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SONGS FROM THE SOIL

How an anthem about crows became angry Sri Lankans’ favourite chant

Trade Unions in Sri Lanka launch a one-day nationwide strike
REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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Kaputa kaak…kaak kaak…Basil Basil Basil Basil 
Kaputa kaak…kaak kaak…Basil Basil Basil Basil

This chant has risen ceaselessly over the past many weeks from the depths of fury raging in Sri Lanka, a country deep in an economic morass.

In solidarity with thousands of protesters, people now often toot their car horns to the chant’s tune at traffic signals. A locomotive driver was recently filmed sounding the train’s horn that way at a level crossing. At times you hear the chant rising from multiple parts of a neighbourhood at once.

Sometimes protestors simply improvise with their own verses.

For instance, there is “Basil Horaa, Dollar Horaa…Gothabaya Horaa” (“Basil the thief, Gotabaya the thief, dollar thieves…”), ribbing former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa and his brothers, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, over the clan’s alleged corruption.

The refrain, though, is always the ferociously mocking “Kaputa kaak…”

It is not affiliated with any political party or group. It has no known creator and seems to have emerged spontaneously at some point in March 2022. But it has seized the public imagination.

In a few syllables, it summarises the perceived rank indifference and mismanagement that has allegedly brought a once reasonably well-off society to the brink of mass poverty.

“The Rajapaksas are just a bunch of crows,” said Shanti Balasooriya, a factory worker at one of the protests. “Crows that snatch things from people. And it’s time to drive them away.”

Sri Lankans are angry with the Rajapaksas

While protesters, like the ones camped along the streets outside the imposing presidential secretariat in Colombo, want president Rajapaksa, in particular, to resign, their worst is reserved for Basil Rajapaksa, who was Sri Lanka’s finance minister in the run-up to the crisis.

“It’s difficult to explain because it doesn’t translate well,” said Shiran Fonseka, manning a water stall for the demonstrators. “It’s something like ‘Basil the crow cries kaak, kaak, kaak.’

It sounds a bit like a nursery rhyme, which is why it’s so catchy. I think it’s mainly to indicate how ineffectual and out of touch the government is—they are like crows crowing and also, of course, it refers to that video clip.”

Fonseka is referring to a video clip that has re-emerged on social media, and gone viral, since the explosion of protests. It has the former finance minister talking about a serious issue at the Colombo airport: crows flying into planes.

Speaking in English throughout the video, Basil Rajapaksa abruptly employs kaputa, the Sinhalese word for crow, resulting in perfect, though unintended, comic timing.

Portrayed as “a man with seven brains,” Basil Rajapaksa was flaunted by the government as the one who could end Sri Lanka’s economic drift without the IMF’s help or any major reforms.

The video deflated that image unceremoniously. And the kaputa kaak chant quickly became the vehicle of the people’s ager.

“This is very different from Sri Lanka’s traditional protest slogans which tended to be sophisticated and came from well-organised left movements and communist-affiliated parties. This one comes directly from the people,” said ad filmmaker Chintana Dharmadasa.

This is the second article in a three-part series on the economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Read the first one here. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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