Friday, July 21, 2017

The problem of the fifth precept

It’s not easy to come across a politician you have mixed feelings about who says something you at least partly agree with. And yet, three weeks ago, that’s exactly what happened with Mangala Samaraweera, the Foreign Minister turned Finance Minister who has maintained a colourful profile for the last three decades.

What he said had nothing to do with his office, although it did touch on the country’s finances. Mr Samaraweera, who is not prone to the kind of Puritanism most of us are, suggested that we rethink our policy on selling liquor on Poya Days. Because of the backlash this would provoke, he inserted a caveat: “This is my personal opinion.” He was stating the obvious: opinions are nothing but personal.

Now we don’t have a record to be proud about when it comes to alcohol consumption. The statistics aren’t pretty. We have one of the highest incidences of cirrhosis in the world. That’s roughly 55 for every 100,000 people, in a list topped by Moldova, which, by the way, is a nation of vodka drinkers. More than 60 people die each day from alcoholism, amounting to more than 20,000 every year. These deaths weren’t due to the liver only, since alcohol is linked to heart disease, epilepsy, and stomach ulcers. Above everything else, most of those who take to it tend to consume either hard or illicit brew. Which is why Mr Samaraweera’s suggestion makes sense.

His proposal is twofold, actually. Firstly, it would help divert drinkers from hard brew to softer, less harmful beverages, which in turn would be supplemented by the relaxation of the issue of licences to taverns and bars. Secondly, it would relax the onslaught of drinkers on the day before Poya, which is a blessing in disguise: the incentive for them now is to rally around the taverns knowing they would be shut the following day. With this proposal in action, the drinkers will continue to drink, yes, but not with such ferocity. It’s not quite the same argument that exists for marijuana (since certain commentators are drawing parallels between the two): the issue there is about preventing illicit consumption of a completely illegal substance, while the issue here is curtailing the consumption of harmful and black-market variants of a legal substance, essentially whiskey versus kasippu.

We are not the most virtuous nation in the world. It’s difficult to define virtuous, since it’s a rather fluid term, but if the way it’s tossed around these days is anything to go by, we are not virtuous by any stretch of the imagination. We talk of Ape Kama (Our Way) without realising that it can’t be rooted in or framed by that simplistic good/bad dichotomy our society has been forced to run on. So no, we are not a nation of angels, or for that matter devils. We are a nation of people, and people are, as we ought to know, imperfect. So when we react hostilely towards Mr Samaraweera and his argument, we are merely displaying our feelings of anxiety and inferiority.

When we raise hell over issues labelled and condemned as taboo, we aren’t being culturally sensitive. We are merely substituting one defence mechanism for another. If we are against drinking, we react against it with so much anger that we leave no space for debate, or even discussion. I don’t think that constitutes virtue, rather duplicity. The reason’s obvious enough: when we react against proposals to relax drinking laws, we salivate over what we feel to be their culturally insensitive character without realising that they are trying to solve the very problem(s) bemoaned by us.

As a Sri Lankan and one who is ideologically opposed to the politics that Mr Samaraweera and his party stand for, I nevertheless support his position on this matter, because it makes sense. And not just economically. That problem is real, substantive, material. It’s not conditioned by ideology or theology, it exists and is very much alive everywhere. Which is why, I should think, we ought to reflect on the Utopias we try to build in our society. Starting with this: the campaign against liquor and tobacco, when rooted in cultural dynamics, loses its character and sizzles away. This is true today and will be true tomorrow.

Censorship, even in its mildest form, does the exact opposite of what it intends to do. When Handagama’s Aksharaya was (unduly) banned, for instance, those who hadn’t even heard of it read of the themes it explored. Whether or not it was a great work of art (it was “art” alright, etched in black and white rather theatrically) is beside the point. The fact is that by forcibly repressing something arbitrarily deemed as obscene, the authorities succeeded in disseminating it even further. The same could be said of every other act of censorship throughout history, including Lawrence’s Chatterley and Pasternak’s Zhivago. Both were, to be sure, overrated works of art (in particular, Zhivago). But it wouldn’t have taken a ban to get us to realise that. What those bans ended up doing was the complete opposite of what the censors intended. The argument against prohibition isn’t just moral, therefore: it’s also logical.

Logic would dictate that when a reservoir is full, the sluice gates should be opened. Logic would dictate that when a work of art is subverting the so-called cultural mores of a given society, banning it would spur more interest among the general population of that society. Logic would dictate that when our people are dying from cirrhosis, stomach ulcers, and other diseases provoked by alcohol, the solution (given that alcoholics, like horses, can be only temporarily forced away from a habit) would be to cut down on its consumption by encouraging them to opt for less harmful beverages.

Logic, ladies and gentlemen. Not necessarily cast in stone or in black-and-white, but firm and unyielding all the same. The debate over tobacco and alcoholism, going by that, has been watered down to a simplistic dichotomy between Our Way and Their Way, simplistic because even those without as much as an inkling of what Our Way is confuse between the two and think they are veritable guardians of culture. They are not, because in repressing or promoting the repression of habits they consider as alien, they manage to ignore the real, substantive aspect to this issue.

I don’t think Mangala Samaraweera’s proposal, even if it sees the light of day after those necessary amendments, debates, and enactments, and assuming our people pierce through the cultural garb that clouds our judgment with respect to it, will be the be-all and end-all solution. I don’t know for certain whether it will. All I know, and all anyone can ever know, is that Mr Samaraweera’s statement, notwithstanding the invective it will attracts, merits further discussion.

So let’s go through those numbers again. 55 for every 100,000 people, 60 deaths a day, 20,000 deaths a year, and that while regulation after restriction, enacted in the name of cultural correctness, diverts the heaviest drinker from arrack to the more dangerous kasippu. By ignoring the elephant in the room, we are ignoring what can be the biggest menace this country has encountered. Conceding to that cultural garb, in the form of what we think to be the Fifth Precept (if one is a Buddhist, that is), would hence mean conceding to the continuation of that problem. That’s not my opinion. That’s the opinion of those who value reason over rhetoric.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Asking for keeps: 'Gamperaliya' and 'Nidhanaya'

The second in a series of sketches on the movies of Lester James Peries.

The loveliest scene in Nidhanaya is the only hopeful, life-affirming sequence from that entire movie: Willie Abeynayake, the tortured aristocrat, dancing with the woman he married to kill as a sacrifice. It builds up slowly (to a waltz composed by Premasiri Khemadasa) and then flourishes in quiet, contained ecstasy. The best part about it is that it’s all imagined. Willie isn’t actually dancing with his wife, Irene: he’s dreaming that he is. Technically it stands out, not just from the movie but also from the director’s oeuvre, because it’s fascinating: in how the eyes of this couple interlock, how the waltz teeters between hope and distrust, and how the man is awoken from his fantasy. It’s also poignant, because these two never consummate their love.

Nidhanaya was the third of three movies made by Lester James Peries for the only producer that stayed with him for more than two, Ceylon Theatres. It proved that with the right blend of capital and artistic freedom, he could churn out a technically and artistically fulfilling film. Like much of his other work, though, it was barely a box-office hit, nevertheless compensated by its wins abroad (in London and in Venice). When in 1997 the government compiled a list of the 10 best movies from the preceding 50 years, it was unanimously accepted as the greatest. It may have been the first Sinhala movie that was made to be conscious of its own power.

G. B. Senanayake’s short story, one of several compiled in an anthology, Paliganima, came about before blindness had struck him. There’s a streak of schizophrenia in much of his subsequent work. Some of his novels, like Awaragira and Ekata Eka, while not optimistic, opened out in a wider milieu, which compensated for that. With Nidhanaya, however, he constricted it, forcing us to ponder on its own workings without daring to venture out. In Willie Abeynayake he channelled the unnamed narrator from Allan Poe’s The Raven, which is why Lester’s movie feels rather expressionistic, so expressionistic, in fact, that we see cobwebs and stuffed birds in his protagonist’s mansion even when there aren’t any. Like Lewin’s film of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, it was deeply, maddeningly claustrophobic.

And in a way, the tragedy that befalls Abeynayake is reminiscent of the tragedies that befall Poe’s as well. The latter are always self-absorbed, rarely open to the world outside. They are driven by their obsessions, even at the cost of another’s life, but when they face the fact that all those were for nothing, they end their own. They are carried away by their madness, but they retain the welter of self-sacrifice and honour and dignity that dawn on them only when they realise their follies.

It’s a self-contained world, cast away, obsolete, largely irrelevant, that we come across in Nidhanaya. It’s not the world of the Kaisaruvattas, because the Kaisaruvattas didn’t fall, they deteriorated. Perhaps that’s why Gamperaliya is so elegiac, while Nidhanaya is almost a preannounced funeral and memorial service from beginning to end.

When Lester was filming Martin Wickramasinghe’s novel, he was viewed with suspicion by the big producers (among them Ceylon Theatres), which in hindsight was justifiable: his cameraman Willie Blake was eschewing the studio for the sun when it came to lighting. It’s not easy to make a Gamperaliya now, because that sense of harmony between its cast and crew members isn’t easy to obtain.

But it isn’t just the cast and crew, or the camerawork. It’s also the timing. Speaking for myself, I haven’t come across a Sinhala film that had everything right, correct, to the dot, and yet appeared so spontaneous with respect to its characters’ reactions. When Piyal suggests that Nanda come to his house after they stop hearing from Jinadasa, for instance, the camera cuts to Nanda slowly, excruciatingly, highlighting her feelings of insecurity. When she finally cracks, however, it doesn’t flow out like a wound: it’s quickly done away with, so quickly that Piyal is as shocked as we are at his callousness. That opening scene at the mansion, with the upstart teaching the lady English (the educated aren’t rich, yet) and Nanda’s mother tending to her needlework behind, has become something of an epiphany for our cinema, “both in what he (Lester) tried to express in all his films as well as in the simple, elegant, and unostentatious way he said it” as Tissa Abeysekara put it later.

In Nidhanaya Lester broke away from that simple, elegant, and unostentatious way of saying things. He was too emboldened, too empowered, to continue with that Renoirean simplicity which characterised all his movies until then. Partly this was because he was now under a contract which was, for the second time (after Cinemas Entertainment for Sandeshaya), stipulated by a major production company. He had upset his benefactors with Golu Hadawatha (which, were it not for Bernard Soysa’s timely intervention, would have been released without Dammi’s version of the story) and had scored a mild success with Akkara Paha. Both would be featured at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) courtesy of Donald Richie, through which Lester was introduced more properly to the world he had been inspired by.

Consequently, Lester’s ninth film was also his first self-conscious work. “It reeks of noirishness. Worse, it reeks of intellectualised noirishness,” Pauline Kael wrote of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, and the same could have been said of Nidhanaya, with the caveat that it doesn’t reek, it overwhelms. Everything in this unquiet masterpiece constricts, from Willie Abeynayake’s search for a virgin with four birthmarks (consisting of a series of close-ups, almost suffocating) to the moment he catches his sight of Irene (initially as a long shot, then zooming in to an extreme close-up) and to Irene’s futile attempts to get him to love her (in one of the movie’s most disturbing sequences, she wanders off from their first night in bed and gazes sorrowfully at the portrait of his mother: the whole scene is punctured by a musical variation on the Buddhist stanza venerating the mother, adding irony).

But all this meant that Lester had abandoned his humanist streak, a little of which was retained in the movie’s most heartfelt section (where Willie and Irene are reconciled to each other). In abandoning it, he had abandoned what had characterised his work before. Death, decay, and self-destruction: none of these had obtruded on his world. Even in Akkara Paha, which is his first film about the downfall of the village peasantry, tragedy is briefly superseded by a sense of bittersweet poignancy, particularly towards the end. In Nidhanaya there’s no poignancy, only complete annihilation (because Willie is the last male heir to his lineage) that’s quickened by an unyielding destiny. It was a quirk in that respect: after it was done, Lester would return to that same humanism he had repudiated through Desa Nisa.

For all its exquisite attention to detail, and its constricting interiors, it became a masterpiece despite its deep-rooted cynicism. If Gamperaliya had been the work of an ambitious idealist, Nidhanaya was the work of an empowered idealist. Because of its outlook perhaps, however, it was shunned by some of our critics, and compelled Regi Siriwardena (in a perceptive essay titled “Sinhala Cinema, Class and Personal Relations”) to take to task those among them who had taken Lester’s attention to the individual as a sign of the social irrelevance of his work.

He was right, I should think: whether or not you identify the abnormal, stunted psychology of its characters, Nidhanaya is a rich work of art, rich in its depiction of a milieu that Lester would not (barring Awaragira) feature with such unforgiving ferocity. “Nowhere else has ensemble playing been so perfect in my films,” he said of Gamperaliya, adding the caveat: “Except in Nidhanaya.” The comparison shows, I believe, notwithstanding the thematic differences between the two.

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 20 2017

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

'Royal Bookland': Getting us over a new leaf

Organised by the Library Readers' Association of Royal College, Royal Bookland will be unveiled on July 31 and August 1 at the school premises.

Mrs Marini Fernando, who taught us in Grade Eight, was the best English teacher I ever had. She had that ability to inspire passion in us, particularly those of us who took to her period less for her lessons than the intricate ways in which she got us to love them. She was particular about dictionaries, I remember, so whether or not we could guess as to what the meaning of a particular word was, she’d get us to peruse the Big Book. I can’t remember a time when we didn’t have it open. It was all part of her ramrod, but gentle-hearted nature. She could get us to do what she wanted, the way she wanted, without chastising us too much.

Looking back, I believe she was responsible for my subsequent passion for reading and writing, not least because she was behind various schemes in our school to improve our reading habit. She opened a class library, appointed library leaders, and lent us books from her personal collection. Because this was outside the syllabus, she didn’t emphasise on the dictionary: “Just read through them carefully” was what she told us. Added to that was her weekly book report session, where she would get us to write capsule reviews of the books we had borrowed from the main library.

Years later when I discovered my love for writing, during that difficult period in our youth when we don’t know what to do after we leave school and start looking for jobs, I credited her for having inspired me. I had always been an avid reader, having progressed through those inevitable stages we readers encounter, from Aesop and the Grimm Brothers to Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and to the Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, and (as of now) everyone else. Reading helped me become a better writer. Writing helped me become a better reader. It worked both ways. I suppose that’s the greatest lesson Mrs Marini taught me.

Now it doesn’t take much to read, but it takes a lot to love to read. Because of the effort entailed in it, we become lazy. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that we hang on to our textbooks so much that we don’t care about the world(s) outside them: we think that everything we need to know is contained therein, a misconception as far as retaining and applying knowledge is concerned. We don’t visit our libraries enough, simply put. We should. Not because it’s a miracle cure, but because libraries are a good index of the way we think, as a nation and a people.

The Library Readers' Association of Royal College is the oldest club in that school (established in 1846) and probably the only club of its kind in any school in the country. Age, however, hasn’t diminished its vitality, which is why it’s set to organise a series of events highlighting reading (and writing). Of these their flagship project will be held on July 31 and August 1. Because these are no ordinary feel-good campaigns, I am interested. This piece is hence about that project, Royal Bookland.

True to its title, Bookland will feature an exhibition involving bookshops from across the country, but the LRA has been handling such exhibitions for the last few years. What’s special about it this time are two other events that are to be held alongside it: a quiz and a short story competition, the latter of which will be categorised according to language and age. Much of the history behind those two and the club can be rooted in a rather determined committee headed by two boys: Rajitha Abeysinghe (Chairman of the Organising Committee of Bookland) and Sanura Kulanaka (Chairman of the Association). I talked with both.

I first spoke with Rajitha, rather he spoke to me. The decision to go beyond an exhibition this year, he explained, was based on the mission of the LRA: to transform the Royal College Library into the leading institution of its kind in Sri Lanka, not just for its students but also for their community. “Whatever funds we raise, we plough back to refurbish and modernise it. However, we felt that it was not enough. That is why we began organising a series of seminars attended by leading contemporary writers.”

Apparently the short story competition had been the result of one such seminar, held about three weeks ago during school hours. That seminar had been headed by Malinda Seneviratne and mooted by the Chairman of the LRA, Sanura Kulanaka, whom I spoke with as well. “We organised it within three days. The important thing is that we didn’t force anyone to come. We just announced that students were welcome to attend it. In the end it had a turnout of 138 students, all of whom were entranced by what Mr Malinda said.” Naturally, one thing led to another, and soon the Association was organising a competition based on the seminar. “So far, we have received 20 submissions, of which 17 are in Sinhala and three in English.”

What interests me here is how the Association has strived to keep the entire project (the culmination of their annual Library Week) as out-there as possible. The quiz competition, on that count, will involve outside parties, all of whom will get a chance to patronise the Exhibition. “It was actually an afterthought of ours. We entered into an agreement with the General Knowledge Club and invited more than 50 schools.” Underlying all these has been the LRA’s efforts to uplift the habit of reading among Royalists, efforts which will spill over at Bookland.

“We came up with class libraries and organised several reading camps. We got our students to do more than just skim through a book. We asked readers from lower grades to pour out their feelings about them through drawings, while readers from upper grades were asked to write short reviews. It was, I daresay, a success, not least because small children love to draw and children in general love to stand out from the others in what they write.” It has also aided in maintaining discipline: ever since those camps and class libraries began, students have been shouting less in their classrooms. Rajitha interjects here: “We stand by the principle that if we don’t read, we can’t write, and if we don’t write, there won’t be any readers.” Apt.

These haven’t been their only projects, of course. Nena Pahana, a joint effort by the LRA and Edex, donates books to rural schools every year. Supplementing it has been several reading sessions which give students the chance to meet contemporary writers. “Last year we featured Dileepa Abeysekara over his translation of Shehan Karunatilaka’s Chinaman. This year we featured Dr Susith Ruwan over his Ravana Meheyuma cycle of novels. We give our students time to read their books, because it’s not about meeting the authors, it’s about asking questions relating to craft, creativity, and even certain flaws which crop up in their work.” A field trip this year to the National Library (“Kiyawanna Purudu Wenna! Pothak”) and several joint projects with the General Knowledge Club have further enriched their activities.

Aiding these efforts, moreover, have been the teachers behind the Association. “We’ve been helped by our teacher in charge, Mrs Yugantha Liyanage, also the Assistant Principal at our school. Our librarians have always been a source of strength for us, particularly their head, Mrs Hemanthi Wijesundera. And in one sense we have to be grateful for our mothers and fathers too.”

There was more, much more, that I gained from these two boys when I was talking with them, particularly Sanura. I sense a writer’s streak in him, though I will withhold comment. Except, perhaps, for one point: he is quite outspoken about what he is doing and has done, the kind of outspokenness which can win both friends and foes. To this end I asked him as to where he wants to take the Association to, and he replies, “I want to take them to the Public Library, to the British Council Library if time permits, and to organise short story competitions and also enter into competitions organised by other institutions. In fact with the 20 or so stories we have so far, we can come up with a collection which can be published, even submitted.

So what will we see on those two days? The quiz, consisting of five rounds of 10 questions each, will be held from 3 to 6 pm on July 31 at Royal College Union Skills Centre, during which the awards ceremony for the short story competition (open to any student from any government or international school, and judged by a panel consisting of teachers and “experts in the field”) will be unveiled. The exhibition will continue on to the following day, from 8 am to 12 pm. What comes out, we can’t tell. Frankly, I don’t think we were meant to. All I know is that I’ve been looking forward to an event of this sort ever since I left Grade Eight and the best English teacher I got. That explains my enthusiasm, naturally.

Photos courtesy of: The Photographic Society of Royal College

Written for: Daily Mirror, July 18 2017

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sahan Peiris reflects on takeoffs and landings

There was a little boy once. He loved to perform cartwheels. So he wound up doing them everywhere, at his house and even outside. This boy, incidentally, had a sister who did athletics. She had practices. Their mother drove her. Because they couldn’t leave him behind, they took him along as well. While the sister practised, consequently, he did what he always used to do. Cartwheels. He would have been about four at the time. I don’t remember the year. In any case, it doesn’t matter.

At one of those practices, someone noticed this boy. He noticed him performing those cartwheels. He was impressed, so impressed that the next time he saw them, he asked the boy’s father to put him into gymnastics. Eventually, that’s what happened. He took to that game so well that not only did he wind up winning one tournament and meet after the other, he became a national champion. He won his first medal in 2005, became the All Island Champion six times in a row, and captained our team at certain regional tournaments (where he clinched the Number 16 rank in Asia).

But then time passed. That little boy grew up. He saw his friends, at school and elsewhere, taking to another sport. Diving. We don’t know what entranced him to it. Maybe it was the dive. Maybe it was the takeoff. Maybe it was that moment the body hit the water, the landing. Whatever it would have been, we do know that when he was in Grade Three, he joined his school’s diving squad. He has a longer, more extensive story there. And I’ve been asked to sketch that story.

The problem, however, is that I can’t swim. Never tried to, never bothered to. I do know about the immense strain divers put themselves to, the pain they endure, and the glory they achieve when they hit the water. But I doubt that’ll be enough for me to do justice to that boy’s story. I can try, of course. So here’s what Sahan Peiris, diver, gymnast, and a whole load of other things, had to tell me three weeks ago.

By his own confession, Sahan has always had a mischievous streak (not that he needs to tell me that, though: I sense that streak the moment we sit down and talk). That explains his childhood fondness for cartwheels, which he did to the consternation of his mother and despite his age. “I was in nursery when Dr Sarath Galagoda noticed me and advised my father to put me into gymnastics,” he remembers, “From then on, while it certainly wasn’t easy-peasy, I took to it spontaneously. I must have been blessed with a set of genes that made it more amenable to me, which is how I rose as the years progressed.” I ask him to list down his accolades, and he hands me a piece of paper on which he had recorded them all.

Needless to say, I am impressed. After winning his first medal and several interschool and island-wide championships, he ended up as a two-time National Runner Up and a two-time Junior National Champion. He captained the Under 19 national team at the 13th Junior Asian Championships (where he got that Number 16 rank), two years after which he did his O Levels (in 2013) and balanced studies, gymnastics, and diving. “I had about a year to decide. I couldn’t continue with both. So I let go of gymnastics. It was tough, particularly because I was the Number Two gymnast in the country, but I had to do it.”

And in any case, he has achieved considerably at diving. Before getting to those achievements, though, I ask him whether those childhood cartwheels helped. “Yes, but it was inbred. I can’t explain where I got that ability from. In any case, those cartwheels helped me ‘flex’ my body. That was needed in gymnastics. That was needed in diving too, especially after the takeoff: you are assessed on how well you maintain grace and balance before you hit the water. It must have been some strange destiny at work, but those cartwheels aided me there.”

2014 in that sense was a landmark year for him. At the National Championships that year, he had to perform a forward 3½ somersault pike dive (from 10 meters) on the third day. He had performed well at the practices, but for some reason he missed it at the finals. Having taken off rather clumsily, he missed the dive altogether and hit headfirst into the water. Predictably, Sahan had suffered a concussion and gone out. Having been taken out of the pool, he was admitted to Asiri Hospital.

What happened next? “I blacked out for 10 or 12 minutes. I spent about a couple of minutes at Asiri. The doctor gave me some pills after a small operation. My father, also a doctor, asked me to choose between staying there and going back. It was risky, with my mother imploring me to stay behind, but I wanted to return. I knew what I was trying to do. That emboldened me more, though it was probably the most dangerous thing a diver could attempt in my situation. In any case, I prevailed, not only because I completed that pike dive, but also because I won the tournament. Had I not gone back, I would have let my fears take over me. That would have been enough to discourage me from diving ever again.”

That incident had no doubt been a kind of culmination to all those years of trial and triumph before. Sahan’s achievements, incidentally, merit mention here. Having joined the school squad in Grade Three, he won his first medal in 2006 with five dives at that year’s Interschool Championship. From then on, naturally, the list gets bigger: as a nine-time Interschool Champion, a three-time National Diving Champion (2013, 2014, and 2015), and a one-time Junior National Champion (2010).

Internationally too he has won, having represented the country at the 7th AASF in Jakarta, Indonesia (2011) and the 18th Asian Swimming Championships in Dubai (2012), as well as having captained the national team at the 8th AASF in Bangkok, Thailand (2015). His most recent triumph was at the first ever South Asian Aquatic Championship (SAAC), organised last year by Sri Lanka, where he came third and clinched the Bronze Medal.

All these speak for themselves, yes. But they hardly go by way of summing up the boy behind those triumphs. So I ask him those other questions that delve into his life as a diver and how they’ve shaped his life in other fields. I begin with that forever clichéd question: “What has diving taught you?” Without any hesitation Sahan replies, “The need to face your fears, to build up confidence, courage, and perfection.”

I then ask him about his coaches, and he lists them out: “Mahinda Liyanage, Esiri Kankanige, and Chanaka Wickramasinghe. All three are from my school, Royal College, and all of them have triumphed in their field. They have helped me in different ways: Mahinda sir taught me the fundamentals, Esiri helped me execute hard dives, and Chanaka sir has been a mentor to me at school and as my national coach. That’s needed in this game, because when you are await the countdown, you need the confidence of your coach to push yourself and achieve that final, perfect takeoff and landing. In that respect, I believe I have been fortunate.”

Sahan has led other lives. He was the Secretary of his school’s Green Circle and was a member of the Entrepreneurs Society (he did Commerce for his A Levels last year), and is now a Deputy Head Prefect. His also clinched the prestigious Royal Crown in 2015, becoming the first ever Royalist to win it for two sports (diving and gymnastics) in the same year. “I can’t really predict my future, but I hope to represent my country at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. I aim to give my best. Always.”

That little boy who performed cartwheels has grown up, in one sense. In another sense, though, he has not. Just as well, I should suppose: we all owe our childhoods for what we become, and take to, when we mature. Sahan has clearly grown up. But that process of growing up, of indulging in those two activities which have shaped him significantly, wouldn’t have been possible without those cartwheels he did, in another time, in another world. I’m sure he knows this. And I’m sure we all do.

Photos courtesy of

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 15 2017

Friday, July 14, 2017

Let us get (ourselves) closer to our country

Modernity is not opposed to nationalism. This we should know. The confusion or rather dichotomy between the two has come about because many of us are clueless about what they represent. This too we should know. Fact is, there can’t be modernity without anchoring oneself in the past. Fact is, there can’t be nationalism (and there are many nationalisms) without preparing oneself for the future. The two are coterminous: the one can’t thrive and flourish without the other. This is not a political statement, rather a truism which cuts across the political and the social.

There was a time, not too long ago and in my generation, when those who purported to speak on behalf of Sinhala Buddhists were silenced. To speak of that collective was tantamount to being a racist, which was rather duplicitous given the carte blanche which the articulators and propagandists of Eelamism were given. There seemed to be a manifest lack of understanding about historical realities, or about the difference between speaking on behalf of one collective and speaking on behalf of that collective AGAINST another. The latter was incendiary, hardly condonable. The former, however, was not. Those who tried to prevent it, needless to say, ended up constricting any space for the representatives of Sinhala Buddhists.

At one level, this confusion is more than mischievous, anti-historical, and ontological. What is nationalism and where does it end? How is it different to racism, and how is racism (which is negative and depends on the repudiation of the legitimacy of “the Other”) different to racialism (which falls somewhere in-between)? What is positive, if at all, and what is not? A single writer can’t set the record straight. It takes a general sammuthiya to agree on which is what and what is not, in this respect.

It’s not easy being a nationalist. It’s easier being a racist. The reason is obvious. Racism drives on self-labelled superiority and on what is perceived as inferiority on the part of the Other. It doesn’t take much to spout hatred: burn a few shops belonging to one community, vandalise a temple, kovil, church, or mosque, and you’ll be soon hailed by extremists as their hero. That is why chauvinists from both sides have won and prevailed for so long, and why someone like Gnanasara Thera is (regardless of his credentials as a monk) deified despite the fact that no one voted for his party. “He has something important to say,” is the commonest excuse given by his supporters.

It’s tougher being a nationalist. This is elementary. It takes rhetoric to hate. It takes heartfelt sincerity to love. Racism thrives on rhetoric. Nationalism, at least to a certain extent, thrives on sincerity. Emotion bests reason in more ways than one, which is why the former tends to best the latter as far as debate is concerned. That is sad.

Take the subject of independence. How many of us, never mind the flag and the usual chest-thumping words about freedom, appreciate what it stands for? Perhaps decades of cynicism has conditioned us to be cynical with everything. Perhaps those decades have taught that we haven’t really clinched independence. Either way, the mere fact that we are not subject to another foreign power is in the least worthy of contemplation. But we toss it aside with the remark, “It is just a word.”

We don’t produce nationalists like we used to, come to think of it. Taken in itself, there’s nothing to bemoan in this: the fact is that the deficiencies of one epoch are compensated by the promises of the next, which means that sooner or later, the voice of the people, of true, genuine patriotism, will prevail. But this is just scratching the surface. The real problem, which goes deeper, is that far from not being able to produce nationalists, our country will be taken over by an entire generation whose love for their country is at best conditioned if not tempered by a rootless variant of cosmopolitanism: the kind of uprooted cosmopolitanism that runs riot in Colombo. Which in itself is bad enough, since much of our self-labelled intelligentsia hail from this part of the country, and they continue to exert influence everywhere.

Long, long ago, this wasn’t a problem. Our schools and curricula built in love for one’s country and people from an early age. We woke up every day to deshabimana gee or patriotic songs on radio, none of which encouraged us to hate other collectives. By deshabimana gee I am of course thinking of Amaradeva, Mahagama Sekara, and Chandrarathna Manawasinghe, among others. These were not racists. They couldn’t have been. The fact is that they were rooted in their societies, so what they wrote, composed, and sang, they felt. And they made us feel what they wrote.

We read the poems of Tibet S. Mahinda Thera and P. B. Alwis Perera without feeling any antipathy towards other races or faiths. We sang them in gushes and torrents, with gusto, because we intensely felt what they were trying to say. “Me Rata Mage Rata Ma Ipadunu Rata,” Miranda Hemalatha wrote, and as we recited those words from memory, the poetry hit us. That kind of literature, at once rhythmic and rousing, is hard to come by today. No wonder most of our children go through even our public schools without the slightest smattering of love for their land of birth. No wonder they end up being biased against history, even culturally insensitive.

The culture of prudery that has seeped into our people, from god knows where, has aggravated this issue. We don’t teach our children to understand their faith: we force them to attend Sunday school. We don’t teach them our history: we force them to read and unconditionally accept it. Our government textbooks aren’t helpful in this respect either: just the other day, for instance, I came across a chapter detailing the biographies of some of our foremost artistes, which had erroneously interchanged the details of Lester James Peries and Ediriweera Sarachchandra. I know for a fact that we are force-fed to accept these texts. How do we progress with that?

The truth is that love for one’s country (of the genuine sort) is predicated on what one picks up from childhood. If that childhood is warped, if it isn’t surrounded by an environment which makes it amenable for someone to understand where one is and how came to be there, the outcome is obvious: an entire generation of distorted, culturally uprooted citizens. Without the strength or the resolve to stand up for one’s land of birth, without the ability to assess history, no one can progress. Martin Wickramasinghe wrote on this. When history dies, so does the conscience of a nation.

So what are the preconditions for a healthier citizenry? First and foremost, the ability to take in and absorb the best of the rest of the world. This is elementary, again, but then we have confused between absorbing and imitating. We are constantly told to move on, to do away with patriotism, to consider ourselves as citizens of the world. The problem with globalisation of that sort, however, is that those who force us to accept ourselves as citizens of the world (à la Diogenes) are themselves representatives of countries and polities which vehemently (and rightly) rebel against that line of thinking. Like the United States.

Secondly, we need to revaluate the way we teach our children our history. History is not about dates. That is obvious. It’s about aligning the one with the other, about inferring parallels and understanding how communities progress and flourish. Speaking from experience, my best history teacher (in Eighth Grade) taught us more than what happened when and what led to what else. She taught us how to connect the dots, to infer the causes behind an incident or event. As I grew up, and as I read into history, I realised how, even in a mild form, she was emulating the incomparable Fernand Braudel, that historian who taught us that his subject was best taught not through memorising bundles of data, but by making the connections necessary to glean cause from effect, and effect from cause.

We’re barking up the wrong tree, I believe. Until and unless we nurture our children, and make them more sensitive to their surroundings, without discouraging them from learning about them owing to that culture of prudery which runs riot in this country, we’ll be fermenting a generation that’s cut off from their environment. That is bad. Not because nationalism is cast in stone and is a must, but because no country in this godforsaken, globalised world of ours has progressed without anchoring itself in its past, its way of life. Without history, without heritage, put simply, we are nothing.