Tuesday, June 30, 2015

(Mis)educating the education discourse

I often come across people who comment on our education system. Some of their suggestions stand to reason. Others don't. Very few stand up-to reality. For the most part, though, these people have little to no understanding of how education in Sri Lanka works. More often than not, they're privileged. And when that's the case, most of what they suggest are so impractical they seem to come from "Cloud Cuckoo Land". I mean no offence, by the way.

There has been much talk about doing away with ethno-religious education here. I agree. Rooting a school in identity doesn't do much good. All it does is to create the notion that education is a factor of identity and identity depends on what you're born into. We didn't choose the way we came to this world, after all. Why should we be segregated in schools based on something we never chose, then?

This line of thinking is reasonable. But in a country where all major faiths are celebrated and sensitivity to background is a must, where must we draw the line? This is where problems begin. Some, trying to think up of solutions but in reality grappling to get at one, think that reverting to what things were like before 1956 is a solution. Others don't. That is where the debate begins.

Here's their reasoning. If English is taken in as an official language in schools, then any "rift" disappears. In other words, the solution isn't as much doing away with the mother tongue as it is with imposing a foreign language most of us aren't very literate in. This begs the question: how? Or, to be more frank, why?

Do they really think English is a be-all and end-all to this problem? Well, yes. And it's not hard to see why. Most of them came from that background. They intermingled with every race and religion, and they learnt to respect every identity. Indeed, they learnt to coexist within a "melting pot" that did away with any kind of ethno-religious segregation.

But what's the bigger picture? The truth is that they all studied in English. Not everyone in these schools came from an English-speaking background. Not everyone can or indeed could speak that language the way those who idealise how racial amity existed in their classes (or schools) did. And if you think this wasn't a problem before 1956, consider this: around the 1940s, those who spoke English made up about 12% of the entire student population. Here's the pincer: for every kid who spoke English, there were about seven others who did not and could not.

The segregation back then wasn't racial. It was linguistic. Based on class.

Then there are those who resent certain schools segregating or rather excluding certain faiths but who go dumb over how their own schools do the same. I'm not pointing fingers here. I'm stating facts. Those who resent one thing and ignore another are selectively myopic. Same thing goes for schools that divide on one basis and others that do so on another.

So what's the solution?

"Go West," some tell me. They point at how successfully other countries have done away with education-anomalies. True, but this isn't the whole picture. I was told however that no other solution could exist. Which is why I ordered a book.

Archbishop John Michael Miller was the Secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education. His book "The Holy See's Teaching on Catholic Schools" pretty much sums up how the Church should be involved with education. The book's an eye-opener. Certainly impressive. Recommendable too. It's divided into three chapters. I'm concerned about the last of these. "Five Essential Marks of Catholic Schools".

For starters, the chapter not only endorses an education system run on faith but indeed recommends selection of teachers and curriculum based on Catholicism. Nothing wrong there. Having identified five marks that differentiate Catholic schools (1. Inspired by a supernatural vision; 2. Founded on Christian anthropology; 3. Animated by communion and community; 4. Imbued with a Catholic worldview throughout its curriculum; and 5. Sustained by the Gospel within), Archbishop Miller then goes on to conclude that a Catholic education must, obviously, be Catholic.

Here's the deal. If an American Archbishop whose word holds sway over schools run by his Church the world over can condone faith-based education, why are we howling? It is true that I am against ethno-religious education. But look closer. The alternative to it (according to certain self-appointed pundits), at least until we've developed to a point where everyone in this country is bilingual, is to replace swabasha with English. This, as William Blake would readily have said, is like "One Law for the Lion and Ox". It's one size fits all. Doesn't work. Not all the time.

Segregation is bad. Education based on segregation is worse. I am against it. So is everyone I know. Some who are more practical than me think the system's hard to change. They too oppose it. But with reservation.

Regi Siriwardena, in his essay "National Identity: Content of Education and Ethnic Perceptions" makes a case against ethnicising education. The essay is perceptive and probably stands out in the way he deals with the issue of English. It was written in 1992, long before schools began instituting English as a medium of instruction. But its take on promoting that language stands valid even today. Here's a quote:

"It should be apparent that when writers in the English-language press idealised the happy ethnic harmony of their schooldays, they were unwarrantedly assuming that what was true for them was true for the entire nation. Moreover, they failed to recognise the 'common identity' which they remember sharing was less a common national identity than a class identity, which transcended their ethnic identity as Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, or Burghers. Fluency in the English language and their Western-style dress were distinguishing marks of that class identity, which was in many ways defined through differentiation from the rest of the nation, the majority of whom, who spoke in Sinhala or Tamil, went barefoot and wore sarong, verti, or cloth and jacket."

Significantly, many of those I've talked with and who dream of pre-1956 echo this. They all came from a background that continues to privilege English and rubbish Sinhala and Tamil. I may be a little rude here but some of their suggestions made in this regard sound Cloud Cuckoo Land-ish to me. It's like Siriwardena wrote, after all: "unwarrantedly assuming that what was true for them was true for the entire nation."

Let me explain. English is a link language. That this should mean the vernacular (a word which in itself connotes a rubbishing of both national languages) should be thrown out is ridiculous. All too often, those I've come across who champion racial amity through English rubbish not just the vernacular but almost everything associated with it. These are people who grew up thinking West was best, that those who come from "afar" (outstation) and hence don't hobnob with haute couture and what-not are dumb, and that those who go to the "best" schools which taught in English are best qualified to shed differences and unite.

Sorry. It doesn't work that way. Ever.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 27 2015

Confessions of a silver spooner

I was born with a silver spoon. I think I was fed from one. Can’t remember. I do remember my first years, though. I remember troubling those who came to help us at our (former) home. "Servants", I called them. I remember troubling my mother as well. But at the end of the day it didn’t matter. I was always fed. I wasn’t in want. Whatever trouble I caused, things would turn out just fine. So I did what others in my situation would have done. I caused some more trouble. Didn't matter. No problem. Why? Because of that silver spoon.

Time passed. I learned to read and write. There would have been kids my age who were more intelligent than I was. But it didn’t matter. See, I was born to everything and anything other kids my age couldn’t even dream of. I read and wrote and it didn’t matter that I had the best books money could buy or the best tutors my father could find. And why? That silver spoon, of course!

But then I turned six. Or was it seven? I can’t remember. I do remember my first day however. I remember the teacher interviewing me and I remember I got to impress her. She had a thing for me, I guess. I could see she scorned other kids, and I could see that as years would go by I would have to scorn them in turn. They just weren’t my type. No, I wasn’t taught to hate or dislike them. But I was taught to like and respect the big men. The big shots. I was supposed to be one of them.

This was what I learnt at school. There were kids who couldn’t speak in English and there were those horrible classmates who couldn’t put two words together. There were people who volunteered to help them. Some even volunteered to make friends out of them. We shunned them, however. We had other concerns. Like getting that latest card collection. Or salivating over that latest "franken-phone" some kid would stash in his bag and bring to class.

Other things just didn’t bother us. They certainly didn’t bother me.

Then we reached middle school. That was the best and the worst part. After all, it’s after you leave Fifth Grade that you start to wander more, to think more, indeed to be yourself more (whatever that means). Especially in school. So we thought and wandered more. We were taught not to differentiate others based on race or skin colour. All in the name of unity.

At the same time however, while celebrating this inclusiveness, we were (secretly) taught to differ from others based on who we were. The “silver spooners”. We didn’t have a club with that name but it seemed we did. To hell with race and religion, we thought, but keep those other distinctions. Intact.

We were born to be special, to put it shortly.

I saw how others suffered and thought to myself, “What losers!” No, we didn’t laugh at them whenever they slipped in class or angered the teacher (who for some reason favoured us, don’t ask me why). But we scorned them. In silence. We avoided them and pitied those from among us who helped them. We didn’t want anything to do with them. They couldn’t speak in English and my guess is that anyone who can’t speak it is an idiot. So off with their heads!

But then something happened. We slipped. To be more precise, my family slipped. We went down. My father’s finances weren’t in order. Naturally, we collapsed.

We didn’t feel it at first, of course. My father had run into some debts and we all wanted to see them through. But we had to cut. We had to prune. I was taken from my school (I was in Eighth Grade at the time) and put into another. I hated that the first day, I remember. Everything was different. The teachers didn’t favour “us”. They seemed to like the “other”. Since I was born with the expectation that everyone would bow down before me and my kind, I was put off. I got used to that of course, but how that happened is another story.

There were other things. Money, for instance. I wasn’t raised to expect it. I was born to get what I wanted. I was raised with the notion that people waited and indeed were happy to wait on me.

But then things changed. The servants left. Pity. I loved troubling them. They hated me but that’s how they got their money. I think they were happier to go away with no money than they were to earn it with me around. Anyway, I hated them. The feeling was mutual.

I hated not being treated apart from the rest. It took some time to get used to it, but I never learnt to love everyone else. At this school we weren't taught to (dis)like others based on race or skin colour, but that wasn't necessary because in the end everyone treated everyone else as equals. Naturally when this happened, the teachers seemed to tell us, everything else would follow and every “distinction” setting apart “us” from “them” would disappear. Well, that is what happened.

Not that I liked it one bit. The teachers treated us all like we were together. I knew we weren’t, that I was special and that I was raised with that notion in mind. They didn't encourage that line of thinking, though.

And today, I work. I earn my own (metaphoric) bread. I earn while at school. By writing. I write to papers about what and how I am. There’s always an audience for that. Those who read me think I’m a prodigy. That is because I’m still at school but can write like an academic (I make no bones about that, to hell with modesty!).

Besides, that’s the only way I can keep up what I know. I know English. I love that language more than anything else in the world. My new school doesn’t teach it as well as the previous one. Shame.

Still. Not everything’s bleak. Like I mentioned before, I have an audience. They read. They write to me. They express their sympathies and tell me that they too belong to that which I was once part of. Some disagree with what I write, of course, but they are a minority: those who think they can read and write in English but who really are wannabees.

I’m not one of them. I’m genuine. Honest. If I don’t want to trouble someone I admit it, but if I can't bear seeing my inferiors getting the better of me, I write and rant.

And why? Because I am a silver spooner.

Written for: The Nation FREE, June 27 2015

Monday, June 29, 2015

For James Horner

Tributes are best written by those well acquainted with the deaths being mourned. They should also know the field the man being celebrated was associated with. In this sense I am a poor writer of tributes.

The point is that writing about James Horner isn't easy. He is a film composer. Correction: was. He died last Tuesday. His field was music. And I am not musically inclined.

Horner's credits were impressive. Getting two Oscars is certainly achievement, and Horner won both for his most popular score, in James Cameron's Titanic.

There were other credits of course, ones which were arguably more applause-worthy and hence memorable. He never won for them. His music for Braveheart, for instance, has been used and reused on national television so many times. To recount them all would be tedious.

Horner belonged to the "elite". The Guardian's tribute to him places him among Hans Zimmer, John Williams, and Bernard Herrmann. In certain respects, this is true. Like them, his music added emotional depth and contour to the plot-line. Like them, his music remained (and remains) indispensable to the films he scored. And like them, he moved well in an industry where art and commerce (it is said) get together all the time.

Yes, he was in the elite. That didn't take away authenticity. That merely added to it.

This would doubtless mean he was prolific. Prolific as in 10 films in one year. He composed that many in 1993 and averaged about five or six every year. Not all of them are remembered well today, but the point is that in an industry where 16-hour workdays are the norm he stood out remarkably. It wasn't just about quality, therefore. It was also about quantity.

I am certainly not equipped to assess the man's musical work. Based on what I have heard and know, I can however say this: in nearly every memorable film he worked in, his work added contour to emotion. This is not to say that all his scores were perfectly aligned with the respective actor's emotional tenor, of course. He could conjure tunes which offered contrast too. But in his ability to connect tune with emotion, he was comparable to the "cream" of his field.

There were soundtracks that jarred sometimes, though. These were more idiosyncratic. Like in Mark Lester's Commando, where the image of Arnold Schwarzenegger combating mercenaries like a wild animal was reinforced by an almost testosterone-laden musical score. These jarred not because they were poorly composed, but because he linked film and mood too strongly with music in them.

Was this a problem though? Not really. Horner's greatest strength was in how subtle he could get in his work. Commando in this sense (for me at least) was an exception. Not so with his other credits. The main theme from Braveheart, to give an example, beautifully toned up the conflict of emotion in William Wallace – between his love for his wife Murron MacClannough and his love for Scotland – and how this is resolved through the uprising he leads.

Titanic offers another example. Horner's composition, which as with much of his other work used Celtic music, caught the protagonists' love for each other set against a harsh, unforgiving sea (and Billy Zane's repulsive Caledon Hockley). That is why, when we remember the final sequence of Rose dangling the "Heart of the Ocean" and dropping it into the sea, and all that poignancy welled up till then which erupts subtly in her dream of returning to the Titanic with Jack Dawson, it is Horner's haunting melody that comes into mind.

That melody was no "Lara's Theme". Thankfully. Titanic was epic, yes, but for a story which compressed time and space there was no need for a larger-than-life score. Horner knew this. That is why his work in it remains with us after all this time.

I never got to appreciate music because I wasn't interested. But I loved films. Somewhere down the line, I realised as time passed, the two get together. They are linked. I believe we have some names to thank for that. Like Bernard Herrmann. Maurice Jarre. Premasiri Khemadasa.

We also have James Horner. Unique, yes, and yet among all those giants who made us understand how indispensable music could be to films. For that, we are grateful.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 27 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Remembering 'Master Mind'

This is a speech that I never gave, written for the 8th annual Master Mind Quiz Competition. Master Mind was organised by the General Knowledge Club of Lyceum International School (Nugegoda). It was held last Monday. Malinda Seneviratne was Chief Guest. He made a speech. I was Guest of Honour. I wrote one.

I can’t give speeches without planning them. It is customary to give them at events like these, especially considering what this event is and how I came to love quizzing because of it. Here goes.

"Master Mind" wasn't a “force” years back. In fact if you chart its history you’ll find until recently it didn’t make the moves the way most Quiz Clubs in this country do. This isn’t to say we weren’t functioning properly, but the truth is that we weren’t ready. We needed to improve. Badly.

That was five years back. Times have changed. For the better. I won’t exaggerate and say we’ve topped them all but we certainly have improved.

There are reasons for this, obviously. When I captained the General Knowledge Club of my school in 2010, "Master Mind" was just another feeble, barely notable event which we went to and participated. We didn’t really care for it the way we did with other school events.

But two things happened back then. The first and most important thing was the induction of Mr Dimuthu Amarasiri as our Coach. I really am not in authority to comment on how he conducted this Club simply because words can't measure what he did. He committed himself. He put heart and soul into this. Since 2010, when he and I were "initiated" into the Club, there was an instant taking to on his part when it came to Quizzing. Perhaps it has to do with his background in it. Perhaps not. Whatever the context, I am indebted to him.

The second thing was that my school began to take an interest in Quizzing. And this was where Mr Dimuthu and I had to fight hard. When we organized the 2011 Quiz, as I remember, we were craving for improvement. To the dot then, and without leaving any stone unturned (well, at least most of those stones unturned), we achieved what we wanted.

We are grateful.

But what was it really? The truth was that Quizzing, in this school and probably in every other school, is not popular. The truth is that young boys (I am giving an example here) would much rather follow and hero-worship rugby players and cricketers from the First XI than they would you and me. Yes, these are bitter facts.

I know that we have changed, nonetheless. We may not be in on this as divas or matinee idols but we have gained a following in this country. That is because, I believe, of our education system. In a country where division of labour counts and knowledge has been unreasonably compartmentalised, Quiz competitions offer us a way of gaining those nuggets of information, which really don’t help us at first glance but come into play in certain situations in life.

Yes, Quizzing can be boring. It certainly isn’t for those who aren’t ready for it. There is something exciting in knowing the unknown, in spreading information and wisdom without monopolising it.

Let me give an example here.

For years, we were taught and made to believe that English was a sword. A "kaduwa". We were subconsciously made to fear it. A good, sound knowledge of that language caused fear and its inevitable result, animosity. That is why those who knew it kept that knowledge to themselves and hence a conspiracy (call it what you may) to differentiate children from each other was begun for the sake of preserving privilege. That conspiracy continues to date, mind you. I am not bluffing.

There is a man who teaches in a school in Kurunegala. He is not a teacher in a conventional sense, conventional by today's standard of course. He does something else. He teaches English. For free. Every morning, from about five or six, he teaches those who have an interest in the language.

Now there are English teachers everywhere. Some come and teach well for nothing while others take payment but teach badly. In both cases, the student lags behind. I have seen this man’s students though. They speak better English than me. Even those who are 10 years younger.

What’s the secret? What’s the dividing line that makes us fear that language and makes them take to it immediately?

It’s called ease, ladies and gentlemen. It’s called teaching your students to love what they are taught. It’s called teaching all those taught equality. Taking a more utilitarian view of what is taught and learnt.

A long time ago, a man called John Noyes created a community of like-minded Christians in New York. He taught them to differ from others when it came to the Bible. He asked them to believe that perfection could be attained here. On Earth. In other words, he encouraged them to believe what he believed in. Together.

The Oneida Community is considered one of the world’s oldest communist societies. It was commented on wittily by George Bernard Shaw in his epilogue to Man and Superman ("The Revolutionist's Handbook and Pocket Companion").

That English teacher in Kurunegala is another John Noyes. He is conducting an experiment. One that proves that if something is taught communally, without exclusion and fear, there is knowledge. More importantly, there is also wisdom.

That, ladies and gentlemen, applies to Quiz Clubs also.

But time is running short. Let me wrap up.

There are people here I must thank. To Mr Dimuthu, who has been with us for many years and will be with us for many years more, to those who organised this event, to those who graced this occasion, and to those who won and who participated. Thank you all.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

People's Bank's pension 'anomaly'

The Pensioners' Association of People's Bank has appealed to President Maithripala Sirisena, demanding that an independent Commission of Inquiry be set up to address grievances. There are allegations and accusations involved. These include a fraud that (as the Association states) is costing pensioners what they are owed.

This is not the first time an association of (former) employees has appealed to have their grievances addressed. What stands out here however is what is being alleged. What stands out here is the claim that this Association’s members are having one foot in the grave. They are dying.

Here's a bit of history. During Ranasinghe Premadasa's presidency, a circular issued by the Public Administration Department in 1990 (number 44/90) sought to downsize state institutions. It did this by restructuring the then pension scheme for public officers. By replacing a system of a fixed commuted lump sum deductible from monthly pension payments with one involving a non-deductible scheme, it tried to encourage retirement at 55.

No state-owned bank implemented this then. On 7 June 1996, however, People's Bank went ahead. The circular itself was withdrawn by December that same year. The Bank nonetheless, ostensibly to encourage retirement (as the government had tried), offered 90% of the last drawn salary for retirees as a concession, non-deductible and applicable to those who had completed at least 20 years of service.

Meanwhile, new pension regulations were introduced. Under these, the early retirement age was extended to 58, extendable up-to 60 upon application at the management's discretion. But the original format, with its non-deductible structure, continued to apply to the bank's employees. This was done even after Circular 44/90 had been withdrawn in December. A fraud? Tennakoon Rusiripala, President of the Pensioners' Association (who spoke to "The Nation"), thinks so.

Problems emerged slowly. Under the 1996 scheme, the bank was liable to pay retirees a non-deductible lump sum amounting to 24 times his or her salary, together with an increased monthly pension representing 90% of the last drawn salary. That had to be accounted for in the Pension Trust Fund. That had to be paid. And that payment had to be justified.

What happened next was arbitrary. To compensate for the huge liability that the 1996 scheme created, the management in effect "froze" the Variable Cost of Living Allowance (VCOLA) for those who fell under it. This was done with no procedure or announcement. It meant that the allowance payable and paid at that time continued without adjustment. To date.

The injustice, Rusiripala explains, lies in the rift between those who continue to draw the variable COLA and those to whom the 1996 scheme applies. In the latter case, the allowance is the same as it was when they applied for their pension. So a person drawing a cost of living allowance of 5,000 rupees at retirement would get that amount even now. A person retiring before 1996 would get it varied.

We can assume this was a mistake. We can assume this wasn't fraud. We can also assume other things. Things that are yet to be proven. Like how the Pensioners' Association, after all this time, is yet to come to a settlement. Or how lawyers representing the Bank have managed to defer reasonable settlement, on grounds of what Rusiripala claims are irrelevant legal points.

This last of these is interesting. Rusiripala accuses the Bank's lawyers of raising objections on immaterial grounds.

Here’s what happened. In 2009, the Association appealed to the Labour Tribunal. In face of objections by the Bank’s lawyers and their demands for withdrawal of the case, the then president of the Tribunal, V. I. Jayasuriya, refused to budge. As response the Bank appealed. To courts.

When the dispute reached the Court of Appeal, the judge withdrew the entire case (number CA 262/10). This was on condition that the Bank could raise the same objection(s) as before should the dispute arise again.

Two more arbitrators followed. The Bank questioned the first’s legitimacy on grounds of his perceived “interest” in the case. The second withdrew himself from it altogether after his appointment. Now the pinch to all this, Rusiripala says, is in what would happen even if an arbitrator is appointed again. Since the original case was withdrawn on the condition that the Bank could raise the same objection(s) as before, its lawyers probably would delay the case once more through appeal.

We can, of course, infer that this is what lawyers do. We can reserve judgment and say that all those legal issues raised by them are innocent. And justified. In the meantime, however, settlement is being delayed.

As Rusiripala tells me, the pensioners he represents were set to benefit from the 1996 scheme.  But by freezing the VCOLA to compensate for higher pension payments, the bank ended up compressing those same payments. Unreasonably.

This is worrying. It reflects badly on the bank. If at all there's a reason for a continued delay in a settlement, it is this: that if what is owed to all the affected pensioners is given in one go, the Bank will collapse.

It (almost) happened before, folks. Back in 1992, the World Bank estimated nearly four billion rupees owed by People's Bank to its Pension Fund. It foretold "bankruptcy". As at December 2014, according to Rusiripala, that debt stood at 7.9 billion. That represents a failure by the Bank to provide and set aside money for the Fund. But this debt was calculated at the then prevailing IR rate of 9%-10%. At the current rate of 7%, it would rise. It would stand at about nine billion rupees.

Now here’s the pincer: if four billion rupees (of debt) could "signal" bankruptcy 13 years ago, would it be the same with nine billion today?

This is all conjecture, we admit. Here are some other facts then. The Association has appealed repeatedly. It appealed to the former president towards the end of his term. Mahinda Rajapaksa requested the Secretary of the Treasury P. B. Jayasundera to intervene. Elections came. He lost. A new government took over. The Association has appealed again.

Through all this, one thing stands out: the fate of all those affected.

Let's not forget, after all, that it is those who earned meagre salaries who are worst affected by this. Let's not forget that they worked the better part of their lives underpaid and in a (relatively) thankless job. Let's not forget that those in the Bank's top hierarchy (as well as those lawyers), who continue to defer and delay what these people want, are earning big bucks. And let's not forget the demand made by Pensioners' Association: to resume with the VCOLA without making it retrospective, that is without settling the entire amount owed to affected pensioners since 1996.

In this context it would pay to respond. The Bank has nothing to lose. Unless it chooses to do nothing. Right now, that's not a good option. If allegations are indeed worth a dime a dozen, it's time People's Bank stood up. Time it offered justification. To the people.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Those difficult first days

First days can be terrible. You've spent six years at home, after all. Coming to this new place you've never seen before, trying to adjust yourself to it, isn't easy, therefore. It takes time. For six years, you've spent time with your mother and father. Meeting new people and accepting them as your new role models will be tough.

That's why you need patience. Why you need to adjust. The first few days and weeks, yes, will be pressurising. But live through them all, and you will begin to relish all those 13 years you spend.

I know a mother whose son hated school. Didn't like it. Didn't want to go there. Perhaps this was because he had grown so attached to her, but the truth was that no matter what day it was, he would sit outside his class watching and waiting for her to come. She never did. But he would do this every day, so much so that he didn't pay much attention to what the teachers were saying.

It took some time for him to realise that his mother wasn't going to come. For six hours every day, therefore, he had to bear with it. He didn't like that. Waiting for mothers at school isn't easy. We are talking about six hours spent over five days a week, getting to know people your age and other people you've never met before. You feel intimidated. You want to get out.

The mother found a solution. The boy loved numbers. He loved to calculate. When a few weeks had gone and he still wasn't interested in going to school, she broke down some figures for him. She told him that while there are 24 hours in a day, you sleep through eight of them and attend school through another six. That leaves out 10 hours spent away from school and sleep.

She then revealed some more numbers to the boy. She calculated the number of hours he spent at home every year. The number was 7,590. The boy asked "How?" The mother explained. There are 365 days each year. That includes 90 vacation days and 80 more weekend-days. 90 added to 80 is 170. Multiply that by 24 and you get 4,080 hours.

She then factored in school-days. That's 365 minus 170, which is 195 days (or 4,680 hours). Take out the six hours spent at school every day, which leaves 18 hours at home (eight of which are slept through), and you have 3,510 hours at home. Add that to the number of hours in vacation time and weekends, and you have a total of 7,590 hours. Not bad, given that there are 8,760 hours every year.

The boy was amazed. Numbers fascinated him. Given that he was spending barely 13 percent of his time every year at school, he never felt upset again. He went to school as he usually did. But without dismay or anger. The numbers had done the trick.

There are other ways of course. First days aren't that hard, provided you know how you get through them. The truth is that while going away from home isn't bearable, that's what life is going to be. You are not going to live with the same people. Not all the time. You are going to meet new people, live with them, and even separate as time goes by.

But I don't think this is anything to get worried about. Experience after all is exciting. Life is all about new experiences. It's about getting to know new things. The world would be dull without them, wouldn't it? That is why you need them. Why you need to bear up with getting away from what you love. And the reason isn't too hard to see. You can't always be with what you like. You need to separate. Life, let's not forget, isn't all about what you like. That at any rate is what first days teach you.

Written for: The Nation JEANS, June 20 2015

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Madura's story

Madura Kulatunge isn’t naïve. He doesn’t know fame the way others do. Doesn’t bother him. He still does what he’s always done. He knows his stuff and my guess is that nothing short of “perfect” will ever suit him. Ordinarily this would unnerve anyone. Not with Madura. He can appear friendly but he’s shrewd enough to spot out anything that jars and disturbs. In his line of work that’s natural. It counts.

He is known as creator of probably the most useful dictionary a Sri Lankan can find online. He takes and everyone else gives him credit for that. He deserves more. But I reserve judgment. For now.

Madura was born on March 23, 1980 in Matara. He was educated at Royal College. I ask him whether his school imparted to him a love for computers and software, and he readily affirms that. “We had a computer society,” he tells me, “But that was more or less limited to those who came from the necessary background. We didn’t know much about software. Our only experience was limited to visits we made to an internet café in Union Place, where we’d surf the web every day.”

He sat for his A/Levels in the Commerce stream (“I didn’t even pursue Science!”). This was in 1999. But his journey really began a few years after leaving College, when he pursued a Diploma in Computing at the National Youth Centre in Maharagama. “Back then I didn’t know how to operate a computer, next to nothing about hardware, and absolutely nothing about software. It was a big deal just to know how to power one up!” His stint at the Youth Centre apparently changed all that. He explains how.

“We had teachers who knew their stuff. They taught in English and I admit I found that hard, given my deficiencies in that language. On the other hand, they taught me so well that I took in everything they said. There was one Korean teacher who managed to get us all interested in what he said. None of them came and taught with the intention to earn. We could see they loved what they did.

“I remember playing a music file with my friends once. There were four people to one computer, as I recall. Back then we didn’t know how to use Media Player. We used another program. Either way, listening to music was prohibited. But when a teacher saw what we were doing, he just came up to us and played that file for us! That showed how readily they inferred and approved of our ‘thirst’ to know more.”

In the meantime he got his first computer. “We were not rich back then. Both my parents were civil servants. We paid for the computer using my father’s gratuity. It cost about 55,000 rupees back then in June 2001: a Pentium III 733 Mhz PC, quite advanced for its time here and certainly worth its weight in gold.”

I ask him how he found the Diploma useful those days. “Most people would go there to just pass, because the exams certainly weren’t easy. I on the other hand loved to attend lectures. I always wanted to more than pass, because I guess the subject got close to me. The teachers were encouraging as well. You see, computing isn’t a subject you learn just to pass. There’s something beyond that you aim at.”

There are other anecdotes. Other memories. Madura reveals them all. “Soon after completing my Diploma at the Youth Centre, I was enrolled at Abacus Computers. That was for a Special Diploma in Information Technology, which like the previous diploma wasn’t well recognised. But I learnt much about programming there. Like Visual Basic.”

This is where he met his first turning point. “I remember going to Sarasavi and buying a book on VB. Back then we were recommended those ‘Sam’s Teach Yourself’ tutorial books. In fact that is what I tried to get that day. But my eyes fell on this other book, and for some reason, after quickly going through it, I found it much more endearing. Yes, it was in English. But based on all those illustrations and on what I was learning at class then, I found it interesting. That is why I bought it.”

Apparently Madura hadn’t found it easy to read the entire book. But he did one thing. He read it from page one, which, as he tells me, benefited him in the end. “The book, even in the first few chapters, went through the logic or rationale behind programming and coding. We weren’t really taught that at class. There were also those grey areas our teachers didn’t really look into. The book explained those as well.”

His language-deficiency reminded, however, and for this reason it remained a barrier for him. That is why he resorted to referring dictionaries, particularly the Malalasekera English-Sinhala dictionary, in reading that book. “That was when I realised the value of those books,” he tells me, “Because we didn’t have quick reference guides through the internet, for the simple reason that we didn’t have internet. Dial-up was expensive and not many people could afford it. Certainly not us.”

After teaching himself the finer points of Visual Basic, Madura then decided to apply what he’d learnt. He made a program. A dictionary. He admits he had to resort to Malalasekera to find the words and transcribe them, but at the end of the day, the idea for the program remained his. Besides, another point stood in his favour. This was the fact that not many Sri Lankans were designing apps like that during his time.

He explains what happened next. “I tested my program on several friends’ computers. The trial period lasted for about one month. When my friends started calling me back and telling me how useful it was, I decided to release it.” I ask him here whether he had any intention to earn from this venture. “Not at all,” he says, admitting however that he had a rather egocentric desire to see others use and be happy with his program.

And so, on November 23, 2002, he launched the dictionary. “The program was priced at 300 rupees by the seller. I gave it to him for 200 rupees. The cost built up to about 75 rupees after factoring in the printing and packaging for it. So in the end I earned about 125 rupees as profit, although there was some vital equipment I had to spend on. Everything was pretty expensive back then, after all. A mere CD writer cost about 10,000 rupees, mind you! So it wasn’t all easy-peasy.”

Madura has other qualifications. He passed out as a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer in 2005. He pursued a MSc in Computing from the Sikkim Manipal University, through ICBT campus. When his product began soaring, he was also recognised by the University of Moratuwa when he was invited to address a symposium. This was after he had launched his product on the web in 2008.

The symposium (which was held in September 2009) had been a career-turner. “Professor Gihan Dias, who was pretty well known in the country, actually called me to address the gathering. He told me to just come and present my website. But I wanted to do more. Instead of just unveiling something, I made a presentation and explained to the audience the entire backdrop to my program. They were enthralled. I remember Professor J. B. Dissanayake congratulating everyone gathered there.”

It was around this time that he began to realise and appreciate the concept of intellectual property. “When we were small, we didn’t know much about copyrights. We thought that software was freeware, essentially. That is why I didn’t have inhibitions in using Malalasekera. But when I realised what I was doing was wrong, I began respecting what others had created. That work put into creating something can’t be measured. To copy it is wrong. I have made that a principle in whatever I’m doing right now.”

There were other milestones of course. Last year he released the Android application for his program (“I designed it on April 9 and released it 11 days later”). His website is now currently among the 50,000 most visited websites in the world (“competing with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, mind you”), and the 51st most visited in Sri Lanka (“competing with outside websites accessed by local and foreigner here alike”) at www.alexa.com.

His credits are impressive. It’s as simple as that.
I ask him whether it’s all been worth it. He hasn’t enjoyed fame the way some others in his position would have, after all. Before answering that he reflects back a little. “I was asked to sell what I designed at various points. I could have. But I didn’t. Businessmen and companies undercut what my concept really meant to me. I don’t intend to part with it. At all. That is what I created, and while I remain thankful to those who made it possible, I admit that my creation is my own. So yes, it’s all been worth it.”

You don’t see people like Madura Kulatunga every day. Certainly not here. He is different. That is because he sees things radically. He can spot out a fake and I know for a fact that he has made this a guiding principle in his life and career. That, at any rate, is enough to commend and recommend him.

Let me be more clear. He has verve. He's friendly. And inventive. A rare combination, you must admit.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sumitra Peries defies male bastion

There aren't many directors who can compare with Sumitra Peries. She has not directed a great many films. She doesn’t have a huge resume to her name. But in her work, and especially in the best of her work, there is something which has eluded most directors here. It is this and not merely what critics usually attribute to her which has helped her overcome the limitations of a patriarchal society, especially in an industry where men are said to make the moves and women hardly move in at all. That certainly is achievement.

Peries has made barely 10 films. Hardly a notable filmography. Every director has his or her defining mark and for Sumitra Peries this has been the conflict between the landed gentry and the lower class. It is this more than anything else which defines the drama in most of her films. All too often, she has a tendency to infuse melodrama into this central conflict: in Gehenu Lamai and, more significantly, Yahalu Yeheli. The only notable exception to this is to be seen in Sagara Jalaya, where the conflict is more inward, more insular: situated in a village milieu, the clash there is between members of the village peasantry.

I will come to Sagara Jalaya later. For now, it is important to note that in addition to the central conflict (based on class differentials) which makes up most of the drama of her films, Peries infuses or rather supplements this with a conflict of another sort: one rooted in gender differentials. Arguably, this is what differentiates her films from those of any other director in Sri Lanka (and, with a few exceptions, in South Asia).

It is the combination of these two factors which accounts for the level of quality (or the unevenness of it) in her work. In Gehenu Lamayi, for instance, the central drama of the conflict – between the landed gentry represented by Ajith Jinadasa and the peasantry represented by Vasanthi Chathurani – is rarely if at all subsumed by the tension generated by the romance between the two. In Ganga Addara, on the other hand, the central conflict, which is represented by the class-gap between Chathurani and Sanath Gunathilake, is effectively made an instrument of melodrama. The evenness of the former and the unevenness of the latter film can be judged on this basis.

Ganga Addara was a commercial success. So was Gehenu Lamayi. So were all her other films. What accounts for this? The Sinhala cinema after all has never maintained a positive relationship between critical and commercial appeal. In Peries’ case one may argue that her choice of subject-matter has kept this relationship. Some of her films have been based on popular Sinhala literature, after all: both Gehenu Lamayi and Yahalu Yeheli were adaptations of novels written by Karunasena Jayalath.
There is another reason, however. This is probably Peries’ ability to infuse or rather amalgamate popular elements of the Sinhala cinema with serious plot-lines. This in turn is based on how well the two conflicts she bases her stories on – class differentials and the tension of romance – are balanced throughout the film. Ganga Addara, which was her most popular film, tilts this balance in favour of a tragic love story. Sagara Jalaya, which wasn’t a hit at the box-office, does away with any romance or melodrama whatsoever to present what I would say her most austere, pure story.

The film deserves more than a footnote. Until Sagara Jalaya, Peries limited the conflicts of her plot-lines to the families engaged in it. In other words, the conflict always presents problems for one individual, and it is in the deeply rooted poignancy of his or her suffering that we are moved to empathy. In Sagara Jalaya, on the other hand, the drama of the story is not limited to “Heen Kelle” (Swarna Mallawarachchi), but rather to her child, whose father, the envy of the village (played by H. A. Perera), dies early on in the story.

The central conflict in the story, unlike her other work, is rooted in how the child sees it. More significantly, the tension generated in the plot – between the stubborn resolve of Heen Kelle and the animosity of her family (with the exception her brother-in-law, played by Ravindra Randeniya in a way that makes us doubt his motives) – is intensified by how it spills over to the boy. His friendship with Randeniya’s daughter sours when Heen Kelle lashes at her: when he bemoans his loneliness, his mother affirms her resolve, almost irrationally. We feel sympathy for her, but not to the extent where we empathise with her every step of the way.

Peries’ greatest strength always was her way of depicting women in conflict. In Heen Kelle she creates the archetypal woman towards which every heroine in Sinhala cinema soars. This is not an exaggeration. This is an arguable fact. This is also owing in no small part to how Swarna Mallawarachchi plays her: resolved, but still irrationally averse to outside help. She spots out and calls a spade a spade, and whether imagined or not she accuses everyone of harbouring animosities against her.

This merely worsens her situation, predictably, and at the end, the boy, grown up and matured in a way that makes it easier for him to empathise with her, writes a letter to his uncle in town, asking for a job. That is all he can do, and it is when we realise this that the story’s harsh, gritty poignancy strikes at us. The absence of a proper musical score adds to this: like in Dadayama, here too, spare music adds to the harshness of the drama in the story. It is pertinent here to note that Swarna Mallawarachchi played the “heroine” and Premasiri Khemadasa composed the music in both films.

Directors change. Sumitra Peries has and hasn’t. Her later films display a willingness to explore other themes, but not at the cost of foregoing her main preoccupation: the plight of women in a patriarchal society. In Maya and Yahaluwo, separated by decades and themes, she explores a society that can almost be seen to be at odds with the themes she usually delves into.

In the latter film she thematises the impact of the civil war on interracial marriage and how children are affected by notions of race and racism. One can argue that her story is simplistic but then again it was meant to be, given the scope and canvas of the film. In the former film, she weaves her usual concern for maternity and feminity in a supernatural plot. The result is an unevenly paced film which teeters between melodrama and implausibility, fast-paced in one sequence and slowed down in the very next.

Sakman Maluwa is a different kettle of fish. In that film, praised by critics and audiences alike, Peries explores the theme of forbidden love. I remember mentioning to an eminent critic that the story in that film was allegorical, in that it contained certain elements – a woman, a man, a snake, and a garden – which lend to the story an almost mystical, unsettling atmosphere. This critic argued that such allegories were too explicitly revealed and exposed to remain as allegories, and in fact the entire purpose of the story was lost by the way these elements were revealed.

Correct, but this does not de-validate the film itself. True, the way the themes are laid out makes it impossible to identity it as an allegory, but on the level of serious cinema it works. It works not just because of the casting choices (with Kanchana Mendis giving one of her best performances onscreen), but also in how the theme of the story – that of tabooed love – is played out.

And in her upcoming film Vaishnavee, Peries promises us the next level to which she has taken her career: that of magic realism (as she puts it). It represents a turning point of sorts because while Maya delved into the supernatural it did so with a hint of mysticism. In Vaishnavee there is no mysticism. Only the fantastic and the magical. I shouldn’t reveal spoilers and probably shouldn’t reveal the plot at all, but the story involves a sculptor who, via a Pygmalionesque plot-device, wishes the sculpture of a woman he has made to come alive (which predictably is what happens).

Sumitra Peries’ greatest strength has been in the way she balances the two conflicts which feature in her stories - based on class and the tension of romance (in turn based on gender differentials). Perhaps it is on this count that the success of Vaishnavee can and will be judged. For now, however, we reserve judgment. And for now, this will do.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 20 2015

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Farewell Sir Christopher

He came to Sri Lanka as Dracula. Not many here would know Hammer Pictures today, but back then when B-movies took us in as quickly as Hollywood did, he enthralled and frightened. That is how my grandfather's generation got to know him.

Christopher Lee wasn’t like some of his colleagues. He wasn't typecast. Yes, he was a villain in practically every role. No, he didn’t look (or sound) heroic. But typecast? Not really. He wasn’t limited to the same role. Wasn’t stuck with the same character. Like Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark, and John Carradine, his performances were all “variations” of the same thing. Not that it bothered him, but in the end that is how he was and will be remembered.

He wasn’t “great” the way his contemporaries were. He neither won nor was nominated for any of the big awards. No Oscars. No Golden Globes. He was awarded a fellowship at BAFTA. But that was honorary. For someone who took part in more than 250 films this is remarkable, but he had a following that compensated for this. There was a cult which paid homage to him and which he had to keep up with. If at all he was typecast (which I doubt), this was the reason.

Not that it got in his way. Unlike most other villains, we got to love and hate him.

But what was it really? What was it about Lord Summerisle, Francisco Scaramanga, Doctor Catheter, and Lord Saruman that made us admire and fear them? Few can deny that these were repulsive characters. They weren’t evil in an unredeemable way (unlike Dracula) but they were evil. Yes, there were sequences where they could have opted for redemption. But they never did. They always went back. Reverted. And lost.

In Gremlins 2: The New Batch, which had one of his most (ironically) lovable performances, he stole the show. The film after all was a parody of itself. It wasn’t long before it got to parody him.

In a brilliant sequence only a parodist could come up with, one of the monsters in the film drinks a potion. It cowers and screeches inside a cocoon. Then it spreads out. Transforms into a bat. A tune from Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" plays up, and Lee blinks on. He’s disturbed. Like he’s seeing an inverted, perverted version of himself. A thinly veiled Dracula.

That is why it jarred when he tried to redeem himself halfway through. That is why, when he died one of the most ridiculous deaths a film could conjure up, we finally realised what his characters stood for. They weren’t just unredeemable. They couldn't be redeemed.

That was Lee. Complicated. Towering. Unrepentant.

Not that there weren’t performances that lacked merit. He was Ian Fleming’s cousin and the first choice for the villain in Dr No. So when he finally got to play the antagonist in a Bond film, we were happy. But in The Man with the Golden Gun, he disappointed. Granted, Francisco Scaramanga remains one of the more enigmatic Bond villains, but in a film where he (and Roger Moore) seemed to act well and every other element (including the plotline) tottered along, it wasn’t memorable the way we’d have wanted him to be.

He wasn’t really Dracula the same way Boris Karloff was Frankenstein. Yes, it was the role he was born to play. Yes, almost all his credits were variations of that blood-sucking Count and all his gruesomeness. But flip through Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and compare that with Lee to spot the difference. Lugosi was both expressive and subtle. There was less gore with him. More talk.

My friend Chris Nonis, who knows more about films than I ever can, has this to say here:

"When you think of Dracula, it's very hard to think beyond Bela. The black and white image of his faces, his eyes, his sleek hair combed back, and his black cape pretty much come before anything else. But if you can take a step back and analyse Lee and Bela, I think Lee had more merit. He did not get enough lines. But he had an amazing voice. He was creepy, but there was something very graceful about the way he portrayed the character."

Chris is correct. Lee was different. He was more expressive. Less subtle. For a B-movie that was full of gore and (almost) nothing else, Hammer’s “Dracula” was probably meant to shock more than enthral, and this probably explains why Lugosi rules supreme. Even today. It also explains why as time went by Lee grew tired of that part (he was so disgusted by the script in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, for instance, that he refused to speak in it at all).

Still. When Karloff came and played Frankenstein, that was the end of Lugosi, who didn’t get to know or keep fame as Lee did. Neither did Lee know fame the way some of those his typecast friends did. It worked both ways for him, in the end. Happily.

His association with Hammer Pictures didn’t leave him content, which may be why he left. But take one of his gory performances there – even one of his more sensitive roles, like Sir Henry Baskerville from Hammer’s take on the Sherlock Holmes story – and see how he could never quite get away from that same association. That stood with him throughout. Till the very end.

There was honesty wherever he was, to put it simply. That was the Hammer touch.

He’s departed now. Gone on. It wasn’t sudden but that doesn’t tone down grief. For someone who entertained me and my grandfather, he bridged generations and still retained that calm and stern demeanour he was born with (his aristocratic background would have helped).

No, I’m not qualified to praise or blame him. No, I can’t attempt analysis. But I will say this. He entertained and kept us in fear. We grew with that in mind. So when his characters became repulsive (as Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring, he almost disappointed us when he appeared friendly with Ian McKellen's Gandalf – before he showed off his evil side to him, of course!), we celebrated.

And it’s not hard to see why. He never failed to turn out a good performance. Even in a bad film. That’s rare, certainly. Likable too.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 20 2015

Monday, June 22, 2015

The last of the Trinity

There is a sequence in Delovak Athara I'm drawn to every time I see it. It unveils towards the end. Nissanka, our hero, is brooding by a lake. He is questioning himself, wondering whether to go to the police and confess his crime of running over a pedestrian.

There's guilt here. He's at a crossroads. Should he or shouldn't he?

The camera then zooms in on his face. It is a face that stuck in my mind then and there. One that betrays suffering. One that seeks punishment for guilt. One that registers in you the minute you see it. Like Renée Falconetti's Joan of Arc.

Nissanka Wijesinghe, like James Stewart in Vertigo and Cary Grant in North by Northwest, played what is referred to as an Everyman, a character on whom the entire thrust and pace of the film is based. But there's something else here. Nissanka wasn't a character seen in our cinema before. We didn't have Everymen in our films. Not until this one.

He was our first Everyman, in other words. Truly a landmark.

Nissanka was played by Tony Ranasinghe. Ranasinghe passed away last Tuesday. He is mourned, yes, and for a reason. More on that a little later.

As a child who grew up disliking Sinhala films, there were faces that stayed with what little I saw. Like Gamini Fonseka. I could never forget his braggadocio no matter what film he was in. There was also Joe Abeywickrema, but somehow or the other I got around seeing him play only secondary parts.

And then there was Tony. He stuck to your mind too. As both primary and secondary actor.

Most knew him as actor. Like Gamini, however, he never limited himself. He was a scriptwriter and a voracious reader. His memory, those who knew him intimately will tell you, was phenomenal. Theories didn't interest him the way they did with others, but that didn't stop him from poring over books and trying to understand more about his craft. His career. In the end, that became his life.

I've read about actors who made it their goal to blend in with the character they played. Tony wasn't like that. Even when I interviewed him, he made it clear. Method acting, with its emphasis on being the character and "forgetting" yourself, wasn't for him.

This may have had to do with his background in the theatre. He never let go of it. Or to be more clear, it never let go of him. Sugathapala de Silva, who set off a revolution with his "Ape Kattiya", took in Tony and moulded him. As he told me last year, it was "Ape Kattiya" which got him into the cinema (he was Baladasa in Gamperaliya, with the roles of Tissa, Vijaya, and Laisa played by three of his colleagues from de Silva's group). His penchant for keeping actor and character apart, then, must have been rooted here.

There was something more here, however. Although he spurned the Method, he was flexible. He absorbed himself. That is why the rift between Nissanka in Delovak Athara and Fernando in Baddegama didn't really jar. Because he understood acting for what it was: a process of submersion (into role) and reflection (on oneself).

He also wrote scripts. Towards the latter part of his life, on film and television, that is what he became famous for. He never really kept a guiding principle here, but for the most part his scripts remained faithful to what was being adapted. Like in Awaragira, where its duration (almost three hours) bore witness to how faithful he was to the original. Perhaps that is why, when I asked him about how best a novel could be turned into a script, he was adamant that script must reflect source. Some would disagree here, but that was how he worked. We remember him more because of that.

My teacher (and voracious "reader" of cinema) Asela Srinath has this to say about the man: "Tony didn't come from an acting background. But he understood what he did. He wasn't just an actor playing a middle-class University student in Hanthane Kathawa. He was that student. He wasn't just an actor playing a village schoolteacher in Parithyagaya. He was that teacher." For a man who did not "take to" the Method, he probably knew more about taking the role in than anyone else in his field.

So what was it with him that stood out? Chandran Rutnam, who more than once collaborated with him, offers an answer: "Tony was the closest to a Montgomery Clift or a James Dean we had here. His sensitiveness was apparent in every role he played, particularly in his early career. The characters he got were all fragile. They were also handsome. This strange duality shaped him up as an actor who could play heroes, but heroes who were almost always defeated."

Tony didn't just play heroes. He played heroes who lost. They were all defeated. Alienated.

Actors change. He was no exception. He jarred a little with his first villainous part in Ran Salu. He followed this with Ahasin Polawata, Baddegama, Yahalu Yeheli, Sisila Gini Gani, and Saptha Kanya. Like I wrote before, these did not jar. They were all played by the Tony we knew. And loved. That was how he became peerless.

Perhaps that was also what distinguished him. We may never know.

His death is mourned for another reason. He came from a generation that bred Gamini and Joe. He was part of the Trinity which had both. When they died, he became the last. And when he died, so did that Trinity. Small wonder there was such an outpouring of grief.

Goodbye Mr Tony. There will be tributes to you. Praise too. All unneeded. All superfluous.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, June 20 2015