Friday, October 26, 2018

Mahinda Rajapaksa's fringe factor

D. B. S. Jeyaraj, writing on the meeting between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena held around three weeks ago, suggests that in the coming weeks, G. L. Peiris, the de jure leader of the Joint Opposition, will hand over power to Rajapaksa, the de facto leader. This will, he further opines, give the man enough clout to negotiate and, presumably, to settle those personality clashes that have widened the rifts within the Podu Jana Peramuna. All things considered, these three months hence will probably be determined by the moves the Joint Opposition makes and the retaliatory measures the United National Party takes. In that sense, the tête-à-tête between the president and his erstwhile rival is both an expedient move and an exercise in futility.

That the Joint Opposition is nothing without the Rajapaksas, everyone knows. G. L. Peiris is the most eloquent parliamentarian we have, but eloquence, no matter how much of an advantage it may be inside parliament, pales in comparison to popularity from outside that hallowed institution. It is of course convenient to say that the SLPP doesn't have much of a presence within the confines of the Diyawanna Oya and that what little parliamentary prestige it has managed to conjure up for itself has been due to the Rajapaksa Factor. And yet, that is the truth.

Given these reduced circumstances, what is out there for the SLPP?

In 2015, the dichotomies were clear: the SLFP and the UNP on one side, the Rajapaksa Proxies on another, the JVP and the TNA on yet another. When the TNA took over the Opposition and the leader of the JVP became Chief Opposition Whip, those were reduced to two: those for the Rajapaksas and those against them.

What 2015 did was create a gulf between parliamentary prestige and populist protest. The lack of disregard for parliamentary procedure, the emphasis on rhetoric over substance, and the demonstrations against the legislature (as an institution, not just a party-driven political body) echoed and spearheaded by the JO made it clear that the real fight was between the MPs, who had been elected, and the stalwarts of the old order, who were being supported on the sidelines. There was a fatal rift, for the latter, between numerical strength and popular appeal. That rift continues even today.

The Rajapaksas were smart. They still are. With each of the three main brothers, the organisers of their party sought to appeal to three different interests. Mahinda's appeal was with the rural peasantry. Gotabaya's appeal was with what I alluded to in certain articles last year as the "professional nationalists", the milieu which had supported the Hela Urumaya and was now disenchanted with the likes of Champika Ranawa. Basil's appeal, on the other hand, was with a business class touted as "nationalist" by some, but which in reality idealised a blend of ruthless authoritarianism and efficiency that the Rajapaksas as a whole (allegedly) stood for. In other words, Mahinda would get the village, Gotabaya would get the suburbs around Colombo, and Basil would plan out everything with business moguls and financiers.

Obviously, this formula did not and could not work in a context where people looked up to the policies of the current government and their implementation by them. From 2015 to the latter half of 2016, those who had idealised the government on the basis of how it privileged policy over rhetoric really believed it could deliver. That was why, when Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cohorts contended that Sri Lanka was in danger of falling into a middle income trap and the Rajapaksas had empowered the middle class without setting barricades against the inflationary pressures this would result in, we placed our faith in the Cabinet he and the President had formed.

But then, somewhere in 2017, that rift between mass popularity and parliamentary presence began to work the other way around, FOR the JO.

It began when the people realised that the current government wasn't implementing those policies it had harped on about, and was content in spreading their gospel. A population that had been taught about good governance, constitutional reforms, and sanhindiyawa began to grow tired. The middle class, the force behind the campaign to get Maithripala Sirisena elected, shifted gears. It had had taken a risk and rooted for a maverick, when traditionally it had privileged stability and continuity. That maverick had clipped his own powers and handed over the legislature to a party that had NOT won a mandate to govern from that institution. Worse, his program, overseen by that very same party, had begun to unravel itself badly.

Our middle class thus did what it was destined to do. Hedge its bets on the only movement that could take us back to the way things were. That movement was not the JVP. It was not the TNA, the JHU, or for that matter the Frontline Socialist Party. It was the Joint Opposition. Having rebranded itself as the Podu Jana Peramuna, it thus soon began to capture the middle class, hitherto the preserve of the UNP and, at least with respect to its more nationalist segment, the Hela Urumaya.

The apathy of the government, the even more pathetic apathy of the Opposition (to call it an Opposition would be to insult the legacy of poorly equipped Oppositions the UNP bequeathed to this country during the Rajapaksa years), and the silence of those ideologues hostile to the Rajapaksas and their brand of nationalism all conspired to empower the SLPP to get in more and more of this particular demographic.

The mainstream polity ridiculed the Joint Opposition and the SLPP for not having the numbers. That is a problem it is still afflicted with. But as the local elections showed, parliamentary presence can be a poor barricade against popular revolt.

It took an entire week for the storm that the SLPP's upset victory compelled to go away. A complacent government that had prepared itself for an insignificant margin of defeat (even those rooting for the Podu Jana Peramuna prepared themselves for a UNP victory) saw the front against the Rajapaksas that had held them together wear away, and eventually collapse. Never again would the President and the Prime Minister look at each other. After their clash, each would let it out that the other would be nothing without him politically: the Prime Minister, because he had to depend on the President for his return to the parliament; the President, because without the UNP, he could not have been the common candidate. Talk about the power of fringe parties!

There was another factor. The rise of the Alt-Right. Whether or not commentators are correct in terming Gotabaya Rajapaksa a neo-fascist who should be condemned on the same terms that (neo)liberals condemn Hitler and Caligula with, there's no denying that Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson made it possible for people to see things differently. The world, until then, had been largely determined by globalist financiers who supported centrists no different to the warmongers they were opposed to (a claim made not just by right wing conspiracy theorists and outfits like Breitbart, by the way). A world in which Obama was championed as a President for Peace thus grew disenchanted when, even with the hullaballoo against Donald Trump, it became evident this peace-loving leader of the free world had vastly expanded his country's drone program. The movement against the interests he stood for, predictably, emerged from outside the Congress, even outside the Republican Party. What happened later, to both ends of the mainstream political spectrum, we know by now.

What does all this amount to? One simple truism: the people have lost faith in the traditional institutions. In 2015, the momentum around the world was such that it was inconceivable that people could vote for a Donald Trump. The faith reposed on the three arms of the state, so strong then, was a legacy of the liberal tradition of the West, the same tradition the UNP sought to impose here in the name of democracy, freedom, and a better deal for everyone. In the end, tragically, all that failed.

The rift between fringe popularity and parliamentary presence befitted the political establishment in a world where liberalism trumped everything else. But we live in different times. Now the momentum is with those who exist outside the parliament. It is with those who can compensate for lack of parliamentary prestige with numbers drawn from outside the legislature. For now at least, that momentum belongs to the SLPP. And behind them, supporting them, there is, not the peasantry the Rajapaksas have always counted on, but a terribly disillusioned middle class.

TV Royal: Making the waves

I missed SPARK. Sure, I missed and continue to miss a whole lot of plays, films, and other events and this due to the fact that I hardly find the time and what little time I get tends to be spent (or wasted) doing nothing. And yet, SPARK was special. At a time when the government is emphasising on the importance of fostering innovation and creativity, the event, organised by Royal College and held from September 25 to 28, was a veritable exhibition (or an "Innovation Expo") showcasing what a typical student (more than 100,000 students from over 500 schools took part), given enough leeway, could do with what he picks up from his studies. It was one of a kind, though not unprecedented, and it was representative of the country.

On Day Three at the College Hall, an announcement was made and a website was launched. Both had to do with the inauguration of a TV Channel, unconnected to the Expo. Well, SPARK is gone and I am sad to say that I missed it. But that channel, TV Royal, is yet to make the waves. It will be aired on October 26, 27, and 28 (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) on PEO TV. It will air pre-scripted episodes, live streamed events, even a short film competition. Sure, it has nothing to do with SPARK. But it has everything to do with the spirit of innovation that SPARK stood for.

People have preferences. This is known. And this applies to the media. Television used to be about storytelling, documentaries, and creative advertising. Now it is about crass mega series, propaganda pieces, and senseless 30 second spots that neither grab attention nor relay a coherent message. And yet, that's what people demand.

I'm guessing that most of us want to wade through what little free time we get after school or work with programs that are easy on the eyes. That is how mega serials have become a huge market. That is how Poya Day serials, so memorable back then, have become so bowdlerised now. Banality is the name of the game here, and programmers aren't just cautious about treading on new territory, they are terrified. It took years and years for the team behind Koombiyo to get it on the air after all, let's not forget.

TV Royal fulfils two aims. The first, Kaif Sally, one of the two organisers behind the project, told me, is "selfish". There are at present 48 clubs and societies extending to almost every field of activity, from astronomy to zoology, at Royal. As Kaif put it, "they are drawn to the competition that results from the pressure of proving that your club is better than your friend's." For this reason, TV Royal will attempt to bring out the sense of kinship between them.

The second aim, which I am interested in, is "selfless", and it entails "setting a trend" for other schools to follow. To put it more succinctly, this is the first time that a school here will telecast its own channel. "We do not want to set a precedent and then prevent others from matching that precedent. We want them to equal us, do better than us, and along the way, reinvigorate the concept of media units in the country."

The problem, as he points out, is that there is a serious dearth of such media units in Sri Lanka. The way I see it, this is buttressed by the lack of three things: equipment, interest among the students, and a set of media competitions.

It is not that schools, even those outside Colombo, lack willpower. Just three months ago, for instance, St Anne's College, Kurunegala organised "Sanvidha Sanjani" (which I missed, though for reasons of health), which delved into several facets of the media, from broadcasting to scriptwriting. But such events are more the exception than the norm ("Sanvidha" was held after a long time) and they depend, for the most, on the interest of a student or a group of students. That is the issue that TV Royal is trying to resolve, just as SPARK tried to resolve (in its own special way) the virtual absence of a culture of innovation in our students. To this end, a brief note on the organisers, the episodes, and the objective that the project is set to achieve, is called for.

TV Royal is the brainchild of one institution. MURC. That's the Media Unit of Royal College. It is unique, not only because of the resources it and the school it is affiliated to are endowed with, but also because it has managed to "step out" to. Established in 2001, it traces its beginnings to the late 1990s, when the Sinhala Literary Association went beyond its comfort zone and set up an "unofficial" media unit that facilitated news broadcasts. "We were limited in what we did when we started out. It was all about announcing. After 2007, we moved. We 'embraced' photography. Videography. Graphic designing. And live streaming." All these boil down to four outfits: the News Team, the Video Crew, MURC Creatives (covering everything from photography to event management), and Le Postre (something of a talent agency that enables students to take their creativity beyond the school).

Today, MURC is everything a media company can be. It organises workshops every year and practically every month, to select and groom students who wish to engage in the media. Be it graphic designing or photography or even announcing, the process is the same: the senior selects the students who then "become" his understudies. This system, despite its share of flaws, works. It works because, as Kaif tells me, seniors are shrewd enough to pick students who exhibit merit. It is this intricate relationship, between seniors and juniors, that found its way to TV Royal: mooted in 2014 by the MURC Board, it became the "idea of the year" four years later, THIS year, for Kaif and the other main organiser, Abdul Rizvie.

In essence, the project, budgeted at five million rupees, will involve 10 directors, 22 managers (that is, the chairmen of the clubs and societies), and around 40 or 50 crew members. As Abdul puts it, "it is easier to think of a television line-up than to actually plan one", which is probably why, even with the involvement of so many young professionals, there have been edits, cuts, and inordinate delays.

Each episode will be 30 minutes long. They will be broadcast later on YouTube. Apart from those dedicated to current events, there will be episodes on history, the buildings within the school, the spaces they have occupied over the years. Nostalgic, yes, and also in-house. For that reason, I am more interested in the episodes that will be about the world beyond those buildings and spaces. In other words, those which will be about the projects of the clubs and societies.

Some of the most interesting social processes play out in our schools. For obvious reasons. Students make up a significant demographic. They represent the ecology of their societies. They determine the trajectory of their country. Whoever contends that schools thrive on a way of life divorced from the reality outside them, then, is telling half the story. There is always some relevance in what school bodies engage with, no matter how insular the institution they are affiliated to may be, or may get.

TV Royal will highlight these bodies. There is the Scouts Association. The Western Orchestra. The Oriental Music Society. The Red Cross Society. And the Library Readers' Association. These are not the only clubs, but with what little time I had, I only managed to talk with their chairmen.

The Scouts will feature a "hike" across Mandaram Nuwara. The Orchestra will feature some Western classical pieces and English songs and a recounting of their history. The Oriental Music Society will feature some old Sinhala songs (from "Sanda Hiru Tharu " to "Mage Punchi Rosa Male") and a "reading" of their lyrics. The Red Cross Society, with the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Project, will feature the elephant-human conflict and one innovative way through which it can be resolved (a hint: "pani dodam"). The Library Readers' Association will feature a certain writer and a montage of clips on the world of literature. These clubs and projects are "in-house", but at the same time, they are about things that exist outside their walls, their perimeters.

These are children. Students. Still in school. Most of them will be sitting for their A Levels next year. Most of them have found ways of "marketing" their passions. A few, very few, have planned out a life after A Levels holding on to those passions. MURC has helped them considerably, of this we can be sure.

Sahan Kithmina, Chairman of the Readers' Association, summed up for me what he wanted to do with his society: "Api ramuwen eliyata yanna oni." In other words, get out of the frame. The same can be said of the projects, going beyond the four walls of an institution, that the other clubs will indulge in. I'm guessing it will be "easy on the eyes". But I'm also guessing it will offer a veritable "alternative" to what television, so long in the hands of crass commercialists and profiteers, have offered or ever will offer. So no, I won't miss it. Not for the world.

Written for: Daily Mirror, October 16 2018

History is version, or 'The English and Their History'

A partial review of Robert Tombs's The English and Their History.

History is version. I remembered this as I read through three books: Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy, Peter Conradi's Who Lost Russia, and Robert Tombs's The English and Their History. The first two made me realise that, when it comes to the Russian Revolution and Russia in general, Western scholars are not merely divided, they are confused. Figes's treatment of the event is probably the most widely read in the post-Soviet era, but even he gets certain facts muddled up. (Case in point: did the Soviet delegation to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty really compel a random peasant to come with them for the negotiations, as he points out?) As for Conradi's account, it is typical of the anti-Putin diatribes that scholars have been writing for years. The National Review puts it best: "The West misread Russia in the 1990s." Well, so did Conradi, the Review, and every other scholar.

Both Figes and Conradi tackle a particular period. Robert Tombs, on the other hand, tackles an entire civilisation. England being England, the "largest nation in Europe to lack a state of its own" (David Frum), there are enough and more historical realities and anecdotes that should make up a multifarious account of that civilisation. The role of the country in the slave trade, the colonialist enterprise, and the subjugation of its own people (particularly the Irish) would fill up any history book.

And yet, beautifully written though his treatment is, Tombs avoids these hard facts and conjures an alternative history in which the governments wanted to do away with slavery, ameliorate the evils of imperialism, and spread the spirit of charity among its less privileged citizens and brethren. History is version? You bet!

Is The English and Their History, as detractors may suggest, a "patriotic history of England"? Or is it, as David Frum suggests, a "systematic refutation of the most familiar lines of indictment"? Frum argues that it is no polemic, "not even an anti-polemic", which means that the objective is not to propagate a view, no matter how orthodox or unconventional. In three areas, however, Tombs becomes a revisionist: the slave trade, the state of the proletariat during the Industrial Revolution, and the response of the British government to the Irish Famine.

Tombs, when setting the record straight on these three events, refutes the orthodox accounts and their writers: the Abolitionists, the Marxists, the Irish Nationalists. From 1815 to 1850, the heyday of Dickensian England, for instance, the English experience was, for the likes of William Morris, William Blake, Arnold Toynbee, and Friedrich Engels, one of drudgery and unbearable poverty. In contrast to them, Tombs observes that drudgery and poverty in the slums of London, Liverpool, and Manchester was borne, not out of the Industrial Revolution, but of rapid, unplanned urbanisation. He takes on Engels's conventionally accepted work on The Working Class of England and writes against its pessimism, arguing that "an 1860s survey found 95 per cent of houses in Hull and 72 per cent in Manchester to be 'comfortable'."

These are assertions, and their sources hold water in roughly the same way that most of Figes's sources in A People's Tragedy do: that is to say, they reflect the particular, peculiar views of certain historians. That 1860s survey, for instance, was taken from Michael Mason's The Making of Victorian Sexuality, which refutes the view that Victorian England was a haven of prudery and hypocrisy; in Masons's eyes, at least, it was "in reality a code intelligently embraced by wealthy and poor alike as part of a humane and progressive vision of society's future."

I find that description hard to swallow, given that much of Sri Lanka's laws relating to marriage and divorce stem from Victorian morals. The Penal Code's hostility towards homosexuality, for instance, is at odds with the flowering of gay rights in 19th century Germany. To be sure, the German legal system also forbade relations between males (especially after the German Empire was unified in 1871), but German doctors, in stark contrast to their British counterparts, pioneered research which concluded that homosexuality "should not be viewed as a psychic depravity or sickness."

In Sri Lanka, of course, homosexuality remains a depravity and sickness. The Penal Code was enacted in 1883. Sections 365 and 365A criminalises relations between the same gender, with a term of imprisonment of two years. It is hard to conclude that these reflected the ethos of the civilisation on which it was imposed, given that a) the Code was a watered down version of its Indian equivalent, enacted almost a quarter century before, and b) it was a legal expression of a way of thinking that succeeded a period of capitalist accumulation in the country of its origin.

It was during Victorian England that vast strides were made in urban planning (a "stupendous effort in bricks and mortar", as Tombs puts it). It was an attempt at unifying different classes after the clashes between the bourgeoisie and proletariat that had characterised the period from 1815 to 1850. Whether or not the attempt worked, there's no denying that during this pivotal era, prosperity met with prudery, and the two joined hands. The result was a body of law which has never since been equalled in its universality and sexual hypocrisy. India, more populous than us, managed to move away from it. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, remains bonded to it.

Tombs's book is both an alternative and a watered down account of history. Personally, I believe it is relevant even to Sri Lankan historians, because it paints a picture of colonialism and exploitation which is at once deceptively self-evident and distorted. On the slave trade, for instance, Tombs argues that there was a sustained campaign led against it by the British state, which culminated with the enactment of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. A closer examination of this piece of legislation, its historical antecedents, and its ramifications for a world in which the balance of power had shifted to the other side of the Atlantic are called for, I rather think.

The British state, which passed the Abolition Act in the 19th century, competed fiercely with the French and the Portuguese over the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Slavery was not born in England, nor was it a Western creation: as Tombs points out, between 1530 and 1640, more than one million European civilians were kidnapped and sold by Arab raiders in the Middle East. But the difference with the British slave trade, and indeed the European slave trade in general, was that it was systematic, brutal, and carefully planned out. It was an institution, not a practice.

Tombs's argument is that to view the Atlantic slave trade purely in terms of British involvement would be unfair, given that it was a joint effort between European buyers and African sellers. This is no different to the assertion that the British didn't conquer countries like ours, rather we let them conquer us, because the rulers we had were too cruel. Yes, collaboration does presuppose collusion, and the fact is that the slave trade was the result of an agreement between the exploiter and the exploited. Still.

To the writer's credit, he minces no words in depicting the horrors of slavery. But the end of it, oppressive as the institution of slavery was (the campaign against it became "the most important humanitarian campaign in English history") did not spell out the end of exploitation. On the contrary, its end was the result of two distinct yet related realities: the fear of the British ruling class of Africans becoming their competitors, and the shift to colonialism in Asia. It is significant to note here that the Abolition Act excluded from its ambit the "Territories in the Possession of the East India Company", which included India and Sri Lanka. The British may have been magnanimous, but they were hardly saints.

The truth was that the slave trade was indispensible to the accumulation of capital in Western civilisation. No matter how well intentioned the Abolitionists were, no matter how effective their campaigns may have been, there was a range of factors which had a say in the enactment of the Abolition Act, among them the emergence of America as the centre of Western power. It wouldn't be until 40 years later when the United States passed its own Abolition Act in the form of the 13th Amendment, but then, even with the advent of the Civil War, which according to certain romantic historians "freed" the slaves, slavery was never completely abolished: it was changed and it continued in the form of segregation, right until the Civil Rights Movement.

So what do we gain from these assertions, Tombs's and mine? The awful truth: that the history of the struggle against imperialism has almost always been underscored by considerations of realpolitik. The British may have been underrated in their love of humanity. But saints they were not.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, October 21 2018

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Debating beyond force and foes

Not every talker is a debater and not every debater is a talker, I've noticed. Talk is cheap. Debating, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. While the one and the other do meet in and enter everyday conversations and tournaments, they are not the same, because debating is a craft, an art in fact, which requires tremendous reserves of concentration, creativity, and energy. That, plus the fact that while anyone can butt in and give their two cents on a given topic, a debate entails something much more: a seasoned encounter between two camps opposed to one another based on a given subject. This is true for English debating and it is also true for Tamil and Sinhala debating because the latter two have more or less evolved via the history of the former. This article, incidentally, is about Sinhala debating.

Pasindu Madhusanka, Mino Gallawatta, Ridma Raveen, and Navod Nethma are four active debaters attached to the society of their school, Royal College. The Sinhala Debating and Oratory Society, as it's known there, evolved as an appendage of sorts to the Sinhala Literary Association and broke away to venture on its own path, as an independent entity, in 2001. Among its most active participants and chairmen in the past, I can name Nalin de Silva (yes, THAT Nalin de Silva), the late A. V. Suraweera, and Prathiba Mahanama Hewa, who all happen to come from different fields. Such details, interesting as they are to me, nevertheless pale away when considering the trajectory it and various other school clubs around the country are following and how it has unearthed the true nature of Sinhala debating as a craft. This is therefore not a detailed recounting of the society, rather a delineation of those active in the society.

Pasindu, this year's Captain, spoke first. "There are some erroneous views regarding this field which we've tried to get rid of. For instance, the view that Sinhala debating is all hot air and depends more on force than facts. That is not true. Speaking for our society, we privilege facts over force and have come to realise that shouting for the sake of winning over judges will get you nowhere." Ridma interjected here: "The biggest lesson you can draw from being a debater, in whatever language, is that there's a time to shout and a time to sober down." I got their point immediately: if we are to talk about this topic, controversial as it is, we have to talk about how debaters evolve and graduate and what they learn about wielding rhetoric.

A typical Sinhala debate includes four debaters. Marks are allocated on two criteria, the way you present and the way you break your contender's points. "The Captain is allocated 60 marks for only his presentation, while the split between the two criteria for the second speaker is 40-20, the 3rd speaker is 30-30, and the fourth speaker is 20-40. The rest of the marks come from the style of your delivery, or vaag vilashaya, and your body language, or anga chalanaya," Pasindu informed me, adding that having counted in more than 340 debates (a whopping portfolio) he has ascertained that there's no easy way for a debater to evolve. This brings him, and me, to how he and his colleagues managed to break away those myths regarding what they are doing.

Before that though, how they got to the Society is pertinent. In Pasindu, Ridma, and Navod, I infer three routes through which one enters the Club. With Pasindu, it was a teacher who recognised his voice for its persuasive, stentorian qualities (she happened to be his class teacher and was also attached to the society); with Ridma it was Pasindu's friendship; and with Navod it was a notice for a workshop conducted by the Society which he attended. "When we are young, we want to try everything out. We want to indulge in every extracurricular activity," Pasindu told me. Over the years, and not surprisingly, the procedure for attracting new recruits to the club has not diverged from what it used to be before, though by now, the drive towards getting new and potential debaters in has accelerated: "We organise projects every month, bring in experts for workshops, and conduct massive recruitment campaigns thrice a year."

The 'learning curve' they undergo is formal as well: "Starting from practice debates, we move the better students to inter house debates, and from them we pick out the best to represent the team at inter school debates. Even with this process, however, we have hiccups. Those hiccups materialise as limitations of individual debaters." Such limitations, Pasindu explained, can dog them for months if not years, but they go away eventually. "Navod, for instance, had a problem pronouncing the letter 'ka'. When he began, he used to be hassled off a tournament after the semi finals. But with practice over time, he has, while not eradicating this issue completely, resolved it. Ridma on the other hand was afraid of 'opening up' in front of an audience. He resolved it by concentrating on facts in his speech. These are personal problems inherited from childhood, and they have a big say in how a debate is conducted. Language matters as much as delivery, and if problems affect either of them, you need to address them."

Debaters have their preferred topics and these three are not, it must be said, exceptions to that rule. Preferences of that sort are conditioned by what one studies. Ridma, who did his A Levels in the arts stream, prefers topics delving into social theory, which incidentally makes up the majority of debating topics in the country. On the other end, Pasindu prefers topics revolving around science, which happens to be in the minority among national debate topics. "Economics, law, sociology, and diplomacy attract more confrontation, so they are in the majority. Nonetheless, I feel there should be more topics based on science." Whatever the theme, however, they are adamant that facts should come before force: the latter must be a corollary, or should grow out of, the former. I asked Pasindu, Ridma, and Navod that given that one must balance the one with the other, what of students who by nature tilt towards one OVER the other?

It's a challenge, but as all three inform me, it can be resolved. "There are students who have never uttered a filthy word in their lives. There are also students who by nature are assertive and tend to be forceful in what they say and how they act. In both cases, you have got to understand that a language, any language, is based on formal lexicons and on slang. They carry equal weight. To this end, we need to teach students how to be aggressive at a given moment and how to be sober and calm as well." Pasindu, by nature aggressive in how he speaks, is at the other end of Ridma, who is more collected. It's a veritable mishmash, and given that this is debating and not a literary association, it is to be expected. This, however, brings me to another persistent issue: that of language. More pertinently, how flexible language can get.

Obviously, judges, being the human beings they are, bring with them their notions of grammar and rhetoric, so it's to be expected that language and delivery depend on how these human beings take to them. Debates about religion, for instance, can get testy when judged by the clergy, but as Pasindu and Ridma tell me, they have faced tournaments where such awkward confrontations have occurred. This extends to the use of the language: "There are no hard and fast rules about what kind of Sinhala we should use. We teach our students to use as much Sinhala as possible, to be very resourceful when resorting to English, except in the case of technical terms with no vernacular equivalent. Our biggest challenge is with students steeped in neither Sinhala nor English. They are, for the lack of a better term, gandabba."

In fact it is interesting to know that while there are several dialects of Sinhala spread right throughout the country, from Kurunegala to Matara, in debating circles such dialects, at least among experienced societies, disappear and give way to a distinct dialect that only debaters conjure up. "This dialect is ridden with inconsistencies in grammar which would infuriate some. As an example, one term we always use, which actually traces its origins to the Royal team from 2011 and 2012, is 'athishaya avasthawa.' Those two words cannot, strictly speaking, be used together. But over time and through constant use, it has become a word on its own right. We do concur that grammar must figure in a language, but in this field, we are not rigid."

As a final point, Pasindu and Ridma dwell on the most important project that debating team at Royal are engaged in, Samprapthi. Each year, the project is formed with the intention of promoting unorthodox debating, and to this end it is planned to raise the camaraderie between debating societies in Sri Lanka. As these two inform me, in 2011 they brought together schools weak in Sinhala, in 2012 they brought together schools slightly less weak in Sinhala, in 2013 they conducted workshops in peripheral schools throughout the Western Province, in 2016 they trained societies from schools which had not made that many strides in the field, such as Carey College, while in 2017, they attempted (rather successfully) to tone down the confrontational thrust of Sinhala debating by inviting junior members and by deliberately 'mixing up' teams from different schools so that instructors from one school would be heading another school team. I was there at the last Samprapthi, and I saw how all those debates, all that confrontation, ended in an awards ceremony where there were no winners, only boxes of chocolates distributed among contending teams to (what else?) promote harmony.

So what's in it for the team? "Probably the most important thing we've learnt in debating is to not be ruffled by praise or blame, by victory or defeat. When we win, we don't flaunt. When we lose, we don't sour. Moreover, debating has taught us a lot about people, their preferences and their prejudices. I won't say that it has taught us everything that we need to know about those people we come into contact with in our tournaments, but it's gone a long way in helping us understand other perspectives. This in turn has helped us understand that this is a field which is not exclusively reliant on confrontations and fights. There's more, much more to debating, especially Sinhala debating, than shouting and hollering and bringing your competitor down. I suppose we are all united in saying that we've learnt to be immune to pressure, and by being immune to pressure that way, we've learnt to comprehend this field better."

And in the end, what debaters pick up and learn, what they discard and unlearn, what they perpetuate in the name of what they do, helps us understand what debating is and is not. Especially in Sinhala. In that sense, the stories Pasindu and the team can say speak a lot. Louder than their voices, certainly.

Written for: The Island YOUth, July 22 2018

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Reflections on some wonderful friends

My friend Hiruna, who is studying for his A Levels, yet somehow finds the time to write the most beautiful Sinhala poetry I have ever read from someone his age, is something of a rarity. Not because he writes poetry (don't we all, at some point?) but because his preferred cultural icons are so far removed from the Sanukas and the Santhushes of this era that he has become virtually isolated. He has written essays and essays on everything from the era he panders to - the sixties, seventies, and eighties - ranging from Hansa Vilak to T. M. Jayaratne to Amaradeva to Sekara. Because of my inability to read between the lines when it comes to poetry, sivpada or nisadas, I have come to appreciate the critic in him rather acutely. He has read much more on the subjects he tends to than anyone his age.

And yet, he is not alone. There are others. Perhaps not as "into" what he likes as he is, but nevertheless with a sensibility which has been honed to past objets d'art that the young today are rubbishing day in and out. It's hard to tell whether this is a miniscule minority or whether it has the potential to grow up and mature. In that sense there's a lot to be expected from the families and friends of these youngsters, because with the correct guidance, they can and will become the wielders of the arts tomorrow.

The most common excuse dished out by those who are fascinated by the icons of the present is that "the past is dead, live with it!" It's a flimsy excuse, though one I've come across from youngster after youngster wherever I go and am. Perhaps it's to do with how the media has suppressed the old in the programs they broadcast. Either way, an entire generation is growing up not even having heard of the usual icons - Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, even Clarence - and this despite the fact that these names are hardly ones we can pass over. Someone once said somewhere (I can't remember the name or the time, though it was way, way back, a long time ago) that if Sri Lanka chose to send something that demarcated "ape kama" to the moon, it would send the songs of Amaradeva. Laudable, but consider that we have children, and students at that who are studying in GOVERNMENT schools, who have not even heard of his name, much less his songs. So yes, people like Hiruna are rather rare.

There are reasons. For one thing, schools have rarely produced artists the way they produce and are structured to produce engineers, lawyers, doctors, and accountants. Parents have set notions about what they want their children to become and this impedes on the ability of individual societies to do with the arts to nurture up and coming artists. If you are studying science for your A Levels, chances are that no matter how suitable for chairing and leading literary, drama, and debating societies you may be, you will be compelled to exit them abruptly to concentrate on passing that Z score and entering university. And this isn't resolved by handing these societies over to those who study arts. As Ayath, whom I interviewed last year over how Sinhala drama is taught and sustained at schools in and around Colombo, argued, there is a discrepancy between those who take to the arts and those who debate, do drama, or write poetry for competitions. More often than not, it's those other streams - Science and Commerce - which produce the bulk of the members who want to do something. More often than not, also, those who choose arts opt for it because they have nothing else to offer. "They just aren't interested" was what Ayath told me.

That's one reason. Not the only reason. It's easy to go on lambasting structures and institutions. Looking inward, at the fault in ourselves, however, is much, much more difficult. The truth is that many of us from this generation and generations after us are rabidly averse to the past, or anything that is too old to be venerated in hagiographic terms. When Amaradeva passed away, for instance, there were howls of protest over one particular young vocalist who contended that there were much better voices than the maestro's among his (the vocalist's) colleagues. Whether or not this was true (such judgments, subjective though they are, can be assessed), the timing of the statement was hardly apt. And yet, this is but just one part of a broader phenomenon. Young people I talk to take to the guitar and the microphone as though God has willed it. The richness of technology, in other words, is drowning the richness of imagination, and imagination, a key prerequisite to the production of art, is lacking among them. Sure, they know how to please the ear. It's just that they don't know how to please the mind.

Poetry, the most potent and literary of all cultural forms (the novel and the short story, by comparison, are newer, more recent), is a veritable yardstick when it comes to other cultural spheres, in particular music. "The young don't have the time to read, and even if they do, they just aren't interested" was what Ajantha Ranasinghe told me during our interview. He has a point. As a people, we aren't reading enough. Literacy rates, premised as they are on the ability to read and write on a rudimentary level, are hardly adequate by way of assessing whether we should be reading and writing more.

How can the culture of a country thrive if its poetry languishes? As Garett Field notes in his book "Modernising Composition: Sinhala Song, Poetry, and Politics in 20th Century Sri Lanka", the cultural revival we saw in the preceding century was supported by a plethora of lyricists who were able to preserve the literariness of their work while contributing to the country's musical sphere. It was for this reason, Field observes, that Chandrarathna Manawasinghe was able to come up with a new poetic meter for his masterpiece, "Wali Thala Athare", and that his "student" Mahagama Sekara contended in a 1966 lecture that "a test of a good song was to take away the music and see whether the lyric could stand on its own as a piece of literature." (This quirk, which we are used to in Sri Lanka, confounds Field so much that he admits the inadequacies of Western ethnomusicology when it comes to the Sinhala lyric.)

Ultimately, in a country and a region which has historically privileged the fusion of words and rhythms (regardless of how sophisticated or not our ancestors were, they were able to musicalise what they read in ways which baffle scholars today), the first step towards the flourishing of a cultural sphere is the dissemination of our poetry, and lyrics, among our students. This is not an easy task, but it is a task which we must engage in. After all, we're talking about generation after generation who grow up indifferent to history (which, during the social studies experiment of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime and even the dates-driven approach of the curriculum prior to it, was taught rather well). We're talking about an entire generation neglecting the need for the lyric, in favour of technology. The allure of the guitar and the boy band is too strong to be overcome. If ever they venerate the bands of the past - the Moonstones, the Super Golden Chimes, right down to the Gypsies and Marians and the Jayasri Brothers - we forget that these groups, superficially appealing to juvenile, adolescent tastes, nevertheless had members who did not neglect the lyric. Such a generation, growing up in indifference, can only be salvaged by our generation.

And it doesn't end with poetry, by the way. We all write poetry, especially Sinhala and Tamil poetry, when we are young. It's when we grow up that our tastes "part ways" and compel us to follow one path at the cost of all other paths. It's the same story when it comes to other cultural spheres, be it drama or literature or painting. Many of those teenagers I talk to who like drama, for instance, tend to be interested in the movies. Hardly remarkable, until you consider that the film industry in Sri Lanka has almost always depended on the theatre for its reserves of not only actors, but also scriptwriters. (If ever there was an actor here, a proper one, who did not hail from the theatre, I am yet to hear of him or her.) And of course, until you consider that acting today has been confined to models and dilettantes who lack the seriousness, the controlled grace, of the actors I admire: from the very recent past, Uddika Premaratne, Saranga Disasekara, and the newest face of them all, Thumindu Dodantanne.

Hiruna isn't alone, as I mentioned before. There are others. Many others. All of whom profess an interest in various other spheres, the movies included, with an interest in being active participants in those spheres. Hiruna, by nature introspective, prefers the path of the poet. Those others prefer the path of the director, the scriptwriter, and the discerning actor. To be all these things, it is necessary to be a discerning human being. Are our institutions, of learning and power, enough to channel their innate sensibilities and respond positively to what they want to become? I certainly hope so. Until that transpires, though, I can only hope and continue being friends and talking with them.