The Lives Behind the Bang
By Shanuka Kadupitiyage
After a lacklustre New Year season spent under lockdown and heavy COVID-19 restrictions, excitement is high for the upcoming New Year festivities. Among the many exciting things we anticipate to come with the season (meeting family, taking part in all the customs and traditions of the New Year) we all expect there to be plenty of noise, be it the joyful laughter of the family being together or the loud bangs and whistles from firecrackers and fireworks, going off at every auspicious time.
Although our favourite gunpowder noisemakers go off and are finished in mere seconds (or minutes), the story behind each fizzle and bang goes much deeper and has a lifetime of stories. It tells of a people who aren’t strangers to hard work, courage, and most of all, perseverance.
Ceylon Today had the opportunity to visit Pemsiri Fernando, the man behind the Hapana brand, one of the many family-owned businesses in Sri Lanka’s fireworks village, Kimbulapitiya.
Speaking with Fernando, we were able to gain an inkling of understanding about the work that goes into a product that takes arduous labour to bring to fruition.
A little way off the expressway, turning towards Kimbulapitiya, it didn’t take much time to find Fernando’s establishment.
Walking down the driveway, we saw workers busy bodying in the workshop, manufacturing firecrackers and other familiar items found during the New Year festivities such as bambara chakkara, cheena patas, and ahas kooru.
Welcomed by Fernando himself, we learnt more about him and his enterprise while exploring his workshop.
Long standing business
Fernando has been in the business of firecrackers and fireworks for over two decades now, and has amassed a lot of experience in the industry through his enterprise, Hapana. Being a person from Kimbulapitiya, he’s no stranger to the trade.
“It was a struggle at the start, but we’ve been able to pull through after all these years,” he said with a simple smile.
Giving us a tour of the workshop, we were able to get a behind-the-scenes look at the entire manufacturing process of these festival noisemakers.
“Raw materials are distributed through State institutions only to permit holders,” Fernando explained. “We purchase these and use them to prepare the gunpowder mix, which is then used in our products.”
Each different item is manufactured using a process learnt by Fernando after decades in the industry. Like him, many of the people in Kimbulapitiya have been part of the industry for generations, and therefore, the trade is in his bones.
“Although the majority of our orders come during the festival seasons, we work throughout the year to have enough stock to provide for the seasonal occasions,” he explained. This is mainly due to the fact that all the work done to produce these products is still done by hand, with no assistance by machinery.
Speaking with the workers of Hapana’s workshop, we found a diverse crew of skilled workers who have been working with Fernando for many years. Hailing from many places throughout the country, even as far as the rural regions of Badulla, the workmen in Hapana’s workshop operate throughout the day to meet the high demand.
Having worked extensively with Hapana, the workmen operate with a speed, efficiency, and accuracy only possible to attain through practicing their craft daily. Their dexterous hands work at a blurring pace and they are able to finish hundreds, even thousands of firecrackers and other gunpowder goodies in a single day.
Many backgrounds, one profession
It was evident that Hapana’s workers were not only skilled, but well taken care of. Hailing from rural regions, far away from home and family, these workers come from various backgrounds and circumstances, but all share the metallic sheen of the gunpowder mix.
Among the demographic of workers was one who was differently-abled in hearing. Another was a sweet grandmother, both humbly fulfilling their profession with a confident smile. It was evident that all the workers were well taken care of, with Fernando even providing food and board for them as they work to produce the firecrackers and other products we enjoy during the festivities.
A literal powder keg
Hailing from many backgrounds, these workers work long hours, far from their homes and families, sacrificing it all for their craft. The hours are long and the work taxing. While it was evident that Fernando does look after his employees, the risks of the trade are tremendous, and very little protection is there in times of need.
In fact, speaking with other locals, Ceylon Today found out that workshops going up in flames, and injuries related to burns were common among the entire community. Exploring the village of Kimbulapitiya, we met many individuals who had suffered from such serious wounds. Even after meeting with horrendous accidents, the people still soldier on, continuing in the trade.
Exploring many other workshops, it was evident why such injuries were commonplace. The superfine gunpowder was hard to escape from, and the metallic sheen of gunpowder residue was visible in the arms and bodies of the workers as they went about their business.
“We do our best to clean the residue off our bodies after work, scrubbing it off with soap as we bathe,” explained Fernando when inquired about the safety of the workers. “We have to be extra careful in what we do, especially when at work or near the workshop, and we make sure that all of us are safe at the end of the day.”
A trade in need
He went on to further explain that there are safety regulations enforced by the Government, and workplaces are monitored on safety standards, since only permit holders are allowed to handle gunpowder and the other ingredients needed to produce fireworks and firecrackers.
However, Fernando agrees that more Government support for those in the industry would greatly help the lives of those who have made this risky business their livelihood. We were surprised to find out that although the people of Kimbulapitiya dance with danger each and every day in this trade to put food on the table, there doesn’t exist a Government-supported programme to provide aid or insurance on damage to human life or property.
“A lot of us rely on private companies for life insurance,” explained Fernando. “However, we don’t have a lot of options available for us.”
The problems don’t end there
Another major issue that the people of Kimbulapitiya face is the underhandedness of the infamous middlemen, who resell their finished products for prices that are unreasonably hiked-up.
In fact, Fernando recalled an instance where he had stopped by a roadside stall to inquire of their retail prices and found that some of his products were being sold to consumers at almost double the originally intended price.
Ceylon Today finds the lack of organised procedure prevalent throughout such a dangerous industry very alarming, and potentially harmful not only for the livelihood of those in the business but also for consumers, where both parties face many hardships due to unfair practice and exploitation.
“It’s disheartening for us as well,” said Fernando as he recounted his story. “We produce all these products for people to enjoy.”
Working past the pandemic
The previous year’s nationwide lockdowns caused by the pandemic dealt a tremendous blow to the industries at Kimbulapitiya, where the people almost exclusively rely on producing firecrackers and fireworks throughout the year to earn a living, with the end of the year, Sri Lankan New Year and election season bringing in the biggest profits.
“It was a tough season,” recounted Fernando. “We hoped for a better year after the issues caused by the aftermath of the Easter bombings, but because of lockdowns, we struggled to make ends meet.”
Like Fernando, many other manufacturers had unsold stocks, accumulated from the past year’s lack of sales. Like many others, he’s grateful that 2021 has shown better prospects. However, it also alludes to the alarming lack of Government attention to the people of Kimbulapitiya, for when speaking with the people of the area, it easily became evident that very little attention was given to a community that significantly relied on festival occasions to earn their annual income.
For the future
Although a booming industry that supplies the needs of an entire nation, the village of Kimbulapitiya and the entire production and supply process of the said industry as a whole has made very little progress in the incorporation of technology, scientific expertise, and innovation into the traditional ways that have been followed for generations. It was evident from conversing with the people that although they are highly skilled in their trade, very little research and development is being conducted in an industry that could easily become more efficient, capable, and resourceful.
It would be a joyful day to hear news of the children growing up in Kimbulapitiya today, graduating from universities with a chemistry degree in hand, taking up research to not only conduct research in the field but raising the industry to greater heights. Of course, equal is the joy to hear of other university graduates taking interest in researching the industry as well.
A bang full of soul
Gunpowder is a way of life for the people of Kimbulapitiya, who undergo a tremendous risk to health and safety each and every day to provide the bangs, whistles and fizzles we enjoy every festive occasion. These are a people whose industry suffers because of inefficiency, poor policy making, and lack of attention given by the State. It is also an industry that has made very little progress with moving to the future in development of new technology, practices and incorporating them into the traditional methods observed from generation to generation.
All of these issues are faced by the people, but could easily be addressed through smart and efficient policy-making as well as involving academia and research, collaborating with State institutions and academics.
However, life goes on for the people of Kimbulapitiya, who put it all on line for the enjoyment of an entire nation.
“Firecrackers and fireworks are for the happy moments in life,” said Fernando with a smile. “We tirelessly work to maintain the highest standards possible. We want to be a part of that special moment when sparks fly and firecrackers boom.”
(Pix by Amitha Thennakoon)