Nikan Ava - A reflection on Sri Lankan rural life
by E.M.G. Edirisinghe
Nikan Ava is a commonly used Sinhala phrase found rooted in our society, more particularly in the village. Etymologically, it means Na-Kamma - Ni-kam - Nikan = no work or without work. So "Nikan ava" means Na-Kamma - Ni-kam - Nikan = no work or without work. So "Nikan ava" means "came for no reason" or "came for no purpose", and more cogently " came as there is no other specific work".
No English equivalent for this magnificent Sinhala idiom is possible to catch its meaning, mood and the cultural content. Our cultural format being basically different from that of the popular English, such a succinct expression is idiomatically difficult. It reflects the philosophy as well as the social structure of our indigenous life with a rich past.
"Nikan ava" is always uttered in answer to a blunt and open query like "why did you come?" or "what brought you here?" This query is never made on a highway or at another place where one doesn't feel at home. No person visits any home for no purpose or no reason. It could be either to seek a favour or in the spirit of perpetuating friendly relations. But, if questioned as to why one had come, rightly the answer would be ""Nikan ava".
Generally, the villagers are very cautious before revealing the purpose or the job for which they have come to a place. They first assess the situation at the host-home and measure up conviviality in the environment whether the one whom the visitor wants to meet is in an amiable frame of mind or there are others whom he does not want to hear about, what he will talk, request or complain of.
Only on finding on overall assessment that the atmosphere is conducive to convey the purpose for which he came, he comes out with what he wants. By this time the host too is attuned to a mood to accommodate, reject or receive his request or complain.
In the meantime, as they become familiar with each other's moods and manners, the host is in the right frame of mind to assess and guess the guest's purpose of the visit. If he is unwilling or unable to accede, he immediately turn to caution an evasion.
For instance, if he senses that he had come for a cash loan, his reaction would be to reveal his financial difficulties. On this communication, without hurting the feelings of the other, the transaction is complete. Getting the message in its right spirit, he leaves promising to come later with good relations between the two families continuing to remain unshaken.
Then, there are other instance of someone, when asked "What are you doing?", replying "Nikan innawa" (I say doing nothing). This is entirely a different position from "Nikan ava". It means he is "without work" or "free of work".
For instance, there are periods when the farmers are free of work (such as immediately after harvesting, sowing or weeding). On the other hand, sporadically employed but socially important segments like drummers, dancers, charmers etc. are also without work when they are not engaged for services. Thus all such utterances by the native villager are well-meaning and perfectly relevant to the rural background which sustains him.
So, it is this period of time without work that makes the villagers, everyone of them, to congregate or join hands at the temple ceremonies, weddings, funerals thovils etc. where everybody contributes their mite for the success of the event. Besides, when they are "free", they chat and laugh freely and heartily which greatly helps them to reduce the rate of crimes in the villages.
The things today, run in the opposite direction. Television, politics, alcoholism, consumerism and the war have devoured the rural culture and devalued the importance of moral content in life while leaping to materialism has caused ghastly, beastly crimes of unimaginable magnitude.
"For the most mediocre native, Buddha's doctrine of cognition is a matter of course, but not so for the Westerner", so says Count Hermann Keeperling. However, it is no more so now. Viles of materialism had been supplanted upon their simple lifestyle and modest living. They are on a wild chase of various gods and deities to appeal for mundane comforts. They are in constant address to them for favours for redress on social and personal crimes.
Gone are the days when they believed the gods above would protect the righteous one without any graft, craft or gift in the form of offering currency notes, trays of fruits and cheap garlands from sinful mortals.
Do our villagers rather subliminally happen to just be than doing? And, is "Nikan ava" a mere reflection of that mental disposition? The magnificent monuments standing to the glory of ancient Lanka speaks otherwise.
How strong, intelligent and resourceful they were! Even when they were looking after a chena, riding a cart or harvesting a crop, instead of idling, they used to recite folk poems glorifying the virtues in life or explaining the difficulties of their job. But, they never condemned work itself.
Their simple and modest living was conditional and patterned by the middle-path expounded by the Buddha.
Being unaccustomed to saving within the modern financial discipline, yet they are used to traditional forms of saving. Unlike in the West where the workers have to earn and save for the winter too, it's summer here everyday. Therefore the idea of saving here differs from that of the West.
The habit of savings among the Lankans exists in the form of investment in a large family, teaching the traditional professions of the parents, helping to bring up their grandchildren etc.
In the West, most of the parents in their old-age, spend their time at homes-for-the-aged where in Sri lanka, the tradition is that the children should look after them at home.
For them, saving in the material sense is confined to saving the excess of the harvest because the fertility of soil and abundance of rain provide sufficiently to the people who till the land.
Basically, the Sri Lankans are not workaholics. They are easy-going and much relaxed, and that's why they have all the time to smile all the while which keeps the visitors bemused and enchanted. Perhaps workaholism would have produced broken families and single-parent children in the West more than in any other part of the world. Much publicised Sri Lankan unpunctuality is predicated by the pace of agricultural social norms which demand or need no exact time-sensitivity but only a time-frame.
They know by tradition when to harvest, sow or plough. They know when do the rains come or the New Year or Vesak dawns. This sense of period rather than knowledge of the exact time has moulded Lankans into a community sharing the responsibility and pleasure of all functions, festivals, funerals, rituals together breathing the necessary vitality to rural life.
A festival like Kohomba Kankariya or the customary new year is celebrated for days because the entire village takes part in it. These traditions make the people work in co-operation with one another, teaching each to feel for the other as well.
The fact that the Sri Lankans are not at all in a hurry is a psychological State formulated and fortified by Buddhism in its understanding of prolonged existence in Samsara.