Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Some gaps can never be filled

Gamini Fonseka died 10 years ago. I remember tributes flowing in plenty. A show or two on television. A radio program. Colleagues, personal friends, those who knew him offhandedly but still well enough to warrant comment, eulogised him. They went to great lengths to summarise the man in words and verse. They did his memory proud. Gamini Fonseka left us that day in September leaving behind a void in our cultural firmament unfilled or un-fillable by anyone else. There were those who claimed and vouched for him a “giant”, “icon” status. Inimitable by anyone else. Right they were. Right all the way.

As for me, I grew up with the cinema. In general, though, my first love in a film was for the actors in it. There was a time, back in my naive days, when I thought the director dispensable. Erroneous though this view was, it left me room to adulate and dote on the “stars”. One by one, they would come, alighting on the screen and frequenting the films I watched, so much so that I simply couldn’t fail to take note of their trademark, individual characteristics.

There was Joe Abeywickrema, for instance, with his unparalleled ability at teetering between pathos and seriousness in a medium that had seen lesser comedians take to the fatally easy path of overacting. Then there was Henry Jayasena, attributing to his performances a degree of charm and quiet dignity which, considering the low-key nuanced breadth of his film roles, seemed erroneously incongruent with his more high-powered, intense theatrical life.

And then, perhaps rising above anyone else, there was Gamini Fonseka. The man had grit. A lot. At a time when acting, in the West that is, was being stripped of all its theatrical accretions, at a time when there was an increase of acting schools emphasising heavily on natural acting, he stood out from the rest of the crowd here by deciding to topple the stage-based style our actors had grown accustomed to.

I have read somewhere that Dilip Kumar (still among us) popularised this fad in Asia. National icons are not made through imitation of this fad or the other. Dilip Kumar knew this. He wisely, then, went to synthesise what he had learnt with what his land of birth, India, demanded of him in the films he took part in.

Fonseka was no different. I remember watching those films which had him when I was little. The list, of course, would be endless in a way and quite unnecessary to include in its entirety here. I had my favourite performance, of course. Without a doubt, it was that of Willie Abeynayake, that brooding, impassive, but scheming aristocrat who marries Malini Fonseka’s character to offer her as a sacrifice in Dr. Lester James Peries’ Nidhanaya.

I have been told, a long time back, that the amount of dedication he put into getting his performance right showed on-set and off-set in that remarkable film. No-one who has seen Nidhanaya – who has seen Willie’s epileptic fit, the hypnotic spasms he invokes within himself while praying to the gods before sacrificing his wife, to name just two scenes – can deny that what the man was reputed for in his profession, he could put in with a film which demanded potential and nothing less. Sinhala cinema didn’t produce any more Nidhanayas. That’s sad, not just for the director, but for the actor too.

I know I can’t go beyond this in my little tribute. Gamini Fonseka really was a “sakvithi” (emperor) in our cinema. Across the Atlantic, a new breed of actors and filmmakers was coming up. The age of the Western, of cowboys and gangsters, and the celluloid world of good-vs.-evil where good triumphed, were soon to be over. Out went the Golden Age of Hollywood. In came the freewheeling world of Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino. Fonseka had triumphed at a time when acting had come to a twilight world – when every trace of the epic, the larger-than-life, and the pretentious was being spurned and shrugged off.

At this point, he had arrived. Aptly. No other time could have been riper.

Perhaps, however, I should stop here. I am not qualified to continue and indeed wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise. Where should I end, though? The sad truth, as we all know it, is that Gamini Fonseka left a void. He had his political life, as susceptible to praise and blame as had been his acting. Ideologically, though, he was committed. Very much. Both Sagarayak Meda and Nomiyena Minisun bear testament to that. Perhaps those two films, more than anything else, showed him at his best, representing a fusion of everything he had cherished and stood for.

Fonseka as actor, as director, as political man, and, in the final analysis, as man himself. That’s a lot of places to fill. He has his legacy. We continue it. And it remains, even after 10 years, a chasm and an empty shell waiting, indeed shrieking, to be filled. It cannot, of this I’m sure. Maybe that’s the biggest tribute we can all pay him. After all, some gaps just can never be filled.

Banning never will help

The Bodu Bala Sena have spoken. They have spurted rhetoric. They have declared “war” against the current regime. A “Sinhala Buddhist” leader in this country is what they want. No government has “delivered” on this count apparently. Sri Lanka is not a multicultural country (always a favourite slogan with these people). And, perhaps the showiest thing from them all, they have brought over a radical monk nicknamed the “Burmese Bin Laden” who may or may not (we don’t really know, such is the uncertainty that goes with doctoring and information-filtering) be as much a “terrorist” as they are.

As a Buddhist, I have found an infallible guide in life with the saying “ඒහි පස්සිකො” (come and see for yourself). No truer way to verifying fact without guesswork or rumour exists. All too often, I have come to believe that the media and politicians in Sri Lanka would have done better to follow it. They don’t, as we all know by now. This is true in pretty much every other field which involves fact-verification. We have warped religion (I am not just including Buddhism here) to serve the ideological preferences of those who “preach” it. The Bodu Bala Sena, many will say no doubt, are guilty of this. I agree. But there’s something here that doesn’t quite meet the eye.

The BBS was formed in 2012. One year later, they played a major (and unhelpful) role in the anti-Halal movement. That caught up like prairie fire, and gave them the publicity boost they had clamoured for. The head of that organisation, Gnanasara Thero, was not initially the violent man in public he is today. There was an interview with him, conducted around the time of the anti-Halal protests, on YATV. It’s available on YouTube. Watching it, one wonders whether he was as violent as he had always been cut out to be. I don’t think so. The Thero spoke rationally, some words of wisdom included. I quote:
“If the growth rate of the Sinhalese people is lower than that of the Muslims, it would be pointless to berate and hurl insults at the Muslim people without increasing our population by our own selves. This is not the time to wreck violence against other communities.”
Unimaginable as words coming from a person who has since done the same things, through words of course, he opposes in what he said.

There are some who believe that the BBS is being “helped” by outside forces. I’m not so sure. This is not merely because of the “ඒහි පස්සිකො” doctrine I follow in relation to fact and rumour, but rather owing to the simple fact that claims brought to this effect have failed so far. Not that the BBS has actually done a good job in denying these rumours either, but they remain as notoriously unverifiable as they always were. Still, I wouldn’t put down the possibility.

A friend of mine recently remarked that they were being “puppeteered” by some outside force. Again, unverifiable. For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume it’s not. The claim seems plausible enough on this count. The BBS may well be a joint conspiracy engineered by some hack overseas. The end-goal may well be to stir up anti-regime feeling by (pseudo) anti-Muslim sentiment. It doesn’t take much time to connect the dots and see what force is having which goal.

For one thing, who or what is to account for the rise of this militant organisation? We are yet to have an answer to that question. That’s what bothering me. Rumours of government-backing, implicit police-force-support, and divisionary tactics to win government-support, are at best claims and opinions and nothing more. But they aren't being allayed by the powers that be either. That's worrying.

In politics, as in pretty much everything else, denial can be construed as acceptance. The government has denied. Doesn’t mean they have the final word. Lies can be whitewashed. Complicity need not be open for all to see. Some say that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is active behind the BBS. Again, this can’t be verified. But actions by the powers that be don’t actually help on this count. The fingers, as always, are and will continue to be pointed at them.

We have a right of demand, though. Calls for arresting Gnanasara Thero are meaningless and will be at best a mild thawing of the ice. There’s more to the BBS than meets the eye. Questions arise, such as what the BBS was doing once upon a time in Norway. Wimal Weerawansa and Dilan Perera have dabbled in claim-throwing against them. Rajitha Senaratne has called and indeed is calling for the banning of their organisation. That’s promising, but hardly enough.

Banning something, we have all learnt in history, does not help. The LTTE was proscribed. Didn’t stop them. Neither will it stop the BBS. All too often, we (this applies to every country and not just Sri Lanka) are content with assassinating key figureheads in enemy organisations. Bin Laden was killed. That didn’t stop Al-Qaeda. Instead, today we have another jihadist menace going by the name of ISIS.

There’s another Buddhist doctrine I have always applied in my life: “චතුරාර්ය සත්‍ය”, or the Four Noble Truths. Suffering does not cease by a temporary absence of it. Never will. Only by understanding the larger nuances of what lies beneath can we really come close to eradicating the ills of this world. Thing is, we don’t really subscribe to this view. We embrace stopgap cure without finding the permanent solution.

We yell and holler “war!” That’s alright, if what the war is combating is a deadly, duplicitous menace that really needs to be put down. But not enough. War is fought for reasons, however unjustifiable and unreasonable they may be. Unless and until we look at them and the bigger picture behind them, we can’t hope to improve. Or, in the case of the BBS, to eradicate.

Ashin Wirathu, the so-called “Burmese Bin Laden”, made some pertinent remarks the other day. He spoke about extremism. About how it needs to be combated. About how the more moderate sections of the community need to rally together. True enough. I don’t deny that. Even Gnanasara Thero made a point, a big one: “it is high time that politicians in this country stopped creating division and came together for the sake of the country”. Those who tend to blackface the BBS and everything associated with them failed to take note of these points. That wasn’t surprising.

It’s not that the BBS don’t have a point, hence. It’s just that they are at odds with the interpretation of Buddhism my countrymen and I were raised with in this country. Arresting them isn’t the answer. There are attitudes that need to change, and not just with regard to the Sinhala Buddhist community in this country. After all, vilifying the one does not absolve the other. We need to see what the BBS are driving at, sift the true from the false, and undress the hypocrite. There’s a whole maze out there. Blindly embracing either pro- or anti-BBS epithets is not going to work.

In other words, presumptions are meaningless. But denials won’t help. Solid proof will.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On giants decorated and undecorated

We celebrate superstardom. We have been told that “15-minutes-of-fame” has become something of a custom. Reality show after reality show enforces this message, so much so that we have got used to it. It has become second nature. Sensationalism and melodrama are the order of the day. That’s typical of our time. Dinesh Subasinghe once told me that we have, in effect, completely gone through the “Age of Melody”. We are hence in the “Age of Rhythm”, where slow, gradual movement is replaced by quick, shortcut nimbleness.

This is a world that has become globalised. Yet, one may be compelled to ask, have we ever globalised anything beyond poverty and consumerism? We talk of a North-South divide in this world. We point fingers at economic statistics, thinking that GDP growth implies happiness. We’ve had our share of Green Revolutions, privatisation, and nationalisation. None of them has worked. Advocates for these movements are, if at all, few in number today. And yet, even after all this time, we see certain immutable, firm monuments. They live on.

They are the giants, decorated and undecorated.

There comes a time when we must look back. This is where reflection, not nostalgia, is needed. We still have our icons to look back and reflect with. Amaradeva is with us. So are Lester James Peries and Gunadasa Amarasekera. But then, there are those monuments that have passed on. This year, indeed this month, we saw several cruelly snatched from us. There was Rebecca Nirmali. Her death came right before another legendary actress, Lauren Bacall, died miles away from here, in America. Two losses, both bearing equal gravity for their respective countries. Then there was Bandula Vithanage, not to mention Andrew Jayamanne.

I am not just thinking of film stars here, of course. There was Bala Tampoe, that quiet, dignified, but determined trade-unionist who showed us all what unionism and solidarity really meant in this country. There was Sam Wijesinghe, the ombudsman whose knowledge of parliamentary protocol, I’ve been told, would put to shame nearly every person who sits in parliament today. We commemorate their deaths. But who tends to the living?

There are tributes in plenty for those who die. Everyone wants to butt in with his or her two cents’ worth. That’s natural. Commemorative speeches, however, tend to become something of a joke at times. It isn’t hard to see why. There are those who read up on the “life” being commemorated on the very day he/she has to deliver that speech or write that article in praise of the dead. That’s not remembrance. That’s pomposity. Call it what you will. Tributes can do scant justice. Once in a while, we writers realise this too. “Are there watering halls in eternity?” Lester James Peries once asked in his tribute to Ajith Samaranayake. How relevant that question is. Can one ever limit to words what years and decades have accomplished? Not even Barack Obama, with his own eulogy (of sorts) of Gabriel García Márquez, could.

We forget the living. Having “eternalised” the dead, we leave behind those still among us. The way to pay tribute is not (only) through words. Stars need their instant, crass fame. Icons don’t. There’s a reason for that. They came from a slower, different age, when something was done for the love of it.

Artists and icons are remembered. Treasured. This is not owing to a penchant for nostalgia and day-dreaming on our part. What they scatter along their way and leave behind, we continue to cherish. They worked for the love of their art. Many berate the lack of any proper institutional framework (by the government) to preserve their legacy. They have just cause in regretting this. But I have often wondered whether we need a government for this. We are a self-sufficient, fiercely independent people. Not even 500 years of oppression could suppress what 2,500 years had wrought. Our icons are not forgotten. They live in us, in a big way. Thing is, we realise this too late. By that time, the icon is long dead and gone.

For me, the best sign of a school, a community, and in turn a country, is in how they celebrate their icons. We don’t see this happening enough. Tributes of the conventional mould come in. Frequently. Honorary doctorates fly here and there. Well deserving of the people they garland, no doubt. But then, as a friend once told me, we have forgotten some heroes. There is politics involved in this, of course. There must be a reason, after all, for the fact that Mahagama Sekera, easily among our most eclectic artists from the 20th century, is footnoted in our cultural discourse. And this isn’t all. Those who sing hosannas for dead and gone icons today would do well to reflect on the past to see how their predecessors vilified, criticised, and even humiliated these same icons. Marcelline Jayakody and Tissa Balasuriya are two names I can point out here. Sugathapala Senerath Yapa, still among us, is another. Again, there is politics involved. But that’s another story. Or maybe not.

I have reason to fear, despite all this. I worry about our children. They have forgotten. And are forgetting. I don’t wish to ring alarm bells here. Governments can do only so much. Perhaps the State does have an obligation to the Arts. I don’t know. What I do know, however, is this: come what may, our present generation have succumbed to a forget-game. Our icons are being laid aside in favour of blindly aping everything “foreign”. That’s cause for alarm, not to mention alarm bells. We have local talent in plenty. Icons there are enough and more of. Culture, though, is not a one-off thing. That which grows, and doesn’t remain static, will endure. Same thing with a country’s way of life. But a culture that pays scant regard to its icons might just as well wither too.

Bottom line: doctorates and words will do only so much. If we leave our present generation, if we disregard the fact that those who are to take the baton when we’re gone have forgotten our cultural heroes, there will soon be a void. A big one. So big that no attempt to fill it will succeed. I’m not being didactic here. I’m just stating things. Obvious things. That should be sobering enough. Let’s not just start from doctorates and words, then. Let’s start with our kids. Educating them, and inculcating in them a love for our real heroes (both decorated and undecorated), would be a good starting point. Otherwise, the writing will be on the wall.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, September 28 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Those who read and those who write

Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country to have a literacy rate of more than 90%. As much as I believe in not resting in one’s laurels, I think this is cause for celebration. But we’re missing something here. We have, for one thing, mis-defined “literacy”. By that term, we tend to qualify those who can read and write in the most essential sense. UNESCO, I think, comes closer at defining what it really means: “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”. There are six qualifiers (in italics). It is based on this that literacy as we know it is measured.

Still, I wouldn’t raise the cheer. Not yet. This isn’t the time to brag or to celebrate. The thing is, we as a nation have (in a way) gone back in literacy. Statistics may not prove this. That’s one demerit with them. We were avid readers once. And avid writers. Some are of the view that 1956 (or, to be more specific, 1960) heralded a radically different education system which inhibited the reading culture we (supposedly) had enjoyed till then. That’s rubbish.

Let’s take India. In 1947, the year of independence, her literacy rate had just crawled above 10%, notwithstanding the number of English schools which had mushroomed during the colonial era. Same case with Sri Lanka. "Divide and rule" was the name of the game, after all. Creating a comprador class to cater to the needs of the colonial masters was the end-goal of the school system. Unlike Sri Lanka, however, India managed to create its own education policy post-independence. Here, on the other hand, not until 1956 was any serious attempt at universalising education made. That’s cause enough for pride, considering how we’ve gone past India today.

Going back to what I started with, does this leave room for complacency? By no means. Let’s forget the forces out there which tried (and try) to stifle our present-day system. Even then, there is cause for alarm. We have gone from multidisciplinary learning to rote specialisation. This has nothing to do with 1956. Rather, this has to do with institutionalised staticity and inertia in a system that looks upon any form of innovation hostilely. I have been told by another group of people, beneficiaries under Free Education themselves, that there is no reason for reform. I too subscribed to this notion, until I realised that these same people would be the biggest losers should reform ever be attempted. More on this a little later.

We stress on reading. A lot. I can speak (limited as my experience is) only of English here. Textbooks are filled with activities, supposedly relevant for day-to-day lives (think “English as a Life Skill” here). Nothing wrong with that. I feel that we are placing the emphasis in the wrong place, though. Reading and reciting there are in plenty. Activities leaning on grammar and punctuation do motivate the child and inculcate interest. Unfortunately, though, they’re almost always results-based. Test-oriented. We live in a culture that shrugs off learning after exams are done and dusted.

There’s another problem. Assignments and group activities will, doubtless, go a long way. But only to a point. The Ministry of Education-published Education Perspectives (Volume 2, No 1, January 2013) bears testament to this. In it, the research paper entitled “Feasibility of School Projects of GCE (A/L) Curriculum (Science Stream): A Study of Student Views and Constraints” has commented that “students get involved in these projects only to fulfil the requirement for getting admission to the aforesaid examination”. Not too different to what I have seen with English. Notwithstanding the inevitable grammar mistakes (endemic to almost every country, if I may add), the focus is all too often on activities which have a bearing only on the exam. We’re missing something here. Something big.

There was a time when writing was mandatory in school curricula, and not just pre-1956. From what I have heard, this was the case even in the ’80s. I don’t see the point of neglecting it. Reading is essential. No two words about that. It builds vocabulary and adds to mark. But without converting what is read (and what is thought) into word, where’s the capacity to observe? To argue? To analyse? To conclude? These are the abilities which count in real life. Not emphasising enough on writing while screaming at everyone to read and speak is pointless and without benefit.

As I wrote before, I can limit my experience to only English. Small things help. They go a long way. Diary-writing, word-doodling, and crossword puzzles are ideal starting points. Teachers whom I respect for their wisdom have advised their students to do these things. In seven cases out of 10, it has worked. There’s nothing wrong with memorising grammar rules (which, may I add, is relevant even for the mother tongue), but beyond a point, they rarely help. As a footnote, let me say here that I too tested this with a friend I was helping out. Again, it worked. Encouraging the habit of reading, without respecting the child’s incapacity to memorise new words, serves no purpose.

We once had a robust writing culture. Half a century back, it would have been unimaginable that this culture would wither away. Perhaps it was a case of complacency, or rather too much thereof, but the truth is that we failed to move our language with the years. Siri Gunasinghe’s attempt at bringing the Sinhala language closer to a colloquial idiom was shrugged off. When a language, any language, faces a lacuna of this sort, the result can only be degradation. This is what happened. From the twilight world of Karunasena Jayalath to the world of cheap sentimental novelettes, we can see this process of deterioration. Why? Not because (as is claimed frequently) of Free Education. It is a question to which the answer lies elsewhere. We still haven’t grasped it.

In the meantime, though, there are things we can do. Writing, for instance. There’s still a long way to go. I was lucky. I learnt at a school which inculcated the writing and reading habit in us. No doubt popular schools around Colombo (and other main cities in Sri Lanka) do the same. But that’s beside the point here. Roger Ebert, in his review of Michael Moore’s Sicko, describes how well he was treated at a Chicago hospital after a carotid artery burst in him. He is not mincing in his praise of the care, the attention, and the kindness of those who treated him. He then makes this (timeless) observation, relevant to what I’m writing on: “Every American should be as fortunate as I have been”.

This is an era of free markets, choice, and globalisation (all within apostrophes of course). Those berating the efficiency-gap in our education system think that problems will sprout wings and fly away with one thing: privatisation. Some stop shy of this and mention another magic word: tuition. The truth, as always, lies elsewhere.

Those who justify tuition by the “needs-exist-to-be-satisfied” argument conveniently put aside one simple truth: choice can be manufactured. Tuition-masters identify a gap going by the name of “syllabus”. As we all know, the conventional 8-to-2 timetable cannot cover this. Schoolchildren have no other choice: they flock to after-school classes. And, no different to how foreign milk-powder manufacturers continually keep on harping about how essential their products are, so the tuition-mafia (there’s no other word for it) couches its profit-motive with feel-easy words emphasising their necessary-ness.

Let’s look at things a little more clearly here. Let’s connect some dots. Fact is, our education system needs reform. Big-time. Publication after publication has highlighted this. Writing, obviously, needs to be emphasised. In every subject. Some dislike reform, though. Natural enough. I’ve mentioned this class of people above. They’re beneficiaries of Free Education. The reason for their opinion is this: should there be reform, they would be the biggest to lose. I mentioned this as well. Why? Because those opposing reform are the tuition-masters.

Think about it. The milk-powder industry subsists in this country for just one reason: the myth that milk-powder is essential. That’s how the tobacco industry proliferated once upon a time. Shatter that myth, and profits go down. Same thing with tuition-classes. If we were to implement across-the-board, holistic reform, tuition-class size would drastically reduce to the point where only those who really don’t understand school-subject attend them.

Tuition-masters are supposed to “deliver”. That’s their by-line. Forgotten in this is the fact that profit-motive inhibits teacher-innovation. Let me elaborate here. I’ve been to tuition classes, both as student and as witness. Again, this is limited mainly to English, but I have been to classes teaching other subjects. It’s the same story basically: school-syllabus is too big, school-tuition gap is too big, and the filling-the-gap must be done adhering to the rote-based, specialisation-based, text-based approach our education system runs according to. “Delivery” presupposes “payment”, we’re being told. So we send our kids to tuition-class after tuition-class, not realising that the solution isn’t “after-school” but “within-home”. We think that money and education cohabit, and we hold it indisputable that the one can solve the other’s ills.

Can it, though? I know teachers who don’t think so. One of them doesn’t, as per principle, conduct tuition-classes. I’m not for total abolishment of tuition, mind you. But talking with this teacher, you tend to see her point: we have come to the point where monetised education, in tuition-class or elsewhere, simply doesn’t translate to hands-down, mark-guaranteeing innovation. That this isn’t a universal truth, I know. But then again, I’m not just speaking about marks. I’m talking about “after-school” and “real-life”. School education, as we all know, simply cannot be replicated by tuition-class.

I’ve heard of tuition teachers who’ve built swimming pools and bought houses through mass classes. Forget the ethics involved here. One can (validly) argue that we’ve brought ourselves to a point where we cannot do by without money and capital. The problem lies elsewhere. These teachers stick with the inertia our education system has institutionalised. Now compare that with the case of teachers doing “for free”. This isn’t uncommon in Sri Lanka.

There are schools, for instance, which “hire” past students to help out, either for free or for a small fee. I know for a fact that these teachers put more zest, effort, and motivation into what they teach. We as a nation aren’t grateful enough to them. That’s sad, because we have at the same time angel-titled tuition-masters by calling them “benevolent”. They are not. Where’s the “benevolent” in people who under-perform at school and make up for deficit later on for money? Where’s the “benevolent” in taking advantage of syllabus-gap by having intense, late-night classes for outrageous by-the-hour bucks?

Let’s go to something else: past papers. They are emphasised on. Rightly. But we don’t question access to them. Why? We’ve come to a point where they can be accessed online. Not every child in Sri Lanka has a computer. But almost every school does, not to mention internet cafes island-wide. Why do we still have to rely on third-party publications? Why does access to them remain the prerogative of these publishers, who, if I may add, maintain an uneasy relationship with mass-class tuition-masters at times? I’m not just blaming the publishers here. The Ministry of Education, doubtless, has a role to play. A big one. Past papers are not infallible indicators of final mark. But, at the end of the day, practice goes a long way. Denying access to them is a mockery to the “free” part in our education system.

But this isn’t too surprising. After all, some people still have trouble identifying education as a “free” thing in this country. Forget the fact that they themselves were beneficiaries of a “free” system. Aren’t we all, at the end of the day, together as one? And this is not Marxian “solidarity” I’m talking about here. People harping for private education often forget how their own education was “billed”: how someone had to indirectly pay for their schooling, their uniforms, their teachers, and their higher education.

As I wrote before, I’m not calling for total abolishment of tuition. There are and always will be students who need that “extra help”. One can provide it, for money or for nothing depending on context. I’ve had my share of tuition, both as student and as teacher, and both for a very short time. I’ve come to realise that we’ve looked at the student-teacher relationship (in recent years of course) a little wrongly. Spoon-feeding has become a sort of sine qua non of teaching. Those who cannot be taught this way, hence, are left behind. Regrettably.

There are other ways. Better ways. Teaching the child self-help, for instance. It isn’t easy. Patience is needed. But, at a certain point, teaching the student to “teach oneself” works. I’m speaking from experience here. Teach him/her the foundation. The baby-steps. The love for reading and for writing. The rest will come. Automatically. All this depends on context, of course, and I don’t deny that. Some students take time. Natural enough. That’s why I stress on patience. Our (school) teachers don’t lack it. That’s the key strength with which we can all go forward. Reserve tuition for the neediest. Tuition-masters will run out of business, true. But that’s their problem. After all, if I may quip this here, that’s the way of the “free market”. That’s “choice” for you.

Bottom line: read, write, and practise. As the Buddha once said, “Atta hi attano natho” (You are your own master). No truer guiding principle can be found for an education system badly in need of reform. Like ours.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Robert Bresson: History will never pass him by

Today is Robert Bresson's 113th birth anniversary. This is my tribute to a man who, once upon a time, reinvented every notion of cinema I had held to be indisputable truth. There are just some filmmakers history will never pass by. He is, without any doubt, chief among this set. A first among equals.

Robert Bresson was 98 when he died. By that time, within a career spanning 50 years, he had made 13 films. His last, L’argent, was made in 1983; his first, exactly 40 years before. Considered the definitive patron saint of the cinema, Bresson was nearly the most difficult. Within those 50 years, he changed very little. In his almost ascetic style and vision, and his constant spiritual probing, his parallels could only be found in Carl Theodore Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. But while both Dreyer and Bergman, time and time again, betrayed a tendency to “parade” theology and religion onscreen, Bresson used simple, universal themes – the suffering of a much abused donkey, the inward suffering of a village girl – to emphasize the transcendental feeling he so economically evoked in the audience. Very probably, he was the most unique filmmaker in the history of the medium since Griffith.

Bresson hailed from an inconsequential, if not altogether less heard of, childhood. After leaving school and college, he briefly turned to painting. That, coupled with his encounter with Catholicism, would prove to be the most influence on him later on. It was during the Second World War that he made his first film – Les Anges du Péché. Two years later he followed it up with Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne. In both he experimented with the conventional cinema he would, almost to the point of obsession, try to evade for the rest of his career. He began his crusade with Diary of a Country Priest in 1951, and from then on – A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, The Trial of Joan of Arc, Au Hasard Balthazar, Mouchette, A Gentle Woman, Four Nights of a Dreamer, Lancelot of the Lake, The Devil Probably, and L’argent – his main preoccupation would remain the divorce of cinema from the theatre.

How did he achieve this? Firstly, in my view, with the narrative structure, and type of stories, that he employed in film after film. With the possible exception of Les Dames, none of his stories was based on a “chain-link” structure that called for intensity of plot and event over character. In Pickpocket, surely his purest masterpiece, the plot, though decidedly like clockwork, is superseded by an acute if not altogether incisive look at its anti-hero. The sequence of events which begins at a horserace and ends at a prison is handled so judiciously, so economically, that it is impossible at times to attribute to it any mark of the conventional dramatic structure. Certainly, the tension derives from the plot, but there are times when we doubt this as well. For Bresson the plot was not expendable, but justifiable only in its relation to his characters. This is why most of his films have such short lengths – Pickpocket runs for around 75 minutes, while The Trial, his shortest, runs for 65.

Second was his attitude to acting. In no other instance in the history of the medium did a director revolutionize the whole approach to acting as did Bresson. Sometimes – as with Pickpocket or L’argent – one is never sure as to whether the person playing a role onscreen is acting. In Pickpocket’s case it may well be because Martin LaSalle, who played the protagonist, was a relative unknown who had never taken part in a film before. Bresson called his actors “models” – a far less derogatory title than “instruments”, which was what Clouzot called his actors – largely owing to the stony, sphinx-like expression he would get them to maintain on their faces for the entire duration of the film.

Notorious for his technique, he would sometimes shoot up-to six or eight takes of a scene before he would be confident that his actors would perform without the least semblance of emotion registered on their faces, the kind of emotionless, un-theatrical acting only to be found in the cinema. It is no small wonder that, in Diary of a Country Priest, he retained, somewhat later to his chagrin, this very theatrical, emotion-ridden type of acting in many of his characters, excepting the chief player: a perfect juxtaposition between the Bresson to come (Claude Leydu, the man playing the priest, was his first “actor-model”) and, in the other characters whose emotions and rage issue in fits of pomposity, the Bresson past.

Third was his dedication and unswerving vision, which never kept him off his target. At one point – during Andre Malraux’s tenure at the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in France – he was given free rein by the government, in the form of subsidies, to help experiment again and again. This, I believe, helped him tremendously, perhaps the finest example anywhere of state support aiding a true experimenter in the arts.

No wonder he was able to achieve such finesse of vision, such fidelity to vision, as he did. But this, of course, wasn’t all. Through the years Bresson’s films became rawer, and, with the advent of colour (A Gentle Woman was his first colour feature), he became even more austere. With Pickpocket and Au Hasard Balthazar, he shot original stories – but even as Mouchette, A Gentle Woman and Four Nights showed, he was not hesitant in filming novels. Dostoyevsky and George Bernanos were his two most sought after authors, perhaps the only authors who could provide Bresson with the kind of spiritual asceticism and brooding quality that abounded in his films.

His attitude to acting, and to the cinema, became most evident in The Trial, for the simple reason that it was his only feature whose story had been shot, as a masterpiece in its own right, before – by Dreyer in 1928. Bresson was not mincing of his criticism of Dreyer’s account of Joan’s trial: he even described its acting as “buffooneries”. For him Expressionism was a thing alien to the cinema, which was why, in his last film, his use of colour never, even in one point, becomes something to be admired for its own sake, but superbly highlights the tension pulsating from the protagonist’s search for escape from injustice – lush shades of green, red, and black all purveying his state of mind. All his views on the film medium were captured in one of the most respected film books of all time – Notes on the Cinematographer. The title itself caught the gist of it: films should be “cinematographic”, not theatrical.

The fourth, and perhaps the most important reason, was the wide esteem with which he was held. Like Hitchcock, Lubitsch and Ford, Bresson was widely recognized for his worth by the critical fraternity of his time. Unlike them, his films did not find much favour with the audience. His career coincided with the rise of the second largest film movement in history, after Italian neo-realism – the French New Wave, perhaps the most free-wheeling and lively thing to happen to the cinema since the coming of sound. Understandably enough, the critics on board the Cahiers du Cinéma, which would become the mouthpiece for the movement – Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer – adulators of what was termed “Pure Cinema”, regarded Bresson as their God, a purveyor of the type of cinema they most wanted on the national scene.

And Bresson, unlike some other venerated artists, reciprocated this deification. Like the Cahiers circle, he began voicing his criticism of what Truffaut would call the “Tradition of Quality”. Among this brand of filmmakers was Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose “literary” and slick Hollywood-type products were detested by the upcoming new directors. Gone was any praise for traditional, “scriptwriter’s” filmmakers like Billy Wilder. The new directors to whom prestige was accorded were all, to the Cahiers, more serious, though some of them – Nicholas Ray, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks – may not have been as consciously serious as were cut out to be.

The exception, of course, was Bresson, who would become, inadvertently, one of the more important theorists of the new cinema they were formulating. It is ironic that, judged against the very standard they were aiming at, the first few films of some of its own critics – Truffaut and Chabrol included – were nothing more than the conventional, “slick” Hollywood narratives they had all attempted to shy away from. The exception was Jean-Luc Godard.

These reasons, combined, gave Bresson the type of fame and renown few experimenters could aspire to. If ever an image of the artist as a solitary iconoclast, flanked by his Muses, alone in the process of creation, could be sustained, two filmmakers could have been used as examples – Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson. But while Resnais’ dazzling iconoclasm came out from an avant-garde approach to editing, Bresson’s status was largely derived from his persistent, almost hermit-like attitude to life. The spirituality so evident in his works is decidedly very Catholic: salvation and redemption are two themes that run constantly through all of them.

But it is not of the sort of chamber music austerity of some of Bergman’s films, or the Expressionistic cries of pain of Dreyer’s. If Through a Glass Darkly or, more pertinently, Winter Light, remains slightly contrived and preconceived in its spiritual aspects, it is because of a naked austerity that leaves little to make up for the thinness of plot that is the hallmark of these films. In Winter Light, surely Bergman’s most austere, the 90-minute, real-time journey of a small-town pastor on a Sunday decidedly sounds too preoccupied with the speech-and-word attitude to its religious undertones – words, however well intended and crafted they may be, cannot replicate the evocative spirituality of silence that can only be manifested cinematically.

Also central to Bresson’s distinction from these two filmmakers was his refusal to dabble in worldly themes. The Trial is probably the closest he ever got to a worldly theme. Even in Bergman’s best, we see an almost constricting use of words or images to highlight mundane subjects – the interplay between art and real life in Through a Glass Darkly, the fear of nuclear war in Winter Light, or the foreshadowing of war and chaos in The Silence. Dreyer too showed this quality from time to time – in Ordet, in Gertrud, and in Day of Wrath. Bresson, as we know, was most distrustful of either speech or action. His refusal to dabble in such themes, except possibly in relation to his characters, seems to me to have given him an endless opportunity to dabble instead in aspects that he considered to be more important in the art of filmmaking – acting included.

His lifelong goal, and the sheer determination that went with it, meant that his entire preoccupation with the mechanics of filmmaking was catered to one, narrow niche: the separation of cinema from the theatre. The only other director who devoted his entire career to the pursuit of a single aim was, I believe, Alfred Hitchcock. Bresson’s pursuit would appear, to discerning film lovers, more noble and artistic than Hitchcock’s at times callous compromises with the box-office. Hitchcock was never afraid of letting technique supersede content at times, while with Bresson the technique, though always present on the surface, never diminishes the scope of the story itself. Both, of course, were adulated by the Cahiers (Godard especially was lavish in his praise of Bresson, while Truffaut’s veneration of Hitchcock became, in the words of Satyajit Ray, one of the more “inscrutable facts of recent film history”).

Because he was more sparing of words than some of the greats of European cinema, and because his mise-en-scène was so composed (though not to the point of stylisation) with utmost austerity, it is difficult to understand the impact of his films without at least three or four viewings. This is not at all the case with, say, a film like Wild Strawberries, which though decidedly has many layers of meaning, is so composed in nearly every frame and shot that interpretation becomes easier to handle.

To understand this, let me give you an example from Diary of a Country Priest. A group of girls, holding hands and evidently up-to some mischief, moves away from the camera as it dollies backwards. The sound of a truck is heard, and the girls look at the passing contraption, and at the smoke emitted. This is not the only instance where vehicles are heard off-screen. Their very absence denotes an idea of a physical world untouched and avoided by the titular priest: yet the conscious viewer would miss this all-important facet to the story if all what he is interested in is what is plain and on-the-surface.

With Robert Bresson we lost cinema’s truest patron saint, a filmmaker who was not afraid of flouting convention if that served the purpose of his art. Few filmmakers ever sought a daring, raw divorce of film from the other art forms, notably the stage. Few filmmakers sought to conjoin spirituality with the cinema with as much success. And few filmmakers ever had their conception of the medium so recognized, and applauded, as did his. Godard once described his contribution to cinema as being akin to Mozart’s in music and Dostoyevsky’s in literature. No filmmaker can equal him. He was, and, even after his death, still remains, the most unique artist in the history of the film medium.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Silumina gets it right, almost

courtesy: www.savi.lk
Editorials reflect political position. That’s a given thing. When an election is right around the corner, and if you’re unsure which position a paper has branded itself under, look no further than on what the editor thinks. This is true when it comes to Sri Lanka, and for anyone entertaining the myth that our media is free of political leaning (whether government or opposition) a perusal of editorial rhetoric would knock some sense in. But, as always, there are those (very) occasional exceptions. As is the case, though, exceptions come very rarely. Newspapermen may talk of freedom of expression. Only rarely, however, are their editors enlightened enough to appreciate that there’s more to debate than one’s crass political leanings. Ceylon Today and The Nation win on this count.

Yesterday, the Uva elections ended. The results, predictable as they were, came. Newspapers which didn’t have late morning issues couldn’t make them front page news. None of the four major English-language weeklies, Sunday Observer excluded, made provincial politics subject in their editorials. The Observer being the pro-regime mouthpiece it always has been championed the government for having “won the hearts of a new segment of people who had never voted for the UPFA or the SLFP in their lives”. The reference was to voters in Colombo. One can argue why any context-driven editorial should focus on claims unrelated to that context (which was the implications of the Uva elections), but then again, come to think of it, what can one hope of the Observer?

This is why I was pleasantly surprised to read Silumina’s editorial. Silumina is the Observer’s sister paper. Both are avowedly pro-regime. They should be. They are government-run and government-managed. In recent years, though, my trust in them has been solidified. No thanks to the Observer, which I “gave up” a long time back. Silumina, though, is a different story. That paper has content and context, and is eclectic enough not to sing regime-friendly politics with every word, phrase, and article that get published in it. Let’s look at media ethics here. Should government-control imply government-support? Probably yes. But this doesn’t and indeed shouldn’t mean that every page should conveniently sing regime-praises. Nor should it mean the opposite, of course. A middle path (of sorts) must be struck. The Observer, regrettably, has not reached this path. Not yet. Silumina? The editorial yesterday decided me. In its favour.

පොත්ද? නූඩ්ල්ස් ද?” (“Books or Noodles?”) was the heading. Having read several editorials that day delving into political polemics, I was a little taken aback. My curiosity aroused, I read on. The theme was about the recently concluded Book Fair at the BMICH. The meaning of the title dawned on me soon. There was, the article contended, a sizable crowd at this year’s fair. Children and adults, of whatever age and whatever background, thronged. There were books. Lots of them. Second-hand too. Problem was, had the crowd thronged at BMICH for the books or for the noodles being served at corners? The editorial, presumably, wasn’t just singling out noodles-outlets here. It was including those various other “extra” activities which seemed to drag in more crowds than did certain bookstalls. This implied that the Book Fair really was a “fair” – circus-like, if you can put it that way. “Those who came for the event went away with a few exercise books at most,” continued the article.

I am not cynical over the way things are going. But the Book Fair has, in recent years, become something of an oxymoron/joke.  A certain section of people goes to the Fair because of its appeal. Now that social media has completely allured them, this section finds a sort of “status-premium” in going out with one’s friends for no reason other than the “fun” part of it. “තේරුමක් නැතුව කරක් ගහනවා”, one could describe it in Sinhala. There were books this year. Far more than last year, the way I saw it. Some of them were rarities. But from among those who patronised the event, there was a sizable portion (not a majority) who had come regarding the Fair as a jamboree. There were whole families, months-old babies among them. Not that I’m ringing alarm bells here. Books aren’t indisputable. But when a crowd-gathering, annual event of this nature takes in a number who considers it from a social media point of view, what else can one do but deplore?

Here, however, the Silumina editorial went off-track. It contended that this wasn’t an indication of the event’s failure. That’s true. The Book Fair isn’t a cricket match. Fans throng at big-matches not to take selfies or share gossip over Coca-Cola. The Book Fair is a different matter. The problem with this points more towards book-readership and notions about book-learning in the country than towards event-shortcomings. Surprisingly, though, the editorial refused to tackle this side of the matter, instead taking issue with those who (wrongly) claimed that the Fair had “gone down”. Neither party saw the bigger picture here, obviously. Not surprising, considering that both were intent on proving each other wrong. Naturally enough, the editorial was concerned with one side to the story. Forgotten in this were the larger issues.

There are those who think that book-readership is a function of social background. Their way of explaining this phenomenon would be that most of the squatters at the Fair came from non-book-reading families, implying (rather poorly, I should think) that they were the “less well-off”. Ever since education was made free in this country, the (self-labelled) elite always have had an axe to grind with the (so-called) illiterate masses. According to them, the problem with these squatters is the lack of book-readership (supposedly) inculcated in them by the education system. Unlike those “good old days”, as they term it. The illiterate masses, hence, are to blame. In other words, the Fair as such had built Coca-Cola stores, video game arcades and the like specifically with them in mind. “Idlers”, those elite would call them. I am sure I have met up with people who think along these lines. I am also sure that somewhere out there, disillusionment and a big jolt in the head await them. Let me bring them a little closer here.

Let’s look at their premise, for starters. I don’t pretend to be an expert here. I’m going by experience. It remains a visible fact (that is, visible to everyone but these snooties) that most of the idlers/squatters at the Fair were those who had planned to “spend” time at these places right at the beginning. This does not mean they didn’t buy any book. Others would have come to these places to quench thirst or hunger. The Book Fair takes in a greater crowd to bookstalls in a day bookshops do over a period of time (more than a day, to be specific). Take Vijitha Yapa, for example. There was a time when you just couldn’t get into its Kohuwala branch. It was almost like a Book Fair. That was a time when a “visit” to that bookshop was a ritual in itself; when book-selection was a matter for intense concentration and consideration.

Times change. There are days when only two or three others visit the place the same time I do. This has nothing to do with class distinction. Doctored as they are, economic statistics would prove that we have a greater per capita income level than we did a couple or so years back. That this doesn’t translate into upward income mobility, I know. But one would at least expect bookshops to see more patrons than they do now. For those of you who think that this is an “outside-city” phenomenon, visit the Colombo Vijitha Yapa branch opposite Thurstan College and see for yourself. The point is, we as a nation have become less and less the book-readers we once were. “We” implies a collective and not just a social segment in particular.

But there’s a bigger lesson for the snooties here. It is a known fact that outside-Colombo residents have no real access to books the way we in Colombo do. They come, by the dozen at times, and they buy. Together. Not very different to what happens at the Fair. That’s one aspect to the event those self-titled “book-lovers” missed. Here’s another: from those who came to indulge in “extra” activities, a significant proportion (again, not the majority) came from the same background to which these snooties belong.

Does this prove anything against them? Not really. But that’s beside the point here. A rough, random comparison of those buying books against those whiling away the time at game arcades would make evident to anyone which “class” engaged in which activity. The thing is, those with lower budgets spent nearly every penny on books. They were cash-strapped. The cash-obese, though, didn’t. They could afford not to. The snooties (mainly the “Colombians”) figure prominently among this crowd. Stands to reason, after all. In my experience so far, those having less money tend to place more value on books.

Bottom line: book-buying is not a function of social background. Never was. Not in Sri Lanka. Snobs who tend to degrade (impliedly, of course) those “less well-off” in the social scale as “illiterate masses” would do well to brush up on some basic economics. Here’s a home truth: marginal utility is greater when commodities are hard to find and enjoy. Think “diamond-versus-water” here. The Book Fair just made books a little cheaper for those who couldn’t buy them elsewhere. Doesn’t mean that these “illiterates” went there to idle. On the contrary, they know thrift. They know utility. And above all, they know book-value. Those snobs and snooties who take their children to idle-exercises in game arcades and the like would have done better to see where they were actually going to without disparaging others. Thing is, they are cash-obese. And privilege-obese. If ever a “redistribution” of sorts should happen, it should be from the cash-obese to the cash-emaciated. In this context, of course. That’s a good way of pumping in money to kids who’ll go to events of this sort for what they’re worth: a nine-letter word called EDUCATION.

Silumina got it right. Almost. It didn’t get its facts wrong. It merely missed them.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso is not a children’s film, despite the fact that nearly half of it is seen through the eyes of a mischievous little tyke. Nor is it a romance film, despite nearly a third of it being dedicated to an interlude between its protagonist and his love interest. A film like it, I feel, defies easy categorisation. I am inclined to put it under the “films about films” category, and I guess I may not be wrong there. If you have seen it, I don’t think your opinion of it will be any different to mine. But one thing for sure: it is one of the few films in any country that actually induces you to see it again after you’re done. It’s been 25 years since it was released, and its charm still reverberates today.

The story is, admittedly, sugary. It begins with a shy but famous filmmaker who journeys back to his childhood in Sicily, when he fitted into the “mischievous but intelligent child” role so common to films about children today (Taare Zameen Par is just one example). And, like that film, the kid here has a hidden interest too – this time it’s not drawing, but cinema. And this 10-year old dabbles in it. Big-time. Not only does he become an active member of the local cinema hall – called the “Cinema Paradiso” – but he also befriends the rough but friendly projectionist who doubles up as a father-figure to him (his mother is a war widow) and ends up being his successor (a little on that later).

In its exploration of the magic of cinema, the director, Giuseppe Tornatore, has made concessions to the box-office (it was a massive hit when it first came out). Almost every shot and sequence in the film fits with audience expectation: the child befriends the projectionist, projectionist takes him in, child becomes projectionist (!) when the old man loses his sight to a fire, and child rises up-to become a world famous director. What more could you have expected? Many critics felt likewise: one positive review described it as “half-way between romanticism and kitsch.”

But Tornatore does not let his “kitsch” go scot-free. The sequences with the child growing up, at a University, fiddling around with his camera and his love interest, are decidedly melodramatic. In perhaps the most glaring example of this, the young lover in one sequence imagines himself embracing his lover during a rainstorm when, yes, a rainstorm breaks out at that exact moment and he does get to embrace her.

But his dreams do not continue: due to a reason that is never fully explained (like many of the plot-holes you will see in this film) the girl breaks up with him, and the man (for another never-even-once explained reason) forces him to leave his hometown, to get away from it all and “realise” himself (though how he never tells him), and – I could not fathom why – to never come back again.

It is as though the director is telling us that dreams can only continue for as long as you revel in them. Brought back to earth (which maybe the only time this happens to him in the entire film), the man’s rise to stardom is never highlighted: his success, only hinted at, seems to have wearied him. So much so that when the old projectionist dies and he returns to his hometown (breaking the vow he made to him that he would never do so), all he can do is to return to his childhood reverie.

I would have been tremendously happy with this feel-good ending, if it wasn’t for the fact that it ends with possibly the biggest plot-hole in the entire film. It doesn’t strike one at first – Ennio Morricone’s music is enough to make one forget every missed detail in the plot – but when we’re moved by the filmmaker’s tears at watching the censored parts of the films he grew up as a child with, we should keep in mind that celluloid cannot possibly have lasted 10 years without catching fire. Heck, we even saw part of those same reels burning at the beginning of the film at the child’s own house!

But then this may have been the director’s greatest strength in the film: to concoct a convincing but sugarcoated story few of us would resist. Its charms readily work on us – with a child actor like that, I suppose, it would have been something of a miracle if they hadn’t – and we conveniently bring up ourselves to think, “A movie’s there to enjoy, so let’s just forget the fact that no mother could have allowed her kid to become the town’s projectionist when the last one got blinded in a fire and enjoy it!”

Not that I am disappointed with it: it is a mark of his strength that never again would Tornatore rise to the standard he set up with Cinema Paradiso. It is a “film about a film” in a nostalgic sort of way, and not for all the plot-holes and distracting side-plots (what else could you call a romantic interlude that not only goes nowhere, but when goes nowhere without actually showing us why) would I miss watching it or recommending you to watch it.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That time of the year again

It’s election time. Again. As is endemic to that time of the year, politicians talk. They begin to care. Prices come down. Promises are made. Challenges are made. Predictions are made. Pigs fly. Yes folks, this is election time. Again. Time for prophecies of doom and unsubstantiated claim. Time for bringing on the victory-wagon, when in reality what is being prepared is the excuse-wagon (as in, “we have an excuse for our defeat: government thugs”). It becomes increasingly difficult to sift the sane from the (insanely) insane at a time like this, and considering that this involves politicians who can’t put two words together without denying them the very next day, I am not sure whether such an attempt should even be made.

Politicians are people-pawners. If you’re in Sri Lanka, that’s the way it is. So we have concerts organised as part of the forget-exercise, so that people can be conditioned to vote for the Party with the Most Singers. Forgotten here is the fact that concerts can be pretty alluring to music-lovers, and at times the party being voted for becomes, in the minds of some voters, indistinguishable from the musical tastes they indulge in.

There are claims made to the effect that government “thugs” are wrecking havoc across Uva. Shasheendra Rajapaksa has categorically denied these claims. Mahinda Deshapriya has supported the denial. Deshapriya is the Elections Commissioner. He is, on paper at least, independent. The government has extrapolated this (obvious) fact by way of saying that the opposition cannot influence him through wildly unjustifiable claims of violence and thuggery. That’s playing the political game smart. Come election time, and claims of violence are countered with feel-good labels like “independence of the Commissioner”. The UNP should know this more than anyone else. Perhaps it would do better by paving another path.

There’s the drought issue, for instance. The Supreme Court has approved drought relief to the tune of 2,500 rupees for people in the Moneragala district. Deshapriya claims that this is a violation of election law. PAFFREL is taking issue with it. They've filed a motion. Farmers in Moneragala aren’t happy. They’ve filed a Fundamental Rights petition. Both against the government. This is a win-win situation for the opposition. Laying aside the fact that the government can and will go ahead with the relief program (whatever Deshapriya may say), you can view the move either as a violation or as a populist vote-grabber. Whichever way, the government is badmouthed. It is indeed a happy thing to see that both UNP and JVP are taking note of this. This isn’t enough, though. There’s much more to be done.

The Passara rally was a disaster for the UNP. A bad one. Holding hands to symbolise interparty unity is good for publicity. But what we had was Ranil claiming that he has three hands: Sajith Premadasa, Daya Gamage, and Wijedasa Rajapaksa. That’s conveniently forgetting other names, some of whom were present then and there. Snubbing of the worst order. But then again, what can one expect of someone of Ranil’s calibre? Sajith has become No 2. Thankfully. Nonetheless, one can’t be too sure of how things are working out within his party. Tissa Attanayake is all song-and-praise over Sajith’s re-entry, but one wonders why the man would be so much affianced to someone who wants to bring down the Leadership Council (i.e. the Council Attanayake is part and part-parcel of). Things don’t look so good for the UNP. Barring one big exception: Harin Fernando.

Fernando has charisma. That can’t be denied. At all. This is not the “apé miniha gamé mihina” charisma Mahinda has. Nor is it the “One Shot One” aggressive machismo-puff seen with the likes of Ranjan Ramanayake. Harin has won heart. A lot. It’s a little too early to see whether Shasheendra still has an edge over him, but this much I can be certain of: he is a force to reckon with. That’s saying something, considering the deplorable charisma-void UNP politics has come to in recent times. Credit should not just be given to him, of course. There are other politicians. Ajith Perera and Harsha de Silva, for instance.

Facebook politics isn’t very palatable when it comes to Sri Lanka. Not every voter has access to social media. But playing the political game (come election-time) has its share of Facebook-ers. Harin Fernando knows this. He has capitalised on his vote number (18) to create something of a trend across social media community. Shasheendra hasn’t equalled this yet. That speaks of a lot of things, naturally. Tact, for instance. By this, I am not predicting victory. I am merely commenting. The UNP isn’t ignoring Harin. Promising. The opposition in recent years has become something of an anchor-less ship, going from common candidate fiasco to leadership muddle without as much as a snowball-in-hell chance of political benefit. Uva may well be the party's baptism of fire.

Needless to say, the JVP is in a (very) big muddle. Again. Anura Kumara Dissanayake has, with all due respect, not set himself up to the task of acting “successor” to Somawansa Amarasinghe. Considering Amarasinghe’s disastrous leadership “stint”, it would be something of a miracle if Dissanayake can pull it off, but still, the man hasn’t exactly made use of the chasm between government and UNP. There are pro-government and pro-UNP loyalists. Not very much so with the JVP. This is obvious on two counts. Firstly, the party hasn’t exactly gone by way of erasing past infamy. Claims of corruption, democracy-infringement and rule of law-absence do not exactly ring true when spoken by representatives of a party which doesn’t have clean hands. Secondly, the JVP hasn’t come up with a proper manifesto or program. Slogans and claims will do little to compensate for this. Imitating government politicians and bureaucrats on stage will do even less. There's much more that needs to be done here, obviously. Problem is, is the JVP up-to the task?

Election-time is always cause for celebration. For the vote-seekers, that is. It is a time for promises made and (later) un-kept. Politicians play the forget-game. Easily. They entangle themselves with each other against the common enemy. They part with bitter words to the tune of “I will deal with you no more”. Party loyalists, understandably, get tired of this. It is hence commendable to see that the Uva election will not have its share of unholy alliances. Or party crossovers. Or wildly unsubstantiated claims (except for the hullabaloo over “alleged” thuggery). At least, not yet.

One more thing. No-one has mentioned Sarath N. Silva’s 18th Amendment “interpretation”. That’s saying something. That’s spelling out “pragmatism”. Big-time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Here’s a cheer to you, Otara

courtesy: www.barknpurr.pets4life.com.au
25 years is not a very long time. But the business world rarely pays attention to time-span. People grow, and so do enterprises. They age. They wither. And they crumble. Nothing is permanent, not even the enterprises of man. Few bear the stamp of time delicately, with no sign of going down. But we have exceptions, little as they are. We see visions transformed, and passions realised. Profits are made, true. Ethics are infringed. But there’s something about those who sacrificed neither youth nor idealism when they ran the businesses they found. This is true even in Sri Lanka. I would rephrase that. This is true especially in Sri Lanka.

I am not a big fan of business (with a capital “B”). This is obvious. For all the superfluities associated with Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability, commerce is yet as far removed from non-profit concerns as they can ever get. But then again, that’s the way with it all. This is an age where generosity is advertised. Big-time. Where feel-good initiatives and foundations are begun, ostensibly in the name of future generations and sustainability, but in reality for reasons of tax-exemption and wealth-generation. I don’t know how cynical I can get over Business. But I know one thing. There are exceptions. There is honesty. And there is generosity. Un-hyped.

Few entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka (and for that matter the world) have caught my eye. Otara Gunawardena did. And how. There was her array of dresses, true. From a humble corner in a car boot, her business acumen reached heights within less than two-and-a-half decades. That’s achievement. The endearing thing about it was this: it was born out of a small-time, innocent need. Otara had been to the United States for her higher education. She would have seen fashion store after fashion store. Back home, the economy had been made "free.” The robber barons had come. A Free Trade Zone, “free” only of labour rights and resource expense, had been built. The age of garment factories had begun, with garments being sold to countries which either were paying ridiculously low prices for them (hence the meaning of "cheap labour") or had set up import restrictions to keep their economies afloat. Short-sighted policy on our part, you could say.

Otara Gunawardena, like countless other budding entrepreneurs, saw opportunity. She could have, admittedly, started at the top. She could have gone with the crowd and enmeshed herself in the new economy. But she didn’t. She opted for a second path instead. From a car boot, she took in home produce. She converted them. She sold. She earned. And she grew. Entrepreneurs allured and enchanted by favourable prospects went out, or at least joined up with outsiders. It wasn’t give-and-take then. More often than not, the “give” became greater than the “take.” Otara didn’t get herself involved in it. She started at home, literally and figuratively. That’s how “national” entrepreneurs can get.

For all the hype over the “peace” we won in the early part of the new millennium, war still continued. Business interests were looked after, by a government more concerned with Profit than with Welfare. That’s putting things in a clichéd way, but no other will do. Otara stood away from those interests. She wasn’t alone. But the forging ahead and the getting of raw material and converting into final accessory were done amidst tremendous pressure.

It is of course a convenient plaything of commerce and politics to ignore a conflict-prone situation as long as it doesn’t affect their welfare. Amidst all this, ODEL reached new heights. Branches in Majestic City, Alexandra Place, Katunayake, and Kohuwala were built. It would be fatally easy to consider ODEL as having figured in prominently in the conflict, but no-one can deny that, at a time when business and government combined unethically, she cautiously (and laudably) stayed away. There was idealism in her. That never died. She was among the most honest entrepreneurs I ever encountered.

The war, despite the “peace” we had won, had to be over with. So we ended it. Loyalists of the old order, whose interests would be eroded should a new government come into power, tried to prevail. They couldn’t. So they did the next best thing. They embraced the winner. They bent with the wind. Otara didn’t, though. There’s a reason for that. She had seen reality. A long time back.

I remember seeing Kumar Rupesinghe, back then an unabashed apologist for the LTTE, genuflect to the present regime. He couldn’t do otherwise. That’s scoundrelism of the worst sort. But then, on the same news channel (Al-Jazeera), I saw Otara. She spoke succinctly. The war, she said, had been the biggest impediment, both to her country and to business. There was not a hint of back-bending in that statement. She said it as though she had accepted it as the truth a long time ago. That’s honesty. That’s class. Few businessmen could get that honest.

This isn’t all. Otara showed womanhood in Sri Lanka a way forward. A new way. She did something else. She brought fresh meaning to the word “CSR.” She did this not through advertising generosity on yearly reports. She did it almost purely on a personal level. EMBARK was not born out of ODEL. I’m not saying the two were clean different, but one could see where the real passion, the real effort, was coming from. The thing is, there are initiatives started every other day. More often than not, they become scarcely distinguishable from NGO outfits and feel-good Foundations. EMBARK went viral. Dog-adoption found its way to our hearts. We went with it. No scandal rocked it. But we rarely saw the woman advertise herself. Politicians and do-gooders in the corporate world, I feel, have a lot to learn. Especially from her.

This is not the time to attempt a lengthy analysis. I leave that to the experts. Sketchy as my tribute is, this is all I can write. I am not a fashion-fan. Neither, for that matter, is my mother, although her tastes in clothes far dwarf those of anyone else her age I have met so far. My visits to ODEL have not been frequent. There’s price and affordability involved there, but that’s another story. Despite this, though, my fascination with that organisation remains intact. My mother isn’t an ODEL patron either. But she loves dogs. Perhaps growing out of this, she has developed a shrewd talent at recognising people’s true worth and “humanity.” That’s talent. For EMBARK, and for ODEL, she has given a 10/10 assessment. Unconditionally. I am not saying her opinions are ex-cathedra. But when it comes to sifting the false from the honest, she’s streets ahead of me.

Otara Gunawardena deserves more than a cheer, of course. As a fashion-fanatic, I am sure you will heap praises on her. She has “given up” ODEL. In a way, at least. Perhaps some of us feel betrayed. One cannot predict how well Softlogic will run her company. It’s true that Softlogic has, in recent years, become a conglomerate (and force) to reckon with. So I reserve judgment of that. But enough with this “feeling of betrayal.” For the fact is, Otara hasn’t really given up. In a big way.

We look forward to term-end and year-end at school, because we know the new term and year will bring with it fresh start. Not too different here. ODEL has stepped out. But EMBARK remains. Indeed, we may even see it expand in time to come. In that sense, not much has been given up. I think this will remain so.