Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Man of the Year 2014: Athuraliye Rathana Thero

It happened in 2006. Nearly the whole of the Eastern Province was being deprived. Of water. The sluice-gates of what is known as Mavil Aru had been shut down by a bunch of terrorists who were playing for time. They had thought that the new government would submit to them. Didn't happen.

What took off in 2006 ended in 2009. The war ended. We are all the happier for that.

There were people who marched to Mavil Aru that day. People with no hidden agenda. People whose only reason for their act, if at all, was to get the government to see their way.

For years, if not for decades, the LTTE always had the upper hand. The government had always kowtowed to them. Shamelessly. The LTTE, to put it shortly, had thought that Mavil Aru would end. They've had the upper hand before. The government, they thought, could be tided over on this one too.

That didn't happen, of course. The ruling party, realising just how shamelessly the LTTE were breaking the agreement they had signed with them some years back, took action.

But this isn't all. Wars aren't won that easily. There are mindsets that need to be changed. The people who marched to Mavil Aru did just that. For years, the magic word for conflict-resolution here had been "appeasement". The march to Mavil Aru changed all that. Among those who marched that day, there were names. Big names. Athuraliye Rathana Thero was one of them.

He is a person some hate and some begrudgingly admire. In politics, that's rare. Rathana Thero was there, all the way, when ideology-thrust was needed. He countered, together with the party he helped create, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, the claim that the war could not be won militarily.

And today, he is on the other side. Some of his admirers have now become foes. Some of his foes have now become admirers. That's politics. He was a factor in the Maithripala Sirisena defection. If at all for this reason, the latter's campaign is considered cleaner than that of the government. That's not enough, I agree. Still.

He never compromised. He could have stayed. Could have waited. He didn't. His opposition to the Executive Presidency and of course that notorious Casino Bill was known long before he left. Together with Patali Champika Ranawaka, he is perhaps the only politician who can connect reason and emotion with whatever he says. That's rare, even for someone with an academic background.

His life and career hasn't been read enough. Like Mahinda Rajapaksa, he was born in the South, in Akuressa. What many don't realise is that long before he took to nationalist politics, he was a fervent JVPer. He once remarked that it was Buddhism and Marxism that moved him to what he is today. That's true. Like many in his generation and those before it, nationalism came to him long after he had dabbled in Marxism.

His background in politics is phenomenal. During the bheeshanaya of the late '80s, he together with some other University undergraduates formed an organisation called the Janatha Mithuro ("Friends of the People"). This later developed into the National Movement Against Terrorism, which was in itself a precursor to the Sihala Urumaya and later the Hela Urumaya.

One can argue that all this dates back to the early '80s, when the likes of Gunadasa Amarasekara and Nalin de Silva formed what would be known as the Jathika Chinthanaya. It was the Hela Urumaya, however, which made the most effective inroad into politics. And Rathana Thero was an important figure. All this time.

Some claim that he's a racist. A chauvinist. But even those who vilify him find reason to admire him. The truth is that even while moves against monks entering parliament were being tabled (by the same people who have joined his campaign today), we were more willing to listen to him than to those who continually, with no reason, vilified the war. His first victory, if you can call it that, was 2009. But that's just one thing.

He sticks to principle. That is why he has left the government. And that is why, when he left it, the ruling party lost. Badly. It is open to debate whether this will be a negative factor at the election next year. What we know, however, is that the JHU is not going to come back.

Rathana Thero was instrumental in the Maithripala-factor. As Malinda Seneviratne has pointed out recently, whenever he gets up to speak for him, Maithripala's vote-bank stays fixed. That is more than what one can say about the others who have rallied around him. Like Chandrika Kumaratunge.

It is the Jathika Hela Urumaya that once backed this government. They won. Whether that will be enough to break them is another matter. But while I may not agree with what they have decided to do, I have to acknowledge that they mean what they say.

Ideals are hard to stick to. Rathana Thero is no idealist. He left all that in his pre-Jathika Chinthana days. He is a pragmatist, one who appears to be driven by reason. Some say that he almost never breaks into emotion. Others say that he's become too emotional these days. Both are correct. He is not reason-driven to the point where he is emotionless.

These are still early days. We don't know whether what he advocates will backfire on him. What we do know is that for the first time, there is a split between the two most potent nationalist camps in the country. The Jathika Chinthanaya school has distanced itself from the Hela Urumaya. Gunadasa Amarasekara has called the Hela Urumaya a "Helu Karumaya". There is also talk that there will be defections from the JHU in the days to come. And that the Bodu Bala Sena, an offshoot of the JHU, will join the government, just as they had done before. All this is peripheral to the subject at hand, however.

Rathana Thero, in all this and despite all this, can take a bow. He is an unacknowledged giant. Always has been. He has friends and enemies. Admirers and detractors. Naturally.

We don't know whether he'll win or lose in the end. We can't be sure. But taking stock of his past and of what he did at a time when what he advocated was considered impractical, we can be sure of one thing. He won't shy away. He won't back down. True to form, he will prevail. For that reason alone, he is the Man of the Year. For me.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Wimal's role-swaps and Dayan's role-swaps

These are chest-thumping days. Rhetoric days. Days when claims are made and justified. Days when the other side is badmouthed and whoever crosses over is vilified. Days when history is revised, recycled, and forgotten. Yes, these are election days. And in them, we see roles and role-swaps. Big time.

Wimal Weerawansa and Dayan Jayatilleka have come out praising the regime and criticising the Opposition. They've taken contexts out of history to compare with the Mahinda-Maithri fight. They've taken figures out of history to compare with the big-shots in the election.

Here then are the role-swaps:

Wimal Weerawansa's role-swaps

Mahinda = Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe
Maithripala = Ehelepola Nilame
Patali Champika = Pilimathalawe
The American Ambassador = John Doyle

Which begs the question...

    CBK + Ranil = ?
    Wimal = ?

Dayan Jayatilleka's role-swaps

    Mahinda = Ravana
    Maithripala = Vibhishana

Which could mean...

    CBK + Ranil = Rama

Which also begs the question...

    ? = Sita
    ? = Lakshman
    ? = Hanuman

And of course...

    Dayan = ?

So who'll fill these blanks? Who'll go down in history as the born-again characters of 1815 and the Ramayana?

Over to you.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Krimiraja story

Businesses rise and fall. Empires are created, only to break apart at the slightest intrusion from outside. They prevail, but rarely. It’s only natural in this free-for-all, cutthroat world that benevolence rarely counts in profit-making. Whenever it does, however, it is to be commended.

More often than not, those who are rooted in their land and never completely yield to the “bottom line” bring forward their vision for a better and healthier country. Dr Sumarathna Amaratunga, you must admit, is a case in point here. He is a name to many, an icon to some, be it in the business community or elsewhere. This is his story.

Krimiraja is a household name in Sri Lanka. When it comes to Ayurveda and traditional medicine, that’s the first brand and probably the only one which comes up. It has created a niche for itself in the country, to the extent where it does not seem to have any competitor formidable enough to fight with. It’s an enduring credit to Dr Amaratunga that he has managed to balance the needs of commerce with those of a country that has seen a resurgence in Ayurveda in recent years.

Dr Amaratunga was born in Kiriwaththuduwa, situated 30 kilometres or one and a half hours from Colombo, to a fairly well-off family. He was the fourth in his family, and his father, M. D. Liveris Amaratunga, was a prominent Ayurvedic physician. From an early age, he had seen stacks and stacks of medicines at home. He remembers that even at the age of four, he was helping his father in preparing these medicines and with his patients. It was only natural that when he grew up, he would take to his father’s field like a duck to water.

Young Amaratunga was educated firstly at Kiriwaththuduwa Wijewardena Maha Vidyalaya. He passed his SSC Preparatory Exam with flying colours and entered Vidyarathna University College, Horana, near his hometown. True to form, he passed his A/Levels as well. During this time, he wanted to enter the Wickramaarachchi Ayurveda Institute in Gampaha, which he did while enrolling at Vidyalankara Campus. Admittedly he focused more on his apprenticeship at the Ayurveda Institute, which lasted five years as a Diploma course. Admittedly, he focused more on his apprenticeship at the Ayurveda Institute, which lasted five years as a Diploma course. He became a registered Ayurvedic doctor in 1971.

At this point I ask him whether Ayurveda in Sri Lanka was different in his time. He tells me that back then, traditional Sinhala medicine was practised within families. “It was passed from generation to generation,” he says, “and was mainly confined to certain families who took it up as an ancestral tradition.” There were only two institutes for native medicine in his time, one at Gampaha and the other at Borella. He remarks that back then, there were three groups of Ayurvedic doctors. “The first group, as I said before, hailed from families who practised from generation to generation. The second group were freshly educated at those two institutes without any family background in their field. The third group had their education in India, again without a family background.” Together, these three made up the shasthriya (academic) Ayurvedic community in the country.

Talking about teaching institutes for traditional medicine, Dr Amaratunga tells me that long before his time, apprenticeships were never limited to five-year courses. “How long it took for you to learn Ayurveda depended on how quickly you could learn it. Some took five years, others up-to 30 years. There wasn’t a fixed length of time.” I put it to him here that such a flexible system of teaching what was once considered a “lost art” could have yielded a solid foundation for Ayurveda, and he agrees.

After leaving the institute at Gampaha, he threw himself into the family business. “My father died when I was 15,” he tells me, “He was a physician to the teeth, and an excellent one. It was he who really began the Krimiraja brand, when in 1949 he concocted a prathyaksha (loosely translatable as “efficacious”) remedy for stomach ailments. That was when he began what I continued after he died. I was still engaged with my secondary education at the time.”

Liveris Amaratunga
I ask him whether he was able to balance his education with commitments to his family business, and he smiles. “Goodness, we had a wonderful childhood those days! We just went to school, sat down, listened to what the teacher taught, and came back home. That was it. No tuition, no cramming.” It is probably a testament to his intellect that he brushes off his schooling so easily, but I feel that the kind of education we had those days would have been radically different to what we have today. I press him on this point, and he explains.

“We had a firm teacher-student relationship back then. In fact we were supposed to genuflect before our teachers. Unconditionally.” He tells me that this continued even when during his diploma course. “You must realise that before my time, when it came to Ayurveda, teachers were not very willing to impart everything they knew to their students. Only those who were ready and able to learn this ‘art’, as you call it, could study everything. Teachers were quite reserved then, and we as students had to respect that. I must say that this was true even at school.”

Perhaps this was a sign of a rigid relationship between teacher and student. Things are different now, of course, and more often than not this has compromised the integrity of teachers. That may have something to do with the changing face of Ayurveda in Sri Lanka today. Mindful of this, I move on to Amaratunga’s later career.

Krimiraja was begun initially with three or four products. Under Dr Amaratunga’s oversight, the business portfolio has increased to about 300 products, from oils to mouthwashes to kasaya to pimple cures. “We’ve targeted a wide customer base while keeping in mind that what we deliver should be based on traditional methods.” But for millions of Sri Lankans, Krimiraja’s signature would have to be the karal guli, a must-have and must-need for stomach ailments. “That was my father’s creation right through, and it remains our most popular product,” he tells me, confirming how much of a legacy Liveris Amaratunga left behind with his business. “It’s sad that I never got to see what his vision was.”

I ask him whether his business’ product range accounts for every ailment that Ayurveda can cure, and he tells me that this is very nearly the case. It’s basically a “you name it, we’ve got it” portfolio. “We don’t stop here,” he says, smiling, “We want to increase our range as time goes by. With more products aimed at other ailments.”

This is where we come to the subject of Ayurveda and its place in today’s society. “Ayurveda wasn’t born yesterday. It has a history of over 4,000 years. That’s a long time, indeed even longer than what it took for Western medicine to develop. It’s multifaceted, which is why it’s divided into eight different components.” Perhaps it’s a sign of how modernised it has become today, but Amaratunga admits that with the onset of colonialism and globalisation, Ayurveda began to assimilate foreign medicinal systems. “We can see this very clearly with many of our native doctors today. Western medicine wasn’t dominant until a long time ago. When it became popular, our doctors began to take to it while being protective of ancient customs. Same thing with doctors who took to other alternative forms of medicine, like Chinese acupuncture.” As time went by, however, this became a problem.

For one thing, he admits that at present, Ayurvedic doctors have found it difficult to fight with foreign medicinal systems. He talks about an “anti-Ayurveda” bias which runs in both government and private health industries. This is shown most clearly with people who, knowing zilch about our medicinal tradition, tend to degrade it and show Western medicine in a better light. “They are fanatical about slinging mud at our customs, to be honest. It’s similar to non-Buddhists preaching and criticising Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings without knowing what it is they are talking about.”

He adds moreover that during the British era, colonialism manifested itself in different ways and while one way was through missionary education, another was through degrading traditional medicines. “Missionary education continues to this day, but it has died down from the days when it used to sling mud at our way of life. On the other hand, experts in Western medicine continue to puff up their names by degrading Ayurveda.” He gives me a specific example by way of illustrating this problem: “It has become a fashion among Western doctors to say that ratha kalka is harmful to infants.” I confess here that my own mother used to give me that when I was young, and he says that there is enough and more proof that such products do not harm those who take them.

In a way, I think this problem has very much to do with the system under which each form of medicine works. “Western medicine is heavily preventative. When it comes to ailments which are not contagious, however, Ayurveda is the answer. It has been the answer and I know that it will remain the answer. The West knows this.” He adds that if we are to develop as a nation, we must focus on that which defines us (“apekama”). For the time being at least, it is our medicinal system which we can contribute to the rest of the world. In order that this will happen, first the government must lend support. “Before we combat the enemy, and before we talk about what suits us and what doesn’t suit us, we must first understand what we are good at. That is when true independence will come to us. In name only freedom is what we have seen during these past few decades, unfortunately.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Secondly, he says that Ayurvedic doctors themselves must lend more dignity (“ugathkama”) to their trade. “It is sad to see how certain physicians are marketing themselves in a way which does no good to what they are practising. It isn’t Ayurveda they have learnt, but a maimed hybrid of different traditions. There must be a synthesis between cultures, true, but never at the cost of stunting what your own country has bequeathed to you.” It is this synthesis which, the way Dr Amaratunga sees it, will validate our country in the eyes of the world. Sadly, however, the only true “development” he sees in this regard is the fact of there being two Ayurveda institutes in the country. He admits that while they do provide a solid foundation to our native medicinal system, which can at once compete with the outside world, it is not enough. A two-pronged attack from the government and practitioners is in order.

Amaratunga tells me that while Western medicine is based on research, Ayurveda is more speculative. “Ayurveda does not need research to develop. You must remember that we have 4,000 years before us. The West does not have all the answers. It needs to find them. That’s where research comes in. We don’t need to do that. On the other hand, this does not mean that we should be complacent. If at all, since we can’t really ‘research’ on our native system of medicine, we should keep records of whether our ancient methods are being adhered to. If we let these methods be uprooted in the name of change and novelty, we can’t hope to develop.

“This is why we need a solid financial base. For that to happen, the government must step in. Not even after 1956, when the deciders of our country’s destiny became the sangha, veda, guru, govi, kamkaru, was Ayurveda given financial independence. We are still trying to unshackle ourselves of colonialism. One obstacle which keeps hindering us is our dependence on Western medicine.” For us to combat this successfully, we must wield the enemy’s weapon (the “kaduwa”). How so? Amaratunga gives us the answer here: “By making sure that whatever traditional treatments we have are recorded, along with their success rates, for generations to come.” The West, he implies, does this all the way through. We don’t. Not yet. And until we do, we can’t hope to develop or be independent.

This doesn’t mean that Ayurveda is 100% accurate all the time. Currently, the success rate for a Krimiraja product would be anywhere from 70 to 80%. “No medicinal system can boast of a 100% cure rate,” he tells me, laughing, “But for us to sustain a high rate, instead of going back on what we’ve developed so far, we need to develop a strong Ayurvedic tradition.” I tell him here that such a need would have been addressed after S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike came to power in 1956 on a platform of the pancha maha balavegaya (the five great forces) mentioned above, but he dismisses this. “We have not developed in any sector since independence. Not one bit, whether in Ayurveda or anything else.” What we have for ourselves, which we can proudly stamp our name on and show to the world, is our medicinal system, one which has survived many a millennium.

Amaratunga is no pessimist though. The way I see it, he is a quiet pragmatist. He has combined business acumen with a sharp insight into this country’s way of life. I am neither a businessman nor an Ayurveda expert, so I will not deign to offer a full-scale analysis of Krimiraja. It certainly is an empire in terms of profit. “We have a huge following in this country. No other competitor has become formidable enough to fight with us. This is the case even abroad. We cater to expats in the UAE and various countries in the West.” He is also happy about the quality of Ayurvedic products, something he definitely sees as an indication of how developed the industry is becoming. But this does not make him complacent. If at all, he argues that the level of development we are seeing today is not enough. “We have great potential. Believe me, we do. We can reach for the stars. It’s sad that we have not focused hard enough on what we are best at.”

As a final note, he argues that when it comes to teaching Ayurveda, we are much better off than we were in the past. “We have enough and more potential in our institutes today. Students are eager to learn our ancient medicinal methods, and they learn well. This will guarantee a healthy generation of practitioners in the years to come. What we lack however is an appropriate aushada panthiya (medicine portfolio, to roughly translate it).

"This is not a problem abroad. In the West, a proper industry that can cater to and accommodate students from the medical field has been set up. That’s not the case here. Unless we develop our product portfolio to compete with the West, our students will not be able to realise what they are good at when they leave their institutes. This means that their potential will be stunted. Severely. That is why I say we must have a two-pronged attack, not only from the government but from the non-state sector too, from students, teachers, practitioners, and intellectuals.”

Krimiraja’s overarching goal seems to be going beyond earning profits. It’s almost as though its founder, Dr Amarathunge’s father, was leading a crusade against colonialism in a way no other businessman in the country did or could. I remember what a political commentator once told me about businessmen parading as nationalists: “That’s just a cover. In end, they don’t care where profits come from. As long as they come, they’ll happily remain uprooted from their country. They’ll even rubbish it if that gets them money.” I also remember a term I came across while I was at school and reading the Classics: lotus-eaters. It denotes a kind of people who are removed from the land of their birth, who acquire an identity-less identity, and who remain indifferent to their way of life.

The point here is this: for a long time, I associated that term with businessmen and capitalists. I still do. But now, I have met Dr Sumarathne Amaratunga. I have sampled his products and I have been a devoted customer of them throughout my life. From what I have talked with him, I can tell you this much: if it’s about doing business while respecting the way of life you are born to, Amaratunga’s name will probably lead all the rest. He is no lotus-eater. Perhaps that’s the best way I can sum him up. We as a country should be grateful to him. And we are.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Beyond the Engine Room

Review of ADVENTURES OF RAILWAYMEN: 1940 TO 2005 by H. U. Thibbotumunwe. Published in 2013.

Train journeys are never for the timid. They are also not for the sleepy-eyed. To the first-time traveller, they are meant to be relished frequently, even after the journey’s end. The reason for this is easy to miss, though. I admit I’ve gone on a train just once. I was in Grade IV at the time. Too young to remember. But the memory of that journey is still fresh in my mind, and I suspect it will continue to be fresh as the years go by.

This is a book about train journeys. It’s a book about different places visited and revisited. It’s not written by a traveller, though. It’s not meant to be.

H. U. Thibbotumunuwe is a railwayman right through. He has made journeys. Countless journeys. Seen the same place again and again. Relished them all. Learned much. And, in his second book, given much. Adventures of Railwaymen covers 65 years and most of it in an engaging style that at once enchants the reader. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.

H. U. Thibbotumuwe is a book waiting to be written. To the railway community in this country, he is no stranger. And in his second book, he lays bare for us what it means to be in the railway trade. It is as physically demanding as it is mentally rewarding. Concentration is key, he tells us in the first few chapters. True. The slightest miscalculation, the smallest error, and everything will go haywire. Trains are serious business. They are not meant to be meddled with.

The book is filled with anecdotes from the start. Inevitably, this lends an experience felt and lived through to its pages. A book of this sort, I feel, needs personal experience, not bland reportage. Which is what Mr Thibbotumunuwe has given us. He gives us facts, granted, and stays true to them, but this does not hinder him from expressing his opinion from time to time. There are 21 chapters overall, and all of them are true to life. Some, like the chapter “Was it Accident or Suicide?”, are so fantastic, almost supernatural, that we have second doubts in believing them. Reading them again, however, I am convinced that only deep involvement with the railway line could have yielded such stories.

It is a narrative style he uses in every chapter. Admirably. There are passages in his “stories” (I cannot come up with a better word for them) which read as though out of a novel. In the chapter “My Most Unforgettable Roommate” towards the latter part of the book, he almost completely abandons reportage and narrates a witty story, one that feels and breathes like a farce, a good comedy. Humour, always a hard to get commodity in the engine room, is something Mr Thibbotumunuwe never lacks. Thankfully. I am not for blandly recounting facts and figures, however fantastical they may be. Respectful of the reader’s penchant for story-telling (we are a species that loves to tell stories after all), he takes up the mantle of a true narrator. This remains his greatest strength throughout the book.

Mind you, this doesn’t make Adventures of Railwaymen a sugar-coated puff piece. The author is true to life, rightly so, and thus even stoops to reveal several darker aspects to the railway trade. In his most “graphic” story, “Yangal Modera King of Killer Level Crossings”, he recounts to us an accident which costs nearly 50 lives. He keeps a fine balance between the physical damage and human loss in the tragedy, and I can only quote his own words to prove this:

This avoidable accident has caused damage to the locomotive, the permanent way and also loss of revenue to Government by way of curtailment of service during the period. The loss of the omnibus to its owner and the income from it. This above all the loss of 48 valuable innocent lives of passengers for no rhyme or reason and the life long suffering through injuries caused to a similar number. Their belongings either completely damaged or perished.

Mr Thibbotumunuwe is very honest here. He seems almost cold, aloof, in how he measures tragedy in this chapter and indeed every chapter with an accident in it. Years and decades of service would have made him a reason-driven railwayman, and he proves this in the first half of the book itself when, in the chapter “Level Crossing Victim’s Left Leg”, he makes the following observation about a distraught uncle of a legless train victim: “Uncle had a genuine grievance. The fault was in his presentation.” That’s all. Nothing else.

Even at a time of deep tragedy, the rational man in the author persists, and it is this which puts into the book a naked, reportage-like austerity. Were it not for those occasional lapses into emotion, into adjective and personal reflection, it would have acquired a prose style worthy of a Hemingway or Camus. But no, it shall never be. A book like this is not meant to be written by Camus. Tragedy is recounted, true, but never at the cost of throwing aside personal reflection. Even Camus knew this.

Towards the latter section of his book, however, the author breaks apart a little. He gives way to a more journalistic style. The words acquire haiku simplicity, to the point where they appear more as words from a newspaper, giving information but never breathing on their own. It is as though Mr Thibbotumunuwe has moved on, realised the inevitable vicissitudes of life, and reduced his later years to simple facts, free of frill. There is no obesity in his words, as there almost was in the first half of the book. It is still a personal tone alright, but one which is more sombre. In his last story, “Military Train Meets Barber”, he abandons the narrative style partially, and instead of ending with a bang, he ends with a whimper:

“Ok then cut my hair will you,” said the Major, removing his peak-cap and exhibiting his Yul Brynner head with no hair at all.

He ends with humour, but of a quiet sort. It is no coincidence that he mentions Yul Brynner here. He has begun his book like a Hitchcock thriller (“Mystery of the Railway Cash Bag 1942”) and ended it like a Western. One feels, rightly I suppose, that in the last few words of his book, Mr Thibbotumunuwe seems to imagine all railwaymen as lone heroes, held together by a common bond and, in the end, leaving what they worked at as a John Wayne or, yes, Yul Brynner would.

This isn’t H. U. Thibbotumunuwe’s first book. By all accounts, it will not be his last. He has that irrepressible spirit which refuses to back down. It wants to go back in time, to reflect, and to engage. He is the oldest living railwayman in this country, a living museum waiting to be done justice to. I have met him only twice, and in both occasions he has moved me, not just with his spirit but his wit as well. That’s a rare combination.

There are passages in his story which come only from a man who has worked, sweated, and toiled. I’m sure a lesser man would have given up. He hasn’t. It is an enduring credit to his spirit, perhaps, that he hasn’t also given up his wit. He is, in the final analysis, a proud railwayman, and indeed a proud product of everything he has passed and come through, including his school (Ananda College).

Adventures of Railwaymen: 1940 to 2005 covers more than half a century. That’s no easy task. Mr Thibbotumunuwe has done it. And except for those occasional spelling and grammatical errors which point towards the publisher’s carelessness (they accumulate, I should regretfully say, as the book builds up to its end), I relished his stories from line to line, word to word. Sri Lanka’s railway service completes 150 years this month. What better tribute to it can be found than Mr Thibbotumunuwe’s book!

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 21 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014

A 79th cheer to them all!





The Lanka Sama Samaja Party was formed 79 years ago. It hasn't been easy. There have been compromises and there have been coalitions. Alliances have been formed. Ideals have been abandoned. Factions have broken away, only to reconnect after some time. But through them all, one name, which connects 1935 with 1948 and 1948 with 1972, remains.

We see a Party that achieved much, that handed to us the freedom we had wanted all along. We saw freedom paraded across the streets, as though it were the private property of one man or one party. The LSSP stood by their ideals. They gave to us what was rightfully ours. We became kings. We were made sovereign. And for that, may we ever be grateful.

Here’s a cheer to them, then. To all those revolutionaries who fought tooth and nail. To all those who didn’t stop with the White Man’s flag and rope. To all those who charted ’48 to ’72. To all those who became neither “Nobodies” nor “Somebodies”. May verses and songs do justice to them. May they never be overlooked. And may compromise, no matter what some will say against it, neither taunt nor taint their legacy.

A Common Man

The God King, made in 1975, was Sri Lanka’s first film made in English. It dealt with a historical theme, for the first time here, in a foreign language. Between 1975 and 2014, a lot has changed in our cinema, but one thing remains – the level of ambition and detail that go into shooting English-language films made here. 

Our film industry has not seen a lack of good dialogues-writers, but all too often, this has been limited, as a widely used format, to the stage. In English, of course.

Perhaps by this lack of a good, stable audience in the cinema, we have not seen English films in Sri Lanka stand up-to their counterparts in the theatre. The blame belongs not wholly to the audience, but to the directors’ lack of agility in remembering that, whether shot in English or otherwise, every other element of filmmaking – acting, camerawork, costume design, editing, and setting – remains the same as for a locally shot story. Adapt accordingly, and you will get a story that will be as entertaining as it is authentic.

It is from this point that I wish to approach A Common Man, the first Hollywood venture by local artists here. It seems difficult to imagine a more versatile director capable of bringing off such a venture as this than Chandran Rutnam, who made it. Both experience and ability he has. In plenty. Years of training in Hollywood, without losing his footing in his home country, have ensured his agile strength.

He is, as far as I can tell, the only filmmaker in our country who has successfully imbibed Hollywood filmmaking. He adulates it, but not to the point of making it stand next to God himself. And in no other film of his can this be more apparent than in A Common Man. The film is a thriller, but not necessarily a conventional thriller. It owes its story to a Hindi film – A Wednesday – but in all other respects, Rutnam has tapped into local fears – terrorism, paranoia, characters in conflict between duty and instinct.

Ben Kingsley stars in it as the nameless, grim main character, who rigs five bombs across Colombo and threatens to blow them all up, unless five terrorists are released immediately. One of them, a top-notch LTTE expert, is hidden away in a top-secret location unknown even to the Police. At the centre of all this, also, is Morris da Silva, played by Ben Cross, a no-nonsense, to-the-letter police chief who insists on doing something the "correct" way.

The real strength of the film, in terms of casting, is obviously Kingsley, but Cross figures in as well. I wondered whether his talent were ever being truly used back in his home country. Deeply trusting of his subordinates, however, he never actually bites anyone’s head off. Cross is unlikely as a man who can be easily exasperated, and he is the perfect foil to Kingsley, who, though he also doesn’t break up in fits of anger, does manage to spice his conversation with sharp invectives.

Unfortunately, however, these two constitute the movie’s only key strengths. The story is good, but, as stated before, it’s a remake. As for the rest of its cast, I cannot for the life of me imagine a worse set of natives who were made to speak in a foreign tongue in any other film. I have read somewhere that most dialogues were synced in during post-production. If so, the fault is not with the actors, but with its dubbing artistes, but even here the problem with most of the cast emerges.

I was frankly disheartened at seeing, of all people, Dushyanth Weeraman as a wise-cracking computer hacker, whose main job in the film seems to be uttering a hundred-and-one clichés which, by the way, lose their meaning in the bathetic way they’re being said in the first place.

The only good other role in the film was that of the hard-hitting IP Rangan Jayaweera, played by Frederick-James Koch, who symbolises for me the second theme of the story – the divide between instinct and law-and-order in a civilised society. He is all for eliminating terrorists with a butcher’s knife, without waiting for justice to take its slow, arduous journey, which pits him against his colleagues. But his colleagues too, in the last but one encounter, are with him, leaving only Cross to handle the situation with an encounter with Kingsley at the train station.

I don’t think much has been written about the ending, which for me was the only part of the film entirely free from artifice. The ending reminds one of what a great film A Common Man should have been, because it is done beautifully: with a whimper rather than a bang. As it is, however, A Common Man is piled with one set of clichés after the other from beginning to penultimate scene, so much so that, when I saw that woman (I don’t recall her name) playing a madcap, lusting-after-popularity reporter girl, I couldn’t stand it.

A Common Man leaves only its titular character and Ben Cross with an encounter with each other at the end – perhaps, because no other performer in the film appears in it, it was a good ending. I just wish the main theme of the story – which I won’t reveal here – could have been handled better, with more restraint.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The 'heroes' of Martin Wickramasinghe IV: Aravinda Jayasena

Martin Wickramasinghe
This is the fourth in a series of sketches on certain elusive characters in the novels of Martin Wickramasinghe, aimed at first-time readers. Featured this week is Aravinda Jayasena from “Viragaya”.

I wrote a little about Aravinda in my article on Tissa, the first in this series. I did so intending to show (or prove?) that Martin Wickramasinghe’s overarching goal in his novels (and, to a lesser extent, short stories) was the depiction of a particular type of character. It’s significant that Viragaya (1956) preceded Kaliyugaya (1957). Aravinda Jayasena in the former novel “exerts” himself on the character of Tissa in the latter. This is open to debate, but the way I see it, Wickramasinghe’s novels, especially after Gamperaliya, were all character-driven, almost all of them focusing on the kind of character epitomised by both Aravinda and Tissa.

Viragaya, considered Wickramasinghe’s greatest, was published at a time of deep cultural change. 1956 was the year of “Sinhala Only”, of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s rise to power, and of a revival of Buddhism (with the 2500th Sambuddatva Jayanthi). It is from this point that we should approach Aravinda Jayasena.

Aravinda is not your typical protagonist. Measured against the other characters of Wickramasinghe’s novels I examined before, he is an entirely different kettle of fish. The closest to a likeminded figure in Wickramasinghe’s stories for him would be Tissa, but even here the comparison doesn’t quite seem true. Let me be frank here, hence: Aravinda Jayasena’s character is unique to Viragaya, its time, and Wickramasinghe’s entire career. Never again would such a person be featured in a Sinhala novel.

The story begins, as you will remember, not with Aravinda himself, but with a friend who discovers a diary of his. Sammy, Aravinda’s friend, is the narrator for a couple of chapters or so. The tone and mood of the story shift when Aravinda beings to “narrate” his story (by this time, he is dead). The novel ambles along a series of vignettes, reflecting on his childhood and his later life. To the conventional reader, these sketches may even appear too hazy, too “pointless”, to have a bearing on the larger story. It is to the author’s credit, however, that he keeps a fine balance between personal experience and social commentary. Through his life story, Wickramasinghe offers a deft critique of the society in which he is placed.

From the start, he is shown as a character that has no set purpose in life. His father is a vedamahattaya, but he abhors biology because he would have to perform surgeries and dissect animals. Instead, he takes to chemistry, a highly experimental but at time same time unprofitable field. He gives up his fiancée, Sarojini, to his friend Siridasa, lacking courage to elope with her. Like Tissa, he detaches himself from everything. This pits him against his sister, Menaka, who clearly wants him to “climb up”. When he has all but completely given up on everything that she desires, she lets him go scornfully, refusing to look him up even on his deathbed.

Wickramasinghe almost always depicted the village, not as a paragon of virtue (unlike the more romantic stories of Piyadasa Sirisena), but as a flawed, frail place which still has some basic human goodness. His criticism of the village in this story proves this. It is only a simple village girl, Bathee, who looks after her. She is a virtual outcast, shunned as vulgar by practically everyone around her. His association with her gives rise to gossip, believed by almost everyone, except his closest friends, Sarojini included.

Viragaya
The first and foremost point about Aravinda is this, hence: even though he is presented as a Bodhisattva-like figure, he too is flawed. Although the story never lets us know for sure, it’s hinted that Bathee is the only character to whom he is drawn, though not in a romantic sense. He finds it difficult to let her go, and when a simple villager (Jinadasa) begins flirting with her, he is overwhelmed with jealousy. He lets her go, finally and with much effort, and even buys a car for Jinadasa to earn a living as a driver. Being the simpleminded person he is, he disregards the gossip around him.

Aravinda’s character is as difficult to define as it is to draw up. We are never sure what his next move is. He is naive at certain points in the story, so much so that we feel that his diary vignettes reflect his simple-mindedness a little too much. This is only partly true, however. He is the perfect rebel, because he doesn’t flaunt how much he is at odds with a society that expects him to behave “like a man”. He is quiet and restrained in how he looks after Bathee as a child: she calls him “father”, and he neither encourages nor discourages her.

It’s also notable that his outlook on life and the world at large is shaped by his attitude towards the three women who entangle in his life: Bathee, Menaka, and Sarojini. Each of them symbolises a different kind of woman: Bathee the vulgar but honest, Menaka the ambitious and sharp-tongued, and Sarojini the quiet and reflective. Sarojini is the more reserved and restrained of the three, while Bathee, though emotion-ridden and wild-eyed, is essentially the kind-hearted girl within.

It’s significant that for the greater part of Viragaya, Aravinda is in contact with her. She is the last fetter to break through for him to achieve a peaceful existence (and death). She is the last bond to detach from, after he gives up Sarojini to Siridasa and leaves Menaka after a disagreement. When he finally does detach himself, however, he falls ill. In his death, he achieves something of an apotheosis. This is why I have always felt that if there were a character in Western literature that could be compared with him, it would have to be Jesus Christ.

Still, this doesn’t remove the Buddhist “aspect” of the story. “Aravinda” means “lotus” in Sanskrit. Buddhism is filled with symbolism and symbols, and the lotus flower is used as an analogy for the samsaric voyage: just as the flower grows out of mud, so should man move out of samsara and attain nibbana. Wickramasinghe never lets us know whether Aravinda lets go of his bonds to such a degree that he attains it; nonetheless, he assures us, by the final chapter, that his character has tried to such a level that we can be sure his samsaric voyage will end someday, soon. On this note, Wickramasinghe ends the richest work of fiction a Sinhala author could write.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 7 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Friendships aren't always forever

This is the third in a series of articles dedicated to school-going kids, written for the GUYS AND GIRLS section of Ceylon Today.

There are days we look forward to. End of term days. End of year days. There are also days we don't look forward to. End of school is sad. Always. You spend 12 years there, after all. 12 years is a long time. You're not going to go back. That's why you're told to make the best of it. Yes, you may not like it at times. But think back. Are you going to have those days again? They may not be pleasant. But like them or not, school days are not forever. For us, they'll always be the best years of our lives.

I mentioned end of term and end of year days. Those are happy days. They begin a short interval after which you start with a new face and a new year. New books, new bags, nearly everything new. But not everything's rosy. It's also a new class. With new teachers. New friends. It takes some time to adjust, doesn't it? Yes, it's still the same old school. And a month isn't enough for everything to change. But a lot can happen during a holiday. Friends can change. Yes, friends. You spend 12 years with them. You see them everyday, talk with them, grow to like them, and in the end, separate. Sad.

But life's like that. People come. They go. They come back again. And they go away, sometimes forever. Same thing with friends. One moment you're talking with them. They like you, and you like them. Suddenly, overnight, they meet other friends. It's not that they don't have time for you, just that they don't have time enough for only you. That's natural. That's life. You come together and you break apart. Doesn't mean they hate you, doesn't mean they'll forget you. The quicker you realise this, the more lovable school life will be.

Some people, however, don't realise that easily. They want old friends, having spent too much time with them. There's no harm in this. But when you devote much of your time to one or two people, you always expect the same sacrifice from them. It just doesn't work that way. I have come to believe that you meet the same person at least twice in your life. Now imagine how many people you have to meet. How many people you have to meet again. Wouldn't it be tiring for the same person to talk with you over and over, endlessly?

For some, therefore, school days are rotten. End of term days are sour. When the new class begins, they look behind to see whether their "bosom buddies" still remember them. They go to other classes and talk with them, hoping that old friendships won't die. They don't, but the impression you get when you see old friends talk with unknown people isn't very nice, is it? So new terms and new years turn sour. Children can get sad, easily. That's what happens whenever and wherever old friendships die.

Nothing stays for long. Everything changes, again and again. Friends are like that. It's not that they begin to hate you, but that this world is too big for any one friendship to continue without other people. Even bosom buddies don't last long without others coming in. That's natural, and hardly anything to get sad for. Kids, however, don't always see things this way. They want "best buddies" for themselves. Usually, the older you get, the more you come to understand how impossible this is.

That's one thing. Here's another. People change. What they say at one time may be different to what they say at another time. You may think you've got that one person in the world who agrees with you no matter what. You may be right at one time, wrong at another. The thing is, even friends don't stick with what you say every day. They can think. If you expect them to follow you whatever the time or wherever the place, you've got it wrong. People rarely stick their necks out for you. Mothers do that. Fathers do that. Friends don't.

Does this mean you shouldn't befriend anyone? Hardly. It's not always beds and roses with friends, true, but it's not always thorns and weeds either. You need someone by your side. 12 years is what we're talking about here. You can't be friendless always then, can you? It's easier to be without friends outside school, when you leave it and move on with your life. I know people who've forgotten, who don't remember names when I tell them and who've willingly let go of school-friendships to such a level that they just don't care whether they remember or not. That's bad. Friends aren't forever, true. But forgetting them because of this isn't the answer.

Bonds break apart, and whenever they do, nothing's the same again. Time will always tell whether friendships last. They usually don't, of course. You'll meet old-time pals some day. They may or may not remember your face. If they don't, don't scowl. Same thing at school. There are those you'll befriend thinking they'll stay with you no matter what. They may even be in your class every year, due to fate or luck perhaps. Still, they won't stay with you always. This world isn't small. There are other faces to get to know, other stories to listen to. If there was only one story to go with in this entire world, it would be dull, wouldn't it?

T. M. Jayaratne once sang a song about bonds and their breaking apart. It begins with these lines:

අප හමුවුවත් නොවුනත්
කාලය ගතවී යනවා
අප තනි වුවත් නොවුනත්
ලොව එක සේ පවතිනවා...

Whether we meet or not
Time passes by
Whether we're alone or not
The world goes on...

Faces and bonds are made and remembered, hence. They are also forgotten. But they stay with us. And with them, or even without them, the world continues. Nothing wrong there. It's a big world, after all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Looking beyond your window

How have your exams been?
Have you ever looked out of your window? That window which shields and borders you from the rest of this little world? I have. All of us have. It's nearing Christmas, a season of cheer and humility, when that window opens a little, for us to look out. Christmas comes to us in cards, in suppers, in hampers. It also comes to us through humility, through reflection. It comes to us, yes it does, in ways too easy to miss. We just don't look hard enough. That's the problem.

Isn't it true that you and I take much for granted? That we are wont to throwing things away, that we are overstuffed with what our parents buy for us? Don't we all, in one way or another, feel bored whenever we have too much of something? Isn't that natural? Don't we fly from one want to another, never satisfied, never happy, thinking that we were meant for better things? We grumble, don't we, and whine at those "better things" we can’t afford right now?

All this is on your side of the window, of course.

Look out. There's another world there. A whole new world. Full of smiles and laughter and cheers. Full of sole-less shoes and sandals. Of motherless infants. Of homeless families. That's the beyond-window world. Where floods come and go, where the thin divide between life and death gets blurred every day. It is equanimity which resides here. Equanimity in those people who are less fortunate, who look at the lesser things in life with a rare kind of happiness and contentment.

Yes, it's a whole new world out there.

I heard a story once. There was a child, very small, who wanted a toy. She was spoilt. She wanted a very pricey toy, and got it through her mother soon enough. She played with it, making use of it in ways we couldn't even imagine. Eventually and inevitably, she broke it. She was sad. Angry. So she threw it. Away. For good. That she got another toy is another story. For now, what's important is this: that toy was worth feeding a family of five over an entire week. Yes, an entire week.

This child didn't know this, by the way. She didn't need to. She may not have known that the things she got in life were things which we could only dream of. It doesn't matter. What matters is the "taking for granted" part of the story. She wanted the best, if not the best of the best. When she got it, she lost interest. Became bored. Threw what was given away. Forgot it. End of story. For her.

But for those on the other side of the window, stories don't end that easily. If a house is flooded, another needs to be built. If shoes are broken, another pair needs to be bought. If uniforms are torn and spoilt, they need stitching. It's not about "wanting" here. It's about need.

Have you ever gone in your car on a rainy night? Have you ever looked beyond the window, into a world that passes by? Have you seen people, rushing without umbrellas, without any cover, across the streets? And have you seen other people, by the road, sitting, begging for that much needed rupee which will fill their hunger? If you have, then you also might have thought about the following.

This world is divided. It's divided into haves and have-nots. That's obvious. Nothing new there. None of us can get rid of this alone. When we're young, privileged, and full to bursting with those goodies and perks our parents buy us, we don't notice it. And so, when we grow up, maturing and aging as time goes by, we just move on. Indifferently. We accept that other side of the window for what it is, without really bothering to change it. It's not just about changing per se, but about getting rid of indifference. We don't do that. The sad truth is, we can't.

I'm writing this because the O/Levels have begun. I'm writing this because more than a thousand families have been affected by floods. I'm writing this because among that thousand, there are children who cannot and will not sit for the exam, who probably might never sit for it again.

And it's not just this. There are other things that move me. Things that worry me.

I'm worried, for one thing, that very many sit behind their windows. They are content, smug, self-righteous. They whine whenever what they want isn't given or gifted straight away. They let the things they get through birthright, be it with education or toys or gifts, pass by without being grateful for them. It's a land of birthright, people, and not just in this country. We are open to the things our mothers and fathers bestow on us. Nothing wrong there. We are here, we live, breathe, write, read, talk, all because of our parents.

But there's something that bothers me here. There are stories that never get told. Stories of men, women, and children who have to battle odds. Were it not for those birthrights we got courtesy of our parents, we'd lose battling these same odds. Now's not the time to list them all out here, of course, but the point is that with your eyes open you will come across them. Easily. And I'm not rambling here. I'm being serious.

All this is for another article. Another time. I look forward to writing it. For now, this will do. There's an open window out there. It's the season to look beyond it. Unless we open our eyes, ready ourselves for what lies out there, and rid ourselves of that indifference our upbringing fills us with, that division I talked about will continue. Sadly.

Written for: Ceylon Today ESCAPE, December 10 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Walt Disney: A Monument Waiting To Be Built

I wasn't a very big fan of Rudyard Kipling. I don't know why. I remember reading his Jungle Book in Grade III. For some reason, that story stuck with my classmates. It didn't with me. Perhaps this was because I was a bit of a prig at that age, but to me, the story of Mowgli and his antics seemed at odds with the India I had read about. 

As I aged and matured, I still held onto this view, to the point where Kipling appeared to me as one of the world's most patronising writers. It wasn't only his Jungle Book of course. There was Kim and there was "The Man Who Would Be King". There was politics involved in his stories, and to me they just pointed at what he described with these words: "The White Man's Burden".

But that's another story. For another time.

There was a period when cartoons, not books, made my childhood. I didn't take to Kipling, Christian Anderson, or Lewis Carroll at once. Their stories needed something more than just words and chapters to grab me. I know not many will disagree with me here, but at a time when our teachers were struggling to make us put two words together, we needed something more than life. Something larger than life.

We needed pictures.

I remember the first time I saw Disney's Jungle Book. If Kipling's story seemed at odds with the India I had read up on, Disney's version of it seemed worlds away from anything I'd ever dare to identify that country with. There was jazz, there were (pointless) subplots, there were talking monkeys and elephants and bears that spoke a very "British" English. Nothing seemed "Indian" here, except for the settings.

But I loved it. And with that, I began my love affair with the man behind it, Walt Disney.

He needs no introduction, no biographer. Like the best artists, he wasn't just part of what he drew. He was what he drew. Simple as that. He disgusted us with his villains and uplifted us with his heroes. It was a black and white world he drew for us, filled with princes and princesses and witches who threatened them. It was black and white alright, and unashamedly so. We took to it. At once.

I grew up with his princess stories at a time when boys my age despised anything and everything "girly". I did too, but that didn't hinder me from enjoying it whenever Prince Charming (for almost no prince in Disney's world had any other name) kissed and brought Snow White and Aurora back to life.

Yes, there was something with Disney, something more than what met my eye. It took some time for me to realise that for all his optimistic, feel-good endings, there was a child waiting to age and mature in him. There were times, in his films, when the adult in him seemed to dominate the story, if only for a little while. To me, this was illustrated best in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when in that dreadful, nail-bitingly suspenseful moment the Evil Queen transformed into a hag. The thin line between childhood and real life almost blurred, even if that transformation was "magical".

Disney had his other side. He had a personal life. We didn't want to know it. And we didn't care even if we did. It didn't matter to us, for instance, that he was a supporter of McCarthyism, an anti-communist movement that put countless filmmakers, scriptwriters, and actors in Hollywood out of jobs, for the simple reason that they were (thought to be) sympathetic with Russia. Yes, Russia. This was during the Cold War. Russia was the enemy.

Still, he never let us down. He continued to enchant us. He made childhood for what it was. He made us realise some things. Timeless things. Like the love of a mother, and the sadness that cannot be erased when she is taken away (yes, I cried when Bambi's mother was shot, as did everyone else). Or the eternalness of childhood, which continues no matter what (which is how I "read" Peter Pan). There were many things Disney taught us. It took some time to get them all in. We were small, after all.

Everybody has his or her Disney favourites. I had mine: One Hundred and One Dalmatians. In here, more than any of his previous cartoons, there was a funky, almost jazzy rhythm, in a story I identified with immediately. Maybe this was because of its villain, Cruella de Vil, the best and most hateful I ever came across in a cartoon. That film began a new decade and era for Disney. He would never be the same again.

Legacies continue and are continued even if legends pass away. The best tribute icons can pay to themselves is their last, before-dying act. Disney was no exception. To me, no better "work" could have summed up the man in death as did The Jungle Book. When Mowgli meets that Indian girl by a well and finally decides to go away to the human world, when Baloo and Bagheera look on, the former sad and the latter happy, everything Disney painted and brought to life, every story that stuck with us, every ending that lifted us, seemed to be there. We rejoiced at it, but saddened when realising that this was Disney's last.

It's been 48 years. Nearly half a century. Much has happened. His legacy continues despite them all. It's true that for a long while after his death, his films suffered a little. Inevitable, considering that the brains behind them had, in effect, died. It took some time to regain what he had left behind. 20 years, to be exact.

Today, the "Disney factor" has gone out a little. Competitors have come up. 3D and animation have taken centre stage, and a hoard of cartoons and films, from every corner of the world, continues to seduce the child in us. But from among them all, we can pick out one name, one icon, that continues to reside in you and me. He is Bambi slipping across a frozen lake, Pinocchio searching for his father and conscience, Peter Pan refusing to grow up, and Mowgli leaving behind his past and entering a new world.

He is Walt Disney. One name for children and childhood. And a monument waiting to be built.

Written for: Ceylon Today LATITUDE, December 14 2014

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Monsieur Verdoux

If it is difficult to imagine Charlie Chaplin in any role other than that of the comic and the downtrodden, then Monsieur Verdoux stands apart as the defiant exception. Chaplin was around 50 years when he made his first sound film, The Great Dictator, in which he lampooned for us an otherwise controversial theme: Nazism.

Nearly a decade later, an idea for a story was presented to him, based on a real-life Frenchman who had made a living off the wealth of various widows would first court and then murder. Hardly stuff for a man who could poke fun at Adolf Hitler without openly delving into the horrors of genocide.

But Chaplin took on the story nonetheless, though on one condition: that he direct it. The finished product was Monsieur Verdoux, which was instantly recognised, then reviled, as a comedic take on an otherwise horrendous theme – murder then was hardly a subject of humour, and this black comedy to many seemed more unforgivable than Chaplin’s take on Nazism. Eventually it was a disappointment at the box-office: and, outside France and a handful of other countries, it was negatively reviewed by critics.

But like his next film, Limelight, it proved what a comic genius could do if he was allowed access to more serious themes. And like a child gaping open-mouthed outside at a magnificent cake in a shop display, Chaplin only slightly cropped up the dark overtones of the story into his film. Not for one moment, except in brief snatches, does he depict the gruesome in the plot: on the contrary, he playfully dabbles in both comedy and the macabre, while his comic absurdity is apparent in even the most cold-blooded and tensed up sequences.

The story was admittedly one of a kind for me. Henri Verdoux is at the outset a contented middle-class businessman who enjoys luxury without overdoing it: unlike the actual murderer on which he was based he is no playboy prodigal. At the beginning of the film we are told that a well-to-do woman has mysteriously disappeared – and that her husband is none other than Verdoux. 15 minutes later and we know not only her fate, but also the fate of nearly every other woman he comes into contact with.

To keep up his modest lifestyle, he has to resort continuously with what he later calls his “other means” of business, news of which never comes to the notice of his crippled wife (who is living, away from this all, in a large mansion-like house). Surreptitiously but methodically he carries on with his double-edged work (his charm works on every woman, even, one assumes, at the moment of their deaths!) as he manages to evade the police.

But in the end fate catches up with him when, while keeping up a flirtatious romance with a boisterous loudmouth, he decides to marry an old widow. The depression and the war comes and goes, and finally the story, while building up to a possible reconciliation between him and a girl he once saved from the streets, actually ends on a plaintive, sombre note.

Monsieur Verdoux demands our interest from the start not owing to any special dénouements that Chaplin shows off for us, but rather to his ability at maintaining comic absurdity even in the darkest moments, the peak of which, undoubtedly, is the scene of him entering the room of one of his lovers before, off-screen, he murders her – all under an ominous moonlit sky.

As an  example of this there is a sequence where he tries to kill a spinster aboard a boat. Every time he gets up to lasso her neck, she turns around only to see him twitching, grinning, and chuckling like an idiot (with mannerisms not unlike those of the silent era Chaplin). When he finally does get the lasso around that neck – ostensibly to demonstrate how best to catch fish – a yodeller disturbs their revelry, and the two of them mutually look with disgust at the off-screen bunch of partygoers who observe them: we watch with suppressed guffaws as he then falls off the boat when the woman inadvertently rocks it.

But the comic quality of the film take up a more serious note towards the end. Like the ending of The Great Dictator, the war is brought up in Chaplin’s final speech. He calls himself an “amateur” in comparison to the various methods of mass killing scientifically tested out by governments: it is only when one lone individual goes on a killing spree that the law sanctions punishment. We never once beg to differ.

Ultimately our feelings towards him are summed up by the girl he once saved, who is present at his trial. We see her crying, but we are left wondering: are those tears of pity for Verdoux or his victims? In the end some may believe that they are for him, others for them. But whatever belief you may have, one thing you cannot deny – that no man was more able to depict a “Monsieur Verdoux” with both grimness and compassion than Charlie Chaplin.