Wednesday, July 29, 2015

For William

I didn't read much as a boy. Most of what I read were prescribed by school. Occasionally though, I took in other writers. They were fun. Some were uninteresting. Some took to me till the end. Most didn't. Others sustained my interest throughout. They were rare.

There were two books that caught me in particular. I was in Grade Four then, desperate to go beyond what was recommended for us. 

The first one was Oscar Wilde's Happy Prince and Other Stories. That was prescribed. It was a collection. There were some seven or eight tales. All magical. All allegorical. Not everything stuck to memory, but the few that did fascinated me. I never knew what a soul was, for instance, until I read "The Fisherman and His Soul". The teacher had a hard time explaining, I remember.

The other, to me the better of the two, was Just William. The book had an author. Richmal Crompton. She was no Oscar Wilde in that her stories didn't need allegory or magic to move us. It was the first time that I was introduced to a genre of books I'd never read until then. I didn't know what it was called, but as I read Crompton more I coined a term: "boy-fiction".

There were other books about boys and their exploits, and among them Enid Blyton was more popular. But Crompton was better. Not many know this, though. I know for a fact that while Sri Lankan kids adore Anne, George, Dick, Julian, and Timmy they are yet to fully take to William, Jumble, Ginger, Henry, and Douglas. There's a reason for this, obviously. More on that a little later.

But what was it about William that took us in? Here was a boy, an ordinary boy at that, from a middle-class background. He has his adventures, yes, and nearly every one of them lands him in some form of trouble. He has his enemies. He both loathes and befriends girls. And above all, he loathes restriction.

I realised later on that it wasn't just William who took us in. It was what he represented. The essence of any boy that age.

Let me explain. What made Crompton's stories so popular was the way she made her characters universal. They lived, talked, and behaved as English boys. But in what they did, how they talked, and the way they behaved, they could not have been further from boys their age here. They were as adventurous as Tom Sawyer, if not more naive. They believe the most magical things in the world but at the end scorned magic itself. They were a bundle of self-contradictions. All of them.

Let's be honest. Aren't all boys like that?

If this made Crompton stand out, then why couldn't she achieve the same popularity Blyton could? Perhaps it was Crompton's biggest strength that became a weakness. William Brown was (as Malinda Seneviratne aptly put it) "created from the ancient dust that makes up the heart of the universal boy." That boy could have been you or me. He could have been anyone.

Blyton's stories didn't have children like that. They were all rooted in one setting, and wherever they went, this always was what provoked them to do what they did. There were no shifts or quirks of character. They remained sterile. That is why we both love and feel inclined to disbelieve most of her stories. Even her "Famous Five" series, for instance, are treated this way. We may not have admitted it, but for all their adventures and that wonderment, we never failed to wonder why or how the Five were allowed to go off alone by their parents. That enthralled us.

With William, on the other hand, this never happened. William's parents (and siblings) are clueless about him. They never come across him until it's too late. That is what provoked hilarity in episode after episode. At an age when incredulity was accepted and the laws of possibility were ignored however, Crompton's stories (unfortunately) could be appreciated for the most part by those who had outgrown Blyton.

This wasn't just a matter of taste. It also had to with the language used by both writers. Blyton's prose was more bland. Less colourful. It told the story as it was. Warts and all. With Crompton, on the other hand, there was wit and sarcasm everywhere. There was subtlety. It takes age to appreciate that.

Take the story "William, Prime Minister", where William and his friends assume political positions and vie for power. Hilarity ensues, yes, but consider the following exchange between Henry (who represents socialism) and his "audience":

"Ladies and gentleman," began Henry, encouraged by his reception, "I'm goin' to make a speech to you about Socialism. Socialism means takin' other people's money off 'em. Well, think how much richer we'd be if we'd got other people's money as well as our own."

"It's wrong to steal," said a small but earnest boy who had won the Sunday School Junior prize last quarter.

"Yes, but it's not stealin' when you do it by lor," said Henry, "We'd do it by lor."

"You'd get put in prison," said the Sunday School prodigy, "that's what happens to people who take other people's money. They get put in prison. And serve 'em jolly well right."

The conflict between Henry the Socialist and the boy from Sunday School can, on one level, be taken to indicate the rift between socialism and organised religion. Henry's assertion that it's not stealing "when you do it by lor" is a classic statement on moral relativism. And the boy's emphasis on the law as a means of boycotting all what Henry the Socialist represents indicates the congruence of religion and law in their mutual opposition to Marxism.

That's just one level though. At another level, it is what it is: Henry the junior socialist against one naive boy's interpretation of what he stands for. Believe me, this is the way most of us understood (and enjoyed) this sequence. But consider what unfolds a few lines below:

"Whose money are you goin' to take?" said another member of the audience, emboldened by the success of the hecklers so far.

"Everyone's money that isn't a Socialist."

"An' s'pose everyone turns Socialist so's to get other people's money, what're you going to do then?"

Henry isn't stumped by this:

"'Cause there's gotter be four sorts of people same as what we are. Well, there couldn't be four sorts of people if everyone was a Socialist, could there? Stands to reason. If you'd got any sense you'd see there couldn't."

Is it just "sense" though, or the way democracy works: through the diffusion of opposing ideologies among voters?

Blyton's world didn't operate this way. There were no allegories. It took a certain Britishness to appreciate her work. In a way, this was what made her books so popular. That explains why Crompton's success could never match hers. Not that this makes her the lesser writer, of course. I still believe that for all her use of simple and undulating language, Blyton's prose was ridden with an insufferably conservative attitude towards class. It not only reinforced class-rifts, but also could get xenophobic and even racist at times. This is not to mention its condescending attitude towards women.

That's another story, though. For another time.

I'm grateful to Crompton. I'm proud to have been a fan. I still am. Somewhere down the line, when I'm old enough to think I'm still a boy (yes, it's ironic), I'll go back to William. If the link's strong enough, I'll even become what he eternally got to be. And I will be happy.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Foxes, Hedgehogs, and 'Myself'

Some people know only one thing. They base action and decision on that.  Others know everything. They take the world for what it is: endless and limitless. It's only natural in this world we inhabit that those who think they know everything know very little. They are hedgehogs. Know-alls who know everything under the sun are rare. They are foxes.

Long ago, a man maths students both love and love to hate said something: "I think, ergo I am". That's probably one of the most quoted lines out there. Few believe this. Some people don't think after all, but that hardly means the world doesn't exist. What stands out therefore is what the "I" in his statement means.

Is there an "I" beyond self? Some reality existing beyond I/You dichotomies? Modifying the above quote, is there a "you" because there is an "I"? Are the two interdependent to a point where the one cannot exist without the other? Or is the "fact" of there being no "I" but a mass of flesh and bone which suffers and dies so strong you might as well convince yourself that there is no reality?

Now an "I" beyond self is impossible. Self is a fiction. When you interact, argue, and debate, the I/You dichotomy kicks in. That's what defines the world according to self and that's what sustains it. Yes, one might as well say the world runs on an illusion. But that isn't a big surprise any longer, is it? If a monosyllable can be used to refer to a mass of living matter and this world consists of a billion such monosyllables put together, it has to be a mirage.

So where do foxes and hedgehogs fit in?

Foxes think beyond self. Writers, rebels, artists, composers, even architects fall under this category. They know this fiction called "I" can't last. They appreciate the finer nuances of life. They know nothing lingers forever. That “self-myths” don't offer much by way of life.

Not everyone behaves like this. Not every artist thinks there's a world beyond self. Not every composer can be humble enough to let go of ego in their music. This isn't to say they think no end of themselves. We all have hubris and pride. That is why we're hedgehogs at heart. We're born that way.

Let's think of an example. Mozart and Beethoven. Both are giants. Both authors of some of the most beautiful compositions the world has tasted. They adorn wherever we are whenever their music is played out. Hardly people you'd draw a line in-between.

But there is a line. One that divides.

Mozart's compositions were all spontaneous. He took in not only what he loved but so much more. Yes, we can be sure he lived a life. But the man who made all those masterpieces wasn't the man who suffered that life. The two were different. Clean different. That is why he did not subsist on "I". Why he did not reflect self-myths in his works. Why he was a fox.

Now take Beethoven. He wasn't spontaneous. Almost all his works are defined by an affirmation of self and a world according to "me". "Power is the morality of those who stand out from the rest," he once said. "and it is mine." Indeed.

In his case hence, both composition and composer were one. Like works of art generated based on narrow experience(s), his music (especially towards the end of his career) all reflect his thirst for life, arguably quenched in his masterpiece – the Ninth Symphony.

Think about it. All those flourishes, larger-than-life chords, and rhythms both simple and throbbing with energy: these could only come from a tormented soul, in search of a means of expressing self even when it could not hear (he was deaf). So yes, that celebration of life as he lived it was caught with what he created. A hedgehog? Certainly.

Now here's the question. Would you want the world to be defined as per “I” and “You”? Would you want to believe it exists because you think you do? Or would you take the world for what it is, free of this fiction called "self" and boundless therefore?

Putting this in another way, would you be a hedgehog, including "I" in what(ever) you do? Or would you be a fox, doing just the opposite? A Beethoven? Or a Mozart?

This is a tribute (of sorts) to Regi Siriwardena and his essay on Isaiah Berlin's "The Hedgehog and the Fox"

Written for: The Nation FREE, July 25 2015

Monday, July 27, 2015

Let's all be the boys we (once) were

Some boys barely talk. Others talk all the time. Both like to talk what they know and for this reason there's engagement with what's being discussed. There's no small talk, in other words. No gossip. Only an examination of topic and debate. Part of the reason is that kids are honest. They never if at all stray into what they don't know, and when they do they never plead ignorance reluctantly. They plead it. At once. 

There's one boy I know who doesn't talk. He's “smart” but not in a way that word is applied to kids his age. His grades are high but not that high. He is consistent in opinion, maintains argument, and constructively engages with opponent. Rare, especially for a 12-year-old. Not everyone talks to him the way they do with each other but that doesn't ruffle his feathers.

I'll call him Navindu.

I met him sometime back. He was one of a kind. In what he talked about, the positions he held, and the interests he pursued, there was something which put him at odds with the rest of his classmates. He was ignored. For the most. This is not to say he was outlawed or `teased, but others rarely brought him into conversation. Wasn't because they preferred others or had cliques which excluded him, but because talking with him was so heady that you needed to know what he knew to enjoy conversation.

He loved Sherlock Holmes, for instance. Who wouldn't? But he loved it on another plane. He loved deducing. Most boys I know read detective fiction to get to the outcome, to savour the twist whenever they reflect back on the mystery being investigated. But this one was different. He didn't just want to savour. He wanted to rationalise. In story after story, he'd analyse the reasoning and logic behind outcome and twist. Not many like that, after all. They'd prefer the ending and resolution. Nothing else.

There were other interests of course. But these alone weren't what set him apart. He also held on to opinion. He believed for one thing that reflections on mirrors were real and were living entities. He'd seen a movie which reflected (no pun intended) this and had got around believing it for some time. Ridiculous, yes, but the way he explained story-line and after-effect was mesmerising. He didn't just recount plot. He explained it, piece by piece. Not everyone could do that, certainly not as patiently and painstakingly as he did. Having got around to how he slept uneasily that night he watched it, he concluded with a flourish: "Reflections don't live, but they don't lie either." Deep.

Now relating anecdotes is easy. Being honest when doing so isn't. Naturally enough, we tend to add, subtract, and in other ways modify to suit the listener's palate when retelling. This boy wasn't like that. He told the story as it was, free of frill. That didn't lose effect, moreover. Coupled with his penchant for being amazed at the simplest things in life (a quality which evades us at that age, to be honest), he was a superb storyteller. The qualities he symbolised: patience, self-restraint, honesty, and a willingness to contend with the fantastic and question it without being gullible.

And in a way, that's what we should have done and should have been. Come to think of it, we too have a penchant to disbelieve, question, and resolve. But as we age, there's a corresponding habit to frill, succumb to authority, and accept without inquiry. Ironic, considering how from our young(er) days we're taught to do just the opposite. We're taught patience but rarely wait. We're taught to go through everything but tend to skip. We're taught to be genuine but have a penchant for copying (and stealing, please note).

Navindu's still a boy. He'll always be, I suspect. Yes, he'll grow up. Yes, he'll learn the ways of life and how unforgiving they can get. But he'll remember who he (once) was. That won't take away from him. That’ll add to his understanding of the very same things which can, with you or me, change us into people who don't have the time to recount everything, question nothing, and accept without authority. Good for him (and us), certainly.

Let's all be like him. Let’s all be little Navindus.

Written for: The Nation JEANS, July 25 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Barack Obama's moment

Thomas Friedman, writing to the New York Times, calls it a "good bad deal". Barack Obama begs to differ. He sees it differently. Not how his critics see it. Not how those who spot out the realpolitik under it see it. The president doesn't call it a game-changer. He calls it "better than the alternative."

And so we have a deal between the United States of America and Iran. Unthinkable? Certainly. Laurels aside, it vindicates diplomacy over arms and compromise over unilateralism. For the first time, it presents a sensible deal to end the nuclear crisis, amounting to this basic principle: "lower your nuclear leverage or we'll snap back sanctions on you". In terms of diplomacy, that's simple. Keeps to the point. Not that it's a cure-all, of course.

Obama himself admits this, by the way. He admits moreover that he isn't seeking other goals in the region. "We're not interested in regime change," he tells Friedman in an interview. His government may or may not have learnt from the Arab Spring. We don't know.

What we do know is this. The deal with Iran wasn't measured (completely) in relation to its impact on the rest of the region. Israel's interests may have figured in somewhat, yes. But its stance (it wants complete removal of all nuclear activity) was sidelined. That explains why and how relations between it and the USA have soured. Why the US deal is being celebrated and not just by its allies.

Now it is true that this may be eye-wash. Soft power has never been a strong point with the United States, whether in the Middle-East or in its neighbour's backyard. Since he came to power however, Obama has shown how it can be wielded and used to achieve objective. In this sense one commentator was correct. Obama knows words. His predecessor didn't. Bush was incoherent. He isn't.

He must have heard of unintended consequences, however. That's why he must take note of certain points.

For starters, Israel isn't happy. As The Economist reports, it's begun to pivot to Asia. True enough, that pivot wasn't a result of the Iranian deal but a friendly reaction to the overtures by the continent. Both sides of the Atlantic have had second thoughts on exonerating its unilateralism since of late. India and Japan have on the other hand indicated that they are ready to take it in.

Then there's the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. The US record on the Iran-Iraq War wasn't rosy, after all. It reflected badly on it, even worse considering that its government went against the same leader it supported during that conflict. Well, it's been 10 years since Saddam Hussein was executed, but some wars never die. In this context reaching out to Shiites while preserving interests in Saudi Arabia and Iraq is key. And of course, combating ISIS would have to count somewhere too.

That's why it helps to have a leader who knows negotiation for what it is. Obama is placed perfectly here. He is not his predecessor. This works both ways, because his successor must try to emulate him. Whether that's possible (even with a Democrat succeeding him) remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the deal seems and continues to be sensible. How? Three reasons.

First of all, it doesn't just make removal of sanctions conditional upon limiting nuclear potential. Rather, it removes sanctions and hints at reinstatement should promises be broken. This isn't containment. It's not appeasement. It's basic realpolitik: take risks, safeguard policy interests, and give in to assure the other side of mutuality in the agreement. Simplicity is everything, after all.

Secondly, neither the US nor its partners have privileged what can spill over to Iran's neighbours. They've focused on the centre of the deal: a historic opportunity to enter, compromise, and agree with a theocracy that's been at loggerheads with the West for decades. This is where confession of error counts. Obama may know words, but it takes more than words to do that. That's why moderates would have cheered when he implied point-blank (to Friedman) that both the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup and the decision to aid and abet Saddam Hussein were blunders. That's something.

Thirdly, it brings together two powerhouse rivals. The US and Russia haven't exactly pointed daggers at each other, but they haven't partied all night either. Obama's assertion that Russia not only agreed but lent support to the deal indicates a bringing together of two unlikely players. Exaggerations and extrapolations can be made. They can be wild. But the fact that Russia and America were together not only helps ease tensions between the two. It also assures Iran (which sees an ally in the former) and guarantees at least conditional support.

Barack Obama probably identified the deal for what it really is. Maybe that's why he said that it's built on verification. Not trust. Yes, there's a difference. As far as US interests and soft power are concerned though, it doesn't matter. The deal makes way for trust. Trust comes through verification. Simple as that.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 25 2015

Saturday, July 25, 2015

'Devánjali': Grasping the Elusive

Dancing for gods isn't easy. They're hard to please. Easy to offend. Nothing short of the deepest impulse and energy can move them. That's why you need spontaneity. And consistency. "Devánjali", the latest production by the Chitrasena Dance Company, erupted last Saturday and Sunday. Those who came, watched, and went away were pleased. In terms of spontaneity and consistency, those who performed stuck well to the show's vision. The gods were pleased.

Decades ago it was Chitrasena and Vajira who performed in the country. Then came Upeka. Now it's the third generation, who've vowed to preserve the Guru's legacy. Going by what the audience felt, that's what they did. For that, they needed a balance. They found it. That's how or rather why they brought both tradition and modernity together. For us.

The first item with the Gara Yaka was thrilling, even unsettling. It began with a bang. Literally. The yaka himself came on stage and blessed performance and spectator. That set the mood and tone for the entire show, full of vibrancy but always disciplined, never even once going overboard. Considering how productions like this slip up, that was notable.

There was one person who brightened up the stage. Thaji Dias. She captivated the audience. She kept them on the edge of their seats. In how she balanced movement, kept consistency, and fine-tuned her dance to drumbeat, they were thrilled. Those claps which greeted her were (not surprisingly) genuine. They weren't given out of politeness. They were given out of honesty. With no reservation.

Yasodhara Kariyawasam, who hadn't planned on attending the show until the last minute, was impressed. She had this to say about Thaji: "She was impeccable. She didn't jar. All her moves were calculated. To the dot. That doesn't mean she was mechanised, because in how she smiled as she danced her way, you could see enthusiasm. That's rare, especially for someone who had to exert energy as much as she had to."

Next in line was a sequence dedicated to Lord Ganesha, with three dancers – Akila, Geeth, and Dayan – showcasing talent in celebration of a deity worshiped by Hindus and Buddhists alike. This and the next item (the "pantheruwa", dedicated to Goddess Paththini) evoked a sense of inclusiveness, which as Heshma Wignaraja (choreographer and part of the Chitrasena family) said removes any "Us v Them" demarcations.

The show moved towards a crescendo here. Crescendos can jar. This one sobered. Thaji came back with a lesson on dance as a means of attaining perfection. But the item "Moksha" provided us with a paradox. How can secular art help us reach enlightenment? That's where the Guru's own take on the subject, read out as an introduction, helped:

"Why do you repeat? To emphasise, to bring home a point. Why do you hold on? Because you know it will otherwise change. How can you grasp something which is elusive? This is the beautiful paradox of the dance and of life. When you know it, you can glimpse the permanence within the impermanence."

This crescendo paved way for a well orchestrated finale. Bringing together two female dancers – Sandani and Upeka – with Thaji, the male dancers, and the drummers – brothers Susantha and Prasanna, Udaya, and Varuna – they danced their way to an interlude. That interlude wasn't merely a coming together of sound and movement. It was a challenge. A combat. Onstage. Not one which involved victory or defeat, though. The purpose of this item, as one member of the audience put it, was to take in and involve us. The spectators. Explains why it had less to do with resolution than with the shattering of barrier between audience and stage.

Chitrasena's life consisted of three strands. He came from a theatrical family. He explored his roots. He went abroad, studying as he did what both West and East could teach him. In that sense he established a base in his country before experimenting. Just like a maestro would.

That's what "Devánjali" echoed.

Chitrasena didn't die. Vajira didn't retire. Both live and dance on. Through the generation that's taking their mantle forward. And through generations that will follow.

Photos courtesy of Christopher Rebert

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 25 2015

Thursday, July 23, 2015

(Dr) Mervyn Silva's rants

(Dr) Mervyn Silva wants attention. He craves it so much that it's no wonder he was the Minister for Public Relations once. At present though, he's an orphan. Has nowhere to go. Having been denied nominations from his own party despite his overtures to President Maithripala Sirisena (he was one of "Mahinda's men" before he lost, as we know), he's seeking a way out. He's trying to find an ally. Trying to worm himself in.

This is not the first time he's tried to jump ship. Not the first time he's regretted the past and vowed to repent. If anyone reads up on his history (s)he'll come across instances where he's begged for forgiveness, promised repentance, got largesse, and broken that promise. Wherever he is, whatever he joins, he's shown himself capable of forgetting the past and doing wrong by everyone around him.

He's planning to jump again. He's launching a campaign for Ranil Wickremesinghe and his good governance brigade. He's betting on victory. To substantiate all this, he's also accusing Mahinda Rajapaksa of denying him nominations when worse rogues are campaigning from the UPFA. He then foretells doom: if Mahinda returns, so will the White Vans.

Point well made, Doctor. But well taken? Of course not.

People have preferences. Silva has his. They change as soon as his patrons do. Explains his allegation that the Rajapaksa family have taken over the SLFP. Explains why he remained blissfully unaware of what they were doing throughout these 10 years. If words are indeed worth a dime a dozen, the Doctor is selling himself. Cheaply. Yes, if it's about preferring one outcome to another and choosing the lesser evil, he's no different from most politicians.

But he's insufferable. Then again most politicians are. In his case however, he has demonstrated that he is arrogant, doesn't care for anyone's dignity, treats state property as his own, and pays obeisance to whoever calls the shots. For him, politics is all about flattering patrons. Not democracy. Not helping the voter.

The Doctor has a plan. He wants to campaign in Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara, Matara, Hambantota, and Tissamaharama. Among other districts. He's supporting the Ranil Wickremesinghe-led United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG). He's forgotten that he was once a beneficiary of the same regime whose big-shots continue to oppose those in that Front. Sure, he's offered excuses. "I was threatened," he said. "I couldn't budge," he whined. "I'm with Maithri!" he yelled. All words. All rhetoric. Cheap.

Wickremesinghe mustn't be taken in by him. Nor should Sirisena. Things are looking bleak however. Some people in their campaign have in effect "endorsed" this thug. No one who spoke as much against Mahinda Rajapaksa as they did would allow Silva in. That's what these people have done.

Let us be clear here. If Silva is taken into the campaign, it won't lose much. But it'll be blemished. Forever.

That's why he should be put out. Why Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, both would-be custodians of good governance, must come out. They must declare position. They must align with one side or the other. That side cannot include Silva. That's not because he's an orphan. Not because he'll revert to his usual antics if he's taken back in. It's because he's done this before. Pathetic if history repeats itself. Again.

The good Doctor has ranted. Time he's given a talking to. Time he's kept shut. For good.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Queen's Tongue is not (only) for speaking!

We're taught to "differentiate". Part of that differentiation comes from language. It comes from English. We know, speak, and love it. We know what it's like to speak not just well but too well. We are supposed to speak without error. There's a reason for this, obviously: because we’re spooners. We are tutored to not just read and write but master what we'd like to call "spoonerisms" (not what it traditionally means) in language-use.

For starters, language is not utilitarian. Not to us. We don't use it as a tool for communication. No. We use it to assert superiority. When polished well and spoken well, it can put those who can't polish and speak well to shame. Yes, that's what we do. We put others to shame. From shame comes a sense of knowing your worth. It shows your place and positions us automatically at the top.

Once in a while, I admit, there can be slip-ups. We may be taught that language well. But for some godforsaken reason, we can't use it as well as our grandfathers did. This wouldn't be a problem, except that since we are even worse in our "mother tongue" (God, how I detest that phrase!) those who're better in both think they're better than us. They are not.

Let me explain. We were tutored in the Queen's Tongue. That's the only language we know. But when we see those "lower" than us get their pronunciations right, we feel like puking. It's a given after all: they're supposed to get it wrong. But once in a way, you come across those who were taught in the vernacular yet can write in English without a single flaw. Doesn't bode well for us does it?

See, like I told you before, we know who to snub and who to salivate at and envy. We live on snubbing others. That's what sustains us. What drives us. So when some smart aleck comes at us and starts rambling on things we haven't heard of (in English, to make it worse!) we can do nothing else than grin and forget this (temporary) hell he or she puts us through.

So let's adjust some (common) misconceptions about us. We can't use English well. We're taught to, yes, but then again we're just taught to get a sense of superiority out of it. Others don't learn it like that. They learn it to communicate. To turn idea into word. For us, it's just a tool to get respect. An instrument. They are utilitarian. We are spooners. Big difference.

Why am I ranting about this? Because there was a time when knowing the Queen's Tongue guaranteed lifelong superiority. Not anymore. Now every Sumane and Sumana can read and write. Hence it's no longer about speaking it well. It's about speaking it everywhere. About putting down another's inability. About chiding ourselves whenever we get it wrong.

Here's the deal then. We speak badly and you speak well. Doesn't matter. We may get some stuff wrong but at the end of the day we're privileged. We'll get our scores right over you. Especially when it comes to English. Those who use it well and think that qualifies them can go to sleep. They are dreaming. Big time.

Written for: The Nation FREE, July 18 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lessons from the 'Junius Pamphlet'

Regi Siriwardena, in his memoir "Working Underground", recounts a conversation he had with Philip Gunawardena. This was in 1942. The conversation was about the (ideological) rift between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin over the latter's support for a centralised party. Siriwardena stated that this could be explained by the social contexts both were placed in: Rosa's being German democracy and Lenin's being Tsarist autocracy.

Notwithstanding that, the rift itself offers a paradox. How could two conceptions of the same ideology not find common ground? More importantly, how can it apply to the present dilemma of not just the Left in Sri Lanka but parties with which it allied itself?

The JVP is "with" the UNP today. Sure, we've heard excuses. "In the name of Democracy!" yells one. "Against a bigger evil!" shouts another. Indeed. It's not about the ideals anymore, folks. It's about votes. Big time. After all, that's what led a JVPer to state that he'd even contest from the UNP to get elected recently!

All this makes makes me think. Makes me want to revisit Rosa Luxemburg's "Junius Pamphlet".

After 1914, Europe was engaged in war. This involved a rat-race where the motive was grabbing more land in the guise of ethnic nationalism. In that context Germany, which entered the conflict belatedly and then miscalculated, paid the ultimate price: humiliating defeat. According to Luxemburg though (in her book), that defeat came up long before the War ended. It came up with the decision of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to support the "fatherland". This involved (clearly enough) support for the government.

For Luxemburg, this act signaled not the congruence of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie. It signaled a surrender of the former to the latter. Having reduced the conflict between the Allied and Central Powers to a battle for capital, she came to the conclusion that wars fought in the guise of "protecting the fatherland" would, if spearheaded by the bourgeoisie, end up curtailing freedoms given until then to the labour movement.

Luxemburg's thesis throughout was that the war was a result of certain differences within Europe. Notwithstanding the nationalist rhetoric, these differences arose due to capital interests superseding class struggles and privileging a national interest. This interest was "upheld" by a temporary curtailment of democracy.

She dissected this interest correctly. She concluded that it involved a submersion of the proletariat in a (largely) bourgeois conflict. For the most part, that explains her opposition to the SPD's support for war credits, notwithstanding the party's sustained vilification of Tsarist Russia. For her, Germany's (ill-fated) war with the Allied Powers was nothing more than a conflict between two imperialist big-shots, accentuated by the fight for more capital, finance, and geographical expansion.

What can be concluded is this. Any movement in which a national interest was at stake would become unsustainable the moment the Right took over it. A movement in which the Left played a subsidiary role, leaving room for capital interests to take over, would not only lead to an unsustainable autocracy but one which would last so long that chaos would result upon dissolution.

100 years on, we're no different. Let me explain.

Maithripala Sirisena's movement was a “Rainbow Coalition”. Well, coalitions change. After January 8, it got a little too green. That's refreshing, one might admit, especially after 20 years under the UPFA. But that didn't hide one fact: any government led by THE right-wing party here would reveal certain (inbred) contradictions which would surface eventually.

These contradictions resulted from the UNP itself. Since January 8 (if not before) it has done a good job of maintaining its right-wing character while forcing every other movement, from the Left to the Jathika Hela Urumaya (which theoretically doesn't exist anymore) to capitulate. In the absence of any viable opposition, the UNP has gone back on the January Manifesto, which explains its subsequent censorship of and crackdown on private media (along with its questionable handling of the economy).

This is called the Art of the Possible, folks.

There's not much of a parallel between Luxemburg's Germany and present-day Sri Lanka. There is one parallel though. Substitute the War for the campaign for good governance, the kowtowing of the SPD to the German government to the bankruptcy of both Old and New Left here (barring the Frontline Socialist Party), and the fight for capital during the War to the fight for (more) votes and the handing over of extravagant promises by both the SLFP and UNP, and you'll remember Duminda Nagamuwa's classic statement on the manifestos of both major parties: "Pieces of bourgeois cake served for the proletariat."

100 years after "The Junius Pamphlet", what Regi Siriwardena said of Luxemburg's position(s) is true of the FSP's stand on the current situation here. Its position is as based on the context in which it was placed (more Leftist than the JVP or LSSP) as Luxemburg’s (in her opposition to the SPD), Lenin’s (in his support for a centralised party), and Trotsky’s (in his opposition to Stalin) were.

Yes, some things never change. History does repeat. One way or another.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 18 2015

Monday, July 20, 2015

The president's colourless hue

Maithripala Sirisena knows timing. He knows when and where to declare and defend position. He knows how to mince words. How to keep to the point. That doesn't make him a statesman however. That makes him a politician. A clever and crafty one.

At present though, he's facing a problem. A big one. He isn't leading a party anymore. Doesn't appear to be. He's leading a "headless cadaver".

Gunadasa Amarasekara used that term to describe what and where the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is now. He is correct. The party is led by a man who's shown himself to be absolutely incapable of defending it.

To be fair, Sirisena has shown again and again that he can come out if pressured. That's what he did last Tuesday. To be sure, what he said about his decision to nominate his predecessor didn't sound too good. It ruffled feathers on one side and left many of his critics in the dark. As of now, however, one shouldn't worry about his stance on Mahinda Rajapaksa. There are other things. Other matters.

There's his choice of words for instance. It wasn't long ago that he made accused people of wanting to go back to slavery (under the Rajapaksas). What jarred was the accusation. It indicated bias against those who support the former president, not just the politicians but those among the 5.8 million pro-Rajapaksa voters who still rally around him.

If he accuses them of wanting to revert to the Dark Ages that's his problem. But Sirisena is not president of 6.2 million people only. He's president of the country. That includes the 5.8 million who didn't vote for him and those who supported other candidates. That also includes those who can't vote due to disability and disqualification.

Those who see green in everything seem to think he has a moral debt to pay. In certain respects, they are right. He couldn't have won without them. That this should mean unconditional obeisance to the UNP is ridiculous however. Sirisena is no puppet. He owes neither the UNP nor the SLFP, technically speaking. Favouring those who voted for him and lashing at those who didn't isn't statesmanship. That's what the Rajapaksas were once known for.

His statement on Tuesday echoed all this. Sadly. Sure, he defended the nomination of Rajapaksa by saying "for party unity". 99% (the proportion of his party he claims were with his predecessor) indicates a majority. Not to have heeded their call would have indicated anti-democratic tendencies on his part. What's interesting however is his justification for dissolving parliament. He claims it was to stop the pro-Rajapaksa motion against the Prime Minister, alleging there was a conspiracy to install his predecessor as Prime Minister through the National List.

First of all, a conspiracy is a conspiracy. Unproved and unsubstantiated. It can be alleged and targeted at someone to suit political preferences. The decision to dissolve the parliament was made on the day the COPE Report was to be released. It was also around the time the motion was to be presented. The Mahinda Faction can insinuate the former as reason for dissolution. Those who oppose them can quote the latter. Either way, the president did himself no favours by dissolving parliament after making a pledge that he'd see through the 20th Amendment. That's a blemish. On him.

Secondly, the decision to nominate the former president was taken for the sake of party unity. Laudable, but it contradicts his neutral stance. If at all, his decisions within the past six months have favoured one side over the other, "the other" being his own party! In this regard both his neutrality and his self-righteous claims about upholding party unity look like eyewash. So does his claim that he told the Prime Minister to ask Arjuna Mahendran to resign.

Sirisena is an Executive President. He calls the shots. He was quick to obtain a restraining order to stop his party convening on Wednesday night, we note. He could have acted faster with the Bond issue. He didn't. Excuses are weak, therefore. Worth a dime a dozen.

If Sirisena was so concerned about party unity and the need to maintain good governance, he should have rejected Rajapaksa and pressured the Central Bank Governor to resign. He showed himself incapable of doing both. With most of his faction in the UNP, his stance must be made clearer. Is he with the Blues, the Greens, or the front for good governance (stripped of party-colour)?

Would he really claim his government is pitch-perfect? That the Prime Minister's conduct during the past six months is accolade-worthy? That his refusal to nominate Rajapaksa as the PM candidate indicates party unity when there hasn't been any other candidate named? Besides, if he's really that neutral, why is he still the Chairman of the SLFP? Doesn't that indicate "conflict of interest"?

He needs to come out. He needs to resign from his party. And remain colourless.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Touching heart and eye

Kumar de Silva is a busy man. He's hard to catch, naturally enough. One wonders how he found the time to organise an exhibition, especially an exhibition as carefully planned and structured as this. "Nostalgie05", a virtual trip around daily and routine-filled Paris, opened on Friday the 10th. It closed on the 12th. I went on both nights. It caught heart. And eye. Like all photographers who privilege the "how" of what's being taken, his work bore witness to sensitivity to mood, fidelity to life, and economy of style. Impressive.

I ask what moved him. He explains. There was life and he felt the urge to record it. That sensitivity to mood isn't coincidental, after all. There was planning involved. Meticulous planning. Framing, angles, curves, even silhouettes: these come together so seamlessly.

But it rarely shows. For all his planning, everything he takes and exhibits seems effortless.

Each photo tells more than just a story. It opens an entire world, free of frill and as honest as it can be. Even more impressive considering what Kumar used for his snaps: a palm-sized camera a bystander (not exhibitor) would use. I ask him whether he uses any manipulation techniques even those with professional equipment tend to exploit to the hilt, and he denies it at once. I'd usually be sceptic at this point. But then I remember that art without artifice requires or rather depends on simplicity. That's what his work touches on. Simplicity.

And in the end, this works. None of his photos is complicated in any way. They reveal life in Paris for what it is. There are people eating at restaurants and poring over newspapers. There are organists playing nonchalantly. There's even a woman seated on a bench, right after a drizzle, an exceptionally bright sun casting a shadow in a way photo-editing techniques can't emulate. No artifice here. Thankfully.

Perhaps it's all to do with Kumar. He mentions "Bonsoir". Of course. He wasn't only a presenter in that show. He handled the camera. As he admits, that acquainted him not just with the Paris he grew up with but with a city seen through lens after lens. All that experience and thirst shows. Remarkably. That's what whets our appetite, our longing to go into what is exhibited. Yes, imagination works in different ways. Nostalgie's lesson may well be that.

There's another reason why it touches heart. All proceeds obtained from "Nostalgie05" will go to a fund. That fund is dedicated to two kids, their father being Rukshan Abeywansha of The Nation. The exhibition last year was dedicated to him. In a way, the message it embodied continues even now. Explains Kumar's enthusiasm as he tells me how he plans to sell his work, with nothing for him in return. Explains how readily he gives credit to those who've helped him along the way.

What of the photos themselves? "I didn't want to bring out a foreground and leave it at that," he tells me, pointing at a photo with two pigeons caught mid-frame and a chair and table at the top. That speaks volumes about the sort of photography he treasures. The foreground isn't privileged: those little details surrounding it have a story to tell too. Maybe that's why and of course how he's more a painter than photographer.

"Nostalgie05" didn't jar. It didn't disappoint. There's a reason I went back to it. The first night wasn't for photo-viewing. It was for hobnobbing. For chatter. And gossip. The last night was more open. There was space for scrutiny. Close scrutiny. Relishing photo after photo, savouring the play of shadow and light in simple yet diverse ways: all this added to my enjoyment. An amateur myself, still being tutored in the finer aspects of "taking snaps", this artist's simplicity moved me.

Kumar's work didn't merely embrace eye. It also touched heart. Pretty rare, you must admit.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 18 2015

Saturday, July 18, 2015

From Bela to Martin

Review of AnandaDrama's "Dracula!", directed by Thushara Hettihamu, written by Nishantha de Silva, Rajitha Hettiarachchi, and Ishtartha Wellaboda, scored by Ranil Gunawardena, and staged from July 10 to 12 at Lionel Wendt Theatre.

"AnandaDrama" has come a long way since 2013. That's what I could gather at Lionel Wendt last Sunday. Thushara Hettihamu's Dracula! opened for the third and final night. Let me come out with it. I loved it. I saw energy, enthusiasm, and spontaneity: qualities that rarely get together. That's why I didn't just laugh. Why I felt what I was laughing at. Vague, yes. Still.

On the cast I'll write shortly. Meanwhile, here are some reflections. For a source text that has been adapted, distorted, reconfigured, and in other ways modified, Hettihamu's Dracula! was a breath of fresh air. I can't describe it without assessing how its organisers structured the play. But let me make one point clear. In this version there was a subtle intermingling of horror and comedy maintained throughout. That wasn't its greatest strength. But it helped.

The program notes try to justify the play's four-Act structure. It needn't. That structure was kept for a purpose: to pay "homage to the novel's epistolary style." Coupled with the quirks of characters and the way the actors transited into multiple roles, it also made something clear: the play's biggest strength. More on that a little later.

Dracula! doesn't rely on a unity of milieu or time. There is no compression. Only variety. In such a context it would have been a miracle if the cast didn't err. Well, miracles happen. Hettihamu's cast did his script proud. They stuck to two things that vindicated them in the end. One was a swiftness of movement. The other was humour, sustained throughout but not to the point of overkill.

Playing two roles is a challenge. Playing five or more is worse. You've got to associate yourself with every character and that in a medium which demands perfection and nothing but. Well, seeing the cast at work with a multiplicity of roles, I was taken aback. A case-by-case assessment would be difficult at this point. But with a limited cast, that would also be appropriate.

Dinoo Wickramage as Mina Murray acted her part with enough sensitivity to make us ease into her other roles. Eraj Gunewardena as Jonathan (Renfield) Harker hovered between his Jekyll-and-Hyde halves well. He changed accents. And moods. That helped.

Charith Dissanayake's dimwitted Dr John Seward couldn't connect the dots in front of him so much that it became a running gag. I haven't seen Charith's other performances. This was his first I saw. He enthralled me. Maybe it was Seward's clumsiness. Maybe it was his rendition of Abraham Lincoln (of all people!). I'm not sure. Either way, he kept us on tenterhooks. And made us laugh.

I haven't seen Vishan Gunawardena's other performances either, but his Van Helsing played Hardy to Charith's Laurel brilliantly. I'm not bluffing. His other roles helped him here. As both William and Molly, the caretaker and nurse at Seward's asylum, his constant Cockney-accented exclamation "The Ship of the Dead!" tickled rib.

Two sequences come to my mind. In the first of them, Van Helsing repeats the "Ship of the Dead!" line, giving away the "Vishan" in both Helsing and William and deliberately opening the audience to the artifice beneath the art. In the other, like Inspector Clouseau from A Shot in the Dark, he uses his deductive powers to come to an incredible conclusion: that Lucy bit the necks of certain dead children. I didn't just see humour here though. I saw spontaneity. Rapid and sustained. Rare.

I'm not so sure about Nandun Dissanayake. For a play called Dracula! he was featured for a matter of minutes. Even the Count laments this, breaking the fourth wall as he does so. He was comic, to say the least. He did not appear strained. I didn't see Nandun there, moreover. I saw a blood-sucking Count transposed from Transylvania into Lionel Wendt. This isn't flattery. This is what I noticed. His Dracula was essentially a self-parody, but not to a point where he made us aware of it. He kept a fine balance between the Dracula of Bela Lugosi and that of Leslie Nielson.

Let me be honest. I didn't see Bela Lugosi's Dracula in him. I saw Martin Landau's Bela Lugosi.

And in a way, that summed up the show for me. Dracula! wasn't just parody. It shouldn't have been. Like all well-written plays it was subtle. There was humour and there were laughs. But that wasn't parody. Wasn't farce. That was something indefinable, which went beyond the comedy-horror dichotomy it played and (in the end) broke the rift between audience and stage with. The best way I can describe it (if I may take the liberty to do so) is by comparing Hettihamu's Dracula! to (who else?) Landau's Lugosi.

There's a sequence in Tim Burton's Ed Wood which might make this a little easier. Wood (Johnny Depp) is walking along. He's dejected. Doesn't know what to do. He comes across a coffin-shop. Goes in. Sees Bela Lugosi (Landau), once a star but now down on both luck and money. Bela's in a coffin, like Dracula, and seems tantalisingly like his (virtual) namesake. The music builds to a crescendo. He wakes up. Music stops. "This is the most uncomfortable coffin I've ever been in. Your selection is quite shoddy. You are wasting my time!" he exclaims.

I don't know how to define this. Where does it fit in? Self-parody? Pathos? In the end I suppose it doesn't really matter. That's pretty much what I can say of Thushara Hettihamu's Dracula! There's comedy. There are laughs. Suspense too. To define them all with one word would be beside the point though. And at the end of the day, that's what good theatre is or rather should be.

That was this play's greatest strength.

Sure, there were weaknesses. Two of them in fact. A friend of mine found the story a little confusing. I didn't, but I saw his point: with 100 minutes and a near-chaotic plot-line, you need to pay attention. The slightest distraction and you'll miss it.

The other weakness was the portrayal of Ranjit the Sikh servant. That was unneeded. Frilled. It reinforced a stereotype (the red turban and his name make it obvious where he was ripped off from) which jarred. Other than that, the play moved along just fine.

My only regret was my choice of ticket. I was seated at the back. There were other people. Naturally enough, there was conversation. I couldn't hear what was going on in the story at times. Trivialities to be sure, but in the end that took away what I could readily have taken in had I sat at the front. My mistake.

To sum up, Dracula! wasn't just good theatre on a human level. In its use of props (the choice of using boys who snarl like wolves to rearrange them was ingenious) and its film-like silhouetted images (providing another laugh, with the image of the towering Count "emptying" the London-bound ship), I was truly mesmerised. I don't usually say this about plays, but if Dracula! were shown 10 times, I'd see them all.

I stand by what I said before, hence. "AnandaDrama" has progressed. Admirably.

Photos courtesy of Rajitha Hettiarachchi

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, July 18 2015

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

This spooner's not for turning!

Sometimes I wonder why I am who I am now. No, I don't wish that I were born different. It's just that through time I have changed. As has my family. We've gone down a bit. For a spooner, that's intolerable. After all, the vilest disgrace we can get is getting our names dirtied. And what worse way for that to happen than by falling down, financially speaking?

All this we were taught, by the way. No, our teachers didn't conduct classes on "spoonerism", but any form of abuse we put on our not-so-affluent "friends" (note the asterisks, please) was wilfully ignored by them. They sanctioned it. By silence. They sanctioned other things as well. We were taught not to shake hands, for instance, unless the guy offering to shake ours was "worthy" enough in our estimation. That's class, we were taught. We believed it. Still do. That's why we laugh whenever kids from down under offer to shake everyone's hands. They think it’s polite. What rot!

See, it's not just about who we are. It's what we do. That counts. Big time. You don't see us going on buses. You don't see us taking trains. You see us wake up late (because we live right next to those schools every kid in the country dies to get into). You see us take our very own cars (reserved for us by our fathers, bless them). You see us in the backseat. We aren't driven by our mothers. There are people who come and drive. We are dropped off at whatever school we go to and taken back at whatever time it's over. Simple as that.

And we love it. We love to abuse our drivers. We love to throw off our anger at them. We love to compare where we are schooled with where their kids go to, knowing how superior we are and being happy therefore. We make no bones about it. Nor do we apologise for it. That's just the way we were born. And bred. We can't help it.

There's more I can write. I'll leave those for later.

For now, here's what's important. When you're a spooner, you remain a spooner. You may be anywhere in the world. You may do whatever you want. You may even fall down in life. Once a spooner, however, always a spooner. We don't turn. Not that easily. If we see our drivers' kids or their equals get into our schools and clubs, we take umbrage at it. If we see our betters there, we salivate and try to be their equals. Yes, we're kids. No, we shouldn't do all these. But that's what we've been instructed.

I've fallen too. But I remain a spooner. At heart. I may not have servants to serve me at my beck and call or their kids to tease and in other ways embarrass. I may be in a school which teaches this ridiculous thing called "equality". Heck, I may not even have my own driver to pout at and put to shame every time he tries to befriend me.

These are trivialities, though. Whether we like it or not, we have a reputation to keep. This reputation is what sustains us. It's what empowers. What motivates. Sure, we may not be able to stand our inferiors having better brains than us and scoring better marks at tests. Sure, we may resent our neighbours for having come from beyond "spooner-land" (the Big City, that is) and settled down with their horrible, horrible kids who can't put two words together. Sure, for putting up with all this I ought to be given an award or a token of appreciation by my fellow spooners.

In the end though, it's the little things that matter. Like who I am at heart. A silver spooner.

Let me make this clear, hence. This spooner's not for turning.

Written for: The Nation FREE, July 11 2015

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On Sparrows and Pallbearers

History is version. So is truth. That was what a Prime Minister (here) observed when he wrote that truth was relative, and that yesterday’s truth might become tomorrow’s fiction or vice-versa. Naturally enough, opinion gets scripted into incident, which is why it becomes difficult to reconcile differing versions of the same event.

The Jaffna Public Library burning is one example. It’s been more than three decades. We still don’t know what happened. We still don't know who did it. Not by a long shot.

Yes, there have been eyewitness accounts. Yes, there have been allegations, accusations, and countless other insinuations that have subsided through time. But what really happened? The "whodunit" part to it has been hotly debated, with politicians from both sides blaming each other. Edward Gunawardena’s book Memorable Tidbits Including the Jaffna Library Fire tried to resolve this by pointing fingers at the LTTE.

The book was acclaimed. It moved an academic to apologise and withdraw an accusation he himself had believed in. Professor Carlo Fonseka, who throughout the 1994 Presidential Election maintained that Gamini Dissanayake had sanctioned the burning, recanted. We are forced to question that recantation, however. We are forced to ask: how? And more importantly: why?

To resolve that, we need to look at another version. Another book.

Thangarajah Mukunthan was not at the site when the Library was burnt. He has written a book, however. To say it offers a counterpoint to Gunawardena’s book is an understatement. “The Jaffna Public Library: 34 Years Since the Burning” is a compilation of events as they happened. Its author lays the blame on not just the Army but members of the ruling party as well, in the run-up to the District Development Council (DDC) Election.

Here’s what happened. On May 31, 1981, a meeting attended by more than 2,000 people and overseen by four police officers (including one Sinhalese and one Tamil sergeant) at Nachchimar Kovilady was disturbed violently by unidentified terrorists. In the ensuing carnage, Sergeant Punchi Banda was killed, his Tamil counterpart shot thrice.

This later became (part of) the basis for the Library fire. At around the same time, police officers baton-charged people and reduced to ashes several public places throughout the city. No site was spared. Not even the Kovil. By the following day, schools and bus services were shut down. Curfew would be declared the day after. In the meantime, chaos reigned.

From here onward, unfortunately, history becomes version.

About a week later (June 9), after the Library had been razed to the ground, the then Opposition Leader Appapillai Amirthalingam accused the police of complicity. A heated exchange between him and members of the United National Party (UNP) followed. That didn’t tone down allegation, however. It merely sustained it.

Amirthalingam didn’t name names. It took another nine years and a split in the UNP for someone to do that. And when Ranasinghe Premadasa accused Gamini Dissanayake of having a hand in the Library fire upon the latter’s defection (with Lalith Athulathmudali) from the party, the cat was out of the bag. This was because (as Mukunthan infers) Premadasa couldn’t have known of Dissanayake’s (alleged) complicity without his being privy to it in the first place.

“They obviously were all party to it, the President downwards.”

So where does Gunawardena’s version diverge from Mukunthan’s? In Gunawardena’s book, the fire was started by the LTTE to blackguard the Army and Government. Plausible? Mukunthan doesn’t think so. An opponent of the LTTE himself, Mukunthan believes that it couldn’t have had a motive for burning something valued by the Tamil people. In this he was echoing Tassie Seneviratne, whose article on the fire (where he critiqued Memorable Tidbits) ends with the following words:

“Furthermore, will the Tigers, given that they were the most inhuman murderers of all communities including Tamils, fighting for Tamil Eelam, destroy the strongest and most precious cultural possession of the Tamil people — the records of the very cultural claims they were making? Inconceivable by any stretch of imagination!”

Inconceivable, certainly. And implausible.

Gunawardena reasoned that the LTTE consisted mainly of low caste Tamils oppressed by the Vellala aristocracy. This (he argued) was the motive for burning the Library, in his words the “repository of classical Hindu treatises and the pedigrees of Hindu Vellala aristocracy” (page 349). Certainly, opposition to a rigid caste structure accounted somewhat for the LTTE’s rise to power. But to extrapolate and suggest that this alone explains the burning of a site treasured by Tamils would be akin to saying that the Colombo Library (hypothetically) was ransacked by a bunch of radicals for housing bourgeois literature!

By reducing the desecration of a cultural site to a caste-rift, Mukunthan suggests the writer was trying to put off the blame from where it really belonged. “There were rumours that Gamini Dissanayake and his henchmen were in Jaffna on June 1,” he tells me (while the other version states that Dissanayake arrived two days later). The ruling party had a motive, furthermore. “The UNP knew the TULF had a presence in in the district. Its members wanted to create unrest. That is why they wanted to destroy the Library.”

This isn’t the only point at which Mukunthan begs to differ from Gunawardena’s version of events. According to the latter, the incineration was a strategised move by the theoretician of the LTTE, Anton Balasingham, whose ploy involved moving Tamils into the capitals of Europe, Canada, and Australia to perpetuate the belief (or myth?) that they were an oppressed race in Sri Lanka.

This and the author’s account of arsonists on the loose throughout the city, which involved the looting of petrol sheds, contrasts with Tassie Seneviratne’s assertion that a police sergeant attached to the Jaffna Police Station had told him that hepoured petrol from a barrel and ignited the fire with a matchstick at the Jaffna Public Library.”

Mukunthan agrees. “There were no arsonists. Everything was calculated, to the dot. Stalwarts from the ruling party and their goons strategised every step, of this I am convinced!”

Still. Gunawardena’s belief that the LTTE was strengthening itself even before 1981 stands to reason. The bombing of an Avro aircraft in 1978 and the political assassinations which followed proved that. The PLO’s involvement (along with India’s) in training its cadres has also been proved. It was all meticulously planned, yes. But the insinuation that the LTTE burnt the Library doesn’t hold water, certainly not with people I've talked to (it must be mentioned here that these people were for the most part Sinhalese).

Seneviratne alludes to the first few lines of a nursery rhyme in his article:

Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.

The rhyme ("Who Killed Cock Robin?") begins with grief and ends with resolution. But there's a problem here. If the Sparrow did indeed kill Cock Robin (and it affirms that at once), where are the Robin's pallbearers? Years and decades after the burning of the Jaffna Library, one looks in vain for a Beetle to prepare the shroud, an Owl to dig the grave, a Rook to act as Parson, a Wren to bear the pall, and a Bull to toll the bell for arguably the most horrific act of cultural desecration in our time.

Let me be clear. The perpetrator(s) must be found. So must the pallbearers. Purely and simply.