Sunday, November 30, 2014

The "heroes" of Martin Wickramasinghe III: Anula

Martin Wickramasinghe
This is the third in a series of sketches on certain elusive characters in the novels of Martin Wickramasinghe, aimed at first-time readers. Featured this week is Anula from the Koggala trilogy.

Alan’s search for his roots is what eventually brings him into conflict with his mother. What makes up the transition from Gamperaliya to Kaliyugaya, therefore, is the “uprooting” which happens in the former and the quest to reclaim lost roots in the latter. Alan represents a disillusioned generation, born out of the newly emerging business class (as represented by Piyal). This new class, however, were not fully uprooted. Neither Piyal nor Nanda are “at home” in the city, so to say. They remain unused to this new life, while maintaining a strained relationship with their ancestral home.

The conflict at the heart of Kaliyugaya, therefore, is not really between village and city. It is true that while both Nanda and Piyal adapt themselves to the new social class to which they now belong, the true conflict is to be found in Alan’s search for roots. It is this, more than anything else, which guides the theme of the story.

While Gamperaliya (which literally means “uprooted”) was about the deterioration of feudal aristocracy (as represented by Nanda’s family) and emergence of the business class (as represented by Piyal), the real “uprooting” happens in Kaliyugaya, where nearly every character, except perhaps for Tissa, grapple with their new life. In this, Piyal takes to the path of adapting himself to his new setting, while Nanda tries to but fails in the end. The way I see it, this is what really makes up Alan’s conflict. Neither mother nor father can be a proper guide to him. His search for roots, as he finds out to himself, must be done through another person. This person is Anula, his loku amma.

Anula has been called a “matriarchal figure” by some critics. This is because she is a fierce protector of her family. In Gamperaliya, we see a woman who embraces class hierarchies and divisions in her. She is opposed to Piyal's marrying Nanda, and even after he has risen to the top of the social ladder, she is reserved in her praise of him. This does not make her unsympathetic; on the contrary, Martin Wickramasinghe portrays her as probably the only character with any independent spirit in that story. She asserts what she feels, even if what she says is unpalatable to those around her.

In Kaliyugaya, however, we see a slightly different Anula. Gone is that independence of spirit, that tendency to assert everything she feels and thinks. She is still protective of her family name, and on more than one occasion chides Nanda for having distanced herself from her roots. But she is gentler, more ready to understand the weaknesses of those around her, than before. For Alan, she embodies the kind of sympathy he so desperately needs. It is Anula and not Nanda or Piyal who puts his dilemma very aptly: “He may have been born in the city, but he never was of it.”

It’s not just tradition which is broken apart in the city, of course; family bonds also take their toll under this new life. This is first seen with Piyal’s mother, who, initially pleased with him, begins to resent how she is being made to adapt to urban life (when Nanda tells her not to speak loudly as she does in the village, her colourful reply is “Why do you think we have a mouth to speak with?”), and eventually leaves for Koggala. Anula and Tissa remain; while Tissa hovers between city and village, Anula departs for her ancestral home when she is stricken with tuberculosis.

It is at this point that the conflict in both Nanda’s and Alan’s minds begins to heighten, owing to how they react to her ailment. Family bonds have, by this point, all but completely been torn apart. Nanda’s former love for her sister is taken over by an irrational fear that her son will be afflicted by her illness. While visiting a doctor at one point, she asks him whether this fear is groundless; he laughs and tells her philosophically that while so many improbable things can happen in this world, it would be madness to think too much about them.

Critically but sympathetically, the author depicts Nanda’s unwillingness to send Alan to Koggala, mainly because of his aunt’s illness but also because of another irrational fear: that he would take to playing with rowdies there. Anula criticises her on this count; she tells her quite frankly that whenever Alan was in the village during holidays, he would thoroughly enjoy himself with these same “rowdies”, just as Tissa had in his childhood. It is also Anula who criticises Nanda for having brought Alan up in an English-speaking setting. When told that speaking in Sinhala would have hampered his education, Anula retorts by saying that they understand Alan better than any teacher ever could.

Wickramasinghe’s attitude to human relationships was influenced by Russian authors. His reading of them, in particular of Anton Chekhov, was radically different to how western critics treated some of their stories. This is reflected in Anula as well. Though she isn’t represented as a sentimental being, the way she is treated in the city is different to the way she is in the village. Piyal’s mother, who leaves for Koggala in the first half of the story, dotes on Anula, regardless of whether she has a malignant illness.

This sentimental attitude to human beings, I think, is to be seen in Chekhov’s play Ivanov, where its protagonist, against his better judgment perhaps, decides to keep his tubercular wife at home without admitting her to a hospital. I remember Wickramasinghe writing in an essay that the western critic, with his regard for order and logic, would criticise this aspect of the story, since they would be used to sending such a patient to a sanatorium at once.

We see this same thing in how Anula is treated in Koggala: Piyal’s mother shares lives with and dotes on her, even sharing the cutlery with her. Even Anula, after realising what her illness is, refuses to stay in the city and be treated by a western doctor. Stubbornly, perhaps not unlike Ivanov from Chekov’s play, she decides to wait without treating it, believing instead that staying at home, away from the city and in her ancestral mansion, would cure it eventually.

Quite obviously, this is in stark contrast to the way Nanda looks upon her. Her only fear is that her children will be afflicted by her. She never fully reveals this to Anula, of course, and when she is asked by her why she never sent her son to Koggala, she claims instead that it was because Alan would get used to the “bad ways” of the village. By way of justifying this, she says that this was also why Tissa was unable to continue with his studies. Anula, always the frank and sharp observer she is, laughs at this: Tissa stopped going to school, not because he got too friendly with village rowdies, but because his father couldn’t afford to send him to school after their fortunes began to decline.

Anula, moreover, is a woman who can’t stand the hypocrisies of the new social order. She (together with Alan) acts as the conscience of both Nanda and Piyal. When Nanda begins to develop affection for an anglicised, amoral doctor (Samaraweera) she is the first to come across the affair. Ruthlessly, but at the same time not without sympathy, she criticises her. As you will remember, it is Alan who comes across infidelity on his father’s part, in the letter he finds from a woman asking for 300 rupees from him (Chapter Four).

Together, Alan and Anula become the only characters defiant of urban, sophisticated life, right towards the end. It is significant that both are thwarted in their defiance of the new social order: Alan leaves for England, having married to an Englishwoman, and Anula dies, quietly and gracefully, in the Koggala mansion.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Source Code

Source Code is very probably what Inception would have felt like had Christopher Nolan done away completely with intrigue and kept a happier, feel-good ending. For some, it may appear a contemporary sci-fi drama par excellence. As it is, however, the film stops just short of being a blunder, the sort of contraption Nolan may have directed had he believed in geometry as his artistic guiding principle for the first two-thirds, and quadrangles for the next third. I can call it neither "bad" nor "good".

The fault, as in films teetering between “good” and “bad”, is not very evident at first glance. It certainly isn’t in its casting. One is left to conclude that no other actor could have played its main role more effectively than Jake Gyllenhaal. My only problem with the cast was how it related to the wider story and its underlying themes. The plot – in its most essential form – concerns a hi-tech, top-secret military computer program that can transport someone back in time into the body of a now dead person minutes before his or her death. In this particular case, Gyllenhall wakes up, dazed and confused, on a train. He has absolutely no idea where he is, or why he is there at all. To make matters worse, all evidence on his body suggests that he is someone else – even his own reflection in the mirror.

Coming from the same actor who sustained our interest in the big puzzle in Donnie Darko, the performance was top-notch to say the least. One of Gyllenhaal’s strengths seems to be in portraying confused individuals who have no clue as to their destinies, and he epitomises one such role in this one. Anyway, moving on. Minutes later, he “dies” in a bomb attack, and gets transported to the present, which is inside a capsule that shrieks of absolute secrecy. His only communicants in the world – a duty-bound female officer and a bureaucratic scientist (the latter played by Jeffrey Wright) insist that he continue his duty: find who planted the bomb, because it might be the first of several more to come.

I was quite deliciously happy at this premise, and director Duncan Jones’ handling of it. Jones ensures that interest is kept right throughout by three things – Gyllenhaal’s quest to learn his true identity, his quirky relationship with the other passengers on the train (which offers some really hilarious moments), and Wright’s belligerent, almost megalomaniac insistence on getting the job done. Wright’s character is a paradox – he is passionately dedicated to ensuring that no more bombs explode throughout Chicago, but one suspects this is probably rooted in his desire to see his project, titled “Source Code”, work out. Substitute the desire for more votes, with a little touch of xenophobia and warmongering, and Jones may well have created Wright’s character in the mould of Dick Cheney.

Jones would have, however, done better had he kept the lines of interest in the story limited to those three plot-drivers listed above. Alas, this is exactly what he does not do, and what he introduces as a fourth plotline is wholly inapt and ineffective for the whole story. He brings in an almost heroic contrivance on Gyllenhaal’s part. I will not reveal much here, but will say this much – Gyllenhaal discovers who he is, and, despairing over it, develops a conviction that he can save not only this day, but probably something more as well. Nolan, I feel, would have been adept at this sort of thing. His characters very rarely bring about heroic endings, but when they do, it doesn’t amount to contrivances that feel somewhat false, as it does in here.

There’s another thing too. Nolan doesn’t reveal much. He is a master at the elliptical style in his scripts and dialogues. Duncan Jones’ method, on the other hand, is to explain everything away – his characters usually spend, or waste, precious time explaining away stuff – so much so that we’re hardly surprised at the “big twist” in the end. I know it’s supposed to be a twist, but frankly, with all those explanations and heroic gestures and what-not, I felt the real surprise would have come had the ending not turned out to be what it does here. I am not calling Source Code a disappointment in the final analysis. However, it could have been made somewhat more interesting.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The voter must prevail!

I have my political preferences. That's my democratic right. I subscribe to a set of beliefs which have put me at odds with most of those who take issue with them. For the first time, I will be voting. I know what the ideals I stand for, and while they do not necessarily follow what my family or friends think fit, I do concur that they are, as everything else in this frail, human world is, subject to the "අට ලෝ දහම" (the eight vicissitudes of life) and the eternal truth of impermanence.

Still, I know my countrymen will be watching and waiting. There's a reason for this. 2015 isn't 2010. There are other issues, far dwarfing the war victory won five years back. It's this more than anything else, the way I see it, which makes it imperative for every voter to decide. Carefully.

There's one more week to go before nomination papers are handed in. That's seven days. Much can happen. To top all this, there's one more month before Election Day. That's 30 days. It's no secret that this government has been shaken, considerably, though not to the extent that most anti-regime commentators will have you believe. Contrary to what Victor Ivan believes, the government hasn't halved. Not yet. There's still time left. The way I see it, both parties (or individuals) in this contest can make the best out of it. Big time. I don't know the credentials of either of them to offer a full, comprehensive sketch. In any case, that's not what should ruffle us here.

Sri Lanka has had a history of ups and downs when it comes to democracy. It has been rightly noted that the introduction of the franchise in England was preceded by the expansion of educational opportunities and political consciousness. In Sri Lanka, the reverse was true. The vote was the means through which the people were emancipated; it precipitated the same expansion of educational opportunities and political consciousness England had seen before the franchise's introduction there. It was the ballot and nothing else which sped up our collective demand for welfare, which was what 1948 and 1972 gave us. Democracy, being the elusive ideal we all aim at, was the immediate result of universal suffrage here. That's cause enough for pride, but not for complacency.

It is a testament to our people's intelligence that they overthrew a ruling government on more than seven occasions. But times have changed. We live in a different era, a different country. It's no longer about serving the people. It's about hanging onto power by hook or crook. This is not to say that politicians were lily-white angels during the Senanayake or Bandaranaike years, but the truth is that ideals have been replaced by lust for personal gain. It's about money and nothing but money. We've given up that impartiality our people once exercised when voting to embrace party colours unduly. Sad.

Still, I'm not all that glum. I look forward to 2015. The Mahinda-Maithripala fight is going to get intense. In keeping with the tenets of that great teacher Siddhartha Gautama, I therefore implore those voting this time to exercise the virtues of metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity). It is the collective wish of our country that we elect the right man for the right job. We have our differences, true, but that should not hinder us from imagining the same end: a correct path to take our country forward.

We have potential. Enough and more of it. It is true that while we have sacrificed spiritual gain for infrastructure and "development", we still cling onto those values which define who we are ("අපේ කම"). As a collective, we are one. Our vote is our right. It shouldn't be used to unduly topple incumbents when they have done good or stick with them out of an irrational fear of change. Both candidates come with solid track records, and while I'm not willing to grant either of them an angelic status, I do know this: they are honest as far as "getting the job done" goes. There can be debate about this, of course, and I agree that there are enough and more lesser things which both are known for.


Voters must decide. January 8 is one-and-a-half months away. Things have moved fast. In politics, that's the way it is. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, we're moving much faster than we were in 2010. That's good. Shows how restrained our voters must be. When it's a snap election, we are the real deciders. We can topple or we can keep. What's important, therefore, is that the voter's mandate should be the final say. Grumbling about his final decision and talking about "change" thereafter isn't the answer. Move on with it. Change is needed. Voters choose. Anything beyond this would be opposed to democracy.

So yes, I have my party colours. Who doesn't? It's not a cloud cuckoo land we're residing in. We live in one of Asia's oldest democracies, "oldest" as far as universal suffrage goes. I don't admit that my preferences are superior to any other, so this doesn't make me a kepuwath nil or kepuwath kola. It's time we see beyond party colours alone and try to make policies rather than ideologies prime factors. So whoever wins, whoever loses, let power pass hands peacefully. The people will choose. Wisely. Never go beyond that.

Meanwhile, it's nearing Christmas. A time for cheer and for humility. Let us reflect on what we are to do, then. Let us look back on the years past and ask ourselves a question: "Are we satisfied?" If we are, let it be. If we aren't, let it not be. At a time when councilors, MPs, journalists, and nearly everyone else are being purchased for a song and two cents, let the voter prevail. Let him stick with what he believes. Let him be. Everything else will flow. Gracefully. It's all about choosing the more able candidate. The choice is ours. As always.

See also:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The opposition's moves

Chandrika Kumaratunge is reported to have said that if she (i.e. her movement) doesn't defeat the Budget on its third reading, she will no longer be her father's daughter. That was three or four days ago. The Budget was passed two days ago. It was passed with a 157-57 vote gap. That's a 2/3rd majority. "චන්ද්‍රිකාගේ අප්පා කවුද?" ("Who is Chandrika's father?") is a sly comment made by a mildly pro-regime news (sic) site online. Typical.

This isn't all, by the way. The way the opposition harangued a week ago, we were expecting more than a dozen defections from the ruling party by yesterday. Hasn't happened. It is sensationalised claims like these which rob the opposition of its credibility. I'm not complaining or hooting, oh no, but the point is that until now we've had precious little "walk the talk" from the opposition. Meanwhile, the regime continues to laugh its sides off. Typical.

It would, however, be outrageous to claim that Maithripala Sirisena's campaign is all frill. Nothing could be further from the truth. This isn't election month. We have around a week before papers are handed over. Much can happen by then. It's always dangerous to speculate, especially at this time, but the truth is that the opposition has left us with nothing but speculation. That's sad, but hardly disheartening. If it's about thawing the ice in the regime, however, it's about being more clear, instead of holding on until the last minute. There's a reason why the Sirisena defection went "viral". No one knew. No one expected. But this doesn't and in fact shouldn't mean that waiting until the last moment is going to be of help all the time. Sirisena's defection is done and dusted. We don't need a repeat of it.

Still, I wouldn't raise a cheer for the government. Not yet. Their reaction has been anything but gentlemanly. Hooting your enemy doesn't get you votes. People can calculate. They know that for all the confidence the regime is "exhibiting", it's not entirely without cracks. The government's "slip" is showing. It's been caught off-guard, though not to the extent most anti-regime commentators will have you believe. There are claims that up-to 100 million rupees are on offer to keep disgruntled MPs back. As overstated as this figure may be, it is true that very many sections of the government are disenchanted. They aren't defecting for the public good, and anyone who believes otherwise clearly has some reading to do. There are big bucks for defectors and loyalists. It's about benefits. Money. Perks. Ego. Nothing else.

Speculating, as I've pointed out, can and will always be dangerous. At this stage, you can never be sure. At all. There's talk of several MPs from the UNP joining the government. There's also talk that the government itself has several MPs who'll cross over "in good time" (Maithripala Sirisena's words). Neither side has lived up-to claim, needless to say, so at this point I can only come up with a few scenarios. I'm not at all sure whether any of them will turn out to be true, or whether an alternative scenario will come about. I have talked with a good many people on the road, from both sides of the political divide. The common voter is always a shrewder political calculator and speculator than the political commentator, this I've always believed. Based on their estimations and extrapolations, I can come up with three different scenarios.

Scenario #1: Maithripala wins

Let me admit it right here. Choosing Maithripala Sirisena was a masterly move. It stumped the government. It stumped those who were cheering it and thought that "it's unified to the teeth". I'm not a prophet, so I can't say whether Sirisena will win out-rightly. "MS", however, has credibility. The support he gets is from elements of the SLFP who have grumbled about the "clan mentality" of the Rajapaksas. He courts popularity alright, but is it enough to dent the government in a way that its credibility is compromised?

It's after all a fact that UNP voters this time will be voting for a "blue man", whether they prefer MS to MR or vice-versa: a no-win situation as far as party colours go. Several of those I've talked to, who have admitted that they're of the kepuwath kola type, however, see no problem with this. This is not to say that there aren't UNPers who begrudge a "blue" man in the common candidacy, and I have met up with this kepuwath kola crowd too, but it's 2010 all over again: they won't be voting for Maithripala, they'll be voting against Mahinda. That's consoling for the opposition perhaps, but hardly a consolation for the kepuwath kola type, unless Ranil Wickremasinghe gains power via the "EP-abolition within 100 days" movement. Which is where another problem rises up.

This is the problem explicated by Dayan Jayatillake in the article he wrote last Sunday. The entire argument is this: why would anyone vote for Maithripala to keep him in power for 100 days? What happens after that period? Ranil Prime Minister? Power struggle? Chandrika stepping in? Chandrika bringing in her son (it's reported that she's grooming him) for a fresh election from which Mahinda and his family are banned? These questions don't help, I agree, and I also agree that the situation might not turn out to be as bad as I cut it out to be.

Scenario #2: Mahinda wins (sort of)

"God forbid, no!" those opposed to the regime might say. It's an open secret, however, that very many of those voting for Maithripala know he's going to lose. Which means, obviously, that this election isn't about "victory" alone. Dayan Jayatilleka's argument holds water as long as what people want is election victory. I've argued (imagining that I'm rooting for the government) that for the regime to win with a clear majority, it must focus beyond this. This is where the thrust of the pro-regime movement has so far failed. It's all about nice, shiny (and even laughable) campaign ads. Nothing beyond that. One can argue that at this stage both sides should focus on victory. That's true, but only to an extent.

Victory by Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn't automatically translate to victory by his government. He will still be the Executive President, true, but there's a problem that'll still come about notwithstanding this. Politicians are shrewd, at times at least. There's a rumour going about town that Ranil Wickremasinghe's "succession" to the "throne" after Maithripala's first 100 days wasn't included as a provision in the original opposition manifesto. If it's true, this means that most if not all to-be defectors want a SLFP government with Maithripala as their head. Which in turn means that what they want is a government with their party colours but minus MR.

If the opposition's shrewd, it should take note of this. I think it has, as does one person I've talked to. This person, a small-time businessman who's a mild UNPer, tells me that while Mahinda may win, the "defections" as such will happen after the election, which will probably topple the government through parliament and force a cabinet reshuffle. According to him, the focus isn't on the January election, but rather the parliamentary and provincial council elections. Now it's well known that the "buying rate" of councillors is far less than that of MPs. Councillors can be bought and sold. It's open season, always. The aim of the opposition, therefore, is to get as many MPs into their side, create a rift in the SLFP that far dwarfs the one already there, and "greenify" the provincial councils.

Scenario #3: It's all hot air

This is a situation not many predict. It basically amounts to this: business as usual. Accordingly, Mahinda not only wins, but wins with a clear majority, which calls for a repeat of 2010. That's nonsense. 2015 isn't like four years ago. The opposition is at least trying. Maithripala is a seasoned politician (unlike Sarath Fonseka), despite claims made by certain government ministers that he was all hot air while secretary of the SLFP. It's ludicrous to imagine that those opposed to this regime will keep their mouths shut even if the entire country votes for Mahinda. Regime-fatigue has set in. No two words about it.

Still, I wouldn't put down the possibility. Until fairly recently, the argument wasn't "Not Mahinda" ("මහින්දට බැහැ") but "Not with Mahinda" ("මහින්දත් එක්ක බැහැ"). Times have changed. I'm not predicting defeat for the government. I'm merely suggesting that Maithripala Sirisena comes as a formidable challenge to it, though not formidable enough with the likes of Kumaratunge and Wickremasinghe by his side. Now if the situation was different and it was someone like Sajith Premadasa or Karu Jayasuriya who was presented as the "Prime Minister after a hundred days", things would have looked different. The opposition would have seemed stronger, if only for the reason that both Premadasa and Jayasuriya are "clean" and come as individuals to reckon with.

It's too early to say where 2015 will lead to. Until the last few weeks, speculation will be rife. There'll be pundits putting their two cents' worth on "perfect outcomes". Based on what's evident for all to see, however, I'm certain of two things.

Firstly, the government clearly needs to see beyond January, and probably beyond March as well. Secondly, the opposition must stop extrapolating. Claims can get you only that far, after all. Chandrika's still her father's daughter. No amount of wild make-or-break prophecies is going to change that. So enough with the frill. It's time both parties got together and acted. Walked the talk. Otherwise, it'll always be "early days". And hot air.

See also:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Suren Surendiran's blunder

Three's always a crowd
A little less than a week ago, I had a conversation with a die-hard regime loyalist. He was generous enough to accommodate my views, but made it clear to me that whatever faults this government may be having have been overshadowed by its unshakable popularity. I told him then and there that I would always beg to differ. That was one week back. Come this week, and the situation is different, for better or for worse. Still, I'm not so sure. And if recent events are anything to go by, I don't think I will be anytime soon.

The problem with the opposition isn't just that they seem to be ideologically divided over the common candidate. The problem is that certain sections within it are inadvertently boosting Rajapaksa's appeal. Choosing Maithripala Sirisena was spot on in hindsight, but hardly enough. There's talk going around town that he's in the pay of foreign forces (erroneous unless proven otherwise). It would be downright laughable at this stage to attribute such a thing to the likes of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Sirisena's breakaway SLFP faction. Nonetheless, the oft-quoted view that "the regime's best friends are its enemies" still holds water, if only for the reason that certain die-hard regime-haters in the opposition are entrenching Rajapaksa's populism.

This is why I wasn't cheerful at seeing Al-Jazeera two days back. Inside Story is one of that news channel's more inclusive and incisive programs. The SLFP defection was its topic this week. On board the show were three guests: Rajiva Wijesinhe, Harsha de Silva, and Suren Surendiran. Wijesinhe, as expected, was fair and balanced, voicing the Liberal Party's view that while Rajapaksa himself isn't power-centered, those around him are piggybacking on and making a poster-boy out of him. Harsha de Silva, true to party colours, went on with a bombshell against the regime, pointing out hidden fault-lines in our economy. Again, fair and balanced.

Surendiran was a different matter. He's a spokesman for the Global Tamil Forum. That's part (and parcel) of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, which has time and time again asserted its virulently anti-regime, anti-Sri Lanka agenda. Hardly the sort of person to have on a show that tried to be fair and balanced. That's Al-Jazeera for you, I suppose. Still, I was willing to let him have his say.

Surendiran began by claiming that Wijesinhe was trying to shift the blame from Rajapaksa. That's not what Wijesinhe did. It's debatable as to what extent Mahinda Rajapaksa is aware of how he's being made use of by the infamous "Maharajaneni Club", but the truth is that Surendiran couldn't contain his anti-regime stance even with a person who called the panel with him in it "balanced". He ranted a little about "international pressure" and about how Rajapaksa called for a "snap" election to ward off a "damning report" (doctored) by the UNHCR. And all this to counter Wijesinhe's (partly true) claim that Rajapaksa is being handicapped by those around him.

Wijesinhe then took Surendiran to task. Admirably. He gave credit where it was due. He acknowledged that Rajapaksa did "achieve", especially with the elimination of terrorism. He added qualifiers to praise, admitting that the regime's "development drives" in the North were done without consulting civil society. He spoke succinctly, to the point, countering Surendiran's insinuations. Surendiran, true to form, countered this with wild allegations of human rights abuses committed during the final days of the war. These were quashed by Wijesinhe's (correct) view that it was "blanket charges" by the international community which polarised our society. He praised the LLRC, adding that it was a "great pity" that the government didn't go into that document's proposals.

This was just the start, however.

The Global Tamil Forum, as everyone will remember, was founded in 2010, significant because it was begun after the war ended. It has voiced an anti-Sri Lankan agenda frequently, and has called for Mahinda Rajapaksa to be sent for trial at the International Criminal Court. That's what Surendiran echoed here. Wijesinhe at once went defensive, observing that defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa to take him to the Hague would be like asking Sri Lankans whether their country would have been better with or without the LTTE. Harsha de Silva, in the meantime, tried not to fit in with either party, saying that while the country was and should be grateful for the end of the war, the government refuses to look beyond it to win peace.

This was Surendiran's big blunder. Hardly 24 hours passed before the state media caught his statements. Wrongly, and I should say unjustly, both Wijesinhe and de Silva were caught up. Both were portrayed as conspirators in the pay of foreign agency. This isn't true, but then again the state media never sees beyond black-or-white logic when it comes to the truth, does it? Inadvertently, Surendiran badmouthed the entire opposition, something not helped by the fact of the UNP's alleged hobnobbing with diaspora Tamil officials during their visit to the UK recently.

The opposition should distance itself from GTF immediately. It's commendable that Harsha de Silva and Sajith Premadasa bounced back allegations of "complicity" aimed at them. But this isn't enough. Surendiran was unable to veil the biggest goal he and his coolies are aiming at: persecution of Mahinda Rajapaksa by hook or crook. Wijesinhe gracefully argued with Surendiran, to the extent where it seemed as though he was defending Rajapaksa (he wasn't). But that still couldn't stop the damage. There's a reason for this, of course. Not too hard to find.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has become a father-figure among many of those who vote for him. If he's threatened with arrest by the Hague, that will rile his voters up. Even the bitterest opponent of his government (who support him personally) will vote for him if this threat surfaces. The problem is that it has. The opposition should note this. If it's about denting the government, it's about playing the game their way. Wooing voters from SLFP strongholds isn't going to work if the regime's propaganda machine is given carte blanche to put the "Mahinda in Hague" fear in their supporters' minds. Which is what it's doing.

Rajiva Wijesinhe's assessments were fair and succinct. So were Harsha de Silva's. It's ludicrous to claim that Inside Story was aimed against the regime (Al-Jazeera had invited Keheliya Rambukwella, who had declined). It's also ludicrous to claim that both Wijesinhe and de Silva were playing into foreign agency. They were not. No one who saw the show would have thought otherwise. But that's beside the point here. Unwittingly, the two of them played into Surendiran's agenda. The Global Tamil Forum isn't just anti-regime. Having joined a discussion with one of its key spokespersons isn't going to fare well for the opposition. Self-righteous, chest-thumping statements made in parliament aren't going to stop people from thinking "conspiracy" here. And the state media isn't going to help.

The truth therefore is that while the government's best friends may be its biggest haters, the opposition's biggest headache here has been Surendiren. He's given the perfect scapegoat for the regime to parade around, point fingers at, and even win a fourth term in the election with. That's probably the biggest headache the opposition can get right now. It's not only Surendiren who made the blunder, hence. It's those who sat with him and those who sit with them as well.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Dayan Jayatilleka's point

"Two cheers then for Maithripala Sirisena, whose act of resistance and rebellion is truly heroic. Why cheer at all? And why two cheers instead of three? Hearty cheers are entirely warranted because Maithripala Sirisena has produced a Black Swan event; a real game changer."

Dayan Jayatilleka gets things right, once in a way at least. He neither criticises nor absolves Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has, to the best of my knowledge, criticised the lesser things Rajapaksa is known for while critiquing the opposition as well. Over the years, the man hasn't changed much. Predictable. Commendable.

The point to be gained from this is that while he berates the present regime, he has also berated the opposition's and in particular the UNP's ineffectual campaign against it. This does not make him a regime-lover, but it doesn't make him a regime-hater either. I haven't met him, which means that whatever I write in this piece is based purely on what I have gathered from his writings.

The quote above prefaces Dayan's latest article, titled "The Sirisena Surge: Why Mahinda Is Still Way Ahead", written for, among other media outfits, Groundviews. Now Groundviews isn't exactly comfy when it comes to praising the government, but it's eclectic enough to appreciate the occassional critique of those who criticise the regime. Which is what Dayan has effectively done in this piece. It's from this end that his article should be approached, because while I do not share much of what he has claimed in it, it sheds some light on the presidential election.

Dayan's premise, as evidenced by his "preface", is that making Maithripala Sirisena the common candidate is something to get relieved about. He talks about the ineffectiveness of Ranil Wickremasinghe as a viable candidate, and goes onto point out, rightly I should say, that Sirisena's sudden defection has transformed the election into a multipolar as opposed to a unipolar race. From what I know of Sirisena's background, this also would mean that it pits him against Rajapaksa's "populist neo-conservatism" (Dayan's words) as a more left-oriented, and democratic, alternative.

This however is only part of the story.

After praising Sirisena's candidacy, he begins to unearth its pitfalls. He starts with the press conference. According to Dayan, it seemed to be more about Rajitha Senaratne's political autobiography and Chandrika Kumaratunge's self-congratulatory lament. It doesn't take a political scientist (which Dayan is, incidentally) to figure out that the entire conference lost its lustre the minute Kumaratunge opened her mouth. Senaratne's self-righteous claims didn't help, either, but I know this: there are enough and more disgruntled SLFPers who, if presented a choice between Rajapaksa and Kumaratunge (or Kumaratunge's proxies), would immediately think "Mahinda".

This isn't the only problem, obviously. Dayan talks about Sirisena foregrounding himself behind CBK. That's a valid claim. He's spot on with the claim that Sri Lankans infinitely prefer the "Mahinda Rajapaksa present to the Chandrika past". Kumaratunge's presidency was a disaster from day one. She came to power via a promise to abolish the Executive Presidency, the same post she claims she will abolish through Sirisena. That's bankrupt. People aren't stupid. They know. Track records can be compared. Assessments can be made. It doesn't take much to figure out that if it's a race between Ranil Wickremasinghe and her, very many would prefer the former to the latter. This is just conjecture, of course, but I'm making it to raise a point.

The way I see it, the entire thrust of the Sirisena project is aimed at EP-abolition. That's commendable, unlike the fiasco we saw in 2010. Maithripala Sirisena is more focused, obviously, with the caveat that his focus may be hindered by including the likes of CBK and the TNA in his alliance. There is however a bigger problem, and, according to Dayan, the biggest of them all. That's to do with the "other" figure to this entire drama, Ranil Wickremasinghe. It's not to do with the man himself (unlike Kumaratunge), but to do with what his manifesto for 2015 holds. Let me put it shortly here: Sirisena's in danger as long as his calls for EP-abolition go side by side with handing power over to him. This is what Dayan thinks, and I quote him in full:
"Why should anyone vote for Maithripala if he is not going to be the president after a hundred days while Ranil is going to be PM? What happens to the man the people have voted for, after the act of abolition? Since the Prime Ministership is going to be the power center after the Executive presidency is dismantled, would the people wake up to find they had unwittingly elected Ranil as their leader? If not, and if Maithripala is going to the Executive PM, then what happens to Prime Minister Ranil?"
Dayan has criticised Karu Jayasuriya for a similar reason. Karu's candidacy, according to him, was based on abolishing the Executive Presidency, a problem if the entire thrust of the election was aimed at that and not at winning the race. It's the same argument here, with the added qualification that as long as Sirisena's "victory" is going to last until he hands power over to Ranil (100 days, to be precise), voters aren't going to be ruffled by him. "Why vote for Maithripala when he's anyway going to stay for a hundred days at most?" is the gist of this argument, one that holds water so long as Dayan's overall critique of the opposition is valid. It is.

It's no open secret that many of the traditional UNPers are divided on Sirisena's candidacy. Let's assume that they have accepted, for better or for worse, that Mahinda will win. In that case, supporting Sirisena, even if he does back down after a hundred days to let Ranil Wickremasinghe take the reins, would be considered futile. Still, this is an assumption. It's not just UNPers who oppose Rajapaksa now. There are other people. Other voters. They'll vote for Sirisena, firmly convinced that he'll abolish the Executive Presidency. In the event that he can't, it still won't matter. There's talk that most of if not all the defectors from the SLFP will "move" after the elections. That's smart. It'll bring down the government, in parliament at least, and at least partly live upto the anti-EP thrust of the "Sirisena surge".


Dayan Jayatilleka, like every other political commentator, has his "perfect scenario". This is the (unlikely) event of Sajith Premadasa pitting against Rajapaksa. Hasn't happened, will not happen. To Dayan, however, Sajith is the ideal candidate, mostly though not only because he's his father's son. Maybe that is why he has criticised Sirisena. I don't know. I do know that this has in turn earned him criticism, as seen by the following comment: "'Dr' Dayan never saw this coming. Let's not listen to this fellow". That's an offhanded observation I agree, and I also agree with most of what Dayan has written in his latest piece. There are other observations he has made, of course, and while I don't intend to go through them all, I'd like to put my two cents' worth on them.

Dayan makes some calculations. Well, not calculations per se, but some simple math. To him, "Mahinda + Gotabhaya" is still heavier than "Sirisena + Ranil + Chandrika". In a way, I concur with this. As Malinda Seneviratne has aptly pointed out, Sirisena's biggest flaw was to let himself be flanked by Kumaratunge and Senaratne, the former because of her vendetta and shows of arrogance, the latter because of his self-inflating, feel-good statements. Seneviratne claims that it would have been better for Athuraliye Rathana Thero or Anura Kumara Dissanayake to have been by Sirisena's side in the press conference. That would have lent credence to an all but complete voice-cut political battle. After all, it was Rathana Thero (along with Patali Champika Ranawaka) who really began the opposition drive, by distancing the JHU from the government over the Executive Presidency.

There's more to this, by the way.

To Dayan, Mahinda embodies a slightly insular leadership, appealing to the populist instincts of the Sinhala Buddhist voter. He wants a kinder populist, the sort who will be able to reach out to other communities while allaying fears of succumbing to the West. He makes this an imperative "must" for Sirisena, if he ever wants to battle out with Rajapaksa effectively. Kumaratunge slipped a little, I must admit, when she said that "for the first time, we have produced a village-boy from the SLFP." It's obvious that the only if not main reason why Sirisena was chosen was for his "village roots". That's not really effective. I'm sure Dayan will agree.

Bottom line, hence: Maithripala Sirisena has great potential. As Dayan notes, however, as long as he stays in the top post for about a hundred days (or 24 hours), no-one's going to take him seriously. If it's about regime-change through and through, a better alternative would have been to go ahead with the elections, win the leadership, abolish the Executive Presidency, and then hold fresh elections. That's not what J. R. did, back when he promulgated the 1978 constitution and without as much as a referendum elected himself Executive President. It's about being more democratic than this. Problem is, the democracy-thrust is exactly what the current anti-regime movement is missing.

Sirisena is from the SLFP. He purports to stand for its values, not at all difficult considering his background in that party. In the event of his winning the election, however, Ranil Wickremasinghe, a "nobody" as far as this election is concerned, will jump over him. I don't know about you, but if ever I'll be voting for Sirisena, I'll want him to lead the country, not abolish his post and hand it over to someone I will never, as long as I (and the rest of my fellow SLFPers) live, vote for. That's not democracy. That's slipshod politics. What mandate has Ranil to succeed Sirisena, after all? Certainly not the people's. Certainly not mine. It is here, more than anywhere else, where Dayan's argument is spot on. Sadly, the opposition remains silent on this matter.

There is talk of several to-be defectors holding back. The provision to "elect" Ranil as Sirisena's successor hadn't been revealed to them until now, apparently. I don't know whether this is true. What I do know is that the cat's out of the bag: "2015" is going to be Ranil's last shot at becoming leader. He's going to do this by jumping over Maithripala Sirisena. Let's be honest here, hence: which SLFPer would want that?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Options for the government

Vasudeva Nanayakkara, speaking to the BBC, has this to say about the recent defection by a group of SLFP ministers: "It's a serious loss." That's big, coming from him. He tries to justify his support for Mahinda Rajapaksa while claiming that he and he alone should abolish the Executive Presidency. He stumbles on the way, of course, but Nanayakkara admits the following: "True SLFPers will continue to oppose the UNP. They won't vote for a candidate picked by that party." That's true, but hardly comforting. The government has been stumped, and for all I know we're in for a crossover drama in the days to come. This is not to say that the government has halved, as Victor Ivan claims in his interview with the BBC. Still, I wouldn't be too cheerful.

The problem with this regime isn't just the Rajapaksa factor. The problem is that it hasn't really made tactical decisions when it comes to appointing people. Rajiva Wijesinghe, whose antipathies to the External Affairs Ministry are as well documented as Dayan Jayatilake's, is reported to have said that while he feels sorry for the president, he thinks everyone around him is tarnishing his image. That's true. The president is popular, a point conceded by those who defected the other day. The issue isn't with him. The issue is with what has repeatedly been called the "Maharajaneni Club". If the government wants to go beyond a victory at this stage, it clearly must focus on this issue. But how?

It's well known that most if not many of those who cheer Mahinda Rajapaksa now were once his adversaries. It's also well know that most of them are disgruntled with him today. Janaka Bandara Tennakoon probably spoke for them when observing how badly the SLFP fared after allowing kudu karayo (drug dealers) in. There's talk that Tennakoon is to leave the party in the coming days. This isn't what stumps me here. What stumps me here is the basis on which Tennakoon made that remark.

Party defections aren't uncommon in Sri Lanka. We've had Left mingling with Right. We've had parties within parties. We've had defunct political movements separate from dominant parties, only to reconnect with them after some time. That's politics, after all, not at all uncommon to Sri Lanka. The problem for Rajapaksa is however that he made some mistakes. He welcomed party defectors, with open arms. He forgave. And forgot. At this stage, speculation is rife about some of these very same former defectors defecting from the SLFP, but the truth is that both they and those who despise them are dissatisfied with the current regime. If it's about restoring balance and strength in the party, therefore, Rajapaksa shouldn't be content with a victory at the election alone.

The SLFP is a constituent party. The UPFA is an altogether different matter. While defections from the SLFP may be an indication of the Bandaranaike-Rajapaksa split therein, it's clear that growing unrest in the larger, parent party reflects how disgruntled certain elements are with the Executive Presidency. Only the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna have come out unanimously in support of the president. Nearly every other constituent party in the UPFA, the LSSP included, have time and time again opposed the 18th Amendment. Nanayakkara's statements to the BBC are reflective of this.

Mahinda Rajapaksa isn't going to promise EP-abolition, this much is clear. Politicians can get stubborn. The problem however is that there's a limit to this. While I'm not entirely sure that the president has reached that limit, I am however quite certain that unless and until he heeds the anti-EP movement, he clearly won't see beyond "election victory". It's a foregone conclusion already in the minds of those supporting Maithripala Sirisena, after all, that Mahinda's going to win. The aim of these voters is not to topple Rajapaksa completely, but to ensure he doesn't win with a clear majority. The aim is to get him to see beyond election victory, hence.

This however is merely a part of the problem.

Let's assume, by a wild stretch of imagination, that the likes of Chandrika Kumaratunge and Ranil Wickremasinghe really want to abolish the Executive Presidency. Even then, it's clear that they have other aims and motives in supporting Sirisena. Kumaratunge has in no uncertain terms voiced her personal grudge against Rajapaksa. That's not the way to restore democracy in a democracy-robbed country, but the point is that the mandate given to Sirisena isn't only to abolish the Executive Presidency. There's a host of other things they're planning to do away with, which perhaps is where the government should get cold feet.

I'm no political analyst, but it doesn't take an analyst to figure out that this government has got some things wrong when it comes to appointments. Both Rajiva Wijesinghe and Dayan Jayatilake have rooted their opposition on this. Still, this doesn't mean they oppose Rajapaksa unconditionally. Crooks and stooges have been given high places, granted, but at the same time it's also true the opposition are silently wooing some of them.

The message is clear, hence.

"We are disgruntled with the regime, though this doesn't mask personal antipathies to the president himself. He's surrounded by goons who're piggybacking on him. He's created an all but complete family dynasty in the government. This doesn't mean we're against him per se, but that we're against the only instrument he can use to entrench power even further. We're not doing this for the public good alone, of course, and we concede that the opposition's making us the scapegoats. But the point is that unless the SLFP returns to its traditional roots, devoid of the nobodies who are running riot in it today, it won't be the UNPers alone who'll vote against it."

Strengthening political parties is no easy task. Restoring confidence in a party threatened with internal rifts is harder. This is true even when those creating such rifts try to mask their personal vendettas and hide their own past abuses, with chest-thumping words that try to make saints out of them. There's talk going around town that Maithripala Sirisena got suckered in. I'm not so sure, but I won't say that this is a groundless claim either. Whether or not this is true, however, the government still needs to take a leaf out of what the common (sic) opposition is doing.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Time always tells

As it always does...
This is the third in a series of essays on miracles, dedicated to all those who, like me, believe in and have experienced them.

We are never on time for anything. We always keep someone waiting. After all, it's all about giving excuses when late or waiting impatiently when early. Or let's put it this way: we irk others when late and irk ourselves when we're not. This is nothing to get ruffled about, of course. After all, think about what's in our minds at any given point. It would be a little too difficult to focus on something so as to keep on time, wouldn't it, especially when there are other, less trivial things to worry about? That would be something of a miracle, right?

But still, miracles happen. Think a little. Think about when when you were really, really late. When you stepped out thinking you'd be able to catch up. When the traffic on the road meant otherwise. That's when you pray for the minutes to slow down. And when prayers are granted, we all thank someone or the other, don't we? But this isn't all. Suppose you woke up early, knowing just how late you'd be with the rough and tumble of traffic. You get there early, too early in fact. And then, just like that, everyone else who had thought like you, who had come early, convene whatever it was they had planned just after you came in. That's a miracle too, right?

Yes, time works in ways we will never understand. It passes quickly and passes slowly. It's relative. It ignores you, rightly I should think, while expecting you to follow it. You ignore it, rarely I should say, and consequences can be dire. It eludes you. So while you cannot afford to shrug it, it continues to move on whether or not you take note of it. Shouldn't this be why keeping up with it while keeping a whole lot of other matters in your mind is something of a miracle, then?

This is a question, I admit, and like every question it doesn't have any real answer. Just think about it. When did you last have to keep up an appointment? Did you stick to it? Chances are, you didn't. But think back. Did you adjust your schedule, your daily routine, to fit this appointment? If you had, the (figurative) millions of other things in your mind might have made you forget this little schedule, until the last minute. It's probable that while you would have been counting fingers to stick to it, you would have been late anyway, but not as late as you had expected.

So now we have another question here: "being late" versus "expecting to be late". Let's be honest here. Which one do you usually fit into? We expect to be late always, don't we? After all, we are human beings. Frail. We ignore or rather tend to ignore time. Figures. There are other matters in your head, at any given point. It would be madness to focus on any trivial appointment (trivial even if important to parents or friends) while forgetting those more important matters. So let's come out with it: it's a miracle that we still try to keep to schedules, whenever and wherever we are, despite the (obvious) fact that we never can and never will. And despite all this, we almost never are as late as we think we are.

Besides, it's not too hard to try. We can adjust. We can try and shrug off the million matters that occupy our minds and stick to just one schedule. If we can't, at least we tried. That's half the game won, after all. Keeping on schedule isn't about keeping to it 100%. It's about pushing yourself and making the attempt. The "miracle part" to it comes when you try so hard that you're either way ahead of it (very rare, I should say) or not completely behind it (which is what happens in eight cases out of 10).

So yes, time has its own share of miracles. We never stick to it, true. It ignores us, true. And just the teeniest miscalculation is enough to ruin a schedule, true.

There can be room for other miracles and surprises, too. It can divide life and death, for one thing. That's right, life and death. Getting late can mean death for some and life for others. Plain and simple. 

Here's a story to prove this.

Some years back, in an unhappier Sri Lanka, there was a man who commuted to work every day. He boarded the bus at around six in the morning and came back home at around eight in the night. For those of you not familiar with buses here, he took the 120 Route from Kesbewa to Colombo. He worked in Borella. He was my father.

But I'm dithering here.

One night, he had been travelling with a boy and his father. This boy had been having tantrums for some reason, and when they had come to Piliyandala, had all but completely been pacified by the father. They had got down. What happened next was what someone told my father later on. Both father and son had boarded the 157 bus, from Piliyandala to Kahapola, and had even got a ticket. The boy had, however, thrown up. Again. Now the 157 bus is never empty. It's packed to the brim. And this night, there had close to a hundred people aboard. So he was tired. The father, also tired after a hard day's work and not in a mood to pacify his son anymore, had got down scolding him. He had been scolding him even after this bus had left and the two waited in line for the next one.

And then, just like that, that bus that father and son had boarded before exploded, with 26 dying and 64 others getting injured.

For the father and son, whose names I don't know, it had been a minute's brush with death. One minute. That was the line between life and death, the line crossed by 26 other people, the line only the boy's tantrums had kept the two away from. Yes, one minute. 60 seconds. I know this isn't an exact measure, but it really doesn't matter. Not to them at least.

That's the way with fate. And miracles. And time.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

State of Play

At a time when governments have come under suspicion, when “drone wars” are increasingly blurring the line between “just” and “unjust” wars, and when surveillance and military operations are being contracted out to private companies, State of Play is a taut thriller that reveals not just the evil behind all this, but the evil lurking by its side, hidden and veiled. Borrowing methods employed in various Cold-War thrillers, the film works on the same, juicy level as Michael Clayton, Syriana, The Insider, and Erin Brockovich, because, like them, it works on the level of a tightly-edited corporate thriller.

Part of its taut pace comes, admittedly, from its cast. Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck and Robin Wright Penn, not to mention Helen Mirren, Jason Bateman, and Jeff Daniels, all perform with enough dexterity to assure us that no other cast, however well gilded, could have equaled this one for the film. They spice their roles with just enough interest to keep us attached to them without satisfying us completely. Ordinarily in another movie, this may have been a bit of a letdown. But here, it’s not.

The function of these characters is not to tell us more about themselves, but to define their various relationships with each other. There is just so much secrecy and intrigue, and in the movie’s two-hour length not one minute is wasted over excessively elaborating on what lies beneath its surface. The film owes this to its director. Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has an uncanny ability to immerse his stories, chillingly and accurately, in their backdrops, and this is true for his characters as well. It is a thriller as “rooted” in its setting as Blood Diamond. No other director could have worked at this level, for this film.

The movie is an adaptation of a 2003 BBC political miniseries. The serial lasted six one-hour episodes over one month, and was directed by David Yates, an acclaimed filmmaker of lean thrillers in his own right. It was set in the UK, and had as its main theme the relationship between government and Big Oil. MacDonald has not only transplanted its setting to the US, but in doing so, has also trimmed down its length considerably to fit the bill of a feature film. And, through all this, he has also managed remarkably well to find a corresponding malaise in American politics to fit its Anglo-Saxon counterpart, in the form of Big Business. He has touched on a very pertinent political issue – whether or not the handling of overseas war operations should be given over to unscrupulous, money-for-blood oriented private companies.

Into this tense drama comes an investigative journalist, Cal McCaffrey, played huskily by Crowe (in a role meant for the better-looking, but decidedly too easy-going, Brad Pitt). He is the icon of old-world journalism – the White Knight in search of the truth and nothing but the truth: more concerned with getting his facts right than earning a quick buck out of gossip. Two murders – unrelated at first to each other – become the focus of his attention, and in his investigation, he unearths a connection between the two, with a more than passing, dubious connection to an ambitious senator (Affleck) who is haranguing against a corporate security firm. The victim had been his secretary, and, we learn, kept a more than professional relationship with him.

Along the way, McCaffrey comes dangerously close to certain death at the hands of a killer machine, in the form of a murderous soldier. He also unearths several pieces of evidence vital to his story, held together just enough to sustain our interest until the very end. There is a downside to his perseverance, however – his editor (Mirren) is not of his school, preferring the quick buck than waiting for the universal acclaim that McCaffrey’s methods may get the paper someday, and his partner in his enterprise (Rachel Adams) is almost always in conflict with him over the same issue. But in the end, sanity prevails, and our hero manages to get both their respect. “The Truth Comes Out Only With Time” might as well have been its seven-word summary.

It is not without its flaws, however. The last 15 minutes were devoted entirely to resolving one final puzzle in the plot, and though I won’t mention what it is or whether it was rewarding, I will say that it seemed too stuffy, too overwrought, for me to digest. There are telltale signs right throughout the story that will, at second viewing, make the twist-in-the-end less unexpected, but even so, the conclusion had a false air of contrivance to it that felt decidedly wanting.

But I will say this much as well – despite the way that ending will bring to mind that proverbial broth and the “too many” cooks, the movie still has much in it to sustain our undivided interest from beginning to end. No twist ending, however implausible, is going to dent that. State of Play is a first-rate thriller, which unfortunately, upon its release five years back, did not fare too well at the box-office.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How NOT to write

Amanda McKittrick Ros
It’s a common sight nowadays in bookshops – guides on how to do something: how to dress up, how to organise parties, how to manage time, and of course, how to be the perfect parent or spouse or friend or whatever.

Seldom, however, do we get ever get a guide telling us how NOT to do something – for instance, in using a hairdresser, it is probably NOT a good idea to use it in the bathtub. But, after all, doesn’t a good guide pretty much tell us how to do something as how NOT to? I, for one, find this latter type of guides more useful: and nowhere is it more useful for me than in how to write good, proper English.

The best guides tell us to be clear, original, simple, and to use an economical style, when writing. They point us to literary giants – from Shakespeare to Grisham – when “guiding” us. They explain to us the cardinal sin of every aspiring writer – the tendency to (over)use clichés. Never, however, have they pointed us to a writer whose skill was so atrocious, whose prose so horrible, that they deserve the title “How NOT to write AT ALL”.

That writer is Amanda McKittrick Ros.

Before I begin, however, perhaps I better show you a sample of her “skill”. This passage is taken from her second novel, Delina Delaney

“She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her father’s slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp clout to faultless fabrics of flaxen firmness.”

If you’re like me, chances are that you are completely lost. How does one possibly keep oneself a “stranger” to an income, however slight? How does steel “produce” anything? And what on earth could “faultless fabrics of flaxen firmness” possibly mean? The answers to all this reveal much about the person who wrote them down.

Amanda McKittrick Ros was born in Ireland on December 8, 1860. She was a teacher, at a Training College, and a slightly snobbish eccentric (she cut out one “s” from her original surname, Ross, to match it with the name of an aristocratic family). Her first attempt at fiction was published in 1897, as a wedding present by her husband Andrew, who was a station master at the time.

This was Irene Iddesleigh.

If ever a book created ripples for its atrocious prose, then Irene Iddesleigh could well have caused a tsunami. It was in this that she fully revealed her “skillful talents”. She immediately showed us both her biggest strength and weakness – her prose, which was quite hazy, and at times too vague, to understand.

There are passages from the book – which remains her only to be in print today – which can give one headaches at times. What other writer, after all, could come up with a more incomparable synonym for panties than “southern necessities”? I dread to find out why panties can be “necessities”, or why they should be “southern”, of all directions!

Critics were harsh at the time. A satirist called Barry Pain mercilessly called Irene the “book of the century”, and wrote that he “shrank before it in tears and terror”. But bad reviews had as much effect on her as a beating would on a stubborn child. They just provoked her to write even more.

She followed Irene with Delina Delaney in 1898, and Helen Huddleston in 1969 (published posthumously). In between her novels she wrote Poems of Puncture and Fumes of Formation, two poetry collections. And with all those who would think her poetry any better than her prose...

Holy Moses! Take a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer.

... I beg to differ.

By now you would have guessed, even looking at the titles of her books, her one key specialty – obsession with alliteration and colourful prose. Remember “faultless fabrics of flaxen firmness”? Well apparently she was referring to cloth. Ros was quite incapable of describing something in its simplest way. One of the most useful tips reporters get is that they should present a story in its most bare, essential form. No wonder some of the simplest (and greatest) writers – Hemingway included – were once reporters.

If anything, however, Ros’ writing solidified her career. Besides Irene Iddesleigh, her other books, which are now out of print, can fetch up to $850 today: compare that with the paltry prices which a Dickens or Shakespeare is sold for today! Her stories, which were originally presented as tragedies, were read as slapstick comedies. After all, how can anyone take a husband seriously when he addresses his wife so?

"Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!"

Small wonder there are competitions, organised around the world, to see which person can read these passages the longest without laughing or smiling. Your writing would have to be of a “special kind of Bad” to achieve such a feat. And hers was nothing but.

Her literary outputs are doubtless the best guides out there on how NOT to write in English – or for that matter in any language.

Ros died in 1939, but it is safe to say her reputation as the “World’s Worst Writer” is here to stay. Perhaps I should end this with what she thought of her own career – “I expect that I will be talked about at the end of a thousand years”. Well, it has been more than 70 years since she died, and we are still talking about her. Maybe Mrs. Ros could have done a better job as a fortune teller.

I’m just saying.

Monday, November 17, 2014

It's easy to call names, isn't it?

This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to school-going kids, written for the "Guys and Girls" section of Ceylon Today.

So you want to stand out. You want to show everyone your colours. You want to make everyone believe just how “special” you are. What do you do? Do you fight? Do you shout? Do you tell everyone around you how good you are? Is that the way? It’s after all the easiest thing in the world to cry, to shout, to scream, when no one is listening to you. But if you want to show everyone that you can stand out, that you are “special”, that’s not going to work.

To begin with, your friends will test you. Wherever they are, whether in school or in the van. They will joke about you. They will poke fun at you. They will want to see whether you can stand them. If you’re smart, you won’t lose it. You won’t hit back. You will instead stay where you are, without losing your temper. It’s never good to fight back, after all. If you do, you lose half the battle.

There was once a boy called Niven. He called himself “Nee-ven”. I couldn’t pronounce his name properly. There was also an actor called David Niven. I had called him “Nai-ven”. So I told this boy how to “pronounce” his name. I called him “Nai-ven”. Now names are special. People guard them, almost jealously. That’s natural.

Niven thought his name was special. And I had given his friends the chance to test him. At class the next day, they all called him “Nai-ven”, and laughed. Friends are like that sometimes. They pick and choose. They use your name to joke about you. Niven was angry. Hurt. The problem wasn’t just that they were mispronouncing his name; the problem was that they were doing it purposely. In Sinhala, “nai” means “snakes”. They were twisting his name. In other words, they were insulting him.

He could have lost his cool. He had, to be honest, but only for a minute. They were bullying him. He could have fought back. But he didn’t. There was one friend of his who could be unkind with words. He was leading the others in jeering at Niven. Niven took one look at him and called him “ලබු ගෙඩිය”. He hadn’t planned to call him that. Then and there, he had looked at his enemy-of-the-moment, at the shape of his head, and had cut him down to pieces with one word. The joke was on him now: from that day onwards, those who had jeered at Niven went to call his enemy “ලබුවා”.

You can be smarter. Name calling is fun. It can be easy too. But it’s not always the answer. After some time, it can even be dangerous. You can hurt others. Badly. It’s true that at school you’ll have to put up with a lot of name calling. If you are or your name is made fun of, you can keep quiet. You can ignore. If they grow tired of saying the same joke over and over again, they too will keep quiet. They’ll go away and ignore you.

But if they keep on insulting you, you’ll have to speak up. Calling names is easy. Grownups do it all the time. It’s also difficult, especially if you’re unsure about what name to call those who jeer at you. You can pick on a person’s “shape”, his name, or even his size. But don’t hurt them. If you hurt those who hurt you, it shows poorly on you. It shows that you can be just as bad as they are.

So play it smart. Pick on a name. Any name. Tag it on your insulters. If you’re good enough, that’s one way you can make yourself stand from the rest of your friends. That will show just how “special” you are. That you can stand up without falling, and without giving any of your insulters a chance to pull you down, wherever you are.