshman Kadirgamar has been functioning as a sin-eater for SLFP in general, and for Chandrika Kumaratunga in particular, since 1994. He is a poor person, not in material wealth or academic qualification, but in ethnic pride. So, he is generally viewed as unclean and stand outside the Tamil community. This is well known to SLFPers as well.
In a verbal onslaught delivered in the Sri Lankan parliament, almost an year ago, none other than Anura Bandaranaike thrashed Kadirgamar's bloated ego with the following lines:
I am no big fan of Anura Bandaranaike. But when it comes to a choice between Kadirgamar and Anura, I would opt for Anura. This is because, despite his deficiencies in academics and politics, he had stood on his legs for over 20 years, and has 'paid his dues' as Americans would say. Opposed to Anura, Kadirgamar is a sin-eater for Chandrika, and I completely agree with Anura's rebuke on Kadirgamar that,
Yes, Kadirgamar has to hang to Chandrika's sari.... But, he has to pay a price for such sari-hanging. As Anura Bandaranaike has stated, Kadirgamar cannot receive a handful of votes on his own anywhere in Sri Lanka. Thus, for nomination into the SLFP's National List, he works hard as a sin-eater beyond the boundaries of Sri Lanka.
On Sept.13, in his capacity as Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka, Kadirgamar had delivered his sin-eating address at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Virginia, USA, in which he had lamented loudly, that 'terrorism is such a permanent personal threat for him that "When we leave home in the morning, there is no guarantee we will return." (Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, 1 October 2000)
Anura Bandaranaike said it correctly an year ago, that "It is Minister Kadirgamar who seeks the cheapest possible headlines and publicity making a right royal mess of our foreign policy and a fool of himself."
One can only soothe the troubled mind of Kadirgamar by reminding him of the Tamil proverb,
A sin-eater of different proportions, V.Perumal, after a decade of dormancy in India has emerged like a hedge-hog to plead for Tamil rights from the SLFP wagon. Former US President Harry Truman had a choice word for the likes of Perumal; a snollygoster. According to William Safire, the noted New York Times columnist and word maven, a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles - in brief, an unprincipled politician. Not many will know that this word also has its derivation from terrorism. The root German word schnelle Geister or 'wild host' refers to 'birds of prey that terrorize man'. Such birds were equated to ostentatious, vociferous politicians.
The games snollygosters play can be called snollygostering. The election carnival in Sri Lanka shows that if snollygostering is declared a competitve sport in Olympics, Sri Lankan politicians will be gold medal winners all the way.