Sunday, March 11, 2018

#LRArmy: Of readers, writers, and doers

Sanura Kulanaka had an idea. He wanted the students to read. He also wanted them to write. So he organised class libraries, appointed library readers, got junior members to sketch out, in drawings, what they felt about what they read, and got more senior members to write down capsule reviews regarding the same. Time usually spent playing cricket, having brawls, or whiling away doing nothing and/or gossiping was hence spent on reading between the lines. As a result, the level of discipline improved. Considerably. And the students began reading, and writing, more than ever before.

But Sanura wasn’t really satisfied. He wanted to go beyond those class libraries. So he got a bunch of students and visited the National Library. He then got down two renowned writers, a translator and a novelist, and got those students to read what they had written, carefully, and jot down any questions regarding the craft and the themes in their work. Sanura himself came across an inconsistency in one of their books. At the reading session, he pointed out that error to the novelist, who conceded and smiled. The students were naturally happy. Sanura still wanted more, though. More than what a class library, a visit to a big library, and two reading sessions could yield.

Eventually, he hit on what he had wanted. An exhibition. One that would bring bookshops from across the country. He came up with a name. Poth Lanthaya. His friend, Rajitha Abeysinghe, translated it: Bookland. Held over two days, July 31 and August 1, it was supplemented by a schoolboy band, a quiz competition, and the “official handover” of World Book, the motto of which contained this line: “Today’s explorers are tomorrow’s leaders.” Sanura was an explorer. So was Rajitha. So were their friends. And so were the members under them. All that was needed was an initiative, a series of projects, which could turn them into those leaders. That initiative, which brought these boys together, bore three initials. LRA.

Sanura was the Chairman and Rajitha the Secretary last year of the Library Readers’ Association of their school. I wrote about the LRA right before they unveiled what was promised to be the ultimate showcase item of theirs, Bookland, which for lamentable reasons didn’t get the audience, and the enthusiasm, which it deserved. This, however, is less an indictment on them than it is on those who should have known better and patronised what Sanura, Rajitha, and the boys have been doing ever since they were inducted as members of the LRA Board. But I’m digressing here. I need to get back.

The Library Readers’ Association is the oldest club/society at Royal College, Colombo. Until 1946, a hundred years after it was originally formed, it functioned as a committee with positions filled in by teachers and members of the academic staff, and after 1946, it turned into a student organisation.

Ostensibly, its motive was and is to uplift the College library, but times have changed and with changing times other, as important if not more important motives have been prioritised, among them the need to improve, possibly finance, and coordinate the school library network in Sri Lanka, from the North to the South and from the East to the West. What’s interesting at the end of the day about the LRA, for me that is (as a student of the social sciences and social theory), is how its members have come to reflect and symbolise those changing times and how certain pressures have bestowed a higher responsibility on them. Not just a higher responsibility, but a higher calling.

10 years after the LRA turned into a student organisation, the history of this country, as we know it, changed. The social forces which had held sway and had been pervasive everywhere until then transformed, almost overnight and in the blink of an eye, into another set of social forces, centring on and revolving around one important historical eventuality: free education. The change this entailed, and compelled, was felt everywhere – in the cultural and the political – and it necessitated a shift in the way we thought about and articulated our art forms: our cinema, our theatre, and yes, our literature.

Before 1956, our authors, writing in Sinhala, teetered between two polar opposites – the propagandist literary tracts of Piyadasa Sirisena on the one hand and the earthy, naturalistic novels of Martin Wickramasinghe. Between these two (both of whom I have read and come to admire on almost equal terms) lay an entire country waiting to be emancipated – students and adults – and they were emancipated by the processes which 1956 unleashed.

Probably the best index we have of the extent to which such processes proved to be fruitful here is our literature, and probably the best demographic we have here to measure that index with is our schoolchildren, specifically the Sinhala-speaking schoolchildren. Those who had doted on Wickramasinghe and, if they felt his work to be too sophisticated, the more populist but rather high-flown anti-colonial rhetoric of Sirisena, graduated to other writers after 1956: Karunasena Jayalath (who wrote of young lovers when young love was a tabooed subject), Deemon Ananda (who still enchants us), and Chandana Mendis (whom every schoolchild swears by). The LRA members, most of whom I’ve talked with, represent this demographic, this shift, and with them the demographic and shift that will matter when they take their projects, and their ideas for a country of readers and writers, forward.

Having being brought up and educated in an “estranged” milieu, I frequently lament my lack of familiarity with the texts and authors that most of those my age and in their teenage years go for. In my case, it has been a case of graduating from Enid Blyton, Richmal Crompton, Roald Dahl, and the Hardy Boys, right up to Agatha Christie and (as of now) pretty much everyone else. If you converse with these boys from the LRA, on the other hand, you’ll peruse a different set of literary preferences. Sanura himself, in the longest conversation I’ve had with a student that age (I don’t talk enough, I realise), contended that the fun, the pulsating rhythms of speech and dialect, which he enjoys in a Sinhala novel, especially his favourite genres (crime and mystery) don’t come out when he sits down to read an English novel, a notion which almost everyone else in the team echoes. (It’s pertinent to note that most of team members, like Sanura himself, come from “the village”, and that they have brought their preferences from “the village” to “the city.”)

The titles and authors they prefer, and do not prefer, tell a lot about where they come from and the background they bring with them with the books they read. Here’s a random list: translations of Russian (social realism) stories, Upul Shantha Sannasgala, Chandana Mendis (of course!), and from more recent times, Susitha Ruwan and his Ravana Meheyuma cycle of novels.

Individual preferences tend to diverge and converge: Vimuth, this year’s Secretary, tells me that while he is enamoured of Russian literature in general, he prefers Sannasgala’s Amma to Gorky’s Amma, while Roshan, the Treasurer, tells me that inasmuch as Gorky’s Amma has become a “standard text” for those as young as 10 or 11, his personal favourite is Poleyov’s The Story of a Real Man, translated as Saba Minisekuge Kathawak. Not that they aren’t picky over books this way all the way, though: another member, Sithira (the Assistant Secretary), tells me that he reads everything and anything (“I can’t pick and choose!”), as does the present Chairman, Sahan Kithmina. As for Rajitha, who contacted me over Bookland, he more or less prefers non-fiction: economics (Keynes, Milton Friedman), political science (Machiavelli, John Locke), and, the closest to a creative writer in his list, Dale Carnegie.

It’s a veritable mishmash, and I for one like it. A nation of artists and critics, after all, can only come from a nation of writers, and a nation of writers can only come from a nation of readers. Based on the projects they have committed themselves to – including, but not limited, to what I’ve outlined at the beginning of this sketchy piece – and the way they have set about articulating their preferences through the preferences they’ve promoted for everyone, I can only write down only one thing: if we don’t read enough, or write enough, we’ll continue with a culture that divides the high from the popular. How else do you think that rift has continued, between the young and the old, between you and me, today?

Photos by the Photographic Society and the Media Unit of Royal College

Written for: The Island YOUth, March 11 2018

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Forgotten flicks: 'Sagara Jalaya'

“It must be seen today, by the young of today,” Ranjith Rubasinghe told me over lunch. He was talking about Sagara Jalaya, Sumitra Peries’s fifth film, which I think is one of the three or four most perfectly constructed films ever made here, and which I believe is Sumitra’s masterpiece. Those who watch it today are often overwhelmed by the intermingling of opposites in it – of beauty and pathos, of love and hate, of reconciliation and vengefulness – which explains that sense of unpredictability which never lets go until the last scene. That it could be made with so much precision, back when movies had deteriorated in quality and worse, become debased, tells a lot about the cast and crew. I saw it twice: once when I was 10, once when I was 24. That gap, of almost 15 years, can open you up to facets of the plot you had never discerned before; the beauty of Sagara Jalaya is that even when you ignore those facets, it still seems to have been made for its time, for all time, and for everyone.

Simon Nawagaththegama, who wrote Ohu Mala Giya Pasu, in my opinion the best story from his collection Sagara Jalaya Madi Handuva Oba Sanda (from which the scriptwriter of the film, Lester James Peries, took the title), never reveals his characters, or their flaws, in gushes and torrents. Even in a middle period work as Suddilage Kathawa, published seven years after Sagara Jalaya, there’s never that kind of in-your-face apparentness that you sense in, say, Martin Wickramasinghe’s Koggala Trilogy. Part of the reason for that was that Nawagaththegama, who was of a different literary temperament, sought to transcend the limits of realism that the 20th century had imposed on the Sinhalese novel. But when set against this parameter, Ohu Mala Giya Pasu is an intensely poignant tale, with a kind of clarity of vision that only barely comes out in his other work, even the other stories in Sagara Jalaya.

As with much of his oeuvre, Ohu Mala Giya Pasu takes place in the dry zone: the Wanni region, near Medawachchiya, where people pray and also swear by Aiyanayaka Deviyo and where the harsh sun becomes a reality you have to get used to. In Nawagaththegama’s work the smallest tension, the tiniest ripple on the surface, will charge an otherwise unimportant scene with unbearable tension, and his characters will go on and on, spitting out frenzy, hate, inexplicable madness. Never for one moment are those characters gentle, not because they lack empathy but because that is what their world has compelled them to become. Whoever said that writers operate on universals, and that critics operate on those universals when assessing the work of those writers, was stating only half the story; the truth is that some of the greatest writers went for the milieus they grew up in. Nawagaththegama, in this sense, did through the Wanni area he had known, since childhood, what Martin Wickramasinghe had done through Koggala: depict life as it was lived.

In the original story, which Lester and Sumitra read in translation by Ranjini Obeyesekere, the sexual tensions the adaptation only subtly unearths are there, for all to see, while the child figure, Bindu, doesn’t occupy our attention the way he does onscreen. It’s a cruel world that these characters inhabit, but not as cruel and pathos-ridden as that of Suddilage Kathawa, which many consider to have been a spiritual successor of sorts to Ohu Mala Giya Pasu (those familiar with both would notice the similarities: the woman, left without a husband and without an income, preying on the sexual proclivities of a man she can never have), because of the scriptwriter’s affirmation of humanism. You don’t come across the uncontrollable savagery which Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s adaptation of Suddilage Kathawa oozes out.

In that sense Sumitra’s film is easier to wade through, no matter how young or old you are; as a 10-year-old, I would not have noticed the relationship between the mudalali (Ravindra Randeniya) and Heen Kella, but that did not take my interest away because I was focusing on the relationship between Heen Kella and Bindu, her son. 15 years later, when our comprehension of marriage matured, cynically, we discerned at once the source of the hatred between Heen Kella and the mudalali’s wife, her cousin, so much so that we can’t pass over it. That’s why I think, it its own way, that it was a film made for all time, and for everyone: not everything in it would have appealed to those who saw it, but the emotional texture, the humanism in it that is never repudiated, is what makes it a movie-for-all-to-see at the end of the day.

But while many people have seen, and appreciated, Suddilage Kathawa, very few people have seen, much less appreciated, Sagara Jalaya. If you peruse Sumitra’s career this can be said of pretty much her other films: they all were received warmly by critics, and to a considerable extent by popular audiences too, but the momentum that they rode on when they were first released fizzed out, owing to certain unfortunate reasons outside the control of the director.

Critics say that Dharmasiri Bandaranayake may be the most misunderstood and underestimated director in Sri Lanka, then and now. But the same can be said of Sumitra too, because the kind of recognition that her films, particularly her best work (Gehenu Lamayi, Sagara Jalaya, Sakman Maluwa), deserved never accrued to them; by contrast, her lesser works (Yahalu Yeheli, Duwata Mawaka Misak) compelled hysterics and a barrage of vitriol from both critics and popular audiences (Yahalu Yeheli, for instance, was indicted for its depiction of an upper class young woman taken up by revolution – as if affluent young women can never be taken up at all! – while Duwata Mawaka Misa, made at a time when her work was considered family-friendly, evinced anger when Thushani gave into her paramour’s advances willingly) that was not compensated for by the sustained sincerity of those other three films.

Because those who have seen and waxed eloquent over Suddilage Kathawa (and those other films which had Swarna as the central tormented figure: Hansa Vilak, Dadayama, Kadapathaka Chaya) have never “seen” Sagara Jalaya, the latter remains inexorably fresh every time it’s telecast on television, which I think is part of its charm. Sumitra was primarily an editor, and a disciplined editor at that, and that comes through Sagara Jalaya almost spotlessly; music and movement are intertwined so effortlessly that I sometimes wonder how the crew and cast managed to parse the production together (“We had to delay shooting by a whole year when the rains came,” she told me when we talked about the film one day) until the very end. It’s beautifully sustained, and owing to that, the turbulence and the oscillations of behaviour which come out, however uncontained they can get, never really rupture the gentleness and innocence at the heart of the story. When Swarna and her cousin (Sunethra Sarachchandra) argue, for instance, we don’t get the hysterics and outbursts that we do in many of Vasantha Obeyesekere’s films; the camera moves away and instead focuses on Bindu’s face, filled as it is with disbelief and helplessness. It’s one of the best edited films I’ve seen from anywhere; that has a lot to do with not just Sumitra and Lester, but also the cameraman, Donald Karunaratne; the editor, the sadly underrated Lal Piyasena; and the cast: Swarna, Sunethra, Ravindra, and the two children.

And in the end, it is those two children who salvage the story from the ambiguities of the plot (with respect to the relationship between Heen Kella and the mudalali). Neither the girl nor the boy had been exposed to the cinema back then; that was a different time, when children were not transformed into superstars. “They lose their childhoods early on,” Sumitra told me, talking about the tendency of the popular culture to overhype the young when they become popular in that culture. What gets lost in this transformation is that rare ability to be yourself: the children are forced by the scriptwriter to be younger and louder than they are. They can’t express themselves without resorting to the loudspeaker. A girl once told me (in jest, of course) that I behave like a 50-year-old who speaks like a 20-year-old who thinks he’s a 30-year-old; roughly the same anachronism exists with respect to our onscreen children: they act below their years, but in reality project the fantasies and idealisations of them that directors throw up.

The greatness of Sagara Jalaya, or Maya, is that the child actors in them never followed up on their performances and carved out careers of their own: the tendency of our film industry to throw up wannabe Shirley Temples is recent, because children always returned to their normal lives, back then, when the production wrapped up. They were never idiotic: they thought beyond their years even though they never showed it. That was true and very much so of the two actors in Sagara Jalaya, Rasika Kumari Wickramasingha (Midiya) and Susith Chaminda de Silva (Bindu). (Where are they today?) Bindu’s voiceover at the end, for instance, is insanely poignant, because Susith brings together the opposites at the heart of the story: pathos and beauty, innocence and ferocity. Most child actors I’ve seen bring about that poignancy without uttering too many words (think of Vasanthi Chathurani at the end of Gehenu Lamayi); Susith does it by spelling out an entire letter to the audience.

Which is why I think what Ranjith Rubasinghe told me still holds valid, after all these years. Sumitra’s film should be seen today, by the young of today, not only because I think it’s a “family picture” (and a good one at that), but also because it takes us back to a time when honesty and sincerity mattered; when the need to entertain, while certainly not the be-all and end-all of a film, was acknowledged and not forcibly repressed in the name of art. Those who believe in life and the affirmation of life in the movies should thus get out of their theories, their academised notions of art, and watch Sagara Jalaya.

Written for: Daily Mirror, February 20 2018

Monday, February 19, 2018

MUNation: S(t)imulating the world

If there’s one thing I remember from my schooldays, it’s the fact that I never took part in an extracurricular activity. Not. A. Single. One. School was about passing exams, doing homework, doing that extra assignment to please the teacher, and getting back home for a nap, a cup of tea, some biscuits, and a wholesome dinner. There was no room for cricket, football, or even the most popular sport at my school, basketball. No, I can’t swim, I can’t debate, and though I can play chess, I never dared to cross the line and join the club. I also remember there being a good Scrabble Master, but once again, I didn’t dare.

Then I hit adolescence in Grade Eight. The transition was terrible. I wanted to instil some meaning in my life, to get out of the world I’d shut myself in. Looking around and perusing the many clubs and societies (non-sport, of course) at school, I picked one I thought I could prosper in. Model United Nations. I’d heard from various friends that apart from being an enjoyable enterprise, it was headed at the time by a veritable set of determined prefects, elders, and teachers who wanted to see both the society and the school thrive outside. Having nothing to lose, and everything to gain, I hence tried it out.

The first few days were humbling. MUN, as those who’ve been at it would know, consists of simulating (hence the term “Model”) real life situations, based on the various bodies in the United Nations and based on multifarious and specific contingencies: disaster management, crisis avoidance, consensus, what-not. The first few countries you get aren’t popular, and for good reason: when you get to represent a popular country (the USA, India, even Sri Lanka), you tend to be complacent, because research and preparation – the twin peaks of any budding MUN student – become easier to handle. The first country I got, North Korea, was nowhere near that. Since this was long, long before broadband and Wi-Fi caught up in Sri Lanka, researching on such a country was a difficult, although enjoyable, enterprise. I stayed in the Club, happily, predictably, for a number of months, if not years (I can’t remember), after which I left, returned, left again, returned again, and left for good. That’s life.

We (my school and the club) soon reached a point where we could reckon with outsiders and this in a way that was beneficial to us, meaning a way that encouraged us to try and spread the MUN culture throughout the country. But try as they could, none of those prefects and teachers could take the MUN culture we had institutionalised in our classrooms to classrooms outside. Many, many years later, after expending much effort and after trying out this, that, and everything else that could be tried out, a group of students from a batch decided to stake everything and come up with a simple solution. That solution turned out to be a platform. The platform had a name. MUNation. I wrote about MUNation in 2016, but the footnote it compels today deserves a less sketchy article, particularly with respect to where they are now.

On the 21st and the 28th of January, 2018 (one year after they started out, that is), MUNation hosted the Sri Lankan Crisis Simulation Conference at the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology (SLIIT). What’s special about this is the fact that it is the first conference held in the country catered specifically to crisis situations. Crisis situations, in case you don’t know, are part and parcel of the MUN culture, because crises are what compel world bodies to get together and try to wade through them as peaceably and diplomatically as possible. The crises being simulated can be from the past or the present, and for that matter can even be imagined: at the MUNation Conference, for instance, six different specific situations were simulated and worked out: the Allied and Nazi High Commands for the Second World War, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the UN Security Council, NATO, and a futuristic (also unrealistic? idealistic?) Global Commonwealth of Nations.

To me such an enterprise is important, and not because it’s MUNation at the helm. If there’s one misconception of what the MUN stands for, which has been sustained throughout, it’s the misconception that the United Nations stands for the rights of individual countries over a global polity. In other words, nationalism, chauvinism, and the politics of sovereignty and autonomy and expedience are regarded (sometimes erroneously) as taking precedence over the interests of the entire world, as a whole, which explains the at times irrational wars and conflicts, small as they are compared to the two World Wars, which have been waged by bigger countries against smaller countries despite the best efforts of the United Nations to prevent them. Simulating crises, and locating them not just in the present but also in the past and future, goes a long way in dispelling that aforementioned misconception, because now the global body (i.e. the UN) now has truly become a global institution: arguments need to be made, disagreements need to be resolved and immediately. It’s consensus politics at one level, diplomacy at another.

The Conference, attended by various dignitaries on both days (including Senel Wanniarachchi and Malinda Seneviratne), oversaw various events and side-events, which eventually saw Royal Institute emerge as the Director General’s Award for Best Delegation. A marvellous start-up conference, it ended up enrapturing audiences with rapt speeches and with the timeliness and relevance the whole enterprise entailed. To a large extent, this had to do with the main figures at the head of MUNation, above them all the Founder of the organisation, Nikin Mataraarachchi. I remember the last word he put in the last time I interviewed him regarding MUNation: “We hope to help the future of the MUN and upcoming delegates. We would also like to hope to expand and become Sri Lanka’s first professional MUN consultancy service and also increase the knowledge of Sri Lankans as a whole on international politics.” It would seem that this service he hopes to provide has gone beyond just a website, just a platform, and just an idea. It has evolved. As it should.

Written for: The Island YOUth, February 18 2018

Some recent impressions

Most children I know, particularly schoolboys, take to photography from an early age. If there is a photographic society in their school, they join it the first chance they get. If they are able to scrounge up some money from their fathers and buy a decent Nikon D3300 or, better still, a Nikon D5300 in the second-hand market, they do that. If they come across a “benefactor” who’s willing to lend them a flasher so they can improve on their skills without resorting to that ominous ISO count, they go ahead then and there. Schoolboys love photography in much the same way they love the guitar and the ability to sing; it’s one of the easiest ways of winning someone’s attention, of showing off to the world, particularly the opposite sex, that they are doers. That’s why, when they become adults, they want to become actors and directors, instead of scriptwriters and editors. They want to be seen. By everyone else.

I’ve been fortunate these past three years in meeting young men and women who have shared their perspectives with me. Some of those perspectives, I find hard to agree with; others, I find hard to disagree with; and still others, I am not sure whether I should agree or disagree with at all. These young, wild teenagers – many of them behaving beyond their years – are the obverse of the children of our movies: they are idealists but they are not stupid, whereas their counterparts in our contemporary movies are so stupid that they can only broadcast those idealisms through the loudspeaker. Their love for photography, for the guitar, for the sheer, sensual pleasure of taking a microphone and singing in front of an audience composed of members of the opposite sex for the most, stems from this strange dualism: they are children, yet they think beyond their years in a way their age can’t do justice to.

The elders of this country are nervous about those who will take after them because of this self-contradictory position that the young are in: they are groomed to be the elders they are not at an early age, yet they are treated and indulged as the youngsters that they consciously try not to be. This is certainly one of the most discernibly peculiarities of modern sensibility, and for me it explains, at least to an extent, why our teenagers become adults long before they hit 17 and why so many of them (from the many I’ve met thus far) are so suave and smug and self-confident that they don’t feel the need to be aware or respectful of the adults in front of them. At one level that can be taken as a sign of their arrogance and complacency. At another, it’s something else.

In America, the youngest of all democracies, the young were a little like this after the Second World War; they rebelled against authority even when that authority yielded to them and indulged them. If James Dean, from Rebel Without a Cause, appears so shockingly outdated and even out of place today, it’s because America has gone beyond that kind of youthful angst which the fifties epitomised and because a country like Sri Lanka is yet to produce that kind of angst. Dean has nothing really to complain about, if we are to apply the standards that we, here, apply when it comes to the upbringing of our children, to him, and yet we do see a mild trace of his rebelliousness in the young of today. There’s a difference between this rebellious streak which is opening up in the country and the streak that characterised them two or three decades ago, because then the young ones wanted to please their elders and the society they were born to. Simply put, that rebellion converted them into doers, the generation of Clarence Wijewardena and Rookantha Goonetilake.

The young of those early days wanted to show off because they had what it took to translate what they had into something fulfilling. The young of the recent past were unable to make this leap (was it because, by then, a gap had materialised between the high culture and the popular culture, with the young taking to the latter even though the elders were adamant that they stick to the former?), owing to which they could only imitate any new artiste who came up. Our popular culture never went beyond Bathiya and Santhush and Iraj for quite some time, and later, when Batti and Paba and Muthu Kirilli came, they couldn’t go beyond the mega-series on television either. Look at those latter three TV serials today, the veteran cast members they had (can you imagine someone of the calibre of Irangani Serasinghe or the late H. A. Perera in a mega-drama revolving around a love story today?), and compare them to the shoddiness of what television puts out for mass audiences now.

The new modern culture is different in many ways, I believe. Thumudu Dodantanne, the star of Koombiyo and Sahodarayo (the former more popular and enjoyable than the latter, for me that is), is the newest face to adorn our silver screen, and he does a pretty good job at being that new face in a way that puts to shame even (from the cinema) Uddika Premaratne and Hemal Ranasinghe. For those who want a story instead of an overdrawn, overdue love story, for those who want a plot that parses, that keeps you expecting the next episode without making you feel cheated, Koombiyo is the ultimate television product. It relates to the contemporary society and culture we inhabit – people are turning the conversations in it into memes on Facebook – in ways that no other mega-series can or will, in the near future. (That’s why my excitement over it is tempered by my disappointment at the fact that it took years for the producers to get it approved by the top board at ITN.)

Apart from Koombiyo and Sahodarayo, what are the other symbols of this modern culture? To mention a few: Sanuka Wickramasinghe, Tehan Perera, Ho Gana Pokuna, Adareyi Mang. (We don’t have an equivalent for these in literature, for some reason.) What brings them together is their disregard for the rules that have been set for their respective mediums by other, more established players in the industry: neither Ho Gana Pokuna nor Adareyi Mang, for instance, yields to the commercialism or the profundities that the mainstream and the art house movie sector operate on. They promote rebellion but not at the cost of an absolute annihilation of the values which are being rebelled against. When people listen to Sanuka, they aren’t listening to songs about lovers being denied their romances by the world; they’re listening to songs about lovers being denied their romances from within. It’s the same story with Koombiyo: the urban angst that the serial purveys has been portrayed by so many directors in the medium, but no one has captured our attention in quite the same way the characters in that particular serial have. It’s not a rejection of the old, it’s a reworked, better version of the old.

The schoolboys of today are growing up on this kind of culture, and I for one am happy. When I was schooling I had to put up with either the insufferable yet strangely intriguing mega-drama or the shallowly profound mini-series about contemporary angst (sincerely awful, awfully sincere), and this was true even of the other arts: the only serious movies I had which I could watch came in the form of Aksharaya, long before Indika Ferdinando broke my prejudice against Sinhala films by giving us a film that soothed our sorrows and emboldened our joys without leaving me with the impression that what I was watching was a facilely serious production about a serious idea. The young of today, in other words, are inheritors of a serious culture, but without the overly serious overtones. It’s a new kind of youngsters that is being nurtured by the contemporary sensibility. When they take to photography, when they decide to croon Sanuka’s Saragaye, and when they try to entrance the opposite sex, they aren’t being shallow like their descendants from my generation were. They are truly, madly, sincerely serious about what they’re doing. They have the facilities. They have the confidence. And more than anything else, they have themselves. Isn’t that enough for now? I think so.

Written for: Ceylon Today ECHO, February 18 2018

The anger of the people has spoken

Whenever I failed to get the grade or mark I wanted at school, at a term or a monthly test, I used to brood over it for a long, long time, often for hours, sometimes for days. I would first console myself with the fact that there would always be a tomorrow and another chance. When that wasn’t enough, I’d try to rationalise my failure by dishing the blame on someone else. The teacher wasn’t good enough; that particular chapter was too hard; compared with those who got the lowest marks I was much better off; my handwriting was probably not legible enough for the teacher; my concentration during the exam was disturbed by a friend laughing. It didn’t take long for me to realise that these excuses absolved the only real person who could be blamed. Me.

It’s probably not uncharitable of me to note that most of our politicians remind me of my juvenile years. That’s why I can’t help but smirk when the recent Local Government Election results, profoundly unsettling as they are, compel enough hysterics from those who thought they would win (when they did not and could not) that they contort those results so as to tide over their failures. Mangala Samaraweera, for instance, suggests that the percentage of those who voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa rose from 51.28% in 2015 to 55.35% in 2018. Anura Kumara Dissanayake argues that the final results justify neither the government (the UNP and the SLFP) nor the Joint Opposition (which begs the question: does it justify him?). And Rajitha Senaratne, whose seat (Beruwela), like Samaraweera’s seat (Matara), his party unexpectedly lost, says that while the election was a setback, “the majority of Sri Lanka is still anti-Rajapaksa” (can he get any more obscurantist there?).

The premise for any political commentator when arguing about the post-2015 political scenario was that Mahinda Rajapaksa lost to Maithripala Sirisena. If those who shouted for the government used this as their rationale, it’s only fair to say that the premise for any comment on the LG Elections is that the Pohottuwa (the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna) not only won hands-down, but also won so decisively that it created history by being the second outside-the-mainstream party to defeat the mainstream (the first, of course, being the SLFP, which has now been relegated to the dustbin of history). This was a protest vote. The people weren’t necessarily voting out of love for Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brand of expedient populism: they were fed up of the UNP and the UPFA. The anger of the people has spoken, in other words.

The voting patterns bear this out. Even in areas inhabited and overseen by parliamentarians and MPs, whose monopoly over their regions were virtually unassailable – the UPFA in Polonnaruwa, the UNP in many areas in Kandy and Beruwela and Kalutara – the Pohottuwa won. The numbers are so overwhelming that they simply transcend any attempt made by naysayers and disbelievers to contort them. Mr Samaraweera’s view, to give just one example, can be countered by the fact that unlike in 2015 the SLFP, the UNP, and the other coalition parties, including the TNA and, to a certain extent, the JVP, were not canvassing for votes as a single entity. In August 2015 the situation was different: the bitter memories that Rajapaksa evoked in the minds of his critics at the grassroots were enough for them to cast him aside. Last week, on the other hand, was surely not a case of the hansaya fighting against the kesara sinhaya. It was a one-man party, led by his cohorts and loyalists, against the two oldest political parties in the country. As far as electoral battles go, that one-man party, and that man, won decisively.

Dayan Jayatilleka contends, in three separate analyses written days after the LG polls, that the United National Party should take note of the election results and reform itself gracefully, because, in his own words, “the February 10th shrinkage of the UNP is the consequence, not the cause, of the UNP crisis.” But I rather think that the vacuum at the centre of that party – despite arguments to the contrary made by the likes of Dr Jayatilleka I can’t think of a plausible alternative for Ranil Wickremesinghe, never mind the last-minute attempts (alleged as they are) at trying to replace him with Karu Jayasuriya – will continue for some time, which logically leads me to surmise that the LG Elections was less about the UNP, less about the centre-right economic and political agenda of Ranil Wickremesinghe and his loyalists (EconomyNext, which Dr Jayatilleka notes as “well established” and “UNP and West-friendly”, describes those loyalists as members of the FRCS, or Former Royal College Student, Cabal), that about the wildly oscillating behaviour of the UPFA and the SLFP. True, voters were tired of the UNP’s involvement with the Bond Scandal (most if not all of those MPs tarnished by the Scam – Sujeewa Senasinghe and Ajith Perera included – had to concede defeat in their seats), but they were even more tired of the man at the top and his party.

The first mistake Maithripala Sirisena committed was to take over the reins of the SLFP. This move, expedient and clearly necessary though it was at the time (the only way you could chase the Rajapaksas was by purging the party he’d led of his loyalists), soon grew to besmirch the president’s image as a non-partisan leader. He would have done better, I thought at the time, had he handed over the party leadership to another person, obviously a loyalist, and then gone back to the parliament to become the benign Asokian leader he got us to idealise him as. Instead what we got was a foggy, dense presidency, where the president would speak of reconciliation and the need for interethnic harmony on one day and rant against the Army being tried at a court for crimes against humanity on the very next. What this necessitated was a tussle, apparent in all but name, between the two arms of the unitary government, and what that tussle compelled was the rise and empowerment of the cast aside predecessor. That cast aside loser had to win again, magnificently so.

Had he and his cohorts not won that magnificently, though, even if they came first, the SLPP would not have the numbers to turn victory into celebratory rhetoric. Neither Dulles Alahapperuma nor G. L. Peiris nor Gamini Lokuge nor Dinesh Gunawardena would have been able to hold press conferences and smile at the journalists and make flippant jokes about not joining the government (Gotabaya Rajapaksa to a journalist at the Airport: “Who’d want to be Prime Minister in this mess?”) if they had got even two or three or four points below what they expected. My own prediction, with the UNP coming first and the Pohottuwa a close second, would not have been adequate, and if it had not been adequate, the government would have moved on. Everything clicked in one place, to the advantage of the Pohottuwa AND the UNP, the latter of which now has the numbers to run a government of its own.

The SLFP, for all intents and purposes, is dead. It will be a natural, though temporary, death, because the principles it claimed to stand for were denied by the family members of its own founder and later by the men who clinched power by chasing the Rajapaksas away. Those who were associated with it from 2015 to 2018 – including Duminda Dissanayake and Wijith Wijayamuni Zoysa and Mahinda Samarasinghe – cannot survive politically unless they get out of the SLFP, and even if they do, it will take a long, long time for the people to forgive them. The SLFP, for a still longer time, I suspect, will be laid to rest, unless a more convincing leader – not the president, not Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, and not Mahinda Rajapaksa – takes over its reins. Gunadasa Amarasekara said something to the effect that the SLFP, despite its many self-contradictions, has the ability to throw up a Mahinda Rajapaksa. I rather think that Mahinda will stay for some time in the SLPP, until a resilient, nationalistic, and able person decides to lead the SLFP.