Sunday, May 31, 2015

Films, critics, and the politics of preference

There was a time when critics wrote about their preferred subject to the point. That was when works of art were assessed on their merits and not merely according to their authors. Time passes and things change. We now live at a time when the line between author and work has blurred. Reviews very often recount the plot of the work being assessed. The author is then measured on the basis of the critic's preferences, and only then is his work judged (depending on the critic's subjective biases for or against the author). Unfortunately, this is very much the case here.

One can't expect much of commercial films made here. This we know. In that sense they are symptomatic of a trend that began with the privatisation of our cinema. To mistake trend with author and attack him straight off isn't professional, however. That is not analysis. That is vendetta. All too often however, the line between author and work blurs. In that case, where must one put in analysis and where must one talk about director and hold him responsible? For that matter, how should he be held responsible?

This is why I didn't know whether to agree or disagree with a critic who in a recent review lambasted a popular film made and released here. At the outset I must say that I am not a fan of the film in question. It does not measure up-to its director's potential. The problem I have is not with the director, however, but with the fact that as a work of art the film fails on account of cheap laughs, unnecessary dialogues, and a plot-line that could have been shortened for effect.

The review didn't help. It lambasted the film. It pointed out error. It didn't offer remedy but instead went on a tirade against director. The film in other words was judged on its director's merits. The criterion used to judge it was as valid as assessing Neruda's poetry in terms of the critic's (dis)agreement with his politics. The article wasn't an indictment on the object d'art. It was an attack on the creator.

To extrapolate from flawed premises and single out directors isn't fair. This is what some reviewers do, however. To the extent that the film in question invites scathing criticism owing to what is referred to as a koop-mundook (frog in the well) mentality, I agree that the director must be held accountable. But not always.

This review helps put perspective on the underside of criticism. We all have heard of instances where critics have been arm-twisted to lavish praise. We also have heard of instances where critics base their analyses on the author's political colours. I don't know about literature and theatre in this sense but my guess is that the same can be said of those spheres as well, whatever the language.

In this context it would make sense to look back. There once were critics who evaluated a film, book, or play based on what it tried to do. The basic rule for any good review was that it ought to measure how a work succeeded on this count. Regi Siriwardena's reviews of Ediriweera Sarachchandra's plays are valid even today, for instance, not because he scripted his views on Sarachchandra's politics into them but because they were measured on how well they stuck to their vision. That is why he praised Sinhabahu but later criticised Vessantara.

Not everyone can be a Regi Siriwardena. That's natural. But that this should mean that critics need to do away with any line between author and work is ridiculous. Siriwardena was not, for example, a sympathiser of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. He did not however factor this in his criticism of Vessantara. Not that he didn't leave politics out altogether, as his criticism of Nanda Malini's "Chandra Madulu Yata" reveals. Nor does this mean that critics shouldn't have any biases at all. I can't quote Siriwardena here but I'll bring up another name. Pauline Kael.

Kael was not prophetic. Some of her reviews are dated. Some of the films she lambasted (harshly, I should add) have since been redeemed. Her take on certain directors was itself subject to critique, and this arguably stunted her career. But it is also this that gained her readership and won her a following which continues to date. Her books were all bestsellers and so were her reviews, framed as they were by a personal style that put her at the other end of, say, Andrew Sarris. She wasn't afraid of losing readership on account of her opinion. Even if her take on certain directors lost credence when they were later vindicated.

She was certainly no Regi Siriwardena. Siriwardena's prose was more reflective, more open to debate, and less polemical. She was different. She proved that opinion didn't always translate into poor commentary. You could hold and were entitled to opinion, never mind whether or not people agreed with you. Sample her reviews of Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music, and 2001: A Space Odyssey to see how she let in bias when writing.

But this didn't take away effect. It didn't jar. Why?

Because she spoke from the heart. True, she was less objective than Siriwardena, but her analyses were spot on and maintained free rein. Unlike certain critics she also didn't mistake trend with director, as seen in her review of A Clockwork Orange ("Stanley Strangelove"). She understood that films followed patterns. Directors shaped films, yes, but there were also factors outside their control. It was (partly) on this basis that she argued that films weren't always products of their directors (as she put it in her essay "Raising Kane").

This we should know. And learn. Works of art cannot and will not be vindicated unless critics acknowledge that as much as politics shapes them it cannot be the end-all and be-all of critique. They must also factor out any biases against or in favour of their authors. Films and books invite assessment. They depend on certain factors which the critic must acknowledge. Why confuse work with creator all the time?

The point is that films and critics don't always go side-by-side. There are reviews that champion and those that lambast. That's natural. What is not natural, however, is the tendency to blur the line between author and creation and then judging the latter purely on the former's merits. Siriwardena didn't do that. Nor did Kael. Makes sense to follow them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The parameters of 'Trojan Kanthawo'

I have not read Trojan Women but have "read" Euripides enough to understand that his work bears relevance to whatever time and place. This is not new. Plays often go beyond time-bound contexts. Their message forces itself on our time.

It is not only the foresight of the writer but also the timelessness of the issues and themes portrayed that make any work of art transcend time-and-space boundaries. "Timelessness" they say is largely a bourgeois construct, but no other word will do. For now.

Dharmasiri Bandaranayake's Trojan Kanthawo will be staged on June 7 and 18 at Lionel Wendt. It was staged last year and has been staged ever since 2000. There are two things about it that stand out. Firstly, it is not a translation per se. While there is a literal translation in language, the costumes, sets, and even setting have not changed. Bandaranayake's Trojan women reside and remain in Greece. They live as wives and suffer as widows. As with the original.

Secondly, while the play is largely rooted in Greece, its themes have gone beyond national boundary and hence force the viewer to confront them. They also force comparison with the audience's own setting. This demarcates the play from, say, most Shakespeare adaptations staged here. I am not an expert on the Sinhala stage (or English, for that matter), but my guess is that plays which have "stuck to" the original in spirit have only rarely rooted their themes in our settings. In this sense Bandaranayake's play certainly has stood out. It is and has always remained popular.

Anoja Weerasinghe, who plays Hecuba, talked to me about it last week. She mentioned that while the play has out of tradition and demand been staged every year, it has gained a special significance this time around. It is because of Anoja herself. More aptly, it is because of what she represents. Trojan Women will be staged to raise funds for the Abina Academy of Performing Arts. That is Anoja's project. Has been since 1990.

Abina isn't really Anoja nor vice-versa because she doesn't want it that way. Whenever she speaks about her project she's careful not to indicate anything personal. One can argue to the contrary and infer that the two are one and the same. For her, however, no work done for Abina accrues personal benefit. It is from this angle that her efforts at finding sponsors for a theatre there must be looked at.

"I have tried to fund this project because we have no proper acting schools in this country. We conduct classes for everyone. We've trained ex-LTTE and ex-army combatants. We've taken in and nurtured talent. What we now need is a place where talent can be unveiled, as it is. This is why we're trying hard to build an open air theatre here. It's needed and not just because it's a personal project on my part."

Anoja talks about the play with unmistakable nostalgia. Hecuba's character, she explains, is old. She says that as the years pass she gains credence whenever she plays her. On the other hand one can argue that that zest injected into her character has stayed and won't pass. One can also argue that all the politics associated with her and the entire play have remained. She reflects this when telling me that the Greece Euripides envisioned can be compared to Sri Lanka today.

Bandaranayake's play is ambitious, moreover. It contains 60 characters, which explains why a wholesale world tour isn't possible. It has virtually no action, in part because it is more reflective than Euripides' other plays. It is a meditation on how everyone loses and wins nothing in wars. The widows of his play, Hecuba included, have not gained anything.

These women are the lamenting mothers seen in any conflict. They come and are seen everywhere. They are the grieving mothers and widows of both sides of any war. That is why the play retains significance: because it touches on womanhood, which is injured and fractured wherever war crops up. Perhaps this is what she means when she tells me that "wars win us nothing."

Trojan Women delves into a Greece of many, many years ago. That does not diminish its relevance today. Indeed, given recent events one can conclude that its relevance will always stay. It retains an extra edge this year on account of how it will be used to help another commendable effort: that of Anoja and of course Abina. The two go together. Despite what she can or will say to the contrary.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 24 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Today is Independence Day!

43 years is a long time. Two, maybe three generations can pass through them. There are memories that come alive and others that do not, for reasons that are all too obvious. There are promises made and broken. That's normal. The life of a country, after all, is longer than 43 years, and while a lot can happen during that time, we remember very little and forget the rest.

We got independence in 1948. I say "got" because, in the opinion of many commentators qualified and unqualified, it was dished to us. The reason isn't hard to see.

As Kumari Jayawardena observes in her excellent book Nobodies to Somebodies, it was a ruling class that got to control our destiny. This class had been sponsored by the same country that had subjugated us. Selectively, then, they began grooming their successors, ensuring that independence would remain their prerogative, theirs to keep and to remove. That's what robbed "independence" of its full meaning. From us.

We won that independence in 1972. I say "won" because, again in the opinion of those qualified and unqualified, a new generation that had "seen" 1948 for what it was were dissatisfied. The Soulbury Commission, which had drafted the 1948 Constitution, didn't fully reflect what the people wanted. What they wanted was "freedom", obviously, but what this document gave was a country where key sectors, including the Central Bank, were headed by foreigners.

The Constitution needed to be overhauled, hence. It took time. Inevitably.

Were there reasons for this delay? So many, in fact. A Constitutional Revolution doesn't happen overnight. Factors need to come together. And in 1972, the year we became a Republic, it so happened that they did.

Between 1948 and 1955, the might of the United National Party was beyond question. They were the rulers, comprising both "nobodies" and "somebodies". They held sway over practically every sphere in our country, submitted to by the people in the absence of any organised opposition. The Marxists were in disarray. The road seemed clear. For now.

1956 changed all that. For the first time, the UNP was challenged by a candidate who not only had the proper backing but was shrewd enough to distill action from word. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, as Professor Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara have pointed out, essentially continued what Anagarika Dharmapala had begun: the search for roots. That search needed a political leader. A solid one. Bandaranaike fitted that role. Smoothly.

Other factors weighed in as well. The UNP, led by Sir John Kotelawala, was at its worst nadir. The media assaulted him and everything he stood for. 1956 proved that with the correct time, place, and media backing, the incumbent could be defeated. That's what happened when everything associated with Kotelawala was ridiculed and turned into Bandaranaike's favour.

The story didn't end here, of course. Bandaranaike was killed. His widow took over. Within four months, she gathered a coalition which, for 11 years, lead the country.

We remember Sirimavo Bandaranaike for what she achieved. There are also lesser things she did, remembered but best forgotten. But if I were asked which of them is remembered best, it will have to be May 22, 1972. That this day is shrugged off in favour of February 4 today is another story. For now, we celebrate it.

Promises are made. Some are kept, others broken. That's inevitable, hardly the preserve of politics or politicians. It so happened, hence, that a promise was made in 1972. We were promised "freedom". Which was what our first Republican Constitution gave us.

It began by removing those titles which had reminded us of our colonial past. The "Head of State" (the Queen of England) was no more. There were no "Governors", only a President and a Prime Minister.

More were to come. Sovereignty was (finally) vested with the people, exercised through a body
called the National State Assembly. The Privy Council was abolished. And, in perhaps the biggest break from the Soulbury Commission, a Constitutional Court was set up, to ensure that every national law would be subject to the "supreme law of the land", the Constitution.

There were other promises. Within a year, it began keeping them. It is for this that we remember the years 1970 to 1977. Now that it had removed any link with England, no decision made by the National State Assembly had to be approved by that country. There were no "Throne Speeches". No "independence in name only". No more "Ceylon". Only "Sri Lanka".

Which is where we began to exercise freedom. A little too hastily.

Between 1970 and 1977, there were missed opportunities. In his haste to reform anything and everything, N. M. Perera (our Finance Minister) nationalised. The 1972 land reforms, it has been noted, were a response to the 1971 insurrection, which had questioned the United Front government's "socialist" tag. Taken away by the need to validate themselves, the government began controlling the economy. In the end, though that didn't figure in their defeat, it alienated a community that had elected them.

There were problems with the Constitution itself. While it promised political and civic rights, it also sanctioned their restriction. While it empowered the Tamil language, as the years went by it alienated those who spoke it. It exercised the powers of all three state organs - the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary - through the National State Assembly, doing away with any separation of powers. Soon enough, cracks began to appear. By then, however, there was no turning back.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Sunil Ariyaratne wrote a song in 1972. The song, "Api Okkoma Rajawaru", celebrates independence. It refers to the sovereignty that year gave us. Whether we got to keep that sovereignty is another story. For another time. For now, what matters is that we sing that song. Everyday. We sing it and we come together. We recite those lyrics and remember one day, a long time ago, in a different place. And we are happy.

That day is forgotten, however. A friend of mine explained how. This is what he said:

"Today should be a holiday in Sri Lanka. Yes. Today is Republic Day. On May 22, 1972, Ceylon became a Republic, named Sri Lanka. The Republican Constitution was passed at Navarangahala, located inside Royal College, Colombo. Then they unveiled a plaque near the Navarangahala to remember the event. But no one in Royal, no one in Parliament, no one in the public remembers that on a day like today we shed our last links with the Throne in London. Is this our colonial mindset? Over to you to decide."

Apt, I should think. Apt all the way.

Monday, May 18, 2015

How to 'solve' Wilpattu

courtesy: Flickr
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has raised concerns about deforestation around Wilpattu National Park. Four environmental organisations have charged Rishad Bathiudeen of complicity. Now guilt isn't always about direct involvement. People can be indirectly involved. That is why the allegation that he has cleared more than 18,000 acres of forest land throughout three districts is serious. He needs to be investigated. Period.

An inquiry would make sense. President Maithripala Sirisena has called for one. That sets precedent, and certainly a good one. But there's another issue here. If illegal acquisition was all that mattered this wouldn't be a big problem. Indeed one can argue that illegal resettlement in the guise of land clearance is a problem that can easily be remedied.

There's an underside to Wilpattu, however. This has gone unnoticed. It came to me through a comment to a Facebook post. Not the media. The comment was about certain visitors to the park who are engaged with "hunting safaris". Animals are being shot and no one seems to be aware of this. To make matters worse these hunters are actively bragging about what they do on social media (as this photo quite clearly shows).

No action has been taken here. This reflects lethargy on the part of the Wildlife Ministry. To top it all no less a figure than the president himself heads it. Letting these hunters off the hook would reflect badly on him and his government. This is not because evidence lends credence to allegation but because those who perpetrate these crimes are bragging about them. That warrants public outrage. Naturally.

Here's what we know. Most of these "visitors" are from overseas. This indicates that the wrongdoers aren't Sri Lankan. It also indicates that more vigilance should be demanded from relevant authorities in cancelling their visas. Hosts should not tolerate behaviour of this sort from guests, naturally enough. But while they are committing these acts, it is alleged that local criminal gangs are abetting them. That is despicable and demands immediate remedy.

I raise these points because this government has shown itself capable of persecuting wrongdoers. Unfortunately most of those they have persecuted thus far have been officials from the previous regime. That does not and indeed will not license unchecked allegations on the part of Ministers who belong to this government. President Sirisena himself should know this.

There are two courses of action that must be followed. The first and most immediate would be to book those hunting illegally. This can be done with assistance from the Immigration and Emigration Department. Secondly those abetting these "invited guests" must be investigated, arguably the harder of the two given that they remain unidentified. Given how active the government has been in booking members from the former regime I don't think it will be difficult to persecute both criminal and accomplice here.

It doesn't make sense to go on a rampage against former Ministers but let this issue go by unnoticed. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) hasn't spoken a word about it. That is not surprising. We are after all talking about an organisation that raised hell over Rishad Bathiudeen when he was with Mahinda Rajapaksa but stayed shut when the former joined Maithripala Sirisena's election campaign. BASL has always been ready to urge constitutional reform. That is why continuing silence on its part about Wilpattu disgusts me.

It is the government and the government alone that must combat this problem. Yahapalanaya after all isn't about regime-change. Problems that crop up must be investigated. Action must be taken. A top-to-bottom coordinated program must be implemented. Solving a problem like Wilpattu takes more than just harping on about the government's stance on good governance. It should involve active engagement with issue and nothing short of that.

The litmus test for this problem is whether or not a presidential inquiry will be implemented and how objective it will be. The findings of such an inquiry must involve not just alleged deforestation, moreover. It must also involve those hunters bragging about what they do on social media. Simple as that.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Gratiaen 2015: The Final Cut

I have not been to the Gratiaen Awards. Nor do I follow it like some of my friends. I have however read and assessed those who won or made it to the shortlist. Winner usually warrants comparison with nominee and in this regard the Prize seems to encourage both. Some like it. Some don’t. A few will or indeed can call it "supreme" when it comes to literature here, but there's a crowd that does that as well. As for me, it’s more or less a curtain-raiser. Always has been.

This year's shortlist was announced last Monday at the British Council. If at all, it raised that curtain a little higher. For me at least.

The event began with the judges: Jehan Aloysious, Dinali Fernando, and Sonali Deraniyagala (who was absent). Dinali spoke about the shortlist. She was honest. She claimed that despite the daring choice of subject-matter (with fantasy being a picked on genre this year), the submissions were marred by flawed characterisation, melodrama, carelessness stemming from a know-all attitude, and lack of awareness about setting and theme.

Now these are what judges in contests like this suffer at some point. Dinali didn't mince words when talking about them. Not that there isn't a reason for this. The Gratiaen is coveted, yes. But it celebrates writing in English. That's esoteric in a way, naturally, and explains much of what had to be weeded out from the submissions. Especially in light of the criteria which the judges used to assess the submissions, fidelity to experience and depth in particular.

The nominees were read out. Sandali Ash ("Rao's Guide to Lime Pickling") was a new face this year, not only because she wasn't nominated before but because this was her first book. Sean Amarasekara did a good job with "play-acting" an extract from it, though I don't think it represented the entire book.

Sandali's piece caught me, however. It caught me because she's from Colombo and the story's set in the North. It is not entirely about the war, true, but still a slice of life from another setting. As she mentioned the book was an "accident", written to please an examiner who had wanted something more than just a field report.

Quintus G. Fernando's Celibacy Factor and Santhan Ayathurai's Rails Run Parallel were novels, different in tone from each other. Fernando's book was more light-hearted. It was funny and yet didn't go overboard, depicting a friendship between a priest and his "little girlfriend" (a nine-year-old). Ayathurai's book was more nuanced, rooted in a time period commencing in 1977 (he mentioned that the ethnic riots of that year play a part). Vihanga Perera's Love and Protest, a collection of poems as brash as they were tongue-in-cheek, also made it to the final list. I can't comment on either. Not yet.

There are those who tend to "pick on" the Gratiaen. More often than not, the reasons cited are the politics of the judging panel, the submissions assessed, and that it caters to a cross-section of the reading public here. These are not unjustified claims, but that does not devalidate the event itself. Gratiaen celebrates writing in English, but this year at least the judges emphasised more on fidelity and being true-to-life in their criteria. Commendably.

There are also some who claim that the event celebrates a language inaccessible to many here. That's debatable. It is true that no one writing in English here can stand up with the best writers in Sinhala and Tamil, but that this means shrugging off every attempt to encourage writing in that language is taking things too far. There have been nominees in the past who didn't attempt at all to validate English in relation to home country. But these have been exceptions.

Politics gets scripted into every event of this sort and Gratiaen is no exception. Lack of emphasis on the political may be what sheds light on Gratiaen at times, but then again as Vihanga Perera shows there are texts which go beyond naturalism and engage with themes less explored. In this sense the shortlist this year certainly stood out.

It was five-time nominee Malinda Seneviratne who had this to say about the Gratiaen last year (when he won): "Writers are vain creatures as Ashok Ferrey pointed out a couple of years ago; we think we write very well and when we are young we even think that we write better than anyone has ever written. This is why I will never sit on a Gratiaen panel of judges." Malinda has on several occassions spoken about Gratiaen and its language-politics. He usually calls a spade a spade and my guess is that his quote describes not just the Prize, but the entire literary landscape in the country as well.

Malinda was not nominated this year. He didn't write. Four others did, however. They are on the list. The competition looks tougher than last year, because while I may have my preferences over who should and shouldn't win, I have to admit one thing: Jehan's criteria make my choice as hard as it's going to be. The final call will be made on June 12. That's next month. We'll see who wins. In the meantime, I'll have to wait.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 17 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Regaining the "free" in Free Education

Not everyone can become doctorate-holders. Not everyone can become lawyers, doctors, or engineers. Indeed, no country would want that. The focus of an education system isn't on turning every student into a professional, but to make sure that the returns they get on their education are satisfactory.

These returns can't be measured (obviously), but the golden rule is this: they must match with what the student wants by way of earning a living. Doesn't mean it's a magic formula.

Education cannot and will not eliminate every problem a country has. Take our education system. It's "free", in name at least. Not everything comes "free", of course, and as far as our schools are concerned, someone has to pay down the line. Someone out there has to pay for textbooks, uniforms, teachers, and schools maintenance. The principle here is that while those who enjoy these services don't pay for them directly, someone has to meet their cost. Indirectly. That's how "free" our education system is.

Let's analyse some figures here. From 2003 to 2013, government spending on education increased by more than 280%. We're talking about a rise of 112 billion rupees. That's a lot, considering that not even this was enough to make up 6% of the GDP. And this isn't all. Consider the results: in 1994, 22.5% of those who sat for their O/Level exams passed. In 2004, this had increased to 47.7%. In 2013, it was 67%. Spending should translate into result, which is what we're seeing here. Happily.

But what's the bigger picture? Well, there are problems. Close to 50% of all children who enter Grade I, for instance, fail to make it to the A/Levels. We're talking about more than 100,000 children here. We're talking about 11 years spent in providing them with textbooks, uniforms, and every other necessity they want. Who takes care of them during this time? The state, of course! But who looks after them when they fail? Who's there to demand "return payments" from them? No one.

There's a big mismatch between (government) spending and returns when it comes to education. We boast about those who enter University, willfully forgetting the number who pass A/Levels but can't enter because of overcrowding. What happens to them? Does anyone look after them? The state, let's not forget, can't do everything.

We still haven't sorted out that mess called Year One admissions. We've politicised it. We've failed to account for families who live near schools that admit kids from far-off places. What's the line that divides those families from these schools? What's the line that denies their children the education that families with "influences" get? Politics!

Free Education. Yes, I almost forgot. Rajiva Wijesinha claimed that our system was "free" thanks only to the absence of admission and class fees at schools. That's it. We forget those other hidden charges in our system. We forget the horrendous sums of money we pay to get our children into schools. We forget the fees we pay to tuition providers.

There's more.

Vasudeva Nanayakkara made a classic observation once. He had seen the conflict between the government and the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA). He said that it reminded him of the conflict between the biological and foster mothers in Bertolt Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle. The former Minister meant well. What he said was true. If those who are left behind are orphans, there will be those who claim to parent them. The government will try to claim, and so will civil society. Who wins? Neither of them. Who loses? The orphans! It's that simple.

Everything has its pros and cons. Education is no exception. What we have is a system that is "free" at the outset: the government charges next to nothing as term fees, nothing whatsoever for uniforms and textbooks. But deep within, there are fissures: costs that build up, syllabuses that are too advanced, and inapt teachers. All these come together. There's a boiling point somewhere. We've reached it.

This is why alternatives to our schools have sprung up. Why students cut school and attend tuition. Why our syllabus is so overstuffed that there's a horrendous mismatch between content and employability. Why talented students from far-flung places find it difficult to attend a popular school, while those who get lower marks than them get in because they happen to live nearby.

So what's the solution? As with every institutional problem, there are no shortcut answers. An Education Act needs to be in place. Our system is failing, and exactly because we refuse to see that it's failing.

I most certainly am not capable of coming up with every solution, but if it's about reforms, there are some proposals I'd like to see being implemented. Proposals I know not many will disagree with, which might just go a long way in denting into the problems we have today:

Admissions reform

New Zealand streamlines its admissions system quite efficiently. Section 11A of its Education Act of 1989 lays out a comprehensive enrolment scheme. This designates "home zones" for every child. Schools are selected based on whichever is closest in your area.

The only exceptions to this (based on three situations laid out in section 11D) are decided on by two people: the chief executive of the relevant Ministry and the school principal. That's a far cry from our system, which involves every unneeded and undesired person (and politician) when deciding whether to admit a child into a school.

The New Zealand model isn't perfect. But it's a model of efficiency. A model to look up-to and emulate.

Classroom reform

This is tougher. What is needed to reform our classrooms is classroom democracy. We need to strengthen teacher-student relationships. To do that, we also need to bring the school closer to the student. In other words, we need to customise education according to the lowest standardising unit for a student: his/her school. One solution, which is already being practised, is devolving the responsibility of setting up test papers to schools (and not the government).

Teacher reform

No other country allows 40 days of leave in addition to long holidays for its teachers. We do that. The reason isn't hard to see. Teachers, like pretty much every other government worker, are guaranteed salaries. This isn't to say they don't earn them, but more often than not, they're given enough job security to be complacent. Under-qualified teachers who can't handle the students they're in charge of mushroom for this reason. The solution is easy: filter teachers based on qualification and experience.

Syllabus reform

We memorise what we're taught. We're told to "vomit" anything and everything that a question touches on. That's bad, and hardly equals what we are expected to do in the real world. Rote-based learning must be out, and for that to happen, the syllabus needs to be reformed, precisely because it emulates an old (and unnecessary) version of the British model.

There are those who claim that the national syllabus is far superior to anything else because of volume and quantity, but that doesn't (always) equal quality. Stripping it down, emphasising writing more than reading and memorising are practical suggestions.

School reform

It's an open fact that most of our schools are segregated. They are divided racially and religiously. For a country that houses four major religions, this isn't exactly ideal. But the solution isn't to do away with any kind of ethno-religious consciousness, because inasmuch as I am opposed to how certain (faith-based) schools engage in religious indoctrination (brainwashing), I am less than convinced that we must do away with it completely.

There are schools that have set percentage quotas on students practising a particular faith. Forget the ethics involved here. What are we teaching our children exactly? That education reflects identity, that identity is based on what religion you follow or what race you're born into. Hardly what we need now. But until and unless cooperation is given from every corner, we can't hope to reform this.

We've gone a long way since the Kannangara reforms. There are those who berate them, who think that they weren't necessary. That school of thought is in the minority, however. The truth is, far from implementing something that was unneeded, we haven't come close to implementing what those reforms aimed at in the first place. We remember them for one main thing: the central school system. That has worked out, tremendously, though it's the exception.

Free Education is a burden. Any government service is, for that matter. The "free" in education is for those who enjoy it directly. There are others who pay for it indirectly. They ought to have a say. It's their money, after all. And it's not just a matter of rupees and cents.

We're talking about billions of rupees spent on a child's welfare every year. When you see students who don't really need all that money pilfering what they get, while students in far-off regions remain neglected, you tend to worry.

Education isn't just an asset. It's also a liability. That is why reforms are necessary. That is why we need to start with the admissions system, end with the school, and true to regain the "free" in our Free Education system. And just so we can stop government changes affecting all these reforms, it's best to consolidate them in a statute. That's a first step. Needed and demanded.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The baiya and toiya of citizenry

Harin Fernando, addressing the media at Sirikotha, has commented on the recent meeting between Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He dismisses any chance of a reconciliation between the two and pours scorn on those who believe in an imminent bridging (of sorts). He offers balm to hoot: "We reduced the price of koththamalli for those jokers who think the president will join hands with thieves." He identifies those who support such a reconcilition with one word: baiya. Point well made indeed.

Now Fernando is not the sort of politician who'd make such a comment. The baiya-toiya dichotomy as I stated in an earlier piece is symptomatic of veiled prejudices against those who voted for Rajapaksa. I can only conclude that Fernando made his remark not knowing (or caring) what he said. The problem however is that his own party isn't helping him in this regard.

I have always believed that if there was ever a division which showed in the presidential election, it was largely class-based. Rajapaksa won in electorates where poverty was rampant. He won Anamaduwa, the poorest electorate. He won Attanagalla despite the Bandaranaike "presence". Ethnicity did not factor in there. But everyone seemed to be concerned about the ethnic rift. That is why they ignored the class-factor in the election. For the most part.

The UNP is facing a popularity-deficit. This we know. It can't fill that gap by pandering to capital interests. That may explain its attempts at grabbing the rural vote through a self-deemed "populist" budget. But this isn't enough. Attempts can be made. Easily. Validating and exhibiting them is the name of the game however, and where this is concerned President Sirisena and the SLFP still hold the cards.

In this regard reducing the Mahinda-Maithripala split to the baiya-toiya dichotomy is not going to help the UNP. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, going by past conduct the party hasn't exactly helped to "bridge" the gap between baiya and toiya (the rural poor and the urban affluent). Given this it's hardly surprising that many view the party to be in favour of class-rifts. I am not saying that this is the case. But perceptions count. Even when they remain unsubstantiated.

Secondly, I am amused whenever I hear people saying that the UNP "won". Well it did, but not the way some would have wanted it to. Electoral victory remains as yet a distant dream. But if this remark amuses me then the next one tickles me: "the UNP is the best option for this country, but it cannot win on its own." Now one can argue that electoral numbers don't always bode well for the country, but where's democracy in that?

UNPers (especially the more affluent ones) seem content in "shrugging off" democracy this way. People-power however remains potent, whether they like it or not. So they go on calling Rajapaksa's supporters "baiyas". Some of them go as far as calling them "yakkos". Remarks like these reflect on those who make them. Badly.

Harin Fernando is one of the more intelligent members of the UNP. He is young but he has humility. His remarks are all the more surprising because one can't expect any intelligent politician to reduce the SLFP-UNP rift to the baiya-toiya rift. True, by baiyas he would have meant those who support Rajapaksa. But this is not what it means. Baiya means villager, or rather "village idiot". When used in particular contexts it is as insulting and stereotypical as black-faces at a minstrel show.

The UNP will not get over its perceived anti-rural bias if it continues to pettifog this way. It doesn't take a political analyst to add two and two here. Despite the party's best intentions, continuing to depict the electoral split in the country as a battle (of sorts) between baiyas and toiyas will not be in its interests. Quibbling over imagined differences will not help. Nor will statements disparaging villagers add credence to party, even if they are made outside context.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has a presence. It arguably is bigger than that of any of his predecessors, barring perhaps Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Even there the gap is clear: Rajapaksa has within 10 years achieved what Premadasa couldn't in four and Bandaranaike couldn't in 15. The irony is that he retains popularity even when he clearly is tainted. No one has venerated a man this corrupt here before.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is different. Some call him the shrewdest politician we have here. I would agree and disagree. For starters, it was under him that the UNP underwent a facelift. If J. R. Jayawardena stood for mild capitalism and Premadasa for populist conservatism, Wickremesinghe's UNP successfully took on the SLFP during the Kumaratunge years and embraced liberal conservatism. It also unfortunately took on an identity-less identity thanks largely to the ceasefire years.

It is this transformation which effectively undid both him and his party, owing partly to the misconception that the SLFP was leftist. Well, the SLFP has never been leftist, at least not since 1975 when Felix Dias Bandaranaike became Finance Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa's "leftism" was in reality a more crony version of Premadasa's populist capitalism, never mind how many leftist parties were and are with him.

My point is this: Wickremesinghe's shrewdness can be his undoing. He gambled when he embraced Sirisena as the common opposition candidate. His party retained that liberal conservative streak when he gave key ministerial portfolios to his faction. He is surviving in the government thanks largely to a sleeping president who seems content (thankfully, one notes) in not exercising his powers fully. In this context it would make sense for the UNP to capitalise on the ground situation through a facelift.

Writing about a month before Sirisena became the common candidate, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka assessed the ground situation and presented his ideal Opposition context:

"The good news is that there are two chances at the coconut shy; two interlinked opportunities to dismantle the clan-based oligarchy. One is at the presidential election – but that’s already pretty much a goner. The other is to use the presidential election as a massive consciousness raising exercise – with Sajith Premadasa, Sujeeva Senasinghe, Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickremaratne, Rosie Senanayake, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Sunil Handunetti, Vijitha Herath, Wasantha Samarasinghe, Lal Kantha, and Tilvin Silva in a pincer move."

Outside Sajith (given his conduct one can hardly agree with what his champions cut him out as), the rest of the names from the UNP merit serious assessment. Neither Harsha nor Eran has shown himself to be a follower of any anti-baiya streak. Rosie Senanayake is a different matter of course, but she is no Chandrika Kumaratunge and neither is Sujeeva Senasinghe another Ravi Karunanayake.

That is one point. The other is policy. That has always been the UNP's strong point. Ever since 1975 it has effectively undone the SLFP when it comes to reason-driven development, barring the latter part of the Jayawardena regime and the Ranasinghe Premadasa years. Harsha de Silva is (to my mind at least) a near-perfect technocrat, in the mould of N. M. Perera, and certainly a right-wing J. K. Galbraith. It is policy that drives him. Reason-driven policy. That wins my vote any day.

The UNP's "pincer move" to redesign itself will not work as long as the Ranil faction is given precedence. Neither Harsha nor Eran belongs to this group. They are politically nonaligned. They are not pro-Ranil but that doesn't make them anti-Ranil either. That is why they do not belong to the Sajith Premadasa camp. That is why it makes sense to promote them, because they and they alone have what it takes to redefine the party and possibly make it more progressive than it already is. Part of this redesign will no doubt remove the anti-baiya prejudice it is associated with at present.

In this regard it would also make sense to stop raising hairs with the baiya-toiya conflict. That is past. This is now. Seasoned politicians do not poke fun at those they oppose with the hillbilly tag. That offends not just those the UNP can get from the opposite camp but also those they already have outside the urban affluent crowd.

For now at least, Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the man of the moment. It would be tragic indeed if he goes down in history as a man who wasn't able to capitalise on this moment. Given past conduct, however, I think it's safe to assume he will go through this. Meanwhile, he and his party must go through that facelift I mentioned above. The one will not be possible, it must be noted, without the other. It's as simple as that.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Gunadasa Amarasekara's relevance

In an article published in The Nation last Saturday (May 2), Gunadasa Amarasekara comments on and questions the state of reconciliation today. He accuses President Maithripala Sirisena of violating the Constitution by allowing the national anthem to be sung in Tamil. He accuses the Opposition and even the general citizenry of pleading ignorance with this.

He then charts the pacts signed with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam right until the P-TOMS and the ceasefire agreement of Chandrika Kumaratunge's government and implies that the reconciliation body she is to head is merely a continuation of all these. This he argues bodes badly. For us.

Now it's easy to insinuate. Easy to name names. Easy to allege and accuse. Substantiating allegation is another matter, however. But while he doesn't offer substance the way his detractors want him to, his article retains a certain relevancy. It's not hard to see why.

Amarasekara and to a greater extent Nalin de Silva have always been called Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists. For years if not decades, those who criticised in-name-only peace were branded with that name. Every government-sanctioned reconciliation move was to be accepted without question. I believe Malinda Seneviratne got it right when he wrote of how we should be thankful to them for having pointed out that the LTTE had to be defeated at any cost. But I'm digressing here.

What concerns me is Amarasekara's choice of words. He titles his article "Is reconciliation relevant anymore?" At first glance it appears to be a blanket "shrugging off" of any reconciliation attempt. But that isn't true. What he does in this article is what Professor Nalin has already told us: that the purpose of reconciliation as is understood here no longer holds sway. Why?

According to him, what the United States (and presumably the West) demands is not reconciliation but accountability. He quotes Tamara Kunanayakam here. Now accountability is not reconciliation. This we know. To adopt a Sinhala saying there is a heaven-and-earth gap in-between. Reconciliation is easy. It presupposes acknowledgment and addresses grievances both real and imagined.

Accountability goes beyond this. It involves placing and accepting unconditional blame. Judging by the US's stance on the civil war we can be sure that it wants accountability placed squarely on the government. The LTTE goes off cleanly, for the Americans at least. To Amarasekara, this may well be the first step of R2P intervention, invoked whenever it is "felt" that a country's sovereignty must be violated on "humanitarian" grounds, never mind how self-contradictory and ridiculous that can sound at times.

What makes all this relevant? John Kerry describing our 30-year war with terrorism as a war against Tamils makes it relevant. Ed Miliband's Sinhala(-less) and Tamil New Year address makes it relevant. Perceived fears that national security is being compromised make it relevant. Much of these fears are force-fed by those who seek political gain, yes, but this hardly puts off legitimate paranoia provoked by Kerry's and Miliband's conduct.

I would like to believe that what Amarasekara is saying is unfounded. It is and it is not. Amaraskera seems to forget that times have changed. The political Other has become moderate. The TNA has effectively split on ideological lines, with the moderate faction gaining more substance. That is to be welcomed, no doubt. R. Sampanthan is not Amarthalingam and Sumanthiran is not Chelvanayakam. While I do have reservations about some of their politics (their preference for a united as opposed to unitary state, for instance), nothing really warrants comparison between them and their predecessors.

But while moderates may be gaining credibility this does not completely marginalise the extremists. In this regard Amarasekara's criticism of reconciliation stands to reason. C. V. Wigneswaran's genocide resolution is just one example. The moderates have not prevailed to the point where such conduct can be dismissed. It is this which injects relevancy into Amarasekara's assertions, reason-driven as they are.

Not that this validates all his assertions. He considers reconciliation a bogey and largely unneeded. I refuse to believe that, particularly in light of his (presumed) agreement with Tamara Kunanayakam's statement that the LLRC is "necessary for the island to unify our people." But this does not de-validate everything he has written.

Neither the SLFP nor the UNP can be cleared of what Amarasekara accuses the government of sanctioning. The SLFP to him is a headless corpse, bending before the UNP in a context where the latter seems to be embracing extremism. That is not true, but if we are to extrapolate this then even those who are "with" Mahinda Rajapaksa while having accepted ministerial portfolios are to be condemned. Then again, it is true that some of those who "supported" what extremists love to call "war crimes" are now with the UNP or with those who defected from Rajapaksa last year. Who's to be condemned and who's not?

The bottom line to all this is that Amarasekara's relevance stems not from his assertions but from how outside realities are vindicating them. Both John Kerry and Ed Miliband have added credence to them. That is worrying.

Amarasekara's take on reconciliation troubles me, however. He doesn't just view it with disfavour. He seems to doubt its legitimacy. He accuses its representatives of preying on imagined grievances. Like Nalin de Silva he views Tamil "aspirations" as a euphemism for separatism. Acknowledging the one, he argues, would be acknowledging the other. It's that simple. For him at least.

As someone who has always agreed with him whatever the context, I would however respectfully disagree here. Some call reconciliation a veil for separatism. Some say it's the be-all and end-all for ethnic harmony. I'd say that if it's a choice between unity and separatism, I wouldn't consider reconciliation as a cover for the latter. Cartesian "dvikotika" logic which dictates that the one is the other with no room for compromise won't do. There's a middle ground somewhere, I am certain.

Achieving reconciliation therefore, at least genuinely, doesn't duplicate separatism. Conflating the one into the other may well be the biggest problem those who badmouth President Sirisena's efforts must resolve. In this sense Amarasekara's statement appears to be unfounded.

But I withdraw critique from here on. This isn't because I accept what he says, but because not accepting some of his assertions doesn't mean disagreeing with the rest. As I wrote before, outside realities continue to add credence to them. Shrugging them off just because some of his beliefs are founded on Cartesian premises would itself be an acceptance of Cartesian logic.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Looking back with no regret

He was an actor, singer, and teacher. He performed on stage and on screen. Not all his performances were perfect or watchable but a great many are relished even today. His presence lent credence to whatever was being filmed. It rarely took away. That's Daya Alwis' legacy. Perhaps it is this that numbed those who heard of his death. We'll never know, I suspect.

Acting wasn't his only "thing" of course. Music was what first moved him. He also taught. He took to the stage eventually. And like most of his colleagues, he went to the cinema, the point being that it didn't entice him initially. There were other pathways he carved for himself. Other lanes. He didn't stick to one course. The truth perhaps was that he couldn't.

He first came to me with Madol Duwa. That was his role as "Punchi Mahaththaya". A small part no doubt, but it stood out. An add-on that never really jarred. There were other films as the years went by, granted, but "Punchi Mahaththaya" kept coming back. Perhaps that was because he depicted him just the way the novel had. Whatever the reason, he stayed.

Actors and performers have their highs and lows and Alwis was no exception. There were parts in Mahagedara and Viragaya (both by Tissa Abeysekara) which did not stand out. These were supporting roles moreover. They jarred and lagged. Sadly.

That's not to say he didn't "rise". He contributed to whatever he took part in. Few can forget his roles in Valmathuwo, Handaya, and Siribo Aiya, for instance. Few can forget those teledramas he acted in, particularly Bodima. They all caught him at his best: a supporting actor who was capable of going beyond his character and all its self-imposed limits. At other times this could have weakened story and script. Not so in Alwis' case. That's certainly applause-worthy.

There will be tributes and assessments made of him. I haven't seen all his performances and wouldn't want to pretend that I have. I can't offer an in-depth analysis. All I can say is this: he put in effort. Nearly all his performances were dramatic, and even in those films and teledramas which were supposed to provoke humour he could get serious. And even with those films where he seemed to overdramatise - Mahagedara in particular - the fault seemed to be with the script. That hampered Alwis. He jarred in those films because he was not meant to be scripted the way he was in them.

He learnt about acting on his own and got to know those who taught his trade. He knew Ediriweera Sarachchandra and learnt about stylised acting. He moved on to Dhamma Jagoda and away from that stylised idiom, and managed to bridge theatre and cinema. He was eclectic enough to appreciate both, doubtless, and this kept him in touch with whatever medium he took part in. Yes, it was all hands-down. And as he put it in an interview once, "one learns by associating with those who are learned." It was those same learned people who shaped him. In the end, he gave back. We are grateful.

Alwis left too early. But he didn't leave behind footprints that wind and sand could cover. Few people would have gone through his career and looked back with regret. There may have been a "much more" desired somewhere, but this is true of every actor who ever lived and not just here. Few would look at him and care to compare him with anyone. He was Daya Alwis on his own right. That's a rare feat for an actor, particularly in this country.

Not many can appreciate fame's sharper nuances. Alwis didn't know fame the way some of his colleagues did but then again that didn't matter. He knew it for what it was, warts and all. Whatever role he played lent flavour to both character and story. He did overdramatise at times but as I wrote before this was often the fault of the script. Not many knew how to handle him. Maybe he wasn't meant to be handled at all. I wouldn't know. Fame didn't come to him the easy way and he didn't exit the way we wanted him to. A tragedy and an irony, definitely.

For now, we'll salute him. As a giant that passed on. Too prematurely.

Written for: Ceylon Today LITE, May 3 2015